Monday, 23 February 2015

Day 41 (India): Kovalam

My last couple of days in India were spent in the beach resort of Kovalam (pic), not far from the Kerala capital Thiruvananthapuram, and certainly not far from the end of the sign for it. My guesthouse was right on the beachfront, so I could easily enjoy a dip at any time of day. And for once I don't mean the tasty multicoloured ones you swab your rotis and chapattis in.

Though very touristy, with lots of middle-aged Europeans and Russians here to do yoga and meditation, and a beachfront chock-full with cafes, traditional massage and health spas, restaurants, souvenir shops and travel agents, it's also a real working fishing village (pic)...

...and every evening the beachfront restaurants put fish out on display right off the boats (pic). You choose the one you want and how you want it cooked (spicy, in my case, and baked in the tandoori, with chips and salad), and enjoy a huge delicious fresh fish supper for only a few quid.

If you want a beer to wash it down, it comes disguised in a tea mug, and you hide the bottle under the table, because the restaurants aren't licensed. Nobody would ever guess – except for the fact that every restaurant does it.

That's all from this blog. From here I fly back to Colombo to pick up my bike, then fly back home. It's been a glorious month of cycling in Sri Lanka, with a feeling of discovery of an underrated biking destination, and the fortnight's 'holiday' afterwards in south India was just as thrilling, culturally fascinating, and plain delightful as I'd hoped.

And, er, did I mention that I really enjoyed eating all that fabulous Indian food? I'll be pleased to get back to proper beer, though. Not in mugs. And not having to hide the bottle under the table.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Day 39 (India): Kanyakumari

Well, given the premise of the Sri Lankan bit of this trip, I could hardly ignore a bus labelled 'End to End' (pic). The six-hour journey took me from Madurai down to Kanyakumari: India's equivalent of Land's End, at the very bottom of the country's triangle. As usual, it took me a while to get to the point, but I got there in the end.

And this is it: the last bit of India, thronging with domestic coach parties and touring families. The next thing you hit going south is Antarctica. The next thing you hit going north is four million stalls selling tourist tat.

The place has quite a special significance for Indians, with Hindu temples, a Gandhi memorial, and statues commemorating a local poet (pic). This is the view from my hotel, which has a rooftop pool, a place of special significance for me.

The very-end bit was packed with Indians doing their ritual duty: taking selfies and dropping litter. I didn't want to do either. Getting someone to take my pic for me (pic) was a lot easier than finding a bin, though.

Not all the stalls sell souvenirs. There are quite a few food and drink places too. I wasn't quite sure if this was a misprint for 'shakes' or 'snacks'. Or maybe they actually do snake curry. I think I'll stick to my cauliflower masala.

Friday, 20 February 2015

Day 38 (India): Madurai

A bus took me – and about 400 others, most crammed standing in the aisle – down off the hills to the big city of Madurai. It's famous for its huge temple complex in the middle of the town, landmarked by four massive towers (pic)...

...which, as usual for Hindu temples, contain an astonishing number of incredibly detailed statues of deities. These appear to the patron saints of 1980s footballers, to judge by their tight shorts.

The Indian love of multicolours extends to their food. This is the thali I had for lunch: a sort of individual buffet of dips, curries, sauces and chutneys, with unlimited supplies of flatbread and rice (pic). You could almost mistake it for a painter's palette.

I haven't seen bicycle rickshaws on this trip in India until now. (They used to be everywhere, but have been replaced by three-wheeled motorised ones.) There are several in Madurai, however. Whether it's a tourist thing (the place is full of domestic visitors) I don't know, but there are certainly lots of cargo bikes hauling mighty loads (pic). I've moved the odd fridge by bike trailer, too, hence our exchange of smiles, the brotherhood of trailer-bikers.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Day 37 (India): Kodaikanal

It took me a couple of days (Day 35 and 36), overnighting in the hot, busy town of Coimbatore, to get here by bus. Kodaikanal is a cool and serene hill station, 2000m up in the Western Ghats, that offers sticky travellers with ineffectively self-laundered clothes welcome respite from the heat of the plains. It was certainly nippy this morning walking the ridges (pic) as I hiked to the hillside village of Vattakanal. Good job I packed that sweatshirt.

Kodaikanal's amiable streets, full of good local restaurants and chocolate shops, rise away from the pretty lake in the centre of town (pic). A stroll round the lake takes a pleasant hour, or less if you're intent on having a deliciously spicy gobi masala for lunch and buying some chocolate. Presumably choc is a speciality here because, unlike down on the plains, it won't melt away as soon as you put it in the shop window.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Day 34 (India): Kochi by bike

I hired a bike today to explore the historic centre of Fort Kochi / Cochin (pic). Rs100 got me a day's full use of a typical Indian model: a Hercules, complete with rod brakes, single speed, clanking bottom bracket, precarious back-wheel stand, unreliable rear-wheel lock, and front wheel that sticks forward so much it steers like a wheelbarrow. Plus the saddle had more springs and coils than an elephant's mattress, and felt about as comfy.

It was great fun, weaving through the local streets among the cars, autorickshaws, goats, buses and pedestrians, all going in different directions. The touristy area of Jew Town was too full of coach parties and trinket shops for my liking, though – I much preferred the quieter back lanes and side streets (pic). There were lovely cheap local places to eat too – but the pound I spent on the bike hire was still the best-value purchase in India.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Day 33 (India): Alleppey to Kochi

A final trip through the backwaters today, this time on a public boat from Alleppey to Kottayam (pic). Actually that's not our boat. Ours was nowhere near as shiny and new. Or level.

The middle of the trip was across vast lakes (pic). It cost just Rs19 (20p), took three hours, and was full of locals hopping on and off at remote rural stops – the aquatic equivalent of a local bus, only much slower, and without having to overtake lorries on blind bends. All great fun.

We saw curios such as rice-fields on reclaimed land that is much lower than the surrounding canals that drain them (they have to be pumped constantly), and this island church seemingly in the middle of nowhere (pic).

From Kottayam to Kochi, the huge capital city of Kerala state, was one of those clanky, ancient local buses. These are a classic Indian experience: scarily fast, hurtling round corners, overtaking everything even if there's things coming the other way, and barely stopping when they pick up or drop off passengers. Then came another classic Indian experience: queueing for the ferry ticket across to the historic old town on the island of Fort Kochi (pic). It took an hour to buy my ticket (and all for a Rs4 fare). In a country that invented zero and infinity, though, an hour is nothing special.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Day 32 (India): Alleppey kayaking

The backwaters are the best bit of Kerala, and the best way to do the backwaters is by kayak. Today, thanks to a friendly little tour-hire outfit in Alleppey, I spent a blissful day paddling the canals and channels with a small group (pic). Samson, the guide, and I were the most experienced paddlers and the fastest boat. That meant we were the rescue party when others got lost, so we got lots of extra paddling. I'd earned my beer that evening.

We stopped for snacks and coconut-water drinks en route, and were entertained by this rather tame Krishna Eagle (pic). They eat poisonous snakes. By gum, they like their food spicy down here.

The main routes get very busy and noisy with motorised houseboats. But thanks to squeezing under limbo-dancing low bridges like this (pic) we could slip away from them into quiet and remote waters. Here you could hear nothing except birdsong, village chatter, and the peaceful lapping of paddles. And the frequent shrieks of the accident-prone paddler from Bengaluru who kept going the wrong way, losing her shoes, and falling in.

This is the sort of thing we saw much of the day. I was just beaming with happiness all day, as was Tim (pic), an Aussie working in Bengaluru. When he updated me on the progress of the Australia–England world cup match, though, he was smiling rather more than I was.