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.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Day 31 (India): Kollam to Alleppey

Most of today was taken up with the eight-hour boat journey from Kollam to Alleppey. There was enough time in the morning, though, to walk round Kollam town watching the place wake up. This man buying a bucket from a cycling street vendor was clearly keen to examine his purchase carefully.

The boat journey was a very pleasant and relaxing chug up some of Kerala's 900km network of lakes, canals, ponds and channels (pic): about the only place in India you can escape from tuk-tuks.

Some of the waterside villages are only accessible by boat, which is the way many people get around (pic). This is evidently the Kerala equivalent of the school run.

The last hour, into Alleppey as the sun set, was a glorious skim across glassy waters, silently busy with houseboats (pic). This is where classy tourists stay. I'm not a classy tourist.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Day 30 (India): Kollam

Kerala is famous for its backwaters: a 100km-plus chain of canals, channels, lakes and ponds, that you can explore by various boat services and tours. I did one from Kollam today, which punted us through tiny villages that are only accessible by water. This what a potential traffic jam looks like (pic).

Sometimes when you travel you have to accept that other people's behaviour may seem strange, even downright offensive, but you accept them with a smile. I don't mean the Indians. They were polite and friendly. I mean the rude and arrogant French tourists sharing our punt. It was still a lovely trip, though (pic).

On the tour we enjoyed fresh coconuts, picked for us by locals who shinned up palms to get them, saw how coir rope is made, and had some tea, made frothy thanks to lots of dramatic high-altitude pouring (pic). It was quite a trip down memory lane, how real tea used to be made by our grandparents' generation: full of sterilised milk, oversweetened with five sugars, and tepid.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Day 29 (India): Varkala

I'm now in south India, without bike, for a couple of weeks' exploring. Varkala is a very touristy beach resort (pic) just north of Trivandrum, in the laid-back state of Kerala. After four weeks of Sri Lankan curry, I was desperate for crunchy salads, pizza and fruit breakfasts – all things that Varkala's excellent clifftop restaurants provide cheaply and tastily. The clifftop path also abounds in eagles and kingfishers – the former wheeling around on the thermals startlingly close to you, the latter chilled and in bottles.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Day 26: Negombo

The previous two days, Day 24 and Day 25, I've been in Negombo doing delightfully little except eating, drinking and washing. I started exploring the old Dutch canal running north out of the city, but the towpath and adjacent roads soon run out. In any case, the paths are something of an obstacle-course of fishing gear (pic). Which gave me enough excuse to return to the eating and drinking.

But I got out for a decent day's cycling today, heading south along the coast road that eventually leads a back way to Colombo. It's very agreeable scenery (pic) of old Portuguese churches, fishing boats, and local schoolchildren who greet you with a cheerful bye! due to a mistranslation.

The road skirts Negombo's big lagoon. From that lagoon, heading south, is the other branch of the canal. It runs all the way to Colombo, and has paved lanes alongside virtually all the way – to my delight, as you can see (pic).

It's utterly delightful, going through villages, past fishing huts and well-to-do houses, and gently busy with cyclists (pic). I notice that the Dutch didn't get as far as installing windmills, which is a pity, because today they'd have been whirling like billy-o in the headwind I had on the way back to Negombo.

Anyway, I took a birdwatching boat trip into the lagoon's marshes. Not that much to see – we saw a few green herons and kingfishers (pic) among others – but a fine relaxing thing to do on a hot day. My eye for spotting avians may not be great, but en route back to Negombo, I was pleased to find that my eye for spotting fresh fruit juice bars is as good as ever.

Miles today: 14
Total miles: 612
Miles Dondra Head to Point Pedro: 470

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Day 23: Jaffna

With an evening train to catch, and my bike entrusted to the Railway Parcel Office, I had another easy day. Most of the activity consisted of reading books and magazines in the British Council library (I could get into Adam Mars-Jones, you know), drinking tea and smoothies in local cafes, and enjoying delicious Rs200 vegetarian thalis (pic).

Finally, around six, I set off for the tedious night train back to Colombo. It's been lovely staying at Morgan's Guesthouse – a real treat after my cut-price lodgings of the previous weeks. It used to be a UN guesthouse (and Angelina Jolie, whoever she is, stayed in my room when she was here on envoy duty, apparently). I presume this explains the sign on the gate (pic).

Miles today: 4
Total miles: 592
Miles Dondra Head to Point Pedro: 470

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Day 22: Jaffna

With no train out available until the night after tomorrow, I've ended with a couple of spare days in Jaffna. Today was a delightfully relaxed affair: everything was shut because it was a public holiday (hence the full trains) and it poured down with rain. So, after a cursory bit of biking round town, I had every excuse to stay in my cosy guesthouse room. Specifically, my personal covered courtyard (pic), enjoying a beer to celebrate finishing the End to End at long last. Cheers!

Miles today: 10
Total miles: 588
Miles Dondra Head to Point Pedro: 470

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Day 21: Jaffna Islands

Linked by causeways (pic) and ferries, a chain of low-lying islands surrounds Jaffna. I spent today exploring some of them by bike – not an entirely easy experience, given the high winds and endlessly dug-up roads. This photo is a rare shot of smooth tarmac.

Here's another extreme rarity: a direction sign. You usually have to guess, or try to make sense of a deluge of instructions in Tamil from a bemused passer-by. This local doesn't look entirely sure where he's meant to go, either.

Some of the island scenery was pleasant enough (pic), but the village of Kayts ('capital' of the island of Velavai) looked ravaged by war and tsunami, with ruined buildings and abandoned shells of houses everywhere. It wasn't especially uplifting.

Tiny ferries, run by the military, connect the smaller islands with each other (pic). This one – with a single 40hp outboard motor struggling to cope with a car, taxi-trike, three motorbikes, six bikes and two dozen people – was the slowest I've ever experienced, taking quarter of an hour to go a few hundred yards. Well, the pace of life is slower here.

Fishing is the main activity (pic), though everybody was on holiday because of the full moon. Or perhaps, with it being so windy, they'd just stayed in. I wouldn't blame them: my into-headwind progress across the causeway back to the mainland was slower than the ferry.

In fact, it was so windy that even some of the local cyclists had to get off and push (pic).

Miles today: 41
Total miles: 578
Miles Dondra Head to Point Pedro: 470

Monday, 2 February 2015

Day 20: Point Pedro to Jaffna

An easy, enjoyable day, completing my Sri Lankan End to End by bagging Point Pedro, followed by a delightful coast-road, wind-assisted ride to Jaffna.

First I had to visit Point Pedro lighthouse to complement my ceremonial start back at Dondra Head lighthouse. Unlike that one, it's cordoned off and watched over by a (very friendly, actually) guard.

Photographs are not allowed (pic).

Point Pedro itself is marked in traditional extreme-point fashion with a signpost (Madagascar 4760km, Thailand 2349km etc), plus a tableau-map (pic). A small quay juts out with, presumably, the most extreme point. A group of young guys were there having motored up from Kandy, taking pictures and having a great laugh, and we had a very pleasant chat.

Anyway, here's the publicity shot: me with bike at Point Pedro (pic). The End to End aspect of this particular trip is done: 470 miles from south to north, an (almost all) delightful and trouble-free ride through a fascinating, friendly country. But a cyclist is never finished, as anyone knows who's heard one in a pub talking about rubbish local facilities. There was more biking to be done...

It was still only half seven, and the beaches were full of fishing boats returning with their catch (pic). They were also full of bikes, the standard mode of transport round here. For £62.50 from one Jaffna's many cycle shops, a shiny new Lumala town model (28 inch wheels, rod brakes, single speed, weight approx. three tons, indestructible) is all yours. I'd be tempted to buy one and take it back with me, bar the fact that the excess baggage would outstrip the cost of the flight.

There are also fish markets along the coast, selling the catch straight off the boat (pic). In a hot climate like this, speed is of the essence.

The area has suffered a lot recently. Not only was it ravaged by civil war for a generation until 2009, but the 2004 tsunami caused widespread destruction. It was very sobering to see ruins of houses such as this up and down the coast.

A feature of the Jaffna Peninsula is the technicolour temples of the Tamil inhabitants (pic)...

...with towers exuberantly colourful and detailed, extravagantly decorated with images of the Hindu gods (pic). I wonder which one I should pray to in order to clear up my gippy tummy? Dhanvantari, the god of Ayurvedic medicine, I expect.

After that beautiful coast road, I headed inland through little villages and across causeways over the much-lagooned landscape (pic) to Jaffna. Direction signs are virtually non-existent on Sri Lankan roads, so it meant a lot of asking locals the way. Reassuringly, they always agreed with each other. Sri Lanka is a different country from India, you know.

Finally, as I came into Jaffna, I saw this man on a bike taking his cow for a walk. As you do.

Miles today: 30
Total miles: 537
Miles Dondra Head to Point Pedro: 470
My route without detours according to Google Maps: 364
Shortest route Dondra Head to Point Pedro according to Google Maps: 325