Posts Tagged ‘cycle india’

Day 6: Harnai to Jaigad (7-1-12) 96km

Friday, January 27th, 2012

After a farewell coffee with Mr & Mrs Ashok, with Mrs Ashok assuring me there was a ferry at Dabhol, there I was back on the road at 7.30 in the morning spinning along the flat coastal road with great views out to sea and once again the cloudless blue skies. My legs were feeling good after their rest day, which was just as well as they were soon put to the test with a 10km grind from sea level up to Dapoli, 192m above the level of the sea. As I enter the town along a road shaded by tall trees I am treated to the dazzling display of the early morning sunlight streaming through them. This small town is seen as being the home of Indian Independence as it was the birthplace in 1856 of Lokmanya Keshav Gangadhar Tilak, one of the first and perhaps strongest advocates of ‘swaraj’ or self-rule. He was also the first leader of the Indian Independence Movement, which led to the colonial Brits derogatorily named him ‘Father of the Indian unrest’. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar was also born here in 1891, a revolutionary and one of the founding fathers of independent India. As an ‘untouchable’ the lowest of the low in the Indian caste system he overcame all odds to become a leading Indian scholar and politician and spent his entire life fighting against social discrimination and the Hindu caste system. Today Dapoli is better known for having one of the finest agricultural universities in India.

Beautiful sight rolling into Dapoli...

As I leave Dapoli I enjoy a wonderful 5km downhill on a great road all the way back down to sea level, however I am a tad bit wary as at the back of my mind is my front tyre bodge job repair, I really wouldn’t fancy a ‘blow-out’ at speed, but it holds up well. From my experience of the past few days I have a feeling that it will not be long before I am climbing once again, and sure enough almost before I have stopped coasting the next 140m high climb begins. Once again I enjoy a steep downhill but once again it is followed by a steep climb upto 150m, my poor legs are getting a real workout. The following downhill is sublime, gradual and sweeping it allows me to take in the views of the sea to the east and the tree covered hills rolling off into the distance to the west, and a few hairpin bends thrown in just to spice it up a little. I coast into the small town of Dabhol and turn left at the remains of an old, tall defensive wall and roll into the ferry port. As I wait for the ferry to arrive I look over to the headland on the other side of the River Vashistri estuary and see it topped by the large, looming industrial complex of the controversial and ill-fated Dabhol Power Station. The plant was constructed by Enron and General Electric and began in 1992, however in 1995 with a change in government hundreds of protesting villagers swarmed over the site and a riot broke out, with the Maharashtra government finally ordering the project to be halted due to ‘lack of transparency, alleged padded costs, and environmental hazards’. Differences were eventually ironed out and Phase 1 went online in 1999, almost 2 years behind schedule. However soon after the Maharashtra State Electricity Board reneged on its agreement and refused to pay the contractual rate for the power generated and Enron, after investing $900 million, halted power generation despite Maharashtra state not having enough electricity to meet demand. Enron was declared bankrupt in 2001 thus the plant sat silent for 7 years until it was taken over by Ratnagiri Gas and Power Ltd. and operations recommenced in 2006. Yet it has still not been plain sailing with occasional shutdowns due to a lack of naphtha and problems associated with the non-availability of operational insurance. The couple of days I was in Harnai only 40km away there were sporadic power outages…

Downhill into Dabhol - yes that is the sea in the distance!

The ferry lands us close to the industrial port that is full of pipes, tanks and conveyors that support the Dabhol Power Station, I cycle past this array of rusting metal and begin the leg-burning climb up onto the windswept headland plateau which undulates past the large power plant complex and its associated employees accommodation compounds. Soon enough another sweeping downhill is enjoyed taking me down through shady mango plantations and delivering me into the pleasant, dappled town of Guhagar. The economy of this small town was given a boost in the early 1990s with the construction of the Dabhol Power Station, hotels sprung up and locals were given well-paid jobs. It is Saturday and there are quite a few glamed-up city slickers milling around town, young ladies sporting make-up and dressed in tight jeans and tighter t-shirts with large black rimmed shades in stark contrast to the un-shaded local young ladies attired in the traditional and much more conservative shalwar kameez and the only makeup if any being the red forehead bindi ‘dot’. Guhagar is increasingly becoming a weekend get-a-way for Mumbai and Pune’s middle classes and around town there are various billboards advertising various ‘luxury’ cliff top sea view bungalow complexes which are under construction, so it appears that this small town is still on the up.

My original plan was to stop in Guhagar for the night, but it is now just gone midday and I have completed only 60km, I feel there is another 20km in me so decide to push on. After a very well presented and large serving of a tasty vegetable biryani in a restaurant that was playing Spanish music (?) I depart Guhagar on what I think is the coast road looking for the towns ‘virginal’ beach I have heard about. Suddenly the lane I am following abruptly ends and turns into a very steep dirt track with a liberal coating of loose gravel and fist sized rocks. Not to be daunted “Onward and upward!” I shout to myself as motivation and dropping quickly down through the gears I begin to climb… After about 40 metres I have to admit defeat as the rear wheel loses traction and my momentum disappears. Get off and push it is, which in itself is no easy task, pushing a weight of nearly 50kgs uphill with my feet slipping and sliding beneath me! After one and a half kilometres, a height gain of 100 metres and a combination of riding, pushing, riding, pushing I finally make it to the top, sweating profusely. As I take a much welcomed drink and enjoy the cooling breeze I turn around and my jaw drops, down below is a beautiful crescent shaped white sandy beach with the surf crashing onto it and not a soul in sight – deserted. “Wow! That must be Guhagar beach” I murmur to myself, “But there’s no way you’re going back down that trail only to have to come back up again afterwards” I command myself. I also notice just 30 metres from me a leaning, buckled sign partially hidden in the undergrowth advertising, ‘Proposed Residential Development’, “Pah!” I laugh sarcastically “a decent access road would be a good start!”. The following downhill starts gradually on a decent dirt track through the surrounding scrubland but all of a sudden it becomes steep and gnarly, all my old mountain bike skills are called up as I try to make it easy on Dhanya. Eventually we get spat out all shaken and stirred onto yet another glorious deserted beach! Nice surprises like this make all the hard work of pushing Dhanya uphill worth it… I sit down on the gravelly track and take a short rest enjoying the wonderful view, “This is what it is all about Mark” I comment, before my eyes rest on the wooded headland at the south of the beach and I realise I am going to have to climb over that. With a sigh of resignation I haul myself up off the floor, throw my leg over Dhanya and spin along the length of the beach.

Wonderful and empty Guhagar Beach

Sure enough, another 4km, 120 metre height gain climb follows on a patchy tarmac surface and once again the breeze of the plateau is much welcomed. Yet again I drop more or less to sea level and my cycle computer clocks up 80km. My plan is if at 80km there is no obvious place to stay then buy some veggies from a village stall and find a beach to camp on. The small fishing hamlet I am now cycling through does not appear to have any veggies on sale, so I decide to press on to the next settlement. 3km further on and after another steep climb I arrive at the next hamlet, but same story… Another 3km further on, another steep climb, another hamlet, same story… I am now getting hungry and tired and all these steep climbs are definitely taking it out of me. I had passed a few ferry signs nailed to trees so I guessed the ferry must be close by and I got to thinking that if there is a ferry there must be a small community, there must be a market, and if I am really lucky there may be somewhere to stay. I attempt to ask some locals how far it is to the ferry but their lack of English only helps me to establish that yes there is a ferry but not how far away it is. I give myself a good talking to and push on again. Just before yet another steep climb I arrive at a bridge across a river which has a bunch of lanky, bushy eye-browed, black faced, grey langur monkeys sat on the concrete side barriers as if they are some form of sentries. As I approach I get their interest and they start getting all excited and call to each other and run and jump along the barrier with their long tails flailing behind them and their eyes fixed on me. I’m a little bit nervous as you do hear stories of monkeys attacking humans, yet the closer I get most of them run towards the far bank, jump off and disappear, only those more brave souls remain seated as I pass. As I concentrate on the next downhill I follow the bend in the road and there it is! I see the river down below, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I cry and enjoy the downhill that much more. As I coast into the ferry landing with a big smile on my face it gets even bigger when I see a large sign advertising the ‘Jaigad Resort’, “Result!” I think to myself. I chat with the ticket seller sat in his little booth and with his limited English he confirms that yes the ‘Jaigad Resort’ is over the river, pointing to the small higgled-e-piggledy settlement of Jaigad clinging to the cliff at the mouth of the estuary. It has just turned 4pm and I have completed 90km, I sit back in the shade of the ticket booth with a cool refreshing Sprite and await the ferry feeling all very content…

Monkeys guarding the bridge

As the ferry closes in on Jaigad I look for a ‘Jaigad Resort’ sign on any of the buildings snuggling against the cliff side above the small fishing port but cannot see one, “Ummmmm! Strange” I think to myself “Ah, it must be down some side street…”. Whilst pushing Dhanya off the ferry I see a couple of auto-rickshaw drivers and ask them if they know the ‘Jaigad Resort’. There isn’t an immediate look of recognition on their faces and after they confer with one another they gesture that it is along a bit and to the right. I follow their directions along a bumpy narrow lane lined by grubby looking shop houses and it soon becomes clear there is no ‘resort’ along here. I decide to take the next ‘right’ further up the hill, but the same story… It has now turned 5pm and I am beginning to get a little concerned. I see another auto-rickshaw driver and he gestures towards the top of the hill, “This is all I need, another climb!”. The short but steep climb levels out slightly as I near the top of the plateau and I am presented with the industrial complex of the JSW Energy coal powered power plant which only completed phase 1 in 2010, as such there is quite a lot of construction activity still going on. As the road undulates across the plateau ahead of me and all I can see is the industrial complex and supporting buildings I begin to lose hope and the sun is getting very low in the sky, I begin to seriously consider the very real possibility that I may have to tent it on the plateau with no food to satiate my now raging hunger. A couple of klicks further on I see what appears to be a makeshift restaurant sign to the left of the road, and as I roll up to it I see a small set-up about 30 metres back from the road, “Yes, at least this will solve one of my problems!”. I wander up to the tables and a woman glances up from cleaning plates and calls out to someone. I hear a grunting and a shuffling and look over in that direction to see a very dishevelled, vest wearing man appear from beneath a blanket laid across two large orange ice boxes. Through bleary eyes he gestures with shrugging shoulders and upturned palms, “You have any food?” I ask moving my hands towards my mouth. “Ah, lunch finish” as he spits on to the floor “Daal only”. He’s not doing his best to make me feel too comfortable about eating here, but heh, beggars cannot be choosers… “OK, that is fine, and a Coke”. He nods, shuffles past me whilst mumbling to the woman and she stands and walks to what I presume is the kitchen. They continue an exchange whilst he is wiping my Coke bottle with a cloth and comments, “We have fish fry also, and fish curry, you want?”, “Yes please!” I do not need to be asked twice. I also notice he sells snacks and I reach out and take a pack of ‘Parle G Original Gluco Biscuits’, they look just like the Fox’s Malted Milk biscuits I loved as a kid.

Arun and I continue to chat in his broken English as I scoff down the fairly decent sized meal presented to me. Of course the conversation includes where am I going and I explain that I cannot find anywhere to sleep. Then looking around this shack-cum-restaurant I decide it is worth a try, “I have a tent, is it OK to put my tent over there?” pointing to a bare patch of ground amongst the surrounding scrubland, “Yes, yes of course. Ah no, you not need tent, you sleep here, I have a mat” he replies whilst gesturing towards the concrete floor underneath the restaurants corrugated steel roof. “What about your customers?” I query, “From 7 to 9, after that they all go, no problem, and I cook you more food later”. This seems to be the best offer I’m going to get so I thank him and begin off-loading Dhanya. As I am doing this and the final light of the day has all but disappeared three young guys sharing the one motorbike pull up, sit down and order chai. They are all wearing hard hats and bright orange vests over their clean shirts so I assume they are engineers of some description from the power plant. After a short time one of then begins asking me the usual questions in fairly decent English. As I explain my sleeping predicament Suneil comments, “So the Jog Residency is full then?”, “Pardon” I reply with peaked interest. “The Jog Residency, you try there?”, “No, where is it?” I ask with a hint of excitement, “About 2km that way” he states pointing back down the road I had come along. Surprised I did not see it I question, “On the main road?”, “Yes, a big place at a junction, only 2km very close”. Arun and Suneil chat away in Hindi and it transpires that when I explained I could not find anywhere to stay Arun had assumed I had tried the Jog Residency but it was full, we all chuckle about this misunderstanding. As I am reloading Dhanya and just about to leave Arun calls over, “Mark, Mark if the Jog Residency is full remember you can come back here”, “Thanks very much!” I call out over my right shoulder as I re-join the road. I cycle along in the now more or less dark with the occasional rumbling truck lighting up the way with their powerful headlights wondering, “How the hell did I miss a big hotel when I was positively searching for one??”. Sure enough, and with great relief, after about 5 minutes up ahead to the right I see the bright neon lights announcing the presence of the Jog Residency. As I approach the junction the road falls apart and I suddenly remember, when I passed this way earlier there was a big tangle of construction trucks all jockeying for position on the crap road surface and I was too busy focusing on not getting squished by one of them or falling down a pothole rather than looking at the buildings I was passing. I roll up outside the relatively decent looking hotel and with fingers crossed I walk up to reception and enquire about room availability to the suit wearing receptionist, “Yes we have sir, 800 rupees”. “Yes, yes, yes!” I think to myself, a bit more than I want to pay but taking into account the day I’ve had, that it’s now gone 7pm and the other option available to me I am happy to pay it.

With Dhanya safely stowed in the foyer and after having showered and eaten I lie on the bed watching TV reflecting upon where I could have been sleeping tonight and the fact that once again today the roads I followed had been more or less traffic free, for times I really did have the road to myself – bliss…

Day 5: Harnai Rest Day (6-1-12)

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

My first rest day, a little earlier than I had planned due to having to try and come up with a more lasting solution to the small tear I found in my rear tyre yesterday that resulted in two punctures. However I, and certainly my legs, are not complaining, after 322 tough kilometres it is a great excuse and I must admit the first few days of cycling have been much harder than I expected, the crappy state of the roads was quite a surprise as were the repetitive steep climbs.

Ashok’s wife prepares me a tasty little breakfast of a vegetable omelette and bread roll accompanied by a very sweet coffee. It is then into their small courtyard garden with Dhanya where I tweak a few things that after 4 days of cycling I had noted could be changed for the better. I also give her chain a good clean, one of the ‘luxuries’ I brought with me was a small lightweight chain cleaning machine, I find that they just make cleaning a chain so much easier and are probably more effective. Also having the Rohloff hub makes cleaning so much easier as you only have one chain ring at the front and one sprocket at the rear to worry about, you don’t have to dig out all that greasy grime that builds up between the cluster of sprockets and on the jockey wheels of a derailleur system. An added bonus, as I am carrying a small Primus stove I also have a fuel container with kerosene in it, a great grime removing agent! In no time Dhanya has a freshly oiled sparkling drive system, and it is onto the more pressing matter of how to accomplish a more semi-permanent bodge job on the tear in the tyre. I have heard that there is a good ‘professional’ bike shop in Goa, thus the tyre needs to last about another 500km!!

Ashok leads the way along the main street of Harnai, waving and singing morning salutations to fellow villagers as he limps along, and then takes a right up a small dirt track where there is a cluster of small wooden shacks. We stop outside one of these and Ashok introduces me to Deepak, the oil smudged village puncture and bicycle repair man. Not surprisingly he does not sell the type of tyre I am looking for but I do hand over my punctured inner tube and he gets to work fixing it. He pumps up the inner tube and places it in a tub of greyish water, whilst he is checking for bubbles, roughing, sticking, inflating, re-checking, once again I am racking my brains as to what sort of bodge job I can come up with, “C’mon Mark you have read enough bike magazines in your time where readers write in with their on-trail temporary repairs…”.

Back in Ashok’s small courtyard sat under a shady mango tree on a rough patch of grass the bodge job comes to life… Initially I stick a rectangle of duct tape on the inside of the tyre where the tear is, I then carefully cut an oval from a plastic Sprite bottle about the size of a thumb print and with the aid of duct tape stick that on the inside of the tyre in the appropriate location, then I take a strip of rubber (part of an old inner tube) I have in my tool kit and stick that over the plastic and then just for good measure add a couple more layers of duct tape, and the final piece in the jigsaw was to change the tyre from the rear wheel to the front wheel as there would be a lot less weight bearing down on it and less pressure directly from the drive system, and voila! I insert the inner tube and inflate… All looks good, only time will tell if it will last the distance to Goa…

Me and Harnai Beach

In the afternoon I take it easy and just do a few other ‘housekeeping’ chores such as washing a few clothes, downloading photos onto the laptop and labelling them etc. all very essential but quite boring. As late afternoon approaches and the light becomes softer and takes on that magical golden glow I go for a stroll along the white sands of Harnai beach towards the lighthouse topped headland in the distance. I gaze out westwards into the setting sun through squinting eyes at a small fleet of fishing boats moored off shore, and as the wind rises and falls the mysterious sound of a distant adhan (the Islamic call to prayer) wafts in and out of my ears mixing with the sound of the lapping waves – enchanting. As I wander with no urgency at all I notice that the stretch of beach I am on is more or less deserted, yet up at the northern end there seems to be quite a bit of activity, “What’s all that about?” I wonder and quicken my pace to go and investigate. As I get closer I am amazed and delighted to see that the hustle and bustle of an informal looking fish market is in full swing right here on the beach. Small colourful wooden boats are shuttling back and forth from the bigger wooden fishing boats moored a couple of hundred metres or so out to sea, ferrying the prized catch ashore. Short wearing sinewy men are splashing from the beach to these small wooden boats and hurriedly returning with baskets laden with fish, squid and prawns, even wooden ox-carts are being driven into the shallows to be loaded up with the much heavier large plastic containers. Once on shore the baskets are deposited on the sand and there is a kaleidoscopic flurry of saris as the women take over, noisy haggling ensues as these weather-worn women clad in gold bracelets, beaded necklaces and chunky gold earrings get down to business, picking up handfuls of the catch for closer inspection. Stern, concentrating faces turn to smiles as the deal is struck, cash handed over and the basket lifted onto a waiting woman ‘porters’ head as she follows the buyer. All this is happening repeatedly along the beach appearing to the casual observer very much like organised chaos! As I shuffle myself through all of this colourful activity I arrive at where the large orange, blue and red plastic containers are being off loaded from the ox-carts and stacked, nearby rows of refrigerated trucks are standing by. I see men balancing on these stacks shouting and gesturing to the gathered crowds below and I suddenly realise this is an auction, this is where the ‘big boys’ are. The smaller quantity baskets must be for local restaurants and markets, yet this area must be the large wholesalers buying big quantities for transportation further afield.

Fisherman bringing in the squid...

A fisher woman shouting out her wares...

Some hard bargaining going on...

A pondering fisher woman...

After spending an incredible hour or so watching this frenzied activity I return to the guesthouse for yet another delicious seafood dinner, Ashok’s wife had also been down at the fish market, I find it hard to imagine this gentle shy woman being involved in all of that mayhem. As I eat Ashok’s son, Muresh, wanders in and we start chatting. He wants to be Harnai’s tycoon, it transpires that Ashok along with his brothers already have their bony old fingers in various local pies, a few guesthouses, a construction business and the town’s only computer training centre and internet spot to name but a few. Muresh has big plans for Harnai, he wants to develop it as Maharashtra’s answer to the beach hot spots of Goa, “I want to introduce water sports, jet-skis, scuba diving, kite surfing, I want to arrange monthly big beach parties, I think it can work”. He stops to catch breath and then adds “Tomorrow we have an office group of 18 coming down from Mumbai, at the moment they come her for the fish and seafood, Harnai is famous for this, but slowly I want to introduce new things, I want people to be curious about what is new in Harnai, this way they will keep coming back”. As I listen to him talk excitedly about his plans I consider they could work with the right level of investment and infrastructure development such as, a tarmac road through the village, a reliable electricity supply, higher standards of accommodation, some beach cafés, much better waste management, more professional looking restaurants and removing all the stray dogs from the beach for a start. After all Harnai would make for a much closer weekend party place for the growing number of Mumbai and Pune’s club goers and party people. Whether I would like to see quaint, tranquil Harnai go down that route is not for me to say… Muresh went on to explain, “Harnai is the number one fishing port in Maharashtra. Before refrigerated trucks we only supplied locally and Mumbai, but now we transport all over India, Kolkata, Bangalore, Kochi…”, “Kochi” I interrupt, “But that is on the coast why do they need your fish?”. “Ah yes, but Kochi port has a license to export so they export most of their fish and seafood” he clarifies. “You know what? We have two fish markets a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, every day the amount of transactions at the Harnai fish market totals 1 to 1.5 crore… every day!!” A crore is the Indian term for 10 million, thus in this case Muresh was referring to 10 to 15 million rupees a day, approx. $200 – $300,000 a day. I guessed Muresh to be about 28 or 29 years old, I was very surprised when he informed me he was only 19, with his vision and enthusiasm perhaps he just will one day become the Mr Big of Harnai…

As we continue to chat as a family the mother begins to come out of her shell and she asks me a couple of questions in fairly good English, up until then I did not think she could speak any! As time was getting on and I had an early start the following morning I begin to make my excuses about going to bed but Muresh urges, “Ah no, stay just a little bit longer” he then speaks to his mother in Marathi and Ashok joins in and speaks to his wife in English, “Ah yes, very good idea my dear”. Leaning towards me Ashok whispers “My wife is going to sing for you”. Mother clears her throat and for about 3 minutes in the low light of their front room she sings this wonderful, haunting melody. “My grandmother used to sing this song” she explains to me afterwards, “It is an old fisher wives folk song about a wife not wanting her husband to go to sea in case he does not return”. A wonderful experience – I did not want to leave…

Day 4: Veshavi to Harnai (5-1-12) 53km

Monday, January 16th, 2012

Last night Nilesh insisted on driving me the few kilometres to nearby Bankot Fort, ''First it is not in the direction you will be going, and secondly the road is very steep!''. Whilst Nilesh got himself ready his father and I watch the coverage of the third day of the second Test Match between India and Australia in Sydney and applaud as Michael Clarke scores his 300th run. With a shaking head his father laments “Now India not good at Test cricket, now they win the One Day World Cup they not care about anything else, this is the wrong attitude…”.

As we near Bankot Fort the crumbling road suddenly becomes cliff like and I can understand Nilesh’s insistence as he looks over to me and smiles whilst changing into first gear, “You think you can cycle up this?” my reply is a resigned laugh. As we wander around the dilapidated ramparts of the fort looking out of the confluence of the river and sea Nilesh explains that this was the first residency of the British Raj in Southern Konkan, “It is a shame the local government do not spend any money restoring and caring for it” he sighs. Indeed it has had a turbulent history, no one is exactly sure when it was built but it was captured by the Portuguese in 1548, it was then later captured by the local Angres and renamed Himmatgad. There was a rivalry between the Angres and the Peshwas who with British assistance defeated the Angres and it was renamed Fort Victoria. At the eastern edge of the fort Nilesh waves his arm out in the direction of the nearby tree covered hills, “They want to build a power plant here, but we locals are against it, now we have clean air, we do not want any pollution. The company claims there will not be any, but we do not believe them…”. We continue wandering and chatting when suddenly “Ah yes Mark, I must show you this” he leans over the inner edge of the ramparts and points to a small arched opening at ground level, “I do not know if it is true but people say that this leads to a tunnel under the sea over to Harihareshwar, an escape route”. I am sceptical, we are about 100m above sea level so that is a long way to dig down through rock just to get to sea level, let alone the few kilometres they then have to dig below the sea floor – but heh, stranger things have happened…

As we drive back to his home along the narrow winding lane Nilesh explains that he may not be in Veshavi for much longer as he has been offered a World Bank job working on water sanitation which is based in Mumbai, “The money is good and my brother lives in Mumbai. My wife will also be happy as closer to her parents who live in Pune”. Over breakfast of pancakes I explain my plan for the day and Nilesh just laughs, “Do not even think of trying to get to Guhagar today, the roads are bad and steep, it takes 5 to 6 hours in a car! I suggest you stop a Harnai, it is about 50km and it is a nice place next to the beach”. As it is already 10:30am I agree that sounds like a good plan. I load up Dhanya and after paying the bill, 350 rupees (less than 7 bucks all in!), bidding our farewells and being given initial directions I climb the dirt bumpy road out of the village, passing the police station on the way.

It doesn’t take long at all to understand Nilesh’s laughter at my plan of reaching Guhagar (about 100km), today’s first 10km included 6km of steady uphill from more or less sea level to 170m above on a fairly shoddy road which I achieved at a blistering pace of 13kph! However, the reward for the climbing is the views and every now and then I would catch glimpses through the shady trees of the glistening blue River Savitri below and the tree covered hills off in the distance. As I was sweating up this prolonged climb a guy on a Honda Hero motorbike who had passed me a couple of times asks me to stop. “Not here” I pant, “At the top of the hill”. He pootles along side me and asks the usual questions, “Where you go?”, “Where you from?” etc. At the top of the climb with sweat pouring off my brow, as I dismount Dhanya the guy says, “I need your help. Excuse my English but I want you to help me”, “What help you need” I enquire. “I need to study in your country”, “OK, so how can I help”, “Anything”, “Such as…”, “Money”. “Oh yer!” I laugh, “Why I give you money, I don’t know you!”. Looking him up and down I go on, “Look you have nice clothes, a good haircut, and nice new motorbike, why I give you money?!”. As I remount Dhanya my parting shot with much sarcasm is “You a very good person heh, you stop me just because you want my money – very good!!!”.

The River Savitri and rolling hills above Veshavi

The following 3km downhill was bliss as I drop into another valley and switchback my way down to the river below with views of fading ridgelines off into the distance and the greens of market gardening on the valley floor. The ride following the river down to the sea was a delight despite the constant rolling up and downs, including a few short but steep climbs. I pass through a number of charming shady hamlets with mainly single story homes topped with terracotta tiles huddled closely together, seeing laughing women slapping and scrunching the laundry in the river, and uniformed school kids wandering and playing. I arrive in Kelshi and take a small detour to the pristine wide sandy beach where I sit and relax staring out to sea for a while. I am shaken out of my trance by a couple of barefoot young lads shouting “Hello!” as the run past clutching a cricket bat and three stumps, off to the firmer sand nearer the sea for a knock-about. I leave Kelshi via a different route and the route I chose would not have been out of place on a mountain bike course!! With much relief after a few kilometres I re-find the tarmac and the short ups and downs continue as I follow the coastline. About 8km from Anjarle the single lane road smoothes out and literally hugs the deserted beach – excellent!!

Dhanya and I on the deserted Kelshi Beach

I coast into Anjarle and as one of the restaurants I am involved with in Cambodia is named Anjali, of course I have to stop for a quick spot of lunch and refreshments sat on the step outside a drink store. No sooner had I sat down than Dhanya and I attract the attention of a bunch of inquisitive school boys all clad in matching khaki shorts and white shirts – none of whom spoke any English so it made for some interesting communication. Although I think they were more interested in Dhanya than me… I pootle through the shady twisting lanes of Anjarle taking in the rustic architecture when suddenly the rear tyre feels a bit squidgy. Sure enough I have a slow puncture!! It is still sufficiently ‘full’ so I cycle around and find the village bike shop which is an old wooden barn and shares its premises with a mooing cow. Outside the courtyard is beautifully shady so I sit back and let the vest wearing bike man get to work… However, it appears I have chosen the only cycle repairman in the whole of India who does not have a pump!! He mounts his own rusty, squeaky Hercules cycle which has a badly buckled rear wheel (not a great advert) and disappears for 5 minutes, returning firmly grasping a pump and wearing a big smile.

All done, I hand over the 10 rupees (20 cents), re-load Dhanya and re-connect the Rohloff hub and I am off, yet all too soon confronted with an incredibly steep little climb out of the village. Just as I am enjoying the smooth downhill on the other side pppssssssssshhhhhhhhh – rapid pressure lose in the rear tyre!!! I pull over underneath the shade of a roadside tree cursing the Anjarle puncture repair man! Once again I un-load Dhanya, unclip the V-brakes, disconnect the Rohloff hub, turn her over and remove the rear wheel and get to work on changing the inner tube. Checking the inner tube I have just removed I notice that Mr Anjarle’s repair patch is actually still intact, however there is a new hole nearby, I curse him once again for not checking whether the sharp object was still in the tyre or not. As I check the tyre for the said sharp object I have to guiltily take back all my curses – there is a small 4mm tear in the tyre!! “Ummmmm, this is going to be interesting to fix” I think to myself. Racking my brain I try to think of all the cycle magazines I have read in the past where people write in with their ‘on-trail’ bodge job repairs and it suddenly comes to me. Looking around I find a discarded ‘foil’ crisp packet and fold this over a few times and place it between the new inner tube and the inside of the tyre covering the hole, hoping this bodge job will last the 10km to Harnai… Whilst I am doing all this a young closely shaven Muslim chap attired in a topis and a pristine white thobe had pulled over and stood watching me. Seeing the effort it was taking to pump up the rear tyre with my small ‘Pocket Rocket’ pump Fahim very kindly offered to help. With his assistance I was soon back on the road, my heart missing a beat each time I went over a bump.

Me with my Pocket Rocket pump!

There was one final sting in the tail before reaching Harnai, a climb up over a headland which included 7 back to back switchbacks! An old red school bus passed me on its way down with the school kids waving their arms out of the glassless windows and screaming with delight as the lumbering old thing swung round each hairpin – guess it’s the closest thing these kids get to a rollercoaster. My prize being an exciting switchback downhill on a great smooth surface all the way into the small fishing town of Harnai, thankful that my bodge job tyre had survived! There didn’t appear to be a great deal of accommodation on offer as I cycled along the narrow and bumpy main street so I opted for the Bhavani Residency above a couple of shophouses selling clothing and hardware goods. After checking in the owner, bespectacled Ashok with thinning silver hair and matching moustache which turned up at the ends, asked if I would like to have dinner prepared, “What’s on offer?” I ask, “Fried fish, pomfret and curry, my wife make, cheaper and much better than the restaurants in town. It will be ready about 8 o’ clock” he sang, Ashok spoke in a very sing-songy manner with a constant smile, “OK, but I need a lot, I cycle a long way today and I am very hungry” I add, “No problem, no problem!” I was to realise that this was his catchphrase. I take a look at my watch, 5:30pm just in time for sunset and then a couple of Kingfishers in a small bar I had spotted earlier.

The wonderful sunset out over Harnai Beach

The tiny dimly lit bar was a busy little spot with people coming and going mainly for take-outs wrapped in newspaper. One old soak who spoke no English came and sat opposite me with a small bottle of the local ‘hooch’ which was the most popular beverage being wrapped and insisted on me trying some. Expecting the worst it wasn’t actually that bad, for sure it was strong yet it had a tinge of pineapple to it and I guess at 35 rupees (70 cents) for 250ml it does the job. A curly haired, beer bellied bloke on the table opposite spoke some English and we struck up a conversation, he was a truck driver delivering fish to places as far away as Mumbai, Bangalore and Hyderabad, “Sometimes I drive 2,000km in one day, that is why I need to drink” he says pointing to his small bottle of cheap Bagpiper whisky, “Yes, I cycle from Mumbai that’s why I need to drink” I reply pointing to my bottle of Kingfisher as we both laugh.

Back at the Bhavani Residency Ashok invites me into his front room where dinner will be served. I take in my surroundings, the walls are a pale shade of green with peeling patches of paint here and there, a couple of curl-edged pictures of Lakshmi the Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity standing in a pink lotus flower are haphazardly stuck to the wall with pieces of black electricians tape, and like so many front rooms around the world the TV takes center stage. After finishing the final touches Ashok’s sari wearing, shyly smiling wife brings out dinner on the now expected large silver tray with various accompaniments in separate small silver bowls. I was treated to silver pomfret fried in various spices, a piece of fried bangra (mackerel), a prawn curry, a small side salad and chapattis and rice, it was quite a feast and a delicious one at that!

Day 3: Murud to Veshavi (4-1-12) 85km

Monday, January 16th, 2012

I leave Murud early morning just as it is waking up and whilst following the narrow lane along the river I am surprised to see many of the men milling around in ragged shorts and t-shirts yet wearing ear warmers! OK so it is 'winter' but it is still 20 degrees C and some, ''Is this really necessary?'' I ask myself. I pass a group of women looking delightful in their colourful saris, grouped around a tap taking it in turns to fill their shiny metal water containers whilst exchanging local gossip. I watch one woman dressed in a red and blue patterned sari as she lifts not one, but two of these full vessels onto the padded rolled up scarf on her head and seemingly effortlessly walks away – the combined weight must be 25kg plus!! I also note that none of these women are wearing ear warmers, much hardier(?), either that or they want to show off their ornate gold earrings ;-)

After crossing the river and taking in the colourful small fleet of fishing boats moored below I am subjected to a prolonged steepish climb out of Murud – giving my legs and heart a quick wake-up call – but being rewarded with expansive views of the blue sea merging into the blue cloudless sky and the imposing Janjira Fort with its towering walls just a few hundred meters off the coast. The Fort was built in 1140 by the Siddis and yesterday evening Aazim had informed me that the fort was famous for being the only one along India’s western coast that remained undefeated despite attacks from the Dutch Navy and the English East India Company. Rather excitedly he went on, “And it has a very powerful and big canon which can shoot 18km!” Changing the tone of his voice to a hushed whisper and leaning towards me, “And it is a magical place, in the fort there is a sweet water lake. How can this be when the fort is surrounded by sea water?”.

The great view after the climb out of Murud...

I drop down into the tiny fishing hamlet of Rajpuri and within no time I arrive at the 500 year old monolithic stone Kokari Tombs which are a magical sight lit up in the early morning sunlight. The 3 tombs are perched on a hillside with one being much larger and more ornate than the other two, this larger one is the resting place of Siddi Surul Khan who commanded Janjira from 1707 to 1734.

The Kokari Tombs

After a few more coastal ups and downs I arrive in a small seaside fishing village from where I apparently catch the ferry to Dhighi. After circling the village a couple of times and seeing no obvious ferry landing it is time to ask. I spot a middle aged, pot-bellied, vest wearing chap sitting outside his home, “Hi, ferry to Dhighi?” I enquire. The man turns his head and calls back into the shadows of his house and in no time his teenage daughter appears, “Hello, how are you?” she welcomes in perfectly pronounced English, “Hello, I’m very well thank you. Where do I get the ferry for Dhighi?”, “Dhighi, yes just follow this road straight” she explains pointing along a road I had already tried, “OK, thank you very much!”. I follow the bumpy track further than I previously had and lo and behold a tiny port appears! I approach an official in his blue port authority shirt who is lounging outside a run-down concrete office reading a newspaper and enquire about the ferry to Dhighi. “Go already, next one 10:30”. I look at my watch, an hour to wait – a leisurely start to the morning… I park up Dhanya underneath a sprawling red berried tree and take a seat. I enjoy the coolness of the shade and listening to the twittering swifts above, however, after being shat on twice in as many minutes I decide it’s time to make a move and I join the official in the shade of the office.

The trip over to Dhighi on the busy small wooden ferry takes about 10 minutes, and after I stock up on 4 freshly fried samosas in the port-side market I am soon on my way with much time to make up. It’s now 11am and I have only covered 11km! I decline taking the main ‘road’ out of Dhighi’s cluster of two storey, red tiled buildings instead opting for the bumpy lane up and over the headland. Oh! What a choice! A steep climb ensues climbing 150m in height over 3km, with the first couple of kilometres being along a horrid rocky surface. Two young guys on a black Honda Hero motorbike slow down beside me and with a look of puzzlement on their faces ask “Where are you going?”, “Shrivardhan” I reply between taking deep gulps of air, “Why you take this road, not good!”, “More fun!!” I reply, to which they raise their eyebrows in a kinda ‘are you crazy’ gesture, and ride off. Crazy maybe, but my reward is endless views out over the Arabian sea and a road to all intents and purposes to myself – which is no mean feat in India!

For much of the rest of the day I was hugging the coastline and dropping in to and climbing out of various little fishing villages full of character. Some of the climbs were short but steep leaving me in Dhanya’s bottom gear with no place else to go. For a short time I was on Maharashtra State Highway 4 (MSH4) and whilst the smooth tarmac was a relief I sacrificed the great views and traffic-free roads.

One of the many fishing hamlets I pass...

I roll into Shrivardhan via the back door and as it has been a tough day I decide I will spend the night here as according to some info I had read on the internet it sounding an interesting place and had ‘developed in to a seaside resort’… I arrived at the bustling market, usually the centre of such small towns, and I had not yet seen any ‘Boarding & Lodging’ or ‘Residence’ signs (there are ‘Hotel’ signs but just to really confuse you in India they call restaurants ‘Hotels’ – don’t ask…). After asking a few locals only to be greeted with shrugs and vacant expressions I take a look at my watch, seeing it is 3pm I decide to press on to Harihareshwar about 20km away and try my luck there.

After a series of further ‘undulations’ I arrive at Harihareshwar and I am struck my how small it appears to be. Apparently Harihareshwar is a major pilgrimage centre as well as being a popular weekend beach destination for the humongous populations of Mumbai and Pune. The 16th century temple on the seashore is of great significance as apparently Lord Vishnu blessed it, and there are other temples nearby dedicated to Lord Brahma and Lord Maheshwara. But hey, I’ll be darned if I know where all these visitors stay! I could only find one guesthouse and that was full with a bunch of engineering students who were doing a project surveying the village streets – which are badly in need of some serious engineering! Feeling very tired I push on thinking to myself, “There must be much more to Harihareshwar…” as it is a place of such spiritual significance, and dreaming that just around the next corner there will be a whole strip of welcoming guesthouses. After a few corners, very unfortunately, it became very clear that this was not to be the case and I had well and truly left the small settlement of Harihareshwar behind me…

Just as I am contemplating my first tent experience in India and following a river inland I see a white car ferry in the distance which has just pulled into my side of the estuary. I can see there is a village amongst the tree covered hillside on the other side and I think to myself, “Well the other side can be no worse than this” so I push on to make sure I don’t miss the ferry as it could well be the last one of the day. With myself and Dhanya safely on board and despite still not knowing where I will be sleeping I sit having a coffee with the soft warmth of the fading sun on my back looking out to sea and all feels good…

The moustached ticket collector approaches and I ask him if there is a guest house on the other side of the river, “No sir, no guesthouse” is just the reply I was hoping not to hear, “Scheisse!” I mummer to myself and sit back down. Just as my bum hits the seat a fellow passenger close by babbles away to the ticket collector in Marathi and then turns to me and says, “There is a small guest house, Dr Swarmi’s, I will call him for you if you like”, “That would be excellent, thank you very much!” is my gleeful retort. After dialling and speaking a few words into his phone my ‘saviour’ hands his iphone (no less) to me. “Hello, you are looking for a guest house” I hear, “Yes”, “OK I have a room available, when you get off the ferry turn left and head into the village, there ask anyone for Dr Swarmi”, “Excellent!” I enthuse, “See you soon…”. I roll off the ferry with a new found energy and bid farewell to my ‘saviour’ and turn left onto a bumpy dirt track which winds uphill in to the small dusty village of Veshavi. Not sure where I am going I stop outside a blue painted barber shop and interrupt the bearded, topis wearing snipper, “Dr Swarmi?” I ask, with a big smile the barber points behind me and calls out “Swarmi, Swarmi”. I turn around and there is the clinic with a well presented middle-aged Indian man coming out of the door to greet me, accompanied by his loudly barking dog. “Ah, come, come, follow me” as he leads the way up an external staircase to the first floor of the building. “So you are English, I studied my Masters in England for 2 years, in Derby, about 6 years ago now”, “Oh, I went to university in Nottingham” I explain, “Ah, so we are neighbours then!” he exclaims chuckling. After a few more minutes of idle banter Dr Swarmi, or Nilesh as I now call he, explains that he has to go to a nearby village for his daily surgery and will be back around 8pm which is when dinner will be served. Just as he is leaving he turns around and says, “Ah yes, as you are a foreigner you had better register at the local police station, nothing to worry about, just a formality, the police station is at the top of the hill” and with that he was gone.

The main street of Veshavi village...

After freshening up I decide I better go and register with the local boys in blue and follow the dirt track up the hill just as the last of the days light is fading fast. I wander into the very rudimentary concrete block structure that passes for a police station and explain my presence to a group of men sitting around a table smoking, only one in uniform, in the first room I see. “OK, come with me” says one of the non-uniformed men as he stands up. We walk past the cells and I am pleased to see that crime levels must be low in Veshavi as one cell is filled with old paperwork and filing cabinets and the other with various bits of antique looking machinery. We take a left into a fairly stark office and he gestures for me to sit down as he turns on his computer – yes he has a computer, I’m impressed. He leans over to his right and pulls an old dog-eared file from a nearby shelf and upon opening it he thumbs through a few sheets of paper before pulling one out and showing it to me, “This lady from England, she come here 2 year ago, you know her?”, with a polite smile I explain that I do not. Placing her paperwork back in the file he pulls out three forms from the back and places blue carbon copy paper between them, “This is going to be in triplicate, must be important” I joke to myself. The policeman, very slowly and frustratingly, starts going through the form asking me the various questions, sometimes in a rather stern manner leaning forward, other times in a more friendly manner leaning back in his chair – good cop, bad cop all rolled into one! Me being British but my home address being in Cambodia confused him and took a bit of explaining, “Cambodia, that is in the United States yes?” when I heard this it took all of my willpower not to furnish him with a sarcastic reply. After the 40 minute interrogation was over, which really should have only taken 10 minutes at the most he requested a ‘Xerox’ copy of my passport, pointing to my passport which was beside him I suggest, “Sure, take a copy”, “Ah sir, our Xerox machine is not working, please go back into the village to the Xerox shop and get a copy of your passport photo page and your Indian visa, both on the same side of A4”. I look at him with raised eyebrows and he then requests, “I also need a passport type photo for the form, look” he says pointing to a rectangular box on the form, “You have?”. “No, I don’t have” I lie, not wanting to waste my stash of passport photos on 1 nights accommodation in some random small village. He twirls his moustache with his tobacco stained fingers whilst pondering… eventually “OK, but make sure you have one next time”. I never did work out what he turned his computer on for…

By the time I had found the photocopy shop, returned to the police station and walked back to Swarmi’s guesthouse, all in the dark as there was no street lighting, it was more or less 8pm and it was not long before Nilesh knocked on my door and explained that dinner was ready. Downstairs I walk into the front room and I am greeted by Nilesh, his wife, cute 2 year old daughter, mother and father. After being introduced to them all I discover it is a family of doctors as both his father and wife are practitioners also, “If I am ever to get ill on this trip now is the time” I joke. Nilesh explains that his family are Brahmins (intellectuals), the pinnacle of the often complex Indian caste (social hierarchy) system, his wife is also a Brahmin as traditionally different castes should not inter-marry. As his wife Supriya places my dinner before me Nilesh mentions, “As Brahmins we are strict vegetarians, we do not eat meat, fish or eggs”. Supriya introduces the home cooked food that she has placed before me on a silver tray holding various smaller silver bowls pointing to each item as she does, “This is idly, chapatti, cucumber chutney, daal curry, ladies fingers, bitter gourd, sambar and rice – please enjoy”. And enjoy I did, it was delicious! Over dinner we chatted about various topics including his time in the UK which he generally enjoyed but did experience racism on occasions, I agreed that racism certainly is a problem in England, particularly in the inner-cities and with the less educated, some form of resentment / jealousy perhaps. Nilesh’s father joins in every now and then, but it is very conspicuous as to how silent his wife and mother are, even though I try to bring them into the conversations from time to time…

Day 2: Kihim to Murud (3-1-12) 66km

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Kihim is considered the northern most point of the Konkan Coast which stretches all the way down to Vengurla in the south, or more or less the whole coastline of Maharashtra state south of Mumbai, about 700km. It is famed for its ruggedness with many headlands and red coloured cliffs and its strings of deserted, pristine beaches. Throw in the many picturesque fishing hamlets, daunting forts and a delectable cuisine and it is surprising that the Konkan Coast is not firmly on the tourist trail instead being bypassed by most as they head straight down to Goa on the main highway as quickly as possible.

I certainly couldn’t be accused of moving as quickly as possible as I left Kihim into a hazy and misty dawn and bumped my way south to Alibag following shady, narrow, winding lanes to the beach. It is said that many Bollywood stars such as Shah Rukh Khan and wealthy businessmen such as Vijay Mallaya have brought weekend homes here to escape the claustrophobia of Mumbai, but I certainly didn’t see anything that came anywhere close to looking like a luxury hide-a-way – they must be well hidden! After taking in the views of Kulaba Fort, a few hundred meters off Alibag beach, which was jointly attacked by the English and Portuguese in 1722 I pootled my way through the interesting, twisting and narrow lanes of Alibag village, a mixture of old wooden homes with once ornate balconies and the more ‘modern’ small concrete shop-houses. I leave via the smoking and stinking village dump – not the best parting shot!

The lanes down to Revdanda continue to be shady and pleasant with the morning’s rays of sunlight streaming through the tall palm trees. I pass under an old stone archway which signifies the entrance to the village as much of it is built within the confines of an ancient Portuguese fort. As I cycle through the picturesque village I am greeted with, “Good Morning”, “How are you?”, and even a “Welcome to India!” – how all very civilised! Just after leaving the village and having just passed the large stone block remains of a Jesuit Monastery I take a right turn along a small dirt track which leads to the beach and the western remains of Revdanda Fort. This is such a peaceful spot, wandering around the palm tree shaded remains with the crashing of waves in the background I have the place all to myself. Well, that is apart from the dishevelled looking security guard who loiters close by and is constantly spitting! Such a pleasant spot… I could chill here all day, but with only 32km on the clock I must push on.

Me and canons at shady Revdanda Fort

The next stretch was delightful with clear blue skies and blue sea a constant companion, interspersed with crescent shaped sandy bays and colourful villages. Less pleasant however were the string of steady climbs as I crossed over the many headlands, and why is it that the downhills never seem to have any correlation with the uphills ;-) These climbs are the first that Dhanya and I have done fully loaded and I soon realise how much they slow down our progress…

Just before dropping down into Murud I come across the very majestic, but tired looking Ahmedganj Palace with its mixture of Mughal and gothic style architecture. Murud was the last outpost of the Siddis of Janjira, fierce warriors who hailed from Abyssinia in far-away Africa, and the Palace was built by their descendants, the Siddi Nawab of Murud, in 1885. A Nawab was traditionally an honorific title given to Muslim rulers of princely states in South Asia, however nowadays it is also awarded as a personal distinction – similar to an English Lordship. The vast 45 acre Palace grounds amongst other things house a marvellous mosque and the tombs of previous rulers, which according to local legend are filled with treasures of untold wealth, but as yet no one has had the cajones to open them up. I was not going to have the opportunity either as the Palace and its grounds are not open to the general riff-raff.

The majestic Ahmedganj Palace, Murud

On arrival in Murud I roll along the shoreline road which is lined with restaurants and guesthouses and choose one that catches my eye, namely all the ‘chalets’ are on ground level which means no dragging Dhanya and all my luggage up flights of stairs! After checking-in to the Anand Vatika I cross the road and take a saunter along the beach which is wide and firm, perfect for a cricket pitch, and yes in the late afternoon sun there are numerous make-shift games being played. Most of my fellow preamblers are in Muslim attire, relatives of those mighty African warriors I wonder… I take a seat and watch the changing colours of the setting sun as it falls into the sea next to Janjira Fort built off-shore on an island – or so I thought… Aazim joins me and explains that the fort we are looking at in the final orange glow of daylight is actually Kasa Fort, formerly known as Padmadurg Fort, “Janjira Fort is a bit further south, you cannot see it from here. This fort” he goes on to explain whilst pointing out to sea, “cannot be visited by people as sea too bad, need special permission”. “But I thought Janjira Fort was also in the sea” I question, “Ah yes, but very close and more sheltered”. After some more idle chit-chat we part company and I drift back to the Anand Vatika and call it a night…

Sunset over Kasa Fort - not Janjira Fort ;-)

Day 1: Mumbai to Kihim (2-1-12) 118km

Thursday, January 12th, 2012

A 6am start as a fully loaded Dhanya and I leave the, by now after a 7 day stay, homely Hotel Gemini and head out into the pre-dawn Mumbai chill and spin along the empty streets towards the adventure starting point, the Gateway of India. Arriving at the Gateway of India, with the sun yet to rise, its mass silhouetted against the grey dawn sky I am surprised to see a few other early risers, a couple of joggers, a handful of photo clicking tourists(!) and a small group of Asians doing some form of oriental exercises.

I first decided to do this cycle around India challenge more than a year and a half ago, so I have visualised this Gateway of India moment on many occasions, as such I stand for 20 minutes or so just soaking up the atmosphere and reflecting on the magnitude of what I am just about to embark upon. Just before the sun rises behind the Gateway I shake myself out of this trance like state and decide I better get going if I want to miss the worst of the Mumbai rush-hour.

Gateway to India - Where it all begins!!


To escape Mumbai I have to go north to go south, to avoid central Mumbai I skirt the eastern flank of the Mumbai peninsula which is initially lined with naval installations. These soon give way to grimy goods yards, colourful yet dusty trucks and litter strewn sidings. I follow rail tracks which appear to be disused, well by loco’s that is, they are certainly well frequented by men squatting with all their bits and pieces hanging out having their morning ‘muck-out’ – I am not going to be able to get used to this sight and I keep my eyes fixed firmly on the road ahead… For much of the initial 20km I am accompanied by the large under-construction concrete overhead metro supports, as well as passing oil storage depots, tracts of wasteland, rows of power lines heading off into the hazy rising sun, the Bharat Petroleum refinery, occasional shanty villages, and putrid waterways – the usual detritus of large city outskirts – and some! But looking on the bright side the roads are virtually traffic free, just the occasional oil tanker and lumbering TATA bus ferrying people to work, plus those workers making their way on bicycle and by foot. In the midst of all this ‘industrialness’ I pass the green oasis of the Vengsarkar Cricket Academy where the white uniformed groundsmen are out busy rolling the pitch. Dilip Vengsarkar was renown for being a stylish batsman during the 1980s, and one of the few who could put up a good show against the formidable West Indies pace men of the era. Arguably his biggest achievement was scoring three consecutive Test Match centuries at Lord’s against England, and he went on the captain Indian in 1987.

After crossing the almost 3km long Vashi Bridge over a large estuary I feel that I have finally escaped Mumbai’s ever expanding clutches. Soon I turn right and finally head south into Navi Mumbai onto the lovely smooth empty 6 lane highway of Palm Road. In the 3 weeks I have been in Mumbai it has been reported in the local papers that at least 6 youths have been killed in traffic accidents along this stretch of road! Navi Mumbai is home to many of the city’s nouveau riche and it is suspected these deaths are due to youngsters in high performance cars returning in the early hours from central Mumbai’s club scene, tanked up on booze and who knows what else, and trying to impress… I have to admit to being disappointed by Navi Mumbai, I was expecting the area to be lined with plush apartment blocks overlooking the sea with a palm fringed seafront promenade. Not at all! OK, so there are apartment blocks with fanciful names such as, Viceroy Park, Sea Homes, Sun Coast Towers, Beverly Park, but from the outside these new constructions appear aged, run down and dirty. As for the delightful sea front promenade, I could not see the sea! So much for my sophisticated breakfast plans of a coffee and croissant looking out over the ocean… One thing I have noticed of my time in Mumbai is how the modern, new buildings all look jaded and 20 years older than they really are, I’m sure the interiors of these apartments are very swish and personal little havens from the surrounding madness, yet from the outside they really do not look anything at all special.

Not before long the ‘luxury’ apartments gave way to a dust bowl of construction sites, quarries, cement works, container yards and an endless stream of container trucks, luckily the vast majority of them parked up. After about 65km, just as I was getting a bit tired of container yard after container yard and pot holed roads I crossed a decaying concrete bridge which shook rather alarmingly when a truck rumbled over it, I took a right and suddenly I was pedalling through small villages with Mumbai seeming a long way off… Just as I was enjoying the scenery suddenly the decent road surface disappeared and I was cycling along a very bumpy and potholed dirt road. By the looks of astonishment on the villagers faces I doubt they get many ‘whites’ in this neck of the woods, let alone on a bicycle!

Back on tarmac of sorts I approach a junction where there is a dusty makeshift police checkpoint on the side of the road, constructed of hessian sacks and bamboo. A slouched back policeman beckons me over, ‘Where you go?’ he questions in a relatively stern voice, ‘Raigad Fort’ I reply. ‘That way’, shaking his finger off to my left. ‘This way’ I question pointing in the same direction, ‘Yes, yes’, with a head wobble. I was sure it was to the right, but heh bow to local knowledge, especially that from a policeman. I never did find the fort, however I arrive rather timely in Kalwar village as I was running low on water. I pull up outside a drinks store and request, ‘Paneer’, Hindi for water, the vendor automatically thinks I can speak the lingo and babbles away to me with his wife giggling shyly in the doorway to the back room. Once he realises I haven’t got a clue what he is on about word is sent out via the village grapevine and in no time the village English speaker, Jaipesh, arrives along with about 20 curious assistants! With his one missing front tooth he reels out the standard questions, ‘What is your name?’, ‘What country you from?’, ‘Where you go?’, ‘How old are you?’, ‘Are you married?’ etc. Once the friendly interrogation is over and I am mounting my bike Jaipesh informs me, ‘Kihim, follow this road 5km, the big road turn right…’. I get the same info from about 5 others as I cycle through the village, ‘At least they all agree’ I think to myself. About 5km from Kihim I take a narrow bumpy road which takes me off the main drag and through a couple of delightful little villages, very rustic, where once again and I greeted with looks of astonishment from the local kids and bewilderment from the village elders.

Kalwar Level Crossing - First one and I had to stop!!

I finally check-in to a guesthouse after a couple of previous enquires, guess that will be a regular occurrence, looking for suitable digs each night, and take the short stroll down to the almost deserted wide sandy beach where I relax with a fresh coconut juice straight from its shell, whilst taking in a game of beach cricket and watching the beautiful sunset – the first of many!

In terms of road surfaces I think today was a real wake-up call of what to expect. I was subjected to a wide range from smooth tarmac (very limited), to concrete, to potholes, to bumpy, to rocky, to gravelly, to desperate dirt, to constant patchworks of shoddy repairs, to decaying concrete, to corrugated iron effect tarmac, and my personal nemesis block paving! This range of surfaces means that for the majority of the time you cannot get any sort of rhythm and momentum, and if you are really ‘lucky’ you can experience all of the above within a few kilometres! Some long days ahead I feel…

Kihim Beach - not a bad place to end Day 1

Grant Road, Mumbai

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012

Swapan's hospitality for my first few days in Mumbai was great, he is a really friendly, caring and interesting guy, always happy to go out of his way to help. However, it was time to move on and as I had an early start to Bangalore on the 14th Dec I thought it would be a good plan to book into a ‘hotel’ closer to Mumbai Central Train Station. Hence it was back into the Mumbai madness as I cycled south fully loaded. The 26km ride took me over 3 hours!! – extremely tedious. The only positive was the closer to South Mumbai I got the state of the roads marginally improved.

A random highlight of the trip was after about 10km in the Vile Parle area I was cycling along Swami Vivekanand Road, or SV Road as the Mumbaikers call it, minding my own business and trying to avoid other road users when I hear a female voice, “Excuse me! Excuse me!”. Looking around I see an Indian woman with her head poking out of her car window gesturing to me, “Excuse me, is it OK to talk to you? Please pull over…”. A trifle baffled and thinking, “What have I done??”, I hesitatingly agree.

Curiously I roll towards her now pulled over car and before I have a chance to say anything she excitedly bursts into, “Wow! I have never seen a cycle tourer in India before. I went cycle touring in France earlier this year and I really loved it, now I want to do it in India but I have never seen anyone doing it here before. This is great! Oh sorry, by the way my name is Tina!” (The irony of this first random encounter I have being with someone called Tina will not be lost on those who know me. A lifelong Indian friend from back in the UK is called Tina, as is my extremely close Cambodian friend and business partner). I try to get a few words in but now we are being honked from behind as we are holding up the traffic. “Here, take my card and lets meet up for dinner sometime to talk more” she gushes. I hand over my card and explain that I am off to Bangalore for the Tour of Nilgiris for just over a week but I would be happy to meet up on my return. “OK! OK! That’s great, I’ll follow you on Twitter. By the way, if you need any help or advice please don’t hesitate to call me, I mean it”, Tina assures me. “That’s really kind of you” I reply and with that we bid our farewells and Tina drives off, leaving me wondering whether that encounter really took place or not…

I continue pedalling south reflecting on the random, but pleasant nature of the meeting with Tina, in between slamming the brakes on to avoid erratic auto-rickshaws, when after about a further 5km I hear, “Mark! Mark!”. Looking over, sure enough it is Tina standing by the roadside looking very excited once again. As I pull over, “Mark, so sorry to bother you again, this is Pritik, he’s the friend I went cycle touring in France with. I called him after leaving you saying he just had to come and meet you!”. We chatted for 5 minutes or so and then I mentioned that I should get going, “Of course Mark, but before you go is it OK to take a photo with you?”, “Sure, of course it is!” – I could get used to the ‘fame’ that cycle touring brings ;-)

Alas, my sense of feeling important did not last long as I rolled up outside the hotel I had booked into close to Mumbai Central Station. What is it they say about first impressions – well Grant Road is a bustling little street lined with restaurants, market stalls, street vendors and budget hotels. “This is keeping it real” I think to myself just as I see the faded, peeling sign for the Hotel Gemini with diggers ripping up the road outside, “Ummmm, doesn’t bode well” I sigh… I lock Dhanya up outside and walk up the stairs above the Al Salman Perfumery. “Hello, you must be Mr Mark” a smiling young lad at reception mumbles as he has a mouth full of betel leaf. As we are going through the checking-in formalities I mention about my bike, “No problem sir, we have a safe place for you to keep”. With Dhanya safely locked up on the roof top ‘patio’ I am shown to my room. Now I know I have booked a room with shared bathroom but as the bellboy opens the door I do my best to stifle a sarcastic chuckle. It has to be the smallest ‘hotel’ room I have ever seen, it is 2m wide and 3m long with barely enough room to open the door without it hitting the bed. But heh, let’s be positive, it is clean, has a TV and the fan works, and let’s face it, could I really expect much more for 400R ($7.75) a night in central Mumbai??

After taking a shower (hot water included!) I go to explore my local neighbourhood primarily for food and an internet connection (it’s my Mum’s birthday so need to Skype her!). By now night has fallen and Grant Road, named after Sir Robert Grant the Governor of Bombay in the late 1830s, is a hive of activity. After Independence the road was renamed Maulana Shaukatali Road, but fortunately for the linguistically challenged such as myself it is still best known as Grant Road. Wandering around I am struck by how my surroundings are a microcosm of the stereotypical India that I expected and a real mish-mash of cultures and religions. Initially it appears to be a predominantly Muslim area as there is a mosque nearby and a large number of bearded men wearing embroidered topis and pristine knee length white thobes milling around. Gliding by are also women in full length black burqas as well as those wearing the less austere looking and patterned khimar headscarves. However I begin to notice more women dressed in the delightfully colourful and shimmering saris and shalwar kameez along with the younger generation attired mainly in jeans and t-shirts, as well as businessmen in the universally obligatory shirt and trousers. After taking a small side lane I find myself in a small market specialising in spare vehicle parts, yet what really strikes me is that virtually every vendor is a turbaned Sikh.

Back on the main drag I am mesmerised by what I see on the road, there is a mangled mess of activity and a cacophony of noise – black and yellow Ambassador taxis, ancient looking buses chucking out plumes of black smoke, modern private cars, decrepit trucks of all sizes, Hero motorbikes, black and yellow auto-rickshaws, fragile looking Hercules bicycles carrying all manner of goods and a mass of humanity all vying for space, it is certainly ‘every man for himself’! And if all that wasn’t enough just for added entertainment chuck in the spear like horned oxen trudging along pulling laden down medieval-esque carts and the sweating bare-chested wallahs pushing long narrow hand carts loaded with anything from bulging, teetering jute bags, to large lumps of raw metal who would not look out of place in Victorian England.

On either side on the road there is an endless line of stores and taking up valuable pavement space a long line of semi-permanent tiny blue-painted ramshackle wooden stores interspersed with temporary ‘market stalls’. It appears you can just about fulfil all your needs – local restaurants galore specialising in cuisine from differing regions of the country, at least 4 cinemas in the space of 500 meters showing the latest Bollywood blockbusters, mobile phone and pirated DVD vendors, barbers snipping and shaving, tailors hunched over whirring sewing machines, cobblers tapping and gluing, key cutters filing, betel leaf purveyors preparing, watch repairers squinting, clothing retailers heckling, snack cookers frying, milk parlours blending, pharmacists prescribing, juice sellers squeezing, a flour miller sieving, a fresh vegetable vendor calling and much more, not forgetting the wretched looking beggars… Whilst I am taking in this kaleidoscope of activity I also need to be wary of where I am walking, bundles of rags on the litter strewn uneven pavement suddenly become a sleeping body, dogs sprawled out unfazed, chewing goats tied to trees, small kids running about oblivious, and of course the occasional ‘Holy Cow’. All of this to a backdrop of once elegant but now faded and decrepit 100 year old and more colonial architecture, plus a mixed backing track of honking horns and Hindi music accentuated with the perfumed smoky aroma of burning incense and the less than perfumed occasional stench of shit and piss all makes for an exciting and intoxicating experience…

Back in the relative calm of the Gemini I enquire as to where the best place to change money is, “Ah sir, we can arrange that for you, very good rate, better than the bank, we can do in 15 minutes”. The rate of 52 rupees to the dollar certainly was better than the banks, so with a tinge of scepticism I agree to change some money. Sure enough within 15 minutes there is a knock on my door and the money man has arrived. Now I’m no expert in Indian cash but it all looks real and I guess there can’t be that big a market in counterfeit rupees (can there??), so the transaction goes ahead. By now I am getting a liking for the Gemini, cheap and basic it certainly is, but the small army of brown uniformed bellboys keep the public areas and shared bathrooms spotlessly clean, as it is ‘winter’ the fan in the room is sufficient to keep it cool, all the staff are very friendly and helpful, plus they agreed to let me leave my excess baggage with them for the 12 days I will be away down south at no charge. OK, so the shared bathrooms can be a bit stinky at times, but heh over the years I have shared very nice hotels rooms with mates and much the same can be said ;-) Hence I decide to book in for the first couple of nights when I return from Bangalore. I pay with some of the rupees I have just been given by the moneychanger and the receptionist accepts them no problem, “I guess they are genuine after all” I ponder with a sly smile on my face.

(13-12-11)

Searching for a SIM card and Shabana!

Friday, December 30th, 2011

I wake early and enjoy the tranquillity of a Mumbai Sunday morning, sounds strange in a city of 20 million. Fortunately Swapan's travel memento decorated apartment is in a 'gated community' which has no through road and security guards so it is shielded from the hustle and bustle outside. After a simple vegetable omelette and bread breakfast which Swapan kindly prepared it was time to put the bike together, praying that the various airport baggage handlers had been kind to Dhanya and nothing was bent out of shape. Befitting her name luck and fortune were on our side and she went back together perfectly and in no time, with some trepidation, I was cycling out of the calmness of Swapan’s ‘compound’ to experience the streets of Mumbai…

The traffic was certainly an eye-opener. Black and yellow auto-rickshaws buzzing around like annoying wasps and moving as erratically, these were joined by lumbering old buses pulling over and continually cutting me up with no warning – it felt as if there is a conspiracy to test my patience. Added to this the dreadful state of the roads, potholes all over the place, scarily ill-fitting manhole covers, piles of rubble and rubbish, and the general bumpiness caused by shoddy workmanship. The constantly changing road surfaces added to the mayhem, concrete, tarmac and bizarrely block paving which of course has become very uneven with blocks missing here and there. And finally I must not forget to mention the people crossing the road with widely differing ideas as to the concept of ‘right of way’. All of this makes for very slow, stop/start cycling, I just couldn’t get into any sort of rhythm. As I was getting to grips with all this, with raised eyebrows I reflected on Swapan’s words, “It’s Sunday today so the traffic will not be so bad”!

As we are becoming more and more reliant on our mobile phones to stay connected my challenge for the day, other than negotiating the traffic in one piece, was to obtain an Indian SIM card. Based on my experience of getting SIM cards in other countries I had assumed this would be a straightforward process, but oh no… “Sir, I need proof of your permanent address in India” I hear repeatedly from SIM card sellers. “But I’m a tourist so I don’t have a permanent address, how about my passport?” I plead. “Sorry sir cannot, government rule since 26/11” they explain. 26/11/08 being the date of the Mumbai terror attacks in which 164 people were killed

Feeling a little despondent I cycle around the bumpy roads of Andheri (East) wondering how I can get my hands on a SIM card when suddenly through the dust and beyond a half constructed concrete flyover a beacon of light appears before me… the magical golden arches… The air-conditioned calmed interior being a welcomed relief from the heat and chaos outside. As I walk up to the counter I scan the overhead menu board, McVeggie, McChicken, Fillet-o-Fish, even a McSpicy Paneer, but no Big Mac, “What’s going on, no Big Mac!” I wonder to myself. I am just about to embarrass myself and ask where the missing Big Macs are when it suddenly clicks, ‘Holy Cow!’, of course Hindu’s consider cows sacred and do not eat beef… So a McChicken Meal it is and at $2.20 the cheapest McDonalds Meal I have ever had :-)

The following morning, still SIM-less, I fully load the bike as I have to make my way 10km across northern Mumbai to the coastal district of Juhu. I have an appointment with Shabana Azmi, the patron of the Mijwan Welfare Society, the organisation which I have chosen to raise funds for whilst striving to be the first person to circumnavigate (as closely as possible) India by bicycle. A few media interviews had been set up and we thought it would be best for the photos to have the bike fully laden plus me wearing the custom designed cycle jerseys (provided courtesy of JoyRide Sportswear, a China based cycle clothing supplier – www.joyridecustom.com).

Shabana’s late father, the noted Urdu poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi, believed that in a country like India where 80% of the population lives in villages, the villagers need to be empowered if the country is to make any real progress. To help facilitate this belief in 1993 he formed an NGO in the poor north Indian village where he was born, Mijwan in Uttar Pradesh, hence the Mijwan Welfare Society. To realise his dream he established a Higher Secondary School for Girls, a Computer Learning Centre and a Stitching & Embroidery School in the village. As well as improving education he set up a Farmer’s Club where the latest low cost efficient farming techniques were discussed in an attempt to raise families’ incomes. In addition a Women’s Self Help group was created to empower and encourage the participation of women in earning, small savings & micro financing. For the rest of his days Kaifi worked tirelessly for the empowerment of the people of Mijwan, especially the women. For more information regarding the work that the Mijwan Welfare Society does please take a look at www.mijwan.org.

After Kaifi passed away in 2002 Shabana took on the role of becoming the organisations chief patron. By this time Shabana had already become a noted social and women’s rights activist in India, however she was / is better known for her Indian acting career most notably in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. She is widely regarded as being one of India’s finest actresses, having appeared in over 120 Hindi films and has won numerous national acting awards. In 1984 she married Javed Akhtar a prominent lyricist, poet and Bollywood scriptwriter, cementing them as one of Indian glitterati’s most enduring couples.

With the help of Swapan I plan my route over to Juhu attempting to avoid the major express ways and head off early just to ensure I am not late for Shabana. The traffic and road conditions are much the same as yesterday, and riding the fully loaded bike, an additional 28kg, the constant stop / starting is fairly tedious to say the least. After just over an hour and only one wrong turn I arrive in Juhu and find the apartment complex where Shabana’s ‘office’ is located. As I’m 3 hours early! I take a short cycle around the Juhu area. It is one of Mumbai’s wealthier areas and comprises of winding tree-lined shady lanes and a number of ‘gated-community’ apartment blocks overlooking the sea, it is all very serene compared to the mayhem I had cycled through to arrive here (it even includes a road named after Kaifi Azmi!). After taking one of the lanes that leads down to the sea and having a quick look at the sprawling white sandy beach (shame it is generally advised not to swim in the sea due to pollution), I decide to hunt out an internet café. Easier said than done… and I end up sitting in a non-internet Western styled coffee chain, Café Coffee Day, Now when it comes to being a coffee snob I rank fairly low, however I fancied a Cappuccino, “Do you have a coffee menu?” I ask the ‘Barista’, “No sorry sir, not have. What coffee you want?”, “A Cappuccino please”, “Sorry sir not have”, “So what coffee do you have?” I enquire, “Hot or cold coffee sir” was the surprising answer…

As I sit back and sip my hot coffee accompanied by a samosa watching the world go by, I notice a shop across the road selling SIM cards. “Ah! What the heck” I think to myself, “Let’s give it another go, what have I got to lose?”. I wander over to the shop fully expecting the same futile discussion as the day before, “Hi, I would like to buy a SIM card” I tentatively enquire with a hint of desperation in my voice, “Sure, I just need a copy of your passport and visa and a photo”, he replies without the slightest hesitation – Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! is racing through my mind as I hand over the required documents, and within 10 minutes I have a 3G enabled Indian SIM card safely secured in my phone. “It will take about 30 minutes to activate, after that you are ready to go”, explains the vendor – once again the choral Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! is filling my mind. Back in the coffee shop after the 30 minutes has passed I make a test call and it works! I then test to see if the internet connection works – Halleluiah! Halleluiah! Halleluiah! accompanied by an awesome fireworks display fills my head!! “Yes, yes, yes, I am once again connected to the world!” I shout to myself. Says a lot about the world we live in when obtaining that small rectangular piece of plastic means so much…

At 3:15pm I meet Saleha, Shabana’s assistant, outside the ‘gated compound’ and after the usual pleasantries, after all we had been communicating via email for the best part of a year she leads me to Shabana’s ‘office’. We walk out of the lift and the ‘office’ door is opened… Wow! It’s not like any office I have been to before. Saleha introduces me to a couple of the Mijwan Welfare Society staff as I gaze around the apartment, as this is surely what it is rather than an ‘office’. There is a small reception area which is very sleek with futuristic transparent lucite furniture and silver domed lighting. Saleha invites me through to the next large room which is beautifully decorated, wooden parquet flooring interspersed with quality rugs, various stylish contemporary sofas break up the space, each with their own coffee table featuring beautiful fresh floral displays, and works of modern art adorn the lightly painted walls. The entire cream v coffee colour scheme is very calming and it makes for a wonderful ‘entertaining’ space. Shortly afterwards Shabana glides in looking delightful in a terracotta coloured traditional shalwar kameez, and orange scarf, wearing a big smile, “Hello Mark, I’m so pleased to meet you”, I repeat the salutations as we shake hands. Straight away she makes me feel at ease and we exchange pleasantries as I notice Shabana pointing a remote control towards the shades. As the shades begin to rise I am awestruck by what I see, floor to ceiling plate glass windows giving an uninterrupted 180 degree panorama out over the Arabian sea – breath-taking!

Meeting Shabana Azmi!!!

Over the course of the next couple of hours we exchange small talk in between the various interviews and photo shoots, including the Mumbai Times and BBC Radio. Shabana then graciously makes her excuses as she has to leave so that she can attend Lara Dutta’s (an Indian actress and former Miss Universe) baby shower. This being a celebration of pending childbirth where gifts are given to the soon-to-be parents. Traditionally the intent was for women to share their well-earned child-rearing wisdom and lesson and advise on the art of becoming a mother.

It truly was a magical afternoon and I had to occasionally pinch myself to make sure it was actually happening. Shabana is a charming, elegant and delightful woman, who is definitely doing more than most to assist those in India who are less fortunate through no fault of their own.

Shabana, Me and perhaps most importantly Dhanya (the bike)

However, the sense of feeling ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ did not last long as soon I was back fighting Mumbai’s roads and rush-hour traffic on my fully laden bike, becoming sweaty, dusty and dirty! That evening as it was my last night staying with Swapan we went out for a meal in a local restaurant where I got my first taste of Kingfisher Beer in India – Kingfisher Strong no less…

11 to 12-12-11

Bombay Bound…

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

After a looong goodbye having drinks and farewell meals with friends and relatives over the course of a couple of weeks I was finally boarding my flight to Mumbai with the words of my sister replaying in my ears. ''I really admire and envy you for what you are doing, not the cycling part mind you! but for the whole experience you will have!”

More than a year and a half had passed since I seriously decided I was going to undertake this cycle around India challenge and here I was sat on a plane with my bicycle and all the accompanying cycle tour paraphernalia safely, (I hoped) stowed in the hold, heading for one of the most densely populated and frenetic cities in the world, in a country with over 1 billion inhabitants.

As we were taxi-ing to the runway for take-off I felt surprising calm. The nerves, apprehensions and frantic last minute organising had given way to a feeling of serenity – the calm before the storm I guessed… This was in marked contrast to Rajesh who I was sitting next to, a 53 year old bespectacled Malaysian / Indian government worker from Kuching who was re-visiting India for the first time in 17 years. He was so excited he could not stop talking, ‘’Oh Bombay will have changed so much since I was last there… I will be meeting nieces and nephews I have only seen in photographs before… everyone will have changed so much… I can’t wait to see my Auntie, she is meeting me at the airport… So what will you be doing in Bombay?”. I gave him a rather condensed reply, “Oh, I am just doing some cycling around”. “Oh, how interesting, look here”, as he searched through his bag and pulled out a rather dog-eared 1980s guide book and map of Mumbai. He unfolded the map and insisted on giving me a running commentary of all the sights in Mumbai that I ‘must’visit. Rajesh even taught me a few Hindi words which I promptly forgot…

As the plane began its descent and I looked out over the orange, white and red twinkling lights sprawling out below surrounded by inky blackness, reminiscent of an elegant bejewelled silk sari, the butterflies in my stomach woke up and with ‘Jai Ho’ the theme tune of Slum Dog Millionaire on continuous play in my mind and a big smile on my face I thought, “Well this is it Mark, here I am at the start of what is going to be the greatest adventure of my life!”

With that sense of relief I always feel when my baggage finally appears on the airport carousel I loaded up my trolley with my oversized canvas bike bag and other large shrink wrapped bag bulging at the seams with the 4 panniers and the handlebar bag it contained and trundled towards the exit. “What is this sir?” an official in a well pressed white linen uniform sternly asks, “It’s a bicycle” I reply with a smile. “How much did it cost?”, “About 500 dollars”, a little white lie. “How many gears does it have?”, “14”. Another official joins the questioning, “How old is it?”, “Ahh, I bought it in September”, “So very new then, you will have to pay customs duty”, “Pardon!” I reply incredulously, “It’s not new and I have come here for cycle tourism, to cycle around”, I explain. “How long you in India for?”, “I have a 6 month visa”. “You take the bike with you when you leave?”, “Of course”… After a few seconds of contemplation, “OK you can go”. Continuing pushing my trolley I had not walked more than 10 paces when another two officials approached me and began the same interrogation. The female uniformed official looked quite stern, yet the rather rotund black suited official was smiling and seemed impressed with my plans, “Umm cycling in India, that is very good, an expedition… by the way do you have any cigarettes or alcohol?”, “No, I have to stay healthy fit for the cycling”, I reply with a big smile. He gently laughs, does the iconic Indian head wobble and stretches out his arm in the direction of the exit, “You may leave sir, and good luck!”.

I arranged a taxi and was a little concerned how the bike would fit in, especially when I initially saw the vehicle, a small Hyundai Santro! Just as I was thinking, “This is gonna be interesting”, I noticed the roof rack, how enterprising ;-)

So many people had warned me about the Indian traffic, however after living in Cambodia for over 7 years I didn’t think it could be that bad in comparison… Before we had left the airport my taxi driver had almost knocked 3 people over and had a couple of near misses with another taxi and an auto-rickshaw. This style of driving continued as we bumped and swerved along the dimly lit pot-holed Mumbai roads towards Andheri (East), accompanied by my drivers horn honking soundtrack…

Swapan opened the door to his apartment with a big smile, “Welcome Mark, you have arrived. Come in, come in”. This was my first CouchSurfing experience, a great concept which I was now putting into practice. Swapan is a CouchSurfing old-timer and he quickly made me feel at home, even though my luggage had more or less taken over his front room. It had been a long day, my eye-lids were soon heavy and I dropped off to sleep. But not before having seen the headlines of a local paper, “90 die in Kolkata hospital inferno”… This story shared its front page space with the lighter news that Virender Shewag had scored 219 runs against the West Indies in Indore, the largest ever score by a single batsman in a one day international cricket match – he is now a national hero and is being bombarded with sponsorship deals.

A Taste of India…

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

When talking about India people often say something along the lines of 'Expect the unexpected!', and 'Don't expect anything to go according to plan…'. And yes, I must admit my first taste of India certainly wasn't what I expected, but not for the obvious reasons…

That preconception of 'disorganisation' did not take long to surface. As we were sat on the Air Asia flight ready to depart KL for Kochi the Captain made an announcement. We were going to suffer a ‘slight’ delay as a passenger was having ‘issues’ at passport control and would not be allowed to board the flight, thus their luggage needed to be found and off-loaded. Still sat on the plane one hour later we were informed that it was now 30 people who had ‘issues’ and all their luggage needed to be off-loaded. After sitting on the plane for 2 hours we finally began moving and were soon airborne.

I have been warned by many people who have visited India to be prepared for a sensory overload, the craziness, the poverty and the mass of humanity that seems to sum up a country with a population of 1 billion +. All these comments seem to be perfectly in line with the documentaries and news reports I had seen on TV as well as newspaper articles and a few books I had read. Hence I was surprised by how ‘normal’ my first taste of India was. Maybe it is because of the 7 years I have spent in Cambodia, or maybe as one friend put it a few days before I left for India, ‘Kochi is a very soft introduction to India!’.

So yes, myself, my Khmer business partner Tina, her husband, her son and her parents all arrived in Kochi for a week. For me it was a quick initial taster of India just to ensure I didn’t totally hate the place before placing my order for a £2,500 custom built touring bike, for the others they were just intrigued after watching many Zee TV and Star World Indian films and soap operas which are shown on Cambodian cable networks.

Initially here’s a selection of some of the things that ‘surprised’ me:

Francis (not really the name I expected an Indian to have), the taxi driver who met us at the airport warned us that it was now ‘office-time’ i.e. rush hour, so would take some time to drive to our guesthouse. I was expecting grid-lock and mayhem. However, whilst there was ‘heavy-ish’ traffic we did not encounter any long queues throughout the 90 minute journey, and all the traffic was quite orderly, even by western standards, nothing like the free-for-all that epitomises Cambodian roads…

With the sense of excitement I always have when visiting a new destination I arose early on our first morning and went for a wander through the winding Fort Kochi streets and along the misty sea wall promenade. It was 7am and I was surprised to see that hardly any shops or street food sellers were open and not many people were out on the streets. Cambodia is a hive of activity by 6:30 in the morning. As it transpired most shops don’t open till about 10am. However, whilst exploring the colonial era lanes I did come across a park where a bunch of kids were playing an impromptu game of cricket – of course, what else!

I was also pleasantly surprised by how clean the streets were, no big piles of stinking trash at each corner. Even the numerous ‘everyday’ towns we drove through on the way up to Munnar all appeared clean and relatively orderly. Also I did not see any ‘holy’ cows roaming the streets, in deed Fort Kochi had goats roaming the street… Plus hardly any beggars or street kids…

Many of the local restaurants and cafes we visited had a menu written in English, very helpful. Yet surprisingly about 75% of what we ordered was met with the iconic Indian head wobble and ‘Sorry not have’. This really left us lost for words when shortly after arriving in Munnar, a small misty town up in the mountains surrounded by tea covered hills for as far as the eye can see and further, we sat down in a café and seeing that the menu had tea on it – of course – it was the obvious choice to order, ‘Sorry sir, tea no have’. We sat dumbfounded as we again looked out of the window to a hillside covered in tea bushes!!

Around Kochi and the 130km drive up to Munnar I was surprised by the countless numbers of churches and small shrines dedicated to saint this, saint that, and saint the other, yet only 3 or 4 hindu temples. Indeed, many of the Indian people we met had names such as Anthony, Francis, Paul etc. Obviously the legacy of the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial preachers for the best part of 500 years…

Also around Kochi and on the drive through the numerous small towns on the way to Munnar I was surprised and struck by the prevalence of gold on red hammer and sickle communist flags and wall paintings. I really hadn’t imagined communism to have such a presence in democratic India. Indeed Communism and Christianity seem strange bed-fellows. Another very noticeable aspect of the drive was all the hand painted shop signs and roadside wall advertising making journeys and settlements very colourful, and much more ‘traditional’ than the oversized and overpowering modern billboards that were all pervasive.

According to the Rough Guide Kerala is one of the Indian states where the consumption of alcohol is the highest. However, surprisingly (and disappointingly) every ‘local’ restaurant we went to did not serve alcohol! Apparently alcohol can only be served in government licensed outlets / bars and there are only 350+ of these in the entire state. I walked past a few of these authorised bars, usually attached to a lower end hotel, and peering into them they did not look too welcoming, dark and dingy with no windows – definitely a male orientated bastion! I heard that the higher end, tourist orientated hotels and restaurants serve alcohol but it is pretty pricey. I did manage to consume one bottle of Kingfisher up in the mountains of Munnar. However, having said all that our driver did explain ‘Toddy Shops’ to me. I couldn’t quite figure out if they are actually legal or the local authorities just turned a blind eye, anyway these are where a lot of locals go to buy their alcoholic beverages. He informed me that traditionally ‘toddy’ was an alcoholic drink made from coconuts. Well I love coconuts so ‘toddy’ sounds tasty so I asked Francis if he would take me to a ‘Toddy Shop’. After turning down a side road for a couple of kilometres and driving through rice paddies Francis suddenly announces proudly, ‘Here is a ‘Toddy Shop’’. The only building in view is a low level rather stark looking concrete ‘home’ with no obvious signage outside. We pull into the earth driveway and a bear chested man wearing only a dhoti appears on the front porch. Francis and the man chat away in Malayalam, the Keralan dialect, and shortly after I am invited in. The interior is as stark as the exterior with empty walls and a few wooden benches and tables and no other ‘customers’. I sit on one of the benches just as the dhoti wearing man returns with a bottle of cloudy looking liquid and a small glass. I pour the liquid into the glass and bring it to my lips expecting a delicious coconut flavour, instead a not too pleasant aroma hits my nostrils. Taking a small sip the drink has very little semblance to the coconut from which it is derived, if anything it reminds me of the rice wine back in Cambodia, but not quite as harsh, which is far from the top of my favourite tipple list. With Francis and the dhoti man looking on, but not willing to join me, I feel obliged to finish the bottle. About 30 minutes later, feeling a little light headed, I am blinking as we re-enter the harsh midday sun light. Whist not being the finest alcoholic beverage out there I guess it does its job!

A very welcome surprise was that despite eating only in ‘local’ cafés and restaurants none of the 6 of us experienced the much moaned about ‘Dehli Belly’ In fact the only ‘Dehli Belly’ we did hear about were the many adverts for Aamir Khan’s recently released Bollywood movie of the same name!

And finally, not a surprise but a fact – very friendly people who are friendly questioning but not too intrusive. I had heard that Indians are the world’s greatest when it comes to staring, getting very up-close and personal to have a jolly good stare. I did not encounter this at all, sure people looked on from a respectful distance seeing a white man and a family of Asians, but no more than people from any other country when they see someone or something out of the ordinary.

So, with the many surprises out of the way let me tell you about some of the highlights.

Wonderful mountainside patterns created by tea plantations, Munnar, Kerela

Wonderful mountainside patterns created by tea plantations, Munnar, Kerela

Whilst the small town of Munnar itself is nothing to get too excited about its surroundings were beautiful, and apparently a popular destination for honeymooners. Endless mountain sides covered in the verdant green of tea plantations with their higgly-piggledy pattern, which from a distance look like mountains made from broccoli. This was the first time I had seen a tea plantation in real life and it was amazing. Seeing a small group of women hand plucking the tips from the bushes and placing them in hessian sacks on their backs took me back to childhood geography lessons and the image on the front of the ‘PG Tips’ box. The 35km switchback road from Munnar to Top Station is a true delight, passing lakes and climbing up through the mist to 1,900m passing some of the highest tea plantations in the whole of India. I felt a real sense of awe looking out across the tea covered mountains and valleys. Added to this the climate was wonderfully cool, below 15OC at night, I was thankful for the thick blanket the guesthouse provided!

Mountain view just outside Munnar, Kerela

Mountain view just outside Munnar, Kerela

Kerala has been a major spice grower / exporter since around 3000 BC, and this was the main reason for colonial interest, initially with the Portuguese in the 13th century. Just outside Munnar we visited a ‘spice garden’. For sure it was a very touristy set up and we were taken on a short ‘garden’ tour where examples of all the locally grown spices have been planted. It was interesting to see the true origin of household spices, a mixture of seeds, roots, leaves and bark. We were shown the following ‘plants’, cardamoms, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, tamarind, chillies, turmeric, cumin, all spice, and cloves amongst others. However, the one which really impressed me and which I hadn’t heard of before was ‘Stevia’. Our guide broke off a leaf and motioned for me to chew it. Wow! how sweet, the leaf tasted just like sugar! Apparently it is used as a natural herbal sweetner, especially for those on low-sugar diets. It is particularly popular in Japan, they even use it in the production of Coca Cola, yet some other countries have bizarrely banned it, the USA being one of those. It has been said that as stevia is a naturally occurring sugar substitute it cannot be patented and it would pose a big threat to the US based commercial production of the artificial sweetner Aspartame.

Two nights in a row we feasted on excellent seafood and fish freshly caught in the iconic Fort Kochi Chinese fishing nets. As the sun begins to set over the sea we watched 4 wiry looking guys pulling on ropes attached to cantilevered teak logs, counterbalanced with large boulders tied to the wooden arms by alarmingly looking frayed ropes. Slowly, with black ravens crawing and swooping overhead expectantly waiting for any cast-offs they can get hold of, the net raises out of the water. Once it is fully raised one of the guys goes and transfers the haul to a smaller net and brings it ashore emptying it into a bucket. Quickly the catch is sorted into different types of fish, prawns, squid and the occasional crab if lucky. Inspecting what is on offer we take 3kgs of prawns, a mix of white, brown and tiger of various sizes, a kilo of silver pomfret, and a couple of red snapper – as fresh as can be! Then it was off to a nearby ‘street’ restaurant where they cooked our catch – steamed, grilled and curried. The prawns have to be the best I have ever tasted…

Working for my super! Chinese fishing nets, Fort Kochi, Kerela

Working for my super! Chinese fishing nets, Fort Kochi, Kerela

And talking of super fresh food – one afternoon we decided we would take some meat along to the ‘bring your own food and we’ll cook it’ restaurant. We hopped into an auto-rickshaw and asked him to take us to a local market where they sell meat. He looked a little confused. ‘We want to buy meat’, another quizzical look, ‘Ummm meat, you know, pork, beef, chicken…’, ‘Ah, ah, chicken I know!’ with a wobble of the head, and with that we were off put-putting around the winding back streets of Fort Cochi. After a few minutes he slows to a stop and motions across the road to a narrow alleyway. Looking into the alleyway, which had a small open sewer running along its length, there was definitely no sign of a market, it was now our turn to look confused. Looking back at the rickshaw driver he once again waved his hand in the direction of the alley saying ‘OK, go, chicken have’. With some scepticism, and holding our breath to avoid the smell, along the alley we went. After about 50m it opened up into what appeared to be the courtyard of someone’s home. Suddenly a head popped out of a window of a small concrete building and looked at us. Rather bashfully and with a shrug of the shoulders I said, ‘Chicken?’, to which the man smiled, his head disappeared and a few moments later, whilst pulling on an apron, he was walking across the courtyard towards a chain link ‘workshop’ that I hadn’t really noticed before. ‘How many? He asked, ‘One…’ I guessed. As he opened the door of the workshop and bent over a low wooden panel I suddenly realised what was happening, and sure enough he straightened up holding a flapping and squawking chicken by the neck for us to inspect. Well at this point the squimmish me took hold and I walked back around the corner of his home and allowed Mao to take control of the deal. Just as I was out of sight I heard the final death squawk and within five minutes we were presented with a plastic bag full of skinned, gutted and chopped chicken…

I chose a Sunday to go and explore Ernakulum, the main city area of Kochi, not a wise decision. After getting off the ferry from the island of Fort Kochi I headed straight to the normally bustling Market Street, only to be greeted with metal shuttered shop fronts along its entire length. Initially confused I suddenly realised it was the ‘Holy Day’, Sunday, and I guess this heavily Christian area still respects the ‘Day of Rest’. It very much reminded me of England 30 years ago, the days before 24/7 retail therapy took precedence over religion.

So, whilst my visit to Kochi and Munnar were not at all what I was expecting from the country, and although I did not feel the ‘buzz’ that I had anticipated I certainly enjoyed the 6 day taster. From the very small ‘snapshot’ that I experienced it all appeared quite civilised and organised – two words I didn’t think I would be using to describe India!

As I boarded the bus back to the airport I took one final look at the raised fishing nets standing proud in the midday sun, and the ferry approaching across the strait from Vypeen Island, and with a touch of excitement and nervousness realised that the next time I see those nets would be when I am on that ferry with my bike having cycled all the way from Mumbai!!