Calicut – Sultan Bathery – Ooty – Silent Valley – Guruvayoor – Cochin – Alleppey… (boat)… Quilon – Trivandrum
Skyscanner is to blame…that App is way too user-friendly! Seriously, we had Tenerife in mind, but it turned out to be a whole lot cheaper to fly to South India with Emirates from Munich.
The hardest part of getting there was to construct a couple of exactly square passport photos with specifications to meet Indian immigration requirements. Were it not for photoshop, Kurt’s non-conforming facial dimensions would have been in dire need of remodelling with a brick!
Indian visa photo specifications – good luck!
With a baggage allowance of 30kg, the bikes and luggage were well within the limit and we could even have brought a brick along for last minute adjustments!
Kerala was chosen as our playground because Darina wanted a beach and Kurt insisted on a few hills. With temperatures of minus 17° Celsius the week we left Switzerland, the transition to plus 36° Celsius was a welcome shock!
Calicut (Kozhikode), a city of about half a million was our starting point. From there we headed into the hills, up the Western Ghats into tea plantation country. Highway 212 is not something we would highly recommend unless of course you enjoy greeting speeding buses approaching on your side of the road while overtaking huge trucks carrying inflammable chemicals on hairpin bends … with not an inch to spare.
As an Indian would say: “Horns will be there!” Their persistent cacophony of air-pressure horns can mean anything from a friendly “Welcome to Kerala!” to a reassuring “I’m just behind you!” to a hostile “Get off the road, I’ve no intention of stopping!” The cyclist has all of a split second to interpret the message and act accordingly. This turned out to be the norm on all main drags.
Day 2 offered some lovely quiet roads where we were able to enjoy beautiful scenery, chat to friendly locals and meet some of the native fauna.
One of the must-see sights in Sultan Bathery is the Edakal cave with 3,000-year-old petroglyphs. These can be viewed after a 2-hour queue with a lot of friendly pushing and shoving in true Indian form!
Something that attracted our attention on the roadside was a series of dead fish hanging from strings circling a house. The proud owner appeared to share his little experiment. Reckoning that monkeys don’t like fish, he hopes that the smell will deter them from entering his kitchen and fleecing him of his edibles.
The road continued through a jungle and later a beautiful eucalyptus forest. We were warned about passing elephants and tigers, who incidentally have right of way!
Just in case the trucks and buses don’t offer enough diversion!
They’re out there alright!
Ooty, just across the border in Tamil Nadu state, at an altitude of 2,200 masl and boasting cooler temperatures, was a welcome hill station retreat for the British colonials. To this day many buildings are still testimony to “the good old days”.
Nowadays, it appeals to well-to-do Indian families that come for horse-riding, boating and waterfall spotting. Unfortunately, Ooty known as the “Queen of Hills, a plastic free hill resort”, is just wishful thinking. The picnic spots are laden down with polystyrene plates, plastic bags and bottles. To be fair, it’s not only Ooty that has this horrific litter problem. It was something we encountered on a daily basis.
Colourful markets in Ooty
One of the quirkier attractions in Ooty is the thread garden created by 50 crafts people over 12 years. 150 species of plants have been recreated with handwound threads with a most remarkable resemblance to reality.
Google Maps was our saving grace on this trip. We found a whole lot of country roads that didn’t appear on our road map, and we enjoyed a lovely quiet spin down to Silent Valley through little tribal villages.
En route, we were invited into a cookery class being given to the locals by an NGO. We learned how to make vegetarian biryani from local produce.
Accommodation in India is widely available and decent en suite double rooms ranged in price from 8 to 25 euros a night. There was generally a TV, a fan, fresh towels, soap and sometimes even air conditioning.
The stretch between Mannarkad and Guruvayoor was another one where the drivers held little value on life. Compounded with 36° C heat, it was not the most pleasant ride of the trip, to say the least. What kept Darina going was the fact that the beach was just a day’s ride away!
The next day saw us cycling along the backwaters and beaches all the way down to Vypeen Island, where we rented a house in the village behind Cherai beach. It came complete with two adorable Malayalam language teachers, Sona and Adheena. Namaskaram Sona! Namaskaram Adheena! Suga mano?
There we came across “Chinese” fishing nets, which are lowered into the water for 15 minutes before being pulled up again full of fish!
The first place where we really saw tourism and history on a large scale was in Cochin (Kochi). A delightful blend of Portuguese, Dutch and British architecture, with a 400 year old synagogue and numerous spice markets make it a pleasant stop to while away a few days.
We arrived on New Year’s Day just in time for a huge Carnival which amounted to a spruced up elephant being marched through decorated streets followed by musicians, cross-dressers and floats pumping out music until the early hours. The last we remember was a lengthy Boney-M session!
Food in India is an absolute treat! Every hovel of a restaurant is capable of producing the most delicious meals imaginable. Variety is also the name of the game with breakfasts offering everything from dosas, idlis, utappams, parathas, puris and vadas all served with delicious sambar and coconut chutney. It’s hard to beat Masala chai as the perfect start to the day! Breakfasts were less than a euro a head.
Lunch was often “meals“! which are all-you-can-eat affairs, served on a banana leaf, usually consisting of rice and things! The vegetarian option was generally less than a euro a person. With fish or chicken, the price doubled.
Dinner depended on how much meat or fish was included with the rice, naan, chapati or paratha and the distance from tourist resorts. The expensive option could be about €3.50 a head.
Kerala has a long history of religious harmony. Christians, Muslims and Hindus live peacefully alongside each other and celebrate their holidays with all their neighbours irrespective of their creed.
If you ever consider setting up a business in this neck of the woods, consider retailing paint. The gaudier the colours, the better! You’ll be an instant hit and have a ready made market waiting for you, if it’s only for the churches, mosques and temples!
Education has been compulsory in Kerala for over half a century, so it’s no surprise that Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India. Numerous private schools are English medium and run by local churches. The high educational level produces many emigrants to wealthier shores, notably the UAE, and remittances are probably as high in the local economy as tourism.
To avoid a busy drag from Alleppey to Quilon, we opted for the tourist boat through the Backwaters. This was probably the first time on the trip when we were able to sit back, let our minds wander and were free of horns, erratic drivers, speedbreakers and potholes.
The early stages of the trip were a window into village life as we passed the local laundromats, communal bathing areas, floating markets, copra storage and the like. The latter part of the trip was serenaded by twenty university students on board singing Hindi movie soundtracks!
The route we took south from Quilon was a dream due to closed roads and unfinished bridges that were ideal for 2 wheelers and not a lot else! Heaven! Google Maps – we love you!
Closed roads are the way to go!
Varkala beach was a bit of a shock to the system with the amount of tourists, hotels, restaurants, ayurveda resorts and souvenir stalls. It is, however, a beautiful setting and the restaurants had extensive menus, good food and…. wifi – something we had hardly seen the whole trip.
The beach is especially holy for the Hindus who remember their deceased loved ones by throwing marigold offerings into the sea, drenching their saris and jeans in the process.
Culture also came in the form of a dance to the fire god Agni around a spice picture of two entangled cobras representing the eternal knot, to the music of a cymbal and a one-stringed claypot instrument.
Kathakali, the local epic theatre form, is not to be missed… especially as it comes in a Reader’s Digest version for tourists, that takes only 2 hours from your valuable drinking time! Go an hour or so before the show to watch the actors doing their own spectacular make-up and having rice sacks wrapped around their waists to act as a hoop under their costumes.
Eye and eyebrow movements are a key part of the dramatic show, which is accompanied by a drum and more cymbals! All the parts are played by male actors and the impressive stories and performances are on the same lines as Japanese kabuki theatre. On that note, Kurt would like to add that the local Kingfisher beer doesn’t hold a candle to Japan’s own Asahi dry!
On our last day in Trivandrum we had our first downpour of the trip and in two hours the streets were flooded. The airport was a handy spin from town and check-in a relaxed laid-back affair.
Considering the immense size of India, our experience of this little corner would be equivalent to visiting Sardinia and thinking you’d seen Europe! However, Kerala, otherwise known as “God’s own country”, did not disappoint. What we can also say is that top marks have to go to food. Actually, it beats any other country hands down in this department! Happy Darina!
The locals themselves are very happy, friendly and honest. Most have a few words of English and with Darina’s 4 words of Malayalam, we were sorted! Nani Adheena! Nani Sona!
The tea plantations, Backwaters and beachscapes are an absolute delight.
The elephants and monkeys add an exotic touch. Colours abound and there is never a dull moment.
On the downside, road safety is a genuine issue, as is plastic rubbish. Were it not for Google Maps, it would not have been half as pleasant. Biking in India requires full attention at all times. A holiday would be different… but, as they say in Switzerland: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!”