Saturday, 10 February 2018

Riding Unicorns Around India

Talk to anyone who has been to India and you’ll find it’s like Marmite – they either loved it here or hated it. I don’t like Marmite.

Landing in Chennai our experience of India kicked off exactly as it would continue. We queued at the desks marked e-tourist visa and waited an age for each person to be processed. Biometrics had to be taken, but these guys made the US border control seem slick. Unsurprisingly in a country with so many formalities and rules, several people in the queue ahead of us had issues and were sent off to complete various tasks. We’d nonchalantly not bothered to get our e-visa confirmations printed, but this didn’t seem to be a problem. Eventually we were through and we set off in search of the free tourist SIM cards we had been told were available from multiple airport kiosks. Not true. After half an hour of searching we gave up and caught a bus into town for 5p. If India has one thing going for it, it’s cheap.

Seemingly another omen of the type of experience we were going to have in India, I managed to drop my phone during our SIM card search, not breaking the screen itself, but causing a bleed that by the time we reached the city centre covered half the screen, making it unusable. First tasks – to find a place to stay and a screen repair shop. The latter proved easy enough and two hours and £55 later my phone was functioning again. A room for the night was more of a challenge. The first place we booked turned out not to exist, the second required that we sign the official secrets act, complete a questionnaire that all but asked for the colour of our underwear and have our photo taken before we were presented with a room key. The room was basic, comfortable enough, but certainly not inspiring. It’s fair to say our first impressions of India were pretty grim. On a plus point, we’d earlier managed to find black market SIM cards at a little roadside kiosk, quite by chance, so we at least had google to help us navigate and research where we might want to go next.

Our first full day in India started out pretty well. With the help of an Indian guy on a forum we had established that there is a whole street full of secondhand motorbike dealers in Chennai, so we made our way there and indeed, we had plenty to choose from. For the majority of people looking to ride around India, there’s only one bike that fits the bill – the Royal Enfield Bullet – but this wasn’t what we were looking for. Despite reservations about their weight, we had been pretty well set on Enfield’s too until we watched a documentary made by two American guys as they rode around the country on them and were horrified at how easily they buckled under even the lightest pressure. A very minor off for one of the guys resulted in both the crash bars and the gear change lever bending, both of which it was possible to bend back into shape easily by hand.

Royal Enfield’s dismissed, our criteria was quite simple – to buy bikes that are reliable and easy to fix, are common models that local people ride and are as comfortable as possible to sit on for several hours at a time. After spending a day looking at various options, we found just the thing – Honda Unicorns. Ok, maybe we were swayed by the name just a little. 150cc, common as muck and well, they’re Honda’s right? Enough said. After nearly a whole day of looking we had roughly earmarked some to try the next day and set off to find the helmet district.

The following day, armed with our shiny new helmets, we set off for Bridge Street, determined to return with our bikes, only to find that by this time we’d completely forgotten which ones we had liked the look of. Eventually I found a bike I liked for a price that was within budget and from a dealer who wasn’t a condescending asshole, something I came across quite a lot on that street. Now we just had to come up with a second bike for Evan. For the next couple of hours we sat while the dealer, our new best friend scoured the street for Unicorns until a whole parade of them awaited our test drive. By early afternoon we had two tidy looking bikes selected, each with near brand new tires and after a series of negotiations on the price and a few little repairs, we were good to go. Two bikes for 65,000 rupees, around £850. We were ready to leave the big, bad city.

It’s not actually possible to legally own a motorbike as a foreigner in India so we had no paperwork to deal with. Instead, we made sure that the bikes came with all the paperwork we would require in order to sell them on again when we’re finished with them, signed by the current owner, as well as proof of insurance. For the time they’re in our possession we’ll simply to ‘borrowing’ them from their registered owner. It all sounds very simple, and in reality it was. Day three in India and we had bikes and we were ready to roll. In hindsight, had we known what lay ahead, the road conditions, the cultural attitudes and the sheer bloody mindedness of local people, would we have chosen India to spend our winter in this year? Probably not, but them hindsight is a wonderful thing. The following day we set off out of Chennai, south bound.

Here's hoping that this isn't a sign of things to come...

Typical state of our feet after a few hours walking in the city in sandals!

Leaving Chennai was a relief. I remember riding that first day trying to think of even one good thing about that city, but drew a complete blank. Chennai is a dirty, smelly, mostly unfriendly city. Pollution is so high that a continuous smog hangs in the air. During the daytime, when the sun is high in the sky, the stench as you walk its streets reaches a nauseating high. People openly urinate and defecate in the street here. Add to this the traffic fumes, rotting food waste and copious amounts of cow dung and you have something that you have to experience to believe.

Our first destination was Pondicherry, an old former French colonial settlement on the east coast, but now a Union territory in its own right that had been recommended to us by a couple of people as somewhere we shouldn’t miss. Although we didn’t realise it at the time, this town would set the tone for so much of our trip over the next few weeks. Arriving in Pondicherry (or Puducherry as it is also called – everywhere in India has at least two different names for the same place which makes following road signs all the more difficult) we rode around for a while trying to figure out what exactly it was that we were supposed to be there for. It was an average town, with average looking buildings and people with a similar attitude to those we had left in Chennai. Now late in the day, we found a cheap place to stay on Agoda, only to arrive there and find that we were not welcome to stay – Indian nationals only, no foreigners. This wouldn’t be the last time we received the same welcome. We eventually found a room in a place that was equally as hospitable, right next to the bus station where buses blared their horns all night and the reception staff made it perfectly clear that they were not at all happy with the work we were causing them in having to register us.

The ride to Pondicherry is worthy of a mention too. Now, we have ridden bikes all over the world at this point, but never have we ridden anywhere where road users have so little regard for anyone else on the road. I’m not just talking people taking silly risks here, I mean total and utter disregard for everyone else to the point where people will run you off the road and over a cliff in an attempt to assert their dominance. And it’s damn tiring. Riding in a foreign country is anyway by its very nature, but this is on a whole new level.  

Power is king here. Buses rule the road. Apart from ambulances of course, which are the most psychotic of all – I guess they have to drum up business. Trucks can also do whatever they damn well please on account of their crushing ability. Cars dominate bikes. Bikes dominate pedestrians. Cows are sacred so they trump everything. Cows also assert their power over dogs. Dogs over cats. Cats over rats. You get the picture. And every single person goes out of their way to make sure no-one below them is allowed to gain an inch. Add to the mix that 90% of drivers are disgustingly misogynistic males, who, when overtaken by a white foreign woman on a 150cc motorbike while they’re piddling along the line between the second and third lanes at 30km, turn into murderous demons, intent to catch and teach you a lesson for your nerve, and you can appreciate that the roads in India are a pretty scary place. And I’m not just talking about a few isolated incidents here, I’m talking all day every day. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of seriously dangerous incidents we have encountered each and every day we have been riding.

That said, we have also encountered a handful of redeeming meetings with local people that have gone a small way to restoring our faith in this place. On the way to Pondicherry we stopped at the Motorcycle Diaries café, a cute little themed place run by a group of local guys. While we ate our chicken burgers and potato wedges the owner very kindly made us a huge list of all the places we should see in Kerala and Karnataka as we headed south and then north again up the west coast. It’s meeting people like this that keeps us sane, keeps us moving and prevents us from dumping our bikes by the side of the road and catching a tuk tuk to the nearest airport. 

Our next stop was a surprisingly pleasant place, a little town called Muttapathi. We arrived at our guesthouse to find that there was no-one there, as is so often the case in India. We sat around, waited, waited some more and were eventually met by a very friendly guy who bent over backwards to make sure everything was to our satisfaction. It turned out that we’d arrived on the eve of the first day of the Pongal festival, a harvest festival only celebrated in Tamil Nadu. All day we had ridden through small villages where families by the car load were collecting lengths of sugar cane and bundles of turmeric from roadside vendors and now we knew what this was for. That evening we learned a little more about the festival from the local people, ate freshly cooked samosas and drank coffee at a little roadside shop. A local leather worker kindly punched a new hole in Evan’s belt for him and then flatly refused payment. A local guy now living in England but visiting family went out of his way to come and talk to us, giving us his number and telling us that if there was anything we needed we should call him. For the first time we felt like we were somewhere that was happy enough with our presence.

Aware now that the Pongal festival was quite a spectacle in some parts, we decided the next day to head for Rameshwaram, a small town towards the end of the peninsula to which Sri Lanka would join if there was a land connection. We were lucky enough to find a cheap enough room despite warnings that these sold out months in advance and spent the day watching locals and pilgrims carrying out various rituals associated with Pongal, most notably bathing in the holy river, after which they must discard their old clothes and wear new ones bought especially for the occasion. Fascinating to watch, but on account of the state of the water, we didn’t participate. The cows laying on the beach seemed to enjoy the show too.

Before leaving town we made time for a quick visit to the end of the peninsula to visit the ghost town of Dhanushkodi, a community swept away by a cyclone in the 60’s. Ironically, despite the fact that no-one lives there now, the 30km stretch of road leading to it is freshly laid tarmac, still one of the best roads we have seen in India. A little disappointingly, but not really surprisingly, we arrived to a barrage of noise and vendors selling seashells clearly imported from elsewhere right up to and inside the ruins, entirely killing any atmosphere that might have existed otherwise. We returned to our bikes and continued our quest to find at least one place that had the wow factor, that made us glad we were there.

Our next big stop was Kanyakumari, on the most southerly tip of India. We found a very cheap room in a house owned by a lovely local lady who took the time to chat with us about our trip and our lives. She told me about her daughter and how troubled she was that she only had one child and appeared not to be able to have any more, despite much trying. Her confusion when I explained to her that I had none, nor wanted any was palpable.

We spent a day here wandering through the huge waterside market, visiting the place where Gandhi’s ashes were held for some time after his death and took a ferry trip across to the huge Vivekananda Rock Temple on an island in the bay. To celebrate the end of our first 1000km without dying we ordered fried fish for dinner from a little local eatery and promptly got chana masala and a chapatti, despite a local guy with good English confirming our order with the waiter after there was some earlier confusion.

Food has been a sticking point pretty much everywhere we’ve been in India. Occasionally we get what we ordered, but most of the time we don’t, even when there appears to be no communication issue at all. Indians are famous for not wanting to disappoint and say no when they don’t have something, so I think a lot of the time they just bring an alternative to what you asked for instead and hope you don’t mind. One of the biggest bug-bears though is the request for ‘NOT spicy please’. A request for no chili, not spicy, however you want to phrase it has a very different meaning to what you’d expect. ‘Not spicy’ to the average Indian chef means you only want four teaspoons of chilis in your dinner rather than the requisite five. The concept of no chili at all just doesn’t compute. This means that at regular intervals we find ourselves craving awful things like KFC or McDonalds or Dominoes – well, we did until we discovered that virtually everything on the menu at these places has been Indianised. In addition McDonalds doesn’t use any beef products and Burger King’s innovative way round this of offering a Mutton Whopper just doesn’t hit the spot.

The next few days involved stops in mostly unmemorable towns. We swung by Kovalam beach on the south coast on account of the Indian restaurant in Brightlingsea run by a family from there. The next place on our ‘must see’ list would be a hill station called Ponmudi. Reaching it involved a surprisingly enjoyable ride along a winding forest road for around 60km, through 22 hairpin bends that would have been much more fun if it weren’t for the piles of loose grit and sand on almost every corner. Road surfaces here are not bad on the whole, but there is a tendency for the condition to change at a moments notice from smooth new tarmac to potholed, grit covered skid pan and back again so you always have to be on your toes.

Ponmudi Hill Station was an interesting enough place. It was hot and humid so we decided to throw caution to the wind and leave our bags and helmets on our bikes and climbed up to a concrete viewing tower high up on a hill, only to find that because of poor construction it was wrapped with long lengths of barbed wire to prevent people climbing for safety reasons. After admiring the views we decided to make our next stop a slightly more unusual one – a sculpture high on a hilltop claiming to be the largest bird sculpture in the world.

It was further than we anticipated and took us longer than we expected to reach the small town of Chadayamangalam where the sculpture was situated. It was mid afternoon when we arrived, but still we stopped for tea at a little roadside shack before riding the last couple of kilometres up the hill, a decision that in hindsight allowed the following extraordinary sequence of events to line up in a way they wouldn’t otherwise have done.

The climb to the top of the hill was a steep one, a gravelly track possible only in first gear. At the top we reached a barrier manned by a serious looking guard who informed us bluntly that we could go no further, that the sculpture was not finished and was on a private resort property. No, we could not proceed. Disappointed, we had no option but to turn around and descend back from where we had just come. At the bottom of the hill we paused to figure out where we were going to go next and in doing so blocked the entrance way for a jeep that was trying to access the lane. Annoyed, as it is so often the case here that people on four wheels simply want to be wherever you are sitting just in order to make you move, we reluctantly shifted to the side.

At this point the driver pulled over and exited the vehicle, before coming over to us and asking if we’d like to see the sculpture? He explained that he was the project manager for the site and was happy to show us around! We followed his vehicle back up the hill, smugly passing the guard at the barrier who looked a little bemused to see us again, before parking at the top on the sites brand new helipad. At this point the project manager, Jayaprakash, introduced the other people in his car – Indian film director Rajiv Anchal, who had the original inspiration for the project, Boby Chemmanur, an actor, Kerala businessman, gold dealer and charity worker as well as the architect and sculptor of the eagle itself. Our timing couldn’t have been any better.

Over the next few hours we toured the not-yet-finished exclusive VIP retreat area of the resort, which when open will only allow twelve guests to stay at a time, as well as the cable car station and of course the eagle sculpture itself. To say this place is a feat of engineering is an understatement. The sculpture itself has been under construction for more than 8 years already. Built entirely of concrete, the materials have been painstakingly, manually winched up the hill and the concrete mixed by hand, one small bowl at a time before being added to the sculpture be a team of local workers. JP explained to us the legend behind the sculpture.

In Hindu mythology, Jatayu is a demi-god in the form of an eagle. In the epic story ‘Ramayana’, Jatayu witnesses Ravana (a powerful king with ten heads) trying to abduct Sita (a goddess and daughter of the earth goddess Bhumi) from her husband Lord Rama. A fight ensues, during which Ravana manages to chop off one of Jatayu’s wings causing him to drop, dying, on to the hilltop on which the sculpture now sits. Therefore the eagle sculpture has only one wing and the eagle lies on his back, symbolic of Jatayu’s last moments. Standing on Jatayu’s wing looking up at his head it’s hard to describe the sheer wonder of this project. More was still to come though as we were led inside, up through rooms where projections and art installations are planned, to the eagles head where we watched as the sun set over the surrounding valley. At last, we had our ‘WOW’ moment.   

Thanking our hosts profusely for their generosity in allow us to join them for the afternoon, we set off just as the sun dropped into the smog on the horizon to ride the 30km or so to Varkala Beach, the closest place we could see that might have accommodation for the night. Arriving after dark we had no idea that we had landed in tourist town, a beautiful beach resort town on the top of a cliff. We settled into our little bamboo hut room, still buzzing from our afternoon’s luck.

The next couple of days we went full-on tourist, spending time on the beach, eating very good non-Indian food, drinking mojitos and browsing the tourist-tat shops for things we really didn’t need. I’m not usually a fan of touristy places, but it was the perfect antidote to the stress of riding here every day. We even found proper branded suncream and toilet paper for sale. At last, things seemed to be looking up!


1 comment:

  1. wow Caroline I just love the story of the eagle. That sculpture will be fabulous when it's finished. I understand how you must feel about India, a young friend thought it was really uninteresting and unfriendly too. I'm enjoying reading about your journey. xxx