South India. Cochin, Day 1. Arrival.

The nearest international airport to Udupi (my destination) when flying budget, is Cochin. A mere 500kms from Udupi, it should take me a less than a week of easy pedalling to get there. And since I’m hugging the coast throughout, I don’t expect granny (as in gearing) will be given much of  a workout. Just as well, February is blisteringly hot in south India.

As with anything cheap, you don’t get to choose your arrival time at a more sensible hour. In this case, it’s late at night, which puts paid my usual ride-out-of-the-airport routine. A 40-km ride to an unknown city in the dark is not on my things-to-do-before-I-die list so the only other option is to hire an ‘auto’, a Tata-powered 3-wheeled taxi you can find all over India.

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Nothing less than the venerable Taj Mahal will do for this cycle-tourer. When we arrived, the Taj, and the whole streeet, was asleep. The auto driver had to bang on the door to wake the owner up. He finally answered the door in a daze, and clad only in a sarong.

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The friendly owner of Taj Mahal and his family, posing here in the grand lobby of the hotel, just next to the suite I was put up in.

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My princely quarters.

I’m checking out of the Taj, maybe something a little less royal. But first, breakfast.

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South India. A coastal ride from Kerala to Karnataka.

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As a travel destination, India is a contradiction of sorts, often maligned by the ignorant traveller.

“India? Why do you want to tour India by bicycle? It’s dirty, the drivers are crazy, the cities are congested, and there are robbers and rapists everywhere…..”.

Not entirely untrue, of course. That is, if you limit your Indian experience to the slums of Mumbai, or the chaotic streets and highways of New Delhi, or the less-than-hygienic riverside ghats of Kolkata where throngs of humanity come down to bathe, wash and pray in the holy waters.

On the other side of the Rupee coin, it’s a land of infinite colours, with a geographic palette covered by mountains that reach to the heavens, huge swathes of lush forests that blanket the plains and valleys, and sun-bleached beaches that hug the coastline for kilometres on end. Then there are myriad cultures that trace their roots back thousands of years, unique cuisines that defy gastronomic descriptions, but most of all, it’s a country peopled by some of the friendliest folk I have ever met in all of my travels.

But, in truth … my other excuse for adding India to my list of cycle-touring destinations is a familial one — it’s just so I can accompany my little girl home for her one-month semester break from her medical studies at Manipal University. Well, what are fathers for anyway?

And so, lawless drivers, robbers and rapists not withstanding, I make plans to ride the south-western coast of South India, starting from the old colonial city of Cochin in Kerala, then head north towards the temple town of Udupi in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, where Manipal University is located. The ride should cover about 500 kms, give or take a few detours through the beautiful backwaters that Kerala is famous for.

From Udupi (with my bike packed up), my Junee and I will hop on a train for an 8-hour ride back to Cochin from where we’ll fly home to Kuala Lumpur.

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