South India. Days 11-13. Udupi, Malpe.

I’m only seeing Junee this evening after class, so I have some time on my hands. I’ve decided to ride to Malpe Beach for the day. It’s only about 10kms away and, minus the panniers, it’s going to be an effortless ride. But first, more serious business at hand …

The signs were there. They had been stepped on too many times, forced to work in the rain, dragged through mud, exposed to the hot sun day after day, then chucked aside at the end of a long day.

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South India. Day 11. Mangalore to Udupi

Today is the last leg of my Cochin–Udupi tour. It’s taken me a leisurely 11 days to cover an almost flat 500+ kms. Today’s distance is about 85kms so I’m on the road early by 7am, just as I promised the front desk of the hotel when I was given the special room rate that I bargained for.

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South India. Cochin, Day 2, pt 1

Cochin is old. Very old. That’s what makes it such an absorbing little town. On a bicycle, which is the perfect conveyance for this place, you can amble along at your own pace exploring its nooks and crannies.

Some of the quiet streets are loudly coloured by garishly painted exteriors walls and signs. Other streets are less elaborate — a monochrome of whitewashed walls of old European looking houses. With so many Europeans having made their homes here throughout the centuries, a Jewish enclave in Cochin would not be out of place, which is where I’m headed next.

Jew Town is located along Jew Town Road near the Mattancherry jetty. Not unexpectedly, the synagogue has become a popular tourist sight, complete with stalls hawking trinkets and the like. I push my bike into the pedestrian-only main street for a quick look. Nothing much to see except tourists gawking at the synagogue. Most of the Jewish action must be happening behind closed doors.

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Portrait of the day. A lottery seller plying hope to prospective millionaires.

 

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Rich in years, he agrees with me on the best mode of transport

 

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Poetry on the streets. Even a simple task like sweeping can be graceful. She was fluid with her movements, pirouetting with her broom, almost dancing. She was a joy to watch.

 

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Lost in thought, this trader sitting outside his shop in Jew Town was oblivious to me as I took this shot of him.

 

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Quaint little shops with their quaint wares

 

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An open space, a patch of grass, and the game is on. Actually in India, cricket is not a game, it’s a national obsession. When I was there, World Cup Cricket was in full swing and support for the national team reached a feverish pitch.

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My favourite part Cochin is Fort Cochin. Everyone seems to make a beeline here. There’s a permanent air of festivity to the place. The locals seem to enjoy walking the promenade which extends all the way to Mahatma Gandhi Beach a ways down.

The most striking sight here are the many Chinese nets dotting the shoreline. Strangely unique to Cochin and nowhere else in India, these nets are fully operated by humans, at least half a dozen to each net. They’re a sight to behold when the huge square net is slowly lifted up by a cantilever aided by a counter-balance of rocks tied to the other end of the contraption. The catch, however, is usually modest — a handful of fish and some crustaceans.

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Mahatma Gandhi Beach. Weekend crowds throng the beach from end to end

 

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A peanut seller on the beach

 

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Nuts are simply fried in sand from the beach itself; no oil, no salt, just plain fried delicious peanuts

 

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Once done, the sand is sieved through this strainer. Plenty more sand where that came from…

 

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Only 10 rupees for a handful served in a paper cone. Some minute grains of sand could still be tasted…you know it’s there when you crunch down on them with the peanuts.

 

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Tomorrow, I head north along the coast, starting with a short ferry ride from Fort Cochin to Vypin Island. From there I intend to hug the coast as much as I can, making detours through the backwaters, not just to avoid the busy main roads, but I reckon it will be more fun this way.

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South India. Cochin, Day 2, Pt 2.

Cochin, or Kochi, as it is officially called today, is very laid back. I like this place. As I ride along its shady tree-lined streets, I’m assailed by wild colours, incredible smells and a cacophony of sounds at every corner. Life seems to move at an easy relaxed pace here.

The promenade by the sea is a particularly nice place. Just where it starts to wind along the shore southwards is a jetty where a roll-on-roll-off ferry discharges its cargo of motorcycles, cars, autos and trucks. I think this is the ferry that will take me to Vypin island tomorrow when I start heading north.

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The sun is shining brightly in the cloudless sky. It’s hot and I’m feeling hungry. I haven’t had breakfast since I checked out of Taj Mahal. I think I’ll head for that not-too-fancy eatery just next to the jetty. A young man is busy preparing little balls of dough to make pratha. I order some, with a glass of milk tea, or chai, as they call it here in India. The curry for the pratha is very good, as is the chai, so i order seconds. No spoon or fork, it’s fingers-only cuisine. In India, do as the Indians do…

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Hygiene looks a bit iffy… but what the heck…

 

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it’s tasty!

 

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Cochin has a very chequered history of being colonised by first the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, then the British. It’s not unlike Malacca and the rest of the Malay peninsula, which was also colonised by the the same gang of Europeans. To me, colonisation is merely a politically-correct term for economic rape. They lord over the ignorant natives, enrich themselves with the land’s abundant natural resources, then leave when it looks like the next greedy bunch of colonists have a made a new deal with the native rulers, and so on… until the natives finally revolt.

These Europeans did, however, leave an enduring legacy behind  —  their culture and heritage, especially their architecture which gave Cochin its distinct personality. All these, in effect, made Cochin what it is today — a popular tourist destination.

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Kerala goes by the touristy tagline ‘God’s own country’. And it’s not undeserving of this accolade either. Cochin, and the rest of Kerala, is as beautiful as it is pious.

 

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Churches of every denomination, shape, size and colour can be found throughout the city.

 

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Not surprisingly, Mother Teresa is revered here.

 

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And so is St Something, I didn’t quite get the name when I asked his devotees…

 

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Even guest houses are overtly religious.  Like a lost sheep, I was drawn to this garishly painted one after checking out of Taj Mahal.

 

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Colourful sareed women at a Hindu temple ceremony add to the mélange of faiths in this city

 

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Old world charm … this could easily pass off as a street in Europe

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.

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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