Colin Hubbard Cycling Diary in India

 

January 26 2008

Set off for India on 21 January and finally got to Chennai 2 flights later. Got ripped off at the first hotel near Chennai Airport - arrived late in the day, no phones that we knew would work so we accepted the helpful advice of an airline official (obviously on commision) and paid a huge £18. Nice entrance but lousy rooms. Moved the next day to a lovely little lodge at £3.80. (We're in a similar one now).

Chennai not very interesting but had the obligatory travellers' experience of a train ride into the city centre. We kept safely inside but most pasengers appeared to be hanging like bats on the outside of the carriages.
Cycled 55 km on Thursday from Chennai to Mamallapuram. Chennai traffic apalling but soon onto quiet roads along the east coast. Beach and temple day yesterday and today before moving on to Pondicherry.

Curries every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, all gluten free and up to now bug free. Heat is hot and humidity is humid.

More from the next cyber cafe.

31 January 2008

Things going well other than trying to find an internet cafe with broadband. Left the glittering silver beaches (sun on the fluttering plastic) of Mamallapuram a few days ago for some serious cycling. So no more body surfing but plenty of pedalling. did 100km to Pondicherry and then a few shorter stints to Chidambaram, Kumbakonam, Thanjavur and now at Tiruchchirappalli (Trichy). Done over 450 km now. They still speak French in Pondicherry. Endless temples but all different and fascinating. As you can't wear shoes in temples my feet are getting burnt on the hot stones!
No problems with dogs yet - they're all so hot they can only manage to lift half an eyebrow. We're cycling so fast that not a single other cycle tourist has managed to pass us. Then again we haven't seen one yet.

The countryside is tropical and lush, much greener than we expected. Don't know the temperature as we haven't a thermometer but it's very hot and humid. The villages we're passing through are often built with plaited palm leaves and have no floor surfaces other than bare earth but they're spotlessly clean as are the occupants. They obviously have a real pride in their communities. Towns however are a bit of a mess. Well, an incredible mess!
The people are really welcoming and helpful unless they're driving a vehicle in which case they just try to kill you. Any Indian will gladly spend endless time directing you to somewhere they've never heard of nor any idea where it might be. There seems to be some traffic regulation that says you have to sound your horn when other vehicles or pedestrians are near. As the population is such that every vehicle is near something else they all just keep their horns on all the time. If there was ever a rule as to which side of the road to drive on it clearly fell into disuse some time ago. Most of the big trucks have a slogan in their windscreens, 'Trust in the Lord'. I'd prefer them to trust in their brakes but this appears not to be an option.

Not tanning as I expected because Indian sunscreen is designed to prevent darkening of the skin. I started off pink, I'm now a sort of pale blue and I'll probably be an albino by the time I get back.
Off on the first stint of the journey to Madurai tomorrow. Probably take 3 days to get there. Supposed to be the most spectacular temple on the route. I'll let you know.

4 February 2008

Madurai was great but we didn't cycle there. Last time I e-mailed we were about to set off from Trichy but Carole, my cycling partner was ill so rather than losing a day we stayed an extra day in Trichy and then caught a train for the 130km to Madurai. Carole assured me that you can drink tap water here as long as it's marked for drinking. I kept to sealed bottles. She's wondering why she was ill.

However, nothing lost as we now know how to book a train ticket for 2 people and 2 bikes. It's all done electronically except for the 426 bits of paper that have to be filled in. The station porters were really helpful, offering to wheel our bikes the 3 miles to the platform where we were to 'entrain', and back when we 'detrained'. The 50kg of luggage we were left with they ignored. When we detrained we grabbed the bikes and loaded the panniers before they could be whisked away.

Spent a full day at the Madurai temple and invested in a guide to get more out of the visit. Amazing place and visitors are welcome to view many of the ceremonies. Last night it was the bedroom ceremony, where to a fanfare of drums and horns a huge silver casket is raced around the temple surrounded by flaming tridents and clouds of smoke. This is symbolic of the stone statues going to bed with their respective partners. In the morning they are purified with milk and honey in case they had sex during the night. Given that they are granite this seems to me to be a remote possibility but perhaps no less than a virgin birth.

Set off for Kovilpatti this morning (20 rupees short on deposit) from where I'm sending this. It was a 100km ride in temperatures in the high thirties and very humid, but we made it ok. The road was mostly good and relatively quiet but the whole route is being upgraded to dual carriageway (4 lanes) so there were longish rough grit sections. There seems to have been a slight mix up in the planning. There are no breaks in the central reservation so once you've set off in one direction you have to keep going that way. The result is that each carriageway has 2 way traffic and occasionally someone's hacked a gap so they can turn off.

My prized possession since Trichy was the free toilet roll provided by the lodge. A constant companion in view of my overindulgence in hot curries morning noon and night. Got to the lodge here, put the toilet roll on the cistern cover, had a pee and flushed. The cistern cover flew into the air, the toilet roll did a twist and half pike and landed perfectly in the toilet pan! Farewell.

Should be at Kanniyakumari (southern tip of India) by mid morning on Wednesday. Then beaches and backwaters of Kerela (and of course the food).

Days 15 to 22 (12/02/08)

Great news. I've got hold of a sun screen that doesn't turn me blue and somebody left a toilet roll in today's lodge room. The sun screen is Boots Soltan according to the bottle. The stall holder assured me it was genuine. I suspect it's a bottle washed upon the beach refilled with a mixture of toothpaste and dog's milk but it seems to work.

Last time I emailed I was expecting an 80 km ride the next day en route to Kanyakumari. There were no lodges where we'd hoped to stop so it turned out to be a 105km ride. No problem as we arrived with more time in Kanyakumari on the Wednesday. Blackpool has nothing on Kanyakumarifor tackiness. Plastic trinkets by the million with adults and children buying them like there's no tomorrow. The pilgrims walk out into the sea with a folded banana leaf on their heads,let it float off and then ablute to various degrees of cleansing. I guess this represents the floating away of the unclean aspects of their lives.

The next day we turned north and cycled to Kovalam,a beach resort on the west coast. The journey was ok but a bit disappointing as we couldn't find the smaller roads that we knew were there. Everyone we asked couldn't understand that we wanted to get away from the main road so they kept directing us back again. However the resort was great, the sea food was spectacular and we spent 2 days there. Massive rollers for body surfing. It's still a fishing village where they drag huge nets out to sea and then haul them in by hand from the beach. The nets must be 100s of metres long and take a good hour or so to pull in with teams of 10 or so men at each end.

We then moved up to Varkala, similar to Kovalam but high on a cliff. The sea is much more fierce here and there are life guards on duty most of the day. They regularly clear everyone out of the water when cross currents suddenly appear in the surf. There were 17 drownings last year! The guards have no boats and appear not to do any actual rescuing of the swimmers that ignore the warnings. However they seem quite good at keeping a tally of the deaths.

Yesterday we cycled 35km to Kollam where we caught the 10.30 river boat to Alleppy. Eight hours of cruising the Kerala backwaters. Wonderful wild life and a place where time seems to have stood still for centuries judging fromthe boats and fishing techniques we saw.

Great ride to Cochin today as we finally found the quiet roads that follow the coast line. Everyone wants to do a high five as we pass but most of them are so small it turns into a bit of a low five.

Passed 3 working elephants on the journey so far but still no other touring cyclist. Can't understand it. Total distance by bike just short of 900km.

Off north again tomorrow but no fixed destination. We'll stop where it's nice and there's somewhere to stay.

Room prices at the moment are around £3 per night and a slap up fish meal is £2.50. Sounds good but it can't be helping the obvious poverty of many of the people.

Days 23 - 32 (22/02/08)

Still going strong but not got quite as far as expected due to unexpected events. Now at Mangalore which is on the west coast almost exactly on the same latitude as Chennai where we started. Total distance to date 1473 km. This is the first place there's been internet access since my last e-mail. Heat and humidity continue to hit record highs!

We left Fort Cochin on 13 Feb with the intention of catching the ferry to Vypin Island and then crossing on a causeway to the mainland to get to the main west coast road. The Fort Cochin tourist information office advised us that there was no ferry at the north of the island so we'd have to use the bridge. As you will read below we were on the island for longer than expected but we eventually left by the perfectly serviceable ferry at it's northern tip! Well, ok, an exaggeration as the bilge pump seemed to be fighting a losing battle but it got us to the mainland before it sank and we didn't have to use the dangerous causeway.

However, on the first ferry from Fort Cochin one of Carole's tyres went flat. The valve had sheared from the tube. She got out one of her two spares but as we tried to get the tyre back on (very tight) we (well I) must have nicked the tube, so two flats. The last spare went on ok and I redeemed myself some days later by fixing the tube. We tried to get a new spare but alas all Indian tubes have the old UK valve that we phased out decades ago so neither of our pumps could inflate one and the only pumps sold over here are only slightly smaller than the bikes.

Now from bad to worse. The road on Vypin Island is narrow but a new bridge has caused it to become a major artery for the area. The island is long and thin and is crossed by several canals. These have bridges over them, mostly single track humpback. Time for 2 hobby horses:

Helmets

CTC (Cycle Touring Club) members seem to spend much of their time arguing about the merits of helmets. If the club magazine publishes a picture of a cyclist wearing a helmet it will be followed by an avalanche of letters of protest from those who refuse to wear them. It's true that in countries where helmets have been made compulsory there appears to have been a drop in the number of cyclists (impact on the health of the nation) and an increase in injuries to cyclists. Clearly there's a need for a bit more research but as far as I'm concerned if my head's going to hit the ground I'd rather be wearing a helmet! Carole never wears a helmet.

SPD Clips

This is an invention by Shimano that 'true' cyclists swear by (bloody things). Instead of a pedal you have a sprung cleat and you wear special shoes that snap onto the pedal. Great, because you can push down and pull up, greatly increasing your efficiency. To get out of the cleat you twist your heel outwards and usually it snaps open. If it dosen't and you stop pedalling, say because there's an elephant in the way, then you fall, still firmly attached to the bike. In an emergency I'm inclined to jump clear so I won't even use traditional toe clips, let alone SPDs. I have never been on a long distance cycle tour where an SPD cyclist hasn't had a bad fall. Carole uses SPDs.

Some of you may be ahead of me here.

So we approached a narrow bridge and on the other side was one of the many insane bus drivers who indicated (by blaring horn and saucer like eyes) that he was coming through come hell or high bicycle. I stopped, deflty lifting my feet from the pedals. Carole, thinking about her loss of two inner tubes, wasn't looking and hit my panniers. She hit the road hard, still clipped to the bike, and banged her unprotected head. Blood everywhere, crowds from nowhere. Antiseptic wipes out. Plasters out. "Can I be of assistance sir?". Yes, please get from between me and the medical pack!". Blank look. "GET OUT OF THE WAY!!!" Blank look. "PISS OFF!!!!". Blank look. Local resident hurled across the road by shirt front.

The head cut was minor, just dramatic, and resulted in a black eye for a few days. However, it was soon evident that Carole had injured her shoulder and ribs and was in increasing pain so we found somewhere on the island to stay whilst she (hopefully) recovered. If this was going to happen then Cherai Beach was the place for it. Miles of empty beach, seafood restaurants begging for customers at the end of their season and icecream parlours a plenty. We were directed to a local 'home stay' where we had a chalet each and delightful hosts. The fact that they hadn't finished building them added to the fun.

After three days, a visit to the local doctor and a lecture about elderly ladies acting their age Carole felt well enough to continue but clearly still in a great deal of pain. We planned a short journey but finished up doing over 66 km as we couldn't find anywhere to stay. There are lots of nice beaches but no lodges on or near them so we finished up in Guruvayur, a temple and pilgrim town with as much charm as a cess pit. "your rooms are filthy!". "Yes, they are; your point being?".

Hints for Kerela Tourist Board:

If you have nice beaches don't put your lodges in a pigsty of a town.
When a lodge is built it will then need the occasional clean and lick of paint. This is not unusual.
Beaches will be even more attractive if you can persuade the locals not to crap on them.

The next stop was due to be Kozhikode (Calicut) which turned out to be 107.5 km, our longest day, with Carole still in pain. We were rewarded with an opulent hotel that should have been 800 Rupees each but suddenly became 400 when we were about to leave for a cheaper option!

The Kerela map has been very misleading. I'm sure it's been printed from a sheet of latex. All the distances seem to have been mixed up and towns are randomly placed for asthetic effect rather than accuracy. Kappad Beach is clearly shown as being 4 km north of Calicut. It was actually 15 km! Then on to Kannur folloed by Bekal Beach where we stayed 2 days for Carole to rest. It was on the way to Bekal that we met 3 Brits on bikes doing the same route as us. They started from Chennai on the same day as us. The difference is that they are cycling morning and afternoon averaging 140 km per day. So why did we catch them, fly past them and never see them again? Because this is India I suppose. Nice lodge at Bekal. I grabbed my towel to kill a cockroach that was scurrying across the floor only to find another one in the towel. Troubled night!

So now in Mangalore and heading towards Goa tomorrow.

Another hobby horse:

English

I'm the last person to go to a foreign country and expect the locals to speak English. However, I've heard English described in relation to India as its first, or common or shared language. All road signs are in English as are safety signs (Ware Helmat, Kepe to Left), most adverts and shop (shoppee) names and menus. However, 99.9% of the people we have met do not speak a word of English. Which means, of course, that they can't read road signs, adverts or their own menus! This includes the police and bus drivers. 'Rich' parents send their children to 'English Medium Schools' where all teaching is done in English. We've talked to pupils and teachers from these schools, none of whom can string together a few English words into a coherent sentence. What on earth do the parents think is being taught? At Madurai an 'English speaking' Indian giving us directions eventually said "I cannot understand your English". On Cherai Beach I stopped by a 'Fast Food' sign and asked what was available. Blank look. "Food", pointing to sign and mouth. She disappeared and came back with a bicycle pump. The university students we've met speak fluent English, as do quite young children selling their wares on beaches so at least some of them are on the right track.

Days 33 & 34 (24/02/08)

Found a cyber cafe here in Bhatkal so I thought I'd add a bit to the last e-mail, bearing in mind access is pretty limited in some areas.

What I didn't say in the last e-mail due to lack of time is that there was one more near disaster kindly arranged by the Co-operative Bank, you know, the ethical one. Before I left for India I phoned to give the bank the dates I'd be away. I phoned again a few days later to make sure that they'd recorded them. Both Carole and I carry a bit of spare cash in case of emergencies but when she fell off her bike we were unexpectedly holed up in a pretty remote place for 3 days. Not to worry we thought as we set off on post accident day 4. Plenty of ATMs once we get to the bigger towns. Put the card in: 'Cannot process your transaction, please check with your bank'. Another 8 machines later, another 8 identical messages.

Sent a text to Joan asking her to phone the bank PDQ and find out what was going on. Using my mobile direct to the bank could well have used up all my credit listening to their jolly music so a text to patient wife seemed best. Got a text back: 'bnk say tech hitch. Shud b ok now'. But it wasn't ok. Carole in great pain and brassed off keep stopping for me to play with ATMs so she had to pay for my hotel and food and then I found an international phone. The ethical and caring bank expressed surprise at my call from India as they didn't know I was there but told me all would be ok with immediate effect. After a little pressing they admitted they had not acted on my original 2 calls giving my dates in India and nor had they checked when Joan phoned earlier that day. They had helpfully cancelled my credit and debit cards as their automatic fraud system had detected that they were being used in India!

This might be amusing if it wasn't potentially so serious. Carole had seriously considered continuing by train and I had contemplated continuing alone as I'd got so far. If she'd needed emergency help before we'd parted I couldn't have paid for anything. Had I have been on my own and had an accident I couldn't have evidenced that I could pay my medical bill. (Third world countries often insist on a working credit card and won't accept an insurance policy). So off to the AIDS infested local state hospital and hope that they're not reusing needles whilst I'm there! I've e-mailed the bank asking for a meeting with a senior manager as soon as I return. If they can't convince me that it couldn't happen to any of their customers again then there'll be a few postings throughout the traveller network warning them off such a crap bank. And the crazy thing is my credit card is the Oxfam affinity card. I've supported Oxfam since I started work in 1966. Imagine telling them I can't trust the banker behind their own card.

Anyway, enough ranting for a para or two.

Stopped at Udupi last night. Lonely Planet says that the evening ceremony at the local temple is 'a lively affair' so we went to see it. Shoes safely deposited and feet now like leather soles we were swept by the throng into the temple. Within minutes the most deafening cacophony struck up with clanging bells, rolling drums, trumpets, horns and anything else that could make a loud noise. Fire erupted from everywhere and the temple god was then duly fed with rice and coconut.

The band then marched round the temple tank (big square pool where the Hindus bathe) looking like a banana republic military band. Unfortunately a goose had just flown in and not knowing quite what to do it joined the procession and marched round with the band. It looked quite proud actually. A floodlit pontoon then did a couple of laps of the tank to a crescendo of thunderclaps strategically placed near people's ears.

Outside the temple were parked three massive chariots. Each was on 4 wooden wheels, the wheelbase being about 3 metres. However, the body of the vehicles spread out like a giant plumb to a height of about 15 metres or more. I kid you not. The lower part was carved from wood and the upper part was I know not what but it looked like a crinoline dress. It was quite obvious that they were for decorative purposes only as any attempt to move them would cause them to fall over. So, led by the temple elephant, hundreds of people attached ropes to them and charged round the outside perimeter of the Temple, a considerable disance, lurching wildly, priests inside and kids hanging from all over the place, jazz band, drums, fireworks, dancing giants and somersaulting kids dressed as skeletons. I still can't believe I witnessed it. Why these bizarre contraptions didn't fall over and kill half the audience I've no idea. Perhaps there's some pedal powered gyroscope inside each one.

Yet another hobby horse!

Cyclists that only see their front wheel.

Before we set off I told Carole about one or two of the cyclists that I was with on the Romania trip who seemed to have seen absolutely nothing on the journey other than their front wheel. I can't see any point in a ride if you don't absorb the scenery and the culture, you might just as well be in a gym, but each to their own. Carole was amused by this and agreed with my philosophy. Her cycling partner for her previous trip in India had asked her to cycle at least 10 metres behind him. I thought this was a bit extreme, until of course she ran into the back of me. I've a sneaking feeling we are not of one mind here. "See that 30cm wingspan iridescent kingfisher fly under your nose Carole?". "No". "See the beach from that last bridge?". "No". "See that elephant standing in the back of the truck we just overtook?". "No". "You didn't see an elephant????". "No".

"Oh, how did you get behind me, I thought you were in front?". "You cycled past me Carole, I was standing in the road". OK, it could be me. I'm the sort of person that you could quite easily not notice. So I'll try this. I've got the only yellow bike in India. It's bright yellow and it's got reflective panniers on it. At this stage we have yet to see another pannier. I leave it on the road against a small pole and disappear into the bushes for a pee. A bit later, "Oh, how did you get behind me, I thought you were in front?". I've even turned round on a single track road and cycled past her in the opposite direction. "Oh, how did you get behind me, I thought you were in front?".

Ah well, each to their own!

I broke a tooth today, on what appeared to be an unpopped popcorn that was inexplicably in a plate of rice. It's a bit painful but I'm reluctant to have it treated in case it has to come out and I'm then prone to infection so fingers crossed.

Total distance now 1624 km. We were planning to use a minor road to get to Jog Falls tomorrow but Carole's far from right and she's not into rough roads or steep hills so we'll take the long way round on better roads over 2 days. Lots of time so no real problem but I would have liked a bit of off piste. Lots of piste off though, especially buses.

Indian Bus Drivers

It would be untrue to say that Indian bus drivers lack the intelligence they were born with. They clearly were born with none at all. They must come from a congenitally imbecilic lineage where a single brain cell is shared amongst the lot of them. They have no imagination and no concern whatsoever for the safety of their passengers, themselves or other road users. They will overtake when there are oncoming vehicles and quite deliberately force them off the road. The country would be a better place if they were all lined up against a wall and shot. However, the Indian government would then have to find an alternative form of population control as the survival ate of passengers would increase dramatically.

Days 35 - 44 (5/03/08)

The saga continues unabated.

Got to a place called Honavar on Monday 25th after a relatively short cycle from Bhatkal. Stayed in an 'executive' hotel which lived up to its promise. Clean rooms, excellent food and very low cost. Why can't other hoteliers do it?

It was a short autorickshaw ride to the local beach which consisted of miles of sand as far as the eye could see and rolling surf, together with the finest array of human turds that we've found to date. There were fishing villages on either side of a long strip of waste land where presumably there's no latrines been dug due to the handy location of the beach. However, a lengthy walk to the mid point revealed a clean section where we could sit and bathe. We were puzzled by regular visits from local boys and men, aged about 14 to mid 20s, who appeared to be going for long solo beach walks, hovering a bit, sitting and talking to us and then going back. Nice of them to come and see us we thought. It dawned on us two days later when we spent another day on the same beach what they were about. A lad came up to us, gave a smile and a friendly wave and continued for about 50 metres. He then sat down, unzipped his trousers and 'spilt his seed upon the ground'! Either he was less embarrassed about his needs or more likely he needed glasses and thought if he couldn't see us we couldn't see him. He soon zipped up, washed his hands in the sea and gave another wave as he went back. Obvious really. Lots of young men with an urgent need, no privacy in their huts or villages but a handy location where you can see if anybody's near (or not depending on your eyesight).

On the 26th we cycled nearly 65 km to Jog Falls in the Western Ghats. A steaming hot day with some very challenging hills. The falls are the highest drop in India but a hydro scheme further up the river has reduced them to a trickle. The scenery on the way was fabulous, tropical forest and monkeys everywhere so it was worth the effort just for that but the falls are a real mess. Perhaps tourists have stopped going because of the lack of water but the viewing area and lodges have become almost derelict. What was once a grand quadrangle within a colonial type building is now a dozen or so shops that all sell exactly the same thing and have turned the place into a slum. To quote Bill Bryson there also seemed have been a festival of litter over the whole area.

Indian Shops

Shops in India are a bit like buses in Britain. You wait ages for the 464 and then a line of 6 suddenly appears. Wherever we go there are lines of shops selling exactly the same products at the same price. There being no other competitive edge they all shout for you to come to their shop. Result; bedlam, lack of variety and prices driven down to subsistence level. If a tailor's shop opens 5 others will open next to it. There must be 20 or 30 shops in Mamallapuram selling stone carvings but practically none elsewhere. The same applies to plumbing shops, food, hardware and anything else you could think of. If the trades were less gregarious they could make a far better living.

The return trip to Honavar was a fair bit quicker, it being mostly down hill and we spent the afternoon on the beach, much to our relief and even more so for the youth.

On 28th we did 56 km to Om Beach, just to the south of Gokana. Yes, it's the same Om as in the Moody Blues' 'In Search of the Lost Chord'. White sands, palm fringed curving beach and clean bamboo huts to live in with all mod cons (except during power cuts or when the water tank empties). The stuff of dreams so we stayed for 4 days. The Lonely Planet said it was a short distance from Gokana, a relatively cheap autorickshaw ride. They assume that everyone's a backpacker:

(Backpacker - someone who has a large, overfull rucksack which they carry over such exceptional distances as train to bus, bus to autorickshaw, etc, but only when they can't find some matchstick of an Indian to do it for them)

but no thought of the mad fools that might actually be travelling under their own steam. So yes, the 7 km was a short distance but the book failed to mention that it was over the top of a mountain! Still, great place and no regrets (well, not many).

On 3 March we did 106 km to Patnem Beach, just south of Palolem and once again the stuff of dreams so we're still there. It should have been 16 km less but once again we were misdirected by helpful locals who have no idea of the geography more than a kilometre and a half from where they live. We're now in Goa so essentially we've got to the destination but there's 100 or 200 kms left if we want to see a few different places here. Total distance now 1953 km so should hit the 2000. The ride was quite hilly, very hot again and the dirtiest yet. The road is quite narrow so the trucks and buses drive with the nearside wheel off the tarmac creating clouds of red dust. We looked like sandstone carvings when we arrived.

The beach here is marred only by packs of stray dogs that dominate it in the mornings and evenings. The rest of the day they're asleep. The howling at night is incredible - thank goodness for earplugs! We've asked why they aren't rounded up and put down but apparently the Indian government has protected them so it's illegal to harm them. Crazy as they're disease spreading pests.

12 days left in India so lots to see yet.

Days 45 - 54 (15/03/08)

What I didn't say about Om Beach was that when we arrived at the bamboo colony there was the distinct sound of throbbing Bollywood music coming from the beach. Big mistake here we thought, but we were assured it was a one off and it was usually quiet. When we got down there we found a real life Bollywood film crew complete with formation dancers. Music was being played over enormous speakers so that the dancers could get the rhythm for a sound track presumably to be added later. Regrettably the cavorting dancers, out on a rock in the bay, were coordinated neither with the music nor themselves. There were a few final shots of the tourists having a quick cavort in the sea, equally uncoordinated. Being British I didn't join them of course. If there's ever a Bollywood film to miss this would be it.

I had a great confidence booster on this beach. A group of students from Bangalore University had come down for a day out. Their English was excellent and we spent a long time talking. "How old are you?" they asked. "60" I said. "But you can't be, how did you get such an incredible physique?". "By cycling here from Chennai!". Astonishment all round. Ever since I got my old farts' railcard I've been living in hope that someone would challenge my age but the rats never have done. I think the Bangalore students were wonderful and decided to stay an extra day. I even got a standing ovation when I achieved the extraordinary feat of swimming a good 30 metres to a rock in the bay.

A few days later, still on Om and basking in glory, I woke up to the greeting of "Allo me old chinah!". A perfect cockney accent. I opened my eyes to see a 16 year old Indian boy selling beads. He rattled off a few more phrases and sat down next to me. I assured him I had no intention of buying beads but he said "Nah, not selling now, just wannah talk". He was from Chennai, a huge distance from home, and he comes each year during the tourist season to sell beads. Poor lad I thought, having to make a meagre living away from home for 4 months a year. "What do you do when you go back to Chennai?" I asked, "work in the fields or on the roads?". "Nah, I live with mah mum and dad". "Yes but what is your work?". "Don't work, ah lie in mah bedroom watching DVDs or playing on mah compuah!"

This was not the first example of relative affluence. At Mamallapurham an 18 year old lad was selling stone carvings. He'd done 7 years of a 12 year apprenticeship. "I really need to sell some of my work" he said. "Business is bad and I need money for my keep. In the middle of his sob story his mobile phone went off, a better model than I'll ever have. One of his carvings was Ganesh, the elephant god, usually depicted reclining with a book in his hands. Dilip's version, which was superb, had him holding a laptop computer, alas with the words 'I love pepel' on the screen.

There was a mix of new and old hippies at Om. The new ones appeared to be Israeli and were dressed like something from the bible, Long flowing hair and beards, sarong and 4 or 5 kilos of beads hanging from various parts of their bodies. The old hippies were possibly young ones once, still going for the beads but looking somewhat out of place with bald heads and pot bellies. I don't think most of them had seen their feet for a long time. I suppose I should be quite proud that at my ripe old age not only can I still see what I'm peeing into but I can also see what I'm peeing from. Not the best of images to contemplate but I'd just like to point out the technical capability.

Back to Patnem on days 42 to 44, Goa was very different from the rest of the India that we've seen. The Portuguese administration was thrown out by the Indian army in 1961 but the Portuguese influence remains. The buildings are a very different style and there must have been a great deal of inter marriage as the people appear to be a different race, looking much more Latin than Indian. They also speak very good English so navigation became much easier.

We moved up to Benaulim Beach on 6 February, a challenging but spectacular route. Really lush jungle with monkeys hooting and parrots squawking, hills towering over narrow valleys. In one valley the road dipped diagonally down to a river and then diagonally up the other side, almost completing a full loop. Inside this loop was a Hindu temple that was remarkable for 2 reasons. The first reason was that it was huge, dominating the whole valley, and looked in size and shape like Florence Cathedral, except it was shades of pink, starkly contrasting with the green of the jungle. The second remarkable thing was that Carole didn't notice it.

When we first arrived at Benaulim both Carole and I were disappointed. The whole coastline was a single long beach with no shade, about 20 km long. Some of it was very touristy, but the bit we were near was still a working fishing community. I suddenly learned to like it with my second confidence booster. I was in the sea, just a head showing, watching 4 fishermen trying to launch a boat. These are either fibreglass or wood, but have a boom and float on one side to give greater stability in the water. The boats are launched from the top of the beach by pushing them over greased logs. The one I was watching had got stuck. They called me across to help but when I came out of the water looking like a string bean they just laughed and waved me away. "No" I said, "I'll give it a go". They were all pushing but I put my back to it so I could apply the full force of my legs. Haven't these people seen how to open canal lock gates? They sing a sort of boat launching shanty, groan, groan, groan - heeeeeve. A bit like group constipation therapy I suppose. I gave it all I'd got and the boat shot forward almost clearing all the logs. In a few minutes it was in the water. "How can you be so strong?" one of them asked me. So I explained and I'm now honorary boat launcher each day, rewarded with fresh papaya and provided with a nice bed of nets to sunbathe on whilst the plebs have to lie on the sand. What a hero!

Now here's the odd thing. Whilst all these boats are being inched down the beach each day another group of locals are taking buffaloes for a walk along the sand and into the sea. They're all on rope leads ( the buffaloes that is). Apparently they're kept in sheds and need regular exercise. So I said to the boat men "Why don't you harness the buffaloes to the boats, they'd pull them into the sea in a fraction of the time?". Blank looks all round and a decision that that would be a technological leap too far.

We've had a few day rides from Benaulim, one of which was to a spice farm about 30km to the north east, near a place called Ponda. Quite interesting but busy roads and the return journey was very hot. Because we were retracing our steps Carole was confident of the route so she stopped for an hour for the roads to cool down and suggested that I carry on.

On the Monday, 10 March, we cycled up to the Goan capital, Panaji. Using the somewhat dubious Indian maps I estimated the distance to be 38 km, plus another 10 to Old Goa and then 30 or so to get back, using a short cut that was on the map. At 20 km we left the minor roads to join the main highway as there was only one bridge to get to the city. Very busy but mostly a wide hard shoulder. "On the way back remember to turn off this road at the Jesus statue" I said. 35km in Carole said "You've got the distances wrong, we've done 35 km already!". "Ok, so 3 to go". Estimate spot on.

Panaji is a compact town on a series of very steep hills. It is nearly all Portuguese architecture with narrow alleyways opening into leafy squares and balustraded flights of steps running up and down the slopes. This could be made into a moderately attractive place, but here's where India can excel. With a bit of advance planning and design flair the whole place has been converted into the worst slum imaginable. There's decay and neglect everywhere, although one or two buildings appear to be benefiting from recent renovation. However, it's one of the most frustrating places we've ever been to. The invasion appears to have been followed by a programme of hacking off the ceramic street name signs that the Portuguese had put up. Presumably to 'Indianise' the place. However, there has been no subsequent programme to replace them. We tried to follow the Lonely Planet 'heritage' walk which gives directions by street names. It's been so long since there were any street name signs that none of the locals know what they are. They know where they are and how to get to where they want to be, but as for names, nobody's got a clue. So we quickly gave up in disgust and went to Old Goa, exactly 10 km.

This is a remarkable place. Huge churches and basilicas, built in the 1500s, each trying to outdo the other. The whole place was abandoned by the Portuguese long before they were thrown out but now there's a very creditable attempt to bring the place back to its former glory.

Lonely Planet gave the route out to the return short cut. In the heat of the day we ground up a steep hill and after 2 km came to a sign saying 'Panaji bypass, NH4A'. NH is 'National Highway'. "This can't be it" said Carole "you've brought us on the wrong road". This was the 3rd time we'd been misdirected by this guide book. "Ok" I said. We don't know we're going wrong because the short cut on the map does bypass Panaji and if you look at the sun we're going directly south which is the right direction. I don't want to go back and have to go up the same hill again". Alas, two minutes later the road turned sharply to the west and we were clearly on the wrong road. We later found out that this major road had been omitted from our map. Carole wanted to go back but I didn't want to go searching for a road that might not exist. She flew off ahead of me and I could hardly keep up. Odd, I thought, I'm usually the fastest one. We got back to the main road we'd come in on where she stopped, steaming and exhausted. "I wouldn't have brought us this way!" "Well I would because we know where we are". "I don't know where we are. Where are we? Where are we?". "This is the road we came in on. Right takes us to Panaji, left takes us back to Benaulim. It's about 30 km from here". Well I don't want to go on this road, it's too busy!" "Ok, you take over the navigation and go which ever way you want. I'll follow". "I can't navigate, I haven't got a map!" That's right Carole, I bought all the maps and got us across 2000 km of roads. Some things are better not said so I just set off and didn't stop until I got back to Benaulim. Total distance 103 km! Some time later, "Am I to understand that you didn't wait for me anywhere?" "That's right, we were retracing our steps so you knew the route. You've said before you were happy for me to go ahead." "Well I got lost and finished up in Margao!" "Didn't you remember to turn right at Jesus? It's a pretty big statue and it's in the middle of the road". "Well I forgot and didn't see it!" Be aware Carole, be aware. We seem to be talking again now.

One of the things we both wanted to see was the world heritage site of Hampi, about 300 km east of Goa back in Karnataka. It would be impossible to go there by bike in the time available so we decided to go by train. It's a 7 hour journey each way so we booked to go out on the Tuesday, spend Wednesday at Hampi and then return on Thursday. Carole was all for leaving our stuff and the bikes in one room to save on cost but given that we were only paying just over £3.00 I couldn't see the point of one of us packing up. "But if you don't put your things in my room I'll have to put mine in yours and I've got my things all over the place!". "Dead right!" So we kept both rooms.

The journey to Hampi was dramatic as for the first hour or so the train climbs high into the Western Ghats clinging to the mountain side. What I didn't see until the return journey was that at the top of this hill there was a siding with 4 red coaches permanently parked in it. One was marked 'Accident Management Vehicle' and the other 3 were marked 'Emergency Medical Vehicle'. So that's what all those broken wheels and bogies were about scattered at various parts of the line! We had window (big hole with bars) seats which meant that, having passed 3 open cast iron ore mines, we were bright orange when we arrived.

At Hospet, the nearest station to Hampi, we looked for an auto-rickshaw to get us to the site. "How much?" I asked. "How much do you want to pay?" "For goodness sake just tell me the price". "400 rupees". "Get lost!". We eventually went for 100 and he dropped us off at a great lodge right in the heart of Hampi. The driver said for 600 rupees each he would stay with us all the following day and take us from site to site, which is over a vast area. We agreed. That evening it became apparent that two of the sites were a 2 minute walk from the lodge, one that he told us was 13 km (which is true if you go by road) was a 2 km walk, one was inaccessible to vehicles (more in a minute) and only one actually needed a vehicle. In the morning he failed to show, having sent his friend as a substitute. "Where is the man we saw yesterday?". "He can't come, he's in Hospet." "He told us he lived here". "He does but he's ill". "Ill here or in Hospet?" "Ill in Hospet." This person was unable to renegotiate so we told him to get lost. "My friend here in 10 minutes". "How can he be here in 10 minutes, it's 40 minutes from Hospet?" "He fast driver". So we decided to do our own thing.

We looked for an auto-rickshaw to get us to the distant site. "How much?" I asked. "How much do you want to pay?" "For goodness sake just tell me the price". "No price. How much do you want to pay?" We finally got one for 60 rupees. "How long you be? I'll come back and collect you when you finish". "Thanks very much. About 2 hours". "OK, I come back at 10.30 and wait till 11.00. Please don't let me down, I have living to make". We were back at 10.50 but never saw him again.

Hampi is quite the most spectacular site we have seen on the journey. I won't try to describe it here but if you're interested the detail is here:

http://www.hampi.in/

If we'd have known in advance we'd have arranged to have less beach time and perhaps 3 days at Hampi as there was so much to see. As it was we started at 7.00 am and stopped at 7.00 pm having walked for miles. The bit that was inaccessible by vehicle was a river crossable only by coracle. These were flimsy wicker constructions, about 2 metres in diameter, with a tarpaulin stretched underneath. There was at least as much bailing as there was paddling. One of them was crossing with 3 motorbikes in it! The crossing was directly underneath a partly built concrete suspension bridge but there was a small gap in the middle. It had obviously been there for years and was in an advanced state of decay. Apparently it had been started by the state government but UNESCO had stopped it because the vibrations during construction and from the subsequent traffic afterwards that one of the ancient temples was in serious danger of collapse.

We'd seen something similar in Kerala. Lots of ramps had been built by the state government to take bridges over railway lines. The ramps were in place, tarmac laid and signs erected but the bridge bit had never been put in place. Railway lines and the land they are on are owned by the federal government and only they can put a bridge across the gap but they've never got round to doing it.

In the evening Carole decided that when she got back she would return to Patnem Beach which she prefered to Benaulim. "It's a long way" I pointed out "and I won't be going. Remember all those steep hills?" "Oh I'll use the NH17". "But that's the road we used from Panaji that upset you so much". "Oh, it won't be too busy in the morning". Well I ........ But she didn't.

The return railway journey was on the 6.30 am Howder Express from Hospet so we left the guest house at 5.30. No signs for our train so we asked. Four hours late! It eventually arrived at 11.00. Indian mainline trains are very long and they have a brilliant system for getting you in the right place on the platform. There are illuminated signs along the whole platform giving alternately the train number and then the coach number. With the announcement that the train was about to arrive the numbers lit up. Train number 2808. But the ticket said 6823. There was a 13 year old boy on the platform, about 4' 10" tall and sporting a splendid moustache (they all do from the age of 9) who told the westerners that he was a train buff and not to worry as 2808 was the same as 6823. Well of course, obvious really. The coach numbers lit up and people rushed to the boarding points. The numbers then disappeared and came back in a different order. We all did a dance to get to our new positions but hey, our coach isn't listed any more.

We're on S10, but they only go up to S8. "It's ok" said the boy, follow me". The coaches aren't in numerical order so ours was at the very end of the platform. He then checked the seat numbers on our tickets and showed us where to stand for the quickest rote to our seats. This was the most informative person we had ever met in India and I hold him in no way responsible for what then happened. The coach numbers on the platform were in exactly the wrong order. Fine if you're in a coach in the middle but when you're in the last one that suddenly becomes the first then you've got a problem because Indian trains stop for exactly 2 minutes and then leave ready or not. We then enacted a rerun of Indian partition but at breakneck speed, lines of travellers passing each other with their treasured possessions trying to get to opposite ends. We were eventually 6 hours late, utterly filthy.

Today (Saturday) I bought an exchange book and some black shorts (I stupidly brought white ones) from a boy running a clothing, souvenir and book exchange stall. He's built it himself, runs it himself, pays the school fees for his little brother and sister and takes them to school on his motorbike, for which he has no licence because he's only 15.

We've decided not to cycle to the airport as it's only 26 km from here and when we went to Panaji we did all but 6 km of the route. No doubt Carole circled the airport several times when she tried to find her way back. We'll get a taxi for us and the bikes which will allow us a bit of sleep before quite an arduous journey starting at 4.30 am on Monday.

Days 56 - 57 (20/3/08)

The final chapter (for now).

When we got back from Hampi I was shattered, which I put down to the extended journey and the heat. It wasn't until the Friday night that I realised that I'd got a raging temperature. Cold water and a high speed fan soon got it down but on the Saturday I kept off the beach and eat very little, hence the extra long e-mail last time. On the Sunday I couldn't resist a final blow out fish curry, hoping against hope that it my stomach was ready for it.

Sunday was very cloudy but oppressively hot, probably due to the very much increased humidity. Sweat couldn't evaporate so it just ran into our clothes and when those were full it dripped everywhere. The curry was great as was the giant bowl of 'Kwality Walls' ice cream that followed. As we walked back to the guest house the horizon was alight with flashes of lightening. Within seconds of getting into my room the deluge started and the storm raged overhead. My bike was already bagged so all I had to do was to pack the panniers for the 4.30 start in the morning. I gathered a few bits and then the griping pains hit! Perhaps I had a little too much of the rice. I grabbed the essential supplies for an emergency bathroom session (glasses and book), sat down and relaxed. The simultaneous explosion just outside my room rendered any change of mind impossible. If the lightening hadn't hit the building then it hit something else very close to it. The noise was deafening, the lights went out and never came back on before we left in the morning. It wasn't just the guest house, the whole area had had lost its power. Sitting there in the pitch dark it occurred to me that my emergency supplies should perhaps have included a torch and some toilet paper.

The taxi arrived at 4.00, not 4.30, because the driver hadn't been to bed. The rain was so heavy that the roof of his house had collapsed. He'd spent the night getting his family into dry accommodation but all the beds were soaked and his electrical equipment was a write off. It was really good of him to turn up. All flights were on time and we were at Heathrow by early evening after a 24 hour journey.

"Thank you Colin for booking the flights, planning the route, buying all the maps, navigating us safely across India, scraping me off the tarmac and wiping up the blood. And for being so tolerant when ........". Oops, there I go, dreaming again.

On Tuesday afternoon I was cycling from Rochdale railway station, about 1 mile from home, when my front brakes fell to bits. How lucky can you get!

Total distance cycled was 2250km. The only ambition I hadn't achieved during the journey was to sit under a banyan tree and listen to an Indian fable. There were lots of banyan trees but it was the sitting that was the problem. They have a very wide spreading canopy with lots of aerial roots coming down from the branches. This gives good cover so those Indians that can't find a handy beach use them as a pissoir (or crapoir).

There's lots more that happened that I had no time to put into e-mails so I'm going to stick them all together in Word, put them into a better order and add the missing bits, including my observations on poverty, religion and the culture in general. It'll be a while before I can get round to it but if you'd like a copy please let me know.

Thanks for reading (if you did).

Best wishes

Colin