Bernard hauled his huge frame up from his easy chair and summonsed a pharyngitic offering of viscid mucus by means of a hefty snort and horrid back-of-the-throat ‘grockle’ sound. The effect was that of an elephant clearing a trunkful of toads and tadpoles. He popped out the screen door to gob into one of the array of pot plants that adorn the front of this otherwise pretty homestay, a most vocal ejection too. Five guests at the homestay breakfast table collectively shuddered, swallowed our bile and looked at each other in sheer disbelief, our western sensitivities utterly shocked. Had our host really just cleared his throat in such a public and disgraceful manner? Bernard really didn’t seem to care, the big guy wandering back in to plonk himself back down in the armchair and issue more missives to his overworked wife in the kitchen to hurry up with our breakfast, before returning to his favourite topic; moaning on about how running a homestay is like modern slavery…
“Incredible India!” That’s the official tourist board motto and as you will have seen in the previous blogs we are finding that India is indeed an incredible place of unsurpassed beauty and wonder. But India is also incredible in other ways; it is incredibly filthy, easily the dirtiest place we have ever travelled and at times the people can be incredibly disgusting, with habits such as expectorating in public in a most graphic manner as described in the incident with Bernard above. It seems fine too for blokes to just have a pee at the side of the road or in any corner on the street, no ‘I’ll just wander into the bushes here, find somewhere quiet out of sight…” And ‘pooing’ in public… we witnessed this most graphically from our hotel room in a place called Ratnagiri on the way to Goa. The hotel was oceanfront to a golden beach in a bay and in the early morning we opened our curtains to witness the spectacle of a long line of men down by the waterfront, all squatting in the surf and having their early morning poo followed by a saltwater and sand bidet (don’t try this one at home folks!). They were immigrant workers come down from the poorer north, living in squat hovels at the back of the town and the beach was probably the most sanitary arrangement for their morning ablutions.
Public spitting and toilet habits are a cultural thing, something that’s always been done and still tolerated in Indian society, however this isn’t particularly making the place filthy; that is due to something else that seems endemic to Indian culture; widespread littering. Litter; that human detritus of plastic bottles, bags, food wrappings and leftovers, coconut husks, old clothing, old tyres and so on, pollutes every roadside halt, waterway and every nook and cranny you can think of. Beautiful cliff-top walks are spoiled when you look over the edge to see fly-tipped garbage courtesy of the local community. I already commented on littering when we were in Turkey but in comparison the Indians make the Turks look like the tidiest nation of OCD-green / keep-clean freaks on the planet.
And this state of being cannot be blamed on the poorer uneducated classes; everyone is at it. The underlying problem seems to be that everyone thinks it is someone else’s responsibility to clean up which is probably a residue from the caste system where folk who clean for a living are marked in society as ‘untouchables’. It is below most ‘decent’ folk to look after their own rubbish and they just discard it wherever they happen to be. Indian Society needs to recognize this and tackle it as no one deserves to live in such conditions, especially when everyone can do little things to improve were they live. Enter the FaceBook Community ‘The Ugly Indian’, which has well over a quarter of a million followers. As it states on their homepage “The Ugly Indian is an idea. It’s an attitude that says that all of us are ugly Indians & only we can save us from ourselves. Motto: Kaam Chalu Mooh Bandh!” The page then shows masses of brilliant projects where people are coordinating efforts to change where they live, clean it up and restore the area to how it should be and make their world and environment a better place in which to live. We wish them well!
Riding south through Kerala was some of the most challenging motorcycling we’ve ever faced but for all the wrong reasons. We left the security and warmth of Rad’s family to ride short 80 – 100 mile hops to reach Kanyakumari and the bottom of India. The roads down this southern coast are small with many towns and villages such that each ride became a slow procession through congested and dangerous traffic. It was taking us most of the day to complete these tiny distances with lots of riding in lower gears at speeds averaging 20 – 30 mph. We derived a 3 ‘F’s mantra for the riding here. Each morning we’d sit in the saddle, breathe deep and repeat the following words before takeoff; “Focus, Fearless… F*** it; let’s hope we survive another day!”
‘Focus’; each ride demands 100% attention and concentration. At home our 650cc bikes are the smallest in the BMW range of Teutonic metal and reasonably low tech. In India they dwarf just about everything on two wheels on the road. It is like flying a sleek Messerschmitt through a sky full of Spads and Sopwith Camels!
‘Fearless’; The 650s are also capable of out performing everything else on the road if you are brave enough. While you need to be fearless to tackle these roads this needs to be measured as the hazards and battles are many. You can’t allow yourself any time to dwell on the hazards, just get on with it, which leads me to the third ‘F’ …
Given that it is impossible to make any sense or order out of driving in India you are left with two options; 1) Surrender and give in; pack it all away and go home safe and sound or 2) ‘F*** It’; resign yourself to fate and get stuck in. The flying analogies are here are all too true as the hazards are truly three-dimensional. At home you need only observe the traffic around you, which will generally be proceeding in the same direction so you can plan your overtakes, pull over to let faster traffic get by and pay regard to vehicles joining the traffic stream from side roads. Not so in India where anything and everything will come at you from every direction at the same time!
Lonely Planet described our next destination, Kochin as follows: ‘Serene Kochi has been drawing traders and explorers to its shores for over 600 years. Nowhere else in India could you find such an intriguing mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year-old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses and crumbling remains of the British Raj. The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast.’ This was clearly written by a myopic reviewer whose corrective lenses had a most severe application of rose-tint veneer. We checked into a Homestay in Fort Cochin (hosted by the aforementioned Bernard of the phlegmatic throat who, expectorations aside, was actually a pretty good host) and walked to the nearby beach to find it strewn with waste. Near the Chinese Fishing Nets lay ponds covered in a scum of green algae each one containing its own flotilla of plastic garbage. These days the nets themselves are really just a tourist attraction; huge cantilevered contraptions that raise and lower a vast net into the sea like some underwater medieval siege equipment. We watched them at work but all they caught was a few tiddlers to feed the crows and a clatter of plastic.
We escaped into the famed Backwaters of Kerala for a day on a dusty old wooden boat propelled by a couple of equally ancient punters. They can’t have been a day under 65ish but both had leg and arm muscles like knotted blackthorn. The Backwater trip was a rare opportunity to experience a day of silence in this crazy place and we lounged listlessly under the thatched palm awning, the only sound being the gentle plop of the poles propelling us forward. Our rolling backdrop was a series of jungly riverbanks with a beautiful entertainment of impossibly fluorescent Kingfishers and Bee-Eaters darting in and around the trees.
So with all the dirty litter-strewn places, filthy habits and the crazy driving, is India starting to get to us? A short day of more mental Keralan driving took us further south again, past Tiruvananthapuram, this mouthful being the name of the Kerala State capital and then down off the coastal highway to altogether more peaceful roads that wound through densely palm forested estates, dwindling into smaller side streets, until finally we found ourselves negotiating a labyrinth of alleyways (all registering on GPS) that led us to the door of the Oceanic Residence, a little haven in the backstreets of beautiful Varkala. An hour later and we had flip-flopped a hundred metres to a perch atop spectacular red cliffs where we took refuge in the Blue Moon bar to sup a well-deserved Kingfisher (beer not bird!). We tore strips off our starter of mouth-watering cheese and garlic Paratha bread and watched as surfers on the beach below packed up for the day, the evening now illuminated by the crepuscular rays of a setting sun. Dinner of Vegetable Hyderabadi and Prawn Masala arrived, two curried dishes that even now make me salivate at the thought and at the end of our meal we thought ‘what a way to end a day!’ So while India has its downs they are more than counterbalanced by these spectacular ups. It really is ‘Incredible’ in the most positive sense of that word, proving an old motorcycle adage that the harder the road the more rewarding the destination.
With batteries recharged another short but less hectic hop took us out of Kerala and into the state of Tamil Nadu, to Kanyakumari, a beautiful name to roll off the tongue if ever there was one. Here at the southernmost tip of the inverted triangle that is the Indian subcontinent, we scanned the horizon from west to east to take in a span across three vast oceans. Each day fireball suns crested and sank beyond these ocean horizons and our little hotel had helpful signs pointing to which side of the roof top you should go to, depending on sunrise or sunset.
There is certainly something spectacular about reaching any major land extremity and Kanyakumari is no exception. We crossed the storm tossed ocean, a short but nevertheless white knuckle ride on a rust-bucket ferry to see the Swami Vivekananda Temple set on a huge rock at the end of India. The ferry considered the running seas too dangerous to go on to the Statue of Thiruvalluvar, an enormous ‘Lord of the Rings’ style guardian who overlooks the stone’s-throw-away town from his own rock (he was actually a famous Tamil Nadu poet). Then a sunny afternoon roaming the licorice-allsorts houses of the fishermen’s village scattered around a couple of snow-white catholic churches, with even more mini chapels seemingly at every street corner. Here we found peace at the end of this land.
That evening, we stood on our little rooftop and surveyed west across the Arabian Sea, thinking about the fantastic journey that has delivered us to this most amazing place on Planet Earth. Then to the south and no more land as the Indian Ocean stretches out all the way to Antarctica. Finally we looked east, to the Bay of Bengal and contemplated just where the road will take us next… And here we feel a slight nervy tummy jitter as the first stage of this journey will take us north up through Tamil Nadu, the state that regularly tops the road-traffic accident statistics chart for all of India…
The photogallery for this blog can be a accused by clicking the following link: South!