On arriving in Goa I new immediately I had made the right decision. Women faired far better down there. The south is a special concoction of communism, Christianity and a questioning of matriarchal traditions. The grotty state owned hotels in the north with over manned lethargic male staff gave way to friendly family run hotels who knew of the benefits of disinfectant and bleach.
Goa in itself is nothing to write home about and the locals say I arrived a good 20 years too late. Previously before it’s “liberation” it was a clean and efficient state but sadly the influx of Indians looking for work has lead to downturn in quality management. The bad news however was that although I survived the 30 hour train journey unscathed my bike was nowhere to be seen. A melee of phonecalls were made and apparently my bike was on it’s way to Kanykumari, the southern most point of India where I was headed later…but by bike. I was told I would have to wait 3 days for the return of the “missile” so I decided to make the best of a bad situation and hit the beach. I’m all for the “freedom” of Goa and certainly pleased to hear “Cole beer, cole beer” for sale after the dry north. You won’t find a cabernet sauvignon here but it’s a start!. However I decided to leave the throngs Israeli ravers and amphetamine junkies behind in favour of a more tasteful beach in the south called Benaulim. I secured a lovely room with a balcony overlooking the sea in a very friendly guesthouse. It was undoubtedly the cleanest room I’ve had to date in India (well the whole trip actually) with my only complaint being that the freshly painted door sometimes jammed with latest lick of paint on the hinges. Certainly a complaint I never uttered in the north. The lady owner was eager to improve her English and was constantly inviting me for feni, a local spirit distilled from coconut and cashew nuts, at the most appropriate hours. If there was ever a petrol crisis in Benaulim I’m pretty sure they could substitute feni for it…foul!
Kerala actually means "land of coconuts"....you can see why!
After collecting my bike I cruised south for a most enjoyable ride stopping in small costal towns along the way. In search of some shade in the whopping 36 deg. My religious streak struck as I went to investigate a cathedral. After all the temples and monasteries I’ve visited these past months it was a welcomed change to see a Christian church. However inside it looked like they painters were coming to do the ceiling as there wasn’t a pew in sight. I later learned that the locals follow the syriac order of service as opposed to the western type of Christianity. So it’s palms up here for worshipping. The local bushy bearded priest was very happy to see real live tourist and kidnapped me in for tea as I was aware it was getting late and I was nowhere near a town big enough for a hotel. He explained to me that he receives a lot of Hindu converts who are trying to escape the restrictions and oppression of the caste system.
I met my first cyclists Polly and Mikey from England on the road to Gokarna but they were going in the opposite direction. They are also on a world tour and you can view there very up to date journal on www.travelpod.com. It’s always pleasant to meet someone else struggling in the blistering heat to remind you that you are the only nutcase on the road. They confirmed my suspicions that my map was absolute rubbish and my destination for the day was not 15km away but in fact 65km. Plan B was then adopted as I wheeled into Karvar a busy costal market town whose main bragging rights is their sizeable train station. With the train station of little interest to the cyclist, after a swift check in I pedalled over to the beach for a quick dip before the sun went down. As I mentioned this towns only redeeming feature is it’s train station so it falls short on luring in the flocking tourists. I noticed a large group of what I thought to be white people swimming together in the distance so I thought I’d go a little away from the crown for a quick dip. After 5 mins of being in the water I noticed I had attracted a larger crowd than usual. Judging by the check-in register in the hotel I was the only tourist to frequent the hotel that year and by the crowd I would guess it’s not that I chose the wrong hotel. I now had the difficult task of getting out of the sea discreetly …..this was no easy task and one I did not complete particularly successfully. I marched past the on looking mob, bike in tow, bikini dripping through my clothes and with a distant glaze on my face that I developed in India that says “Don’t annoy me can’t you see I’m on a mission” . Moments later I passed what I had presumed earlier were a group of tourists but found out that they were in fact a group of schoolchildren in white shirts. For modesty they went swimming in their uniforms and then dripping went they were marched back on the bus by their teacher. I knew I should have worn my glasses!
Gokarna was the next stop and it offered a pleasant mix of a working Indian town with pilgrimage day drippers. On top of this it had some tourists there who have escaped from the madness of Goa and I have quickly learned that a light tourist element is needed to avoid harassment. Karvar is a case in point.
The diversity of different religions existing side by side in Kerala is always something that amazed. Something very Ghandi about the whole situation. Throughout my route I passed Mosques, protestant churches, Salvation army, Syrain orthodox, Roman Catholic, Seventh day Adventists, Methodist church, naturally Hindu temples and no doubt some others I let slip through my shrewd eye. There is however one serious drawback to all this religious fervour and this lesson sadly comes from experience. I checked into a decent hotel and was enjoying an evening nap with the distant sound of Hindu devotional music in the background, I had seen many of these giant loud speakers on display thoughout the villages I passed through during the day but naively thought their deafening sound would be turned off at night . After all there is an unwritten curfew of 10pm in these religious towns. Sadly 10mins into my slumber I was abruptly awoken by new devotional music for a speaker no less than 1 metre from my window. No room no longer felt like a bargain. It was so loud the vibrations were hurting my stomach as I lay in bed. No 10pm curfew for the irritating music as it played to empty streets until 2 am, I was finally able to doze in peace when up starts the temples. The chanting I had grown used to from my time in Tibet but the drumming and bell clanking was really testing a new level of patience. As I attempted to push my ear plugs even deeper into my skull the Mosques came into action. The amplified muezzin joined into the orchestra and the local church bells calling the devoted to mass played an uncomplimentary backing track. How anyone catches a wink of sleep in Trivandrum is beyond me. The only tourist who could possibly enjoy this place is an insomniac. From then on when inspecting a hotel or “tourist home” as they are known down south, I was less concerned about the state of the bathroom and more interested in scoping out any possible speakers hiding in the trees outside my window.
New friends in Ernakulum.
One thing I noticed during my time in Kerala is the amount of shops and hotels that had Saudi Arabian names. I once stayed in the “Dubai hotel” and ate in the “Kuwait non-veg Restaurant”. After much pinning to get an answer I finally learned that Kerala is the most educated of the Indian states with a literacy rate of 97%. So the well educated muslims head off to the Gulf states and work until they have enough money saved to return and set up a business. This was also the explanation for some questionable mock Arabian architectural gems that occasionally dotted the landscape.
Riding to the southern moist point of India, Kanykumari you are met with a suitably heroic welcome. To the east you have the impressive Swami Vivekananda’s rock and to the west you have the confluence of the seas to the south. As with all pilgrimage towns during peak pilgrimage season (the exact time I’m in the south ..grrr) finding accommodation is no easy feat. Grasping at straws after being turned away from 5 hotels already I approached the Ashram which is supposedly welcoming to all…but not to me. Moments later a devotee pilgrim who had more religious paraphernalia than I have freckles was given a room. I think the cyclists helmet took way my religious charm. The joy of having a bike when searching for accommodation means that you can move swiftly from one hotel to the next at ease and with pace. Finally I did manage to find a room on keeping with the pilgrimage feel. Little more than a flophouse it was reminiscent of the lodging in rural Nepal. Plank of wood for a bed, with a brown patterned sheet that excellently complements the embedded dirt and serves to hide the fact that there is no mattress underneath. Jumping on a wooden bed with no mattress is a mistake you only make once!