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Cycling to the end of the year

Cycling has a totally different meaning in the Indian psyche. This everyday mode of transport is often used as the entry-level mode used to travel from home to work and vice versa. We had never thought of going cross country with a cycle or riding down a mountain. Trains and buses were supposed to do that job for us. The cycle was for more perfunctory uses like distributing papers or transporting milk or going to office. True, we loved the cycle when we were children. We loved going fast, going around bends, feeling the wind in the hair. But as we started growing older, the child went out of us.


So when we got the opportunity to be a child again, we jumped at it.


Moreover it was the end of the year and we did not want to wear too many jackets.


Starting from Kochi with Indian Outskirts


So we took the train to Kochi. I had always liked trains. True – they dont have the speed or the luxury of flights. True – the washrooms suck and the berths are not long enough for people over 6ft. But when it comes to seeing country sides and experiencing India through a bioscope, nothing beats a train. Terrains change as you move from North to South. The colour of green changes as you move across states. The crops and the colour of their flowers change as you go from North to South. You can also feel the difference in taste between the many snacks offered at every station. And the best part is – the chai is always much better at train stations than anywhere else. Sugary and milky sweet, the chai at a train station can give you a kick that the best cafe solo cannot.


We stayed the first day to buy and assemble our cycles and also if there was any contingency need of time. The 2 BSA cycles were to be our best friends and worst enemies for the next week. Being hybrids, they picked up speed – but not as much as you would wish since the frames were still a bit heavy. But while buying they seemed like a dream. Remember, this is the first time that we are looking at cycles without carriers, without mudguards and with loads of gears. This was also the first time we were using helmets. As we got every little part – from bells to carriers – fitted, we couldnt help but think about our route the next day. Like children, we took our cycles to our hotel rooms and started dreaming about the day coming up.


By the way, the weather in Kerala was awesome. The nights were cool and the days were quite warm. We didnt realise it then, but roaming arounds in just a t-shirt and shorts were very much possible. We left the next day in pomp and show. Any amateur cyclist would tell you that when cycling after a long time, palms and bums would definitely hurt. We were prepared for that. We werent prepared for the day.


The tea estates of Munnar with Indian Outskirts


We set off at 6 in the morning in the coolness of the day after a nice plain breakfast of idlis and appams and coffee. As the sun rose we left the city and cycled over 3 bridges towards Cherai a nice quaint beach area just North of Kochi. It was like floating on clouds and anyone who has been on airplane knows that floating on clouds can get a bit rough. We crossed the beach, crossed Chinese fishing nets, crossed fish-landing depots, crossed the glorious light green rice fields, crossed the odd shop where you could only get water and ended up near the Kochi airport to have some lunch. After a sumptuous lunch we left for the rest of the day. Half-an-hour later we were again hungry. But this time, the sun was beating down on us and we were on an airport road which was uninteresting to say the least. With the sun coming down hard and Thattekad still 60km away, the energy started draining from me. Although Tanuja could carry on at that time, she realised that it would not be much further. We chucked our cycles and took the auto for the rest of the trip. A mental note was taken that the ideal route for our clients would be from the airport to Thattekad. In the beginning of the day we were all gung ho. At the end of the day we had done 60km. At the end of the day none of us could even stand properly.
Thattekad is what you would imagine a bird forest to be. Crowded by trees and the river cutting through it, we finally felt that we had come to the wild. We loved the narrow walkways and the birds early in the morning cosying up to each other on electricity cables. When we started off at sunrise, we loved the day.


We moved on to rubber plantations and stopped at a small plantation to see how the milk is mixed with boric acid and left to coagulate. The soft rubber sheets in the middle of dense trees felt like cottage cheese at that point. We did not know that rubber making is such a time-intensive process. We then cycled along the narrow backways to Nariyamangalam where we stopped for our first bananas (Kerala has numerous varieties of them).


Picking tea in Munnar with Indian Outskirts


Until this, we loved the entire trip. But then, the experience was not even mentioning. The highway up to Munnar was steep and winding – and on that particular day a bit dangerous because of the Christmas traffic. Munnar itself was a bit disappointing. The numbers thronging to this misty hill station were slowly turning it into another Darjeeling or Manali. But the tea estates are always nice and some parts of the town seemed to be straight out of Life of Pi. We even met a young Pi on his way to one of the tea estates. He didnt tell us about any tigers.


We then decided that we will ensure that we take only smaller roads and stay off highways as much as possible. We thus went via the Bison Valley a beautiful albeit steep downhill through forests and tea plantations. We were lucky to be there in the morning when the tea planters just started. The efficiency and concentration with which they cut the pair of leaves made for some beautiful sights. In the middle of this the plantation dogs scampered around with no worries and we seemed to be far away from the real world and into one of Roald Dahl’s books.


From tea bushes we crossed to more tea bushes. From more tea bushes we stopped to have the sumptuous Kerala meal replete with red rice, sambhar, avial, papad and the quintessential curry. At that height in the hills, the fish fry tasted brilliant. After lunch we moved on over the grand hills of the Western Ghats which really took our breath away. We climbed up and down over rolling slopes and ended up at Kumily a small teaming town of spices and dry fruits. We stayed in a room with wood panelling and natural air conditioning and crashed for the night feeling very very good.


Rice plantations in Kerala with Indian Outskirts


To say that the next day was more of the same would be demeaning it. We left the spice routes of Thekkady and moved on to Teekoy over some more rolling hills. At one point we were cycling over this picture postcard of rolling bushes, a small home in the valley and everything bathed in golden sunlight. We spotted a home at the far end of the hill and couldnt help but thinking. If the owner of the home could see this vista every morning, then he would not need much in life. We thought he or she would have already had achieved zen. We went down to Teekoy to the quaint luxurious homestay of Vanilla County. The hamocks looked very inviting. But we could only stop for some water as we had to move on to the nearby town of Eratupetta.


The next day I had a breakfast of dried rice and coconut dumplings with dry lentils. It was then that I realised zen and the art of riding. In a coach or car or train, I would have never thought twice of such a breakfast and would have never realised that such a place existed. But cycling forced us to get our hands muddy and you do really feel that your trip was good if you can discover such things for yourself.


Aleppey with Indian Outskirts


After breakfast, we cycled a bit along canals and churches. The roads were quiet except for the occasional rickshaw or cycle. People helped us out with water when were thirsty and with directions when we were lost. We got a peek into homes & life and felt that we could live here till the end of time – reading a book or going for the occasional trip. We ended up at a house at the end of rice fields for lunch. The curries and fries that we had there were the best ever and it reminded us of that scene from Ratatouille where the critic tastes the dish and is instantly transported back to his childhood. We then cycled for some time on the arrow-straight highway before ending up at a small homestay on the backwaters of Aleppey. Reaching back to the plains felt like an achievement and was celebrated with dinner at one of the posher establishments of Aleppey. The next day would be 31st December… and would be spent in Kochi.


It was a New Years Eve worth remembering. Our confidence in our cycling was slowly being restored and the coastal road from Aleppey to Marari and Kochi helped us even more. The roads were so full of life that we did not realise before we had crossed the 13 odd kilometers to Marari. We stopped at a fishing village as JP needed to buy some dry fish for his home. And we met some people who had life all figured out. Life is what is lived under a coconut tree discussing football with your close friends after a hard morning of fishing at the sea. While others were unwinding their nets, these gentlemen were living.


Marari beach with Indian Outskirts


It was then that I remembered the book. A car makes you feel like you are looking at things in a movie theater. But to be on 2 wheels with the wind in your face and the dust in your hair, was completely different. We loved it. We hated our cycles. We loved our cycles. We hated ourselves for not  being able to climb up a bend. We loved ourselves for having climbed the bend and have the valley open up to us. We hated the sweat. We loved the warmth all around us. We hated the attention from the kids. We loved it when they wanted to click a pic with us. We hated the trip. We loved it to bits.


Such is life.