Cycling INDIA – VIDEO!

17 04 2011

Cycling up the west coast of India 🙂

Good Bye India

9 12 2010

15 years ago. Apart from being mildly shocked that I (catherine)have a ’15 years ago’ I was also mildly saddened by the toll progress has charged Delhi – there is more of everything, more money, more carsautorickshawsmopedslorries, more urine. Even without the steamy summer heat, the acrid winy stench of urine drapes a greasy slick over everything and everyone.

In India there is a sense that one hand is grabbing for 1st world modernity while the other is struggling to earn enough to eat today. One foot is pushing upwards towards the glitzy heights of a Capitalist Utopia while the other is a raw, oozing, open sore struggling to stand let alone keep up. 15 years ago I was amazed by Delhi’s wide empty streets; I was in awe of its majesty and character. Now it just felt like a cheap pretender. In its hurry to be a ‘front runner’ it feels like it has lost its pride.

‘hellohello where’s your ticket? You can’t enter here without one, quick come with me’, ‘hellohello, what are you looking for? Nothing is open, come with me’, ‘hellohello if you want tourist information, it is closed, come with me’…….It is impossible to visit Connaught place or New Delhi station without being accosted by a constant stream of con men, who, with varying degrees of aggression, will try to manipulate you into engaging with whatever activity it is that will gain them a commission.

However there is an oasis in Delhi, it sits behind high grey walls and is surrounded by constantly tangling lines of grey traffic – it is the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. This is where I lived 15 years ago and it has not changed. Though it has progressed.  A couple of days doing business retiring each evening to meditation and yoga in this blissful calm before returning to the road towards the North.

We booked our bikes onto a cramped train to land outside Delhi’s orbit. The North – a naked child defecates over the platform edge while his parents wait for their train, a man tries to get his foot into Liz’s toe clip, another pulls my speedometer receptor out of alignment; there are more cycle rickshaws, there are more people, and there is no sense of personal space. This is India at its stereotypical worst. We stop a night and move on fast.

Between Delhi and the Nepal border the towns are gritty, industrial and busy. Steamy landfill mountains squat menacingly by the sides of the road; dogs, cows, and children graze and pick their way though it respectively. The land is flat, the air is cool, we pedal hard, we cover bigger distances and soon the traffic wains, the smog lifts, and the clientele regain a tentative distance. We soon reach the Banbassa/Manendar Nagar border; a sprawling 6kms of non-road obstacle course. We  guess directions, pick our way round boulders and potholes; we wobble our way over a 2m wide bridge, pulling close to the open sides every time a car, horse-drawn cart or motorbike squidges past. Once over we nearly miss the poorly signed immigration hut to our right – no uniforms here, no armed guards, no hurry … the elderly chap we take for the immigration officer lazily finishes off the article he is reading, folds his newspaper, arranges a few pens, finishes off his tea, before turning his attention to us. Some 30 mins, an unfathomable number of leisurely perused forms later and we are free to rejoin the trickle of Nepalese workers who are also navigating the non-road obstacle course. ‘keep an eye out for the Nepal immigration – it’s on the left .. in about 2 kms’ the elderly officer mumbles at us through the rustle of a reawakened newspaper.


1 12 2010

India is in general denial and secret promotion. We spent the day in the secret promotion camp – at an out-of-the way train station with the HIV Express info train! A good photo op for a few local dignitaries without them having to disturb the general Delhi populous too much – a great chance to look like you are doing something about HIV awareness without actually doing anything.

‘Male ego’ Nanda swished at us. A ripple of agreement wobbled through the crowd of trans, male, and female sex workers– ‘our biggest problem is male ego. They just don’t think condoms are what real men do!’. Yet it is this tough, world-weary little faction who are being targeted by the HIV Express; it is the powerless who are being asked to carry the responsibility, those who go hungry if they say no. The male ego won’t go hungry – it’ll just go elsewhere. After a hundred rounds of photos, a few cheeky propositions, much hugging and shaking of hands we moved onto our next engagement – trying to convince a top Delhi school to let us talk to their students about HIV/AIDS. As we made our way though the imposing marble gates we were struck by the distinct lack of red. World AIDS day obviously hasn’t hit the education system.

Sadly it was the same old story – teachers are positive but no one is willing to face the potentialmaybe wrath of parents who maybemight object to their innocent spawn talking about *sex* maybe. It is a significant and dangerous disservice that is being afforded to our young people – the world over. If our journey has taught us anything it is how grievously underestimated and blinded are our young people. And how afraid the world is of sex. (shh)

On an up note we did get interviewed for Night and Day News channel – which gave me (Catherine) the perfect opportunity to talk honestly about the biggest killer – fear and ignorance.

Dharavi days

29 11 2010

Those of you who know me (Liz) well – and those who I used to work with will have heard me rant about the eco-slum project, for the rest of you… let me explain!  2 years ago I was a very small cog in a very large project team based in London working up plans to ‘redevelop’ Asia’s largest slum into an eco-community.  My rant was, and still is, that a group of architects (and environmentalists) sitting in London (equally Australia, US or Hong Kong) should not be the ones dreaming up the plans for what will happen to these 1 million (legal) – 2 million (actual) slum dwellers – particularly if it involves organic veg boxes and complex solar panels?!  Anyway thankfully that project stalled… for now.

Dharavi (the slum in question) is the so called ‘heart of Mumbai’ due its geographic heart shape and its location in the centre of the city – bounded on either side by vital rail links. This is a prime rump of land; developers across the country (and world) salivate at its potential.  The place has been written about, debated, analysed and assessed; When the Indian government made moves to rehouse the residents and dismantle the slums NGO’s and humans rights groups the world over were up in arms; Kevin McCloud made a documentary about the place, Prince Charles came for a visit etc etc… being in Mumbai – we could not pass up the opportunity to pop along.

‘There is no caste in Mumbai, there is only money. Poor, rich, or very rich’, Ganesh our guide states, ‘in this city no one will go to bed hungry, someone will always give you work, even if you work 24 hours for 50 rupees, at the end you will be able to eat.’  And this is what continues to draw rural migrants to the city of dreams.  The first house was built 140 years ago, when Dharavi was the swamp at edge of the city and the dump, migrants to the city came to live here as the flat land, above sea level, provided somewhere to build their homes without threat from the monsoon rains.  We joined a tour run by a company that is seeking to change the way people think about slums; that word typically conjures up an image of disease, passivity and depravation. Reality Tours are trying to portray the positive sides of the slum, the hard work, sense of community and sense of opportunity that lives and breathes within Dharavi… granted those things are evident… but surely nothing can take away from the significant health risks endemic to living and working on a landfill site.

Throughout our long cycle ride our perpetual friend in the city, countryside, desert, mountain and seaside has been plastic.  Bags, bottles, cartons, wrappers. .. It is everywhere.  Much of this plastic eventually makes its way to Dharavi – millions of tonnes of plastic are shipped in from the US and China (and probably the UK).  Dharavi is the only slum in Mumbai with a thriving industrial sector, every type of plastic is sorted, ground, pelleted and processed to make into a recycled raw material ready to turn back in to mobile phone cases, buttons, belts etc.  There is plastic everywhere; your yesterdays throwaway water bottle crushed and stacked now lines the alleyways, that TV you threw away for the latest up grade now broken down, nimble (highly skilled) fingers working tirelessness to strip sort and resort it’s every conceivable component; the fridge, the microwave, the hairdryer, the once only used plastic cupsplatesknivesforksspoonsbowls .. everywhere we turn there are people sitting, standing, crouching, sorting plastic; everywhere we look, there it is, pile upon pile next to piles on top of piles…

Plumes of gritty black smoke fill the air as we move into the paint can recycling area – used paint tins are burned in an open fire to remove the remnants of paint.  The tins are then bashed and banged, by hand, back into shape and resold.  So Dulux, DuPont and ICI can earn brownie points for re-using paint tins… but who considers the health cost to the guys sitting for 12 hours a day by an open fire burning acrid chemicals with absolutely NO safety precautions at all.

We are led through the narrow alleys, barely able to stand up, curtains flapping in the doorways to tiny single room dwellings, the stench of raw, stagnant sewage all around.  A film of grime floating on top of the open sewage channels, naked barefoot children running down the alleys, we emerge into an open area.  This is where children play, they play on rubbish, they play with rubbish.  In one corner a child is defecating, in another a small huddle are merrily setting fire to plastic bags, prodding and poking the gooey, melted edges, while others turn a raucous  game of cricket with a plastic-pipe-bat and foraged-plastic-ball.  ‘82% are enrolled in school’, Ganesh tells us, but he also admits that with 50-60 in a class the quality can be somewhat dubious.

I smiled inside as we passed the area where women make pappadams – I recognised them – I’ve seen pappadams like this for sale in Sainsbury’s ready for me to pop in a microwave… rolled by the women and placed out to dry in the sun.  That’ll be on the rubbish dump, next to the open sewer, covered in flies, air thick with industrial fumes, drying in the sun – before being packaged up and exported. Enjoy.


PS – none of these photos are ours – while in Dharavi we were asked not to take any.

In the middle of a chain reaction – Maharashtra highs and lows…

25 11 2010

Daal fry, chana masala, four chapattis and two sweet lassies. These are the things that keep us alive. Until they tried to kill us.

Maharashtra is hilly. Very VERY hilly. Alpine even! (ahem). Our daily distance has got stuck at a very unreasonable 40-50 km; though our thighs bulge so too do our knees crack. With our Mumbai deadline wafting poisonously close we decide to flag down a jeep (read Fiesta), throw our bikes in the back (read tie precariously on the top – Liz’s bike bears the scars!) and cut off a 100 kms. Rashid, our portly, bespectacled and somewhat unlikely hero tackles the hills … enthusiastically, for the majority of the white knuckle lift we fear for both his suspension and our lives in equal measure.

Back on the road (read track) we finally make it to the little coastal village of Harihareshwan (approx 140km from Mumbai) – this is where the weather turns from blue to grey. This is a blessing but also a cheeky elemental sideswipe – since Goa we have been huffing up and down the Western Ghats carrying the grinding sun on our backs the whole way. Our shirts are faded, our backs browning through the wet, salt crusted cloth. And once we are through? THEN it turns grey!! But at least it has.

We set off into the hot wet shower as early as we can. While our clothes sing the halleluiah chorus to be communing with fresh water, we wipe the drips from our glasses and worry about trucks and slippery, rutted roads. *SNAP*  – shit! I look behind me to see Liz holding up what looks like a thin black snake… it’s her chain.  Panic sniggers a roly-poly in my gut as I pull off the road and pray that our short bike maintenance training, undertaken at foggy o’clock in the someconsiderabletimeago, comes in handy. With wet oily fingers we pop out the broken link and clip in a funky new pinless one. After transferring some of her weight onto my bike Liz tentatively peddles up the hill – it holds. It slips a bit, but, fingers crossed we can make it to the end of the day.

The weight transfer had another motive – since it is a grey day it stands to reason that all the grey things should happen in it.  And so we were unsurprised to discover (amid all the chain shenanigans) that Liz’s front pannier rack is broken in two places. Hello grey event number two. They are snapped in some indescribable way (that I shan’t bother to describe due to its indescribability) suffice to say I’m now carrying the bulk of the kit while Ms happygreyday is jingling along as light as a chickpea.

Grey event number 3 came in the form of a murder attempt. The humble chapatti peered languidly up from its basket; unaware of its role in this near-death-miss. ‘What do you think this is?’ – Liz held up a flap of chapatti for closer inspection – we both peered at the pink lump of soft matter that was stuck to it…. ‘chicken’ grinned the waiter and whisked it away. My half chewed mouthful froze before I hesitantly swallowed. Neither of us are food hygiene experts (Liz’s level 2 health and hygiene accreditation to one side) but hoeing down on raw chicken surely carries some health risks? Salmonella, Staphylococcus Aureus, Listeria Monocytogenes? DEATH! Apparently of no major concern in this part of the world, as the waiter’s quizzical look highlighted when we suggested that no, we probably a) wouldn’t finish the chapattis and b) wouldn’t pay for them. Thanks anyway.

Having survived the day and with only 80km to Mumbai we whip out a quick prayer to the local deity (in this case Allah) and console ourselves that all things will surely be well once we reach the golden streets of great Bombay, didn’t Obama just anoint it the city of dreams?

Stumbling through Goa

22 11 2010

Kali claps thunder hands together so close to my ears I smart… but it’s all blue skies and sandy beaches where I am … Shiva rattles loudly on the door… maybe 30 minutes and the sky will crack… the palm trees and gentle winds dance slowly in anticipation…. the 80 ft statue of Shiva perched behind me on the hill, watches.  His benevolent eyes loom large and seem to sense our ignorance… are we even meant to be here?  Van loads of men wearing black spill out at the base to walk their barefoot deference up the 150 steps up to the shrine.  Women and children carry flowers and turn incense in circles about their heads.  Seva is paid, pooja’s performed.  And we stand bathed in our naiveté; we are still a million miles (maybe somewhere just off the M25) away from even grasping what it means to be Hindu. Liz has attacked the issue with books and drags us into one temple or another on a more or less daily basis.  Where upon we dutifully feel awkward and proceed to stumble about without shoes on (in one instance stepping in cow dung) for about 5 minutes until we either a)  give up and retreat or b) sit and listen to the chanting (Bajans) before giving up and retreating. Our white skin and disorientation an embarrassment; and as the clear skies grumble at us – I’m sure that at last Shiva has found us out.

Hindu temples feel a lot like Georgian churches. There is an awful lot going on; lots of ritualised gestures made towards a statue or picture, things being whispered or chanted, offerings being made, music, cows, and the odd elephant jar about the place (scrub cows and elephants from the Georgia picture). It all appears highly meaningful and highly organised in a totally chaotic fashion. And it is all very confusing to heathens such as us.  So we simply stand with it and watch; as with our experience of India generally.

The idea that either ‘India’ or ‘Hinduism’ can be packaged up in one tight little word is a linguistic transgression.  As there are 1000’s of incarnations of the Gods and Goddesses so there are 1000’s of India’s; Keralan identity is as far removed from Karnatakan as Germany is from France. The people ask different questions, speak different languages, and eat different foods. The landscape becomes more rolling, the hills more pronounced, the roads worse the further along the Karnatakan coastline we cycle. And if Karnataka is a different country, Goa is a different continent.

The 100 km’s of steep hills that mark the southern end of Goa are threaded through with well tarmaced roads; gone are the potholes, gone are lungi clad men.  Affluence showing herself in the increase of traffic, the increase of toilet paper/t-shirts/jeans, the increase of waistlines, and the decrease of smiles. The Lonely Planet talks of the Goan beach bubbles- where masala chai and nepalise clothes perpetuate a backpacker’s mythology of ‘India’.  But is this any more or less ‘real’ than the ‘real India’ of the Bombay slums or the Keralan villages? Is Moss Side any more or less Britain than haggis in Edinburgh or afternoon cream teas in Devon?  We enjoy Goa – we love that even in this tiny length of coastline Mother India caters for all – Mandrem beach for the middle classes, Calungate beach for the package tour masses and Vagator beach for those who want to party… While Mother India lines her pockets, the visitor gets the ubiquitous south Asian beach experience – Thailand, Bali, Vietnam all offering the caress of golden sandy beaches, evening meals by candle light, nights in a beach hut, and cheap beer / Thai (fisherman’s) pants.  It offers us a warm eddy of ease and familiarity amid the continual and ever changing cultural flows we are being swept though.  Tomorrow we will close our eyes, stumble out of Goa and plunge into Maharashtra. Then it’s only a short hop skip and a jump to Mumbi .. surely?


14 11 2010

Cycling Kerala – route info

Trivandrum – Mangalore – 625km + boat

(we are averaging a mini 60-65km a day due to the heat.. but we are getting there…:-)

This route starts on the main road (NH17), we then cut down onto the coastal road (though you could do so sooner) after about 15km’s. The coast road is beautiful, quiet, and well tarmaced. We stopped for the night in Varkala – which has the universal feel common to traveller haunts across South east Asia and offers home comforts such as muesli for breakfast. From here we stayed on the coast road most of the way to the Amatipuri Ashram – with a section around Kollam on the main road.  We stopped for a cheap night at the ashram – and the next day picked up a boat to Allepey – very relaxing, easy peasy to get the bikes on! (and a much cheaper way to see backwater life – men diving for sand etc – than paying for a houseboat)

From Allepey  we stayed on quiet roads; first on the east and then on the west (coastal) side of the main road to Fort Cochi.  Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, this was reflected in the number of children on (in an unfathomably constant stream thoughout the day) their way to and from school, on foot, in autorickshaws, and on school busses – in all cases, waving, hollering and shouting hellos at us.

Leaving Fort Cohin we took a diversion inland to visit the a Camillian Brothers HIV/AIDS project (Snehadaan)  – we hopped on a ferry and crossed 3 bridges to take us from the peninsula onto the mainland.  We cycled along a horrendous main road through the town of Ernakulum.  But from the Camillian centre we were on quiet country lanes all the way back to Vypeen Island – where we stopped and rested at the lovely Cherai beach – even getting a swim in the Arabian Sea in!

From Cherai we cycled and ferry hopped north, ferries, never costing more than 6 rupees (about 10 pence), replace bridges to cross the river mouths along the ‘beach road’ all the way north.  The ferries run non-stop from one river bank to the other.  On one occasion I was asked where I wanted to go… to which I replied ‘the other side’ – there really was nowhere else that this ferry was going… perhaps they were after something more from me!  The main road snakes inland with its bridges and traffic.  But on the beach road, we were joined by plenty of motorcyclists and bicycles with only the very occasional car.  We stopped for the night in the pilgrim centre of Guruvayoor and enjoyed listening to Bajans (holy songs) outside the temple. From Guruvayoor we continued along the beach roads (quality becoming more and more patchy) to Vallikunu where we stayed in an aging beach resort, with its faded pavilions and incomprehensibly bumbling staff (who each appeared to be wearing the others suit – one small chap could hardly be seen in his whereas the gangly porter was practically wearing shorts!) it was a far cry from those aimed at westerners.

From Vallikunu we took the beach road to Khozikode where the beach road ended, the coastline no longer flat but starting to become hilly so we were pushed back on to the main road.  Which stunk – a pervasive and pervading stench that stuck heavily in the backs of our throats. An absolutely horrendously indescribable smell akin to rotting fish, human excrement, and death – boiled. We have vowed to purchase incense at the first opportunity. The sticks can be stuck to our handle bars  to waft patchoolie (or some such delight) back into us as we cycle.

We stayed the night in Costa Malabri south of Kannur (bumpy, hilly ride but worth it)– where we ate the best home cooked Keralan


food from banana leaves and witnessed the annual Theyyam blessing of a local temple.

Kannur to Khanagad was rolling, uneventful, main roads. Khanagad is a basic Indian town; dirty, busy and polluted.  We stayed in a cheap hotel with a bed full of creatures, many of whom seemed to hurtle themselves at sporadic intervals from the fan (Catherine was happy! :-*) – fortunately none of which seemed to be bed bugs. We set off the next day tired and hungry and cycled out of Kerala (jumpy jumpy jumpy) – from here we stayed on the main road to Mangalore in Karnataka!