New Delhi – Paris – Montreal – Winnipeg (Tue20Mar12)

SuperDave

The longest day.  From midnight in the Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi to arrival at the Airport Motor Inn in Winnipeg, my version of the 20th of March will last for at least 36 hours.  And I still won’t be home in Brandon until afternoon of the next day.

Another capacity Air France flight and the same old B-747-400 equipment with no personal entertainment units on the seat backs.  Once we’re in the air the flight attendants hustle about to serve a meal – which holds our attention and then distracts our blood supply – then they quietly disappear into the galley while each of the passengers quite predictably drops off to sleep.  Does Air France regard this as full-time or part-time work since most of the passengers spend their eight hour flight sleeping?

The lady at CDG Information is the same one from two months ago (who suggested I take Shuttle #2 bus to Etoile/Place Charles de Gaulle and walk the Champs Elysees at sunrise).  I thank her for that past info, and ask for another suggestion for today, she recommends taking the RER train to the south side of town and walk through the 5th and 6th Arrondissements, the ‘Latin Quarter’.

Great idea!  Between 7-8am kids are already making their way to schools in the area, most with one parent or other, some alone.  Vendors are busy unloading their panel vans and setting up their temporary market stalls on the sidewalk near Place d’Italie.  As I pass the Mosque de Paris and turn into the rolling terrain of the Grande Galerie, early morning runners are puffing their way alongside the Jardin des Plants (nursery).  Across Quai St.-Bernard to the Seine and a lovely scenic bikeway/walking trail alongside the river bank towards Notre Dame de Paris.

A turn inland brings me along narrow, winding Rue St.-Germain, boulangeries, patisseries, restaurants, etc. but when the word “internet” on the window of the Restaurant Le Buci catches my eye, I decide to stop for a E8.50 breakfast special and check/send some e-mails.  Another hour of poking around Isle d’Orleans, taking pictures of people taking pictures, and it’s time to head back to the airport.

Departures board says that the flight to Montreal is delayed but there’s a plug in the waiting area that fits my two-prong India connection so I won’t have trouble finding things to keep me busy.  Only 10 minutes late pulling out of the gate, then I watch the 2011 remake of  “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”.  However, its while watching the opening scenes of Daniel Craig in “Cowboys and Aliens” that I realise I’m looking at the North American roots of the solo tour cyclist – the lonely drifter on his/her trusty steed, scruffy and unwashed, sleeping on the open, cooking meals for one, no fixed destination, no fixed schedule.  Those days are over for me now.

A very long line=up in the Immigration area at Dorval Airport, supper of smoked meat & beer at “Moe’s”, and then the flight to Winnipeg.

Shortly after take-off the pilot informs us of reports of turbulence ahead and puts on the Fasten Seat Belts sign, half an hour later with no signs of turbulence at all, I buzz the flight attendant and tell her that I’m not impressed with the flight crew taking their frustration (with the government’s legislated contract with Air Canada) out on the innocent passengers – she promises to pass my message along.  It’s a clear, calm night when we land and taxi to the new terminal at Winnipeg International Airport.

At the Airport Motor Inn I’m reunited with the computer battery charger that Charles has dropped off at the hotel Registration desk.  Thanks, roomie!  A few Skypes and e-mails while I decompress in my room, one to reconfirm my shuttle pick-up in the morning for the trip to Brandon.  Head is feeling quite foggy, so it’ll probably take a week to get over this ‘jet lag’ when I get home tomorrow afternoon.  Now, let’s get some sleep.

Goa – New Delhi (Mon19Mar12)

SuperDave

Decided to just skip meals this morning and just focus on editing my photos.  Even with each of the folders in the computer coming out scrambled, I am still able to delete, adjust, or crop quite a good number of pictures.  Finally got out for lunch about 1pm, ate hearty so I’d have lots of ballast for the airplane rides later today, and then back to the room to pack.  Mr. Bharat declines my offer of Rs.500 for my 3:30pm check-out and asks for Rs.600:  interesting because (a) the room was Rs.1000 for 24 hours, and (b) he then asks for my e-mail address in case his daughter needs help in immigrating to Canada.  Sure thing. You bet.

Reading the local newspaper for today and there’s an interesting article about crime in the state of Goa.  Early on Sunday morning a married man was found stoned/beaten to death alongside the road in a nearby community.  Somebody who says they witnessed the stoning phones police, then tells his neighbours the identity of the two assailants.  Before the police have managed to respond, a vigilante group has been formed, searched out the two young men, and kicked/beaten them so badly that the police have to take them to the local hospital Emergency Room for treatment.  While the two accused men are in hospital with those policemen, the same vigilante group heads toward the residence of one of the accused guys and – when they find the door locked – they set fire to the building.  Another police car arrives just as the vigilantes are carrying their torches to where the second accused guy lives and the policemen convince them to stop and go home.  This single incident seems to say a lot about the local attitudes towards the system of law & order, the role of the police in society, and the ideal of dispensing justice.

At 3:30pm the houseboy knocks on my door to tell me that the taxi has arrived.  As a thank you for his work over the past five days, I give the houseboy my partial bottle of MacDowells’ Rum, he quickly takes it back to his quarters for safe-keeping.

Mr. Miranda is not your typical taxi driver.  He is courteous but sees how heavy my bag is and doesn’t offer to carry it to the car.  He drives carefully and slowly.  He volunteers to stop anywhere if I would like to purchase something before we reach the airport which is more than 30km away.  He asks if I indeed find Goa “…quite clean…” and I have to point out that the ditches on both sides of the road are lined with plastic bags and empty bottles.  He makes the occasional effort at ‘small talk’, but we have little in common and my very limited skill in Hindi is an impediment to exploring that angle.  And he doesn’t try to re-negotiate the ‘tip’ after the arrive at the airport.

As Mr. Miranda demonstrates during our drive to the airport, driving skills acquired in India could get you killed in Canada and driving skills learned in Canada could get you killed in India:  they are simply not transferable.  I’ve been told that traffic accidents in India result in a terrible toll on drivers, passengers, and pedestrians, and I’ve seen enough vehicle wrecks – old and recent – to confirm that there is definitely a problem in clearing away the debris after a crash.  Since the vehicle design safety standards in India are low, the driver training is poor, seat belts are rarely used, talking and texting on cell phones is perfectly acceptable (but officially frowned on) for all vehicles (motorcycles/trucks/buses/cars/ bicycles/etc.), there are no standards for keeping vehicles mechanically safe to operate, enforcement of traffic laws is non-existent, and the roads are wholly inadequate for the volume of traffic, I expect that collisions become a part of everyday life and death for many families.  The physically handicapped beggars in the street would suggest that medical attention and/or follow-up physical rehabilitation is inadequate for those who do become a motorway statistic.

At Goa Airport I have to show my ticket and passport just to enter the building; security in this country really exploded after the attack on the Hotel Taj Mahal in Mumbai back in 2008.  Army uniforms are everywhere and each soldier carries a sub-machine gun slung over their shoulder.  Check-in is smooth, security check is perfunctory, and when I find an electrical plug in the departure lounge it gives me time and power for a solid hour of photo editing before flight departure.

SpiceJet is one of several low-cost charter carriers operating within India, and my Rs.9557 ticket seemed a reasonable price for a 2-1/2 hour flight.  What wasn’t reasonable were the two screaming kids a few rows up who kept tormenting each other and competing for their parents’ attention.  Or the teenager who was sitting behind me, wriggling around and thumping the back of my seat, then kicking the seat legs:  it took me two attempts to correct his behaviour but finally he behaved himself.  One noticeable difference between North American and India was that many of the overhead baggage compartments were empty – Indians just don’t try to carry steamer trunks onto the passenger compartment of an airplane.  However, just like in North America, Indian passengers jump out of their seats just as soon as the Fasten Seatbelt light goes out and then mill around until the doors have been opened.

Walking down the mobile ramp beside the airplane I can only imagine what it’s like to deplane at Indira Gandhi Airport during the monsoon season when each arrival/departure requires two outdoor walks to/from the apron shuttle bus.  Inside the original Terminal #1 building somebody has used duct tape to place a sheet of yellowed cardboard over the word WHITE in the sign which had originally read WHITE SMOKING LOUNGE.  (There was no such attempt to cover this part of India’s past at the Goa Airport terminal).  This word WHITE doesn’t have the venom that it stirred in South Africa’s apartheid society, but the message was clear – upon construction of the terminal ‘whites’ had a dedicated smoking lounge inside the building, Indian nationals who chose to smoke would just have to go stand outside.

After emerging from Domestic Terminal #1, the complimentary shuttle bus takes me to new International Terminal #3, a route which passed the isolated and nearly deserted Airport Rail Terminal.  Supper at NoodleWok (mainly because they offered Thai Red Curry Chicken!) and then some quality diary time plugged into an electrical plug in an Under Construction site on the upper level of the terminal building.  Life (and power) is where you find it, just keep looking in the most unlikely spots for the best results.

Panaji/Panjim, Goa (Sun18Mar12)

SuperDave

Upset tummy last night because of the food on the dinner cruise; either I ate too much or it just didn’t agree with me.  Good thing that I’m planning to stay close to the hotel room today.

Mr. Bharat showed me how to log onto his hotel wireless – which has a weak but credible signal – so I was able to upload five days of travel blog and photographs later in the morning.

Went for a walk for some final photographs and noted that this town is very quiet on a Sunday.  Took the harbour ferry across to North Goa and back again, just for the experience of being on a public service.  Also, arranged for a taxi to the airport for tomorrow afternoon with Senor Miranda, who seemed happy to get Rs.100 more than the official regulated price of Rs.600.

The photographs of Panaji are quite flattering, much better than this city looks in real life.  Okay, so it’s not as run down as Havana, but the buildings have that same dilapidated look and feel to them.  Portugese input stopped back on 19 December 1961 when the Indian Army marched in, and the memories linger on in the tile name plaques embedded in the residence walls – both the ceramics and the names embossed on them, plus one Portugese TV station on cable.

Lunch at Vihar Restaurant was orange juice and a club sandwich, but even that small amount felt far too filling for my needs.  My appetite seems to have really ‘taken a hit’ in the past few days.

Back to the hotel for more photo editing and watching UEFA game reruns.  Double cheese pizza for supper at Domino’s in an attempt to settle my stomach down a bit.

Walking back to the hotel I realise that this is probably the safest and most relaxed I’ve been in any country in the world.  Darkened streets are no big deal, and there’s enough English spoken to make me feel comfortable asking questions or talking with anyone.  Goa especially, because English is more widely spoken in this state than anywhere else I’ve been, and the Indian national tourists who come here are well-to-do and highly educated.

The work mentality in India is very strong because there’s no social safety net; it’s just regrettable when I see those hundreds of young men trying to make a living by flogging para-sail rides to tourists and hoping for a big score.  Riders in our group got ripped off twice during our two month journey through this country, but in both cases I saw the potential for trouble from groups of young boys/men and did what I could to avoid getting targeted.

Panaji/Panjim, Goa (Sat17Mar12)

SuperDave

This morning I woke up early, started thinking, and realised that I still don’t have an airline ticket to Delhi and if the airplanes are as full as the trains, there might be a real problem.  So much for getting back to sleep, it looks like today is for errands and shopping.

After breakfast a travel agent puts my mind at ease by confirming that every airline has seats available on the Goa/Delhi route for the next three days, it’ll just cost me a bit more every day that I delay.  Trying to buy a ticket direct from Jet Airways isn’t such a great deal (Rs.14,000 one-way) so I’ll find a travel agent who can scan the whole spectrum.

For a change of pace I decide to try and find that ASUS office and this time I’m successful – having sunshine makes it easier to spot the huge signs.  The store manager confirms he has a computer battery charger, attaches it, and while it’s charging I head over to a nearby travel agent.  By the time I’ve finished purchasing my Goa/Delhi ticket (Rs.9957) for the Monday evening flight on Spice Jet Airlines, my battery has finished charging and I’ve got lots of things to keep me busy for the rest of my stay.  So, it’s back to the hotel room for some action on that diary and those photos that need editing.

Not feeling hungry today, so I just wait until the 8:45pm supper cruise on the Santa Monica that putters around Panaji Harbour.  Reportedly 65 of us tourists onboard this evening but only about 6 Westeners because Indian nationals come to Goa to let loose on their holidays, too:  families, young & possibly newly married couples, older/retired couples, and then there’s this single white male sitting on a stack of plastic chairs in the back row alongside the drivers.  Best seats on the boat!

A well choreographed dance program, because alternating the young professional dancers with groups of the tourists, keeps things lively for an hour. [ carnival dance, Goa ] [ traditional dance, Portugal ] [ coconut dance, Goa ] [ traditional dance, Goa ] .

However, people ignore the suggestion not to stand up in front of the stage and take photos, two guys ignore the warning that smoking will result in a Rs.500 fine, and the bartender is drinking Kingfisher continually throughout the evening and ends up a bit tipsy at the end.  Never before have I been on a supper cruise without tables, but guests are expected take whatever buffet food will fit onto their plate and then balance it on their lap while the boat rocks in the wake of other passing ships.  A unique experience.

South Goa (Fri16Mar12)

SuperDave

Another day, another tour, and this time our bus will be doing South Goa.  A few new faces, but there are six people from yesterday’s tour so there are plenty of smiles and handshakes all around.  Harish gives his usual Welcome Aboard speech in his usual exuberant manner [ Harish welcoming speech ]. Our first stop is Miramar Beach where a newly married couple (Mrs & Mr  Hemant Chowdhary, marriage day #4) want their photo taken with me.  She doesn’t talk much, but he’s a medical technician who just spent three months in Milwaukee on a training course, so he’s quite relaxed with North Americans.  Fishermen are dragging their nets ashore with the morning catch [ fishing Miramar Beach ] .

Then the bus heads inland to Goa Velha (i.e. Old Goa), the original Portugese settlement with some massive old churches and ruins hinting at the size of the city that it used to be.  One church promises ‘relics’ of St. Francis Xavier in a crystal coffin, which may or may not actually be his body – I now realise that officials and/or family of the European colonial nations repatriated the corpses of their important settlers/colonists.

Then it’s off to another temple, Sri Manguesh Devasthan, with some lovely Hindu chants reverberating through the courtyard.  Not as many buses on the South Goa tour because we’re almost alone for lunch, another Rs.120 veggie buffet lunch.  Another Hindu temple in the afternoon, Sri Shantararga Sausthan, with a plaque saying that it was re-established in this distant small town because Christian missionaries were desecrating Hindu shrines and temples closer to the Portugese settlement.  Then we climb up into the foothills for a visit to the Casa Araujo Alvares, a hill station home to one of the original Portugese families but left at it was in the 1950s when it was vacated to become a tourist attraction.

No trip to Goa would be complete without a beach and we head through Madgaon and across to Colva Beach, an 8km stretch of clean wide sand.  Sure, it’s got the same perpendicular access road with its commercial strip of tourist shops, but this is more my idea of an attractive beach – clean and wide sand, a few scattered beach shacks along the foreshore, several cottages/hotels behind the dunes, and only a few boats marring the waterfront.  Maybe next time….

On the way back to Panaji we stop in at the Abyss Marine Fish Aquarium.  Imagine a bunch of 100L aquarium tanks sitting on tables in a large room, some with marine fish and others with fresh water (?) fish, tourists follow a walking path between the tanks, everybody taps on the glass to startle the creatures and make them move, people put their fingers into the water of tanks where signs read “Do Not Touch Here!”, visitors take photos of everything that hasn’t fled from sight.  Okay, don’t imagine it – it’s all there.  And worse.  After the aquarium there’s a House of Horrors which only costs another Rs.50 admission fee!  So, now you know the whole story.

Back to the hotel and another fruitless attempt to find a computer battery charger and an airline office that’s still open.  I must have walked down every backstreet in this city by now, but all I’ve got to show for it is a feeling of distance and futility.  Supper at Fishland again because I haven’t turned vegetarian yet and should try to have meat/fish at least once a day; besides their prices are quite reasonable.

North Goa (Thu15Mar12)

SuperDave

Good sleep last night, not too much noisy traffic and I sleep well even with the windows open onto the street.  Up just before 7am, breakfast at the Vihar Restaurant, then get ready for a tour of North Goa.  The 22 seat bus pulls up just before 10am and after all our pickups there are 13 of us plus a driver and guide, Harish.  It’s a “local tour” with Harish giving his entire presentation in Hindi and including (as is the habit, especially in Goa) enough English words that I can figure out most of what he’s talking about [ Harish welcoming speech ].  At each stop he takes me aside and reiterates the important points – especially the departure time – in English just to make sure I’m ‘up to speed’.

Our bus crosses the bridge and circles the harbour northward, around the point and then there’s a large congregation of tourist facilities servicing Coco Beach and the Mondavi River area.  The hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, etc. line the road leading out to a particular beach (there are NO roads parallel to and behind the beach) which means that tourists usually stay/live/eat/etc. quite a distance from the beach and need transportation each time they want to go to the ocean or back.  Now I understand why many travellers rent a motorcycle for their stay, the rest probably hire a tuk-tuk for each trip, walking isn’t a realistic option unless you get one of those few hotels adjacent to the beach parking lot which is a noisy and stinky location

Our first stop is the Sinquerim Dolphin Trips, where Harish organises our group onto one launch for a ride out to view the dolphins.  On our boat ride way down the Mondavi River, several fishermen are up to their necks in the water, holding/setting nets as the tide comes in to make their catch for the day.  In the outer harbour you know where the dolphins are/were by noticing the 15-20 similar boats circling about.  Today’s objects of attention are two Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins and each captain competes to see who can come closest to the dolphins without ramming them or his fellow boat captain.  It’s a very aggressive but friendly competition, and more importantly no dolphins appear to have been struck or injured.  After the dolphins submerge/disappear, we putter over to Lower Aguada Fort (originally a protective fortification for Portugese ships at anchor in the harbour and until recently a gaol), ogle Jimmy’s Million Dollar House (whoever Jimmy is?), and then cruise past Coco Beach on our way back to the river.

The bus drives up the hill to Upper Aguada Fort and we get ½ hour to tour that facility (the major seaside defence of Goa for several hundred years) and the obsolescent Aguada Lighthouse.

Next is our “token” Hindu temple, Sri Chauranginath Bhumika Devasthan at Bardez, where the temple guardian seems to have become impervious to the insensitive apparel of some insensitive tourists, and photos of the shrine aren’t actively discouraged.

Then it’s a long drive to beautiful Sri Mahalaxmi Beach, where we finally get to walk the hot sand or have the waves cool our feet.  When I try taking a photograph of a “friendly” shell game near the beach entrance, I find out just how protective these guys can be of their little scam – NO pictures!  We insist!  Here’s your camera back.

We must be ahead of schedule, because our next stop is Anjuna Beach, which doesn’t really have a beach but it still has an access road lined with the usual tourist shops.  Freddy decides to take a walk on the wild side and have his photo taken near the crashing waves.

Then we stop at a row of shops and Harish makes an impassioned plea for passengers to guard their health and stock up with both spirits and locally-grown cashews.  It’s now becoming obvious to me why this bus tour is so reasonably priced:  in addition to our own Rs.200 payment, the tour company makes a commission on every dolphin tour they book, every lunch they sell, and cashew nut they can convince us to purchase.

But the highlight of North Goa is Calangute Beach, a 4km stretch of sand covered with people (some swimmers, mostly not), speed boats, banana boats, jet ski boats, para-sail boats, etc.  The foreshore is lined with an almost continuous string of beach shacks providing beach chairs, some blaring loud music, others providing peace & quiet, but all selling food and drink to their increasingly pink customers.

It’s after 5pm when the bus heads back to Panaji, where I do my second bus/walk tour looking for a computer battery charger, manage to change some US currency at the Thomas Cook office, enjoy a seafood supper at Fishland, and adjourn back to my room with a 1.2L bottle of Maazaa (mango juice) to enjoy more taped UEFA football on the ‘tellie’.

IRR GandhiDham Express – Goa (Wed14Mar12)

SuperDave

Shortly after 9am it begins getting warm up there under the roof, so I climb down from my ‘sleeper berth’, there aren’t too many passengers this morning so I’m able to stretch out and do my diary while the train does the stretch into Madgaon, Goa.  Arrival in Madgaon is just before 11am and I realise that this station is still a long way out of Panaji and transportation could be problematic.  What better idea that to hop back on the GandhiDham Express and take it one more station?

Well, the problem is that this train bypasses Panaji and doesn’t stop for about an hour (50km) in the state of Maharashtra, so I’m back to my old tricks of getting lost.  A railway employee says there are no trains back to Madgaon from there until late afternoon, so I decide to join a couple of young guys who suggest I join them on a bus to Salvarhadi, then I can bus back towards Panaji.  That’s a plan, and the interesting thing on this little detour is that I cross my old bicycle route from several weeks ago and know some of the countryside quite well indeed from being lost on that day too.  Interesting how history repeats itself…

Just before 3pm my inter-state bus pulls into the Panaji Bus Station, I set out on foot in the general direction of downtown Panaji, and settle into the “Bharat Lodge”, neat and clean, but on a back street in an old city which isn’t my idea of paradise.  Going to have to do some scouting before I settle in the long haul, but it turns out to be the best of a bad bunch of choices in town.

Out to Miramar Beach for sunset and I notice that this seems to be an institutionalised part of Goa society – everybody’s out there with me!  Back into town for supper at the Vihara All-Veg Restaurant and then adjourn to the room for some UEFA football and a 1.2L bottle of Coke.

Kanyakumari – IRR GandhiDham Express (Tue13Mar12)

SuperDave

No alarm today but I’m so buzzed that I can’t sleep in.  Holdun finally gets up about 6:30am so I get myself moving too.  Have a nice warm shower and start re-packing my bags for the next stage of my Indian Adventure, this time without a bicycle.  One member already left early this morning for Trivandrum Airport, a taxi with three others pulled out at 7am, but the rest of the group is having a leisurely breakfast.  I’m up on the roof for a final Skype with Bro Barry and then Sheena, showing them the Old Man of the Ocean monument by netbook camera.  The staff are repacking the vans so I drop by for a final farewell to them, manage to snag a bag of cashews for nibblies later today.

Lock the room just before 10am, meet and say goodbye to Charles just outside the hotel, then it’s a short 300m walk up to the bus stop.  Minutes later an old ‘chicken bus’ pulls around the corner, the driver motions me onboard, and we’re off through the back roads to Nagercoil.  This late morning bus is seriously busy and we’re packed to the windows with ladies and young children on their way in to the market.  20km later and I’ve forgotten to tell the driver my destination so I’ve missed my chance for a quick exit to the Nagercoil Railway Station.  However, I follow his hand waving advice and stick with the bus into the bus station and then out again, finally he’s able to drop me off right at the front door of the station, Wow!, I shake hands with the driver for being so understanding and helpful.  Not bad for a Rs.11 ticket!

Two more hours before train departure but I find that all the Sleeper Class and 1st Class seats were filled eons ago, and after three different line-ups the only fare I can purchase at this late date is a 2nd Class ‘open seating’ ticket.  Only Rs.190 (CDN$4) for a 22 hour journey of about 1,000km, so this should be an interesting ride.  However, when you board the train which is sitting at its ‘station of origin’ you do get a good choice of seating; I pick a windows facing forward, and the IRR GandhiDham Express train pulls out just after 1:30pm.

At Trivandrum, does this car ever fill up!  Five bums in the four numbered seats on our bench, and the excess passengers are either standing in the aisles or have climbed up into the overhead baggage rack.  This is the reality of train travel in India and it’s not so bad – if you’ve got a seat.  People preserve their seat space with a personal item when they go for a stroll, either inside the train or outside during a stop, and others are very respectful of not hijacking the seat or taking the personal item.

I meet and have a lively conversation with three Indian nationals (father and his very opinionated 18-year old daughter, plus a young man of about 20 years old) for several hours.  My butt really begins to hurt from sitting on these thin bench cushions, and just before midnight I accept an offer to climb onto the our overhead baggage rack above our bench seat.  Great decision!  I can stretch out my entire 180cm frame, use my bicycle bag for a pillow, and the wood slats aren’t much less cushioning than some of the hotel beds we’ve experienced over the past eight weeks.  Snooze time.

Kanyakumari (12Mar12) 4,323.5km Total Cycling Distance

SuperDave

TdA Indian Adventure 2012 (group photo at Kanyakumari)

TdA Indian Adventure 2012 (actual route)

Kovalem – Kanyakumari (Mon12Mar12) 92.4km, 4:06:10, 4,323.5kmFINAL

SuperDave

A/C came on in the middle of the night (when full power was restored) so it’s a refreshing and early morning here in Kovalem.  Nobody in the group is in a rush today, but we’re encouraging Rudolph to get moving because he’s the one that most of us think will delay the ‘photo op’ at Kanyakumari.

Away by 7am and into the busyness of the weekday morning traffic, narrow winding roads, the occasional hill, just try to follow the flagtape because without any sun there is no sense of direction to this route. Very humid and occasionally above 100% which means there are droplets of water in our face while we’re cycling; can’t really call it rain but the road does glisten and you have to be careful not to slip when turning those sharp corners.

Occasionally we get near the west coast, so there’s a chance to watch/hear the surf, then we turn back inland and have no notion that there’s salt water anywhere in the vicinity.

There’s a not so subtle change as we cross back into Tamil Nadu state, the road deteriorates, the Christian churches give way to Hindu temples, the buildings all look a bit less prosperous, but the change in licence plates on the buses that confirms all the above symptoms.

Morning means a hot breakfast and the roadside grills are “hotted up” and cooking dosa (pancakes).  Motorcycles are passing me with fish tails sticking out of the boxes on the back, so the morning catch is going to market packed in ice [ ice crusher ].  When you get close to the ocean you can hear the pounding surf and see the fishing boats pulled up above the crashing waves [ surf's up, Tamil Nadu ]

There’s a roadside sawmill in operation, but just as I stop for a photo they decide to take a chai break – bad timing, but we all laugh.  Further on there’s a large group making coconut husk ropes and having quite an animated time of it [making coconut husk rope #1 ] [making coconut husk rope #2 ] [ making coconut husk rope #3 ] .  Across a ‘bailey bridge’ and there’s a group fishermen in the churchyard preparing their longline fishing tackle for the next fishing trip [ preparing longline fishing tackle ] .

Turns out that even with all these photo stops I’m still the lead rider, so I pull into our lunch stop and let everybody else catch up.  Everybody else, that is, except Rudolph.  Rudolph is lost so we spend nearly two hours until word comes through that he’s taken another road and has already arrived at the hotel in Kanyakumari.  We saddle up and form into pairs to create a convoy for the final ride to the southern tip of India.

There’s a bit of confusion at the boat jetty, but eventually we are allowed to walk our bikes through.  We indulge in a lot of posing and fooling around, then set up for the group photos.  On to the Hotel Sea View and just enough time for shower and laundry before the bicycle packing begins in earnest.

John takes a photo of me selling my bicycle, “Bikey”, to Baba for the grand sum of Rs.10.  It’s a good deal for everybody; he has a good bike, and I don’t have to pack it back to Canada.  And then there’s all those spare parts that I’ve been carrying around in my bag and can now get rid of.  This will make my final week in India a lot less cumbersome.

Charles and I exchange memories over a Kingfisher in a nearby bar, then head back to the hotel for the wrap-up events.  Slide shows from Henrik & Lisse-Lott, Vinay, and Mike set the mood – yes, it’s been a heck of a journey and it looks even more mystical now that we can see the results through the eyes of the rider’s cameras.

Supper is a buffet on the terrace and riders hang around long afterwards, talking in small groups, exchanging e-mail info, talking about their route home.  Just the way a group ride should end.

Kollam – Kovalem (Sun11Mar12) 108.8km, 4:08:54, 4,231.1kmYTD

SuperDave

5:45am is becoming such a standard wake-up time that my mind can anticipate the alarm.  Recordings and sounds of distant church services echo across the lake, preceding the sun’s arrival.  I’m raring to go this morning, so a quick breakfast then up the hill at 6:50am, and back out into an awakening world.

Traffic is definitely lighter on a Sunday morning in a Christian state of India, most private cars seem to be hauling people to church, no heavy trucks, and the usual assortment of buses.  Election signs are out in profusion and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) leads the way with it’s bright red banners and huge posters of Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Stalin.  Stalin?  Yes, even Uncle Joe the Great Dictator seems to have escaped censure for his slaughter of the Ukrainians and emerged as a leader worthy of emulation here in India.  Who would have thunk?

Traffic begins to pick up as we approach Trivandrum and is heavy along the beach highway, before I turn in and follow the flagtape truck (and Tony) into the grounds of the Sagara Resort.  Only 11:30am so there’s lots of time to sit in the lobby, read a newspaper, and wait for Shanny to settle all the little details about rooms, parking, etc.

After showers and laundry, I walk down to the beach with Charles.  Kovalem Beach is quite funky, the restaurant and souvenir shop strip above the beach, a few Western travellers on beach chairs and lots of Indian men walking by to oggle them,  But a disturbing sewage smell hangs in the air, and we then spot an ‘Oh Henry’ bar being washed up by the surf, so I decline to get more than my ankles wet.  Charles and Agnes brave the waves and ‘floaties’, get bashed around a bit by the surf, but emerge un-beaten.  Time for Happy Hour back at our room, a dip in the hotel pool, and some serious blog time.

Shanny hosted an “awards presentation” at the 6:30pm group meeting and came up with some ‘fun’ awards from the past two month of riding.  My award was for putting on a few extra kilometres that weren’t part of the planned route; he was nice enough not to call it ‘lost’ but he’d didn’t use the words ‘innovative thinking’ either.  Supper buffet was very good, and I notice it was also available to all the guests, so maybe that’s the determining factor for quality food/flavour at a hotel.

Had a bit of rain this afternoon but after supper it really began to pour down.  On top of that there was an area-wide power failure in Kovalem but it’s cool enough that the A/C isn’t being missed this evening.

Alapuzzha – Kollam (Sat10Mar12) 104.1km, 4:11:37, 4,122.3kmYTD

SuperDave

Average buffet selection of breakfast items this morning but I’m not really hungry.  Heading out along the main street in Alapuzzha I take lots of pictures of the election party signage – the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party) seems to have the monopoly on the colour red, and the DYFI (Democratic Youth for India) are responsible for those black & white icons of Che Guevara on the telephone poles.

Riding along State Highway #11 through low-lying land, crossing bridges over rivers and back-water canals, a hawk sits on a nearby post checking out the action.  Then Shanny’s Trail veers right and heads cross-country through the rice paddies which have been drained for the harvest and are being harvested by tracked, pint-sized Crop Tiger combines.  Burlap sacks are being filled with the rice, weighed, and then loaded onto trucks for the drive to nearby warehouses.

As the route starts climbing into the hills, there is spoor of elephant life on the side of the road, and through the day I spot three elephants being led alongside the road; a mahout riding on top and an assistant leading the beast from the front.  I take photos of the first two and then it’s “Ho-hum, just another elephant”; my, how quickly the exotic turns into the mundane.

A funeral procession is approaching so I pull off the road and remove my helmet out of respect, but I soon realise that nobody else in motorised vehicles is really paying any attention to this ceremony.  In Morroco, traffic stopped in both directions when a casket was being carried past and the mourners were chanting; here in India it’s just another routine event.

The day’s climbing only starts after lunch and there aren’t that many tough stretches to handle, it’s a bit of rolling countryside and most of the +850m of vertical is taken care of in a half-dozen minor hills.  The trail ends on the shores of a brackish lake at an off-the-beaten-path facility called the Palm Lagoon Resort.

Shower, laundry, and a long conversation with Charles and Rudolph lubricated by a bit of fermented sugar cane juice.  At the group meeting Shanny softens us up for the impending decisions on how we will be ‘tipping the staff’:  he does a re-introduction of the staff, reminds everybody of their job functions, and compliments them for their work over the past 8 weeks.  And thank goodness the food is also much better tonight.

Fort Cochin – Alappuzha (Fri09Mar12) 58.3km, 2:25:39, 4,018.2kmYTD

SuperDave

Slowly I awaken to the sound of A/C in an otherwise quiet room, gradually growing lighter with the dawn, Charles has been up for a while puttering on his iPad, this is the way to greet the new day.

Breakfast is scheduled for the rooftop restaurant at 8am but nobody’s in a rush today, except maybe the kitchen staff who are dashing around getting our meals ready.

The streets are strangely quiet for a week day, but Fort Cochin is an historic and tourist area, so things don’t get rolling here too early.  Shanny’s Trail will take us along the coast all morning, and it’s a quaint little two-lane road just back from the ocean wall, lots of kids on their way to school want to wave and say “Good morning!”.

The government has constructed a 3-4 metre tall, non-mortar stone wall all along this coast, with an adjacent large-stone breakwater facing and blending with the ocean.  The construction appears to be fairly recent, and now the one-storey houses only have a view of those stones; you have to have a second storey in order to see the ocean.  I presume that the construction is to form some sort of storm or tsunami barrier to protect the residents and the highway.

There’s a few openings in the wall for the fishing fleets that provide employment for the men along this coast.  The breach that I notice is near Kuttiyatodu so I turn in for some photos of the harbour [ Kuttiyatodu Harbour ] , the fishing fleet, and the catching drying in the sun.

Further south the fishing boats have just been pulled up on the wide beach and there’s a market atmosphere as the catch is packaged fresh on bicycle carriers and spirited away to the waiting customers.  Fishermen are now just sitting around chatting, chewing betel nut & paan [ selling betel fix, Shertallai ] , playing cards [ playing cards, Shertallai ] , and watch the foreign cyclist walk all over taking photos.

Even further south, a group of fishermen has gathered to mend nets, everyone with their awl and their razor blade, to patch up the holes of the purse net [ mending nets, Shertollai ] .  One very enterprising fisherman (who speaks good English) suggests that maybe I would like to buy the group two kilograms of bananas from the adjacent shop owner so the fishermen can all have a refreshment break, I concur.  So, for Rs.68 I purchase enough bananas for everybody to have two, plus two for myself, and everybody’s happy and smiling.  I love it!

And just a bit further south, I hear the clacking of looms and turn in to find a small industry busily producing what looks like carpet runners [ weaving carpet runners #1, Shertollai ] [ weaving #2 ] .  Two weavers, a spinner, and a couple of other people getting yarn ready for the machines.  As always, I tell them my name, where I’m from, ask if I can take photos, and show all the usual interest in their work; it never fails.

The road now crosses a railway line and then slides under an overpass, so I know that we’re off the peninsula and back in civilisation again.  Traffic picks up and soon the flagtape brings us to the Arcadia Regency Hotel in Alappuzha, a very new building with lots of finishing work still going on.  Shower, laundry, and lunch, a dip in the 5th Floor pool, then it’s time for the diary/blog/photos.

Later I’m out for to walk around but can’t find Weird Al Yankovic.   Stop at The Bar in the basement of our hotel on my way back and have a couple of Kingfisher and soak up the local ambiance of a cold, dark male reserve.  The buffet supper features bland imitations of North Indian dishes, so it doesn’t look like we’re going to savour the much vaunted South Indian cuisine on this trip.

Mike drops by the room after supper to copy photos and drop off his own video collection from the past two months, plus the ones he copied from other cyclists.  I may never get to the beaches in Goa if I have to sort through all these photos before heading home!

Fort Cochin (Thu08Mar12) 3,959.9kmYTD

SuperDave

This morning it’s a 5:45am alarm for a 6:30am tour pick-up at our hotel – seven of us are heading off on a day trip to see the elephants and ride a boat through the back water for Rs.1,500.  I have no idea what they means but going along with the gang seems infinitely better than hanging around the room or walking around Fort Cochin all day.

Jeep pick-up is right on time, we drive all the way back past the Cochin Airport and arrive at the riverside at 8am, and apparently this is where the mahouts will bring the elephants down to bathe.  45 minutes later the group of four pacyderms rumble into view, assume their positions in the water, and proceed to get scrubbed and brushed all over for about an hour [ washing an adult elephant ] .  There are about 20 tourists taking photos of everything in sight (me too!), but this is actually the first time this trip that the elephants have stayed still long enough for a photo session [ washing 3 juvenile elephants ] .

Then we’re back into the Jeep and shortly after make a stop for breakfast, dosa (pancakes stuffed with spiced potato) and chai.

Another hour of driving and we’re south of Fort Cochin on one of an inland set of islands and canals and lakes, walking to the back-water cruise boat at about noon.  Two guys pole a dozen of us along a canal for a distance [ washing clothes ], and then over to a hut where lunch is served on a banana leaf.  Then they pole us over to a large lake, where the wind is blowing strongly (in our face from the NW), and eventually return us back to our waiting Jeep by 3pm.  A nice cool break in the day.

The Jeep takes us back to the hotel and Rudolph says he will celebrate his birthday by ‘springing’ for the afternoon Kingfisher break up on the rooftop bar.  There’s a dozen of us who take him up on his offer and officially welcome in his 67th year of life.  Later that evening it’s seafood supper with John, David, and Charles then over to the bakery for a black forest cake dessert.

Aluva – Fort Cochin (Wed07Mar12) 43.8km, 1:40:51, 3,959.9kmYTD

SuperDave

Late breakfast today so the alarm is set for 7:15am, but my body is so used to early starts that for an hour or so I’m just lying in bed planning what stuff I’m going to jettison before the flight back to Canada, who’s going to get it, what sort of cash tip to give each of the staff, etc.  The group haven’t really been told what we’re supposed to see/do while cycling along the coast of Kerala so we’re dredging up other things to think about.  And with less than one week to go in the tour, leaving India holds as much attraction as the sights we have still to enjoy.

The hotel offers a lovely breakfast buffet but with so much residual effects from supper, I don’t have the appetite to get its full value.  Solo bike departures begin about 8am and I’m not too far behind a few of the others.  This highway used to be a narrow, twisty rural road, but years of creeping urbanisation have also made it very congested; at this time of the morning there are lots of kids and school buses on their way to class, lots of motorcycles pulling in from every approach and side road, a good time to be alert and not easily distracted.

Out to the coast at 23.7km then a hard left turn to head south along the frontage road.  One never does see the coast, but there are signs and turn-offs for a continuous string of hotels, resorts, etc.  Weaving in and out of the buses and tuk-tuks is becoming second nature to me, so I rarely have to stop, but do keep a careful eye on approaching traffic to get my timing right while passing the stopped vehicle in front of me.

Vypern Island is where the traffic begins to decrease, mostly because it’s at the end of a long peninsula and this is where you catch a passenger/car ferry over to Fort Cochin.  While I’m waiting, Charles catches up to me so we make the crossing together.  Ferry costs are Rs.3 for me and Bikey to make the 10 minute crossing, and the loading/unloading operation of the ferry boat is slick and well-rehearsed.

We pull up to the Bright Heritage Hotel about 10am, a modern building right in the middle of the tourist section  of Fort Cochin.  Unfortunately, as I pull up to the main door there’s no ‘whiteboard’ outside with written instructions for the cyclists and a merchant suggests that I must have time to walk next door and check out his carpet shop.  Then other man (his partner? the hotel doorman?) shows up and suggests I just put my bike down in the parking space and check out the carpet shop.  And in the midst of this cajoling Shanny comes out the front door of the hotel and announces to Charles and I that he’s only been there 10 minutes and is still working on where to park our bikes.  Decision:  this is the last time that I’m going to be first to arrive at a new TdA hotel; it’s just too chaotic and kills the wonderful mood I’d built up during the ride.

After a shower and laundry, it’s time to go exploring Fort Cochin.  A walk over to Vasco de Gama Square, a walk past The Bastion and along the waterfront, a look through the gate of the Dutch Cemetery, and a visit to St. Francis Church (originally built in 1503) where Vasco de Gama was first buried before having his body repatriated to Portugal.  Rudolph shows up so we each have a coconut to drink [ preparing coconut milk ] , then head over to a restaurant near the ferry terminal for lunch and to watch the ships sail in and out of Cochin Harbour.

It’s so hot and humid that I head back to the hotel for a shower, a rest, and to watch a taped UEFA game between Benefica and Sporting Lisbon.  Later on I join Stirling and we walk the 2km over to Jew Town where the old Jewish settlement and synagogue have been overrun by trendy antique stores and assorted tourist shops.  After a late afternoon Kingfisher with a group of riders, it’s out for a seafood supper at a nearby sidewalk restaurant.