Monday, December 29, 2014

Yellapur to Dandeli

Leaving Yellapur we enjoyed riding through the jungles of the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary, with virtually no traffic and only jumping monkeys and shrilling of birds to keep us company. Our first stop at the edge of Dandeli was at the government run Jungle Resort, staff dressed as ageing boy scouts, offering a room for two at a steep price or camping in tents - not much less expensive. When I questioned the prices, the first selling point was that it included a bonfire, a seemingly obvious attempt to sell the sizzle, as well as night and morning jungle activities and all meals.

Within less than a kilometer, we were at the town traffic circle, with the usual mayhem, the high noon sun soaking up my energy reserves, when a kind soul offered to help locate the homestay I had been trying to find. Using two cell phones, and many trips in and out of an adjoining small eatery, about 10 minutes later this friendly fellow summons someone from the crowd, who proceeds to guide us across the traffic circle, to a travel agent, with all kinds of enticing photos of elephants, treks etc. Alarm bells rang for this intrepid independent traveler. The agent, who we later learn is Nandini, tells me that the highly rated homestay I wanted is some 60 kms away. She shows me a number of nearby properties on her computer screen, and I select one with a pink room, costing a modest 1000 rupees room only or 2000 for the package, which again included a bonfire and meals or about 10% of the government property's rates. A quick calculus: room only is a better value as we will likely not have breakfast and take lunch in town. She is delighted with our choice as it is the property that she and her family own and manage, and Nandini and husband lead the way in their car for about 3 kms, with us cycling behind, to their Jungle Mist Hill Homestay.

The place, at the foot of a hill, is a former worker lodging for a nearby pulp mill. It is simple, with renovated bathrooms, but provides the basic creature comforts. Set on the edge of a small village where locals still live off the land as I suspect they have for generations, our presence is very much a novelty. In fact, between Goa and Hampi, for about 10 days there was not a foreigner in sight.

Following signs at first, we go looking for a nearby mountain top temple. When there are no more signs we follow narrow and steep trails to the top of the hill, assuming from the name, that temple would occupy prime real estate at the peak but its not there. After climbing down, a half hour each way, we discover that it was much closer to our place of stay but we managed to create our own jungle experience! We walk to the village, and enjoy the market: a proud flower merchant offers Alison a red rose, another bananas, neither expecting anything but a smile and a thanks in return. Lunch is the local thali, four curries, rice and chapati, with unlimited refills for 50 rupees a serving, a bargain even in India. We sip chai at the end of a bridge that separates the village for the "jungle lodge" and watch local life unfold in front of our eyes and of course respond to ongoing questions about us aliens "What is your country? what is your age? what is your profession? What is your purpose in India? What do you eat in India?" This is typically followed by a request to take our photograph on a cell phone and a parting phrase "Happy journey"

The second day Nadini's brother and four college friends arrive from Pune, a big city some six hours drive away. They have come, wanting to partake in a back-to-nature, outdoor experience. In the evening, the 'house boy' struggles even with plenty of lighter fluid, to start the bonfire of a few sad sticks of wood, and the smell of the later is quite overwhelming. Wood as a fuel source is a scarce commodity, as all through are travels, we see people pick dead pieces, cutting branches and splitting chunks with wedges and hammers.

At our bonfire, the men bring out a bottle of rum and a bottle of 12 year old scotch. It is clear they are not drinkers. Being "uncle" as I am commonly called, and not wishing to be a poor sport, I, with much persuasion, accept the first serving from the bottle and help consume far more than my share of the scotch.

A live band, brought in for the occasion, plays local melodies in the background as Nandini tells us about her marketing plans for the lodge and business plans for hotel she and family are building north of Goa. Being someone who never feels too restrained about giving advice, free or otherwise, and with the help of good scotch, I make some marketing and real estate suggestions. She is clearly appreciative.

On our final bill, the room rate is reduced for the "overstay night" and there is no charge for the the second dinner as "we were part of the family". Such is the warmth and generosity that we continually receive.

As we continue our ride, sadly, I cannot help but notice, outside factories, construction sites and where crops are being harvested, temporary settlements consisting of prospector style tents: mostly blue tarps supported by a beam and a couple of cross pieces. These tent cities have with minimal facilities: women cooking on open fires, water carried in large urns for considerable distance and children and a few livestock, meandering about. We in the developed world seek out glam camping and the outdoor experience; clearly, India has also arrived as urbanites are drawn by bonfires and the seemingly simpler ways of life of yesteryear.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

From Goa to Yellapur

Traveling, especially in India, while reading Paul Theroux's semi-autobiographical "My Secret History", is a lethal combination for me. His response to a female benefactor's question: "Is there anything you want?" He replies "Yes, what no one else has, what no one else wants or can even imagine." He continues "people with money bought things to be like everyone else. If I had money, I thought, I would try to be different as possible'".

Leaving the endless beaches of Goa with limitless comforts and stuff that money can buy and what all the tourist seem to want and can have, we took a radical turn as we headed inland. For a week now we have been riding through country I could not have imagined, and because of the perceived hardship of doing it on two wheels, I suspect few would want, and yet the totality of the experience, is as different as possible, which makes it so satisfying.

Our point of departure from the coast was Karwar, a sheltered port, a huge estuary that has been coveted by navies and foreign conquerors for millennia and is now India's largest naval base. Our first stop is in Virje, just a tiny dot only on the Google map, turns out to be the home of a huge hydro and nuclear power project, with residents housed in Soviet style high-rises and a fleet of modern buses shuttling workers between sites. The hotel we stayed at clearly had its moment of grandeur during the construction phase of the projects a few decades ago, and is now vastly oversized and under-utilized, and the deferred maintenance is clearly showing. The arrival of two foreigners, especially cyclists, sends waves through the staff. I decline the super-deluxe suite, all in white marble and cavernous spaces with badly peeling plaster, for the superior room, in much better condition and still huge with the same gleaming marble. The manager personally directs us to the attached restaurant and the staff descends eager to please. Outside the residential compound the locals treat us as dignitaries from a foreign place, which we clearly are.

For our next day's ride we are forewarned that it is for the most part through a State Park and there are no services other than two tiny villages, and that the road is mostly a single lane track, albeit paved. We stock up on local tangerines, bananas, peanuts, water and of course, sweets and pastries, which are ubiquitous in India. What we were not anticipating were the twist and turns and challenging hills, and the near absence of any traffic. The sixty kilometers were demanding but thrilling as the jungle provided a near complete canopy covering, keeping us cool and waterfalls with their rushing sounds adding a novelty to the silence of the jungle, which was constantly punctuated by birds, mostly heard but not seen. But it was the presence of monkeys, individually and sometimes in large troops watching us from the roadside or jumping from tree to tree leaving trails of green leaves and small broken branches on the roadside that provided amusement beyond imagination.

Arriving quite tired in Yellapur, we were further delighted to see a huge billboard advertising Banana County Resort with modern cottages, massage, internet etc. and it was only two kilometers off the main road, admittedly on a poorly maintained dirt track. The place was huge and an inspection of the room showed it to have all the mod cons. At about $50 per night it was expensive, but seemed like a fitting reward for a hard days' days ride. To our surprise, there was no hot water. When I mentioned this obvious deficiency, and that even the bell boy said there was hot water, we were given a stream of explanations. "Yes there is hot water; would will like a bucket of it now, that there was break in the pipes, and the "bellboy does not know anything." On further probing, we are reassured that there is solar powered hot water but is not turned on because there are no guests. Clearly our presence after paying full freight went unnoticed. Later, after an immense struggle, as the internet only works intermittently if one leanes over the front reception desk, I was able to check Tripadvisor and noticed that lots of others complained about not having had hot water. When I mention this to the manager, he said "those were comments by angry and malicious customers who demanded a discount, for no hot water". Exactly!

We had a great dinner in the cavernous but elegant dining room. The next morning, at exactly 6:30 am as promised, there is a knock at the door and a waiter in full uniform, gleaming smile announces: "Good morning SIR! its bed tea". When I ask for a bucket of hot water, he assures me, and indeed the hot water has been turned on! Welcome to the mysterious ways of India. We left clean and well fed, awaiting the mysteries of the roads ahead.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Goa and beyond?

Journeys to exotic places typically begin with a kamikaze driver. Our taxi ride, a distance of about 30 kms, that took about an hour in heavy traffic, seemed like eternity, as we made our way from Goa International Airport to the historic Portuguese part of the city called Paniji, was no exception. The heat, the humidity, the blaring horns, the relentless effort to gain inches by weaving in and out of traffic and accelerating and then crashing to sudden stops, in our jet lagged stupor, did not help. The very thought of cycling here became terrifying. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Coming to Goa is our way of joining dots. Our first cycling ride in India, some 12 years ago, started on the east coast city of Chennai, to the southern tip, then up the west coast of Kerala, Kochi and ending in Goa. Our second adventure in India was through Rajasthan and such famous fort-cities as Udaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner and Pushkar. Our third trip started in Delhi and followed many of the places associated with the life of Buddha and then into Nepal's mountainous Pokhara, Kathmandu and the jungles of the Terrai, and then to back to Delphi.

India being a huge land mass and offering a multitude of places to see and experience our trip, is largely designed to connect dots on a map. Starting from Goa, where our first trip ended we will make our way east to Hampi and then points north toward Amritsar, the heart of Punjab and near the Pakistani border, then to the foothills of the Himalayas and back to Delhi. The route is a series of dots on a map, like children playing hopscotch, we will try not to step on places we have been before. A huge limiting factor will be places to stay within a reasonable day's ride, which will be a challenge off the main tourist routes, both in terms of distances between dots and their quality standards.

We are now nearly at the end of our second week, and so far we have managed to join the nearly endless beach communities, north and south of Goa, all with a minimum of effort, having only cycled about a 120 kms in total.

The initial taxi drive from Goa's Dabolim Airport was not only notable for the training the driver received from the descendants of Emperor Hirohito but as an introduction to India and its mysterious ways. Wanting to minimize our environmental impact and save our rupees, given a choice of pre-paid taxis, we asked for non-AC. Not surprisingly, only the more expensive air conditioned cars were available. Having experienced India before, it was no further surprise, that in this near new Toyota, AC was not available: our small but pricy contribution to minimizeing climate change and an opportunity to enjoy through open windows, all that the drive had to offer.

In a similar twisted way we enjoy other convolutions: we ask for toasted bread to be told that they have "bread toast not toasted". In a small eatery, where omelets are served, I ask for a masala omelet to be told only plain omelets are available, to be given one full of onions, vegetables and chillies, which of course is masala!

To our good or misfortune, on arrival we sourced a wonderful map of Goa and our route , locating dozens of beaches and detailed schematics, on how to find them. As if to aid in the decision making, nearly all of the mentioned sun worshiping opportunities have capsule photos, measuring one cm square, each with near identical white sand and blue seas. Being discerning travelers, we are intent on experiencing and are slowly becoming ready for our final exam: to compare and contrast the beaches of Goa. At Candolim beach, to the north I had an opportunity to refresh my early training in Russian, and resist the vendors offering made-to-measure suits and fur jackets. At Colva beach, we enjoyed a more cosmopolitan environment including a stay in a hotel with a huge pool. Further south, at Agonda beach we discovered the later day remnants of hippiedom, with sacred cow yoga practised on the beach with abandon, stayed in a bamboo hut erected each season and had copious cappuccinos at the German Bakery with appropriate breads and other irresistible goodies. Now even further south at Palolem, in a near hidden jungle setting, at the Castle House Hotel, we are deciding which of the beaches to enjoy, where to get a massage and thoughts of doing a training ride, in anticipation of the hills and long riding days, is pushed further and further back. Will our stay be three days, a week, or longer? Its hard to predict. While each beach has its unique features, and wanting to do well on our final exam, we need to do more exploring, while enjoying the commonalities of sun, sand, good food, and all the intense relaxation one can handle.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Enjoying the ride

We are now on the Island of Pangkor, a tropical paradise about 10 kms in length, dotted with white sandy beaches and a handful of settlements with large exclusive gated resorts and the usual modest chalets and small guest houses, where we are staying and endless stalls offering quick foods, blow up beach toys and a gamut of rides and snorkeling opportunities to nearby islets with even more remote beaches and coves.

Our journey to date has been about 750 kms in about 12 riding days, and thankfully, after a near absence of riding for two years, each day has been progressively easier as we get fitter as we steam along. The first few days were the hardest, as I suffered from the “princess and the pea syndrome” with each white stripe on the road feeling like a ride over a washboard; the slightest increase in elevations and/or headwind, akin to the steepest part of Rogers Pass; in the heat of the afternoon, with temperatures approaching 40 C, the passing of a bus or a large truck, provided a welcome breeze and momentary cooling shade; cell towers in the distance, usually on a height of land, were like a mirage, looming large, seemingly never to be reached. And of course, there never seemed to be enough reasons to stop for a momentary rest, whether to take photographs or consume drinks from pristine air-conditioned service stations, where we would down 1.5 liter bottles of water and/or sparkling energy drinks, as if sipping the last mouthful of an ordinary beverage. I think of patenting "Hot spinning" a la hot yoga, who aspire to do four or five consecutive spinning classes on the road each day. Early on, eating was not a culinary choice, but forced feeding to fuel the leg engines as they seemed always running on near empty. The mental strain showed, as I struggled to calculate the distance remaining by subtracting the distance traveled, as indicated on my cycling computer and the highway mileage signs, signalling the kilometers left to our destination.

Each day has become progressively easier, so much so that two days ago, having already covered 60kms, we opted to go onto to the next town, where a hotel with more creature comforts awaited. There is of course nothing more pleasurable, then a cold shower, a good meal and a solid nights sleep after a long days ride. And each day is more memorable for the heightened awareness of the landscape changing from palm oil plantations to rice fields to coconut palms, the variations in size and colours of mosques, and Chinese and Hindu temples, and the people on the road around us who offer friendly honks or thumbs up. Still, the meal stops are the most enjoyable not only for the respite and nourishment, which is always tasty and very inexpensive but rarely predictable, but for the curious looks and questions we elicit as we explain to an amazed audience, that we are cycling from Singapore to Bangkok, a statement that each day, with each reiteration becomes less incredulous and more real and pleasurable to us.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On the road again: from Singapore to Bangkok

It was two years ago, almost to the day that we were cycling on a remote road, in the north-eastern part of Bali, moving at about 5 kms per hour, when a combination of a bump on the road and momentary inattention, sent me falling sideways, landing on my left wrist, which after some dramatic rescue, an X-ray in a local hospital, sent me to a specialist clinic in Denpasar to set a fractured wrist. We continued our journey, sans cycles, only to discover on our return in April to Toronto, that I needed corrective surgery, which occurred later in the summer and as I recovered in the fall, there was no time to ride a bike. Last winter we spent pleasurable months backpacking in central and south America but in my heart I wondered if we would ever cycle again.

Last summer, there were some opportunities to ride in the countryside but somehow it had no great appeal. Either the weather was not cooperative or I found some other activity. In the city, for distances of up to 10 kms I got into the habit of walking, rationalizing that it had more exercise value than getting on a bike for a half hour or so. Clearly, I was resisting riding as a form of exercise.

We spent the last month in Sydney, Australia, where the weather was ideal, but the traffic and poor road conditions once again dissuaded me from getting in the saddle. The rising number of cyclists killed did not help, nor did the fact that there are designated cycling paths on sidewalks, the logic of which I cannot understand.

All this time, I also was reflecting on my various aches and pains, thinking of my body as a used car, with limited mileage left and wanting to preserve it for the open road and the grand cycling adventure. Not that I felt ready for personal challenges of biblical proportions, as in ‘we struggled, we won, lets celebrate’, but I was prepared to give it the good old fashioned second effort, and planned this trip accordingly.

About 14 years ago, we did the trip from Bangkok to Singapore, a distance of some 2,000 kms along the east coast of Malaysia. This year we are doing it in reverse, along the west coast. The choice of the destination had some forethought: both countries are blessed with creature comforts for cyclists: excellent roads, warm and mostly sunny climates, reasonable and good quality accommodations and superb food. Alas, unlike in some of the other less developed south-east Asian countries, there are only first class buses which are most reluctant to transport bicycles, and the train is inland and has few stops, hence there is no plan B or plan C.

This note is coming from Malacca, Malaysia, overlooking the the Strait to Sumatra, with its great strategic value, as evidenced by the ruins left by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. In five days of riding, we have covered nearly 300kms getting here, and, while tired, and still not totally confident, feeling elated being on the bike again. The heat, headwinds and humidity notwithstanding, the exhilaration of steaming along using only one’s power feels sublime: its about the journey and not the destination.