Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Sunny Cycle Ride into the Fens

Cycle rides are like buses - you don't cycle for a few days and then once you start, you keep on cycling. It was much easier getting out on my bike today. I did put on a pair of leggings and I have started using proper gloves (with fingers as opposed to fingerless mitts). I am still using my cycling sandals - but have started wearing socks with them. Mind you it is getting colder - at 6pm the outside temperature is around 5C - fine if you are generating heat - but definitely weather requiring more clothing to be worn.

When travelling in India it was noticeable that the British contingent (well my son and I) were quite happy eating hot and spicy curries compared with the American contingent. i know hardly scientific - but it matches my own anecdotal views - it is easy to find an Indian Restaurant in the UK - it is quite difficult int he US, not impossible but not at all easy. At least in the places I have visited.

One of the regions we visited - Kerala as a reputation for spice trading and some of our group stocked up on spices in a significant way - so one part of the US is going to change. But why is the UK so keen on curries. Well the BBC published a piece today entitled "How Britain Got the Hots for Curry". The answer is perhaps more surprising than you think and has got a number of threads - you'll have to read it to find out what it concludes.

It was fairly windy today - but pleasantly sunny (and cool). Pretty much all of the leaves have fallen from the trees - and it is starting to fell quite wintry. Here is Swaffham Bulbeck Lode, bare trees and blue skies. It was near here that I met talked with two guys in a Pickup truck looking for a fallen Horse rider yesterday. This was taken at around 2pm - you can already see the shadows from the low sun.


Yet another leafless tree - clear skies, though and the moon can be seen to the top left of the picture. The track alongside the tree is called Rand Drove - I was not planning on cycling down it - but with the recent wet weather and tractor movements along it I would have needed some pretty fat tyres on my MTB to stand any chance of cycling along it.


With the early sunsets I am still enjoying the interesting skies - particularly around the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. This Fen is called Baker's Fen and is a good place to get the sunset to reflect in the water-logged field.


Here is a picture taken from the same vantage point - but with a higher zoom factor. It has quite a dramatic feel about it compared with the previous picture.


At the moment I am listening to a hearing by the Scottish Transport Committee on research carried out to determine what factors affect the levels of cycling. In Scotland Ministers want to increase levels of cycling by 10% by 2020. A key factor is that many recognise the health benefits but perceive that cycling is too dangerous.

My view is that motorists have become more hostile. Today on my way back through White Fen a farmer stopped to comment on my front flashing light. He felt that it was confusing for motorists and not legal. I have just checked the CTC website on such matters and confirmed that it is legal. He was not at all hostile though - merely commenting on the confusion that the flashing light could cause to a motorist. We then put the world to rights and had a good chat. However it does demonstrate that as rules and regulations change it can be difficult to keep up with them and consequently it means that there is more opportunity for misunderstanding.

I want one of the jerseys you will find on this web-page - I pay road tax too! Another misconception many motorists have is that cyclists do not pay road tax.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Back Cycling in the Fens

For some reason I find it quite hard to readjust to normal life after the simple life of eating, sleeping and cycling on a cycle tour. I also find the jet-lag a little harder to deal with than I used to. This means that it takes a bit of a push to get back into my normal cycling routine. Of course it is not helped by the difference in climate between here and India, nor is it helped by the fact that it is dark by around 4pm, nor is it helped by the windier weather, nor (insert loads more reasons) .. You get the picture, I find it easy to dig a pit of reasons why not to cycle - when the obvious "cure" is to get out on my bicycle again Which is finally what I have done after a week or so of doing other stuff.

I have also been thinking about cycling and what it takes to encourage or discourage cyclists. This post on David Hembrow's "A View from the Cycle Path" entitled "Beauty and the Bike" got me thinking - it is about a film contrasting the experiences of German and British female cyclists and poses the question "Why do British Girls Stop Cycling". Also David in an earlier post "Three Types of Safety" discusses the differences between "Actual Safety" , "Perceived Safety" and "Social Safety". I won't repeat his definitions here - but most pundits seem to focus on the factor that deters would-be cyclists is perceived safety. Indeed some go on to argue that it is getting safer and quote various statistics to prove their point.

Actually I think that there is another factor that colours my desire to cycle. It is something I recognised in India and have since realised affects where and how I cycle in the UK. What I felt in India is that in many ways the roads almost operate as a caste system with cyclists pretty much at the bottom - cyclists are disregarded and expected to get out of the way. In the UK that situation certainly exists - cyclists are seen as a nuisance - but increasingly I feel that there is a growing hostility towards cyclists. Although certainly not all motorists exhibit that behaviour there is also a degree of passive-aggressive behaviour toward cyclists. We are on a slippery slope - this behaviour has to stop otherwise we will find cycling an even more marginalised activity. There is still time, there are a lot of considerate motorists.

One other factor that causes motorists to be uncomfortable with cyclists is that some drivers are barely up to the task of controlling a motor vehicle safely under ideal conditions. Throw in night, rain and a multitude of signs and they are overloaded with input - that is why they are so unhappy with cyclists - they become another factor they cannot cope with. Actually this occurred to me as I was driving around Cambridge one evening - yes I do drive sometimes. You have to pay attention and drive with care - not difficult really.

What actually happens is that we are encouraged to consider the roads dangerous, we are castigated for not wearing helmets - yet most cyclists do not kill themselves - that role is taken by the motorists, but we are encouraged to consider it our fault for not wearing a puny helmet or bright yellow clothing. Mind you when we do wear such things and still get knocked down no-one cares.

So what does this all mean- well for me I get my cycling enjoyment from the quiet roads. - such as this one in the Fens. It has suffered a bit from subsidence - but that works in the cyclists favour - it makes it difficult to drive quickly but has little affect on the cyclist. The last time I cycled down here there were more leaves on the trees though.


I carry lights when out cycling in the afternoon now - it gets dark around 4pm, but it does mean an opportunity to get some interesting pictures of the sun setting - like this one where the sun is "beaming down on the trees".


Here is a picture taken whilst cycling along Sustrans Route 51 in the Wicken Fen Nature Reserve. Last time I was here the field was dry - in a little over three weeks it has returned to a flooded state.


You also get to see Highland Cattle wandering around here - although perhaps I should call them lowland cattle.


On the way back through to White Fen I was stopped by a couple of guys in a pickup. A horse had thrown a rider and although the horse had returned they were still looking for the rider - who had fallen near to water. I think the rider had managed a phone call - but it sounded as if they were injured. They then shot off up a track so I hope things were OK. I would have offered to go searching if they had not looked as if they knew where they were looking.

I also saw a deer crossing the path ahead of me, it then went running of through the fields. So there are benefits from the early nights. I wore cycling shorts - but if it gets much colder I will shortly be wearing leggings

Friday, November 20, 2009

India's Roads

One of the great things about visiting a new country is that you become sensitised to reading about the place and hearing the news. It is almost as if there is suddenly an increase in the news - there isn't - you just notice it.

Today the Times Newspaper in the UK reported this headline:"India's pilgrims call for pukka pavements after monks die on road". Yesterday there was a news item on the BBC News website urging action to stop road deaths. The report noted that road accidents having overtaken malaria as the leading cause of preventable deaths in developing countries. This was yesterdays Times' report: "UN summit to halt number of people killed on roads around the world". The article suggested that around 1.3million people are expected to be killed on the roads and that the number will rise to 2 million deaths within a decade as car-ownership and road building programmes increase.

Sorry if I go on about it - but it does not surprise me. One of the challenges here in the UK is that many road-users simply have no idea of the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians. There is huge pressure to get where you are going quickly - as if it should be a driver's entitlement. We use legislation to try to fix the problem - but at the heart of the problem it is a cultural issue as well. A sustainable form of transport leads to a better quality of life for all, in terms of physical and mental health, reduction of noise and chemical pollution. Essentially I believe that our current economy encourages a high level of commuting and that commuting limits are defined by the amount a time an individual is prepared to commute for - make the system faster - whether it is road-building or faster trains and the consequence is that more people then commute.

So just as a reminder - here are some pictures of traffic in India - forgive me but I have not got examples of buses hurtling towards me on a steep hairpin - on those situations I focused on my safety.


Although I felt that the buses were the most dangerous of the other road users, in terms of unpredictability Auto-rickshaws won by a mile (1.6 Km). They would pull out - do u-turns in the street, stop or whatever without any warning whatsoever. They were also quite happy to pass by very closely in order to get a better look at the cycling oddities.


One interesting point that I have not made before is that there were many fewer roads signs and markings than you might expect to see in the UK. There were more speed bumps though and those were not made very visible. The lead cyclist would shout "bump" and the cry would move on down the line.


I hope that the focus on reducing deaths world-wide will not reduce the pressure on road-users in the UK to do better.

And finally: Bob T of "Far and Away Cycling" is now leading a tour of Laos - I've been following the blog rather wistfully - I wish I was there. I have also realised that I have been spelling Graeme's name incorrectly as Graham - my apologies. (He is also on the Laos trip.)

Oh yes - Ben is getting better - he went to the Doctor when we got back and has been on antibiotics since - the aches, pains and headaches are subsiding.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

India Cycling Reflections

Having been back in England for a few days I have been reflecting on my experiences and the highs and lows of the trip.

First a few facts and figures:

  • Distance cycled: 654Km/410 miles

  • Time spent in the saddle: 36.5 hours

  • Total calories consumed: 27,220

    I think my GPS underestimates

    the calories consumed climbing


  • Total height climbed (and lost) 8000m

  • New (to me) airports: 3

  • New airlines: 2

  • Flights: 4

  • Hotels: 12

    Including one Houseboat

  • Train journeys: 1

  • Group punctures: 12* of which Alan had 50%

  • Personal punctures: 0

  • Population of India: 1.14Bn

Would I go back to India? - yes, no doubt about it. Although next time I will probably follow the more usual tourist trails to get a different perspective. The great thing about cycle touring is that you generally avoid the Tourist and Backpacker trails and visit places that are either local tourist spots - or just don't have tourist activity.

So what were the highs and lows. No doubt about it for me - the low spots were related to the chaotic and noisy traffic and the very low levels of courtesy shown to those low down the motoring hierarchy - cyclists and pedestrians. Whilst accidents happen all over the world - India has what many could consider to be an unenviable record. According to the Boston News almost 100,000 people died on the roads in an '06 report. It also suggests that this figure will grow by 5% per annum. India has the second worst rate of deaths per annum, behind China as reported in the iGovernment report. To contrast this with the UK - less than 3,000 people died in traffic accidents in 2007. (ONS) if you take the number of accidents as a proportion of the population India is not as bad as it looks though - roughly twice as many accidents per 1000 population than the UK by my reckoning. Mind you the fatality rate is reducing in the UK whereas it is growing in India. The UK has higher rates of vehicle ownership than India for instance.

This was brought home by the accident on our trip which saw Abby have to return to the US for treatment for her broken jaw. I do not believe in compulsory cycle helmet wearing in the UK - I think it gives motorists an excuse to take significantly less care when there are cyclists around - however there is no way I would cycle in India without a helmet. Mind you a helmet did not help Abby.

So what were the highs - well the people, when not driving, were open and friendly - "where are you from" what do you do" being two of the most common questions. At times the levels of service were superlative - amongst the best I have experienced anywhere - Kingfisher Airlines gets a special mention - even disregarding the help they gave me to ship my Bike Box, they were really good. The additional help they gave me shows that the high levels of service run deep within the organisation.

The food (vegetarian) was great - I was perhaps a little surprised it was not, sometimes, a little spicier, but given our US travel companions that is understandable. I particularly liked the Keralan speciality of serving a meal on a banana leaf - even though as a left-handed person I have a slight handicap as I am not quite so dexterous using my right hand. (Of course I did not use my left hand, after all when in Trivandrum...)


I am also pleased that I was not found too wanting on the hills - I was lucky enough not to have any technical problems and my body was able to drag me up and down the hills. The countryside around the Tiger Reserve and Tea plantations was beautiful and the traffic was not unpleasant. Ben did very well considering his only training for this trip was to eat a few curries in England! What it is to be young and fit eh.

The Tiger reserve - where fortunately we were not meals on wheels.


The Teas plantations around Munni looked well cared for and were idyllic to cycle around - even if the hills were steep and the rain torrential.


The same plantations in the morning sun as the pickers go to work.


Eco-friendly on-hill contours.


Although I sent to cycle I also found the Houseboat a wonderful way to end the ride - it was incredibly relaxing and a wonderful way to have time to see village life in action.


We were also blessed with fine weather on the Houseboat - so it was ideal for catching the sunset.


Not forgetting the sunrise as well (The only challenge was the sauna-bedroom!)


So finally a big thanks to Bob and Raj for making this all run as smoothly as possible. I should also like to thank all of the participants - a great group to cycle with and share the challenge with. - Thank you .


Lastly a reminder of the places in India we cycled.

India Cycle ride route.JPG

Where next? Well I would either like to cycle in Japan - a place I have been to many times on business. I would also like to cycle somewhere where there is less traffic - perhaps Morocco in the Atlas Mountains... Watch this space.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

India - Getting home - not quite as easy as getting there.

There are few pictures in this post - it was either too dark or too traumatic to even consider. At the final celebration dinner Raj had asked me what time we needed to get to the airport. Apparently it was around 45Km (30miles) from the hotel. We had a 4.30pm domestic flight to Bangalore. We were then staying in Bangalore overnight before catching Sunday's 7:50am BA flight back to London Heathrow. He suggested maybe 1pm - I though it would we better if we were picked up an hour earler. I had a rather large bike box to manoeuvre around and get checked in. I did point out that the bike box was rather large and that we would need a reasonably large Taxi.

Just before noon an Ambassador car arrived looking something like this.


To refresh your memories my Bike Box looked like this:


In addition we also have two large suitcases and my laptop bag and a camera. The stress of travel had finally broken the zips on Ben's trusty rucksack (which was well travelled). So he had to pack his rucksack into his case along with all the bits and pieces that were in it. We did not want to check in his rather large laptop though so I ended up putting it in my computer bag along with my laptop and the various travel documents. This meant that my larger camera and camera bag would have to be carried by Ben.

As I picked up my computer bag (well more yanked really) I suffered a (very) minor Intercostal muscle strain - I pulled a muscle slightly in my rib area. The last two weeks of cycling was taking its toll on my body - I would have to remember that I can't just drag suitcases, bike boxes and even computer bags around without thinking about the best way to lift them. Still at least I had Ben with me - who has spent the last few months lifting various vegetables and has developed a bit of extra muscle in the process.

After a few phone calls Raj turned up with Bob and Graham who were both going onto another cycle trip arranged by Bob in Laos. They had come to pick up their stuff and arrange their journeys to the airport later that afternoon. As time ticked by another car was arranged - a larger one. (A good job I had added an extra hour onto the timing.) Nothing turned up - apparently there was some sort of holdup back down the road. So we used Raj's small van - this one actually:


This was taken at the start of the ride - so is not actually at the Hotel in Fort Cochin - but it gives a good idea of the size. The Bike Box went on the top and our two large suitcases were put in the back and we set off - 30-40 minutes late. I hope the check-in process was going to be smoother than this. This is a picture of the Ballard Hotel taken from their website:

Ballard hotel.jpg

Then we set off - the map showing the way to the airport suggested, in my mind, a largish highway. How easy it is to get false impressions. The journey started ducking and diving around the back streets of Fort Cochin before we reached one of the large bridges across the river to Kochi where a lot of traffic tried to get across. In fact we seemed to be stuck in traffic for the entire journey to the airport. We arrived at 2pm instead of the 1pm I was hoping for.

We unloaded our bags said goodbye to the driver and walked towards the Airport Entrance - one bright spot Kingfisher porters came out to meet us and took charge of my Bike Box - they did not seem phased - phew. Because of recent concerns about attacks the security at Indian Airports is quite strict. We had to show our E-ticket paperwork and passports. (I know E-ticket paper work - an oxymoron). It was slightly complicated by the fact that we were both included on the document, whilst my name was at the top and there were a bunch of flights on there. After allowing the Guard to study it - if they turned to the next page I tactfully pointed out the relevant details and mentioned that we were father and son. That seemed to help. Why wait until they turn the page - well that page contained no information apart from all the general conditions and indicated that they were finding the dense paperwork not very user-friendly.

Once in we then had to go though another checkpoint to the Kingfisher Check-in area. Here the luggage we intended to check in was X-rayed before actually going to the check in desk. There was a bit of concern when my Bike box was wheeled along - but obviously the folks at DHB who make it had sized it to fit, just, Airport luggage X-ray machines. All our bags were then "sealed" and we went to the check in desk.

I am not sure why but when porters wheel my Bike Box along we seem to acquire a higher status as travellers. He took us to a desk and immediately pushed in front to two people queueing. This is a very un-British thing to do and I apologised immediately - but given what happened it was probably a good thing that we did not suffer further delay.

They weighed the bags and took them to the "air-side" of the counter. Then a whole bunch of people came over to look it over. Eventually it transpired that they were concerned about the size of the box as the plane was a small ATR turbo-prop plane. We were asked to sit nearby for 10 minutes whilst they checked. After 10 minutes we went back - glum faces - it would not fit. Our check-in lady then suggested we try another airline JetBlue to see whether they could take the Bike Box as cargo. This meant leaving the secure area and going to their Ticket desk - we got short shrift - they did not even seem to want to discuss it. We went back to our check-in lady via security - who scrutinised out documents afresh each time. This time she came with us to the JetBlue Ticket office. They wanted to send us off to their Cargo people but she discovered that there was not a flight on Saturday. By this time we we were getting pretty despondent.

We discussed what to do if we could not get the Bike Box sorted before our flight left - I suggested that Ben fly on without me and he might or might not see me at the BA check-in tomorrow. The downside of cheap tickets is that they were non-changeable/non-refundable. If I did not catch the flight I would lose my ticket and have to buy another one. Still that was easier for me than Ben and he had work to go to on the Monday.

At this point the Kingfisher Check-in lady suggested we sit for 10 minutes whilst they tried to work something out. A porter was sent to fetch us. They had worked out that my Bike Box could go on another Kingfisher flight from Kochi to Hyderabad and then from Hyderabad to Bangalore. It would arrive there at around 10pm that evening so in plenty of time for my 4.50am check in with BA the next day.

Two porters were dispatched to escort us and push the Bike Box back out through two security points up past the domestic and international terminals to Kingfisher's Cargo area. There was discussion about whether it needed to be X-rayed again because it had already been checked and a security sticker was in place. It did - but the machine looked smaller - oh dear we weren't going to fall at this hurdle? Actually the machine was the same size as the one in the Passenger terminal and the Box fitted. Then there was the necessary weighing and measurement to work out how much it was going to cost - 2002 rupees, a little less than £30. I filled in various forms - that do not really accommodate the Tourist traveller stuck trying to unexpectedly ship freight around. I had to make declarations and give a Business Address - all the while one particular gentleman was checking with Bangalore, helping me with paperwork whilst another tapped away on his calculator.

At this point I wondered whether I could pick it up early the next day rather than take it into Bangalore with me (and back) Phone calls were made - of course I could. They checked that their office would be open at 5am. They also gave me a phone number and suggested I ring the Kingfisher Bangalore Cargo area before setting out from the Hotel so the process could be stream-lined.

So I handed over the money - it was pre-paid and walked out to the general area in the Cargo hangar - but before leaving another form had to be filled in and I had to pay 61 rupees (90p) for the X-ray charge to Airport Administration. The Kingfisher Cargo gentleman who had been guiding me kindly paid the 1 rupee as I did not have any change and they all shook my hand and Ben and I headed back to the Passenger terminal with our two Porters. Once again back through two security checks - where we might have been strangers as we got exactly the same level of scrutiny as before. We got checked in, thanked everyone and waited for our flight to be called - phew that was a close call. I could now "forget" about the Bike Box for a few hours until the next day.

A big thank you to all the Kingfisher staff - we were flying on a budget airline - but they provided above and beyond a First-class service. I am going to email their Chairman to congratulate him on the quality of his staff.

Our flight was called and we got a bus from the terminal to the plane. I can see why the Box was going to be a tight fit. The passengers board at the back - and so does the cargo - on the opposite side of to the passenger door and the luggage then has to go though another small door into the hold. The plane itself was new and in excellent condition.

Very soon we were up into the air and despite it being a budget flight - an excellent and tasty snack of two Samosas and Chickpeas was delivered along with (in our case) water to drink. The stewardess was very pleasant and attentive - wow Kingfisher Airlines provide a service that is excellent regardless of the approach. (By the way our tickets were £19 each for around a 400mile journey/640Km). When the Stewardess saw Ben's long legs she offered to let him sit at the front where there was a little more leg room.

Once at Bangalore we collected our bags and before heading to get a taxi I checked at Information to find the cost - the answer was x rupees per kilometre, it took me several attempts at re-phrasing the question to find out how much in total the Taxi fare would cost - around 750 rupees - £10 for a 30mile/48 Km journey.

As we got to the Taxi queue - various Cab touts offered us taxis - but we followed the locals and got a proper Taxi. It took several attempts to get our large suitcases in the boot/trunk though. The journey started well - open roads, seat-belts, no horns beeping - things were looking less chaotic - but it went downhill from there. Our driver swerved off the highway onto a side road and then stopped for petrol/gas - a first for me in a taxi. Then once we were back on the highway we saw cars reversing in the slow lane - our driver pulled in and did the same. Ben and I both cringed in the back seat convinced we would get rear-ended and trying to avoid whiplash.

There was a traffic jam up ahead. Our journey then proceeded along all sorts of twists and turns though dark streets into better areas of town back onto dark streets. Our driver kept talking on his mobile phone and the Hotel name got mentioned once or twice - oh dear - he did not know where he was going. I had booked the hotel over the Internet and was now worried that it was such a dive it was not actually a well known taxi destination. Our driver was a manic beeper and at junctions would pull up on the left of the road with scooters trying to get the jump when the lights changed - he didn't.

Eventually when I had resigned myself to driving around Bangalore for ever we saw a more expensive hotel that I had considered booking but didn't when I realised how little time we were going to be staying. It was close to our hotel though. Then we saw a sign for the Royal Orchid and pulled up outside.

I prepared myself for a nasty taxi fare - which turned out to be 650 rupees - so not a rip-off after all. After going through the hotel security we checked in. They had our booking, I got a welcome letter. Ben and I were asked for our Business Cards. I carry a small number as it can be helpful at Immigration sometimes (especially in the US). But Ben was a bit bemused - "er I am a student". I arranged a car to take us to the airport the next day - 4.30am earlier than they suggested - but I did have a rendezvous with Kingfisher Cargo to worry about.

We then got escorted to our rooms - it had an inviting bed, bath, a big TV, free WiFi and there was a swimming pool in the hotel. Although we would be long gone before its 7am opening.. We dumped our stuff and went off to get something to eat.

The hotel had a buffet restaurant just round the corner - with a mainly Indian clientele - always a good sign. We were ushered to our seats and the waiter introduced himself. We told him who we were, what we did and what we had been doing. He was from Madurai - a great place spoiled by the weather was his view. He brought us two cold beers and chilled glasses. He also brought us some starters and as we wolfed them down some more. An interesting buffet restaurant - they just let us relax.

We then grazed the selection of food - I went for mainly Indian vegetarian - plus some lasagna - it looked so nice I broke the habit of a lifetime. The salad was fresh (had to get some vitamins) - it was a most relaxing place to end what had been a long and tiresome day.

The next morning, I rang the Bangalore Kingfisher Cargo people and then we checked out. I almost had enough cash to pay in Rupees but not quite so settled the bill with a credit card. Ben did mention that he had taken some Immodium - he was feeling a little unwell and since we had pretty much eaten the same food for the last two weeks warned me in case I too succumbed. He was carrying some Immodium supplies as well.

The journey back to the airport started well - the streets were empty, although we had a detour as the way onto the highway was closed. Pretty soon we were close. I asked the taxi driver if he could drop Ben at the passenger terminal and me at the Cargo terminal - but got a non-committal answer. A strange place sometimes the help is fantastic - sometimes crap!

We got out at the terminal and I was pointed down a road by a porter. So I left Ben with the bags and documentation, but no passport and wandered off. He of course was not feeling too good and had to convince the security people to let him in to use the Conveniences. He was then concerned he might have missed me. He also had to explain why he wanted to leave as well - to wait back outside for me.

I trekked up the road in the direction that had been pointed out - it was dark and every now and then asked the way - but got little help. I walked past one gatehouse and then thought I would ask them if they knew the way. It was the way into the compound containing several different Cargo operations. I then had to prove my identity - fortunately I did have my passport and then fill in a form - a bit tricky writing my vehicle registration number/licence plate since I walked there.

I found the Kingfisher place and had the good fortune to meat a chap who had friends in Newmarket (close to where I live) - he proceeded to help me with the paperwork and with visiting the various areas. Although I had pre-paid there was still a local Government Admin fee to be paid. A good job I had not used all my Indian money. We then went to collect the bike box and there it was waiting for me. They let me out of a side gate and I pushed the box (a good job it had wheels) back to the passenger Terminal. We got in through the first security check and as we walked down to the Check in area one of the BA staff came up and walked us there and ticked us off on his chart. It is always a good sign when you are expected.

They did weigh all the luggage - but as we were Business Class there were no extra charges and we went through security to the BA lounge. They were a little surprised that I was carrying two laptops - one gigantic and one tiny.

The flight home was smooth - the entertainment system worked and I watched Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. Ben was still feeling rough so did not eat any of the food on the plane. One of our Stewardesses had seen my bike box when she got on the plane - so a good sign it was going to make it.

We landed around 30-40 minutes early and had to get a Bus from the plane to the terminal as soon as it moved off - Ben collapsed to his knees and broke out into a massive sweat he was struggling not to be sick. All the baggage turned up including my bike box from a door near the luggage ramp and we headed back to the Long Term Car Park and then home.

It was a sunny Sunday and the roads were not too busy, people were not beeping and there was lane discipline - what a nice change - in the intervening two weeks most of the leaves had dropped of the trees though. It was a great Cycle tour - but also nice to be home.

Monday, November 16, 2009

India Last Day

This was our last day in India before starting the long trek home - although we would overnight in Bangalore tomorrow because of flight connections.

I have also switched back to using Zoundry Raven. When on the road Microsoft LiveWriter was very good - it has a few quirks - sometimes the text, when a Post was published, would appear in a Times Roman font rather the Arial font as it appeared in the off-line version of the Post. I have also noticed that the image size and so quality is reduced by LiveWriter. This is a minor nuisance because storing photographs on Picasaweb is a useful back up when travelling in case of computer failure and or loss. It does speed up the download of Posts when using low Bandwidth connections though. What I have decided to do is download all the relevant pictures directly onto my Picasaweb storage at the original image size and quality and if anybody wants a link to them directly I am happy to forward it. Actually there is an album per Day so there are a group of links.

Finally I mentioned Bob's gift to a local orphanage - he write about it in his blog.

Raj was offering to take the group on a Tour of Fort Cochin at 9am. I decided I needed to pack my bike away in its box for the trip home and so would give the tour a miss have a leisurely breakfast and then pack the bike. Ben - as you might guess thought that he would have a little longer in bed.

In the end I got up just before 9am just as the others were planning what to do after the Cycle part of the trip was over. Jim and Mary and Alan and jay were flying early Saturday morning and Mary, Barry, Christine and Denise were going on a tour arranged by Raj over the weekend. (As it turned out the tour was hampered by the fact that some of the places they were intending to visit were closed on a Saturday morning.)

I had an omelet and despite asking for black coffee got black tea - they just don't seem to believe that it is possible to drink tea without milk. It was quite pleasant, I also ordered for Ben who said he was coming down soon. He turned up a little after his breakfast and discovered that the pineapple marmalade was a bit musty in place - after I had eaten some on toast. either my taste buds are going or the marmalade was only off in places.

He disappeared back upstairs to the comfort of our chilled room whilst I wandered around the back of the hotel to pack my bike. It was fairly straightforward, except for boiling hot sun. By the time I had finished my t-shirt and shorts were soaked in sweat. I had to rest for half an hour in the chill box (bedroom) before changing so that we could go out for lunch and buy a few gifts to take home.

When I took the seat and seatpost off I had to tip the bike up as there was water inside the frame. A sign of the amount of rain we must have had.


The back yard was overlooked by a school behind the tree - well it sounded like a school. The yards was also where they burnt rubbish - but it did have a lockable bike shed.


After packing the bike away and changing out of my sweaty clothes (fortunately the fan and air-con had dried the bag of damp clothes I had been carrying with me) we set of for lunch. The bedrooms were set around this room.


For convenience we stopped at the first restaurant we saw on the way into town - it had cold beer which was a plus point, it also had more foreigners than Indians which was a negative point. Even worse for Ben the foreigners looked as if they we ageing ex-hippies. The menu choices were ok though and so we had Indian food.

A note on the menu did make the point that after your order had been taken the kitchen could not be cancelled. I should think not!


The town was on the coast on a river inlet. We passed quite a lot of fishing nets set up to catch fish.


It also looked as if we had missed the carnival.


There were quite a few big ships sailing up the river to the loading docks.


As is not unusual the area had several master including the Portuguese followed by the Dutch and then the English. Being so close to the sea it had cannon to defend the town from attack. They could have used coconuts for projectiles.


Although it was a Saturday it looked as if the schools ran lessons - at least in the morning. After school these girls had to look after a younger sibling.


Although we wanted to buy some gifts we had a stroll around first. This is the inside of the Santa Cruz Basilica originally built by the Portuguese.


A couple of guys selling fish - from a makeshift stall. It does not look too bad - but presumably spoils quickly in the heat - one of the reasons I become a pseudo-veggie.


On our stroll through the streets I took pictures of anything that caught my eye - this lad smiling through the bus was too quick to be caught before his thumbs down gesture, but he was smiling. Judging by his clothes he looks as if he is on his way back from school.


I always like a good fruit stall. Ben bought a couple of custard apples which we took back to the hotel. I have tried them before - it was his first time. They do indeed taste like apple and custard - but they had loads of quite large black pips. In y opinion they are too much hassle to eat.


We also bought some gifts - scarves, bags, bangles and in Ben's case an Indian pop Video CD for one of his friends (they compete to give each other weird and useless objects!)

We returned to the Hotel for a rest before meeting up in the lobby at 6pm for our drive through to the Final Group Dinner. As we sat there there was a loud wacking noise - slightly disturbing. It was a coconut hitting the ground after falling from a tree in the Hotel grounds - I can see why they did not want me to wash my bike underneath it now.

Dinner was a few miles away in a restaurant with classical European style rooms. Of course we had to have the obligatory last group photograph. For some reason Barry and Mary had things to do before dinner and so were delayed - so they are not in this "last" picture.

The meal was made more interesting as we had a power cut. This caused the fans to switch off and the staff brought around candles. The room quickly got very hot which made for a sweaty dinner. We had a first course of sliced tomatoes and onion and sliced tomatoes and cucumber lightly seasoned. The second course was a Spinach pie - which sounds odd but was quite tasty. I can't quite recall the order of the next two course. We had fish which Ben and I passed on and instead were given a second helping of the spinach pie - but by this time the pastry was burnt - presumably they were having problems seeing what was happening in the kitchen. We also were served a plate of unpeeled, but cooked prawns. We of course ate those. The final course was a cinnamon pastry tart with ice-cream - this was only slightly burnt and was very tasty. The lights came back on again at the end of the meal.


Bob then gave a speech - I think we all agreed that this particular trip had been challenging accidents and unusual amounts of rain. This is the first time so many things have happened on one trip and indeed was the first time a serious accident had occurred.


As a parting gift he gave us all wooden carvings of Ganesh - the Lord of Opportunity for luck. Jim took three home - one for himself and one each for Jean and Abby.


We then thanked our support team and also settled up on various outstanding payment items. It was time to pay for the rental bikes and also to collect tips for the support crew. It is customary to give around $50 per cyclist and they had been pretty diligent in their support. Except for Ben's bike - however given the problems with it I was not charged anything for it. Renting bikes is a pretty hit and miss affair.


Here is a screen shot showing the cycling we did in India. We started on the bottom left with a shake-out ride near Trivandrum. We then caught the train to Madurai - form there you can see our path back to the coast at Fort Cochin. All in all 650Km/400 miles.

India Cycle ride route.JPG

It was certainly an interesting ride and a great way to see parts of India that are off the beaten track for tourists. The last thing Raj did was make sure we all had arrangements to get to the airport tomorrow before we headed back to our hotel for a round of goodbyes - it is always quite sad at the end of these trips. We start of as strangers, but the shared experience forges a common bond.

India Day 12 Part 2 The Final Cycle ride to the Island and a bus to Fort Cochin

Once we were off the Houseboat we had to straighten our handlebars and stick pedals back on the bikes. Also we did some checking of brakes and in Ben’s case oiled his bottom bracket.

We then had our last group photograph before setting off. Raj took the photograph so the Support Crew could also be in it. Bob had donated a sewing machine (the second such donation) to a small orphanage nearby and they had presented him with the artwork on the right. Graham looks as if he is set for a game of American Football rather than a cycle ride – perhaps he knows something we don’t about the last bit of the ride.


There were quite a few known road closures in the area so it was going to be a little bit more difficult than usual finding a way through to Raj’s island. One of the support team vans was going to set off and chalk the direction to take at junctions – I assumed that they would set off before us. In fact they set off with us.

The country roads were quite busy with people going to work and schoolchildren going to school so we found ourselves keeping up with the van. I guess now we were on the flat and keen to “finish” we were also keeping up a faster pace that usual.

The first time the van stopped to mark the road we passed it and then at the next junction had to wait. We stopped at the junction in the photograph and the van passed us – but guess what the road really was “clossed” and so we had to head back and wait at the junction for everyone to arrive and then set off in another direction. As we had not been going long it did not take too long for the re-grouping though.


Because it was flat we were cycling along quite fast when we got the chance – Mary (G) was in front and went to pass a dog sleeping in the middle of the road which woke and got up just before she reached it. How she missed it I don’t know. However after the accident at the start of the ride we tended to cycle a little further apart and paying more attention to the road ahead of the rider in front so it was not a problem for me to take evasive action. It was also at this point that our support team wanted us to stop? By the end of the trip we have gotten used to these “unscheduled” stops. It was a “Welcome mat” factory. As I had spent my summer vacation travelling in Morocco with my family I became very suspicious that this type of thing would be an opportunity for the hard-sell. This was not – it was a “family” operation keen to show that with a little help what could be achieved.

Here is a mat being woven using a wooden loom. The fibre is woven from coconut husks (actually between the pulp and the husk itself). We saw quite a lot of it, looking like brown wool, drying on the smaller roads.


Here this lady is sorting out the thread – she uses her foot to measure out lengths for the weaving operation.


This lady looks to be in the radiant stage of her pregnancy. Everyone in the operation seemed keen to have their photographs taken.


This is how the Jose Coir Works was made possible – it is quite a recent operation. He is smiling – clearly not so bothered at being serious when his photograph is taken.


Here Mary poses with the “Grandmother”. The Grandmother then invited Mary into the house. Whilst the machinery make look quite primitive the House had a Satellite dish and so access to the latest TV channels. India is an interesting lesson in contrasts.


We must have seen at least 4 road closures, as cyclists we could quite easily go past them – the Support vans could not though. In the end Raj grouped us all up so that he could use an Auto on the other side to lead us whilst the vans took a detour.

Whilst waiting for the “grouping” I noticed these signs. It seems that education is important enough to warrant additional coaching in India.


When I first noticed this sign it looked as if it was a Crash course for Mechanics – but no, Medics and Engineers have crashes – is this how they teach people to drive in India!


Graham cycling along to the grouping point. You can see the roadworks in the background. They were labour intensive rather than machine intensive. At one point we saw what looked like a broadband cable being laid. In the UK a machine cuts a thin trench into which the cable is laid and then the trench is filled in. Here in India what look like a 100 people each dig a bit of the trench – hopefully it will all join up. Again an interesting contrast between old and new generations of technology.


There was also a Girls’ school nearby. These bars made it look more like a prison. I hope there wasn't a teacher in the class the noise these girls were making as they waved to us would have been rather disruptive.


We then cycled through the next set of road works and Raj jumped into an Auto which then led the way. It is quite tricky cos’ they drive rather erratically – and that’s an understatement.

We had our final stop to re-group for the last leg of the cycle ride. Once or twice on this route the sand at the side of the road was deep and treacherous – I ploughed into it to avoid something or other and the bike nearly came to a stop. Good job I had fattish tyres. As Graham stopped he had what was going to be the last fall of the cycle ride. It was not too bad – but he did graze his ankle.

The Island is a rustic place on the edge of the lagoon – but they are building a 5* hotel nearby. The construction traffic had really churned up the mud so we got to do a bit more slipping and sliding as we muddied up. We ended up at Raj’s business partners place – Brid (pronounced Bree) is Irish and spends two thirds of her time in India and the rest back in Dublin.

We were presented with freshly chopped coconuts to drink from and baskets to wear on our heads. Here is Alan – delighted to be wearing his hat. By this time of the day it was very hot so we all arrived rather hot and sweaty.


Jim – he wears his well – the stalks either side make him look like a monster from Dr Who.


A couple more pineapple heads – Ben is really glad to be saying good riddance to his rental bike. Despite all the oil in the bottom bracket it was making loud graunching noises again and the gears were jumping whenever he went over bumps. When cycling through the villages – he would pull the brake levers and you would hear the noise of metal on metal scraping away and Ben shouting “No brakes, No Brakes” to clear people out of his way.


We then washed our bikes to get rid of the worst of the red mud – which I found rather uncomfortable as I was already overheating from the ride and only got hotter swabbing the bike down. We also removed our pedals as the bikes were going to be transported the rest of the way into town and we were going to go in the mini-bus after lunch. The route into Fort Cochin was very busy and there was little alternative. So that was it – our cycling had come to an end.

We then marched through the “jungle” to a waiting canoe and were transported off to the island. As there were quite a few of us we were the first contingent. It turned out that Alan wanted to get his Bike dismantled and boxed up – so he waited for second group to be transported to the island.

The straw hut is one of the island accommodations. The boat had to plough through the weeds, which was not too difficult. Ben was sitting on the front and was the logical person to do it – but did not know that was what as expected of him. The praying mantis construction on the right is used for fishing and would have nets attached when in use.


As we made our way in a stately fashion was saw an abandoned canoe – actually you can see to the left a head bobbing about in the water. Bob said that we was digging mud up. It also looked as if he had been collecting weeds.


We passed another boat with the owner’s head bobbing about next to it. Perhaps it is cooler to travel this way?


Another praying mantis amongst the weeds. As we watched the weeds moved around quite a bit with the tidal flow.


The boat came back with the second contingent, Alan had not completed that packing of his bike so it came along too plus his bike box. Note his bike box was about half the size of mine and so the bike took quite a lot of dismantling and careful packing to get it to fit.


The boat then headed back to pick up the lunch. They head off in this direction.


The chap at the front uses his legs to clear a way whilst the chap at the back uses the pole to push the boat along. It bit like punting in Cambridge – but in Cambridge the boat is flatter and called a Punt.


Once again we had a Kerala speciality of lunch on a large banana leaf. It was so good that Ben had four helpings – in fact for a change he seemed to get preferential treatment – they would come round the table to serve him and them stop when it got to my turn. Perhaps they thought he needed fattening up and I didn’t. There was some fish – but we reverted to being non-fishing eating pseudo-vegetarians for this meal.


As we sat relaxing, villagers passed by in their canoes. At this point my Camera battery had run out of charge. I had taken so many pictures since during the Houseboat visit where I had not been able to re-charge it that it had expired. Unfortunately I had left my smaller back-up camera back in one of the mini-vans. It was Jim’s xxth (significant xx though) Birthday and Bob had somehow arranged from an Icing covered Jam sponge to celebrate. So we sang Happy Birthday and Jim sliced his cake up. I also went to his Birthday dinner last year in Cambodia as it happens. Everyone enjoyed the cake – especially Mary (G).


We had to return from the Island in several boatloads as well. There was a path – but some of the bridges were in need of repair and so a certain amount of wading would have been required.

Once back in the village (where Brid’s house was) we milled around whilst the bikes were loaded up. I also got my small camera so I could carry on taking pictures. We have seen a few Soccer pitches on our travels in India – although we have not seen anyone playing football on them – probably because it has been too hot or too wet. This village had a soccer pitch with two trees in the middle. Here is the view from one goalmouth,


The other goalmouth- the pitches do look played on though.


In the village a number of women were working. The Government of Kerala guarantees a certain amount of work each year for women and a fixed payment. Brid helps to provide meals when the women come to work. They are on the left of the picture. There are goats on the right side. We also passed pools which were used to farm prawns.


As we fiddled with our bikes whilst waiting for the other group to be ferried across various villagers came through.


This chap is carting quite a load of coir on his bike.


They seem to walk their bikes rather than ride them though. This chap probably finds us as unusual as we find him.


Jim aka the Birthday Boy - getting some help replacing his brake blocks from a young village lad.


Once again a serious look from the Indian boy – and a slightly odd pose from Ben! Probably just glad to no longer have to ride his rental bike anymore.


The trip from the Island to the Hotel was, as advertised, along a busy road. In fact the area looked rather touristy. Ben was the youngest Western person around – the rest looked like they were re-living their hippy adventures from 30 years ago. In fact after the last two weeks of travels we were a bit discomfited to be in such a touristy place.

The hotel in Fort Cochin was a pleasant but smallish hotel – so much so that Ben and I had to share a room. We had separate rooms for the trip – he does not like my alleged snoring or being woken up early! We both had “four-poster” beds and we were staying there for two nights – it was luxury and the shower was warm and very quickly our gear and clothes were spread out over the entire room and the air-conditioning turned on high. The air-con and ceiling fan were so good that it also turned out to be an ideal bedroom for drying the damp washing that I had been carrying around with me.

I first washed my bike again – I had not really been able to do a good job of it before. This time I used clean water and a hosepipe. The only concern from the Hotel staff was that i should not stand under the Coconut tree – just in case – I suppose I could have worn my cycle helmet bit the tree was pretty high and it would have still hurt a great deal.

Once washed I locked my bike away at the back of the hotel and went back to the room – it was almost too cold after the warmth outside.

Mary took Jim out for a Birthday dinner so the rest of us met up at 7pm to look for a cold beer and somewhere to eat.

We strolled into town and found a suitable bar where they ushered us to a back room – with air-con, a no-smoking sign and the smell of cigarette smoke. A slightly-drunk Australian and Brit then entered the room – it was the Aussie’s cigarette smoke from previously that we smelt. When he asked (to his credit) if he could smoke again he got a resounding no and from then on acted slightly put out until he left in a bit of a huff.

It was then time to find somewhere to eat – not as easy as you might think. We wanted decent Indian food and cold beer and somewhere picturesque, We did actually sit down in the rooftop restaurant of a hotel – it was up 5 floors and quite a climb. However after looking at a rather too western-style menu Bob led the group back down again. (With such delicacies as Scambi and Chips)

Walking in the street we found a restaurant with chairs and tables on the pavement. After asking do you serve cold beer and getting a positive answer we waited as they set up two tables for us.

We then ordered our cold beers (Barry did suggest finding out what they were going to cost – but we were thirsty and didn’t). As we waited they came back with anti-mosquito smoking “coils” – actually what looked like thick pieces of rope. They put around 6 around the table with two at each end. Denise had the misfortune to be sitting with one each side of her – she was certainly smokin’ alright – we almost lost sight of her there was so much smoke around her.

After a while all but one of the beers turned up in teacups. It turned up that the restaurant did not have a licence and so they served the beer in mugs and put some bottles of water and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola on the table to act as decoys in case the Police walked by. It was my beer that was missing and took some time for them to deliver.

Eventually we worked out that they were having to send the older waiters off somewhere to buy bottles of cold beer and they did not appear to have many waiters old enough.

We ordered our food – Graham had the full Calamari, after some time elapsed they came back to find out “did he really want four Calamari?” – oops. Some banter then ensued as they discovered Graham was an Aussie since Australia had just beaten India in the Test Series. They checked the nationality of all of us and on finding out that Ben and I were Brits were pleased that we had recently won the Ashes from Australia. Then one of three Vegetable Biryanis turned up – which as Ben was a growing lad (everyone was impressed with his appetite) he got. Then my onion pakora, cardamom rice and what was on the menu as Pancer Butter Masala (which I’d never had) but was really Paneer Butter Masala (Cheese curry – yummy). I offered it around but got few takers. The cardamom rice was good – but I have had more uniformly flavoursome cardamom pods in England!

We ordered some more beer – and they had to take our mugs back as they could not pour it openly and more waiters went off on scooters to get it. The food arrived in dribs and drabs until eventually after much complaining the last Vegetable Biryani turned up. I would have though that a normal restaurant would have prepared all three Biryanis in one go – obviously not this place.

We then asked for our bill – again much to-ing and for-ing. when it turned up we were being charged four and a half times more for our beer. Barry did not say I told you so – but he was definitely right to warn us at the start of the meal. Bob remonstrated with out waiters and sent the bill back for them to add it up again properly. After quite a long wait – the same bill turned up – no reduction.

This time Barry gave a master-class in how to be assertive without being aggressive. The tipping point was when he suggested they all walk up to the next-door police station to see what they thought about over-charging tourists. Which was something they could not do. In the end they knocked 50 rupees of each mug of beer. In bottle equivalents we have paid 100-160 rupees in various hotels. They were originally going to charge us 450 rupees (for a bottle) and we ended up paying 375rupees – so they still made a healthy mark up for their trouble.

This is Graham getting more stick for being an Aussie. I think Ben and I got our food early because we were favoured Brits. My food was very nice though.


This is the chart of our climbing over the morning’s cycle ride – it looks pretty hilly – except the variation is only around +/- 10m and the steep spikes are probably where we crossed over bridges. This trace is like the traces I get in the Fens of East Anglia. We had originally been told that the distance would be 30Km (a bit less than 20 miles) but because of the various road closures it was around 38Km/24 miles.

India Day 12 Final Ride

It was time to stroll back through the darkened streets – there are not so many street lights around in India – they tend to use low-wattage lights as well – it saves power. We could have taken an Auto (Ben has not been on one) but we could not remember the name of our Hotel – It was the Ballard Hotel.

When we got back I had to reduce the amount of cooling in the room - it was too cold to sleep in!