Monday, November 16, 2009

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!

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