Skin Tone: cherry blossom
Stomach Status: mauve
Location: Madurai, TN
The anticipation is palpable; people crowd the rooftops next to me, phones at the ready, raised for the modern Indian salute to the sun. 6am, Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of peninsular India. Already bright, I can see temple street bustling below– busy at 11pm, busy at 6am- and beyond, a statue, a monument to someone or other, a deity or a reforming politician perhaps, rising from the windswept waters where three seas cover Gandhi’s ashes.
All true. It was the morning of my third day’s cycling and I, bleary eyed, had stumbled out of my £6 lodge room to mark the spiritual start to my journey. From here northwards.
This gloss doesn’t fully capture it though. As with the Hindu god, there are many lenses to see India through. Kanyakumari also has the faded feel of some English seaside towns: grand promenades to ‘Sunset Point’ where a stray dog searches through litter, pausing occasionally to look out to sea (at what?); or boarded up shops – ‘Sentosa shopping district’, one was flatteringly called. Even the ‘do not dump litter’ sign was torn apart with bits blowing in the wind.
There is also a sureal side, to my eyes at least: a man collecting wood from a rubbish heap next to a posh villa, and loading his tall bundle onto a pink moped. Or a flying fox silhouetted against the sky, next to Madurai temple’s impressive gopuram.
Much else besides, like the traffic, has passed me in a blur. Too little and too much for any real conclusions yet. I have met scores of people, forgotten many names and been captured in countless selfies (an obsession here): students, tuktuk drivers, a protester of police brutality, builders, petrol pump attendants, businessmen young and old, UN disaster relief consultants, even a local politician and I have chatted with yet others on mopeds for several kilometres as they idle along (and I sweat). People have been near universally friendly, sometimes exceedingly so, and keen to engage – none of the hard haggling or hassling (these southerners tell me that is more a northern thing).
Paraphrasing Forster, however, in even the most eventful of days, for much of the time nothing happens. For the most part, I cycle and my thoughts wander all to the rhythm of my pedalling: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 when I’m powering on or something sounding suspiciously like ‘just-keep-swim-ming’ on the slower sections. Yesterday, 100km, was my longest day, and a total of around 350km so far. Enough to have received some important cycling lessons:
Traffic – easier than you might think perhaps because I am not the weirdest thing on the road! Chai carts, mopeds going the wrong way, a cow, goats, and an elephant and a smattering of pedestrians, everything uses these roads. Be careful of buses otherwise just enjoy the slalom! Oddly too the highways are often the quieter roads – less traffic and less beeping!
I am starting to understand why people choose panniers. With my normal bags piled high and strapped with bungee chords my steed had a tendency to rear up. Embarrassing the first time…and the second.
Flip-flops don’t work as cycling shoes, especially when combined with sand and water from a beach side pit stop.
The sun god is powerful in these parts. Luckily, like me, he doesn’t feel properly together until about 11am. Day 1 I started at 11am cycled for 80km and after a detour into the western Ghats (one of those ‘ well I’ve taken the wrong turn I might as well just re-join the road further south’ situations that added some unexpected hairpins to the journey) finished at about 6 in the evening. Yesterday I started at 7am.
I’ve also had my first (bike) breakdown, a fairly major one as my rear derailleur sheared clean off. After looking at it in that ‘probably the cylinder head gasket, mate’ way one must when one has no idea, and prodding it in the hope that it would weld itself back together, I put out my thumb and remarkably but not unexpectedly given how friendly people are, the first van stopped and said something incomprehensible in Tamil, to which I responded with a stream of incomprehensible English and a lot of pointing. After a brief diversion to a building site, I was sitting in a bike shop where hammer, wrench and a do-the-trick part soon had me back on the road.
One last thing I will share, and to me the strangest thing: how normal everything seems! Honing in on any individual detail, it is exotic, foreign and yet the whole somehow leaves me feeling oddly culturally unshocked. Why, I don’t yet know.
Now, where shall I go tomorrow?