With a recently minted motorcycle license, there’s probably not a more dangerous place to hone one’s skills than India. As I jokingly told worried family and friends, “inexperienced rider, motorcycle, India — what could possibly go wrong?”
The trip was also going to be a very different as I was not traveling solo this time. Instead, my friend from Norway, Tim, joined in. Tim and I met while we lived a year in Nesodden/Oslo, Norway and we have visited each other in the US, Norway, and Vietnam since then. We’ve connected on three continents — a tradition worth expanding!
In fact, Tim and I had planned a motorcycle outing when I stayed with his family in Hanoi a couple of years back, but a gastrointestinal bother contracted in China put a stopper to that. Fast forward to present day, and with some planning (you don’t just show up in India!), we arrived in Cochin, aka Kochi, in the Southern Indian state of Kerala, New Year’s Eve. We were both half in a daze, half scared to death about what we were about to do.
Tim is by far the better rider — having braved the chaotic traffic in Hanoi. But India is in a league of its own. There are 1.2 billion people on the road, and they all seem suicidal/homicidal. The only thing working for you may be that you are one of the few not believing in reincarnation. So for us, a critical part of the plan was to stay alive and eventually make our way across the mountainous area called the Western Ghats, then on to the temple city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. We would return to Cochin via a different route over the Ghats.
Made like a gun — our Royal Enfield bikes.
Our strategy was simple; get up early (6 am!), ride before the worst traffic and heat, then park the bikes for the afternoon.
The first stretch, Cochin to Valparai in the Ghats was relatively uneventful. As we were getting used to the bikes and taking in the incredible scenery, traffic got lighter the further from the big city we got. But when we entered Valparai — a gritty market town — we were nevertheless exhausted. The town had a couple of hotels (generously named), of which we probably stayed in the more rustic one, with the address “behind the Gandhi statue.” There is also only one bar in town — Kerala is almost “dry” as the state government is phasing in an alcohol ban. The prohibition-era like locale was a cultural experience in itself. We enjoyed our time discussing our exploits while the other patrons were savoring their drinks, relegated to this odd enclosure, like patients in a leper colony.
Valparai by night.
Kolams — geometrical line drawings using rice flour/chalk in South India by female Hindu family members in front of their houses.
The journey from Valparai to Madurai was challenging as we were traversing the switchbacks/hairpins descending the Ghats, dodging monkeys, piles of elephant dung, and death-defying motorcycle riders. But the real excitement came when a big green bus took aim at Tim. As the bus bumped into him, Tim’s bike careened left onto the soft shoulder. Miraculously, he managed to keep the bike up and straight. Nothing less than heroic. But the episode shook us up. Tim was ok, but we had gotten too cocky.
Arriving in Madurai, we had two days to recover from the experience and take in the stunning Meenakshi Amman Temple. The 27 temples in the compound is a central symbol to the Tamils and dedicated to Parvati, and her hubby, Shiva. On foot and a few beers at a rooftop restaurant and the hazards of the road were forgotten.
Southern belles in Madurai.
Meenakshi Amman Temple, Madurai, Tamil Nadu. Dedicated to Parvati and Shiva.
My brush with death came on the leg from Madurai to the city of Munnar in the Ghats. Twice. Apparently, two days off the bike had reset my brain back to right-side driving (they drive on the left in India), and I struggled to remember to look the right way when turning. This disconnect resulted in two incidents. The first a mini-crash, or sorts, with the unfortunate victim’s carnations flying. The other instance could have been deadly as it involved high speed. But I avoided injury, and the near-death experience slowed me down significantly afterward.
Climbing the Western Ghats again. Despite the ominous clouds, not a drop of rain.
Ego bruised, arrival in Munnar was welcome. Littered with tea, coffee and spice plantations, the town and area are more developed than Valparai as a destination. Here you will find wifi, good restaurants, modern hotels. And toilets with toilet paper. But as elsewhere, you’ll have to look hard for a beer.
View from the hotel.
Tim picking tea leaves…
And professionals picking tea.
Tea plantations as far as you can see.
Typical tea factory, often with shabby shacks for workers attached.
With our sober experiences on the road, settling in Munnar for a couple of days seemed like a good option. We found the state liquor outlet and succumbed to sloth and gluttony.
Not content with tea, Tim at the state liquor store.
The last stretch back to Cochin was uneventful, mostly due to our neurotic insistence that the last bit is when dangerous things would happen. But we reached our drop-off point, unscathed, road weary and elated that we had escaped with our lives. Leaving those sweet bikes was nevertheless hard, but we decided to reward ourselves with a luxury hotel and beer by the pool.
The next few days were lazy bonus days, reflecting on the fact that we had a new lease on life and were still in this impossible place called India.
Bonus day: train trip from Cochin to Alappuzha (aka Alleppey).
Wonder what’s on the other side of that door…
Alleppey beach — beautiful but mind the “mines”. With limited services, beaches are often bathrooms for locals.