By Georgia Chapman
November 2013, carefree and pre-kids, the conversation went something like this:
Hubby: I’m going to go on a three-week cycling holiday with Giles through India in January.
Me: Are you totally insane? You’ll die! No way!
Five minutes into his planning conversation with Giles.
Me: I’m coming with you.
Six weeks later, on January 1st, 2014, we stepped off the plane at Bangalore airport and breathed in the dry, dusty, curry-tinged air of Karnataka for the first time. And so, our adventure began.
The plan was to head to Decathlon the other side of Bangalore to collect the bikes I had reserved with their Customer Happiness Officer (she was awesome). Giles would assemble his bike he had brought from the UK and we would then all head to Mysore by taxi for our first night in India.
The trip went something like this:
1. Roads are insane; no one obeys the traditional rules and the biggest vehicles have right of way. Once you understand the rules of the Indian roads, where they drive on the left like in the UK, it’s not so difficult really – and you beep to tell people you’re there, instead of telling them to get out of the way. We had obnoxiously loud bike horns, which probably saved our lives on multiple occasions. Seeing an old lady cross a motorway with a cow was a highlight.
2. Breakfast was on the fly and consisted of either a banana, deep fried something from a street seller or egg curry with a cup of chai tea.
3. The people were (mostly) the friendliest I have ever encountered. Schoolgirls, especially, treated me like I was a superstar, which in many ways I probably seemed like – independent, dressed differently and cycling in a foreign country. They shouted ‘Hiiiii!’ and waved furiously, only to collapse into heaps of giggles when I waved back.
The same questions were asked constantly: Where are you from? What is your name? Can I have a photo with you? Where is your [bi]cycle from? How much did it cost? (They were sorely disappointed when we told them it was bought in India.)
4. Everyone was interested in us, wanted their photos taken with us, and would stand around watching us attach our bikes to cars/jeeps/pick-up trucks with a multitude of cable ties when we took other modes of transport. Once I counted 30 men standing around watching the driver and the guys attach our three bikes to his roof to take us up the mountain to Ooty.
5. Men. They could be terrifying. Our trip was one year after the Delhi bus rape, which had garnered international attention for the lives of women in India today. Some days, I was nervous about something happening to me to the point of total paranoia. Men would drive next to me on their mopeds asking my name, cars full of young men would slow down next to me and try to cut me off. Once, whilst hurtling down the other side of the mountain from Ooty around hairpin bends, a car full of young men tried to grab my arm.
6. The trash is insane; litter is everywhere an no one seems to care. It’s a tragedy. We passed by slums that stank and had mountains of litter. Ooty (at the time) was the only city in the country that had banned plastic bags, and it was a wonderful place to be. You would instead buy reusable bags for 10c each. I still have two bags from Ooty that I use to go shopping: way cooler than an Aldi bag.
7. (Snooty) Ooty is a hilltop reserve once favoured by English wives during the hot summers. Here we stayed at a lovely, colonial-style hotel I found in the Lonely Planet Guide. The rest of the time we stayed at slightly more dubious places that we encountered on the way; we nicknamed some of them, for example, cockroach hotel, poo beach – you get the picture. We’d taken mummy liners with us, which were lifesavers, as nothing is cleaned. Ever. If we were lucky we had a toilet and shower. Ooty is also a mix of religions, a church on one corner and the call to prayer coming from a minaret on the other. The kids all played together despite their religious differences.
8. Amritapuri is the home of Amma, the hugging lady that I have been to see and hug in Munich on three separate occasions. We took a boat ride through Amritapuri, where there is an ashram and had ten minutes there to grab a cup of chai tea and soak up the vibe. Speaking of Indian women – no matter how poor, they still wore beautiful, brightly coloured saris. They also seemed to be the ones doing most of the work, selling flower garlands, hand washing clothes in rivers, while the men stood around or drank tea.
9. Swimming in the sea isn’t common practice for Indians and many can’t swim. We spent two nights at the stunning Cherai Beach close to Kochi, a Goa-type western location. When we arrived at Alapuzzha beach I could only stare at the water, as it was not acceptable for a woman to undress and swim in public here. The boys got to swim; I got to watch.
10. Dens of iniquity. It became our mission to have a Kingfisher beer every evening, so we sought out pubs, bars, drinking dens. These places were sordid affairs with filthy, dimly-lit rooms. The ones we weren’t kicked out of ushered us into corners, behind curtains or separate backrooms. I felt like a trailblazer in many ways, although it didn’t leave me feeling very confident.
Interesting point is that the Kingfisher beer has different alcohol levels depending on which state you are in, from 5% in Bangalore to 8% in Tamil Nadu, a dry state with a drinking problem.
11. Wild animals are ubiquitous. There was a tiger on the loose in one area that had killed workers on a tea plantation, and we were told by everyone not to cycle anywhere near that area. The next day the Hindu Times confirmed this story. We also cycled past some wild hippos, heard wild elephants in the woods and I got chased by an angry cow down the street. I’ve never pedalled quite so fast and my husband almost fell off his bike laughing.
12. Kerala has breathtakingly stunning backwaters, which we observed from a houseboat we rented for two days, including a captain and cook. The fact that my husband decided to go hunting for more beer at midnight on his own with no phone (he swam to shore once we’d moored), wasn’t the best idea. He was missing for over two hours and miraculously not only returned alive and unscathed, but he brought with him a new friend and some beer.
13. Food is exceptional. From thalis served on banana leaves and no cutlery to bananas picked off a tree for us by a farmer. And the tea is the best in the world; I could drink it all day long.
14. Trains are everything you imagine and more, especially on a public holiday. We ended up in Kollum on the southern tip and stuck our bikes on a train back to Bangalore. Miraculously our bikes all made it back in perfect condition, despite the only paperwork being on, literally, bits of paper. We didn’t fare quite that well, although we did manage to get seats on a train that soon filled up to overcapacity. Eight hours without being able to move, go to the toilet and being poked by the crazy old lady next to me on a regular basis. One man made his wife stand the entire way and happily sat down himself. People found spaces where I didn’t even know there were spaces. It also took us 6 hours to buy our train tickets.
15. Indian Fever is real. We would move there tomorrow if we could; I keep trying to persuade my company to open an office in India. Once the kids are older, we’ll go back and show them the wonders of a country full of beauty, kindness, incredible smells, sights and food. But we’ll probably take the train next time.
Georgia Chapman is a full-time working mother of two wonderful kids, with an exceptionally supportive stay-at-home dad who keeps it all going. Passionate about yoga and a serious runner in a previous life, she aims to get back to half marathon distances one day. She is happiest when with her family and outdoors, preferably in summer and barefoot. Munich was only ever supposed to be temporary, yet 16 years later she’s still here, with no signs of leaving any time soon.