Pick a Month… Any Month.
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I’ve been told I need to “Post less, more often.” I’m trying, but, hey! This is my little escape, OK? ;-) Really, I am so appreciative of the comments, emails and positive energy shared with me these past several months. It’s a good feeling to know that someone actually reads this stuff. I feel like I’ll only really be able to appreciate the value of that after I get home and “decompress” a bit.
Can’t afford too much of that “mushy” stuff now: I’m still a big, bad Enfield rider taking on the roads and cities of India!
So for now it’s…
Steven Won, MANALI “0”!
After alternately melting and baking on the plains of India, it’s a relief to be back in the mountains. Summer is approaching here in Manali, the days warm and the evenings comfortably cool, even if the storms that blow through every few days do still bring a chilly rain. Just riding the Bullet on the twisty mountain roads in the foothills of the Himalaya is like a dream come true. I’ll be heading home soon, and it will be difficult to say goodbye to the bike, now that it is running like a striped ape. At home, summer will be coming on, so it may be a case of out-of-the-fire-and-into-the-frying pan, especially when i get back to Louisiana.
Interestingly, Manali and New Orleans are both about 30 degrees N. of the equater, but at about 2,000 meters elevation, Manali’s much cooler. The Beas River runs through the center of the area, captive to the steep hills that define the Kullu Valley; hills covered in tall, dark conifers and sprinkled with the small homes of mountain people now working to harvest the wheat now turning from green to brown in the narrow, terraced fields. It’s still the dry season, but when the monsoon rains come to stay in June, these fields will once more turn green, young rice plants replacing the ripening wheat. Closer to the river, many beautiful birds, most of which I’ve never seen before, fly and sing among the apple trees covering the more mellow slopes. Beyond the hills, outside the valley proper, tall, jagged mountains – many topped with the patchwork gray and white of crumbling rock and dirty, melting snow – add another vivid layer to an already gorgeous landscape.
As I look around this area, I see that in terms of culture, it’s not really India; it’s not Nepal; not Tibet either… Or it’s all three. Things get a little confusing, culturally, because in this part of the world, poplitical boundaries become less important than geographic boundaries. The mountains dominate everything here: The weather, the mood and particularly the culture. As I step down an alleyway leading away the center of town past buildings of concrete and steel, I am quickly out in the hills and away from the honking horns of the main road. Out here, the only horns are the ones on the milk-cows feeding quietly along the muddy path, tended by women with sun-browned faces (I saw one woman with a rosy-cheeked infant strapped to her back). Next to the path, I see many buildings that are built in the old way with materials taken from the surrounding hills: Walls of large stones and heavy timbers sealed with mud. To support roofs shingled with thick slabs of the sparkly granite, these walls have to be strong.
I came to Manali 5 days ago riding with Kristen, who along with Glen and Gopal (our friend and guide), was one of my trekking buddies in Nepal’s Anapurna Himal. That was last December, and this was the second time I’d run into Kristen and Glen since parting with them in Nepal in early January: Once in Varanasi more than three months ago, and then again last week in Dharamsala, home-in-exile to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. They were looking very relaxed after spending some time in Kashmere, which Kristen desribed as “Heaven on Earth.”
I stayed in Dharamsala (Mcleod Ganj, actually: the main Tibetan village near Dharamsala) for about 5 days. It’s like Tibet away from Tibet, with lots of burgundy robed monks, and apron clad old women in understated gray, woolen coats (baby yak’s wool?). It made me sad to think that this town – along with some of the villages I passed through in Northern Nepal – are now the remaining strongholds of Tibetan culture. But at least here, in Mcleod Ganj, Tibetan culture is very much alive. being about 50% Tibetan, I’m told. While in Mcleod Ganj, I went to the temple where the Dalai Lama sits and teaches, but as I had heard, he was not in town. I did get to see the monks debating the finer points of existance, however.
Kristen and I left Dharamsala the same morning Glen left for Thailand to visit his uncle. We decided to visit Manali – not because it’s the hashish capitol of India, with marijuana growing wild all over the place, but because it is about as far into the Indian Himal either of us could go and still make it back to fly to our respective homes, because we both had limited time left on our Indian visas (Kristen, Glen and I had gotten our six-month Indian visas in early January in Kathmandu). Really. That was the reason :)
As Kristen and I first approached Manali, a severe thunderstorm was moving into the Kullu valley, bringing strong gusts of chilled wind from the upper atmosphere, threatening to tear large limbs off of the tall fir trees that lined the road. A little further from the road the Beas River ran and tumbled its white noise from the bottom of the steep canyon up which we rode. Each “micro-burst” of cold air from the storm lifted another batch of the accumulated leaves, pine needles and dust on the road directly into our path as we rode. The bright flashes of lightening strikes, themselves invisible around a corner of the valley ahead adding to the excitement I felt being part of this this awesome display of nature’s power. By the time we met the storm, Kristen and I’d ridden over two hundred kilometers from Dharamsala. Heading east on National Highway 20, wheat fields and high mountains were provided a view custom-made for people traveling by motorcycle. Local farmers were out tended their wheat, and the day was clear and warm. But here in realtime, as the storm moves in we’re riding fast, hoping to make the final 11 k to Manali before the rain starts. When I feel the wasp-stings of heavy raindrops on my face, I know we need to find shelter fast. The road seems deserted, and I’m sure that we and our gear will get soaked. Luckily, around the next bend there’s a little chai shop, and I aim the Bullet for the empty front porch of the building next to it. As we gain the shelter of the shop, much to the delight of the three local men sitting inside, we notice we’ve scored more than just shelter and tea; they’ve got mo-mos :) A little later, warmed by chai, momos and spicey chutney – and by the fact that we were able to watch the rain fall from a cozy place – we climb back on the bike and ride into Manali.
Kristen left a few days ago to see the temples at Khajaraho and the caves of Ajanta, before flying back home to New Zealand. I’ll miss Kristen and Glen. Good peeps, and I think it was fitting that we ran into each other again just before we all left India, having met imediately upon our arrival on the sub-continet in Kathmandu six months ago. Hopefully our paths will cross again.
I may stay in Manali a while, perhaps selling my bike here to someone wanting to take an Enfield on the Leh-Manali Highway across the world’s highest motorable pass into the Ladakh area of Kashmir.I was thinking of riding my baby across myself, but the pass will be icy and there’s lots of BIG trucks on that high, long narrow road. You know me: I hate to take chances.
That’s why I started taking paragliding instruction three days ago!
It’s interesting how doing nothing can expand to take up entire months.
When last we heard from our traveler, he was departing Chennai for the Andaman Islands, but he hasn’t been heard from since. Is he living? Is he dead? Let’s tune in and see…
Putting My Faith in Technology From the Fifties
And Ganesh, of course…
For any traveler wanting to ride across India, it nearly goes without saying that there is only one bike to have: A Royal Enfield. Originally manufactured by a British company – a former firearm manufacturer – the tag line for the bike is “Made like a gun.” Not that I know exactly what it means to be made like a killing machine, but the company kept with that theme in the naming of the bike, calling it the “Bullet”. These bikes were manufactured by the Royal Enfield company in both England and India for a while, but after production ceased in the UK, the bikes have been manufactured exclusively in India. There are thousands and thousands of these bikes on Indian roads, and why not? They are cheap; parts are available everywhere; and lots of people know how to work on them. It’s a good thing too: They tend to break down a lot. Nothing serious normally; just little things: Thrown pistons; incinerated gearboxes; things like that. Seriously, Enfields are pretty simple (even for yours truly), as all but the latest models are technologically the same as the first Enfields built in 1955. The Bullet is available in 350 and 500 cc versions, and mine is a 350 built in 1998.
Buying and outfitting a motorcycle for travel in India can be an intimidating experience. At least it was for me. When I returnd to Chennai from the Andamans ready to buy, I hadn’t the slightest idea of where to find Enfields for sale, or how to determine the value of any given bike. Luckily, I had met a number of people that gave me some pointers on what these bikes should cost, and my friend Ran, whom I met in the Andamans – warned me most seriously in his Israeli accent: “Don’t pay more than $500 for a bike”. “OK Ran.” I said.
The karmic wheel spun my way when I met Yuvaraj, a Chennai native who took it upon himself to help me find a bike and get it ready for my travels. Yuvaraj is not your average Indian: He speaks excellent English; he’s a big fan of Formula 1 racing; and Yuvaraj has traveled outside of India several times, mainly to Shanghai to watch the Grand Prix. Yuvaraj introduced me to his friend Hari, a mechanic at the local Enfield dealer, who happened to have a client ready to sell his bike. I got a good deal on a single owner 1998 model at 20,000 rupees, or about $450 U.S. (Good, Ran?). After Hari performed some minor work on the bike, Yuvaraj took me around to find people to make the racks and boxes I’d need to carry my personal gear, tools and extra parts. All of this took about a week, and although it was still difficult, it would have been a thousand times more so without the help of Yuvaraj and his friends Babu and Ganesh (yes, Ganesh!), and I owe them a lot. Thanks guys. I’ll not forget my Indian friends in Chennai!
In the last month, I’ve crossed the Indian peninsula from east to west, covering over 3,000 kilometers by motorcycle. Traveling by bike on Indian roads may best be described as hours of fun, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. At least until you get the hang of driving here, which is driving like it is nowhere else. Except maybe Nepal. And Bali. And Vietnam. But I’ll leave the joyous details of motorcycle travel in India for another installment.
The key word applied to my two-wheeled travel so far would have to be “HOT”: From the low-nineties (in degrees Farenhiedt) on the southeastern coast of India, I’ve traveled across the dusty interior plains of the Deccan Plateau, with its attendant mid-to-upper-nineties, to the cool, clear air of the upper-elevations of the Western Ghats (a brief respite of about 4 days), to the sweltering, moist air of Kochin, on the far southwestern coast of the subcontinent, in the state of Kerala. The last segment of riding from the coastal state of Goa to the city of Hampi in the interior was especially hot, the mercury hitting nearly 100 degrees.
But focusing on the discomfort of traveling in India by motorbike this time of year would be to tell only half of the story. Traveling by bike has fundamentally changed my Indian experience: Where before, I was whisked by train, bus or plane from one tourist town to another, I now see all of the places in between. Before the bike, I knew that every place I disembarked would have had its culture altered by the fact that large numbers of tourists – and their fat wallets – pass through; a fresh batch arriving each day. As I wind through these in between places on my bike, people stare and kids smile and wave. As I pull over to adjust my load or just to take a quick break, a small crowd sometimes forms, with eyes all bright and shiny, recording the sight of this transient “paleface”. Some kids ask for money, but I don’t want to encourage begging, so I rarely give in. Most just stare and smile. Adults too come over to check me out, the more interesting of those being – at least for me – the older men. I can rarely speak with them, with their dark, weather and work-worn faces expressing such a great deal of character – we share a smile and a nod, and that seems enough.
Of course I am putting the cart before the bullock, as all of this motorcycle stuff took place after my visit to the Andaman Islands.
Ah, the Andamans… They would be heaven on Earth, if only they hadn’t become so popular. The Andaman Islands which, along with the Nicobar Islands, make up an archipelago in the Andaman Sea, two hours west of mainland India by air (about $190 US, RT from Chennai, at the time of this writing). Actually they are closer to Burma and the Malaysian Peninsula than to mainland India.
Port Blair, the gateway to the Andamans, is a typically loud and crowded Indian city, with blaring horns and all of that. I’d made the flight from Chennai, I was certain; it felt however, like I hadn’t even left the mainland. Port Blair is the price one has to pay for access to the real Andamans and the chilling-out I so badly needed after two months of culture-shock. The only guest house with any openings in PB was dirty, noisy and over-priced, but I had no choice. It was with relief that I boarded the boat the next day – along with Cat and Hristo (a married couple from France and Bulgaria respectively; I had met them briefly in Kathmandu and remade their acquaintance in Chennai) and set “sail” for Havelock Island. As with PB, accommodations were a problem in Havelock. It seemed that the entire travel community had descended upon the island. While we were lucky to find a place, the guest house owners were clearly taking advantage of the situation, and we paid twice what we normally would have for thatch-roofed, bamboo huts at a place with no electricity or running water.
The Islands are mostly ringed by mangroves, but in a few places, white coral sand beaches can be found. The islands’ interiors are tropical rain forest with many birds, reptiles and tall trees, at least in the places where they haven’t yet been felled. Once we got settled in, we were able to relax and begin enjoying this tropical paradise. Beach #7 on Havelock is considered by many to be the No. 1 beach in Asia. It’s a beautiful place to relax, look out at the clear water, snorkel and then later, watch the sun set. I didn’t take too many photos at Beach #7 (or on Havelock, for that matter), but I did take one of an interesting design in the sand made by one of the little ghost crabs that live on the beach. I took more photos at another beautiful spot on Havelock, Elephant Beach. Not many of the beach itself, but in the mangrove swamp behind the beach, where if one looks closely, a host of interesting and beautiful critters can be found eking out an existence in and around water hot to the touch from soaking up the tropic sun day after day (the water supply in the swamp is refreshed only a couple of times a month, when the cycle of the moon brings exceptionally high tides that make it over the sandy beach into the mangroves). Here I saw nearly transparent shrimp, baby cuttlefish and thousands of the cute little mud skippers that live in the pools Also in the swamp lived the most colorful fiddler crabs I have ever seen. Of course these crabs are very shy (unlike the mud skippers, obviously), but if one sits very still and waits them out…
Beaches and mangrove swamps are kool, but I was on Havelock to dive too. And dive I did: Ten dives in eight days, nearly doubling my dive count to twenty-two. Unlike in the Gili Islands of Indonesia, where I was certified in September (to dive, that is), and where dynamite fishing by the locals and the high water temps of the 97/98 el nino have taken their collective toll, the coral in the Andamans is fantastic. Hard and soft corals literally cover the bottom, and there are also sites with lots of big fish. I don’t have any underwater photographic equipment, so I didn’t take any photos during my dives. However, I’ll try to describe one of the dives we made at Dixon’s Pinnacle. And because I don’t have any great confidence in my talent as a writer, I’ve also shamelessly borrowed a number of photos from other websites to show what some of the creatures I encountered actually look like, just in case you’re not familiar with them.
In this case, Dixon’s “Pinnacle” is a large rock cluster in the open sea, standing about 15 meters (about 45 feet) above the sandy bottom at 30 meters, taking about an hour to reach by boat from Havelock. With me are my Swiss dive “buddy” David, and Steven, our dive master. Arriving at the site, after a short briefing – where Steven describes the site and reminds Dave and me of the various hand signals (so that we can communicate underwater) – we slip into our thin wet suits (you hardly need them in water that’s somewhere around 80 degrees F), weight-belts and buoyancy compensation devices or “BCD’s” (basically an air bladder encased in a cordura nylon vest). My air tank, which along with the regulator assembly supply me with breathing air, is mounted to the BCD such that it rides on my back. There is a control mechanism on the BCD allowing a diver to add air from the tank to the bladder to increase buoyancy – resulting in a rise through the water column – and another control which allows one to decrease buoyancy by releasing air from the bladder, thus allowing a diver to descend. The weights provide a slightly negative buoyancy – so that I can descend – with little or no air in the BCD. After checking that my tank is full, that the controls on the BCD work properly and my regulator is functioning well, I put on my mask, slip into my fins and add air to the BCD, so that I will float when I first enter the water. David and I then perform our “buddy check,” each assuring the other’s gear is ready to go. I place my bum on the side of the boat, put the regulator mouthpiece into my mouth, and holding my mask so it doesn’t come off, I count to three and fall backward into the water. As I bob around on the surface, I look around to orient myself, noting there’s no land anywhere near us: this is open water diving for sure! I give my gear one last check, and after everyone is in and David and I signal “OK”, Steven gives the thumbs-down, meaning it’s time to descend. I release air from my BCD, the water slowly covering my face as I sink.
As I descend, all wave motion quickly fades and everything grows quiet. Quiet that is, save for that reassuring sigh, as I inhale the life giving air from the tank, through the regulator and into my lungs. This reassuring sound is soon followed by the “burble” of that same air as I breath out, creating beautiful, inverted-bowl-shaped bubbles, the big ones reflecting everything around them and looking like liquid mercury as they quickly rise, the air making its way back to to the atmosphere from whence it came. Looking down, I see nothing but clear, deep blue, pierced everywhere at once – but nowhere at the same time – by dancing, laser-beams of sunlight, refracted by the perpetually changing lenses of the waves above. I look up, and I see the dive boat, dark in its silhouette against the morning sunshine. I look for David to see that he is descending with me without any difficulty, and giving him and Steven the hand signal for “OK”, they too signal all is well. Checking my depth gauge, I see it is counting me down.
As I continue to descend, I begin to feel a slight pain in my head, telling me the pressure is increasing; that the air trapped in my sinus passages is being squeezed by the weight of the water column above me. This pressure differential is greatest near the surface, so it can start to hurt pretty quickly in the first seconds of a dive. This temporary discomfort is quickly alleviated however, by pinching my nose through the silicon of my mask and blowing, releasing that painful pressure out into the surrounding sea. No problem.
Looking down once more, I begin to see faint shadows emerging from the blue, which itself is beginning to lighten. I look to my right and see something large and dark looming, but even though the visibility is over 20 meters, I can’t make out what it is. I notice something about the light is different: It’s softer, and those dazzling rays of light have all but disappeared. Another pressure equalization. Another check on Steven and David… All is well.
I can see the sandy bottom now, and those faint shadows I saw below me before are beginning to sharpen into rocks scattered on the ocean floor. Waving a gentle welcome to me in the mild current are soft corals, each one firmly attached at its base to one of the rocks. Realizing I am quickly approaching the bottom, I grab the control on my BCD, adding air to increase my buoyancy – thereby slowing my descent – aiming for neutral buoyancy or “weightlessness,” just as I reach the bottom.
On the bottom now, or better yet, just above it at neutral buoyancy. Another check that all divers are OK, and after fine-tuning my buoyancy, I start to swim, slowly kicking with my fins, toward that looming patch of darkness some thirty or forty meters away.
It’s the pinnacle and it’s big: 15 meters tall, more or less, and it’s as large at the base as a good-sized house. As I approach, I begin to pick out detail: Soft coral here; a sea-fan there, a barrel sponge over there… Everything has a blue tinge – the red being filtered out of the sunlight by the ninety-something feet of water above me, and by the water between me and whatever I happen to be looking at. As I approach an object however, the colors become more vibrant; more vivid. Malachite green algae greets my eye, as I swim around the base of the pinnacle, looking deep into nooks and crannies in the rock. Orange and white Banded Coral Shrimp hide out in holes and Cleaner Shrimp, in peppermint stripes of red and white, gently cleans passers-by of tiny parasites . Colorful crabs peer at me from fissures and quickly duck out of view, while white and blue spotted Peacock Grouper scurry to hide in the safety of gloomy crevasses. Even a Spiny Lobster – lucky to escape the fishermen of the area – peers out at me from the depths of a small cave, its long, thick antennae waving in a defensive posture.
As I swim, I manage my breathing to control buoyancy. While the BCD helps, it is only an average, because each time I draw a breath from the tank, the amount of water my body displaces increases, causing a corresponding increase in my buoyancy: I begin to rise a little. When I breath out, the reverse is true, and there is a tendency to descend. By timing my breathing to control these little ups and downs, I use my breathing to move over small obstacles, or drop slightly to peer into a hidden place an octopus or large grouper may be hiding.
Moving up from the bottom of the pinnacle – both by kicking and by adding little air to my BCD – I come face-to-face with a large school of snapper. They part slowly, passing to either side of me, wondering I’m sure about this strange creature in their midst. As I near the top of the pinnacle, I see that the whole thing is covered with a hundred-thousand small Glass Fish, whose skeletons and internal organs are clearly visible through their transparent bodies. These are a favorite food of many predators, and I can see that these “bait fish” hug the sides and peak of the pinnacle like a cloud sometimes hugs the crown of tall mountains: densely packed and clinging tight to the rock on the up-current side, and trailing off to nothing on the down-current side.
Looking up, I find the predators. The first ones I spot are the tuna. These Little Tuna, or Bonito, circle round and round the pinnacle – remaining well above it – in small “wolf-packs” of three to five. These fish are indeed built for speed, with pointy snouts, smooth, streamlined, bullet-shaped bodies and a stiff, narrow tail designed not for subtle movement, but to transmit every bit of power generated by that muscular body to the water. Even the point where the body narrows to meet that efficient tail has knife-like edges on either side, allowing the tail to move more quickly from side to side, minimizing resistance and maximizing power transfer. If any animal ever deserved the nickname “silver bullet,” tuna do. They swim effortlessly it seems, looking fast even when they are moving slowly. These are indeed the “Formula 1’s” of the undersea world (Writing about these magnificent creatures, the product of millions of years of ruthless evolution, got me curious about speedy fish, and I googled “fastest fish.” You “triviaphiles” may be interested in the results).
Off to my left and slightly above me, a school of about fifty Barracuda circle lazily, looking as if they are just waiting for something to happen so they can join the fray. These fish are long and lean, with a mouth full of long, sharp teeth that could do a lot of damage to a diver. One of the them, a four-footer, is hanging out several meters below the main group and not far from me, so I kick over to check him out. He eyes me warily as I approach, but he doesn’t swim away. I’ve no fear, but perhaps I should: As I get within six feet of the fish, I see those sharp teeth up-close-and-personal, and I realize I’m 45 feet below the surface of the water next to a fish known for its ferocity. I then recall that barracuda are known to go for shiny objects, and I look at my right wrist with the shiny silver bracelet; then at the silver ring on my left hand – each perhaps flashing a bait fish distress signal to that primitive brain. I slowly back off, giving the fish some space, and consider myself lucky to swim away with all appendages intact.
Suddenly, something does happen: A sudden streak of molten silver in a blue-green “sky”, and almost faster than the eye can follow, one of the tuna has rifled down into the bait fish. It happens so quickly, you can’t see what happens when the tuna makes contact with the school. What you do see is that huge cloud of bait fish reacting as a single unit, creating a dazzling display of silver sparkles in the sunlight, as thousands of tiny fish “splash” out of the way in a big wave. This coordinated behavior is, I suppose, designed to confuse the tuna and protect the bait fish – and no doubt it works. For most of them…
Next come the trevally, or jack fish. These come in three different varieties here: The Bluefin, the Bigeye and the Giant Trevally. These are all beautiful animals, and they circle the pinnacle looking for a meal, like everyone else. While the Giant Trevally, weighing up to about fifty pounds, are few and remain far above me, their silver-black stripes boldly displayed as they turn toward the sun, the bluefin and the bigeye swim slowly by, acknowledging my presence with only minor course deviations to avoid running into me. Obviously, they see me as no threat. The bluefin travel in small groups of two to four, but as the bigeye move by me in schools of ten to fifiteen, I see that many are in pairs; obviously some kind of courtship behavior. In many of these pairs, one of the two fish is markedly darker than the other, and I am told later by Steven that it is the female who changes color with the excitement of courtship. I’m sure if my fellow divers were watching me closely, they would have noticed a change in my color too, excited as I was from witnessing such a spectacle, both wild and natural.
By now, our dive is coming to an end, as air supplies dwindle and the safe bottom time for a 30 m dive approaches. About forty minutes into the dive, Steven gives the thumbs-up, signaling it’s time to ascend. Adding a little air to my BCD, I begin to rise slowly; no faster than the smallest “champagne” bubbles of air. Past the barracuda. Past the trevally. The bonito no longer visible in their all out race with hunger. As we ascend further, I release a little air from my BCD. If I didn’t allow some of the air to escape as I rise, the drop in water pressure as we near the surface would allow the air already in the bladder to rapidly expand – increasing my buoyancy – thereby causing me to rise more quickly than safe diving practice allows. Looking down, the pinnacle – and the richly populated world surrounding it – once more recedes into the blue, and the fascinating light show of sun and waves returns.
At five meters, we make a three minute safety stop. This is SOP for safe, conservative diving. The reason for the stop – and for the overall slowness of our ascent – is to give the nitrogen – accumulated in our bodies from the air we breathed under pressure at depth (the Earth’s atmosphere is naturally only about 21% oxygen, but about 78% nitrogen) – to remain safely dissolved in the blood, thereby avoiding the unpleasant and potentially dangerous condition of decompression sickness, also known as “the bends.” After the safety stop, it’s back to the surface and into the boat for a hot cup of chai, a lunch of lemon rice, boiled egg, spicy pickle, and coconut cookies for dessert – YUM! Exciting discussion of all we have just seen is the only thing that interrupots our meal on this sunny afternoon. Wow…
A couple of days before I was finished with my diving, Cat and Hristo left Havelock for one of the more remote islands, Little Andaman, far to the South. I’ve heard that this island was relatively undeveloped and a nice place to surf, but I was ready just to relax. Therefore, when I was done diving, I caught the next boat to Neil Island, a smaller and less visited isle. As luck sometimes has it, Neil too had more visitors than accommodations, and I ended up sleeping in a hammock for the five days I was there. I have to admit that I’d never before slept in a hammock, and I was a little apprehensive about the experience. Luckily, I found a great place right on the beach, and the constant sea breeze kept the “mozzies” off of me all night. I enjoyed the “bohemian” existence. Well, it wasn’t too bohemian: My chosen sleeping spot was actually on the beach of a guest house, where I paid 50 rupees (about $1.15) for the privilege of hanging my hammock, using their shower and paying entirely too much for their beer. Whatever…
Neil, was where I spent the Hindu holiday of Holi, and it was indeed a colorful experience. Although not as big in the Andamans as in, say, Mumbai, my Holi on Neil was still a lot of fun. All of the kids (little kids and the ones in adult bodies – these seem to be the same during Holi) on the island armed themselves with bags of color powder, and/or bottles, bags or squirt guns of colored water doing their best to make everyone “colorful”. Even the animals got into the act, although it didn’t appear that it was their choice to participate. It was difficult – but fun – taking photographs of the mayhem, while keeping my camera safe. Of course I didn’t exactly make it out of there unscathed…
The Andamans are a wonderful place, and I recommend them to anyone getting within striking distance of those islands. I would have loved to stay for the 30 days allowed by the permit issued when you arrive in the islands (extendable to 45 days), but I’d purchased my air ticket to the Andamans in advance, so reluctantly, I said goodbye to Neil Island and headed back to Port Blair to catch the flight back to the mainland.
My second night back in Chennai, I was approached by a couple of guys looking for western faces to use as extras in a commercial being shot at one of the local studios (Chennai is HQ for the Tamil language films, and every bit as prolific as the “Bollywood” of Mumbai). They were only paying Rs 600 (about $15), but I was interested in visiting a studio anyways, so I said “OK.” The next morning, I met the film guys and two women travelers who had also accepted their offer, and we autorickshaw-ed it down the the studio. When we arrived, the first thing I saw was a crew working on some kind of mock-up of a train. We then learned that the ad was being produced for the Italian automaker Fiat to support the launch of one of their cars in India. The concept is this: A young woman is riding on a bullet train (not sure where, as they don’t have them in India) and some guy (her boyfriend? I dunno) is riding next to the train in a car ( a Fiat?) and singing to her. Anyhow, the girls and I were background for the real action. But towards the end of the day, the directer decided to use me in a close up. They put me in a dress shirt and tie, then had me look up from reading a Wall Street Journal to notice what was going on and smile at how cute the whole thing was. Right. I did about 6 takes, but I’m not sure I gave them what they wanted. One of the girls was kind enough to take my photo while sitting in the fake train, but before I was in “costume.” Six hundred rupees and another few minutes of fame… The funny thing is, they didn’t even ask us to sign waivers. Apparently none of that is necessary in India. CNN didn’t use my interview at the Kumbh Mela in their piece on the event, but perhaps I’ll be the American discovered in an Indian advertisement for an Italian automobile :-)
It was the following day that Hristo and Cat returned from the Andamans. Unfortunately, their bike wouldn’t start. Oh… Did I mention that they too had an Enfield? They’d bought it in Kathmandu and ridden it all over India. So Hristo and I pushed the bike all over looking for a mechanic to help get it running. It was at the mechanic that I met Yuvaraj, and the rest is history, as they say… Cat and Hristo left the following day, which made me a little sad: I’d wanted to ride with them. But at that point, I still had no bike.Happily, I would meet up with them later in the mountains of Kerala, where they were traveling with Cat’s parents, who’d come from France to visit.
After Yuvaraj’s help with the bike, I was MORE than ready to leave Chennai. Not a bad town, but I’d seen more than enough of it. I traveled south along the east coast of India, and deeper into the state of Tamilnadu. After a 60 kilometer “maiden voyage”, I stopped for a night and a day in Mamallapuram, a small coastal village known for the beautiful Hindu carvings created here in the seventh century AD. There are many panels depicting various stories from the Hindu epics, but the most well known and interesting panel is “Anjuna’s Penance.” Looking at the panel, Anjuna stands on one leg in penance (for what, I do not know. Perhaps someone knows the story and can share it with us in a comment??) in the upper left. You may also notice how skillfully the stone-masons of the 7th century incorporated the large, natural fissure in the stone into the carving as the River Ganga, complete with creatures of that watery domain. Not only are there figures carved in the native pink granite of Mamallapuram, entire temples have been chiseled directly into the stone landscape as well. With all of the exposed granite, it’s kind of a “Joshua Tree by the Sea”, but with coconut palms instead of Joshua Trees.
Heading further south along the coast, I visited a town known for the influence of it’s former French colonizers, Pondichery. The Lonely Planet led me to expect something reminiscent of the French Quarter in New Orleans, but I didn’t get that at all. I guess there were just too many coconut palms and too many Indians there for me to feel like I could be in N’awlins. Actually, the New Orleans French Quarter is older and has a great deal more character. Still,I was happy to find a good cup of brewed coffee at one of the pseudo-French cafes, as what is most commonly available here in India is instant, known everywhere simply as “nescafe.” Blah! What I did find in Pondichery was an area influenced – even more than by its former colonizers – by Sri Aurobindo and his spiritual collaborator, The Mother. Many people come to Pondichery to study at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, and it seems that every guest room in town has photos of the the influential couple on thew wall, and sometimes I felt like I was being watched. A little creepy…
I did stay at two of the guest houses in Pondichery directly associated with the Aurobindo ashram, mainly because they were clean and cheap. One of them was actually called “Mother’s House.” I stayed there for two nights admiring the view across the rooftops of the surrounding fishing village and out over the Andman Sea. The place was cool, with meditation each morning and a hot shower (Another rarity, at least in budget hotels in India). I learned about Mother’s House from a man I met at a tandoori restaurant when I first arrived in “Pondi”, and on my way there through the village, I came across a festival, as I have in so many other places across festive India. This one was quite colorful, with a procession of men whose faces and bodies were painted, and they were all dressed up as notable Hindu Gods. One guy had the lungs and windpipe of a goat hanging out of his mouth in emulation Kali the destroyer. I’ll spare you that photo… As is usually the situation when I come across these, I had absolutely no idea what the festival was actually about, or just what was going on. As in most places I visit, I managed to come across a few things unusual things that I’ve never seen before….
Just outside of Pondichery is the experimental community of Auroville. Auroville is The Mother’s manifestation of a “Universal Township”, built on the principals of the Sri Aurobindo (“Sri” means honorable, or holy, BTW). I visited Auroville, and although I considered staying for awhile in one of the guest houses, I didn’t really think it was for me. I did of course, take photos of the Matri Mandir or “Mother Temple”, the center of spiritual life in Auroville. Inside, in the central meditation chamber, is a 70 cm, sun-bathed crystal ball, said to be the largest of its kind. Mirrors are used to keep the suns rays focused on the sphere at all hours of the day (I met one guy in Pondi that told me he had had sex on the crystal ball. An interesting idea). Outside the temple is a white “capsule,” shaped like a lotus bud, filled at the 1968 groundbreaking ceremony with dirt from each of the 168 countries represented in Auroville at that time. It’s a beautiful thing, though I have heard that there are structural issues with the mandir, and if the appearance of the grounds around the temple are any indication, it may be a long time before they complete the project.
Heading out of Pondichery, I turned inland, making my way slowly west across the peninsula, through the dry inland plains of the Deccan Plateau toward the Western Ghats.after a hot ride and a night in Dindigul (north of Madurai), I stopped for a night in Kodaikanal, one of the “hill stations” of Western Tamilnadu, where the cool, dry mountain air was a great relief. I had noticed on my way up the mountain that in this part of India, Hinduism was slowly giving ground, and that Christianity was making a strong play for the title of dominant religion. Evidence of this was the increasing number of crucifixes and churches along the way. This trend would continue as I made my way further west and into the state of Kerela.
Despite some of my earlier ranting and a certain amount of negativity about India (I’ve learned that almost every western traveler goes through this), I’ve met some really nice people in the country. It is just so difficult to open up to potentially good interactions , after putting up with the bureaucracy, and after being taken advantage of so often by those with whom you have to do business. I have to say that the people of Kerala are the nicest I’ve met so far. Maybe it’s because they depend so much on tourism, and they’ve perhaps realized more flies are caught with sugar… Maybe it’s because there are so many Christians here. Perhaps it’s just that “niceness” is more native to this part of India. I dunno, but as soon as I crossed the mountain border with Tamilnadu, things just felt different. I stopped to watch some men undergoing some unfathomable Hindu rites, and I was immediately made welcome to stop and take photos. A little further, I stopped to have some water, and man walked up and handed me some fresh cardamom to smell and taste. Along with tea, cinnamon and pepper, and marijuana, cardamom is one of the main crops of mountainous East Kerela.
Munnar was my next stop; refreshingly cool this time of year, as much of India turns to fire. Munnar is a place where the green of the tea plantations is at times complimented by the earth-tones of the granite boulders strewn across many of the slopes, and by the darker green of the leaves of the eucalyptus, seemingly the predominant tree of the area. Since this is India in the dry season, sunsets are all the more beautiful, the dusty air adding a warm rosy glow to the setting of the sun. I arrived in the hills around Munnar at the end of the day, after another long hot ride. I was eager to find an affordable guesthouse before it got dark, but the light on the hills was soooo beautiful. And it was only getting better.
I did finally find a place to sleep in Munnar, and the following morning, I met Philip Psilos. Again. It’s one of the many “small world” stories of India. They say in india, you run into every traveler you meet at least twice, and I’d met Phil while in Calcutta. I’d introduced myself to him because he had an Enfield, and because I was by then planning to buy one. I learned then that Phil was from Washington, D.C., but the rest of that first conversation – which lasted a mere ten minutes – was about buying an Enfield. Here in Munnar, Phil and I went riding – along with our limey friend Simon, who rode like some kind of racing nut – over 30 k of twisty mountain rodes to “Top Station”, which offered a great view of the Western Ghats. After the ride, as Phil and I sat and talked, Phil shared that the focus of his travel has been The Spiros Project, which documents and discusses contemporary spiritual art. While we sat, drank chai and continued to chew the proverbial fat, the world shrank even more: I found out that Phil has been – in a past life – an economic consultant, and that much of his recent work has been for the Dept of Economic Development of the State of Louisiana. As the discussion wove its way, we came to realize that he’s worked in the past with an acquaintance of mine from Baton Rouge who now lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Phil and I decided to ride together for a few days on the way to Kochin, before he had to catch a train – with the bike – to meet his girlfriend in Goa. Leaving Munnar, we stopped for a couple of nights in the hamlet of Kumily, near the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary. We didn’t see any tigers, but we did see some wild elephants and wild pigs during a daytime boat ride. We also saw Sambar (India’s largest deer) and a pair of porcupine during a “night patrol”, where we paid 500 Rs (about $11) for the honor of helping the sanctuary rangers patrol the park on foot. Whhhooo Hooooh! OK, so the porcupine were really cool… We next traveled down out of the mountains to Kochin on the Kerala coast. Along the way, we passed a cattle auction, where all types of bovine were being sold: Cows, water buffalo and the ever-popular draft animal of India, the bullock. Often, these animals have their long horns colored and otherwise ornamented, giving them a festive look. As Phil and I continued to wind our way down the mountain, I could feel the air growing more and more hot and “thick” by the kilometer, as we neared the West Coast and the city of Kochin. Think New Orleans in July, and then increase the humidity to about 85%. This is what it felt like in the city. Phil left for Goa the evening we arrived, but I spent a couple of sweaty days there, mainly trying to get new racks for my bike, as the ones I had made in Chennai were falling apart. It was nice riding with Phil, noit just because he’s an interesting person, but also because this was the first time I’d traveled with another American since I began my trip. There’s not many of us out here. The last time I heard from Phil, he was in Goa taking paragliding lessons. I’m jealous… Go Phil!
Another interesting person I met is Sanoj Rahman, a Kerala native that does a bit of riding too. Sanoj and I hung out and talked one night, just as he returned from a ride in the Western Ghats, from where I had come to Kochin. He shared some cool photos from his trip to Kashmir, and it caused me to me pine (pardon the pun) for the smell of evergreens and the feel of cool mountain air. I’m not planning to get as far north as Kashmir on this trip, but perhaps one day… You can read about Sanoj and his trip, if you click on his photo. Unfortunately, however, not all of the people I met there are as cool as Sanoj. The guy with the used racks I was looking at wanted about triple their value, and I decided to pass on that “bargain.” My plan was to head up the west coast of India to Gokarna for a few days, and then on to Goa – the next place I figured I could readily find a new set of racks at a reasonable price. And although the racks I already had on my bike might fail before I could travel the 600 or so kilo’s to Goa, I hate being taken advantage of, and I decided to chance it (You know me :) ) So, after the obligatory photos of the chinese fishing nets at sunset, the following morning I set out to the north.
It took me three days to get to Gokarna (stopping for one night each in Calicut and Mangalore), a distance 0f about 600 K. Gokarna is just south of the state of Goa in Karnataka, and it is said to be one of the South’s most holy cities. Actually, After one night in Gokarna I made my way to nearby OM Beach, named for the shape of the beach itself. Om Beach had been recommended to me by my friends Cat and Hristo, as thsy had stayed there several weeks. It was a cool place to chill my bones for a few days, before heading to Goa.
Actually, I didn’t plan to visit Goa before the racks began to fail. So many people go there, and Goa is known for being kind of a party place. I didn’t come to India for that. Still, I needed new racks, and I was pretty sure I could get them in Goa, as this is where many begin and end their Indian motorcycle adventures.
As soon as I crossed into Goa from the state of Karnataka, I met a couple from the Netherlands at a chai stall and asked if they knew where I might be able to find “Enfield stuff.” Pascal and Natalia took me to meet Mitch, an English bloke staying at their guesthouse at Agonda Beach. Mitch was now well educated on the local Enfield Scene, thanks to problems with his own bike, and he took me to meet his mechanic in Margao, an hour ride to the north. I ended up staying several days at Agonda. It’s one of the less heavily visited southern beaches, and it was fairly clean and quite. Apparently Goa is a diverse place, and I had apparently painted the entire area with the same negative brush. I was pleasantly surprised by my short stay, so perhaps I’ll give Goa another chance in the future. I was finally able to find new racks in Margao, and at a reasonable price. I even painted them myself at the mechanics’ shop, while they did some work on my bike.
When it was time to leave Goa, I had to make a decision: Travel east to Hampi, and brave once more the hot, dry Deccan Plateau, or continue north towards Mumbai (Bombay), perhaps staying a night or two in North Goa. It was tempting to head straight north in an effort to get to the cooler weather of higher ground ASAP (I plan to make it to the foothills of the Himalaya in Himachal Pradesh before completing my trip). On the other hand, I’d heard about Hampi from many people on my trip, and it sounded like a place I wanted to see for myself. “Big piles of rocks all over, with temples.” was what they said. And I’d seen a few photographs…
In the end, Hampi one out. I’d had to leave early, to cover the 400 k to Hampi by nightfall, and as I pulled out of the guest house driveway, that warm, pre-dawn glow was beginning to color the eastern sky. Once I hit the highway, the air was surprisingly cool, seeing how much baking I’d been doing on the bike. I was actually chilled as I rode south along the coast. As the sun rose, I once more entered the Western Ghats, the mild elevation increase helping to hold the temperature down. Once across the hills however – and out once again on the Deccan Plateau – it did get hot. Very hot: For the last 200 kilometers or so, the temperature reached nearly 100 degrees as I chugged along. Before me, stretching in a straight line for miles ahead, the hot, black bitumen (English for asphalt) road disappeared into a broad shimmering lake whose only waves were those of heat, offering no respite for this by then sun-baked traveler. As far as the eye could see on both sides of the road, the shriveled stubble of the previous season’s cotton crop spread across the dark, sun-baked earth, looking like the remains of some recent firestorm. Along the road, the locals, many with heads laden with the fruits of the day’s labor, greeted me with sun-darkened faces, staring without expression as I passed.
Despite the heat, as I approached Hampi, I was impressed with the beauty of the landscape. Here, the lush green of banana trees and coconut palms brushes against the bare shoulders of decomposing hills of pink granite. I wondered at first, about this profusion of green in an otherwise arid vista, but it was soon explained by the man-made reservoir feeding the river that runs through Hampi, and it was clear that this was the source of the greenery. Scattered liberally among the rounded boulders – many perched in precarious positions, seemingly defying gravity – are the remains of many temples, all made out of the native granite. This was once the site of a grand empire, whose affluence was based the South Indian spice trade, which it controlled in the 14t and 15th centuries. Sorry, no photos of Hampi yet, but perhaps next time. I left Hampi about five days ago, but I’ll not tell you where I am now. I’ll save that for next time. I will tell you I decided to give myself a break from the road , and I booked train passage for myself and the bike out of Karnataka. The air-conditioned compartment was great, and I slept for about ten hours.
I’ve been feeling quite homesick lately. I miss my family and my friends, especially my lovely niece Abigail, whose fifth birthday I missed in November. I’ve been thinking of food too: BBQ brisket; cheese and salsa smothered enchiladas; grilled salmon. In general, I miss the ability to get what I want, when I want, the way I want it. I also can’t help remembering that it is crawfish season in Louisiana, and I could really enjoy pinching some tails, sucking some heads and then washing it down with a cold bottle of Abita beer, or maybe even a cold Dixie (Still possible?). Maybe some boudin too? (no blood or organ meat in mine, please!) Mmmmmm…
I’ve only got about six weeks left on my Indian visa, and I’ve learned that in India, that’s not much time. I’m excited about the prospect of going home, but I am apprehensive too, as I’ve not yet come to any firm decisions about my future. That’s scary for me, but I am giving myself permission to not be certain about things right now. We’ll see how I feel after a little “re-grounding” back in the states.
I’ve been procrastinating publishing this post, because events have been moving much faster than I can write about them. Of course, that will always be the case. Another lesson from India. Blah, Blah, Blahg…
Love and best wishes to all,
South India, that is…
Not the Muslim on the right (more of them in India than I would have guessed), but the the Kolkata rickshaw-walla – the only bipedal rickshaws left in the world – are threatened with extermination. The government seems to feel that the work is demeaning, and despite the fact that these guys want to continue what they are doing, I fear their days are numbered. I suppose they could always beg. I don’t mean to be glib about the subject of begging, but I sometimes wonder what goes on in minds of the people in the Indian government. There seems to be plenty of money for nukes…
I’ve made a quick dash from Kolkata to Chennai (AKA Madras) in the state of Tamil Nadu, stopping for a few days in Puri, on the coast of Orissa. It was nice in Puri, but it was boring. I met a couple of nice women who were also heading to Chennai, so I took advantage of the opportunity to travel with some nice folks who would also bear the burden of the 19 hour train ride. And that was a “superfast” train. Really, 19 hours to travel more than 1,000 kilometres by land ain’t bad, especially when you can sleep as much of that as you like.
As the Lonely Planet says, “If South India is like a whole other country, then Chennai is its undisputed capitol.” Chennai is nothing special from a tourist perspective, but the food is really nice here. Dhosas, sambar, sabjee and parothis head up the menu (I’m certain I’ve mispelled those), and the tastes are much lighter than in the North. I’ve also found the people here to be much more genuinly friendly, and that could be – if my perception is correct – because life here is less difficult than in the North. Perhaps I’ve changed too…
I’ve been in Chennai three days, and tomorrow, I leave for the Andaman Islands for a little over two weeks of SCUBA diving and plain ol’ chillin’ on the beach. I’m hoping to see some manta rays, as they are clearly in the area. Hopefully, they’ll be alive and swimming with me, rather than left for dead on the beach like the I saw one I saw in Puri. Unfortunetaly, I also saw many dead sea turtles around Puri, as it is a major nesting area for one of the Ridley’s sea turtles this time of year. The problem seems to be that the local fisherman use trawl nets, just like the shrimpers in Louisiana, and the turtles get caught and then drown. The government is trying to get the fishermen to use TEDs (turtle excluder devices), as they do in the states, but they say it reduces their catch. For kilometres as you walk down the beach you can see a line of dead turtles tossed by the locals. Not pretty.
I really appreciate all of the comments and emails on my last post. They really made my month, and they put a smile on my face almost as big as the flower man I spied outside the Howrah train station across the river from Kolkata.
Sayin’ it With Flowers
No time to change the music this round, but time enough to share my love and best wishes with each and all of you!