Is this it?

It was all over. We cycled the last 10 km slowly because something didn’t feel right. No, it wasnt the saddle sore. It wasnt even the humidity that made the air like custard.

Our mood was flat. We obviously were not expecting fan fares and throngs of people throwing flowers in front of our spinning wheels whilst we clasped our hands triumphantly above our heads; but it felt like an empty ending. We rolled up to the end of Vypeen island, looked out over the backwaters to fort Kochi and tried to smile. It was forced.

Why should it feel like the end? We still had nearly 2 weeks left! We would find that the feelings we expected would come later in the trip, when the cloud of job applications had passed and we had some time to reflect on the tour as a whole. 

We had 2 things to sort in Kochi; applications and bikes. Obviously, we sorted the bikes first because, well, its a great way to procrastinate. We needed to dismantle our steeds completely and fit them into large flat cardboard boxes. Expecting great difficulty in sourcing appropriate boxes we called all the bike shops listed on Google and eventually struck gold. Velocity ventures had what we needed and we could get there within the hour.

We walked through the front door and into a cafe/bike shop hybrid. At the back, a couple of young mechanics were tinkering with a mountain bike whilst in the foreground 3 middle aged chaps were relaxing on sofas, conversing cheerily. One of them stood up to greet us; Ajith Varma. He shook our hands and a warm smile emanated from underneath a curt, greying moustache. He was very pleased to meet us and after quickly showing us the (perfect) boxes he had sorted for us, got on with quizzing us about our tour.

We soon found out that Mr Varma and his friends were the soul of the Cochin Bikers Club. A group of avid cyclists that regularly went on trips together, and in the past year had decided that they needed a headquarters. They pooled their money and had bought out the shop that we had just walked into. They slowly refurbished it and injected a completely different atmosphere to most workshops. As it crept towards the end of the working day, a steady stream of cyclists would come through those doors, chill on the sofas with a chai and talk about cycling till their exasperated wives called them home for dinner. They didn’t work here, they came to spend time with like minded people who they had shared hundreds of kilometers with. It was inspiring.

We chatted for hours, finally having to tear ourselves away to get the boxes back to our hostel and promising we would visit again. 

That night we decided to treat ourselves to some Indo-portugese fusion food and my oh my…it blew our little socks off! If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Fort Cochin make sure you go to Fusion Bay. We ordered a veritable feast of clams, tuna pepper masala, prawns in green mango curry, kidney bean and pumpkin olan and smoked aubergine in yoghurt. That meal sky-rocketed to take the a place in the food hall of fame for the trip and added a touch of brilliance to an already great day.

We sat down to breakfast the next morning with Bernard, the owner of our homestay, and morning pleasantries quickly became very interesting. Bernard had spent most of his working life working on large cruise ships and had met people from all over the world which he felt gave him license to be opinionated. Very opinionated. In 20 minutes of conversation he informed us that all the rickshaw drivers in Kochi were members of that taliban, that all Germans were 30% Nazi, that doctors should never marry teachers and that Viraj should demand enormous amounts of cash and gold as a dowry when he gets married. 

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We made a quick escape and got on with today’s itinerary: dismantling the bikes and mantling Viraj’s application.  The former took a couple of hours and the latter took all bloody day but finally…FINALLY, the wretched thing was done. The cloud had dispersed and we could properly look forward to 2 weeks of celebrating.

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A state bus took us 5 hours inland and climbed the hills towards Munnar. When the Kerala Tourism board describes the state as ‘god’s own country’, they are not alluding to Kochi or Allepy or Kunnar or anywhere else. They are talking about Munnar. Mun-freaking-NAR!

Perched at 1400 metres above sea level, Munnar can boast about many things. Rolling hills, pleasant temperatures, wildlife sanctuaries and no mosquitos. But the defining feature of Munnar is tea-plantations. Hectares upon hectares of tea-plantations. And they are achingly beautiful. 

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We dumped our bags in our ‘penthouse suite’, donned our jumpers for the first time in 3 months and sprinted back outside to go and explore.

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Fifteen minutes later we were at the crest of a hill and steeped in utter silence. You do not find silence in India. Its not a thing. But Munnar hadn’t got the memo. Waves of meticulously manicured tea shrubs undulated away from us for as far as the eye could see. A blanket of clouds descended and formed a mist that lightly shrouded everything. It rolled past your skin and could only be felt if you wanted to. The greens of the tea shrubs spanned from young sprouting emeralds through to deep murky jade. The paths that the tea pickers used cut clean lines that spiralled through the landscape and the smaller paths ran at angles that gave each hillock its own unique finger print.  This would do.

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We were loving keralan food immensely by this point and were keen to get stuck in and get cooking. Munnar, being the place that just keeps giving, happened to have the most highly rated cooking course in all of Kerala. So we called the number and a meek and very polite lady answered. Nimi. A freelance jounalist, accomplished cook, writer of a keralan cookbook that won international acclaim from the Gourmand society and she lived 500 metres from our guesthouse.

We got to her house at 2 and didnt leave till 830. We cooked in a kitchen that looked over the river running through her garden. Budgies and parakeets flitted in diaphanous cages dotted around the edges. We were introduced to the spicing philosphy of keralan cuisine and used this to make a meal of semolina, kingfish, tapioca, yoghurt curry and plantain. All of it was infused with Nimi and her family’s wonderful company. Her two boys ran in and out of the kitchen and kept stealing glances at us curiously, her husband was happy to advise on any touristy questions we had and Nimi herself gently punctuated the day with the story of how she went from electronic engineer to multi-talented housewife that boldy writes against multi-national companies.

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We mentioned at some point that we were planning to go to Chinnar, a nearby wildlife sanctuary. Nimi’s cogs whirred and a day later she called us to ask if we wouldnt mind having a Spanish companion for the trip. Of course we didnt! The more the merrier!

Ruben is a Spanish chap. After that I find it hard to find the words to describe him, but I shall try. We met him for the first time on the night before we went to Chinnar. He came up to our suite to introduce himself and for a drink to get to know each other. One thing became clear very quickly; Ruben wanted to see a wild elephant. He alternated between full-throttle excitment and trying to be zen and convince himself that it was all down to luck and it would be fine if we didn’t see one. But he was terrible liar. He rrrrrreally wanted to see a wild elephant. This excitement was so infectious that despite our initial zen attitude towards wildlife watching, we were converted. By the time he left to go to bed, we really really wanted to see a wild elephant too! This highly contagious brand of enthusiasm would come to define Ruben and we bloody loved him for it.

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We are certain that Ruben’s sheer will bent fate in our favour. We met outside our guesthouse and squeezed ourselves into the backseat of a rickshaw, shivering in the the early morning chill. Ruben’s bouncing excitement and the jaw-dropping scenery made the 65km trip whizz by and before long we were trapzing up the hills of Chinnar wildlife sanctuary. We had two tribal guides and told them our objective clearly from the outset. They barely spoke english but definitely got the point. Very soon, three hundred metres and a small ravine separated us from a wild elephant chomping on some leaves. It was amazing but distance and dense foliage diminished the experience somewhat and for Ruben, that just wouldn’t do. We disregarded the warnings of danger and convinced the guides to take us as close as possible. After some cursory warnings of danger and a crash course on ‘how to run away from charging elephants’ communicated in pidgin English we started to close in. We tried to be as silent as possible but the cheap trainers we had bought seemed to have soles made of castanets rather than rubber. Despite this we soon found only twenty metres between us and a lone wild elephant eating his breakfast. We had approached from the rear left of the behemoth and he almost certainly hadn’t seen us, which means he either heard us or smelt us. He turned quickly to center on us and the air filled with the sound of snapping branches and compacting leaf litter, followed by a trumpet that sounded like a war horn. Viraj, who had walked up to get closer just moments before, spun round and had only one agenda: ‘run downhill’. Ruben and one of the guides did the same and skittered down into the undergrowth. Rob who was stood next to another tribal guide held his nerve for a moment longer. He was taking his lead from this guide who didnt seem to be in an rush to move out of the way of a charging male elephant. The guide turned to Rob as the elephant closed the gap and told him to run, so he did, without delay. In the time it took Rob to join the others in the undergrowth we heard the guide shouting and a few loud reports that sounded like a stick against rock. The moustachioed guide appeard through the leaves laughing and giving us an indian head wiggle. The laughter dominoed and allowed us to exhaust some of the adrenaline that we had just overdosed on. The laughing guide had stayed behind to detract the elephant’s charge and had succeeded. The other guide was not laughing. He paced around and shook his head at us angrily, occasionally exclaiming ‘dangerous’. He calmed, we walked on, a plateau resembling Pride Rock opened up in front of us and we were greeted by a truckload of butterflies, a troop of monkeys, one giant grizzled squirrel and one long-tailed flycatcher.

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Jovial conversation and multiple allusions to charging elephants filled the rickshaw drive back as well as dinner that evening. All three of us agreed that the day was made better by each others company and that Nimi was the puppeteer in the background that was responsible. Fairly soon we found ourselves knocking on her door to pay her a surprise visit. We barged into the house and had already begun recounting our day before we realised that Nimi was in the middle of a cooking lesson. The interruption was not mided at all as the pupils were Janice and Amber, two friendly Americans who we had gone trekking with a day earlier, and were here following our glowing reports. Nimi was glad to hear that we had such a good day and suggested that if we wanted to go on a longer trek, the Kolukkumalai Tea Esate would be an ideal destination.

Ruben and the two of us were sold. We took a rest day and then got a rickshaw to the base of the range which supported ‘the highest grown tea in the world’. It was a 3 hour hike up a rocky path, in glorious sunshine that provided views that physically winded you with their beauty. Towards the top, after we walked past the point where the mountains pierce the cloud line, we found this.

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The view demanded that we gawp at it until the sunblindness became too intense. We were stunned, thirsty and hungry and managed to find the only place that provided food and high-tea. Sat in a log cabin above 2000 meters and enjoying a wonderful lunch we could never have guessed that the day was going to get better. 

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We chose to go down along a path used by the tea-pickers of old. It descended sharply to the nearest town and allowed them to sell their days pickings to the traders. We couldn’t have known that it was a 3 hour journey that would take us through thick cloud forest, old paths gouged by rivulets and grass-clad hillsides that looked like they’d inspired Jurassic Park. Outbursts of the theme tune and pterodactyl noises emanated at regular intervals, parakeets and chamelons decided to join us on our trip and we made it to the bus station in town with 5 minutes to spare.

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As if she knew that she could provide the cherry on top of this near perfect day, Nimi called and askes if the three of us would like to join her for dinner that night to say farewell on our last night in Munnar. On arrival, Nimi’s house was packed with the aromas of beautiful homecooked food and soon enough we sat down and expounded all the details of our day.

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It was very very hard to leave Munnar. Viraj kept thinking of reasons to stay and trying to convince Rob that one more day wouldn’t impact on the next few destinations, but Rob wouldn’t cave. Our days in India were dwindling very quickly and we had a lot more to see and do. Regardless of the immense pressure, Rob held his line, and we would both be very very glad that he did.

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Country road, take us home…

We couldn’t quite believe it, we were about to embark on our final stretch of cycling. Just 800km or so along the coast. Simples! In reality, we didn’t want to think about it too much though, there was strange comfort in having a long way to go. Also, after Hampi, we were looking forward to a bit of pedal therapy to help us feel normal again.

The night bus to Gokarna proved more eventful than the outward journey. After about 30mins of travel time, Rob began to feel his tummy cramping and in the back of his mind he started to fear the worst: diarrhoea on the night bus! We stopped 30mins later and a swift, explosive, toilet stop confirmed it all. The nightmare was coming to pass. The bus had no toilet, and would probably not stop for a desperate tourist about to poo his pants. We found the Imodium (loperamide for you medics) to bung him up, and could only hope for the best. Ali, Rob’s girlfriend, reassured him that worst case scenario was a great travel story. Let’s be honest, that’s still a pretty bad worst case scenario. The next two hours were spent half asleep, fearing the worst, with every stomach gurgle bringing fear and mute terror. Those minutes passed slowly.

After a few hours, however, Rob grew in confidence and eventually fell asleep. This welcome sleep was sadly interrupted on two occasions. Amazingly, neither of them were bowel motion related. First, a vast group of locals filled the empty berths, embarking with shouts and music blaring from their phones. It didn’t matter in the end because we were kicked off the bus at 3am and instructed to wait for another bus to take us to Gokarna. This was something of an unpleasant surprise! In fact, we had been quite smug about our superior travel arrangements, boasting to our Swedish friends of our non-stop bus earlier the previous day. How they laughed when we got off the bus to join them for chai in the early hours! The Imodium was holding out, however, and Rob didn’t even need to make use of the now readily available conveniences. Result!

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We arrived at Om Beach at about 4.30am. It was pitch black, but the stars were magnificent. We were now a team of 6, having been joined by Paulina and Alice (the Swedes) and two Israeli guys. After heaving the bikes down some steps and along the beach, we found the other 4 making a fire, and settled down to join. It was a lovely way to pass the quiet hours: half asleep, warmed by the yellow-orange flames, and watching the sun slowly brighten the pretty bay. Fantastic! The reverie was rudely interrupted, however, when one cow was mounted by a nearby bull. She lurched, mooing, and half fell toward us in a sadly unsuccessful attempt to get away. We thought it an amusing conclusion to a varied but ultimately entertaining night.

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The day was spent enjoying the beach: we napped, swam away from jellyfish, played catch in the sea with some local boys and even saw 3 dolphins on our very romantic sunset kayak ride. After a tasty evening meal with the Swedes and one of the Israelis, we said our goodbyes. As stunning as the place was, the road was beckoning and we missed the comforting feeling of saddle under backside, the hug of our beautifully tight-fitting Lycra, the 5 hours daily exercise and the satisfying knowledge that we were continuing to improve our tan lines.

We didn’t fancy the long walk back or the many steep stairs, and, besides, it was in the wrong direction. Instead we organised a boat trip across the next inlet to help us on our way. We planned out the next few days: first Kundapur, then Mangalore, Payyanur, and Kannur. After a day off in Kannur, we would head to Kozhikode (Calicut), Guruvayoor, and finally Kochi. Only 7 more days of cycling! The days were all 80-120km long and on the same coastal highway. This meant that we could often finish by midday and then have some time for the ongoing job applications. Boring.

The highway was generally a smooth, fairly flat, 2-lane road. There were some parts where people were busy digging up trees and preparing 2 new lanes to speed things up, and other (small) parts where the road was as pot-holed as anywhere else we had cycled. Overall, it was an inviting stretch of Tarmac that safely conveyed us as per schedule. Writing a couple of weeks later, the days form quite a coherent whole, with some themes running throughout, and a couple of extra asides.

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The first thing that struck us was just how inhabited this road was. We were flanked by houses on both sides for the entire stretch of roads. India thus far had tended to have more densely populated clusters of inhabitation at crossroads, or towns, not this endless, stretched out line. The only reason we could conjure was that as the entire coast had historically been important for the spice trade, its entire length had become populated and had remained so. The houses themselves were interesting: painted in bright block colours (especially pink, green and blue, but preferably all 3), detached, often with a walled garden, and there was not one block of flats; also markedly different from further north. Some of them had Arabic names, and as we chatted with some of the locals we learned about the individuals and families who went to work in Dubai, Qatar and Abu Dhabi and sent money home. After a few days we also noticed the preponderance of “Gulf Bazaars”, gulf food shops and mosques; an interesting and unexpected trade in ideas and manpower.

Arriving early often meant time spent polishing job applications and revising. We have the Cafe Coffee Day chain to thank for wifi, pretty decent cold coffee, and uninterrupted reading/writing time. We sampled the stores in Kannur, Mangalore and Kozhikode, and would definitely recommend them for anyone seeking a lingering coffee shop experience similar to that in the UK (provided they don’t mind avicii every 30 mins or so).

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Work wasn’t the only thing we got on with when we arrived early, however, don’t you worry! In mangalore we headed to the cinema and to Viraj’s extreme excitement found it showing Interstellar, the latest film by Christopher Nolan. It was magnificent! Vast space scenes with explosions, a fast-paced storyline, futuristic robots and epic music all combined to make a highly entertaining film. We weren’t sure if the local crowd managed quite to get to grips with it, as the whole cinema cracked up toward the end at a completely unfunny and actually quite moving juncture.

One afternoon, when were ahead of schedule we decided to take a scenic detour through the backwaters near Payyanur. These were pretty, fairly empty, and we even found a delightful stretch of beach. The road was sadly terrible, which took away from the experience, but it was none of these things that will stick most prominently in the memory. That prize belongs to communism. Kerala, it turns out, is full of it: red flags with a white hammer and sickle, red bunting, giant red hammer and sickle statues, trade unions and even red posters covered with pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Che Guevara and Mao. In 1957 Kerala chose the first freely elected communist government in the world, and the party continues to power share in government today. Some of the people we have met seem to embrace the red tide, while others loathe the strikes and the wage rises threatening the viability of local industries. The road to Payyanur was especially decorated, and though we were to see many similar sights as we proceeded southward, it is the narrow, lumpy, orange road with red flags at 2m intervals either side that sticks in the mind.

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One thing that I haven’t mentioned is the food. It was outstanding, and I mean mind-blowingly delicious at times. Don’t get me wrong, the food further north had been tasty. The home cooked fare from Viraj’s family and friends had already proved that there was more to indian cuisine than a good Aloo Gobi and Dal Fry. In terms of bought food, it was the street food that had stood out from the crowd further north. The Pav Bhaji, Dal Bhatti, Wadapau had become staples. This changed in the south, there was no street food for example, though the roadside tea shops served excellent Idli. What really changed was the quality and variety of food in the smaller places; what was available for lunch became a decision about which seafood we wanted. In the bigger places, such as mangalore, the meat dishes were sumptuous. A few meals deserve extra attention here.

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First, the Ghee Roast Chicken in Kundapur. We over-ate here, I’ll be honest: 4 large meat dishes (2 chicken, 1 crab and 1 prawn), a job load of rice and no veg was probably a silly idea. But boy were they tasty: the chicken was moist, rich, chocolatey and just fell off the bone. The prawn was dry and spicy. Too good! Second mention goes to our all round culinary experience in mangalore; every morsel was great! We went to a place for lunch that must have served 500 people in 2 hours. They only prepared a simple vegetable thali on a banana leaf, but they certainly knew how to do it. Delicately spiced sambar, multiple exquisite vegetable subhjis and yoghurt and a banana to finish; not bad for 60 rupees. For dinner we found a meat restaurant and had some tender and well-spiced buffalo beef. Delicious! The third mention goes to some little restaurant in Kozhikode, the name of which sadly eludes us. We went to the same place for lunch and dinner it was so good. A fish thali was the lunchtime offering for Rob, while Viraj had some delicious fried prawns that came coated in spicy breadcrumbs. It was the evening meal that won the day, however. Lunch, while tasty, had been very rushed. It seems that this is quite normal here, though probably amongst the less well off; tasty food is to be eaten as quickly as possible and without conversation so that the rest of the day can proceed unimpeded. The gentler pace in the evening allowed for far greater enjoyment of the mango prawns and the chicken. Food and hungry bellies, what a combination! We had always said that one of the reasons we wanted to come to india was for the food. It was on this final stretch when we were both trying new dishes on a daily basis that the dream was fully coming to pass.

On our day off in Kannur we were able to see a Theyyam. Theyyams are a religious ritual that can only be found in northern Kerala from November to March. In them, a dancer (usually male) becomes transformed into a god, he dresses as the god, enters a trance and then puts on the manners of the god in dance form. Rob had read about them in William Dalrymple’s book, Nine Lives. It’s a book that describes the lives of 9 people from various parts of India and their relationship with their gods and their religions; it’s fascinating. No one is quite sure where the Theyyam originates, but many believe it predates classical Hinduism. Dancers are often from the lowest classes, and the rituals seem to function today as a means of bringing some social equality. The stories of individual Theyyams often explain their institution as a result of an individual god reminding people from higher castes of the humanity and worth of those of the lower classes. The Theyyam we went to was at the Parassinikkadavu Temple and was unusual as it was performed daily as worship of the god, Sree Muthappan. This is not normal in Hinduism; devotees would usually worship in the form of pujas (prayer rituals). Sree Muthappan was also an unusual god as he drinks toddy (an alcoholic drink made by fermenting palm sap) and eats fish. In fact, these are given as daily offerings.

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We waited for the Theyyam to start, reading under the eaves of the temple on the river bank. Even though it was a normal Monday afternoon the place seemed quite busy. Whether the people gathered were locals or pilgrims, it was hard to tell, but there were about 200 in total with a mix of all ages and sexes. We found a spot at the side of the room, with good view of the proceedings. Out came 5 men, topless with white lunghis, beating drums with one horn player. After they had established a rhythm, a man with plentiful face and body paint came out and put on a head-dress and picked up a sword. He was mainly covered in yellow, with red decorations here and there, and a rather expansive red dress, almost like that which Victorian ladies used to wear. His lips were full, garlanded with a white flower-like structure, his eyes painted black and his head-dress a silver crown with flowers in it.

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The initial ceremony seemed designed to bring him into a trance-like state; taking on the god’s mannerisms, singing, and walking round with a sword while drumming of various intensities was going on. As things intensified, the crowd at the edges pressed further
in. The atmosphere became quite heady with the drumming, the eagerness of the crowd, the ‘god’ strutting his stuff (mainly wiggling his backside and getting a bit of a shuffle on!), and incense. Then blessings were given and offerings too, with fish and toddy that was half eaten by Muthappan and half chucked about. The excited crowd fought over bits of the food and for blessings, and then the ritual began to slow. It had been going on for about an hour, and people were invited to come forward for blessings and to hear what Muthappan had to say to them. We stayed for another 45mins or so, with the crowd for blessings not yet finished when we left.

It had been a very interesting experience, and inspired lots of chats. In reality it’s hard to know what to make of it, how to reflect on it outside of any context, though fascinating just to know that many of these go on, thousands a year. We spoke to one of the men who worked at our hotel about it. He attends a Muthappan Theyyam once a year and holds it in very high esteem. He said that the god always told him the truth, and he always listens to what he has to say. He also said that it was a special Keralan privilege to be visited by the gods in this way, emphasising that the devotees could talk to their gods in the flesh, while those living further north could only go to the temple and pray. An interesting take on things.

In all, it had been a fun and fascinating few days to cap an incredible few weeks. We could not believe we had arrived- it didn’t feel real. But the map seemed to confirm it: we were there, finito, arrived! We had been ill twice each, had to replace pannier rack fittings on 2 occasions, replace Viraj’s entire pannier rack and had a wheel rebuilt. We had only had one puncture between us, no accidents, only 2 days of saddle sore (Viraj on the 2 very last days) and Rob had only had one mechanical problem the whole trip- a simple gear cable replacement. Not bad, we figured. It was time to have a beer, relax, and let what we had achieved and experienced sink in over the next 2 weeks before the flight home.

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Dont worry, be Hampi

Since our first week in India, we had heard travellers whisper about this place. Been relayed accounts of the impossible landscape and the temples dating back many centuries. Told tales of people who went to stay for a few days and didnt leave for months, even years. Hampi.

It was barely a town. Far inland, surrounded by a largely uninteresting region of Karnataka and a pain to get to. But the mystique of this place had succesfully drawn us in. We couldnt justify cycling there because it would have taken a week to get there and back, robbing us of valuable time in Kerala. Our chosen method of transport was the sleeper bus. And the bikes were coming with us.

We had both been on sleeper buses before and our experiences were congruent. Terrible. Suffice to say we were not looking forward to the journey but it was the only choice we had. 

Getting the bikes on was a bit of a gafuffle but fit they did and soon enough we were sharing the smallest bed of the holiday. 

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Viraj didnt sleep at all (because of the thriller he was reading) and Rob was managing to catch a few hours good kip before we came to a stop in some unknown town at 2am. A large group of itinerant workers rushed into the ‘sleeper’ bus and obviously hadnt been informed that the passengers on board may be sleeping. They weren’t dissimilar from the chavs you might find on English street corners. Phones in hand blaring music, shouting in order to organise which seats they were in, re-shuffling positions and assaulting multiple passengers in the process (viraj took 2 solid elbows to the head). Finally, the driver came over, gave them a stern telling off and saw us back on our way.

Having arrived at 6.30am we cycled away from the bus station and into the direction of Hampi. The whispers were true. It was village bisected by a shallow, jade green river. Charmingly delapidated temples studded the outskirts and spread out for miles. Each of them looked like a level on Tomb Raider. But outshining all of this was the ground itself. Gigantic, pink boulders piled on top of each other to form stacks that defied gravity. Occasionally the stack was small but further afield the stacks turned into enormous hills. We spent breakfast at a place on the riverside, just marvelling at the sight and contemplating how this alien land could form. During our time here we would hear a few theories ranging from geological to mythical and honestly, we prefer the mythical one.

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Geologists would have you believe that these are amongst the oldest hills on our planet and that the impossible stacking of these stones results from the action of wind and rain over eons. Bore off! 

The locals believe that in time before humans, this was the hallowed homeland of the monkey gods who used it as a playground and enjoyed chucking the rocks about. Loads better!

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We found a place to stay on the other side of the river which provided us with our very own bamboo hut and hammock, delightful. It also housed a classic travelling character named Brendan. 

Brendan had been in Hampi for a month when we arrived and reminded us of Leonardo Dicaprio in The Beach. Specifically, the scene where he’s been outcast from the main camp and goes just a teensy-weensy bit insane, imagining himself in a video game whilst grinning and running around. Brendan would come to be defined by his 2 favourite sayings:

1) ‘Twenty-four hour, full-power, no shower!!’

2) ‘Bash on regardless’ (A phrase he eventually got tattooed on his torso…in sanskrit…whilst snorting tramadol).

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He became our local guide and a good friend, but more of that later.

Goa was like a little Moscow and our first few days in Hampi were like little Tel Aviv. We embraced it and went out for lunch in a popular tourist place that served falafel laffas. Fun to say and fun to eat! They were delicious! But no one else really seemed to be eating any. Oh well! Lunch over we were keen to explore the local area and went on a walk through the hills. It was awesome, we aren’t going to bombard you with adjectives, heres some photos instead.

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The next couple of days just got away from us. We got sick. The less said about it the better. The one thing I will say is that laffas are not as fun as they initially appear. 

Another spectre loomed over those days of sickness. We had to start applying for jobs. Rob managed to get his done in a day but Viraj didnt have the energy or attention span to confront the mini-essays demanded of him and made much slower progress.

We found ourselves feeling much better one morning and whilst we ate our breakfast (hurray for appetite), were bowled over by a tsunami of healthcare professionals. 2 american nurses, 2 swedish medical students and 3 doctors came and sat with us within a space of 1 hour. Already pretty strange right? Oh no. All three doctors happened to be from England and at the same stage of training as us. As if that wasn’t enough, Viraj’s dear housemate Amy had lived with one of these doctors for 4 years during university. Suffice to say we got along well and spent the next few days jumping off rocks into the lake, laughing at the girls whilst they tried to yoga and climbing up to the monkey temple.

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And then sickness stuck again. Mainly Viraj this time. On his birthday. It was rubbish, he felt terrible and he hadn’t the energy to do anything. The day whiled away while he drifted in and out of sleep, never more than 10 metres from the bathroom. Rob was still suffering from residual lethargy but took to doing some bike maintenance. Dinner time came and with it, a few pangs of hunger. Rob forced the patient to walk the 20 metres to the restaurant and boy was Viraj glad he did. The gang had organised a surprise party for him! 

Brendan waltzed up to the table with a delicious banana and nutella cake and a grin to match, everyone had written in a beautiful card and presented Viraj a tight purple t-shirt with ‘Dont worry, be Hampi’ emblazoned across it. Drinks flowed from cardboard cartons and the evening was wonderful.

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Cheska, Holly, Helen, Alice, Paulina, Brendan and Mark. Thank you so so much for making an otherwise miserable day truly memorable. Viraj was so happy he pulled on his new t-shirt instantly and he still ascribes his speedy recovery to that party.

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But it was approaching a whole week in Hampi and as good a time as we had, it felt like the place would trap us if we did not leave. At the first sign of Viraj turning a corner, we made our escape. We ferried our bikes across the river and after a small panic caused by a live wild cobra, we were on our way.

It involved a 15k cycle to the nearest town to catch a bus in normal clothing and as we pulled further and further away from Hampi we started feeling better and better. We’d managed to get away with our bikes and our health. Or so we thought…

I am my bike. My bike is me.

It had been a great few days with Vatsal; good company, stunning scenery and some tough roads. It was hard to see him go, but deep down we knew that it was the right call, difficult as it was.

So, it was set, we would cycle 120km from Ganpatipule to Devgad the next day. We set off early and made good pace. The legs felt good, the repetitive hills waltzed up Contador-style, and the miles ticking over. We were rewarded with some pretty beach-side scenery too.

As we briefly mentioned in the last post, cycling was changing us psychologically. This felt odd. Think for a minute: what does daily normality feel like? Can we know when we feel normal? Perhaps normal is the wrong word, what I mean is to feel like things are going as they should today, that you feel somehow complete, that the day is now in proper order. Strangely, though perhaps not in surprisingly, we were both beginning to feel that cycling was greatly affecting our sense of what a good day should feel like.

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We were in “the zone” after about 3 hours cycling. It was almost palpably therapeutic: tiredness lifted, conversation improved, excitement and curiosity about our surroundings became more marked, colours brighter, the noise of the crashing waves closer. We felt ourselves. For some reason it was only after about 5 hours that we truly felt at our physical peak. 5 hours of exercise and then feeling good, what is this?! I mean, it wasn’t the only thing that allowed us to feel whole; knowing that we were loved, accepted, valued, fed, warm, etc, formed a large and vital backdrop. But that’s not what I’m saying, it’s not that cycling was replacing all of these aspects, rather that a good day of cycling was having a much greater affect on our well-being than ever before. It is not surprising: cycling had become our métier, i.e. what we did. But that experience of knowing that ones sense of self and daily sense of satisfaction was changing, was unexpected and striking. It was as if the bikes had become part of who we were. Fortunately, we still had a good few miles to go. But who knows what will happen when we finally head home?! Will we have some post-cycling depression as the British weather seeps the cold through our pores and we live around the household fire? Let’s not think about it.

A new feature on the road was some white paint consisting of an arrow and the the letters “TOD”. The markings were also surprisingly consistent with our route: everywhere we wanted to go, TOD was going too. After 300km it felt like we were being guided by the mysterious hand of TOD. We came to like Todd, and he became a loyal friend. We started to notice that every once in a while a gentle encouragement or warning would be included by Todd, a “you can make it” on the ascent of a steep hill, or a “nearly there”. Surely such advice could only mean that these were the markings for a cycle route or tour, with TOD the initials or name. Chatting to the locals made us none the wiser, so we had to reluctantly turn to Google for the answer. The ‘Tour of the Deccan’ was indeed a bicycle tour, from Pune to Goa no less, who would have thought it?! Our sense of being intrepid travellers was significantly diminished, though we were glad for the company. And it was also heartening to learn of locals finding and enjoying this beautiful route too.

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By lunchtime, the hills were beginning to slow us down. We were pressing quite hard on the flat when we came across another cycle tourist whose exploits were putting ours to shame. Prasad was a chap from Pune who was hoping to set the Guinness world record for the “Longest journey by bicycle in single country”. He had covered 14,000km in 130 days, had lost a lot of weight and was not allowed to use the same road twice. Kudos to him!

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Lunchtime was a delicious veg thali in a pretty little village named Jaitapur. The sun was shining, the food was cheap, and we had lots of hills still to climb! These hills were not large, normally comprising only a 100m ascent, but were quite steep at about 10% and there was no respite! Up, then down, then up, then down again. The 15kg each of us was carrying was starting to make it’s presence known, especially for Viraj who only has 10 (quite high) gears.

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We made it comfortably in the end, and after an unwelcome scooter chase up a steep hill, found a hotel. We were excited as we had that the beach had phosphorescent plankton, but were soon informed that this only happened during the monsoon season. Our disappointment was soon washed away by a beer and a swim, only to be met by a satisfying tiredness.

The next day was to be shorter, and with fewer hills, both facts to be relished as our legs were not quite so dancing as they had been. After a disappointing trip to a coastal fort (some lowish walls, but nothing else), we set off. First taking a boat from where we had stayed and then enjoying a lovely peaceful coastal cycle. This was soon interrupted by a little tester; a steep, rocky, gravelled, red dust coastal path that was almost as hard to descend as to ascend. It was beautiful though!

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The day passed very nicely. We felt ourselves: human, man and bike as one. Hills were still getting those legs, however, and we were glad when we reached pleasant Malvan. Beautiful beach: golden, palm-lined, hammocks, volleyball, swimming. And were allowed to watch our chef prepare our delicious red, coconutty seafood curry.

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The next day was to be Goa. We decided to head inland to hit some good roads and avoid the sharp looking coastal inclines. The wisdom of our choice was soon confirmed: we were greeted with cooling, mystifying fog, that gave our descents the sense of flying into nothingness. The greenery was flush, basking in the moisture on offer. It was a very welcome change, and seemed to impart some it’s freshness into our bodies too- we reached Goa easily by midday.

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Goa, however, was not the peaceful, sun-kissed, heavenly beach that we had imagined. Sure, the treehouse we stayed in was cool, and we were right on the beach, but oh the crowds! Such a shock to see so much flesh, lying half-baked and saturated with beer. It was much more of a culture shock than arriving in Delhi the first day! Russians galore, pushing up prices, crowded beaches with shacks everywhere selling beer, food and tat. The beaches we had seen until now had been frequented only by indian tourists who go paddling fully clothed, saris and all, never swim deeper than waste-high, and certainly don’t just lie in the sun. We couldn’t quite cope! We didn’t even go for a swim such was the urge to get away and find somewhere else to play.

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It did at least spur us to action: we hired a scooter and went searching for a quieter area, preferably with a few like-minded young backpackers with whom to make friends. Instead we discovered package tourists, with a surplus of average over-priced restaurants, no space on the beach, and a lot of ethno-tat. Ethno-tat is our new favourite word, by the way. It’s perhaps a little judgemental, but comprises all the cheap, poor quality items that tourists in India who have ‘found themselves’ seem to love: loose tribal-pattern clothing, anklets, and anything with the om symbol on it. Perhaps we should have manned-up, entered the fray and forgot our misgivings. We probably would have made some friends. But we couldn’t do it, the culture-shock was too great, and we retreated to the comfortable safety of our own company.

The next day, after finding the scooter keys in the ignition (oops!) our exploring continued southward, to the Goan capital Panjim, or Panaji, whatever you want to call it. We thought that we looked pretty great with our bike helmets on, but sadly the traffic cop did not agree. So, after renegotiating our fine for not having ‘proper’ helmets on, we found ourselves some delicious lunch.

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If you are ever in Goa, you must visit Panaji, and, in particular, the restaurant Viva Panjim. The crab and prawn dishes were tasty, colourful, and surprisingly cheap. We were already liking Goa more!

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This theme continued as we explored the old city: parks, pleasant temperature, and a feeling of order and peacefulness surprised us. A freezing moped ride home and one sleep later we were back on our bikes, the gentle turning of the pedals further restoring us after our initial horror. We had decided to base ourselves in Panjim before taking a bus to Hampi. Old Goa demanded an exploration, and Panjim itself offered a nice base for some reading and revision.

And so it was to be: we walked about Old Goa, marvelling that it had once had a population of 200,00, more than London or Lisbon at the time. It was interesting to see the old churches and the Museum of Christian Art, and also to reflect that there hadn’t been much syncretism or religious overlap between Hinduism and Christianity. We half expected to find churches with temple elements, and paintings influenced by Hindu art. Instead we had churches that would have looked at home in Lisbon or Rome. A beautiful sunset overlooking Old Goa and the ruins of the old Augustinian monastery completed a good day.

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Our final morning was spent reading and pottering. We discovered the cool, air-conditioned Cafe Coffee Day, the first place in which we could sit for an hour and enjoy a coffee whilst reading. At least, Rob found it pleasant, Viraj just silently fumed at the “excessive” Avicii on the stereo. It was interesting to see how everything was shut on Sunday, the Christian influence no doubt, but it certainly made finding food a harder task than normal.

We had a beer and watched some football near the river before boarding the bus to hampi. It had been a topsy-tervy week, one in which we had realised the profound affect cycling was having on our psyche, and one in which we had unexpectedly experienced real culture shock. It was time to move on to Hampi.

Wheel-less on the west coast

By this point, cycling had become a physiological necessity. Without it we weren’t eating or drinking properly, our sleep cycles had become erratic and our mood had become exquisitely sensitive to a daily dose of endorphins. Only after our legs had been spinning for 3 hours would conversation flow freely and brain function approach what was ‘normal’. Our new ‘normal’.

Addicts.

This was the stage at which Viraj’s 17-year old cousin would be joining us. Vatsal had been training for the past month and was looking forward to the 700km cycle from Pune down to Goa. After the effort he had put in to train in the streets of Mumbai at 5am every morning, we were glad to have him along for the ride.
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As long as he fulfilled 1 more stipulation. 
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We had been working hard on growing respectable moustaches for sometime now and saw them as part of our uniform. We had told Vatsal to grow one whilst training and he had thoroughly failed in doing so. So we went with the alternative…

We rode away from the seething traffic and din of Pune in the early morning and quickly developed some big grins. Roads were good, the day pleasantly overcast and the area surrounding the city was frankly wonderful. Only a few kilometres put us in thick vegetation. The air was cleaner and cooler and habitation became sparse. We chatted, laughed, sang some disney songs in the hope that Vatsal could join in (he couldn’t, but that didnt stop us) and pretty soon our first day as a cycling trio came to a succesful close.
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Vatsal had just doubled the longest distance he had ever ridden. He was hungry, tired, elated, sore, proud and didnt know what to do with himself. So he called his friends. And spent about an hour and a half on the phone. Rob and Viraj thought this was an awfully long time but hey, he was proud of himself. We let it slide.

We ate a delicious dinner and readied ourselves for bed and somehow, Vatsal was back on his phone. Now, we were becoming quietly suspucious. Rob proposed a ‘secret girlfriend’ theory whilst Viraj was adamant that his cousin must be trafficking drugs. After another hour on the phone he came back into the room and we non-chalantly asked him how his girlfriend was doing. ‘Girlfriend…haha I dont have one’ he said convincingly. Drugs it is then.

We set off the next morning and questioned Vatsal incessantly about his rise to power as a Mumbai drug lord. He responded with growing annoyance and this obviously encouraged us to continue with added zeal.

We should have known that karmic retribution would be swifter in its homeland. 15 kilometers from our destination, Viraj felt the tell tale sensation of a buckled wheel yanking his backend to one side with every revolution. On closer inspection, Rob noticed that this might have something to do with the 3 of the spokes being broken. However, they were not the major problem. The wheel rim was deformed in mutiple dimensions and would need bending and hammering back to something resembling a circle. This had already happened before in its lifetime and clearly it had become weaker for it. Viraj needed the wheel rebuilt.

We found a man with a van and got a lift to our destination, Murud. A few calls later it was decided that the only place that could reliably rebuild it was a shop in Mumbai. Rob grudgingly agreed to stay behind to look after 2.5 bikes in a palm lined coastal town with beaches and reknowned seafood. Whilst Viraj, Vatsal and the dead wheel would journey to Mumbai at daybreak.
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2 buses, a ferry, a taxi, a train and a rickshaw later, the wheel came to rest at Kohinoor cycle shop in the upmarket Bandra district of Mumbai. The shop was set back from the high-end electronics shops and overpriced delis and seemed to have planted itself there for decades, unchanged, whilst the rest of Mumbai sprouted around it.

Siddharth, the young owner and manager of the shop was a well-dressed chap with wire-framed glasses and a pleasant manner. Within a few minutes of meeting Viraj he realised this new customer was a very worried man. Viraj was meticulously explaining the problem and taking an age to give a step by step plan of exactly what he wanted done. Siddharth kindly let a very anxious Viraj finish his rant and assured him that the brand new, double butted alloy wheel rim would be bought across from the warehouse and the wheel would be built the following day by Hassan, his most experienced mechanic. Additionally, he didn’t mind if Viraj wanted to come and watch the whole process.

Viraj could have hugged him. But he was sweating and slightly embarrased by how patronising he had just been to the shop owner and settled for a firm handshake and gratuitous thank yous.

The evening in Mumbai consisted of suprising cousin sister Tanvi, street food stalls, eating off the boot of a car and waxing lyrical till 2am with Hetal masa, Piyu masi, their wondeful friends and a bottle of lemon grass vodka. 

Meanwhile, in Murud. Rob had spent the morning swimming, reading and eating a wonderful fish thali. The highlight of his day was the nearby ancient fort and the walk along the coast to get to it. Now, walks along coast lines are always nice, but few include a view of the most spectacular cricket pitch in the world. (Its hard to see on the photo, but its in the bottom left)
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Janjira fort, with its towering and well preserved walls, grows straight out of the sea and can only be acccesed by boat. The local ‘entrepreneurs’ capitalise on this by manning a small army of sailing boats that line the beach of the proximate fishing village and compete for customers. They’re also fairly competitive on the way over to the fort which causes somewhat of a boat pile-up at the gates of the fort and much confusion ensues. Marvellous!!

Whilst the herds of indian tourists followed the designated and well trodden path through the fort, Rob went off for a bit of an explore. He revelled in the lack of cordons by climbing around the walls of the old edifice, finding ever more interesting angles for photographs. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. All of those photos are on his SLR however, so you’ll have to wait to see the fruits of his labours.

Back in Mumbai, Viraj woke with a spring in his step and even the repercussions of yesterdays frivoloities couldn’t hinder this. He got to see a wheel being built today!!! His OWN wheel!!! 

This sounds like a tremendously geeky thing and we will reluctantly forgive you if you have judged him at this stage. Viraj had read about this process 18 months earlier, in a book that elevated cycling from a commuting method into a way of life. It was a book Rob had lent him.

In Viraj’s favourite chapter of ‘Its all about the bike’, the author goes to have a wheel made by a larger than life character called Gravy. Building a tension wheel is described as an almost mystical overlap between mechanics and music. An art form that takes years of practice to hone. 

Viraj had never seen Hassan the mechanic build a wheel and had no idea whether he was any good or not, but today, he believed Hassan was his Gravy. 

It should be mentioned at this point that Vatsal had not read this book but he didnt really have much of a choice in the matter and was being dragged along anyway. 

So they arrived in good time and sat in the workshop; both with chai in hand and Viraj fidgetting with anticipation. Hassan arrived and after a curt smile and a nod of the head, swiftly reduced the old wheel to a hub no bigger than the palm of his hand. 

The rest of the process lived up to Viraj’s expectations yet he is loathe to write about it in detail. He is certain that at some subconcious level he will plagerise from the aforementioned book and we consider this disrespectful. If our introduction has whet your appetite at all, we strongly advise you to get the book. This advice comes with the obvious disclaimer that reading the book may result in you deciding to cycle through unknown lands for months on end.

A rickshaw, a train, a taxi, a ferry and 2 buses later, Viraj, Vatsal and a new wheel rim were back to Murud in time for dinner.

The next day saw the beginning of a new chapter in the trip: coastal cycling. Gliding along with sweeping, golden, empty beaches on you right. Languid palms and fishing villages on your left. The metronomic crash of waves punctuated with the calls of gulls and low-flying birds of prey. And finishing each day of cycling with a swim in the sea. 
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Swimming in the sea was a huge novelty for Vatsal and we’re pretty sure it was the highlight of his trip. The seas around Mumbai city aren’t exactly ‘inviting’, and on holiday he has never been allowed into the water past knee level. There is a belief in India that the sea is like a warzone with ‘whirlpools’ instead of landmines and that going in past you knees will result in certain death. We didn’t subscribe to this sensationalism which suited Vatsal just fine. He was up to his neck in it and happy as a pig in muck.

It might be hard to believe, but coastal cycling did bring some hardships. The Konkan coast is essentially just a sequence of steep hills. At each estuary we had to descend down to sea level to cross over. Sometimes the crossing was just a bridge, but often there was no bridge or the bridge was still being built and it meant we could bargain with a local fisherman to give us a lift. As you can see, this was brilliant.
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Arriving at the otherside invariably meant having to climb up another steep hill and these hills occured about every 10 kilometers. For someone who has only been cycling for a month, in a city as flat as Mumbai, this was very demanding terrain. As the hills kept coming and the days wore on, Vatsal was tiring. He would wait until he was utterly exhausted to admit it, but it was hard to hide. Our daily distance was dropping to less than 50 kilometers a day and Vatsal didn’t look like he was enjoying the ride. Viraj couldnt slow down on the hills because of his gearing and shot off ahead. Rob stayed behind and mustered as many motivational speeches as he could but pretty soon, Vatsal couldn’t cycle up even shallow hills. He tried walking up them to conserve energy and occasionally whizzed past us in a van that he had managed to hitchhike a lift with, but we still had 300k left till Goa.

We were falling behind schedule for the trip. We needed to cover much more distance per day. Vatsal was not having fun on the cycle anymore and having to dismount at every incline. 

Vatsal won’t mind me saying that he’s a confident and proud guy. This made it difficult for us to bring up the possibility that he may not be able to get to Goa. It is to his credit that he was so mature about it and happy to talk realistically about his limits. We agreed that Goa wasn’t happening. We chose another beach town en-route to part ways and Vatsal made some difficult phone calls to say he would be home early. 

We arrived in Ganpattipule for our last lunch together and took the whole afternoon to let Vatsal enjoy a long ‘above-knees’ swim. We had booked him onto the overnight sleeper bus back to Mumbai and he was thoroughly looking forward to a nice long kip without one of us waking him up at 5.45am. 

We took our last chance to bully him whilst waiting for the bus, said our goodbyes and saw him safely on his way. Dinner and the walk home was dominated by talk of route options, distance calculation and contour reading. We both went to bed thinking one thing. ‘So many hills!’
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Come on, let’s football!

If our trip was broken into phases we were now well and truly in the heart of phase 2: family, family, family! Phase 1 had been illness, heat, elation, despair. In short: getting used to the challenge we had set ourselves and learning how to overcome it. It had been hard, but we had conquered! Phase 2 had already started in Faizpur, Jalgaon and Nashik, but we knew it was far from over.

For V this was a chance to catch up with more loved ones, to celebrate with them, drink cups of chai and play mafia. For Rob this was an ongoing incredible welcome to a loving family; truly looked after as one of the clan. It was also an opportunity to see a completely different part of India: India as people lived it: Diwali, cricket, lots of food, and much more!

The place where we were headed was Pune. It’s an old colonial retreat where the British spent time away from the Bombay heat that had now become a huge university and IT city. It’s where Vs parents had met and where he had spent a lot of his first years on this precious planet. His grandad – nana – lives in a house he’s designed himself near where Vs mum and her sisters all grew up. We were going to have nearly a week there before heading out to the coast with Vs cousin, Vatsal.

It was an uneventful 2 day ride from Nashik, and we arrived in the early afternoon that 2nd day. We took a scenic detour in order to avoid the city traffic and were treated to a skyline view of the urban sprawl and skyscrapers from the hills around Alandi. The place looked vast. We arrived at the Bhayani home just before nana turned up at the gate on his scooter. It was a happy reunion of grandfather and oldest grand-child after a puzzled 2 minutes of “where’s nana?”.

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Following some quick showers we headed out to get some lunch. Not with nana, it was nap-time, but with Vs cousin Ronak. We looked around the beautiful Mud House store that his wife Dipti has recently opened with her brother before tucking into a relaxed meal at the nearby jazz-cafe. Delicious! We had arrived, and the social whirlwind had started.

For me (Rob, if you hadn’t guessed), new people appeared around every corner, smiling, keen to say hi. It was hard to keep track of faces let alone names! There were aunts, great-uncles, cousins’ babies, next-door neighbours, in short: everyone! It wasn’t all for us though- Diwali was on and so it was holiday season and everyone had headed home. Also, Vs parents and brother had arrived from the UK, and their friends and families wanted to see them, too. The memory that really sticks is the welcome of the closer family: smiles, hugs, delicious food, parties, late-nights, though not forgetting the heated ‘discussions’ about various topics that surfaced from time to time.

After lunch with Ronnie that first day, we headed out for dinner at Vs aunt’s place. Sushma masi cooked us a super dinner and we agreed to a challenge: we would cook lunch for her and nana the following day; try out our skills from the udaipur course! It was on! We headed to the market first thing and chose our weapons: we would cook an aubergine curry with dal, rice and chapattis.

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It took quite a while to prep everything, so much chopping of onions and garlic! We found all the requisite spices scattered in nana’s cupboards and commenced the cooking. It smelt great, the dal was looking an authentic yellow and tasted sufficiently spicy, the coriander chutney had a kick to it, and the aubergines had absorbed all the spicy masala sauce in which it was cooking. The challenge were the chapattis. Neither of us had much experience with dough or bread. All we had was our cookery courses and a plain piece of A4 on which were written Shashi’s instructions.

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Rob had made the dough. It seemed an ok consistency and not too wet. But in truth, we had no real idea as to whether it was a good dough or not. The next stage was the rolling out of the chapattis: how large? how thick? Or were they thin? We could not remember one bit of it. And then the cooking: how hot should we have the pan? We had no idea. All this had only one outcome, namely, rubbery, inedible chapattis. But the rest of the meal tasted fine, good even! Nana and Sushma both had seconds, and plentiful rice made up for our poor flatbread skills.

The rest of the afternoon was spent sourcing firecrackers to welcome the next wave of family. One particular firecracker was perhaps more controversial than the others…

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Raj and Shilpa, Vs parents, along with his brother Sunny, aunt and uncle Priya and Hetal and their son Vatsal were arriving from Mumbai. It was hugs, laughter and kisses all round, and the firecrackers went off a treat. We went out to one of nana’s favourite haunts and ate our fill before returning to more catch-up. We were also told what we had done wrong with the chapattis: thinner bits and more heat apparently.

The next day was Diwali- the Hindu festival of light that celebrates the return of Rama and Sita from their exile on Sri Lanka. It’s one of the most well-known and widely celebrated Hindu festivals. As an outsider, I was looking forward to witnessing this first hand- and to getting the chance to dress up in indian garb.

The morning and early afternoon were not particularly different to any other day. We chatted, and played a little cricket. Raj, Sunny and Rob were comprehensively beaten by Hetal, Vatsal and Viraj. Rob had no clue, scoring barely a run and entirely unable to read the spin. This ineptitude coupled by the Mumbaikers’ (Hetal and Vatsal) prowess proved decisive. Rob did manage to redeem himself somewhat with some impressive reflex catches in the ensuing game of French cricket. But, really, he was at a complete loss amongst the cricket mad lot.

In the later afternoon, however, there was a slow change in mood. Flowers began to be put down on the staircases and under the icon of the god Krishna which was in the house living room. Nana and Hetal were busy making auspicious Diwali trades on the stock exchange, and the household accounts were blessed and also placed under the icon. It was soon time to change into our traditional indian clothes- Rob had been kindly brought clothes over from England, and was soon having a traditional dhoti tied by Hetal. A dhoti is a single piece of fabric wrapped in such a way to produce long loose trouser/skirt/sarong hybrid. The authentic indian experience- he was even told that he looked more comfortable than many Indians would have done!

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In any case, after (warm) showers and clean clothes, it was time to perform the Diwali Puja (ritual prayer). Candles were lit and for about 5 minutes, those who were willing and able sang 2 or 3 prayer hymns in front of the Krishna icon. They were moving and heartfelt, though to our shame we still don’t know what the words meant. It was a time of devotion and quiet in any case. Once this was over, it was time for the photo shoot. Rob was photographer in chief, but sadly most of the photos were not taken on this phone and so can’t be uploaded. Shucks guys, you don’t get to see us looking our finest. Oh well.

After a tasty meal it was time for fireworks and firecrackers. Lots of them – this is the festival of light after all! We had some disappointing rockets and lame Catherine wheels, but the bangers and Roman candles were pretty ace. Viraj was excited like a little child- imagine the look of a littlun who can only see unending glee in the comings minutes, hours and even days. Pure wide-eyed delight! It was only briefly interrupted when Rob accidentally set one off in his hand. To everyone’s surprise he was absolutely fine! (You can see it on the youtube video if you look really carefully). What’s fun about fireworks in India is that everyone is setting them off in public, not private. On pavements throbbing with pedestrians, roads filled with scooters and cars, the eyes and ears are bombarded! It’s certainly exciting. From the 10th storey roof of Vs grandpa’s place we were able to watch some of the rockets and hear some of the firecrackers. A display that went on all night long! …and had started on-and-off days previously and would rumble on over the next few nights as kids and adults alike gradually emptied their stock.

The most fun, however, was yet to come. And it was in the form of mafia. For those of who don’t know this incredibly entertaining after-dinner game, you should learn. Now! Google it, find people who have played it, whatever it takes! It’s excellent. It’s a role-play strategy game. The basic premise is that there are two types of player: the mafia, who can kill other people in the game, and everyone else who can lynch people who they suspect of being mafia. It’s the mafia against everyone else. If the mafia kill everyone, they win, if they are themselves are lynched, they lose. It’s super simple and comes highly recommended. It kept us up till 3am in any case! Vatsal was always too quiet, Hetal too clever and Shilpa too self-incriminating; I still don’t know how to trust any of them!

We eventually got some kip – we needed it too, as the next we were to be having a party for the extended family- apparently 90 or so had been invited from Vs maternal grandmother’s side of the family. For Rob, it was to be full immersion: more faces, names and indian clothing. It was also Hindu New Year- so a belated ‘Sal Mubarak!’ (‘Happy New Year!) to you all. We got up late and spent the afternoon variously reading, napping and playing bananagrams.

The evening festivities commenced once again with needing to dress up, and V and Rob swapped outfits for the occasion! What we didn’t know was that a speech was going to be necessary, and that we were going to be presented with flowers in front of all present! Rob hid nicely in his lack of Hindi, allowing V to do all the speaking- explaining the nature of our trip, the trials and tribulations so far, and the rest of our route. Rob smiled along! It seemed to go down ok to Vs relief and Sunny’s general amusement, and we were able to carry on with the festivities. This meant meeting lots of people- I had especially interesting chats with some of the oldest generation who were very interested and very kind in their words about our trip. We also ate incredibly well, witnessed a few party games and sat and chatted with the other 20-somethings.

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One party game deserves a special mention- it is apparently very popular. The idea is that there are two teams who have a Bollywood sing off. One team sings a line from a Bollywood number, and the other team had to then reply by singing a line starting with the last word in the previous line. This then carries on bouncing back and forth until one team offers no reply. Two things were especially striking. Firstly, the incredible repertoire of songs that people knew- the game seemed to last forever. How many songs can there be? Really? And secondly, the appeal across sexes and generations. The 75+ brigade loved it as much as the teenage hordes, as did the ages in between. Brilliant, just brilliant!

Two things repeated themselves from the previous night: fireworks and mafia. V was in his element once again, but this time had a posse of little kids equally entertained. The sparklers were especially successful. Mafia, however, escalated beyond any expectations. About 16 of us spent 4 hours playing numerous games. There was heckling, raised voices, general disbelief and some final controversy. Vatsal remained too quiet, Ashika was rarely trusted and Shilpa dug herself some unnecessarily deep holes. It was great fun, and we finally retired at about 4am.

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The following day, Saturday, we had a relaxing morning, and a relaxing afternoon. It was great! We had gone to Vs uncles house for lunch, and then spent the afternoon playing cards, chess and just not doing much! Rob taught them all spoons- the game where you have to grab spoons once you have 4-cards of the same value in your hand. There is one too fewer spoon than players, and so the last person to grab has to sit out the next round. Hilarity ensued as fights over spoons broke out, as is always the case in this game!

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Sunday was our final day in Pune. A day of shopping, football watching and, importantly, bike sorting for the days ahead. We were to be joined for part of the journey by Vatsal, V’s 17-year old cousin. He had not cycled a road bike before, and certainly not for 6 hours a day, but he was very keen to join us on the way to Goa. So older cousin V set out a list of conditions the Vatsal had to meet if he wanted to join. These were basically bike, gear and training specs. He met them, and so we needed to give the bike a quick service to ensure it was in good working nick.

The evening was filled with a boys trip to the inaugural home match of FC Pune, one of the clubs in India’s new soccer league. We arrived at the ground full of excitement, and had quickly bought replica club shirts – a delightful thick orange and purple vertical striped design. We took to our seats and were treated to a wail of vuvuzelas. Apparently the best way to get behind your new team is to blast a walk of tuneless noise at them at all times. There were in that match where each of us would have happily grabbed said ‘instrument’ out of the offenders hands and stamped on it, right in front of them. It was terrible! The football was fortunately much more entertaining. Midfield play was good: slick passing, nice movement and shape, however there never a final ball, and the finishing was generally poor. It was an even contest, and could even be described as end-to-end at times. Fortunately the even worse defending more than made up for the deficits in attacking prowess, and we had 2 home goals (one by an aged David Trezeguet, no less). These goals were celebrated by wild dancing and a vuvuzela chorus. Most amusingly, goal kicks were also celebrated with equal fervour, as were some throw-ins. This was because the crowd actually had no clue about what was happening in the game, and simply partied like mad when the stadium PA blasted some music (check this out for an example ‘anthem’: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=wVk7zbSJdcw). A nice Pavlovian response! In any case, we had an entertaining and insightful night, though I’m not sure that we will go any more games this trip.

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Sadly, it was suddenly time to leave Pune. To head west, and arrive at the sea!! Thank you so much Bharambe and Bhayani families, it was a lovely, welcoming, fun experience. I will always treasure it.

Be smooth on my curves

3 hours of cycling tore us away from banana trees, verandas and afternoon naps, and threw us headfirst into one of the sprouting industrial hubs of Maharashtra’s economy. 

We sailed into Jalgaon on good roads and settled down for a delightful roadside chai in full lycra. We were waiting for our friend Vinay Jagwani outside yet another Maharashtran engineering college. Before going back to his house, we were lucky enough to have a look around his family’s manufacturing business.

Used in food, hair and as a constituent in make up, the demand for coconut oil in India is vast. The Jagwani family extract and package the stuff in various shapes and sizes and distribute it to most of Maharashtra (a state with 120 million people), no mean feat. Kilo after kilo of dessicated coconut was squeezed through the 3 gigantic presses at the extraction factory to produce 5 tonnes of oil per day. 

Manufacturing processes are a difficult thing to see first hand in the UK and experiencing the bustling and cacophonous nature of a factory was quite something. 

It also gave us a lot of food for thought. The workers at the factory were slight in number and slighter in stature. They required breaks, food, water and holidays. They could set demands, could form unions and might dictate the terms of their employment. 

Automation looms. The possibility that they might lose control of their workforce (and therefore their productive output) is not a variable the Jagwani’s want to leave to chance. They plan to upgrade to automated plants within the next 2 years. An easy debate to have in a year 10 business studies lesson; more difficult to reconcile when seeing things in person. Maybe us bleeding-heart liberal NHS workers are just soft!

Eat, drink, shisha, sleep. Nishi Madhvani joined us for the first three of those activities. There was also a massage chair and a Sindhi temple in there somewhere but the details elude us. 

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Having both studied in Cardiff, Rob and Nishi enjoyed discussing their experiences of the city (sometimes similar, but mostly differing). This continued into the next day whilst on our way to Ajanta.

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28 Buddhist caves, whittled into the cliffs abutting a horseshoe-shaped meander of the Waghore river. Immersed in lush flora and fauna and relatively well preserved, these caves are repositories for architecture, stone carvings and paintings that date back to nearly 2000 years ago. The detail and vibrancy of these works is difficult to overstate. Luckily, we had an art historian on hand (Robert Seal Esquire) to compare and contrast with the artistic goings on in the Roman empire at the time. Ajanta wins apparently. 

Lunch at Nishi’s was wonderful vegetarian fare and entertainment came in the form of his ever hilarious mother, Kanta aunty, who asked Viraj, in a very matter-of-fact tone, when his arranged marriage was going to happen. Little did we know, this was to become a theme over the few days and weeks as we met more of Viraj’s friends and relations. The main cause of this: Rob, who tried to initiate the conversation at least twice a day.

The first of the two days of cycling which would deliver us to our next destination felt like a very quick 90km as it was punctuated with some brilliant road signs.

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Having enjoyed the infantile guffawing we thought we’d liven up the following 160km day by making signs for each others bikes.

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The second day was a self-inflicted slog that had a couple of Ghats thrown in for good measure. We suprised ourself with how comfortably we arrived in Nashik, with daylight and energy to spare. Little did we know, Viraj’s cousin Vedant, who we were following through the city, felt an end of day car-chase was in order. Racing through rush hour traffic at breakneck speed sapped the last of what we had left in our two-tone quads, but this mattered little. The next 2 days were scheduled to be restful. And they were…on the whole.

Lovely wine at a pretty vineyard with good conversation = restful.

Evening picnic by a river with a waterfall = restful.

Catching up with Viraj’s uncle over afternoon tea = restful

Oil massage from a man whilst you’re in nout but a flimsy loin cloth = NOT restful.

Unnecessarily loud Skrillex played on the way to evening picnic = NOT restful

Sunday morning chat over breakfast with the Nashik cycling club = restful

Further arranged marriage chat = NOT restful

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It really was a wonderful 2 days spent with Anu masi, Biren masa, Vedant and Naman. Naman was kind enough to furnish us with one of our trip highlights by informing us of an exam she had to take during our stay there. She was doing her mock exams, one of which was in the subject ‘Personality Development’. This was not some free period in which you could do a hobby, oh no. There was a textbook. And an exam paper. Which Naman kindly managed to nick from the exam hall:

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It is only a small snippet, but you get the idea. We all laughed a lot, for a long time. And still do. 

Meet the family

Both of us love listening to music- be it post-rock, jazz, electro, classical, film, metal, hip-hop,… Quite eclectic but similar tastes- we would say that we like anything ‘good’. But that’s a bit conceited and meaningless.

One thing is clear: we like Guy Garvey and Elbow, and especially the song, ‘One Day Like This’. We have been singing it proudly as we pedal, humming it as we relax and generally letting it infuse the trip. The gist of the song is that there are some days in life that give you a buzz, a high, a feeling of ‘this is it, this is life, this is living!’. These days see you right and put life back in order a little bit, reminding you and letting you glimpse again what it’s all about.

Well the day we left Indore was one of those glorious days: full bellies and rested heads, thoughts sent spinning by books and reflections on the trip so far, stunning natural scenery, and to top it off some breath-stealing ruins. It was wonderful!

The day got off to a good start: tasty and nutritious food from our wonderful hosts Vishal and Sandhya, a glass-smooth surface on which to roll, and fair weather conditions (I.e. not power-sapping, scorching sunshine). We ate up the Tarmac, covering the 100km by midday. Even before exploring Mandav itself, we had been distracted by an unexpected gorge which dropped a few hundred meters down near-vertical slopes.

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As we were expecting, the 500y old ruins were magnificent, but more so than either of us had guessed at. Empty buildings with near intact stonework litter the place that was the centre of an empire until the 18th century (when the Marathas, not the British, conquered it). We spent the afternoon in the royal enclosure- taking in the Afghan-style palaces situated along a waterfront. We dangled our legs over the edges of the barrier-less walls (no ‘health and safety’ sanitising yet). We walked upon rooftops, enjoying the coming dusk. We were able to use the place as a relaxing playground- napping, climbing, imaging how it could still host spectacular parties, and generally revelling in the beauty of the buildings (it is a mausoleum in Mandav that inspired the Taj Mahal).

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In short, we smiled, laughed, and wondered what on earth had happened to indian architecture in the intervening years – not meaning to cause offence, but these buildings are simply unrivalled! Days like this: to be treasured!

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The afternoon only encouraged us to explore Mandav further: we decided to spend the following morning checking out one more place: Rupmati’s Pavilion. A simple and beautiful pavilion perched atop the highest point of the old city, looking down over the Narmada River and plains below. We had the place to ourselves! Definitely worth the extra 15km cycling.

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We cycled pretty hard for the rest of the day: the constant slowing down due to poor roads and re-acceleration ensuring that the legs were tired when we arrived at Onkareshar 130km later. The scenery was good: green agricultural scenes on either side of our rubbish road, a fun descent from the hilltop of Mandav to the Narmada plains, and, finally, the river herself.

The Narmada is one of the largest rivers in India, and, to Hindus, one of the holiest. We caught our first glimpse at lunchtime in a pretty town called Maheshwar: 3 times as wide as the Thames and with a cute little temple on an island. But it is in Omkareshwar where the Sadhus (Hindu holy-men who love long beards and the colour orange) congregate. We arrived lateish and so after hauling our bikes and bags up about 50 steep stone steps it was dark and we were not able to explore that much.

As morning dawned we got a better picture of the place. We were staying on an island suffused with the celebrations of a Hindu holy site: temples, statues of a Gods, singing, ringing bells, people asking for money/food, shops full of trinkets (replica statues, flowers, shells, and other assorted small things), and, of course, the sadhus. Sadhus seem to be men of all ages, wandering around seemingly without any possessions, and seemingly without any real destination, meandering instead between holy sites across the land. They are fed and watered by Hindu families on route, and often travel alone. In the morning, as we crossed back to the mainland to continue our journey, we passed 2 of these holy men, neither looked older than 25 years. They crossed our path, each with one hand aloft, and made their way upwards toward the hilltop temple. It is an act of devotion we both struggle to understand – how does one come to a place in life where holding an arm aloft for days/weeks/months/years becomes the chosen act of devotion?

I remember looking at the Guinness Book of Records as a youngster, puzzling over the picture of a holy man in his 80s with his hand held high for so long that the bones had all fused, and the muscles wasted away. Is the completeness of the devotion beautiful as well as fascinating? …or is it a sad consequence of an enormous population, leaving some men to try anything to ensure that it is them and not others who are fed and watered?

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Our time in Omkareshwar fed us with enough interesting titbits and observations to occupy most of the cycling day with conversation and we arrived in Burhanpur in good time. After some ice cream and a wander around the town, we called it a day. We needed to be on good form to meet Viraj’s gran and the rest of the family in Faizpur.

Faizpur is the village in which V’s dad was born and grew up, and his mum and a few of his cousins are still there. It’s a reasonable-sized place, surrounded by the banana farms that bring in the majority of the income. We were met on the road about 2km before Faizpur by cousins and uncles on scooters (Shiva, Avi, Kunal and Mohit). And when we arrived- what a welcome! We were blessed in traditional style and given garlands of fresh flowers. It was generous, exciting and unexpected- neither of us had previously experienced this. It soon gave over, however, to the more usual welcomes. The formal: touching the ground before the feet when greeting an elder, and the informal: hugs. The welcoming of Viraj home showed real love, and the affection and hospitality to Rob was wonderful too.

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After showers, it was time to cook. Viraj had asked for his favourite foods, and asked for them to wait until we had arrived for them to prepare it. We were beckoned here and there as it was demonstrated how various dishes were bring made. All the family was involved. Outside, the large green aubergines being roasted on a log fire before being peeled, spiced and mashed. Inside, the white-coloured sauce that got its flavour from the charcoal which was added. Back outside, the fresh vegetables and various breads all being prepared. It smelt amazing! And was a feast for the eyes, too.

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The transformation of the produce finally complete, we sat down to enjoy this delicious spread. Eating sat cross-legged with a banana-leaf as a plate was a new experience for Rob. And, though his legs were entirely numb for a good 5 minutes after finally in crossing them, a thoroughly enjoyable one too!

The afternoon was spent catching up, sharing stories, and (in Rob’s case) napping! In the evening we headed out for our 2nd shave of the trip, and settled down to sleep. It had been an altogether lovely day: warm, smiling welcome, delicious food and generous company. We slept well- thank you all.

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And you can check out a video here.

Bye bye Pannier rack

Udaipur treated us a little too well, so leaving was a tough decision. But leave we did and began our journey to the Rajasthan-Madhyapradesh border. 

The first part of the journey was a bit of a surprise. 70km if immaculate roads, a verdant canopy overhead to provide shade and minimal traffic. Oh, and it was all downhill.

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We raced along, whooping and wailing, and arrived at our end of day destination by 8am. So obviously, we got cocky. We more than doubled our intended distance for the day. Another 90km would be a walk in the park after our effortless morning descent! 

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The next part of the story is as predictable as a pantomime. It got harder. The roads got worse, the sun was relentless, our thirst was unquenchable and hunger incessant.

It required a fair few motivational speeches and a lot of singing out loud but by around 5pm we were only 10km from Banswara, our destination! 

Shortlived cheer seemed to be the running theme of the day. No sooner had Rob calculated the remaining distance, the temperature dropped very quickly. Violent gusts of wind conjured dust-devils from the roadside debris and threatend to sweep our bikes from under us. Unnoticed, the eastern horizon had been brewing a tempest that was now very much upon us. We battled through golf-ball sized raindrops and rushed into the nearest hotel with a roof. 
Exhausted and utterly unable to hold any sort of conversation, we ate dinner in abject silence, fell asleep whilst waiting for the bill, woke up to pay the bill and crashed hard.

The oxford english dictionary defines a road as:
‘A pathway leading from one place to another with a specially prepared surface which vehicles can use.’

Our ‘road’ for the following day failed emphatically to meet the latter criterion.

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And thats not a photo of the worst part. The closest analogy would be cycling on a pebble beach that has never been eroded down. Loose, jagged, fist-sized rocks with no underlying hard surface and frequent steep hills added in for good measure. Robert and his touring machine made 30km of this look rather easy. Viraj’s spirit was on the verge of breaking. His pannier rack went past that verge.

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The broken part managed to wedge itself into a secure enough position to carry us to Ratlam where we sat and stared at it for a good few hours. It was irreparable. A new rack was the only solution. Indian steel racks were an option but not ideal due to fitting issues and Viraj’s reticence to let anyone with a welding torch near his bike . 

We called in the cavalry. Our friends in Indore; Vishal, Sandhya and their beautiful daughter Vedika. We chucked ourselves and the bikes in a truck the following morning for the 140km trip to their house. Vishal had friends who owned a bike showroom! And boy were we glad we went to them. The only place we could procure an appropriate rack was over 500kilometres away. They made some calls and got it sent over urgently in an overnight courier. Then we crossed our fingers and waited because as Vishal advised us: ‘Nothing in India is sorted until the rack is on your bike and the final nut and bolt is tightened’.

Our ‘waiting’ time in Indore was spent explaing the term ‘kray-kray’ to 6-year old Vedika, eating, drinking and attempting to correct our increasingly disproportionate body shapes by swimming with arms only. The plan didnt really work and we are still about 90% quadriceps but we did have a truly wonderful time. Vishal and Sandhya we cannot thank you enough for everything and look forward to playing host when you visit the UK.

The rack arrived in one piece and on time (massive thanks to Bharthi and Hemant), we affixed it fairly sharpish and it worked like a dream! That night we attended Vishal’s friends home for Bakra Eid; an islamic festival in which a goat is slaughtered and made into a curry and friends come to your house to eat together. So we ate a lot of delicious goat curry, made some new friends with cycling anecdotes and handled a large hunting rifle that was lying about in the living room. We are still unsure whether it was loaded or not.

Over the hills to Udaipur

We both think that the name ‘Udaipur’ has a touch of Middle Earth about it (that means Lord of the Rings-esque for you non-fans out there). It’s lyrical, has three-syllables and sounds best when you roll the ‘R’, just like Isengard, Rivendell or Moria. Are we also on some epic quest? Granted, we are not saving the world from the powers of evil, but at the very least a soaring sound-track would befit our travels!

Fortunately, the two days from Deogarh to Udaipur contained no orcs, enchanted forests, ring wraiths or not many impediments of the more usual variety either (hunger, heat, tiredness, trying to cycle too far, etc.). There were, however, mines. Or, at least, we presume there were, as we saw enough marble to rebuild the Taj Mahal 10 times over! For at least 10km both sides of the road were lined with shops selling endless tons of the white stuff, and we passed lorry upon lorry heaving with raw, unpolished stone.

These 2 days provided the most wonderful scenery thusfar: rolling hills, with greenery stretching either side, and blue-peaked hills in the distance. I’m sure this perception was greatly aided by the pleasant roads, the cooling breeze and the fact that our legs felt great after the night at Deogarh, but it was stunning none-the-less. The km just seemed to tick along, even though we were hitting inclines frequently for the first time in the trip.

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We therefore arrived at Nathdwara with time to visit the temple, and to get Viraj’s bike fixed, again! We had an excellent hotel recommendation (thanks Priya Masi!), and so quickly checked in and freshened up. After a hearty Thali we decided to give our bikes a once over (oil chain, check wheel alignment, check brakes, the simple stuff). This was the moment when Viraj decided to demonstrate his strength and general manly-ness. Performing with considerable panache, he snapped the bolt holding up his seat clean in 2! What strength! What a man! …

It transpired that over the last year, he had repeatedly tightened this bolt, as it never seemed to hold the seat quite firmly enough. This had had the effect of completely twisting the metal out of shape (like wringing a towel), and the bolt wrenched apart without (Viraj still insists) ‘much force’. So after popping to the temple of Srinathji, we needed to find a new bolt!

Before we had set off to find said bolt, however, Viraj encountered his second snake of the trip. He hadn’t been allowed into the temple as he had had his mobile phone with him. As he stood outside waiting for Rob, out from the temple rushed a man holding a snake with the snake’s head in a bag followed by a large retinue of worshippers. The man with the snake kept touching himself with its tail, as if it were holy. He looked around, entirely puzzled as to what to do next. Fortunately, he was not a snake hold-up artist (if this seems confusing, see the Jaipur post), and the situation was easily dissipated when he let the snake slither into the sewer system. Not terrifying, but a bizarre experience all the same!

After this we were able to find the bike bolt with surprising ease, as the local bike shop had exactly the same part, with the specialised grooves needed to hold the bolt-head in place, magic stuff!

With bikes fixed we set off the next morning over the hills to Udaipur. We had only left ourselves 50km to cover, and so happily bounded up the road. We were met with superb views over the top, and even indulged in some photography and filming. It felt pretty good!

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We came into Udaipur with plenty of energy, hungry to explore this lakeside town which had so entertained James Bond (Octopussy, if you’re wondering). We chose a hostel that had a roof and served cold beer- both important, and set about planning the next few days while eating something tasty.

We agreed on 5 rough priorities:
1. Cookery classes
2. Food & Drink
3. Moustaches
4. Dusshera
5. Lakeside views
…and managed to pull most of them off during the 3 days we had.

1. Cooking:
We love cooking, and both wanted to learn the recipes of the different regions. This cookery class was a 5h delight given by a Rajasthani lady named Shashi. She was fantastic: charming, a good teacher and, importantly, a good cook. Over the course of the afternoon we made friends with two delightful couples, one Guatemalan, one British, while getting excited together about chai, naan, pakora, aloo gobi and all the other tasty morsels. A veritable feast! (And, if you’re lucky, you might get to try some one day). We spent the evening sipping beer, swapping anecdotes with our new friends and hearing about starting new Indian restaurants in Guatemala.

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2. Food & Drink:
The cookery class went a good way in sorting this out, but there was more to come. We ate good, hearty indian fare, coupled with the best coffee thusfar. On our 2nd night we met a bunch of Germans who had been in South India for business, and were now taking a couple of days holiday. The plan for the night was set: drink a rooftop beer, then pick another roof and find our way there for the next beer…a rooftop pub crawl. The night finished with some more food, mainly French fries at the insistence of our new friends.

3. Moustaches:
Although Rob had already taken the plunge and shaped himself a (terrible!) moustache in Jaipur, Viraj had held out as he did not yet have enough upper lip growth. V’s time was up! We found a little barber shop, and with a scattering of anecdotes about Udaipur, had our first cut-throat shaves! We cannot recommend this highly enough! We felt like kings! The facial massage, tart and stinging concoctions and close shave worked wonders. A new routine for the trip was born, alongside Viraj’s magnificent new facial hair.

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4. Dusshera:
The festival which celebrates Rama’s defeat of Ravana was being celebrated whilst we were in Udaipur. And boy did we know it: fireworks, crackers, the loudest speakers in the world, drumming until the small hours, and the general sounds of crowds were ever present. Dancing, decorated streets and carnival-float type rickshaws added to the ambience. It was inescapable!

5. Lakeside views:
A pretty place, situated on a lake was always going to offer this. We would recommend the following: rooftops, taking a boat tour to an island, sitting at the waters edge having a fresh coffee (Jheels’s cafe was great).

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Udaipur as a whole was quite enchanting, though Viraj felt that it had grown much busier over the last 10 years. It was hard, for example, to walk down the street in a totally relaxed manner, the sheer volume of rickshaw and scooter traffic kept you on guard. We felt that we had explored adequately, and were rested enough for the journey to roll on!