The sea lapped at the heavy blocks beneath my feet as the wind cut around my shoulders and sailed back out to the ocean. The salt fresh breath licking up from the waves hung in the air, as thickly as the smog in Delhi.
The bike waited halfway along the causeway, unable to bridge the wheel bending boulder troughs, while I eeked out a few more meters and perched on a rock at the end of the earth, gazing out to sea as the breeze carved away deep layers of highway fatigue. My mind, like the ocean, was choppy and empty – save for the occasional sail boat of thought, drifting away with the same lazy conviction it had coasted in with.
It was the 17th of January – six months and one week into my trip. My blistering pace down the East coast had planted me at Kanyakumari, the southern most tip of India, the intersection of three oceans. Where you can watch the sun rise from and return to the sea… if only five degrees of sea smog weren’t painting out all the details.
It was North from here, all the way back to Delhi. And, crossing into Kerala for the first time, it looked like a brief reprive from long, tiresome highway days as the main artery running up the coast twisted and wove it’s dizzy path through tropical jungle and past punchy pastel favellas, at stark contrast to the draping chlorophyll, lazy under the orange glow. The roads were silk smooth and free of unexpected speed-bumps, albeit still prone to the vagueness of cows and playful suicide attempts from dogs and monkeys.
I normally advocate against listening to music while riding, especially in India where over ninety percent of traffic is directed by sonar, but for the past few weeks I’d come to love a banging soundtrack to my riding. The streets around southern Kerala were no-rush riding, the chaos of India somehow forgotten at the border, but with the right songs I was tearing past the coconut farms, miles of swampy troughs dug to catch the fruit softly, at breakneck speed, drumming my legs to the beat as I rolled off the throttle for the bigger villages.
Before long I’d roared to a halt outside a hostel in Varkala, tearing a gash in the quiet civility I’d found myself accidentally enveloped in. Had I realised then that this place, like my guesthouse in Hampi, would become another hole, another place too easy to get happily stuck forever, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. My quick stop over dragged itself closer to a week’s vacation, good company, good bars to extend the soulful conversations, great food (swordfish tandoori anyone?) and beaches to kill for, if the amazingly hostile five foot beach breakers didn’t kill you first. The childlike glee of bodysurfing them into the sand and rising triumphantly without any new broken bones was a dominant force in each and every day, after morning yoga but before an exhausted lunch at one of the tidy bistros lining the clifftop that protects the sandy beach, fifty feet below.
Riddled with an unholy hangover and a sore throat that suggested the rum in India was more similar to paint-stripper than you’d be comfortable with, I dragged myself along on a backwater tour. It’s the “go-to” experience for Kerala, “backwater this, backwater that”, but in my opinion unless you’re explicitly stoked about being on a little boat there wasn’t a lot going on otherwise. There was however a sense of fleeting regret as I leapt into the murky waters barely after finishing “I’d better not swim, I’ve got so many open wounds!” Splash. The deep grazes from relentless bodysurfing in Varkala now wriggling with whatever was in the water.
Along with being licked by a beach dog right on top of another open wound (and literally weeks of reassuring myself he didn’t look rabid while I dribbled psychosomatically), it was a timebomb cocktail of malady and duress that would inevitably end one of the longest streaks of unbroken wellbeing of this trip. As the waves broke on the beach, so did my fever along the epic coast road to Kochi. Hallucinogenic fever dreams warped the world around me while a blistering bauble of evening sun purpled out and died.
Passing through their backwater birthplace, the ricochette of dusk-borne, cornea bursting bugs was particularly intense. The insects came thick, fast and more voluminous than their inland cousins and I took many stops to rinse wings and legs from my eyes. At ten to midnight I pulled into my hostel, shouldered the bags up to my dorm bed and cuddled up directly beneath the air-conditioning to cool off.
Unsurprisingly, my attempts to quench the fire inside with a glorified bacteria factory didn’t go to plan. As my temperature rose and I prepared to dig in for the worst I had to move hostels (twice) due to overbooking and a local strike closing roads. I also had to replace the bikes cracked front rim (hidden speed bumps will do that…), three busted rear spokes and half the fasteners which had rattled loose. Pressure building under my scalp, jellyfish anomalies clotting my vision and weak disco legs were not helping the situation. I dragged myself into the nearby hospital for a booster of typhoid, tetanus and course of antibiotics – the nurse clearly impressed and appalled by my list of exposures. Nothing really helped and after a few more days confinement I was finished crypt-Kochi. There are only so many chic art cafes you can visit. I fired up the first cigarette since New Year’s Eve and rode the serotonin focus through the gloom of infection and up into the Western Ghats, getting official stamps and curfews for the hour or two spent inside a tiger reserve.
The tourists all head to Munnar, a leafy hill station in tea growing territory a few hours from the coast. The advantage of being ill for so long was that I ha plenty of opportunity to talk to locals about the best riding in the area. I’d take a different valley, past Athirapally waterfalls, through the reserves and into Valparai. Already baking hot, the clean up teams, starting controlled fires along the road side, certainly weren’t helping. But with each meter climbed the jungle took back some of the scorched Earth before you popped, like a cork from a bottle, out into the expansive, hidden world of manicured tea plantations.
With plenty of daylight to spare I pranced the highstreet shaking hands and returning stares with a grin. I only saw three white people (just the right amount, like lumps of sugar) in the whole town. They get everywhere in the South, a real bloody burden. Bumbags and binoculars with legs and a head. But here, not destroyed by tourism, the local people were happy to meet and drink chai and chat for a while in what I’d started calling ‘Inglish’. Home made chocolate, surprisingly low on sugar for a country that puts ten heaps per chai, was sold throughout the busy highstreet. Some sort of festival or protest was echoing out over loud speakers in the background. I bunked down in a little guesthouse shuffled away down a side street, already feeling better, almost as if half my symptoms had been evolving withdrawal symptoms for riding, getting worse and worse each day stranded in Kochi.
It was another pristine morning; a hanging briskness of altitude rode the soft breeze. The fields were full of glinting emeralds, white hot reflections of dew off the tea bushes. The land swept slowly away in gentle mounds, down into the clouds below. With the early start it was definitely a jacket day, something I’d not used after the sodden North Eastern rainforests, wrapped around a brazier.
“In two hundred meters, turn right.” Usually the satnav is pretty useful at finding the right road out of town but here, gazing up at a big red sign at the entrance, a barrier and a petite Nepali looking lady with an official uniform and walky-talky, it didn’t look like it had done a very admirable job.
‘VERY VERY DANGEROUS ROAD. NO ENTRY.’ Collectively, it was the most diligence I’d seen towards health and safety since I’d been in India. Even so, with a cheery wave and a “Just go carefully” from security, I was on the VERY VERY DANGEROUS ROAD, surprised and eager to explore.
This country has already taught me to temper all expectations. Anything I’d built up any excitement for in advance had a fair chance at turning out subtly dissapointing, a la Taj Mahal. But when surprised, like this road, are throat upon you, you’re generally in for a treat. I climbed gradually through gentle corners before reaching a spectacular viewpoint, the entirety of the Ghats rippled away into flat, Savannah plains in the middle distance. And the road. Wow. The entire mountainside carved up with gorgeous hairpins and curves that flicked along the contours and disappeared into the steamy brown horizon.
It was a highlight of the South and kept me beaming through the arid lowlands and back into another range of hill hill stations, stopping over in Ooty (where we got kicked out of the hostel for illicit drinking) and Coorg with more beautiful riding through coffee plantations and jungle paradise.
Just one more long haul riding day, down from the mountains, and I was back on the coast highway with good times ahead. I’d planned to stay in Goa long enough to recover from the shell shock of nomad life, living out of bags and moving on a near daily basis. I needed a break – and not the kind that puts me in hospital – before continuing through the deserts of Rajasthan and finally back to Delhi.
It was the twilight months of my Indian experience. I was in no rush to the finish line.