It is winter vacation, and my friend Parag and I have decided to take a little 6-day trip across my state, Kerala. He's from Calcutta, and he has taken a two-day train ride to get to where I am. I've arranged for the coolest of bikes, a Royal Enfield Bullet, to take us on a trip that I hope will not be shorter than a thousand kilometres. He arrives, and we visit a nearby field to take some pictures and relax before we start bright and early the next day. I'll try and jot things down in my notebook as long as it doesn't get in the way. He'll try to sketch things he finds interesting.
We're at Alappad, where all we can see are fields. My local friends and I come out here - it's about 20 km away from my house - when we can, just to hang out. The locals know us somewhat, and we sometimes fish or swim in the stream nearby. We park the bike, Parag gets to know my friends, and we sit in silence for a while as the sun goes down, preparing ourselves for an assault on our asses this week.
Odometer reads 100508.5 km.
Parag is a little groggy from having four hours of sleep the night before, but we head out to our first destination full of piss and vinegar. Marottichal. It's a small forest catchment area nearby, and its a quick getaway before we embark on the major leg of the journey. Our saddle bags keep falling off, but we've reinforced them with extra rope. Hopefully they hold.
Thrissur is a small city, living mostly off of its religious traffic from the hundreds of temples and churches in its perimiter. Riding for about 15 minutes, we are soon out of this 'cultural capital of Kerala'. The air gets noticeably colder and I wish I had put my jacket on. Nevermind. It's too far away, in the back saddlebag. The blue line tracing our route on the map gets crumpled up, and the road narrows to a single lane. We stop near Mannamangalam for a quick break, and take pictures of the countryside. This seems like a small town, and in these areas the towns aren't much bigger in population than Yale-NUS. It's quiet, and we push on to Marottichal.
We fill up with about eight litres, taking us out of reserve. I take some pictures and make like a photographer.
We stop around 10071 to let a man, a dog and a pigeon cross the road. They're unrelated, just happening to cross the road at the same time. The pigeon stops two inches from the front wheel and looks up at me like I don't belong. I've been here many times, but I guess this time I look like an outsider. The air warms as we approach 8 o'clock.
The roads are littered with caricatures of Che, posters for the local communist party's youth wing, DYFI. I guess it's kind of inspiring. There are no trees with unassaulted trunks. A precious few hold posters for the Bharatiya Janata Party.
We get to Marottichal, park the bike and begin climbing. I realise I've forgotten the key and run back for it. No need though, I could've left it in and found two locals guarding the bike when I got back with stern words for me. We're here early and I can hear the hustle and bustle of nearby homes as they get their kids ready for school. I'm glad we're early, and we don't see the torrent of college seniors looking for places to get high.
That's the thing about Kerala. It's developed enough that most previously unreachable areas are now a 15-minute drive away. We don't hang out at the local coffee house, we find forests full of trees and national parks to do our hanging.
We wait for Parag to do a 20 minute sketch before we start climbing. The rains have filled up the streams, and the water gets loud as we approach.
Some skinned knees and broken packets of biscuits later, we're at the top. Parag has been great, and I don't hear a word of complaint even though we're both sweating through our jeans (bad choice, I know) as we climb the final rock. 'I prefer slippery rocks to vegetation', he remarks as I help him up after he's just destroyed the humble abode of a dozen angry spiders. We don't hear the sounds of people any more.
We spy a herd (herd? group? gaggle?) of elephants from afar, and decide to rest here. We share the small packet of biscuits (mostly powder at this point) and down our bottle of cola. The sun was bearing down on us, and to paraphrase a saying in Malayalam, not even a crow's leg shields us from the swiftly brightening sky.
The view is so spectacular I can't help but remark on it, even though I've been here so many times. The forest is never the same. The rocks have been taken over by water striders and small red ants; the spiders we used to watch are no longer here.
We're here in December, when the rainy season is done. The forest is lush but not overgrown. The paths are clearing and the flowers are blooming. Soon it will dry up, and a lot of it will die; the elephants will venture further downstream in search of water, and the forest will be closed. It will rain again, and the vines and leaves will take over. Trees past their time will rot and fall over, blocking paths and sheltering swarms of termites and insects. It cycles on, and I try to say hello whenever I can.
We suffer the sun as we take our pictures. Parag begins sketching; we've missed our deadline for the next destination. I've been asked to send pictures, but there is no reception up here. I decide it is as it should be, and settle down to eat some more. I'll talk to the world again when I get out.
We're sidelined by heavy rains and sunny skies. We were going to push on, but the fact that we're on a deserted road meant we had to stop at the first shelter, assess conditions and continue. We also took this opportunity to gulp down the one packet of biscuits and the drinks we had left. We haven't had a proper meal yet. Onto the highway.
Final stop for the day: Athirappalli Water Falls. The odometer reads 10151.0
We ride through a very hot National Highway to reach Athirappalli. Along the way, we stop at a Tamil restaurant for noonday meals, which to our surprise is full of side dishes. Pretty great. Parag's ankle, twisted in the hike up Marottichal, has started to hurt quite badly. The roads are long, and as I pick up speed I notice the image in the rear view mirror blur with the vibrations of the engine. This thing really packs a wallop.
Getting to Marottichal was a fun ride, and we were expecting to continue our bike ride through the forests all the way until Munnar. This is unexpectedly cut short when the check post to Vazhachal is closed due to rains. The policeman wrings his hands as we contemplate the long way round. We stop and regroup to decide our next course of action, and I pull out my phone and write this.
We've decided to head back to the national highway, and take the long (less scenic) route to Munnar. We will stay at one of the lodges on the highway and hit the sacks around 8 or 9 pm, and resume our trip early, at 3 am.
We set off to find a suitable bed and bath.
We start with our customary morning tea, and plan our route. We're planning to head to Wayanad, which is easily 183 km from where we are just to get into the district. The first leg of this journey is on nice roads on the highway, where we expect to be doing 110. The rest are winding hilly roads, and we'll be doing 30 at best. Let's see how this turns out.
No breakfast yet, its 4.00 am. We are to wait until morning breaks.
We flirt with vehicles on the steadily narrowing highway to make up time. I flash my highbeams at a Toyota ahead of me, and he flashes back as I prepare to overtake. I wait. He doesn't speed up. I flash again, and so does he. In highway terms, this means that he wants the right of way. We talk for a bit through our headlights, and eventually I race ahead, his need to be first be damned.
We stop slightly short of Kozhikode, a city I used to live in as a kid. I walk off the road to relieve myself and find a clearing full of flowers and a small path leading out. I follow, to find a small flooded dirt road that leads under a railway track, and I can see a proper road beginning at the end of it. I sigh, and decide I'll find it another day. The train whisks by me as I scramble to get a quick shot. We're getting late.
We turn off the NH to a tiny road, because Google Maps tells us its the shortest route. We immediately almost collide with a bus coming the opposite direction in what must obviously be a one-way, and I thank my stars for getting a motorcycle with huge disc brakes. The ride is filled with adrenaline. After the second bus in a row, I stop the music. We trod along at 20, hoping we make it out alive. Every bus we encounter carries with it a number of small vehiclings, each trying to overtake the other. I remark that it would be a good idea to use it as a case study for race conditions in a multi-process environment. Heh heh.
It is about half an hour later. We’ve made up some time and decide to stop at a local hotel for breakfast. We decide to break the now-routine thing of getting to our destination hungry, armed with a packet of biscuits and grabbing a huge meal on the way back. It is a small shack, a family run establishment. We had chosen to stop here and not the giant restaurants bearing names familiar even to Singaporeans. The owner and proprietor rushes to take our order. We get puttu and kadala, practically a staple for us Keralites. Parag tries it for the first time, and he seems to like it. I find it hard to tell; today is not one of his expressive days.
Riding on, we talk for a time about the Communist party and its influence in Kerala. One of the few - if not only - democratic communist parties in the world, the party has had a huge influence in making the state into what it is. It is part of the reason that the BJP - the religiously fanatical Hindu party that rules the country - has never had a strong position in the politics of the state.
Having passed Kozhikode, the Muslim League's green lampposts are gone, replaced by the familiar red. It's oddly comforting, and I wonder what that means. There is an old story about a politician who visits North India with his friend. Looking at his communist friend eat a watermelon, he decides to eat the green part and chuck the red. There is a battle of colours taking place along the highway as we move between towns, and I am just a little glad that it’s mostly green and red.
The roads are long and winding, the broken pieces of window glass on the road revealing their treacherousness. The Bullet faithfully pulls us uphill as our ears pop, gasping for air in between strokes. We slowly pull uphill, nervous but smiling as we admire the hills rise in front of us, stealing views while navigating the oncoming traffic. There is no road rage here, no honking cars in gridlock. We're all equally scared for our lives, some of us driving to see what lies in wait before getting home while the truckers drive their routes as they've done for years.
It's been a wild ride. Coming out of soochipara waterfalls is a large decline that is completely un-tarred save for the tiniest of strips of tarmac that remained. The roads are tapered on both sides, and the centre is usually the last to go. As I carefully pull the 250 kg bike with the 90kg Parag (not an accurate figure, he tells me it's lower) onto the road, I see a jeep headed up at me at full speed, straddling the tarmac in either end. He sees me and I see him. We swerve in different directions, and miss. I'm safe, but as I set my foot down it meets thin air. The road is too steep on either end, and I know that my ride will be far too heavy and unstable by the time my foot hits the ground. I decide to put her down, mid-motion. I quickly turn the ignition off, and slowly begin setting her down. In effect, I drop her. I recover safely, having been the first person to know this was going to happen. I turn around in horror to see Parag's leg pinned under the bike. Yells all around; the men in the jeep are now helping me lift the bike. It moves, begrudgingly. Parag scrambles to his feet, and I'm glad to see he is okay. The bike has lost some paint though. It could have been worse, and I believe this is the best outcome possible given this impossible situation.
We stop for a while to eat and drink. We find a small dirt road among the bushes, leading away from the road. It seems deserted, and I pull the bike sharply into the path despite Parag's protestations. The path is awfully small, and I wedge the bike in quite a-ways before turning the engine off. It is rather steep as well, and I will have to deal with turning the bike around and getting it back down later. I'm slightly worried about this, but it is soon forgotten as I look around. We could not have picked a better place to stop.
We'll eat and quickly be on our way. There is still a long way to go and the sun will set very soon.
This has turned into the longest ride of my life. I say that with a bit of regret, desperation and even pride. I've been riding about eleven hours without sleep today. I'm on the last leg, about 40 km to go in the total 200 I've ridden back. The road lays empty and black, no streetlights, no compatriots, just me and Parag and the road.
It wasn't meant to be this way. Stupid as I am, I'm not that stupid. We were meant to have a solid five hours at the top of Wagamon, two of which we'd spend sightseeing before resting for three. Circumstance, some accidents and some intentional redirects later here I am. The odometer couldn't turn fast enough.
Around 10680, I'm watching the sky and the road as I manoevre at 80, and I suddenly see what I've only heard veteran bikers refer to as the 'phantom of the road' (may not be a direct translation). I see the briefest of flashes, of a face I know well, and perhaps love. I'm lost in thought as I go on autopilot (if I wasn't before). Was it an afterimage of a picture I saw? A sign from my subconscious? Am I micronapping? It doesn't matter. The road is indifferent and inviting all the same.
Parag and I settle into a strong groove, him giving me instructions and holding on as I navigate. He tells me he is worried, and I tell him to trust me, doubtful that I would do the same in his position. I know myself well, and I trust me to stop and resign when I know I can't complete this. It hasn't happened yet. We're still in the first day of the malayalam calendar month of Dhanu, and the cold wind it promised has already begun assaulting me. Invigorated, I continue.
The odometer reads 10792.0.
The thing about riding at night with little sleep is that it's a lot like getting lost in the desert. You see mirages, and you wonder if you're going in circles after you pass the exact same Ford Fiesta for the sixth time.
This time though, we're starting around 6.30. The sun's up, and it'll be a little hot, but we’re heading to one of the biggest lakes in Kerala and riding along the coastline to get there. Its the last ride on our little trip, and I've decided we'll be as relaxed as we can be. Many rest stops, no speeding, and definitely no pressure. We get there when we get there and we get back when we get back. Parag tells me his leg has healed somewhat. I'm glad.
We've had a few rest stops at some great a looking places, but I guess I didn't have the time. We're almost in Kochi now, one of the biggest cities in Kerala. Quite the tech hub. I'd like to live here at some point, and I would have already had it not been for the insufferable traffic. Speaking of which, the gridlock is going to be insane for a while. Rush hour is setting in.
Its really beautiful. The houses are almost all connected by water, as the lake bleeds into the villages like veins. Boats are a popular form of transportation here. We don't get on one though; I doubt the carpenters here had Parag in mind when making their little tubs. We sleep for a while under the coconut trees. They're fickle and ruffle constantly, and I shift to find spots of shade as my left foot begins cooking in the sun. It is insanely comfortable. I overhear conversations happening next to the motorcycle we had parked a little ways away. The primary topic is a wild flower. One of the men claims to have seen it, and a sizeable number of people - about 10 - are waiting to have their say about it. No one believes him; he gets more and more animated (I can tell by the voice) in explaining the peculiar characteristics of the flower. Halfway through, there is a commotion. I look up, and the motorcycle is fine. I lay down and the conversation tells me that he had, for a second, put his bottom on our bike, and was now being chastised for his reckless behavior. I really want to join them in this discussion of ethics (Yale-NUS training kicking in) but I decide the ants in my underpants require more attention.
I wake up in an hour, and I sit by the lakeside, washing my feet to the comforting tunes of Parag's snoring. It feels as though I'm being tickled by a nest of ants in my back, inside my shirt. WAIT. I jump, and begin disrobing. Halfway through, I hear a thunk, and watch the contents of my pocket empty into the ground. I am dangerously close to the water. I finish airing out my clothes, comforted by the fact that there isn't a soul in sight. NO. The key to the bike, of which I have no duplicate, is gone.
I chuckle for a second at myself reflexively before going into full-on panic mode. I wake up Parag and we clean up the area, calling my parents to check for a duplicate. They assure me there is none. There is no such thing as a locksmith in this town. I can't go home. I'll die here, my remains decomposing long before the bike has started rusting. I'll eat Parag, and carve a hole in his belly to survive the cold winters, subsisting on ants I drown in the lake for a time until the deficient nutrients drain me of all life - oh there it is.
Life is fine again. But a life of simplicity by this lake would have been nice as well.
Water laps against my toes and I wonder if my indifference for beaches is well founded after all. I have nothing against them; they all just seem the same, and I always go in the water against my better decisions and return with sand on my ass. A giant wave follows me to drench my rolled-up dhoti; it seems I'm not breaking the cycle today. Parag likes it, but he doesn't go in the water. He simply tries (unsuccessfully) to take Photo Spheres as I wonder how to get the sand off my pants. Maybe if I catch the waves on their way in, I could wash it off. I am unsuccessful, and I reiterate my commitment to forgetting about beaches. It is quite a sight to behold though.
We stop for freshly caught oysters and tapioca. I haven’t had oysters in a long time. We try giant oil fried chillies and realize we're quite late. It was worth it though.
Now to get on the bike with my sand-covered bottom. It itches....
There is a bike in front of us, the back of which is mangled beyond belief. I'm hobbling around my bike, looking for signs of trouble. I feel a small ache build up in my foot and travel upward. I have had my first accident. How did we get here?
We're traveling home on the highway, and I'm glad for this trip. We're almost home safe, and save for a few almost problems, its been largely fun. I post something on instagram to this effect, and it seems tempting fate is a real thing. There's only 40 kilometres to our final destination, but there always seems to be many a slip betwixt the cup and the lip.
We're on the highway as we get on an overpass. The overpasses if I remember are built out of large concrete slabs built and set somewhere else and lifted onto giant pillars with machinery just as big. There's a small gap between these slabs, meant to be covered up with tar that is the first to go as the highway ages. A small scooter jumps in front of us as it cuts through the traffic, moving at what I estimate to be 110 to the traffic's 60. It repeats the manoeuver in front of he small Hero Honda Splendor ahead of us. The Splendor brakes, unprepared; I brake as soon as I see the brake lights, but I hit the gap in the freeway not much later. The front of the Bullet lifts up, suspended for a minute in mid air as my left leg jams onto the rear gear pedal. The engine races, giving us a jolt of speed and pushing us into the now slowing Splendor. There is a large bang; I hear Parag yell as my muscles clench up. We've hit something. The handlebar oscillates wildly, and my training kicks in as I use my body weight to lean it to the side, braking lightly both front and back. Never try to stabilise an oscillating bike; your muscles will only push the waves to a critical point. I consider ditching the bike, but I cannot be sure if the traffic has slowed, and I am with pillion. Thankfully the bike steadies, and we coast to a stop alongside. There is some damage to the bike, most of it to the splendor. My leg is crushed, and I see myself losing some blood, but I can make it home. I will make it home.
Odometer reads 11100.
We’ve managed to get home in one piece, having made our peace with the rider of the Splendour. He is remarkably good-hearted; an incident on the highway involving men of our age does not bode well in these places. The newspapers will tell you of rash-headed teenagers on roads killing families. It only takes a split second for a helpful worried crowd to turn into a mob. For a second, I had begun to worry that I would see Singapore again for a long time. The danger’s passed.
I look through the pictures we took before I help Parag get ready for his train. It is here I must make a small confession. There have been six days of this journey; I have only chronicled three. Day 2 is Day 3, and Day 3 is Day 5. We spent a day apiece at our destinations, enjoying the local cuisine and all the cities had on offer. I felt like writing down the things we did on those days, but I’m not one for pictures of food and stories of things not done on motorcycles. I hope you’ll forgive me.
Parag leaves, and I am thankful for this trip. It has been the most amazing time I’ve had - yet - on a motorcycle. i’ve seen, tasted, heard and experienced things I never thought I would, and it has brought me home in a way that I didn’t think would happen after seven years in a foreign country. This has not been a vacation for me; the true interlude will be when I leave for Singapore, for I fear I will leave my heart here.
Parag waves to me from the train, and we separate our ways for a semester, our memories and our memory cards full of things we want to share.
Until the next time.