To start with a quote from a Modest Mouse Song, The View:
“If life's not beautiful without the pain,
Well, I would just rather never-ever see beauty again,
Well as life gets longer, awful feels softer,
And it feels pretty soft to me”
Let me put this into context, the past days were by no means bad, or horrible, but they were difficult. Somewhat painful. But, that's how life goes, and that's what makes it life.
I found a hotel in Kochi and stayed there. This was my plan. Pack up at night, the next morning wake up, go buy a bicycle, and start cycling north. The manager at the hotel I was staying at was nice enough to show me how to get to the main highway, National Highway-17 (NH-17), and gave me a map of Kerala. I packed, somehow, my 20 kg bag onto the tiny little rack on the back of my bike and rode slowly at first to get used to the weight distribution and balance. And so, I looked for north and crossed some bridges. And some more bridges. Then I headed into palm covered villages on a tiny road on my bike.
So now, equipped with my brand new, Hercules “Thriller”, with red-flamed decals I was off. Of all highways for me to get on, finding my way to 17 made me somewhat nostalgic. And all that time biking on the road; well it gave me a lot of time to think. Mostly about home and family and friends. A lot about what everyone was doing, and how life was going on that end of the spectrum. Being that it was still around 12:00pm when I set out, most people were still sleeping, so at least I hoped they were sleeping soundly. On I went.
I paused every once in a while to inquire if this was the road to 17. If they pointed and repeated 17, I knew for the most part I was on the right path. However, it took a lot longer to reach 17 than I had imagined. Two hours in and I still had no reached it. And the hotel manager made it sound like it was around the corner. Growing concerned, I asked more often if this was the way to 17. It was for a while, until a couple people kept telling me there was a left hand turn coming up. So, at the junction that I best believed was the one they were describing, I turned left.
Down a narrow street,with long, moss covered brick walls. Dodging people and dogs, and every once in a while a motorcycle. I looked up ahead and it seemed that I was either coming to another junction of roads, a bunch of stores, perhaps the center of a small village. I thought at least there would be someone who could instruct me where to go. But, just my luck, it was none of the above.
This was the part of my adventure where I made it tough on myself. This was the part where joy and happiness didn't come naturally from the events but where I had to tell myself that I chose to do this and have to keep choosing to be happy. Equipped only with a map and my bike, I had to figure out my way. Often I looked up at the sun and that was extremely helpful in knowing that at least I was heading north. The direction I needed to head in. Just keep the sun on my left.
What I had reached was a dead end. Fantastic, and old rusty metal gate, broken in the corner where people were sneaking through. Mind you I am a white dude on a bicycle, people were bound to stare no matter what. I heard lots of talking and shouting from across the gate. I stood on my toes and peered over. Water. Water. Water. A lake of water. Palm trees on the distant shore. I had reached a loading dock of some sort; it was only a transport hub. And my bike would not had fit through the broken metal in the gate to try and hitch a ride, so I turned around, and back down the road I went.
Reaching the road I had been riding on for two hours now, I turned left and kept heading down, looking for the next junction, hoping that it was the correct way to go. Dead end again. Sort of.
After turning left on the next junction the water was much closer to the road than on the previous road. However, at this dead end, there was a young man waving for me to approach. I stopped to gather my bearings for a minute and then realized he was standing on a ferry with a bunch of motorcycles, a rickshaw, and other vehicles. The boat sounded it's horn indicating it was time to go, and the young man started to shout for me to grab a ticket and get on. I kept trying to ask if this would bring me to 17. “National Highway 17? 17? This way?” His responses were a combination of yelling ticket and 17. I bypassed the ticket office, since the boat was moving, and just barley made it onto the boat.
“4 Rupees” he said.
“17?” I asked
He shrugged his shoulders.
I leaned against the side of the boat watching it cross the water. Due to feeling some what stressed, very lost, and the language barrier becoming more aggravating, I thought of the worst situations. What would I possibly do if, just like at the snake boat race, half way across the lake, this ferry started going down. Anything is possible. All of us, and our manufactured things are completely disposable under the laws of nature. What would I try and save first? Would I even be able to save my back? Screw the bike, my wallet, computer, books, clothing, camera, everything was in the pack. Would I be able to swim with it?
Before I could finish the thought I heard the crash of the metal ramp connecting with the stone ramp on the other side of the lake. A young man (maybe 27), clad in all white, was getting on the motorcycle that was next to me. He smiled and I said hi. Trying to not blurt out a bunch of English words and seem aggressive or confuse him, I asked kindly if he knew of 17.
“Sure, straight this road. After one, two, right. Big junction, not small. Maybe 2 or 3 kilometers”
I repeated what he said to confirm his directions, and off I went. I didn't see him pass me, or wait behind me, he just sort of disappeared from my sight and thoughts for a bit as I was trying to find 17. After some time, being a bad judge of distance, I had seen some rickshaws all lined up on the right side of the road of this village. They saw me (from a mile away it seemed), smiled, and I veered over to them.
Some things to consider: In India, like the UK, they travel on the left hand side of the road. At first I forgot this and had to consciously remember to begin looking right, more than left, when I wanted to cross to the other side of the street. I got used to it after a while, looking right over my shoulder, saw there was no one, and glided across the road to the rickshaws.
“National Highway 17?” I had asked.
“Straight, next right, turn.”
Seemed easy enough. So I kept going. Seeing that I had stopped at some rickshaws, a motorcycle was pulling up next to me slowly as I was riding. Catching him out of the corner of my eye, I looked over, and it was the man from the ferry.
“Next right will take you to 17.”
I thanked him, and he sped off, turning left some ways ahead. And then, there was my right, and so I turned. I kept thinking how much easier it would be with a road sign, but everyone seems to have a very different knowledge of roads and streets. They know how to get places without knowing the names of the roads. They just know. Still, the directions were accurate, and as I turned right, there was a small sign indicating I was on the right path to reach 17. Judging by the map, I thought I would have reached 17 a long time ago, so I fretted a little bit, and picked up my pace.
Once on 17... well, I had no idea I was really there. 17 is just a main “highway” that goes through towns and villages and eventually reaches cities. But I still had the idea of highway as the American term. 17 at some points was a well paved, two lane, wide highway, with enough room for everyone to get by. Sometimes it was lined by shops, sometimes by trees and farms. Sometimes, 17 became a tiny one lane, unpaved, bumpy, pot-hole ridden death trap. Behind behemoth buses that gallop down the road like a buffalo that can't stop, and in between cars, I rode, trying to keep out of everyone's way.
I've spoken pretty poorly about this leg of my trip so far. There were a lot of gratifying parts as well! Many, many, many people were waving and saying hello. Many cars slowed down, heads sticking out of windows, waving and smiling. Many truck drivers would scream from their position 6 feet above my head “HEY!” only for me to look up and see them with a wide grin and waving. Some parts of the journey so many people said hi within a 30 second period that I felt like a celebrity. It's not everyday they see a foreigner cycling down the road with a giant back on his bike, they were all curious about me. So I would smile and scream Hi back, lift up my arm to wave, only to quickly grip the handle bar again before losing my balance.
And on I went. At least now I was on this so called 17, and knew I just had to stick to this road to reach Calicut (Kozikhode). However, that was still at least another day or two away, and after the afternoon set in, I kept my eyes open for Hotel's and Lodging.
And interesting difference I had to come to understand. Many places in India have signs saying “HOTEL” and then the name. Great, I thought at first. There are tons of places to stay! I quickly learned however that Hotel does not mean rooms... it means restaurant. So all these signs every 10 minutes saying Hotel, were just restaurants. I had to look for signs that said Hotel accompanied with Food AND Lodging. In truth, I had seen almost no where to stay. These aren't exactly hot spots for tourists. I was passing through small villages. And chances are, even if you were an Indian visiting these villages, you most likely had a relative, or knew someone, and therefore had somewhere to stay.
I began to think, well I sort of planned on being homeless, but do I really want to sleep at a bus stand? First, sure why not, it will be fun! But as the sun began to set, my mind quickly changed. Let me just make a note of something else – before leaving for India tons, if not everyone had advice to give me on all the dangers of India. Same thing with Peru in December. Terrorists! Foreigner haters! Be careful!
This spiel right here isn't to say that everyone's advice wasn't heeded, we've all heard of the horror stories. And I intimately remember everyone who expressed their concern and want me to stay safe. So I thank you! The support really means a lot to me. However, not once have I felt threatened for my life or any physical danger while on this journey. Nor anytime before this while traveling around. When alone or in a group, I've always felt safe in India. People are generally friendly, and also have advice to offer. And the people that stare? With that seemingly malevolent gleam in their eye? (Everyone knows what I'm talking about). Well I stick out like a sore thumb! In a small village none the less...
Anyway, enough rambling.
I had reached a small town, and stopped to take a picture of a sign and take a look at my map to see where I was. A man was walking by me and smiled when I pulled him off to the side and ask him some questions about what to do. His English was good enough that we were able to have a pleasant conversation. I learned how he was with his family and had been working in Dubai, and I secretly hoped, knowing my situation that he would be able to offer me somewhere to stay. But rest not your hopes in things that don't make much sense.
How many strangers,foreigners that don't speak your language, sweating, sun beaten, and tired would you accept into your home? People might be open and hospitable, but I personally don't believe the world works as nicely as we'd like to think.
Why had I hoped for this? Remember Jitesh's story? When I was talking with him in Gangtok, he had assured me that it was okay to stay in people's houses and villagers were more or less accepting of someone traveling through. I asked, “Even for myself?” “Sure” he had responded, and so I felt empowered. I didn't take into account the fact that he looks, speaks, and IS Indian. And can speak some, but way more Hindi than myself.
Instead, this working man from Dubai shot down my ideas, thoughts, hopes. “They don't know your character, you could be a thief, people wouldn't really want that.”
“And I don't know their character or how they feel about foreigners...”
“Right” he said.
“What if I asked to just sleep on their porch?” After all, all I wanted was a roof over my head to protect me from rain. He just chuckled.
I see now the ironic sarcasm of his chuckle. I am a foreigner with seemingly, and most likely, a lot more money than many of the people in the village. I wouldn't be able to travel around Europe or the States, or Japan with the little money I have. But still, given India, I believe he laughed because I had reduced myself to the status of a beggar. Purposely. According to my own will. Smart move? I'm not so sure.
Again, all I wanted was something to protect me from rain. It is the rainy season right now in Kerala. Mosquitoes, spiders, while they might not let me sleep soundly, I could deal with. Something else in context: many spiders I've seen are quite small, like what I had seen at home. However, every once in a while, a nice spider, with a span of maybe 4-5 inches from longest leg to longest leg, and very fast moving comes across my path. Those are the only ones that continue to irk me.
Okay, I'm trying not to lose the thread of this story, but as I moved deeper into this two day journey, the more parts intertwined and played an overall role in what was going on.
“You know Guruvayoor?”
I had seen signs saying that it was along this road, but I dishearteningly said “No..”
“There is a temple there that allows you to sleep there. Might not be very comfortable, but no one will bother you.” My spirit soared.
“Really? Just down this road?? Where?” I was like a little boy on Christmas, not only would I get to stay somewhere that cost virtually nothing, but it was a temple! If what he was saying was the truth, I could stay there that night, enjoy the silence and occurrences of daily temple life for the next day or two, and then head off whenever I feel like heading off again. Success!
“Just 20km away. Follow this road, at the junction in the town I believe you take a right.”
“Oh thank you!” And I sped off. Until I realized the position of the sun in the sky, and thought about 20 km, and how long it would take me, when would I arrive, and more importantly, how far have I traveled already? I was already feeling tired to the point of exhaustion, but I still had strength. I was going to arrive well after dark. I saw another fairly large temple, a Hanuman temple, and decided to stop and ask if they have any type of accommodations.
Slipping my sandals off and entering the temple I could barely utter a word when a holy man began to loudly ring a bell. It was praying time. The few people there began to pray, the two musicians playing began to play more loudly, more intensely, with more fury and passion. I thought about what my friend Louis had said to me in an e-mail just the day before that helped me keep my head up through the tired periods.
He said, “I have been reading Hindu stuff, and they say that Brahma, Vishnu, Krishna and some other gods are constantly playing music. They say that if they stop playing music, the world ends.” That also reminded me of Shiva, the dancing God and that I had heard if he stops dancing the world ends as well. I thought of Louis as those two musicians played on, and the people prayed. The holy man came to me with fire in his hand (on a plate of course) and waved his hand over the fire. I did the same and touched my forehead three times, thinking of the great coincidence of stopping at the temple at this time.
Once it was over, they said didn't provide places to stay. I asked about Guruvayoor, and from the best that we could communicate, they also confirmed that they housed people. So back on my bike I went, trying to make it not too far into the night. Once night fell, I was not so concerned with dangerous people or anything as I said before, but more concerned with not being able to see the road. Or large trucks and cars not being able to see me. I had my head lamp on, yet it did little but cast shadows on the bumps, making it twice as hard to see how deep that bump or pot hole went. All I needed now was a flat tire.
Tired, I kept biking. Also because I had see no lodging anywhere, so I almost had no choice but to keep going. 20km. 16km. Stop for a quick snack. 10km. 8km. I had to eat soon. 6km. 3km. I found somewhere to eat, a small local hotel, and sat for dinner. Both lunch and dinner I ate at small, family run places, places that if it were back home, I would have considered “a hole in the wall.” Either way, both of these places were some of the spiciest, yet most delicious places I've eaten at. I can usually stand eating a chili pepper at any normal, “established” (quotes because it is in the western context) restaurant, but here I had to make sure I took them out because it became too much. Delicious, but spicy. Even breakfasts can be spicy here.
The managers where I ate dinner spoke good enough English and said, “Pass this junction, triangle junction with petrol on left, take a right. Guruvayoor Temple is down there.” So full of rice, and meat, I trudged on. To quote Palanihuk (sp?), “I ran (cycled) until my legs pumped battery acid.” That's a pretty good description of how I was beginning to feel.
I found the petrol station and turned right. Almost the end of day one I thought. While going down this road, following signs of the temple I passed by a large, low building with two girls sitting outside smoking a cigarette. In the dim star-light I could see they were Caucasian. On the side of the building it said PWD Guest House. It seemed like a cheap place, maybe I should stop, I had thought to myself. I then responded (to myself) saying, 'Lets be honest, you're trying to not spend money tonight. Don't stop because they aren't Indian.' Even more so I was going to stop because they were girls. Lead us not to temptation is how the saying goes I believe. Any talking of a common subject, or some companionship would have been nice. As much as I enjoy being alone, there is that famous saying “Meden Aghan” or “Nothing to excess”. I was feeling that being alone was become excessive. Either way, I carried on.
As I got closer to the temple things became more commercial. More Lodges. More Stores. And while in most other villages at this time everything was closed (it was coming up on 9pm), everything here was still open. Then I reached a first barricade: “No Vehicles Beyond this Point.” I maneuvered my bicycle around and began to walk, tired, full of battery acid, breathing not air but dust, towards the temple. Second Barricade: “Absolutely no baggages beyond this point.” So I sat and stared down this one lane walking road to the idol. It stared at me from that long distance. Not welcome, not telling me to go, but stared just as a statue stares. Empty and Blind.
“Excuse me” I said to the pair of men walking from the other side of this barricade. I had acknowledged the one walking ahead, but he pointed to his friend who said, “yes?”
He spoke near perfect English. I began to ask what the deal was with staying at the temple, or are there accommodations etc etc. He said that it would be better to just stay at any other lodge around the town. He said he had heard that the temple has some sort of lodge on it's own, but as soon as he said that, it sounded like it's not pilgrimage accommodation, or perhaps it is, but it would be costly. Once again discouraged, I turned around, passed the barricade and decided to head back to that guest house I saw on the road.
A young woman, Sophie, was still sitting outside when I arrived, reading her book. I asked about this place, if there were rooms, how much it cost etc. She said they were only staying there, all five of them, because one of their friends knew someone who owned the guest house... or something of the sort. It was a classical Indian example. Someone knew someone who was related someone else and that was the connection. She said it was a government run guest house, and they were being charge Rs. 150 per night. Which was great, cause that's what I have been hoping to pay at each hotel.
That's usually the lowest hotels will cost in most cases unless its dorm style. So it becomes a problem when hotels lowest bracket becomes my highest bracket. I sought out the manager, and seeing almost no one else in the guest house, was confident they had rooms. He wasn't the most friendly person and said they had no rooms. There was only the group of friends, which took up two rooms, and another Indian couple. But, I can't talk too badly, there might have been people in their rooms.
And he did give me a place to stay. “How many nights?” He said. “Um, probably one I suppose.” To which he led me to a room at the end of the hall way. On the door there wasn't a marking for a room number or anything like that, instead it simply said “DINING ROOM”. Before he opened the door, he turned and looked at me and said “only one night?” I nodded, and he opened the door to a large dining room that hadn't been used in years.
“I hope you don't mind a table or the floor” he said. I told him I bought a mat earlier in the day and that was fine. When we talked about the price he wanted Rs. 100, but we then agreed on 50. When I was alone I explored the kitchen that was adjacent to the hall. The kitchen that had been deserted a long time ago. Covered in spider webs, dust, there were old pots and stoves. Old cups, sheets, shirts, tools, wood. Stuff in there had the appearance of being more than ancient. I was over estimating but it seemed the last time this stuff was touched was over a decade ago. I locked the door securely behind me when I went back to my humble dining hall abode for the night.
There was no outside lock on the door to the dining room, so I had to rush through my shower hoping no one was in the dining hall ruffling through my stuff and stealing it. I placed my bag in a certain way, and stacked things in very specific ways so that if anything was moved, it would have been very noticeable. It was all the same when I got back. I was just happy that I was able to shower.
You know how things just work out sometimes? After setting up my mat, I asked him if he had even an extra pillow I could use. He simply said no, no extra pillows. Upon exploring the kitchen, what was left there, but three, old, dirty, half made of straw, pillows. I'll take it, it was at least something to rest my head on.
So that was that. I was officially homeless for the night. I slept on the floor of a Dining Room in a government run guest house thanks to the kindness, yet somewhat apathetic attitude, of the manager. I laid out my mat, and lit an incense to fill the room with smoke to hopefully discourage any mosquitoes from bothering me. But oh did they bother me that night.
When I asked locals how far Kochi (Ernakulam) was from where I had settled, I got varied answers from 80-95 km. The map I had had a distance chart and said the distance I had traveled was 75km. Either way, in one day, from 12pm to 9pm I cycled over 70km. My legs burned. My throat was dry. My eyes prayed for sleep.
So on the cold marble floor I lay on my mat, listening to music. Writing down notes about the day that I wanted to remember, the mosquitoes came. Sleep came, but not quickly, and not effectively. I awoke the next day, red, baggy eyed, and so my adventure continued, only in a seriously debilitated form. Press on, I kept having to think.