Hippies, pilgrims and the dreaded Delhi Belly
Patnem Beach, Goa – Sullia, Karnataka
“Good morning, Ma’am!”
“What is your good name, Sir?”
Those are the shouts that accompany us for most of the day, originating from passing motorbikes, school children, jeep passengers and shop keepers. The people in this part of India are exuberant, bubbly and fun, and there is never a dull moment in our day.||
Leaving Patnem Beach and Goa, we followed a beautiful windy road into the next state, Karnataka. Rising up and zooming back down again, we passed bright green rice paddies and fishermen in dug-out canoes and on the tops of rises we could see the Arabian sea shimmering below.
We felt surprisingly good on the bikes and did 100km quite easily. It would be nice to think this is due to our supreme fitness but it’s more likely the extra pounds we shed by sending our camping kit back home. The easy access to good quality food has also been a huge bonus as we now carry less with us during the day and we eat very well so our energy levels are constantly restocked. On the other hand, we did have to get used to riding in the heat again, as it is now noticeabley hotter than in Mumbai, and with high humidity at around 80%. Though we shouldn’t complain as at 32°C it is still 15°C cooler than when we were cycling in Eastern Europe and Turkey.
Arriving in the seaside village of Gokarna, we soon found a cheap hotel room for only £3.50. It was a bit of a prison cell though – dark, manky and with a rock hard mattress. Gokarna is a holy village and was packed with Indian pilgrims and Western hippies. The pilgrims were visiting the local temples and joining evening processions where a statue of a goddess on a cart was pushed through the village with a group of young men banging thunderous drums, chanting and dancing bare chested. The temples themselves were off-limits to tourists, but we were able to visit the temple tank, a large pool where members of the Brahmin priest cast were washing on the steps, next to washerwomen doing the laundry.
Gokarna felt very spiritual, and we met one lady from Pune who was excited to celebrate the end of her daughter’s fasting period in one of the temples. Cows were wandering wherever their spiritual nature guided them, and at one point we watched as a man fed a cow a few bananas, then bent down to touch his forehead with the cow’s tail. Most of the cows (including the ones that are just lying around on the highway or rummaging through rubbish dumps) have a red “third eye” painted on their foreheads to foster their spiritual wellbeing. It seems very strange to us, but also quite endearing to rever an animal which is so “common” to us.
Most of the local men were wearing only a lungi (a sort of loin cloth looking like a little skirt), and nothing else. This was fine with us, but we did find it a bit strange that some of the tourists were following the same dress code, walking around barefoot with just a loincloth on… We really had arrived in Hippieville. Overall, a disproportionally high number of men had dreadlocks, and almost all of the Westerners were wearing local Indian clothes, which made us feel a little out of place with our khaki trousers, cycling shoes and personal hygiene.
We were not the only ones though, as we met two other cyclists the following morning. Rick and Erik were from the California and on a tour of India. So was Klemens, a German cyclist who we had shared a lunch with a couple of days before. From talking to some of the locals we realised that cycle tourers were a fairly common sight in the area. It’s good to know we are not the only crazies!
Rick and Erik pointed out a waterfall to us whilst on the road the following day, so we went to explore. Guy had a quick dip, but when it was Freddie’s turn, three excited teenage boys followed her to the waterfall, probably hoping for a wet T-Shirt show. They were quite disappointed when she decided against a swim and just had an ice cream instead! Afternoon chai stops are becoming a new habit for us now, although we sometimes find the chai shop owners during their afternoon nap. A little drowsy, they are still happy to brew us a cup of tea and join us for a chat and a perusal of our map.
Arriving in a non-descript town on the coast, we found a nice hotel for about £6, complete with bathroom and TV. This was lucky as Freddie suddenly felt lunch making a re-appearance and was soon bathroom bound, spending the rest of the night on the Big White Telephone (loo) with the typical symptoms of the infamous “Delhi Belly”. Luckily she bounced back quickly, but we did stay an extra night so she could recover some strength. The guys running the hotel were quite sweet, offering to bring us cups of tea and recommending mild dishes for her to eat.
When it comes to even basic hygiene it still feels India is well behind. People use their hands to wipe their bum in the bathroom which is fine but many bathroom sinks don’t even provide soap. Spitting in public is common and tap water is dubious. Looking in restaurant kitchens we sometimes see people sitting on the floor and cutting vegetables. Many restaurants don’t have a fridge. It’s no wonder that most travellers eventually get sick. Even by sticking to vegetarian food and being obsessed with washing hands it’s difficult to avoid.
Once Freddie was back in shape, we were on our way south again, this time for a 90km day to Udipi, famous throughout India for inventing the Masala Dosa, a sort of lentil pancake stuffed with potato curry. We love cycling in the mornings when the buses and trucks are still asleep, and the school children are on their way to school. Up to 10 kids piled into a rickshaw designed for 2, sitting on each other’s laps, and all waved and shouted greetings to us. Young boys in their prim school uniforms raced us up hills on their rusty bicycles, supplied to every child in Karnataka for free by the government, and groups of girls with pigtails and stacks of school books giggled and waved.
A guy on a motorbike shouted “look at my fish!”, proudly pointing to the back of his motorbike, and sure enough, there was an 80cm fish strapped to the back of his bike! Fishing is very common in this area, and we often see ladies dressed in colourful saris balancing heavy baskets full of fish on their heads, on their way to the local market where they lovingly display their fish on old newspapers on the dusty ground.
We had been worried about leaving our bikes out of sight when in a restaurant, but now we are here and understand the culture more we feel pretty relaxed. People are just curious, and they are usually pretty respectful and keep about a metre’s distance from the bikes while they point out the various features to each other. Sometimes curiosity gets the better of them and they will try out the brakes or give the bell a few ringa-ding-dings which makes us laugh when we are out of sight and can hear our bells being rung. The great thing about our bikes is that it’s very difficult for people to break or misalign anything – even if they shift gears, it’s no problem because we have the Rohloff hub and can shift gears while the bikes are stationary. Often people don’t even notice the gears as they are accustomed to single speed bicycles. The most intriguing part of our bicycles is, surprisingly, our water bottles. People keep asking us what they are for.
During the day, we usually buy a bunch of bananas from a little wooden roadside stall. Whole stems of bananas hang from the roof and they just cut off however many bananas we ask for. The bananas are very small and sometimes don’t look great from the outside, but they are always sweet and ripe and are good to transport as they don’t easily squash. So far, away from the touristy areas we have rarely got ripped off and feel that we almost always pay the right price, whether we are buying a pack of cookies, a bunch of bananas, a restaurant meal or a hotel room.
Arriving in Udipi, we realised that although many little restaurants have a “hotel” sign out the front, we often just get blank looks when we ask if they have a room available. They are not hotels and we have no idea why the signs say so. For some reason people here seem to have taken to calling restaurants “hotels”. In Udipi we actually went to 5 different “hotels” until we found one that was a real hotel.
At dinner, we noticed that the restaurant menu listed “toast with butter and jam”. This was exciting news as we have been struggling with the Indian breakfast which usual consists of something fried with curry. Looking forward to our continental style breakfast, we rushed to the restaurant the following morning, only to be told that toast was in fact not a breakfast item, but only available later in the day! The only options were idlis (spongy savoury rice cakes), and masala dosa (the above mentioned lentil pancake with a curry stuffing). Deep fried savouries and curry are not our idea of an ideal breakfast, so we walked out in seach of toast. After 20 minutes, we ended up eating idlis and masala dosa at another restaurant…
Udipi is famous for its Krishna temple which has pilgrims visiting from all over India. We popped over in the morning following the sounds of drums and trails of cow dung. There were many excited pilgrims and some beggars making the most of the pilgrims generous moods. To Freddie’s delight, men had to enter the temple bare chested. It was a fascinating temple complex, but we did not linger long and were soon on our way inland to Karkal.
The coastal road had been pleasant if a little too busy at times, but we were interested in exploring the hilly interior of Karnataka and Kerala. Soon, the road became smaller and quieter, and we passed through small villages where people did not seem so used to seeing tourists. The food was even cheaper than before, and we managed to have lunch for only £0.50 for both of us, including soft drinks and a bottle of water! Our nice hotel room in Karkal cost us £6 and even had room service, which we promptly indulged in by ordering up a selection of snacks and tea. All of a sudden our budget that would allow us only a basic camp site and supermarket food in the West now allows us to live like kings.
Our first task in Karkal was to sort out our breakfast. We were not up for any more potato curry and deep fried stuff and decided to do our own. We had instant coffee, cereal and honey, but needed a few more items. Bread was fairly straightforward – there is only spongy tasteless white bread available in the shops, so we ordered some extra parathas and chappatis in the evening and kept them for breakfast to have with our honey. Milk, however, proved tricky. The milk is usually sold in small bags which have to be refridgerated as in this heat the milk curdles very quickly. Buying it in the morning was not an option as shops rarely open before 9am. UHT milk is not so common, but after asking at a few shops, one man advised us to ask for “Goodlife”. He pointed us to another shop, and then other people pointed us to further shops, and after visiting about 5 different shops, everyone in the market area knew what we were looking for. Two young guys on a motorbike hit gold when they pointed us to a little shack selling toothpaste, where we found a glorious bag of Goodlife milk. Breakfast was saved!
We seemed to be on some kind of pilgrim route as we saw the pilgrim vehicles on the road regularly, and they also stayed in the same towns as us. They usually travel in 4WDs that are beautifully decorated with orange flags, golden tinsel and yellow and orange flower garlands. As locals told us, many of the pilgrims were on their way to an annual festival at the Sabarimala temple. (Sadly, the news today has been dominated by a stampede at this festival, in which over 100 people have died so far – unfortunately this is not an uncommon event at the big Indian religious festivals where hundreds of thousands of people congregate with few security measures…).
There was a small temple in Karkal and we watched the evening ceremony where a man in an orange lungi danced around a goddess statue whilst waving a handful of burning candles. Animated music with automatic beating drums and high-pitched screeching sounds accompanied the ceremony, and around the temple many people were selling flower garlands in different colours, and beggars were trying their luck with the passers-by.
At dinner in a local vegetarian restaurant (veg is the norm, only some restaurants are “non-veg”), pilgrims filled the tables around us. We seemed to be the only tourists in Karkal and were surrounded by men in lungis and sarongs, with bare chests and white and orange paint streaked over their faces and upper bodies, as well as some women wearing white flowers garlands in their hair. It was fascinating to see, and we felt pretty lucky to be there at this time.
A long day saw us cycling to Puttur via some pretty bad roads. We spent all day going up and down hills in the intense heat, swerving around pot holes and braving dirt and gravel sections. There was quite a bit of traffic on the narrow road, with buses hurtling towards us and 4WDs overtaking us at the last second. We really had to be on the ball and never took our eyes off the road and our mirrors, ready to jump off at any time. However, we still prefer to be on a bicycle where we are in charge and can quickly dive off to the side of the road, rather than being in a bus or taxi, at the mercy of the driver and constantly on the verge of a head-on crash.
By the end of the day, we were knackered. As usual now, and very differently from the other countries we have visited so far, on arrival in Puttur we headed straight to the biggest and nicest looking hotel in town. In these smaller towns off the tourist trail they are almost certainly to be a bargain. Tonight we ended up in a lovely room with ensuite bathroom, fan, TV and comfortable mattresses for only £3. Our best value room yet!
The following morning we were very tired and had a sleep-in. We were feeling the effects of the previous day and only managed 40km, interrupted by a nice lunch to celebrate our 9000th kilometre. We stayed in the small town of Sullia where we happened upon a festival which included a small ferris wheel that had been tweaked to rotate at lightning speed, much to the shrieking delights of the joyriders. In fact, all the rides seemed to go at 2-3 times the speed they were designed for, including the children’s carousels! It was like a carnival on speed, very surreal. We had some fried noodles (Chinese food is very common in India for some reason) but opted out of a ride as we couldn’t find anything tame enough so had early night to get our energy up for our 1000m climb to Madikeri the following day.