Friday, 22 October 2010

The Konkan Coast, India

The wooden boat leaves from the steps that lead down from the Gateway to India where the last of the British troops left the subcontinent in 1948. The hour long journey leaves Bombay and all it entails behind and one is abandoned on a lonely jetty where a small road, half grown over with creeping, flowering plants leads southwards into rural India.

Here begins one of my favourite bike-rides. I rode this coast with my cycling pal Derek some 3 years ago. It is the obvious way south towards Goa if you have no taste for the main highway. Easy it is not. There are no great sights to see, no great temples or high mountains, infact it hardly gets a mention in the guidebooks. Only to say it is hard to access owing to the terrain and lack of and poor quality of existing roads.

The challenge on the first trip was to not only to find the way as the roadsigns are in Hindi (or Marathi) where they exist, but to cross the numerous creeks and estuaries. Sometimes there is a bridge, sometimes a small car ferry, often a small boat and at one point where the road ends a pirogue takes you to the opposite beach and leaves you to tramp and wade your way to the nearest hamlet. Hightide would have been a problem.
We failed to find one of the boats the first time and had to make a 70km detour through a dry landscape where we ran out of water. This time we found but only by persistance and asking numerous people and recieving various answers as to its whereabouts.

On getting off the ferry from Mumbai one is immediately dunked into the inkpot of India. For the first-timer it is almost overwhelming. With the sights and sounds come the smells. The drying fish in the coastal villages are pilfered by dogs and pecked at by crows. Primary colours are in abundance, the sari's, the temples, the decorated tuck-tucks. They stand out sharply against the backdrop of dust, dreck and squallor. In the towns there is too much detail, too much to look at, too much of interest but one must keep an eye on the road. Potholes, open drains, cows, bicycles, motorbikes, buses and children are equally indiferent to your inexperience of chaos. Only after a few days does a pattern begin to become visible, like the swirly images of the 'mandelbro set' a repetition is perceptible, a certain order, and with it the realisation that what you see is happening in countless other villages, towns and cities in this vast and confusing country. One feels very small and unimportant amoungst this multitude of people.

It seems in India there is ever a contrast, a contradiction, an opposite. The landscape between the villages is for the most part Jungle. The domain of wildlife and pretty remote. There seems though to be people living everywhere. To us invisibly. The houses must be down the little paths and way off in the bush, for people pop out onto the road with unexpected frequency.

It is hot and on a sweltering afternoon everything seems to drip. Not only the sweat from our noses and fingertips but moisture from the trees and rocks. The branches drape from the trees in their perverse desire to become roots. They are cut short over the road and hang temporarily truncated amoungst the inverted walking sticks which turn into monkeys tails as their black masked owners pour to the ground in packs and vanish into the forrest.
The pocket handkerchiefs of eastern wood-sprites are cut into the shape of butterflies, vividly dyed and dusted with magic flight powder, then cast by the handfull into the thick wet air. Birds of foriegn flavours coo and flutter constantly and remind me more than anything that I am very far from home.

Then begins the rain. October is officially a hot dry month. Something is wrong with the weather. An old woman of 83 has never seen it rain like this at this time of year. I guess it is like it snowing in August in England. It starts with a few big drops and then a heavy shower and we think it is all over. We are wet but will soon dry off, not worth getting the raincoats out... A blitz, a crack of thunder and the heavens open. The expensive raincoats cannot cope, the waterproof pannier-bags made and guaranteed in Germany are no match for this 'dauer-regen' of the tropical type. It lasts for 20 hours.
We shelter, soaked through, in a temple in a hamlet we had hoped would be a town. The mapmakers thought it unimportant to make this distinction. Here is no friendly guesthouse. There is no-one outside. Darkness is soon due and a powercut blackens the unwelcoming shadows behind waterfalls descending from the rooves.

Travelling must be easier for the extrovert. One who seeks human contact and is always easy in the company of strangers. I am not of this breed and though Anja is a little better, we have been in a male dominated world for many months now. Most transactions andinitial contacts are down to me.
I found it hard to walk down the path to the nearest house and ask for shelter. We have done it many times but I will never really like it. Would much rather remain independent. The hospitality of the Musalman we have also left behind and although the owners of the temple took us in (I thought at first the house belonged tothe temple not vice versa), fed us and let us sleep on the veranda we never really felt that welcome.
In the fast disappearing light we were lulled by a short break inthe rain up waterfall steps to a long abandoned, overgrown fort on the bluff looking over the rivermouth. I felt somehow secure amoungst the still solid walls, amoungst history, amoungst the past. A brief refuge from the so confusing present. Had we known of its existence before, we would have camped amoungst the ramparts and tested our English tent for waterproofness in this unseasonal monsoon.

We are daily confronted by the absurd in India. Absurdity must be relative and related to culture so we endeavour to smile whatever. So many things are done different here, so many simple things we thought were universal rules are turned on their head. Guest houses and eateries being good examples. Often the more seemeingly better quality being the absurder. Two in particular I am sure had been given Fawlty Towers on DVD and told it was an instructional video. What seems peculiar is that there are always so many staff all seeming to be doing every task for the first time. Peace, quiet and privacy are not considered desirable here. Infact the opposite. So many employees with few or no guests somehow can't find the time to even superficially clean the place or fix the plumbing but as soon as you are installed they want to clean the windows and sweep the floor. Bazarre.

I sit now in semi darkness in a rather nice bungalow right on a beautiful beach. Outside the fishermen haul in nets from the shoreand I would contentedly watch them work for hours while waiting out the rain but cannot as a blue tarpauline has been pulled like a curtain infront of our window. The reason is unclear but I reckon that because they built the roof without enough overhang drips bounce up from the concrete and do some invisible evil. The proprietors just walked in unannounced and without saying a word shut our windows and drew the curtains turning the dimpsy blue into almost total darkness. it is not yet lunchtime. Figure that one out.

My wierdest Indian hotel experience though was on the last trip. Derek and I were congratulating ourselves on reaching our 1500km cycling goal in a great little resteraunt on the beach in Kerala. Beers were half full and the Kingfish had just arrived when 4 police and 10 guys with sledgehammers asked us and the other diners to move back. We didn't understand. Move your tables back or else seemed to be the message and no explanation came fom the waiters. We moved back and picked up our forks again but we remained openmouthed as the workforce demolished the front of the restaurant. We were smothered in a cloud of dust and when it cleared they had disappeared and the terrace was only half the size it was. The rest lay on the beach. Business carried on as if nothing had happened. The whole developed seafront had been neatly sliced back to a line it had apparently stepped over. Hotels were cut in half and one could see the occupants sitting on their second floor beds slapping dust from their clothes as waiters shored up the floors beneath then continued serving meals. I was reminded of a French film from the surreal school.

Not all 'Hotels' are real hotels either and not all bars are just bars. I found this out in Mumbai as I went out alone in search of an affordable beer. The interior of bars are always dark in India. Drinking is permitted but frowned upon I feel. In this case I was show up the narrow stairs to an unexpected, soundproofed and windowless room full of music and women. The girls were all dressed so well I thought for a second there was a works party or a hen night in progress and I was invited to join in. Expereience told me otherwise and I asked if I could just sit downstairs and watch the cricket. They thought I was a pretty dull customer.

We passed early on the seabound bastile of Janjira. This fort was apparently built in the 12th century by pirates from the horn of Africa and its 12m high walls were never breached. Time also, with the ocean as a powerful ally is finding it hard to bring this impressive castle down.
There are many such forts along this coast, not all so old, but I am finding it hard to understand who built them and the role they played. I never thought I would miss the National Trust information boards. Sindudurg is the next one we will pass. Check it out on the net Pop and post the info in a comment.
After that we should cross the border from Maharashtra to Goa and encounter the hoards of hairy palefaces on the coca-cola beaches. I look forward to drinking a beer unashamedly in the open and having a western style conversation. I hope the other travellers will not ignore us like they did in Mumbai. Last time we didn't like Goa much and quickly passed through. This time I am determined to meet some tye-dyed types not just beer bellies from Birmingham.

We did meet one foriegn couple on an Enfield back nearer Mumbai. An intelligent young Frano-German pair rattling down the same roads as us. I guess they didn't get the bike on the dug out canoe but you never know. This is India.

Must sign out now and go for lunch in the 'resteraunt' next door. Into town is too far. Like India itself I both love and hate this place. The setting is perfect, the decor non-existant, a couple of mismatched plastic tables in the corner of a large open barn. The service is absurd and unfriendly, the atmosphere unpredictable, but as is almost alwaysthe case, the food is excellent. You can pick your fish still flapping in the beached net and in less than 5 minuits have it sitting grilled in an exotic thin batter on your plate.

While the fishermen were loading handfulls of catch into baskets, Anja was running round picking up strays and helping them back to the sea, much to the amusement of the men. Dogs and grey backed crows boh used the tread and rip technique, niether finishing a fish before they tried another. There were flying fish and squid, and gaping open eyed unknowns drowning by the thousand in the air. Death on the beach. The Kingfish tasted great.

Almost everything is damp and many things mouldy after only a few days. We sit surrounded by undrying clothes, tools and books. Our bags are the best but they're not that good. I reckon it comes in throught the fixinig holes but its hard to prove either way. Anja found a cockroach in the kitchen bag. Not best pleased was she! This was our day off for cleaning the crud off the bikes but I only managed to do one (rained off). The wheel bearings needed re-greasing after being dragged through a creek washed alot out. I guess I should take a look at the bottom bracket grease too but don't have the tools. Another day. My second back rack support broke and I fixed it in a little blacksmiths shop. The last one I fixed in a Bulgarian boatyard. Anjas bike is doing well. Better than I thought. We have had far more mechanical problems than I figured we would. My other touring bike managed 10,000kms without even a tyre-change and only one puncture. Maybe I put a new chain on at some point but I had to mend nothing. Still, it beats buggering about with the entrails of an old Enfield Bullet as most two wheel tourists on the under-continent seem to do. Though I think I'd buy a tuk-tuk if they didn't puff out smoke so.

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