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Monday, August 22, 2016

BiKronicles: The Southern Tip

PRELUDE: It’s been a week since the southern sojourn. I am drained, exhausted and probably using reserve fuel to write this post. The extreme sunburn, which has rendered me the “kaali kalooti” victim, and the food allergies, thanks to 0 control amidst seafood, hasn’t helped my situation. Needless to say, a great weekend has left me feeling and looking like I went on a drug-alcohol binge and am now in rehab. The icing on this weathered girl’s cake was facing her monthly monstrosity on the ER6n ripping its way back to Mumbai. Whoever said that time-of-the-month was no biggie certainly didn’t experience it on a zipping kwacker.

BACKGROUND: Jaya Sriram met us last year on NH48 heading from Hampi to Bengaluru. We made a brief chai halt, exchanged numbers, accidentally ran into his dad, grabbed lunch and went our ways. A week later (15 Aug 2015), we found ourselves in much-planned-never-executed Auroville. Spent a lovely weekend exploring, drinking, traversing, eating and developing a fast bond and mutual respect. Any plans after that never took off. Cut to a year later and Sriram asked us to plan the southern sojourn on his bday 12 Aug 2016. We also realized it’ll be exactly a year since our last meeting.  
In the interim, I got my Bonneville and that nagging itch to take her down south buggered me. Of course, with great bikes come disproportional bank balances (VRL slapped me with a 14k estimate to transport the Bonnie’s prissy behind back and forth). Hence, I retreated to my cave and stuck to the prearranged Royal Enfield bikes.

LE TROUPE: Sriram (the main protagonist – Chennai resident – AuroExport - architect); US (Abeer and I); Vivek (Puneite – Nasik export – hyper planner); Arun and Christina (Half-German + Full Scottish couple) – last minute addition, barely prepared gear wise but completely gunning in spirit. 

BIKES: Sriram rode his old classic RE Bullet while the rest of us made do with just-about-functioning RE rentals. Luckily, Abeer and my bike as well as Vivek’s bike survived and pulled through. However, our German/Scottish couple’s journey was far from smooth; stopping incessantly, barely touching decent speeds and leaving them always behind and sometimes off the grid, literally. What’s worse was that even though 800/day rental was a steal, at the nth moment the chap who gave us the bikes, charged us even for the day he kept it ready for us aka for when we didn’t use it. That was a bummer and a blow to our calculations which came to 3200/-.

ROUTE: Mumbai/Pune – Chennai Airport – Pondicherry – Edayanchavadi – Tranquebar – Pattukotai – Rameshwaram – Dhanushkodi – Karaikudi – Back to Pavilion. ~1100 kms with all diversions inclusive. This was 1 helluva trip packed in 3 scorching days on unfamiliar bikes. 

THE JOURNEY (Mumbai T2 Terminal): Like all trips, this one had to start with drama. This time it was Yash Raj meets Abbas-Mastan proportions. Abeer had a leisure day and I had a HELL week. Extreme sleep deprivation, lack of food, sanity and the need to leave it all behind made for a bad last minute cocktail. Back broken, I dragged our bags and gear down the metro to the airport. The entire city went zombieland on us. Air India meant finally a visit to the new T2 terminal. We scrambled, fought, and made it to the counter after battling snakes of disorderly passengers. Everyone had a flight that was JUST taking off – us included. I wasn’t having any of it. Never missed a flight; was never gonna let anything tarnish my clean record. A few arguments with AI staff and we managed to get luggage checked in, and into security checks. HERE is where all HELL opened their floodgates (in me). I got done and stamped my boarding pass. Realized AI gave me just one document and confirmed it was for Abeer too. Informed security that somewhere behind 50 passengers was Abeer who needed this pass to get through. Amidst fights that had already commenced in smaller groups, I had heated exchanges with security. An AI lady kept following me and my phone rang off the hook from AI (this is a silent terminal) to check if I boarded my 6:15 pm flight. It was 6:05 pm and I was standing in front of head of security, a royally pissed off Abeer and a matronly AI lady trying to resolve a now confirmed AI BOTCH JOB. Security had it up to their necks managing unruly crowds and I was the last thing they needed. He was rude and said that I was careless and breaking protocol. What followed next – even I can’t sit here and think I DID THAT. Dropped my bags and unleashed a volley of I-can’t-recall at him far enough for 3 departure gates to look at me. I didn’t realize then that tears were streaming down my face and I was seriously loud for someone who hates public spats and scenes. My flight was about to take off so I think my aforementioned state resulted in THIS. The security head (Army issue) kept quiet and avoided eye contact. AI sent their posy to escort Abeer and me through it all right up to our seats and apologized. The matronly lady hugged me and calmed me. I took my window seat and suddenly was aware of how embarrassed I felt. Cried for 10 mins and then slipped into impending slumber with a bemused partner trying his best to make me break into a grin and taking selfies. 
Chennai Airport: Had been here and t’was nothing like the one I had traveled through before. This looked like Goa airport (pre-refurbish). It was late. Our flight was an hr late in departure but miraculously on time landing. I was relaxed but craving sleep. We waited for our bags. After 30mins and ALL bags, came Abeer’s stuff and one of my bags. HELMET was missing. The conveyor stopped, everyone cleared out. I stood there going – THIS IS NOT HAPPENING. Abeer panicked. Not cuz my helmet didn’t arrive but for a possible encore of the Mumbai showdown v2.0. The customer helpdesk appeared remarkably calm –missing bags was a mundane complaint. Too tired to get pissed, I decided I was gonna be patient; for now. The bag tags didn’t read on their monitor aka they were unaware of its whereabouts. I filled out the forms and decided that I wld stay put at the airport since our Pune entourage would land in the morning. 30mins later someone came running with it. I was eternally grateful. The dark packing combined with poor light and dark container had left my hapless helmet in some corner of the tarmac. Issue resolved we stepped out. Of course, Abeer (signature male trait) did not wanna listen to me and proceeded to book a cab to Perungalathur bus station on the behest of the not-so-knowledgeable Sriram. We Ubered 14kms to the bus stop had our 1st lavish south Indian/fishy meal and proceeded to catch ANY bus that would head to Pondicherry. By then it was 11:00pm, exhaustion didn’t even begin to describe our state and the heat was unforgivable (I missed Mumbai and that says it all). AC buses were limited and overpriced so we took a non-AC metal rattler. Sadly, we stood out like Ambanis in the crowd and were easily victimized into shelling out 4x the accrued cost of the metal glued together. The bus trudged for 5ft, honked a shrill ear shattering horn (which I am sure is illegal in 80% of the globe) and looked for passengers to replicate a sardine can environment. Imagine this for nearly 20 kms precluded by 48hrs no sleep, ~40°C and suffocation. I hardly imagined this to be a vacation and was ready to go homicidal. Abeer had it at his wits end and was seriously EXHAUSTED. I could see him glistening with perspiration akin to some war movie and a hapless innocent captive in a cave. The part that pissed me off: the same bus made a stop OUTSIDE the airport and I just glared at Abeer with that I-told-you-so look. He in turn decided it was safest to blame Sriram. Thereafter, the bus picked up speed like it didn’t care to live or die. Driver confidently declared 2 hrs every 2hrs of the journey to Pondicherry as his puny body navigated the large rattling chunk through blank charcoal darkness and multiple near misses. The cooling air was temporary respite but nothing helpful. We started at 11pm and touched Pondicherry at 4am. Sriram was fast asleep unwrapping another layer of frustration from us. We got off the bus in the middle of Pondicherry (more like some unknown square) and sat in the middle of the road with a glass of divine coffee from a just opened stall. After 30mins Sriram answered and we proceeded to get home, get our bikes and the works. All I recall at this point is collapsing in deep slumber in the same clothes for a good 2hrs.

Edayanchavadi to Pattukotai/Day 1: Vivek and troupe landed and got in at around 8am. Woke up, showered, dressed and still felt like a gust of wind could put me to bed again. Vivek apparently had not accounted for the exhaustion and was flat drained out. But we HAD to leave and soon. The boys took off to get the bikes while I caught up on poor but needed slumber. With REs come a plethora of issues. Its tradition you see. It’s a crime to have intact Enfields and so we took it in our stride. Our bikes were just about ok. But the newly joined-in Scottish-German couple (Arun and Christina) were about to find out what it was like to do this trip with no gear and a not-so-happening bike. We navigated through instantly unforgivable heat and chaotic traffic out of Pondicherry. Our target was Rameshwaram. Sriram had arranged for our stay and someone to take us around since we didn’t have the luxury of exploration at our own pace.

The entire day/ride was a series of near misses, maneuvering through good and bad roads, catching up, waiting, pleading with the sun to take a hike, losing and finding each other and the works. South India’s traffic was extremely aggressive esp. large cargo trucks and vehicles whose agenda was to run us off the road instead of get to their destination. Talk about priorities. At 1 such naakabandi, the cops flagged us down and we dutifully did a turn around and met them. They spoke to us in broken Hindi and much Tamil. In the midst of this confusing exchange and more of their fascination than intended checks, a truck came hurtling toward us with zero regard for our parked bike and the barricades. I stared in horror muttering to myself that the truck needed to slow down at which point Abeer titled the bike (us still saddled on it). The truck grazed us, threw me off the bike and scratched a bit of the bike’s sides coming to a screeching halt. Dusting myself off and seething with rage, I screamed and banged on the driver’s door asking him to step out so I could apparently paste him into one of their famous chatnis. The cops looked worried and Abeer announced the driver’s impending demise at my hands. Everyone profusely apologized and asked us to continue and have a safe trip. Ppfffffft. Other incidents included Vivek dozing off a few times on the bike. All of us watched in amusement and concern has he navigated in waves and yo-yoed through the highway under a heat wave thanks to him donning an all leather Cramster jacket with 48 hours of no sleep. Ultimately, he just gave up, parked the bike at the next structure that doubled as a shelter and passed out on the ground. We made good of that situation by clicking some embarrassing pics of him :D Christina and I also stopped to help a rather large lady who was riding pillion and had fallen off rather brazenly at the corner off the road. Her spouse had tried to negotiate the edge of the road while a nasty bus hogged their space. The sides of the road had a sharp curvaceous drop, which could prove lethal at certain speeds. I revived her, helped her breathe, she appeared to be in shock but not seriously wounded save for a nasty one on her leg. We managed to flag down an SUV and put her in the back of it (we had to lift her) and be on our ways. I was glad to have been there to stop and help her cz it looked like no one stopped except when I did. 

The trip was ill-timed aka the heat was getting to us all but the bravest was Sriram who was the calmest most positive of us all. Abeer and I were seasoned travelers so we just coped as best we could. That included a few verbal spats, tons of making up and generally making sure we both made it through this exhaustive, incident-riddled day. We made a stop at Tranquebar (Tharangambadi) – supposedly a Dutch town. I was tad disappointed to see a miniscule stretch of what appeared to be a once upon a time town; wearing a deserted look and not matching my impression of a Dutch Pondicherry. Either way we were out of time and I’m grateful to the boys for indulging a stop there to satiate my curiosity beneath the monstrosity of gear and exasperation. We took a round of the beach and the exterior of the touristic fort and took off just as quickly. 
By early evening, we realized we couldn’t make our intended destination of Rameshwaram and instead opted for a nearby coastal town. The quest for that town included mind-blowing sunsets, quickly descending darkness and a 100% confirmation of getting lost on unlit roads that narrowed further and further with increased unpredictability of hitting cattle, folks, bad speed bumpers and anything that considered itself nocturnal. Everyone was maintaining a cool exterior yet battling major exhaustion or a minor degree of annoyance. We stopped at a menial coffee stop along the way and got our phones out. Called hotels along the entire stretch. Budgeting went out of the window and everyone wanted a room with a hot shower and guaranteed air-conditioning. We finally hit luck at a nearby town called Pattukotai where we settled on a passable hotel after scouting through a maze of traffic and 3 rejected hotels. Here everyone was out to get to the bottom of our pockets what with all our bikes and gear and a desperate cry for rest. 

Long showers, freezing rooms and a feast of meal after, everyone agreed that 5am would be the wakeup call and we would take off to make up for this day’s delay. Arun and Christina were needlessly sun burnt and far drearier than us given that their bike broke down countless times and a sweatshirt and scarf was all they had to protect themselves. Hats off to their patience and endurance to continue on. 

Pattukotai to Dhanushkodi/Day 2: EVERYONE missed their alarms and we all got ready and out by 8:30 am. Noone objected given that rested souls and bodies were priority. Everyone was far more fresh, relaxed and ready to take on the next leg of the journey. We had to cover Pamban Bridge, Dhanushkodi and make it to Kadaikudi. We could not afford to miss our destination on this day given all of us had scheduled flights back home. After a hearty south Indian breakfast, we took off. The heat settled in quickly. We didn’t mandate following each other so everyone had their own pace and made their own hydration stops (many of them together). We bonded far better today than we did the previous day; grabbed some simple meals and targeted our main sight point. Along the way, other riding groups met us and soon everyone was headed to the same destination. We made it at mid noon to Pamban Bridge – by far our longest stop. Took pics and videos and got some clarity that Pamban was the bridge below where we stood.  It had one of the oldest running railway lines in the country and a breathtaking view of the Indian Ocean. Fishing villages lined the entire coast with impeccable cleanliness. The water was turquoise blue with confusing waves of emerald green. The clarity was breathtaking and we could see all the way to the bed of the ocean. We waited for the 2nd couple to catch up and thereafter took off. 

From there it was a short but rather crowded route to Dhanushkodi. We had spent 2 days in gear with no respite from the heat. Hadn’t stopped and enjoyed any place really and that was especially getting to me – just getting from point to point with the destination making no point. At Dhanushkodi, the entire stretch of Ram Setu was interesting and surreal. I had only read about it in school or visualized it in its various presentations online. I was HERE now; well with what appeared to be half the country taking advantage of a long weekend. If yesterday was hot, today was the surface of the sun (metaphorically speaking). We found a fish food shack at the tip of Ram Setu, set up our bikes among many other motorcycles that had made their way there and collapsed. More than happy to strip ourselves off our gear and settled in for one of the most memorable meals on a banana leaf. We had rice, rasam and delicious local fish (I didn’t manage to get any names and even Sriram was unable to decipher what the chef mentioned). An encore of the fish continued across the table along with tons of hydration. Here I have to state that our Hydration packs were the best investment and total lifesavers. We purchased one from Decathlon so this wasn’t the biker’s backpack version. Our jugaad was to put it in Abeer’s spine guard pocket and both of us could use it. We debated a while about heading to the beach and taking a dip. Its sad that we couldn’t. The jeep drivers were trying to rip us off and after a point, owing to the massive crowd turnover and 100s headed their way, they had to shut down entry to the beach for a while. We contemplated leaving our bikes unattended. Any other day would have been fine but all our bags and gear and valuables among 100s of thronging visitors forced us to consider turning back and make peace with a glimpse from a distance. 

We loaded up and headed back along the snake traffic to Pamban Bridge. Thereon, the ride was comparatively smoother and the quality highways helped us enjoy a bit of the ride. We all made hydration and ice cream stops, chatted and bonded better, exchanged notes etc. Reached Karaikudi rather late and again settled in to a mansion all to ourselves – literally. It was an old Chettinad style mansion called Shanmuga Vilas: an over 100-year-old property that was bought off the 1st owner and refurbished by an architect. It was converted into a homestay for travelers and we had the whole place to ourselves. We spent the evening cooling off, showers, hydration, exploring the mansion (large terraces, separate kitchens and purposeful rooms with adjoining rooms and staff). The place was humble yet magnificent with a boisterous caretaker who was eager to share the stories of the mansion and its history. We decided to ride down a bit of the stretch to a recommended seafood restaurant.
Once at the restaurant, I think we (ok let’s be honest – more like I) appeared to have just gotten off a rescue boat from drought and famine riddled south Sudan. I ate like it was the last meal I was ever gonna relish. Crabs, prawns, squids, local fish, rice, mutton, appams…. Everything made it to the table. The pricing here was so phenomenal that you would shed a tear about spending a bomb. I knew I was asking for monumental trouble from my tummy but given how this trip was going, I decided gastric debauchery be it. But as a potent traveler, a good bed and a great bathroom are your best friends. I have established I have a massive pet peeve of bathrooms. When I find even a half-decent one, I just let my stomach run off course. 

We roamed about a bit, chatted at length and shared 1 thing in common – heat stroke and exhaustion. Come to think of it the last few days, all of us had barely spoken. We had done so in bits and pieces but none of us had the energy to really invest in our camaraderie. This was one of my major takeaways from this trip – don’t rush through for the heck of it. It didn’t make sense to drain yourself out on a ‘vacation’ and then reminisce of doing it again so you cover what you deliberately missed. Thereafter, AC rooms and our heavy heads made for happy matrimonial that night. 

Karakudi to Edayanchavadi/Day 3: The last day was bitter sweet. Suddenly it was all coming to a vrooming end. We all had breakfast, saddled up and took-off. The heat was terrible but surprisingly bearable this day. I wasn’t sure it was the rest that was helping us cope or the heat itself had dialed it down a notch. We made periodic hydration stop. Our perennial Buddha on this trip (Sriram) offered to ride slowly with Arun-Christina while Vivek and us could zip back to Pondicherry. We had flights back at twilight and if we continued at the same pace as last 2 days there was a chance at missing our flights. We rode hard and fast and did a good distance through morning and noon. Made it by early evening to Edayanchavadi. We wanted to wait for Sriram and the lot for our bikes and to bid each other farewell until next time. Packed and looking for a bus to Chennai airport, it was getting dark; just then Sriram pulled in. I was super glad we got to connect and return our bikes properly. Said our goodbyes and Sriram stayed till we boarded a semi-crowded AC bus. It was all WORTH IT. 
No place on board, 3 of us plonked our luggage on the floor and passed out on it. We reached the sleepy airport rather early… a few hours prior to take off. Tried super hard to catch a few winks but just nothing worked. Tired, grumpy and just eager to get out, we finally flew back and straight to work. How we got through the day NO ONE KNOWS. But we did and reminisced about it all. 
What I learnt through this trip:
  • Make sure who you ride with because it defines the nature and attitude of the trip. Last thing one wants is chaos and tension. I was lucky to have the best folks on this trip
  • Always assess the weather and terrain. Nothing really wrong but the rides could have been more enjoyable on a relaxed pace and in cooler forgivable climate
  • Avoid long weekends. A whole Indian state can make its way ANYWHERE. Karma usually ensures where you are, all Indians are. 
  • Stop, breathe and soak in the place. Don’t always be in a rush to complete a “task”. It’s a bloody ride, not a checklist. Note to future self.
  • Signing out here! :)