Quatro Formaggi Pizza, Cappuccino and other Guilty Pleasure


Cycling Stats
Varkala to Kollam 40 km
Kollam to Alleppey (100 km by boat)
Alleppey to Cochin 60 km

I always laugh a little bit when we meet travellers who feel that the only way to really experience a developing country is to go local. In Kovalam I remember seeing a white guy wearing a dhoti making his way down to the beach through the town without anything on his feet – walking gingerly around the broken glass, goat shit, and the sharp edges of broken sidewalks, a cut foot waiting for a place to happen. Many poorer Indians don’t wear shoes and it is impolite not to remove them at temples and inside businesses and houses, but I am guessing that any Indian who can afford them wears them. It was a little hard not to cringe watching our western compatriot carefully picking his path, lots of Indians and westerners rolling their eyes as they watched him go by.

However, I do understand the desire for an authentic experience, as difficult as it is to nail down what that really means. If you want to experience other cultures and understand how people really live you are not going to get that at five star resorts – those are reserved for tourists whose fantasies of India are to do with pretending to be maharajas or perhaps big cheeses in colonial India (and that is really very unpc and probably not something you want to admit to.) But is it necessary to not eat with cutlery (Indians eat with their hands in the south) even when cutlery is offered? Or forego toilet paper for the toilet hose? (Aka bum hoser – something my husband actually prefers to loo paper but that is another story.)

Given that we will spend about 35 percent of our total trip days on the bikes in India, cycling through some small towns where we don’t have much choice but to be in the ‘real’ India, when we do stop and have lazy days I only feel minor guilt at our western indulgences. And I get a little kick out of watching westerners decked out in Indian duds watching us with some disdain as we chow down on grilled cheese sandwiches and French fries when we could be eating masala dosas. If they only knew that we’ve been eating masala thali three times a day for two weeks straight…

There have been a lot of indulgences recently, including hiring drivers, taking auto rickshaws and boats instead of using our bikes exclusively. In Kollam, we stopped at Ashtamudi Villas for three days, and enjoyed our small cabin overlooking a tropical garden filled with banana, coconut, papaya and mango trees on the shore of Lake Ashtamudi. When we weren’t lazing around the garden drinking beer we took an auto rickshaw and ferry to get to Lake Monroe where we were shown around the beautiful mangrove canals by canoe.

We travelled from Kollam to Alleppey by private ferry, a hundred kilometer trip that started at the dock from Ashtamudi Villas. This was a terrific way to see the larger backwaters of Kerala and we could not have experienced it the same way by bike.

From Alleppey we cycled to Kochi (old name was Cochin), the large port where Vasco da Gama first landed in India, claiming this part of the Indian coast for the Portuguese. The city retains some of the old colonial architecture and it is a nice break from jam-packed Indian streets where there is typically nowhere to sit (no sidewalk cafes or benches or parks). In Fort Cochin (an old colonial seaside neighborhood), we have found an Italian café that serves fantastic cappuccino and quatro formaggi pizza, with a few Indian twists (one of the four cheeses is paneer and the pesto is made with cashews instead of pine nuts and was delicious).

We were back to Indian food three times a day at Munnar, a hill station, which we got to via a hired car and driver. We relaxed for the four hour drive that wound 125 km up a narrow and winding mountain highway. We were a little less lazy once we arrived and spent three hours on a guided tour walking up to a tea plantation and then back down through a spice garden where our guide pointed out cardamom, pepper, coffee and cocoa plants.

Back in Fort Cochin, we headed right to the Italian café for a last hit of pizza and some café lattes. On the road again we will eat what is available and take our breaks in bus shelters in various states of disrepair. In the less touristed areas we will stay in local Indian hotels and take our chances with my toilet brush rating system (a hotel in Thondi set the lowest bar so far and defined the one toilet brush rating — a room with no hot water, a bucket instead of a shower, no toilet hose, no loo paper, dirty sheets and a sink that looked like it had never been washed).

And so, when we reach Goa and a lot of western tourists again, I will feel less guilt about living it up, drinking beer (I hope – Kerala is pretty dry in that regard) and thinking about our complicated reactions to the standard of living in India. I think the desire to go local sometimes is a guilt reaction – we should cut our bare feet on the dirt roads to make up for the fact that we don’t have to. Or maybe we just hope that there is something valuable about being poor that makes it less awful – a romantic notion that the poor people in India are spiritually richer than there richer western counterparts.

But feeling guilty is ok; it’s good to stay aware of the disparity between the rich and poor for a number of reasons, including our own spiritual growth. The guilt we feel about having more can make us remember to be grateful. And as we think about any possible benefits to being poor, we can remember that the all-pervasiveness of western consumerism ultimately needs mediation so that we don’t use up all our resources and pollute the planet beyond repair.

I think it’s important to analyze the guilt and other feelings that the awareness of disparity conjures so that our experience has depth and authenticity and the potential to change or fortify political points of view that might ultimately lessen the wealth gap…something I believe walking around barefoot when you can afford shoes probably isn’t going to do.

If you smile at me…


If you smile at me I will understand…cause that’s something everybody everywhere does in the same language…. (Crosby, Stills and Nash – Wooden Ships)

This post is dedicated to the World Kindness Movement

Cycling Stats since Kumbakonan
Kumbakonan to Managurdi 40 km
Managurdi to Pattukkotai 34 km
Pattukkotai to Mimisal 68 km
Mimisal to Thondi (26 km in car)
Thondi to Ramanathapuram 49 km
Ramanathapurm to Kanyakamuri (270 km car)
Kanyakamuri to Colachel 38 km
Colachel to Kovalam 58 km
Kovalam to Verkala 61 km

One of the joys of cycling touring is the perfect speed of it. It is much faster than walking so you get the thrill of moving from town to town in the space of a day. Yet, unlike being in car, it is slow enough that you can interact with the people you meet along the way.

In India, that means kids waving at you from school buses and guys on motorcycles slowing down to chat with you as you both move along. It means passing women carrying water jugs on their heads and stopping for goat herders moving their goats across the road. At the end of a day of cycling here, I feel like I have been witness to a kaleidoscope of images in slow motion: villages with arches covered in bright colored paper celebrating a wedding, the hub bub of a market, a small lake with boys jumping gleefully into the water.

And flashing throughout this movie are a lot of smiling faces.

When we do get off our bikes and get to meet with people, our conversation is often limited because we don’t speak the local language and although English is the language of commerce here, there are a lot of people, especially poorer people, who don’t speak it. Yet, I am amazed at the richness of our communication.

After cycling in many developing countries where we know that the average wage of the people we are meeting is much lower than ours, we find that, despite the disparity between us, and especially in rural areas, we are met with nothing but smiles and kindness.

On our first evening at our guesthouse in Varkala (Kerala, India), we met Nawar another guest at our homestay. Nawar, has been in India for three weeks now, having fled Syria, his birthplace. He had asked what our experience was like cycling and we talked about how people who haven’t travelled to India had warned me about it being dangerous. I explained that this was not our experience and related this story: One afternoon we had been cycling through a small village when I braked too hard on a patch of gravel and took a tumble. I wasn’t moving very fast and the injuries were minor: a scraped knee, a bruised toe. I was immediately surrounded – two men picked up my bike and took it across the street to where my husband was standing. Three women escorted me to a seat in a nearby bus shelter. The first poured one of my water bottles over the wound. The other made me drink water. The third offered me food and all three of them fussed over the bandaging of my tiny scrape as though I were an injured child. There was little English spoken but we were made to understand that they were worried about me and offered us a place to stay if need be. When we convinced them I was ok, they gave us candy and waved us off.

I told Nawar that our experience — thanks to cycling in so many remote areas — was that most people in the world are good and kind. He smiled and said, I agree – in fact I run an organization that promotes kindness – the World Kindness Movement (UAE). And then Nawar related his story.

Although he was born in Syria, he grew up in Dubai and became a businessman, eventually forming a partnership and running 14 companies. He enjoyed running the business, but there came a point where he wanted something else and a change in lifestyle. He resigned and became the founder of the World Kindness Movement for the United Emirates in Dubai.

(according to Wikipedia): The World Kindness Movement is an organization with no religious or political affiliation. The WKM’s chief object shall be to foster goodwill among the broad community – local, national and international – by way of kindness and in so doing, create greater understanding and co-operation between all people and all nations throughout the world.

The World Kindness Movement of the UAE developed, political change began in Syria, ultimately developing into the war we are all familiar with. A few years ago Nawar returned to Syria to try and do what he could to help. Since then, the conflict has grown steadily worse and in the end Nawar was forced to leave and is now displaced. He is spending some time in India to think about the next phase of his life, and trying to keep the organization in Dubai running remotely.

Despite the seriousness of his situation, he is positive and committed to the values of the kindness movement. One of the core values is respect for other people’s beliefs and despite his experience in Syria – war obviously being the antithesis of that — this is a theme that filters up in many of our conversations.

It is both heartbreaking and heartwarming to listen to Nawar’s stories. I admire his ability to maintain his optimism after experiencing difficulty most of us in the west can only imagine and I’m inspired by his commitment to such positive values.

Check out the world kindness movement here…

Note on the photos – these are some of Ian’s Indian portraits.

Magical Thinking


Lakshmi Villas to Kumbakonam 61 km

We had a great ride into Kumbakonam (home to no less than 188 temples). We were happy to be on quiet roads (relatively speaking) and the rural landscape of rice fields and coconut palms was nicely broken up by some large villages where we bought oranges and other snacks (Indian peanut brittle and what I think were deep fried plantain chips with chilies).

As I rode along I couldn’t get Neil Young’s “When you Dance” out of my head. I think it was all the reading I’ve been doing about Shiva, one of Hinduism’s principal deities and a favourite of mine back in the day when I spent a year learning about Vedanta philosophy, meditating and playing Neil Young. Shiva, like all Hindu deities, manifests in many forms. One of the common ones is Shiva as Nataraja, where he is depicted as a dancer performing the cosmic victory dance (our Lonely Planet guide says in this dance Shiva is pacing out the creation and destruction of the cosmos).

I always liked Shiva because of his message that out of every ending there is a beginning. This idea has given me courage when it was time to leave a situation, and consolation when grieving an ending.

In earlier days I was smitten with things Indian, the chanting I heard at sat sang at the ashram I attended in Ottawa when I was 18, the taste of chai with cardamom, purple silk saris with silver threads and the smell of sandalwood incense. Learning that there was more than one way to understand God (I was an atheist by the time I was 12 or 13) was also liberating and heady. There I was at 18, wandering around in Indian cotton skirts, wearing bangles and bells and as I finished my last year of high school (at night as I’d left home), I pulled off 100% in my final economics exam and to this day I know it was partly due to the focus I’d achieved meditating. I stomped around in my small studio apartment doing a victory dance, and there was Neil all raunchy guitar and revolution, exhilarating. “When you dance, do your senses tingle and take a chance…when you dance, I can really love.”

After that I became disillusioned and a little afraid of the ashram as I watched people getting drawn deeper and deeper into a situation that felt cult-like. I talked to a psychologist at the time who warned me that westerners often have a hard time putting eastern religion into context.

His sentiment still rings true decades later. There is something so compelling about India for some of us westerners – there’s such a big romance about it. This is especially true for anyone with a religious yearning who has been left flat by Christianity. The yoga I studied through the ashram was a kind of intellectual practice with the goal of transcending your ego through practicing non-attachment and ultimately becoming enlightened, living in a state free of anxiety. This was so attractive after years of Catholicism where I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to believe in. Literal heaven or symbolic heaven? Literal resurrection or resurrection myth? But then the swami (head of the ashram) turned out to be sleeping with the devotees and on one hell of a big ego trip. So much for transcendence, sexy Sadie. And so I learned all power corrupts and there is a lot of confusion for westerners about how Vedanta philosophy is to be practiced and interpreted outside of Indian culture.

They mystery remains as I visit these wonderful temples. Today we walked through the Nageshwara Temple, the oldest temple in Kumbakonam, founded by the Cholas (an Indian dynasty) in 886. The priest followed us around discreetly blessing everything – I don’t know if we were auspicious or somehow polluting. I watched people making offerings and meditating in front of the statues of various deities. We were the only foreigners there (in fact I haven’t seen a foreigner since we left Lakshmi Villa three days ago). I wondered what people were praying for…enlightenment or perhaps a new pair of shoes.

I am a big fan of Karen Armstrong, the ex-Catholic nun who is a religious scholar, writer and winner of a TED award. In her “Case for God” she talks about how pre-modern people did not take their religious mythologies literally. The myths were understood in a manner similar to the way we (if we are lucky – my thought) understand art. Art is transformative – we learn important things about what it means to be human through metaphor that touches us emotionally, whether it be music, poetry, or visual art. Our religious myths are not meant to be taken literally.

To believe we are going to achieve a permanently altered state of consciousness – some blissed out trance-like devotional state of mind as we flit about in saris sniffing incense – is to engage in magical thinking. A more grown-up and romantic version of the magical thinking that allowed us to believe in Santa Claus, and certainly a lot more fun than the magical thinking that has us believing that we will be resurrected in physical form on Judgement Day.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any magic. There are magical moments, transformative experiences when we are struck dumb by a piece of music, or cry when we read a poem.

Or dance to Neil Young wearing bangles. Rock on :-0

(p.s. Paul – even if I have to learn bar chords I think I should learn how to play this song…)