Big White Taxi

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Cycling Stats

Kochi to Cherai Beach 26
Cherai Beach to Guruvayur 61.68
Guruvayur to Tirur 59
Tirur to Calicut 57
Calicut to Thottaya beach 89
Thottada beach to payyanur 51
Big white tax to Gokarnum Beach 353

We’ve been at Om Beach for eight days now, chilling out at the Nirvana Café. Yep, really, I’m not making up these names. The beach is lovely. Someone picks up the garbage everyday and aside from cigarette butts, cow and dog shit, it is pristine. Remember this is India…Our hippie hut is very reasonable for the price, the restaurant is good by hippie hut beach standards and the geography is outstanding. Plus we have seen dolphins everyday and have enjoyed making friends with the beach dogs, including the one that insists on stealing people’s towels. (He likes to play chase. Stealing towels works.)

It has been a great way to unwind from our cycling adventure that has now come to an end after 900 kilometres.

The honking horns and kamikaze buses are now a distant memory. There were many good bits though: the back roads through Tamil Nadu rice fields and the back roads in Kerala that took us along the beach and through small villages and coconut groves. And there was the lovely man who invited us to his home somewhere in northern Kerala where his wife made us a local drink – buttermilk and herbs — and we met their kids and their new baby goats. This would not have happened if we hadn’t been on our bikes.

But as we cycled further north we began to run out of back roads and the traffic seemed heavier. The ride to Calicut was a tough one, mostly on the national highway. As we got close to the city we were increasingly frustrated by terrible drivers (Indians are the worst drivers in the world – absolutely no question about it.) I gave into a kind of cycling psychotic road rage that had me yelling a running commentary on the drivers around me (‘brilliant move asshole’ as I watched an auto rickshaw pass a stopped school bus, narrowly avoiding hitting children and cutting me off in the process) and which sometimes just deteriorated into me yelling fuck off at the top of my lungs to a bus, two inches from my mirror and honking as though he was trying deafen me. Of course no one could hear me above the din and they couldn’t understand me if they did…when Ian started experiencing the same psychosis we realized we might be coming to the end of our time on the road.

We left Calicut and did our longest day, 90 kilometres. We ended up at a lovely beach (Thottada) and stayed at a homestay (really a guesthouse) for four days, recuperating from the road. We miscalculated the distance ahead of us, thinking we were closer to Goa than we actually were. When we realized we might have to ride another five days in crazy traffic staying in crappy Indian hotels in crappy Indian towns we re-evaluated.

Our tolerance for Indian towns had already begun to deteriorate before Calicut but it took a big dive there, perhaps because we had higher expectations of it than the countless number of smaller cities and towns we had stayed in and it disappointed us. We kept hoping that we might find an Indian town that had a few street cafes or restaurants that looked out onto a street, or a park with a few picnic tables and a guy selling pop. We have learned finally that this kind of street life only exists in towns or cities where there are foreigners. We’ve learned that Indians, regardless of what religion they practice, are quite conservative by western standards and there seems to be little social life that does not involve family. This is particularly true for women – we never see them out at night on their own and when we do see them out and about they are shopping.

This was driven home to us when we stayed at the Beach Hotel in Calicut. The hotel was built in 1890 as a British club and the Indian owners have kept up the Victorian buildings that make up the hotel and its three restaurants and bar. The first night, thrilled with our room (the best value so far on the trip and lovely) we anticipated a cold beer (I actually hoped for a gin and tonic) in the hotel bar as we got out of our street weary and dirty bike clothes and luxuriated in a cold shower (well apparently there is never hot water even when you pay 60 bucks a night). We imagined a bar with big ceiling fans and hardwood furniture and a view looking out onto the small garden and courtyard just outside the bar. We walked in and noticed that although the place was full there were no women. All the blinds were pulled down and the lighting dim. It brought back descriptions of Canadian taverns in the fifties when women could only enter some bars with escorts and drinking in public was a dirty sin.

So we walked into the city center, yelling over the honking horns so we could hear each other, sidestepping garbage, and carefully picking our way to avoid broken sidewalks and motorcycles parked in all the pedestrian areas. We looked for charm but any old buildings that might have had something architecturally pleasant were run down and covered in shop signs. We finally found a park and sat on a bench — there was no café or picnic table — and wondered how many more Indian towns we really wanted to see.

Payyanur was the last straw. Another dirty town with no street life, noisy traffic, bad drivers and another hotel restaurant with dirty walls where a guy delivers thali on a metal plate and then slops sambar (a kind of breakfast vegetable curry made with tamarind) out of a big metal pail with a soup ladle. Sigh. (Although we do like dosas and sambar and ate kilos of both at places just like this.) At dinner we tried to do better and walked about until we found a posh (ish) looking hotel. They advertised a ‘family restaurant’ aka no booze and women are welcomed. It turned out there wasn’t one. There was a bar with food…we peaked in…The room was clean and modern with imitation leather upholstered chairs in good shape. But all heads turned when we opened the door, and they were all male and they were all getting loaded. We found a less posh family restaurant and were happy to get an English menu. The friendly enthusiastic owner asked us how we liked India, and with some guilt we lied. Lovely we said. Wonderful people (well that’s true for the most part). Very beautiful (read it might be if you guys would quit throwing garbage everywhere and pay even the remotest attention to architecture and regulating building signs and possibly reserving a little green space and understanding that ultimately urban living means more than women staying at home with the kids while men go out and get pissed in dark caverns).

Ok that’s all probably very culturally biased and spoiled westerner but that’s how I feel after cycling 900 kilometres. However, I’m glad we have done it because it has given me a view of India I couldn’t possibly have seen if we had cherry picked each destination, only choosing the ones that cater to westerners. We think this is how most tourists survive India. It has been interesting in a lot of ways and really we are just burned out which is not that unusual. We’ve heard of many people who get tired of India and fly to Thailand for a break…

So, it has been interesting to see how most of the world’s population lives. I read a Forbes report while I was here that said that 90% of the world’s population has less than 10,000 dollars in assets. In India that means almost a billion people as the middle class is around 400 million (so I assume they are not part of the 90%) and then of course there is the 1% (people who make over 300,000 dollars a year). Why is this important? Because we always think we don’t have enough. I know people in the 1% who insist they could not live on less than 120,000 dollars a year – that’s their poverty standard. Once we have convinced ourselves that we can’t live on less, then we feel we are entitled to it and we become self-centered and start making political choices based on what we think we are entitled to. This is why the 1% keeps getting richer… and the gap keeps widening. So, yes, it is good to be reminded about what it really means to be wealthy and what it really means to be poor. Stable, safe and productive democratic societies ultimately depend on us making educated political choices that are not completely selfish.

It has also been interesting watching a society that is still very gender-segregated. I don’t expect India can realize its great potential until women have the same freedom as men. It seems to me that family values, in the west as well, always seems to mean that women get to work and look after the house while men are free to go out with their friends, drink too much and act like little boys. In my experience, in the west, where men and women can drink in the same bars, I see less drunkenness and less leering. This is at least partly because everyone has a better chance of meeting a potential romantic partner when they aren’t leering like lewd idiots and getting shit-faced – it’s just not an attractive look…

So, the cycling in India and visiting crap Indian towns is now a wrap. From now on we will be cherry picking our Indian destinations from the comfort of our big white taxi.

On to Goa!