Last Updated on October 1, 2020 by Pankaj Mangal
I held a snapshot of Kerala in the month of November last year. It started in Munnar where the air was suspended with chill, and I spent my day walking around the town and hiking up the tea hills. My friend Pankaj and his tour guests, BJ and David arrived that evening, cycling their way from Cochin.
The next day, we started rolling down the curvy roads of Munnar when the morning sun was relentlessly intense, as were the drivers on the road – honking to remind me of the slack that I was leaving behind with each push of the peddle. A decision had to be made and I told my friend I would take my time and understand the bicycle, the twitching of the gears and its effect on forward movement. As planned, I reached the tea museum alright to join the rest of my bicycle-mates. When we started cycling again after spending time at the museum, I was relaxed but didn’t anticipate the journey of 25 kilometers to Chinnakanal to take as long as it did.
The route was scenic as if adorned to charm the tourists passing through them. The locals were in the early stages of familiarizing themselves with these leisure cyclists in specialized gear (not mine though), traversing their everyday paths. I have a fond memory of being enveloped in a canopy of aged dark-green trees from this early ride. It felt intimate.
As we arrived in Chinnakanal, we learnt that a mild-mannered protest against a court order regarding the preservation of Western Ghats that broke-off the previous day had grown in size. Locals decided to get serious about the strike, leaving us with a completely empty day in Chinnakal. We however set out to cycle around in that unassumingly beautiful place. Starting at the head of a terraced hill, we wheeled down the road occasionally at speeds where we were risking it. Spinning around a faraway lake that seemed to be at the center and the road resembling a peel of orange layered in a conical shape. Some while later, we reached the waterfront where two buffaloes were grazing with abandon. Smooth was our time there, only to be shaken by the threat of a shower. When we decided to hike back on our bicycles, we asked around for the right way out from the tea workers who were not to have their day off from work even on a ‘bandh.’
The prevailing strike carried on to the next day leaving us with very little to do. Apart from switching our accommodation from a 3-star hotel to a home stay (less expensive and more comfortable even), we ambled around in the streets of the bandh-stricken town. I recollect I managed to go a little further into the book I was reading – Endless Love, by Ian McEwan – sitting in a café the name of which I don’t recollect. And then, BJ and David turned the table on us by hosting a dinner at a restaurant in Cardamom County. These two people drew me close to them as the conversation circled around all-too-familiar topics of family, friends, adventure, and holiday and more.
Ending our stupor in Thekkady, we geared ourselves for an intense day of cycling. I was dying to get into the cycling shorts that BJ generously gave me, after finding out about my cushion-less ride up the previous days. We filled our water bottles, squeezed into our pockets a little something to munch on. The road to Vagamon seemed as though it was particularly designed to challenge, engage and amuse in parts. Left far behind by the rest of them, I was briskly peddling on the flat roads that threw enough breeze on my face. There were the uphill stretches where I decidedly overcame the gradient without breathing through my mouth. So much poise I thought.
The words, ‘Jesus is coming. Are you ready?’ painted on a local church, went so many levels deep that it cracked me up and energized me for the rest of the time. Jesus, as you come, keep the weather as pleasant as it is now, roads as free as they can be, maybe even sprinkle few more people on the lonely roads. Amen. The thought of the end nearing on this continuum of a ride was a bit of a dimmer. We crashed out at a hotel in Vagamon waiting for tomorrow’s adventure.
Starting from the very top of the hills at Vagamon, it was down, down and down. A bit unnerving for me – I perpetually squeezed the breaks to remain in my orbit around the hill. And there we were, hitting the coast a little past noon. Over the course of the 4 to 5 days, I felt my endurance increase remarkably; I had a greater feel for the road and shed my clumsiness much to my own surprise. Where I was playing catch-up previously, this time I was ahead and waiting for the rest of them to join me.
The trip already felt full, but Pankaj caused a change of plans when he bargained for a good deal to spend the night in the houseboat along with BJ and David. Gliding on the backwaters of Vembanad Lake, beauty and magnificence were there for the asking. Schoolchildren boarding their boats to get home, boat stands instead of bus stands, few fishermen wading through, paddy fields, so green that it’s wild, sounds from the church. All of us silently agreed that words would pollute our shared space and time, and basked in the creation of our own collage of the scenes.
Time to hop out of the houseboat and start riding again. The last stretch of the ride to Kochi felt like a reward with flat roads sending ample breeze our way. Wind caressing every part of my body, my senses filled, I started to get an ominous feeling that this holiday had been too good to go on for even few more minutes. With the leaving of our bicycles at the Art of Bicycle shop-cum-garage, it did indeed end.
A vivid picture now comes to mind – a rush of red hibiscus occurring every now and then, marking my milestone as I went past. And just when the road had been let up by buses, cars, bikes, scooters, there was the whizzing sound of the four bicycles as if to say, ‘drink in this moment’.