Cycling 500 Challenging (But A Bit Harrowing) Kilometers in 9 Days in "God’s Own Country"

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By Jay Jacobson, member since the 1990’s

When the epic "wintry mix" weather hit New York in late January and February, I found myself on two wheels in South India’s Kerala state. Snow? The denizens of this glorious region have never SEEN it in their lives! Precipitation? Virtually not a drop of rain during these miles in the saddle.

In the words of Spice Roads Cycle Tours, who ran this wonderful program describes it: "Kerala, a narrow Indian state sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the mountainous Western Ghats, is known for its tropical greenery, backwaters, wildlife reserves and spice plantations. Its location near the equator combined with the sea breezes and cooler temperatures in the highlands makes it perfect for bicycling and lives up to its tagline—God’s Own Country."

For me, the highlight was the mountainous cycling in the Munnar area of tea plantations. It was a scenic feast! Serving as a backdrop for our pedaling were lush deep verdant shades of cultivated and natural vegetation ranging from palm trees to tea plants. The fairly well-paved rural roads were well maintained and lightly trafficked. It was easy to see why National Geographic names Kerala as one of "Ten Paradises of the World"!

The gorgeous scenery included many types of fruit trees and vegetables, flowers, rice paddies, farms, nut, pineapple and rubber plantations, rustic towns and villages, lakes and rivers.

Our group consisted of nine cyclists. In addition to one English couple and myself, all of the others were Canadian. All of us cyclists are married but two women and I were on the tour without our spouses. (Joan joined me after the tour for some other equally enjoyable tourist activities.) We were ably supported by a guide/leader, Safi and two bus drivers who also handled the baggage and bikes. I have been on over 50 bike tours and on all of them I never have had a better leader than Sofi. As on the other Spice Roads tours I have been on, there were no cue or turn sheets—the guide had all the turns "in his head" At least one of the support vehicles acted as "sweep" behind us.

The tour cost about $3000 for 14 days—a daily cost of MUCH less than all U.S. bike touring companies. It included practically everything except the $225 for the use of an excellent and well maintained mountain bike. We were on some type of pavement over 95% of the time but the mountain bike was appropriate for occasional climbing over curbs to get out the way for larger vehicles on narrow roads and various other unexpected road impediments. All of the meals and snacks along the way were included in the cost of the tour. We became used to dining on the Indian cuisine some of which was very good.

In my opinion, the tour involved significant risks for the participants. The roads were very narrow and rarely had any shoulders. In some cases a two-way roads was essentially only one lane wide so if a large bus or truck was approaching from either direction, we and our bikes and to quickly get off the road and hope there was enough time and space for this maneuver. 

Although we generally rode on roads without heavy traffic, some congested stretches were unavoidable. There were no red/green signal lights on the whole tour! At intersections, priority apparently went to the largest vehicle. (might=right!)  

Because there are hardly any Indian recreational cyclists (no females at all!), motorists are unaccustomed to dealing with them.  Indian drivers are apparently trained and encouraged to drive with their horns that are manufactured to be touch sensitive and easy to use. This sometimes creates a cacophony in busy areas and initially was a bit bothersome.  However after I became accustomed to it, I welcomed their sounding as they passed me opposed to their quietly whizzing by me just inches away.

India has 5 times as many traffic fatalities as the US with a population of four times ours. However half of their fatalities involve pedestrians, motorcycles and bikes... way more than ours!!

One of us lost traction while descending quickly around a switchback. One of our drivers also fell while he was cycling. Both accidents fortunately did not involve a motor vehicle and they suffered only minor injuries. One of the other cyclists, a doctor accompanied the injured man to the local hospital. She was appalled by the equipment, procedures and conditions there.

On the plus side, all of the locals we encountered were friendly and helpful.  We were greeted by waves and shouts of "Hello" and "Where are going/from?" All of the children in a school yard ran towards us, smiling for our cameras. 

The quality of the hotels varied. About a third were excellent and met or exceeded international standards. As with other Spice Roads tours in rural third world locales a second third were basic, no hot water and dilapidated. I concluded that in some of these excellent cycling venues, better accommodations simply did not exist. One night we slept in a tented camp and on another we slept on a backwaters boat.

We also saw large fishing nets being deployed, locals bathing and doing laundry in the backwaters. Many types of birds, cows, monkeys(and a few elephants!) roaming the city streets, spectacular mountaintop panoramas (one making a 22 km climb worthwhile), temples, churches and even a synagogue!

Even though we weren’t very far north of the Equator, the heat was only occasionally oppressive. Mornings in the mountains were a bit chilly so my rain jacket, never used for precipitation, was helpful for an hour or two.

Kerala has better health, education, longevity and economics demographics than the rest of India. We encountered very few beggars and little evidence of hunger.

This was my fourth trip to India (my second bike tour) and the country has made great strides by many measures during these 15 years. This dynamic and fascinating country should improve its public relationseffort to portray this!

Only one of the bicyclists came down with "Delhi belly". I think that by avoiding "street food", taking probiotic pills and eating bananas wherever (frequently) offered kept my GI system functioning normally during all four of these trips. 

The dogs just sat and watched us ride by—none pursued us. Perhaps because it was the dry season, mosquitoes were not a nuisance. Most of us took a weekly anti-malarial pill. Even though we didn’t experience any side effects I don’t think I would bother with them if I return at this time of the year.

Hopefully I will be able to enjoy more similar adventures in warm areas of the world in future winters.

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