Sunday, 21 February 2010

Ooty to Pondicherry and many adventures in between

So, I have finally arrived in Pondicherry, without losing any parts of me on the road. I have had many more adventures along the way but have been too tired to write about them in the evenings. I shall try and catch up a little now before it is too old to be news.

Ooty to Coimbatore

The ride from Ooty to Coimbatore was great. I meant to plot my route out on a google maps to highlight all the roads that I took that were not on the map, but now I don't have time. I tried to take the most direct yet most "off-piste" route I could find and was actually heading to Palakkad but never made it. The mountain roads were tiny and the only traffic for most of the way was the occasional motorbike. The scenery was stunning, particularly when I headed off the map into what appeared to be national park and I had the impression I was going places I was not supposed to be. I conveniently picked up a hitch-hiker just before I passed through a check point and they probably didn't stop me because they thought my passenger was my guide. My passenger warned me that there were elephants about. Although the roads in the park were very good, the last 200 meters leading onto a main road was just a dirt track that passed through a badly maintained fiord. I had the impression that the badly maintained section served to protect the tribal communities within park from tourism or something. The route that I took was actually a great short cut and could shorten someone's journey from a couple of hours to just half an hour. I had asked in Ooty if there was a pass through the mountains there but no one seemed to know about it and only found it by studying my google satellite images.

I next attempted a short cut through some mountains that I had not identified on my maps but it unfortunately fizzled out to a track after 20 km, just 10 km from Palakkad. A local told me I could go no further and because it was getting dark in a couple of hours I thought I'd take his advice. He offered me a place to stay for free and at first I accepted but then I realised that he had been drinking and didn't feel I could trust him. When I drew out of him that he would be expecting a Rs. 500 donation I told him that was not acceptable to make such demands after being told I was a guest, so took my opportunity to escape before it got too dark to leave.

Integrated Rural Technology Centre (IRTC)

I learned about this NGO in Mysore from another guest at the youth hostel I was staying at. I found them very welcoming and they even offered me a room for the night and I ended staying for two. The place has a positive feel about it, which has much to do with that many people, young and older, live on campus so that care is taken to provide a pleasant atmosphere with seating, plenty of vegetation for shade and the buildings are artistically designed. As the name suggests, the institute focuses on improving rural lives with the application of science, in similar way to ARTI, which I visited in Phaltan. Its campus is extensive, with departments for every discipline. They also believe in organic agriculture, although I had the impression that bringing money into the countryside took presidency over issues of sustainability and the environment. An example of this is their animal breeding department. I felt that their rabbits and pigs were kept in too cramped and dull conditions and reflected too closely practices of intensive meat production, which I consider unsustainable and unethical. Questions of sustainability arise from the inefficient use of land and energy if the animals are fed on crops grown on land that otherwise could be used to directly produce food. There is also an increased risk of creating new diseases due to cramped breeding conditions. I feel such practises are mainly unethical due to the level of boredom experienced by the animals being deprived of their natural activities.

One area of research they are undertaking that interested me is in the use of bacteria to help in the uptake in phosphates and minerals by plants. Enabling plants to be grown in lower nutrient conditions sounds like a good thing, however, it does not get around the problem that if you remove nutrients from a farm that you have to bring them back again. Perhaps the research will help in understanding how organic composts can be improved. Other areas they work on is teaching local people how to make soap, how to grow a popular variety of mushroom and how to improve the value of locally produced pots with colourful glazes. They also take part in a government watershed project, that is, to create a database of the available water and its current use so that the government can make recommendations about what crops are better to grow in which regions so that water is shared more fairly to improve productivity.

Further South

From IRTC I travelled through Eravikulam National Park in which I was told I wouldn't meet any more elephants. However, only after about 5 km into the park I spotted movement in the bushes and quickly stopped when I realised it was another herd of elephants lurking by the road side. I waited at a safe distance on a bridge for 10 minutes for them to go. I imagined they were waiting to ambush me, but after a short trumpet they disappeared into the jungle and I slowly and, as silently as my motor allowed, slinked passed.

The ride up to Munnar was again stunning. Partly, in fact, due to the tea plantations that created many views and an interesting patterns. At a tea factory museum I met my first lone motorbike traveler and we decided to travel the next day together. He was an experienced motorbiker from the UK and was riding an Royal Enfield Bullet. The next day was also a stunning ride to Thekkady, which is the most South I reached. It was nice to ride with someone else for a change, but his speed, mostly because he had better acceleration than me, was somewhat faster than I liked and I also felt a bit restricted, being slower, in stopping too frequently to take photos. Thus, although it was nice to have some company for a change I was quite happy to go separate ways and headed off down the mountains to the exciting sounding place of Cumbum. It was not actually a pleasant place and I couldn't even find any budget accommodation. To make things harder, all the places that said "hotel" were in fact just restaurants - unless they were keeping a different side of their business secrete. I eventually found a place to rest for Rs. 120 out of town on Cumbum Road.

An unexpected break

The next day I tried to make some progress and hurried North-East towards Pondicherry but after an hour or two I was tempted to go exploring by mountains I was passing. I followed a small road into the foothills, pretty sure that it would be a dead end yet amazed at the quality of the road, including road signs warning one of sharp bends despite that there didn't seem to be any traffic. Low and behold the road suddenly ended in a small path which I didn't feel like following any further considering I was running on my reserve tank.

On my way back to the main road I was, unusually, hailed by a woman in a field. She seemed very keen to talk to me so I guessed she probably spoke English and I obliged and stopped. She spoke English well and asked the usual questions as to where I was going and where I was from. She then offered me a coconut to drink which she knocked from one of her trees and invited me back to her house. I agreed and also agreed to wait for her to cook some lunch. She didn't want any payment and just seemed keen to practise her English and for the company. I learned that she was 58, was a widow having been divorced because (I think) she could not have any children. She had been an English teacher in a college when she was younger and had plenty of money at the time and even built a house. But for whatever reason she seemed to have lost most her money and the rest was tied up in the house she had given to her brother. She had returned to a farming life, partly to save money, partly to experience the simple life she had known as a child and partly as financial security because she had no children. She had just planted some coconut trees, which, within five years will provide her with a steady income. All she has to do is turn on a switch to irrigate the trees and employ a local lad to pick them. She also had two cows and a calf, a number of chickens and a cat. Both of the cows look like Jerseys (but are probably not) and are producing milk, which provides a daily income. They are milked twice a day by a milk boy that visits on a moped on which he carries two milk urns, a milking bucket, a measuring jug and a sieve.

Time passed as I walked with her to move her cows to a new grazing area and she told me the uses of different plants on the way and eventually I had to make up my mind if I should leave. She invited me to stay a night in her one room house and I decided to take up her offer with the promise of more tasty food. It was a lazy pleasant evening with intrigued neighbours dropping by to visit. The night was a little uncomfortable sleeping on a wooden board but I slept well and didn't notice when the women lay down to sleep her on usual mat on the floor, or when she got up. In the morning I learned that not all neighbours were so friendly, with the neighbour opposite apparently accusing us of stealing another neighbour's coconuts and for having an affair. She told me she was often having arguments with the neighbour, because, she claimed, that he was jealous and particularly now that I was visiting her. He thought, as did other neighbours, that I would be sending lots of money to her when I got home. It is a pity, but I guess it is expected. She was upset by the neighbour and that I was leaving after a brief moment of pretending that I was her son. Since she did not accept any payment I guess I am obliged now to send something.

River crossing

My next adventure was when I tried to follow a minor road that was clearly marked on the map but turned out to be missing a bridge. Perhaps the old one was washed away because they were building a new one at a different location to that marked on the map. I managed to find a local that could talk English to ask if there was another a bridge that I could cross. There was not, without extending my journey by three hours or going back and neither options sounded appealing because I did not know if I had sufficient petrol. However I was told that the river was only shin deep and that some people did manage to take their motorbikes across. I decided to have a look to see if it was as deep as they said. I was instructed how to make the crossing - that was to run next to my bike with the engine running. I tried this at a walking pace across some shallower water to a sand bank a short way across, but found the water in fact in the centre of the river was knee deep. I was about to turn back when a local confidently said that he could take my bike across. I decided to risk it and swapped my bike for his bag of rice. He did an impressing job, splashing through the water with my bike's engine racing and the water coming well over the exhaust and up the engine. If he had made a mistake and stalled the engine I don't think it would have been possible to start again and I don't know what would have happened to it and my bag. It was a big crossing as you can see from the picture. Unfortunately I don't have a picture of the heroic moment because I didn't dare drop his bag of rice to remove my camera.

The rest of my journey was quite uneventful and I arrived in Pondichery on Wed 17 February and arrived at Sadhana Forest, Auroville, the following morning. It is really quite a special place. I no doubt will write a lot about it shortly.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Charged by an Elephant

6 February 2010

When I decided to take a main highway through some jungle at Bandipure National park, I did not realise I would be in more danger from the wildlife than from the Indian lorry and bus drivers. Having passed halfway through the jungle I only saw a few deer and a number of monkeys. Then, as I came around a corner I met a herd of elephants crossing the road. An Indian family were stopped a little back from them in a car and were taking photos. I turned my engine off and rolled up a bit back from the car and took out my camera and took a couple of photos. I don't know how close I was, but close enough as you probably can gauge from my photo taken with my camera that has very little zoom. All seemed quite safe because the elephants just minded their own business and continued into the forest, until, that is, the car in front decided it would continue. When the car passed behind the elephants it angered a young bull elephant and it ran back to see the car off. It was then that I realised I was very exposed, but my keys were not in my ignition - I had no quick escape!

I didn't waste any time and started pushing my bike around back the way I came while I desperately thought what I could have done with my keys. Without my engine I could not outrun the elephants. I saw that the elephant had seen me but he didn't look like he was angry enough to charge just yet. I was contemplating whether, if he did chase me, if I should ditch my bike and run to climb up a tree. Suddenly I remembered where my keys were: in the lock of my panniers where I kept my camera. Now I really felt stupid. "He was killed by an elephant because he disobeyed the signs not to take photos". These thoughts probably only took a few moments to go through my mind, and once I had my keys back in my ignition I felt safe again because I had confidence in my engine to start quickly and take me safely away. By this time the elephant was distracted by another car that approached and stopped on the other side, so I didn't need my engine and rolled my bike gently to the bend in the road. A park ranger passed in a 4x4 at this point and asked what was the problem and I pointed at the elephant that was standing guard by the roadside. The ranger drove up to elephant and reved his engine in attempt to drive it away but it only receded a little way back into the woods. A number of cars also arrived from both sides and whenever they passed the elephant would race back, trumpeting angryly. I continued to wait until the elephant ventured further back into the forest and someone waiting to pass in their car suggested that it was my chance to go. I would have waited longer, but also feeling pressure from the fading light I decided to go for it. As soon as I approached the crossing point the elephant saw me and started charging back. I had a moment to think whether I would still go for it or turn back and I decided to race the elephant to the crossing point. Having had a head start I was easily able to beat him, as long as I continued to accelerate, but I did wonder what would happen if my engine suddenly failed. As I raced away and the elephant trumpeted after me, again, I felt a bit foolish and felt as if I had a dogs tail between my legs. I hurried to the next village closely following a car for protection and booked myself into the first available room. This evening I learned that motor bikers have been killed by elephants in the forest. Now why didn't the rangers tell me at the check point I passed?

7 February 2010

I am now in Ooty, pretty a town 1350 m above sea level in the Western Ghats. There seems to be a competition between churches, temples as well as mosques here, with some churches it seeming to broad cast their sermons over load speakers - not to be out done by the temples that play their traditional religous music and the mosques that try and hypnotise you with their chants.

I am deciding where to go next. Since my last post I have been in Mangalore for a night and in Mysore for three nights. It was tempting to stay longer at Gokarna since I was beginning to make friends and it was a relaxing pleasant place to stay, but I felt I had plenty more to see in India so left again after just three nights (or was it four). Mysore was again a pleasant place to stay with its wide streets and less traffic. There were many no-horn signs about the city so it was also a lot quieter. It feels like a very new place because there are so many new fancy buildings. Even the palace is only 100 years old and much of the iron work manufactured in Glasgow.

I have begun to accumulate a number of photos I'd like to share but haven't had much time to organise them. Why, when I have taken a whole year off to explore a country am I always in a hurry?! A few sights that interested me was a lonely tree covered with bee hives - I have no idea why they liked that particular tree so much - perhaps they enjoyed being neighbours. I found another tree that seemed to be home to about 10 eagles - I don't know what kind. They had white heads. In Mysore I was amazed by the the housing estates of uniquely built expensive mansions.

From most of India I have the impression that they don't really care what their homes look like on the outside, but give them a bit of call centre money and it is amazing what they come up with! Sorry, I probably sound a bit patronising. But the truth is that I find most Indian people very funny: They approach a problem in always twos and threes, enthusiastically, and create so many bodged jobs. I have learned not to ask for any help fixing something because I can guarantee that it will be tied together with a warn out piece of string and it will take many attempts to make it work. Their building techniques look a joke when they are a mess of wonky sticks and rope supporting concrete moulds and everything is carried on the heads of a hoard of labourers. Not an energy saving pulley or wheel barrow in sight. Yet anyone with a bit of money is able to create themselves most impressive looking houses such that you would rarely see in the UK.