God's Own Country

Motorcycles are dangerous. This is especially the case in India, particularly on winding mountain roads, and even more so when you’re only just learning how to ride. It was probably a bad idea to teach myself while I was there, but who can pass up on six dollar daily rentals? And really, there just aren’t many better ways to spend two weeks than to meander aimlessly around the lush, jungled Western Ghat Mountains on a Pulsar 180. I can say that now that I know that I have survived, but I had my doubts at the time. Every adventure makes sense when you get away with it. But the problem with getting away with things is that it it’ll tempt you to the edge again. And how long can that last?

 

I was riding right along the edge. I didn’t have any experience, whatsoever, with motorcycles. I hadn’t even so much as sat on one before I decided to take one out for a two-week joyride in southern India. I didn’t know where the clutch was, or which lever did what, and I especially didn’t know how to manage poorly maintained winding mountain roads dampened from the settled morning mist. It was also my first time in the subcontinent, and I was completely alone. This was an impulse buy. It was merely the cheapest plane ticket I could find to someplace interesting. I hadn’t really done any research, and I had no plan. But I did read a great article about learning to ride a motorcycle on wikihow.com, and after an hour or two of relaying back and forth along a relatively relaxed coastal road, I figured I was about as ready as I’d ever be.

 

So with all that in mind, I lashed my backpack onto my newly rented motorbike, mustered all of my hubris, and set out toward the mountains in the inky blackness of that hour before dawn — hoping like hell that I’d get away with it. My logic was that I should leave town before sunrise in order to beat the city traffic. I figured it would be safer that way, but I was wrong. Narrow mountain roads, speed, blind corners, and big, colorful busses are are a thousand times more terrifying than the slow crawl of even the worst city traffic. It was all I could do to suppress intruding thoughts of head injuries, broken limbs, and rural hospital facilities.

 

My starting point was Cochin, an ancient port city and capital of Kerala — an Indian state that stretches along the western coast of southern India. The city sits at about the midpoint between China and the Arabian Peninsula, and the influences are therefore an interesting mix of the Arabesque, Imperial, and Oriental. There are shoarma stands everywhere, giant stuccoed churches tower over tiny villages, and they have large gangly fishing contraptions creeping out past the shoreline like giant spiders that are apparently of Chinese origin.

 

Size matters on Indian roads. Big vehicles take as much space as they want, and you just have to get used to the idea of turning a corner and seeing a giant, well-decorated purple bus with flowers on the front taking up most of your lane. Motorcycles are at the bottom of this vehicular food chain, but the bus drivers are always kind enough to leave just enough space for you. You have to believe in them like your life depends on it. It absolutely does.

Cochin (also Kochi), is an ancient port city located toward the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, about the half way between China and Arabia. The influences, therefore, are an interesting mix of the Arabesque, Imperial, and Oriental. There are shoarama stands everywhere; they have big churches in tiny villages; and there are gangly fishing contraptions that hang out past the shoreline like giant spiders, that are apparently of Chinese origin.

Despite the bright pink paint, regardless of the plush stuffed animals on the dashboard, and no matter the fragrant chains of chrysanthemums on their grille, Indian busses are a terrifying sight. They loom behind every winding corner, they leave little room for dilettante motorcyclists.

My first goal was to make it to Munnar, a small town nestled amongst tea plantations, tiger reserves, and lush 8000-foot mountains. This was still well within established tourist routes, but it was nonetheless a rather ambitious first ride of about a hundred miles, which took me past everything from ritzy business parks, to slums, snaking rivers, and rolling hills of impenetrable jungle that eventually rose out of the tropical humidity into densely vegetated mountains that Indians refer to as “hills” only because theirs is a country that also has Himalayas in it.

 

A hundred miles is nothing on a well maintained highway, but it took me well over seven hours to make the trip. Thirty miles an hour is about as much as I’d recommend on those roads, and about twenty nine is all I’d recommend on a Pulsar 180. Even if there were such a thing as a stretch of well-paved straight road, the bike would shudder and make concerning noises when I ventured into the thirties.

 

I did manage to make it well out of the city limits by sunrise. It was quiet, and I was completely alone as I explored the rolling, lowland hills. Even India is peaceful in the quiet moments after sunrise, and by the time the sun was peeking above the coconut trees, I had made it out to a rural area where small farms and estately homes peeked out of the jungle.

 

I’ll never forget it. The colors in India are just different. This fact alone makes the trip well worth the while. The recently tilled dirt was a rich, reddish brown that contrasted beautifully with the deep green of the crops planted in it. Lush is an understatement, and the thick, humid air made the morning light behave in ways I hadn’t seen before. The sunrise rays struggled through a thick, waterlogged atmosphere at shallow angles, sapping it of its strength and casting the sky in a soft orange. The weakened light bathed everything it touched in the most intense golden-hour glow I had ever seen, but it didn’t reflect — the shadows remained in the cool blue of dusk.

 

This is the moment where I started feeling like it all might be worth it. I was still scared, the long day of riding still gave me plenty of time to second guess myself. The safety of the backpackers district in Cochin still beckoned, and the risk equation hadn’t changed. But how else can you get to moments like these?

This is one of those moments that I just won’t forget.

India attracts a lot of aimless travelers for some combination of three fundamental reasons: because it is extremely cheap, because it is unbelievably beautiful, and because it is home to various strains of vogue spiritual traditions. These days, a lot of the tourists come in heavy on the third reason. A trip to India is often thought of as a time to find yourself. It’s an Eat, Pray, Love kind of thing to do.

 

We, the people roaming around on motorcycles, certainly do run a risk of this no matter how much we try to channel our inner Steve McQueen. As for me, I’ll admit to being cheap, and I can confirm that the beauty of the place makes the trip well worth the while, but this was not a journey of self-discovery. I just don’t think that it works that way. Epiphanies and life-changing experiences are gradual. They require an open-mind, and are usually the result of a sum of everyday experience, rather than the fresh air of a mountain shrine. I don’t think that any specific place has the keys, much less India, and trying fast-track the process of self discovery with a brief interlude of aimless travel just misses the point.

 

I promise. I was only there to see new kinds of things, to meet new kinds of people, and to stare at green mountains. And at some point along the way, I just wanted to camp out by myself. That’s it. I had been living in the Middle East for the past few years, and life in the Middle East is a unique kind of exhausting. The Middle East also tends to be brown and dusty, and I was in desperate need of a break. India, on the other hand, was an extremely green foreign land, with whose intractable sociopolitical problems I was completely unfamiliar. It is a place with tall mountains, cute monkeys, lots of interesting culture, plenty of water, grass, and trees. I could meander about the place with that special blend of freedom, prominence, and anonymity that blonde people get to enjoy when traveling in places that aren’t Europe. It is a unique kind of freedom that I am grateful to have: to be able to explore, to interact with random people’s lives and point a camera, to feel safe and welcomed while doing it, and even just the freedom and capability of being there at all. This is my happy place, and I was escaping to it.

Munnar is situated in a lush valley that is well-known for its tea production. The tea is collected by hand. Workers use shears to cut only the leaves that are ready for harvesting, gathering them into bags at the end of the day. They are paid by the weight of their bags.

Any decent trip demands at least one random goal for it to be successful. It doesn’t matter how aimless you are feeling, or how small and arbitrary the ambition. It only needs to be something that will get you off the beaten path, and give you a reason to ask around for help. Don’t do too much research, and make it a little weird. It should be hard to explain. That way when people ask what your doing, your answer can become a conversation. Trust your gut, and of course don’t do anything stupid. You’ll probably be fine. Don’t don’t be disappointed if you fail. It’ll still be worth it.

 

It can be just about anything, and it absolutely does not have to be impressive. It is often the humble goals that make for the greatest experiences. You just have strive for a little more than just trying to visit a place. At this point, people have been everywhere, so all that’s left to chase are the experiences. So at least try for something that’s fleeting; make it yours.

 

My arbitrary goals usually revolve around my latest hobby or obsession, so these days I usually research an interesting custom, community, or festival to photograph. But on this trip, my obsession was to find a place to camp. I didn’t really care where, and my only requirement was that it had to be far away from any designated areas, or guided tours. I really needed the solitude. But as it turns out, the idea wilderness camping hasn’t really made it to India yet. Finding a spot in all those endless miles of natural splendor was more of a challenge than I had expected it to be, and the chase pushed me me further and further into the Kerala backcountry. Which was kind of the point.

 

It is exceedingly difficult to find a quiet place to camp in India for a number of reasons. For starters, there are a billion people and only so much space. Also, it turns out that getting crushed by elephants is a concern. Elephants go wherever they please in the jungle, and ultralight tents do not offer very much protection. The other thing is just that nobody really bothers to camp out in a country where you can get a decent room at a the nicest hotel in most towns for about seven dollars.

 

The search took me along roads that wound their way up into the clouds, through a narrow mountain pass, only to emerge into an unexpectedly sunny valley on the other side. The tall mountains blocked the clouds in the first valley like a dam. The pass was like a narrowing river brings rapids, and a wispy streak of cloud sprayed out the other side like a waterfall. I continued downward until the cool mountain air gave way to the thick, bug-infested humidity of the jungle where I asked the park rangers about camping. They demurred, and I retraced my tracks the very next day.

 

I got intentionally lost, I stopped at random paths in the jungle that led to nowhere, I asked around as best I could with gestures and a cartoon image of a tent that I kept on my phone. I did fail miserably, but I was enjoying some of the most serene and spectacular scenery I had ever seen. I was well away from the bigger towns, and the roads were not busy. I was actually beginning to feel comfortable on my bike. The luxury of aimlessness let me ride at a sensible pace that matched my limited skills. I could spare the mental bandwidth to just take in the surroundings. I stopped drinking water entirely. The roadside coconut stands were frequent enough that I never got thirsty. I was invited into homes. I met the people who pick our coffee. I stopped in those village eateries that only serve one dish. Some old guy sitting at my table laughed at my attempts to eat a runny mix of curry and rice off of a banana leaf with my fingers, and taught me the proper technique.

He is the third generation in a family that has managed the tea plantations around Munnar for centuries. I happened across his home early one morning while exploring the surrounding tea fields, and getting acclimated to how my motorcycle handled dirt paths. He invited me into his home for some coffee.

Their simple home also acted as a simple office for the tea plantation, where payroll was managed with thick notebooks and cash payments.Managing the payroll in the morning

Coffee grows only in humid climates, at high altitudes, and where there rain is plentiful. In India, each bean is picked by hand, and the workers wear colorful plastic coverings that protect them from the rain.

Riding through coffee and tea plantations is a peaceful, and generally quiet experience that is broken only by the staccato chatter of the roaming groups women who pick the coffee or snip the tea. I’m not sure what they’re actually saying, but it does sound like sarcasm. This picture confirms my suspicions.

The coffee bushes grow wild on the mountain slopes, interspersed throughout the jungle and forests, which requires manual labor to harvest.

After a few days of this, I was about to give up. It wasn’t all rosy: cold shows aren’t that great, and it is exhausting to be so foreign, and so alone. But I figured I’d give it one last shot, so I reached into my pocket, whipped out my super-computer, called up some high resolution satellite imagery of the area, and pored over it until I found a small dirt road that ended on the grassy mountain slopes that descend down into the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. It looked to be relatively uninhabited. It wasn’t labeled as a national park, or a wildlife reserve, and it wasn’t near a military base. It wasn’t particularly close to a town, and it didn’t look like it was fenced in. It looked promising.

 

But by the time I was close, that little voice in my head was whispering that I should probably turn around and head back. The fading daylight wouldn’t leave much time to explore and set up camp, even if I did find a spot. Getting stuck out in the dark wasn’t the end of the world, however I wasn’t in the mood for new challenges like motorcycling around backcountry roads at night.

 

But then I saw an extremely blue bird. I try not to push it too far with the superlatives when I’m writing, but this is South India — and we are talking about colors. So let’s call it a mystifying blue. I didn’t think that such a color could exist in nature, and I wanted a picture of it. So I stopped the bike, and gave chase as it flew along a small stream that threaded its way through the jungle.

 

Of course I didn’t catch up with it. But I did run into the retired physics professor who owned the land. His name was Johnnykutty, and in his retirement he decided to buy a few hundred acres on top of a mountain and more or less leave it alone. Sure, he did blaze a few trails, he did plant a small garden, and he did have a few cows. But for the most part he just loved the jungle. And he insisted on showing me around. He told me about the fresh patches of jungle that were popping up all over his property now that was letting it be. He told me about the local university, he showed me his contraption that turned cow manure into gas for the stove. We found some carnivorous plants.

 

He was happy to let me camp out. As is often the case with these kinds of things, it took a while to convince him that I actually did want to spend the night out on the mountainside, exposed to what was essentially the inside of passing clouds. But I assured him that I just wanted to test out my new tent, and I promised that I would come inside if it got to be too bad.

I did find a place to camp. Most of the time, it was up in the clouds.

Me, Johnnykutty, and his daughter take a selfie just before I hit the road again.

In most cases like these, no matter how much you want to spend time in your tent and read a book, the hosts just want to spoil you, the aimless traveler who has drifted onto their doorstep. Johnnykutty was busy during the week and couldn’t do so himself, but he insisted that one of the local tribesmen who did odd jobs for him show me around. And so, although I did manage to get in a good bit of reading and relaxing, I mostly spent a couple of days following Babu and his two kids around the mountain. We bushwhacked through the jungle, found elephant tracks, picked wild coffee, and got leeches all over our ankles. I left after a few days. I got restless.

 

The rest of the trip was fun, and of course also beautiful, but it was a bit of a blur. Absent my obsession of trying to find a place to camp, everything just felt a slightly less coherent, and lacking in purpose. I spent Christmas Day riding to a Hindu pilgrimage site called Sabarimala, hoping to photograph a colorful display of mass-devotion to the Lord Ayyappa, son of Vishnu and Shiva. Sabarilama is home to one of the world’s largest pilgrimages. Each year something like 40 million people ascend to a small mountaintop temple during the short period in December that is open to the public. The pilgrims prepare for the journey by observing a strict regimen of ritual cleansing and abstinence for 41 days. They all wear black, blue, or saffron robes, and carry colorful sacks of sacrificial lentils and ghee atop their heads as they make the hike up the mountain to the sacred site. The whole thing did make for some spectacular photography, but I couldn’t help but feel out of place.

This is Babu. He is a member of one of the area’s indigenous tribes, and although there isn’t a single word in any language that we can both understand, we could communicate just fine and his kids are awesome.

All pilgrims ascend to Sabarimala temple with an Irrumudi-Kettu strapped to their heads. It contains a coconut that is filled with ghee, as well as banana and rice for sacrifice once they arrive at the temple after a hike through the jungle.

I did not make it to the temple itself, because the crowd control required that everyone wait in line for hours before they could make the 8km hike to the top of the mountain. This is a precaution that results from past stampedes that killed numerous pilgrims.

It’s not that I wasn’t welcome. Most people were actually fairly curious to see a blonde American meandering about in a sea of south Indians. I just felt lost. I felt like an observer without a mission — a gawker without an excuse. Sabarimala was certainly a fascinating spectacle for me, but it is also a deeply meaningful and communal experience for them. So I decided to leave and make the long ride back down to Cochin. I ended up doing the whole thing in one sitting. I wasn’t really planning on it, but I found that I just kept on riding.

 

On the way down, I ran into a couple of families who were shooting fireworks in the the middle of the road. It was a gathering of Christian and Muslim neighbors, who were wrapping up the day’s Christmas festivities with a rather drunken, mid-road shebang. I hung out with them for a bit, but I kept on riding. It was an eight hour ride, and it was late by the time I made it back to Cochin, but then I kept on riding first thing the next morning. I rode until I came across a traveling carnival on the beach. The main attraction was this contraption that is billed as“the wall of death.” It too made for some great photography, but then I kept on riding. I finished the two week rental with a few aimless treks down the coast. I stopped to have some last coconuts on the beach, and watched as the fishermen gathered their nets at the end of the day, and then I kept on riding. I was just running down the clock. It was pleasant, and beautiful, and amazing. Every experience was it’s own, isolated thing. I’m glad they all happened. I just don’t really have anything interesting to say about it.

The wall of death is a common sight at Indian carnivals and fairs. Motorcycles and small cars ride around in circles in a rickety cylinder made of two by fours and rickety steel, using the centripetal force to keep them aloft.

The riders seem to be surprisingly bored while executing the death defying stunt.

Everything is more colorful in India. I didn’t have to add any extra saturation or vibrance to this picture to make it pop — this is just what fishing nets look like in the golden hour.

The Kerala Department of Tourism has been promoting the region with the slogan of “God’s Own Country” since the mid-1980s. It is a rather ambitious claim, and I’ll admit that I did scoff a little when I first saw it emblazoned on a weathered sign just outside the airport. But after two weeks exploring the place, it actually strikes me as quite reasonable. The natural beauty, the religious diversity, and the simplicity – they are all indeed blessings, and they exist in Kerala in such quantities that I do suspect that God has payed the place some special attention.

 

But did I have ride a motorcycle to experience it? Was it the only way to properly appreciate the place? Was the risk worth it? Did I have to be so reckless as to learn to ride a motorcycle on poorly-maintained, winding mountain roads? Is a need to escape the daily grind, and a desire to explore someplace foreign a good enough reason to take these risks? I think that it is. I didn’t quite allow myself to admit that it was a good idea until I had safely returned the keys, but the experiences you get when you have your own motorcycle are incomparable. The freedom to act on a whim, the lack of barriers between you and your surroundings, and the ability to chase an arbitrary goal with complete spontaneity — these things can open worlds for you, but they are not possible unless you get a little dirty and take on a few risks. Sometimes you just have to take an opportunity when it presents itself.

 

I wasn’t being entirely reckless. I have plenty of experience driving cars in third world countries, and I have years of experience navigating dense, Middle Eastern traffic on my bike. I figure that the two can add up, but I don’t really know for sure. I’ll get some proper training before the next motorcycle adventure. I promise.

God’s own country, apparently

 

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