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An epic BMW ride through southern India

The following morning, a little jaded, we were at Quilon jetty for the boat service to Allepey some fifty odd miles north through the backwaters. Lonely Planet, our bible, said it was well worth it. The pages do not lie.

Our local craft was a forty foot tub with a lower deck below the water line for stability and roofed along its entire length. This upper roof was effectively another deck with all sorts of baggage and woven baskets strapped to it. At the rear was the wheel house with a ladder down into the engine room. The lower deck was packed as we chugged out into the back water. Local people, chickens, goats and four piglets were our curious companions. This was a slow boat and like the slow from Waterloo to Portsmouth would stop at every ‘station’.

The back waters are an unusual and unique geographic feature of Kerala. They are a huge natural inland waterway system running parallel with the coast, which you can see at times, and interspersed with reclaimed land and lesser canals. Islands are there too, and small communities live and eke out their lives with fishing, coconut harvesting, and boat building, in a serene environment completely detached from mainstream India.

It was very, very beautiful, and very, very hot, down on the lower deck. We were the only foreigners on board and were allowed a spell in the wheel house and out onto the top deck. The sun pounded down on us but the eight knot breeze helped and the view was far better. In places the back waters are miles wide, almost a sea, and ancient looking craft running rice and spice to market had simple sails made from old fertilizer bags or recycled army tent canvas, a maritime exercise in quilting. It was almost biblical and pulling in to one stop for a local lunch of tapioca and fish curry I managed to study the boat building.

This was out of the Old Testament! The rice barges I had seen under sail from a distance were very sturdy vessels. In their unique construction the hull planking is formed first by shaping and stitching boards together, and the hull frames are scribed and let in after. Each board joint is rendered watertight by a coir ‘gasket’, again bound by stitching to the boards. I heard that in earlier times turtle oil and palm sugar was mixed and liberally coated throughout for added proof against leakage. Now they were using a black goo, a by product of the cashew business. At every stop goods were exchanged and all were excited to see old friends or family for this was their only contact. Our animal count was increasing in the goat department and by the late afternoon at sunset we were a veritable Noah’s Ark.

Disgorged in Allepey we just took the nearest lodge and had mutton curry (goat) and parotas for supper. It had been an exhausting but good day. We would press on to Cochin by bus in the morning to see the famed Chinese fishing nets and Jew Town.

I hate buses. I am not master of my own destiny and there’s no means of escape through barred windows. The same applies to trains in the Indian subcontinent. I was beginning to notice an Asian affair with bars, principally of the mild steel variety. Even homes were prison like. Within there is nothing worth stealing; most dowry gold is deposited in banks or with loan sharks for funds at exorbitant rates. I was beginning to discern a culture of, I hoped, misplaced distrust. Considering the zeal and fervour with which Catholicism and Islam is preached, I wondered whether the message was getting home at all. New to India, I knew little of caste and creed. It was and has been an illuminating and sad learning curve.

Others can extol the virtues of Cochin and I’ll just remember the mosquitoes. This journey is so long that a day to day agenda would bore the reader. I will mention those places, people and events, that had an affect on me and which I cherish with a smile or grimace to this day.

East of Cochin by fifteen miles, away from the ribbon development along the coastal highway, lies the small town of Alwaye and on its banks Alwaye Palace, again a former Raj Residency. Having enjoyed the decayed opulence of Quilon, this sounded worth a visit. Like most of our journeys in India and beyond, our destination was reached at sunset. It is always a magical time and the quality of the light and the colours it bathes are courtesy of all that ghastly dust blown high up into the atmosphere and far offshore. Another libran trait.

Alwaye Palace was built later than Quilon and its grandeur lay in the garden which only ‘lush’ can describe, and its location with commanding views over a broad river with no development along its banks. In the morning I could see from my verandah temple elephants being washed and hear the devotional bell from the Shiva shrine on the flood plain of the opposite bank. It was one of my favourite vistas in India.

We were drawn to the river’s edge down a ‘ghat’ to witness the elephant washing a little closer and managed to hail a ferryman. Where else do you find a ferryman but in Arthurian legend or Siddhartha? The river was placid, shallow and still. It made for a very tranquil and contemplative mood. The place breathed peace and through the clear waters only four or five feet below me the whole river bottom was sprinkled with gold, fool’s gold.

It was not a place to linger. I had captured the moment and the bike beckoned. We took the train down to Quilon on rickety tracks and scenic views of the coast on one side and the back waters on the other. It’s a worthwhile run and I escaped those bars by riding on the footplate between carriages, jamming the open door against the sink with my feet. The downside of the uninterrupted view and breeze is that you are next to the toilet which was none too savoury.

Back at Quilon no telegrams had come but the later evening brought the arrival of our policeman friend. This time we proffered the remains of the Chivas and learnt that on the side, Manuharan, under a nom de plume, wrote detective stories in Malayalam and he asked if could I get any books from the UK on forensic science. No problem. It was surprising that such a man had warmed to a pair of apparent hippies and I think he enjoyed frank conversation for a change. Thus came about the proposal.

He told us that he wanted to supplement his income with some business. I had that feeling that he was one of those rare and honest officers who did not lower themselves to extortion. Within its true definition bribery is rare in India; extortion is rife throughout the ranks. Could or would we consider importing cashew nuts? I did not see a great future in that but welcomed the opportunity to visit The Kerala State Cashew Corporation factory in two days time. It would for sure be interesting to see the origins of my favourite nut and we would pass the intervening period by going south to Trivandrum and checking out the air freight department.

Nearly a day was lost checking inventories to see if anything had come for me. We drew a complete blank and went down to Kovalam beach to recoup and form a strategy. On the way I had phoned home to quiz my father about the dispatch details of my spare parts. The line was bad and the call cut short. Still my feet and elbows were a mess, but time had anaesthetized the pain. I was really in need of some rest.

Kovalam would be a revelation.

An innocent at boarding school, on the excuse of youth hostelling to my parents, I had purposefully ended up at the Isle of Wight in the summer of ’68 which was our ‘Woodstock’. It was a memorable and unrepeatable event. Joni Mitchell sang the contents of ‘Blue’, Pete Townsend had a smashing time, and Jethro Tull was Krishna.

It was the largest ever gathering of eccentric and bedraggled youth in the UK. It has never been surpassed. At that time I was rather an academic with a baker’s dozen of ‘O’ levels under my belt and an insatiable passion for motorcycles. My brain was very much in gear, and despite the music which I loved, the haze of marijuana was abhorrent. I remember a particular occasion when I was strolling along an avenue of willow trees by a stream bed, within the extended festival site. It was nicknamed ‘desolation row’.

A lot of wasted people and rather ominous Hell’s Angels were tented there. A dealer came up to me. ‘Hey man, want any dope?’. ‘No thanks..’. ‘Hey man, want any acid man?’. ‘No’. ‘Heey maan, want any brown sugar?’. ‘No, no, man!?’. ‘Hey man!’, now with exasperation, ‘Want any heroin?’. ‘No, no, thanks no,… man!’. ‘Hey man!!!’, now with confusion and complete exasperation, ‘Hey man, what kind of freak are you?!!!’. I’ll never forget that one!

Turning into Lighthouse beach we were in a tropical microcosm of that event. ‘Abraxus’ and ‘Bare Wires’ filtered through the palm trees, scantily clad ‘beautiful’ people drifted about, and nubile topless girls frolicked in the surf with their thonged partners. The beach was lined with palm thatch huts which offered simple western and fusion food. Rubberwood and palm waste smoke seeped through blackened roofs from sootied kitchens, and from balconied fronts that all pervading aroma of chillums in after burner mode mingled with the gentle breeze off the Arabian Sea. It was Crusoe on cannabis.

I was now 32 and had been ‘enlightened’ in my early twenties at Stephen Still’s country pad along with the delight of pancakes filled with Morton Cherry Pie filling and double cream. My baptism had come with the strains of ‘Deja Vu’ and ‘Love The One You’re With’. The music, the pancakes, and more were here. This was the perfect spot to convalesce my wounds, do some swimming, and near enough to check out the airport.

The few beach front rooms had been taken, and as we only had the tank bag, it was easy even in the heat and humidity to amble through the palm garden and ask for a room. We were directed to the family house of Sambashivan who might help.

We were greeted with a broad grin by a very handsome man, my age, and who spoke perfect English. This was a surprise and the offer of beedis rolled with Keralan grass, cemented a friendship which has lasted to this day. His home and walled compound was neat and clean, with hibiscus, bougainvillea and a tiger orchid threading its way through a young guava tree. Sambashivan, Samba, declared the orchid was a portent of good luck. Designed around the concept of ‘vastu’, the Hindu version of Feng Shui, the bungalow was of local brick; the ceilings were boarded and the roof thatched with palm fronds. He looked after his extended family of two sisters and mother. His mother was quite the matriarch and within the home she had her personal ‘temple’ opposite the very cool room that was allocated to us. It was an honour, and moving, to witness her frail but tuneful devotional chanting. So different from the pneumatic din of chapel.

We talked into the night and learnt that our host had worked in London, even knowing Kate Bush (in the biblical sense), before he was pulled back for an arranged marriage and a life of censure. He took quite a shine to Paula but in the respectful way that only Samba’s charm had. He was a ladies’ man and Kovalam was good hunting ground!

It was too short a stay as we were obliged to return to Quilon for our cashew meet. We arrived at one forty five for two, and were surprised to find Manuharan’s car out front. This was a first for punctuality. Balu was in the wings beaming as usual and proudly presented a telegram. I don’t think he had seen one before. Foreigners, a police escort, and a telegram, were the stuff of this old residency and had not been witnessed in years. In dear Balu’s eyes we were very important persons!

The gram from my father read, ‘Suggest you investigate Indian postal system. Dad.’

It was a bombshell. Again I had ‘assumed’ and my dear old father had been confused in this transaction. My spare parts were wending their way by either air mail or worse sea mail, and not airfreight which is easily tracked. Without our wheels we were not masters of our own destiny and itinerary. We would be at the behest of rickshaws, buses and trains, relegated from travellers to tourists by my assumption and that two halfpenny bearing. Clearly our sojourn in Kerala was going to be protracted and with a Rudyard resolve, we would make the best of it.

It was a great novelty to be chauffeured in such prestigious company, and Manu, his short form for friends, was an affable host, advising me to check out Trivandrum Central Post Office for my consignment, using his name for proper attention and help.

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