Cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari, Chidambram tells us tales of his first bicycle tour along the western coast of India! Tales of people, places, cultures and helpful strangers…
Cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari
Often in life, the heart desires to do something different, something epic.
Chidrambram like many others, works a corporate job. In fact he has been working for the better part of two decades and is currently based in Mumbai, working with Maersk.
He believes one must have some other passion besides work. Chidambram has run 4 full marathons, more than 40 half marathons, sky dived, scuba dived, rode large parts of South India on a motorcycle, been to 22 states/ 5 UTs and more than 2 dozen countries.
He has travelled large parts of India, Europe and South East Asia, but there was an urge to see the world in a different way. See it in slow motion and his heart wanted to revisit India. He had wondered many times in life, how would it be to see the whole coastline of India, glancing at the map and wondering if it would be possible to see all the beaches along the Indian coast.
While his weekly century cycle rides pushed him towards a holiday on two non-motorised wheels.
And thus was born his plan of cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari along the west coast of India.
After 43 years of existence on planet earth, he set out for his first cycle tour, with limited knowledge of his two-wheeled companion!
Before Chidambram could think of cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari, he needed a shot in the arm to remove any self-doubt.
A couple of weeks before this big ride, he packed his bags and headed to Pune for a work meeting, on his cycle!
He started from Gateway of India and as luck would have it, met a seasoned cyclist as he exited Mumbai, near Kalamboli. Sudhir Chakole, got him in touch with another cyclist Shiva, who helped Chidambram prepare a detailed route map all the way till Kanyakumari.
Shiva prepared a GPX file on Ride With GPS along with providing him hand drawn maps.
After the morale booster of cycling to Pune, Chidambram started off on the 26th of December for Kanyakumari.
And here he gives us snippets of tales from the road. For the full story you can catch up with him in Mumbai over many cups of filter coffee!
What The Truck!
The human connect started as he pedalled out of Mumbai.
There were a bunch of shops dedicated to decorating trucks. With the amount of luggage that Chidambram was carrying it made sense to have his cycle look like a truck as well.
He asked one of them to decorate his cycle, trucker style! And true to their word, they stuck a big sticker proclaiming ‘love’.
Like a good trucker, Chidambram found his love in the form of his cycle. His companion for the next few days. He is a bachelor and thus will not be killed for loving his cycle more than anyone at home!
The truck decorators by the road side and the bike with a bazillion ‘love’ stickers on the frame after being decorated!
Beacon of hope!
With a fixed number of days to cover the distance to Kanyakumari, Chidambram was to religiously follow his route map and reach his target destinations for each day.
But where is the fun in that!
Instead, he meandered along in the general direction of where he was bound without making any attempt to hurry. He had a sleeping bag at hand and was comfortable with the idea of sleeping by the roadside if the need arose.
With all that traipsing during the day, he had to ride in the dark to reach Murud Janjira.
As he pedalled in the dark, he was being followed by a couple of motorcycles. Alarm bells started ringing. He stopped and confronted the biker boys.
Why were they following Chidambram?
The bikers said, “we saw that you couldn’t see, so we thought we will show you light“.
And then they rode behind Chidambram all the way to Murud, even helping him find a hotel to stay the night.
It is difficult for the urban dweller to trust strangers. Yet, at times one must give in to instinct.
The last ferry to the town of Velas is at 10 PM. Chidambram caught the last ferry at the very last minute! It was about to leave the dock when he hopped on.
Cutting things fine has its downsides. The town was asleep by the time he reached Velas. It was pitch dark and no one was to be seen.
Chidambram ghosted around town in search of accommodation. Google was of no help either.
It was a luckless evening until a bush on the side of the road parted and a man emerged from the depths of the shadows. But it wasn’t all that magical, as he was probably peeing behind the bush!
He took Chidambram to a homestay at 2 in the morning, where the lady who ran the show oscillated between giving him a place to stay or not! She finally relented and gave him a room.
It was one of those things which are meant to be, as he found out the next morning.
Seasoned cycle tourer Sachin happened to be staying in the same homestay but was riding in the opposite direction.
Boat in a moat!
Post Velas, there was a tiny broken village road which went past a temple under construction. And near the temple there was a small cliff overlooking the sea. It was one of the best vistas on offer during the entirety of the trip.
At the bottom of the cliff there were a few boats docked. Chidambram had to scramble all the way to the bottom with his bike to get to the boat. This wasn’t a ferry ride, but a regular boat powered by oars.
The boat crossing was the only way to approach the village of Kelshi. Standing nearby were a few labourers who helped get the bike onto the boat.
The helpful labourers were from Bihar and that is the reality of this place. All the workers out there are from other states. The labourers told Chidambram that one of their family had landed up in Maharashtra many years ago and the rest of the family followed.
It is sad that they need to travel this distance for basic employment.
In the village across the river, there was an old lady.
Chidambram stopped at her house to ask for water. Along with the old lady was an older lady. Mother and daughter, one a 100 years old and the other in her 70s! The grandson also joined in the conversation later and he was 50.
The old ladies chatted him up and as Chidambram was leaving, they stopped him. She told him to stay for food and leave the next day. The path ahead was unsafe according to her.
As Chidambram proceeded, she blessed him for the journey ahead. In his words, “I don’t believe in God, but it was a magical moment.”
It was dark and Chidambram was once again rushing to catch a ferry!
When a kerosene lamp nestled in between a couple of small tents caught his eye. He had grown up with the sight and smell of kerosene lamps at home. It reminded him of his childhood.
He stopped to click a picture of the object which is rarely visible in this day and age.
The tent and lamp belonged to a group of ironsmiths. They not only allowed him to take a picture, but invited him for dinner as well.
Chidambram hadn’t eaten dinner and accepted their invitation only to be ploughed with humongous quantities of food.
The lovely bit about this story is that these guys took Chidambram’s phone number and have kept in touch since then.
Sitting on the steps of Winter Cafe in Karnataka, sipping on a black coffee and slurping on a bowl of Maggi, Chidambram was accosted by an elderly gentleman.
When Ali uncle got to know that he was cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari, he immediately invited him home for a meal.
At his house he had spread out a lavish meal and introduced his grandchildren.
Ali uncle continued to keep track of Chidambram all the way till he reached Kanyakumari! And keeps in touch even now.
As Chidambram was cycling to Dabhol a guy popped out of a bush and asked him in chaste English, “Where are you going man?”
Not something he was expecting in rural India, in the middle of nowhere!
They stopped for a chai at the dhaba up ahead and the chatty man asked Chidambram, “Who do I resemble?”.
Apparently the correct answer was Anil Kapoor. Whether that is a good thing or bad, is open to question!
As one would expect from a Bollywood movie and its replica actor, he burst into song. He held the cycle’s handlebars and sang movie songs with the original tune but the words were dedicated to cycling from Mumbai to Kanyakumari.
It is a stark contrast to city life. In Mumbai even your neighbours don’t know or care about you as everyone is busy with their own lives. And there someone was giving so much time and attention.
Chidambram wants to go back to that place and meet him again!
On the other end of the spectrum were a few cyclists on the ferry. They had a backup vehicle and an even bigger ego. None of them were interested in having a conversation. Rather unfriendly cyclists!
At Tavasal a lady on a cycle got onto the ferry which Chidambram had already boarded.
She was riding alone from Mumbai to Goa and was expecting to meet a friend up ahead in Ganpatipule.
They chatted for a bit on the ferry and a lot on the road to Ganpatipule. Chaitra was riding with a tiny bag of luggage compared to Chidambram’s 15 kg sack! As a result he was pushing his bike up the climbs, while she was laughing at his excess baggage.
At Ganpatipule they parted ways, Chaitra stayed back as it was getting dark, while Chidambram pushed on.
In the dark, as Chidambram was walking up a hill with his bike a cyclist approached from the opposite direction. Out of the dark the voice said, “Are you Chidambram?”
If you aren’t a cricketer or a Bollywood celebrity in India, it is difficult to imagine a stranger recognising you. Especially in the dark. Chidambram was suitably shocked! He thought he was hallucinating.
This new cyclist was Sumit, Chaitra’s friend.
Sumit convinced Chidambram to turn back to Ganpatipule for dinner and the night. While turning his bike around, Chidambram was worried that he wasn’t hitting his target destination and number of kilometres for the day.
After dinner, Sumit and Chaitra attacked Chidambram’s bags and made him leave most of his stuff in the hotel. He is yet to return to that hotel and retrieve his jettisoned luggage!
Even after throwing out half his stuff, they still believed he had too much. And promised to reduce it later! Sumit and Chaitra with a lighter load were a bit faster and thus always further down the road.
The Konkan coast has a pattern in its topography. There is a small climb to the top of a hill which is flat and then descends to a backwater stream.
At the top of one such hill, there was a hoard of alcohol bottles. There were a bunch of guys who were collecting these bottles.
Apparently, party revellers from Mumbai going to Goa would chuck out empty alcohol bottles along the way. These guys would collect the bottles and go sell it off. On an average they were collecting 400 bottles in a day from the vicinity.
Imagine the amount of alcohol being consumed!
The night halt for the three was supposed to be Sawantwadi.
Along the way, Sumit and Chaitra decided to halt elsewhere, and their SMS didn’t reach Chidambram in time because of phone network issues.
As a result, Chidambram found himself cycling alone into Sawantwadi. A car approached him from the opposite direction and the person yelled out, Chidambram!
Once again, he was shocked that someone recognised and knew who he was in the pitch darkness of the night.
Sumit’s friend Pushkar lived in Sawantwadi and it was Pushkar’s father who was in the car. He had been looking out for Chidambram.
Unfortunately Chidambram was suffering from a stomach bug, fortunately Pushkar’s dad was a doctor! He advised an extra day’s rest in Sawantwadi.
While Chidambram was holed up in Sawantwadi, Sumit and Chaitra reached Goa, and Sumit returned to Sawantwadi with Pushkar.
The two then took it upon themselves to remove the remaining weight off Chidambram’s cycle.
Chidambram eventually left Sawantwadi without a rack and panniers and with only a tiny seatpost bag. They removed his stock of dry fruit, extra clothes, while he was thinking, “WTF, how am I going to reach Kanyakumari with only this much stuff!”
The reduced luggage helped him go a little faster.
By the time Chidambram hit Karnataka, Aiyappa season had started.
Just before Udupi, there was an Aiyappa Mandal and he stopped to click pictures.
One swamy saw Chidambram and invited him for a meal. He didn’t ask his name, whereabouts or religion. It was simply an invitation of the human spirit.
Out there, the entire village cooks a meal to send people off for the Aiyappa pilgrimage.
Normally the swamys eat first followed by the devotees. Chidambram was treated like a royal guest and was given the privileged of sitting and eating alongside the swamys.
These pilgrims carry their cooking stoves, vessels et al and travel together. They then stop alongside the highway and cook their meals.
Along the way, Chidambram was invited and treated to a meal by the Aiyappa pilgrims a number of times.
Chidambram reached Udupi around 4 in the morning and according to him it was magical.
After sipping on piping hot coffees at the railway station, Chidambram enquired about a good breakfast spot. He was advised the temple and he headed there.
At the temple they were reciting shlokas and chanting. It was a soothing feeling, something like being in a trance.
The people there were setting a Guinness world record. They were attempting to sing 24×7 for two years. At that point of time they were in the second year of the record setting singing marathon.
Those singers had congregated from all around India to be a part of it. They played in 6 hour shifts.
And because they had been playing nonstop for a year, there was no audience at night.
Chidambram was the only guy there soaking in the tunes.
The food for which he had gone in search was found at Rajeshwari Tiffin, right next to the temple. Heaven for filter coffee and south Indian food lovers!
By the time Chidambram reached Mangalore he had taken to riding at night. The days were just too hot to ride.
As such, he found himself on the Mangalore bypass around 1 in the morning.
He asked a couple of auto rickshaw drivers where he could get tea at that time of the night. The pointed him out to the railway station which was a whopping 7 km away!
A roundtrip of 14 km on the cycle for a cup of tea didn’t sound like a good idea.
So the auto guys told him to park the cycle and go in the auto.
One of the drivers, Rajesh, took Chidambram in his auto. In his hurry to get to the tea, he left his money on the cycle itself.
Rajesh was not perturbed about the fact that Chidambram didn’t have any money and took him to a 3-star hotel for a coffee. He wanted to treat Chidambram in that fine establishment because he appreciated the cycle ride.
A coffee, auto ride and heartfelt conversations later, Rajesh dropped him back. Only to refuse to take money for the coffee and the auto ride! A 15 km auto ride in the middle of the night is not cheap.
In Kasargod, Kerala, Chidambram bumped into a cycle tourer from the UK. Ben was sipping a cup of chai when they met.
Unlike Chidambram’s new ultralight touring rig, Ben was lugging around a whopping 40 kg on his bike. Ben had been on his bike for 5 months and was going to be riding and living on his cycle for the next 2 years.
After meeting they parted ways.
The next morning Chidambram had slept off on the porch of a shop. After asking the security guy there to wake him up.
When he did wake, Ben was standing there with his cycle. Ben had been headed to Bangalore and had no reason to be on the same route.
When coincidences happen it is best to play along and the two rode along.
A few kilometres of riding together later, Chidambram’s pedal came apart. They tried to put it together using zipties with limited success.
Luck was on his side as a Decathlon store was just 500 metres down the road.
With such good fortune, Chidambram was wondering if he should have bought a lottery ticket and become an instantaneous millionaire!
Culture Changes in the States
Chidambram had this to say about the changing cultural landscape along the Western Coast:
I rode through 5 states, Maharashtra, Goa, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. There was a considerable change in culture as I rode through the different states.
In Maharashtra, it was all temples and saffron flags.
People are very nice all along, irrespective of the different cultures.
When you enter Goa, you see women dressed differently. More western and liberal.
Before Goa, if I passed a woman, she wouldn’t look up. They would automatically lower they gaze. That is the kind of conditioning women have been given from childhood.
Udupi is the epicentre of Hinduism. There are 8 mutts around the Krishna temple, where they train the pandits and that gives the place a unique identity.
Then you enter Kerala which takes cosmopolitan to a whole new level.
Kerala cosmopolitan festivities
There was this place in Alleppey, Kerala where I was cycling through and there was traffic stopped.
I was wondering, this isn’t Bangalore, why is there a traffic jam.
Then I heard the drum beats, which were being played by Muslims. Behind them was a temple elephant. And behind them was a church choir.
In that town there used to be a Muslim peer baba. It was his birthday and the whole town celebrates it.
It is called Nercha in Malyalam. A carnival of sorts.
A few towns later I saw a church and inside the church the temple musicians were playing!
It was a wonderful experience of celebrating the diversity of the country.
The church compound and the drummers!
The Last Leg
With time running out, Chidambram was still far from Kanyakumari. His friends suggested catching a vehicle to Trivandrum and flying back to Mumbai.
After cycling all this distance, giving up didn’t feel good, so he decided to push as far as he could go before calling it quits.
He had about 24 hours and 170 km to reach Kanyakumari. A seemingly impossible task.
There was no signboard indicating the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Chidambram knew he had reached Tamil Nadu, thanks to a symbol of the state.
A larger than life cutout of the famous film star is a common sight in the state.
Chidambram though wanted to find the missing state entry board and asked a policeman.
There was an old, faded broken board which stated, ‘Enter Madras’. Unusual because Madras was hundreds of kilometres away.
A local there told Chidambram that the board was pre-Independence and a legacy of the British Raj. Including the name, Madras.
It was quite shocking that the government hadn’t bothered to change the board for 70 years!
Ajit is another superstar in Tamil Nadu.
Chidambram was clicking a photo with a poster of Ajit there, when some locals were talking amongst themselves in Tamil, “That’s a foreigner there, help him out with his photo”.
When Chidambram replied in Tamil their collective jaws hit the floor!
They said only foreigners reach there on cycles. No Tamil ever cycles through!
The toughest 30
With just 30 km remaining to Kanyakumari, Chidambram was confident of reaching without too much effort.
But nature wasn’t happy to be taken for granted.
The wind was outrageous. Chidambram was getting tossed around from all four sides.
It was so bad that there were places where he had to get down and push.
When he finally reached Kanyakumari he had tears in his eyes. A different feeling, something he had never felt before.
Motorcycle vs Cycle Travel
Chidambram has toured India extensively on his motorcycle and this is what he has to say on the difference between that and touring on a cycle:
The two are completely different.
Cycles are so much slower and you have to stop much more regularly. As a result you talk to people. And people show you a lot of love as they think you are doing something different and it involves a lot of grit as per them.
In Dhapoli there was a fair going on. A bunch of women started talking to me and on getting to know that I was cycling to Kanyakumari they clicked a selfie with me.
The love you get on the way while cycling is indescribable.
You also observe much more from the saddle of a cycle.
Riding at 80-90 kmph on a motorcycle you really don’t see much.
You talk to people and connect on a human level much more.
You SEE more and that is travel. After travelling for more than two decades, now I realise what travel actually is.
Chidambram’s mission wasn’t to reach Kanyakumari. It was to have a good time.
As he says, “the journey is the goal”.
These are the ride days of Chidambram. On some days he rode without a night halt for 24 straight hours!
Day 1: Airoli to Murud Janjira. 150 km
Day 2: Murud Janjira to Velas. 60 km
Day 3: Velas to Harnai. 45 km
Day 4: Harnai to Guhagar. 75 km
Day 5: Guhagar to Ganpatipule. 48 km
Day 6: Ganpatipule to Ambolgad. 75 km
Day 7: Ambolgad to Swantwadi. 153 km
Day 8: Sawantwadi to Madgoa. 90 km
Day 9: Madgao to Karwar. 68 km
Day 10: Karwar to Hannovar. 86 km
Day 11: Honnavar to Upudi. 130 km
Day 12: Udupi to Kannur. 194 km
Day 13: Kannur to Tirur. 134 km
Day 14: Tirur to Cochin. 131 km
Day 15: Cochin to Alleppy. 50 km
Day 16: Alleppy to Kollam. 95 km
Day 17: Kollam to Kanykumari. 150 km
You can also read Cycling Monks journey from Goa to Ooty.