It’s not all pungent and putrid though. The road from Kochi to Munnar and on to Kodaikanal over the Western Ghats hills is impossible to describe without sounding like I’ve swallowed a lexicon of hyperbole. The hills are full of spices, herbs and aromatic plants. The quiet country road roams through crops of tea, cardamom, lemongrass, curry leaves and any amount of other sweet smelling stuff which I can’t distinguish. It was the best smelling roads I’ve ever ridden along, and with no crazy trucks, buses or kamikaze cows it was one of the most enjoyable, just for the joy of being on a bike. But every road tends to lead somewhere, and that tends to be a town, which tend to have people, and town people here love making noise.
The noise. Down the West coast arterial routes the traffic continues to abuse you, anywhere between Mumbai and Kochi the coast roads are like playing chicken with a blind Russian shot-putter driving a juggernaut. Everyone loves their horn. Some love the concept of their horn so much they’ve replaced the boring single note peep or poop with an array of air-horns whose decibel level wakes the dead by playing the most annoyingly slightly out-of-tune tune. It brings a whole new concept to Desafinado (see the Carlos Jobim latin tune Desafinado meaning slightly off-key). The most elaborate vehicle owners have wired up a different Desafinado to play when they engage reverse gear …oh the fun! In every town the sound of market sellers loudly encouraging you to buy their authentic gift items and piles of limes manage to cut through the cacophonic cars whilst every now and then a Mosque issues a call to prayer. At 5am in Udupi the call to prayer coming from the Mosque that must have deliberately pointed its tinny-sounding ear-splitting speaker directly at my hotel window seemed to be a Desafinado loosely based on the top four notes of the A Aeolian mode. The recorded muezzin started on the tonic (A), meandering down to the dominant (E), wobbled around the dominant for a while, then made a valiant attempt to return to the tonic but never quite made it, instead infuriatingly landing about a quarter-tone flat before the recording started again. You may wonder why I figured this out, but what else could I do at 5am other than analyse the scale. At least it had more to focus on than Hampi’s monkey fight the night before!
The Hindus enjoy their festivals, and no festival is complete down here without drumming, horns (brass, not car) and Shehnai players. Shehnais are a bit like oboes but not quite as refined, double reed, very loud and slightly Desafinado with the horns – who only play notes from the harmonic series, but not quite the same harmonic series as the Shehnais are pitched at! There’s often a parade or street party going on somewhere which involves amplifying all the instruments through enormous speakers mounted on tractors and tuk-tuks, a bit like Notting Hill Carnival but without the dreadlocks and bass players – no bad thing?! My sat-nav app seems to have been programmed by my Dad who for years has been notorious for choosing “scenic routes”, especially when trying to drive across Europe or get somewhere on time. So the day when I was trying to do 350km from Kalpetta to Fort Kochi the sat-nav decided to go through some Dad-style scenic short cuts. The road narrowed from two distinct lanes to one, to a thin strip of hard-core before disappearing, replaced by gravel tracks, rocks, dried mud and herbaceous borders. Eventually it returned to a more tarmac-type of surface as I came into a small village in the middle of a forest of palm, coconut and rubber trees. The small village was having a very big festival. They were very excited by the arrival of a Western face on a big bike and I was immediately hustled in to the middle of their performance. There were 60-70 men performing, all in white cloth sarongs and no shirts. Half of them had big drums or small but earth-shatteringly loud heavy cymbals. The other half were facing them with huge natural horns that curled over their heads like serpentine sousaphones, and a dozen or so Shehnai players – of course which are not quite in tune with the horns. But the ensemble of musicians were amazing. The energy was infectious, the rhythm patterns in an unfathomable changing metre, and the tune, well they like being Desafinado here too, even in the villages!
In Kodaikanal (a hill resort in Tamil Nadu with a picturesque lake) one of the most unexpected sights appeared whilst circumnavigating the lake, a pride of KTM motorbikes with a swarm of riders. More than 30 guys, all with baby KTM 250 and 390 road bikes suddenly got very excited when I came round the corner on my comparatively huge 1190 Adventure. I was flagged down, photographed, interrogated, and generally made a fuss of. They insisted that I join them for lunch at a local hotel where they had organised their club meeting. Here I was treated like a guest of honour, interviewed over the phone by a bike magazine about my plans, routes, bikes, life and work. I was photographed by a local journalist and asked to go on stage and address all the bike club riders about what it’s like to ride around Europe and how is it different from Asia, and what it the most important advice I can give these bikers (I went with wearing decent protection and don’t use cheap crap tyres, they’re the only part of the bike which should make contact with the road, and their contact area isn’t that big, give yourself a fighting chance of staying upright and use decent rubber).
One of the most humbling and delightful sights and sounds was being treated to a private concert of dance, singing and drumming by a group of 9-12 year old children at the Carmel Matha Santhi Bhavan orphanage and children’s home near Kalpetta. I had promised a friend and dance teacher in Surrey that I would pay them a visit, but having been given only a day’s notice of my arrival I wasn’t expecting a show. There is an honest enjoyment of involvement and participation for no other reason that the joy of the event for participants and audience alike which these children show in spades that is all too often lacking in the more privileged parts of the UK.