Cycling the South of India. The ride, the road, the facts.
The South of India: Chennai to Goa around the coast.
The Ride: A 2100 km ride from the east coast city of Chennai (formerly Madras, the capital of Tamil Nadu state) to Goa, in the west. Moderately easy, safe, good food and accommodation and a laid back trip through a fascinating landscape.
The Time: Riding about 100 km per day you could do this ride in three weeks, but realistically expect to take up to 5 or 6 weeks. There's a lot to see and it's worth while taking a few lay days to enjoy the sights.
Traffic: Generally OK and at times minimal. On this route, there's just a few spots where the traffic gets busy. In its ebb and flow the traffic's about equivalent to Thailand. Expect the odd difficult moment, but on balance the traffic is easy enough to handle.
Make sure that the bottled water is "sealed". There is a scam in India where shops recycle the water bottles with tap water, although it needs to be said that this is mainly in the big cities. Small towns and road-side shops are generally OK.
Always check the bottle, and if it seems a bit suspicious, go to the next shop.
You can get the usual tea, chapatis and thalis (a mix of curries and rice served on a special stainless steel plate) but also distinctively southern dishes such as dosais (pancakes made of rice and lentils), idlies (rice cakes) and vadais (savory doughnuts). Idlies and vadais, along with a big pot of tea, make a particularly good breakfast.
However, when Mr Pumpy is sick of Indian food for breakfast (after about three days) he chooses tea, eggs, toast and jam. The toast is often soggy and white, but like most things, you get used to it.
A good breakfast or lunch in a small restaurant will cost about 40 rupees (USD $1) and a sizeable dinner of curry, rice, tea and yoghurt in a good mid-priced restaurant costs about 80 rupees (USD $2).
Accommodation: There's usually a good range of hotels in any sizable Indian town. Small towns may only have one or two hotels, usually near the bus station. These will be cheap but often grubby and noisy.
Indian hotels are not up to Thai standards of cleanliness and service (but then few Asian countries are), more on a par with hotels in Vietnam.
Hotels in India vary from bad to good depending on how much you pay. 100 rupees (USD $2.50) will buy you a basic room (possibly grubby and noisy), and 400 rupees (USD $10) will should set you up in an almost clean, spacious midrange room with attached bathroom and TV (it helps if you like cricket).
Often things don't go all that efficiently, such as trying to organise for your laundry to be done on time or getting clean sheets put on the bed (where's the pillow slips?), but this is countered by a genuine attempt by most hotel folk to be helpful and courteous. Yes, there's a lot of Basil Faulty going down in the south of India.
Costs: You could do the trip comfortably on USD $20 a day, eating well and staying in midrange hotels. USD $10 per day if you were budget conscious.
Internet connections: India is very well wired, and most towns have an Internet Café of sorts. If you can't find one, ask around. However, the speed is slow, so don't post/receive any big files. Cost is generally about 20 rupees/hour (USD $0.50).
Hills: The road is pretty much dead flat all the way except for a few sweeping rises at the very southern end of India around Trunelveli and Nagercol. However, some decent size hills start to kick in around Mangalore on the west coast and continue intermittently all the way to Goa.
The best time to go: October to March. Even though this is the wettest period, it's also the coolest, with temperatures generally staying under 30° Celsius (90° F) during the day. Depending on the severity of the monsoon it might rain every other day for a few hours, but it's not a major problem.
The people: There's a lot of them. 99% of Indian folk are normal and well behaved, and out in the country you will encounter extremely polite and welcoming folk that are happy to chat and share a tea. It's a perfect joy.
In the cities people can get a little more difficult and hassly. However, the southern Indians across the board are light years away from the their 'crazy bothers' up north. In a word, the local folk down in this part of the world are terrific.
Personal safety: India is one of the safest places on earth to visit, as apart from some areas around Bihar State in the north where banditry is more common, your physical safety is assured. The Indians are a remarkably nonviolent race of folk. However, some of them can be remarkably annoying, (see "Women cyclists", below).
Stomach troubles/hygiene : There's a constant worry about the food and water: will I get sick? Mr Pumpy remained healthy the whole trip with only very mild stomach problems. It's the luck of the draw, but a few precautions will minimise the risk.
Middle sized restaurants, where you can't see the kitchen are the real worry from a stomach bug point of view. Five star hotels are generally OK.
Going to the toilet: Indian toilets can be pretty bad affairs, but most restaurants have them, and again, it's the luck of the draw. Some are clean, some aren't.
For guys it's easier, as along the way you can pee pretty much anywhere. A guy standing by the road doing No.1 doesn't draw much attention. Women need to be a little more discreet, and you will usually find a bush somewhere off the road to go behind.
No.2 is a little more tricky, but if you can't make it to a proper toilet, again, a bush will suffice.
You need to keep it all in perspective. If you did the above, say, in Germany, you'd be arrested, so don't worry too much.
To be safe, Mr Pumpy always carries half a toilet roll with him in his front handlebar bag.
Malaria: There is a malaria risk in the south, so malaria tablets are compulsory. As usual, prevention is best, so take a big bottle of roll-on mosquito repellent (Mr Pumpy recommends "Rid: Roll-on, tropical strength".)
Rabied dogs: Well, I guess they're there, but Mr Pumpy has never seen one, and more importantly has never been chased by a dog in India.
Not that a rabied dog is gonna walk around with a sign saying: Hi! My name is Toby! I've got rabies, please give generously.
The dogs in India are pretty out of it, really, and spend most of their time skulking around avoiding a kick in the behind.
If you speak to your doctor she's gonna go ape-shit. "Oh, no Mr Pumpy! You'll need rabies shots for sure. You'd be insane going to Asia on a bike without being vaccinated. Personally I think your insane anyway.... etc."
Mr Pumpy says, "Forget it, spend your money on a good bike bell."
Health insurance: Never leave home on a bike without it, just in case. Costs about USD $100 for six weeks full cover.
Cycling alone: This is a surprisingly hassle free and safe ride and can be easily attempted alone. As usual good company enriches the experience and shares the practical load, but is not necessary.
For women cyclists though, unless you're relatively thick skinned, I think cycling with a friend, male or female, would be the prudent thing to do, (see "Women cyclists", below).
Women cyclists: Cycling India should be a rewarding experience for women, as it for men. As stated, India, is physically safe and serious physical assault of Western women is almost unheard of on the subcontinent.
There is, however, the "annoying male" factor, the unwanted and uncalled for attention of a small percentage of sexually frustrated and emotionally immature local males. This can manifest itself in numerous ways, from relatively benign "schoolboy" sniggering to overt invasion of privacy: gropes and Peeping Tom activities (see Crazy India # 3, above left).
The fact is, as a Western woman, out on the street in India, you are a curiosity and will at times attract unwanted attention. After a hard day's cycle, it can get you down.
The best defense is dressing and acting conservatively. Wear short cotton pants over your bike shorts, and make sure you're not showing any cleavage.
Cycling with company is also a good idea, but the problem will never quite go away, no matter what you do.
Apart from minimizing the risk, in the end there's probably no other solution than to take it as part of the rich but crazy tapestry of life for the female Western cyclist in India. Keeping a sense of humour is obviously the best medicine, but this is no mean feat.
It must be stated, however, that the problem is really not too bad in the South as compared to what Western women have to put up with in the heavy urban centres up North.
The Bike: A hybrid or touring bike would be perfect for the job. I rode my mountain bike as usual and was happy for the all terrain mobility and thicker knobby tyres. A racer would probably be too light for this ride.
Bike shops: There are bike shops in all towns in India and they will happily attempt to fix whatever problem you have. It's best to stand around watching though, just in case they do something weird with the derailleurs or try to hammer on a part up-side-down.
Remember: In India, YOU are the quality control person. Stay alert.
The cost is usually very minimal.
Spare parts: If you ride a standard tourer or hybrid with 700 cc wheels you may be in trouble for spare parts (tyres and tubes) in India. Best to take a spare tube and tyre. If you ride a standard mountain bike with 26" wheels (like Mr Pumpy) you'll be pretty OK, as these bikes are common enough in India.
Anything else more esoteric that you think might be a problem, it may be best to take a spare. It depends how long you think you'll be there.
Punctures: You are gonna have a few, and it's best to take a good repair kit. The Indian puncture repair attempts are generally very poor, and the patch will come loose somewhere down the road. It's best to do your own.
Other Cyclists: A few. Seems to always be a few British folk on the road in India, some Australians, Canadians, Dutch, Americans and Germans into the mix. You will rarely find a French person on a bike - why is that?
Language: English is spoken widely and you'll have no trouble if you can speak a few words.
Hassles: A few flat tyres from the thorns on the road, and the bad local attempts at fixing the punctures. In the end, it's easier to do it oneself.
The buses and trucks can be a pain at times, depending on how many are attacking at once.
There's a constant worry about the Hygiene: will I get sick? This worry will never leave you in India, but the problem really isn't too bad. Outside of the usual precautions, you can be lucky or not lucky.
Women cyclists will have to contend with the local curious males at times, but again, compared to the north of India, this is not too bad.