Alf’s first recollections of India – 1989

Our first visit to India was in February 1989.

Our first visit to India was in February 1989. It was to Goa which, then, was quite unsophisticated, ‘untouristy’ and nothing like the Goa of today with the building of houses on what was farm fields, forestry and any tiny plot that could be found. Hotels and large road highways running its length has decimated and reduced Goa to just a very busy tourist state. Having said that – it is a lovely place to go if you are just looking for sunshine and good food. The beach was long, clean, clear sand for 14 miles from the mouth of the river Sal to beyond Colva. It was a superb, quiet, pleasant cycle ride we took often. Today it is beach shacks all the way. Teresa made a statement at the time before our next visit that ‘Your first visit to India will be either the first of many or the last’ – Meaning that you will either enjoy it immensely enough to want to go back often or never ever again. Apart from some great enjoyable holidays it became the base for our organised cycle tours from 1992 through to 2002 by which time we were travelling to other Indian States and venues. There was so much to see of beauty and interest. We enjoyed country lanes and tracks through villages and woodland. On any one day we would see as many as five different species of Kingfishers and other spectacular birds. Kites are very common. We also saw majestic Sea Eagles whilst cycling along the beach.

Your first visit to India will either be the first of many or the last

Fast forward to 2020. In the last 31 years we estimate we have flown to India around seventy or more (yes – 70!) times at the rate of two, three and even four times in any one year. Our destinations have been Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Darjeeling, Shimla, Sikkim, Madhya Pradesh, Utter Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu to the southern most tip of India – Cape Comorin. The Punjab. Not forgetting, of course – Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar, and many other large cities and towns. Teresa was right – We enjoyed our first visit so much we continue to go back.

When running the cycle tours we learnt there was one thing you must not do whilst riding on the back roads and villages of India, never ask a direct question, like: ‘Is this the way to Rathambor?’ The answer will be;‘Yes sir, straight left’. So what is ‘straight left’ or ‘straight right’? Never accurate and often misleading. It proved to be more instructive if one just mentally folded their arms and asked; ‘What is the way to Rathambor? The Indian people are lovely folk and as we found so many times over the years when we took groups of cyclists to various states in India, they would rather be helpful than accurate!.

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India – Where to begin? India is crowded, noisy, friendly, surprising and an intoxicating country. All of this hits you as you leave the airport.

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When arranging the cycle tours we made a point of keeping to country roads, avoiding the main highways. This, obviously took us through areas that were not able to contend with ‘road’ traffic. There was one occasion when our bus (we used a bus to carry all luggage and the less fit riders) when we had to cross a wide river. But we had a problem! If the driver tried to enter the river he would have ‘bottomed out’ on the river bank and unable to go further. Our very enterprising interpreter spoke to the villagers who, without any fuss, immediately dug away the entry into the river and enabled us to cross. I must add an extra note here – The river was about 50 metres wide and very rocky. The ‘roadies’ rode through with just a few upsets but the mountain bikers seem to struggle. Teresa – bless her cotton socks, rode the whole width without fault, water up to her shins. Me ? – I was, of course, the tour leader and used the excuse not to get involved. OK – it did cost me a couple of hundred rupees to the villagers for their work.

We have always endeavoured to use only country roads, avoiding the highways or tourist spots at all times. This, invariably, meant that we were cycling through farming and country areas not known or experienced by ‘outsiders’. There was one occasion when we stopped at a road-side ‘Dhabbar’ (chai and baji stall) for a chai and few minutes rest. Obviously we were of interest to the local village and its people. Within minutes, as we sat around the dhabbar drinking our chai (cyclists – keep this in mind – it will give you energy for another ten miles!) a large (all of the village people?) surrounded us. Because of our intention of not going though ‘western-style’ tourist venues we always had an interpreter (Dilip by name) to ensure we kept the respects and understanding of who and what we encountered. Dilip said – ‘The whole town has turned out and is looking at us just drinking chai’. ‘Why?’ – ‘Sir – you have to recognise these people have never seen a white face in the flesh, only on TV’. There is a note to add – Of all the people we enjoyed in this remote village and many others there is always invariably only one that can speak English. On this occasion it was a man that must have been 70 plus!

Our cycle tours, with groups of 12 up to 26, over the years has covered areas like Goa, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Kerala, Delhi, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. We took non-cycling groups to Sikkim state (City of Gangtok) and Darjeeling, West Bengal. Our first visit to Kerala included a visit to the wonderful wild-life sanctuary in Periyar in the Western Ghats mountains. This is a large area that has been designated for a reservoir and for our first visit in November it was not much more than a very large area of lakes and water preserve. We, our group, made a point of obtaining a private boat to cover and inspect what could be seen whilst the whole area was covered in water. We made sure no-one would think of us as ‘tourists’. Coming to a stop between two land marks of around 30 metres from shore to shore, a young male Elephant emerged from the forest to our left, pulling grass and shrubbery, he set about thrashing the ground in a demonstration that we should ‘beware’ of their coming! The most fascinating aspect of this was when the herd emerged from the forest and proceeded to cross the area of water in front of us to a spit of land.

We saw adult Elephants swimming side by side, carrying a young calf between them with only its trunk above the level of the surface. When we went back in February the water level had then lowered considerably in just the few months revealing large expanses of grassland, interspersed with the patches of forestry we had been boating around earlier. This left large open areas of the original land we could see for long distances. We saw three magnificent herds of Elephants and many exotic wild birds. As we walked across the open land I suddenly came to a halt. There was a large snake skin – around four metres long – that had recently been shed by a python!!