Mission ‘Mazhu’ (Part-I) — Bicycle trip

Cochin Airport to Trivandrum Airport (February 18–26, 2012)

Prologue

My father had owned a bicycle from the day I can stretch myself to remember. He would commute to school on it each day. It would be lifted into the house at night and rested against the window in our front room. I would pretend to ride it, holding on to window bars, even when my feet could barely reach the pedals.

Those were the days when the number cars in town could be counted on fingers and only a few owned a bicycle.

I took admission to IIT Madras (1966) and the day arrived for me to leave. My dad asked me hours before I was to leave, “would you like to take the bicycle with you?”. The bicycle thus became a proud family heirloom for me.

I traveled to Madras Central Railway Station with the bicycle in the luggage van. From the station I set out on my bicycle in a new city, in another state, with no GPS or google maps to help me find the way to IIT Madras campus to start a new life.

Two weeks may have passed at Jamuna Hostel, IITM and a notice went up on the hostel notice board. “Outdoor Club is organizing an overnight bicycle trip to Mahabalipuram. Interested students kindly give their names . . . . .”. I had by then met Mohana Krishnan, another freshman, who had bought a brand new bicycle soon after landing at IIT. We both gave our names. “The rest will be seniors and they will rag you. Watch out”, we were warned. I remember the name of only one of the 3 seniors who made up the five-some on that trip, Neelmegham of Chemical Engineering. It was a memorable trip in which we covered 120 kms in 24 hrs. All five of us slept cramped in a 2 man tent, cooked rice-dal-kichdi in water drawn from a deserted well, saw the temples of Mahabalipuram.

I must have repeated the IIT-Mahabalipuram bicycle trip several times during my 7 years at IITM and also some trips to other destinations.

Twelve years (1973–1984) in Bangalore were lost to cycling. During my first twenty seven years (1984–2011) at IIT Bombay I bicycled to work and back but did not venture out on long trips!

On 12th December 2011 we were having dinner at ‘Tanal’, Thevara, Cochin and I was narrating all of above to a small gathering. Tharun (my nephew) jumped up, “Why not we do a cycling trip in Kerala?”

Idea of Mission ‘Mazhu’ was born that evening. Here I record Mission ‘Mazhu’ (Part-I). Chronologically Mazhu (Part-II) and Mazhu (Part-III) happened later. But I started working through my back ups ‘first in — last out’ fashion. So Mazhu (Part-III) appeared on Medium first followed by Mazhu (Part-II) and now finally comes Mazhu (Part-I)

Plans for the bicycle trip were drawn up by Tharun and I. Prof Hemendra Arya, my colleague at IIT Bombay, got interested and joined later. Suraj (my son) emailed from Nairobi indicating keen interest. But the distance and expenses involved made us wonder if it was worthwhile for him to join!

Prof Arya and I inquired with airlines about transporting our cycles as checked in baggage. “Only bicycles with both wheels detachable can be checked in, we were told”. We located German ‘Schnell’ as the only bicycles in the market that fitted this requirement. But they were available only in Mountain bike model (not suited for long inter-city rides) and boasted of 7 x 3=21 gears and disc brakes on front and rear wheels (all too common now). Not wanting to wait longer we bought Mountain Bike model Schnells and finalized plans.

February 17, 2012.

All personal items were packed in a haversack and ready. Several items jointly needed by the group (eg. bicycle pump, spare tubes, first aid kit, florescent jacket for the front and trailing riders, etc) were distributed evenly between us to carry.

Suraj reached from Nairobi by late night.

February 18, 2012

Early morning the yellow top cab reported — 2 bicycles and 3 of us (Arya, Suraj and I) set off for the domestic airport.

Suraj unloading the bicycles

We were at Jet Airways counter and checked in the bicycles in their original cartons. In another 3 hours we were at Cochin Airport. The two bicycles were quickly assembled (with small amused crowd watching every move) and we came out of arrival lounge to meet Tharun who was waiting with 2 new 5 gear Hero bicycles that were bought the previous day. These bicycles were delivered at the airport couple of hours before.

Schnells are getting assembled. Curious onlookers.

We four (Arya, Tharun, Suraj and I) started our journey from Cochin International Airport at Nedumbassery. First stop was Cochin University of Science & Technology (CUSAT) — a distance of 20 kms.

The stop at CUSAT was by design and that is how most days of the trip were planned. Start pedaling by 05:00 hrs each day; reach the next place of night-stay by 11:00 am; check into a hotel; have a quick wash and lunch; proceed to the engineering college nearby; interact with final year students for an hour or two; return to the hotel and rest.

Foursome on arrival at CUSAT Guest House. From Left to Right : Suraj, I, Tharun, Arya.

After two hours of interaction with the students of CUSAT, followed by lunch with a few faculty of CUSAT we reached the Guest House for a short rest. We started again at 16:00 hrs and pedaled 12 kms to Emerald Hotel, Vyttila, Ernakulam for night halt.

February 19, 2017

We set off at 05:00 hrs. The restaurant staff had packed sandwiches for breakfast. We were on Aroor bridge by sun rise and it was an ideal setting and time for breakfast.

Breakfast on Aroor bridge

As we pedaled along the National Highway (NH), we were surprised by a cycling enthusiast who suddenly appeared alongside. Mr Shibu Basheer was on one of his regular, early morning bicycling rounds. On weekends (that was a Sunday) he stays longer on the road. A group doing cross country cycling was rare thing those days (not sure if things have changed since then) and Shibu was curious. He rode by my side and we chatted. When it was time for Shibu to turn around and head for his home, we stopped by a Chaya-kada for tea.

Tea break with Shibu

We rode on and stopped just before Chetalai town for tender coconuts. We chatted up the vendor, took snaps, noted down his address to send him a copy of the photograph and finally got back on the road for the last stretch of ride for the day. Hotel Travancore Palace was just by the side of the NH and looked traditional and grand and we decided to try it out. It turned out to be a great place to spend the day. We had covered 34 kms on the second day.

Pay for tender coconuts; and local gossip is free!

Bath, change of clothes, lunch and we hired a cab and headed to College of Engineering, Chertala. An interesting 2 hour session with the final year students and we headed back to the Hotel to relax and explore the place.

Travancore Palace had a unique signature

February 20, 2012

We were up early and were on our way by 04:30 hrs. Destination was Alleppey Boat jetty (22 kms) to catch the 10:30 Alleppey-Kollam boat. My sister-in-law and her husband who live in Alleppey met us near the boat jetty and we had breakfast together and boarded the boat.

Breakfast at Hotel Yuvaraj, Alleppey

Boat was filled with overseas tourists and we were perhaps the only Indians on the boat apart from the crew. There was a stopover for lunch and we finally reached Amrutapuri by 15:30 hrs (Nearest stop to the engineering college we had agreed to visit).

The boat we traveled in

We bicycled 2–3 kms to a resort suggested by locals. It stood by the edge of back waters and would have been an ideal place to spend a night; but was littered with liquor bottles and appeared as a place frequented by men who wanted to be away from home and family! We pedaled back to the jetty and headed towards Karunagapally town and took rooms on the National Highway (NH) in Hotel Grand Muscat.

At Hotel Grand Muskat, Karunagapally

Place became a blessing in disguise as right next to the hotel was one of the biggest bicycle stores; run by a chap who had a massive order to supply bicycles to girl students as part of a government scheme. Owner was impressed with our mission and agreed to attend to some specialized tinkering to set right some problems we had with the Schnells.

February 21, 2012

We hired a cab to take us to Sree Buddha College of Engineering situated around 30 kms from where we were staying. Session with students was much better organised and we spent more than an hour with the students. Susan was a student at Buddha at that time. I met Susan again in 2016 at Trivandrum, by then a working professional and a smart lady.

At Sree Buddha College of Engineering

We passed through Oachira town famous for its Parabrahma Temple. The “Eduppu Kala” festival is celebrated there during December to January and we were lucky to witness the unwinding of the gigantic idols of ‘Kala’ (Bull) made out of hay and cloth.

“Eduppu Kala” at Oochira (‘Kala’ in Malayalam means Bull)

We returned to the hotel at Karunagapally, checked out and set off for our next destination — Kollam. We were keen to take a coastal road and hence peeled off from NH and headed westwards. Search for coastal road took us to several dead ends and we had to navigate through private properties, through narrow gaps between huts, across a deserted railway bridge that we labelled as ‘dangerous to cross pushing the bicycle’ after we had crossed over!

(L) Navigating through narrow paths. (C ) “Should we cross the river by this deserted, dilapidated railway bridge”? (R) After this no more turning back!

Soon we were next to the sea and had some wonderful stretches to bicycle along. We lost time stopping frequently to enjoy the sights and reached Kollam by 22:00 hrs.

Beautiful stretches we pedaled along!

We located a hotel within the city, checked in, had dinner and hit the bed. Arya and I shared a room while Suraj and Tharun shared another.

February 22, 2012

It must have been 03:30 hrs when a mobile rang. I woke up and realized that it was Arya’s mobile and he was busy talking on his phone. I could see he was restless after taking the call, but I was too tired to ask him why? By 05:30 or so he informed me that he had bad news of passing away of a close relative in Rajasthan and that he had to leave. We searched for flights, booked a seat by the first flight out of Trivandrum, arranged a cab and Arya was off.

It was Tharun, Suraj and I from then on.

During cycling our tea-breaks and resting slots were always at Chayakadas (tiny sheds that serve tea and one or two local snacks — usually parippuvada and pazhampori). We would park the cycles outside and step into the Chayakada talking to each other in English. Locals would have marked us as silly guys, sweating it out on bicycles when buses and trains can help cover distances in comfort. They will talk among themselves in Malayalam and laugh at us. We will continue drinking our tea and pretend we have not understood a word. Finally as we were about to leave Suraj will greet them in chaste Malayalam and their jaws will drop. There were so many such moments during the trip and we had started liking these breaks.

(L) Boy next to me and his friends seated on nearby tables suddenly realize that we had understood every word they had said! (C ) at another place an elderly guy was a sport when he discovered how he & his friends had been fooled. (R) this crowd became friendly and wanted to try out our bicycles.

We reached Varakala beach and took about an hour to locate a place to stay. ‘Bamboo resort’ (or some such name) is where we checked in. It was a clean and neat place and very reasonably priced. We three formed the minority Indian tourists amidst predominantly European tourists that had populated the place.

(L) Interior of of our room at Varkala (C ) Path leading to the room (R) A view of Varakala beach from a vantage point

We hopped into a cab and headed for College of Engineering Attingal for an interaction with the students. Back to Varkala beach we relaxed, stepped into restaurants, seated ourselves facing the sea and spent hours sipping coffee/tea or nibbling at omelette.

With students of the College of Engineering, Attingal

Varakala beach with its unique topological features was a wonderful place. Our calls back home and the way we described Varkala, motivated Tharun’s parents to drive down from Cochin and an aunt to take the next train from Kozhikode to Varakala.

We stayed the night of 22nd and 23rd at Varkala beach.

February 24, 2012

We started from Varakala early morning; 04:30 hrs or so. Trivandrum was our destination. But as we were passing by Puthenthope we chanced on a hotel/resort on our right. We turned into the property for a coffee but ended up checking in for the night. Wild Palms on Sea is a home stay (as they prefer to call it); but is a collection of cottages, run under the close supervision of the owner couple who reside in one of the cottages. We spent the afternoon on wards on the beach and the pool.

(L) Enjoying tea in the open air at Wild Palms on Sea. (C ) At the beach behind the Wild Palms on Sea

February 25, 2012

After breakfast we were ready to leave Wild Palms on Sea for Trivandrum. Suraj and Tharun were wondering what to do with their bicycles. The owner of Wild Palm on Sea made an offer to buy the bicycles at Rs 2000 less than its original cost. The deal was stuck. He paid up and allowed them to ride on till Trivandrum and hand them over the bicycles to his property in Trivandrum.

We set off on out last leg. We passed VSSC, ISRO at Veli and finally checked into Wild Palms on Sea branch at Trivandrum. Handed over the two bicycles and spent the day visiting some relatives. Tharun returned to Cochin with his parents.

February 26, 2012

Early in the morning Suraj and I (along with my Schnell) headed to the airport and caught our flight back to Mumbai.

A wonderful trip came to an end.

Summary

The route we took on bicycle on google map

(L) Cochin airport to Alleppey boat jetty (R) Karunagapally to Trivandrum. Note : Alleppey boat jetty to Amritapuri was covered by boat

Summary of sectors covered with distances and dates are in the table.

At Chertalai, Karunagapally & Varkala we traveled to and from the engineering colleges we visited by cabs and these distances are not included.

We also did some small detours on bicycles (not exceeding 10 to 15 kms) that are not captured.

Professor (Retired), Dept of Aerospace, IIT Bombay; Presently settled in Wayanad, Kerala. email: sudhakar.iitb@gmail.com