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In one of his emphatic assessments of life and living, the German film-maker, Werner Herzog, remarked, “Tourism is sin, travel by foot, virtue.”

For a man who has a merciless ability to develop every inch of grey in cinema, he manages to deliver lines such as this where there is a clear demarcation between good and bad. On another day, it will be a fascinating topic to discuss and dissect. But for what is just a convenient, ambiguous introduction to a travelogue, it’ll suffice to place Herzog’s good and bad at two ends of an imaginary spectrum and find ourselves a workable middle-ground to start things off.

Tourism is not sin. It is a business which feeds a significant number of people and it is an entertainer which engages many more. At worst, it is an irritant and an embarrassment to some.

Travel by foot might indeed be a virtue, but it’s a pain. Pain in your legs, muscles and mind. It’s a virtue if the joy is in the process, a pain if it’s in the destination.

Grazing South – The Plan

A day before five of us were ready to travel on three bikes down the Kerala coast and return back through the Western Ghats, I can safely assume that our preview of the trip were made of such phrases as, “misty mountains towering over delightful valleys, pleasant burst of rays from the morning sun glistening over tiny dew drops hanging mysteriously to ecstatic leaves, simplicity of our villages touching myriad chords of our city hearts” or some such touristy talk. After all, the idea was these 10 days would be a vacation.

One of the bikes

One of the bikes

What you do end up with, after 10 days of riding or sitting pillion on motorbikes in terrain of many kinds, is a sore backside, sleepless eyes, empty iodex cans, a few thousand rupees spent of course and an inherent dislike for parts of the process and parts of the destination.

But hang on, once the bum heals, once you start sleeping eight hours a day and you get your next pay check, you do realize that the trip wasn’t as bad as it felt and, thank god, not as poetic as it was imagined.

After an initial idea of traveling to the Andamans was shot down for lack of funds and certainty, four of us, Nagaraj, Mukunda, Arvind and me decided to go on two bikes down the coast of Kerala, touch Kanyakumari and return back to Bangalore through the ghats of Munnar and Ooty. Since my ability to ride two-wheelers began and ended with bicycles, it was understood that the responsibility of riding a Bullet and a Pulsar lay with the other three. A pleasant feeling swept through me at the thought of being chauffeured around some of the most beautiful places in India. Of course, I hadn’t bargained for the cramster to sit on. But that pain’s for a later page.

Mukunda and Naga had been on bike trips before, to more demanding places like Ladakh and Nepal. Arvind hadn’t had much claim in that respect but he used to travel 20 km to work in Chennai; a feat worthy of the highest driving honour had that been in Bangalore.

On the day we were to start, I was surprised to know that there was another member joining us. It was Sujeevan, an avid co-curricular activities-guy who apparently spent 15-16 hours a day in office; albeit not all on office-work. He had borrowed a bike from a friend of his, an RX-Z, which would, during the course of the trip, make its presence felt.

"The BhaIKE"

"The BhaIKE"

Out of Bangalore

The first evening stop was scheduled to be either Bandipur or some place closer to Kozhikode. Bandipur would have been a proper beginning had we started early in the morning, giving us enough time to, as they say, explore. But somehow, seconds became minutes and minutes hours as we finally sped out of Bangalore.

At first, Sujeevan rode by himself on his RX-Z; something that never changed for the next 10 days. But he was also left alone, as it was feared that there was something seriously wrong with his bike. He had arrived a touch late because his bike wouldn’t start. It played truant again in between coffee breaks.

I and Arvind, pillion on the other two bikes, were wearing cumbersome rucksacks. It was in one of the early coffee breaks on the way to Mysore that the RX-Z wouldn’t start. Sujeevan kept kicking in front of the Maddur Tiffanys as his bike just wouldn’t rev up. Naga waited for a while and offered to try. The bike started immediately. This was when we began to believe that the bike was fine, while there was more to Sujeevan than that met the eye.

After halting at Mukunda’s house in Mysore, for lunch, we rode towards Bandipur. As it was already past 5 pm when we reached Gundlupet, we decided to skip Bandipur and instead take the road to Kalpetta, via Sultan Bathery.

Wayanad, in brighter times

Kalpetta, in brighter times

It was dark when we closed in on Kalpetta, the key connecting town to the rest of Wayanad. Instead of going into the town, we figured it would be a better idea to find a place just outside it. One of the first places we stumbled on was Sudarshan Heritage, a new-ish hotel with an interesting choice of colours on its walls.

Rich palette, cheap rooms

Rich palette, cheap rooms

We settled down into a Rs. 1000/day dormitory which was a touch big for its five beds. In due course of the trip, we were to realize that this was amongst the best stays we’d have.

The cramster placed on the bike was already beginning to show its abrasive effect. Repeated braking and long hours of sitting on it had left a rather scalded backside. The bad news was that there were nine more days to go. The good news was to come from Sujeevan’s RX-Z.

It had become quite apparent that we couldn’t be carrying the large backpacks sitting pillion. Since his RX-Z was free, we thought of tying our bags up to it with bungee cords. He found no problems with it. If anything, he found some company atleast.

Temple town

The ride out of Kalpetta early next morning was excellent. Our immediate destination was Kozhikode, and eventually, we intended to reach Guruvayur by evening. The distance to Kozhikode was about 74 kms and Guruvayur was supposed to be a further 80 km away.

With an intention of seeing one of the Kozhikode beaches, preferably Kappad, we ignored the bypass to Guruvayur and went into the city. We realized that that beach was way too far and settled for a smaller one closer by.

Kozhikode beach

Kozhikode beach

Sujeevan meanwhile became more conspicuous with his mobile phone. It was noticeable that at every stop, signal permitting, he’d call up someone. Arvind kept a keen eye on him from then on and once felt that Sujeevan (Bhai) had called up someone and introduced himself. He soon became the butt of few jokes which would overwhelm the pain in the butt.

One such call he made was to a friend of his in Guruvayur. After traveling 100 more kilometers from Kozhikode (because we hadn’t taken the shorter bypass), we reached the temple town in the evening. As we were heading into the town center, I noticed that the colours of houses and buildings here would occasionally turn garishly bright to pink, orange or magenta. But there was one house painted black! Sadly, I wasn’t quick enough to take a picture.

Arun, Bhai’s friend offered his uncle’s place to stay the night at. But we felt it would be unnecessary trouble for him and instead landed two rooms at Hotel Ayodhya. Priced decently at Rs. 1250 for the combo, it was what you’d call a one-evening resting place.

The temple was close by, but the huge crowd waiting outside was demoralizing. It was 8.30 in the evening and we were standing far outside the main entrance, perhaps as some 3000th devotee in the queue. While Naga wanted to wait till as long as possible, I and Mukunda weren’t so keen. My deadline was 9.00 pm. If we weren’t to reach the main entrance by then, we’d leave. As it turned out, there was a sudden surge into the temple as if a dam had been broken through and by 9.00 pm, we were out of the sanctum sanctorum. Phew! That was quick!

I had once been on a trip to Kerala, with my parents, when I was a kid. All I remembered from those days were some elephants in Guruvayur, eating plate meals in a congested hotel in Trivandrum and various colours of the meeting oceans in Kanyakumari.

Just after our darshan in Guruvayur, I saw elephants standing ready for a ceremony of some sorts. We had been lucky to arrive at the right time as we witnessed a spectacular pageantry of rituals involving three elephants, a few seers and many of their young disciples. An array of glittering oil-lit lamps providing the background, the elephants marched majestically to the beats and tunes of accompanying music.

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