South India Road Trip - A Motorcycle Journal
Updated: Feb 9, 2021
On the morning of Dec. 7, 2017, we set out from Chennai, India, aboard a pair of KTM Duke 250 motorcycles. For twenty-eight days and more than 2,600km we explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and we certainly attracted a lot of attention. From chai stall stares to school children cheers and even newspaper coverage, here are a few tales of our experience.
Welcome to India: Part II
My last flight from Bangkok to India was aboard the only game in town - Air India. To be fair, the flight attendants – more akin to drill sergeants – barked at everyone. This time, Air Asia made every attempt to ensure the Bangkok-Chennai flight was reasonable. And it was.
We entered the Chennai airport, armed with electronic visas and all the necessary paper, excited to embark a new adventure. And Bam! The immigration officers were the rudest, most disinterested fellows I've come across in a long time. We were not special; they treated all the foreigners with disdain. And gender played no role. My motorcycling partner Astried was equally castigated as me. The problem seemed to be the online hotel reservation did not list the address and phone number.
We stepped away from our respective (not respectful) agents and discussed the next step. Unable to connect to the internet, we decided the best plan was to write down a random street address and make up a phone number. So we did.
Astried returned and handed her agent the paper. I did the same with mine. Her guy felt the lasers emanating from Astried's eyeballs and stamped her documents with little more than the obligatory delay, avoiding all eye contact. My officer, however, was intent on demonstrating his power. He went through the documents a second time, discussed it with the adjacent agent, gave me another long looking-over searching for any other problem and, finally, stamped my passport.
“Next time, you must write hotel address,” he shouted at me for good measure.
“Thank you, Sir,” I smiled and exited.
Indian airports seem to want to mess with me, but by some good stroke of fortune, I make it out without drama. As we ran the gauntlet of taxi drivers, we hoped to see a sign: not some spiritual mumbo jumbo, but a real sign with our names on it. Vicky, the owner of the Chennai Motorcycle Rental said he would send someone. And then Rashid popped up with our names on cardboard.
He walked us away from the taxi hustlers and made arrangements with a driver. We jumped in and the classic Ambassador sprung to life – well, of a sort – and coughed and wheezed its way onto the airport road. The traffic in Chennai is impressive: a combination of cars, rickshaws, trucks, ox carts, bicycles, any manner of devices on wheels you can push and random pedestrians. Most important, don't forget the cows. They are ubiquitous. Naturally, the Indian solution to the chaos is to beep the horn incessantly.
Astried needed to hit an ATM, so Rashid found one he thought most likely to work. It didn't. We tried another with the same result. Back in the cab, we debated the next step. Rashid told us not to worry, he would pay for the cab and we could sort out the ATM in the morning with his boss. So, off we went to see if the online photos of our hotel matched reality.
“Welcome to India Sir,” said the doorman with a smile and circular nod as he swung the door open. Almost as an afterthought, he added “Welcome to Hotel Pratap Plaza, Sir” as we walked inside.
Neon purple, red and green lights cast funky shadows. The check-in man was comfortably seated in a plush red chair behind a tacky oversized fake wood desk. His assistant stood attentively at his side. We offered our passports, the assistant took them and passed them carefully to the boss. A boy appeared out of nowhere with a fresh fruit juice welcome drink. Immediately, we locked eyes and had the unspoken conversation: “What to do? Say no and offend our hosts or drink it and maybe get the shits??” Simultaneously, we tossed back the ... yum, surprisingly sweet and delicious juice. In for a penny ... tomorrow would tell.
The man produced the mandatory paperwork and presented a bill for 6,200 rupees (USD $95). I looked at the bill, then at him, smiled and asked “What is this?”
“The bill for the room, Sir,” he smiled.
“But I have already paid online,” I smiled back.
He paused a moment, somewhat flustered, and began to eagerly consult his book. Flipping pages purposefully, he appeared to discover an entry, which he carefully reviewed.
“Aaaah. Mr. Morch, Sir, I am very sorry. Indeed you have paid. Very sorry, Sir.”
“No problem, Sir,” I replied as the juice boy materialized to carry our bags up.
The slick neon lighting in the room could not disguise the fact that the place was in need of some maintenance. The photo-shopped pictures on the website added the fresh paint that someone forgot to apply to the walls. No surprise, really. At least all the essential features were there. The shower was hot, the fans cool and air-con freezing. The centrepiece was the 20 inch television with endless Bollywood possibilities hanging on the wall. Not likely.
We turned off the deadly air conditioning and opened the windows They were quickly closed when a liberal mix of mosquitoes, music and the noise of boys yelling below flowed freely inward.
But the sheets were clean, the beds felt comfortable enough and the chit-chat faded as we drifted off to sleep.
Welcome to India.