(December 7, 2017)
Chennai is a nexus of villages that grew together to create a sprawling urban jungle of nearly 8 million. Its streets are serpentine and seemingly directionless. They are littered with every kind of vehicle imaginable, from rickshaws to Range Rovers and cows wander freely. Everyone weaves reverently around the sacred beast.
Aboard our motorcycles, Introduction to traffic was trial-by-fire. We chased our guide as he split lanes liberally, blazed between buses, sneaked to the front of the pack at red lights and used the favoured Indian technique of driving on the sidewalk. We quickly learned to seize every opportunity: a hole in traffic must be shot through automatically or it will close and progress stops. Focusing on the immediate impediments, we definitely did not need to add navigation to the equation.
After 40 hair raising minutes, our guide pulled over on the side of the eight-lane road.
“This is the beginning of the East Coast Road, Sir, just go straight and you will be fine,” he said.
With a wide smile, he shot across four lanes, through a hole in the median and headed back. Without him, the afternoon would surely have been squandered getting lost in an attempt to navigate the city. Kudos to Vicky and our guide.
As instructed, we pointed straight south. It was easy to recognize the signs of leaving the city. Traffic density eased, the crush of humanity diminished, fields appeared and the first sea views emerged.
An ulterior motive in exploring the east coast was to investigate fabled secret surf spots. On the map, the village of Covelong (Kovalam) looked like a promising river mouth break. Judging by the shocked stares, few foreigners visit this tiny community. As alien as we may have been, it did not prevent wide smiles and waves. Schoolgirls marvelled at the woman – yes, a woman! – riding her own motorcycle and they were clearly wonder-struck. We later learned it is a primo wave from June through August.
The ECR cuts through the Muttukadu Backwaters, an extensive estuary extending from north of Covelong to south of Mahabalipuram. In the seaside town of Mahabalipuram, we performed the standard tourist ritual, checking out the seaside temple and the old lighthouse. Walking the beach in front of “Mumu's Surf Shop”, decent waves near the temple were devoid of surfers. Touts were gentle and the beggars respectful, a far cry from saying “NO” a thousand times a minute common in other parts of India.
Touts on the beach at Mahabalipuram
The quiet Srinivasa Residency on the north end of town was the landing pad. Our hosts were surprised to see foreigners, assuming we all wanted to stay together in the centre. The motorcycles, we explained, granted us freedom to avoid westerners and have a local experience. Excited to have us, they went out of their way to make sure we had a fantastic first night on the road.
Hanging out at Srinivasa Residency, Mahabalipuram
Next day included frequent detours to small villages to stop for chai, watch and be watched. People stop in their tracks – literally – at the sight of a tall, blond woman riding a big (by Indian standards) bike. The visible tattoos garnered enthusiastic discussion. There were few foreigners in Mahabalipuram and none in these villages.
Occasionally, a surf break revealed itself but, again, no evidence of surfers. Soon enough, traffic and population density grew thicker and the prospect of Pondicherry lay ahead. “Pondi”, as the hipsters refer to it, is a former French colonial city. Home to “Pi” - as in “The Life of ...” and a rich cultural heritage, it seemed just another big city to avoid.
Following a sign for an organic smoothie, we found ourselves in Auroville on the northern outskirts of Pondicherry. An experimental community that boasts “no borders”, it is focused on sustainable living. Filled with expats, barefoot 'seekers' sporting local garb, “volunteers” working for free room and board and others, it resembles a hippy commune. After the obligatory chai stop and some people watching, the search for a place to pass the night began. Driving through a gate on a dirt path, we stumbled on “Tenderness” guesthouse. Located in the midst of a cashew plantation, a welcoming couple offered a quiet bungalow and made us feel at home.
Smoothie stop in Auroville
As you would expect, the combination of hippies and French influence leads to a French bakery. Parking the bikes, we heard a German accented “hallo KTM riders,” and turned to meet Edzard (not a typo). He shared stories from his more than 40 years here, gave us some tips and offered contact details, just in case.
Hindsight, as my nephew says, is 50/50. After fighting our way through the city centre to the beachfront, we were happy to have spent the night in the peaceful cashew plantation and not in the middle of the cacophony called Pondicherry.
A number of surf breaks dotted the beachfront and we stopped to watch a slow left peel off a rocky breakwall, Although it was early in the journey, the Indian seaside seemed unlike that of other tropical nations. Few people use the beach in the traditional western sense ... as in for swimming and frolicking. It appeared a good place to dump trash and perhaps wash after defecating.
Pushing through the tumultuous traffic, we crossed the Chunnambar River and entered Cuddalore, a virtual extension of Pondicherry. Stopping for chai and a “pee break”, Astried searched for a toilet while I remained surrounded by curious onlookers. Astried returned to tell me her search had landed her in the home of a lovely family and included the obligatory chai, explaining her prolonged absence.
A man asked our plans. “Lunch first,” I said, adding that we were looking for a restaurant.
“I know the perfect place, Sir” he said. “If you like, I can lead you.”
“Fantastic,” I responded and we climbed aboard the bikes to follow. After a few minutes, we crossed into oncoming traffic and drove along the sidewalk for a few hundred meters and turned into the parking lot of A2B restaurant.
“One of the best in town, Sir,” he said and before we could get further than “thank you,” he was off into the dusty streets.
We were greeted by a smiling young woman who spoke impeccable English. She lead us to a table and guided into the traditional south Indian “Saapadu”, a dozen assorted flavours, spicy and non-spicy, in small bowls surrounding a pile of rice on a banana leaf. Dal, sambar (lentil stew), curds, coconut dishes and tangy tamarind tantalized the taste buds. A never-ending meal, our server brought refills for each bowl and reloaded the mountain of rice until we were bursting. The bill was a mere $2. Saapadu would become our mid day staple for the rest of the ride.