With full bellies and a spirit for adventure, we left the East Coast Road south of Cuddalore, and turned inland to ride randomly through the countryside. It doesn't take long to enter the never ending rice paddies and fields teeming with produce. This is the breadbasket of Tamil Nadu, the northern edge of the extensive Cauvery River delta.
Massive banyan trees dot the highway making for superbly shaded stops and random encounters. From the truck drivers carrying produce to market to the travelling salesman aboard a bicycle, roadside meetings are relaxed and wonderful. The crush of urban India recedes into a quiet, slow-paced rhythm.
Rural Tamil Nadu
Vadalur is a crossroads town centred around the bus station and a market sporting an astounding diversity of fruits and veggies. The huge smiles, frantic waving and shouts of “hello” highlighted the fact that few foreigners come here. We slowed, smiled, waved and turned south on a narrow country road.
It was sugar cane harvest and dozens of tractors with trailers piled far too high wobbled dangerously along the road. The usual parade of buses racing to get ahead of each other added to the excitement. They swerve out from behind the trailers with no regard for oncoming traffic and only slow down to collect a passenger. The few cars on the road travel even faster. Inject a parade of motorcycles, bicycles, people, cows and goats, and the heavily potholed country road turns into a horn honking, headlight flashing free for all. A few close calls required heavy breaking to avoid collisions. Thankfully, the KTMs worked well in this respect as we had to hit the dirt shoulder on a couple of occasions.
A one-lane bridge perched atop a wide dam spans the Cauvery River and leads to Kumbakonam, once referred to as the “Cambridge of South India”. Last year in Laos, I discovered Astried is great at 'feeling' her way. When we get to towns, she sniffs her way about and invariably finds a great spot. Within minutes she lead us to the entrance to Kumbakonam Homestay. Not your typical homestay, it was more a hotel and the suite she landed was massive and cheap. The manager proudly told us that we were his first foreign guests.
A hot shower removed the day's road grime and we wandered aimlessly around the town centre. People have grown oblivious to the incessant blaring of horns and nobody pays attention. We passed the usual array of temples, some large, others quite small. Gaudy neon lights flickered to life as darkness descended. A tandoori chicken restaurant beckoned and we tucked into what would turn out to be the best tandoori we tasted the entire trip.
Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu
The ride to Thanjavur was filled with traffic and the usual accompanying horns and headlights flashing. This was the heart of the Chola dynasty. The mightiest rulers of southern India were centred in Brihadisvara Temple, dating to 1003 AD. They held sway, briefly, as far as Sri Lanka and their presence was felt in northern India and other parts of SE Asia. Power waned and re-bloomed over the years until the British annexed the temple in 1855. Walking through the ancient temple offered a glimpse into what was clearly a highly evolved culture. The intricate stone carvings covering most of the structures enhance their visual aspect and you catch yourself reflecting on them for a long time.
Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu
Next day, in the countryside north of the Cauvery River, Thanjavur traffic gave way to more rice paddies and quiet country roads. Stopping in the middle of nowhere to take a photograph, a man approached and asked where I was from. I told him and was stunned when he casually noted he had a cousin in Toronto. Small world, as they say.
Winding about the countryside aimlessly by intent, we took chai in quiet villages and were greeted with the usual smiles and stares. Nobody sees foreigners out here and we were a novelty. The motorcycles attracted attention as KTM is relatively new to the Indian market. Stopping to consult the map, Raj pulled over to see if we needed help. His English was surprisingly good for rural India, the result, we learned, of studying in Belgium. The people we have bumped into are very friendly and seem genuinely interested in our experiences.
The Middle of Nowhere
Tamil Nadu, India
We continued west along the bank of the Cauvery River reaching Musiri early afternoon. We had identified a cool looking lodge and discovered it simply did not exist. Every attempt to find another option lead to dirty hotels and surprisingly unfriendly people. One angry man even refused to let us look at the room without paying first. No chance.
In Tamil Nadu you sleep in a “lodge” and eat in a “hotel” (restaurant). It can lead to hilarious confusion when you forget this ask directions to a hotel. Some businessmen emerged from a hotel on the bottom floor of a lodge and I asked them if they stayed here. Astried was inside looking at the rooms.
“No, we came for the food,” said one of the group. “I have stayed here before and it is OK. Why do you stay here? Go to Nammakal, more choice. I recommend Golden Palace.”
Astried emerged to report more dirty rooms and I told her what the men had said. She agreed we should move on.
“It seems this town does not want us,” she said, and so off we went zipping through the countryside to Nammakal. There was indeed plenty of choice and we stopped at Golden Palace. It stretched the budget a little, so we went in search of another option. We wound about the serpentine streets of an out-of-the-way neighbourhood to no avail, in spite of plenty of help from local residents. It was the day of non-existing lodges.
Frustrated and tired, with sunset approaching, a kind man helped us back to the main road and we returned to Golden Palace. I managed to talk the check-in clerk into a modest discount that included breakfast and we went up to hot showers.
Later, in the town centre, we searched for a place to eat. A young guy riding a KTM pulled up beside and asked where we were going. I told him and he said “vegetarian or meat?” “Veg,” I responded. “Follow me,” he smiled and took off when the light turned green. He lead us to a “hotel” and we barely had a chance to say thank you before he was off into the dark streets of Nammakal. It's great to be off the beaten track, far from tourists and experiencing rural Tamil life.