When a non-cyclist cycled with Kalypso

Verina Henchy, a self-confessed non-cyclist, fighter and survivor of battles with her arteries, nature- lover and dreamer of unrealised cycling journeys…and then she encountered E-bikes! Read about her experience in her own words below:

“My name is Verina Henchy, I’m 60 years old and I consider myself to be a non-cyclist and yet I’ve just cycled 320 km through Tamil Nadu, Southern India with relative ease!

I can of course ride a bike.  When I say that I’m a non-cyclist,  what I mean is that cycling any distance, especially in heat, is an overwhelming experience bringing little joy and a great deal of difficulty.  In particular, hills have been so hard and so daunting that I have always been beaten by them almost at the starting point.  Recently diagnosed heart disease has gone some way towards explaining some of my difficulties but even after having 2 stents fitted just a couple of months ago, my general fitness level has still left me struggling with even gentle exertion.  This is all before I discovered E-bikes!

I have been a regular supporter of the bi-annual HEAL India charity bike ride, supported by Kalypso Adventures for the past 12 years but I have cycled less and less each time to the point of complete non-participation in 2016 and non-attendance in 2018.

I actually purchased my own E-bike about 18 months ago (2018)  because I was thoroughly fed up with being a bikers ‘widow’.  My Husband, a keen cyclist will disappear on his bike for  hours at every opportunity and having no hope of keeping pace or distance with him I used to stay at home feeling some resentment.  With my E-bike, I found that I could not only keep up with him on the ‘flat’, I found definite advantage on hills on when faced with a headwind!  After several longish rides with him, I had a sense that I might be able to join him again in India for the 2020 HEAL India cycle challenge and with an E-bike perhaps even finish the whole course which would be a first!  I contacted Kalypso Adventures to ask them if they could source a bike for me and in true Kalypso style I was told “no problem”.

Kalypso is a company with a strong commitment to Eco Tourism so their approach to my request has been both experimental and collaborative.  Working with local engineers they have been experimenting with batteries and frames to make bikes that are suitable for the Indian terrains.  E-bikes have heavy frames because the batteries can weigh 4-5 kilos and the charge life needs to be sufficient to cover long distances.  The components need to be sufficiently protected to ensure that they are not effected by the dust and sand roads and the pedal assistance needs to be sufficient to give help when needed while keeping cadence comfortable.  I write this section as a complete non technician……there is plenty to read on line if you want to fully understand how these bikes work and how to choose a model that works for you!

We arrived in Pondicherry in early January and to be honest, I was very anxious indeed.  What if I still couldn’t manage?  Would everyone think I was ‘cheating’?.  Would the battery last? The bike work?.The heat overwhelm me.?…..I was scared!

Did I manage to complete the programme? YES!  Was it a challenge? YES! An electric bike certainly takes the strain from pedalling but because of the size and weight required to carry the battery there is still considerable strain on your back, wrists and feet not to forget the saddle soreness suffered by all who take part.  Did I ever feel overwhelmed? NO!  I used a moderate level of pedal support throughout knowing that I had additional levels of support if needed so I was able to challenge myself to the max without ever feeling that I might over exert.  Did I feel a sense of achievement? HELL YES?  Was I cheating? ABSOLUTELY NOT.  I feel strong, fitter, toned and exhilarated.  These feelings only come after exercise!

So if like me you are a non-cyclist, with support from Kalypso and the HEAL cycle team, you too could take part in the HEAL India cycle challenge or any other challenge of your choosing.  It’s as easy as falling off a bike!”

Pedalling the 3-peaks – A tale of grit and fitness

It is said that our dreams await us on the other side of grit. The refusal to give up and the determination to persevere bring our dreams alive. Add to this the camaraderie of Kalypso’s guides, their superior fitness-levels, and their quest for adventure and the beautifully laid-out 3-peaks route which is also one of the most challenging routes and you have the perfect cocktail of a thrilling adventure.

Why the 3-peaks?

At Kalypso, we pride ourselves on our attitude towards adventure. Not for us rash, irresponsible forays into the unknown. Our adventure tours are all well-researched and planned as far as routes, safety practices, weather and ecological issues are concerned. But beyond that adventure is in our hearts. Our search for newer and more eco-friendly avenues for adventure is an ongoing one. 3-peaks cycling tour is the result of just such a search. The tough route, the scenic landscapes, minimal carbon footprints, the hectic schedule all contribute to making this a unique and exhilarating experience.

3-peaks challenge – the route

4 days of tour, about 650kms of roads that came in all types –flat, undulating, steep climbs and descents, narrow, tarred, muddy-stretches and the vagaries of weather – all met with equanimity of spirit. This group of cyclists with varying levels of skill and experience – a couple of rookies, and some with mid-level expertise too in their midst, were led by the experts who had done it all before.

Flagged off from Kochi on the 1st of July 2019, the group of 10 set out first to Suryanelli near Munnar – a distance of 152kms and one which boggles the mind by starting at sea level and ending at an altitude of 5103ft. After braving the city traffic in the morning to reach the hills with its clean, crisp air and serene greenery was an energising tonic for our cyclists. A night of deep sleep later, they set out again, this time to Kodaikanal in the neighbouring state 164kms away and at a height of 6725ft. All along, the roads were tough and unpredictable, but the breath-taking sights beyond egged them on, they said. The tea and spice plantations, the green that seems to never end, the wet, slick roads all combine to create an atmosphere of magic. The next day saw them pedal off to Valparai at a distance of 170kms and a descent of 3937ft. The waterfalls that take one by surprise with their sudden appearance, the blue outline of the mountains in the distance merging with the azure sky and the ever present winding roads – evocative memories captured by smart-phones and human brains! The fourth and last day of the tour saw the group make their way back to Kochi from Valparai – a distance of 167kms. Followed by rivers and reservoirs, cycling past lush forests and plantations, our unwavering team finally arrived at Kochi to a warm welcome.

Kalypso guides and a few tales

This was not intended as a competition. There were no prizes, no winners. But the sheer nature of the event, the scope, the naturally competitive spirit of the boys and their innate love for adventure made them all set targets and achieve them. The wayside stops for a hot cup of chai or refreshing lemonade and a spicy snack, the banter and the impromptu races on deserted roads merely added to the spirit of the ride.

At journey’s end

Not all completed the ride. Some had to stop riding somewhere along the way. But that instead of diminishing the tour, only serves to underline its spirit of resilience. For they will be back the next time. Kalypso believes in the endeavour. From the hours of preparation to the actual start and then on the ride itself, the hard work, responsibility and love for nature on display drives us on in our pursuit of adventure with a responsible soul.

45 Days of Cycling And A Maelstrom of Experiences

Since the only impossible journey is the one never begun, putting together the outline of this gargantuan 45 day cycling expedition was simply the first step of a magnificent journey. Commencing from the beaches of Goa and finally ending at Chennai – was there a destination in the midst of all this? Confucius said roads were meant for journeys, not destinations and this tour brought those words to life. For Jacques Carriere &Therese Masson from Canada the seamless flow of landscapes, cultures and people all along this journey was an eye-opener and a definite once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The journey itself

Lao Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher said the journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. And so we did. But our tale of the incredible journey that Jacques and Therese undertook will also take you pedalling down memory lane, driving off-road into nostalgia and wonder.

Goa and Karnataka

Goa, where the tour began …the allure of its stunning beaches, its susegad attitude, its lip-smacking cuisine…a foretelling of the days to come or a collection of precious memories to be stored away carefully…for its ancient temples and majestic churches, wide gushing rivers, colourful fishing villages and gentle hills were lasting images that even the lingering thoughts of the long ride ahead could not erase.

Jacques and Therese set out from Colva for Gokarna in the south. Reaching Karwar an ancient trading port frequented by Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese, French and the British, the ruins of a mighty fort on the banks of the Kali River reminiscent of a glorious bygone era and viewing life as it passes by from the decks of the ferry while crossing the vast Kali – the tour had begun on the right foot indeed. Gokarna and its pristine beaches can make one wish to linger and after the overnight stay it was on southwards again along coastal roads with the Arabian Sea and the imposing Western Ghats on the other. Past Kundapura and Koppa and their energetic rivers, thick rain-forests and endless stretches of tea, coffee and spice plantations, it is on to Lakkavalli and a jeep safari at its wildlife sanctuary in the hopes of sighting the great tiger, this is Tiger Conservation area after all.  But not before the couple were bestowed with blessings at a local temple – a bit of divine intervention to urge them on. And then it’s on to Chikmagulur the coffee capital of the state of Karnataka on the gentle slopes of the Sahyadri Mountains and the iconic hotel on the hilltop. Mudigere, the next point awaited with its mist enshrouded hills and unspoilt country side. The unexpected came in the form of a working day at a coffee plantation …traditional and authentic coffee processing methods still in use…here, coffee is life…and nothing comes in the way! En-route to Hassan the architecture of the Halebidu temple is astounding. Built in the 12th century dedicated to the Lord Shiva, it is a perfect amalgamation of the limitlessness of human endeavour and imagination. The onward ride to Hassan is through peaceful country roads lined by the ‘flame of the forest’ trees and the occasional banyan. On the following day the ride to scenic Coorg involved a stop at the home of a farmer engaged in sericulture. The tradition of rich silks in India may have found its origins here. The lustrous yarns of handmade silk surely had tales to tell. Coorg is impossible without a detour to Bylakuppe and the Namdroling Monastery one of the largest Buddhist monasteries in India, with a population of about 5000 monks and nuns – a surreal moment in the midst of wilderness and close encounters of the pachyderm kind at the Dubare Elephant Camp! Contrasts of the sublime! The city of palaces, Mysuru waited next with its quiet elegance, frenzied markets and stately universities.

Tamil Nadu, Kerala and back to Tamil Nadu

On day 16 of the tour, it was off from Mysuru to Mudumalai crossing state-borders past sunflower fields and hill roads. The Bandipur Tiger Reserve and jeep safari were the temptations of the day. The renowned hill-station Ooty is perched prettily amidst the Nilgiri mountains, but the ride there from Mudumalai was a true challenge with 36 hair-pin bends on 12 kilometers of consistently uphill road. The tough stretch did sometimes bring the six decades of their lives into focus, but Jacques and Therese also discovered their indomitable selves through this. From Ooty to Coonoor on the UNESCO Heritage train, the next phase of the tour was like an enactment of a fairy tale! The beauty of nature and a magical man-made locomotive – could there be a more poignant merging of concepts? From Coonoor to Mettupalayam and then it was still onwards to the Anamalai Tiger Reserve and Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary that sat on the borders of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

Pushing forward to Munnar, and then onward to Vandanmedu, Periyar and Kulamavu, past some of the highest tea-plantations in the world, the winding hill roads are a challenge but the sights alongside them are worth every huff and puff. The tea museum and the traditions of tea, the cardamom hills and Vandamedu the largest cardamom plantation in India, village roads and spice-plantation walks, wayside shrines and Asia’s largest arch dam at Kulamavu, the boat ride on the Periyar and Kalaripayattu, the traditional martial arts display in the evening, even the steaming hot chai at the roadside vendor has a dream-like quality it.

Day 27 and 28 ventured into the wonderland of Kerala’s backwaters, Alleppey. Going past pineapple farms and backwater villages after leaving the hills and heading to Alleppey where the famed houseboats–rice boats converted into luxurious lodging – waited to be embarked. The other-worldly charm of an overnight stay on board a house-boat was enough to rejuvenate some tired legs and then it was off along coastal roads and coconut groves, a brief peep into a coir factory with the sea and the backwaters on either side of the flat roads to the bustling city of Kochi. This ancient port that traded in tea, coffee, rubber and spices still continues to do so and has an almost eclectic feel with its chaotic traffic, old bazaars, modern shopping malls, Chinese fishing nets and gorgeous sunsets. The guided tour around Fort Kochi included the unique Dhobi Khana, the laundry collective owned and run by generations of a particular community for almost a hundred years. Charcoal heated irons, hand-washed and sun-dried clothes, almost an anomaly in modern times, but a way of living for the 60 odd families involved in the business. In the evening, the kathakali performance – Kerala’s traditional dance form which depicts stories from mythology – made for an evocative end to the Kochi stay. The next day saw Jacques and Therese head out of Kochi through village roads pedalling past rubber plantations towards Athirapalli and its cascading waterfalls, the largest in Kerala and a magnificent sight.

Day 32 meant Kerala was now left behind and it was onto Tamil Nadu for the last phase of the odyssey. Valparai at 3500 meters above sea level was the next stop and this green haven threw open uninterrupted vistas wherever the eyes landed. Riding down the 24 ‘hairpin’ bends on the Anamalai Hills towards Pollachi in the great plains of Tamil Nadu and then the next day through the Palani Hills past sugar cane fields on to Athoor and its thriving farming community displayed landscapes of mindboggling diversity. Next were the temple towns of Madurai, and Tanjore with the architectural marvels of Chettinad in between. The Meenakshi Temple at Madurai, a port dating back to the pre-Christian era and its 14 gate-towers, the palatial bungalows of chettinad, Tanjore’s streets displaying 9th to 12th century stone sculptures, stretched the boundaries of the mind. The eighteenth century Saraswati Mahal Library housing ancient palm-leaf manuscripts and the museum were surely one of a kind!

Day 40 took Jacques and Therese eastwards past the River Cauvery delta and fertile paddy fields to the Coromandel Coast and Tranquebar a tiny coastal town colloquially known as Tharangambadi or the land of the dancing waves picturesque and peaceful now, it was once a busy Danish trading port.

Pondichery with its quaint charm, its French and ‘native’ quarters and Auroville an experimental community and universal city was like the cool breeze that wafted across from the Bay of Bengal. Pleasant and making you want more of it. But as journey’s end is nearing, the undying spirit of the traveller that kept them going all these days urges our intrepid duo and it’s on to Mahabalipuram, its stone temples, the largest rock relief in the world and a UNESCO world heritage site. Day 44 found them transferred to Chennai, where they took the day to let their memories settle before boarding their flight back home on the following day.

Some thoughts to conclude

The best of journeys happen as an expression of an inner urge. This 45–day odyssey too was one such. A shocking family tragedy made Jacques and Therese reassess their life-goals and re-arrange the numbering on their bucket-list. When they contacted Kalypso to enquire about the feasibility of a 2 – 6 week cycling tour it was a long cherished dream. The itinerary whiz-kids of Kalypso offered them a feast in the form of a 6-week tour of south and central India that had till then never been attempted and which promised to be not just unique but also exhaustive. Combining and tweaking shorter existing tours they drafted this comprehensive foray into peninsular India that turned out exhilarating and enriching for our guests. Kalypso hopes they complete their bucket list and wishes them the very best in all their future journeys. And of course we certainly look forward to accompanying them on a few.

 

A Vegan Cycling Tour

For vegetarian India, veganism is not totally alien but still strange enough a concept to evoke strong curiosity, interest and quite a few conversions. So when the Vegan Cycle Tour through the heartland of north India was proposed, it was anticipated with a lot of excitement. On hindsight, we at Kalypso say, “Justified excitement.”

What is Veganism?

Veganism in simple words is “the practice of abstaining from the use of animal products particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals.” The deep sense of caring and empathy that is at the core of this belief, sweeps everyone off in its wake.

 

Days of learning- the equipment, the requirements

As in anything else, concept is king in the planning of such a unique tour too. Kalypso’s highly resourceful back-end team worked at a frenetic pace to iron out the sometimes frayed edges of the challenging schedules and to visualise and thereby prepare to meet any and every eventuality.

 

In the midst of the constant back and forth with the clients about their various specific needs, understanding the geographies involved, packing, loading and trucking the bikes, seeing the support team off to Rajasthan, unloading and assembling of the bikes on the spot, and the recce of the route to assess its highlights and pitfalls, Kalypso tour guides themselves were totally enamoured by the places they visited and were thrilled about the wonderful challenges they knew they were about to face. The spirit of the tour was already upon them and the anticipation levels sky-rocketing.

From start to finish of the expedition

Having landed at Delhi the group was transferred to Agra where the elegant Taj Mahal awaited their gasps of wonder. After a morning spent at the Bharatpur National Park, it was time to re-group, re-orient and get back to the nitty-gritties of the odyssey ahead. And focus they did indeed, during the tour briefing and the cycle-fitting that followed.

The much-awaited tour began the next day with the group being transferred to Bayana, a small town from where the Vegan Cycle Tour was to ride out on their 252 mile grand tour. And so after a short blessing ceremony, our cyclists set out, flower garlands and bindis in place to urge the group on with their benedictions.

 

What followed was a series of colour, pageantry and sheer joy mixed in with some hard cycling, tough roads, determination, and a never-say-die attitude. The food, the sights along the way -of people, landscapes, buildings and wildlife- the weather, the company of fellow vegans, the bonhomie, all memories now, but the reality of every moment then. The cows and goats and monkeys ubiquitous on Indian roads and who accompanied the cyclists at times certainly kept this group of animal lovers engaged as much if not more than the palaces and forts they stayed in and visited.  The exchange of vegan recipes with Kalypso cooks, the 100 guests who stayed spontaneously for lunch under a colourful tent, the school children who turned partners in fun, all point to a universality of human emotions and the triumph of the human spirit.

From Bayana to Karauli to Ranthambore, then Talabgaon, Dausa and finally to Ramgarh, the small towns they passed through, each had unique stories to tell and histories to share. The vegan cycle tour ended at Ramgarh. The celebration and the lunch that followed only reflected the sheer determination displayed throughout and the joy of completing the task. The extra day spent roaming the streets of Jaipur and visiting its palaces only carried forward the celebratory mood.

 

And the result? All smiles and happy faces and more…

The fact that our guests returned home happy with their experiences in India and having achieved what they set out to (they have been successful in raising enough funds for the conservation of 25000 land-farmed animals), the fact that we could facilitate this grand success with no hassles, the fact that it left everyone concerned feeling content are all motivating factors for us at Kalypso.  We hope that our guests felt the same. We hope they have inspired more people around the world to be kind to animals and help conserve them. We hope India and its distinctive ethos will bring them back on more such tours.

eBikes -unlimited potential on two wheels

Tours on two-wheels

In the world of bike tours, E-bikes are the new kids on the block! Fun, friendly and filled with possibility modern E-bikes take biking into the future in ways that were only dreamt of till recently.

Understanding E-bikes
An electric bicycle, also known as an e-bike, is a bicycle with an integrated electric motor which can be used for propulsion and runs on rechargeable batteries. Recognising India as a potential destination for biking tours, Kalypso took the timely decision to promote the use of E-bikes. We use custom-made pedal assist E-bikes and have been testing them for over a year now. Able to negotiate easily a daily average distance of 80 to 100 kms on plains and 50 to 70 kms on hilly roads, Kalypso recognises e-bikes as a special futuristic prospect. We provide it exclusively with our in-house expertise to upgrade normal bikes to E-bikes using E-bike kits.

E-bikes – Who can use and why
Are you an occasional biker? Is your fitness level something you wouldn’t want to brag about? Have you wanted to experience a biking tour, but felt limited? Or are you an intense biker – a veteran of many pedalling miles? Have you ever dreamed of an off-road biking tour? The answer to all these questions could very well be the quintessential E-bike.
Our pedal assist e-bikes offer you the choice of pedalling when you wish to and cruising along with your group at other times. It is a less-sweat, more-fun, and a totally safe and easy way of experiencing places and people.

E-bikes – potential unlimited
Be it hill roads or plains, paved miles or village by-lanes, E-bikes thrill the riders keeping them secure in the knowledge that the comfort and excitement come with an eco-friendly attitude. Faster than normal bikes, they cover more distance with less effort and in less time. In a country like India where much of its beauty lies outside of cities and along inaccessible roads, e-bikes can revolutionise the way you travel.

A recent tour
Even as we go to blog, we have just completed an eight-day e-bike tour of south India with two Australian guests. Being occasional bikers with middling fitness levels, they weren’t sure they would be able to complete the tour on the mostly off-road conditions on the itinerary. At the end of the eighth day however, both Els and Marie were two exhilarated ladies high on their triumph of not just having completed the tour, but having enjoyed it with enough memories to last them for a lifetime. This and more such tours like this in the past have motivated us to plan similar itineraries.

A thought to leave you with
Kalypso wants to re-imagine bike tours keeping them in the realm of fun and possibility. Our e-bike tours besides focusing on being eco-friendly are designed to drag out every moment of fun, discovery and the innovative.

 

Goa to Kerala Coastal Cycling

Cycling from Goa to Calicut on the western coast of India along a medley of beach, backwater and country roads was thoroughly fascinating. The refreshing breeze all along the route was a constant reminder of the Arabian Sea close by.

This group of 11 intrepid cycling enthusiasts from Australia having ventured on this tour organised under the leadership of World Expedition and facilitated by Kalypso Adventures in India, were surely in for once in a life time experience.

The ride progressed through ‘Karwar’ to ‘Gokarna’ – across a moderate and undulating terrain and with a few local ferry transfers. The daily pedalling distance of approximately 60-90 kms was accomplished at a comfortable and relaxed pace so as to not miss even the minutest details, scenic views and experiences.

Enroute to ‘Honnavar’ was the village school visit, the highlight of which was playing and interacting with the school kids; and savouring the mouth-watering cumin-flavoured milk, a traditional drink of the region.

After witnessing the mighty Shiva Statue of Lord Murudheshwara Temple at Honnavar, the ride again passed through the charming back roads of ‘Maravanthe’ and ‘Mangalore’.

The Lord Krishna temple enroute to ‘Malpe’, the Lord Ayyappa temple at ‘Nileshwar’ and the simple village life around were such humbling experiences.

The visit to Fort Bekal and ‘Kumbla’ showcased the historic relevance of these areas during the princely era.

Finally, being able to sight the Olive Ridley Turtle in a protected zone on the coast near Nileshwaram and the cycling in Nileshwaram village were both experiences straight out of a fairy tale.

dav

 

My bicycle trip to India by Dana Kaplan

January 20, 2017

I didn’t have a chance to do very much this past summer. There was a little bit of upheaval and then I went off to Germany for a conference on American Jewish history. Afterwards I had thoughts of doing a bike trip in Italy but I decided to come straight back to Mobile, Alabama. I told myself that this was just a delay, not a cancellation.

But when I looked for bike trips in Europe in December, I didn’t find very much. Actually I didn’t find anything. I thought southern Italy would be perfectly warm but apparently it’s still pretty cold there and nobody wants to go biking at that time of year. Very specific dates had to be adhered to. It didn’t look good but then I found Kalypso Adventure Tours. I think they spell their name with a K. In any case, they were wonderful. 

I corresponded extensively with Thomas Zacharias, the owner of the company headquartered in Cochin. He was unbelievably patient and answered all of my questions. I had no idea what to expect and so I had a lot of questions. The bike guide Francis was likewise warm, helpful, and made the biking a pleasure.

 I do have to confess that I did not do any training for this bike trip. I just showed up. I was a cross country runner in high school and I guess I still have strong legs. The trip was about 14 days and took us from Cochin east through the West Ghat mountains and then south through the Cardamom Hills and then west again to the Backwaters.

 We were at a different hotel almost every night. There were a few nights at the same hotel in Cochin at the beginning of the tour and two other opportunities to spend 2 nights in specific hotels, the first of which was really luxurious and the second of which was really simple but had the nicest nicest staff. Other than that, we moved every day. And we moved by bicycle.

 There was a biking guide and a driver. The driver was driving a large van so if you got tired you could climb aboard. No, I would never have done that under ordinary circumstances but I did had to take into consideration that at my rather glacial pace they might not arrive at our destination until 3 in the morning so I think there were two days in the first five or six where I had to do a little bit of riding.

I am happy to report that as the trip went on I got better and I was able to complete the 88 kilometers of the longest day without any riding in the car at all. I did get off the bike twice to walk up hills but that was it. It took me about 6 hours.

 The shortest day was 22 kilometers but it was raining and very windy in the mountains and so that they felt like really extreme sports. I loved it. I got wet and I was sure I would get sick but I was healthy as a horse the next morning.

 This was my second bicycle tour. I went with Grasshopper Tours a few years ago to Vietnam. That was so much biking that I don’t remember anything about the country. In Mobile, we frequently go out for dinner after service this Friday night when we first went to the Vietnamese restaurant I was sure I would recognize most of the food. No such luck. It was like I’d never been in the country.

 In contrast, this trip was more interesting culturally in that it was a very well-constructed blend biking with a bit of musical, artistic and historical activities and of course a lot of cuisinary experiences. I can’t rave enough about the Indian food.

 

A Cycling Trip through Kerala India by our guest Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan

Dana Kaplan India Elephant

Two elephant encounters were both terrific photo opportunities but also a bit sad to see such majestic creatures essentially reduced to servitude (Dana Kaplan)

Leading a congregation in Mobile, Alabama, over the past year and a half has been a lot of work. Most of that work is not physical labor, but rather communication. Communication is key. Frequently, that communication takes place in the context of a meal: breakfast, lunch, dinner, afternoon snacks.

The downside of all this communication is that my waistline has been steadily increasing: 34, 36, 38…. When will it stop? That was my immediate motivation for booking a two-week cycling trip with Kalypso Adventure Tours, headquartered in Kochi, formerly Cochin, India.

When one thinks of India, one thinks of a land of exceptional diversity. With some of the most majestic buildings in the entire world, breathtaking landscapes, and culinary creations. In fact, one of my friends in Mobile had been to Cochin about a year ago on a culinary trip. We were going only to Kerala, which is in the southwestern part of the country and, so, many of the “great” sites were many hundreds of miles away. (For example, the Taj Mahal).

Kerala had more than enough history and culture to fascinate us. Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Cochin has been an important port city and epicenter of the spice trade since medieval times. The first couple of days were tourism and shopping. We were taken around the region by Augustine Lopez, a very knowledgeable tour guide, who was able to include no less than four ancient synagogues at my request, as well as a variety of other historical and cultural sites.

The next day we started our trip, heading out from Cochin by van and then getting on our bikes about an hour outside the city. We cycled towards the Western Ghats mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula–one of the eight hottest hotspots of biological diversity in the world. We began to see some of the spices that made the area so important for trade and commerce as well as tasty cooking.

Dana Kaplan IndiaWe cycled towards the Western Ghats mountain range that runs parallel to the western coast of the Indian peninsula–one of the eight hottest hotspots of biological diversity in the world.

Kalypso furnished us with Francis, a biking guide, who cycled with us as well as a van that carried our suitcases and was available to collect any of those who might run out of steam. Francis spoke English very well and was always inquiring as to our welfare.

There were also occasions where we would all deliberately get in the van and quickly transverse an area either because it was just too much to do in a day, or it wasn’t particularly interesting scenery, or yikes because we didn’t have an ounce of energy left.

Depending on the day, we would arrive in the afternoon at a new hotel where there might be activities scheduled for us. This included two Indian cooking lessons, which might be more accurately described as cooking demonstrations; two kayaking excursions, the first of which I was too exhausted to partake of; two hikes, the second of which was through the Periyar Tiger Reserve; and two elephant encounters, which were both terrific photo opportunities but also a bit sad to see such majestic creatures essentially reduced to servitude.

We were shocked to hear that there are probably only 35 to 40 tigers in the whole Periyar Tiger Reserve. The Mannans are an indigenous group which are today the conservators of the preserve. While we didn’t see any tigers, we did come across a family of wild bison and we were apparently very close to a solo elephant who had been expelled from his herd a number of years earlier.

One of the nice things about the trip was how it could be customized to meet each individual’s interests. We had the choice of upgrading hotels and substituting different types of activities. By design, it was a very active tour and there’s no question we all came back in better shape than we started out. There was a good balance of athletic activity, culture, culinary delights, and normal tourism.

From the moment we left Cochin to Thattekad, we were biking most days, almost always in the morning following breakfast. The shortest was from Munnar, a mountain resort area, to Chinnakanal, which was only 22 kilometers, passing through the Grahams Lands Tea Estate and the Lockhart Gap Mountain Pass. The longest cycling day was towards the end of the trip from Vagamon to Thanneermukkam, which was 88 kilometers.

Francis stopped about halfway, expecting to put my bicycle on the bike rack, which was attached to the back of the van, and to have me ride the rest of the way, but he saw how determined I was and, indeed, I was able to complete the entire trip on my bicycle. I walked up two imposing hills but otherwise cycled the whole way. We closed our two weeks near Alleppey on a houseboat, which sailed along the backwaters and then at a homestay near Nedumudi, which gave a different perspective of the backwaters.

There’s something immensely liberating about breaking away from one’s routine, challenging one’s self physically, and immersing one’s self in a completely different culture. India is a fascinating country in the midst of tremendous change. Living an adventurous life can help us enrich ourselves culturally, inspire us to think about things in new ways, and see our own lives from a broader perspective. As Vincent van Gogh apparently said, “Normality is a paved road. It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”