A few years ago, my father unearthed a mint-condition 1973
Honda Goldwing in some Hyderabad shed. For those of you who are unaware
of this legend, it has a 1-liter 4-cylinders engine that develops 80 bhp
a 4-stroke cycle. My mother, unacquainted with the world of 2-wheelers
and repelled by its imposing figure, calls it the "big bertha". Indeed
it's big but it's not German. Apart from its impressive engine, it comes
fully dressed up. It has a set of luggage, a saddlebag on each side and a
trunk large enough to hold a pair of helmets. The front is generously framed
with a large windscreen and body that incorporates the enormous circular
lamp--the Cyclops’ eye. In stylized letters on the bottom half of the
frame one reads "Windjammer"....
It is on this Rolls Royce of motorcycles that I set off this morning on
the Hosur road heading south from Bangalore. It is a busy road. Many trucks
and buses vie for a share of the asphalt. Nothing appears to have changed
compared to my last run on this road 2 years ago.
Although the road has visibly improved the traffic too has swelled, negating
the benefits of the new road. At Hosur, I get to see what will someday be
a flyover. A colossal piece of concrete mass seems to have sprouted out of
the middle of the road. As I cruise along side it, it evokes images of a
beached titanic, a Noah’s arc, as if the sea has disappeared and laid
it here to rest. These images quickly vaporize as the construction comes
to an abrupt end with a concrete cliff giving space to a wasteland filled
with parked trucks. I am brought back to sharp reality as the bus in front
of me comes to a stand still and I have to pump the twin front disk breaks
into action. My feet drop down like landing gears working hard to maintain
the 350 kilos of the bike upright. I become conscious of the growing number
of mopeds, Hero-Hondas and other two wheelers that have gathered like flies
around a cake. I appreciate their curiosity for what appears to be an object
straight out of a Rajnish Kant movie, but their lack of respect for the Goldwing
makes it difficult to maneuver in this constrained space. Time to let rip.
As soon as the traffic starts to thin out, I open the throttle and 4 million
cubic-centimeters-a-minute of rich fuel-air mixture coupled with a sweet
purr gets my adrenalin rushing back to my head like a dream-enhancing drug.
The pack of two-wheelers faded out of my rear-view mirror.
The road from here is now being converted into a motorway. I say now because
two years ago it was a large smooth two-lane highway, which was a pleasure
to ride. I say "being converted" because it is still far from being
a motorway. The rare sections where the traffic is indeed circulating on
opposite sides of the granite divider, one is prevented from reaching the
motorway-average of 120 km/h because the local farmer has decided to take
the short cut with his bullock cart and is traveling in the take-over lane,
in the opposite direction! Moreover, even if the take-over lane is not entertaining
the local farmer in his search for kamikaze bouts with 80 kilometers-an-hour
5-ton trucks, the Indian truck driver--a far from extinct breed--clueless
to motorway ethics, monopolizes the two lanes, hashing the road into 500
meter sections of open road. I still managed 120-plus speed highs. The collection
of accidents that dots the road, an inevitable sideshow on Indian roads,
is ever more spectacular this time round. A number of trucks and buses have
collided on the edge of the motorway, one of them having crossed the divider
to meet the other head on at motorway speeds. May the gods of Indian truck
drivers give them another chance! I quickly realize the reasons for such
fatalities. As I speed on, the road ahead is suddenly awash with dust as
buses and trucks are swerving off this carriage onto the opposite. The road
in front is still being bulldozed. A half-meter drop awaits the unwary driver
as no signs foretell the impeding decent into farmland. This switching back
and forth is more cumbersome then expected as not only are there no signs
to tell you when to switch (some sections would appear perfectly usable except
for a line of rocks across the road), but once you are traveling on the other
side it is hard to figure when you are supposed to return to your own side.
No I wasn’t dreaming, I see vehicles traveling on both sides of the
divide, as if there were two highways running in parallel. I can’t
imagine what this must be like at night, although the accidents give me an
idea. When one can finally rejoin one’s intended carriage, it is at
the cost of slowing down to first-gear speeds, as the Gold was not designed
for track and field events. Krishnagiri at last! Two years ago the highway,
for some years already, bypassed the town, which meant one could easily find
the road to Pondy without having to cut through the town. Now, two more beached
Titanic are being raised from the ground. Why two flyovers at this point
I have no idea. My guess is one will be to get into town, the other to keep
going to Salem. Again, monumental constructions have dwarfed so much of the
old landscape that I could not recognize the turn-off to the Madras road.
Sorry the Chenai road. I grew up with the English name so please excuse my
slip. Anyhow, for those who want to do the trip, the junction is under the
second flyover. One day it will be finished and hopefully you won’t
have to spot the plumes of dust as trucks veer off the Madras …err
Chenai road onto Salem in order to locate the exit.
Now on this stretch as well they are in full refurbishment mode, so keep
you eyes peeled for the second turning on the left, it is about 200 meters
after leaving the motorway. The Krishnagiri-Pondy stretch is like I left
it two years ago. A long tiring but pleasant road that cuts through the heart
of Tamil Nadu. Funny, I have been back in India for only a week and all along
I was trying to remember some of my Tamil (I was fluent as a kid!) but only
Spanish words kept springing to my mind (I have been living in Madrid for
the last 2 years).
Now that I am in Tamil Nadu, clearly posted by the dozen of posters
promoting MGR and his motley crew as well as the registration plates’ “TN” markings,
all of a sudden a torrent of Tamil is gushing through my mind. God it’s
good to be back! Beware, stranger, India has more to it than meets the eye,
you need that third all-seeing one to peek behind the scenes, so don’t
be phased if you have an encounter of the third kind. Anyhow, this stretch
is a two-lane highway monopolized by the local buses that use it as their
private runway except that they never take off, and even if they do it is
to land up side down! Probably a consequence of watching too many Rajnish
movies. Anyhow, I tried a few 120 km/h highs but they are pointless. The
road this time is hashed by the plethora of small hamlets that line the road,
taking the asphalt as their court yard, their farm yard, their laundry yard,
their you-name-it yard, but never for what it is: the national highway that
it is supposed to be. Mind you I prefer this to speed bumps. I have done
the Bangalore-Mysore highway several times where they have a perverted affinity
for speed bumps. I don’t know where they shop for them, but you can
find a wider variety on that 180 km stretch cheeses in a French supermarket.
Running south-southeast the road is easy to navigate.
You have more to worry about the local fauna then finding your way. It’s
always straight at every crossing until you reach Tiruvanamalai. No I didn’t
misspell that one, the names in Tamil Nadu can be quite a mouth full! On
the other hand mind the chickens, the Tamilians, the dogs, the birds and
the cows… in that order! I put the chickens first because they are
the most dangerous. When a chicken is set to cross the road it needs to run
back and forth a couple of times before it finally settles. At 90 an hour
that gives you little time to prepare a side dish for mash chicken. They
especially don’t react to any amount of horning. Tamilians in their
yard. Remember, some of them really think they own the asphalt and no amount
of horning will make them move any faster. Take my advice, slow down making
sure you don’t serve as a trampoline board for the bus behind, and
dodge them. Mash Tamilian can leave a very bad taste in the mouth! Careful
for the Tamilians on bicycles, too much horning can convert them into chickens.
Dogs are rare but dangerous. They act as if they were on their own on the
road, and react (very well) to a good blast of the horn but only at the last
minute. Mashed dog is messy and you can leave the remains to the crows.
Birds are a bit like dogs, except that they fly so watch out! Finally although
cows are widespread, and spread on the road, you can be certain that they
will not move, and don’t try to either. Remember, they are sacred and
they know it. The trick is to keep an eye out for them. Their generous size
makes them well visible and gives you plenty of time to miss them. Note I
say nothing about buses, trucks, and other vehicles. I leave you to figure
that one out. Wouldn’t be fun if I told all!
My fuel gage is running low. My counter reads a little less than 200 km.
That’s probably the Gold’s only fault. The tank is too small
for a bike that is designed to eat up the road. I start looking out
for a petrol bunk (that’s what they call a petrol station in India).
I have something very specific in mind. It should not be in the centre of
nor should its access be too difficult from the road. I see one as
I come out of a village with an unpronounceable name. As I park up sure enough
a dozen people have already notice the beast. By the time I have
fuelled up the crowd is a dozen deep. Inevitably the conversation is always
the bike, and it goes something like this: -“Serrr, vich kantrry you
from?” (I try to convey to you the deep southern accent, which is impossible
to understand unless you’ve lived here). The first question is invariably
about my origin. -“India!” (I feel more at home here than in
my native France) Perplexed look on his face. -“You shpeak Hindi serr?” -“No!
Tamil” At this point the guy has to think twice about what I just said.
A white man speaking Tamil. Even in a Rajnish movie you don’t see that!
-“Neeingle Tamil terryma?” (This is phonetic Tamil which means ”Do
you know Tamil?”) -“Conjunde Conjunde” I reply (A little
a little). Smiles go round. Now a number of different onlookers that
till now have said nothing start to ask the questions to which by now there
be a sign clipped on the bike with all the answers written out. “Ide
vandee dooble engine?” (This is a double engine vehicle? –Tamil
speak for two cylinders) “Il-eye, naalle engine!” (No four engines)
I reply. Beginning of the disbelief spread in the crowd. The questioner
repeats to his friend, “Nalle engine da!”, whom, seeing from
his prior face, had already understood. “Yevlo c.c.?” (How many
cubic centimetre?) “wone
thaousshand!” A thousand, I reply, a Tamil word I am still searching
in the recess of my mind. The English word is widely understood and
I see the immediate effect of my reply as murmurs of disbelief go round the
myleage serr?” Indian folks are obsessed with fuel consumption, not
for environmental concern mind you, but rather for cost reasons.
Fuel prices are disproportionately high in this country. The cost of a litre
will get you a full meal in a restaurant! “Pady rendde” (Twelve)
I reply. Now the disbelief is total. Exclamations spread round faster
than fire. Just to give you a reference on how ridiculous this sounds, a
(the Honda CB 125 manufactured here) gives on average 70 km-a-liter.
A friend of mine managed an incredible 140 km on a single liter with this
is my cue to depart. I slip the side stand of the Gold, fire the
4-pack, engage into first and slowly move away past mystified Tamilians.
have the time to shout and scream I am thundering down the road.
Another couple of dozen kilometers and I finally arrive in Tiruvanamalai.
You recognize the place from quite a distance as it is overshadowed by a
large and funny two-peak hill. As you enter the town take you pass by an
ashram on the left, and soon reach a ‘Y’ junction. If you take
the right fork you’ll go by the front of the temple and its crowded
street, fine if you wish to visit the temple, which is worth it. Else the
left hand road will take you via the back of the temple. Recommended if you
want to get on with the rest of the trip. As you come round the temple you
now have to take a deviation to the left. Careful at the next junction, take
the Gingee/Tindivanam road on the right. Going straight takes you further
north to Velure. Basically if you start to get out of town with the mountain
on your left then you got the wrong road. If you turned right at the junction
you should reach the Gingee road, which you need to take on the left to get
out of town. If you turn right, there is the famous “Modern Café” which
has succulent idlis and dosais. Worth the break. Impossible with the Gold.
Gingee is a large village with a crossroad and some large boulders that dots
its surrounding countryside. You go straight through. Another 30 kms and
you arrive in the small town of Tindivanam. There is now a deviation on the
left once you enter the town which saves you the ride through the market
road. 2 years ago I was in the thick of it and did the 400 m of the market
road in first gear with both feet on the ground. The road circles round the
market back to the junction with the Chenai (got it right this time)-Madurai
highway. They now have a flyover that eliminates this cross road. After Tindivanam
you are on the home run. Another 30km of pristine Tamilian road. The entrance
to Pondy is past the large hospital complex of Gipmer. Grand avenues have
now been built that take you the last few kilometers to the sea front town
with its French character.