Welcome to the blog for our round the world trip.

08 December 2007

Farewell India; good riddance Indian roads

Madras Hotel Room: hot sticky and without our van. The van is now in a box and after 240 days of driving, tomorrow we resort to an aeroplane to Dubai. We have done our final miles of driving in India, which took us to a large container depot north of Chennai. It poured with rain all the way, so Italian customs are bound to be delighted with the amount of pure Indian grot we have collected all over the bodywork. After much head scratching, head wobbling, waiting, clearing of customs formalities and standing around in muddy puddles, we drove the van into its container before the locals nailed it down with bits of wood and tied it in with some yellow string. Shortly afterwards, a large orange crane took the container away, whisking it over our heads as we waved goodbye to the van of dreams. Now all we can do to track the progress of our van is to wait for sporadic emails from our portly shipping agent, Satish, or to try and follow the shipment online (though the tracking website at the moment rather worryingly tells us that our container is still empty).

Since we dropped off the van, we have slept, explored the dubious “sights” of Chennai and slowly recovered our nerves after weeks of driving on Indian roads. Speaking of which, we have put together a little quiz for anyone who is interested in driving in India:

1) What should you do before changing lanes?
a. Blow your horn. Loudly and repeatedly.
b. Just swing into the lane and keep driving (do not look up under any circumstances, that would be a sign of weakness).
c. Speed up and drive parallel to an annoying little yellow auto rickshaw until you force it out of the way and thus get a lane automatically.
d. Turn the steering wheel sharply until you hear your car scraping against another.
e. Erm, what are lanes anyway?

2) What should you do before overtaking?
a. Blow your horn. Loudly and repeatedly.
b. Use your indicators to clearly demonstrate the manoeuvre you are about to make. Oh, no, don’t be stupid. You are in India: no-one does this. Ever.
c. Overtake in any way you can, no matter who or what is in the way. Getting ahead in life starts here.
d. Look in your wing mirrors. Oh no, you can’t do that, you have folded them in like any good Indian driver would (wouldn’t want to create the misleading impression that you might use them, after all).
e. If the car that you are overtaking contains white people (gora), ensure that all members of your vehicle gawk out of the window, including you the driver (why waste time looking at the road?).

3) Who has the right of way on the road?
a. Whoever blows their horn loudest and most repeatedly.
b. Whoever flashes their headlights first to say that they are coming through. (This actually is the rule: and you thought that fastest finger first was only for quiz shows).
c. Wandering cows. The holy cows are the only thing that trumps fastest finger first. And don’t they know it.
d. The bouncing kamikaze buses.
e. The car with the most dents.

4) When driving on the highway nice and politely, on the correct side of the road and at the correct speed, what might you encounter?
a. At night: totally unlit, slow moving tractors coming the wrong way towards you on your carriageway.
b. At night: totally unlit, slow moving lorries coming the wrong way towards you on your carriageway.
c. At night: totally unlit, fast moving auto rickshaws coming the wrong way towards you on your carriageway.
d. Totally unmarked, aggressive speed humps in the middle of the only decent stretch of flat carriageway for miles.
e. Road works (times one million) always complete with as many free-for-all, death defying contra flows as possible (no signs or barriers in sight).
f. Road kill (lots and lots of varieties – dead donkey or dog with rigor mortis, anyone?)

5) What are Indian traffic police for?
a. Modelling the latest line in sand coloured safari suits.
b. Demonstrating how to be one of the least efficient human beings on earth.
c. Sleeping under trees.
d. Putting up big barriers in the motorways to create chicanes and cause endless traffic jams and / or accidents.
e. A target for Round-the-Worlders to verbally (or physically if things get really bad) abuse.
f. Managing traffic…. no, that one was a joke.

02 December 2007

The final leg of our Indian epic

Houseboat in Kerala
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.
So, we have reached Chennai (or Madras as it used to be called), breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into the nearest available coffee shop (where we are enjoying watching two Pakistani batsmen giving India an absolute beating… though we have to stay quiet about enjoying this, for fear of getting lynched). This gives us the opportunity to recount the events of the last couple of weeks (and upload more photos and videos to the website).

We eventually dragged ourselves away from beautiful Agonda beach and somewhat reluctantly returned to the Indian roads, setting off south towards Kerala. On the map the journey looks simple 600km (2 days) south following Highway 17 all the way. But in reality it was anything but simple. The driving was the worst that either of has ever seen; really terrible, even by (appalling) Indian standards. A very long, thin single carriage way that is dominated by incredibly dangerous, crazy buses (with names like “Superspeed” and “Cannonball”) which plough up and down the wrong side of the road, often veering onto two wheels due to the bounciest suspension imaginable, with the horn blaring continuously to make sure that every other vehicle jumps out of the way in fear of its life. Add into the mix a number of bridges that aren’t wide enough, plus lots of ineffectual road repairs with ineffectual contra flows managed by exceedingly ineffectual policeman wearing safari suits, and you start to get the picture.

After two very stressful and long driving days we eventually reached Kochi, the tourist hub of Kerala, where we parked up outside a friendly guesthouse and took advantage of some nice restaurants and a picturesque natural harbour. The highlights of the harbour are the remarkable Chinese fishing nets: huge home-made wooden cantilevered constructions, each manned by a team of eight to ten men. They lower the whole net into the estuary using a complex system of counterweights, then a pair of chaps scurry along the wooden beams to watch the fish gather. After a suitable period of time, the chaps give a signal and everyone starts heaving, pulling the whole wooden frame and net contraption out of the water. A bizarre but interesting way of providing fresh fish to the town. We also submitted ourselves to a traditional local Ayuverdic massage. We don’t want to go into the details, but it involved too much nakedness, too much cheap olive oil, too much hard plastic and not even a shower afterwards.

The road from Kochi leads to Alleppey where we had pre-booked a Keralan house-boat to celebrate Helen’s 30th birthday. The boat was a traditional rice-barge, impressively made by hand from strips of wood bent into arches and tied with coir-rope. We had a crew of three, two men to punt us down the backwaters and a chef (all wearing checked sarongs, as is traditional for the men in these parts). The boat itself was very simple, but we glad to stand out from the large, noisy motor cruisers that dominate the main canals. Being smaller, we were able to drift through some of the narrower backwaters past quiet, leafy villages, schools, shops and houses. The whole experience was surprisingly peaceful for India – in fact the quietest and most relaxing place we have been in the whole country. At around five o’clock we made our way across a large lake and then moored up on the far side for the night, enjoying fresh south Indian food as the sun went down. After Helen opened her birthday cards from home, we whiled away the evening lying on the day bed at the front of the boat reading and drinking cold beer. After Alleppey we spent a few nights at another tourist resort called Varkala, not as picturesque as Agonda but with more big waves to jump around in for Michael. There was also, strangely, an excellent Nepali restaurant where we spent most of our time, eating and reading (Michael has become addicted to reading second hand Dervla Murphy travel books).

From there we made the final push down to Kanyakumari and the south cape of India. The road comes to an abrupt end at a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, with a view out to the meeting of three seas (Arabian Sea, Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean) and an odd version of the Statue of Liberty standing out on an island off the coast. To celebrate both our arrival at the south tip and Michael’s 30th birthday, we bought a big supply of gaudy Indian fabric flowers and some cold beer; drove to ‘Sunset Point’; and decked the van and ourselves out in flowers. A bemused Roman Catholic prayer group, who had been paying their respects to the Mary Magdalene statue at Sunset Point, joined our party: they weren’t quite sure what was going on but seemed very over excited about standing in our photos and wearing our flowers. We slept right at the end of the continent – disturbed only by a group of chavs on motorbikes, two fishermen practising martial arts with their big sticks and a group of policeman who were ‘trying to protect us’ from the local scallies.

The nature of reaching the end of the road means that there is nothing to do apart from turn around, so we started our 4th decades (!!) by heading north again. We briefly visited the huge, colourful temples of Madurai, realizing in the process that our temple tolerance has now been fully exceeded. Then back to the coast and the former French enclave of Pondicherry. We stayed in a lovely converted colonial building, enjoying the wide European style streets, nice restaurants and a pleasant sea-front promenade. ‘Pondy’ prides itself on providing a very different standard of living to the rest of the country and it was a very enjoyable place to while away a few days. There is still a French flag flapping away above the consulate in the centre of town; lots of colonial French buildings and French street signs; croissants aplenty; and the policemen even wear bright red gendarme’s caps. Outside the main town we also visited the experimental community of Auroville – set up in the 1960s by a lady who, rather presumptuously, went by the moniker of ‘The Mother’. People from all the nations of the world live at Auroville in harmony, plant trees, make cheese and gather round a huge golden golf ball to meditate. The community and ideas are actually very interesting although most of the available information glosses over The Mother’s belief that she was paving the way for the evolution of a new species of ‘super humans’. Rather odd…

01 December 2007

The next bit of the grand plan

Where do we go now?
Originally uploaded by rtw2007.

We have spent the past few weeks trying to decide where our trip should take us next. Having been on the road for nearly eight months now, and having never really thought things through much past India (mainly because we weren’t sure how we would feel after this long on the road squished into a camper van), we thought that it was about time that we came up with a plan. Michael has decided to start teaching again at the start of the Easter 2008 term, so we still have just over four months left on the road.

We thought about shipping the van to Australia and New Zealand, but the cost is prohibitively expensive for such a short time and we would have been travelling in the middle of their baking hot summer (not ideal for our prospects of sleeping in a camper van in the Outback). So that will have to wait for another time.

We were also very tempted by driving back to the UK via Pakistan, Iran and Turkey. We both loved Pakistan on our way here and we have heard nothing but great feedback from people who have travelled through into Iran. Unfortunately, though, the security situation has deteriorated really quickly in Pakistan and looks set to get worse before it gets better. Although we might have gone back to some parts of the country without too much concern, things are particularly problematic in the west and we would have to go there (or through Afghanistan!) to get to Iran. We become more and more convinced that this isn’t the right option every time we see news of Pakistan: more suicide bombings, beheadings in the tribal areas, politicians under house arrest and huge protests. Maybe we are soft, but the bomb which went off down the road when we were in Islamabad was worrying enough, and that would be small fry in the current climate.

So, we have decided that next week we will ship the van though the Suez Canal in order to avoid Pakistan and Iran. The plan, if we can pull it off, is to put the van onto a container ship bound for Italy, where we will collect it and then take a boat to Greece and then drive into Turkey, via Gallipoli. From there, we can pick up the Pakistan – Iran – Turkey overland route (having missed out the dodgy bits and also the severe winter in western Iran and eastern Turkey, where many of the mountain roads become impassable) and drive back through Turkey, perhaps the Balkans and Europe. See the new updated route page on the website.

All of this has the added bonus that, whilst the van is being shipped from Chennai to Italy, we can pop back home for a couple of weeks (via a few nights of luxury in Dubai) for Christmas, New Year and to go to Matt and Barbara’s wedding. Which all works out quite nicely really…