We chased our guide through Chennai, a sprawling urban jungle of eight million, along serpentine streets packed with every conceivable vehicle, as well as cows: A trial-by-fire. Splitting lanes liberally, we blazed between buses, sneaked to the front of the pack at red lights, rode on sidewalks, shot through any hole in traffic and wove reverently around the sacred beast.
After 40 hair-raising minutes, our guide pulled over on the side of the eight-lane road, smiled and said: “This is the beginning of the East Coast [Highway], sir, just go straight.” Kudos to Vicky, the owner of Chennai Motorcycle Rental, which provided us our two-wheeled transportation and the company’s guide.
Traffic density eased, the crush of humanity diminished, fields appeared, and the first sea views emerged. Kovalam, a tiny seaside village, must not receive many foreigners judging by the shocked stares followed with wide smiles and waves and wonder-stuck schoolgirls marvelling at a woman, my travelling companion Astried Huebner, riding her own motorcycle.
In the coastal town of Mahabalipuram, the touts were gentle and beggars respectful. Surprisingly they heard the word “no” the third time and relented. (In other parts of the country “no” means try harder.) We picked a guesthouse on the outskirts of town where the owners were surprised to host foreigners and went out of their way to make sure we were comfortable.
Next day included frequent detours to small villages, where foreigners rarely stop, to drink chai, watch and be watched. People literally stop in their tracks at the sight of a tall, blond woman riding a motorcycle, her tattoos garnering enthusiastic discussion.
Approaching Pondicherry, “Pondi,” as the hipsters call the former French colonial city, traffic and population density grew thicker. Although it features in The Life of Pi, it seemed another big city to avoid. So we followed a smoothie sign and found ourselves in Auroville.
This is an experimental community that boasts “no borders,” is focused on sustainable living and filled with expats, barefoot “seekers” sporting local garb, “volunteers” working for free room and board and resembling a hippy commune more than anything else.
In search of a room we rode along a dirt path, stumbling on a quiet guesthouse located in a cashew plantation. The host family, a lovely young couple, made us right at home and we settled in for a couple of nights.
Back on the road, we battled the tumultuous traffic of Pondicherry reaching the empty beachfront. However, it seemed more a place to dump trash and wash after defecating than relax, swim or surf.
On the opposite side of the Chunnambar River in Cuddalore, a chai stop generated the usual flurry of questions. A man asked where we were headed and I told we were going to find a place to eat. Next thing we know, we are chasing him through oncoming traffic and along the sidewalk into the parking lot of A2B restaurant. “One of the best in town, sir,” he whispered before zooming off.
A smiling server recommended a “meals,” which was comprised of foods boasting 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. She brought refills for each bowl and reloaded the mountain of rice until we were bursting, all for a mere $2.
On a whim, we turned inland, riding randomly through never-ending rice paddies and fields teeming with produce in the vast Cauvery River delta, the breadbasket of Tamil Nadu. The crush of urban India receded, and Banyan-shaded stops led to random encounters.
In the market town of Vadalur, we were greeted with wide smiles, frantic waving and shouts of “hello.” Turning south on a narrow, country road, dozens of tractors with trailers piled far too high with the sugar cane harvest wobbled dangerously down the road. A stream of buses, racing to get ahead of each other, added to the excitement, swerving out from behind the towering trailers with no regard for oncoming traffic, and the few cars were even faster. Inject a parade of motorcycles, bicycles, people, cows and goats, and a potholed country road becomes a nightmare, often requiring heavy breaking and evasive action to avoid collisions.
Across the Cauvery River in Kumbakonam, once referred to as the “Cambridge of South India” Astried sniffed out the Kumbakonam Homestay where we enjoyed a large suite, the manager proudly proclaiming we were his first foreign guests. A hot shower removed the day’s road grime and a tandoori chicken restaurant beckoned in what would turn out to be the best tandoori we tasted the entire trip.