Traveling with a bicycle on a plane is never an easy process…. This is the second time on our trip we have had to fly with our bikes, the levels of anxiety and nervousness increase exponentially the closer you get to arriving at the airport. The first time we flew we were well overweight, fortunately we had a ridiculously nice check in attendant who allowed us to stuff our carry on luggage with as many of our heavy items as possible and ignored the 7kg limit. This time we had the advantage of already having boxes, saving us the nightmare of traipsing around shops trying to find something suitable… but still dreading the arrival at the airport and dealing with someone who was going to be rigid with the rules.
The last time we flew we put everything we had in a box with the bikes, even with heavy items removed they still nudged the scales just over the 32kg limit permitted…. After some reshuffling of items I managed to jam my foot under the box the second time they were on the scales and managed to take 5kg off with my foot taking the weight on the floor. The problem was they were far too heavy for the workers to move about so came out in Colombo completely battered and with the boxes in tatters – we were really lucky to have all our items as one of the boxes was wide open, the heavy staples had come open at the bottom. This time we went for a different approach and put only our bikes in the bike box making them lighter and easier to move – at least 17 kilos each still but better than 32. We found a few other boxes for all the other junk we are carrying around. We were up late into the night packing it all away, I used a whole roll of tape in making my box as strong as it possibly could be before I realised I hadn’t let the air out of the tires (a regulation with all airlines due to the pressure changes) so had to cut it open and start all over again…. Sheena managed hers with ease and by midnight we had everything sorted.
Walter, the helper at our guesthouse clearly had a relationship with a local rickshaw driver to make a small kickback every time he pushed business his way. We didn’t mind this as he was a great guy and didn’t earn much money, plus the rickshaw driver looked 100% exactly like Lionel Riche – seriously, a perm, a mustache – he has given up music and drives a Piaggio 3-wheeler in Negombo, Sri Lanka. Walter had been pushing us to use Lionel to get to the airport… if you haven’t seen a rickshaw it is not big. The Piaggio is slightly bigger than the Bajaj type, but it is still fundamentally a tiny tin roofless robin reliant built in Sri Lanka with a tiny noisy engine. This worried us as we kept saying it wasn’t big enough to fit our huge 1.7 meter long bike boxes let alone the other gear, Walter wasn’t having any of it and Lionel had convinced him it would be fine (despite not seeing any of our boxes). The bonus of a 3-wheeler is cost – they are very cheap, and despite the airport only being 15km away, taxis and vans were quoting a fortune for the short journey. We were so busy yesterday that we hadn’t managed to organize anything by the evening so had to take Walter and Lionel up on their offer – a trial load up was planned that evening but didn’t materialise leaving us with the daunting prospect of a 4am trial and error rickshaw ride to the airport.
Lionel arrived early at 03.50, his rickshaw looking smaller than ever in the slightly moonlight sky. We wearily dragged our luggage out with an increasingly strong feeling that there was no way we were going to manage. Despite the fragility of the box and its contents (the humidity in the air had made the cardboard soft and unable to retain its shape, leaving it sagging and collapsing on itself to one side) the bikes were picked up and shoved at a variety of angles to try to make them fit – one slid in completely taking up any other space inside and the other was thrust in a variety of completely ridiculous ways prompting our protest and looks of complete non understanding from Walter and Lionel. No, please don’t keep hitting the bottom to try and fit it into a space that clearly isn’t big enough, no please don’t put it diagonally upside down half hanging out! Eventually some twine of exceptionally dubious quality was found, and after we insisted on wiping the wet roof, the second box was attached in the weakest possible sense to the flimsy cover of our three-wheeled chariot. We climbed into a space no bigger than a toddlers wendy house, practically sat on top of each other with our heads bent double as we set off at a pace slower than an Irish person given free Guinness for 12 hours. Fortunately traffic was light as Lionel piloted this overloaded craft through the field of man sized potholes while periodically checking the state of our much loved bike on his roof. Compared even to crawling, the journey seemed to take an age, especially as both of us were worried about the upcoming nightmare we were both expecting.
One thing Lionel and Walter failed to tell us were that rickshaws are not allowed to enter the pick up/ drop off area of the airport – oh, of course that wasn’t an important fact when transporting us with far more than we could possibly carry. Lionel tried, but was pulled over by a policeman who told him no – finally turning around to us to tell us there was a problem and we should complain – usually with big bags a rickshaw can quickly drop someone off. The policeman was an arsehole, he could clearly see we had no chance of carrying what we had but ignored our requests to let us pass. Eventually we were dropped off a few hundred meters away from the terminal entrance, no chance of ever getting our luggage anywhere near without a team of helpers. I had no choice but to walk to the terminal, take a trolley and ignore the shouts of policemen as I pushed it 300 meters down the road and over the grassy field that divided us from where we needed to go. Sheena did the same, we then loaded up and exceptionally stressed out, pushed our gear over a muddy garden area to finally meet the mess of people that was the entrance to the airport. Two bike boxes on an airport trolley is not a convenient way to pass through a large crowd of people, after people looked at us and made no attempts to move our patience was limited. Like a snowplow we forced our way through until we reached the door… which we promptly ended blocking – you would think airports would have wide doors? Unload, carry through, reload. Many airports in India make you x-ray your luggage before checking – unload, x-ray, reload. What happened next was the first good thing to have happened all day…
After wheeling up to the check in attendant and expecting a real palaver, he smiled and said the magic words that made our day…. “oh, don’t worry about taking the boxes off, do you have any idea how much they weigh?”. Stealing a quick glance to Sheena I could see that she was just about to fist bump the air in ecstatic joy… “errr… about 11 kilos each” I said, stuttering slightly with about as much conviction as a dentist wielding a noisy drill while saying “don’t worry, this won’t hurt…. much”. Somehow we were trusted and our other bags were weighed… hand luggage not checked (we had a devious plan involving hidden heavy bags to fit inside other bags) as we were on our way with much less hassle than expected free to spend the last of our money on overpriced coffee and some duty free as a Christmas present to ourselves.
Both Sheena and I have been to India before, Sheena 15 years ago to the month and myself in 2005. Initially we landed we saw the shiny new airport with all its facilities, the thorough (but slow) immigration procedures and both had thoughts about how it must have changed so much. Arriving into the main area we quickly realised that it was a modern veneer spread over the same crazy Indian mentality as before, people were going mad at the luggage belt for their cardboard boxes, bumping into old ladies in wheelchairs and generally throwing each other out of the way. I was stood at a glass door watching the luggage wagons arriving from the plane to be loaded onto the belt, when the system jammed up from multiple bags on the belt causing it to stop, the policeman in charge of operating it did absolutely nothing for a minimum of 8 minutes (I timed it) before people in the crowd jumped up and pulled the bags clear…. The fat mustached policeman just sat slumped over the side staring into space, his finger burrowed so deep up his nose rooting around with such ferocity it was if he was personally responsible for extracting India’s annual coal requirements, despite the constant sirens going off! I could see our boxes on the last wagon and waited to see them pass through the x-ray machine… when they did I banged on the glass to ask to go and collect them so they didn’t have to get thrust around the crazy machine and belts into the airport where they would likely become jammed. He motioned for me to wait where I was as he dragged one corner over the edge and dropped them onto the floor with a wince inducing crash that even Sheena heard over 100meters away… he then chucked them again onto the belt and dragged them to x-ray them… FRAGILE I pointed, his blank face staring at me. Once more he made a half arsed attempt to take the boxes off the belt, resulting in them receiving one final gravity induced crash to the floor. I was reduced to banging my head against the glass door in despair before being permitted in to collect them, leaving him in no doubt that he was a moron while pointing out the multitude of fragile stickers plastered all over the box (when we assembled our bikes we found Sheena’s front forks had been bent out of place which must have happened at this point L).
The airport was fairly calm, it was relatively new and still slightly shiny. The arrivals area showed no signs of the crush of people we were expected, and then we saw out of the front sliding doors…. Masses of people were waiting to meet people who were arriving, all behind a small fence in the hot sun. Extended families that would cover the Isle of Wight were crammed along the fence all focusing on who was coming out of the airport. Fortunately we had treated ourselves to an airport pickup and picked out a guy who held a sign with our names, we forced our way through and over to him to load up and start our drive to Varkala just over an hour away.
Varkala is a small touristy town on the beautiful coast of Kerala, our room is in a small hotel situated at the top of some cliffs overlooking the sea. We are surrounded by coconut trees and have a beach to either side – a black one 2 minutes to the north and a white one 5 minutes walking to the south. Small bamboo shops and restaurants are built right up to the cliffs edge, the walkway in front comes complete with lighthearted attempts to have you enter and spend money. Most workers here are from other parts of India where it is low season, the mountains in the north or Kashmir, the goods in the shops are a strange mix of crafts from other regions (Tibet and Kashmir mainly) and clothes that only a die hard hippy would wear (think tie-dye and pictures of Hindu gods). Our place is nice and we have figured out where small local markets are to avoid the bland tourist food in the beach side restaurants, we plan on staying here a while to relax and build up our strength to carry on. We may see out Christmas here as there are other people around and we may be able to have some kind of celebration, but definitely no turkey roast!