A journey cycling along Kerala's coastline, letting lighthouses lead the way

One man's 1,000-kilometre bike ride along the coast of the southern Indian state

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“Riding a cycle is slower-paced than travelling by any motored vehicle — it is just the right speed to appreciate that the journey matters as much as the destination,” reads an entry on Ayyappan Nair’s blog. “On a solo ride, when there are periods of no traffic, I feel at one with nature… I breathe the air and I am aware of each breath. It is the best time to introspect, meditate, cogitate or ideate.”

Nair, 55, is a molecular and cellular biologist who worked in the biotech and pharma industries in the US before moving back to Kerala, India, four years ago. “I decided to give up my job and be a consultant, so that I had time to do the other things that I’ve always wanted to do,” Nair says.

“I also wanted to live a sustainable and minimalistic life, and thought I would start cycling both for fitness and to avoid using the car as much as possible. I started cycling every day to my parents’ home and back — a distance of 20 kilometres — and picked up groceries or any other supplies on my cycle.”

Ayyappan Nair on his trusted Indian-made bicycle. Photo: Tom Anthony

Nair slowly built up his stamina so he was able to make longer trips. When a friend suggested that he cycle along Kerala’s coastal route, a distance of more than 1,000km, taking in the various lighthouses along the way, the idea resonated with him, as it gave his travels a theme. He is also a talented photographer, so looked forward to the pictures that he would be able to capture along the way.

Nair loves slow travel and the opportunity it affords to interact with people, eat local food and soak in the specific vibe of a place before moving on. “Typically, my days would start early around 5am, and I would cycle till 12 noon and then stay in that place, explore and interact with locals,” he explains.

Cycling along this spectacular route, which meanders through palm-fringed beaches, coastal lagoons, rivers and hills, took him all the way from the south to the north of Kerala. He completed the journey in two phases, with a month in between for rejuvenation. In the first phase, Nair cycled from Trivandrum to Kochi, a distance of 350km that he completed in four days on his bike, before making the return journey by bus. In the second phase, he made the 750km trip from Kochi to Kasaragod in about 10 days and then rode to Kannur to take the bus back. Owing to the pandemic, there was minimal traffic on the roads, which made the experience even more pleasurable.

“I used an Indian-made steel cycle with 24 gears that gave me a safe ride. I followed the usual precautions of staying hydrated, resting and recuperating, before moving on to the next place on the map,” explains Nair.

Did he travel light? “Not really, but I am slowly learning. I carried 25 kilograms on this trip, which was quite a heavy load — from clothes, food, candy, tools and spares to electrolytes, water and medicines. But if I make another trip I can do with far less,” he says.

The Vizhinjam Lighthouse near Kovalam. Photo: Ayyappan Nair

Beyond the scenic beaches, he explored 21 lighthouses, a couple that were home to museums of their own, although these were closed owing to the pandemic. “The most spectacular one was probably the one at Kannur, situated on a cliff with a walkway leading to it, and from where you get a spectacular view of the bay and beaches,” he says.

“Most of the lighthouses were built during British colonial rule and, surprisingly, most are in use even today. The first lighthouse I came across on my trip was in the historical town of Anchuthengu, near Varkala, known for its fort and lighthouse. The black and white striped concrete lighthouse was built by the British in 1684. The lighthouse in Tellicherry [Thalassery], from 1835, is a unique one built by the British inside the fort, and Kerala’s newest is at a place called Valiyazheekkal. It is a pentagonal lighthouse built out of reinforced concrete, with an elevator that works using solar energy,” he says.

The opportunity to explore Kerala’s rich history was a major catalyst for Nair embarking on this journey, he explains. “The historic coast of Kerala is where many traders and travellers came to, lured by the lucrative spice trade, and it has been witness to many momentous events. Kerala’s spices have attracted ancient Babylonians and Egyptians, as well as Phoenicians, and Roman ships came loaded with gold to Kerala’s coast to exchange it for Malabar pepper. This was where Christianity came to India with St Thomas, the apostle; the oldest mosque in the Indian subcontinent was constructed in Keralan style in 629 CE, at Kodungallur; and travellers from Marco Polo to Vasco da Gama have landed on its beaches… the list is endless,” he says.

The Thalassery Lighthouse dates back to 1854 and is located inside a fort. Photo: Ayyappan Nair

Nair enjoyed local breakfasts of puttu, which is steamed rice and coconut in cylinders, and kadala (chickpeas) curry at tiny eateries, stayed at quaint B&Bs and serviced apartments, took ferries, spent time with fishermen on deserted beaches learning about their life and the day’s catch, and interacted with curious children who wanted to know more about his trip. In many instances, he was the beneficiary of random acts of kindness by locals — from free bananas to directions to advice on the best coffee shops.

The greatest aspect of the trip, says Nair, was the cross-section of people he met on the way, from fishermen and travellers to activists and lawyers. “My trip was full of serendipitous meetings, like Anand from Mumbai, who was doing yoga on Cherai beach; he took me to the homestay where he was staying with a bunch of lawyers and I ended up having breakfast with them.”

Moinudeen Koya, a fisherman activist, showed Nair around Chaliyam, including a well where water for old train steam engines was drawn from. He found coal from the days of those ancient locomotives buried in the soil surrounding the well. Another friend, Abu Fayzee in Beypore, took him to the home of the famous Malayali writer and activist Vaikom Muhammad Basheer, to the famous mangosteen tree where he used to meet friends and followers.

“The lighthouses that are symbols of maritime trade acted as milestones for my trip; every time I reached one, I knew that I had finished a part of my trip. This trip has strengthened my thoughts that we could coexist with nature if only we could live with less. I would love to do an all-India cycling trip some time — for now, I am enjoying just being on my bike and enjoying the slow life.”

Updated: May 27, 2022, 10:06 AM
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