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Feature - Peddling for peace

A short journey on a long road


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Our departure date was set for Saturday, Sept. 15, four days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Some of my Indian friends advised me not to leave. Their main concern was the fact that I’m blonde, white, and would be travelling back up to Kodai alone. Tad and I discussed our choices and we opted to stick to our plan. If anything, we felt that our departure couldn’t be more timely. I left promising to telephone my friends en route.

We left Kodai early in the afternoon and headed down the Gaht Road. Our destination was Palani, a small town at the bottom of the hills. We were going to descend 1,500 metres, cycling 65 km around 45 hairpin curves.

Cycling on Indian highways is challenging. I knew that not only would I need the physical endurance to cope with the heat, but the mental ability to cope with the lunatic drivers and the sheer numbers of people competing for space on the tarmac.

But the road down to Palani was quiet and the scenery was magic. The hues in the late afternoon sun that reflected off the hills was breathtaking. We cycled through coffee plantations, banana groves, villages, and past tea stalls.

"Nala suga ma?" ("How are you?" in Tamil) I asked the tea stall vendor.

She answered: "Nala sugum." (Fine.)

I ordered, "Reendi chai." (Two tea please.)

My Tamil isn’t the least bit impressive, but it’s always fun to see the reaction of the locals when they hear a white girl attempting to speak Tamil.

We arrived in Palani just as the heavens opened up and the rains came down. Our timing was remarkable. When the rain comes down in this part of the world there’s no point in even attempting to stay dry – Gore-tex may last 30 seconds.

We rose at 5:30 a.m. to see Palani’s hill temple, Malaikovil, dedicated to Murugan, son of Shiva, creator of the universe. Along with several hundred pilgrims we hiked up 650 steps to the temple. An old sadhu smeared ash on my forehead and blessed me. When we reached the top I chose not to walk into the inner sanctum where the image of the deity is believed to have miraculous powers. I’m not a Hindu and I didn’t want to be intrusive on their sacred ground.

After our visit to the temple we went for breakfast in a small restaurant. I ordered a dosa, its like a paper-thin pancake made from lentil and rice flour. It’s served with curried vegetables, and chutneys. After a couple of dosas, coffee, and bananas, we were fuelled and ready to hit the highway.