Exploring south India by motorbike: The best and stupidest thing I've done
Swinging haphazardly between the highs of jaw-dropping nature and touching hospitality, versus the lows of being flipped into a ditch by oncoming traffic and lost without a prayer in the remote highlands, this solo road warrior tackles the most beautiful state in India by motorbike.
In eight months of traveling Asia, it was the best—and stupidest—thing I had done yet. And after hitchhiking across Laos, taking deserted local boats up the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar, and trekking alone in the Himalayas, that was really saying something.
I had just finished a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Tamil Nadu, and a 12-hour train ride dumped me on the other side of the country in the southern state of Kerala. Days of deep meditation left me feeling both fragile and deeply connected to the world. Just a day earlier I stepped into a crowded Tamil marketplace and burst into tears—it was just too beautiful!
Such was my state of mind when I decided against all rational survival instincts to rent a motorbike and spend a week exploring Kerala—a state on India's tropical Malabar Coast—in one adrenaline-fueled solo tour. If anything could test my newfound zen and love of humanity, it would be driving a two-wheeler on the notorious highways and byways of India.
The locals refer to this part of southern India as “God’s country,” and it’s undoubtedly spectacular: white beaches, mountainous jungle, lush backwaters, and the nicest people in the entire nation.
I rented my motorbike in historic Fort Cochin, following a heated two-hour negotiation over the price of the vehicle and the absence of my license to operate it. Phone calls were made to cousins, “the wife of my uncle’s best friend,” and, cryptically, “the real boss” to finalize the meager $50 price tag for one week of free-wheeling.
I mapped out my route from the crumbling trading center of Cochin to the mountains of Munnar and back down to the silky backwaters of Alleppy. I’d cover nearly 800 kilometers if all went according to plan. Yet within minutes of starting the ignition, the comically bumpy, narrow streets of Fort Cochin turned into a sprawling six-lane highway with huge semi trucks and professional daredevils on Royal Enfields, and everything in my body told me to GO HOME NOW.
My blonde hair puffed out conspicuously from beneath my helmet and I drew amused stares from men and women alike, who whizzed by with several children and pounds of vegetables stacked on their laps.
Gradually the highways morphed back into no-lane swaths of asphalt, quirky villages appeared out of dense groves of palm trees, and men frying up their morning parathas and dosas waved at me from the side of the road. I stopped for cups of chai in towns my GPS stopped identifying hours ago, practiced taking GoPro footage with one hand, and relished the wafts of spicy-sweet mountain air.
Most amusingly, I stopped in a very rural area one afternoon, deciding that the edge of one family’s expansive farmland was a perfectly normal place for a yellow-haired American to conduct her afternoon meditation practice. I opened my eyes half an hour later to eight pairs of blinking eyes and huge, incredulous smiles inches from my face.
“HELLO WHERE ARE YOU FROM ARE YOU MARRIED WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE HOW OLD ARE YOU CAN WE TAKE A SELFIE WITH YOU...” filled my ears as I was whisked away into their home for fresh Kerala lime juice, lots of questions about why I was 26 and single, and invitations to essentially never leave. It was no surprise that they’d never seen a foreigner in their village, no less a woman traveling alone on a motorbike, and especially not one that practiced Vipassana meditation. It was only the second day and Kerala had already won me over.
And it continued to dazzle. After showing up in a mountain village in the rain, only to discover there were no available hotel rooms, countless locals made phone calls to their friends and family asking who could host a foreigner for the night. A man sat with me for lunch in a rural village and drew a map of the entire state with “too much beautiful” routes for driving.
Two rascally twenty-something boys beckoned me to follow them on their bike when the only road I knew was closed for construction, and the father of a family came scurrying down the mountain when he saw me stuck on a steep incline, nearly crashing my bike into a ravine. He drove it down for me and talked enthusiastically about his friend Sadik living in Ohio...maybe I knew him?
Yet tackling India on two wheels proved more dangerous and utterly stupid by the day. School buses became my worst enemy, flying around blind corners at top speed and thrusting themselves between my scooter and oncoming traffic, tiny pigtails flapping out the windows.
On one occasion, I dodged a bus so narrowly that I was forced off the road and into a ditch. I toppled gracefully and came away with just a few scratches, but apparently the accident was so appalling that even the usually-nonchalant passengers craned their necks out to gape at the rogue injustice.
Other times, I found myself on isolated country roads with no cell phone or GPS signal and no sign of civilization besides the occasional car filled with enthusiastic Indian men, honking their horns and “cheering me on.” My heart would race as I prayed for them to speed past and leave me alone on my decidedly independent adventure. Was I even going the right way anymore? Where was I? There was no one to ask—and not even a chai place for miles around as far as this dummy could tell.
There were rarely any signs along the road, and the few I did see weren't in English. Mountain roads were steep, slippery and composed of endless blind curves and deep potholes. I tried to exercise yogi-like compassion for my fellow road warriors, who would cut me off, speed up next to me to have a conversation, drive into oncoming traffic, navigate with one hand eating their lunch, and cause my heart to stop at least once an hour. I swung haphazardly between the highs of catching a breathtaking view over an evergreen valley and the lows of self-loathing for putting myself in such frequent near-death scenarios.
I’ll never forget battling rush hour traffic with frazzled nerves on the last evening, pulling into Fort Cochin and practically throwing the keys at the 17-year old skater boy who nearly allowed me to pay $50 in exchange for my life. I kissed the pavement and thanked India for shaving a few years off my life expectancy, but also for gifting me with an unforgettable adventure, a bolstered self-confidence, plenty of stories for the grandkids, and, of course, dozens of selfies with the angels who helped me along the way.
I’d probably do it again in a heartbeat.