Travel diaries: A road trip through South India

Read Part 1 in this series here, and Part 2 here.

Brihadisvara Temple (circa 1003 AD), in Thanjavur,was once the heart of the Chola dynasty. Travel buddy Astried Huebner and I spent a morning rambling through the well-preserved temple, catching a glimpse into a highly evolved culture. Once the mightiest rulers of southern India, the Chola presence was felt from Sri Lanka to northern India and parts of southeast Asia, until being annexed by the British in 1855.

Our pattern of driving aimlessly by intent along quiet rural roads on our motorcycles continued. Whenever we stopped, a small crowd formed, even in the most unlikely places. Watching a farmer work a rice paddy, a guy stopped to chat, as did the next five motorcycles. He had the advantage, being the only one who spoke English. Everything we said was theatrically translated. When he discovers I am Canadian, he smiles, shakes his head, and tells me his brother lives in Toronto. The crowd went wild.

Mid-afternoon attempts to find rooms in Musiri lead to dirty hotels. One angry man had the audacity to refuse us looking at the room without paying first. We laughed and circled town again.

Here, you eat in a “hotel” and sleep in a “lodge.” This can lead to hilarious confusion when you forget and ask directions to a hotel. A few businessmen emerged from a hotel—with a lodge above—and I asked them if they stayed here. One smiled and nodded that circular nod. “No chance, Sir. Go to Nammakal and stay at Golden Palace.” So, we did.

Later, near the centre of Nammakal, a young guy pulled alongside and asked where we were going. “Food,” I said. “Vegetarian or meat?” he asked. “Veg,” says I. “Follow me,” he said as he smiled and took off when the light turned green. He led us to an eatery, but we barely had a chance to shout “thank you” before he rode off into the dark streets. Amazing meal, again.

South of Nammakal, the arid hills of the Eastern Ghats meet the Western Ghats, which stretch from the southern tip of India north to Maharashtra State along the Arabian Sea. This is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Life is slow out here and foreigners on motorcycles are uncommon, so when we stop, the entire community emerges to stare. The ritual smiling, “hello,” and endless handshaking follow. Brave souls screw up the courage to try their English: Where are you from? Where are you going? They ask. They cannot resist staring at Astried’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and tattoos as though aliens have descended on their village.

On the outskirts of Karur, a man on a motorcycle riding in the opposite direction slowed to look at us. He turned around, following closely as we wound through the streets. At a chai stall, he approached and started asking questions, pulling out a notebook to write. I asked him why he was taking notes.

“I am a journalist for the Hindu-Tamil Times, sir. My name is Nur,” he said. “I have never seen a foreigner in this town, and I want to write a story in the newspaper about you. Do you have some time? I just called my photographer.”

We chatted with Nur, the photographer arrived, snapped some shots and they left. A crowd formed and a Mr. Salavan inserted himself, acting as translator. The crowd grew, traffic became snarled, and horns honked incessantly.

After a second chai, we bade farewell to our fans and climbed aboard the bikes. Squeals of “oooh” and “aaaah,” shouts of “goodbye” and frantic waving followed as Astried lead out. A handful of kids ran along beside us for a few blocks and we felt like celebrities.

Nearing the edge of town, we stopped to ask a couple of auto mechanics for directions. Each of the three men happily pointed in the same direction while asking for a “schelfie,” a universal term in India, and a common request.

More winding country roads eventually led to the small town of Aravakurichi where we found a room. After dinner, my phone rang and Nur told me to check page 5 of the newspaper next morning.

At the newsstand, I located the Hindu-Tamil Times, flipped it to page 5 and found Astried and myself smiling back. The shopkeeper couldn’t understand why a foreigner, who clearly did not speak the language, was buying a newspaper until I showed him page 5. He smiled and wagged his head in the circular nod.

Back at the lodge, the owner’s daughter and the others who had gathered round appeared suitably impressed. Our Warhol moment—15 minutes of fame.

For 28 days and more than 2,600 kilometres, Tim and his companion explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala (in 2017). Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and they certainly attracted a lot of attention. From chai-stall stares to schoolchildren’s cheers and even newspaper coverage. Read the first story here, and the second installment in the series here. For more on Tim’s adventures, go to

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Two UK cases of South Africa Covid strain are likely ‘the tip of the iceberg’& restrictions ‘may be too late’

THE two UK cases of the coronavirus strain from South Africa are likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”, according to experts.

And banning flights from South Africa, and strict quarantining of recent arrivals, may be “too late” to stop the spread of the new variant in the UK.

⚠️ Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest news & updates

A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rules


A new strain which developed in the UK has already plunged millions in Tier 4 rulesCredit: AFP or licensors

During yesterday’s Downing Street briefing, the Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed the new and “highly concerning” strain, called 501.V2, had entered Britain.

He ordered anyone who has visited South Africa in the past two weeks, or been in contact with someone who has, to quarantine immediately.

Coronavirus Scotland: Almost a fifth of Scots planning to break Covid rules to celebrate Christmas, poll shows

All flights from South Africa will be stopped, with people who have been in or transited through South Africa in the last 10 days are no longer allowed into the UK, other than British or Irish nationals who must self isolate.

Mr Hancock claimed the new variant is even more contagious than another new strain detected in Kent and London earlier this month, which scientists say is up to 70 per cent more easily spread.

It has led to millions being plunged into Tier 4 at the “eleventh hour” before Christmas, or on Boxing Day, to manage “out of control” cases.

Professor Lawrence Young, a molecular oncologist, University of Warwick, told The Sun: “If this strain is as transmissible as suggested by the data that has come out of South Africa, then just identifying a few cases recently, it’s probably just the tip of the iceberg, I suspect.

“You can identify it in a couple of people… but they’ll be more, for sure. 

“Some cases will be from people spreading it in the UK, and some will be from other introductions from South Africa.”

Prof Young said there is “still a lot we don’t know” about the variant from South Africa, and whether it is more transmissible, or simply been able to grow “in the right place, at the right time”. 

Scientists in South Africa say the variant is still being analysed, but the data are consistent with it spreading more quickly. It accounts for around 90 per cent of new cases.

Prof Young said: “If this has become the dominant infection in South Africa, and it’s been there certainly for a couple of months, and how many have travelled between the UK and South Africa in that time now? Quite a lot I would’ve thought.”

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said it’s “quite possible” there are undetected cases in the UK, but it will “probably be a number of weeks before we know for certain”.

Speaking of the quarantine measures imposed yesterday, Prof Hunter said: “It might already be too late, but we just don’t know.

“If [these two] are the only infections, yes it might be enough. But if it has already spread elsewhere in the UK and we just don’t know it, the answer is probably no, it won’t be sufficient.”

What is the new strain from South Africa?

The new variant is called 501.V2 and it was announced by the South African government on December 18.

At this stage, its symptoms do not appear to be different to that caused by the original Covid strain.

The most common signs of Covid to look out for are a loss of taste and smell, a persistent cough, and a high temperature.

Scientists are investigating whether the new strain causes more severe disease. But it does seem to be infecting more young people than the original strain, according to South African’s health minister Zweli Mkhize.

Dr Andrew Preston, University of Bath, said: “The ‘South African’ variant is distinct from the UK variant, but both contain an unusually high number of mutations compared to other SARS-CoV-2 lineages.”

“Some of these mutations change the S protein, which is cause for concern,” Dr Preston said.

The spike protein is on the outer surface of the viral particle. It is a focus for coronavirus vaccines, and so if it changes, it could affect how vaccines work.

New strains may make vaccines less effective, because the immune system does not recognise the new variant when it infects the body. This is “highly unlikely” to affect the vaccines that are being rolled out in the UK right now.

The mutations in this virus also mean it’s possible it can reinfect a person who has already recovered from Covid-19.

All of these things are being studied closely.

Mutations are normal in any evolution of a virus over time. Already thousands have been found in SARS-CoV-2 within one year.

What makes the latest two from the UK and South Africa so interesting is the speed at which they became “prominent”, causing lots of cases and suddenly.

The two confirmed cases -in London and the North West – were close contacts of people who had recently travelled to South Africa.

Those travellers would have had Covid-19, possibly without showing symptoms.

It is not clear if this was while they were in the UK, and if they have passed it onto other people who have gone undetected. 

Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins told the Downing Street press conference yesterday that health chiefs were “pretty confident” the measures that have been taken will help to control the spread.


Experts said it’s likely there are more cases of the South Africa variant on the basis that the UK one has already reached several other countries. 

Prof Hunter told The Sun: “It wouldn’t surprise me if it was circulating, in the way the English one is circulating already in many European countries.”

Prof Young said: “This so-called UK variant is now in Belgium, Gibraltar, the Netherlands, Australia, Denmark. It’s all over the place. Today it’s been reported in Israel.

Where the UK strain has been detected


Where the UK strain has been detected

“It’s because of travelling. I know it is difficult, but if you don’t restrict travel, and you’re not strict about quarantining people, this is what you end up with.”

The UK has repeatedly seen introductions of other strains from across the world which have quickly become dominant, and caused cases to soar. 

Prof Young said: “One of the things we’ve not been so good at is border control. When you look at countries that have been successful, one of the things they did very early on is shut their borders.

“We were very slow to do that, hence we allowed a lot of introductions of the virus into the UK from overseas.

“That’s what happened in the first wave, and it looks like that also contributed to fuelling this second wave.”

What’s happening in South Africa?

501.V2 accounts for up to 90 percent of South Africa’s new cases.

Daily confirmed infections are reaching 9,500 per day, on average.

It’s the highest it’s been since the peak of the first wave in July, when almost 13,000 cases were being diagnosed a day.

The country saw a dip in cases between September and mid-November before a sudden spike, which the health minister Mr Mkhize said was “being driven by this new variant”.



Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being hospitalised there.

South Africa has recorded the highest number of coronavirus infections on the African continent, approaching the 950,000 mark, with over 25,000 related deaths so far.

A resurgence in positive cases saw the government tighten lockdown restrictions last week, but a lockdown has not been used.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on December 18 it was in touch with the South African researchers who identified the new variant.

“We are working with them with our SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution working group,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove.

“They are growing the virus in the country and they’re working with researchers to determine any changes in the behaviour of the virus itself in terms of transmission.”

Boris Johnson refuses to rule out new national lockdown as new Covid-19 strains hit hard

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