Saturday, 19 December 2015

CYCLING INDIA - GUWAHATI - MUMBAI


CYCLING INDIA


11-12 November - Guwahati – Delhi by train
I was pleasantly surprised when my phone rang at 5h00. I had a quick shower and walked the short distance to the train station. I checked on my bicycle and panniers and found that they were already waiting at platform 7. The train was, however, delayed, and it was a long wait before it finally arrived.  

The train was as basic as one can expect for the price and I don’t think the authorities have cleaned it since it was built, most likely in the 1950’s.  At least I had a seat reserved and did not have to run and jump on while the train was still moving, like the passengers in second class.

I was the only foreigner on the train and, as can be expected, it felt that each and every one came to have a look at me. I wanted to edit some pictured while I had nothing else to do, but they crowded so around me to see what I was doing that I gave up. They have little private space and no shame whatsoever to look at what you are doing.

There were constantly vendors selling tea, samosas, boiled chickpeas, water and the like. People were eating and throwing their used cups and plates (it was not really plates, just used newspaper) out of the window, but I could not get myself to follow suit. They must have thought me a bit of a hoarder seeing that I was keeping all mine - ha, ha, ha.

I ordered dinner and hoped that they would be kind enough to bring me a spoon as the Indians eat with their fingers and I find that quite an impossible task. At lunch, I had chickpeas (or channa) and they fabricated a kind of a scoop for me out of newspaper!  Little English was spoken, but I did hear “foreigner, foreigner” every now and again. The people in my berth thought it their task to look after me and guard my stuff every time I got up. That was quite nice.

Of course, I thought that there would be bedding on the train but there was no such thing. My fellow passengers were, however, quick to lend me a blanket for the night. They were so sweet!

12 November Delhi
It was 8 p.m. by the time we arrived at New Delhi train station, and I was more than happy to get off that train! I looked but could not find my bike or bags anywhere. I took a walk to the parcel office (which was an experience in itself). By then it was already pitch dark as I waded my way through the muddy puddles and past stray dogs and goods stacked sky-high, but there was nothing there. I decided to go in search of a room for the night and look for the bike and bags in the morning.

Delhi is a crazy, busy and congested city. I took a walk up Main Bazaar Road, and due to Divali celebrations, the road was a sea of lights. It must have been around 9 or 10 p.m., and the road was as busy as peak hour would be in many other cities with the only difference being that it was congested with bicycle-rickshaws and tuk-tuks. I walked past vendors selling curry and roti’s, past down-and-out beggars and scrawny looking kids asking for food. I found a room at the Namaskar Hotel for 550 rupees, and I could have sworn it was the same hotel where I stayed in 2008!

13-17 November, Delhi
I woke with a sore throat and blocked nose (something that can be expected after the train ride) and went in search of vitamin C and my bicycle. I easily found both. The short ride from the train station to my hotel made me realize just how trying cycling in India can be. The following day, I stayed in bed with a thick head and sore body, not what I needed now as my time for getting to the Pushkar Camel Fair was running out. I felt rotten, and there was no point in trying to cycle. The air quality in Delhi is extremely poor, and I had not seen the sun for days, but it made for some interesting pictures.

I took a walk to the chemist to get flu medicine, and that alone was an experience. India has an open garbage system, and stray dogs, monkeys, pigs, rats, and cows all eat whatever they can find to survive. Cows have a complex digestive system, and plastic bags never get expelled. Over time, the plastic bags accumulate inside the cow's stomach, where they become hard as stone, and eventually, they will die. So much for the Holy Cow! The flu tablets did not make one iota of a difference, so I resorted to the corner herbalist. I had no energy for sightseeing, so I stayed close to my hotel, just going out to get food and water. The "erbs" seemed to work as I soon felt much better (this, of course, could also have been due to natural causes).

 My Garmin GPS could not load the Indian map from Open Street Map, so I bought a map from Garmin (at a rather hefty price), which did not load either, and I was a bit peeved off by that. I sent an email to Garmin's head office, but they, conveniently, passed me off to another department, saying that I must contact my local (South African) branch!! I had little time for such incompetence. I located Garmin's head office in Delhi and elbowed my way through the crowds, trying as best as I could to avoid the cow dung, dog shit, and human excrement on the pavements. Once there, the staff members tried their best to load the map, but again, it was loading so slowly that we agreed to leave it overnight and that I would pick it up in the morning. Back at the hotel, I met Darryl, another cyclist. We went out for a beer, and it was refreshing to just chat about everyday things.

 It was 17 November by the time I left Delhi, taking a lift (by car) to Puskar. We first swung by the Garmin office to pick up the GPS, but there was still no map on the device. I sincerely hoped that this was my last public transport in India, as I was by now itching to get on the bike again.

I just want to make it quite clear to everyone that I'm cycling-touring for no other reason than that I love travelling by bicycle, and that I love moving on and that, most of all, I love the unknown. I have no agenda, plan, or reason for doing this. As weird as it may sound to many of my friends, I'm cycling by myself because that is what I enjoy doing. I have no desire to cycle with, live with, or in any other way, join up with (may it be temporary or long-term) anyone. I am (for the time being) quite content. However, this state of euphoria could change at any given time! Just for the record, I have met some rather nice people along the way!  There is an eminent sense of freedom that comes with this lifestyle, and I'm not quite prepared to give it up as yet. It is by no means an easy or comfortable life but, for now, I'm quite content.

18-20 November Pushkar
I have finally made it to Pushkar, and what a very unusual place it was! Pushkar is a holy town, and most Hindus will visit it at least once in their lifetime. No beer or meat is sold in the town, but I'm sure one can find it if one so wishes. A holy lake forms the centre of town, and it is said to have appeared after Brahma dropped a lotus flower. Today, there are more than 50 bathing ghats and hundreds of temples. It is no wonder that there is a constant sound of drums, gongs, and chanting in the air. There was no sleeping in as the drumming and chanting started around 5 in the morning, which was fine with me as I wanted to get up early to go to the camel fair.

The famous camel fair is where locals come to show, auction, and buy their best camels and horses. The outskirts of Pushkar were literarily a sea of camels.  Traders lived in makeshift tents, and there was a festive mood in the air. Kids run around wanting their pictures taken while the grown-ups were in serious conversation bargaining for the best price. I was impressed with the horsemenship and horse trainers. It was amazing what they could make the animal do.

The most distinctive feature of these desert horses is that their ears curve in, nearly touching. I took so many pictures that I did not even edit them all, as there were just too many. It was rather difficult to take pictures, as the event was much larger than I had expected, and there were thousands of people, camels, and horses—getting a clear shot of anything was quite an achievement. I felt a bit out of my league, as there were real professional photographers with big lenses, so I tried to stay out their way and slinked around the back.

The road leading to the fairground was lined with stalls selling all kinds of horse and camel paraphernalia, as well as anything else the traders could need, from bedrolls to barbers. They all seemed to cater to men, even if there were plenty of women. It appeared to me that women remained very much second-class citizens, as they were the dung collectors and cooks. Only around 50% of women in Rajasthan are educated, and this is also the state with the biggest gap between men and women.

Aside from the traders and photographers, there were plenty of other travellers, including European hippy/Indian look-alikes with dreadlocked hair and dangling earrings, using the word "Namasté" at regular intervals.

The camel fair, I discovered, was merrily a side show to the real thing. Now, it is also Kartik Purnima, which refers to the time that the pilgrims come to dip in the sacred lake of Pushkar. Needless to say, it was noisy and crowded, and the narrow main road was packed with tourists, pilgrims, and beggars. I quite liked the madness of it all! Then, there were the bizarre - from the limbless with begging bowls to snake charmers and five-legged calves. I felt like all I needed to make a few bucks were a begging bowl and a spot outside the temple! This is truly the event of the year.

21 November Pushkar – Beawar 90 km (app)
As amazing as Pushkar was, I had itchy feet and wanted to get on the road. Getting out of Pushkar was a difficult task as I was trying to avoid the main road to Ajmer. I, more than once, landed up on a sandy track and had to turn back again. In the end, I must have gone in a huge circle, and what could have been a fairly short day turned out to be a whole-day affair. I, unfortunately, lost my odometer but guess the distance to have been around 90 kilometres. Even worse was that I discovered that Rajasthan was not all that safe!  I was nearly robbed three times in one day!  I specifically took the smaller roads as I was trying to avoid the busy main roads. That, however, seemed to be a mistake.

The first incident was three guys on a motorbike who waited for me on a particularly lonely stretch. I instantly knew something was going to happen, and as I got to them, the one grabbed the handlebars, forcing me to stop. He then (quick as lightning) grabbed my cell phone (which was in the handlebar holder) but, fortunately, dropped it and then got back on the motorbike and sped off.

The second incident involved a middle-aged man who grabbed my bike as I cycled past. I'm not sure what he wanted, but he had an axe with him, so I was not going to argue. He pointed to the front wheel; I'm not sure if he wanted that or just an inner tube. He then asked for a photo, and after I told him that I did not have a camera, he let go of the bike.

During the third incident, a woman came running after me and hit me on the back. I don't know if she just wanted to touch me or if she wanted something, but I did not want to stop; it was weird! After that, I found a bicycle salesperson and stuck close to him all the way to Beawar. It was a good thing, too, as he chased away a few persistent followers. Was I happy to reach Beawar!? I looked for a hotel, but they were all full due to weddings or something; or maybe they felt that foreigners caused too much trouble. In the end, I found a room at Hotel Shree and was extremely happy to close the door behind me. Phew, what a day!

22 November - Beawar – Pali 120 km
I had a different route in mind, but when I saw a perfectly good highway, I decided to follow that in the direction of Mumbai.  Although it was a toll road, bicycles could use it, and it was surprisingly quiet (that is, quiet for India). I was determined to stay on the big roads although highways are never interesting. I did not need the stress of the day before.

It was a typical, barren, desert landscape with equally barren mountains, just a few goats grazing and a few forlorn plastic bags blowing in the wind. I put my head down and pushed on to Pali past numerous "Dhabas" selling basic food and chai. These Dhabas are very basic (often just a mud structure) with cots for sitting (or lying). I never saw another woman at these Dhabas; most of them were packed with men, however. It kind of makes me uncomfortable to go in there as just about everyone stops eating and stares. It's a bit nerve-wrecking drinking your chai under hundreds of staring eyes.

At least there was plenty of water along the way. Like in most desert areas, there are always clay pots filled with water along the road. It's amazing just how cool the water remains in them. There is always a communal mug, and although many of my friends would not use it, I must admit I do use it, and so far so good.

23 November Pali – Sumerpur 85 km
I did not much feel like cycling but packed up and left anyhow. It was a typical day in Rajasthan; dry and dusty as I cycled past coat herders and women in colourful saris tending the fields. Plenty of people called me to have chai and others stopped to ask where I was going, but with my experience of a few days ago I was a bit wary of stopping.

I made it a short day and stopped in Sumerpur where I found a room in the main road. That night around 12 o’clock there was one almighty racket in the street. It must have been a festival of sorts as a parade went by with music so loud that my bed and all the furniture in the room vibrated!

24 November Sumerpur – Sirohi  45 km
I left town amidst camel carts and scavenging cows. By the time I reached Sirohi, I had noticed what looked like a formidable mountain ahead. Just there and then I called it a day and decided to tackle it in the morning.

25 November Sirohi – Abu Road
Nothing much came of the mountain that looked so formidable. The road weaved its way through the valleys and soon I was on the other side of the mountain. Along the way, I met Ashish Pali and his two kids on their way to Mount Abu for a festival. We chatted for a while, and he gave me his contact details just in case I needed assistance. How sweet is that?

At first I thought of going up the mountain but then got lazy and just chilled for the rest of the day.

26 Abu Road – Mehsana 121 km
Before leaving, I had tea and toast!  It must be a left-over from colonial times, complete with crust cut off!!  It was an easy day on the road and although not very exciting (as I was still following the highway) it all went smoothly. When cycling through rural areas, little visited by foreigners, I seem to scare the living daylight out of the kids. They run for the safety of their mother’s hems, only to peek out once they are safely tucked behind her apron or sari. I don’t blame them as they have most likely never seen a white woman on a bicycle.

And so I left the state of Rajasthan and entered little visited Gujarat. No wonder it is little visited as it is officially a dry state. I understand that one can easily get a permit from the larger hotels, and I may do just that once in Ahmedabad tomorrow. It is unthinkable that I have to go without my nightly beer.

27 November Mehsana – Ahmedabad – 70 km
It was a short but stressful ride into Ahmedabad. Most of the way, it was not too busy, but getting into the city and finding a budget room was a different story. In the process, I met Shabier, a tuk-tuk driver and the sweetest man one could hope for. He pointed me in the direction of the Stayinn Hotel, which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.

28-29 November Ahmedabad
I joined the early morning walking tour of the old city and thought it money well spent. What a fascinating place Ahmedabad is. After the walk, I set off by tuk-tuk with Shabier to the very impressive Adalaj step-well. A 5-story deep step-well built in 1498 by Muslim King Mohammed Begda for Queen Rani Roopba.

Legend has it that Rana Veer Singh, a Hindu ruler, was attacked by Mohammed Begda, the Muslim ruler of a neighbouring kingdom. The Rana king was killed and his widow, a beautiful lady known by the name Rani Roopba, though in deep grief at the death of her husband, agreed to a marriage proposal made by King Mahmud Begada on the condition that he would first complete the building of the step-well. The Muslim king, who was deeply enamoured of the queen’s beauty, agreed to the proposal and built the well in record time. Once the well was completed, Begda reminded the queen of her promise to marry him. Instead the queen, who had achieved her objective of completing the step-well started by her husband, decided to end her life, as a mark of her devotion to her husband. She circumambulated the step-well with prayers and jumped into the well, ending the saga of building the well in tragedy. These events are depicted on the walls of the well. They were rather dramatic in those days!!!

Ahmedabad is home to the Sabarmati Ashram, Gandhi’s headquarters from 1917 – 1930 during the struggle for Indian independence. It is said he chose this site because it was between a jail and a cemetery and anyone in favour of independence was bound to end up in one of them. It is from here that Gandhi started his famous Salt March. As I read the history I, once again, will say that there (at least in my mind) is nothing worse than colonialism. How anyone can think it was a good thing boggles the mind.

Outside was a statue of Gandhi's three proverbial wise monkeys: "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". I had no idea they had names. Apparently they are Mizaru, covering his eyes, Kikazaru, covering his ears, and Iwazaru, covering his mouth. I also came upon the Kalam Kush paper mill. The mill uses a Gandhian technique where paper is still made by hand using off-cuts from fabric. I understand that all government offices (at least in Ahmedabad) use paper from this mill. I hope that this is true; wouldn't that be great? 

The following day Shabier picked me up again as I wanted to go to the supermarket. We first swung by Gulbai Tekra, a small slum known as ‘Hollywood Basti’ because of the women dressed in their colourful clothing. Gulbai Tekra is home to over 1000 families making a living out of carving Ganesh statues. As always, most people were keen to have their pictures taken. Some women veiled their faces with their dupattas, revealing only their traditional nose-rings, while some posed more boldly and pointed at me. In the process, I got caught up in a funeral procession and was welcomed into their midst and did not leave without a bindi.

I walked past the homeless families living on the pavement and thought it not such a bad life after all.  They were extremely well-organised and even had a clock on the wall and space for hanging things. Some had beds and kitchen utensils. What impressed me most were the kids doing their school homework. Multiplication tables were neatly written out in a notebook.

I always thought it quite sad that I worked from early morning ‘till late at night just to come home to rest, and then off to do the same thing again. I did all that for a few bob of which there were only enough enabling me to do the same the next month. If there were any left, I would buy things with it, which I then had to worry about and took out insurance and locked doors and windows so no one can take it away from me…bizarre, really. We all have our problems, I guess.

30 November – 1 December - Ahmedabad – Vadodara 115 km
I was following Gandhi's Salt March, also known as the Dandi March, and met quite a few pilgrims along the way. At one of the roadside stalls, I stopped for tea and was asked if I was from China. I had a good look at myself in the mirror that night. Ha ha ha!  Never in a million years had I thought that I even remotely looked Chinese.

As I cycled along, I was acutely aware that I was immersed in a world of overwhelming and unparalleled bombardment of the senses. From the constant hooting, dust, and vehicle fumes to the incense-perfumed air and peaceful chanting of Hindu devotees; I cycled past dead animals rotting in the heat of the tropics, past people playing cricket on immaculate green fields, past incredibly ornate Hindu temples, and homeless people living on the street. I was greeted friendly by rickshaw wallas and tea-sellers, all wanting to know “What’s your country?”  Motorcycles pulled up next to me asking for a selfie; I guess all this is India.

I stayed in Vadodara the following day as well as there were a few things I thought worthwhile seeing. I got up late, had breakfast and then went looking for a lens cap (which I lost again!). The whole process was quite time consuming and interesting, and in the end I returned to my room not having done much.

2–3 December Vadodara – The Tri-Temple Complex 135 km
I left early-ish as I wanted to escape the morning traffic. Fortunately, things don’t get busy until around 10h00, so I had an easy cycle out of town. I got back onto the highway, which is never the most exciting job, but at least it had a shoulder. The shoulder was mostly used by traffic driving on the “wrong” side, so I had to keep an eye out for oncoming traffic as well. Although it was a toll-road, there were ox-carts, camel-carts, trucks, buses, cars and tuk-tuks, all heading south into the ever present haze.

Ironically, while India was choking silently, half of parliament was in France for the Climate Change meeting. Whenever I stopped for a cup of tea or to fill my water bottle, there was always a crowd curiously inspecting the bicycle. They looked and debated and then concluded that the solar charger was for charging the bicycle…..I wish!  Someone even suggested that my water bottle was petrol as surely I needed some help with this load!

It was easy cycling, so I pushed on until I reached the turn-off for Surat. I asked around for a guest house (as the word hotel mostly means a restaurant around here). I was pointed in the direction of the temple, and what an exciting evening it turned out to be! The Tri-Temple Complex is a non-denominational and non-sectarian complex. It is said that the temple is there for the welfare and well-being of the entire world. I was given a room for INR100 and ate for an additional 30. I was given brochures to read and found, once again, the importance and power of the Trinity fascinating. I think that most religions have a three of something. Most of the reading was over my head, and with some I did not agree 100%, but it was all fascinating stuff.

I stayed the following day as well and read the remainder of the brochures. I especially found “Adjust Everywhere” a fascinating read. It could just be that I agree with this kind of thinking — of adjusting yourself instead of expecting the world and others to conform to you, something that is harder to do than it sounds. Although, when I look at social media nowadays, it appears that most people expect society to change to accept them….. Each to their own……

4 December - The Tri-Temple Complex – Navsari - 40 km
I did not feel well at all but packed up and left the temple. On checking out, I found that they wanted no money for my stay! I soon discovered that staying another day might have been a better choice as I had a severe case of the “Delhi-belly.”  There is truly no fun in cycling and vomiting next to the road and constantly looking for a bush to hide behind.

Forty kilometres down the road I turned into the town of Navsari and found a rather luxurious hotel at INR1,350 up per night (about $20). By the time I got there, I did not care how much I was paying and just wanted a room with an attached bathroom! As I took out my money to pay, I got the shock of my life and found that (again) they wanted no money! I overheard them say something about 8 years cycling or something! I wonder how they knew. How awesome is that? I could not be happier, had a great shower, and flopped down onto my very large and comfortable bed! I spent the remainder of the day between the bathroom and my very large and comfortable bed. LOL.

5 December Navsari - Valsad 60 km
I still did not feel well but did not what to overstay my welcome. I thanked the owner for this hospitality and continued south. At least I felt better than the day before. After about 60 kilometres I reached Valsad and thought it a good place to stop. I found a room and slept for the rest of the day.

6 December Valsad – Manor 109 km
Sometimes it feels like everything goes wrong at the same time. I wanted to pump the tires and found that my bicycle pump was broken, aghhh! Fortunately, there was a bicycle wallah who could quickly give it a pump or two and at the same time also place a few drops of oil on the chain. I cycled out of town (as always) in the company of water buffalo and cows. I smiled as I saw a big sign on the highway indicating that one lane was for the use of cars, one for trucks, and one for heavy vehicles. At least someone tried to get some order out of this chaos.

I cycled past the “cricket-bat slum”; it seems like there is a slum for everything. If one needs a bat, this will be the place to come. One can even have it personalised or decorated with one's favourite cricketer. Shortly after I left, I thought it would be a good idea to stop at the chemist and pick up some medication for nausea and diarrhoea. Never knock the drug companies!!! They make wonderful stuff at a pittance! I paid the incredible amount of INR65 and soon felt like a new person. For obvious reasons, I did not feel too energetic and got myself a Coke and a Red Bull, which I mixed in my water bottle. Wow, you should have seen me!  I flew down the road (or maybe it was due to a tail wind, LOL) and only stopped once I reached Manor. It looked like there were some mountains between Manor and Mumbai, which was still about 110 kilometres away, making Manor the perfect place to overnight.

7/12 December Manor – Mumbai 115 km
I did not get away until after 9 p.m. but, at least, it was easy riding until about 50 kilometres outside the city centre. The traffic was incredible and once again I feared for my life. The best thing one can do is to go with the flow as much as possible. Mumbai is theoretically an island and is connected to the mainland by bridges.

Once in the city, I headed for the suburb of Colaba where I stayed while cycling India in 2008. I could not remember the name of the place but knew it was somewhere behind the very fancy Taj Mahal Palace. I cycled around and looked at a few places, none of which looked suitable. The touts drove me crazy, following me around and insisting that I follow them. I felt sorry for them as I know full well that it is their job - it still irritated me, it was a long day, and I wanted to find a reasonably priced room as I was, most likely, going to stay for a few days.

By chance I found Bentley’s Hotel where I stayed before and, low and behold, would the guy at reception not ask: “Have you not stayed here before?” He must surely say that to everyone as there is no chance that he could really remember me. In any event, I took a room in one of their other buildings as it was even cheaper, plus it was a large room on the ground floor where I could easily push the bicycle right into the room. Bargain!!!

From here on I have no idea in which direction to go. I have already cycled the rest of India and only wanted to cycle the stretch between Delhi and Mumbai as that was the stretch I missed out on the last time due to a broken arm. No wonder the guy can remember as I arrived with a broken arm and a black eye, left the bicycle at the hotel, disappeared for a few weeks and then reappeared later and continued. I can now cycle the same route south and meet Rachel and Patrick along the way, or cut across the country to Bangladesh.

I feel that I should shed some light on a subject that has been raised a few times. “How can you afford it!” Firstly, as most people know, I sold up and left South Africa in March 2007 and have been living on the road ever since. I truly live like a homeless person (now you can also say you know a homeless person). I owe and own nothing. I have no house, no car, no pension, no medical aid, and no insurance of any kind. No, I did not inherit any money either, what I have I worked for, and that is as simple as that. It is not a glamorous life; I have with me all I need: a tent, a sleeping bag, a stove, and a few bits and bobs like clothes and toiletries. I also have some bicycle stuff (i.e., duct tape, cable ties and WD-40), a bicycle pump, spare tubes, and a few tools. I do, however, have some very luxurious items with me, including my tripod, my camera (a very basic Canon Rebel), and three lenses: an EF 24-105 L IS USM, an EF 70-300 L USM, and the Canon 100 mm macro lens. I also have an old laptop that is slowly busy packing up. I also have a phone as well as a Garmin GPS (which I seldom use). I eat from the markets; I sleep where I get, may it be next to the road in a tent or a room in the city. Like most other cycle-tourers, I have slept in some rather interesting places. In the process, I have stayed with the most wonderful and generous people anyone can wish for, and for that, I will always be grateful.

My beloved laptop finally packed up and I handed it in for repairs. They could, fortunately, fix it but what a mission to re-install everything. It took the best part of the night to reload everything.

2 comments:

  1. You got to LOVE India, right? First time I hear from you, and you're a long time cyclist! Nice to meet you here. I'm Cinderella from the Netherlands (www.cyclingcindy.wordpress.com) (I know you have no time to read this though) and just... say hi 😆.
    Enjoy the ride on our incredible planet!

    ReplyDelete
  2. And we are so sorry our paths didn't cross in India! Patrick and Rachel

    ReplyDelete