By thelonerider, Feb 19 2016 12:08PM
Hello again! It’s been a long wait for Part 2 of this blog but I finally got round to writing it. I said it was going to be a while but not even I anticipated taking this long. It’s just over one year since I landed in Mumbai to begin the journey across India. I can’t believe it! How time fly’s.
I’m sure from my first blog you gained a good sense of what India is like. This blog will talk about the food, some more crazy experiences, the positives and the negatives.
Okay, no more waiting, here’s what happened for the rest of the time in India.
It’s safe to say that India sends your senses wild. The mixture of smells that linger in the air is as varied as the range of spices available for cooking. At any one time you might be engulfed by the smell of stale urine emanating from the road side. On a hot afternoon it is so strong that not only does it make your eyes water, but the hairs within your nose seem to fizzle from the intensity. Mix that with the smell of car fumes, dal fry cooking somewhere nearby and of course a little hint of cow dung (depending on where you are) and it really tests every single smell receptor in your nose! It’s no wonder so many people have surgical masks or scarves covering their mouth and nose when out on the roads. Sam and I had the very unpleasant experience of riding past a large sewage works when travelling up the heavily polluted industrial belt of west India. As the smell hit us we both recoiled and almost lost control of our bikes! There was no option but to keep going forward, choosing different ways to cope with the stench whilst praying for a strong breeze to blow the smell away. Sam chose to breathe through her mouth, tasting all those delightful particles in the air whereas I chose to cover my nose and mouth with my buff. Neither option was enough to protect us from possibly the worst smell on earth. Both of us were retching in between bouts of laughing and shouting “oh my god!” We suffered in this state for about 10 minutes, the smell never faded like smells usually do when you start to get used to them. It was a tough 10 minutes. I don’t know why I’m telling you that story and I hope you weren’t eating at the time, but it was just one of those experiences that you feel you have to share. Talking of eating, I think it’s about time to tell you about the food.
Masala, masala, masala! It’s in almost everything. Not only is it in most dishes but you can even buy masala crisps or have masala in your tea!! I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in shampoo or even cleaning products!
Before going to India I would eat curry on a regular basis, making at least one or two per week. But, since travelling in India and eating some form of curry every day, sometimes for breakfast, lunch and dinner I haven’t been near a curry, let alone eaten one. The smell of cumin or masala transports me straight back to a roadside restaurant (hotel) and my tally tray full of jeera aloo, biriyani, dal and other dishes suitable for cyclists travelling 50 to 80 miles in hot weather. The flavours were very bland and nothing like the curries back home. “I thought you were supposed to get the best curry in the world here!” I said to Sam as we each took a roti from the stack and dipped it in the slop…sorry, sauce. The curries were nothing like the ones back home, especially from the restaurants on Brick Lane in London or up North. They lacked the delicate balance of flavours that passionate chefs mix into their creations. In two months I only had four curries that made me go ‘mmm, oh my god that’s good’ and they came from more expensive restaurants. The rest of our meals were just, well, average. It’s a shame because I was really looking forward to the food there.
When most people think about eating in India they think about the potential of being struck down with Delhi belly. Although we avoided eating from buffets and used a straw when drinking it was inevitable that we would get some form of Delhi belly during our time there. I had three occasions where I felt ill but it wasn’t anything too severe. Sam, however, was struck down with a horrible stomach bug when we were in Agra. She suffered crippling stomach cramps, a dramatic loss of weight and was bed bound for 5 days before regaining her strength. It wasn’t a great time for her as she hates being ill but we were both relieved when her body started to recover and the illness didn’t get any worse. Neither of us wanted a trip to the hospital whilst travelling over there.
If you are reading this and you plan to cycle in India then I will give you a small piece of advice. When cycling, stick to the dishes I have mentioned above. Avoid spicy dishes as this will irritate your stomach when riding and definitely, definitely avoid eating Dal fry, especially in the morning. This lentil based dish, packed full of protein and fibre could lead to a rather embarrassing road side dash into the bushes (if there are some) for a number…..well, I think you know which number I’m talking about. This wouldn’t be too bad in a country with a small population where you can be discreet, but this is India and here you WILL be spotted and you WILL draw a crowd. You might catch sight of a local having a moment to themselves at the roadside but they won’t draw a crowd like a Westerner can.
Luckily a situation like the one described above never happened to Sam or myself, however I came the closest after eating some Dal fry in the morning. Thankfully, after ten thousand miles in the saddle my almost steel like butt cheeks were pretty strong and I managed to control/prevent what my body was trying to do.
All in all the food didn’t wow me as much as other things in India and since leaving the country almost 10 months ago, I haven’t eaten curry since.
The roads in India are insanely busy in the cities, crumbling in the villages, smooth on the toll roads and full of hazards such as cow chicanes, cars going the wrong way down the road, drivers not using their mirrors and overloaded trucks making sharp turns. But it can be great fun riding there!!
Before venturing off into the world on my bike I thought places like London or Birmingham were busy, congested and full of hazards, or that the French (as much as I love them) were the worst drivers in the world. Ha!! They have nothing on India. Nothing! The driving standards in India are like everything else in this country. NUTS!!!
We were often blown away by the sheer volume of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, cars and trucks navigating the chaotic streets in the Indian cities. The rules of the road that we are taught to adhere to in Britain are non-existent in this part of the world. A three lane road will have almost a dozen vehicles straddling it as you wait for the lights to turn from red to green, or for the brave traffic officer with his trusty whistle to tell you it’s okay to proceed. Before the lights even turn to green or the whistle is blown, the vehicles are off. The poor man standing in the middle with his whistle, is like a hapless scarecrow in a corn field powerless to stop a plague of locusts devouring the crops on either side of him.
We both experienced the dangers and highlights of chaotic roads in the city of Ahmedabad. On our way into the centre the traffic went from busy to claustrophobic as it was rush hour….hang on, I think every hour is rush hour in these places. Anyway, one of the highlights of this place was when we were sitting at traffic lights. The traffic man was fascinated by us so he had to come over and ask “From which country?” and “Do you like cricket?” Whilst answering his questions I also pointed to the road, gesturing that he might want to concentrate on directing traffic. The vehicles around us were beeping their horns and I couldn’t help but encourage the cacophony, putting my hand around my ear as if to say ‘I can’t hear you.’ I waved my hand up and down to get them to beep louder. They responded with extra-long beeps accompanied by huge smiles. Brilliant! When it was time to go Sam and I joined the nose to tail driving, finding gaps where there were no gaps, looking into tuk-tuks and smiling at the many faces that peered out and generally just adding to the madness. At one point I braked late and inadvertently caused a little coming together of two motorbikes behind me. In true Indian style both riders looked at each other, looked at their bikes to assess the damage, looked back at each other, wagged their heads and carried on. Excellent!! As we continued along the road things got a little too close for comfort for Sam. She was between two tuk-tuks as we went over a bridge. The gaps between her and the vehicles were closing quickly as we went down the other side. I watched as Sam, with nowhere to go, tried to avoid being hit. Her efforts did not pay off. Her upper body tightened as she prepared herself for impact. ‘S###, s###, s###’ I thought as I watched her become sandwiched between the two vehicles. I was powerless to do anything except be prepared to jump off my bike and help when she hit the ground. The impact from the left sent her into a wobble. She tried desperately to stay upright but with all the weight on the back of the bike she struggled to control it. Luckily she managed to get her foot out of the pedal and onto the ground as the bike jolted to the right. She climbed off, no doubt relieved to be still standing and not laying in a heap on the ground, and heaved her bike back into an upright position. She assured me that she was okay and we carried on down the hill, taking it steady until we reached a hotel.
The next morning we once again did battle with the busy city centre traffic. After fuelling up with some samosas we took to the streets and started navigating our way out of this congested city. Our spirits were high and I was up for some fun with the traffic. I began having a little race with a school bus, slip streaming it and then overtaking when the opportunity arose, much to the amusement of the kids on board. Sam and I both enjoyed weaving through the morning traffic at speed. So much so that at one point, when I was recovering from a sprint, Sam came whizzing past with a competitive look in her eyes. “Can’t stop! I’m in a race!” she called out as she flashed past me. ‘God I love this woman.’ I thought as I watched her race a tuk-tuk and nearly take out a pedestrian as she looked for a clear path.
Once I’d recovered from my sprint it was time to race again. There was a tuk-tuk alongside me full of people. It’s amazing how many people you can squeeze into these little vehicles. The driver was smiling and waving at me, the crazy white guy on a bike providing some entertainment to his passengers morning commute. I dropped behind to get a little tow, smiling and saying good morning to those that were sitting on the back. As I came alongside again the driver watched me more than the road. His face changed from amused to confused as I took hold of the tuk-tuk with my right hand. I pushed it backwards, giving myself a sling shot into the lead. “Hahaha” I laughed. I couldn’t believe what I was doing. I felt invincible!! As I went into the lead I looked back to see their faces. Their smiles beamed from ear to ear. This was probably one of the most entertaining rides to work they’d ever had. It was also one of my best mornings on the bike.
After racing for another few miles, having a few near misses, we decided to chill out and just ride at a normal pace. The traffic was still busy but not as congested as in the centre. As we cruised along I became concerned by a tuk-tuk joining the main road from the dirt road running parallel to it. Like all drivers he didn’t check his mirrors or even glance over his shoulder. Indian drivers don’t seem to think that anything exists behind them, they simply look forwards. From the speed at which he was going and the angle at which he entered the road I knew instantly that he was going to cut me up. I looked for somewhere to go but there wasn’t an inch of road on which I could avoid what was about to happen. I was going to be hit. I started shouting but my voice was not heard. Then, as if in slow motion, he hit my left side. I started falling to the right but I was surprised and relieved to have my fall broken by a mini-van; which appeared from nowhere like a hand to push me back up. I bounced off it, momentarily being carried forwards before going back over to the left. Sam was behind me and she thought I was going to be able to stay up, but after hitting the tuk-tuk again I lost control of my front wheel and started heading for the tarmac. The only thought that went through my head at that moment was ‘GET UP! No matter what’s broken, just stand up!’ I slammed into the ground, my bike twisting, a pannier flying off and the hot tarmac rubbing abrasively against my skin. UMPH!! Within seconds of hitting the ground I was standing up right, dozens of motorbikes surrounding me, their riders and passengers staring at the hot, sweaty and rather shocked Westerner standing in front of them. I looked at my bike on the floor, laying there in a heap like a stag that’s been grounded by a hunters bullet. A few seconds ago it was strong and free and now it looked helpless and weak. As the hot air started to cling to my skin I felt my anger growing. I quickly assessed the minor damage to me and the bike before turning my attention to the crowd, looking at their faces and searching for the one that did this. Amongst the hundreds of eyes I found a rather sheepish looking pair peering out from the yellow and green tuk-tuk. As a young man walked up to me to ask if I was okay I felt the blood inside my veins hit boiling point. I marched towards the tuk-tuk with an uncontrollable level of rage coursing through my body. Sam was standing next to it pleased that I was okay but fearing that I was about to pull the guy out of the vehicle and rip him to pieces, such was the look in my eyes. For the next minute or so I vented a tirade of criticism towards this man who sat inside his little cab looking bemused. I tapped the mirror on the side of his tuk-tuk, shouting “You might want to use it now and again. It’s there for a reason!” The crowd around us had grown ten-fold as the flow of traffic was now blocked. A couple of traffic officers, blowing their whistles like a referee at the end of a football match, tried to get some control over the situation, as did Sam who stood assertively in between me and the tuk-tuk telling me to “Walk away. WALK AWAY!!” I kept shouting at the guy, who sat wagging his head and clasping his hands together, for a few more seconds until the young man who’d asked if I was okay came up to me with one of my front panniers in his hand, again asking if I was okay. I turned my attention to my bike and to getting it off the road. As I lifted it up I could see that the handle bars were twisted but luckily there was no serious damage. I wheeled it off the road and towards a wall a few metres away. Horns were beeping all around us as drivers further down the road, unaware of the exciting scene taking place ahead, got frustrated at the traffic standing still. As I put my bike against the wall I could hear Sam’s voice above all the beeping forcefully telling the tuk-tuk driver to go away. Sweat poured off me as I fumbled around in my pannier for my multi-tool. I could feel a crowd growing behind me, their stares burning the back of my neck more than the hot Indian sun. I looked around for Sam who was now coming towards me, as were the officers and their whistles. The crowd around me was some 60 or 70 people strong, maybe more. As I tried to fix my bike and control the sweat running off my forehead a man from the crowd walked up to me. And then, even in this situation where I’ve had a crash, I’m hot, angry and trying to fix my bike the man who walked up to me asks, in true Indian style...wait for it….“From which country?” ARGH!!! ‘Why? Why? Why are you asking me that now?’ I thought as I kept my head down. “Country?” he asked again. “ENGLAND!!! Now go away!!” I shouted. “Ah! England” he mumbled as he turned and walked back to the crowd. “England. England” rippled softly through the crowd as those within it could now feel better that they knew where I was from. They were soon being dispersed by the officers and just a few remained to watch me sort my things out. After a few more minutes Sam and I were back on the road and heading away from the city that had, within twelve hours, seen us both experience a crash.
The worst bits about India
I don’t want this section to be too negative but I think it’s important to highlight some of the downsides to our time in India. I will follow this section with the upsides so don’t worry it won’t be all doom and gloom.
My biggest frustration in India, like a lot of Westerners, was the lack of personal space and being stared at ALL the time. I don’t need four or even forty people watching me eat a meal. I can understand the curiosity, especially as most Westerners are not riding a bike through towns off the tourist trails, but once you’ve stared at someone for a minute then surely it’s time to look elsewhere or get on with something. Right? Nope! Not in India. People love to watch you….or film you! Sam and I once found a quiet place to have lunch under the shade of a tree; which was a rare find. After lunch we tried to have a nap but we were disturbed by a guy who had spotted us from the roadside, pulled over and decided to walk down the banking towards us. I could sense someone coming so I half opened my eyes. The man stood in front of us just watching. I asked him to go away but he just continued to stare. All we wanted was some peace and quiet but that just isn’t possible most of the time. I asked him again and again to go away but he didn’t get the message so I started shouting. Shouting at people isn’t something I like to do but in this situation, and many others, it seemed to be the only way we could get someone to leave us alone. I know when reading this you might be thinking “People are just interested and trying to be nice”, but when you experience these situations more than a dozen times a day, you just get fed up with it. Asking politely doesn’t get the message across so we felt the need to raise our voices.
Life felt very claustrophobic over there. I like freedom, hence cycling around the world, and the ability to walk down a street without fear of being hit by a tuk-tuk, motorbike or truck. I don’t feel comfortable or relaxed when people are hovering around me or trying to sell me stuff that I don’t need; which is why I usually stay away from tourist traps. India for me would have been best served as a small portion. Two months was way too long, I think two or three weeks would have been enough for me, but it’s a big country and two of us were travelling there so it wasn’t all on my time.
I didn’t like the way the men would direct their answers to Sam’s question at me. It was as if she didn’t exist. This attitude towards women is changing but it’s not going to change overnight so, sorry girls, you might get overlooked a lot of the time.
Getting things done can be a slow experience. There is a lot of faff and usually more than one person assigned to do a job. If someone tells you to wait one minute then it means ten. Indians are not in a rush; which I guess is a good thing when you compare it to the “I haven’t got time” Westerners, however, when you just need someone to look for something and they faff about for half an hour before telling you to come back tomorrow, it can be pretty annoying. I had this experience when waiting for my new wheel to arrive in Jodhpur. It took three trips to the DHL sorting office to get them to sort out my delivery. On the third visit they told me that the driver didn’t know where the hostel was, even though it was on ‘Airport road’, a very busy road. I barked ‘This is DHL! Surely you can use a map!! Or, if the driver is that lost then do what every Indian does, ask someone!!’ I didn’t want to keep paying for a taxi to get there, especially as the third taxi had major brake issues i.e. they didn’t work, and a damaged axle. ‘Jesus!’ I thought as I watched the driver indicate with his right hand whilst his left hand gently pulled the handbrake up so that he could slow the car. I may have survived hundreds of miles cycling on the crazy Indian roads but this journey of less than eight miles was one of the scariest.
Being seen as a walking cash machine and an idiot can get pretty frustrating. Although you can haggle the price in India; which is fun, it can get a little tedious when everyone wants to rip you off. Don’t worry though, you can usually pay a third or even a quarter of the original asking price, especially with the tuk-tuks. Don’t be afraid to walk away when the first guy tells you its 150 rupees and you can either get him down to 50 or just go to another taxi.
Poor table manners. Being British I have grown up in a country where polite table manners are forced on you by parents and grandparents when I was young. Manners such as not belching at the table and eating with your mouth closed are two of the most important. However, these manners do not exist in India. People openly belch and think nothing of it, plus chewing with your mouth closed is not common practice. The ‘pat, pat, pat’ sound made by chewing with your mouth open didn’t annoy me too much at first but it is one of Sam’s biggest pet hates. As is the sound of someone hacking up a massive greenie then gobbing it on the street. The dawn chorus in India is a mix of bird song, beeping and hacking. Ahhh bliss. Not!
Litter and the lack of respect for a beautiful country is easily one of the biggest negatives for me. So much plastic litters the roadsides and huge piles of rubbish welcome you into some towns. I know that we are not perfect in UK, we put our rubbish into one humongous pile and bury it, but I would hope that the majority us in the Britain would put our litter in a bin. I once asked the manager of a restaurant if he could put our empty bottles in a bin. He nodded then just threw them on the ground outside his restaurant. I scowled at him and asked ‘Why do you do this to such a beautiful country. Put it in a bin!’ He just smiled and didn’t seem to care so I picked them up and took them with us. On a more positive note about this issue I was very surprised by the effort they are making in Calcutta. This city was notorious for being a mountain of waste, sewage and general filth when I read up about it, but it isn’t like that at all. The roadside litter has been bagged up for recycling and they have bins. BINS??? I was shocked to see these in the city and even more shocked to see them being used. It seems like this major city is really trying to clean up its image. They even have ‘Green Police’ who our fighting grime, not crime. Excellent!!
The best bits about India
Above all the things that frustrated me and made me want to get out of that country were the thousands of things that made me smile, laugh, gaze in wonder and feel humbled. If you took a sample pot of paint with every colour made by Dulux, sprayed them all on a wall, I don’t think it would be anywhere near as colourful as India. From the Sari’s to the hot pink Pagris (turbans) worn by the men of Rajasthan, India is the most colourful place I’ve visited. They love bright colours as much as they love making noise and nothing expresses this love as much as Holi festival. It was a true pleasure to experience this festival of colour in the country it originates from. We were in Jodhpur at the time and you could feel the excitement towards this festival building days before the actual event. Not only is it a chance to throw paint over your friends, family and strangers it is also a time for communities to come together. We witnessed fires being lit in the street by the women of the community the night before Holi. They would then circle the fire singing and dancing before lighting a torch that would be carried to their neighbours who would then light their fire.
The next day the city went crazy and paint powder covered the faces and body of almost every citizen. People fired paint from water pistols, chased each other with handfuls of powder or just threw it in the air to celebrate this day. It was great fun!
As well as Holi in Jodhpur we had the chance to experience an Indian wedding that took place at our hotel. We had watched the staff setting up the garden for a couple of days before the event. We didn’t know what to expect, other than a lot of people and a lot of noise coming from the garden. During wedding season you will hear weddings happening every day. The music is turned up to volumes that would blow your eardrums if you stood next to the six foot high speakers. On the night of the wedding we had decided to go for a drink in a luxury hotel about a mile away. As we walked back we couldn’t have imagined that our evening was going to turn out the way it did. When we got close to our hotel we could see a guy on horseback surrounded by men dancing to the beat of the drums. We decided to take a closer look as we knew it was the wedding party for the event at our hotel. As we were taking pictures and watching from the central reservation one guy asked where we were from. He was the brother of the groom who was mounted on the horse wearing an ivory coloured suit decorated with jewels and accessorised with a small sword. Before we knew it we were dancing in the street. The drummers beat became more frantic as I had a dance off with a few of the guys. My Indian moves were in full flow, as was my impression of a sprinkler; which they loved. Who wouldn’t? The brother of the groom invited us to join them as we arrived at the hotel. How could we say no? We walked along a path that was carpeted with flower petals, through the tunnel that had nearly every fairy light in the world lighting it up and into the garden with at least 250 people in it. Giant pots of curry bubbled away on one side. The music was turned up full. The women wore brightly coloured Sari’s adorned with sequins and the men wore their best suits and colourful Safas (Jodhpur turbans). We stared in wonder at this fairy tale event with its red and white ribbons wrapped around every pole, flower petals covering the ground and the warm welcome coming our way. We felt like guests of honour as members of the immediate family told us about the wedding traditions in between having photo’s with us. We watched as the bride and groom were introduced and the long ceremony took place. At one point the bride and groom were mounted on a raised platform with a revolving stage. Confetti fired from small cannons rained down on them as they turned. After being shown off to the crowd they were then presented on the main stage for guests, including Sam and I, to have a photo with them before going through other rituals. The weddings may be a long process full of rituals and traditions but if you get a chance to go to one then don’t hesitate, GO!! They are great fun and you will be welcomed in like family.
I will never forget the smiles in India or the high pitched hello’s that came from children in the villages. We may not have seen these little people but we certainly heard them. They would shout with all their might until we turned and waved. One hello would quickly turn into a dozen hellos as their siblings and friends joined in the excitement, running to the road to wave at us. These moments never failed to make us smile.
As well as the above moments making us smile so too did the cheers that came from the guys sitting on top of the coaches or trucks. Yes, you read that right, sitting on top of the coach. Up to 30 people might be sat on the roof of a coach travelling at 40 – 50mph. Can you imagine if you saw that in Britain? They would all wave and cheer as they went past, seemingly unaware of the danger they faced by sitting on the roof. Some would even stand up and start dancing. Crazy!!
In this country scenes like the one above will shock and baffle you, others will just make you cry with laughter. These moments are so comical that I’m sure people think you’re making it up because it just can’t be true, such as the one that for me stands out above all others. As I reflect on it now I still can’t believe I saw something so ridiculous. I have to share it! We were riding along a highway one afternoon and a coach was coming towards us on the other side of the road. At a glance I could see something looked a little different. As it got closer my eyes widened, my smile lit up my face and I burst out laughing. The driver, co-driver and tour guide were sitting in front of the passengers as they normally do. Behind them was a glass screen and a door separating them from the passengers, similar to that which you would see on a prison coach. In front of them was….well….nothing! The coach was missing a wind screen!! The driver, co-driver and tour guide all sat there, sun glasses pressed against their eyes, being blasted in the face by bugs and a 50mph wind that carved a permanent grin on their faces. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing!! I had never in my life seen a coach driving along without a windscreen. I was in utter shock! If that wasn’t funny enough then seeing that it still had a windscreen wiper sent me over the edge. I cried with laughter for the next few minutes as we pedalled along in disbelief.
A journey through northern India wouldn’t be complete without a trip to see the Taj Mahal. As much as I don’t like doing the obvious tourist thing to do, I would say to everyone that you have to experience the charm, beauty and peace that the Taj Mahal gives you. When I first laid eyes on it, it really made me appreciate how far around the world I had gone. I was looking at one of the most iconic buildings in the world and it was beautiful. I felt a great sense of achievement at that point and so lucky to have the opportunity to do something like this.
Finally, the best bit about travelling across India had to be falling in love with Sam. Travelling with her in this crazy country was a true pleasure. When she walked out from behind the arrival doors at Mumbai airport, pushing her trolley with her hastily packed bike box on it, I knew she was the right woman for me. Having never been a cyclist she had quit her job in London, got on a bike and cycled solo to Morocco. What an incredible woman!! Although spending almost every second of every day with each other wasn’t always easy, we both grew a huge amount of respect and love for each other. I wouldn’t have wanted to travel India with anyone else. Sam is a truly amazing person with a spirit and strength that inspires you. She really is one of the greatest people I have met and it was an honour to share the Indian adventure with her.
So, that’s the brief story of India. I have tried to summarise it as much as possible but there is just so much to talk about from my two months there. Whilst writing the second part of this blog I have decided that I might as well write a small book about cycling across India. It really is a different world over there and so much happened that it’s hard to condense it. I’m sure writing a book about it will be easy, so watch this space!
From India we crossed into Nepal. The next blog; which I promise won’t take as long to write as this one, will be about this beautiful country.