Indi- oh! oh!
Nothing that you have read about or seen on tv can prepare you for the shocking assault on the senses that awaits the traveller emerging from the sterile sanctuary of Mumbai Airport Terminal Building directly into the streets of India. It may be that my senses had been dulled by months of blandness in Eastern Europe but although I had been warned, the shock stopped me in my tracks and I had to hop off the bike to take it all in. My planned immersion in the Ganges was scuppered when Karolina went missing for several hours during the transfer at Delhi Airport. It felt like an entirety as I was directed from official to official in an effort to find her. The officials were helpful and all spoke perfect English but that didn’t relieve my anxiety. Eventually she was located on route back to Kazakhstan. Another difficulty arose soon after we were reunited. I had to check in again and when I went to pay for the excess baggage and passage for Karolina, a whopping €120, my credit card payment was refused. None of the Airport ATMs would dispense a single rupee. My flight was leaving in an hour and the officials weren’t interested in my pleas for mercy. I had only 70 dollars in cash and this would pay for only 25 kg of baggage. I was able to reduce the deficit by wearing all the clothes in my admittedly small wardrobe and completely filled my allowance for hand luggage. Nevertheless I still had no choice other than to jettison a whole 4kg of gear if I was to be allowed to board with Karolina. 4kg doesn’t seem like much but when you’re total belongings weigh only above 20kg , it represents a quarter of every thing you own. Out went all my books, my bag of coffee and sugar, my soap, sleeping bag liner, and several other precious items. Indians are naturally curious and a big crowd had gathered to witness the spectacle and fight over the spoils. By the time Karolina and my much reduced luggage bag was checked in there was only 20 minutes before the flight was due to leave and I had to jump the queue in Security and sprint all the way to the gate. The 3 hour flight gave me a chance to recover and this time there was no
problem collecting my luggage. However when I opened the bicycle box I was really angry to find that Karolina had undergone quite a bartering on her journey south. The front fork was bent and several spokes on the front wheel were broken. Surround a curious audience, I reassembled Karolina and despite the damage, I was able to cycle out of the airport. Wow! The first thing that hit me was the heat and humidity, then the smell, a pungent smell of decay, shit and food in the still night air. Then there’s the noise, a cacophony of music blaring, horns beeping and people shouting. After the greyness of Eastern Europe, the saffron, bright orange and scarlet of Mumbai are almost blinding. Everywhere is crowded and a sea of humanity covers the pavements And what about the taste? Within seconds I had broken the cardinal rule- Don’t eat the street food! I had only a few rupees but it was enough to buy a feast of spicy kebabs with delicious fruit juices. I found the Panda Backpackers Hostel easily enough where there was the usual eclectic mix of youngsters and locals chilling on the terrace. I was able to have my bank account unblocked and had a great night on the terrace where I soon fell asleep after a few beers. I’ll have to bring Karolina for professional regards tomorrow and hopefully get back on the road eastwards again. Sometimes tells me that India is going to be fun!
Order in Chaos
It was a case of total immersion in the sea of humanity rather than in the Ganges today. I was up and at it early and spent some time trying to find someone who could repair Karolina properly. There was no shortage of people willing to give it a go but I know that when a fork is bent you need a professional ad brute force can often do more damage. Eventually I found a bike shop down an exceptionally dirty side street and left Ali the mechanic to it! He said he’d have it ready in the afternoon and that repairs would cost the princely said of 200 rupees -about €3! Back at the hostel I had a huge breakfast again for 200 rupees. There was no point in expecting to get back on the road today so I decided to explore. A group of Spanish girls and German guys were heading out on a ‘slum tour’ of the Dharavi Slum a few km away. I decided to join them and after battling our way through the incredibly heavy and chaotic traffic, we met our guide, Rajiv, who led us to the slum. It was another ‘never to be forgotten’ experience. Here were more than a million people living in an area of 2 square km. smaller than a typical Irish town. Sure it wasn’t filthy, stinky and unimaginably crowded but you couldn’t but be impressed by the order in the chaos. Schools, hospitals, police stations, factories and fire stations were all operating smoothly. Christians, Muslims, Hindus, all living side by side in genuine harmony. Here there were many factories producing pottery, leather goods, plastic components for cars and all sorts of items. It reminded me of a bee hive! While the poverty was obvious, nobody complained and there was an air of good humoured optimism. After the tour I returned to the bike shop where Karolina had been repaired and cleaned thoroughly. I cycled her back to the hostel and got her ready for departure to Kolkata tomorrow morning. I spent the evening chatting to the guests in the hostel. So many stories, so many adventures. Why on earth, didn’t I do this when I was young and full of energy? The journey across India is going to be my biggest challenge but perhaps also my biggest opportunity to uncover the truth about the world and about myself.
On the Road Again
Despite the fact that I was really eager to get back in the saddle after two full weeks of inactivity and uncertainty, I found it difficult to motivate myself to get going this morning. I was awake early but breakfast wasn’t being served in the hostel until 8.00am so I went for a wander downtown and enjoyed being carried along in the throngs milling around the nearby train station. I’m told that 5 million people transit through this station every day and although I hate crowds, this just had to be seen to be believed. I had breakfast on the street and made my way back to the hostel. Rajiv, the manager urged me to take a train out of the city to the suburbs, claiming that it was impossible to cycle in Mumbai. But I was really fed up at this point of hauling Karolina onto trains, planes and automobiles and really wanted to get back into the spirit of adventure cycling. Still, several hours were spent faffing around, saying goodbye to my new friends, blogging, poring over maps, even cleaning and repacking the panniers, anything except braving the traffic and the heat outside. By midday, I had no more excuses left, so I maneuvered Karolina onto the pavement and was off into the mayhem on the streets. Cycling in downtown Mumbai is about as hair raising an experience as you imagine. Nobody uses indicators and it’s bumper to bumper for miles. Cars, tuktuks, buses and trucks weave their way along the narrow potholed streets with horns blaring incessantly. The secret of survival here is to be assertive and to maintain the same speed as the traffic. It was scary but somehow quite exhilarating! Map Me, my new navigation aid was fairly accurate with the route it suggested, except when I was refused access through a city park where apparently there were lions and leopards on the loose. After 2 hours of painfully slow progress, I found my way onto the Eastern Highway. Map Me hadn’t recommended the highway as an option but all manner of vehicles, crowds of pedestrians and several species of livestock were en route eastwards so why not cyclists? There were many scary moments on the highway but plenty of fun too and hundreds of motorbike passengers took photographs of me as they overtook precariously hanging out of the drivers. There was a fairly brisk tailwind and I made good progress despite the heavy traffic and regular diversions. It was really hot too and the humidity levels seemed to be constantly rising. Late in the afternoon, I saw the familiar, magic yellow archway M in the distance ahead and was soon much relieved to tuck into a Maharajah Mac with Bombay Fries and Coke in the air conditioned restaurant. As usual however, I wasn’t left in peace and both staff and customers constantly requested selfies. After an hour luxuriating in the AC, I was back on the road again and noticed immediately that the temperature had dropped, it had become much darker and the air was heavy with the promise of rain. I pedalled on for another 20 k or so, and suddenly it became pitch dark and enormous drops of rain started bucketing down. – Monsoon! Before I got absolutely soaked to the skin, I pulled into a lay by where there was a grotty looking hotel and a few grotty shops but it was better than nothing so I booked in, reluctantly paying the 1500 rupees demanded by the grotty looking manager. I think I’m the only guest. It’s pretty filthy and the electricity keeps going off as the lightening flashes outside. Also there’s wifi and worse still, no beer! I’ve been advised that it’s really hard to find camping places in India and this sort of hotel is what I’m just going to have to get used to. On the positive side, there’s a Harry Potter movie on TV and I I’ve got Coke and a big bag of crisps. Could be a lot worse, I guess?
It was incredibly hot and humid this morning when I woke up. The hotel kitchen didn’t open until 10.00 so I had breakfast on the street along with hordes of Indians on their way to work. It was amazing to see young girls in flowing saris walking along the road side carrying sickles on their way to the paddy fields. I was heading eastwards by 8.00am and was feeling strong despite the heat and humidity. The landscape changed after a few hours and I found myself cycling in a lush green valley where for the first time I could see fields and forests which weren’t covered in mountains of rubbish. By midday the highway began to climb steadily and I could see a fairly big range of mountains ahead. I hadn’t done any real climbing since I was in Romania nearly two months ago and it took a while to find my rhythm. I was pumping sweat and had to drink several litres of water, just to keep hydrated. I was hoping to find an air conditioned restaurant for my lunch break but there was none to be found. There were several holiday resort camps but they had all closed after the summer so I had to settle for a dingy roadside cafe where I was plagued with locals staring at me and invading my space. This seems to be the norm in India and sometimes you have to be rude just to get some peace. After lunch, I noticed huge dark clouds over the mountains and sensed the inevitable monsoon showers. Within half an hour the pedestrians were scurrying for shelter and the rain was bucketing down. There’s nothing quite like a monsoon shower with the intensity and volume of the rain making it almost impossible to cycle. The showers typically last for only a few minutes but it’s enough to turn the road into a steaming river and to ensure that you’re soaked to the skin. There were many monsoon showers today and while the first one was exhilarating, I soon got fed up with being constantly soaked. I could feel a saddle sore developing as a result of the constant soaking and so decided to call it a day at about 5.00pm and after 120 k of cycling. The hotel in Nashik is significantly better than last night’s. It’s really clean, has wifi and plenty of beer. The manager was very interested in my trip and treated me to a huge feast of delicious Indian dishes in the garden restaurant. I love spicy food and this was the spiciest I’ve ever had. Tomorrow I’m heading for a town called Aurangabad which is 180 k away . My friend Sandip’s family live there and although it means a bit of a diversion off the highway, I’m looking forward to spending some time with an Indian family.
I may have died and gone to Hindu Heaven
When I woke early this morning I knew this morning that today was going to be an exceptional day. I was surprised to see the hotel staff beavering away, mopping floors and hanging huge garlands of orange and yellow marigolds on doorways, over altars and from just about everywhere. Even Karolina, out in the car park had been thoroughly cleaned and was bedecked in her own marigold garland. Today, I discovered is an important day in the ten day Hindu festival of Darva, two weeks before Davili , the most important festival in the Hindu calendar. Once again, I found it difficult to get going and spent most of the morning chatting with the hotel manager who was quite an authority on Indian culture, food and politics. Eventually at about 10.00am I repacked the bags and headed eastwards into 35 degrees of heat. However there was a pleasant cross wind blowing and the humidity was much lower than it had been. I expected the streets to be quieter as it was a Saturday morning but it seemed that the whole of India was out and about in preparation for the festivities. After a few hours dodging cars, motorbikes and pedestrians, I turned off the highway towards Aurangabad, my destination for today and the home of my friend Sandip. It was wonderful to be in the heart of rural India, away from the heavy traffic and pollution on the highway. Progress was slow however. I was beset with a series of mechanical problems,- first the new pannier rack fell apart and I had to tie it together with cable ties. Then my front brakes kept jamming and I saw that the brake cable was badly frayed. While carrying out repairs I noticed that there was an even more serious problem,-there were some hairline cracks on the rim of my rear wheel. It seemed that Karolina was suffering from fatigue too! I can’t do anything about this now and will have to hope that the wheel won’t collapse before I can get a replacement. There was a lot of stop/start cycling today with so many repairs and I knew that I’d no chance of making the 180 k to Aurangabad. Instead I set my sights on Vajapur, a small town, about 60km from the planned destination and pedalled on into the evening. It’s amazing how quickly night falls in the tropics. One minute I was basking in a glorious sunset and the next I was plunged into complete darkness. I was still a few km from Vajapur and the road was full of potholes which made cycling treacherous. Eventually I was forced to dismount and walked through the throngs of people to the only hotel in town, this one even grottier than the one I was in on Thursday. It cost only 500 rupees and the kid on duty was able to get me both beer and wifi so I didn’t feel like complaining. At about 8.00pm after a huge meal of vegetarian street food, I headed out into the crowd which was increasing all the time and soon was caught in a tide of people heading for what looked like a funfair on the edge of town. I noticed that all of the women were dressed in beautifully ornate saris and most of the men wore white. Almost everyone was carrying bunches of herbs and I was given some by a pretty girl beside me. We filed along a roadway lined with stalls where roasted seeds and nuts, beautifully scented soaps along with children’s toys and gadgets were for sale. On top of a hill there was a temple and about 100 meters from the entrance everyone took off their shoes and started chanting as they shuffled forward. It took quite a while to get inside and it was difficult for me to walk with bare feet over the rough ground. The atmosphere inside the temple was electric. The smell of insense filled the air and there were bright lights and candles everywhere. A shrine with several golden icons gleamed intensely at an altar in the centre of the temple and we filed towards it, deposited our herbs, touched a plate with footprints inscribed onto it and were presented with a pinch of crystals into our open palms. These were immediately eaten with heads bowed. I felt elevated onto a new level of consciousness as I left the temple and had to sit down outside to try to come to terms with the experience. It reminded me somewhat of Christian ceremonies from my childhood but with much, much more intensity and fervour. I’ve been an atheist for all of my adult life and have never experienced a spiritual high like this. It was totally unexpected and I was truly shaken as I made my way back to the hotel. I learned via Facebook this evening, that Charlie Hannaford, the British cyclist who is cycling on the same route as I had planned to take has had a serious accident in China and had to return home. If I’d been granted my visa for China I’d have been riding with him. I feel really sorry for Charlie and feel that maybe the gods can smile even on the non believer.
Family and catapulting skywards
You may wander far far from you’re own native home…,, There’s nothing in the world that’s the same as spending a day in the company of a real family. The moment I met Sandeep, an Indian teacher working in Kazakhstan away from his family, I knew that we were soulmates. Sandeep had done a lot of adventure cycling in his time and understood perfectly what I was doing. He was a strong influence on my decision to reroute to India and we spent many evenings together at ice hockey games and in bars around Astana. So it was an easy decision to change my route slightly and pass through Aroungabad, his home town on my way to Kolkata as Sandeep had invited me to visit his family. Cycling was easy this morning and I was in high spirits as I headed eastwards. I’d arranged to meet Sandeep’s wife around noon in Arunchabad and the plan was to have lunch with her family and continue in eastwards from there. At about 10.00 am I was pedalling away at 25km per hour on a perfectly flat straight of road when Karolina decided to perform a front flip. I had foolishly loaded the rear panniers on the front carrier in an effort to reduce pressure on the rear carrier which was falling apart. Boom! I was catapulted over the handlebars, landing flat on my face with Karolina landing ignominiously on my back . My first thought…. Fuck! It’s all over! My next thought …… Fuck !My front teeth! And then the world went blank. Unfortunately the pressure of the weight of my baggage was too much for my front carrier to bear and when we hit a big pothole it collapsedand became effectively a brake, making Karolina stop in her tracks and me hurtling skywards. When I came together there were a million Indians around me on the side of the road. A guy who appeared to be the local witch doctor had been summoned and was pushing rags soaked in pungent herbs into my mouth as I came to. I vomited violently but nobody seemed to care so I just vomited some more. Another few moments and quite a bit of telling the well meaning but really unhelpful assistants to go away left me in a cotton field with blood streaming from my mouth and with hands and knees badly grazed. There were no broken bones however and even though I had landed with full force on my face, my front teeth were intact. On my own it was easier to assemble the components I needed to affect a repair and so eventually I recovered enough to pedal on to Aroungabad. What a surprise awaited me there ! It was extremely difficult to find Sandeep”s home but when I did – Oh the joy!’ First I met Sandeep’s wife their families .Soon there was a procession of mothers, cousins and friends all vying for a piece piece of me. Finally I found Sandeep”a house We had a wonderful time together and I got to meet everyone ! It was really important for me to meet with Sandeep’s family who made me feel like I was important and gave me the motivation to fight another day.
Hip, Hip, Horray! It’s Ghandi Day!
Yes, today is Ghandi Day, a national holiday in India and yet another reason for celebrations. It must have been the adrenaline that dulled the pain after my accident yesterday because when I woke up this morning, I was really sore. My wrist was badly swollen and my chest hurt when I breathed deeply. On the positive side my split lip and assorted grazes were already healing nicely. Sandip’s brother in law, also called Sandip had arranged for his brother, a master masseur to com to the house early in the morning and he gave me a thorough full body massage, but obviously avoided touching my chest. The whole family then gathered for a wonderful breakfast and there was a very touching blessing bestowed on me by everyone present. Finally we had some photos taken and it was time to head eastwards. I had only cycled a few km when I spotted a decent looking bike shop so I stopped and enquired about repairs. The mechanic was really helpful but spoke no English so he called the owner, a guy called Aghjeet, who happened to be a friend of Sandip and was also a keen cyclist. He made some calls and soon several other cycling friends arrived along with a journalist from a national newspaper. It was going to be one of those mornings! Aghjeet examined Karolina closely and confirmed what I already knew. Several components were in bad shape and needed to be replaced. He figured that the rear wheel wouldn’t survive getting out of Aroungabad, let alone get me to Kolkata. Fortunately, he had some excellent rims in stock. The rear derailleur which was installed in Kazakhstan was also faulty and along with new brake cables and pads, a new kick stand and pump, the bill was steadily mounting. However I was really pleased that at last Karolina was roadworthy again. Once the repairs were completed, interviews done and the bills paid, I was on my way again and began to worry about my own roadworthiness. My chest was hurting whenever there was any strain so I decided to drop into a clinic which one of the cyclists had recommended. The service was ten times more efficient and the cost was a quarter of the price I’d pay back home but the diagnosis wasn’t good. An X-ray confirmed my worst fears- there was a hairline crack in one of my ribs. I’ve had broken ribs before and I know that there’s not much you can do about it other than allow it to heal. The doctor prescribed painkillers, which I don’t take and told me that I could continue to cycle as long as I ensured that there would be no stress on the affected area. So it’s going to be a case of no pain, no gain for some time I think. So after having both Karolina and my own health attended to and with a considerably lighter wallet I was back in the saddle at the ridiculously late time of 2.00pm and settled on Janna, a small town about 80 km away as tonight’s destination. Night falls quickly at about 6.00pm here so I had to hurry even to cover this short distance. I was able to engage in some meditative singing and poetry recitation to negate the pain and thankfully I got to the town on time. However there was no room at the various budget inns as thousands of visitors were in town celebrating Ghandi Day. The only place which had a room was the upmarket Saffron Hotel where the receptionist quoted a charge which was well above my budget. Fortunately the friendly manager was sympathetic and provided me with a most luxurious room for a very modest nominal price. I ordered a beer and was dismayed when told that Ghandi Day was a ‘dry day” in India and that the sale of alcohol was forbidden. However a sympathetic businessman overheard my request and gave me a little bottle of Scotch Whiskey, -which is just the medicine I need tonight!
“Why are you doing this” is a question I’m asked many times every day. My answer usually depends on who’s asking and the mood I’m in at the time. It varies from the philosophical, “Because I want to know for sure that the world is really round ” to the more practical, “I’m trying to break a world record, ” with many variations in between. I’ve been swept along through Europe, Central Asia and now India by my own doggedness and determination to finish what I started. Sharing my experiences and thoughts on social media was never intended to be a part of this trip. Somehow that has evolved gradually to the point where it now seems to be as important as the trip itself. Your likes, comments and shares have been a powerful motivator especially when the going gets tough. Last night was in many ways typical of many nights I’ve had to date. I’d managed to cycle 150k in really high temperatures on a very bad road. The pain in my chest made it more challenging than usual but I was feeling fine when I checked into this especially grotty hotel and went through the usual routine of washing my clothes, showering and getting some food. This hotel is unusual in that there’s a a bar attached and despite the fact that the vast majority of Indians don’t drink alcohol, there was a fairly big crowd there when I dropped in after eating dinner. It seemed that a town council meeting of some kind had finished and several of the ‘councillors’ had convened to the bar and were interested in finding out about the stranger in town. The conversation that followed was in many ways similar to many conversations I’ve had in bars, restaurants and on the streets since I started the trip but strangely, the focus of this conversation was on my motivation and for some bizarre reason, after I’d had a few drinks, I found myself in a situation where none of the reasons I normally use seemed to ring true. -‘I know that the world is round! Who cares if I break a word record? Do my thoughts on life in India or Kazakhstan matter to anyone?…. What am I doing here?….Was it right to leave my home, my family and friends, my job ?……Couldn’t I use my injuries as an excuse, limit the damage and call it a day right now?…… Hence, the very public emotional breakdown of last nights post. I don’t expect answers to my questions. I’m not looking for sympathy or support although I have really appreciated the goodwill of everyone who has been sharing my experiences to date. I know that as a result of last nights post many of you will be concerned about my well being. -I’ve actually recovered and while I’m still questioning myself, the opportunity of expressing my confusion has been therapeutic. I hope this clarifies the gibberish of last night. Thank you for taking the time to read this and thanks especially to everyone who has offered support and advice