In our last post, we left you as our 10-hour train rattled away from Mumbai. We last spoke with our bellies healthy and our confidence growing to taste more and more. We last spoke thinking we were leaving the real chaos of India behind in Mumbai….
Sitting in the train watching Jasi write the previous blog post, a little smile crept over my face. I was smiling because I thought our past 6 months of travel had indeed prepared us for India. Our stomachs were strong, and we had thrived in Mumbai amongst the chaos. We were confident we could endure whatever India served us up. How wrong I was.
That night we disembarked the train to another side of India. We were lost for words. The lights illuminated what looked like fog, but after a few deep breaths I realized it was not fog, but air pollution. People lay sleeping along the platform whilst others burnt rubbish to keep the night chill away. We were in Ahmedabad, an industrial city, home to plastic factories and the very poor. Here, we were no longer stared at or asked for a selfie, here we were just another number.
Our budget hotel was only 1km from the train station. This was the longest 1 km I am sure I have ever walked. Traffic buzzed by from both sides and directions. The footpath had been merged into an overtaking lane. Food stand gas burners highlighted the edge of the road and cows stood oblivious to the traffic, chewing on rubbish that covered the streets. We were yet to see people this poor. We passed men and women barely clothed and with shoes made from scraps of cloth. We wheeled our bikes through this chaos unable to believe our eyes.
To cycle through this traffic is not brave or adventurous, just stupid. We had no option but to take a bus to our next town, Udaipur. We woke early hoping to beat the traffic and ride to the bus depot. The traffic was worse, and the morning light showed us how dirty and desperate this town really was. We again wheeled our bikes through another 1 km of madness to the bus depot, ready to take the first ticket out.
In India, we have learnt that it is always best to first see what you are paying for. We made such a mistake when buying our bus tickets this morning. After a few moments of bartering we had our tickets for 3 USD per person. We purchased a private box that would seat 4 people. We boarded the bus and we were quickly directed to our box. It was lined with a mattress and would fit just two people. As we were 4 people, we then asked the obvious question “And where is the other box?”. A typical Indian head wobbled followed, finished with a little grin. We knew instantly what this meant. This was our box for 4 people for 5 hours. The box measured 1.7m x 1.2m x1m. Us 4 are now very good friends.
There are flashes on this trip that I will vividly remember forever. Perhaps none more than this morning, loading our precious bicycles onto the roof of the bus. The bicycles were thrown to the roof of the bus and I scrambled up the ladder to check that they were being safely secured. To my shock, I found that the men were insisting that the bikes do not need to be tied down with rope. The bus had already started, and the driver was standing outside screaming at me to get down from the roof, so he could start the journey. I wasn’t leaving the roof until the bikes were secure. I screamed back at the driver telling him “I NEED ROPE”. He was furious. He then searched the roadside rubbish until he found some plastic and odd ends of rope. As I was tying the bikes down to the roof of the bus, I looked down to see a sight I will never forget. A brightly painted elephant plodding its way through the traffic unaffected by the honking horns and motorcycles whizzing by. Incredible India I thought.
Finally, we were cycling again. After two attempts of trying to escape the mayhem of city traffic we were relieved and surprised to find that the back roads of India are very quiet. The roads quality varies from perfectly smooth worn roads, to potholes and large bumps to cow shit and mud. But this doesn’t bother us in the slightest. There is only the odd car or motorcycle every 5 minutes and we are passing towns where we could just be the first tourists. We have stumbled across wedding celebrations, town markets and funeral processions. On one occasion we rounded a bend to find 40 men walking the town streets mourning the death of a local. Almost all the men were screaming and crying in anguish. We were quickly informed by a cheery local that there was “one dead, one dead (head wobble)”.
We are indeed a fascination here in the small towns of India. The quiet roads naturally lead to small villages. It is here in these small villages, that upon arriving we are surrounded by tens of people in a matter of seconds. Instantly there are ten hands on my bicycle. Everyone pokes and prods the bicycle to see what it is made from, I have even been poked. Unfortunately we have had some negative experiences here in the small villages. Jasmin’s blue eyes are fantasized by men. Jasi is constantly fending of aggressive motions of men trying to take a selfie with her. On one occasion a 30-year-old man asked me how many rupees it would cost to have sex with Jasmin. It is for this reason, that I must constantly keep sight of Jasi when we enter a small town.
Bike touring can be at times extremely difficult, especially in India, especially for a woman. I don’t tell Jasmin enough times that she is an incredibly brave young lady to be taking on this adventure. She has coped with so many testing situations and has an incredible strength to persist in difficult times. Jasi hates riding in the rain and understandably is frustrated when we go to sleep in the tent without showering. But she continues and overcomes all with an amazing determination. It is truly special sharing this adventure with your best friend and someone who you love. I couldn’t do it without Jasi and am grateful every day to have her by my side.
Moving along… Every now and then, one certainly deserves a treat, yes? We spend our days always searching for the cheapest hotels, or a cheap meal to satisfy our hunger. After 7 months of bicycle touring we have never once treated ourselves to a luxury hotel room. This was the case until we came across Rohat Garh Hotel Palace. Let me first paint the picture.
We were burning under the surprisingly hot Rajasthani winter sun. With every pedal stroke I was managing my diarrhea and we had only a few hours sleep as we were pulling little snakes from the windowsills of our previous hotel. We arrived from a street piled with rubbish and had been minutes ago swarmed by the chatter of a million school children. Then we saw the grand entrance to Rohat Garh palace. Men with neatly tied turbans waited for arriving guests and welcomes us with a quiet “Namaste”. They stood in front of a grand painted arched entrance. Through the entrance we could see an exotic garden dotted with sculpted water fountains. We wheeled our bikes and dirty selves into the courtyard and soaked up the oasis. We had to stay.
We were treated like King and Queen. We lounged in armchairs and sipped sparkling water as we listened to the birds. We swam in the crystal-clear waters of the courtyard pool. We then returned to our bedroom to find a fresh hot water bottle neatly tucked under our blankets. The next morning, we requested a wake up call and ate twice our share at the breakfast buffet. Jasi was in heaven. This was our first and most likely last insight into the contrasting lifestyles here in India.
Our luxurious day was over too fast, and we once again found ourselves in the beating heart or rather ‘the veins’ of India, the train system. We are on a short trip away from the bicycles to explore the desert city of Jaisalmer near to the border of Pakistan. We incorrectly booked our overnight train tickets and found ourselves sharing a seat, shivering ourselves to sleep. I am making mad dashes through the tangle of sleeping bodies to the toilet. I squat over the hole in the ground, clutching the support railing and somehow, I smile to myself. India is simply incredible, the highs, the lows, noise, colours, rubbish, spices and head-wobbles. There is something for everyone…
Matt and Jasi