Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Dodgy Games

I've found that cycle touring in India is all about extremes: days are either good or bad. A good day is when the weather's cool but not wet, the roads small but maintained, people are friendly but not insistently obsequious, and there's more visible bitumen to look at than squashed dog intestines.

One of the best of these was an easy 60 km day from Khajuraho to the bus stop town of Chhatapur which began with a super-accessible geohash, continued with a narrow, leafy, naturesque laneway and concluded with a plethora of cheap ice-cream smoothies that were so delicious I began to doubt my perception of reality.

The day after that was also pretty awesome, but much longer. This one took me over rivers, through forests, along roads blocked off to all non-cycling traffic (Mwah-ha-ha!) and even past a thousand year old temple I was too lazy and templed-out to vist, the gate-guard watching me tangent away from his vicinity with an expression of total disbelief.

This day took me to the crazy Mughal palace town of Orchha where I spent a day checking out palaces I'd seen on my previous trip and deciding that since they were only built in the 18th century they really weren't quite old enough for me. On the other hand, the town was far more chilled out and relaxed than Khajuraho, where my blog would open if written chronologically.

I've no idea what did it but in this temple-smothered town many of the locals are rude, whiny and generally unpleasant to be around. One grabbed me by the arm and blathered ceaselessly at me until he accused me of not wanting to talk to him and stormed off in a huff. Another followed me around demanding to be taught English and, when I refused, expected an explanation. "Because I do not want to" was not good enough for him, he wanted a reason for THAT. Beggars shove their hands into your face, angry about being turned down before you even get the chance, touts shout inflated prices across the street and spit into the dirt when waved off and small boys explain how they'll shred your bike tyres if you try to park within their reach. Not a pleasant atmosphere.

Luckily, the actual reason these besieged tourists visit Khajuraho makes it (just) worth-while: thousand-year-old intricately sculptured temples. I took an audio tour for some of them and enjoyed hearing about the construction and artistry involved in carving out the gratuitous depictions of erotica in a voice that got slower and deeper like HAL being switched off in 2001 as the cassette player (remember them?) ran out of batteries.

Which brings me to some of the 'Bad Days' on my recent tour. Topping the list was my ride out of Orchha, through Jhansi to the fort city of Gwalior. The day started well when I was asking directions – every time it’s to somewhere more than 100 kms away I'm always pointed towards the bus station.

"Gwalior is a long way, you must take the bus", a learned pedestrian extolled.

"Look, I've cycled here from Kathmandu - I think I know my capabilities".

"Kathmandu!? It would be an honour, sir, to shake your hand. Please take the next right." Indians always become very British when they're being polite.

However, no doubt due to my hubristic tendencies, things went downhill from there: because of my Malaysian SIM card slipping out of place and causing my tube to swell up out of the hole in my front tyre (read the last entry to unscramble your brain on this one) I achieved a whopping record of three punctures in only 140 kilometres. At the final one of these I threw in the towel and got my front tyre replaced with a nobbly local one (getting punctures is a good problem to have really - unlike gears, suspension and disc brakes, tyres are actually understood locally). This tube luck might have been related to spending the entire sweltering day negotiating a 100 kilometre half-completed freeway segment that seemed to be having trouble constructing itself. Topping it off, some reprobate lobbed an M24 bolt at me as I arrived in Gwalior (engineers can tell by their pitch as they ricochet off the ground) - only one step above beer bottles at Ballarat.

To my relief I found an awesome pentagonal hotel room at the end of the day with windows overlooking the twin attractions of the Gwalior Fort and Ring Road Interchange where I recovered from the day by having multiple icecreams room serviced up to me and watching the teen angst movie Twilight on HBO (but doesn't anyone else think it's a little creepy that 17 year old Bella Swan is seeing a 120 year old man!?).

The ride to Agra was pretty exciting for about 10 kilometres (it having the Taj Mahal at the end of it), but this was ruined by being collided with head-on by another bike enterprisingly traveling down the divided highway in the wrong direction. He didn't even slow down as our eyes met for the unavoidable impact. Colliding with other vehicles always puts me in a bad mood for the rest of the day, and the locals are so blaze about it ("What? You want ME to get out of YOUR way?" they express with a sneer). I try to avoid main highways because of both boredom and danger, but they're just so direct I have trouble resisting.

Highways are also frustrating for the enormous amount of attention I get. Quite often a motorcyclist will ride up next to me and just stare obscenely. If they looked up at my face it wouldn’t be so bad – an acknowledging nod would even be somewhat flattering – but no, they just ogle my (admittedly impressive) geared drive-train, hydraulic disc brakes and remote lock-out suspension as though the human being operating these assets is a mere trick of the light. To all the shy hot girls out there, I sympathise!

Another bad-mood inducing phenomenon is the rip-off. This can get pretty infuriating in tourist areas: in Orchha I was sitting outside at a cafe when the management started trying to coax an American walking by to get an overpriced fruit juice. "See", I thought, "He said no, why don't they leave it at that?" Suddenly, at about the fifth try, the American caved in and bought the juice. This man is the culprit for the misery of the rest of us.

Outside tourist areas the rip-offs are rare and half-hearted. A withering, “Listen mate, I’ve been in India for over a month now and everything costs the same. It even has the price written on the packet” is usually enough to elicit shoe-staring and meek acceptance of the correct payment.

At last I was in Agra, popping into a MacDonalds as a nod to my cultural heritage on the way in (a disappointing experience). Finding another awesome hotel room, this one with levels (like in Egypt), I excitedly awaited a morning visit to the Taj Mahal – I'd been to Agra before but was so incensed at the 'foreigner price' I skipped the Taj set-piece. Now that I'm richer and somewhat more chilled out I thought it was time.

Amazingly enough, the night before my planned Taj sortie, I was invited by my hotel manager to appear as an extra in a Bollywood movie to be filmed there, for which I would receive a free ticket, food and dancing lessons. With breathless enthusiasm I emerged at the agreed 5am for the filming but found everything closed up – they'd cancelled the day's shooting without telling me. I was so disappointed I couldn't even face a visit to the Mughal edifice of love until the next day.

Instead I ate. Cycle touring is supposedly a pretty cheap way of getting around, but hunger is one aspect that brings the costs up. Often on a rest day I can get up in the morning and eat solidly, hardly pausing for breath, until it's time for bed. Even if I stuff myself to the point of nausea, within twenty minutes I'm ready to consume the Virgo Supercluster again (that would confuse astronomers). In fact, the only thing that seems to slow me down is riding: exercise is an appetite suppressant. As you can probably guess, this only exacerbates the problem.

My other favourite activity for rest days is battling with bureaucracy. After I'd managed to resurrect my memory card's lost photos from the clutches of a computer virus I did my usual burning of them to a DVD as a homeward package - but when I got to the post office I was told it was illegal to post DVDs because they could contain, wait for it, 'Terrorism'. And I'd thought governments had already reached the bottom of the stop-everyone-doing-anything-in-the-name-of-terrorism barrel. At least they let me post my room key back to my hotel in Gwalior - I have to do that a lot.

India is like China-light. You have to provide a photocopy of your passport and visa every time you check in to a hotel, ID must be presented for every item posted, and if you want to use the internet, not only do you have to record every detail of your identity, including often having your photo taken, but you also have to self-report the sites you visit. For a democracy, these guys sure are paranoid about something.

After Taj-ing it up the next day until my eyes became incapable of resolving any colour beyond a shade of marble I was off to New Delhi. I'd toyed with the idea of skirting around it until finally I decided to give up and just see the friggin’ Commonwealth Games since they'd be starting just as I got there, supposed chaos and bombings notwithstanding.

But I was quite surprised to discover that New Delhi was actually an exemplar of counter-chaos: a paradigm of what Indian cities are not. Emerging from the toroidal shell of the furious construction of bypasses and hastily extending elevated metro sections I entered the eye of New Delhi’s cyclone to discover an immaculately clean city of broad tree-lined boulevards inscribing lazy roundabouts around the Indian capital’s monuments to government. It’s like Canberra but with people in it.

Eager to watch some hyper-charged professional badminton I jumped straight into Delhi’s new metro system (I’d been pretty excited by this since my old boss at EastLink told me he’d been one of the project engineers building it) and found myself instantly embroiled in the terrorism paranoia gripping New Delhi. Long lists of banned items, metal detection equipment to rival airport terminals and pat-downs by machine gun wielding military personnel accompanied every station’s entrance. This was duplicated by each of the games’ venues’ ‘vomitorium’ (a cute but somewhat clueless reference to Rome’s Coliseum).

Here the banned list was so large only an extremely long queue would provide the time to read it (which, of course, there was not). Forbidden items included ‘coins’, ‘bottles’, ‘any transmitting electronic devices’ and ‘food and drink’.

This latter item was especially a problem: at some events, despite the captured and thirsty audience, nothing was being sold. A vast entourage of smiling and helpful ‘volunteers’ (who have to spend most of their time desperately crowding and clutching at the one or two spectators who grace the games) were employed specifically to tell me that nothing was available and that they hoped my death from dehydration would be a pleasant one.

The cavernous yet spanking new venues were a sad sight to behold. The echoing chambers of awkward coughs and rustling. The cringe-worthy embarrassment instigated by 'crowd-exciting' pumping music amplified throughout the amphitheatres undampened by human sound absorbers. The ‘Hi mum!’ waves from the competitors to my only companion spectator. At the lawn bowls I watched Australia thrash Brunei with the elderly WAGs who took pity on my solitary spectation. At the hockey a New Zealander asked me to which of the participants I was related.

But I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the events themselves: despite my claims that I’m more of a political animal my inner sports fan emerged with shouts of “Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi Oi Oi!” and similarly encouraging shibboleths that could actually be acknowledged by those with the power to affect the outcome (not that it was needed: Australia kicked the arse out of anyone foolish enough to contest them). I saw at least one event per day and got quite familiar with Delhi’s roads and railways as a result.

And it’s bureaucratic annoyances: after a heated argument with an army officer over his creative inclusion of my ipod on the Banned List I was told to leave it with my ‘driver’ – I’m white, therefore my claim that I’d come by public transport must be false. At long last I was allowed to put it in an envelope and hand it to an organiser who, as I eventually discovered, left it unguarded on the street. Amazingly it was still there when I got out.

On my way to the table tennis, one of the most exciting games I’ve ever witnessed: an impossibly tight match between England and Malaysia, I miscalculated my metro fare and found myself with change in the form of a few proscribed coins. In a desperate act of needless preservation I secreted them in my shoe so that when I went through the metal detector for the event I could point to my cycling cleats as the culprit for its alarm. In retrospect, the stress and panic resulting from lying to a machine gun shoved in my face about the existence of these coins as they actually searched (although luckily not too thoroughly) the very shoe in which they resided was probably not worth the 5 cents or so I saved from the clutches of some street beggar. This regret was exacerbated by the horrifying clinking sounds that emanated from my footwear whenever I passed by a military battalion inside the event.

For the cycling marathon I followed the perimeter of the track through central Delhi on my bike, hoping to get within the 300m exclusion zone for the event to see some of the action. The only way I eventually managed this was by being mistaken for a competitor by the hapless military upon eyeing my fancy, yet bulky and muddy, bicycle and I was waved through all the road-blocks. Eventually, right at the climax, one of them came up and asked why I wasn’t in the peloton and threw me out when he realised his mistake.

But for all this supposed security, they certainly couldn’t have stopped an actual terrorist attack. Aside from the fact you’d need a MIRV cluster-nuke to get more than two people at most of these events, when the going got tough they gave up. For instance, at the athletics metro station – the only time I saw a number of real Indians inside a venue – they let the solid block of humanity through unimpeded, the metal detectors screaming in alarm at the kilos of inducting material passing within them (there was a greater danger from a crowd stampede than an actual bomb). The athletics itself was a further embarrassment for security: a stray dog gave them a comically long run-around on the hurdles track before taking a dump on the javelin field, the crowd embroiled in hilarity all the while.

It all sounds very frustrating and difficult (and I was just a spectator, imagine the officials trying to justify to themselves why they chose to host these games in the first place), but there was something that kept my spirit strong through all this: the Delhi Milk Scheme. Since the conclusion of the Great Thai 7/11 Milk Special in January I’d been suffering from a diary withdrawal that would rival going cold-turkey on oxygen. Not getting my mandatory two litres of milk per day was bringing me to the edge of either insanity or a desperate flee from Asia. So imagine my ecstatic euphoria when I discovered a state scheme to bring milk to the masses! Despite the heavy subsidies reducing the price of milk to about 60c a litre a sizable proportion of my daily budget was diverted to the white gold.

But throughout this lactic Elysium I had serious work to do: convincing the Pakistani High Commission to grant me a visa. After weeks of attempts it looks like I’ve failed, being told to fly back to Australia and apply there. However, it hasn’t been all bad – standing in front of me in one of the queues was a friendly Sydney couple, Nick and Trina (who did manage to get visas – yet more discrimination against us bachelors). Coincidentally I re-met them on my only tourism excursion, to the Ba’ha’i Lotus Temple, and we quickly discovered how similar our trips are: both a year old, visiting and appreciating exactly the same places (sometimes within a day), and both with an irrational aversion to flying anywhere – these guys actually drove to Perth and took a cruise to Singapore, besting my efforts. Even their blogging format is the same as mine and incredibly, out of all New Delhi, it turned out we were also staying in the same hotel.

Apart from the beers and meals we shared we also went to see a Hindi movie together: Crook. To my amazement, it turned out to have been filmed in my home town of Melbourne, inducing wistful homesickness within me. The storyline involved the madness of the Indian bashings saga, cutely expanded to involve riots, massacres and exploding strip clubs. Our Indian heroes somehow induced the local Melbournians (for some reason adopting horrible American accents) to hip-roll their way through some Bollywood dance moves though, so all is forgiven.

Finally, the games almost over, I was off on another cycle tour, this time beginning in the Sikh heartland of Amritsar in the Punjab, heading north through the mountains of Himachel Pradesh and finishing back in New Delhi. I leave you with the scene of me depositing my bike with a few languid blokes at the back of a warehouse next to the railway station and telling them to put it on my train’s luggage van. Not knowing the fate of my bike elicited one of the scariest train-rides I’ve ever experienced - stay tuned to find out if I've been hiding its loss all this time!


  1. Since when was your cultural heritage MacDonalds? As someone who shares your cultural heritage - to a general degree - I'm insulted.

    Enjoying the travels, though :)

  2. How much do you pay for the Taj these days?
    Auntie Ruth

  3. I've realised out here how much of a westerner I am - all western stuff is a part of my culture in a way that Asia really isn't.

    It's 750 Rps for the Taj - about $19 or so. Bearable I guess.

  4. finally catching up on some of these. love the writing - keep it up.

    I particularly love your description of New Delhi as sparkling clean. I guess it depends what you're comparing it against!