Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Close Look at India

The sun never sets on New Delhi. At about fifteen degrees above the horizon it just fades away into the haze.

This malaise relates to my emotional state during the two weeks' recovery I took from Steve's and my astonishingly epic Spiti Valley cycle tour. I was largely locked up in my hotel room finally finishing Vikram Seth's obscenely obese novel A Suitable Boy (reviewed in my Book Blog) and emerged only to tour the town's old forts and mosques, to vote in the Victorian state election, to launch the local graticule into history as November's most successful (along with Germany's Frankfurt) and to finally have my bike fixed.

It was on this latter outing that I gleaned one of my many insights into Indian culture I was soon to accumulate. As Vikram Seth had recently wryly warned me, Indians want employment, not work. The staff at the Firefox foreign bicycle repair shop rolled their languid eyes in their sockets at the expectation of an interruption to their sloth. The job they did was so pathetic it left my decaying pannier rack to occasionally wobble into the back tyre, my gears reduced from 27 to three and, most excitingly of all, my left pedal crank to come off onto the freeway as I attempted one of my four geohashes.

Returning home to my hotel room, powered by a single leg, I further soured my mood by cutting off the tip of my left, little finger while making apple/yoghurt salad. Weirdly I felt no pain as the knife sliced through my skin, but annoyingly I couldn't find the chunk of flesh to have it sown back on - it was lost in my meal (which became damned tough to stomach, I can tell you). Apart from a small dimple it's grown back now, including the fingerprint, so it can't have been as bad as I'd remembered it.

These signs indicated it was time to leave. However, almost at the moment of departure I suddenly found myself with a social life. My new companions included an English backpacker whose passport had been stolen in Dharamsala (those slimy Buddhist monks...) and a German team who knew my friends the Blundys from working at their Melbourne bushwalking gear shop.

And so, gingerly maneuvering my bike through the sticky haze and hectic traffic I left New Delhi to cycle 1,650 kilometres to Mumbai over the next three weeks. Leaving the city's protective perimeter of cargo elephants and wild dogs I emerged from the irritation-inducing cacophony of car-horns to the calm of the countryside.

I can only account for how annoyed I get at the horny sound of Indian traffic by having grown up in a land where horns are used mainly in anger. In India they're used as reverse sonar: not to acquire information of the vehicle's surroundings but to inform the surroundings of the vehicle's arrival.

The easy ride to Jaipur should have been a metaphorical walk, but two days into the trip I found myself punching through a wall of water on a major highway, waving my hands in front of my face to ward off the rain. The traffic was so bad one crash had trucks backed up for several kilometres and I had to snake may way between them to make any progress at all. A knowledgeable Jaipur local told me it was the heaviest rain this desert-state had experienced in 129 years. The mechanical fallout from this rain-ride was quite severe: the muddy water undid all the good work done by a decent bike shop in Delhi and ultimately inflicted eight punctures on my brand new tyres.

Arriving in Jaipur, the capital of colourful Rajastan - a state delineated from its neighbours at the bullock-cart/camel-train boundary - I set out to find a suitable hotel. One potential candidate refused to store my bike anywhere other than on the street out the front, explaining that all their 25,000 rupee motor-scooters are kept there and my bike "must only be worth 2,000 rupees at the most". Never having my bike so insulted in its life, I bitterly explained its actual cost as I turned away: rupees a half-lakh.

I ended up spending a rest day in Jaipur while waiting for the rain to be relinquished, checking out the palaces and forts and hanging out with an English/Dutch couple who'd hit the 'India Wall' and were willing to whinge (and good on 'em too, I'm always up for a good whinge).

Back on the road, I stopped off at a cute town named Tonk a few days later where I met a young gentleman calling himself Prince who was all too keen to show me around his beloved environs. I was amazed when he instructed me to lie about my Melbournian origins - instead introducing me to his friends as a Londoner - due to the anti-Australian sentiment wrought by the Melbourne Bashings Saga. Were the atrocities of the British Raj so forgettable?

It was during this time that I suffered the most from my failing bike. Luckily, although running out of spare tubes and tyre levers for my flats, I discovered the joys of the puncture-professionals: every two kilometres or so along even the smallest roads (which I preferentially traversed) a waiting shack effected fast and cheap repairs.

Later on, when I could no longer endure the rattliness of my crank shaft, I surrendered my bike to a more formidable bike shop. The repairmen immediately began dismembering my bike with a hammer and chisel - I tried to stop them but they held me back like bouncers at a bar-fight, yelling at me in Hindi "Five minutes! Five minutes!" Not only did they completely fix the problem, but they refused any payment, communicating with one graceful gesture, "What mongrels would we be if we charged you, a guest of our great nation?"

Sadly, most of the gestures I encounter are quite infuriating. Like the way they always try to get me to stop by patting their hand at the road and hissing as though they're taming a goat. Another great Indian gesture is the 'Why?': up-curled fingers of the right hand poking the air as though passing a cricket ball to itself. I try to answer their incredulity by explaining that only through cycle touring can one truly appreciate the scale of the landscape, that an India emerges that's hidden from monument-hopping train travellers, and that the freedom, pace and openness of a push-bike allows an integration with one's immediate surroundings impossible in a fast, enclosed vehicle. They walk away muttering to themselves, "Money troubles".

Also causing confusion is my solitude. Indians never do anything alone and are only ever seen in large groups.

"How many people are you?" They often ask.

"How many people do I look like??" I retort, feigning offense.

These questions I can cope with - I'm always amazed at the destructiveness of Indians' curiosity. They play with my gears and cables when I stop for chai, they try to bend the brake's discs even when I'm standing right next to them (one guy actually fetched an enormous spanner for the job, no doubt interested to test the yield strength of Western alloys), and, if I fail to satisfy their questions, they will occasionally drive their motorbikes just in front of me and slam on the brakes, forcing me to engage them in extended, if animated, post-collision conversation.

They are also obsessed with money and status. Since I have no caste (other than 'untouchable' for having travelled over water) they can only befriend me if they can place me in their hierarchy. I try to explain that I really don't feel comfortable detailing my annual salary, bank balance and wealth of relatives, yet they persist. One insecure member of the 'scheduled castes', who had nevertheless hit the big-time, interrogated me for over an hour to determine if he was 'higher' than me.

Physical money is also a frequent obsession: I try in vain to explain that after fourteen months on the road and constant requests for 'Australian money' I am completely out. In fact, as you may remember from my Airport Dramas, I began my trip with less than one dollar on me - the only souvenir I have from Australia is the key to my parents' house, a reminder that I can always go home (unless they've changed the locks on me). In frustration at their disbelief I'm often forced to wave my ATM card in their face, saying, "See this? THIS is my Australian money!".

Occasionally, in the smallest towns, this currency sentiment extends to extremes. The following is a common conversion I have in broken Hindi (expressive hand-waving also translated):

"Hi, do you have a room?"

"No, go to the next town"

"What about that room over there? That looks nice"

"You can't stay there, it costs money".

"That's fine, I intend to pay with money".

"Oh! You have Indian rupees!? Come on in!"

It's amazing how many un-touristed locals seem to think we can only spend money in our home-nation's currency.

Continuing the journey, I worked my way along tiny roads through the Rajastani partial-desert that looked like they'd last been sealed at independence, the remnants of ancient bitumen protruding on pedestals like meteorites in Antarctica. It was during this time that I experienced one of only two thefts of my whole trip. Having locked my bike in the supposedly safe garage area of one hotel I emerged in the morning to discover that person or persons unknown had broken into the compound at night and stolen... my handlebar grips!

Apart from the feeling of violation that besets victims of burglary I felt triumphant that my grips were the only items these vagabonds could run off with without employing any tools (or understanding the concept of quick-release). Of course, my mood changed when I realised I had to hold the bare handle-bar for the next thousand kilometres until I found fitting replacements.

However, soon I arrived in Udaipur: one of the most beautiful places in India - a blue city on the banks of an ancient artificial lake surrounding Moghul palaces and gardens. For James Bond fans out there, this is where Octopussy was filmed, and it is this, the silliest of all Bond flicks, that is shown nightly at over half-a-dozen restaurants - no doubt boring the pants off the staff. Udaipur is also plagued with Australians. One Melbournian pair accompanied me around a luxurious island in the central lake, and I was invited by my extremely obliging hotel manager to his nephew's wedding party along with four Sydneysian girls, another year-long traveller named Ally as their ring-leader (thanks for winging that one, Ally!).

This was quite an experience, with supposedly 1,400 guests arriving from all over Rajastan but providing absolutely no alcohol - it being a strict Muslim affair. The food, however, was incredibly delicious and never-ending. I somehow got roped into chanting a prayer to Allah at the marriage signing and cheesy Indian dancing with the young male set at the night's end. The guys kept on asking in hushed and impressed tones how it was I'd managed to acquire an entourage of four beautiful girls - it all comes down to class, I explained.

One interesting conversation I had with an otherwise charming young woman was about the differences in marriage culture between India and the west. "In India, our parents choose only the best husband for us - that's why our divorce rate is so much lower than in western countries", she told me. I bit my tongue.

Another way in which I think Indian culture is in the wrong is on the roads. Yes, being a former Arts student I should say it's all relative and that no culture is better than any other and whatever. Well tough, on the roads India has got it wrong. In many respects I've found that while India is a nation of hard-nosed pragmatists, I'm a romantic idealist. I was so infuriated by people driving on the wrong side of the road in the impressive port city of Surat I stopped each one and explained to them in unintelligible Hindi how their dangerous actions diminish traffic-flow. Long lectures are also unleashed upon rubbish lobbing locals of city streets. The most insane example of their hawkish road culture is at railway crossings: while waiting for the train to pass, not only do they queue up on the left side, opportunists also jam up the right. This means that when the gates open the traffic is completely stuck - often until after the NEXT train has passed (although, as a cyclist, I'm largely immune from the gridlock).

Having said all that, the locals are always eager to help me out and are never interested in charging for it. I'm over-run by offers for village tours and chai chats, most of which I must refuse. They're always tolerant of my poor Hindi skills and obliging when it comes to directions (although I always have to ask at least three people and take the average). India as a culture, though, can be a real selfish prick, even if the individuals themselves could not be more well-meaning.

Leaving Rajastan behind I had entered the coastal state of Gujarat, just as my left shoe finally rejected its cleat. Because of this the next three days forced me into a state of exhaustion as all the muscles I'd built up in my calves slowly migrated to my thighs where they were now needed.

My major destination during this time was Ahmadabad (lodged on the intriguingly spelled Rann of Kachchh) where I'd arranged to meet a friend-of-a-friend who was new to India and needed some tips. For this I lost a couple of days to detour several hundred gut-busting kilometres to meet her at our arranged time and place. Unfortunately, not only was she a no-show, but I never heard from her again. My annoyance is tempered slightly by my concern her flight may have been consumed by an expanding black hole, but no doubt she decided to terminate our nascent friendship due to the embarrassment of her epic stand-up.

In the end the detour was worth-while anyway, Ahmadabad being a very different and intriguing Muslim city of tranquil mosques and intricate wooden facades. Leaving the city a day later I embarked upon my next quest: finding the ocean. For this purpose I as usual bought a state road atlas for navigation which allowed me to explore roads invisible to my national map. In fact, the state atlases were so detailed they described roads that weren't even rendered in the real world.

One such sojourn into the nether-world of non-existent roads took me to the coastal micro-state of Daman & Diu. When the winding roads ran out I was directed to haul my bike through thick scrub along an animal track for several kilometres, cross a precarious railway truss bridge over a wide river and was then forced to push my bike along several kilometres of railway track. It was with some concern that I realised that the concentration required to keep my bike on its rail severely limited my ability to detect on-coming trains.

The low-point of this desperate lunge towards the old Portugese colony of Daman was when I fell flat on my side trying to ride over a slippery ford, soaking the left-half of my luggage. The local villagers stood around giving me the "Why?" gesture, an image burnt into my brain.

When I finally got to Daman I almost immediately executed my emergency zombie invasion procedures (precisely honed after hundreds of hours of careful planning while riding through Rajastan). The entire state seemed to be comprised of stumbling brain-hungry corpses, some even collapsed in ditches - this told me a lot about the enclave's liquor licensing laws.

My rest day in Daman was amazingly refreshing (despite the beach's suffocating reek of rotting fish). Watching the sun set over the sea finally ended an ocean drought since Hong Kong and a beach-drought since Vietnam. This also marked the beginning of my long cyclo-beach-tour of the Konkani coastline.

Sadly, on my last day before Mumbai, staying in the atomic town of Boisar, I was forced by the cops to rejoin the highway on suspicion of being intent on Maharashtra's nuclear destruction, or perhaps on having a desire to steel some uranium-235 for my own atomic ambitions. Anyway, I was happy to leave: the town seemed to harbour the largest density of mosquitoes on the planet. They must be breeding in the cooling ponds.

On my final approach to Mumbai, topping off 22 days from Delhi, I was pretty worried about getting creamed by the traffic of Rushdie's 'failed metropolis'. With fifty kilometres to go I was just wishing I could get it over and done with... until I saw the vast ominous wall of flats emerging from the gloom like an oncoming sandstorm.

But I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the next blog post to find out if I survived the onslaught...


  1. Good ep.

    You should link to the photos here also.

    I can't believe you can spend this long in one country.

  2. Sure thing, here you go: http://www.flickr.com/photos/felixdance/sets/72157625496011545/detail/