As I crossed the border from Nepal to India I was a little apprehensive. Many travellers in Nepal are refugee tourists escaping from the overwhelming assault on their senses which India provides. My first problem arose when I couldn't actually exit Nepal as the immigration office was nowhere to be found. I crossed the dirt track excuse of a road that is no-mans land between Nepal and India and was told on the Indian side that I needed to return to Nepal to get my exit stamp. Turns out children had nicked the immigration sign to use for firewood and being the only tourist among the traders going to India it was quite the treasure hunt to find the office as no one knew where it was. When I did eventually find it they said they had seen me cycling by earlier and knew I would be back...after all the shouting at I have endured on my bike over the past few weeks they really picked an opportune time to be silent!
India is like a toughening up school for travellers. You constantly need to be alert for the next scam and my first minute on Indian soil provided me with my first. There was some huffing and puffing over my Indian visa but he couldn't come up with anything to screw me on over that. Next thing he pipes up "Documents for your cycle". I explained that it is a bicycle “cycle” not a motorbike. Still he wanted my papers. The first lesson you learn in India is that there are no rules so you just have to play them at their own game. I decided to tell him the bike was from Ireland like I did previously with success on the Nepalese border. I then explained that I had already crossed the Tibetan and Nepalese border with it and that I wanted to see a written rule that I needed to pay tax on it. There was a feeble attempt made to search in a drawer, knowing that he had lost but not before he started the shouting in Hindu at me with little effect. I replied in a stern voice that I now required my passport and wished them a good day. Welcome to India….the cheeky git!
Seven different types of bananna on offer.
When people think of cycling in India the first worry that comes to mind is the traffic. The roads directly after the Banbassa border were so bad that the only traffic I had to contend with for the first few KM’s were ox and carts. When I reached the town of Banbassa I had imagined it to be a buzzing metropolitan city judging by the size of the dot on my map. After a quick spin through the ‘blink and you miss it’ village I realised I was very much mistaken and it was like every other border town...a place you want to get out of quick! On crossing the border I eventually got reception on my phone again and with that a few panic messages and missed calls as to my whereabouts from my parents. An internet cafe was out of the question but the kind young man at the tourist who was quite happy with the interruption from twiddling his thumbs installed me on his work computer while he fetched me some tea. This is India a country of contradictions. On one side you have people who would steal the shirt off your back if they could and on the other side you have pure selfless generosity!
With little more than a bus station and a few food huts to offer in the town, the purchase of a decent road map was obviously out of the question. My map of Nepal included a corner of India so I thought if I pressed on in ignorance a petrol station along the way would have a map. I never did find a map as I wheeled into the outskirts of Delhi 2 days later without a notion of the towns I went through. The route however was not my major fear, the suicidal traffic element outweighed that. After the peace of Western Nepal where the only menaces on the road were the children and their rattling bicycles, I suddenly had to battle with the thick black fumes that were being belched out from the trucks. On the first day the gust of one particular truck was so strong that I found myself in the ditch after it had left me chewing dust. I reminded myself that “this is India” and the next day I also say a rickshaw wallah pulling himself out of the ditch. Unfortunately this poor victim was thrown into one of the many rubbish collection points on the side of the road. As he pulled banana skins and other unthinkable decomposing matter off his clothes I counted myself lucky that I only had a few briars to pluck off my t-shirt. I quickly learned the Indians fascination with initials, with the motorways known as “NH 2” The road signs were also particularly amusing with an element of kitsch thrown in “Do not zoom, To your doom.” “Better called Mr. Late than the Late Mr.”, “More zoom, more boom”. On my first day I cycled the NH 2, checked into an AC room (air-con) and dined in a N.Veg (non-vegetarian) restaurant.
Job to do...
Luckily in Delhi I was going to be staying with an old college friend and his family. My plan of attack for entering Delhi was to arrive very early in the morning. With no tears in my eyes I left my grotty motel at 4.30am to make the last 30km before the city woke up. As I approached what I believed to be city I saw a bus station and thought I could get some directions from there. It was still dark as I entered the crowded bus station. It reminded me of a stage setting as I couldn't believe what I was seeing was real. I believe this is what they call culture shock! People lay on the broken ground in between burning rubbish heaps and puddles of foul smelling substances, all the while countless rats just jumped over their slumbering bodies. The people who stood around were joking and laughing making me question was I hallucinating the rats. I overcame my fear of mice in China so I guess I will have to get over my fear of rats in India!
After asking the Rickshaw wallahs for directions I was getting ridiculous and non concurring answers of up to 50km to scare me into taking a rickshaw with my bike (not sure of the logistics of that operation) but being stubborn as a mule I just rode off in ignorance once more until I spotted the metro line overhead. Bingo! I just followed the metro line to the stop nearest my friends house the better part of 20km away and then a kind taxi man gave me an escort to the house.(although I didn’t realise it was an escort at the time and thought he was stalking me) Another example of kind Indian generosity. That said there was no way my bike would have squeezed into his Suzuki Alto so I really wasn't a potential customer!
The next day my friend Kanu's father took me for a tour of Delhi on his Vespa scooter in an attempt to convince me that a motorized vehicle would be a far better option for travelling around the world. The concept of backpacking hasn't quite hit India yet so the concept of cycling around the world left him seriously questioning my sanity. Sadly mid tour in the choice location of the deafening madness of the old bazaar, I came down with an almighty migraine and a vomiting spree to boot. The double whammy had me lying outstretched on the ground of a filthy side street acting like I was testing a new luxury mattress. Within moments the old faithful “Tiger balm” was produced. I’m sceptical of these alternative methods at the best of times and in particular when you’ve hit rock bottom. I’d rather put my money on a trusty paracetamol to offer some relief but to no avail the on looking crowd were convinced by the ever popular (but useless IMO) tiger balm.
Two hours later after I summoned all strength to stay on the back of the vespa we reached home and my resting place for the next days. After 2 days and no movement on my part apart from my bowels it was clear I had a bad case of the Delhi Belly. The weight of the sheet alone on my body was enough to cause me pain and in true hypochondriac form I had myself convinced I had malaria. A phonecall was then made to the Head Female doctor in Delhi, none other than the Prime Ministers wife. Seriously you can’t make this stuff up! The state I was in I would even have given the old herbs and spices doctor from Nepal a go again! What ensued was a cliff notes version of my life achievements and social standing not unlike a priests synopsis at a funeral but in the present tense “BSc Architecture,Ireland, MSc Architecture, Switzerland….lover of the fine arts and theatre. “ My love of the fine arts arose from a one sided conversation I had with Kanu’s father. In my almost unconscious state he piped up “You like art and theatre, yes?” I’m not adverse to the arts so I managed a concurring grunt. ”You like to paint, yes?” many a summer was spent creosoting the garden fence so another complying grunt followed. Little did I know he was building up a dignified image of myself which was later to be used as clearance to allow me to be seen by the highest caste Brahmen doctor. The casteless “untouchables” are lucky if a doctor will see them at all and true to their name they will never be touched by a doctor. Thankfully I past the test and spent the next 4 days on a drip in a private clinic whilst trying to evict the parasite that had taken up residency in my stomach.
Classic demonstration of Indian humor.
A little note on what is my understanding of the complex caste system. In its simplest form there were originally 4 ranks in the caste system. The cream of the crop are the Brahmins, or priestly caste. They are swiftly followed by the Kshatriyas or warriors. Next up we have the Vaishyas who are associated with agriculture and trade. At the bottom of the barrel we have the downtrodden Sudras who are the labourers. This system then developed into a spiders web of “juri” which identified specific trades within each caste. Sadly you are not judged by your aptitude when entering a caste you are simply born into it. What irritates me greatly about this system is that there is little chance for the ambitious spider to escape this web. If you’re born into a family of blacksmiths then a blacksmith you will be. Little use for career guidance here I guess!
Jealous onlookers of the "missile".
On the outskirts of Agra I saw an old beggar sprawled on the road with splashes of blood around his head which I didn’t have the stomach to investigate further. Moments later a bus came to a screeching halt and a very unhappy driver jumped of the bus and flung the presumably dead body (no attempt to check for a pulse) into the ditch. I stood dumbfounded as everyone else carried on as normal. There were 2 reasons for the driver to be a tetchy. Firstly it was not his castes job to remove dead bodies from the road and secondly he was now 5 minutes late. Sometimes I hate India. I witnessed countless examples such as this during my time in India. Whether it was the boulders that had fallen off a truck on a corner and were making the road a death trap for oncoming vehicles…so basically they would rather see a road accident instead of moving the rocks as it was not their castes job. When checking into a hotel you see the caste system at its greatest. The owner presumably Brahmin will take your money. Someone else’s job is to show you the room for inspection. An “untouchable” will then be sent for to wave a twig brush in a failed attempt at cleaning the bathroom. Next you will have a knock on the door and the “sheet putter on” will arrive on the seen. Lastly you will have the hangers on who have been adopted by the owner to do any tasks he commands but their time is mainly spend dreaming up of “services” to extort money out of foreigners. The most inventive of these remedial “services” was when I opened the door to a guy who marched into the centre of my room, sprayed air freshener like it was his treasured cologne and then demanded. 10 Rupees. An equally inventive yet more deceitful method is to demand “Basksheesh”. Basically this entails paying for a service twice. I had inspected one hotel room in Madurai and agreed on a price. On having paid I quickly realised there was no electricity yet I could here the latest episode of the local soap opera blaring in the next room. I went down to reception to investigate and was told “Backsheesh”. A simple oversight on my behalf to think that electrical power was included in the price of a room!
I left Delhi in the early hours of the morning just as I had come in. I passed the Rickshaw wallahs slowly waking up in the dreary fog as they lit fires from loose rubbish in an attempt to get there early morning “Chai” sugar hit. All around I could hear the constant smashing of earthen clay cups which you disregard on the ground after using so that there is no chance of a different castes lips touching the same cup. Well at least it creates a boom in the clay cup industry! Amongst the smashing I heard cries of “butiful cykel” “Hello sister” “Hello Auntie”. I guess I should be thankful I didn’t hear “Hello Grandma”.
Rather you than me.
I was a bit green on Indian culture when I crossed the border into India but thankfully a local “Dobbie Wallah” family in Agra enlightened me further. Basically I have come to the conclusion that almost everything in India relates back to religion. The eldest daughter in the family explained to me how she chose the colour of her Saris each day. Apparently if I understood her correctly every day has a special god you should honour and with that each god has a representing colour. Something my limited cyclists wardrobe could never stretch to. The eldest son was due to marry in a month and the father explained proudly that this is an arranged marriage but that they shall not be demanding a dowry. A common occurrence in India is “Bride burning” where a bride whose dowry is disappointing is burned by the husbands family. This is normally unsuccessfully disguised as a kitchen fire and no repercussions are to be had. It’s no wonder when I see arranged marriage ceremony’s of girls little more than 16 on the streets they often look more like funerals than celebrations. Once married the girl leaves her family and is at the mercy of her husbands family with whom they share the home with. When your family has given everything they own in the dowry to avoid the shame of an unmarried daughter there is nothing for the girl to fall back on. Women are a burden to their family in the north and seen as expensive luxuries until they become a mother.
After my brief stint in the north I had a renewed appreciation for being born in a country where women are respected. Women draw a raw deal throughout the country but in the north in particular. With a 40 % literacy rate to the mens 65% and unlike most other countries they actually have a lower life expectancy rate. My heart always went out to the child brides you would see along the motorways braking up rocks in their colourful saris. It seemed such inappropriate work for a woman to lug bags of rocks on their head all day and then return to their unwelcoming family and meet their husbands every need. On the street they always stood a respectful 4 steps behind their husbands with a zombie like expression of no hope on their face.
Due to a turn in the weather and an acceptance that the traffic was not going to thin out on the trunk road, I decided a better plan of action was to abandon my destination of Kolkata in the North East and head south. I would actually be cycling further starting in Goa and doing a loop along the coast to finish on Chennai so with ease of conscience I booked a train south to Goa. As I checked out of my hotel the next morning on my way to the train station I was left with one final reminder of the mentality in the north. I had been battling for days with the hotel owner that I rather enjoyed cycling by bicycle and that I could in fact afford the train fare if I so wished. As I was about to pedal away I noticed I had 2 flat tyres which were not there 10 minutes ago. I had yet to inform the owner that I was in fact going by train to Goa and in an attempt to stop me cycling he let the air out of my tyres. When I explained my train left in 30 minutes a deep expression of guilt came across his face
Flower market, Delhi.