It’s hard to believe that almost two years has passed since I arrived back to the UK on my bicycle. And here I am about to write a tale or two about another adventure, another bike ride- this time around India.
But, perhaps it would be too easy to gloss over the last two years without a word of recognition for them. I would feel somewhat of a fraud if I were to give the impression that adjusting back to life at home was seamless, and that I merely hop, skipped and jumped my way into a ‘regular’, happy routine, complete with budding career, an active social life and a firm foothold on my hopes and plans for the future.
In fact the following 12 months were so far from any of those things.
Arriving home proved to be tremendously difficult. The thing is, a bicycle ride of that length can be incredibly wearing; the day-to-day activities and logistics involved in keeping yourself going and maintaining the momentum whilst negotiating the daily obstacles, slowly grinds you down. And spending such a huge chunk of time living this unsustainable way of life, detached from society- it chips away at you mentally and physically. And for me, arriving home should have been a refuge point, somewhere I could finally stop and ‘just be’- finally return to a place of familiarity. But, actually, In quite the opposite way, I found myself lacking that ‘belonging’ I yearned for. When you ride a bicycle around the world, you’re given this unique opportunity to spectate hundreds of different societies and cultures and ways of life, and when you arrive back to your native country, those feelings don’t suddenly dissipate. For a long while, I found myself unable to engage or find common ground with the life around me, constantly questioning and trying to make sense out of what I was seeing. More than anything, I felt a huge sense of emptiness. Feeling deeply conflicted, I really grappled with an urge to ‘take off’ again- that element of escapism. Looking back now, it seemed that for the first time since starting my bike ride, I had completely lost my way.
I don’t think feeling like this is uncommon and I certainly don’t think feelings like this are limited to those taking on global cycling expeditions, but I do think its a by-product of such trips. As someone once said to me, “the urge to adventure can be both a blessing and a curse”.
And yet here I am riding my bicycle again. Life has moved on a lot and I am in a much more stable place, and I know that cycling is something which, for the most part, brings me great joy. For me, its not so much the ‘challenge’ which fuels my desire to take on these trips-but its mostly driven by this gaping hole of knowledge that I pine to fill. Its an opportunity to piece together this massive global jigsaw, and with each tire track I mark across this little planet, its another chance to better understand what keeps this place ticking along.
I plan to ride my bicycle from the southern point of India (Trivandrum, Kerala) to the north-eastern city of Kolkata, formerly known as Calcutta. From here I will head north-west into Nepal and the Himalayas until I eventually reach Kashmir, just short of the Pakistan border. A journey of about 3000miles.
I am now a month into my bicycle adventure, having pedalled my way through the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and now Odisha- but for the first 2 weeks, I was fortunate enough to be accompanied by my sister, Lizzie. Together we rode from Trivandrum to Chennai. Our route began in the brilliantly-brightly-coloured neighbourhoods of Keralas undulating interior. We then ascended up the steep hill sides of the Western Ghats and into the land of Tea. Like tea hardy warriors, we battled our way to the mother mountain of PG Tips. Amen to each and every one of that tea plantation work force who are quite simply fuelling the entire global population, one cuppa’ at a time. Because, essentially, it isn't money or oil or the next global summit which keeps the world ambling along- its mostly a healthy supply of tea. And for every tea leaf they pick, theres a happier start to the day somewhere, there's an argument swiftly diffused, there's a welcoming warm home comfort, there's a succulent soggy biscuit and there's that all too familiar warm fuzzy feeling after that first sip, “mmmm tea”. In short, tea is basically the blood of life.
But after a refreshing few days cooling off up in the hills, we returned to the furnace of low lying India and onwards towards the coastal city of Chennai. Daily temperatures almost always exceed 40 degrees. Daily sweat levels have undoubtedly hit an all time high whilst daily salt stocks end the day at an all time low- And I naively tell myself that a pocket sized packet of pringles should soon replenish those depleted mineral stocks…..#APacketOfPringlesADayKeepsIllnessAtBay- At least I think thats how the saying goes?
Incidentally, nowadays, if we notice the mercury dip below 40, this is now referred to as ‘light relief’.
But in a bid to avoid the most severe of the daily heat, we aimed to wake early and be on the road by sunrise (*fireball-rise). There is something especially wonderful about pedalling in the early morning, watching the world wake up. There is an element of calm. Life moves at a steady pace. The traffic is still resting and the horns lie dormant. Cows aimlessly ponder their way down the lanes. Women share the morning gossip over the backside of a buffalo. Kids sit on the roadside, wide eyed and positively starstruck at the site of this passing cyclist. And as you pedal your way through these little lanes, passing through these rustic neighbourhoods, dodging the odd goat, marvelling at the ease at which women glacially glide their way down the roads, casually balancing a vase full of water high above their heads (Such skills! Now why doesn’t that feature on the british curriculum?!) - you're offered this glimpse into a country in action. And as the day gradually passes by, slowly the pace of life begins to accelerate and with that comes this crescendo of pounding noise, until it all begins to get a little bit chaotic- but its a special kind of chaos, its the Indian kind, its chaos with character;. Tuc tucs rattle their way down the roads, sometimes carrying a few people, other times carrying the entire village, 35 watermelons, a bicycle and 3 goats. The lorry loads awaken, they come to life, decked in creative works of art and with an equally ‘lively’ (for want of a more severe word) horn to match. And boy do we hear that ear-drum pounding horn. I should imagine ‘checking out’ the horn on a brand new vehicle must be a bit like ‘checking out’ the ‘cool’ ringtones that come with the ol’ nokia 5210; More important than anything else on the device, it's gotta’ come with a bloody good ringtone for all to hear. #PlayItLoudPlayItProud
Despite the fact that the traffic in India can sometimes appear to be utterly wild and unruly, I have come to realise that this isn't necessarily the case. There is definitely logic beneath those layers of car clutter. In India, the general rule is that everyone keeps moving forward. There's a mutual trust that the people behind will keep an eye on dodging you, and likewise, its your duty to avoid the folk in front. It works. And as a result, the road-users have been forced to refine the most brilliant of reflexes (I should imagine any Indian road-user would probably nod off upon viewing the typically-tame British ‘Hazard and Perception’ Test)
On the other hand, driving in the UK is quite different. Back in Britain, we can be, well, ever so British about our driving; “After you”, “No, after you”, *happy hand gestures*, * flashing car-light displays*, an acknowledgement to one another for being polite, upstanding, top quality road users. Essentially, we’re making friends, but all the while making no actual driving progress. In India, its less talk, more action- you just keep moving and the rest will figure itself out.
But, as always, I aim to avoid the throbbing madness of the main roads as much as possible- this washing machine of endless noise and people and noise and people and noise can become rather intense to say the least- that and the curious questions and unlimited requests for ‘selfies’. Where would the world be without a ‘selfie’?
But fortunately, India happens to have an expansive network or rural roads, of which many are paved, offering the ideal runway to explore the little known settlements that pepper the landscapes. Passing through villages are my favourite. They feel different to urban areas. Cities feel driven by money. Villages feel driven by people, and people with such a strong relationship with with the land they live on. I also always admire the solid, strong sense of community in these small settlements. They work together, they support and rely on one another immensely. And the kids exist around the structure of their parents day. They happily amuse themselves- I can guarantee there isn't a parent amongst them researching ‘fun kids camps’ in which to enrol their children, in a desperate bid to ‘entertain’ them over the bank holiday weekend. Its a different way of life…..
The best bit about riding a bike through these places though is the intimacy it allows you to have with that area. And when you ride in on a bicycle, fresh off a dusty trail, the difference between them and I, the financial and cultural disparity, it’s less distinct, it’s less glaringly obvious. And a bicycle allows me to be something more than just another passer by speeding through- you’re moving at a pace slow enough to acknowledge one another and capture every detail of one another’s being.
Lizzie is back on the bike, or is she?
When we talk about falling off our bikes, it often conjures up memories of when we were young kids, learning to ride our bikes for the first time. It was a brief phase of life which most of us navigated our way through fairly quickly and successfully; After a few tumbles, we gained the skill and its one that has stayed with us for life, ‘like riding a bike’.
Turns out falling off bikes isn't limited to young people at all actually. My sister turns 30 this year and its hard to believe that we’d often reflect back on our days cycle across India, and raise a toast to the fact she hadn’t fallen off that day. One day she will master the art of using cleats (clip in pedals), no-one can predict when that day will be…..
Upon entering small towns in India, it can sometimes feel a little like you’ve just entered an urban farm yard, for cows peruse the high street as casually as the local people. Likewise, stray dogs happily snooze in the alleys, chill on the pavement, swagger the streets by night. And its not uncommon to catch a couple of roaming hogs rooting through the rubbish in search of an afternoon snack. Actually, the animals live in such harmony with people, the sight of a calf strolling into the local bakery barely gets a second glance.
I often wonder what the reaction might be should a cow stroll up the high street at home, one cheeky eye on Greggs. Its the sort of event which is guaranteed to make the front page of the Shropshire Star (local news can be somewhat ‘limited’ when it comes to this county). And no doubt there would be an insider, two page spread on the species (just to bring us all up to speed on what exactly a cow is). And sure enough, these events would then lead to a call for all schools across the county to enforce a detailed lesson plan, informing students on how best to approach a cow, in the unlikely event you might meet one outside W H Smith.
Amongst the beauty of India though, there is one glaringly obvious eye-saw which quite literally ‘litters’ the landscapes. The disposal of rubbish is still a real issue to contend with. Occasionally, amongst the heaps and heaps of waste, there will stand a little pint sized, rather optimistic looking dustbin with the words ‘use me’ written across it. Ironically, they're usually empty.
With so many biryanis on offer, it was difficult to decide which one to choose. Thankfully though, the particularly honest chef willingly pointed out which one to avoid;
Every day, as I pedal along, at some point in the day I’ll hear the sound of a slowing motorcycle ride alongside me, ready to delve into a bank of questions before finishing up with a ‘selfie’, of course (#AmenToTheSelfie). Almost every conversation starts with “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?” and “What is your purpose?”- the first two are fairly straight forward and the latter I tend to keep brief, “for fun” I reply. Which, in the beating heat of the day, whilst I breathlessly sweat myself up a hill, I’m well aware that the current visual is surely anything but ‘fun’. And I can see from his face that he’s struggling to digest the idea that one does this for pleasure.
But that go me thinking, and there really are a whole host of unexplainable, illogical activities that we 'jump to' in the name of ‘a bit of fun’, like camping holidays for example? I really think I would struggle to convincingly explain to another culture the concept of the classically British Camping Holiday - the idea that ‘for pleasure’ we decide to trade in the comforts of our home for a campsite (which is basically some sort of communal, ‘make-shift’ living in a remote field somewhere). We happily decide to turn our backs on the esteemed progression of our first world lives for something a little more basic. Oh, and we’ll pay for it. We happily decide to forego the temperature controlled warmth in our well built houses (the things we had especially designed to suit each and every one of our needs), and instead embrace a week of being cold and damp. Instead of waking up in the morning, casually strolling to the bathroom in our shower robes - we’ll instead don a heavy duty fleece, hop our way across a water-logged campsite (probably in flip-flops, because, well, ‘we’re on holiday’) and force ourselves to converse with other ‘happy campers’ in a less than desirable communal shower block- which when you look at the state of the floor, you’re rather thankful that you came wearing flip flops. Instead of enjoying ample power points across our houses, we’d rather share electricity from a dodgy looking voltage point out the ground. And water- well, much like a time before we enjoyed the conveniences of a tap in several rooms- we’d rather go and ‘collect’ water from a central water source and embrace the opportunity to haul it back to the group- true survival stuff. And as for washing clothes? By hand of course? Because its ‘fun’ doing chores all ‘outdoorsy’.
And despite the fact that you could be spending your evening sitting on the sofa, enjoying a box of choccies in front of a film, all cuddly and warm at home- Instead, you'll sit outdoors on deck chairs (again, a symbol of ‘the holiday’), preferably under a gazebo, albeit a rotting one (the winter storage in the garage hasn't done it any favours) whilst listening to the less than pleasurable hum of the generator. And as we sit there together, on a bracingly cold British summer evening, we’ll discuss how our heavy-duty, North Face fleece actually isn't as warm as we’d hoped - and on the next camping trip (because despite all of this, there will be another), we should really invest in two.
And this is what we affectionately call ‘a holiday’.
I guess some things in life are simply too difficult to explain.
Onwards to Kolkata
And after two wonderful weeks pedalling together, Lizzie returned home, whilst I continued to strengthen my shorts tan (something which is rapidly becoming a permanent feature of my 20s) whilst pedalling up the east coast, towards Kolkata.