From Chennai to Kolkata, I continued my bike ride up the east coast of India alone.
Initially, I had reservations about cycling through India. It's commonly projected to be a relatively risky place to travel. The country is burdened with the weight of such a damaged reputation in light of its human rights record and as a result of the regular acts of violence so often broadcast in the media. And before I came here, this was my blinkered vision of the place. I admit that I had doubts about whether it was safe to pedal across the country. But the India I experienced wasn't representative of this. And its a bitter reminder of how important it is not to tar an entire place with a single brush. Above all, its wholly unfair and disrespectful to do so. The thing to remember is that India is also a vast place, and ‘rotten eggs’ with bad intentions exist all around the world, in all baskets of eggs- only India is home to1.3 billion people so, statistically, there are going to be a few more bad eggs in the hen house.
Sometimes I feel like taking my bicycle for a ride around another chunk of the planet is an opportunity to remind myself of the goodness in the world and that humanity still exists in such overflowing abundance- something that’s hard to come by in our day-to-day news. And it’s true of everywhere I go, including India, that I'm so often met with kindness, support, generosity and respect from all members of society. And its so reassuring to see, because when we take trips away, there is this natural fear in all of us about stepping into the unknown or stepping out into unfamiliar territory, but the more you meet people across the planet, the more you realise how similar we all are and you begin to understand, and appreciate, that there is actually this unique human-network of support out there willing to help each other along. And over time you develop this increasing trust with the place.
So next time you take a trip away and you leave at home a concerned mum or a worried dad, remember that there are a hundred more concerned mums who are ready to step into those shoes when you fall off your bicycle in a far away place….and there are a hundred more dads who are happy to help fix your broken bicycle in that lonely, alien landscape…..we’re not so different across the world.
Windy roads to Kolkata
I’d be lying if I said that pedalling up Indias east coast wasn't a breeze, because fortunately for me, I had the pleasure of enjoying a southerly breeze almost all the way.
Every cyclist knows the great, unrivalled luxury of a tail wind. It’s the kind of thing we dream about. Some people fantasise about chocolate, or fast cars or Harry from One Direction, but for me, its a well positioned air mass behind my back tire….thats what I really get my kicks out of.
So unsurprisingly, courtesy of Indias fully supportive weather system, I made my way up to Kolkata in good time. Here I met up with my good friend Rwiti, a native to the city. Having met Rwiti whilst she was working in the UK, we agreed to spend a few weeks pedalling across India together. Our journey would take us out of Kolkata, across the northern states of Jharkand, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh before entering into Nepal.
Cycling alongside Rwiti added a whole new dimension to the trip. For so long, I had been this subject of curiosity to most passing folk- my ability to engage with local people had been limited through broken English and the usual array of charades. But now, with Rwiti (fluent in Bangla and Hindi, amongst other Indian languages), she could offer a voice to these longing gazes of interest. Now it wasn't so much them and I but there was an opportunity to engage with one another and build a better understanding of each others intentions.
Tea for two……plus another 35
Whilst cycling through India, it wasn't uncommon to be sitting with a cup of tea whilst having 30,40…even 50 people gather around detailing your every movement, watching your every breath, inhaling every ounce of your foreign being. But, despite the tiring, invasive nature of it- I regularly had to remind myself that I too would have a similar response should, say, an eskimo with a sleigh turn up in my local town- I too would hope to secure a selfie before he’d made it up the High Street.
And over time, with the benefit of Rwiti, it became apparent that these blunt stares weren’t so intimidating or severe as they might always come across.
Regularly we would sit in a small tea shop surrounded by the entire village standing within an inch of our tea-cups. We’d sit there looking slightly bewildered, slightly bedraggled, but also captivated by their conversations between one another (they were often unaware of the fact that Rwiti was able to fully understand everything they said);
I remember one incident where the shop owner raised a concern to the growing crowd, pointing out that this escalating audience of people probably wasn't conducive to a comfortable tea-sipping environment for us, and that perhaps it might be a good idea to casually disperse. But apparently it was too little, too late, because as more and more made their way over, keen to catch a glimpse of the tea-drinking-pedalling-duo, sheepishly one man piped up “yes, sorry, I might have already invited the whole village”, whilst another quietly muttered “Yes, and I may have informed the local school…..and I cant be sure that the news didn't slip out to the next village along too”……and you can see the shop owner suddenly thinking “oh christ!- come on guys, try and act cool!”.
But interestingly, whilst pedalling alongside Rwiti, it has been her that has been of greatest interest. For many Indians, our bicycle ride is something which makes little sense, its the kind of activity in which very few people in this country would ever think to, or have the opportunity to pursue. But perhaps seeing a western girl do so is conceivable (After all, I'm from that European tribe of North Face, anorak loving ‘travellers’), but to see a young Indian girl pursue such an activity is far more difficult to comprehend. In India there is still a huge gender bias. Outside of the cities, women are heavily dependant on men in all parts of their lives. They’re rarely seen filling many professions in day-to-day life, almost never seen driving, theres a lack of confidence, education and expectations leading them to live relatively subservient lives. So to see Rwiti riding a bicycle across the country almost defied belief- questions posed to her like “But did your parents/husband give you permission to cycle?” only magnify the archaic mind-set which is so deeply entrenched in the country still.
Riding into Nepal was an absolute joy. If pedalling through India had felt like spending my days cycling inside a noisy, turbulent, action packed washing machine, entering Nepal was like being hung out to dry on dreamy summers morning. Crossing the border was a refreshing relief. In Nepal there was space to breathe again. I had entered a country where not every nook and cranny was filled with noise and people. Nepal felt noticeably more relaxed. The intensity and speed of life eased and the density of people softened. And in Nepal, the fascination in us somehow reduced too.
Nepal is by far one of the cheeriest, smiliest, friendliest places I have visited. Pedalling across Nepal feels much like pedalling through a gigantic, friendly neighbourhood where everyone greets you with a smile and a wave. And its amazing how contagious it is- suddenly we’re all friends! I don't know why we’re smiling, or who's hosting the party, or whats in the water, but whatever is going on, you cant help but want to be a part of it.
Our route through Nepal took us along the foothills of its towering mountain ranges. We made our way through one national park after the next, all noted for their teaming wildlife- including cheetahs, elephants, rhinos and tigers. Of course we didn't actually see any of these. The closest wildlife encounter we had was Rwiti cycling into a goat…..(don’t worry, the goat was fine. And Rwiti has since familiarised herself with the brakes.)
By week six into my journey, I was feeling relatively strong and pleasantly surprised by the fact that my immune system seemed to be standing up to the test of India. On most of my pedalling trips, I had always had a pretty good deal going with my body; together we could go off and explore the world providing all organs and limbs were willing to co-operate and neither was to throw a tantrum two weeks in…..well, it turns out I clearly hadn't read the small print, because, quite frankly, Tummy simply wasn’t willing to commit to a two month diet of curry- and sure enough I hit one bout of sickness after the next.
One morning in Nepal I was feeling particularly unwell. Feeling nauseous and weak, it seemed that even the jolly energy of Nepal wasn’t enough to keep me turning the pedals. Eventually I resigned myself to a shelter on the roadside, lay down in a state of seething stomach pain and tried to reassure myself that there must surely be worse activities in which to partake than cycling during times of severe sickness……like………you know, like….no, nope, didn't come up with anything.
And as I lay there in a pretty sorry way, it wasn't long before a team of curious Nepalese folk made their way over trying to decipher what might be the problem. Whilst pointing to my tummy and clearly aching with pain, I could see them looking slightly puzzled, possibly pondering over the idea that I might be going into labour……and if I was, then wondering why had I foolishly decided to take a bicycle trip so close to the due date. They shared that puzzled look of “Oh these foreigners- why do they insist on putting themselves through these absurd adventures?!”
‘Honk Honk’ Hello India
And with a heavy heart, after a brief stay in Nepal, we took a deep breath and re-entered the mayhem of India. Suddenly the percussion of life and bleating horns was upon us once again.
When does a road stop being a road?
In India, there is a real sense that the countrys infrastructure has progressed a great deal in the recent past. There is a hearty dose of freshly tarmac’d roads and spanking new highways across the place, but likewise there are still a huge number of bumpy tracks in dire condition, desperate for development- particularly in India’s less affluent states- those such as Bihar. Its on these roads that I find myself staring into the distance, desperately hoping for a spot of finely tuned tarmac up ahead, and as I'm sure most cyclists have experienced whilst pedalling rocky roads, you find yourself hopelessly staring into the distance, spying that ‘mirage of tarmac’ on the horizon.. And then you get there, and realise it was all a lie. But then you tell yourself, its ok, because you swear you can see a haze of crisp, clean, sweet, succulent bitumen just a bit further along, but, alas, again, thats not the case…….its rarely the case. But its that hope that just half an hour up the road, life will be a little less bumpy and your backside will smile again that motivates you to keep chugging along….
Team two wheels
Pedalling through Indias city’s can be a somewhat challenging experience. But depending on your mode of transport, the pace at which you travel and the approach which you take can be quite different. Naturally, on my bicycle, I am part of the 'two-wheeled' team- this also includes motorbikes, scooters and anything else narrow enough to weave its way through the cities congested roads.
Because the difference is, when you’re on a bicycle and you're faced with grid-locked traffic up ahead, to a two-wheeled vehicle, this isn't gridlock at all, this is simply a maze of channels to navigate your way through; winding your way around the stationary trucks, hopping on and off the pavements where necessary, squeezing your way through the clutter of tuk-tuks - and in India, one never questions whether there is enough space to wedge your bike through a gap- because the general rule of thumb is that ‘there is always enough space’— and should another motorcyclist decide to simultaneously squeeze through that same narrow gap, neither party questions the physics of this equation - because, well, ’there is always enough space’ , ‘there is surely enough space’, and should a pregnant cow opt to come through too…. challenge accepted. It seems that ‘space’ in India is simply an unnecessary luxury.
Onwards and upwards
So, after two weeks pedalling together, shortly after leaving Nepal, Rwiti returned home to Kolkata whilst I cycled on alone, hungry for a Himalayan adventure which lay not far ahead…..