Monday, 6 February 2012

A Day in the Life of a Cycle Tourist in India

[journal entry 05/02/2012]

Got up, got out of my sleeping bag.

Breakfast: coffee, porridge, a granola bar. I slept well and it was 9:30 by the time I'd struck camp and got on the road. That was some of the gnarliest undergrowth I've ever camped in - I had burrs and scratches all over me and my clothes. There were some big loud birds making a racket in the trees above me, about the size of crows but grey and with heads shaped like jays. I might look for a Guide to Indian Birds in Jaipur. It would be nice to know.

I overtook a few camels which were pulling carts along National Highway 8. A day or two ago that was still an unusual sight but now it's commonplace and out here they seem to be the commonest beasts of burden. Rajasthan is a desert state, I suppose.


I did enter Rajasthan this morning, and ran the gauntlet of traffic to get a photo of the sign, which was in the central reservation. I haven't taken many photos these last couple of days so I was pleased to get that one.

It was still flat as anything and I was merrily rolling along. I'm the focus of all eyes out here, and sometimes the approach of the locals is a bit weird. Alright, it's always weird. When I was sat scoffing my dinner a guy on his bike stopped, staring at me, then walked to within fifty yards and pretended to look out at the fields, but he kept looking askance at me. A guy in a car pulled up next to me, blared his horn in my lughole, then turned in front of me and stopped. He looked surprised when I rode on. Another guy on a bike overtook me v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y but still couldn't maintain the pace, so I went past him again, smiling and saying "namaste" as I did. He stared straight ahead. I shrugged. A few seconds later he came past again, still staring ahead, but this time he growled just like Lee Perry does at the start of Jungle Lion. He cut across me and towards a roadside restaurant, gesturing at me to join him. I had to laugh.

India is full of incidents like this. A day here is worth a week anywhere else.

I tried to buy some butter to put in my cheese sarnies. Yeah, I'm getting right into the cuisine. I asked at a roadside stall/restaurant which looked likely. I got some Pepsi and pineapple juice and asked if he did butter. He didn't understand. I repeated it, rolling the "r", but still no recognition. I tried more of an RP accent, in case he was confused by my flat vowels, I did it with and without the glottal stop. Eventually I threw my hands up in disgust and left, but I remembered that I had the butter packaging in my bag of rubbish, so I gestured him over and showed him the packaging. "Ah, butter!" says he, and rattles off a load of Hindi to the guy in the kitchen, in which the word "butter" is clearly distinguishable. Crazy country. It turned out to be margarine, too. I had the same issue later when I asked for some water, the guy shook his head and said "Mountain Dew?" but I repeated myself and he nodded. "Water, yes." I don't know what's happening any more. I'm not sure I dare trying to learn Hindi as that would give us an extra language in which to misunderstand one another.

I can't help liking the people, though. After my dinner I took a speed bump a bit too fast and came off with a rear wheel puncture. There didn't seem to be anyone around - I thought I might get away without the usual audience. No such luck. I don't know where they came from but there were soon half a dozen people around me. I felt the need to be a little bad-tempered as the last thing I wanted was an audience. Someone asked me a question and I replied "piss off." As he repeated it, "Piss-off-a," I guess they'd asked where I was from. I gestured and waved and told them to go and fix the road but they weren't going anywhere. Becoming more amused than exasperated, I asked about chai and one of them pointed to the tea stand over the road. I waved that one of them should go and get me a cup but I wasn't sure I'd been understood, or that they'd bother. Turns out, the subsequent babbled argument was about who had to go and get the tea - the youngest went and got me a cup of sweet milky cha which he handed to me just as I was fitting a spare innertube, and refused payment. I took a couple of photos of the gang and relaxed into the moment.

audience to a puncture

It was lucky they were there, really, as one of them pointed out the huge tear in the tyre sidewall. I deftly took it off and fitted my spare tyre. I think I'll have to get my sister to bring some new tyres when she comes to visit in March - those Marathon XR tyres have been rubbish. In the bin with it.

When I'd pumped the tyre back up and re-fitted the wheel, the lads were all admiring the bike and the pump and my Dennis the Menace doll. I gestured that the main guy should have a go on my bike, and as he was a bit stand-offish, one of his mates elbowed him out of the way to dive on and go wobbling up the road. He went so far that I half-thought he wasn't coming back. I think he was just having trouble making it turn. A couple of them rode it up and down the service road: grins all around. It was another weird encounter, not least the fact that I'd got my point across far more easily to people who spoke not a word of English.

Indian on my bike

I did manage to get milk. No beer though. Yesterday the road was lined with English Wine and Beer shops, but today none except one with its shutters up. Maybe it's a dry day in Rajasthan? Mind you, I prefer having no beer to having no milk: finding milk was hard. A random shop on a row of identical shops happened to have a few packets of milk in the fridge (packets of milk take me right back to being a kid). I still haven't picked up the cues when it comes to shops. Maybe there are none.

I started to look for somewhere to camp at about 4.30 - I didn't want to get too close to Jaipur. I could have made it there tonight, but I'd rather have a night in a tent followed by an afternoon and a morning in Jaipur than have a full day and have to stump up for an extra night in a hotel.

Rajasthan is much less populous than Utter Pradesh and the area around Delhi, but it was still a pain trying to find somewhere quiet to camp. I thought I'd found a decent spot behind a hill but one of the locals thought I was lost and tried to guide me out. I shook him off, then another local took a quarter-mile detour to stand next to me and stare, saying not a word. Maybe he was just engaging in that famous Indian pastime of staring at stuff, or maybe he was hinting that I should scarper. Either way, I wasn't lingering.

I rolled up the road a little ways and found a gap in a wall, so I'm camping within thirty yards of the road. It's quieter here within the Jaipur Ring Road (which may also explain the difficulty with finding a campsite), even with the buzzing of the power lines above me. I didn't set fire to myself when I made my tea tonight, which was pasta and cheese sauce again. I've come up with a very simple plan of where to go after Jaipur - I'll tour the J-towns of Rajasthan, so I'll go across the desert to Jaisalmer, which sounds beautiful and which fits in with my plan of getting into the desert, back to Jodhpur (I like the name) then I'll follow the line of hills down towards Gujarat. I'd like to get down to the Indian Ocean but not if it takes too long.

So: from near Bawal, NH8, Kotputli, here - 78.98 miles/ 392:41/ 12.07 mph average/ 23.5 mph max/ 5714 miles total

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