Thursday, 29 March 2012
I like Delhi. Almost every other tourist I've met has hated or at least disliked the place, and I can see why. If you're on a tight schedule and you need to, say, organise a new sim card or onward travel in a morning, it can be immensely frustrating, as things tend to happen at their own pace in India, and trying to make things happen rarely works. The levels of attention you get as a tourist can be overwhelming at first, but they are as nothing compared to the attention I draw as a cyclist, so I enjoy the relative anonymity of being a tourist in Delhi. Not to mention that a lot of people seem amused at the tourists wandering in their midst. Unlike Agra, where it felt as though everyone is grasping for the tourist dollar, Delhi has a sense of purpose, of a country testing its muscles. India's the future, and you can see that growth and the push of modernity here.
I like the mix of modern, ancient and British Empire buildings which you get while wandering around, mixed in with typically Indian scenes such as the rows of cycle rickshaws and tiny shops selling only bearings, or fireworks, or chewing tobacco and cigarettes. The contrast between the riches and the poverty of some people is appalling, though. You can see beggars and street kids asking for food and handouts outside shops selling iPads for many more rupees than your average waiter gets in a year.
My sister Anita has flown out to meet me here in Delhi, which has given me some time off the bike, a chance to stay in some pleasant hotels (which she paid for) and do some properly touristy things (which she paid for) and show her around places I'd already been, especially Delhi. She thought I was testing her by taking her to Old Delhi on her first day, and maybe I was, a little, but it's the most typically Indian place you can get to, and despite the scrum of people and the crazy traffic, it's a very safe place. Chandni Chowk even has a Mcdonald's, with handcarts and rickshaws and cows pulling bales of cloth going past. It's hardly downtown Bogota.
I did experience some of the Delhi frustration when I tried to fix my bike, as the mechanic's I took it to actually tightened the bolt, which was the complete opposite of what I'd asked them to do. Having worsened the problem, they then refused to help and sent me up to the cycle market, which I hoped would be a nest of little workshops and spare parts, but instead it was an emporium of kids' bikes, and a couple of rickshaw workshops. One guy said he didn't have the tools, until I pointed out that he had a socket spanner right next to him. The only help I got was one affable chap who said it isn't a part you can get in India. Someone did this in India, said I. He said that they wouldn't have the tools there - he reckoned I'd be best off going to Chandni Chowk or Kashmere Gate in Old Delhi and getting my own tools. To be honest I prefer to do these jobs myself after my experiences of letting other people at my bike, so that's what I did once Anita had left, as I didn't want to waste our time in fixing my bike. I hated the feeling of being in limbo, and I had hoped that the gear Anita brought would fix it, but despite my speaking on the phone to the guy at Halford's, he still contrived to send different parts to the ones I'd asked for. It was a strangely Indian experience, in that I thought I was saying one thing, but he heard another. Still, it's now fixed, even if it's not to my compete satisfaction, and I'll be carrying an extra kilo of tools and spares with me into the mountains when I leave.
Anita enjoyed Delhi, I think. As well as Old Delhi and the Jami Masjid Mosque and Red Fort, we went for a walk around the wide boulevards of New Delhi, which was amazingly quiet on a Sunday, at least until we got to India Gate, the war memorial built by the British to commemorate the Indian dead of World War I. I had been there previously with Jonathan, when the whole area was fenced off for the Republic Day celebrations, and to be honest I thought it was better then, as there were armed soldiers to scare off the scamsters.
Connaught Place has a bad reputation for the amount of hassle you get as a tourist, but at least there you only get people telling you things you already know, such as This Is C! Block C! Saying that, we did get hounded by a few juvenile pen salesmen and there's one guy there who keeps offering to clean my ears.
But at least you don't get people grabbing your hands and painting you there, which happened to Anita at India Gate. I thought she'd agreed to it, so I didn't say anything, but I did snarl a bit when they tried to start on me. Anita had both hands henna'd and they also flogged her an awful bit of jewellery. The family of harridans then tried to charge her 1500 rupees. We argued and gave them 200 in the end. Then a small boy followed me around, trying to sell me some tat, then trying to drop it into my pocket when I was photographing the arch, then feigning injury to get money out of me. Needless to say, he got nowt except a lesson in picking his marks better. It was much better when it was fenced off and lined with soldiers.
It was worse than Old Delhi - I took Anita along Chandni Chowk and through the Spice Bazaar, where we got hardly any hassle, apart from when I stopped to check the map and some mad old bleeder came up and said "this is Lahori Gate", which I knew as it was in big letters above the gate. Later on, he was standing next to one of the spice stalls and said "this is spice market" when we walked past. He probably goes on holiday to Trafalgar Square and stands under Nelson's Column telling people "this is England".
On our last day in India, I took Anita to the Sikh temple, Bangla Sahib, which I've now visited three times. It's quite unlike other temples I'd visited in India, such as Jama Masjid, where entrance is theoretically free, but they charge you 200 rupees for a camera, then another 100 to go up to the minaret, then another fee to wear a shame robe if you're showing too much skin, and where I had Jonathan and I thrown out when I refused to pay the camera fee, or the beautiful Lotus Temple, where it felt as though we were being fed into a factory assembly line. Entrance is free, there's a tourist office where friendly Sikhs explain that you need to cover your hair and not to speak inside the temple, but otherwise you can wander about at will, and the lack of rules and restrictions is not only welcoming, it encourages people to show respect. I really like the place, for the beauty of the temple and the pool, the warm welcome (entry is open to everybody, and food is given out freely to anybody), and the freedom to sit in peace without, for example, having somebody blow a whistle at you for sitting too long (which happened to Jonathan and I at the Taj Mahal). Anita really enjoyed it too. Amongst the bustle of Delhi, it has a remarkable tranquility, atmospheric music pours out of the temple twenty four hours a day, and the Sikhs are keen to give a good impression of their religion, or way of life.
It made a fine ending to Anita's holiday in India. In some ways it had been a hectic week, with some long days of travelling, but we'd planned an itinerary which had enough flexibility to allow for things to go wrong, which can happen in India. The two things she wanted to do were the elephant ride at Amber Fort in Jaipur, and the mountain railway up to Shimla. I think Jonathan and I comprehensively put her off the Taj Mahal and Agra, and I thought that she'd have been doing it because that's what people expect you to do in India, rather than because she really wanted to see it for herself.
The drive down to Jaipur was...challenging. I only agreed to brave my car sickness as I knew that road from having cycled it, so I knew that it was a clear run on a three lane highway for most of the route, but the driver wasn't the best. Anita complained to the hotel about him, as he consistently drove too close to cars in front, had no sense of anticipation, became competitive with other traffic and in one town he actually steered towards a young lad who was trying to cross the road. He collared me in the street afterwards, as Anita's complaint had cost him business, but I simply told him that it was his own fault. We had tried to tell him to back off on umpteen occasions, but at best he didn't listen, and at worst he ignored us and tried to convince us that he was a really good driver, as he sailed between two wagons with a yard's clearance to either side. He wasn't as bad as some of the clowns out here, but he didn't comprehend how uncomfortable his driving made us.
The hotel in Jaipur was lovely, and Anita and I went for a walk around the decaying Pink City, and for sunset we had a beer at Tiger Fort, high above the city with no one else around. It was straight out of the guide books and it was great.
In the morning, the elephant ride up to Amber Fort was another tourist trap, but I felt that it made it more special, to troop through the huge gateways up to the fort with sixty other elephants. We had a very frisky ride - the mahout said that she was only young, and enthusiastic, and full of energy, and we were overtaking other elephants up to the fort.
I liked that mahout - he was surly, and quiet. Unlike our tour guide, who I would have fired if I'd been on my own, but Anita was paying attention so I held my tongue. He didn't like that, though - while he was wittering on about the fine jewelwork or something, I was staring out over the battlements to the other fort on top of the hill and trying to imagine myself back amongst the Maharajahs, and what it would have been like, as I try to do, and he interrupted my reverie to ask "aren't you interested in the fort?" He was deeply offended that I wasn't paying him much attention. He went and spoke to other tour guides as well - I can imagine him complaining about me. "Did you tell him about the textiles? And the painting in plaster? And did you tell your Bollywood joke?" "I've tried everything, man. He's just not interested."
There were some interesting tidbits in there, but mostly it was tedious, and I was looking at the other tour guides, and they were giving the exact same spiel, made them take the exact same photos and so on. I like the sense that I'm discovering a place for myself, which is quite egotistical and probably delusional, but I prefer to wander around and look at stuff rather than be shepherded around, to watch other people and stare out into space, rather than listen to a dull lecture on the riches of the palaces and the beauty of the wives. I said to Anita, it was all built on the blood of the workers. He wouldn't let us stop and take our time, he was always chivvying us along and asking us what we planned to do afterwards - because he was very keen to get us to go to the local jewel factory and the textile works and reap himself a fat profit. I took great delight in going slowly, letting Anita buy tat from the many (many many) tat sellers around the fort and having a leisurely toilet stop. It wasn't even as if he was very enthusiastic about the place - it was so perfunctory.
But these are all the experiences that make up India. It's not like going to Bognor Regis. Can you imagine, if you grabbed a taxi at Heathrow or Newcastle airport and asked to be taken to such-and-such hotel, but they told you they knew a much nicer one, and anyway that hotel's dirty, or it's burnt down. We didn't go to the jewel workshop, or the textile factory with Surinder. Driving back to Delhi was quite enough of an experience.
The other trip we'd organised was by train, and the Indian railways are amazing. They're slow by western standards, but every train we caught was within five minutes of the timetable. The trip up to Shimla wasn't without its quirks, however. I was full of cold and getting up at 4.30 am to catch the train from Sara Rohilla station wouldn't have put me in a good mood at the best of times. Since we weren't able to book the mountain railway from Kalka to Shimla, we had to try and get a bus, but the buses were shonky local buses and I felt ill at the mere thought of spending four hours on one of those up a twisty mountain road. I negotiated a taxi driver, which was much more civilised, even if the driver was a bit weird. He stopped to get fags, and took his hands off the steering wheel each time we passed a temple to put them together and bow his head in prayer. He also stopped halfway up to have lunch, then vanished. But he was a pretty good driver, cautious and slow, and on that road (we passed one accident where a wagon had sideswiped a scooter), safe and slow was fine by me. It took about four hours to get the 90 km to Shimla.
Shimla has a central drag, the Mall, which was laid down by the British when it was the summer capital of the Raj. Indians were banned from it at the time - now, cars and autos and motorised transport are banned from it (ish - you still get official vehicles and those with special permits), so we had to walk. I was knackered and a bit ill. I was falling asleep in the car, but the mad old sod wouldn't let me sleep. I've no idea why - he spoke hardly any English. And I was carrying a huge rucksack with our stuff for three days in Shimla.
We did have a hotel booked, as Anita's partner Ian had found a youth hostel in Shimla on the internet, and as Anita is a member of the YHA, likes youth hostels and was curious to see what an Indian YHA would be like, she'd booked us a family room (with a view) there. It was up on The Ridge. The clue's in the name - off we went tramping uphill. We asked at the tourist information (more on which later), and they'd never heard of it. They told us to check this hotel further up. We got so far, and gave them a ring, and they sent a tall Kashmiri-looking bloke down to guide us back. I only thought he was Kashmiri cos he had blue eyes and the air of mountains about him.
He was alright, but this place wasn't no youth hostel. I'd be amazed if Hostelling International were aware of its existence. It was a seedy ratbag budget hotel masquerading as a youth hostel. The guy at reception looked like an extra from Taxi Driver. We did go to see the room, way up on the top floor, but this weren't no family room and there weren't no view. It was dark and musty with a narrow, filthy double bed, and there wasn't even a shower. I thought Anita was going to have a breakdown there. She said it was the sort of room you only see when the blindfold comes off and Abdul peels back a blanket to reveal his tray of torture implements.
So, we trooped back down the hill. I was knackered and ill and frankly a bit useless. I was complaining a bit. We went back to the tourist information and asked for their advice on a nice hotel, nearby, with a view, for around 2,000 rupees.
No problem. The Holiday Home has all of that. And it's only ten minutes' walk. They booked us in, and Anita paid.
They gave us directions. This place really wasn't ten minutes away. It took us fifteen minutes just to get to the lift down from the Mall, then we had to walk for another fifteen minutes along this narrow road, with traffic, without any clear idea where we were going.
We did eventually get to the Horrible Home, though. The room was musty and carpeted, and you didn't really want to touch anything. It was really small, there wasn't a kettle so I had to break out my stove for coffee, and there was a marvellous view of the car park. If you craned your neck you could see a few mountains, and the sunset. Anita found it quite loud as well - some Indian kids were running out and back, banging doors. Someone turned up to change the sheets...for a different room. In the morning, I went down to reception to try to get some mineral water, but they asked me my room number. I said no, give it to me, cos Anita was asleep and I didn't want to wake her. She'd found the day very trying, shit hotel after shit hotel, Shimla not being what she'd hoped, and being bullshitted all the time. No water, though. I gave up, and went for a walk to try and find some, but this place was in the middle of nowhere, so I came back and got some from the restaurant, where the All Indian Surliness Champion (four years out of five) charged me 40 rupees! I pointed at the side of the bottle, where a maximum retail price of 15 rupees was printed, but he wasn't having it. We had breakfast there later, and the same guy took our order. Or so we thought. I never did get my juice. Wait, I did, but since it arrived ten minutes before anything else, I consider that to be part of a different meal. We had to call him back to the table for everything - he brought hot milk instead of cold milk for the cornflakes, hash browns instead of an omelette, and the tea and coffee only came when we'd finished everything else. At the end, he even refused to take the 500-rupee note cos it had a tear in it. He's going to clear the boards at this year's championships. After the breakfast farrago, they actually clagged somebody else's breakfast bill onto our room. Tried to, anyway.
The place was unbelievably overpriced. I did work out why the tourist information sent us there. Turns out, it's also owned by Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation. Mild conflict of interest there.
We left as soon as we could, and our first port of call was the tourist information, where I registered my complaint, for all the good it'll do. The hotel had the cheek to claim they'd given us the best view in the hotel. I was amused to note that the previous complaint was from someone who went on one of their tours, which was mainly a tour of hotels owned by HPTDC.
We'd checked the guide book, which suggested a couple of places behind the Ridge. The day before, we'd batted off touts, telling them that we had a hotel. Hah. We ended up at Hotel Dreamland, which was basic but clean and pleasant, with generally clued-up staff, and we were much happier once we'd settled in there. There was one woman who was really enthusiastic about Shimla and the walks around there.
I liked Shimla. It had loads of downbeat charm and I really enjoyed seeing British-style buildings in such an odd setting. Anita said it reminded her of Torquay, or Scarborough. It was cleaner and quieter than anywhere else I've been in India. One guy, Anil, said that it wasn't like anywhere else in India. We walked up to the monkey temple, which swarmed with monkeys. They nicked one girl's scarf and the lass had to feed the monkeys peanuts to get it back. We'd been forewarned and had hired sticks. It's the highest point in Shimla at the top of Jakhu Hill, but it was too hazy to see the distant snow-capped high Himalayas. We also had a walk up to Chadwick Falls, a lovely spot apart from the litter.
And the hill railway back from Shimla was incredible. At first, it felt a bit cramped as I was banging knees with the guy opposite and the train was full of kids making a right racket, and the family next to us made such a palaver of taking their seats. But everything changed once the train got going. We got talking to people and it was easy to move around, and it's such an astonishing journey that I forgot about minor discomforts. Mountains everywhere. I loved leaning out of the door and watching the mountains proceed past, and looking at the train taking the curves. Lots of curves, at some points the train was switchbacking on itself down the mountains, and loads of bridges and tunnels. 102 tunnels, I think, and something preposterous like 888 bridges. It's an amazing feat of engineering, and as a World Heritage Site it's about a million times better than the Taj Mahal.
It was like a holiday for me, to have my sister here and take trips which would have been difficult for me, with my bike. And it was interesting to see places through my sister's eyes. Reading this back, it sounds as though I may have become slightly irritated at times, and not having fixed my bike was preying on my mind more than I admitted, but India is like that - infuriating one moment and brilliant the next. Now my bike is fixed, so I've been wandering out and about to do some last minute jobs before I leave, and I've been able to look into all the little shops without wondering if my magic fix lay in there. The holiday's over now, and it's back to cycling. It's like an even better holiday!
Friday, 16 March 2012
I've made two mistakes which broke this thread: I decided to come to India, and I didn't get a visa for Pakistan while I was in the UK.
I had read about the difficulties of getting a Pakistan visa (they're only issued to residents, without exception, as the officials at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi have reiterated to me despite my protests and carefully-worded letter to the High Commissioner, which confirms what I was told in Istanbul and Dubai), but I trusted to the road and my optimism, chose to believe second- and third-hand reports of travellers being given visas in dusty foreign embassies.
India, likewise, is a notorious cul-de-sac for overland travellers. Nico, the French cyclist riding home from Japan, winced when I said I was coming here, as it's "impossible to get into, and impossible to leave". So it has proved.
The overland routes out of India are as follows:
Bangladesh. Easy entry, but the only other land border is with Myanmar/Burma, and no border crossings are open to foreigners.
Myanmar/Burma. Border crossings are open to foreigners, but travel is only then permitted within 10 km of the border, and you're obliged to leave at the same border by which you entered, which prohibits transiting the country. Also, the Northeastern Hill States of India such as Manipur and Nagaland have an unsavoury reputation for lawlessness and banditry. Special permits from the Indian government are required to travel there, and independent travel is difficult.
China. No land borders are open to foreigners, unsurprisingly. A couple of the high Himalayan passes are open to local herders, but I doubt I could pass for a Tibetan in any light.
Pakistan. One land border is open at Wagah, between Amritsar and Lahore in divided Punjab, where the changing of the guards and lowering of the flags takes place every day at sunset. Without a Pakistan visa, though, this is closed to me.
Bhutan. Easy to enter from India, but although the mountain kingdom shares a border with China/Tibet, no crossings are open to foreigners.
Nepal. This may be my only opion, as it is very easy to enter from India, and there is an official crossing into China/Tibet where foreigners may enter, on the Friendship Highway between Kathmandu and Lhasa. However, as independent travel in Tibet is prohibited by the Chinese authorities, you are officially required to travel with a tour guide. As a cyclist, this is possible, but I'd have to hire a man-with-a-van to trail me around, or tag along with another group of cyclists to share the cost, but I would either be shelling out my meagre funds, or letting myself be tied into somebody else's itinerary. Finally, onward travel from Tibet into China appears to be impossible. There are plenty of tales of travellers who have travelled independently from China into Tibet, then into Nepal, but going the other way (as I would be) seems highly unlikely.
So political reality interferes with my cycling adventure. I feel childishly resentful about this.
I've already broken my duck and taken one flight from Dubai to get into India. I don't regret it. I was aware that I was laying a trap for myself, but India has been intoxicating and infuriating and glorious, I've had experiences I couldn't have had anywhere else, spending the night with a family of ganga farmers, trading insults with stoned tuk-tuk drivers, fixing my bike with nothing but my own ingenuity, then entertaining village kids while the local hammer swinger performed percussive repairs on my bike, or watching the moon rise and blot out the endless stars while camping in the desert.
If I was to take a flight out of here, it would be a temptation to return to Iran and pick up the thread of my original route, treating India as a side trip and pretending that I'd cycled it all, but I know this is one breakage that I can't repair on the road.
So I return to the beginning, to my reasons for going a-wandering. My friend David had, when I was a kid, travelled all over India and returned with stories and sketches and paintings which inspired me to see it, one day. I also wanted to travel by bicycle, which is such a natural, satisfying way to travel, and saves the hassles of other forms of transport. Finally, I wanted to see mountains, like Bilbo Baggins.
Without a Pakistan visa, where I could cycle over the Karakoram Highway and into China at the world's highest border crossing, then over the Pamir Ranges in bleak, beautiful Tajikistan, I could fly out to Uzbekistan, where Alexander the Great once trod, and follow the ancient Silk Road through Tashkent and Samarkand. The route to Australia would then take me over the snow-capped Pamirs and into the green valleys of Kyrgyzstan, through the remote provinces of China and down to South East Asia.
But Australia, to me, was only ever a destination. It was the places on the route which inspired me. It was easy, to say "I'm going to Australia" to people at home in the UK, as Australia is a tropical dreamland of sunshine and beaches and beer. If I'd said I was going to Tajikistan, people would have needed a map.
It's the mountains that I want to experience, the changing vistas of peaks and valleys, hauling myself and my luggage up colossal passes, gasping for air at the top and being rewarded with the freefalling descent at the other side. A question has been asked of me a few times, "where was your favourite place?" and one answer is obvious - the best cycling was eastern Turkey in early winter, with its sterile, frozen summits and skies of infinite blue.
So the answer to my current dilemma is also obvious. I've trapped myself in India, so I'll stay in India. There are mountains here in India, after all. My visa expires on 28th April, and before that I'll go to Nepal (which, I hear, also has mountains) and explore its mix of ancient cultures and modern adventurers. I can also renew my Indian visa while in Nepal, and return to India to roam the distant valleys by the Tibetan border, and ride the famous Manali-Leh highway when it opens in early summer. Security permitting, I may also ride to ill-fated, divided Kashmir, which is as close as I seem likely to get to Pakistan.
I am simply putting off the problem, but it seems that I now have six months in India and Nepal to ponder it. I'll call in at Corbett National Park and go tiger-spotting on my way to Nepal, and in Nepal I might just visit Everest base camp. By bicycle, naturally. I hope my non-cycling adventures are over.
Thursday, 15 March 2012
Thursday, 8 March 2012
Two things drew me to Varanasi. It's most famous for the burning ghats by the Ganga, where corpses are first bathed in the holy waters, then set aflame. Second, I wanted to see Holi, the festival of colours, which is a riotous celebration of spring.
OK, three things. I also wanted a few days off to rest up before getting back to Delhi to apply for visas. Felix had told me that Varanasi is an interesting place, as had Teddy in Rishikesh, both of whom mentioned the rivers of shit. they weren't wrong. It's quite the most pungent place I've ever been. My guest house is in the maze of narrow alleys which line the waterfront by the ghats (baths), alleys along which cows wander freely, and raw sewage runs down to the river. These photos really should be scratch n sniff, to get the full experience.
Obviously, since I spent two days fixing my bike, that kiboshed some of my plans, but Arnaud and I took the walking tour yesterday, and went down to the ghats to see the burnings. I had seen one of the biers being taken through the alleys when I first arrived in Varanasi. It was a colourful procession, and the body was wrapped in rich red robes, and I thought "ooh, that looks pretty," until I realised what it was.
The ghat and the surroundings are piled high with wood for the burnings, which is so expensive that many families struggle to afford it, and a common scam is to grab a tourist and tell them that they can take photos, then make a fuss and demand that they pay for the wood. Photography is completely forbidden, but we saw people with camera phones, video cameras, and even a tourist who'd made a half-baked attempt to disguise her camera by wrapping it in an orange plastic bag. It's an extremely public event, and even watching felt a bit ghoulish, so I wasn't keen on taking photos, especially if I'd end up paying for it.
The bodies are first dipped in the river, then laid down at the burning site, where a priest blesses it, and sets it aflame. This is the end of the ceremonial part. The bodies burn in public in front of huge crowds, and to make sure they all burn, workmen throw kindling onto the biers and use huge sticks to crack open the ribcages and feed the flames. As the flames grow, the wrappings burn first, revealing blackened flesh, which shrivels away from the skull and bones in the open air. There is no privacy or distance allowed. It's quite different from a cremation in the UK, where grandad's coffin vanishes behind a metal plate and you get an urn at the other end.
Arnaud and I stood on a balcony overlooking the burning site. We were downwind of the smoke, and I remembered Teddy's comment that he came away shaking, when it struck him that he was breathing in dead people. It was an intense atmosphere of burning wood and charred flesh. The heat was incredible, even at that distance. We could hear flesh popping and bones cracking under the pressure.
I came back to the guest house, and as I was sitting drinking my coffee, I noticed the stench. My clothes still reeked, the heady aroma of barbecued flesh.
And today was Holi! It's a riotous event marked by lots of drinking, bacchanalia and the chucking about of coloured dye. The guest house wouldn't let women go out into the streets, as the celebrations can go over the top, and they only let us out when we assured them that we didn't have our wallets or cameras or any valuables on us.
Even walking up the alley from the guest house, we were soon sopping wet and colourful as dye and water were being thrown from the balconies and rooftops around us. We got in a water pistol fight with some local kids, and a guy ran out of a doorway and tore the t-shirt off my back. It was hilarious. Again, there was no privacy or escape from it: if you were on the street, you were a target. A kid on a motorbike ducked his head and shouted "No Holi! No Holi!" but we paid no attention.
We decided we didn't really want to go into the main town, where things do get very rowdy indeed, and finding your way in and out of these alleys is tricky at the best of times, let alone while under fire. We decamped to the guest house, and joined the crowd on the rooftop, flinging about yet more coloured dye, covering the street below and engaging in battles with the kids on the next rooftop.
The two events, wildly different in character, both have the same traits which make India such a culture shock when you come from the West. The public nature of the celebrations and commemorations is difficult to appreciate, and what would be ghoulish or inappropriate in the UK is everyday here.
One tourist on the rooftop got very annoyed when the waiter covered him in orange dye, but if you get involved in it, you have to accept it for what it is, you can't impose another set of values on it.
Of course, another similarity is that I had to go and get a shower to wash all the dye off - it's stubborn stuff. I'm going to go and get my third shower of the day.
photos from Holi
Wednesday, 7 March 2012
"You're a mechanic!" said the guy in the street.
But I love bikes, and the simplicity of their mechanics. After an incident where a bike shop sold me a rear wheel as a front wheel, then charged me again to put it right, I decided that I should know more than just how to repair a puncture. I took apart and re-built an old bike in the back yard, and since then I've built all my own bikes, serviced them, cared for them, and set them up myself.
The bike I have on this trip, I know from top to bottom. I could probably recite its components from memory, and I had a Masterplan that it would be simple, reliable, easily repairable. At least this has given me one point of stability when I'm otherwise moving from place to place, staying day or two before moving on. The bike is my home, the trusty workhorse which I can get on and pedal all day.
India has changed that. Two shredded tyres and punctures on a daily basis has given me a snese of dread when I check the tyres, expecting to find a flat. Suddenly the solid foundations are shifting and I don't feel that I can rely on the bike to function. That guy on the motorbike snapped off my rear pannier and I've periodically had to re-attach it. And yesterday my rear skewer snapped. This is such a small part, but it's fundamental to the functioning of the bike; without it, the bike's unridable. And a bike which can't be ridden isn't anything except a millstone, dead weight.
I spent yesterday trying to find a replacement or some sort of bodge, but it's not a part that's widely available in India. I was told that I could only get one in Delhi (800 km away) or Kolkata/Calcutta (700 km).
I knew I could replace the rear axle with one of the solid axles which are standard in India. I bought an axle for 20 rupees, and a spanner for 25 rupees. Arriving back at the guest house, I tried to take out the old one, but the spanner was too wide. I simply couldn't do the job with the tools available.
I was in limbo - I knew I could fix the problem with the right tools or the right parts, but neither of those could be had in Varanasi. Not to mention that this was sucking away my time to see Varanasi and enjoy the Holi festival.
I slept on the problem, somewhat. My neighbour's snoring kept me awake - it was so violent that I thought he might be in trouble. I only fell asleep to the sound of bells as people walked down to the holy Ganga to bathe at dawn.
This morning, I went back to the bike shops to see what I could get, and this time I took the wheel so I could demonstrate the problem. I didn't expect to find a replacement skewer, but I hoped that one of the bike shops would have a suitable tool, or at worst I'd be able to buy a new wheel, even if I had to strap my old wheel onto the back of my bike for the ride back to Delhi. I hoped it was a matter of saying the right words to the right person, but I couldn't find that person, or those words.
The first bike shop didn't have a thin enough spanner, or a spare wheel. There are, it turns out, no spare wheels to be had in Varanasi. They suggested I try the hardware shop around the corner.
At the hardware shop, they didn't have a thin enough spanner, or any tools to thin down the spanner I had, but they did sell angle grinders. I asked about them, thinking that I could use one on my spanner, as there's a guy next to the guest house with a little workshop and a big vice I could use, but 2000 rupees was too expensive for a one-time job.
I bounced from bike shops to machine shops and even a scale shop, where the proprietor was helpfulness itself, until he produced an allen key and tried to turn it in the hollow where the skewer goes. No, I told him with a patient smile, it doesn't work like that.
I met disinterest, incomprehension and brute force. Places which looked like they had the right tools couldn't understand what I wanted, and a mechanic at a bike shop hammered the wrong tool onto my hub before I could stop him. One bike shop owner waved me off with an incense stick, and another told me that I wouldn't be able to get what I needed in Varanasi, which was probably the most helpful thing anyone told me. I was going to have to do this myself.
I went back to the hardware shop and bought a hand file. I hoped that the metal of the spanner was soft enough that I'd be able to file off the couple of millimetres I needed to fit it onto my hub.
The little workshop with the big vice was closed when I arrived back, and I did the job in the street. After ten minutes' furious filing, it was done, the spanner was thin enough, and I could swap the axles. It was a perfect moment. From there, everything could flow. I knew I could fix it, and that was when my observer uttered the admiring words "You're a mechanic!"
The job took fifteen minutes, including patching the very small holes in my innertubes which I only found when I checked them in a bucket of water. The bike is a bike again, and I'd fixed it myself with parts available locally, rather than having to wait for parts to be couriered from Delhi, or even having to hop on a train.
I occasionally manage to kid myself that I'm a rugged individualist, self-reliant and thrusting myself into the unknown with no ties to the world outside my bubble of independence, but in reality I'm at the end of a very long chain of people who supply cake and other less-vital supplies by post from England, I accept hospitality and support and companionship wherever I meet it (which is everywhere, except Austria), and with the availability of the internet, I'm in touch with friends and family every couple of days.
However, there are still times when I have to fall back on my own knowledge, and skills, and ingenuity. I was faced with a problem which people repeatedly told me could not be fixed here, and I fixed it. I rescued myself from frustration and near-despondency. The relief when I pumped the tyre and slotted the wheel back into place was delicious.
So yeah, alright, I'm a mechanic now, as I needed to be a mechanic. I wonder what skills I'll have to rely upon next time something goes wrong.
Tuesday, 6 March 2012
Friday, 2 March 2012
In Praise of... Cable Ties, or, How the Indian Habit of Staring At Stuff Can Have Unpleasant Consequences
I was reminded of their near-infinite usefulness the other day. I was just leaving a small village, off the main highway, riding towards the town of Bundi on a real boneshaker of a road - bumps, lumps, potholes, the lot.
There were three grinning loons on a motorbike riding behind me, just about on my wheel, and I waved at them to clear off or come past, but they were having too good a time staring at me to leave yet. I had to brake sharply to miss a wheel-munching pothole, and as they were so close and paying so little attention, they clouted into the back of me.
I picked myself out of the dirt. My right pannier had been knocked off by the impact. The motorbikers had stopped just ahead - they looked at the damage, and at me in a fury, screaming abuse at them. Then they left. Bastards.
I was in a real floor-kicking, stone-chucking rage. I started hoying rocks after them, but (luckily) they were out of range.
A busload of Italian tourists stopped to check I was OK. I scrounged a fag off one of them (my first cigarette in four years) and had a smoko while I assessed the damage. My good old Carradice Super C was undamaged, as you'd expect from something sturdily made in BRITAIN, except for the hooks which attach it to the rack. They weren't repairable - however, I quickly realised that I could bodge a temporary fix with... cable ties!
By then, a huge crowd from two buses and umpteen motorbikes had gathered to watch, and pass comment, and help. But mainly to watch. I was a bit too focused to let it bother me. In short order I had my pannier re-attached, and a murmur of admiration went through the crowd. We all shook hands, one of the tourists took my photo, and I packed away my gear, with many hands passing my possessions back to me.
I'm pleased it happened, even though I later discovered that the screen on my ereader was another victim of the collision. Not only did I get chance to show off my bodging skills to an attentive audience, it encapsulated the best and worst of the Indian experience, as my mood went from exasperation to red rage to calm acceptance and finally amusement at how my situation had become another part of the street theatre that passes for your average day in India.