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Only in India

May 11, 2010

Everything in this blog has happened to me in the past two weeks. I’m glad it didn’t all happen on the same day, although for the purposes of this blog, it did.

Here then, is a funny old day spent cycling across a little bit of India.

A knock at the door wakes me up at 5am. “You like cold water sir?”

“Yes, I like cold water, but I don’t like being woken up to be asked if I like cold water. I don’t want cold water right now,” I think, but don’t say.

Since I am now awake I decide to get on the bike. It is 5.30am when I finish loading up. By this time there is a crowd of twenty confused insomniacs surrounding me. I just want to be alone – it’s 5.30am, I have barely slept because it was 40 degrees last night, and I’m still half asleep! But solitude is too much to ask for in India. It is impossible to be alone. I even found a rabid looking dog in a hotel loo cubicle last week. That gave me a fright.

Since being woken half an hour ago, I had begun to look forward to getting on the road before the traffic. That was a mistake. I was reminded of (Sudan cycling buddy) Duncan’s motto: “Never look forward to anything.” Most of the time on a cycle tour, it’s a fair motto. There is always something lurking around the next corner, waiting to ruin a good day. Conversely, something or someone often comes out of nowhere to reinforce my faith in places and people.

My final job before getting on the road is to fetch cold water. I tend to buy one bottle at a time in India, to save burning my tongue on water that’s been in the sun for a while. I wonder how much money I have spent on water since leaving Mumbai? An average of 10 litres a day, at Rs 15 a time. That’s Rs 3,750 in total, which is roughly $67, or £45. Good value. Fascinating stuff.

Despite the sun’s absence below the horizon, by 6am I am sweating abundantly. My eyebrows don’t seem to be working. I’ve got faulty eyebrows. I’ve been short-changed in the eyebrow department. I’ve always wanted a pair of those slug-brows, and now I need them. Sweat is pouring into my eyes and I can’t see. I use a spare T-shirt to wipe the sweat away, but within seconds it’s back, and the salt is stinging my eyes. The benefit of vision is preferable when cycling, particularly in India, and wiping sweat away seems to be all there is to do in the absence of functioning eyebrows. One day someone will invent something clever, a shelf of sorts, to re-direct unwanted sweat away from the eyes in the event of heavy sweating coupled with broken eyebrows. But for now its a wipe, with a smelly old T-shirt.

Some time in the mid-morning I near the outskirts of a town. The town has been the centre of my attention for a couple of days. It has occupied my thoughts for hours in the saddle. In every village I have asked if I’m heading in the right direction. The town will have wide, clean streets that will smell of jasmin, the drivers will be thoughtful and calm and there will be a hygenic restaurant that serves caesar salad and strawberry cornettos. There will be an internet cafe, with internet, and no-one will fiddle with my bike’s gears while I’m not looking, or kick the wheels, just because…

I arrive in the town. The town is dirty, and all I can find is an unhygenic roadside cafe that serves butter chicken. I eat, and am on the road half an hour later. The town is just the latest of hundreds of towns all over the world that occupy my mind for days, before swiftly disappearing under my wheels. I see these towns, and the lives that are lived there, for an hour or two, before I’m off again, bound for the next one.

On the road in the afternoon I notice that my tyres could do with some air. I pull up next to a friendly looking, wrinkly old man. In perfect English, he tells me that there is a petrol station just three furlongs down the road. I am taken aback for two reasons. Firstly, I know I’ve got a long face, but I hope he doesn’t think I’m a horse. It would be a clever horse who cycled across India in this heat. Secondly, I am surprised at his English. In villages across India I have found hundreds of children who speak excellent English, but very few adults. When I meet villagers, it is the children who explain to their elders who I am and what I am doing. It strikes me that this is just one trait of a nation in the throws of fast-paced development. The wrinkly old man is an exception to the rule.

The remainder of the afternoon passes with the usual array of strange events. A man with six inch long nails, riding a motorbike, pulls up and asks for my autograph, email address, phone number and a photo with me without even saying hello. Another motorbike manages to out-pace me, a fair feat bearing in mind there are 5 single beds on the back. A third motorbike appears. Two young boys are on it (my guess is age 12). Both turn around as they pass me, and wave. I point at the oncoming truck but their eyes remain fixed on me and my bike. They stare at me for five seconds, while the truck passes by. They begin to career off the road but the driver uses great skill to rescue them. When the bike is upright again, they turn around to bid me farewell, and then speed off.

I ride alongside 2kms of roadworks where hundreds of elderly women are shovelling gravel onto a newly flattened track – back breaking work that I have noticed is nearly always done by women in India. Buses pass me regularly. I wave at one as it speeds by, not knowing if there are people inside or not. Ten hands appear out of the bus windows, then heads and then smiles. The heads disappear when the bus does.

After a strange and exhausting day I reach my evening stopover just before sunset. I stop for a cold drink and relax for ten minutes. On the table next to me is a man dressed only in underpants, covered head to toe in chalk. The waiter continually clears his throat loudly, and, leaning over two paying customers, spits the contents of his mouth out onto the street. I find a very cheap hotel (camping continually in this heat, among this many people, is very difficult, and hotels are generally cheap, between $2 and $6), have a quick meal, and pass out on a bed, below a noisy fan.

I don’t find India easy to cycle in. The heat, density of population and shambolic and brainless driving make it stressful and tiring. But travelling, for me, is all about differences. The difference between here and home is vast. I am constantly amazed by things I see. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I am in awe, and at times I feel despair. All these strange places keep my mind busy when I’m cycling. Why did that man just give me a distance in furlongs? What made that man give me free food, whereas the last man tried to charge me extra? I wonder what will happen tomorrow? I will have to wait and see.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. Ray Higginbottom permalink
    May 11, 2010 4:11 pm

    Ollie, your eyes (when they are not fogged by malfunctioning eyebrows) are like a photographers, always looking, enquiring, seeing the obvious and the obscure, I hope your memory records all this – I look forward to the book!! On the news front, Viv has let me lodge with now that my house is sold – onwards and upwards ……… take care

  2. May 11, 2010 4:19 pm

    Nice post.
    The reason for adults in Indian Villages not speaking English is firstly they didn’t access to Good English Schools. Secondly that time the only reason to send children to school was to let them have basic knowledge which will be enough for them to run their family business. Now kids go to school not only for running family business but also for overall development and knowledge enhancement.

  3. May 11, 2010 4:21 pm

    And yeah there is a typo:

    After an exhausting day I reach my evening stopover just before sunrise. It should be “…. just before *sunset*.”

  4. May 11, 2010 7:15 pm

    If I have one piece of advice, it’s to stockpile 10 rupee notes. People’s lack of change means that 10 rupee notes are about twice as valuable as 100 rupee notes.

    But don’t do what I did and stockpile them so effectively that you’re stuck with 30 of them for ever because they wouldn’t change them at the airport on account of their being such a low denomination.

    My argument that tens were ‘the best note’ didn’t hold much water.

  5. May 11, 2010 10:04 pm

    I don’t even know how I ended up at this post .. it must be Twitter.

    I love India and stories about India. So, thank you for having shared your experiences. It was a fun read.

  6. Rob Ralph permalink
    May 12, 2010 10:27 am

    Hi ya,
    I’ve been to India a few times and you’ve described it so well. At any given moment you could use just about any adjective and it could fit. Stay safe on those mad mad roads!

  7. Huw Downing permalink
    May 12, 2010 10:56 am

    I read your blogs with fascination and awe, they are the first emails that I open (the work ones are much too mundane!). You now have me thinking of some sort of invention to protect those of us with thin/receeding/non existant eyebrows- I’m sure there are many of us worldwide who’s lives could be improved with such a contraption!!
    It seems like so long ago that you were here in(wet & cold) Belgium but the children constantly want news of your adventures and progress. your blogs certainly beats reading them one of their books at bedtime!

    Keep up the ace work


  8. Viv permalink
    May 12, 2010 4:43 pm

    Your writing makes me laugh out loud!

    If I dream tonight of a cycle-riding horse with a sweatband on I’ll blame you.

    love Viv x

  9. Andy Hollingsworth permalink
    May 12, 2010 7:43 pm

    India sounds fascinating. Every time i read your entries i just think more and more how incredible it is what you are doing, and what amazing memories you will have of this journey. It will make a brilliant book. Well done mate, and keep going, meanwhile i’ll try and invent something to keep the sweat out your eyes.

  10. Abbey permalink
    May 12, 2010 9:56 pm

    Sweaty Betty! Buy yourself some sweatbands at the next town/city.. all hardcore sportsmen need them. Think Andre Agassi at Wimbledon. xx

  11. Sammy permalink
    May 12, 2010 10:06 pm

    Sammy, all those years of mocking my slug brows and now you want a pair for yourself. They really do have their benefits!!

    Lovely blog big man…keep up the pedalling

    Sammy x

  12. Girish permalink
    May 13, 2010 12:49 pm

    Hi Olli, It was one of the best Sundays ( 9-May-10) that I have spent riding alongside you Krishna & Richard from Hyderabad Bicyling club on the road to Vijayawada, it was Bloody hot but enjoyed the ride. Will keep track of all you do wile cyclingtothe ashes and looking forward to your Book. Thanks for the Autographs.

  13. tali permalink
    May 13, 2010 4:32 pm

    I can imagine it exactly peaness, what a sweaty noisy stressful battle it must be on a bike accross india. I hope you manage to find some calm somewhere, did you get hold of nikhil?
    Another wonderfully written blog,
    Lots of love xx

  14. james taylor permalink
    May 17, 2010 10:02 am

    nice stuff. keep the updates coming – great reading your stories.
    india sounds like a real eye opener.
    i think you left your first set of eyebrows in cairns youth hostel – maybe you can pick them up on the way through….however, cairns-brisbane might be the final week.
    keep it up chris.

  15. Edward Butler permalink
    May 21, 2010 4:36 pm

    great blog as always. india (like so many other people i guess) has always fascinated me and reading your blog makes me want to go.

    england playing bangladesh at lotrds next week. how time flies! well over half way now mate!

    hope to see your sister at my engagement drinks in 2 weeks.

    take it easy big guy

    man hugs!

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