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India: Sublime and Ridiculous

May 29, 2010

“Only the most foolhardy or ill-informed tourist would dare venture to India from April to September.”

(Sarah McDonald, Author of Holy Cow)

India has been a highlight of my journey so far, but it has been a rocky road. I didn’t come here to marvel at its natural wonders or glimpse its multitude of scintillating temples.  I came to India to cycle across it. After choosing my route, a simple act that took under 30 seconds of map gazing, I scoffed at those who warned me about the heat at this time of year, particularly in central India. I’m in a race to Brisbane and I must keep pedalling.

Mumbai was a gentle introduction to the sub-continent, the Konkan Coast was a revelation with plentiful fresh roadside coconuts and mangoes accompanying a way of life little changed for generations. The soaring Western Ghats (hills that hug the west coast of India) were stunning, providing some shade in their dense jungles threaded by rushing rivers. I clung to the back of trucks as each climbed higher and higher at snails pace – my pace – and I happily handed over a few rupees to each driver for the sweat he had saved me. I enjoyed being stopped by the odd motorcyclist and his boyfriend and asked “What is your good name now sir?” or “Country where good homeland is?” or “You is come you good cycle where from sir?” Everything is “good” in India. After a few days on the road I began to understand the Indian version of English, and even replied to questions before they had been asked because they were always the same, and in the same order “Oli…England…London.” I should have seen frustration around the corner.

I know I will come back to India one day soon. It is the most fascinating country, a bag of contradictions. Stinking rich and hopelessly poor, welcoming and daunting, noble and immoral, frustrating, rewarding and good fun. It’s layers are endless. The Indians I have spent time with tend to have fierce ambition and drive that is rare back home, and that I admire. They barely sleep – there aren’t enough hours in the day to study, earn money and develop their other interests, be they sporting or artistic. Life oozes out of India and Indians. Before 8am this morning I was taken to play cricket with children attending a training camp in a park in South Calcutta, and then I wandered across the road to join a Laughing Club session for over 70’s. Some of the attendants had travelled over 100kms to have a good laugh. We stretched for a while, before the men formed a circle and began a series of forced laughs that for me, and some of the more chirpy septuagenarians, quickly turned into genuine laughter. It was great fun and despite the sweat, I felt better straight away. Sublime and ridiculous, that’s India.

When I come back to India though, I won’t be bringing my bike. There have been good times – cycling out of Hyderabad with a local cycling club; reaching the Bay of Bengal after weeks through the hinterland. But in general I have not enjoyed the Indian cycling experience. After a week or two, time in the saddle began to take it’s toll. Patience is a skill I have had to develop since leaving London eight months ago. It is an essential trait for the long-distance cyclist, because so many hours are spent alone.  In every country I have welcomed a roadside chat however difficult communication might be, I’ve joked and raced with passing cyclists, stopped for a rest as cafe owners have waved furiously for me to take tea with them. I have smiled my way through Europe, the Middle East and Africa, firm in my belief that it’s the best way of making new friends. I have rarely felt impatient, never shouted at people and certainly never questioned my sanity, until I had spent a few weeks cycling across India. The heat, the crowds, the dirt, and the constant attention have tested me severely and I think I only just survived with my mind in tact.

This is a typical day of frustration cycling in India:

At 8am after an hour’s pedalling, I see a large tree up ahead and consider a break. As I approach the tree I notice a group of men wearing very few clothes (the women are hard at work in the fields) have already found it and are enjoying it’s shade. I stop anyway and quietly lay down to rest. Within seconds one of the men has woken all of his friends and they begin to make their way over to me. They don’t speak, and although they each have a friendly demeanour (you will rarely meet an unfriendly Indian), they just stare the kind of stare only a young child could get away with back home, open mouthed and completely brainless. I try to speak to them but we can’t understand each other. Eventually 20 men are so close to me that I can barely breathe. The heat is ridiculous, likely nudging 45 degrees at 8am (and 55 degrees in the sun by midday). I use my hands to motion that I want some space, but they don’t understand so come closer in the hope that this act will make them understand. I decide the only thing to do is move a few metres along. I do so, but they follow me. Frustration is setting in – I’m frustrated even writing this. I decide to pedal on, having got no rest and being slightly less relaxed and more tired than I was five minutes previously. I pass plenty of trees offering shade but there are people sleeping under all of them and I don’t want a repeat scene. Half an hour later, after five identical conversations with passing motorcyclists travelling so close to me I think they’re going to knock me off my bike, I reach a town. I spot a cold drinks stall and there is no-one there. I buy a Pepsi and now the stall is rammed full of locals, but the owner is not happy because none of them will buy anything from him. He might take out his anger on me by shouting and motioning that I should move on. Most of the villagers are fiddling with my bike or trying to open my panniers. I leave the stall quickly because I JUST WANT TO BE ALONE! I cycle on. I pass trucks parked in the slow lane because the driver is tired and is now sleeping under his vehicle. Buffaloes lock horns, play fighting in front of on-coming traffic. Phlegm and urine flies at speed from the windows of every type of vehicle, and often hits me. I stop for a lunchtime bite and my surprisingly tasty food is nevertheless delivered to me by a thirteen year old boy who scratches his balls, picks his nose and spits on the floor as he approaches my table. He carries my portion of roti (Indian bread) in his right hand, which is caked in sweat. Next to me are two middle-aged men rolling around on the floor pissed as anything. They are spitting too. These things happen hour after hour, day after day and they have worn me down, and tested my patience as I have sought silence, shade and solitude.

While I have been hugely frustrated and depressed by what I have seen in India, I have also suffered with guilt. I have questioned the morality of cycling through desperately poor villages on a bike worth thousands of dollars, and kit including camera, video camera, phone and solar panels. Is this right, what I’m doing? Where I’ve been, men don’t go topless because its too hot, they go without a t-shirt because they can’t afford one; stall vendors don’t work around the clock selling water because they are ambitious or career-driven. If they don’t eek out every last rupee their children will die.

So I have found India very difficult to deal with, but I’m now in Calcutta and in just 24 hours I have been reminded why I love Indian cities so much. I’ve met up with a new group of filmmakers who are just as enthusiastic and ambitious as the last group in Hyderabad. I’ve had a great time filling my newly concave stomach, eating pizza, steak, pancakes and marmite, having my first beer for weeks, sleeping a lot and watching the England batsmen hit Bangladesh all over the park. My Indian visa runs out on Tuesday so it’s Bangladesh for me next, and I’m very optimistic about it. The border is a day’s ride from Calcutta and I hope on the way I get some time to myself, to reflect on an extraordinary journey across India. Fat chance.

If you liked this blog then please sign up to receive the next blog by email. Keep donating too please…thanks! More photos from India coming very soon. Got to dash, first Cricket Am interview on Sky Sports in 15 minutes!

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Ray Higginbottom permalink
    May 29, 2010 7:32 am

    Reading your Blog, cricket highlights on the TV, waiting for Cricket AM to start. Will be interesting to see how they cover your trip and how they used the photos we sent them. Good luck, safe journey and best wishes for some time to yourself and your reflections on India.

  2. May 29, 2010 7:47 am

    I loved each and every sentence that you wrote with your experience in India but buddy whatever you write about India will always be less. You can never fully explore India. I can bet that next time when you visit India, you’ll have more than this to explore.
    Anyways I had great time with you in Hyderabad shooting the film and looking forward to meeting you soon.

    And as they say “The journey is always better than the destination.”

    All the best for the journey. 🙂


  3. Brian Read permalink
    May 29, 2010 8:32 am

    What a fantastic blog!….Hope the Sky approach is a little more detailed next week!!…..You may well find yourself arriving in Bangladesh it time to celebrate a rare win…..I hope not.
    All power to your legs…onwards and upwards.

  4. D Charlton permalink
    May 29, 2010 8:39 am

    Top work on Cricket AM Oli. The female presenter took a real shine to your (ginger) beard…

    Great blog – hope you are recovering slowly from the Indian roads – your journey is getting more and more epic.

  5. gabriella permalink
    May 29, 2010 10:51 am

    Beautifully written and articulated. More of the itallics please. Real and raw is how we like it!

  6. Sam permalink
    May 29, 2010 11:43 pm

    Hang in there Broomy. Looking forward to the next blog…

  7. Nicki permalink
    May 31, 2010 6:24 am

    You’re doing an amazing job Broomy, deep breaths and chin up, you’ll be out of the heat and the crowds soon!

  8. May 31, 2010 7:31 am

    Great job, Oli! I guess Bangladesh will be at least as interesting as India, so I’m really looking forward to your next blog.

  9. David Stanning permalink
    May 31, 2010 9:55 am

    There’s a book somewhere in this! and you should take time out to learn to bowl effectively – looks as though we may need some help in t his departmentwhen in Oz!

    best wishes, and luck


  10. Katie permalink
    June 1, 2010 10:47 am

    Just remember how good that first bite of marmite tasted!!! Heaps x

  11. Edward Butler permalink
    June 1, 2010 12:06 pm

    looking foward to watching some more flirting with sarah jayne this saturday! will there ever be a live feed or is it always going to be via telephone!
    another great blog by the way!

  12. Abdullah permalink
    June 1, 2010 3:56 pm

    Keep up the good work Oli, and may God give you patience and perseverance!!

    best wishes and fond memories of our brief meeting!


  13. June 2, 2010 6:36 pm

    Plz include something on the corridor cricket matches we played at JU!

  14. June 3, 2010 10:56 pm

    as marathoners say: the wall is behind you already… Enjoy it Oli!

  15. Wattsy permalink
    June 4, 2010 8:27 am

    Keep going champ. Unfortunately you’re not the first person to be delighted and dismayed simultaneously by the contradictions of India. There will be some whacking great big spaces of nothing much to ride in Oz!

  16. Stuart permalink
    June 6, 2010 9:18 pm

    one of the best ,great description you could smell the breath!! not nice!! So impressed with your enthusism keep going.

  17. Hannah D permalink
    June 9, 2010 8:42 pm

    It could have been worse, he could have delivered the roti in his left hand.

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