Amritsar, India to Delhi
The border crossing was exciting. Once again, officials on either side seemed not to know what to do with us. Facing India, there’s a huge sign reading, “Long Live Pakistan”. Of course, on the Indian side, there’s an equally big one touting “the world’s biggest democracy.” The customs officer greets us with a “yes, yes” shake of the head, and just like that, we’re in. There’s a noticeable increase in the number of backpackers around. Everybody seems to be trying to find a way to get somewhere.
Us, too. After a short ride into Amritsar, we decide to get to Delhi fast, and board an all night bus on a “Deluxe Coach”. It’s a surreal experience, stopping at random dahl stands in the middle of who knows where. A speaker, just over my head, blares the soundtrack to a violent Indian film that is being projected on a screen at the front of the bus. Sleep is impossible. Worse, the speaker in question, the one just, right there, above my head, is the only working speaker on the bus. So, as my fellow riders strain their ears to hear the film, they prompt the bus officer to crank the volume even higher.
At one of the dahl stops I’m the last off the bus. Without telling a soul, not even Alex, I reach behind the speaker, find the connecting speaker wires, and presto: solution to my problem. As we’re pulling out from the dahl stop, I calmly doze into a snooze, barely noticing that half the passengers are now shouting at the witless officer to try and figure out why the sound has stopped working. “Nice fuckin’ going, Doug. Nice fuckin’ going.” Alex whispers.
Well, you could say I’ve become chronologically fucked up. Sometime near dawn this morning, our Deluxe Coach makes its way into Delhi. On a spring whim, we decide to ride the train, without bikes, to Agra, to have a look at the Taj Mahal. Our gear locked away in a hotel room, we hop in a motorized rickshaw and hitch a ride in second class to Agra.
It’s a whirlwind day, but we get the photo, see the sights, and without much hanging out we get back on a train and head back to Agra. This time, though, we seem to be in third class, and the train is crammed. It takes us three times longer on the return trip.
Back in Delhi, we feast at what we think is a really, really expensive restaurant called the “Palm Tree”. At the end of it, our bellies exploding, it costs us only 100 rupees.
144 km time 7:00
7217 km to date
A few observations on riding in India on our first day: chaos, dirt, moist, traffic.
As we leave Delhi this morning Alex says, “Doug, I think today is a day we will be able to describe as ‘moist’.” No better word. Starting out of our hotel in a light mist, we weave through swarms of rickshaws, motor rickshaws, honking buses—and they’re just leaning on it. Non stop sensory assault.
We’re not sure where to turn. The map tells us to turn at Ghiz-a-bad something, but everybody we ask tells us to keep going straight.
Like the dying seconds of that old video game, “Centipede”, when you know you’re about to die, but miraculously, you somehow elude the enemy and live another moment. Our day was like that from start to finish. Oncoming buses, passing vehicles in their lane, only give us inches as they rocket past us. Damn! Despite our chicken playing, they don’t get out of the way until the last moment, sending us into the ditch repeatedly. I resort to horking big snotballs at their windshields as they pass, perhaps giving me some satisfaction that at least the white devil succeeded in disgusting the driver.
At a Fanta stop, I count sixty-five men gathered around is less than ten minutes. Back to work, boys. Nothing to see here. There’s a cow in the street just kind of standing there sweating. Traffic stops. No one honks. Everyone patiently waits for it to move along. There is no problem here sir. Not problem.
In Aligarh, we’re staying at the “President Hotel”. It appears that, like Pakistan, camping will not only be out of the question in India as there is just no quiet place to pitch our tent, but hotels are just as dirt cheap. This one is 100 Rupees. The manager is a suspicious looking guy with a fishnet holding his beard in. He claims that the refrigerator-sized air conditioner is worth the money we’re spending, though the air it’s blowing is not cool air.
128 km time 6:30
7345 km to date
This is insanity! How we’re going to get through this country alive is beyond me. Chaos continues. In our last town of the day we stop for a “Thums Up” cola—something we’ve done three or four times a day since arriving in India. All of a sudden there’s a stampede of young men chasing us just to catch a glimpse of us. We duck into a hidden courtyard but it’s too late. Within a minute there are no less than eighty young men staring and smiling. We’re amazed, but after a day of tense riding, our nerves are frayed and our patience for this scene is limited.
This one was the climax, but the same pattern occurred throughout the day. We stop. Crowds gather and we’re swarmed. Our searches for food are a blitz spree, and without much rest we get on the way and get out. This is not exactly relaxing travel. No, it’s quite unbelievable. A complete sensory assault.
Our food intake isn’t great as a result of our haste, but we have discovered one delight: Banana wrapped in naan bread….it’s a ba-NAN-na. We must have had ten of these each today. It’s some respite from the greasy dahl we’ve been getting far too used to since Gilgit.
You can taste the humidity. At nine in the morning everything—shirts, shorts, and face—are saturated and splattered with road crud. My groin chaffing is back, and with a vengeance. The deadly mix of humidity, dirt and sweat wrecks havoc on my inner thigh. I try cotton shorts for a bit more airflow. It’s better, but I’m still in agony. I buy talcum powder from a pharmacy but this only lasts for five minutes. Need a better solution.
I almost nailed my third child of the trip today too. He’s frozen in my headlights, mesmerized. He dodges left, then right, left, then stumbles. How the heck did he get out of my way? There’s no time to slow down. Somehow he’s ok.
This town, Alignj, is a hellhole. Again, we’re swarmed at every turn. Worse, there are no restaurants open in the entire town. There’s some festival on right now, and swastikas cover ornaments and banners across the village and wear them as ornamental belts around their waist. People have rice on their foreheads. I don’t get it. What’s the festival about? A shopkeeper takes us to his home—little more than a windowless one room brick closet. He feeds us rice and dahl. He watches us as we politely chew a few mouthfuls back. “I am a poor man,” he says, “you are a ‘rice’ man.”
Okay. This is for sure our worst hotel of the trip. Our room has no furniture and a concrete floor, but at least the door locks and its sanctuary from the staring crews. We have to pay extra for beds. I bathe from a tap dripping water from the wall. The sloth-like manager lies on a rope bed in the center courtyard, shirtless pouring ladles of water over his sweaty belly. We sweat as kids try to catch a glimpse through the crack where our groundsheet didn’t cover the window.
7528 km to date
As I write, I’m staring over a green lawn. It’s quiet. I have had a shower with warm water. The contrast to last night couldn’t be greater.
Today’s ride was a road warrior, big, bad ass day. To reward ourselves, we pull up short of Kanpur at the sight of the “Tourist Bungalow” hotel, lamenting a bit that we didn’t bag a 200 kilometer day. Amazingly, it’s clean, cheap, and the manager is friendly. We don’t even mind paying double what we paid last night. You can loose your perspective in a place like this. It’s still only two dollars. The restaurant menu has paneer and dumplings and fresh vegetables. We gorge.
The back road out of Alignj to Farrakhabad is bumpy and narrow, as some respite, it is less busy than what we’re used to now. The bumps are hard on a guy with a chaffed groin. What to do about this? Maybe Tibet will be better. Even the water buffalo along the road seem to sear in the heat. Motionless, they lie in the muck trying to stay cool. Wild monkeys swing from trees lining the road to check us out.
All at the same time today we encounter breakdowns. Alex breaks a chain. I break my rear pannier clip. In minutes, and just seconds before the staring crews are upon us, we’re back on our bikes and cranking to freedom.
130 km time 5:30
7658 km to date
We ask the very polite English speaking children who have joined us for dinner, “If it’s 55 Celsius outside and you don’t have air conditioning, what do you do to get through the day.”
He shakes his head with that side to side nod, “Sir. These people are dying.”
We’re in Baribanki, where a group of upper caste kids have latched on to us since the minute we came in to town. They follow us to our hotel, which is our cheapest of the trip so far; just 100 rupees. It’s street level, with a garage door opening to the street. Maybe it’s not the fanciest, but we like the drive-in feature. A window might have been nice.
Supper is a feast: chow mein, kashmiri pulao, cheese pakat. All for $1.50. And our “Thums Up” cola comprise half the cost. I’m sure our teeth are rotten. We’re each consuming two liters of soda a day.
The children have provided us with this insight on what we have come to observe as the hierarchy of Indian highways. Where you reside on the ladder determines what rights you have (if any) to claim dominance over others that may occupy the road at the same time. At the bottom, the very bottom, are pedestrians. They have absolutely no rights nor warrant any respect. Routinely we have seen walkers run into the ditch by passing bus. Life on foot clearly sucks.
In order, the hierarchy continues:
Horse and buggy
Indian nationals on bicycle
White guys on bicycle (we clearly seem to warrant more respect than Indian nationals on bikes)
Yes, cows top the list. No matter how busy or chaotic the traffic, the moment a cow saunters into the fray, patience becomes infinite. Horns cease to honk. People are polite. They wave the cow onward. The cow rules.
Our morning is lost, three hours spent trying to exchange money and mail some excess baggage home. Incredible bureaucracy. It’s a very big deal that we should try and exchange money on a weekend. Apparently this is unheard of.
Moving through urban chaos has become something of a game. We’re so desensitized now to the frenzy that we’ve become part of it. Knowing that there’s a way out in a few days makes it fun. It would make the trip to be able to videotape just a few minutes of this and send it home. Dodging rickshaws, cruising past horses and buggies, water buffalo lying in the muck just watching the day go by, buses that pass us spewing black smoke, engulfing us in black smoke—it must look surreal from the outside.
What the heck do, “HORN PLEASE” and, “USE DIPPER AT NIGHT” mean anyway? Every lorry has it written on the back.
Big afternoon. After the cluster fuck morning of only 20 kilometers by 1pm, we make 130km on the day.
179 km 5:30
7837 km to date
Arrive late into town and struggle in dark to find hotel. Star Wars bar scene in restaurant as rain comes pouring down. Ceiling fan fails throughout the night. We just lie there sweating, trying to dream away the heat.
7957 km to date
If last night’s restaurant experience was the Cantina Band scene from Star Wars, tonight is Jabba the Hutt.
It was like we were Han Solo, served by the hunchback, bulgy-eyed boy waiter who works under the watchful eye of the order-barking scar-faced owner. Ok, there wasn’t the band playing, and we didn’t waste Greedo under the table with our blaster, but it sure didn’t feel like our planet earth.
Tonight we scored. Rather than the usual grotty hotel, we stumble upon the Roadworkers Resthouse and meet one of the other guests, a former Member of Parliament in India named Harish. Fat, sweaty, with a growling voice and surrounded by cowering servants, I can’t help compare this, in keeping with the Star Wars theme, to Jabba’s Lair. Shuffling us into a rickshaw and sending us to a restaurant, dinner is compliments of him.
First though, I ride double on a motorcycle with one of his servants through the town to check out the restaurant. We want to ensure it’s at least edible. Honking and weaving through the insane traffic, I feel like I’ve become one of the locals. I almost feel, should we come across a couple of whities on bikes, that we should try and take them out. I give it a cautious thumbs up, and I return to get Alex.
This time, we hire a rickshaw to return us the two kilometers from Jabba’s home to the restaurant. The 120 pound driver strains to get us going. His chain is so worn out that it is sprocket virtually stripped of it’s spikes. We must be a good catch, because after our meal of the usual khana shit: potatoes and dahl gruel, he’s still outside waiting for us.
We ask Jabba’s servant how much we should pay the driver. The driver and the servant argue, then he tells us we should pay him no more than six rupees. That’s like, ten cents. I give him ten rupees and the servant gets annoyed with me for overpaying. This driver is pathetic looking. It would take him something like thirty years to afford a new sprocket. When the servant isn’t looking I slip him another ten rupees. He pockets it and takes off, afraid that the servant will take it from him.
A few factoids from Jabba:
- India has 540 seats in parliament
- Uttar Pradesh has a population of 140 million people against India’s total population of 930 million
- Each constituency has nearly two million people!
- literacy rate is 41%
- 36% of the population makes the equivalent of less than five dollars per month. This makes me feel better about doubling our payout to the rickshaw driver. I’ll bet he’s one of the five a month guys.