Indore was the largest city I reached after leaving Mumbai, and the quantity and stature of the shopping malls, brimming with India’s ever expanding middle class, was a clear indication that many were prospering. In the evening the restaurants and bars were full with a mixture of families and eighteen to thirty-somethings, all contributing to a jubilant atmosphere. As a solo traveller there was no shortage of company, interested as always to find out where I was from and where I was going. I spent one evening having a few drinks with a couple of friendly chaps who spoke very good English at the start of the night, which deteriorated into gobble-dy-goop by the end. One of them insisted on giving me a ride back to my hotel even though it was next door to the bar we were in. I’m not sure if he ever found his motorcycle (hopefully not!), I certainly wasn’t going to get on it, and made my escape when he went to the loo.
During breakfast the next morning I met another chap called Utkarsh, and he invited me for tea at his favourite tea shop. He explained the tea shop was in an area predominantly inhabited by people of Pakistani origin that had moved there many years ago, and that, although from Pakistan, they were non-Muslims. After a short ride on the back of Utkarsh’s scooter we arrived at what was essentially an open fronted concrete lock up, roughly eight by eight feet square with a concrete ledge running round the walls for sitting on. The tea was as all tea in India is; sweet, milky and served in a shot glass. As I usually drink mine black, without sugar, and in a mug the size of a pint glass, it is the polar opposite of tea preparation. Indian tea is also infused with spices which, although very different to my normal cuppa, is very tasty, and the cycling offsets the extra calories. Utkarsh was finishing his study in computer science later in the year, and planned to buy land to develop and sell property, a booming trade in and around the area, and the rest of the country I suspect.
Leaving Indore towards Gwalior, it became apparent that I had been spoilt with consistently good road surfaces on dual carriageways lined with decent hard shoulders, which had to a large degree protected me from the suicidal driving antics that taint single track roads, I was to discover. The road became a patchwork of potholes in between ‘repairs’ that at times lay so thick upon the surface of the road that I wondered if the repair was a bigger obstacle than the hole it was there to smooth over. One minute I could be cycling along at 20 mph on smooth tarmac, the next minute cycling off a one foot drop into a gravel pit, without warning. The roads were challenging and demanded full attention at all times; let your eyes wonder off to the scenery, and you would be jolted painfully and directly, as though the seat post had breached your rectum.
Adding to the ‘excitement’ were the horn addicted, kamikaze juggernauts who make no discernible distinction between driving on single or dual carriageways. The use of the horn for drivers of all types of vehicle is so frequent and indiscriminate that it now resembles an epidemic of mental illness, manifesting as a form of driving Tourette’s. To make sense of the psychotic outbursts would be to find purpose in involuntary spasms; they have lost all meaning. Occasionally, through the laws of probability alone, the demented ticks line up with a corresponding act of lunacy. This happens more often than you might think because the acts of lunacy are almost as frequent as the manic horn love.
This recollection might seem harsh until you consider that between Indore and Gwalior I was run off the road eight to ten times EVERY day. Mostly by Lorries overtaking each other, forcing me to jump off the road and into the dirt. Sometimes by Lorries attempting to overtake me, getting their nose in front, and just pulling back in before fully past. On one occasion I was physically pushed off the road by a lorry trying to fit through a gap that didn’t exist. The driving in India has been by far the worst I have experienced so far, I would go as far as to say they drive like complete W@^<ERS. It is disgraceful, and as the country adds more vehicles to the road each month, the catalogue of smashed up catastrophes by the roadside can only increase.
Becoming increasingly angry and frustrated by the shocking driving practices, yet entirely helpless to affect them, a new perspective was required. Anger and frustration are not healthy feelings to harbour for any length of time, particularly when the source of them is outside of your control. India would continue to operate as it always has whether I cycle along the roads casting judgement or not. As a foreigner without any understanding of the rules of the road beyond my observations, what right do I have to judge their driving practices? Indian cyclists and motorcyclists exposed to the same impending collisions reacted with indifference. They accepted their place in the hierarchy and moved out of the way when necessary without remonstration.
Being accepting of what is, and without being judgemental, is a difficult perspective to maintain. In doing so you become elevated above the quandary of right or wrong, good or bad, to see things as they are. This is a neutral perspective free of prejudice and unhealthy emotions from which clear thoughts and actions can form.
The road widened again between Gwalior and Agra, home to the Taj Mahal, providing some welcome, relative security. To avoid the heat of the day, I began waking at five to get on the road for sunrise, and had clocked twenty-five miles before breakfast, after which it all went a bit pear-shaped. Two punctures within 500 meters of each other left me riding through the mid-day sun, and a poor choice of restaurant at lunch left me bloated then totally exhausted. By the time I reached Agra I felt truly awful, and while cycling around trying to find the hotel I had booked, I was hit by a car that pulled out as I was passing. It was quite a heavy impact, which was absorbed by my rear pannier and the crumpled front wing of the car. As the angle of the impact tightened I instinctively steered away to avoid being pulled under the car, and bounced out into the middle of the road, somehow still upright. Fortunately, nothing was coming the other way, otherwise, I would have been cleaned up. I didn’t stop, there seemed little point. A few more scuffs on the pannier, but I suspect the car came off worst. Cycling in India, it seems, is a contact sport.
The stomach problems persisted, leaving me room bound for three nights before cycling on towards Delhi. I didn’t make it. Fifty miles down the road and I was feeling awful again but still fifteen miles from the next town, Kosi. It took me three hours to cycle those fifteen miles. Totally exhausted, light headed and struggling to see straight, every couple of miles I had to pull over to lie down in the shade. I fell asleep at one point, not sure for how long.
Eventually I found the worst hotel, home to the most unscrupulous hotelier to date, who took full advantage of my vulnerable state by overcharging me for a room without running water or a lock on the door. Stranded, unable to leave the room, and too exhausted to cycle on to find somewhere else, I spent the night without food or water. Needless to say the next day didn’t go too well either, only twenty-seven miles further down the road and I was checking into another hotel in Palwal, unable to continue.
At sixteen pounds a night, it was by far the most expensive hotel I have used in India. With the price came a bit of luxury; air conditioning, room service, and Wi-Fi. It was also conveniently positioned five minutes walk from a very efficient hospital; I walk in, answered a few questions, paid the equivalent of one pound and was immediately seen by a doctor. Five minutes later I was dispensed with some antibiotics and something to er.. firm things up, all for less than three quid.
I stayed for an extra night of luxury and I’m happy to report I’m feeling much better now.
So what have I learnt? Be careful what you eat, cycling while unwell is miserable, bouncing off cars is inevitable, and maintaining a neutral perspective of non-judgement is both difficult and good for your mental health.