Hans pulled up to the drinks cart, stood tall over the top tube of his bicycle and with a beaming grin, exclaimed, “Not bad this India, is it?”
“Not bad at all,” I replied.
Having crossed a very ramshackle border point that morning, we were on Indian roads and finding them not at all to be the terror highways described to us by other bicycle tourists. There were well-surfaced and peaceful stretches interspersed between the chunky soup surfaces and chaos of the townships. On the back of a generous tailwind, we finished the day in good spirits, relieved that our fears, at least for day one, had been allayed. It was only upon emerging from our hotel room that we came face to face with that which reputedly makes India one of the toughest nations in the world to tour; the ‘people factor.’
For over twelve months now, I have been cycling through areas where, even though a woman has just walked past with what looks to be a weeks worth of firewood balanced on her head, people still look at me as though I am the weirdest thing they have ever seen. So I am used to being stared at, but the Indians take it to another level and they do so using the power of numbers.
As Hans and I strolled the dirty, noisy, overcrowded main street of the uninspiring town we had decided to spend the night in, we were followed by a sea of eyes, just waiting to pounce and do that which Indians do best; form a crowd. Due to a seemingly permanent state of idleness, a serious sheep mentality and an uninhibited curiosity, if we were to stop for just a moment at say, a fruit stall to inquire about the price of mangos, an instant crowd, four to five deep, would gather, making us the white meat in a fruit and Indian sandwich. Upon turning, we would be surprised at how popular this fruit-wallah just became and battle our way through to open space.
As we sat in a timber shed eating chapatti and dal, we had our first experience as tenants in a human zoo. Curious eyes filled the street outside, peering in at the strange creatures from a far away land, never wavering, following every rip and dip of the soft, warm bread. The dhaba-wallah had to keep pushing people out the door as they crept closer and closer, to the point where they were just about eating our dinner for us. Even Hans, who I noted as being an excellent ‘people-person’ in Nepal, was fazed by this experience and with stomachs half-full, we made a beeline for our hotel, ensuring that we did not do anything that would cause a crowd, which was pretty much everything except maintaining motion in a straight line. Even then, a kid who knew where we were staying followed us from in front to our hotel, walked up the stairs to our room and after we had entered, stood at the door as though he wanted to be let in.
“I don’t think so son.”
‘Incredible India’ is like no other country on earth. A subcontinent unto itself, it offers an amazing variety in landscapes and cultures. From some of the most overcrowded cities in the world to peaceful, remote villages; from vast, flat plains to some of the highest peaks of the Himalayas; from dry, dusty deserts to tropical, blue-water beaches; from imported European cars and veritable palaces to suburbs of slum-homes built from pieces of scrap wood and cardboard, India makes it difficult for the traveler to decide where to begin. Fortunately though, Mother Nature has a fair say and given the sweltering heat and torrential rain she has imposed on most of the country at the moment, I had little choice but to head for the hills once more.
Thus, after a most enjoyable, spirit-lifting week, Hans and I were to part ways; he south to the capital, Delhi and I north to the Himalayas. We wished each other the best of luck, knowing that we would need it, and cycled in our separate directions.
Life in the saddle became tougher once I was alone again, for I no longer had Hans to absorb some of the relentless attention I was receiving. My initial reaction was to close up, zone out and enter Tour de France mode. Cycling with my head down, hands on the horns, legs turning over at a high cadence and beats pounding my eardrums, I was able to enter a state of consciousness whereby all that existed was me, the King Brown and the road. All else – people, animals, vehicles – were of no significance, merely obstacles to be avoided.
While a surreal place to be, I soon realized that such a state of mind was not conducive to a satisfying travel experience, for before I knew it, my time in this amazing nation would be over and I would have spent it looking at my front tire. I opened up, greeted the locals and with as much enthusiasm as I could muster, answered all of the usual, broken-english, interrogation questions:
“From which country?”
“Where do you go?”
“First time in India?”
Through such interactions, not only did my travel become a more rewarding experience, but I soon became familiar with the famous Indian ‘head waggle’. This slight cock of the head to one side can mean; “yes” or “no”; “hello” or “goodbye”; “more please” or “that’s enough thank you”; “I’ll accept that price” or “don’t insult me you cheapskate”; etc. and it takes a while to decipher the gesture correctly. With enough exposure however, one can not help but adopt it into their own repertoire of mannerisms and use it as much as possible in place of speech, just as the Indians do.
After a week or so, I arrived in Haridwar, considered one of India’s seven holiest cities since it lies in the foothills of the Himalayas and is where the sacred Ganges River enters the plains. Truth be told, to the non-believer it is just like any other overcrowded city, though with an abundance of middle-class Indian tourists, bearded sadhus in orange robes/rags bearing the customary walking stick and alms bowl and an almighty river surging through it.
A far more pleasant place to experience the spirit of the Ganges is 30kms upstream in the smaller city of Rishikesh, the ‘Yoga Capital of the World.’ Made famous when John Lennon spent a year here studying with his guru, the river runs a slighter lighter shade of brown, traffic is less intense and travelers can cheaply stay at one of the many ashrams where they are able to attend spiritual lectures and classes in yoga and meditation. Unfortunately for me, I did not have the chance to stretch and strain my body in a typical display of rock-like flexibility, for classes had been cancelled in lieu of an upcoming Hindu festival that would see the streets flooded with thousands more Indians. Feeling rather suffocated as it was, I had no desire to find myself in the midst of this, giving me but a couple of days to enjoy the charm that the town had to offer, before I hit the road again.
The streets were filled with sadhus who set up camps in the forest or by the side of the roads. They could be found mingling in the temples by the Ganges, harassing tourists for baksheesh or tucked away in their makeshift tents puffing on their chillums. Before each lung-filling toke, they would be sure to hold the clay cylinder to their foreheads and chant “Bombodhinath” in homage to the God of the same name who is a form of Shiva – apparently a massive pothead.
Far more energetic were the hoards of youthful pilgrims who in their tight-knit groups were the religious equivalent of an end of season footy tour. Instead of the specially-made tour jersey, they wore matching orange bandannas and t-shirts that if I could read Hindi, I am sure would have said, ‘Doin’ It for Vishnu in Rishikesh, 2008!’ Instead of the customary tour stubbie holder, they carried plastic bottles tied to their waists full of the sacred water of the Ganges. Instead of boisterously marching through the streets shouting team songs, they boisterously marched through the streets shouting praises to the Gods. The general causing a raucous and making a mess was the same, though without the drunken brawls.
Sunset along the Ganges was an enchanting time, as the many riverside ghats filled with pilgrims undertaking their various puja rituals. This could involve a lone person praying to themselves and pouring the revered waters over their heads or an elaborate ceremony led by a Brahmin priest and attended by over a hundred people chanting along with the tabla, tambura and other traditional instruments. It was also the favoured time for cleansing ones body and soul as devotees slunk into the glacial, mud-brown water. Most of the women would get a load of washing done while they were at it.
One night I sat on the steps of the main ghat in the Shwarg Ashram area in which I was staying, looking out at the changing colour of the sky and the evening mist floating in over the gushing waters, slowly enveloping the marble statue of a very dashing meditating Shiva who sat cross-legged facing the ghat on a platform in the river. A very obese man in boxer shorts that left little to the imagination, was being coaxed into the icy-cold water by his friend. He finally relented and plunged in. I watched on as he submerged himself fully, only able to glimpse a portion of fatty flesh that bobbed up to the surface. The dark, flabby skin soon sunk once more only to be rapidly replaced by another portion, and another, each time protruding further and further downstream. My antennae pricked up.
No doubt the man, with his head beneath the surface, had the sensation of simply floating, but when he finally lifted his eyes and saw the land rushing by him at an uncontrollable rate, a look of shock and horror was instantly painted on to his face. No one seemed to realise his predicament except me and in the two seconds that it had taken him to get to this point, I had been paralysed and was at an absolute loss as to what action to take. I think that deep down in my subconscious, I knew that the poor fellow was done for because downstream from the ghat, the river became a lot more aggressive and he certainly did not look like he had the Olympic swimmers capabilities required to get himself to shore. Nor could I imagine any of the weedy Indians hauling his 100+kg girth from the current to safety, not that anyone could have caught him at the rate he was being swept away.
And then, he was gone. Lost from my sights.
I was instantly overcome with feelings of panic and remorse and I ran down the steps hoping to get a glimpse of the man’s fate. It was with great relief that I saw that he had hit a shallow spot and used the adrenaline that accompanies extreme fear to fight the current and heave himself over a fence to dry land. He stood leaning against it for some time, looking out over the raging waters below, partly to catch his breath, perhaps partly to contemplate just how narrow the seemingly large gap between life and death can become in a matter of seconds and how close he had been to closing that gap forever.