Tuesday, 18 December 2012

I Am in a Bit of two Minds


I haven't given lots of distances or road conditions or other handy cycling hints because if you are interested in this sort of thing you probably know as much as I do.  I took an old Muddy Fox mountain bike frame with slick tyres and the original 20yr old brakes and gears.  I did this as much for sentimental reasons, it was the same bike I used 20yrs ago on my first trip to India, as for the practical reason that it is a tough bike but not worth much.  Gear was reduced to the absolute minimum of 9kgs and I bought 1 or 2 things on the way.  Water is available anywhere, accommodation is still as hit and miss as ever.  Some of the best places were cheap, some of the worst places were not.  Some of the cheapest places were OK some of the most expensive were dire.
My longest day was 185 kms and the shortest 32 kms.  It rained, I got sunburnt.  Veni, vidi, I was conquered (again).


I like this picture.  I'm an atheist, but when I see things like this little temple in the middle of the fields I am moved by it.  There is no earthly reason to build it there.  It is not close to anyone's home.  It is not on the way to anywhere.  It is not even big enough to provide shade.  Yet it is important enough for someone to look after it and to pray at it.  Someone who has an eye perhaps on the bigger picture.

A shrine in the middle of the fields.

Monday, 22 October 2012

As the Fat Lady Slumps Exhausted

As the fat lady slumps exhausted to the stage floor, it is time to bring this little exercise to a close.  I have really enjoyed the whole process of writing to keep in touch with my friends and family and at the same time exposing my thoughts to a wider audience.  It speaks to the frustrated journalist/writer/communicator/big-mouth in me and amuses me no end.  The Internet is a remarkable tool.

I spent my last afternoon, as predicted, in packing up my bike and preparing my stuff for the return.  I had failed utterly in my search for the interesting gifts.  Whether this was lack of effort on my part or lack of interesting stock on the shopkeepers parts I can't say.  I then had an interesting evening with another eclectic group of souls I found living on the roof of my hotel.  It just goes to show that India is more full of surprises than anywhere else in the world.  At 23.00, bike in the taxi's boot, I headed for the airport. 
The streets were alive with people and lights celebrating the start of Calcuta's Durga Pouja.  Entire buildings were draped with strings of coloured lights and elaborate temporary temples were packed with Bengalis.  In the darker corners the poor still slept, their ragged covers over their heads.  Dogs roamed and cows settled down by the sides of the roads to ruminate.  I sat back in the corner of the Ambassador taxi and watched the city pass by.  This trip to India, my fourth, had been a special time for me and had opened my eyes once again to a host of themes.  I had endured some physically testing days and some mentally testing ones as well.  I think I had seen a slice of India in all its beauty and with all its contradictions.  From the burgeoning glass towers of Cyberbad (Hydrabad) to the absolute poverty of many urban areas.  From adverts where happy people consume sophisticated products, to the simple tragedy of the old man holding the head of his dead cow by the side of the road.  From the worshipful gaze lavished on my 21 speed bike, to the dab of ghee on the feet of a temple statue.
I hoped that this trip would be some kind of closure for me.  For years I have buttonholed anyone who would listen to me about my dreams and desires for travel.  I think I had become a bit of a bore on the subject and it really was time I put my money where my mouth was.  So when my ever patient wife said "well just get on with it then" I was trapped.  Trapped by my own words, with no excuse but to do it, or forget it.  So 4 weeks ago I found myself alone in India and today it is all behind me.  When asked "what have you learnt about yourself" I can say just 2 things at the moment.  1. I am not as physically strong as I once was, but I still managed 1,654 kms in 20 cycling days so all is not yet lost.  2. I know that I have no excuse whatsoever for not being content with my lot.  This knowledge won't stop me complaining, which is probably in my nature, but it does put my petty worries in perspective.  There are probably other things which will come out of all this over time, but for the moment those two are pretty good.

Some people who have read this blog think that I have not enjoyed myself, but they are wrong.  I have had an amazing time, but it is always more interesting and more amusing to write about the things which go wrong, than the things which go right.

In Conclusion.

Low points:- Feeling too sick, tired and hungry to go on only 24 kms from Haldia.  Being without the presence and support of the three people I love the most in the world.  Having to turn back and take the coast road after getting horribly lost.
High points:- Meeting some incredibly kind people in the most unlikely places.  Blasting through the Indian dawn with Pink Floyd on the mp3.  Arriving in Calcutta despite wanting to give it all up just the day before.

Thank you for listening.
A room with a view.

Friday, 19 October 2012

In India I Normally Stand Outside

When my wife shops in India I normally stand outside the shop and let her get on with it. This is because shopping in India (or indeed anywhere with a bazaar) involves a lot of negotiation and hard bargaining.  She loves to haggle and I think is genuinely good at it - I don't and I'm not.  I remember on one occasion she gave a cigarette to the shop keeper just so he would at least get that from the sale!  But now I find myself trying to do this on my own and not doing very well.  Outside the S.S.Hogg Market there are entire squadrons of men who try to guide you to certain shops and they can be very persistent indeed.  Once they were shaken off though, I was free to roam this amazing place and spend a happy hour or so just enjoying the hustle and bustle of it all.  I think if you tried, you could find almost anything here.  Clothes and foodstuffs are main items but it is no way limited to just that.  Eventually I sidled up to a shop selling paintings and curios hoping to find a painting to take home, but unfortunately the majority of the items for sale are the ubiquitous Mogul style works from Rajasthan or garish Batiks.  I found something interesting in the form of a folding sheet of bamboo slices which the vendor assured me was done by charring the design into the surface and then colouring.  "Very nice" I said, but it was only when I looked very closely that I saw it was in fact drawn in Biro and then coloured in crayon.  Not what I was looking for.  So I have now given up the idea of buying more Indian art, which is probably not too bad a thing as we do have a lot already.  If I had the patience and negotiation skills of my better half I might have continued but I would rather go and drink a chai.
This afternoon I will be spending some time disassembling my bike and preparing it for the flight tonight. Then dinner and a beer with the last of my Rupees before the taxi man arrives at 23.00.  We should be at the airport at midnight even though I fly at 04.20.  But I am sure that trying to get my abnormal luggage on the plane will take time and involve a lot of negotiation and hard bargaining.

S.S.Hogg Market, Kolkata.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Queen Victoria and the Raj

Queen Victoria and the Raj have left a wonderful building to remember them by.  I suppose any opinion as to whether the time of the British here in India was a positive thing or not, can only be answered by the Indians themselves.  However, the splendour of the Victoria Memorial must stand outside this decision.  It is simply a beautiful building.  I set out to walk there this morning, approaching it from across the large park right in the centre of Calcutta and it was from under the shade of an immense Banyan that I took my first picture.  Italianate and domed its white stones stood out against the milky sky and the green gardens which surrounded it.  If you don't get a chance to see it for yourselves, look it up on Google Images, it really is worth a look.  The grounds are immaculate and gravel paths lead you from the entrance to a statue of the Queen seated on a throne.  From there she could watch her subjects taking there ease under the trees and resting in their cool shade.  To find something like that in the middle of one of the worlds busiest cities is remarkable and even the traffic noise seems to fade away.
There, that's the descriptive prose out the way back to practicalities.  I have had the pleasure of meeting a lot of young French people today and to use the language of MoliĆ©re once again.  The first were a group of 7 youngsters studying in India, on their way to the Himalayas to do a bit of trekking and passing through for the day.  The second were a young couple who have given up their jobs to travel, before they eventually have to settle down and get serious.  They were really friendly and we are meeting this evening for a beer which I am sure will be nice.  My bargaining skills are nowhere near those of my wife's so I have given up trying to buy gifts.  The only thing I will regret is not buying a piece of artwork, as this is something we have always done before.  I might have one last try again tomorrow.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Un peu de Francais

Salut les amis Francophones.  Je suis bien arrive (pas d'accents sur ce clavier) a Calcutta apres 1 650 km et quelques difficultes.  Je m'imagine plus fort que je suis et par fois j'ai eu beaucoup de mal.  Mais je suis a Calcutta apres 24 jours et quelques kilos de moins.  Pour celebrer j'ai attrape la tourista donc je ne peu meme pas manger le cuisine Bengali qui a l'aire si bonne.
Voila pour le Francais et a bientot en France.

Street life.

A Stroll Down to the Hougli Bridge

I started the day today with a stroll down to the Hougli Bridge, between Kolkata and Howrah, which was something of an eye opener for me.  During the 4 visits I have made to India over the last 20 years I have seen a lot of poverty.  There is the poverty of the rural poor, who work very hard just to fill their bellies at the end of the day.  There are families in India who make their livings turning large rocks into road chippings.  The final breaking of the stones, to produce the smallest pieces, being done by the children with there nimble little fingers.  In one way this is abhorrent.  People, men women and children breaking rocks when a machine could do this so much better.  But this work provides a living for these people and in the absence of other paid work it is their means of survival.  Farm labourers often have very physical jobs to do.  Also this work is often accomplished by women whilst the men bags the standing about and watching the cows job.  There are often the old and the infirm who beg, particularly in the cities.  They have no other alternative but to hold out their hands in the hope of alms.  But today I witnessed the urban working poor in a way I have never seen before.  Finding myself in an area where goods are distributed to the rest of the city, I saw men working harder than I thought possible.  Probably cheaper than beasts of burden, they carried and hauled impossible loads to their final destinations.  Their physical strength and endurance must be incredible.  I know for a fact that I would not last half a day in their places, toiling barefoot through the streets.
So I returned to my hotel (and some more Imodium) with yet another image of India in my head.  These men I saw, worked hard, tremendously hard, but I also saw a camaraderie between them and a mutual support which was wonderful.  When I lay down tonight in my hotel room with AC and hot running water I shall wonder where they are sleeping and if they have eaten their fill.