India...

25 September 2006 - 07 December 2006

We arrived safely in India during the early hours of September the 25th, and to our relief, so did two bikes and eight panniers.

Getting the bikes on a plane wasn't as daunting we had thought, partly because we had pre-warned the airline and arrived at check-in extra early (7 hours - Richard has always had a thing about being anywhere in plenty of time!) As expected, we (the luggage that is) well exceeded our allowance and were mightily grateful when Turkish Airlines waived half the excess charge.

During the overnight flight we shunned the opportunity to get some sleep, and instead spent our time reminiscing on all the things we miss. Family and friends, obviously, were at the top, but here are some of the other things we have been pining for...

Kat: Cornflakes, Whaley, the Hope Tap, NFL Live, NFL Matchup, NFL Countdown, NFL Prime.

Richard: Watching Reading FC, mowing the lawn, Whaley, ribbing Tubsy, watching Rainbow, real ale, the Whereabouts Chart.

The taxi journey from Mumbai airport to our hotel was an experience. Two large boxes, eight panniers, two tallish people and a taxi driver do not really fit in, or on, a car the size of a Vauxhall Corsa. The bike boxes were just about attached to a small roof rack with some rather frayed garden string. An early morning arrival meant the roads were clear and the taxi driver could really test how secure the bikes were. For the second time in an hour, we were very grateful to have made it somewhere in one piece.

If we said we enjoyed our time in Mumbai we'd be lying, and I would assume anyone was who claimed that they did. Sugar-coated guidebooks will roll-out their clichés such as 'vibrant,' 'colourful' and an 'assault on the senses' to describe the city. These are all true, but are also euphemisms for squalid, stinky and very challenging. Mumbai is certainly an assault on the nose, normally a very unpleasant one.

The poverty here is on a completely different level to anything we have seen before - it defies words - and the begging far more demanding and aggressive. It is difficult to see such destitution, but equally difficult not to get angry when your personal space is invaded by hands grabbing your arms, sleeves and pockets, and then ashamed of your anger later. So we didn't exactly enjoy the city, but it was an eye-opening experience.

We left Mumbai by ferry, and the city looked far better from the sea. The Gateway of India and the posh hotel near it are actually fairly impressive, but it's not easy to appreciate them from the ground, when you are fighting your way through the street flotsam.

About ten minutes into our voyage to the mainland, a massive storm assaulted us. The boat began pitching violently, water washed over the floor, and Indians began puking over the sides. We were the only ones standing, struggling to keep ourselves and our bikes upright, and we would have been quite scared had we not been right beside the crew, half of whom were asleep. We became far more alarmed when we realised where and how we were going to dock. The jetty was some slippery concrete steps rising out from the sea, which would be a complete nightmare to get the bikes and luggage safely onto, given the conditions. We were not about to moor next to the jetty. Our boat was going to be lashed to a fishing boat, which was moored next to the jetty, and we would have to climb over both. By some miracle, and a small army of locals, us and our stuff arrived intact in Mandva. Richard was very brave about it.

A kind lady at the village's ferry ticket office let us shelter there while the rain passed, which it didn't. By the time we decided it was not going to let up, we had lost most of the day and managed to cycle all of about 10km to the town of Alibag, which was flooded. That evening in the hotel restaurant, we got our first taste of what it is like to be so conspicuously the odd ones out, as the hotel staff turned up to stare at us while we ate.

The next few days were bright, hot and humid (I think we prefer the rain now) and much harder than we anticipated. Although we liked cycling through small fishing communities on quiet roads, it was sometimes difficult to find the crucial combination of food and accommodation in the same place. Out of season many places were shut. We decided to cut inland across the Konkan hills, to join the highway 17 and head straight for Panjim. The cutting across the hills bit has dealt us the worst days of the trip so far, and caused the more arguments and frustration than the previous 4 months put together. We did see some wild monkeys though, so that's alright.

The dreaded highway was nowhere near as busy as we thought it would be. The problem is that it sounds at least twice as busy as it is. The rickety trucks and buses are barely roadworthy, and are extremely noisy, and the small auto rickshaws sound exactly the same as the trucks. In addition, Indian drivers beep incessantly at everything on the road - other vehicles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, corners, bumps, and us. Some drivers, always the ones in cars or on motorbikes, beep, then wave and smile. Everyone else just stares. People hang out of the bus windows to stare, and some auto rickshaws pull up alongside us for a few minutes, so their passengers can get a good look. This is remarkably annoying.

When you stop in a town, you also stand out like two very sore thumbs, but this time you are stationary and draw a crowd very quickly. About 5% of the ordinary folk we have come across in the towns and villages have been incredibly friendly, and very pleasant to talk to. About 10% point and laugh at us (schoolchildren and groups of women mainly.) The rest just stare blankly at us. From about Romania onwards, the tourists largely disappear and you do begin to draw a certain amount of attention. Until now, although we have been aware that people are staring at us, it has always been polite and discreet. Now it is blatant and open, and a bit disconcerting.

We had thought that Turkey would provide the toughest climbs of our trip, but India is winning that battle hands down. They are absolutely merciless. It is probably not a help that given all of the above, and the oppressive heat, we are just not in the mood for them. After about three weeks we were thoroughly sick of cycling in India.

After a marathon of nearly 100 miles, scorching heat, a large thunderstorm, some outrageous driving and sickening hills, we completed our last day in Maharasthra state. It was great, all it needed was a dog snapping after us to make it complete. We had half expected to be struck down by lightening before we reached Goa, so when we made it there it was with intense relief.

We spent a pleasant few days in Goa's capital, Panjim, and immediately the difference between this state and the India we had so far been in, was quite apparent. Goans seem far more relaxed, are wonderfully friendly and smile easily. Most importantly pork is available in Goa, so we spent our mornings gorging ourselves on bacon.

We had a blissfully short ride up the coast to Goa's beaches, where we have been encamped ever since, awaiting a visit from home of our fairy godmother (although in truth Karen looks like neither.) We've met some fantastic people, eaten some fantastic food and almost forgotten the trials of the last month.

Karen and boyfriend Dean arrived in Goa for our last week of rest there, and it was very welcome to see friendly faces from home, especially when they come armed with custard creams and cow biscuits. We rode an elephant, fed monkeys, visited India's second highest waterfall and spent a night and a day on a picture perfect private beach. The week flew by, and whilst we had very much enjoyed the rest, it was good to get back on the bikes again. Nice clean bikes as it turned out, as we paid a visit to a local mechanic's and had them power washed before our departure.

The hills have reduced to acceptable levels on the way south, though they are still plentiful and plenty big enough. Most of our aches and pains have been due to the fact that we have been going for long distances without factoring in the long break from cycling that we've had. For those who wish to know, and I suspect this is very few, Richard's legs are now massive, and he is very very impressed with this, particularly the fact that he now cannot get his hand around his ankle. He has also now become much quicker on the roads than Kat, and usually leaves her behind on the hills, despite being impeded by his huge ears. He has almost come a cropper thanks to his speed by interrupting a bull going about it's business, and narrowly missing the spooking creature.

We have been leaving earlier and earlier to try and beat the heat, which becomes almost unbearable by about 10am. We are pretty bleary-eyed when we set off, so this was perhaps the reason why Richard managed to put his shorts on back to front one morning. India is pretty full of people, offering little opportunity to correct such a situation in privacy, so he cycled about 85km in this state - he thinks he has set a world record, but if anyone knows differently please let him know.

The people we've encountered travelling through Goa and Karnataka have been mostly a delight, it has made a big change to see friendly smiles and waves all day. The curiosity surrounding the bikes continues, and is most evident when we find every morning that the gears have been changed by the hotel staff. The hotels themselves have been about 80% clean (a big improvement) but unfortunately we have reverted to vegetarianism again.

We have now arrived in Mangalore, about halfway down the western coastal ride. The road into Mangalore was a bit of a chore to cycle, containing the heaviest and meanest traffic so far along a shockingly bad road. It can't even be called a road really, even the maniacal bus drivers are forced to go slow, and we could barely get above 8km an hour. Kat, in her annoyance at the barmy driving and awful surface, cut up a truck which was trying to force her off the road. This was stupid, very dangerous, but ultimately satisfying. Mangalore itself is a bustling city, but somehow easy going with it. The hassle factor is well below the average, with even the street sellers non-aggressive and un-intrusive.

Updated on 11 December 2006

The road south became totally flat a few days outside Mangalore. We were totally stunned, having not seen a flat road in months. The hotel situation remained better than usual too, we even stayed in places where the bathrooms were nearly clean. This situation was never destined to last, and before we reached the tip of India it was back to the same old dirty sheets, stinking toilets, and stained walls. The food, something we had wrongly expected to be a highlight in India, also deteriorated dramatically in the south of the country. Having had enough one afternoon we pulled over at a roadside hotel in the middle of nowhere, and decided to stay based on a conversation running something like: "Do you have a restaurant?", "Yes, it opens at 7." At 7, we make our hungry way downstairs and are greeted by some hotel staff who inform us that the restaurant had long since closed down. We must have managed to make our irritation at this, and the fact of being lied to about it, quite apparent, as one of them arrived some time later with some food for us, presumably having driven into a takeaway in town to get it. It was the worst meal we have ever eaten, but just about better than nothing.

We keep inventing landmarks for ourselves while cycling here, to keep our spirits up and remind ourselves that each one we reach means the day we leave India is nearer. The latest has been reaching Kanyakumari, the southernmost point of India. It was the first nice surprise we'd had in a while, as it's actually not a bad place, and contains the only rubbish bins we have seen in the whole country.

We were aware that to the north of Kanyakumari, where we were heading, there was a wind farm. Failing to make the connections between wind farms, the wind, and cycling we headed off the following day in good spirits, and our amusement grew as some people asked if they could have their photos taken with us, and then a school kid asked for our autographs. Very, very strange. We then arrived at the wind farm, whose turbines were all pointing in the direction we were going, the direction the strong endless wind was coming from. We just couldn't believe it, after having cycled for ages dreaming of some flat roads, along comes the wind to harass us the entire rest of the way. And speaking of harassment, on a day of sightseeing at the famous Meenkashi temple in Madurai, a male member of the crowd seemed to think this was appropriate behaviour. Being in a crowd made the identity of the groper impossible to know, fortunately for him. It was definitely the final straw.

We finally made it to Chennai after some long days of cycling, and booked a flight to leave there on the same day. With the rushing around finding boxes for the bikes and getting everything packed, we didn't even have time to sort out where we would be staying when we reached our next destination - Singapore.

We left India without hesitation, and not a single mixed feeling. Some famous Prime Minister of ours once said something about Calcutta which sums up our relief on leaving India as a whole - since we've now been there it is entirely unnecessary to ever go back.