December 14 - December 26
For us, India starts at the Muscat airport where we jump through the familiar hoops; pack equipment, x-ray, check in, customs, boarding, flying, customs again, collect our stuff and find out that everything survived: all the worry was for nothing. At the Mumbai airport, it's the usual hustlers trying to push a hotel or taxi. It's six in the morning, we haven't slept all night and we have no hotel booking. Michèle is not a happy camper. This means it's up to me to find a hotel. At a reservation kiosk, I manage to book a room. It's expensive and not great but hey ... we're in India! In our hotel room we pass out. Several hours later we wake up to a symphony of car horns. As I look out the window, the first thing I notice are the women in crop-tops and colourful saris; drowning out the black cloaks of less colourful religions.
The next morning, I pour a cold beer into the thermos and we set off on our first ride in India. Instead of shying away from what we've been dreading, namely people and traffic, we decide to jump into it and ride 30 kilometres into downtown Mumbai. After 5 minutes it's the sound of crushing plastic as a guy on a motorbike gets plowed head on by a car. Luckily he got up.
After the squeaky clean, black and white of Oman it's a total shock; hundreds of years of clutter and accumulated junk. Generations of uncollected garbage. There are so many things packed so tightly that it looks sculptural. If Hindus have a god of art, in a stroke of genius he must have created Mumbai. Here, there are about as many cars as there are people. The traffic is retarded as the guy behind honks at the one in front of him. On top of it we have to remember to stay left. We follow the GPS south towards downtown, trying not to get distracted by the hundreds of photo ops.
After several hours of riding, we pull off for a breather. I crack open the thermos and pour myself a cold glass of beer. It's not long before some kids come up to ask for money. Among them is a girl that speaks a bit of English. At the sight of the thermos she says:
- Give me tea!
I tell her that this tea is not for kids. As I put away the thermos, she must have smelled the contents and says:
- Hey, that's not tea that's beer!
As we cycle away, she chases us, asking for anything she can think of. She finally gives up after we pick up speed.
We finally get to Colaba; the tourist area. We got word of a hotel from a friend who stayed there the week before. Therefore we figure it must be good. It is cheap and well located, so we decide to take the room. Everything seemed fine till we get a rude awakening in the morning. Upon inspecting our mosquito nets we both find bedbegs stuck to it. I guess they were trying to get back to the mattress but started climbing the nets instead. Some of them are still engorged with blood, making a nice spash on the mesh as we crush them. I didn't think the filthiness would catch up to us this fast.
Forced out we check in to a much pricier hotel that is spotless. It's got wifi so I make a post on the Lonely Planet forum thinking I am doing a good deed warning other travellers about the hotel with bedbugs. What I end up getting are arrogant, mocking remarks from some of the forum's veterans. I have developed some frustration with Lonely Planet over the years as well as the thread pollution on their forums. I send a quick complaint email to Lonely Planet but get a polite middle finger. So, instead of getting in a pissing contest, the following image came to mind.
It seems that the poverty and homelessness we didn't see in Turkey, Iran and Oman has converged here; probably due to sheer numbers but I'm sure there are other reasons. Wild camping is not a problem for the ones stuck in the bowels of India's social ladder: just set up wherever you like. However, no fancy tents here. Just garbage and hard pavement. Shanty towns, packed like mismatched lego blocks, bursting at the seams with refuse. Half naked litters of kids, frassled hair and covered in soot, blend in with the dirty plastic bags by the side of the highway. The nouveau riche, shining like royalty, drive by, talking on the latest iPhone. We've all seen it before. Except this time you can't change the channel. On a bicycle, you don't miss out on anything. Stuck in the middle with sensory oveload; we are not sure whether to cry or take a picture. It almost seems like these people are being punished. For the final curtain, just as I thought the misery couldn't get lower, we pass by a large garbage can next to a fish market. A small child pops out of it holding a used razor. He is playing with it as though he's found a new toy. It's solidarity for Oscar the Grouch: at least one kid is suffering his fate.
In Colaba there is a sports bar where all the white people go to get drunk. The bar was actually hit by the Mumbai terrorist attacks several years ago. The contrast with its surroundings is mind-blowing. Outside you have kids playing in the gutter. They are so dirty that they look one colour. At the mid-range of the social ladder are the security guards standing outside: protecting the shiny teeth and the laughter that rivals with the honking outside. The high-tech security generally involves a squeeze of your knapsack and a waving motion to go in. I feel safer already. As we finish our overpriced beer and head back to the hotel we walk by yet another security guard at another establishment. He is patiently waiting for the next terrorist attack. He is also about 4 foot fuckall and looks about 90 years old; his legs about as thick as his billy stick. Down the street we burst in laughter thinking how cute he looks.
As we wait for our friend David to arrive, we decide to take a ride down the coast for a few days. From the Gateway of India you can take a boat to the other side of the bay; bypassing the whole city. Although no-one here seems to celebrate Chrismas, the holidays are in full swing. This means lots of traffic from India's nouveau riche heading down to the beach in their brand new SUVs. At the beach, they're all clustered in one area. The rest of the 4 kilometre beach is virtually empty. There are all sorts of activities. You can get pulled by a jet ski, go on a calèche ride, ride a camel or get pulled by car with a parachute strapped to your back. All this is done with complete disregard for safety. The jet skis rush in at full speed to where everyone is swimming. The Indians don't seem to care though. Everyone is having a great time, fully clothed when they swim.
Michèle comments: We were two weeks in advance of our friend David's arrival. Instead of it feeling like killing time, it was a chance to adapt to India after being in Oman. There, virtually no-one was on the streets. Here in India, the streets are jam packed with people, bicycles, scooters, motorbikes, auto rickshaws, taxis, buses, goods carrier trucks, and of course cows. Oman was so clean it was ridiculous: marble walkways buffed to such a shine that they looked wet. Whereas the filth and dirt of Mumbai is so over the top that you almost think you're on a movie set, because this shit can't be real. The traffic is insane, but now I am glad that I had some practice in crazy traffic in Iran. David has already cycled in India. In 2004, he went from Chennai around to Goa until his bike broke down. He told us that cycling in India is a challenge but one that is worth it. That is reassuring. It also reassures us that he agreed to return to India so that he could join us for a few months of our trip.
On our way down the coast we stop in a town called Alibaug. Next to the hotel is a restaurant where we are the only tourists. At the table beside us is an east Indian family from Toronto. After chatting for 20 minutes they invite us for dinner. Once at their place, they tell us a little bit about India. Apparently there used to be way more garbage 20 years ago. Something I didn't think was possible. Also, the poverty was worse: you always had a good 10 people following with their hands out. Finally, they tell us to see India with the good eye and to keep the critical one covered. I'll try. We end up having a great time eating a home cooked meal with lots of beer.
Michèle comments: A funny coincidence meeting that family from Toronto. Their daughter had just graduated from university. I asked her where she studied.
- Waterloo, she said.
- Me too! What subject?
- Mathematics, she said.
- Me too!
Then I nearly fell off my chair when I found out that she is also left-handed. "I don't believe in coincidences," said her mother. Now that I had met a leftie in India, I asked about eating with my left hand. I should not touch food with my left hand, she told me, but it's okay if I am using utensils.
The next day we cycle farther south. The traffic is pretty bad. As a shady spot comes up I stop for a water break and wait for Michèle. This is when I see something that I've been dreading. Everybody passing me is motioning me to go back. Something has happened to Michèle. I race back with nightmare images in my head; am I going to have to scrape her of the road with my titanium spork. As I turn the corner to the final straight away, I can see her sitting in a chair with a crowd around her; a woman massaging her hand. Her panniers clipped another bike and she fell. It ended up being nothing serious; a few scratches on her hands and no damage to the bike.
Michèle comments: I was just getting over a cold. My sinuses had cleared so I was itching to ride. But I guess that I wasn't as steady on my bike as I should have been. One of my rear panniers clipped a bicycle that was parked by the side of the road. I couldn't recover, so... crash, down I went. As I was lying on my back in the middle of the road, I thought, Shiiiiiiiit someone is going to run over me. Then I looked up and saw the crowd creating a barrier around me. A man helped me to my feet, another pulled my bicycle up and took it to the side of the road, yet another jumped on his bike to ride ahead to find Benoit. I wasn't injured, just a bit stunned by the experience. I heard someone say, "Sit down, please". So I sat. And a woman came up and started rubbing my hand. It was a simple gesture but it made my eyes all misty.
The Indian government should invest in a nut clipping campaign. Stray dogs are a huge problem here and life for these animals is tough. It's a sorry sight really. Most of them will come to you wagging their tails if you call them over. After a day of riding we stop at a guest house by the road side. As we look at the room we can see a dying puppy outside. Barely standing, the little guy passes out several times to finally give us a dying look: the same facial expression as a human being in agony. As we walk away, he stares off into nowhere with some strange breathing sounds. We didn't end up taking the room. Besides, the owner wanted four times what it was worth.
After several days, it's time to head back to Mumbai to meet up with David. Back at the pier to catch the boat back to the Gateway of India we can observe another genius of Indian anti terrorism. A security guard, chilling out at the snack bar with his gun resting on the potato chip rack. At first, I thought the gun was a toy and almost picked it up. Then, I burst out laughing which prompted the guy to get up to retrieve his prize possession.
Back in Mumbai, we do the whole ride in reverse to meet up with David at a hotel near the airport. He shows up late at night with all his panniers and no bike.