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Friday, February 10, 2012

Coasting the Konkan with David

December 27, 2011 - January 9, 2012

Walking around Mumbai, we stumble upon an antique store. The owners are very friendly and are eager to show us around even though it is clear that we won't buy anything. One of the patrons gives me a quick lesson on Ganesh. Ganesh's head was cut off by Shiva. When Shiva realized that Ganesh was his son, he quickly replaced Ganesh's head with the one of an elephant. Ganesh is the remover of obstacles. His multiple arms hold attributes: the coconut and lotus flower are symbols of purity. A lover of sweets, Ganesh can be seen holding sugary treats. At some point, Ganesh needed to write down something quickly and could not wait for someone to bring him a pen. So, he cut off his right tusk to use it as a writing implement. His vehicle is the mouse, which I'm guessing means that he uses mice to travel around in this world (please don't hesitate to correct me). Being the remover of obstacles, Ganesh is a very popular in capitalist India. Hopefully he can remove some of the garbage and put it where we can't see it. Just like we do in the first world.

Michèle comments: I was thoroughly captivated by the owners describing the antiques. Like a child in Kindergarten at story time. There were ornate door frames and side panels of the huge temple chariots. There were many carvings, big and small. One piece was a large sandlewood carving of Ganesh in a reclining pose, his rotund belly encircled by a cobra belt. With the broadest of grins and dancing eyes, the taller of the two owners described the details of that carving of Ganesh like he was talking of an old friend. I want to find a copy of the reference book they had in the shop: "Living Wood: Sculptural Traditions of Southern India". I just wish the shop owners could pop out of the book and make those pieces come alive as they did for us that day. The antique showroom was in the basement of the Jehangir Art Gallery if you want to find the place yourself.

Back at the airport, David finally gets his bike from customs. As he opens the bike box he yells:
- It's show time!
After which about twenty airport employees gather around to watch us assemble the bike.

Once the bike is assembled, we ride out of the airport shining like royalty. For the third time, we ride into downtown Mumbai, this time for another three day visit.

It's once again sensory overload with its traffic, smells and the exotic poverty.

Michèle comments: In all fairness to Mumbai, I want to add that Benoit's drawing could be depicting a scene in Canada. Just choose a large city there and you wouldn't have to look far to find someone passed out on the sidewalk with people hurrying past on their way to their busy lives. Perhaps with less garbage strewn on the streets in the Canadian scene. Perhaps not. As Benoit mentioned, first world countries like Canada put the garbage where we can't see it. Out of sight, out of mind. Sometimes we don't give a second thought to how much garbage we generate. Like the use of toilet paper. When buying a roll of toilet paper in Mumbai, we wondered why it cost so much. The shop owner set us straight explaining that it is a luxury item in India. Right then and there, we decided to give up the ol' t.p. and just use water. I'll be the first to admit that it is easier said than done.

One day was spent going to Elephanta Island where you can see ancient caves containing large statues of various Hindu gods. Despite the large crowds, the site is fairly impressive.

However, like good capitalists, the Indians don't miss an opportunity to make a buck: on our way there we realize that the entrance fee is 25 times more for foreigners. You can think of it as a 2500% tax with a dash of racial profiling. The amount only adds up to 5 dollars but it's the principle that gets me. After a good rant and still pissed off about the new found fact, an Indian tourist asks me if he can take a picture of us. I tell him that it will cost him a hundred rupees. He gives me a confused look and laughs nervously. He didn't end up taking the picture.

The next day was spent at Mumbai's court house. In order to get in you have to wear pants and leave your camera at the entrance. Once inside it is difficult to know if the place is crumbling or if it is being renovated: there is rubble everywhere. Tarps covering windows and doorways and you have full access to any room or stairwell. Not really knowing where to go or what to check out we start going up random stairwells and walking down various corridors. Some of the offices are jam-packed with papers and folders stacked like mini skyscrapers. At some point we end up on the roof to go down yet another staircase that brings us to the other side of the building. Having a blast we keep going with our visit, when all of a sudden, an aging security guard, half asleep in his chair, jumps up and starts running towards us yelling that we are in a restricted zone. Very nervous and agitated, he escorts us back down to the entrance, yelling at the guards at the various check points along the way: the ones that were supposed to deny us entrance. Back at the main gate, the security guard goes in to talk to the chief who doesn't seem to really care about anything. After explaining to them what I just explained above, we are set free to keep going with our visit.

A little disgusted with the double economy, we decide to skip the Ajanta caves and head south towards Goa. Our journey starts with another boat ride across the bay: the same one we took the week before. This time, bikes are not allowed. After a ten minute argument with a set of security officers, the bikes are magically allowed again. While on the boat, someone has the great idea to start throwing potato chips at sea gulls. Before long, the boat gets swarmed with birds and all the excrements that come with it. Once the bag is empty the man discards the package overboard before getting another one to keep the fun going. But, like all fun it eventually gets boring and the man sits back down again. The arm wrestle with my bad eye cover rages on.

We start cycling down the coast. It's around New Years and hotel prices are through the roof. This is where we encounter some Indian generosity. At one guest house we meet a set of young guys. Ten of them are sharing a small room. After starting up a conversation, we tell them that there is double pricing going on. They are paying half of what the hotel wants to charge us. This prompts one of them to step up and offer to pay the difference. We tell him that it's very generous but we can't accept: we will try our luck somewhere else. Down the road, we bite the bullet and check in to another overpriced hotel. The same conversation starts up with another guest. This time, when we tell him the rate we are paying, he says nothing but offers us a bottle of whisky. After this day of cycling it was much needed.

Difficult to find accommodation during the holidays here in India. At some point during the ride, we see a sign that says "Camping". We go and investigate and we are led through a field and onto a beach. Once at the camp site, we can see several tents and tables. We figure that they are trying to sell the concept of a camping resort. When we ask him the price for one night the guy give us a quote that defies comprehension. One hundred and fifty dollars per person, per night. After a good laugh we walk away.

We end up spending New Years in Murud. Partying not being on our agenda, we do the count down in our sleep. I'll spare you the details of what the beach looked like after a News Years Eve party. Most people were heading home but some were staying an extra day to get in a few more cricket games. On the beach, car and motorcycles are doing a hundred clicks on the packed sand with people hanging out of windows and riding on the roof; insane .. just insane.

Michèle comments: One morning in Murud we go in search of breakfast. Near the beach, there are many street stalls selling a variety of food. In one, we thought we saw a woman making "poha", a flavourful breakfast dish of rice flakes and chillies and spices. Turmeric gives the poha a lovely yellow colour. Spying a crate of eggs next to her pans, we thought that we should up the protein content of the meal. So we ask if we can have some fried eggs too. The woman looked confused. But she did as we asked and soon presented us with our breakfast meals. It turns out that she was making scrambled eggs with chillies and spices. No wonder her confusion! We had just asked to have eggs with our eggs.

We stay one more night in Murud and head out the next day: finally, some traffic-free riding. As we wind through coastal roads, we stumble upon an ancient temple. No crowds or entrance fee here. The place is deserted. We park our bikes and take our time walking around the site.

The unbeaten track that we're following has a series of rivers that are linked by ferry. With no track for our journey, the GPS is next to useless; negligence on my part. We end up wasting a day going around in a circle trying to find one of these ferries. However, people are very helpful and they generally point you in the right direction. With David it's easy; he'll go up to anyone in a flash to ask directions.

Michèle comments: I had heard some 'bad press' about the kids in India, how they swarm around your bicycle, touching everything, switching your gears and generally crossing WAY into what we Westerners perceive as personal space. But what we experienced with the school kids in India was quite the opposite. As we cycled the small back roads, invariably we'd pass groups of kids as they walked to school. The young boys would race us, trying to run alongside as long as they could. A difficult endeavour when they were carrying knapsacks that looked heavier than them. But never did they grab at our bicycles or impede us in any way. If we stopped at the roadside for any reason, yes they would swarm us. Yet they were so polite in their swarming that it was even a pleasure to be amongst them.

Around these parts, getting lost is okay. The jungle offers a free show as we ride by gangs of monkeys, peacocks, jackals and all sorts of exotic vegetation. With less population there is less refuse and your imagination can run free. I try to imagine this place hundreds of years ago, when purity was not limited to lotus flowers and coconuts.

As we gently pedal down the coastal road the day-dreaming gets to us. While David and I are cycling side by side, David cuts in front of me. I swerve hard to the left and end up falling on the asphalt. Luckily not much damage. Just a few scrapes and bruises.

Camping has become difficult. The nights are cool and we don't have our sleeping bags. We could buy blankets but David and Michèle seem reluctant to camp. It's too bad because there are lots of interesting places to set up. When camping is not an option you are dependent on guest houses and hotels. This can be very stressful. One evening we get to a hotel tired and hungry: the hotel is full and it's getting dark. This is one situation that I absolutely hate about travelling; to the point of having thoughts of going home. We get word that there is another town with several hotels. It's only fifteen kilometres but Michèle and I are finished. The next logical step is transport.

David decides to cycle it. Michèle and I pile our bikes and panniers into two auto rickshaws and get dropped off at the shittiest hotel yet: we are told it is the best one in town. No matter, it has a bar next door! An hour later, David shows up with his classic open line:
- Namaste!
or hello in Hindi.
Glad to be taking a load off we head to the bar which is also a restaurant. All three of us sit down amongst the heavy drinkers; not a single woman in sight and not a single guy eating dinner. A few minutes later, a nervous waiter comes up to us:
- You must go to the family room he says.
I imagine mom, dad and the kids going out for shooters but in reality the middle ages are not far behind: women are not allowed in the bar.

Michèle comments: It barely phased me that we were shuffled out of the bar and into the family room, all because of me - gasp - a woman in the bar/restaurant. I was too tired to care. The night before we had happened upon the nicest hotel room we've stayed in yet: a little jewel of a place in a village so small that it consisted of only one intersection. The contrast with the hotel we now found ourselves in was shocking us to numbness. I can't find the words to describe the filth on the curtain in our room. David in his eternal cheeriness chirped, "Oh I've seen worse!!" But still, he went out to investigate the other lodging options, returning with a sigh of resignation to announce that yes this was the nicest hotel in town. It was strangely fitting to see this misspelling on the hotel entrance wall:

On the subject of english, I love the beautiful formality of the english we hear spoken in India. A man exclaimed when he heard that we had cycled in Mumbai, "There are not many who would have the courage to dare it." Then, there are the charming mispellings on signs that have english in them, like the one advertising "Engine repair and spear parts", or so many in the menus:
- Creeps with chocolate sauce
- Banana filters with chocolate rum sauce
- Massed potatoes
- Green piece masala, or Green peace masala.

We wake up early. I feel like shit due to a lingering cold. There was also a four hour coughing fit in the middle of the night. As we pedal out, my legs feel like lead weights. I keep radio silence as I try to muster up enough energy to keep moving forward. At a rest stop we see several cyclists off in the distance: slowly inching their way towards us. Then we realise that it's our friends from Turkey and Iran. Geoffroy and Elodie are heading north on their spaceship tandem. We spend an hour exchanging stories and split once again.

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