Cycling as a tourist: A route past many temple cities
A puppy is stuck in the sewer, a black, stinking collection of dirt. He is too weak to crawl out by itself. He is howling softly. I walk past him, as do other people, and I think ‘no one is helping this poor little puppy’. When I notice I don’t do anything either, I am just as unhelpful. So I walk over to the sewer and lift the crying puppy out of the slimy disgusting dirt. He’s so weak and underfed he will probably die soon. I was already saddened when I entered Hindupur, a super congested city where a bullock looses his balance and falls, right next to a bus full of students. The students are howling and screaming ‘madam, madam, madam’ while my eyes are fixed on the poor animal trying to get his legs stretched while a cart is hanging on his body and his owner is beating him with a stick.
The route is gradually going up and down but I stay on a somewhat higher plateau. Sometimes the road is covered by trees growing as an umbrella over the road. In the course of months I pass many huge manufacturers of all what makes India a rich country: marble, granite and sculpture industry, stone bakers, builders of trucks ‘body builders’, cotton industry, red pepper selectors and sowers of fields, who all are overlooked by their superiors. There is a cow- and bullock market, while the indigenous still walks many kilometers with their camels. I pass many rice fields, tamarind sale points, weigh bridges for corn, sugar-cane fields and mango groves. Children work often, as do old women in the kitchen. Children clean the tables in scary wonderment when they see when while the elderly ladies are sweet as a mother to me. What ever I see on the route, it keeps being boring and not beautiful really. Never am I alone and all I do is desirable watching the plowed earth: cycling here is worth it for the conquest of it, not to get somewhere.
Old men try to get a lift from me, they think I am a motorized vehicle. Another want me to do a ‘ground test’, and it takes me some time to find out they want me to cycle a little round to watch me. Truck-stops are full with men who are washing themselves, and their grubby singlets, in a huge water-basin, foam splashing around. Each time I park my bicycle in front of the truck-stop dhaba, men gather around my bicycle and start to discuss it. As a lone woman I see them slowly coming closer, with an air of thin dread ‘can we do come closer?’ When I sit down to eat they switch the television to Korean female bodybuilding.
‘How old is the driver?’ I ask
‘No way, he’s not 30!’ I reply
‘Not possible. He looks very young,’ is my reply again
‘Did you ask him? You are just guessing,’ I say
‘Ask him’, I opt
’17, he is 17 he says’
Finally an answer. And this young boy -on the photo above- 17 years young, drives a truck. I think he is still a kid. Kids usually make the chapati’s in truck stops and the guy talking to me is 30, although he looks much older, his smile is bright, his gazes goes far far back, perhaps back to Rajasthan, where he is from. He works here, removed from his wife and children.
I cycle in a rather straight line to Bijapur and Bidar via Gulbarga. The only two temple towns I really wanted to see. Sometimes I pass little temples, some are in full swing, dotted with people dressed immaculate. I pass men walking with their cows, a little bell tinkling along. Beautiful men. One of the most beautiful things about cycling in India are the colors splashing in front of my eyes, the way people dress, the little artful drawings and color-palette on their foreheads, their headgear, changing from wrappings to turbans, and the way they practice their religion, an omnipresent God in a color and form of whatever desire. Sometimes I pass a dog, driven to pieces, an odor of fresh death. The smell of plowed earth is best in the mornings, when the quietness still prevails, for a very short time. I listen to the bird with it powerful speech, finally he is listened to. I listen equally lovingly to the tractors with their blaring Bollywood voices, although the volume is down to an unindian pitch. The wind slowly push me, it is 32 degrees, eight thirty in the morning.
The useful animals are woven into their life-style as were it kids. Children are lined up along the road, waiting for a minibus to pick them up, dressed neatly with white bows and long erected white socks over the knee, if they have them pulled hard enough. Their expression is curiously empty, when they see me passing, without being told by their parents what to think of someone like me. Lovingly and unknowing they see me passing. I am in the real real India, whatever that is. My opinion changes each time about the real real India but my view about the people has changed drastic, and only for the good: they are not the cheaters I thought they were. Indian people in touristic places -usual traveled to by bus and train- are just trying to get better of naïve visitors, and I can not blame them.
I can be irritated by people who want to see me and place themselves at 5 centimeter distance. Sometimes it occurs to me that with a lover I would be this close, not with a man who just want to watch me. I need to bear in mind that this is how people are here. Often they just want contact and often this is just lovely: ‘Women are weak’ says a man who is having about 4 struggling behind him. We are climbing the steep stairs of a tomb and the women are draping themselves on the cool ground each time they have reached another level. They are panting and sweating, while their 85 years old father is crawling the steep steps on hands and feet. Understandable. ‘What is wrong with your women’, I’d asked in a funny way. I reply that usual Indian women are known for their power and strength. ‘Not these ones,’ the man answers. We all laugh! Another man coming to see the tomb is telling me bluntly about his position at the dating-market, the brokers haven’t found him a match yet. ‘Are you married?’ he asks me…
Being in these touristic places -only visited by Indians, I haven’t seen a western tourist. Indeed, I haven’t seen a western tourist at all!- I find it difficult to relax. I want to see each and every tomb, palace and mosque. I want to read and write, I want to go through my photo’s. I want to sleep and clean the chain of my bicycle. I want to do laundry. I want to drink chai, but I don’t want to be the main attraction, so often I order a thermos full of chai, asking for ‘sugar less’. Always a bright smile on my face. I still love the Indians and their ways…
Except when seeing how they molest the inside of tombs and palaces. It is a disgraceful expression of their so-called boldness.
Travel is the means of life
Cycling on, seeing the same traffic sign for weeks on an end ‘Humnabad’, it dawns on me cycling is avoiding the real life as most of us know it, perhaps pleasantly filled with boredom -which I wish I had it more often- compared with this busy cycling-life. This cycling is the opposite of life with the less desired lack of depth and routine, although I thrive on regularity in eating. I am escaping indeed, and right now I am cycling to avoid the madness.
Cycling for me, even though I am in India, is all about feeling, living and shaping. It is not only cycling. I see cycling as transport to travel through your own life. To see. To feel. To watch. To learn. While I watch Indian people who are born in a certain job, knowing they will not easily get out of these circumstances, I feel in a disturbed way that I am doing nothing. I am wrestling with a feeling perhaps best described as guilt. My play in the world or in society is not clearly shaped, I can not say ‘I am a cycler’ because I don’t earn anything with it. I still have the feeling that we all need to have a regular income. But I want to avoid being a slave by paid work. It seems I can. Could my goal be to be balanced, to do what I love most. A mind more independent on how things should be. Could my goal be to be happy? Could my desire to do what makes me happy release me from this slight guilt and sometimes popped-up disturbance? Could I be the person to connect, to be an example of a dream factory?
When I eat a mango at a seemingly desolate archeological place of interest, I hide for some men lazing on the lawn, so I can be in absolute silence. I succeed in this until a man on a bicycle comes by, says nothing but just watch me in silence. A mango taste so much better when you can place your full attention on it, the same with a slice of lime or such a simple thing as a piece of onion. Usual I am watched by all, and eating is not relaxing when you are stared at. I almost reach a stage of ectasy when I am eating unions, limes and the mix of spices in India in combination with absolute absence of watchers.
I can not blame people though, often they really have not seen a foreigner. Really not. People do tell me ‘we have never seen a foreigner here’ or people ask me ‘what are you doing here? There’s only heat’. Often there is tension, joy and consternation when I arrive somewhere, anywhere. Police often asks me what I am doing here, while I expect it is quite clear I am cycling, they think that I better go to Gokarna, a beach place, while my answers where I have been are unknown villages to them. When I have a flat tire, no one stops. Except for a Muslim woman ‘do you need water or food?’ I keep being halted by people who are surprised to see me. Some run away in fear when they see what they see.
Sweat start to drip from my chin. Cream slides off. Water from the tap is hot. Rain is welcomed. I am watched by heads popping out-of-doors, doors always left open a little. The great thing about Indians is that they are very open and approachable. Where they’ll plant a phone right in your face to make a picture, I can do the same. Not that I do though. But pointing a camera, asking permission, I soon have the same large crowds around me, all willing to be photographed. And I must admit, my mood is a lot better when I am off the bicycle so that I don’t have to focus on getting somewhere at a normal manner. Normal manners are not in India. And that can be fun too, once I am led around by a group of children through the fort where they live in. We balance over old crumbled walls, spot an owl, and I get to meet men who make copper pots for cooking, a fastidiously job, as so many jobs are in India. Later on I come into contact with large family’s making cricket-bats, living along the road in tents, I feel at home at once. Drinking sugar-cane juice I have free refilling, and not much later I watch buffalo’s bathing around the enclosure of the fort and a man stops, get off his motorbike and walk to me. He stands in front of me, beaming with smiles and just watch me. I assume he’s going to ask me things and so I ask him: ‘Do you speak English?’ No, he just wanted to have a look up close. Fine. Soon I am asked for chai by a man who looks mature and settled, but is more than 13 years younger than I am. We watch his sisters marriage in a very glossy photo book. It seems really all about gold, flowers, appearance and ego. I think about the father who’d to work hard for her marriage, now she is living in Singapore. To make more money, have a better life. I asked the mother about prices but the son answers that she don’t know. She has no clue how hard her husband worked for their children. When a woman comes begging he gives her nothing: ‘She can work, like we do,’ I agree with his insight.
In Homnabad I arrive at a lodge where the haji -a Muslim who has been to Mekka- tells me this is not a suitable place for me ‘it is a Muslim lodge with only men’, he tells me. ‘I have never slept in a ladies lodge, sir. I am okay here, please let me stay.’ My bicycle is brought in, a policeman who is more curious to me than willing to regulate the traffic assures me this is indeed safe. I am led by the police man to find food and stumble upon lassi, milk with yoghurt, topped with ice-cream. The best I’d ever had!
Cycling past fields I am once halted by a police car, asked for a document I don’t have, ‘I will fix that document in the next town,’ and cycle on. Further past fields where women in colorful clothes seem to hover above. Soft rolling hills appear now and then, sometimes the scenery differs completely, a welcome change. I enjoy the wide open premises of Bidar fort. Wander hours on my own. Drink ThumpsUp cola which produce funny rabbit droppings. Guys asking to make a photo are rejected with ‘not now’ and I am directed ‘only straight’ when ever I ask for directions once on the bicycle again. Opening the map I suddenly realize I am half way…
‘Can I make a photo of you madam?’ I am drinking tea in a big garden, hidden under an arch, sitting on a table. Resting.
‘No, not now, maybe later, I am drinking chai now,’ is my reply.
I just had a complete photo-session with myself, about how to balance, point the imaginary arrow, jump and attack… I am playing again: an indication that I am happy! The 45 degrees heat is making me thirsty but boy, I do have fun, in a desolate fort all by myself.