The joy of being in Hindustan, finally, reach me: on full blast
There’s a whole lot more cycling through rural area’s. In fact, it’s only cycling through rural landscapes. There’s still not a lot to see, but the info I receive is most uplifting: India is perfectly able to feed her self. This is the biggest difference with Africa, without wanting to generalize. Indian people are tending the fields as their main vein of life. There’s hardly any begging and they treat their live stock with love and affection, but the dogs. Me, they treat with utmost curiosity. Funny enough without our Western familiar distance, and often without our known form of respect. Sometimes people seem to be panicked by seeing me, and often lacking decency. Sometimes people seem to be afraid but most often just bluntly approach me. Cellphones are placed right in my face, a meter distance at most, and without asking permission to do so, my sweaty face is branded on their Nokia’s. Guys on motorbikes tag alongside me, always asking the same questions ‘what is your city?’ and ‘what is your name?’ I wonder if this really is important to them? Evidently it is because these guys keep motorcycling next to me, trying to persuade me to stop. I either slow down to get rid of them, or ask them to move on, only to see them parked some meters further, trying to flag me down with ‘photo please’.
I am a real fearful interesting movie star
Trucks are driving safely. Buses too, although slightly more risky. They all acknowledge me and pass me with care. Men are not of any, ány trouble to me. Not one tried to touch me, it must be because of my visible mental power, I am convinced of that, or perhaps of my lioness-roar. Women are largely suppressed here and by seeing a lone woman on a bicycle they must know with whom to deal. Roads become bad when entering Maharashtra, my ass sore and irritated. The heat is still manageable although reaching up to 45 degrees and sometimes slightly less than 40 inside the room. Lack of decent sleep won’t wake me up before 7 which means I am on the road by half past 8. As soon as I am in the outside world, I am a celebrity. A fearful interesting movie star. As soon as I enter the outside world I can’t afford to wish for anonymity, can’t desire quietness, nor privacy or isolation. As soon as I am out, I am food for lions. Am I trying to eat a mango along the road, I better do so completely hidden. The best places to have lunch are those designed for truck drivers because they have the decency to leave me in peace. These truck dhaba’s are very simple places where food is incredible good. All other places I will be surrounded by walls of people. Watching every sip or every bite I take: unimaginable interesting, a foreigner who’s eating! Nothing gives so much pressure as being constantly watched, especially for me, being a natural shy person. I never had the desire to be famous but now I am.
Only the concrete prison cells are cheap
Another very hard fact is that there’s very little energy coming from nature. Nature here is mostly practical, agricultural lands. No great views or impressiveness. Every evening I have to find a lodge, haul my bags and bicycle upstairs. Following morning same routine. While being watched by crowds I load everything onto the bicycle again, day after day. I feel like a camel in the desert, one behind fences, because I can’t go on the grounds so equipped for wild camping. The connection with Nature is gone, I can only watch her, by the constant sound of trucks, cars, motorbikes, bells, horns, yells and machines. The moments where there’s no artificial sound I feel instantly tuned into Nature, but it never last long. Logically I start to miss tranquility, those moments where I can recharge the tiredness of the day. The night is not the appointed time for this as my sleep barely let me wake up fresh, soaked with sweat instead and wanting to get out of the concrete prison I am in. As soon as I am on the bicycle things start to get more comfortable through the wind I produce, except for the constant attention…
Praise to Muslims, Sikhs and Holy Man
Dare I say, the most comfortable people to be with in India are the Muslims, the Sikhs and the holy men. Often I feel like such a man. I recognize the glance in their eyes as being an outcast. I watch them as my savior, as a man with the same walk through life. Those men never watch me in wonder, in awe or in fear. The Muslims know how to behave themselves and the Sikh always keeps a friendly distance.
No, the Muslims nor the Sikhs nor the holy men are avoiding me, they just know better how to behave in my western mindset. Realizing this be a generalization, it’s nevertheless obvious.
I am impressed by the Sikh-pilgrimage town of Nanded. It turns out to be a city in full pilgrimage swing. Not surprisingly I am the only Westerner but I see many well-off NRI’s, Non Residence Indians, and no one seem to pay wildly excited attention to me. Not that it was normal that I turned up at the pilgrimage lodging, many questions were asked, ‘are you married?’, ‘do you have children?’, ‘where is your family?’ and ‘why is your husband not here?’ made me again start to build up impatient emotion. Come on, I cycled 90 kilometer and I am tired: ‘Do you have a room for me or are you refusing me? Just tell me so I will head out for another lodge. I am tired!’ The man behind the desk is just trying to find out why I came alone and not, as usual the case is here, with my family. His English is just simple and he is rightful more than impressed with me. But we, western women, or let me talk for myself, are straight forwarded. When I am tired I don’t want small talk: I need a room.
The lime-refreshing feeling of being a normal human being
I get a room, €1.75 a night. I am greeted in a normal behavior in this almost ashram-style lodging. People who work here come to me without having this eager willingness to talk to me. They threat me as if I am one of them. Normal. For once, and since long: I am a normal human being, and it feels refreshing. Even more so, I can sit on an iron sheet table and drink chai. I can even order another chai and not be bothered with stares, crowds, guys trying to be seen talking to a foreigner. A foreigner! I can just sit and be. No interviews ‘where are you from?’, ‘where are you going?’, ‘are you only one?’, ‘Why are you here?’ and ‘what is your mission?’
Even more interesting, if I want I can coquette with long bearded man, turbaned and dressed in loose white clothing, a little sword dangling on their side. While I listen to Hindus playing tantalizing music, I am watched by an attractive man, his eyes constantly switching my direction, his lips turning into a shy but exciting smile. I, and he as well, do nothing but enjoy. The men are really attractive here. The Sikh’s have sense for beauty as we know it, and gosh, they know it. Keen on driving the Enfield, the men are tall and strongly built and their artfully wrapped turbans in all colors are only adding to their beauty. A little iron pin inserted into the side of their turbans to relieve the sweat itching their scalp. Their faces are featured with black beards, fierce-looking eyes and a proud expression. The way they’re dressed is different, a salwar kameez other than their native Punjab bordering Pakistan, which leaves the legs unrevealed from the knees, with a longer tunic. Their clothes are remarkable, their expression and their behavior is most striking.
Saki has one room to live in and I can stay
Arriving in Balapur seems I have stumbled upon a little part of Bangladesh, even the heart of Pakistan perhaps, there are 25 mosques but not one lodge. It is crowded on the streets, misty from smoke of food and burning patches, many serious Muslims. Off to the police station then. I am greeted by a harmless mental disturbed man who is yelling while holding his penis through his pants. Five dogs roam around where one is heavily salivating. Many police men in khaki uniforms are hanging around. One of them speaks a little English. While I hope for erecting my tent at a spot where no one will disturb me -keep on dreaming Cindy- I am soon brought to some place where I don’t know the plan off. They want me to park my bicycle at a family compound and it turns out I can stay with this family. An old man dressed in the traditional Ghandi outfit stumbles in and an old woman in a pale sari with protruding brown teeth smiles at me. These two elderly are the parents of Saki. Saki is a female police and living in the police quarters. I can sleep on their bed, in their only room where they eat, live and sleep. Together with father, mother, cousin, two children and Saki.
Saki soon asks me whether I am married. I lie and say I am. She is not married, she tells me, while she is 39 years in age, late for an Indian woman not to be married. With her little English she tells me she will never be married because she is taking care of the two daughters of her sister who passed away. No man will ever marry her and take care for two children not his own. I ask if the girls ever see their father, but they don’t. The father has turned his back on his two daughters, only a source of sorrow and financial burden. Saki takes care of the whole family, including her cousin from the countryside who lives with them for his study. She looks much younger than she is, it must be a lack of marital status, and indeed Saki tells me she’s quite happy not be married. Neither does she want to get married ever.
Being a married woman in rural India is often being a very busy maid in house holding courses while you are treated as a lesser -often less smarter- part of the marital bound. Women tend to be oppressed, while they are just as knowledgeable. Girl students are really taking the opportunity, many highly educated but once married they’ll have to be the underdog and let their husband be the smart one. Or so, they think. Indian men tend to be very forward towards me, laden me with questions and showing their fearless, almost disrespectful approach towards this dauntless stranger. Talking with young Indian guys I get often the feeling of being inferior, but only those who’ve studied. Indian guys are very resulted-minded, often asking me questions like ‘what is your aim’, ‘what is your target’, ‘why you cycle’ or ‘for which group do you cycle?’ Only when I answer them how much kilometers I cycle they leave me, it is above their comprehension. Most men I come across are from the countryside though, and rather undiluted in their behavior.
I am buying a box of sweets: ‘One box please.’
‘An empty box?’ asks the man behind the counter
‘Na, I don’t think that will taste good…’ I reply.
We both smile…
Is Maharashtra state so dangerous?
I get escorted again, for two days. Nothing compared the full week in the Sahara, although more annoying now. ‘For your safety,’ is what I hear again. It’s okay for me as long as they drive way ahead or very far behind of me, but not following me direct. Each time I stop, they’ll return to me and are almost in fright: ‘Are you okay? What happened? Cycle on. Chello!’ One of the faces around me is new, so I ask him: ‘Who are you? Are you a policeman too?’ His answer is sincere and serious: ‘No, I am Superman.’ You must be incognito, I reply.
I try to get my daily very necessary connection with Nature by hiding somewhere, to eat fruit and drink chai from the thermos. Mostly I am surrounded with plastic and shit but as long as no one bothers me I am fine. Usually I add my own shit as well, as those breaks offer me rest thus bowel movements. I have come to the habit to take off with a flask of chai and mango’s. Morning meals are now taken along the road, where men are incredibly busy catering passerby with a flat kind of yellow rice sprinkled with fresh coriander or deep fried onions wrapped in dough, pakora. Being the only woman I attract a lot of attention- not surprisingly, is it- sometimes it seems a Bollywood audience is gathered for this happy event: Cindy eating. Sometimes I am treated as a curious looking man, left eating in peace, just like all the rest around me. Good, tasty meals of sometimes as little as 7 euro cents, though they add loads of sugar to it.
The heat start to roar it’s ugly tail
The wind can be fierce at times, blowing sand over the empty flatness of the higher laid hills in Madhya Pradesh. Little hills become tough. Soothing are the truck-stops still, food is delicious and the friendly men leave me to eat. They only become enthusiastic when I approach them.Which I do about each meal, their beauty is what I want to capture on my camera, and they like being photographed, those bold Indian truck drivers.
There are very few moments of completely stillness. I can count them on one hand each month, but yet, they exist. Those moments of no noise. No motorbikes, no cars, no trucks. Only the sound of birds and crickets. Such moments are overwhelming in experience mostly because the incredible noise in India is non-stop, night and day. Such moments I suddenly stop to wonder. To witness what I love and miss so much. I often wear earplugs while cycling, never music anymore. I start to long for cycling on, and on, and on… only to get out of this madness. Though I enjoy it. I have come to enjoy it a lot.
“The most important question any human being can ask themselves is, ‘is this a friendly universe?’” Albert Einstein
One day I notice a cow with a pink ribbon tied around her head. ‘How cute,’ I think. The ribbon is fresh, never used before and I expect the cow having her birthday or something. Later on I again see a cow with a pink ribbon around her head. It can not be this one has her birthday too! I want to stop to make a photo but cycling often keeps me cycling, particularly now my stand is broken and having to find a tree or something to balance my bicycle against. Not much later a few cows are coming my way, all dressed up as if they’re going to a ball, their farmers walking behind them in a fast pace. We wave each other good bye, and soon I experience a highlight of the week: a platoon cows with pink ribbons comes running over the hill. And that in a dry forest. All these ladies dressed charmingly in pink, their owners running behind them, rope keeps the cows together, in this sweltering heat. I can’t help but laughing, and I laugh. Out loud! Not at them, but as people laugh at me when they see me. In joy.
When I have left the beautiful national park, mostly beautiful because there’s nature without any form of humans touching it, I reach into Madhya Pradesh, and pass a cow market. Hundreds of cows are being sold here, some have orange henna dots on their massive body, but most are dressed in pink, as that is the dress-code. I stop, try to balance my bicycle on it’s broken stand and people ask me to come and photograph them. All these farmers are proud Indians, and with reason: their stock looks healthy, their fields immaculate. These men are hard working people and I so respect them, not only for that but also because they dress themselves so fantastic. All in white, a doti draped artfully between and around their legs, still a garment from the middle 1900’s when Ghandi wore it. The tops they’re wearing is stitched neatly and the cut almost Rajasthani style. The men wear golden earrings and turbans. Their cows pull wooden carts, painted happily, and are taken good care for. But when one cow is having diarrhea I point at her stomach and say ‘no good, problem’. The answer is the heat. Its a little above 40 degrees now and although each day when I take off my turban, it’s drenched. Yet cycling is still comfortable.
Sometimes I take the smallest roads on the map, these are leading me through tiny villages. Here young guys are making business with a block of ice and very unnatural colored liquids: ice-cream! When ever I see a cart with limes I stop too, this means nimbu pani. Sometimes they mix these poison-colored icy drinks with curd, yoghurt, and my stomach is always filled again after such a heavy drink. Not to say I am overfilled, and belching my way further.
Butterflies are darting around me. Sometimes people stop me in my track, only to hand me over ice cold water or mango’s. Often men ask me stop, I only stop when the man look sincere and not in for showing off to his friends. Sometimes I am trapped into endless photo session, which often turns too enthusiastic. Men are happy giggling when they pass me, some are dressed in tight trousers, quite a few have long pink or red colored pinky nails. And you know what I really like about that? Men doesn’t have to be cool in India. Not in my view, though cool they are: many men feel they are hurt by me, hurt in their masculinity, and I see them speeding up on their Hero bicycle, in an unnatural pace, only to pass me. Their one speed bicycle is not made to speed up this fast and their legs, dressed in synthetic wide flared pants, are circling fastidiously. I can’t help laughing again. I laugh more and more these days, a pretty good sign being on the road in India!