India 5 months and a bicycle Part 1

by Keveen Gabet
(Draguignan, France)

India by bicycle

India by bicycle

Travelling India for 5 months with 25 Euros, a bicycle, a beard and love to share!

I left France in my usual chaotic fashion: one week late as my visa got lost in the French-Indian administrative maze. Just enough time for me to pack my red side bags (with my Batman badge), a pump that will prove to be useless as it does not operate on Indian tires, two sleeveless T-shirts, a pair of old shorts, a small fleece jacket, an inflatable mattress that will puncture on the second day and lastly, my archaic (meaning extremely heavy) tripod that will hurt my back while never exiting my bag (as images are peculiar moments you catch on the spot).

Here I am, ready to roam through India. I land in Paris a day before (I cannot afford missing a second flight) to pay a visit to my favorite white jazzman, a last cup of French tea while reading an article written by a woman who complains about the Indian tea. Too strong, too milky, too sweet, in short too Indian for her European taste. To think that I am going all over to India to discover the very drink she is despising.

Gulf Air gets me to my destination in a very dull flight with no complications; a perfect flight for perfectly satisfied tourists. It is in the plane that I get my first shot of Bollywood extravagance.

My Indian neighbour, a wealthy man working in France, kindly offers me to give me a ride to the center of Mumbai (rule number one: never refuse anything free, especially when you are about to wander around India for five months and 70 euros). Therefore, I land in the hive of activity at 6 a.m., and Mumbai is already swarming with people. While some are practicing their cricket skills, I get my first impression of the traffic which I am about to espouse for the next months. A perfectly ordered chaos in which people skim past one another without ever touching.

On my first Chaï (the creamy and spicy Indian tea), my improvised interlocutors struggle to discourage me from my solo cycling journey (especially if the vehicle is Indian) and with hardly no money. I hear horrid stories about the south, this land where theives, muggers and Muslims dwell. “Oh well”, say I to myself, “it is all the best for my so-called adventure”, and besides I am sure they have never been to the south themselves.

I wander a few days in Mumbai to purchase the necessary tools in order to master the art of chai making, pots to cook and my splendid gearless green ‘Hero Wonder’, whose handlebars are so curved that I can ride it handcuffed and that my knees almost touch. It is now time for me to pimp it. I add a huge rack, a side stand (that will brake on day 3 under the heavy weight of my bagback), a more than useful bell in this deafening country and a metal grand-mother’s basket (that will be wrecked in a fall on day 40).

Here I am, set free in Mumbai’s urban orgy, trying my best to dodge in and out of cars, buses, motorcycles, cows, carts, pedestrians, rickshaws, beggars and tourists. I hurry to the tiny ferry at the foot of the grand Taj Mahal hotel and the splendid ‘Gateway of India’ arch. It is a sign, a materialized metaphor: I turn my back to luxury, money and capitalism to enter into the ‘real’ India. Ironically, I come in by the same door the British used to exit.

I was expecting to see miracles in India, so I kept my eyes open (or was it my heart?). I was right...

How good it is to aimlessly pedal under the sun, with only 25 euros in your pocket, cycling along coconut trees, hair streaming in the wind, sporadically inhaling whiffs of incense and seeing wide open eyes stunned to see me. It must be a shock to see Jesus on a bicycle, wearing oversized sun glasses and a broad smile. I compare myself with the daily train for which cows raise their head or the only customer of a gas station in the Australian Bush, in other words, a short moment of distraction in their monotonous routine. So I allow people to make fun of me, and even stop so they can enjoy it a little longer and join them in their leisure.

At one point, I rode too fast on a sandy path and drove in my front front wheel. First fall, first technical problem and first miracle.

I broke a very small piece inside the fork, so I push my bike until the closest road and stop a kid so he can hold my bike while I try to fix it. He does not speak English and patiently waits while holding my maimed vehicle. He quickly realizes my dilemma combined with my powerlessness and my obvious ignorance in mechanics. He signs me to follow him.

First miracle.... I crashed about a hundred meters from his father’s place who happens to be a bicycle mechanic. He examines his new patient and makes small eights with his head while grinning. I understand with our improvised sign language that the small bit I broke can only be found in Mumbai. Seeing my desperate situation, he decides to dismantle his own bicycle and offer me the broken bit. I accept it as the most precious offering one can give to a god. I leave happy as can be, cycling like a kid and open my arms to my cultural immersion in Indian villages.

After a few months cycling, I forget what a white man looks like: my beard covers most of my face, I am either tan or covered in dust, and stick to villages where I can be sure not to meet anyone from my continent. I am sheltered by all types of people ranging from the old retired fisherman, the rich Brahmin (highest cast), the Buddhist Dalit (lowest cast), the young and successful Muslim disguised as an American, the Evangelist couple dedicated to Jesus and the ‘chai wallah’ (tea street vendor). I sometimes ask myself who am I to sit with them, eat with them and share their love for their mutual gods? I observe, learn, discover, analyse, write, take pictures, listen and learn to be. I recount my civilisation, my society and they are astonished to see that our individualism sharply contrasts our promiscuity. They can hardly believe that I have ever kissed a girl on the lips, in public and on our first night. I try not to shock them too much by sparing them other details. We are exchanging two significantly different civilisations and mores. My days are governed by the rhythm of chai, gigantic meals composed of rice and spicy vegetables, weird plants discovered along the road, fruits that taste like heaven and naps to escape from the sadistic sun.

Day 60, after more than 800km in the hills of Maharastra (where you learn how to push a bicycle uphill), four punctures, three replaced pedals, four brake pads, over a hundred screws tightenings, two falls from which I miraculously survived (note to self: trucks and buses are the despotic kings of the road, therefore, the mosquito that I was had better move in order not to end his life on a headlight), I finally leave India to enter the province of Goa where money shapes life. The pilgrim that I am has hardly anything to do here but to heal from a staff infection on my right foot that will prevent me from moving for a week.

Go to India 5 months and a bicycle - Part 2

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Aug 10, 2010
What an Amazing Indian Adventure!
by: Judy and Mark

India is an amazing country to travel in... I can't imagine biking it, but your two part story captures both the charms and the frustrations of India. Thanks so much for sharing!

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