February 12, 2010 GMT
India - The road to Mumbai

Leaving Gandhinagar for the south was frustrating. To begin with, I had not ridden in a few days and my face-your-death-around-every-corner skills were a bit rusty. I was too wound up and could not relax for a single moment on the bike. I was also not allowed to use the expressway that leaves Ahmedabad for Mumbai, being stopped at the toll booths and told "no two wheelers". I got pretty angry with this system, because nobody could give me a better "reason" than "government rules". As a consequence of these stupid rules I was being thrown into the lion pit, the busy national highway connecting Ahmedabad with the towns south. This reminded me of a presentation about Simon Milward I attended before starting this trip. I remember how he fought for the right of people to travel with motorcycles on all roads and remember thinking "what an odd thing to do - surely motorcycles, like all vehicles, can travel anywhere!" Well, not so. On this trip I had already been in three places (expressway connecting Tehran with the Caspian in Iran, M2 connecting Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, and this expressway leaving Ahmedabad south towards Mumbai) where my bike was not welcome.

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My only (partial) relief (although this is not the word I want to use, there must be a word for "that which makes swallowing a bitter pill slightly easier") was that this travesty lasted for 35Ks only. Then the expressway was over and we were all dumped in the same jungle that is NH8.

I had a very close call with an idiot in a car who decided to take a U-turn from the left-most lane, cutting through my path, to get to the opposite direction of the highway. (Remember India is a left-side driving country, like the UK) I barely missed him after braking, honking the horn and swerving and all, which left me with shaky legs and a very, very nasty mood.

On that very day I tweeted something to the effect of "I've had it with India". I can now understand why many travelers would exclaim "never again" or "I need to get out of here" when I would ask them about India. For all its beauties (and India does have a lot of them), traveling on the road by motorcycle is just too dangerous. Nobody respects road rules. Conventions on the road are different than in the West, optimising for throughput rather than protection of human life.

After that near-death event I was too afraid to enjoy anything. The rest of the ride was just cautious, anxious, with me thinking "why dammit, why does it have to be this way?" all the time. It's a shame, you know? I was looking forward to coming to India, it was to be the crown jewel of this trip, and now there I was, not even comfortable being on the bike for fear of my life. A sad state of affairs.

Anyway. A few Ks south of Surat I left the highway (to my utter relief) and took the road up the mountain that would lead me to Vansda National Park.

On that secondary road to Vansda there were many street vendors selling fruit, so I stopped at one and tried to do business with sign language and the mobile phone in hand. This is how it usually goes:

Step 1: Point to fruit, ask "rupees?", get a response.
Step 2: Punch in that response (say, "18") on the phone.
Step 3: Show the number on the screen to the vendor. He nods in agreement.
Step 4: Say "kg?"
Step 5: Vendor nods "of course"
Step 6: Get about a kilo of said fruit, have them weighed, put in a bag, hand over the money.
Step 7: Get asked for more money because it's EIGHTY rupees per fruit all of a sudden and not 18/kg
Step 8: Get your money back, remove all the children/teenagers from your bike, and hit the road again while silently cursing in your helmet.

Pepper this with the prior events of the day (road rage) and 50 people gathering around you, pointing at you, giggling while they're at it, staring at you like a wild animal, and you can imagine what a lovely experience shopping on the street sometimes is. To the cynic who will say "well then just use a shop you whiner!" I would like to point out that out of large cities there are no fruit & veg shops.

Further along the road I was delighted to find another street vendor, all alone in a village, with no other vendors around him, who had some vegetables - carrots, cucumbers, brocoli, tomatoes... his prices immediately sounded right. He was giving me the real price and not the "let's fleece the rich tourist price". Almost in tears from this dignified treatment, I stopped there for a few minutes, had a piece of sweet that Anjana had given me in the morning before I left, and gave him the last piece. He thanked me and proceeded to share it with two of his mates who were nearby, all senior gentlemen, very discreet and polite. It was the only positive note in an otherwise disappointing day.

Stocked up on vegetables, I had my meals for the next two days secure, so I relax a little. Getting out of the village I noticed a motorcycle repair shop and, just for the heck of it, stopped to see what engine oil they had available. It didn't look good at all, so I thanked them and made a move to leave, which was met with an invitation to the table of three gentlemen having dinner at the restaurant next door. They offered me a refreshing glass of lassi and proceeded to quiz me on the trip and the bike. When we were ready to leave I asked them about an Internet Cafe, they said I would not find one before Mumbai, but offered to let me use the private Internet connection of one of them.

It turns out that the guy was a petrol station owner, had an Internet connection that needed some convincing to activate (thank Allah for default router passwords...) and was quite pushy. After logging in to my webmail and noting in my phone the number and address of Punit's parents in Mumbai, I thanked them and started putting on jacket/gloves etc, only to realise that they had moved my bike, put it on the centre stand and had conjured a professional photographer who was taking pictures of it. I was then asked to stand like this, stand like that, look this way, smile more, etc etc which really got to my nerves. All the goodness of an act of helping someone was gone, and this had turned into a PR opportunity for the industrious pump owner who was taking advantage of my exotic status as much as he could. Without ever having asked me, of course. I could see that even one of his friends was visibly embarrassed by what was going on...

Anyway. One of the first pictures, when I could still smile.

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Getting out of there as soon as possible (do I sense a pattern here?) I took refuge in the national park. But it was not meant to be... I asked if I could camp and was told that free camping was prohibited, but there was "a campsite". I thought "great!" and tried to find it. Unmarked, of course, at the end of an obscure dirt/broken tarmac road, of course, nobody could provide accurate instructions to get there, of course... It's simple really. Don't take the bridge, don't fall into the gorge where the broken road leads you, just take a right before you fall to your death:

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At the campsite I met the usual assortment of scruffy layabouts and a guy in a uniform who I tried to communicate with. I asked for the price, he said 200 Rs. TWO HUNDRED RUPEES! To camp. For one person. One night. Preposterous! This is how much we were paying in touristy towns for a double room!

It took me about an hour (and some phone calls to officials of the forest department) to get to the bottom of this, but here is the explanation:

(a) Using your own tent is not allowed.
(b) Ergo, you need to use one of the 8-person, permanently pegged, filthy tents of the campsite.
(c) The price for each such tent per night is 200Rs.
(d) Since I was alone in my tent, I would pay the full amount.

The layabouts were right next to me, staring at me, talking among themselves, giggling, pointing, laughing out loud at times while doing all of the above, and generally being extremely pleasant and helpful. When I resigned myself to extortion and agreed to pay the full price, I asked about facilities like a toilet, shower etc... I was shown a single hole-in-the-ground toilet and nothing else.

After all the annoying layabouts got tired of annoying me and pissed off, I managed to prepare my dinner in peace. This is the Vstrom in night cooking mode:

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I was then approached by what turned out to be an overly enthusiastic college student who was part of a botanist studies college dispatch in the national park to study the flora, and he just wanted to know everything about everything. I was exhausted, had barely finished dinner, not done the washing, not packed up everything for the night etc, but still the guy was there, firing away questions, interspersed with short comments about how I must be very tired and he's sorry and all but "just one other thing..."

About an hour later I managed to hit my sleeping bag, filthy from a full day's hard riding, as there was no shower to be found...

The next morning, with rejuvenated strength and therefore faith in the human race, I greeted my harassers when they circled me as I was preparing breakfast on the bike and asked them again about showering. Daylight made gestures more successful, so they got the picture now. They pointed to the water pump:

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Thinking "you have got to be kidding me..." I let it pass. The overly enthusiastic student from last night returned, true to his promise, and told me I had to meet his professor who was a renown scientist and a great man etc etc. After packing up I went to their corner of the campsite to meet them, but they were busy with something so I just spent a few minutes there talking to some students and then got ready to leave. After greeting everyone within a shouting radius, I hopped on the bike and turned the ignition key to "ON", getting ready to fire the Vstrom up...

In an unfathomable move of audacity, the enthusiastic student reached out and turned MY ignition key to "OFF".

Think about it for a moment. You're on that extension of yourself one calls a "bike", you've spent the fullest, most original, last 5 months being with it, caring for it, looking at it, cooking on it, resting against it... it has taken you places you would otherwise never seen, it has enabled so many things to happen, it is so dear to you, and then some random guy just extends his arm and DARES to grab the key and turn off the ignition switch?

Outrageous.

Suppressing my instinctive reaction (physical violence), I took a couple of seconds to recover. The owner of the offending fingers was beaming at his professor who had just arrived on the scene. He had wanted me to not go, so I could meet him. I turned to the guy who dared turn the key and with voice cracked from the effort to keep it low said something like "You know, most people where I come from would find what you just did extremely offensive..."

The glorious scientist apologised on behalf of his student (who just needed a lesson in manners, really), then I told him sorry but I've got to run, and got the hell out of there. (the "getting out of there" pattern emerged only as late in this trip as India... and unfortunately it's still there)

With this and that it was already 9 in the morning. I.e. late. But anyway, I thought I went through all this to see the national park, and see it I shall! So I went to the gate where there was a Forestry Department checkpoint and I had been told the previous day I could get a guide for the park. I asked for a guide, which resulted in giggles, a lot of pointing and some commotion. I waited patiently for about five minutes. Nothing happened. I asked the dude at the gate: "Is there anyone here who speaks English?" He said "No."

"Not even a guide who speaks English?"
"No."
"Then what the hell am I waiting here for?!"

Raging furious I rode off. I cannot deal with this behaviour. This sloth, this seeming indifference to anything. We've had discussions with people about tourism development in India. As a landscape, flora and fauna, it's got everything it needs. It is the people and the organisation that need to change. Or, all visitors should be given free pot to smoke to "relaaax maaan". Or perhaps it's only me and I should start smoking. I'll think about that...

To reinforce the above point (regarding the beauty of India), the road from Waghai to Vani was a wonderful ride. Broken tarmac galore, making me at times wonder whether some part of the much-broken-and-welded pannier system would just break off, making riding on the pegs more comfortable than sitting, making the sunglasses slip off my nose all the time... BUT all this was on a curvy, twisty mountain road that took me through a beautiful forest, small bridges over rocky landscapes torn by rapid clear waters, the curves hitting me one after another, constantly challenging me, daring me to take my eyes just one moment off the road to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings.

The OSM map for this area depicts just how curvy this route is:

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After Vani one approaches Nashik which is, well... urban. All the fun stops as soon as one approaches Mumbai. Trucks, trucks and more trucks litter the road. It was around 1 in the afternoon and it was getting seriously hot. So I stopped about 100K before Mumbai, found a field with a nice tree to provide shade next to the NH3 and lied down for a couple of hours.

Not having spent so much time lying next to my bike (we're close, but not *that* close), I was surprised to discover my engine number! Whoohoo! Very useful to know where it is, that one. Only on entering India had I ever been asked to show customs where the engine number is and I couldn't, so after a while they just waved me through. But now I knew.

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I also noticed that my tyres were taking the beating surprisingly well. This is the front Continental TKC80 after 19300K. Notice the funky uneven wear pattern, which results in a bumpy feeling on smooth tarmac. Which, I should add, is not much of a problem here, because in India you don't really get a lot of perfectly smooth tarmac, like you do in Iran, say.

TKC80 front after 19300km

The bike to provide some privacy from the highway, the tree over me to provide shade, the jacket and back protector for a flat, smooth surface to lie on. One doesn't need more.

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After a couple of hours, and with renewed strength, I plunged into the mother of all Indian cities: Mumbai!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at February 12, 2010 11:59 AM GMT
 
 

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