February 03, 2010 GMT
India - First day in Amritsar

One thing led to another and I'm now in the ridiculous position of having to catch up on a whole month of events in India... how am I ever going to do that?

Last time I had to do this (in Pakistan, catching up on the events of Iran and Pakistan in one go) I resorted to letting the pictures tell the story. I think this is the only way to remain sane and actually get the job done, so here goes.

I entered India on the 1st of January 2010, three and a half months into the journey. As usual, I had not researched the country I was about to visit, to have the purest, most spontaneous experience. I wanted to be as little preoccupied as possible about the countries I visited.

Right after crossing the land border between Pakistan and India I had a strong sense of accomplishment. I was there. The UK2India trip had reached its final destination, I had done it, there were to be no difficulties now. I was out of theocratic police states and spontaneous violence-ridden areas. No censorship, no machine guns, no mandatory routes. This was India, I was standing on the very tip of the iceberg and I couldn't wait to dig deeper.

But border crossing takes time and by the time I was in India proper it was noon. Lunchtime! I stopped at the first roadside restaurant I noticed, parked the bike and took a seat, savouring the moment and smiling to myself for just being there on that lovely, sunny day.

The bike attracted a lot of attention as usual (I have come to terms with the fact it's the bike, and not me, people are fascinated about) and a small crowd started gathering around it...

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The difference with the usual treatment in the other countries I visited (silent awe) is that people here were all too ready to jump on the bike for some pictures. Thankfully, they asked for permission before doing so, which I happily granted. I was in such a good mood at that point, with a little bit of diplomacy I might have even taken the lads for a spin.

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I had a tasty platter of rice with vegetables which looked the simplest thing on the menu but still had many spices and was very yummy indeed.

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A conversation ensued with one of the more daring patrons and I was told that "I must" go see the border ceremony later on that evening. I must have been in really good spirits because I would not usually backtrack without a very good reason and the border was already 20K behind me, but I thought "what the heck, when will I ever be here again?" - so I went.

The ceremony itself is like a football match, but instead of sheer hooliganism you get a healthy (over)dose of nationalism, showing off, flag-waving, our-penises-are-longer-than-yours routines etc. All very adult and civilised stuff that I really enjoyed. After being pushed, squashed and trod on on our way to the "stage" right next to the border line

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I chose a spot, trying to optimise for least possible constant pressure (read: shoving) from all directions.

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Don't you love it when the young generation is corrupted into nationalism from early on?

Anyway, to stay sane I focused on this guy that looked so much like Eddie Murphy it was actually funny seeing him play the all-too-serious border guard.

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At this point, I had a blatant demonstration of the difference between a "tourist" and a "traveler". I feel vaguely insulted when people call me a "tourist" in this trip, and here is why.

This is how the tourists experience the ceremony:

tourists

Removed from the real event, treated specially, standing out like sore thumbs, just quickly showing up, taking plenty of pictures with camera equipment worth ridiculous amounts of money and then disappearing in a minivan driven by a local.

On the other hand the traveler (yes, I am blatantly beating my own drum here) is *IN* the events. Tries to become part of the real deal, to experience this brave new world to the fullest, truest extent.

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The traveler also knows how to act diplomatically because he/she inevitably has to deal with all social/cultural differences. Being blatantly shoved around by people for more than an hour is a challenge for someone who does not enjoy sardinisation. One must learn to adapt quickly to the utter lack of any respect for your personal space. After having people use me as a platform to just jump higher to see the ceremony better, I noticed this and realised it was good to be stoically diplomatic and just smile about the whole thing.

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Not my cup of tea by any stretch of this imagination, but luckily entering India had automatically given me an excellent mood and I was able to deal with the boneheadedness blended with blind nationalism and hooliganism I was witnessing all around me.

Some more lunacy:

Does wonders for love and understanding between people of different cultures, that!

After this madness was over I was very relieved to get the hell out of there... and onto Amritsar, which would be my first stop in India and is also the main pilgrimage site for the Sikhs. When I got to the Golden Temple it was already dark and quite chaotic - I had heard one can stay in the temple grounds but it took me more than an hour to locate the exact spot (which is right opposite the rear walkway to the temple, very close to an Internet cafe)

This is the closest I got to the temple itself.

Golden Temple, holy site of Sikhs, Amritsar, India

Lovely, innit? That was a safe distance. I'm not too keen on temples, especially when one has to walk barefoot on dirty marble on a cold evening along with a few thousands kneeling and praying along the way. That's a bit too much religion, lack of hygiene and inconvenience at the same time. Sorry, but no.

So interestingly the people running the show there appear to be offering free meals to everyone (even though I did not try - I couldn't find where anything was and it was very chaotic and overcrowded around the temple, no signs in English etc), which meant that this impressively fast, massive and noisy washing gig was going on all the time:

After being beckoned by a long-bearded fellow, asking "are you sure?" and being beckoned again, I rode the bike along with a sea of people through a narrow passageway that led me to a large atrium where people were sleeping on blankets on the floor, while others were talking, eating, going to the communal bathrooms (very posh, quite clean, very impressive) and there was generally a lot of hustle and bustle. Turns out the bearded fellow was some sort of temple guard and he commanded some authority around there, so when he pointed at a corner of the atrium where I could park my bike and started gently kicking people to get them to stand up so that I could ride over their sleeping grounds, all I had to do was feel guilty, apologise to them in a foreign language and comply as quickly and discreetly as possible. I parked the bike, got a couple of basics I would need for the dorm and went in.

The foreigners dormitory had beds (good, not sleeping on the ground), lockers (good, no need to leave your stuff lying around) and pretty much nothing else. Everyone was using their own sleeping bags on the beds and we had to walk over the atrium to go to the loo or wash. But it was free of charge and it was a sanctuary of peace and quiet in a sea of people "out there". There was a temple guard by the door to the foreigners dorm that didn't allow anyone not looking foreign/rich enough to enter.

So I dumped my stuff, earmarked a bed for later and went out to explore Amritsar on foot. No change of clothes of course - I was still wearing riding boots, trousers etc. It was too much of a hassle to take out my "civilian" clothing (as it would attract only more attention to the bike) and anyway it was cold enough to make walking around in bike gear comfortable. Walking past a parking lot with the world's supply of motorcycles (all pretty much identical 125-200cc models) I noticed this funny piece of advice on the wall (which, surprisingly, was also in English):

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Then, being the hardened adventurer that I am, I spotted this shop and completely descended upon it... chocolate ice-cream with hot chocolate and then some Ritter Sport chocolates for the way home.

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I was very hungry as I hadn't had anything to eat since that rice for lunch and Amritsar was too chaotic for me to muster the strength to find food. So I just dosed up on chocolate, grabbed a couple of biscuit packs from a shop in the back streets around the temple (that were impressively marked on my GPS map - wow!) and went back to the temple compound.

This is the atrium where most people slept. Can you spot the bike?

where pilgrims sleep

...and this is the vigilant guard that held the foreigners' fortress:

guarding the foreigners

I read a few pages of Eat, Pray, Love before we agreed with everyone else in the dorm to switch the lights off.

A bit too many people for my first day in India. If this is the norm around here, I'm going to be in trouble. Tomorrow I'll make my way to Delhi. Goodnight!

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:27 AM GMT
India - Delhi and the road south

I woke up in Amritsar all too eager to leave. This was too wild, too blindly religious, too crowded, too noisy, too chaotic for me. So I took the road to Delhi... (you at the back sniggering, I know who you are!)

The fog made finding the National Highway a wee difficult, but the GPS and a bit of asking around did the job. The going was tough, visibility was less than 30 meters and everyone and their dog had their hazard lights on. I was riding in a cloud and noticed my clothes getting gradually wet, even though there was no rain. It was also cold enough to force me to change back to winter gloves.

fog on the way to Delhi

With this and that I got to Delhi around 17:00. I had no guidebook of India, as Ping-Yi was bringing that with her in a few days - I had left the book behind as I didn't want to deal with its weight and volume for 4 months before I got the chance to use it for the first time.

This made finding a place to stay, well, interesting... Let's see: Chaotic huge city - check. In India - check. Dangerous traffic coming at you from all directions - check. Fog that makes reading signs nigh impossible - check. Dirt in the air that engulfs your eyes, ears, mouth, creates a dirty film on your helmet visor, reducing visibility even further - check. Total lack of a grid system or any discernible city or road structure - check. Bitter cold - check. The night coming in - check. Tiredness from being on the road for the entire day - check.

Under these lovely conditions I resorted to the solace of my GPS and the information I had pre-loaded to it - a file with campsites and hotels around the world provided by an excellent chap called Ulrich at the HorizonsUnlimited.com bulletin board.

Luckily, there was a camping icon somewhere nearby, so I spent only an hour finding it - it was outside Delhi, somewhere in the bush, and it was already dark, and there were no signs, and the people I asked didn't speak English, and the campsite itself had no lights and no guests and no signs and it was deserted and hidden behind a huge solid gate (and actually it wasn't a campsite per se - rather a plantation of sorts where the owner allowed people to camp), so finding it was a challenge.

But anyway, I got there, the minders rang their boss (who could speak English) on the phone, I had a look around, established there was no convenient parking, no shower and no hot water, was told that the price was 500 Rupees (which is pure extortion based on the assumption that the tourist, having reached that godforsaken place has no way out), tried to negotiate for a better price, got told "To camp on my land, this is what you pay. You can camp anywhere else for free", decided I was not desperate enough to take this kind of an attitude and left.

30K and a lot of dirty traffic, dangerous fog and darkness later, I returned to downtown Delhi, found the main bazaar area and located another GPS waypoint for a hotel. That was a "proper" hotel which was expensive (double of the camping cost) and would require me to park the bike on a busy road, with no protection whatsoever. The area was as dodgy as they come and there was no way I was leaving the Strom there... To cut a long story short, I negotiated with 4 different hotels around that area before I found one that was half-decent, on a side-street (i.e. not too many people fiddling with the bike), at least had a sidewalk I could park on (improving the chances the bike wouldn't be hit by another vehicle), and was willing to negotiate on the price. By now I had been in Delhi and going around in circles nonstop for five hours. I was tired. In a fluke of negotiation the hotel manager told me to piss off and he would only do a better price if I pre-paid for 4 nights, while for one night the price was 1200Rs. This was after we were discussing 800Rs per night... I couldn't take it any longer, cursed (silently), coughed up, parked the bike as best as I could and collapsed in one of the rooms of the ripoff USA Hotel.

The luxury of having a little bit of sidewalk to park on: (for the purists among us, no, it was not usable by pedestrians anyway)

outside the ripoff USA hotel, Delhi

It's disgusting how some people will take advantage of you when you're in need. Last night it was after 10 and I was visibly tired, so they managed to rip me off. In the morning the day-shift manager was all smiles and offered me "a better price" for an "extended stay" and said that he "didn't want to lose the customer". As insulted as it gets before I open my mouth and start being real unpleasant to people who probably don't deserve it, I packed up as fast as possible and left.

After a good night's kip, with daylight and no fog, I located a far better hotel for A THIRD of the price I paid last night within the hour. But the damage had been done and I already felt appalled by last night's experience. I don't want to be the tourist that is antagonistic with everyone, and takes for granted that everyone is out to take advantage of him/her as much as possible. I like to travel with optimism and a smile. But the first night in Delhi killed that and made me count the days until Ping-Yi would fly in and I would be able to get out of that city.

I spent the next couple of days exploring the central bazaar area, writing the blog posts for Pakistan and reading my book.

Central bazaar of Delhi, India

Finally the day came for Ping-Yi to fly in. Tellingly, on my way to the airport I was hit from behind by an ancient cab. Not bothering with a proper intersection, the traffic police had created a U-turn that most traffic going to the domestic airport had to take. As I was turning, I committed the sin of stopping to LOOK before entering a new highway lane, and BANG - the cab behind me hit me. After I checked there was no serious damage (the rear fender is plastic & thus flexible and the pannier that was hit was magically not damaged), I told off the idiot in the taxi who proceeded to shower me with unintelligible curses of the "move out of my way you little insect" kind.

Luckily Ping-Yi got there safely and was still willing to speak to me after waiting for an hour and a half to be picked up from the airport (even the Grand Navigator gets temporarily misplaced occasionally). We spent a couple of days in Delhi, visited the Red Fort where funnily enough people are not allowed to spit, unlike everywhere else in India.

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In case you think the artist is being a little too generous with the size of the spit depiction, allow me to inform you that this is not the case. Indians seem to enjoy chewing coloured tobacco (or something like that) and spitting it all over the place. It appears to be a very macho gesture because people do it with pride. Every day I see people open their car doors and spit, pull up their helmets and spit, walk on the road and spit, talk on the phone and spit, and it's always a disgustingly impressive quantity of stuff that comes out. There seems to be a campaign to educate people that this spitting business is not the best public health habit (especially factoring in that many people walk barefoot on the streets and most in homes and some offices). All I can say is good luck to the campaign.

We also visited a famous (for some reason) mosque close to the Red Fort, but by the time we got there it was dark and the representative of the inferior species (female) accompanying me was not welcome, so we just left.

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I came to India thinking that this is the country of religious freedom and tolerance. It bothered me that in cases like the above religious freedom translates to discrimination against women. I can't see the place for such backward customs in a modern free society.

We also used the quite young Delhi metro system, which is impressive in its cleanliness, efficiency and organisation. I mean... people queuing like that? In India?

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That, I did not expect. Of course it all breaks down when it comes to reason about how many human bodies can physically fit in the train itself, with the conductors pushing bodies like lifeless sacks in the already jampacked train. When you can feel the lung movement on every breath of your co-travelers, you know it's tight.

We pondered a bit more on the whole issue of sex/beauty symbols (Q: Why use a white man to sell underwear to Indians? A: because the target market is tourists, silly) and the next day got out of dirty, noisy Delhi.

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We hit highway 8, riding south towards Jaipur. The first 30K out of Delhi were a nightmare. Trucks everywhere, jammed, suicidal overtaking, works on the road, muddy diversions, lawless traffic, lots of anxiety, lots of tiredness, cold... I remember thinking "If this doesn't change soon, we're never getting anywhere". After an hour of that travesty we needed a rest break.

Luckily after a couple more hours the situation improved dramatically and riding on the highway became relatively sane. Because of the endless trucks and intersections (and animals crossing the road and people and and and...) our pace was as slow as 50K/hour, but at least we were not afraid for our lives all the time.

This has now been burned into my brain. On the back of every truck in India, one sees this All-Your-Base-Are-Belong-To-Us-type message:

Horn OK Please truck

By sunset we got to Pushkar. We were exhausted. We had ridden about 350K that day. Turns out it's unrealistic to aim for anything more for a single day, even when using National Highways.

Cow in Pushkar ruthlessly going shopping:

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Pushkar might have been nice once, with the lake and without the tourist sprawl, but now it's just filled with annoying touts and the lake is dry.

The next morning we spent a few hours relaxing on the lovely, deserted terrace of our hotel. The original plan was to just have breakfast and go, but somehow we started chatting, and we were alone, and the sounds of Pushkar could hardly reach us, and the monkeys were jumping all over the place from building to building...

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...occasionally posing for pictures as well...

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...so we got out of Pushkar late. Really late. So late in fact that on our way out of town we stopped for lunch in Ajmer, and had the mother of all garlic breads:

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Taking the National Highway 8 south towards Udaipur turned out to be a challenge. Roadworks cut the obvious entry to the highway and there were no signs. Within 5'' of our confusing encounter with what was effectively a dead-end, two guys on a motorcycle beckoned us to follow them. Turns out the dirt track breaking to the left was the official "diversion" - it's just that nobody had bothered putting up a sign.

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The situation got a bit low and a bit sandy, which freaks me out on such a heavy bike. Luckily the TKCs did their job and kept the rubber side down:

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With a little bit of ducking we managed to squeeze through.

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Taking the NH8, we were inundated by trucks, trucks and more trucks. With no extra room on the road to overtake, it took all of the Strom's torque to make a little bit of progress, grudgingly overtaking one truck after the other, turning the ride to a constant fight with seconds and a nerve-wrecking, way too long game of "Chicken".

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At least there was some entertainment value in all this - the types of vehicles one meets on an Indian highway are not to be found anywhere in Europe (anywhere I've been at least) - like this completely cabriolet truck:

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(click on the image & then use the "All sizes" button above the image to see a larger size version)

After fending off an attempt to rip us off at a roadside hotel, we resigned to the fact we would not find any decent hotel that night. We were lucky enough to locate a nice camping spot instead, a couple of Ks away from the NH8 on a dirt road, which worked wonders. We lied in the tent looking through the mosquito net at the stars of a crystal-clear sky and enjoyed the blissful peace & quiet. Every five minutes I was thinking "now they'll come". "OK, now". "OK, can't be long now..." - for the inevitable visitors who would have heard/spotted us riding there. But no, the only transient visit we got was by a lad next morning who appeared to be going to work. Amazing!

The only annoyance was that something we had had, had (*) began upsetting our stomachs, so we too became cases of "Delhi belly" - albeit after leaving Delhi.

(*) 3 "had"s in a row - you saw this here first!

The next day we did some serious riding, following NH8, going through many towns...

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...until, in the afternoon, we finally reached Udaipur.

Udaipur, Rajasthan

The city, lake, buildings and location are all quite pretty, but too touristy for me. I begin getting annoyed by the touts, courting us with a loud "hello my friend" everywhere we went or even as we walked down the street. This whole "tourism development" business is getting on my nerves. I don't feel we see true India, but rather that we fall from one tourist trap to another. This is not how I want to travel and I remember despairing over the possibility that all significant tourist attractions will be like that.

We spent the next day exploring Udaipur and (unsuccessfully) trying to give our stomachs a break.

Woman doing her washing in one of Udaipur's lakes.

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The lake & the palace. The main attractions of Udaipur.

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These guys can do just about anything... (and I'm sure they have hundreds of swimming pool maintenance contracts in Udaipur). All I can say is WTF...

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Leaving Udaipur, we pondered once more about the poor vehicles that are being constantly abused, safety regulations, the value of human life and the things necessity forces people to do in India.

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With that, we were out of the state of Rajasthan and into Gujarat.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 09:16 AM GMT
February 05, 2010 GMT
India - Gujarat

Entering Gujarat from the NE one tends to hit its biggest city, Ahmedabad. We didn't want to stay in a city, so we looked in the guide book for alternatives. It mentioned a Bird Sanctuary not too far from there. Now that was a good idea indeed, so we headed to Nal Sarovar Bird Sanctuary on the spot.

Very friendly villagers on the way to Nal Sarovar - some people just love having their picture taken:

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It doesn't take much to be happy on a trip like this... just a shortage of immediate annoyances. This photo would be titled "Happiness on the way to Nal Sarovar" and simply captures a moment of lovely weather, riding through tiny villages on a back road with no traffic, surrounded by farming fields and beautiful nature. We're healthy, we're together, what more can we ask for?

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The sun setting over Nal Sarovar.
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We located the hotel right next to the Bird Sanctuary and noticing there was plenty of space around the bungalows, we asked if it was ok to camp. Turns out it was, so we started pitching our tent. Easier said than done... for some reason the tent attracted even more amazement and bewilderment than the bike itself. We pitched it with 10 people standing right next to us, being in the way, looking at our every movement... we had to politely get back our poles and pegs from their examining hands to actually pitch the thing. When we did, we reached an impasse: We needed to start putting stuff in the tent and to take out all the bike gear (as it was quite hot). But with everyone there just waiting around, staring at us, waiting in mild amusement for our next move, how was this going to happen?

The penny dropped when a young woman from the audience built up the audacity to unzip the tent's flier WITHOUT ASKING US and putting her head to take a good look inside. What do you mean "private space"? I was extremely offended by this, uttered a barely controlled "excuse ME!" while grabbing the zip from her hand and doing it back up, and then realised one of us would need to stand guard while the other would be in the tent sorting the stuff out. Unbelievable, isn't it?

Our tent in its most spaceship-y shot, trying to explain why it attracted so much attention from the hotel patrons.

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After sorting everything out (and ensuring there were no other assaults on our tent), we went for a short walk through some fields around the tourist complex, cooked some dinner and collapsed in our sleeping bags.

The next morning it became evident that it was way too hot to spend the day comfortably in the tent. So we packed up and moved into one of the bungalows. Because our stomachs still weren't settled, we continued the ritual of cooking on the petrol stove. Opening our last can of tuna was a disappointment - I didn't carry it all the way from Pakistan to figure out NOW in a time of need that I was being ripped off! Argh!

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We had to remain vigilant throughout because our bungalow door sported a special cat hole, which meant the minute you relaxed and looked out the window the cat would bolt in and rummage through the foodstuff.

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The quick and dirty solution was to put my boots right there, so that the cat would at least have to make some noise which would alert us to the perimeter breach.

Next day I was feeling healthy enough to hazard a much needed oil change for the bike. Let's see, last time I changed engine oil would have been in er... Van, Turkey, which meant this batch had been used for... oh about 9,000K. Just 50% more of what the manufacturer suggests. Oh well, what do those Japanese know about motorcycles anyway?

So I had bought some half-decent (non synthetic) oil in Pakistan and had been carrying it around in typical Alex fashion for about 3 weeks now. Not as bad as the back tyre that I carried from Van, Turkey all the way to Islamabad, Pakistan to end up selling it to Simon, two months and a few thousand kilometers later. Oh well.

I knew I needed to remove the engine guard to get to the bolt that allows the engine oil to drain, so this is what I did first. I took out my tools and in the most manly imaginable fashion undid the 4 screws that held the engine guard and just like that, removed it. I was surprised at how easy it was, since I take for granted that I'm useless when it comes to doing anything with my hands.

vstrom engine guard at nal sarovar highlighted

Next question was "where do we dump the used oil?". Engine oil is extremely pollutant and hazardous to the underground waterways etc - a single drop of this thing pollutes a silly quantity of fresh water. Asking around resulted in blank stares. I tried the local petrol station, no oil changing facility there. People's attitude was "well, we just dump it in that field there".

On my trip out of the hotel complex my mission was two-fold: Besides finding a non-hazardous way of disposing of the old oil, we were also running out of supplies, so I had to find some rice and any vegetables I could get my hands on. On my way back from the petrol station I asked some people that appeared to be just chatting, half-blocking the road, about where I could find food. Their English was limited (and my Gujarati is notoriously poor), so one of them rang someone on the phone, who said "follow the man with the phone, he will guide you to a food shop". Turns out the man with the phone was the local chief, something like a super-mayor for the municipality. His son, who could speak English, soon joined us on his motorcycle. He took me to a stall by the lake that had cauliflower, tomatoes, onion, rice, nuts and even some chocolate, all of which I snatched. He then took me to an old man with a wreck of a stall on the side of another intersection next to the hotel who was willing to collect my engine oil and reuse it (sell it, perhaps). I did the oil change on the spot under the watchful stares of about 20 people and felt a little bit (I suppose) like Bob the Builder.

After this ultra-successful trip I got back to the hotel, picked up Ping-Yi and met Kayaam again (the leader's son who had helped me) and a friend of his. All four of us went to the lake and took the standard tour on a small raft that was being pushed with a stick (sorry for generic terms) by our trusty guide.

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Even though the afternoon is not the best time to see birds, it was still lovely.

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This was a procession of cows apparently going for a swim... no idea what they were doing in there. Crazy moos!

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After a while we reached terra firma once more, on a different shore of the lake:

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There we walked a little bit, stretched our legs, saw huge flocks of birds resting and respectfully did not approach them in order not to upset them. Unfortunately my camera's zoom capabilities are quite limited, so no pictures worth posting from that distance... (unless you enjoy pictures of vast plains with many tiny black dots on them)

Our guide, whom I quite liked.

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On our way back the peacefulness of the lake took us over and we barely talked, just allowing ourselves to take in all this peace and quiet...

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The beach community next to the lake, and some impressive birds.

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Now THIS would be useful all over the country... but it was only to be found in the very well built and organised information centre of the sanctuary. Highly recommended to visit if you're ever in the area. Kayaam kindly arranged for it to be unlocked so that we could have a look (the Information Centre, not the "spitoon"), since on weekdays it's usually shut.

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Local women going about their chores in colourful outfits.

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One thing led to another and soon enough we received a dinner invitation by Kayaam to join his family for dinner that evening. We gladly accepted and indeed had a lovely time. This is a memento right before we left their place, after having had a good dinner and a chat, seen family pictures, talked about our lives and laughed a lot. Good people!

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Kayaam had also tipped us about the nation-wide kite festival that was apparently climaxing the following day. He said it would be worth going to Ahmedabad to see it, as there would be thousands of kites in the air.

We complied! That's the beauty of tramping around on a bike, one can go wherever, whenever. So we zipped over to Ahmedabad the next day, where we were repeatedly harassed by overenthusiastic youngsters approaching us and wishing to speak to us IN TRANSIT or (even better) were trying to cut us off, to force us to stop so we could have a chat.

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Disappointed with the kite festival (nothing impressive to see, really), we flipped through the guide book and spotted a "Deer Park" a few Ks out of the city. The book also said it had a campsite! Now that sounded promising!

So we made our way out of Ahmedabad north towards Gandhinagar. A shot on the way there that depicts the harsh reality of Indian roads. Anything can be found in your path...

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As soon as we entered the park we were at a loss about what to do, as of course there were no signs in English, and the guy at the ticket counter also couldn't speak much English and couldn't give any useful information.

So I approached a group of people that seemed to be there with some sort of an exhibition stand, figuring they would have information about the park... ten minutes later we were being fed by what turned out to be a group of nature lovers who were running a bird rescue rally on the very day most people were busy flying kites that (with their strings) injured tens of birds around the city.

I tried to get them to sit down and have their meal (by example), but blatantly failed.

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After meeting the Bird Rescue team we had a stroll around the park. It was a really well done place. It started with a funny mirror hall to get people laughing and thus relaxed...

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...then offered a few interesting crocodile pits:

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(note - this was the first time I see live crocs!)

It further offers an endless supply of OK bricks, whatever these are. Regardless, they make great conversation killers when one is tempted to hold up a brick instead of verbally saying "OK".

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By the time we were done exploring the park, the bird rescue team got another phone call about an injured bird that had been collected somewhere nearby, so we jumped in the car with two rescuers and hit the road.

This is what most trees looked like in the villages those days. With all those strings tearing through the skies, one can imagine how many birds were injured/killed mid-air.

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Alok and Ping-Yi, after having picked up a patient with the BirdRescueMobile (okay okay it's not as crisp as "Batmobile", but there you have it)

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Back at the makeshift clinic in the park, providing first aid to the injured bird.

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After a couple of hours of hanging around while everyone else was doing some real work, we were lucky enough to get a special sighting of one of the leopards of the park.

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Again, a first for me. A leopard! Whoa. What a majestic animal. Note that this particular one has been in captivity since birth, doesn't get enough exercise and is much fatter than the wild ones. Which gave people a good chuckle when I asked "is she pregnant?", only to get the retort "well, that would make it the first pregnant MALE leopard..."

That evening we were invited to stay over at Chaitanya and Anjana's place (the organisers of the Bird Rescue day), which we very gladly did. We had some food and plenty of good discussion, even though we were all exhausted. It had been a very full day!

Next morning it was time to say goodbye. After some farewell shots we hit the road again.

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On our way out of Ahmedabad Ping-Yi noticed a "hyper-market" and we thought "could it be?". Well, it could, and it was. It was a proper huge grocery store with any *vegetarian* foodstuff we could want. Fruit, vegetables, bread (unheard of!), rice, pasta... oh bliss! We had been forced to do our shopping from off-the-road stalls and street vendors that usually had 3 cabbages, all looking battered and miserably small, and now we were back in foodland! Our shopping frenzy was only moderated by how much we could carry on the bike. But we were happy. Oh, so happy to finally have proper supplies to cook with!

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Leaving that food market was the first (and so far only) time on the trip that I extended the tank bag to its full-open configuration, simply because there was no other space on the bike. We had even stuffed (egg-free) cookies in our pockets!

Our destination for the day was Jamnagar, since our rough idea was to reach the coast, Jamnagar was on the way and at the right distance, and Chaitanya had a friend there who would be willing to show us around. He had called in advance and given us his friend's phone number, to be contacted when we were approaching. The royal treatment I tell you!

So we followed the highway which took us through various towns with the usual anarchic traffic...

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On the way to Jamnagar, good shot of the typical use of a motorcycle in India. As always, overloaded and completely unprotected...

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On reaching Jamnagar we met Anil, Chaitanya's friend, who kindly located us with his motorcycle and led us to a hotel near his home. He checked us in, we made dinner arrangements and met later in the evening.

During dinner with Anil's family I mentioned something Chaitanya had told me, that one of his friends in Jamnagar was a keen star-gazer, and I asked Anil if he was the one. He said no, but he could arrange something for later. Not thinking too much about it, I said "sure, would love to" and carried on with the meal.

Turns out Anil is not a star-gazer. He isn't even a friend of Chaitanya in Gandhinagar. But because Chaitanya's friend had not been in town to help us, he had passed us along to Anil, who was basically receiving, helping and entertaining the whims of two complete strangers! Talk about hospitality...

He nevertheless made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a star-gazer with a portable telescope was found, and even though the man had the flu, he packed his telescope and came over so that we could see the stars.

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When this whole thing became clear to me, I was rather embarrassed I had even mentioned the star-gazer. But this is how things happen on this trip. I'm constantly surprised by the kindness of people and the lengths they will go to make me (us) feel at home. Truly impressive.

When we were done star-gazing (which I was doing for the first time ever) Anil took us for a drive with his car around the city. The lake was beautiful at night:

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For the next day we had arranged to go for yoga and then a walk around the lake, where birds gather in the early morning. But I had a rough night, my stomach giving me grief, so I didn't feel like going anywhere at 6am. I had to sleep. Ping-Yi did go and capture some beautiful pictures of the birds:

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This is a shot outside the hotel. An idea of the commotion the simple act of parking the bike created in Jamnagar. Anil (foreground) seems to be enjoying it!

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Anil also thought local media would be interested in this trip, so he made a few phonecalls and sure enough, a reporter was there within the hour. He took some footage of the bike and us two talking to the camera, answering the very important questions that people like us are born to answer.

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Making sure we weren't picking our noses in front of the camera:

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Leaving Jamnagar the next day, we realised we hadn't been online in ages, and sort of needed to check on a few things... so we tried to locate an Internet cafe of sorts in the small towns west of Jamnagar, on the way to the coast, but after being sent from one hotel to another and one non-working "Internet point" to the next, all we had managed to find was some sort of (funeral?) procession:

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We also met the cow with the most intimidating look in India. I stopped the bike to take a look at it, because even from a distance that animal looked eeeeveeel! (the fact that it was taking our lane and not budging was completely normal by that point)

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This is a quite representative clip of what riding a National Highway in India really is like. As you're watching it, imagine riding 300km of this (sure, with many isolated stretches) in a day.

We then reached Dwarka and the coast. I realised I could see the sea for the first time since Antalya, Turkey, 3 months back!

We visited (rather perchance) a beautiful temple dedicated to the wife of Krishna. It was a peaceful place slightly out of Dwarka's centre. We removed our shoes and walked around the temple, taking pictures, only to be told very politely after a few minutes that pictures were not allowed. Good thing we didn't even try stepping into the temple.

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We left Dwarka swiftly and headed south. An Indian biker we had met in Nal Sarovar had tipped us to the existence of a nice beach close to Bhogat (south of Dwarka) and that was exactly what we were looking for now... There was no obvious entry, and the highway was far from the sea (we couldn't even see it!), but we took a turn in a sandy dirt road and after more than 2K of slow and bumpy riding (that sometimes forced us both to stand on the pegs), we hit the beach!

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Exuberant that we actually found the beach, we enjoyed the lovely sunset for a few minutes before starting to unpack, pitch the tent etc.

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This is one of those moments that I look at the bike and just slowly shake my head with a content smile on my face, doing a Charlie Randall impression. I like my bike. It's a good bike. It takes me places. Even when they're unmapped sandy tracks in India, with two of us and a full load on it. It's a damn good bike.

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After dinner and some amateur star-gazing (with minimal light pollution nearby, the sky was a joy to behold) we hit the sleeping bags. It was a totally silent night... no road or village nearby, no wind, no animals. Bliss.

The next morning I woke up early, rejoiced once more at how lucky I was to be there, took a couple of shots of our improvised camping site and then proceeded to drag Ping-Yi out of the tent.

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The early morning beach was just too good to miss.

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Clean, unspoiled sand, packed with little treasures.

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Our spirits were really high, so we shot this photo to send to all of our friends in Gujarat who had made this possible. Without you, we wouldn't have been there. Thank you!

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The sun was seriously out now and the temperature was climbing rapidly. We had lunch, packed and took the coastal road south.

Art of the road...

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As we were slowly making our way south, the landscape changed,becoming more tropical. I expected to see something like this in South India, not in Gujarat! A very welcome surprise.

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Camel-powered carts used for local transportation. These must be the Mercedes of carts, considering others are powered by oxen (or, in Pakistan, small donkeys and horses).

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Another sample of road safety and value of human life versus necessity and/or practicality. Can you imagine what will happen if a tyre of that pickup truck blows out?

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Turning away from the coast, taking the road to the mountain and to Sasan Gir National Park.

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Reaching Sasan, we spent the night in a home-stay: Basically someone who was renting out rooms of his house to visitors. I was reluctant at first, but it worked out just fine. Much better facilities than a hotel and a much warmer environment, since we got to hang out with the family.

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The next day we went on a "safari" in the national park, hoping to spot some of the last remaining Asiatic lions ("and annoy them a bit more...", I kept thinking to myself). We got up at 05:30, hopped in a 4x4 and bobbled along for more than 6 hours around the park and the villages in and around it.

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We visited some free-range crocodiles:

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...and held conversations to the effect of:

ME: Why don't we go closer?
REASONABLE GUY: Because crocodiles can run as fast as 30km/h.
ME: (thinking hard) Well that's not THAT fast!
R.G: Six times your normal walking pace... wanna have a go?
ME: *grumble*

The ride in the 4x4 was an experience excruciating to such a degree that when our guide got a phonecall with the whereabouts of some lions and we did go and briefly see them, we were too tired to be impressed:

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To see the lions we had to walk on a railway bridge. I love this stuff:

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Back at the house, we caught a few Z's (i.e. slept like logs) and then got up for the strenuous task of... cooking dinner under observation!

Blatantly, these people gathered only when we started cooking. It had been a peaceful yard before we emerged.

One of the guys we met in the village told us in a conspiratory voice that he could take us leopard spotting that night. We had no idea what that entailed, but he seemed reasonably reliable and we agreed. No money involved, this would be on a friendly basis. So around midnight we met, walked across the village, descended into the riverbed and sat there, waiting for the leopards to come. I remember thinking at the time "this isn't such a brilliant idea, is it?", realising that we were completely vulnerable to an animal that could smell us from hundreds of meters away, while for us to see it in pitch black, the leopard would need to be brushing its whiskers against our face. I somehow didn't look forward to that happening, and was relieved to go, without seeing anything, an hour later. Instead of leopards we visited the cows in the dude's yard. Peaceful animals, they were even slightly frightened at our arrival in the dead of the night. I love moos.

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Next morning, it was time to leave Sasan and head back towards Ahmedabad. Ping-Yi's flight was leaving in less than 48 hours and we had some 400Ks to cover.

We shot an educational video on ways to solve pipe blockage problems once and for all:

...and were off!

The road back NE took us through Junagadh, where during a rest stop we made the acquaintance of an interesting chap who was looking at us as if we dropped from the sky:

Looking at spaceman in Junagadh

While others were staring, we admired what seemed to be a mosque: (now I know it's part of a mausoleum):

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We saw even more dangerously loaded vehicles on the road, but remained unimpressed, by that time used to the sightings of Indian roads:

Overloaded Enfield

Reaching Rajkot by noon, we had a quick cup of chai with Anil, had a chat with some friends of his about the trip etc, went to the bathroom and (a mere whole hour later) were on our way.

This is when it all went down. Leaving Rajkot on the NH8. Right mellow bend of a dual carriageway, the road relatively empty, us on the fast lane doing 70km/h, when I saw him. An idiot having just squeezed his bike through an opening in the curb that allowed him to come into our direction of traffic. He was holding the bike perfectly perpendicular to our axis of movement, blocking our entire lane, and seemed to be pondering how and if he should get on it or just push it to the side of the street. He was cutting through the entire width of the NH8 by pushing his bike. We were at the wrong spot at the wrong time. After a moment's hesitation (enough to defeat my own "Surely, he'll get out of there" optimism) I blasted the horn and hit the brakes. I still thought it was only a nuisance and the idiot just needed a good telling off. I hadn't realised we were in real danger.

Seeing us come right at him, lights blaring and all (which is unheard of in India - riding with your headlights on), he panicked. Instead of staying put or pulling back, he hopped on the bike. Seeing this, I thought "bollocks" and broke left, rapidly changing lanes. We would have avoided him if he hadn't managed to start his bike and move it just enough to crash into our right side as we were passing him from the left. Then the Strom shaked. Next think I know I'm on the road and I can see the Strom skidding behind me. Everything stopped pretty soon.

I take a moment, feel no pain, and try to get up. What happened? We spilled on the left side. Ah, grand. The bike is on my foot and I can't dislodge it. Fab! I try to look around for Ping-Yi but I can hardly move my body with my leg stuck like this. I shout out at her and get a response - in fact she's over my head quick enough and trying to pick up the bike along with a passer-by. Once they do, I get up. Foot feels a wee sore but works fine. We look over ourselves. Ping-Yi could have just walked out of a motorcycle store with brand new kit for all I know - her Hein Gericke suit doesn't have a single visible scratch! I look at the bike and see one pannier sheared off and on the road, another hanging from the strap cord I use to keep Ping-Yi's Ortlieb sack on the bike. Broken footpeg. Bent brake lever. Broken indicator light. Broken exhaust protector. Bumped exhaust pipe and engine guard. Broken pannier base.

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Basically, the panniers seem to have had it, but everything else is pretty damn minor! We're quite lucky, but at that moment don't realise it. I'm angry with myself for letting this happen. The guy who hit us has of course already fled the scene and there are about 100 people around us, making it impossible to locate all the bits and pieces that have broken off the bike.

Then I noticed I had landed on my left elbow, tearing the jacket. Strangely, I was more upset that after 13 years I tore my trusty jacket, than for all the bike's injuries combined.

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We ring Anil on the spot. We were with him 10 minutes ago... this is ridiculous. He gets there in what seems like less than five minutes. Helps us pick up the panniers and any bits and pieces of the bike lying on the road. He brings along a friend of his, who guides me with the bike (which is still rideable - engine, fuel system, transmission and front brake seem to work fine) back to his shop, while Anil loads all the debris and our luggage in his car, takes Ping-Yi with him and follows us.

At the shop, we stop for a breather. I'm still running on adrenaline, which must be very obvious because everyone is telling me to relax. Anil takes Ping-Yi to a friend's house to calm down, and myself and the two gentlemen who get on the case do damage assessment.

The panniers are in a bad way, but the advantage of metal is that it can be bashed back into shape, patched, welded, fixed an endless number of times (I'm now at "4" and would like to stop counting if I may).

The left pannier:

Left Zega pannier

...and the right one:

Right Zega pannier

The irony of it all is that when I opened the top case, the batteries were still charging. The same charger that has been disconnecting seemingly on every bump, has survived the crash and is happily charging away. Go figure.

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For my sheared off right footpeg the dudes get creative. They procure a footpeg from another bike (don't ask...) and then proceed to weld some metal pieces to it to make it fit the Vstrom:

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In the meantime Anil is back with supplies - he has brought food for me and chai for everyone!

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Himanshu Vadesa, owner of Ruby Auto Services, with the final work of art:

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Using simple tools and good thinking to straighten the pannier base:

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Once everything was done Himanshu said "let me take it for a test ride". My foot hurt quite a bit by that time so I nodded "sure", right after which he miscalculated the width of the bike and proceeded to rip out the rear fender of Anil's car with my right pannier. Ping-Yi and I were speechless, but everyone else just laughed about it. A-ma-zing...

Less than five hours later, we were ready to go. We had a plane to catch and didn't want to be defeatists and take the bus or something like that, so we hopped on the bike and (cautiously) left Rajkot for good.

This is the team of people that worked nonstop to make this happen, without accepting anything in return (well, I just had to talk to Himanshu's wife on the phone for a bit to get him off the hook for missing lunch that day). I don't know what we would have done without them.

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The road back to Gandhinagar was a long 250K stretch. It was the first time we were riding in the dark (not advisable at all on Indian highways - horrible glare, vehicles with no lights, no street lighting, unmarked obstacles etc etc), and especially after the accident it was a rather scary experience... the highlights of the route included the friendly petrol pump attendants who scrambled to bring us chairs to sit on, when we simply pulled over in front of their petrol station for a quick stretch of our legs, and bizarre signs like this:

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By 22:00 we were in Gandhinagar, taking refuge in Chaitanya's place, benefiting from his calming and healing powers. We hadn't broken anything, but the bruises were bad from the side the idiot with the bike hit us (our right side) and we hadn't given ourselves any rest that day. We went to bed late, slept for 3 hours and then woke up to take Ping-Yi to the airport.

She flew out at 6 in the morning. And with that, this bizarre, powerful, unexpected, beautiful chapter of the trip was closed.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 04:48 PM GMT
February 10, 2010 GMT
India - The Gandhinagar days

The day after Ping-Yi left, the day after the accident.

I decide it's time to slow down a little bit and recuperate. Not wanting to waste time I decide to clean the air filter of the bike, something I've been thinking about doing... oh since Turkey. I've always been chickening out because getting to the air filter on a Vstrom means removing the fuel tank and that to my mind was always major drama just waiting to happen (useless with my hands, remember?).

But, (a) my foot is sore so I can't move about or ride too much and (b) I have Chaitanya's family and friends to help if anything goes wrong. Better conditions could hardly be asked for. So I take out my mighty toolkit, open the manual and start unscrewing.

Soon enough the sun catches us and it gets very hot - remedial actions are spontaneous, shift and extremely effective:

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We continued our work in the shade. Bike parts were being simultaneously unscrewed by 3 overly enthusiastic helpers, which freaked me out at the time but turned out fine in the end. After a while (and diverting from the manual's procedures in favour of a more... creative way of doing things), the petrol tank was out!

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Now we had access to the air filter compartment, which in this photo can be seen shining because we cleaned it before opening:

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To properly clean the filter we had to blow-dry it, so Alok dropped in with his Bullet and gave me a lift to the nearest auto/moto cleaner:

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(I have to say I was surprised at how relatively clean the filter was after 20,000K without cleaning - other than a small colony of dead bees and some dust, it was fine)

In this photo I am answering the questions of a reporter friend of Alok about the trip etc, while one of my trusty helpers is transfusing the petrol back into the tank - we had had to remove some of it before, because some genious (me) had filled up with petrol after dropping off Ping-Yi at the airport. Try lifting a 22-litre petrol tank filled with fuel and you'll know what I mean.

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After all this was done, we thought "Right, clean air filter. Let's get it a bit dirty now." So Alok mischievously showed me to some off-road tracks nearby where he shot the following photos:

Profile Interview

Luckily it's dark enough so you can't tell I'm in walking trousers and hiking shoes... A disgrace!

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All this media give and take seems to have done something, because the next morning I woke up with this newspaper next to my head:

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I was assured by my friends that the text is all good stuff... it's in Gujarati, the native language of Gujarat. This means that even most Indians will be unable to read this. There goes my stab at world fame...

That day we visited the National Institute of Design with Alok. It was a Friday, so students were showcasing their creations.

NID display

After spending the day at the NID, I was taken out by my kind hosts for a "western type" meal - so we went to a pizza place! This is Anjana and Mahavir trying to convince me they're enjoying their pizza.

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The foot was still sore and bruising got interestingly worse - even though initially I had it on the small toe (would calling it "pinky" make this a less hardcore adventure blog?) only, by now I was getting a full set of purple toes - another first for me!

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Our next trip out of the house was to get some supplies and somehow fix the right footpeg - the custom-built creation from Rajkot needed a bit of reinforcing, and I needed a 24 key to re-tighten my left mirror that had been dangling since the spill. Mahavir led me to the right people and to my utter surprise and delight, both issues were sorted within minutes. To this day I suspect that Mahavir slipped the guy who fixed the peg something, but the person who had a 22/24 key for sale was very official about and did not accept my money. The least I could do was take a group picture. Look at those smiles!

Guy in yellow shirt donated a 22/24 key

(for the record, the official price of the tool was 30 Rupees, which would be less than 50 Euro-cents. If you've ever bought tools in Europe, you may now cry.)

Of course, there is something to be said about availability of quality equipment in India... one sees motorcycle helmets being sold on the corner of the street, no doubt for prices close to $5. This is why the difference in protective qualities screams out when you put even a low-end Arai and a typical Indian helmet side by side:

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I still don't think that makes the 100-fold price difference reasonable, but I'd rather be ripped off and have my head, than have more money for my funeral. Unfortunately, such good quality gear appears to be hard to find in India.

In the evening I was lucky enough to be invited to an excellent cultural event that introduced me to traditional Indian dancing. My small camera is not good enough to capture the sound of the percussionist leggings of the dancers, but you still get an idea...

The days rolled off easily in Gandhinagar...

Next morning we went to a Bird Race - a competition to observe and record the most bird species around town. I don't know the first thing about birds, so I learned a lot. What caught my eye more than any bird was this composition:

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I found these tree trunks quite amazing. The whole thing looks like plastic near the top - it's so smooth and shiny! But it's 100% natural.

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This documents a small feast we had with Alok and Mahavir on our way to some chores around town. It was a hot day and we had been in the car for an hour, and entering an air-conditioned bakery/patisserie was just paradise on Earth...

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This, on the other hand, is a fraudulent shot by Alok who would have you believe I had 4 chocolate cakes with ice-cream. You wouldn't believe such rubbish, dear reader, would you?

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Finally the bike ride day arrived. We had been talking about it ever since we met, two weeks ago, but something was always wrong. For this day we planned nothing else, hopped on the V and the Bullet and rode off, tracing a route Chaitanya had designed for us. Optimising for twisting roads and no traffic, we cruised through quiet villages, along grassy fields and refreshing rivers. It was a blast!

Mahavir and Alok during our first rest break next to a dam:

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Alok's object of desire: The Bullet.

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I wouldn't want to do that crossing in full monsoon period...

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Our first waypoint, a beautiful Hindu temple:

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Dizzying architecture to get to the water...

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View from inside the temple:

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Bats (!) inside the dome of the temple.

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For lunch we thought we'd stop at a decent-looking restaurant of a small nearby village. We parked the bikes, got immediately told by the restaurant manager to bring my bike right in front of the entrance where he could keep an eye on it, and this is what happened within minutes:

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I was fantasizing about a quiet, refreshing meal. It was not to be...

Villaggers swarming to check out the stranger

The situation got slightly out of hand when the local media appeared. They never even asked me if I minded, was in the mood, or anything like that. They just started firing away questions. I was not impressed with all this attention. At that point it occurred to me that I wouldn't find it surprising at all if famous people hated humanity. This being stared at, being harassed, having no private time or space, being looked at like a wild animal in a cage, is just not my cup of tea. And in India this phenomenon is much stronger than in any of the other countries I've been to.

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After making a successful getaway (I remember Alok shouting "Don't stop! Just go!" - jeez) we visited the beautiful Vadtal Vav (stepwell).

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The walls were magnificently decorated with stories from Hindu mythology:

Detail from Vadtal Vav, Gujarat

Deep in the earth, the place was cool so we spent some time there hiding from the burning sun.

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The whole trip turned out to be slightly longer than we had anticipated, incorporating some downtown shopping in Ahmedabad and visiting family members on our way back, but by 9pm we were off the saddle, with 350K on the clock and plenty of smiles. It was a good day.

Next day was India's Republic Day and Chaitanya and Anjana had a little surprise for me - they took me to a nearby village school they supported and we enjoyed all the celebrations of that special day with many special kids - kids whose lifeline and probably only chance to a better future was this very school.

I was asked to say a couple of words about the trip to the kids and their families that had gathered there to celebrate. I found it quite intimidating to stand before these people - what would a soft-foot like me have to say to them? I spurted out some words and Chaitanya translated. It would be easier to have a presentation in front of 15 grumpy CEOs.

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Students dancing in traditional dress.

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These are all the students of that village. Classes have to cater for the needs of different ages and levels simultaneously and the two teachers posted there are very creative. They also have a few computers, which I found surprising given the apparent poorness of the village. I was trying to come up with a meaningful way to contribute, so I've now sent them a few copies of Edubuntu, free educational software that I'm sure the teachers will make the best out of.

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Refuelling Chaitanya's LPG-powered car. The more environment-friendly alternative to petrol/diesel.

LPG refuelling

The next day it was so hot that camels dropped to the ground for a breather.

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...so I was very happy that we made a quick getaway (with Alok) from the horribly crowded award ceremony the local government was throwing that some friends had to go to, and took a drive in the quiet nearby villages instead.

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I was also exuberant about having a proper meal of pizza (in contrast to, err... NOTHING that the others had) in the aptly named USA Pizza. The funniest part was their bathroom which I had the joy of visiting only on our way out. This "toilet checklist" looks very professional, right?

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Time of check, signature of checker, everything is ticked... Too bad the floor was dirty, there was no light bulb, the toilet roll was nowhere to be found, I had to ask for some soap (which took 3 minutes to procure), and there was no waste bin.

It was time for me to move on. Gandhinagar had been relaxing, I had recuperated from the accident, relaxed with the daily midnight conversations we would have with Chaitanya and Mahavir, been delighted with the delicacies prepared by Anjana, done all work that had to be done on the bike, been involved as much as possible in the local community. My heart was warm from the love of a family and a community of friends that had taken me in and had allowed me to live with them, fully, the entire day, every day, right next to them.

Chaitanya & Anjana. May all travelers meet people of such quality wherever they go.

Chaitanya & Anjana

With a feeling of numbness and the-show-must-go-on determination, I packed my bags and left the safe haven of Gandhinagar. I was headed south, out of the state of Gujarat for good.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:13 AM GMT
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 11:59 AM GMT
February 16, 2010 GMT
Indian shipping agents

This is the gripe post.

Let me try to describe the frustration of dealing with customs clearing agents in Mumbai. This post chronicles the events of a single day.

After two weeks of talking with people who were completely clueless and excruciatingly slow in their responses, I got a tip from a friend about this guy Mr. Ramdas who ships Royal Enfield bikes abroad. So he must know what he's doing, right? Last Thursday (5 days ago) I had visited his office and we've had a long chat. I had asked for his help to send my bike from Mumbai to Athens by air cargo. He had said "no problem", we had gone over all the details (rates of airlines, size of the bike, crating method, insurance, timings, total cost) and had fixed an appointment for Monday (yesterday, which was 4 days after that discussion was taking place) to crate the bike. We had agreed on a total cost of 1100 EUR, which was slightly higher than the (arbitrary) 1000 EUR that I had decided was the maximum I would spend to return the bike to Europe. But, the man seemed to know what he was talking about, he seemingly had the experience, so I thought I was in good hands. 100 EUR extra would not be the end of the world, and I had already spent almost two weeks unable to find anyone decent to handle this!

Monday arrived. We hadn't fixed a time to do the crating, so I call Mr Ramdas in the morning. He has news for me: "Only Turkish Airlines will accept your bike, ON THE CONDITION that the gross (total) weight of the box is less than 250kg. All others are charging too much, and your bike is already 250kg without the crate, so it seems we're going for sea freight. Also the packers need to buy the material for the crate, so they can do the crating tomorrow."

All this in one breath. So everything we had agreed and shaken hands on last Thursday was already out of the window. Pack Monday - nope. Airfreight - nope. 1100 EUR for bike to be in Athens by end of week - nope.

Extremely pissed off with this, I resumed my search for other customs clearing agents who could handle this. How could I trust this man when EVERYTHING we had agreed on 4 days ago turned out to be impossible?

I got an expensive quote from another company, and arranged a meeting with ANOTHER company (Eastern Cargo) for the next day (that is, today, Tuesday the 16th of February 2010).

Ramdas was pushing me to agree on a new deal (we crate the bike the next day - today - and THEN we weigh it and see whether it leaves by Turkish Airlines (improbable) or by some sea shipment to be figured out...), so I told him "OK, let's do the packing tomorrow and we'll see", so that even if everything else fell through, at least one step would have been done.

Monday night I went to bed extremely pissed off and with no hope of ever getting out of Mumbai.

Today!

I go to Eastern Cargo late the morning, expecting the usual let-down, but I am received and treated very professionally. They look good. I've told them my budget (1000 EUR) and they still talk to me about air shipment. There appears to be hope! Packagers come to their premises, measure the bike, give quotes. We discuss packing, insurance, loading, costs, DGR regulations etc etc etc and they seem very aware of it all. Good. They feed me two chais and two glasses of water in the 3 hours I'm there. Good. They only get slightly irritated and patronising when I repeatedly ask for an explanation about why is the airline charging me for 1,000kg when my bike is only 250kg heavy and all volumetric calculations I've heard so far (for other travelers and agents alike) resulted in circa 450kg chargeable. Good.

In the end they give me a quote of 149,000 Rs (Indian Rupees). Forty five days ago, when I entered India, I had looked up the exchange rate between Rupees and the Euro. Back then it was roughly 67 Rupees to the Euro, so I had told my mobile phone's currency convertor that this was the exchange rate to be used. It's not accurate, but gives me a ballpark to get a feel of the money we're talking about. So when I punched in 149,000 Rs I got the answer that it was 2,223 EUR.

I told the big boss of Eastern Cargo (now remember this, it will matter later in our story) "Excuse me, but **this is two thousand two hundred Euros!** It's more than double the budget I gave you!", after which he scolded his assistants for wasting everybody's time and wished me farewell. Fair enough, I expected such prices from such a boutique-looking place, so I left in peace. Not surprised, not depressed. Just a bit tired from another effort that didn't bear fruit.

I met Mr Ramdas at 3 as agreed. He takes me to the packer's premises as agreed. Predictably, it's in a shantytown of sorts and I don't feel comfortable even taking off my jacket with all my papers and valuables in there. There are way too many layabouts and in typical Indian fashion they're too close, too intrusive, are messing with the bike, checking out my panniers, stick their heads over the bike when I take off the seat to disconnect the battery etc.

Uneasy as I am, I also want to get this damn thing over with, so I take off the panniers, ride the bike on a wooden pallet base (which presumably would become the base of the crate), disconnect the 12V sockets from the battery and take off the top case from the bike... in the meantime a heated discussion ensues, in which Ramdas is merely repeating to me what the packers tell him: "Bike on centre stand..." "wood plies under tyres..." "no straps..." "bubble wrap..." Once more I realise that the guys think they're packaging a bloody sofa. Every time the packer says something in Hindi (or Maharashtri, can't really be sure as I understand neither), Mr Ramdas translates and I despair more and more, every single time repeating to him "No, AS WE DISCUSSED, this has to happen like THIS for XYZ reasons." I was describing a bike free-standing on its tyres, with straps holding it from both sides, the rear suspension fully compressed, no stand or hard surface used to stabilise it. This is what conventional biker wisdom seems to suggest via the HU community and other shipping/crating websites.

The packers were having none of that. They wanted to stabilise the bike on its stand, with wooden planks under the tyres, and then one plank somehow pushing down on the seat... which they told me would not hurt the seat because they'd use bubble-wrap! ARGH!

At that point I was desperate enough to seriously entertain the crap they were feeding me. It was contrary to everything I had learned through research and talking to experienced bikers. Contrary to everything we had discussed and agreed on with Ramdas in advance. Contrary to my understanding of the laws of nature. But I was desperate, so I told Ramdas "OK, I am willing to go ahead with this ONLY if I'm confident the bike will be insured against any damages. Can I see the insurance documents please?"

Of course, he had no insurance documents. Of course, he told me not to worry about it, we had insurance. Mind you, all this is now taking place in a tiny "office", a room in which I cannot stand up (too low ceiling) which is accessed only from a semi-fixed metal ladder from the warehouse level...

So I insist and they look at me like a spoiled child. "I want to know about the insurance!" Mr Ramdas throws up the proverbial arms and says "OK, here, talk to the insurance agent directly, he will explain everything to you." and rings the insurers. I tell him "I don't care what some agent tells me on the phone, I want to see a signed document", but the agent is already on the phone and Mr. Ramdas passed him on.

It turns out to be a woman. It also turns out that they can't insure me, because the bike is not registered in India.

This is surreal.

Didn't the customs clearing agent (Mr Ramdas) that I was willing to trust to orchestrate the sending of my bike from Mumbai to Athens just give me the phone to dispel my doubts, triumphantly shutting me up once and for all?

Didn't the insurance agent that this very person put me in touch with, just tell me that they cannot insure me? Didn't the agent actually have THE NERVE to say "We do all this for procedure purposes. If anything breaks with your bike, we don't pay you" ?

Are these people for real?

I was tired. Real tired. Sick of it all actually. It's the details that get you. The insurance agent on the phone who was bored and abusive and couldn't be bothered to speak clearly and was telling me off for asking such stupid questions like "what will happen if the shipment is damaged?". The packagers who were frantically pointing at the computer screen which displayed a bike with a German number plate just having ridden onto a pallet. In their view, this proved their worldview about crating my bike beyond any reasonable doubt. Mr Ramdas who was staring at me with a blank expression in his face, like the parent of a kid that will never be good at anything, silently thinking "what am I gonna do with you...?" in despair.

I told them I was sorry but without insurance I was not willing to go any further, and made a move to leave (I can't say "got up to leave" because it was physically impossible to "get up" with that damn ceiling at 1,50m...). Mr Ramdas said "Well Alex I need you to tell me if you're going to use these people because you understand they have purchased the material for your crate already, and I need to pay them!" Unfathomable, but he was asking me for money. For that sorry-ass pallet they had built (or just had lying around) BEFORE even seeing my bike. From wooden planks that seemed reused at best...

I was too tired to get angry. I just ignored them and their insistent stares. I muttered something to get out of there peacefully (to the effect of "let's sort out the insurance first and then we'll see"), and got the hell out of there.

Right after I had gotten off the phone with the insurance agent I had sent a text (SMS) to Eastern Cargo, saying I'm willing to double my budget to 2,000 EUR if they can come down to that. By the time I was out of the "office" of the packers I got a phonecall from Eastern Cargo saying "the boss agrees, please come by our office to do this".

So I went straight back to Eastern Cargo. It was after 4 in the afternoon and I was tired. I had given in. I would pay the damn 2,000 EUR just to get it over with. It was a ridiculous amount - I felt I was being penalised for having a bike, as all the DGR (Dangerous Goods Regulations) and volumetric formulas were working against me. But I had spent two weeks idling in a big dirty city and my best hope so far (Mr Ramdas) had just gone down in a huge fireball...

So I go back into the nice air-conditioned office, with the smiley polite educated people who seem to be trustworthy and efficient... they offer me tea (the 3rd of the day), and even get me sandwitches, which makes me worry about my external appearance. When the clearing agent is getting you food without asking, you know you don't look too hot...

They crunch the numbers again and it all comes down to 140,000 Rs. I check with xe.com and say "wait a minute, this is 2,200 EUR! I thought we agreed on 2,000 EUR!"

The manager managing my case explains that the boss told her to give me a 9,000 Rs discount and the previous quote was 149,000 Rs so there you have it. I insisted, politely of course, that in the goddamn written TEXT I had sent her I wrote with very little room for interpretation 2,000 EUR. And you called me to say you agreed. So what gives?

We go back to the boss' office. He gives me the "now what my child?" look. I say this is not what I offered to pay. He takes me through his reasoning:

"You told me earlier that we were quoting you 2,200 EUR, correct?"
"That was 149,000 Rs. Making the calculation that works as 67,7 Rs to the Euro."
"Now multiply that by 2,000 EUR that you want to pay: ta-da! 135,000 Rs"

...and with that, he looked at me as if to say "satisfied?"

Am I mental?

So, why were they charging 5,000 Rs more? And why did I need to explain to the boss of such a large and seemingly successful company that his method of currency conversion is not exactly scientific, and he could not POSSIBLY base the bloody quote on a comment I made about the ROUGH amount I was being quoted earlier in the day? Checking it on the spot with xe.com revealed that I was now in fact being quoted 2,130 EUR, and not the 2,000 EUR that I had written in the SMS. But the boss was adamant. "This is what you told me. This is what I offered you." And then the "you trying to get more discount you greedy little child?" look.

Did I mention I was exhausted?

I agreed. I agreed to this ridiculous treatment, to this theatre of the absurd, to this blatant ripoff, to this "oh we didn't realise we reeled you in by lying" behaviour because once more, someone gave me the hope that they can actually pull this off and load my bike on a plane and get me out of this country. And that, after having spent two weeks littered with days like today, is worth 2,130 EUR to me.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 06:54 PM GMT
February 18, 2010 GMT
India - Mumbai & the end

Getting into Mumbai was not a shock at all. It was pretty much like any other Indian city of any decent size: Dirty, chaotic, noisy and dangerous to be on the road. Even with the GPS, phone and the help of a kind guy who asked me to follow him, as he happened to be going in the same direction with me, it took me about two hours to cross the city from east (where I approached) to the northwest, where the parents of my good friend Punit live. They had kindly invited me to stay with them in Mumbai, in their home in Malad.

It was the weekend, so I took more than 24 hours to relax, sort myself out, wash clothes, sleep etc. I was done travelling in India. Now I only had to ship the bike back. This has been my route in the one month I spent riding around India.


OSM India COMPLETE

Doesn't look like much, does it?

The quest for all necessary documentation to ship my bike to Europe would commence on Monday morning, so until then I could do a wee bit of tourism.

To save me from riding for hours in the city, Punit's parents very kindly arranged for a driver for the day, and let us use their car. So I was chauffeured downtown, in an air conditioned car, while listening to music. This made the Western Express Highway and everything else we had to drive through almost tolerable. We also drove over the Sea link, a bridge that skirts a large chunk of the city and makes access to the south of Mumbai easier.

Typical (ancient) Mumbai cab:

Mumbai cab (taxi)

On my first visit of Mumbai's centre I visited the ex "Prince of Wales" museum, currently "something unpronounceable" museum. (in typical Indian fashion the museum's webpage is "under Re-construction and Upgradation" and has a couple of spelling errors to boot. The abuse of English is impressive in India... even in huge printed banners, in shows, festivals, newspapers, in television - everywhere one sees blatant spelling & grammatical errors which make me forget proper English. Further, for the website of the museum they have taken a shortcut by puting up an IMAGE instead of a proper text webpage, sadistically making copying and pasting the ridiculously long name of the museum impossible. But hey, this is India.

One of the exhibits:

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Ganesha, son of Shiva. One of the most beloved gods of Hindus:

Ganesha

Other exhibits for which I unfortunately don't remember any decent description.

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Chinese snuff bottles:

Chinese snuff bottles II

The breastplate of emperor Akbar:

Emperor Akbar's breastplate

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This is the museum from the outside.

Outer view of (ex) Prince of Wales Museum, Mumbai

Leaving the excellent museum behind, it's a 5-minute walk to the Gateway of India, in South Mumbai:

Gateway of India, South Mumbai

Many boats leave from Gateway of India for the Elephanta Caves:

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Character selling boat tours:

Character at Gateway of India, South Mumbai

Getting back to Malad one has to cross the entire city... Here, Mumbaians strolling the coast, with the city skyline in the background:

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The ride also provides ample opportunity to check out the ads all over the city.

Something one sees surprisingly often is bad use of English, like in this ad:

More global

Whaddya mean "more global"? It's like saying "more dead". You either are, or you aren't.

Another annoying hyperbole that stands out: This beauty prototype... as removed from Indian reality as possible:

Beauty prototype

One also gets to observe the wonderful taste of people when it comes to decorating their bikes. Check out the LEDs on the rear... groovy, man!

Bike LEDs

First working day in Mumbai, and I was out of the door early on to get a Non Objection Certificate from the Police Commissioner's Office downtown. The chaos one has to deal with to get a signed piece of paper is phenomenal... the cops themselves appeared to have never heard of such a certificate, even though other travellers have been asked for one from customs officers. Anyway, after 7 hours of banging on doors and explaining to bureaucrats what I need, why I need it and what I am doing there, I got a piece of paper that sort of said what I needed it to say - namely, that Mumbai police wasn't after me.

NOC public

I got the paper after 19:00 - most of the cops had gone home by then. I started to make my way with the bike back to Malad, which turned out to be a two and a half hour ride, sporting bonus features like getting banged from the back by another bike on the Western Express Highway. Of course the idiot who hit me didn't even bat an eyelid and just carried on... usual phenomenon of a city in which people leave aside their humanity or sensitivities in order to deal with daily reality.

Hit from behind by bike, returning from downtown Mumbai

Luckily nothing significant was broken or bent - the plastics took the hit well and the number plate was easy to bend back in shape.

On another day we drove around the 'hood a little bit with Punit's parents to visit some relatives. On the way there I saw a quite amazing spectacle - a manually operated amusement park wheel!

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At the relatives' home I was given an old bike magazine (I guess the impression being that such a lunatic would only be willing to read biking magazines - which I never do), from which I picked up this old Royal Enfield ad, which might give people good ideas about places to visit in India. It's designed to inspire Indians, so I hope these are not places already overrun by the horrible tourism sprawl I witnessed in the more mainstream places.

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This is a typical auto rickshaw. Millions of these little buggers swarm all over Mumbai - only recently they were banned from the city centre. Most of them (all?) use two-stroke engines, so you can imagine the clouds of burnt oil-with-petrol they leave behind...

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Having said that, they are cheap and practical. Not safe at all though - if anything happens, the best the passenger can hope for is to NOT be thrown out of the vehicle (as there are no doors) and to NOT crack one's head on the metal rod that divides the driver's compartment from the passengers.

On another day we visited the Sanjay Gandhi National Park with my friend Alok from Gandhinagar. I was lucky enough to be in Mumbai now that Alok was also here on business, so we got to hang out a few times, which made my time in Mumbai infinitely more enjoyable. Otherwise I would have already gone insane with the frustration of dealing with shipping agents.

We visited the Kanheri Caves, where Alok at one point exclaimed ooh, a scaled viper:

Echis (scaled viper)

Alok in front of one of the caves' entrance:

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A well camouflaged mantis:

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Just to give you an idea of the size of those caves... those Buddhists sure had patience!

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On another day, we met with Alok and his friend Mauli and strolled around Gorai beach. The easiest access is by ferry boat, which is as anarchic as one would expect. People and bikes getting on and off the boat at the same time, pushing each other etc.

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"Be Indian, buy Indian." Proudly nationalist for profit since... long. There is more nationalism in India than I care for, but then again that's true of any country, regardless of the shambles it may be in.

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A kid selling candy for a living in Gorai beach.

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This, one sees a lot of... idiots showing off by taking their cars in the water.

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Of course nobody thinks they're polluting the water or anything like that... perhaps it's already so polluted it's not worth protecting. But many people seem to just think the sea is there for them to flex their muscles with their cars - luckily, the water gets back at some, like this idiot who got stuck until the police came over and pulled him out. Unbelievable, what stupid behaviour grown-ups will get away with in this country.

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The dogs of Gorai were a much more pleasant guest of the beach than the obnoxious homo sapiens infecting the place.

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There seemed to be a lot of strays, but then again there are a lot of animals pretty much anywhere in India.

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The sun started descending and most people left, as apparently the law says you're not supposed to be on the beach after sunset. Surprising restrictions for a free country, don't you think?

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Young men playing games I've only seen played in Europe by 10-year olds...

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There seems to be a schizophrenic split in the modern Indian psyche. On the one hand, they have to deal with the modern world, technology, big cities, professional competition... on the other, they are forced by their culture to remain sexually "pure" to a fault, disallowing affectionate relationships with women, creating a strange bond between men who grow up pretty much shielded from the fair sex. The result is that it's perfectly alright for men to walk through town holding hands or hugging (which one sees often), but public displays of affection between men and women are severely punished. On the beach that very day the police showed up and proceeded to rough up and then arrest a poor bloke who was just enjoying the sunset snuggled up next to his girl.

In Muslim countries such backward rules are encoded in religion and enforced as the law of Allah. In India such rules are encoded in culture and it's just considered criminally inappropriate to be even a little bit publicly affectionate to your girl. Surprising puritanism and brutal enforcement of it (people being beaten in public view), in a country I didn't expect things to be this way.

After the police car harassed any criminally affectionate youngsters off the beach, it parked outside a restaurant. A tray that was undoubtedly "on the house" was sent to the cops immediately. The bullies were in town, and everyone needed to pay tribute to be left alone. In other places it would be called "corruption", but it seems to be the norm here. Everything is resolved with the proper under-the-table money to the cops. People know that, hence don't really care about the rules. If a cop stops you, it's to get some money. Not to enforce the law. So any laws that would actually make this a more liveable society (no spitting, no talking on the phone while driving, all and any traffic rules, no peeing/defecating in public etc etc) are simply ignored.

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A little beauty, bored while waiting for her parents to finish their meal.

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Mauli taking photos of the photographer (Alok) in action, in the restaurant where we dined. Alok is a professional photographer and Mauli is the apprentice, so when it came to successfully shooting a sunset there was a lot to be explained...

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On the way back to Malad from the beach, traffic was unsurprisingly horrible.

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On another day, we were meeting downtown to check out the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival (a cultural/art event with photo exhibitions, and a live music, dancing and singing stage), so I entered Mumbai by train. I was terrified of the roads and would not have ridden the bike for any significant distance unless there was a very good reason for it, and it was off-peak hours.

I was impressed by the quantity of metal... there seems to be no other material in this Indian suburban train that connects Mumbai with its suburbs to the north-west.

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A London Tube ripoff? Signs in train stations on the western line:

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Reinforcing the point of safety, value of human life, adherence to rules etc of Indians... on every train there would be people hanging out like this:

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...even though the cart was half-empty! They don't do it because there is no space inside. They just enjoy hanging out in the same way that dogs enjoy sticking their heads out of the windows of moving cars. The trains have no doors, so everybody does this.

The main stage of the festival, with splendid traditional dances by many groups. I thoroughly enjoyed that, especially after a big ice-cream to temporarily sooth me from Mumbai's heat...

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Unfortunately my camera doesn't capture quality sound... but you can just about make out the discussion between the singers, using only traditional Indian musical notes as "words". Fascinating stuff.

This cab drove right next to the dance stage - I noticed it had 4 different headlights, undoubtedly giving a very confusing spectacle on the road at night. Safety regulations? What's that? At least it did have lights, unlike many other vehicles in India...

Cab with 4 different headlights

This was an interior wall decoration scheme at an exhibition stall, part of the festival. The exhibitors hadn't bothered providing any printed material, so the poor girl holding the stall had to explain the same story (of what this thing was) over and over, to every curious group that was visiting the stall, one by one, throughout the day... I felt really sorry for her.

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A message that rings very true, especially in Mumbai:

Sad but true - environmental message

(the sticker reads: "Natives who beat drums to drive off evil spirits are objects of scorn to smart city dwellers who blow horns to break up traffic jams")

Indeed. In the city, one witnesses many people seemingly driving with the hand on the horn all the time. It's devoid of purpose, as a traffic jam is a traffic jam and all you can do is wait, but still many people horn like crazy all the time. It's one of those things that were driving me crazy as soon as I hit my first big Indian city (Delhi), but I sort of got used to it... one has to, to survive. The police doesn't do anything about it of course, and the people... well, this is India. People seem to do whatever they fancy on the road, even if it's annoying, unhealthy or dangerous for everybody else.

After the festival we visited a fabulous patisserie/cafe where Alok ordered a dessert named "In memory of risky rider". We massacred it so fast that I didn't get a chance to get a picture...

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Hot, soft chocolate cake, brownies all around and vanilla ice-cream on top. Simple and tasty as hell.

The days passed and I was finding it increasingly difficult to locate any decent shipping agents for my bike. It was extremely frustrating... just as I would trust someone enough to give them a thumbs-up to get the procedure rolling, inevitably there would be disclosures that made it plain they didn't know what they were talking about, and/or they were blatantly lying to me. People promising to have the bike out of the country in less than a week would turn up, 5 days later, and say "unfortunately the next available boat leaves in two weeks"... that kind of stuff. Such idiotically poor excuses that became offensive pretty soon. Fantastic coincidences that led to delays. New regulations, all of the sudden there, never mentioned before, suddenly introducing further costs and delays.

Luckily the people I met on a personal basis in Mumbai made it all bearable. One of these friends who would listen to my frustrations and shake their heads with a smile was Daniel, a young lad who happened to bump across this blog on the 'net and contacted me while I was in Mumbai. We arranged to meet the very next day downtown - I would be there to look for a silicone spray for the bike, and he had to go to roughly the same area to service his bike.

I naturally took the train - wasn't out of mind to drive for an hour in that mayhem... and on the train I had another first, a very unique experience. I fainted.

It wasn't particularly hot or crowded or anything. Conditions were fine. I had had my breakfast as always, was well rested, felt fine. I had been on the train for about ten minutes when all of a sudden I started feeling my stomach get real upset, at an alarmingly increasing pace... I remember thinking "if this doesn't stop pretty soon I'm gonna throw up". It's a panic-inducing feeling, sensing your body work up to a frenzy all of a sudden, and I shut my eyes to calm myself down. Next thing I know, I feel the skin of my face tingling, as if too much hot blood is pumped into it. Then I see a couple dreams. And then I wake up on the floor of a moving train.

I must've fallen on the guy next to me who gently laid me on the floor, as I couldn't find any bruises, scratches or other indication that I had hurt myself falling. I sat on the floor until the next station and then stood up. Was very surprised this had happened, but had no discernible after-effects. I was feeling quite well. The people around me were quite courteous and helpful, asking me if I needed anything, if I was alright etc.

After this bizarre incident I reached the Opera House district, where I marvelled at the business acumen of this hair saloon owner, who has the audacity to name his place "Good Luck"... as in "if you're coming here to have your hair cut, all I can say is good luck to you!"

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With the help of Daniel I found the silicone spray immediately, which left ample time for snacks, chocolate desserts etc. After a few hours I took the train back home, for some more waiting, some more telephone calls, and inevitably some more TV. A note at this point - international movies are heavily censored in India. Entire scenes are cut out, and any cursing or "inappropriate" language is silenced. The subtitles show an orthodox version of what the actors are really saying... annoying at the very least.

Indian censorship

In between chasing shipping agents to do their job, I spent the rest of my days in Mumbai mostly in front of the TV, which only added to my accumulating despair and feeling of decadence.

Waiting in decadence

A sample of Indian comic strips in the newspaper:

Indian comic strips

(as a techie, I really like the top strip!)

Those days in Mumbai a big debate was going on... one of the most famous Bollywood actors, Sharukh Khan, had commented unfavourably on the raging preachings of a far right political party that was fishing for votes by adopting a line of the "Maharashtra for Maharashtrans" type - i.e. all Indians of other states are not welcome here, let alone foreigners... The party hard-liners responded with a call for banning the actor's latest film, with demonstrations and acts of violence taking place in the city.

Leaving aside the fact that the film banner looks as if the thought on the protagonist's mind is "hm, you haven't washed your hair recently, have you my dear?", if it was in English I would go to the cinema just to support the ballsy decision of cinema owners to not take bullying by nationalists and to screen the film.

P2120148

Another sample of how the English language is constantly raped in India. Whaddya mean "felicitation nite"? It's a banner. An official event. Check before you print dammit!

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One good thing about India is the cost of life. Not for the tourist, mind you. Hotels, restaurants etc are more expensive than other countries I visited. But for Indians, life is reasonable, like this mainstream newspaper that costs 0,07 EUR (!) while newspapers in Greece cost more than 1.5 EUR!

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Well, at least there is no doubt about where the Indian Times stands when it comes to privacy issues... here is a story about something serious that's at stake, being reported with a "oh just get on with in" attitude.

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After two weeks in Mumbai I thought I finally spotted a decent shipping professional by the name of Mr. Ramdas. I visited his office close to the airport, where while we were discussing the details of the bike's shipment some idiot nicked my broken indicator's light bulb!

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Think about it. A broken indicator, with the bulb still working, parked right outside someone's office in broad daylight for about an hour... and someone steals the light bulb! I mean... such a bulb must cost about 2Rs in India, what's the point in that?

After a(nother) horrible experience with Mr. Ramdas and realising I would be taken for the proverbial ride, I decided to bite the bullet and pay for one of the most expensive shipping agents, who appeared to be more professional than everybody else I had been talking to for the past 20 days... I agreed on an extortionate price (upwards of 2000 EUR) to airfreight the bike from Mumbai to Athens and the next day rode the bike to the professional packers' premises to have it crated.

On the way there, I witnessed a very interesting scene. A class of schoolchildren being taught right next to the street, on the pavement, protected from traffic only by a metal railing...

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So the packing commenced. I took out the petrol tank to drain it fully...

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...muttered my way through draining the engine oil too (I still find it difficult to believe that IATA Dangerous Goods Regulations are so anal, but there you have it...)

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...and was then SHOCKED to realise that the packers were unable to properly strap the bike on the pallet because they simply had no straps. When I asked for "straps" and showed them one that I have with me to tie Ping-Yi's bag on the panniers, they produced this sorry piece of string that I wouldn't even trust to fly a kite, let alone hold a 250kg bike in place while wiggled in an aeroplane...

P2170042

(proper strap on the back, you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me "professional packers" version of straps in the foreground)

So, instead of doing this the proper, secure and quick way, the packers did it the Indian way: with plenty of unskilled labour, plenty of time and plenty of cheap material. And to put numbers to these claims of mine: 10 people labouring for a total of 7 hours (not all of them full time), using 110kg of wood and hundreds of nails... they practically built a small structure around the bike, using the most basic of mechanics to somehow stabilise it on the pallet. (even then, I was the one to suggest putting planks over the wheel rims, the "professional packers" hadn't even thought of that...)

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This whole process was supposed to take "a couple of hours"... of course it took them 7 full hours. I started emptying tanks/engine oil/disconnecting batteries around 10 and was done by 12. The packers had measured the bike and started building the base of the crate by 11, and were done loading the bike onto the truck that would take it to the cargo terminal by 18:15...

This is the crate just before it was nailed shut.

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And this is how they loaded the crate into the truck... by lifting the crate and then having the truck reverse to "eat it up".

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As I mentioned earlier, this whole thing was costing me a fortune, and I was told by Eastern Cargo that paying with plastic (even if it was a debit card!) would increase the price by 2,5%. So I did frequent trips to the ATMs and withdrew my daily limit for a couple of days, and then changed most foreign currency I had on me to Rupees, to get the necessary amount in cash. This is only a small part of it - it was an impressive stack of cash:

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Next day we were supposed to take the bike through customs. I certainly had to be there, to ensure everything was in order, if the crate had to be opened that nothing would "disappear" from inside, I could provide any information about the bike and other stuff in the crate to the customs people etc etc... so that's why Eastern had prepared this piece of paper to get me entry to the Cargo complex of Mumbai international airport.

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It wasn't meant to be. With characteristic indifference, we were told at the gate of the cargo complex that foreigners are not allowed entry anywhere in the complex. When I asked "why?" the reason was "security threat". Gee. Does that qualify as racism or what? Thanks dudes. Feels good to be so welcome in this country.

So I was turned back at the gate, was assured "the boys" would take care of my shipment (now THAT made me feel much better...) and was shooed off. Bollocks.

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All I could do was get back to the offices of Eastern Cargo and wait. For the entire day. While other people were fiddling with my bike. I was not impressed.

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So I bummed around the office for (as it turns out) the entire day. These things (like clearing a bike through customs) take time, and regardless of the drone-like reassurances of Eastern people that "it's just a matter of a couple of hours" I was not surprised when I got back my stamped Carnet at 19:00, one hour after the official office close time.

To kill my idle time at the office I marvelled at the UPS system of Eastern

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...and pondered what cooking sets sent by the Austrian Red Cross for the Haiti earthquake relief were doing in Mumbai.

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Not surprisingly at all, the idiots who had loaded the trucks had not given much thought to the whole movement/inertia/vibration business, so as soon as the truck moved, tens of boxes crashed to the ground.

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In typical Indian fashion, people just grinned in mild amusement and then slowly got over there and started picking up the smashed boxes. If this is what happens to humanitarian aid... I feel even more sorry for the people of Haiti.

After getting my Carnet back, I could get out of there. I took a leap of faith to actually believe what Eastern told me - that the bike had been cleared off customs (the Carnet was a good indication, but nothing more), and that it had already been delivered to Emirates airlines which would load it on a flight to Athens the following day. But I was too tired of this game already, and I wanted out.

On my way back to Punit's parents, the auto rickshaw broke down in the middle of the Western Express Highway. The dude fixed it by taking out the spark plug and roughing up its pin against the pavement. Seemed to work.

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After a few hours, on that very night, I took a cab to Mumbai international and caught a flight to Athens via Abu Dhabi with the luxurious (and by far cheapest of all) Etihad airlines.

Flying over the Arabian Peninsula I noticed these weird formations:

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Had a closer look, but still no clue as to what these things are:

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When the plane reached Greece I looked down at my country and thought "what a beautiful place"... it was a clear sunny day, the sea was as blue as ever, the islands were beckoning with their beaches... ahh I've missed this type of beauty.

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And with that, the UK2India trip was mostly over.

This is the final (rough) itinerary of the past 5 months.

UK2India map till Mumbai small with names

Now all I have to do is service the bike in Athens and ride it back to London. Should be a doddle, but I will of course let you know if anything worthwhile happens by the time I reach London.

For now, I'd just like to thank you all for reading, commenting, keeping me company in faraway places. It wouldn't have been the same without you.

Posted by Alexandros Papadopoulos at 02:58 AM GMT
 


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