F j, Y in Cycling
The first day in India started with a literal bang. Trying to get out of Kolkata, weaving through the seething, moving chaos; trucks, motorbikes, buses, bicycle rickshaws, bikes laden with pots, animals and merchandise, pedestrians, dogs, cows, goats, garbage, potholes. Everywhere an interminable stench of rotting rubbish, people peeing or taking a dump on the roadside, incense.
Between a truck coming up on my right and a dog on my left, a man suddenly darted out into the street, saw me two feet away and stopped dead still in my path.
“No, noooo.” I lied.
Stopped again for lunch after another 100 km, desperately hungry and thirsty and feeling the effects of the sun. There was a big festival on, crowds of men blocking the road waving three-foot long sabers to the rhythm of drums, orange powder smeared down their foreheads. It was a public holiday and everything was shut apart from a few filthy roadside stalls cooking food next to rubbish and mangy street dogs, everything covered in flies.
Eventually I found an actual restaurant that seemed open, but was told they wouldn’t serve food till night.
They took pity on me and said there was some Biryani if I wanted. I shovelled it down while they all sat on a row of plastic chairs watching me.
When I’d finished I asked for a toilet and was escorted through a dark, filthy hole full of rubbish that was the kitchen. He pointed to the ground in the corner, “go there”.
“Never mind,” I told him and thought about retching up my lunch, got on my bike and started pedaling back onto the highway.
They followed me down the road. “please madam, we want to take photos with you.”
I pulled over and so did they…and a second motorbike with two more guys. The four of them took turns posing around me, the photographer commenting all the while, “oh very sexy.” Right.
I finally got rid of them and back on the road. The sun started setting by four. By five it was almost dark. I turned off for the nearest little town, Belda. There was only one hotel. A vociferous argument was taking place between the manager and a cross-eyed old hag when I entered. They ignored me, absorbed in the heated exchange while a huddle of men sat around listening.
He asked again, not quite believing, ‘You, alone?’
One of the onlookers said something in Hindi, the discernible word being “bicycle”. The man looked at me and fairly roared with laughter as though it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. But he laboriously put me through the registration formalities and I was led to a room with browning walls, dusty floors, bare mattress, a clothesline slung from wall to wall, no toiletpaper or soap. I had to beg for a sheet and towel and the room key, all slowly and grudgingly turned over. As I turned to close the door, there was the hag standing outside, one hand outstretched the other pointing to her palm.
I wondered what would await me when I opened the door again on tomorrow?
An auspicious start to the second day, which only went downhill from there. The Biryani of the day before had taken effect. I’d woken in the night, my stomach an internal tsunami and spent half of it on the toilet.