Sunday, December 20, 2009

From Australia

Perth, Australia, December 20, 2009

Leaving Pushkar was not easy since we had spent four days essentially resting, if you exclude all the walking and climbing stairs to eat in restaurants to see the view; the feeling of community and comfort from having attended the Chanukah celebrations at Chabad and being not quite confident that I will be able to ride the 12kms over a short but quite steep mountain pass to reach Ajmer, where hopefully the by now, three broken spokes would be repaired.

As much as I loved the spicy food in India, after nearly six weeks, it was a delight to have some different western food, pasta being one that as I cyclist I particularly enjoyed. Then on day two of we discovered the Honey Dew CafĂ© and Restaurant, a few feet from our guesthouse. The eatery has about 6 feet of frontage and perhaps a depth of 10 feet with three long and narrow tables and is run by two brothers from early morning to late at night and they serve food with genuine care and love, including real, European style espresso, the kind that percolates from the bottom to the top of an aluminium coffee maker. As much as I am a caffeine addict, and refused until this discovery the instant variety, I had overcome my addiction by having only marsala chai. Chai is not only an institution but a near art form as each person making it has his own recipe, but what is consistent is that nearly always its made with ginger, black pepper and cardamom, plus some other spices, freshly pounded in a mortar and with boiled milk, sugar and water, and the first tasting by the maker is done with a bit of ceremony and the end result served in one or two ounce cups, often made of earthenware, which is disposed after a single use.  At a cost of about 10 cents for a larger cup it’s a quick energy booster and since one does not have to make the myriad of pseudo choices about the type of milk, coffee type, foam, temperature etc. that is the boon of North American coffee houses, and given that chai is always served extremely hot and in tiny amounts, one can truly concentrate on subtle spices in the brew, that vary with each maker.

The Shabbat meal at Chabad was memorable since it was the first night of Chanukah, after lighting outdoors an eight feet high chanukiah, filled with real oil, they served delicious sufganiot, Israeli doughnuts, which I last had when I did some volunteer work on an Israeli army base a few years ago. After this filling starter, there was a full meal of Challah, (the water variety since all of Pushkar is vegan and eggs are not used) salads, vegetables, and rice etc. all with a fusion of Indian and Israeli spices, all served communal style, and just when I thought I could not eat any more, they served a hearty soup of beans, lentils, potatoes, vegetables to end the meal, which in India in an ultar orthodox setting, seamed fitting since we started with a desert.

The bike held up for the short but challenging ride and we checked into the first stylish looking hotel, emboldened by the fact that they were setting up for an evening wedding, which suggested that if its good enough for the locals, it would be fine for us. Several bike shops just smiled at my plight and urged as to visit another a few blocks away. Finally, someone was confident enough to suggest that I remove the rear wheel and on closer inspection suggested that replacing the spokes would be no problem. As it turn out that it was a problem since they did not have the right spokes, nor the tool to remove my free-wheel. Undaunted, the mechanic explained to his assistant to hand a shorter spoke on one of the unbroken spoke, which he did and with a truing stand, and using only his thumb, he effected a repair and an hour later having paid the bill of about one dollar, we were back to our hotel and made plans to continue our journey the following day.

Ajmer’s highlight was the Red, or more commonly known, Golden temple which contains a room, made entirely of 500 kg of gold, depicting the Jain concept of the ancient world. Quite a spectacular diorama, made especially enjoyable by a “volunteer” guide, who is the sixth generation of painter for the temple, who took great pains to point out his own handiwork on the spectacularly painted ceilings and the gold sculptures that filled a huge, two-storey space. Not unexpectedly, he offered to show us his own miniature paintings, all the while reassuring us that there was no pressure to buy, at wholesale prices,  “free to look” etc. but as always under such circumstances, we politely declined and parted on good terms.

The hotel was comfortable as many of the guests were staying there and we might have anticipated that the celebrations, which we joined and at which we were warmly welcomed would be not only boisterous but also quite prolonged. The groom arrived on his white horse, and of course there was the usual fireworks, the ceremony, the endless music and also the large number of eating opportunities. Although the music ended around midnight, what we did not count on was the ongoing chatter of guests who refused to leave and the noises made by a large crew, that disassembled most of the props and set up for another wedding the next day, working until about three a.m. in the morning and in doing so, given our room overlooked the area, kept our sleep to a minimum.

The next day, on my newly repaired rear wheel we headed towards the pink city of Jaipur, an anticipated two-day ride, with a stop in Dudu, about halfway.  The ride itself was not very noteworthy, other than the fact that we were now on National Highway 8, a limited access highway with two or three lanes in each direction, and a paved shoulder most of the time. Riding on a North American expressway would not be thought of  as a welcoming choice, but in India that traffic is relatively modest, the vehicles move relatively slowly and since the terrain was nearly flat, the riding was fairly effortless, until we discovered that limited access, divided highway does not preclude cars and trucks driving on the slow lane in the opposite direction and they being substantially larger than our own two wheeled vehicles, claimed the shoulder or the slow lane, which we yielded to them.

After riding about 30kms and fortunately for us, right before a fine restaurant and what we would call a highway motel, my rear tire went flat and even before removing the tyre I had anticipated the problem. Two spokes had broken through the rim tape and punctured the inner tube. I used copious quantities of duct and black electrician’s tape to cover the offending, protruding spokes and after a delicious lunch we were on our way to Dudu, where a number of people assured us that there were several places to stay. On arrival in Dudu, I consulted an English speaking tour guide who advised that we go back about a half a kilometre, cross the divided highway at an opening, and that we, like many locals ride against the traffic for about a kilometre, and turn right for our night’s lodging. Following his clear instructions, we arrived at a cross road under the expressway to discover there was a very vibrant outdoor market and repeated inquiries confirmed, that I was indeed in Dudu, but there was nowhere to stay. Finally, someone suggested that we use a service road, and go back the opposite side of the road and that there we will find a guesthouse. Indeed, after more inquiries a well dressed young man on a motor bike took us to a place, which had no sign in English and a very nondescript one in Hindi, and from the outside did not look like a guesthouse, which elicited a response from Alison, confirming that I was indeed in Dudu. Luckily, behind the front building, which consisted of closed-up shops for rent, with roll up doors, there was a two storey structure which had rooms for rent, which being the best, and only place in town, I thought was quite acceptable, the room being quite large, hot water on demand but failed to take full notice of the crumbling paint and plaster on one of the walls which elicited some discussion!  After a shower and some tea, we proceeded to explore the small village to find it to be a great delight since many of the local folk may have never or rarely seen a foreigner, as evidenced by the fact that when they noticed I was taking photographs, they approached us and asked that I take their pictures, many in colourful turbans or wearing elaborate jewellery, which I would then show them and this would cause even more excitement and approving smiles.

The ride into Jaipur, a large bustling city which always posses a bit of a challenge, always poses a bit of a challenge on two wheels, turned out be almost routine, since I decided to follow the advice of the Lonely Planet Guide book and head towards their top pick, which was very close to our route. As I might have anticipated, other than an expensive, closet sized room with a shared bathroom a floor below, they were fully booked. Fortunately, across the street there was a good hotel catering largely to Indian businessmen, and we got a very reasonably priced room on the top floor, with a large terrace so we had a comfortable stay for two nights.

Since we were not within walking distance of the old city, we took a ride in a rickshaw, which confirmed that it was indeed a very hectic and polluted place and it being a large city, the merchants and beggars are equally persistent in trying to separate one from their monies. Perhaps we were become a bit jaded, but the Pink City Palace paled in comparison to some of the others we had seen earlier on our trip and pink might have been better described as terracotta.

We were also distracted by how to get to Delhi, our point of departure for Australia. Knowing the challenges of mega cities and the mobs at bus and train stations we decided to hire a van to take our two bikes and us directly to Delhi Airport on the day of our flight which was around 11 o’clock in the evening. The manager of our hotel spoke passable English but every step of our arrangement became involved.  Having earlier spotted the make and model of a van that would be large enough, he then confirmed that he had one available, and that for about a $100, for a distance of nearly 300kms, double the cost of a bus to Delhi and a taxi to the airport, he had a car for us. I told him I wanted to see the car. The hotel manager, about an hour later pointed to a car, belonging to another guest as the type we wanted. I insisted that I meet the driver and the car, and a good thing too, since the van was an older model and the rear seat did not fold down. After some protracted discussions that our bikes would be fine on the roof, the driver agreed that he would remove the seat and put the seat on the roof. Of course, he arrived the appointed morning the seat firmly in place and only after some further discussion did he remove the bolts and move the seat sideways, which allowed the bikes to travel upright, and Alison to sit quite comfortable on the rear seat.

We had barely left town, when we stopped in front of a jewellery shop, a standard practice of all drivers and a firm NO was reluctantly accepted. Then despite the limited ability of the driver to speak English, he was very capable of conveying that for an extra 500 rupees he would show us a fort, just a few kilometres off our route. Fortunately, as part of the bargain, we included a stop at the Amber Fort, another very imposing structure; built high on a hill and surrounded by a wide and deep moat, now dry. Of course he asked for an extra 50 rupees for parking but perhaps got the message that we were not typical tourists, when to his surprise we told him we would walk up the hill, rather than take an expensive elephant ride to reach the main entrance of the fort.

The fort itself, started in 1592, is truly magnificent, not only because of its size, the grandeur of its palace, but it lives up to the pink image that I had anticipated in Jaipur, and as such made a fitting final place to visit in India.

Arriving at the airport was uneventful, other than the several hours we had to wait for our flight as I did not want to drive in the dark, and that our plane was about an hour late. After sleeping for a few hours, we landed in Kuala Lumpur and had just enough time to get re-energized by a massive coffee from Starbucks.

On landing in Perth, we waited until all of the bags we delivered to discover that our bikes were officially lost. Perhaps as a fitting finale, our driver was from Punjab, who in the height of the local rush hour traffic took all the side roads available, accelerated and braked vigorously between starts and stops, and used every amber light as a challenge to get to the other side, proving that there is a bit of India in neat, orderly and clean, Australia.

Namaste and happy holidays,

Ps  the bikes were delivered the following morning. Thanks to Richard of who over the weekend built a new rear wheel using a Mavic A719 rim,  and Swiss, double butted spokes with brass nipples, the combo Richard reassures me is indestructible wheel; my hope is that it survive the baggage handlers and the rest of our journey through Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.


1 comment:

David in T.O. said...

Well Andrew. Riding across Australia. And swimming over to Thailand. Should now be no problem. Y'all are courageous. Be cool. D