On arrival in Delhi, the front page of the newspaper blared that the school vacation is extended because of the cold, and that numerous flights, thankfully not ours, and trains were cancelled because temperatures are about five degrees below normal with record lows of 40 years. Because of the cold theatre owners were bemoaning the fact that people are not venturing out in the evenings and numerous deaths were associated with the deep freeze. Cold is hardly what one associates with Indida and It’s a small consolation, but we did have early warning that this will be a cool trip, not as in the 70’s lingo but as in temperatures being lower than what one generally associates with India. My early planning suggested that nights would be in the teens and during the day, it would warm up to about 20 degrees, with a likelihood of some fog and a rare drizzle.
During the ride from IGI (Indira Gandhi International) airport, we were in our own daze, having departed from Perth at 2:30 a.m. but we rapidly had a sense of being in India. The traffic had its unique way of flowing, thanks to the belief of drivers that by constantly blowing their horn they create imaginary spaces where there is none, and that flashing the bright beams, somehow acts as jet propulsion energy, a new branch of quantum physics, an invisible after burner, speeding them along to the next opportunity to break precipitously.
At our comfortable guest house, Soni Villa in Gurgaon, we were warmly greeted by Sunjay the manager and Sunny the owner. The old fashioned single element electric heater in our room, potentially deadly to the touch, did take a bit of the chill off in our marble clad room, clearly designed to cope with the heat of summer. We spent a day getting acclimatized by walking about in this sprawling suburb of high rise office buildings, hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks that have transformed the sleepy rural village over the last 15 years.
One benefit of starting our cycling in 4 degree cold and 100% humidity, was that packing our gear was remarkably quick: we wore nearly all our clothes, properly layered. By riding we quickly got a sense of the “real” India. There is no substitute to seeing first-hand the massive pace of construction with high rises sprouting out of fields, heavy machinery alongside women in colourful saris toiling along the roads. From a real estate perspective, most telling are the simple 10’ by 10’ tent structures used as sales offices to sell the apartments.
Yet within 20km, we were back in familiar India – with colourful markets, vendors selling fruit, fabric and clothing, Brahman bulls in the street, water buffalo along the roads, carts being drawn by camels and horses, motorbikes, motorized tricycles and trucks overloaded with wares, and the constant noise of horns blaring as vehicles navigate roads and intersections. We stopped in a delightful small town, Sohna for a delicious meal: our standard fare of chipatis, daal, aloo gobi and sweet fragrant chai which we enjoyed at a simple family run place, watching the many men with colourful turbans and huge bushy mustaches – each craggy face furrowed with deep lines and piercing eyes, they were friendly and happy to be photographed. We watched women in colourful saris of red, orange and magenta, wearing thick shawls against the cold, toiling in the fields or engaged in other manual work, while children shouted greetings to us as we cycled by. Day one of our 80-day adventure involved a cool 72 km in the saddle – so far, so good.
Day two found us tempo riding along National Highway #2 a multi-lane expressway, of sorts, where traffic flows in every direction and a stay at Grace Hotel in Palwal, by which time we were getting used to the practice of the ancient art of highway usury. After a simple meal on the road, we were presented with a bill about double the norm. I said no and smiled. The waiter said yes with a straight face. I said no with an irritated voice. He said yes with a sterner face. I said no with a big laugh. Ten minutes of back and forth and the waiter retreats to consult and we leave after a reduction of about 40%, smiles all around.
At the above hotel, I asked the rate, to be told 2500 rupees. I say but website indicates 1400. An immediate OK; to be followed by a demand for taxes and service charges of 25%. We shake hands on 1500 all in. Welcome to traveling on the tourist highway. It pays to pay attention and not just to the traffic.