Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Life as it is, from Khujaraho to arriving in Varanasi

If it was not for this blog, the countless photos and the universal ritual of reviewing the daily tally of digital images which I imagine is similar to great white hunters of long ago, tallying their daily kills. In our case, we have two cameras and Alison in a humorous moment suggested saved our marriage, as such we can each focus on our own experiences. Without these reminders I would have difficulty recalling, where we have been, what we have seen and try to review it in some orderly manner. Beyond the daily kilometers covered, which now totals 1,200, soon at some level all the myriad of experiences start to meld into a gigantic pot full of everything India is well known for, compounded by the fact that we are experiencing it by being self-propelled on two wheels and at times internalizing all of the nuances, as we move from place to place, and by osmosis we become Indianized, a word not yet in the Google Dictionary.

From Khujaraho to Satna, we rode through pleasant country side and for the first time I became aware of the marking on the map, “Panna Hills” which by the standards of the Rockies or the Himalayas are mere random errors on the generally flat landscape, but they still engaged slightly different muscles groups and were a welcome variety and a taste of what’s to come as we head towards Nepal. It being Indian Independence day, we were regaled in every settlement by everyone heading to a school yard or other point of assembly carrying small flag and the speeches and singing followed us for most of the day. As luck would have it there was yet another wedding in the hotel we were staying, and after dinner we were “invited” to join the festivities and sample the fruits and sweets that were offered.

While I do a fair amount of planning for each trip, after Satna I was not sure which way we were going to ride towards Varanasi, the quality of the road surface and the promise of a place to stay being two key considerations. The two faint pink lines on my map, which I was told was a single lane road, and reassured that it was in good condition became our route to Chitrakoot, and what a great ride it turned out to be, with virtually no traffic and at least half the distance through rolling hills and forest with little or no habitation.

In Chitrakoot we spent the afternoon and evening wandering the narrow streets leading to Ram Ghat, one of the revered bathing places to mingle among the pilgrims and worshipers followed by a boat ride on the river, each river boat being saddled with an additional passenger: a pink eyed pure white rabbit.
Just as we were starting to have dinner, a couple from Australia arrived and perhaps like us, not having seen a foreign tourist for many days, and none on bicycles yet, they were eager to trade stories as like-minded people do. Each encounter is a quick recap of a life and we soon learned that the Ozzies had rented their home for five years and are thus “forced” to be on the road for the most part for the duration, needless to say, prompting us to give consideration to extending our own four month foray.

The ride to Allahabad promised to be challenging as the map indicated a distance of about 130 kms and in anticipation we had an early start and the tanks were filled with morning chais and parathas. What we did not count on were the abysmally rough road surfaces which constituted about the first 50 kms. Conscious of the need to keep a steady pace the pounding took its physical and mental toll, for in the early low angle of the sun, the road like a mirage shimmered perfectly smooth, and for very short periods indeed it was quite ride able, but for the most continued like an old rock and roll song, ‘’shake, rattle and roll’’. Slowly my mindset changed: rather than experiencing disappointment as the apparently smooth surface in the distance turned out to be otherwise, I gradually assumed that the road will be rough and took delight in the few smooth patches as they materialized. It brought to mind the slogan on a T shirt I had seen earlier “MBA Master of Bad Attitude” which could be interpreted in many ways but it became a mantra as I conquered my own attitude to the road and accept “Life as it is”.

Thankfully, the road did improve and by the 110 km mark as the sun was once again slowly sinking, to my horror I saw Alison lying motionless on the road about 25 feet behind. By the time I raced back a concerned crowed had already formed and traffic around here were rerouted and she was able to tell me that she did not see the rut in the road and had fallen off her bike. In a minute or so she regained composure and reflected on her scraped elbow, a large bump and we were directed to a nearby first aid station and her wounds were attended to and she soon recovered her composure. While only about 25 kms from our destination, we considered taking a bus but she made the heroic decision to ride the distance. We arrived at what later turned out to be the outskirts of Allahabad in near pitch darkness and it appeared nobody had heard, or understood, the direction to our planned place to stay.

As our map of the city only showed the core, we moved in the darkness, each with rear flashers but with no way for me to see Alison cycling behind, she kept singing “I am right behind you” until at one intersection a confident young man of about 18 was able to draw a small sketch, which to my horror indicated several turns and about four more kilometers to go. My lateral suggestion to hire a rickshaw and follow it to our destination was met by a firm directive from the local youth: “You will not hire a rickshaw; you will ride”. We followed instructions and we continued in the Saturday night traffic, moving at a snail’s pace towards our destination; a half hour later our guide who was on foot gave us an encouraging smile and a wave as we waited to make a turn at a particularly congested intersection.

Using the Catholic Cathedral as our landmark, which we discovered was beautifully lit at night; I pull up to our hotel, only to have my heart sink to be told that they were fully booked. More cycling and several “sorry no rooms” we finally arrived at Hotel Valentine, thankfully several notches above a “love hotel”. After 137 kms and riding, including one hour in the dark, I instantly loved the room but was still motivated to negotiate a 35% discount. And yet again, after a dinner were ‘’invited’’ to a very lavish wedding in the fancy hotel across the street, where we enjoyed the fireworks, the music, the chanting and the sweets; - After all, this is life as it is in India.

On Sunday morning we were inexplicably drawn to the huge Cathedral, where a moving service in English was in progress to commemorate International Leprosy day and was our way of reflecting on and giving thanks to our own good fortune. We then toured four majestic tombs from the 1600s but the highlight of the day turned out to be a visit to the “Sangam” meaning the auspicious confluence, in this case of two holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, which draws hordes of pilgrims, which every 12 years attracts a staggering 17 million. This year’s Magh Mela, a couple of days away, is a more minor celebration but judging by the sea of tents set up as far as the eye could see and the throngs of people everywhere, we quickly understood why there were no rooms to be had.

Next day we stayed at the Utter Pradesh Government run guest house at the foot of the bridge crossing the Ganges. Luckily they had a room for us, one of a few of several dozen that had been renovated, the rest being gutted and under construction. Once again, amongst the rubble we had a great stay and as the only guests, the full attention of staff with a delicious dinner and early breakfast as requested.

The smooth concrete road leading to the edge of Varanasi was a joy to behold only to be jolted into another reality as the main street leading to our destination was under construction, reminding us of the Ying and Yang of life. Once again, we found the hotels listed in tourist guides, especially with views of the Ganges, fully booked. Thankfully, there are no shortages of places to stay and a modest hotel, in a quiet location with a large balcony and a magnificent view of the rivers awaited us, a sharp contrast to the throngs at the main ghats, and the labyrinth of narrow streets that seem to attract speedy motorcycles. All is well as we accept life as it is.


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