It is impossible to be neutral, as the national tourism advertising slogan proclaims, about "Incredible India". This is our fifth trip to this vast and diverse land. As always, India challenges even seasoned travelers, including ourselves. No one who spends any time here can remain indifferent about India: the colours, the smells,the tastes,the sounds, the intensity, the contrasts and extremes, in every sphere imaginable.
We have now spent nearly a month here, and as I am trying to encapsulate the experience, it is an overwhelming sense of being grateful is the theme that keeps emerging. Even expecting the unexpected, will leave one with a sense of heightened awareness of so much that we tend to take for granted in our non-Indian lives.
On arrival, I approach the pre-paid taxi stand with bulky panniers and two bicycles wrapped in plastic bags, and explain our destination to the dispatcher. Given the shortage of cash because of the recent demonetization, he is happy to exchange a small US note at a favourable rate to himself, and produce a receipt for the fare. On reaching the cabs, the on-the-ground coordinator points to a car, the size of a mini, opens all four doors and the trunk, and directs the driver to do the clearly impossible: get us, the bikes and bags in the car. He inquires about taking the bikes apart, strapping them to the roof, getting them in two cars etc. I stand around with a smile, while a dozen or so other drivers offer suggestions and debate the obvious conundrum. I wait patiently and after a bit convincing, we march back to the dispatcher, to get a refund. Welcome to India, the land of possibilities and impossibilities.
While anywhere else I might have become annoyed or angry at the good natured scene just played out, in India, acceptance is learned from experience, and I was grateful for the refund of payment and then to have negotiated a fare to our destination in a larger van.
On arrival at our hotel in Chennai, I am grateful that they have a copy of our reservation. Since we landed very early, they offer us a standard room without a window, not the deluxe we expected. No problem ... a couple of hours later after we have showered and rested, an army of helpers arrives to transport our bags across the passage to the deluxe room and am feeling grateful for the quick response and service.
In most eateries, the service is exceptional and I feel grateful for the care and attention: a spoon requested is proffered on a plate, the food is always served from the right, dishes removed on a tray and when we ask for sugar for the curd, the waiter spoons and stirs it carefully in the dish, and asks for our approval.
I am grateful for the chai wallahs who serve steaming tea and expertly pour it from a small cup into a metal bowl and back again to mix the sugar and spices.
I am grateful for the cool tingle of that first sip of soda water to produce the effervescent drink, when we were fortunate to have found a room with a mini-fridge and a seller of soda the night before.
As we are riding beside a train track, I am grateful that the terrain is almost flat, and we are making good progress, along rice paddies and sugarcane fields, where farmers till the land with tethered oxen and women in shimmering saris gather the harvest.
I feel grateful for the symphony of songbirds that entertain and the dazzling flashes of fluorescent blue wings of kingfishers as they circle around us.
I feel grateful for the marvels of human imagination and energy, that created the impressive ancient stone carved temples.
I feel grateful for the chanting that accompanies us we ride past many temples and shrines.
I feel grateful for the smiles and pride of the people who feel honoured for having their photographs taken, while staring into the camera with solemn pride or a broad smile.
I feel grateful during the first week of our trip for the people waving for us to stop for selfies, which provided a few moments of welcomed rest.
I feel grateful for sharing a conspiratorial smile with a group of women, who had liberated a few pieces of sugar cane, that "fell off" a well-loaded truck.
I feel grateful that I am feeling refreshed in the morning, dressed in my cycling gear when the locals are wearing earmuffs, toques and sweaters in the near 20C winter temperature.
I feel grateful when bus and truck drivers give lots of warning from behind by incessantly blowing their horns and more grateful that I only feel the rush of air as they pass.
I feel grateful when I give pursuit to a passing tractor, the driver accelerating and I keep up at top speeds for what seems like eternity, and feel relieved as the driver, with a wave and a smile, turns off the road.
I feel grateful when that faintest white line on the google smart phone map, turns into a narrow but smoothly paved country lane that transports us back to a way of life from at least a century ago.
I am grateful that the repeated clicking sound emanating from the bike is only the magnet of the cycle computer which when adjusted a millimeter or so, produces silence.
I feel grateful to Alison who has the patience to fill in the requisite 'C' Form on each hotel check in, requesting passport and visa details, date of arrival and departure from India, where we are coming from and where we are going to, father's name and place of birth etc.
I feel grateful to be sharing these marvels with Alison for the last twenty plus years, who rises to the challenges of cycling with enthusiasm and often motivates me to push further with curiosity and energy.
I feel grateful for the many journeys of exploration on two wheels, and for passing 94000 kms on the odometer.
I feel grateful to be able to have these impossibly enriching experiences in India and so much more, even though we are cutting our trip short, due to the cyclones slowing our progress, being challenged to overcome the frustrations of the shortages of available cash, and some minor but nagging health issues, that are slowly improving.
Will I be grateful for the snow, the cold, the slush, the grey skies, the layers of clothing of the Toronto winter? Surely after India, anything is possible.