We wake at dawn and move quickly to beat the crowds and the heat. The village is already alive and our friends from the previous night have gathered to see us off. After the obligatory photos, we roll out of town, facing the desert and the day ahead.
This is not the wild, desolate landscape you might expect. Even the most barren expanse of sand is dotted with straw huts housing animals and the odd person. We are taking the most minor back roads, but even so are passed by motorbikes and buses every few minutes.
As the sun climbs higher, the glare of sun on sand begins to tire my eyes. We pause for a rest in the sparse shade of an acacia tree. My skin has turned to liquid and my head throbs in the heat. The warm water in my bottle does nothing to quench my thirst so I suggest we press on to the next shop to buy a cold soft drink.
Half an hour later, we find a small village. There are a couple of wooden shacks selling chewing tobacco and biscuits, and another with a couple of charpoys out front. The silver pans are a promising sign – perhaps we’ll find tea. We push the bikes across the deep sand between the road and the stalls and are beckoned to sit down.
The shops in this part of the world are poorly stocked. People make their own bread and milk comes straight from the cow, so we must make do without our two staples. We tried buying bread from a restaurant, but our language difficulties meant the chapattis were accompanied by a full plate of curry: not very transportable in panniers. We are therefore sustained by glucose biscuits and eggcup-sized cups of sweet milky chai, flavoured with cardamon. Luckily, most villages have a shop selling bottled water and soft drinks. Most days, we also pass through a bigger settlement where we can stock up on fruit and pakoras and where we can find a proper meal, so we’re not exactly starving (I am – Tim).
After several tiny cups of tea, we drag ourselves up and back onto the bikes, but not before we’ve been asked to take photographs of half the village. We continue heading east, winding through the Rajasthani countryside.
This desert is thriving with life.
Calls of peacocks echo in my ears. Cows amble past, oblivious to the traffic chaos they create. A truck laden with hessian sacks of cumin whizzes past, leaving the fragrant scent of spice in its wake. Every few seconds, horns warn us of an approaching vehicle. A herd of goats appear, jostled along by an ancient character clad in white robes and carrying a stick. Colourful women, jangling with jewellery, pass us and we marvel at how easily they carry the silver water urns on their heads. Everyone we meet is fascinated by us, stopping to stare or shouting greetings.
As we enter a larger settlement, we decide to stop for the night. Arriving into an Indian town is like walking into a wall: a wall of people, dirt and chaos. We love the excitement and hate the noise in equal measures.
We pull over and are instantly surrounded by boys and men of all ages. Our bikes are inspected: tyres pressed, brakes tried and bells rung. Most bikes here are single speed, so our gears attract a great deal of attention – there is always one man who knows about these things explaining the concept to the others. We ask for a guest house or a safe place to camp, through mime and broken English. This process will take a while, involving debate between our new friends and a painful haggling process, but we end up paying less than a fiver for a basic room with a bucket of water to wash with. It will do. After a cheap meal of daal and chapatti, we return to our room and collapse beneath the whirring fan, grateful for the relative sanctuary.
We don’t understand India. Perhaps we never will.
We are baffled by the complex spirituality, with a temple on every corner. We are frustrated by the lack of personal space afforded to us whenever we stop, surrounded by people who openly stare at us until we move on. We are ignorant about the food: this is not the Indian food we know back home. We struggle with the purchase of basic goods, with prices set by the vendor at what he thinks we can afford, rather than a set value. It is a small victory when we realise many items have prices printed on them, and the shop keeper’s lack of shame at trying to rip us off is symptomatic of a nation where everyone is fighting to make a living and will take what he can get. This sums our feelings up better than I can:
‘I was unnerved by the density of purposes, the carnival of needs and greeds, the intensity of the scheming and pleading on the street. I spoke none of the languages I heard. I knew nothing of the cultures there, clad in robes and saris and turbans. It was as if I’d found myself in a performance of some extravagant, complex drama and I didn’t have a script. But I smiled.
Shantaram, Gregory David Roberts
We were somewhat nervous about this part of our trip, having been warned about the intensity of India. Intense it is, and our emotions swing wildly from deep annoyance to a sense of wonder and joy on an hourly basis. However, as always, cycling through a place is giving us a fantastic introduction to it.
We are experiencing India in all its colourful, noisy, grimy glory and are very glad to be here.