Cycle touring usually means a sore ass, aching leg muscles or in my case, shoulders. We never expected that the sorest part of our bodies cycling through India would be our lungs. Our chests burn, a deep sting inside, like all the alveoli are raw and inflamed. Christine has almost lost her voice, and Kevin sounds like he smokes sixty a day. We are all coughing but nothing comes up. We want to dust the sky, polish the brown hue away, breathe in deep, fresh, clean air. Luckily for us we have the Scottish Highlands to return to and we’ll soon recover, but the people we wave to as we whizz by on our daily travelator will stay, breathing this thick polluted gunk.
Where we get off the travelator is a daily surprise. Our worst was a roadside dhaba (transport cafe), shoved in a dingy room that mosts prisons would quarantine, with rats scurrying over us and mosquitoes feasting on our blood, sleeping on two tables amongst giant truck batteries on charge and air so thick with dust it’s surprising we didn’t asphyxiate in the night. We got to recover in a nice hotel before another rough night in a “men’s hostel” where Christine elected to pee in a bucket rather than risk entering the toilet.
“Have a good holiday in India!” people said before we left home, but this is no holiday. This is an adventure into the wild north of India, the band of land – the state of Utter Pradesh – sandwiched between the Himalaya and the golden triangle, where tourists do not venture.
“We never saw white people here” a local student tells us. “It is a first in history. No tourist come.” Crowds follow us relentlessly until we lock ourselves into an overnight room. On the road, paparazzi gangs on motorbikes film us and snap selfies, sometimes driving us off the road until we stop. Off the bike, hoards of locals swarm and swamp us as we go in search of food and water. In our overnight accommodation, young men rush to help Christine and I with bags or stairs, but their true motivation is to sneak a set of selfies with us, away from the disapproving eyes of their manager. But meanwhile, the manager is getting selfies with Kevin out of view of his staff. We hadn’t appreciated until now our pure novelty, the strangeness of our white skin and fair hair.
To say we are following a river, we have seen little of her. For the first time in a week, we crossed the Ganga, excited to be united again. But the turquoise water of upstream is now grey and lifeless. We paused on the bridge to look down. A car stopped and a group of beautiful well-dressed women in colourful saris emerged, a traffic jam forming where they had blocked the road. They gathered by the railing above the water and reached into bags, we thought to throw flowers or some kind of offering to Ma Ganga. They turned their bags upside down and as they shook, we were taken aback to watch plastic and rubbish tumble out. Ma Ganga, the revered sacred water, is both loved and badly abused.
We have found a rhythm that helps us through the smothering of heat, humidity and people. There is a window between 7 and 9.30 am that is cooler and relatively peaceful, when for a brief time we can breathe, when our skin doesn’t pour with sweat, when we are dry enough for the dirt not to stick. By 10 we are swarmed, and our mentality switches to survival mode. We ride in formation, efficiently rotating to set the pace, cruising up to roadside stalls to top up water and bananas (and a few for the days “selfie” count), and swerving around cows, pigs and speed bumps like pro dodgem pilots. By 11am the heat it is up to max – 36 degrees the last few days – and our progress gradually slows from 30km/ hr to 25 then 20, and then we limp towards a room with a fan, drenched as if we’ve just showered except there is nothing clean about us. As we pedal for our lives in the heat and chaos of the wide-awake day, I think of a saying sent to us by our Indian friend Sanjay. “It is not an adverse situation that disturbs us, but our inability to handle such a situation”. I feel grateful to be with Christine and Kevin. We are a solid team, nothing is throwing us off. We are in it, on it, and enjoying it for all the colour, texture and intensity of the experience. I know many wouldn’t, and with the wrong team, neither would I. But this is a ride of love and friendship, and a reminder that with those bonds, everything is fun and surmountable.
How fitting it was then to take our first day off to visit the worlds most famous icon of love and one of the new 7 wonders of the world. After days on the road it was tempting to lie in air conditioning and rest instead of take a 500km round trip to the Taj Mahal and it’s daily flock of visitors. But as we walked beneath the gate to see the floating domes and towers of marble, we were glad we had. The good things in life never come without effort.