We cycle down a three lane highway, a toll road actually, except bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians and horses seem to go free of charge. Actually it’s a no-lane highway but in Europe it would have three. Under-taking is the least of our concerns as trucks come head on towards us, hurtling contra flow, horns blasting, traffic weaving and dodging… but incredibly there are no collisions. It’s a living version of some kind of chaos theory, a self organising system that is a sea of chaotic unpredictability. We’d never consider cycling a motorway at home, but the tarmac is black gold, and we eat up the kilometres much quicker than we have been. It means we can, if all goes well, find a bed beneath a fan and rest up for the afternoon in relative cool.
Planning this journey involved random plotting of a route that followed the course of the Ganges. The roads could have been dirt trails, bumpy tracks or full-on highway. The place names could have been sleepy villages or sprawling cities for all we knew. We have for sure encountered it all in this final part of our journey and two days out from the end we slowed to a crawl. We trundled through villages, the dust dampened with hose pipes, wiggling through potholes and puddles. We longed for smooth road again, Christine’s spine sore with the shaking, Kevin sapped of strength tugging a rattling trailer, me grounding and grinding my low ride handbike over lumps.
“It could have been like this all the way” I remind us, feeling so grateful that on the whole, India’s tarmac has been better than that of Scotland.
‘The Sleeping Bike’ is what the locals call it here in our Varanasi neighbourhood. Within two days of being here we feel a small part of the community. Rocky from the clothes shop, Panda-gi the rickshaw-walla whose house is a den of cardboard, corrugated metal and cloth in front of our hotel with the cows, Shammy the henna hands lady who has painted Christine in intricate detail, the handicraft ladies on the ghat… but of course, in their entrepreneurial, resourceful way, everyone is wanting our rupees.
Within our small team of three, we have bonded stronger than we could have imagined. When the nozzle of your colonic irrigation gadget falls down the loo and your friend goes fishing it out of the pan whilst you’re sat there but can’t reach it, you know your friendship has moved to a level it has never known before. When you are showing your besties partner a picture of a bathroom whilst she is inspecting saddle rash on his ass at the same time, you know you have entered the realms of ‘extreme friendship’.
In these few days of rest and packing, we reflect on the journey. After many bike tours, it is the special views and the wind in your hair that leave their imprint. This journey has been different. There have been no striking views since the first few days with Himalayan backdrop. Glimpses of the river have been few and far between. The skies have been clouded with smog. Our views of the sugar cane and wheat fields have been obscured by a paparazzi of motor bikes. It may not sound ideal, but we are imprinted with other kinds of memories. The way people shake our hand then touch their heart. The way they kiss the notes and thank the gods for the rupees we give them. “How you like India?” they ask us, eager to know our country, our names, and what we are doing. “You are guest, you is god” they tell us, and selfie after selfie they snap, so chuffed to have a photo with us, the subtle sideways nod of the head an indication they are pleased with the picture. People here are proud of India, proud to have us, excited to see us. Small shrines and temples from miniature to grand have decorated our experience. Candles, orange flowers, red dye on the forehead, colourful flags, big eyes and inquisitive faces have lined our way. Emotion, heart and spirit have replaced the views, skies and breezes of a more ‘regular’ cycle tour.
Varanasi has been a more intense and psychedelic conclusion than we could ever have imagined, but oh, so India. We float in a rickety rowing boat on the Ganges and absorb the activities that unfold along its banks. The billows of smoke from fires of burning bodies, the celebratory rituals, the fusion of life and death. We feel sad to leave this colourful world, but grateful to have it coming home with us, infused in our hearts.