Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Cycling in Rajasthan


Having loved my trip to Kerala last year, it was but a hop, skip and a jump to turn my ‘once in a lifetime’ cycling adventure into a return trip. This time, though, I would go cycling in Rajasthan.
Now I should admit straight away, that I did very little research. I blithely assumed that it would probably be like cycling in Kerala but with added palaces.

On reflection, I wonder whether I am a little too old for such a devil may care approach to travel. But then again, perhaps, I’m too old to change.
 
Cycling in Rajasthan is nothing like pedalling through Kerala.

Kerala is lush, green and misty. As I rode last year, I caught beguiling scents of herbs and tea. Starkly different,  Rajasthan was arid, dusty, a sandy backdrop brightened with sharp splashes of colour from a jewel-coloured sari or extravagant turban. 

The scents I caught on the breeze in Rajasthan were not always as enticing: open sewers in remote villages, pollution in the towns and everywhere the smell of death; a pile of dead puppies by the roadside, a long-dead cow, decay that leaves a scent memory impossible to erase.  

Again, this year, I was the lone cyclist, joining a quartet of friends. Again, I was the slowest. I’ve stopped worrying about it. Short of putting an engine on my bike, I’m not going to get any quicker.  

Five of us pedalled along sandy tracks, past leopard-lurking rocky outcrops and through small, slumbering villages which sprang to life at our approach.

Clearly, we were a curiosity. 

Children tumbled out of schools to watch us pass. Villagers crushed around us when we stopped to refill our water bottles, open stares, shy giggles and the ubiquitous selfie. Many of those we met lived in homes without running water. Subsistence farmers, they lived off inhospitable land using farming techniques unchanged for centuries. 

Yet, still they had mobile phones, extended for photos.

Our trip started in Pichola and ended in Jodhpur. Between those towns we were very far from shops and restaurants, deep into rural Rajasthan. At the end of a day’s cycling we slept in desert tents, in a historic hunting lodge and even a Raja’s glamorous fort.

We had supper on a rooftop, high above the dark, star-reflecting waters of lake Pichola. We enjoyed dinner on the ramparts of Fort Bhadajun, where we were unexpectedly joined by the Raja and Rani. We were, somewhat to our embarrassment, enfolded into a village wedding; guests of honour at the head of the procession, ushered into the family home of the groom. Big, clumsy, consumed with a very British longing for invisibility.

Somewhere there is a wedding video showing a hundred wedding guests in brightly-coloured saris and five bemused Western cyclists, swept up in a traditional dance.


We were awoken by peacocks. Wild peacocks. I thought peacocks had been bred to look decorative around stately homes. It had never occurred to me that they lived rough. Those extravagant tails looked incongruous on the rocks – never more so than within leaping distance of a slyly-hunting leopard.

"Um, are the leopards dangerous?” I asked our guide. Apparently the week before, they had taken someone off a moped. Villagers are compensated for leopard losses. The community nearest the leopards we spotted, had electricity and street lighting. Make of that what you will…

Hardest to bear, for me, were the street dogs. Everywhere we went the dogs roamed, sad stray scavengers. Injured dogs healed, deformed, or died. One was run over and killed in front of us, an inattentive motorist having his attention drawn by the crowd of onlookers surrounding our refreshment break. He didn’t stop. Nobody mourned. A long way from my adored spaniels, I took myself to a hidden corner and sobbed hot, salty tears.

One afternoon, miles from the nearest habitation, we found a howling puppy in the middle of the road. Too young to leave its mother it was alone, hungry and blind. I couldn’t carry it home. Couldn’t help.

In other low points I was attacked by a monkey, spending a sleepless night regretting my decision not to go for the rabies jab. And I narrowly avoided being pushed, sideways, off my bike as a young girl made a mad dash into the road to touch me.

More seriously, it seemed, at one point, that we wouldn’t make it home. Our departure from Delhi coincided with violent civil unrest in the region. Twenty-two protesters were killed. The water supply to Delhi was cut off, railway stations closed, roads blocked. We made an anxious overnight journey by bus and arrived at the airport courtesy of our guide talking his way through a roadside checkpoint.

 “Are you alright?” the texts asked. “Are you coming home?” “Will you go to Wales next year?”

Perhaps they are right. Maybe it was an adventure too far? I've promised, next year, I'll go cycling in Wales. What could possibly go wrong?





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