After a cold and uncomfortable flight, we arrived in Delhi. The Indian city was just as we expected: crowded, smelly and dirty. Or should I write: very crowded, very-very smelly and very-very-very dirty? If I hadn’t spent the last four months cycling in different countries I probably would have started to cry in the Delhi traffic. It was shocking, but we got used to the chaos and after a while we even enjoyed the craziness. Except for the honking, the continuous sounds of horns was terrible. It didn’t get any more peaceful or quieter when we got off the bikes – many beggars approached us while we were trying to get lunch in a park.
The first days in a new country are usually hard, India was no exception. We had to try several ATM-s to get some cash. Until then we couldn’t buy a bottle of water, we felt totally beaten. We didn’t try tap water, not even to filter it, because it can cause diarrhea that gets fatal in some cases. We saw some professional water filter machines but most of them were only decorations, they weren’t connected to the water fountain. In India we took more attention to what we ate and drank and used liquid hand sanitizer before every meal.
We planned to stay at a hostel, but it wasn’t where it was supposed to be, we couldn’t find it anywhere. There were others in the area, but the whole touristic zone was disgusting and it looked like we couldn’t have taken the bicycles in the rooms as all of them were upstairs. Our situation was saddening, but we could only laugh when a receptionist tried to sell us a ‘luxury family suite’ right between a heap of trash and huge pile of cowshit. Later we found a place to stay in another district, by that time we didn’t care, just carried the bikes up the stairs to the room. At least we got to know Delhi while we were looking for accommodation: we saw slums, cows, legless tramps, butchering of poultry on the street… We didn’t take any photos of these attractions because that would have increased the seconds spent in Delhi. We only took a pic of this man because he insisted so much.
We had some other things to do in Delhi but we didn’t want to stay any longer. The next day we ran away, we cycled North. The further we got from the city the better we felt. We slowly got used to the cars, bikes and tuktuks driving in the wrong lane, in the wrong direction. For a while we pedaled in a completely green area, this close to Delhi it surprised us. In the afternoon we got back on the main road which is full of hotels. We inquired in some of them, tried to bargain but none of them went below 1200 rupees. We were hoping that the rooms would get cheaper than that, because we didn’t see much chance for camping in India. There are way too many people, they are literally everywhere, no free spot left.
The next day we continued on the same highway. We couldn’t really find any place to stop and rest because of the crowd, we could only sit down in restaurants. We saw some interesting stuff, like a local woman helping give birth to fresh cow poop with her bear hands, but it looked like we were the most interesting things around there. It felt like that because everyone without exception was staring at us for long minutes, some of them with their mouths wide open. We were about to get to a hostel that we found on our map, but of course it turned out that in India hostel doesn’t mean hostel. It means dormitory where we weren’t allowed to enter. There wasn’t any hotel near so we still had a long distance to go before we finally found a place to stay.
In the beginning we also spent a lot on food. We couldn’t find ethanol for our camp stove so cooking for ourselves wasn’t an option. We couldn’t even shop for food because in three days we saw only one grocery shop, in Delhi. It took us days to realise that we can buy biscuits, chocolate, chips and if we’re lucky even bread in the suspicious stalls on the roadside. Once we got moldy bread, another time some soggy chocolate bars, but with time we got the hang of grocery shopping. We became very careful, checked the expiry dates and the caps of water bottles because some people tried to sell us water that already had been open. Otherwise we ate in dhabas, these are the local eateries, some of them also have rooms to rent. We became vegetarians for a while. On one hand, because Hindus don’t eat meat so most of the restaurants don’t cook meaty food, on the other hand, because we are afraid that many Indians aren’t careful enough to store and prepare meat hygienically. After a while we also learnt what to order in the dhabas if we want to eat cheap. Instead of randomly selecting meals from the menu, we ask for a thali. This consists of mixed veg, dal (lentils or beans), rice and/or chapati bread. We don’t get to choose the vegetables, but it’s fine since most of them taste pretty much the same: spicy. It usually costs 60-100 rupees and normally it’s enough for us. Though at the best places they refill your plates if you want and don’t really charge any extra for it. Later we gathered enough courage to try street food too. The veg burger, momo and chowmein are always tasty and cheap.
Let’s get back to our days cycling on the flats of India. We got to a Decathlon store and bought a bicycle computer because the old one stopped working since we got off the plane, sandals and a self inflating mattress for Adam as the old ones got torn and scarves that protect from the smell and the smog. After shopping we found a hotel where we could stay for half the price that they asked at first. This was our only room with wifi so far. In the evening we tried to walk in Zirakpur, but it’s difficult to be a pedestrian in India, it takes all day to cross the busy, 6 lane road as there isn’t any crossing or overpass. No sidewalk or lighting either. We found a cool market but other than that the town only has clothes stores and overpriced restaurants.
In the morning we realized that the old bicycle computer still works so we returned the new one. Unfortunately we didn’t try out the new mattress so we only noticed it in the evening, 35 km further that it was defective… We spent the whole day in an enormous city, Chandigar where naturally nothing was in the same place as marked on the map. There India proved again that it’s the best at turning simple things very complicated. We succeeded getting cash only from one bank’s ATMs and from those we could only get ten thousand rupees, twice a month, so we tried to exchange dollars. Banks turned us down, but after hours of searching we found some kind of office that had exchange service among others. The transaction that normally takes half a minute went painfully slowly even though three people were supporting the printer. In the afternoon, at last we turned to a relatively quiet road. Still every car was blowing its horn but at least there were less of them. We even found a perfect camping spot. The next day I stayed there while Adam cycled back to Decathlon to return the mattress. He got back the money but wasn’t happy for the extra 70 km-s and that he still has to sleep on the ground when we camp.
From there we started to go upwards, on roads with moderate traffic. There was still much trash everywhere. Once I asked a shopkeeper where can I throw my empty bottle and he suggested that I throw it on the ground. It’s completely natural in India. Accommodation got cheaper and more simple. We payed 600 rupees on average for the superficially cleaned rooms with attached bathroom, fan and TV. Sometimes we could watch English TV channels, but more often we learnt about the culture from the Indian programs. The bathrooms usually had western toilets, sometimes with a seat that also makes squatting possible. Shower head is less frequent. You rather have to fill a big bucket and pour the water on yourself with a smaller bucket. We liked this because we could easily wash our clothes in the big buckets. A stool is also part of the Indian bathroom set, you can sit down while you wash yourself.
Then we finally got from Punjab to India’s most beautiful part, Himachal Pradesh! Suddenly everything turned green and monkeys walked next to the road…