Sunday, January 30, 2005

Ahmedabad (Amdavad)

Day 9 cycling: Baroda to Ahmedabad
Distance cycled: 119.57km
Ridetime: 6:27 hours
Average Speed: 18.67 km/hr
Grand Total: 867km

Overall, today's road was pretty good, and more scenic than it's been to date, although there were a few rough bits and was not a divided road for most of it. I was able to cycle at 19 or 20km/hr for most of the way, but was slowed down at either end as I negotiated my way through both cities. Had a few near misses - a woman & child ran acrosss the highway withway looking (!), and an autorickshaw swerved in front of me & slammed its brakes on hard, for no reason apparent to me. Luckily I couldn't recall the Gujurati swearword that Bhanu told me (she subsequently emailled & told me not to use it as I'd probably get a punch in the face if I did. I think the word involved one's sister ...). So I had to resort to one of the Australian ones I occasionally use. It does seem extraordinary to me how often motorists just pull out or stop suddenly without seeming to look in the mirror or to the side. This behaviour is of course reflected in traffic accident statistics which show India to be about the worst in the world. This, and the fact that so many vehicles are in such bad repair. One day, when I was cycling in South India (in 2000) I was cycling along when a truck came around the corner - the passenger suddenly opened the door and jumped out, then the driver, and the guy in the middle also tried to. The truck kept going in a straight line, into a power pole pulling the power lines down for quite some way in both directions. Presumably its brakes or steering failed, and I expect this is not all that uncommon. It's always in the back of my mind as I cycle along. This, and the memory of a dead motorcyclist jammed underneath a four wheel drive in South India, also encountered on the same trip.
But you have to love it when you see three young men on a motorcycle, or a family of 4 on a motor scooter tootling down the highway, invariably looking quizzically at you or else waving.

As I left Baroda yesterday, the road sign said Ahmedabad 100km, and then a little furthe on a sign said 106km. After I'd cycled 40km (and I know my bike computer is accurate), the sign told me it was 76km to Ahmedabad - my day's goal just seemed to keep getting further away. Similarly, at one stage there 3 successive road signs saying 50, then 51 then 52km to go (was I going in the right direction?).

Yesterday at Baroda I had a thali with Robert from Brisbane. He's taken the past year off from work and has been cycling for the past 8 months in Europe. He'd had enough, had shipped his bike back home, and was travelling India by bus. He was a nice bloke and it was good to chat about our respective travels and compare notes re cycling.

One of the things that Ahmedabad, which is otherwise a rather noisy, dusty, industrial city, has going for it is its restaurants. Last night I ate at a place called "Agashiye", a delightfully atmospheric open-aired terrace on top of a mansion (The House of MG). The service & environment were impeccable, and the food was very tasty. You had to pay in advance which was a little odd, and the manager mumbled something about needing to know in advance for catering purposes, which of course made no sense at all. I suspect some past guests must have run off without paying. Now, I'm sitting in the "biggest & chippest cybercafe" in town, having had a rather miserable breakfast of idli - which unusually came in a big tub of soup, and looked as if it had been nibbled at by a previous diner or something even more worrying to contemplate, and 'toast, butter jam' - which was like a toasted jam sandwich. The coffee wasn't bad. Had lunch in another restaurant in the same building - the Green House - and it too was excellent.

I'm staying at a place called Hotel Serena - not the flashest of hotels, but satisfactory. Their motto is "the proud of your service" and also "for the ecma of comforts". I'm not sure what ecma means, or that I really want to find out.

Saturday, January 29, 2005

last day in Baroda

Visited the Baroda (Vadodara) Museum & Picture Gallery. In the museum, there were heaps of exhibits, mostly well-labelled and in English, which was nice. There were stuffed birds, cats, monkeys, and a mis-labelled koala (it looked like a heavy-set fox or perhaps a fat dingo), statues, pots, trinkets from different cultures, plaster casts of Egyptian statues and of fish from around the world, countless pieces of rock and shell, and strange things in bottles. It was primarily a natural museum - nothing interactive or scientific in nature - and reminded me of the Melbourne museum in the 1960's.

In the Picture Gallery, which was not very interesting, I met an English artist with his easel set up, making a copy, in oils, of a painting of a legal scene by the artist W.P Frith. He had been commisioned by Gray's Inn (one of the societies of barristers in the UK) and was spending 3 days in the gallery to do the job. We had a chat, but he was rather coy about revealing how much he was being paid, other than "lots". In some ways his effort, which was half the size of the original (that's all hs employers could afford, he explained) looked better than the original.

When I returned to my room for a rest this afternoon after cycling around some of Baroda, there was loud hammering coming from the next room, and some other hammering from down the corridor. After about half an hour of this I'd had enough. I was offered a change of room which I accepted - without thinking. The change from the fourth floor to the first means of course that I'm much nearer the road .... noisy +++! I've tended to stay in mid-range hotels, which are generally pretty comfortable. I figure that it's hard on the road - no need for additional hardship at the end of a day's cycling. So, mostly I have hot water/geyser (e hot shower), a flush loo, supplied towel, soap, toilet-paper etc and often a TV - such luxury. The TV tends to have about 40 channels, showing everything from Bollywood movies to this or that guru expounding his or her thoughts on things. The odious Sai Baba was on the other night, sitting on his throne while music played and his devotees looked on reverentially.

Tomorrow I set off for Ahmedabad. I trust the ride will be a little more comfortable, buttock-wise, as I purchased a foam-padded bike-seat cover from a street vendor today.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Baroda (Vadodara)

Had a really solid night's sleep after all that cycling - well, until 6am - incredibly noisy, with the sound of horns, phones ringing, shouting, penetrating through the walls of the hotel and into my eardrums. For some reason it was dead quiet when I awoke again at 8am, for a short time anyway when an amplified brass band started playing, and then several long chains of fire crackers started exploding. So I got up and had an excellent breakfast - cornflakes & milk, idliis, toast, jam and coffee, and read the Times of India. Later in the day I strolled around the Sayaji Baug park - a relaxing oasis. Inside the park are a planetarium, a zoo (comprising cyclone-fenced enclosures and some very dispirited-looking deer), the Museum (again, Rp 20 for locals and Rp 200 for 'foreigners') and the fabulous Health Museum. This had some pretty funky exhibits that seemed as if they were from the 1950's. There was a tall mirror with a sign above suggesting "look at yourself to correct your posture" and another exhibit entitled "woman's sufferings to bear during fertility" with all sorts of complicated diagrams, models, and explanations.

While out cycling this afternoon, a man with bad teeth sidled up beside me on his motorcycle. He asked a few questions than wondered if I had everything I needed. "Like what", I ventured. "Sex" he replied. "You're not my type" I answered but he didn't notice my attempt at humour. After a bit more banter, I thanked him for his interest in my well-being and cycled off. Mind you, I do feel pretty isolatd at present - no other westerners to speak of, or with, for over a week.

Thursday, January 27, 2005


Bharuch to Baroda: Day 8 cycling
Distance: 85.54 km
Ride time: 5:21
Average speed: 16.31 km/hr
Max Speed: 27.0 km/hr
Total Odometer Reading: 726km

Today was much like yesterday - flat road, fine weather condtions, some parts of the road were quite rough & other parts just perfect. Again, the road was a 2-lane divided highway, so no major worries from oncoming traffic. Nevertheless, great vigilance is called for - I was daydreaming for about 2 seconds and nearly collided with a motorcyclist entering the highway on my left. I'm staying at the Hotel Surya in Baroda, allegedly a fairly classy mid-range accommodation, but it's been left to become a little rundown. After I arrived, at about 4pm, I had the delightfully-named high tea here - comprising masala dosa, idlis and a coffee. Very tasty after a day's cycling. Last night I had a meal at the restaurant attached to where I stayed (the Hotel Sethna Plaza Annexe) - the food was not so good there, and in fact I complained re what they gave me. This was changed to something a little better, but not a recommended restaurant. While waiting for my meal, there were some very loud voices coming from the kitchen - I guess the chef was having a bad day.

Baroda looks like an OK place, so I'll spend a day or so here. And frankly, I'm a bit fed up with cycling at present, having covered something like 350 km & cycled for five of the last six days. My buttocks & I need a rest!

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Surat to Bharuch (Broach)

Surat to Bharuch (Broach):
Distance cycled: 81.06km
Average Speed: 17.16 km/hr
Ride time: 4:48
Maximum speed: 27.1 km/hr
Total Odometer reading: 640 km

As I pedalled off this morning I noticed that the bike was in a different gear to the one I left it in last night. This minor hazard tends to occur when you're not able to leave your bike in your room - Indians love to fiddle with things (a cycling log I read the other day nicely described them as "twiddlers"). I also belatedly discovered that my ex-wife Bhanu's family actually came from two neighbouring towns to Surat, but it would've been too awkward a detour at this stage to have had a look around. Would've been interesting though.

This stretch of road was dustier, smokier, smellier and rougher than yesterday's. I also had the wind against me for much of the time. But the road was flat, and a dual-laned divided highway all the way, so on the whole it was a fairly straightforward ride. Not especially interesting though - mostly chemical plants, brick works and the occasional village lined the road. Perhaps the most entertaining sight was the effort to remove a truck from a ditch by means of a crane and a big tow truck. I stood there and gawked at proceedings for a while, along with a crowd of other onlookers. 80 kilometers is a much happier distance to cycle than a 100 km one.

The buttocks seemed a lot better today - was it the Enac gel or perhaps habituation to the task? I did wonder about doing a controlled study - just applying Enac to one buttock, and seeing how it goes. A double-blind experiment would be harder to arrange, but possible (this, by the way, is just one example of the sorts of things the mind ponders as one cycles along for hours at a time ....). A potential road hazard here I'm beginning to notice is mobile-phone use - by motorcyclists!

The day started off well, with a 'complimentary' breakfast at the Hotel Central Excellency. While the place itself was pretty drab, breakast was great - idlis, bhaji, cornflakes & milk and coffee. I also, unusually for me as I like to just keep on going, stopped and had lunch at a roadhouse. I'd stopped for a drink (and typically I'd consume several litres a day on the road) but was enticed into having masala papad (chopped-up tomato, onion and other bits and pieces, on a papadam), chai and some "Chinese" vegetable fried rice. Delicious!

I'm developing a great, if not unusual, suntan - face, legs from the knees down (with sandal markings on my feet) and lower forearms.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005


Daman to Surat:
Distance cycled: 127.86km
Ride time: 7.52 hrs
Average Speed: 16.57 km/hr
Max: 31
Total cycled (odometer reading): 559 km

Today was a pretty good cycling day - weather very pleasant (mid-20's), flat, good road surface most of the way, traffic tolerable. I cycled roughly north north east for about 15km before hitting the main highway. What was striking so early in the morning was all the spit on the road - Indians do so like a good gob. The road today was mostly a 2-lane divided highway (NH8), but roadworks were happening along most of it, and traffic kept being diverted along one side or other. This was good for me on the bike as I could usually continue cycling on the blocked-off section of road for quite some distance. The curious thing was the total lack of road signs or mileposts along the way, pretty much until I hit the turnoff to Surat. Still, no real problem here, as I was basically heading north all day, up the highway. The other curious thing was how friendly other motorists were - truckies, and others, smiling, waving, giving me the thumbs up sign. Very cheering.

I'm staying a night at the Hotel Central Excellency - a nightmare to find, as Surat is actually a rather big place - and a somewhat shabby and overpriced place (900 Rp a night - quite a lot more than the LP guide suggests), but I was too tired after cycling so far to even think about finding anything else. My buttocks really let me down today, otherwise the average speed above would've been a little faster. They were really sore, and I'm contemplating putting a big squirt of the marvellous Enac gel in my trousers for tomorrow's ride. Still, I can count myself lucky that I don't suffer from a numb or painful todger,as I know some cyclists do. I also have a bit of soreness developing in my right knee (is this getting too boring, dear reader...?). My friend Sue, who is in to these sorts of things, tells me that someone called Louise Hay reckons that a sore knee means an excess of pride. I reckon I'd be prouder if I didn't have the bloody pain. Well, a rather uneventful day on which to have a birthday and the nearby restaurants don't seem all that conducive to having much of a celebration. Tomorrow,as well as being Australia Day, is also Republic Day in India. I'm not sure how people celebrate this, or what it will be like on the roads. For me, I'll try & cycle to Bharuch (also known as Broach), a modest 86 km away.

Monday, January 24, 2005

24th Jan

Daman is quite a nice & relaxed little town by the ocean. I walked today around the Moti Daman, the fort area on the south side, after taking a boat across the small stretch of water between (cost Rp2). The centre span of the bridge apparently collapsed a few years ago, which must be a boon for the boat owners. The Moti Daman area is a relatively quiet, clean and somewhat charming area, with a few interesting things to see, such as the Church of Baby Jesus and another church that is apparently very ornate inside, in the Portuguese style. This was closed and the caretakers couldn't open it for me when I asked as the guy who had the key had gone off to visit his brother for the afternoon.

The food in India is great. I've had my fill of naan, paratha & rotis, as well as pakoras, puri bhaji, masala dosa, channa (chickpea) masala, murgh (chicken) makhani and of course thali, as well as gulabjamun and one or two other sweet dishes. Chai is always a delight to me, especially after stopping for a drink break during some heavy cycling. All this of course is likely to increase my bulk, but overall I'm losing weight due to the cycling. In fact, I might have to buy a pair of braces soon. And my buttocks, or "sitting bones" as yoga people cutely call them, are taking a hell of a beating (I was going to say "as sore as buggery" but thought better of it) what with sitting on them for 12 hours a day during the meditation course and then hours in the saddle cycling. Still, I reckon they'll be pretty taut and trim by the time I return to Australia.

Daman's such a peaceful place that I've stayed here a day longer than plannned. I'll be off tomorrow though, heading northwards.
... hmm, I've just remembered that tomorrow is my birthday, so I guess it will be a low key affair on my own, who knows where. I was cycling in India in 2000 on my birthday and went to a restaurant for a nice meal with the plan of having some ice cream as a sort of celebration. Unfortunately they said they didn't have any when I ordered it ...

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Day 5 cycling: Kaparda to Daman

Distance cycled: 53.83km
Average speed: 18.02
(that's more like it)
Ride time: 3:03 hours
Max speed: 47.9 km/hr
Overall total: 416km

The road, despite a few hilly and very rough patches, was very good. Daman is a reasonable little town, about 180 km north of Mumbai, on the coast and has a few forts, churches and beaches, although these are no good for swimming in. I'll most likely head off tomorrow, north, in the direction of Surat, but who knows, as the hotel I'm in is quite comfortable (in fact, one of the best I've stayed in in India - it costs about $20 per night.) The food so far has been pretty good, and I can recommend the local version of Chinese food if you begin to feel tired of just eating Indian food. The fried rice is delightfully hot, and is bright orange in appearance.

I'm happy to report that my bad gut was jsut a flash in the pan, and I'm in shipshape condition once again (unfortunately the immodium I took as a precaution resulted in not successfuly going to the loo for the next 3 days... (is this too much detail for you dear readers?))). I have developed a bit of a cough and chest congestion, but I recall having the exact same issue the last time I cycled India, in 2000. It may well be a result of diesel and other nasty stuff from cycling the roads here. I went to a pharmacy to see if I could get something for it e.g lozenges,and they quite happily gave me a blister pack of antibiotics (amoxycillin) - no prescription needed. I figured probably not a great idea at this point.

on the road again - Nasik to Daman

Day 4 cycling: Nasik to Kaparda
Distance cycled: 100.59km
Ride time: 6:47 hours
Average speed = 15.37 km/hr
Overall total = 362 km
Max Speed: 45 km/hr

The first 30km out of Nasik were fine - road conditions were very good (decent surface, light traffic, fairly flat, and occasional road signs in English). There were lots of eucalyptus trees along the route (Australia gave them to India, & they gave us the Mynah bird). It sometimes felt as if I were cycling some obscure road between Adelaide & Port Augusta. After 38km the surface was ... crap, although there was a nice downhill bit (which the bad surface managed to spoil). From my vipassana training of course, one should never be disappointed by uphill stretches or overjoyed by the downhill ones (but it's sure hard not to, especially with a good road surface & little traffic). The 45 km/hr section was rather fun. Funnily, when the road is steep and/or very awful, the truckies suddenly become very friendly, waving, smiling - I guess they feel some sense of common ground as we both struggle with the same difficult conditions. Out here, the locals don't seem quite so friendly, and tend to look blank when I cycle past saying "hi", "hello" or something similar. I later learnt that these words are unknown in these parts.

I arrived at Kaparda at about 4pm, utterly exhausted - 15.37 km/hr is not a great speed (I like it when I can hit at least 18) which reflects to some extent how bad the road was ( and a little bit my lack of cycling fitness). Allegedly there was a hotel in Kaparda - one of only two on the entire way between Nasik & Pardi. Only there wasn't - after going in this direction and that, given to me by helpful locals, I finally stopped & sat on a concrete slab ready to just weep, when a man crossed the road & took me to the local school hostel, where they agreed to put me up for the night. Such bliss! The conditions were pretty rough - squat loo, swarms of mossies, and so on, but I wasn't complaining. However I was a little unsure when given a cup, a bucket of water & towel, and taken into the midle of the school ground to make use of the equipment. I wasn't quite sure whether I was meant to strip off in front of the entire school or not ... but then sense arrived, and I just washed my exposed bits. Later that evening, I took the teacher to the local hotel/roadhouse for a meal - very tasty, and I'm sure much better than what any roadhouse in Australia would turn out. It was a little strained,as neither of us knew a word of the other's language, and I felt too exhausted to make any grand efforts at pantomime. I later slept like a log until 6am when the whole place came alive - morning chanting, washing, cleaning, sweeping, eating etc. The school's English teacher arrived, so we had a chat & he drew me a map showing how to cut about 15 km off my journey to Daman by taking roads not on my road atlas. (He explained that he's paid about Rp4500 a month (about $150 AUD), which is not great)

One thing that's been very tricky is that the names shown on my LP Travel Atlas, and also my map, bear little relationship to local reality - for instance, the town shown as "Peint" is called "Peth" by everyone - even the official signs, if in English call it this. Even worse, "Chioli", on the map, is called "Nanaponda" locally --- and locals apparently would not know what I was talking about if I asked the way to "Chioli". Curious. The two maps drawn for me to date by locals have been very helpful & fairly accurate ... much more than so than my maps. So, thanks guys.

Thursday 20th - Nasik

Cycled 8km out to some Buddhist caves south of Nasik (Pandu Lena) as a test run after my apparent recovery from the bad gut & then had a masala dosa at the Annapoona guest house. Things seemed OK & the caves were reasonably interesting (although I felt a little cross being charged Rp100 whereas locals pay Rp5 - nearly a 2000% hike). At the caves, again crowded by students & other young blokes wanting to take my photo. The main, and probably only, benefit to me in all this is that I can then ask someone to take mine with my camera. So,I have heaps of photos with me in the midst of crowds of young men. Which also serves to highlight how there is almost a total lack of contact with female Indians here ... in fact, about the only one I've had any dealings with was with a bank-worker, when I changed a traveller's cheque. . I sort of think this strange interest the young men have in me may be related to this in some way.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

... still in Nasik

... so how come I'm still in Nasik? Well, I've been feeling pretty smug for some time that I've not had a bad gut during my last 3 or 4 forays into South East Asia/ Asia, and that somehow cycling & drinking lots of coca cola was helpful. Rudely shattered last night, and since then I've been spending most of my time, when not on the loo, lying on my bed reading & watching TV & generally feeling sorry for myself.I've taken a bit of a gamble rushing out to teh internet cafe to write this.

I went for a test run yesterday on my bicycle to see if I could at least find the right road to Pardi. I enquired of a bunch of youths on the outskirts of Nasik whether it was indeed the Pardi road; they assured me it was & were very helpful - offered me a cup of chai, some food, invited me for dinner and drew me a map (unfortunately the usual map conventions of north, south and so on didn't seem to apply). Nevertheless they explained that there were 2 hotels between here & Pardi, showed me roughly where and even wrote me a note in Marathi (they don't use Hindi where I'm headed & are unlikely to speak any English) to show to people if I get stuck (hopefully it doesn't say "you get fucked mister!"... ). They also wrote the names of some of the towns in Hindi, including a number not listed on my maps, which may be helpful if I get lost - apparently there are a number of crossroads on the way (indicated by spirals on their map). They were a little discouraging in shaking their heads, saying that a lot of it was a forest area, quite hilly, and that it was a bad area at night that I was heading into ("you'll get robbed")and that the locals were into "black magic" and other bad things. Gulp.

Again, they wanted my personal details (and looked a bit sorry for me when I explained I had no issue) and were rapt when I took a photo of them all ... there must have been a dozen or so crowding around by the time I left.

You do begin to feel like a celebrity - a group of school kids cycled alongside me while I was out riding yesterday, asking the usual: "who is your favourite Australian cricketer?" and "what do you think of Tendulkar?". Me: "fantastic!", of course, although I have toyed with being mean and asking "who's he?". He's the number one sporting hero here for sure. And with all these autograph requests, I'm beginning to feel like Shane Warne. Luckily no-one's asked me to play cricket yet.
Well, gotta run, if you know what I mean.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Nasik (or Nashik)

Day3 Cycling: Igatpuri to Nasik (Nashik): 47.68km. Ride time: 3 hours. AVS = 16.35 km/hr. MAX = 39.2km/hr
(Total Distance = 230km)
… i.e. about 200km from Mumbai to Nasik, which includes maybe 15 to 20km where I took a wrong turning. Road flat - i.e. little overall elevation over the distance, but variable shoulder - it often dropped away & was stony in many places.

The peace, harmony, and goodwill to others from the 10-day course was short-lived as I hit the road again, as I was regularly forced to the shoulder by other traffic. Even though I set off fairly early, and it was Sunday morning, the traffic was quite heavy. However the trip was a little more interesting this time - I saw several overturned trucks, and the results of a head-on collision, with police in attendance. I would be very mean spirited to think "serves you right", but it was hard to feel overly sympathetic for the drivers. And these graphic indicators of the potential hazards seemed to make little impression on the passing traffic - vehicles continued to overtake each other with careless abandon even at the accident sites.

I even saw an elephant lumbering along on the other side of road, with mahout (rider) on top and a fellow walking alongside, on its way to Mumbai - so I was told after giving them a small donation (at their invitation). With its huge yet beady eyes looming down at me, it sucked up the few small notes I put in its trunk and handed them to the mahout. I did feel a little uneasy looking into the eyes of this gargantuan creature, but it was quite fascinating at the same time. Other vehicles gave the elephant a little more room than they did to cyclists, but not much.

I’m also beginning to notice the signs of "bicycle hypochondriasis" -every new and unfamiliar squeak, rubbing or vibration - and there seem to be many - has me worrying that something is amiss!

So, here I am at the Hotel Panchavati, as suggested in the Lonely Planet guide (single room rates are 660 RP plus tax - about $19 AUD, which is reasonably lavish, but hey, if I’m doing it hard on the road, I may as well live comfortably when not travelling). The place was extremely hard to find without a map, with most of the street signs being in Hindi only, and the usual difficulty in asking directions. After enquiring of about half a dozen people wandering by I finally managed to find it. It’s quite reasonable, with friendly staff, hot water and shower, fan, TV and not too noisy - well, it’s pretty bloody noisy but tolerable. They wouldn’t let me take my bike into my room, which I rather prefer to do – one becomes quite attached to one’s bike – so it’s bolted to the wall downstairs under the steely gaze of the moustachioed security man (perhaps they’d let me if I paid for a double room ...). I’ll stay here a day or two to settle and figure out where to next.

I’m feeling a little anxious at present about where to next, and it may have been wiser to have cycled west from Igatpuri toward the coast, as this is now where I’m thinking of going. The map (Lonely Planet Road Atlas), which is OK but not fantastic, indicates a 96km journey to a town called Chiol, and then another 20 km to Pardi. Worryingly, my other map suggests something a little different, and doesn’t even include Chiol. Still, what’s the worst that can happen?! (hmm ... that doesn’t help me much). If I head west, I’m bound to hit the coast or Highway 8 eventually!

My rough plans are to head north into Gujarat - via Surat, Bhavnagar, to Diu and Veraval and back around to Ahmadabad and maybe one or two other places then on to Mount Abu where I hope to catch up with an old school chum Charlie who will be there in mid-February. He’s a member of a group called Brahma Kumaris, who have a ‘Spiritual University’ and museum there. After that, Udaipur and maybe one or two other places in Rajasthan. Depending on my time, I might then head down to Goa for some R&R. Knowing me, this plan is probably overly ambitious ...

5th January 2005

Day 2 cycling: Shahapur to Igatpuri: . 51.06km. Cycling time: 4hrs 20 min (but really, from 9am to about 2.30pm). AVS = 12.15 (poor, but a fairly hilly ride, mostly uphill…). MAX = 41.6 km/hr i.e. hills

Vipassana International Academy (VIA)
The VIA was an impressive campus, spread over many hectares (?18). Over 400 meditators, male and female in roughly equal numbers, were there to do the 10-day course, male & female – there were perhaps 20 or so Westerners. Scores of others were there as volunteers to help run the course – cooking, cleaning up, organizing and doing all the other tasks required to run such a large course. Many others were there doing long courses of between 20 and 60 days. Given the numbers, everything ran exceedingly smoothly.

The course involves the practice of certain Buddhist meditation techniques, including the observation of bodily sensations with equanimity – tough when your legs are unwinding from having cycled 150km in the preceding 2 days. Each day involves about 12 hours of sitting on a mat from between 4am and 9pm, with breaks in between. To minimize any distractions (there are enough mental and physical ones from just sitting on the mat), there is a requirement that no communication, either verbal or non-verbal, takes place between meditators, or that any reading or writing materials be used, and the cooking and cleaning-up is done by volunteers.

I was very fortunate in being given my own room, with fan, shower (cold), bucket hot water, loo – many others, particularly first-timers, had to live in dormitories or share toilet and bathing facilities. I was certainly glad no-one could see me in my shower cap with a bucket of cold water at 4 am (the bucket hot water did not come on until 6.30am each day, for about an hour). Furthermore, as an “old student” (this of course refers to having done a course before and nothing to do with age), I also had a cell in the pagoda, which could be used to meditate in for much of the time. The cell was a small room about the size of a small WC, which allowed you at various times to meditate away from the distractions of others (and there were many: the sounds of 399 other meditators shuffling, belching and farting away is awesome, and very disturbing at times)

Each day started at 4am, after the ringing of the gong and various other bells, followed by an explosion of sounds as people in surrounding rooms cleared their nasal and other passages – coughing, grunting, hawking, gobbing, spluttering, snorting ... Some people managed to make sounds that I am sure I could not replicate if I tried. There were many other strange noises during the course - thumps, grindings, half-caught singing from the nearby township – and no-one to ask what the hell they were.

We were given heaps of numbers for the course. Mine were: Reg Number: 0004; room: D-15; meditation mat: 12; pagoda cell: 125; Valuables pouch: 64; Group: 33; Laundry 133… all my undies, shirts, pants now sport the number “133” in indelible ink.

My first 2 days were torment, with my right leg being slightly swollen from cycling - within minutes it became totally numb every time I sat to meditate. While the experience of pain is a ‘given’ on this sort of course, this did not feel good. Luckily a rather stern and seemingly humourless doctor at the general office gave me a tube of “Enac Gel”, which saved the day. What great stuff – as it says on the tube, it’s an “anti-inflammatory analgesic” - I’ll be taking some with me when I cycle from now on.

I was allocated a seat in the front row on the far left, which was quite good, as I had no one sitting in front of or alongside me on the left other than a single column of Buddhist monks hard alongside the left wall of the hall. The guy on the right was quite distracting at times – he specialised in these initially very low, rumbling and then finally extremely loud and reverberating belches. As we were not supposed to communicate there was of course no way for me to tell him to knock it off. Meditation instructions were given in both Hindi and English, and occasionally we English- speaking folk trooped off to another hall to hear things in English.

The food was excellent and a good re-introduction to Indian food, although after a while I did begin to wish for something like cornflakes rather than the savoury food dished up at breakfast time – e.g. rice, idliis, various sauces. I did however come to love, even crave, the glass of warm, sweetened milk available at this time, followed by a good strong cup of chai.

Most of the Indians ate with their right hands, whereas I tended to use the supplied spoon. It’s interesting to notice my conditioning, I guess from an early age, when you’re trained to use cutlery and told to stop playing with your food when you used your hands. I must admit to a slight feeling of distaste when I see Indian folk digging in, with rice up to their knuckles, or when I try myself as I did yesterday when I went to a Thali restaurant. What’s this about? Similarly, I much prefer loo paper than left hand. Curious that we in the west invented toilet paper and cutlery, to put a distance between our hands and these basic functions.

4th January 2005

Day1 cycling: Mumbai to Shahapur: Total 102.64 km. 6hrs 54mins ride time. MAX = 38.6km/hr. AVS = 15.36 km/hr – a little slow but a lot of time spent getting through Mumbai (around 20km until out of Mumbai). Road conditions were generally good, although the surface became a bit rough over the last 15km. Overall, not a very interesting ride – mainly highway, and not so many places to stop for a cup of tea. When I did, people seemed a little incredulous to see me, as if I was an astronaut just off the space shuttle – people seem baffled to see a westerner on a bicycle & would stand around and gawk at me and the bicycle (and they do tend to fiddle with bike bits) … just doesn’t make sense to them. I started to run out of puff after about 90 km (!), but there seemed nowhere evident that I could stay. After another 10km or so I arrived at the small town of Shahapur, which seemed an unlikely place to have a guesthouse or any accommodation, and my attempts at asking led to a few ‘bum steers’. (At this point, I recalled that many Indians prefer apparent helpfulness to accuracy, and may well make up an answer and point in any old direction, rather than admit they don’t know. This cost me about 15kms on the trip, when I took a wrong turn based on faulty directions.) It was beginning to look hopeless when a young boy understood my request for “accommodation” and took me to the Engineers’ Training School (I think that’s what it was) where he and some other lads aged 16 to 19 helped negotiate me a room there. For 200 Rp (about 6 Australian dollars) I was given a room with a fan and bathroom with hot water. I felt stuffed but so pleased to be able to stop and rest. 100 km was probably a little too ambitious for my first day’s cycling.

I was a celebrity for an evening. The lads crowded into my room (nine of them at one stage, plus an engineer or two) plying me politely with questions (what I was doing, age, profession, marital status and so on) and examining my bike. Four of them invited me for a Chinese meal in a local restaurant. They were so very friendly, and at one stage a small squabble erupted over who would sit next to me at the restaurant. At the end of the evening they gave me some small gifts (a Hindi calendar and a small sort of flower arrangement), despite my protestations that I couldn’t fit anything else in my panniers.

Indians are usually very placid and friendly on person-to-person basis, but their aggression seems to become unleashed on the roads. Trucks and buses are relatively respectful when travelling in the same direction, and will give you a wide enough berth if possible when they overtake (unless there’s oncoming traffic also overtaking, in which case they’ll toot away indicating that they’re coming and you’d better watch out). Oncoming vehicles however have no scruples in forcing you off the bitumen when overtaking slower oncoming traffic. Funnily, oncoming traffic usually gives the best indication of when to be extremely cautious or to pull over onto the shoulder of the road.

Signs indicating blind curves are also another cue to be very careful, especially when the sign indicates no overtaking: Indians seem to regard these signs as an indicator to do just the opposite. I guess it’s because they can’t see anything ahead. Going downhill, especially when it’s a steep hill, can be particularly dangerous, as you’re likely to meet a whole phalanx of vehicles crawling uphill bunched up behind the slower vehicles. As soon as there’s a break in the traffic coming down the hill (a bicycle doesn’t count as traffic) every second vehicle pulls right out with a view to overtake, entirely filling the lanes in both directions.

3rd January

Satisfactorily put the bike together and then tentatively ventured out onto the roads of Mumbai several times today. The traffic’s not that much worse to cycle in than in Melbourne (but drivers are more erratic here, and there are fewer cows and goats in Melbourne). It’s a huge city & a little hard to grasp an overall picture of. The slums are fairly confronting. I cycled about 30km around Mumbai today.

Mumbai - 2nd January 2005 (Day 1)

Well, I’ve arrived OK at Bentley’s Hotel in Mumbai. The bike & its box weighed in at 28.8kg at Melb Airport but thankfully they didn’t charge excess baggage, which is apparently $30 per kilo. It’s hard to think of what I might have left behind, as most of my ‘excess’ items e.g. laptop, books, etc., were in my carry-on luggage anyway.

Surprised to meet an old school chum, Dr Rob Moodie on the flight – he was off to Mumbai for 3 days for some medical conference/workshop. I went upstairs to Business Class & chatted with him for some while. It certainly was flash compared to economy class – heaps of room. A long and tedious drive from the airport – scheduled arrival was at 4.15pm, but we arrived at least an hour after this and got to Bentley’s at about 7.30pm. I was very glad I opted to be collected from the airport rather than to try and cycle to where I was staying – the traffic was hell – apparently some festival was in progress.

Actually, it’s a Bentley’s offshoot – Bentley’s guesthouse - I’m at, and I seem to be the only other tourist here. While there are other tourists in town, and in the restaurants I’ve been in, I’ve spoken to no one yet – hard to not feel a bit lonely & a little shell-shocked with Mumbai, even though I’ve been to India before. Mind you, it’s not that much noisier than the busy road I live on in Melbourne.