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Surrounded by people

Posted: 2007-01-23 08:37:13, Categories: Travel, India, Cycling, 894 words (permalink)

Crowd of Indians surrounding me in Sohna. Whenever I arrive in a village and stop my bicycle, it takes merely seconds to be surrounded by dozens of curious faces. If India is an exotic destination for me, the reverse is also true: locals have never seen something as strange as a white man touring their country by bicycle. They'll push each other to get closer, they'll squeak the horn attached to the handlebar of my bike and push the gear buttons, some even want to touch me to make sure I'm real. A lone cyclist in India is never alone.

On my first day of hitting the countryside, I met a motorcyclist just after leaving a small town called Sohna. His opinion of the next 50 kilometers wasn't too encouraging: "Totally backwards country, only poor people, you'll not find any place to stay...". I could have turned back and checked in to a hotel in Sohna, but that would have been deliberately avoiding any possibility of adventure. I decided to ride until Nuh, the next town on the map about 20 kilometers away, and see what would happen there.

I didn't even reach Nuh before I was talking to two college students living there, on their way back to town by motorcycle. After hearing that I didn't have yet a place to stay for the night they readily invited me to their home. We went to get a blessing from a local temple at the foot of nearby hills, chatted with friends around a small fire while the village was suffering one of the very frequent power cuts, tried a special mix of sweets and spices wrapped to a plant leave called "paan" and had dinner together before going to bed. I heard that they had met two German cyclists on the road a couple of years ago, but I was the first foreigner who actually stayed as their guest in the town. I would have had an invitation to stay for another day had it not been that unfortunately my new friends had to go to Delhi early next morning. Now it became an open invitation: they said I'll still have to come back before leaving India. They even called me several times during the next two days and sent sms messages to make sure I'd return.

Nuh also showed how modern technology is making it's way to Indian villages and small towns. A car is still a rare luxury item, but for example mobile phones are becoming increasingly common. Most traffic on the roads consists of either buses and trucks, or light-weight vehicles such as motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles. Cows and hairy pigs roam on the narrow alleys in towns and villages while camels are used along with trucks for long distance hauling of goods.

Last two days I've spent in Alwar, a pleasant medium-sized city of a few hundred thousand inhabitants. Also here a foreigner is a target of constant attention: everybody wants to ask at least what's my name and where do I come from. However, unlike in Delhi they are not touts which try to lure me to a shop or restaurant, here people just want to spend time with a foreigner and perhaps get a contact address abroad. Answering the same questions over and over can get tiring after a while, especially as the discussions don't usually get much further without the ability to speak hindi. I don't have any hard feelings to ignore touts, some of which are even outright dishonest, but doing the same for people who are simply curious and friendly would be rude, so I try to keep on smiling and answering those questions. And should I start ignoring people I would also miss some of the best experiences, like meeting Dhara.

Dhara was one of those people who came to talk to me in a park and wanted to know who I am, where do I come from and whether I like India. Then he wanted to take me around in the city and show all the historical places, as he put it. I decided to follow him for a while at the same time wondering when he would start asking for guide fees. I couldn't have been more wrong on the last point: as I was his guest he wouldn't let me pay for anything except a small gas refill for his old scooter which we were using to get around. In addition to the sights and tasting kalakan, a specialty in Alwar, I got a small insight into the life of an Indian truck driver. The evening ended with a dinner at Dhara's modest home, where a dozen family members shared three small rooms and a few animals lived in the yard. The food was cooked on a stove burning platters of dried cow dung; wood is scarce and only more wealthy families can afford a gas range.

One of the pleasures of leaving Delhi has been a sharp decrease in the pollution level. Roads are a bit dusty, but otherwise I've been able to breathe reasonably clean air again. My long-lasting cough which started in Istanbul and continued in Delhi is finally gone. Beggars are also much less numerous than in the capital. People in the countryside might be poor, but most still have at least a clay hut where to live in and enough basic food to eat.

3 comments

Comment from: Claudio [Visitor]  
Ciao Arto, what a great adventure! I like your T-Shirt, should be so easy to tell everybody what’s your name. What happened to your hair? Indian hair cut? ;) Claudio
2007-01-23 @ 15:22
Comment from: Joni Nevalainen [Visitor]  
It’s been nice to read your extensive reports of your trip, keep up the good work! Had a similar experience of being the center of attention in China the last christmas, especially in the countryside a foreigner was a sight to see for everyone. It was apparently strange to be wearing a woolly cap when temperature outside was below 10 celsius. I’ve always wondered what the indian language really sounds like since the actors tend to have a striking accent in their english.
2007-01-23 @ 20:01
Comment from: [Member]

Hi,

Thanks for the comments! The hair cut is not Indian, it was done by my Lithuanian friend erte in Turkey. He’s an artist so it just couldn’t be the standard style. :)

Here some people wear caps when the temperature drops below 20 degrees, but nobody has seen a cyclist with a helmet before. They are very curious about it as my helmet looks quiet different from motorcycle helmets and is lightweight.

To hear what the Indian language sounds like I’m sure you can tune to some Hindi language Internet radio. Of course Hindi is only one of the languages here but the most common one.

2007-01-28 @ 11:13

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