After a looong goodbye having drinks and farewell meals with friends and relatives over the course of a couple of weeks I was finally boarding my flight to Mumbai with the words of my sister replaying in my ears. ''I really admire and envy you for what you are doing, not the cycling part mind you! but for the whole experience you will have!”
More than a year and a half had passed since I seriously decided I was going to undertake this cycle around India challenge and here I was sat on a plane with my bicycle and all the accompanying cycle tour paraphernalia safely, (I hoped) stowed in the hold, heading for one of the most densely populated and frenetic cities in the world, in a country with over 1 billion inhabitants.
As we were taxi-ing to the runway for take-off I felt surprising calm. The nerves, apprehensions and frantic last minute organising had given way to a feeling of serenity – the calm before the storm I guessed… This was in marked contrast to Rajesh who I was sitting next to, a 53 year old bespectacled Malaysian / Indian government worker from Kuching who was re-visiting India for the first time in 17 years. He was so excited he could not stop talking, ‘’Oh Bombay will have changed so much since I was last there… I will be meeting nieces and nephews I have only seen in photographs before… everyone will have changed so much… I can’t wait to see my Auntie, she is meeting me at the airport… So what will you be doing in Bombay?”. I gave him a rather condensed reply, “Oh, I am just doing some cycling around”. “Oh, how interesting, look here”, as he searched through his bag and pulled out a rather dog-eared 1980s guide book and map of Mumbai. He unfolded the map and insisted on giving me a running commentary of all the sights in Mumbai that I ‘must’visit. Rajesh even taught me a few Hindi words which I promptly forgot…
As the plane began its descent and I looked out over the orange, white and red twinkling lights sprawling out below surrounded by inky blackness, reminiscent of an elegant bejewelled silk sari, the butterflies in my stomach woke up and with ‘Jai Ho’ the theme tune of Slum Dog Millionaire on continuous play in my mind and a big smile on my face I thought, “Well this is it Mark, here I am at the start of what is going to be the greatest adventure of my life!”
With that sense of relief I always feel when my baggage finally appears on the airport carousel I loaded up my trolley with my oversized canvas bike bag and other large shrink wrapped bag bulging at the seams with the 4 panniers and the handlebar bag it contained and trundled towards the exit. “What is this sir?” an official in a well pressed white linen uniform sternly asks, “It’s a bicycle” I reply with a smile. “How much did it cost?”, “About 500 dollars”, a little white lie. “How many gears does it have?”, “14”. Another official joins the questioning, “How old is it?”, “Ahh, I bought it in September”, “So very new then, you will have to pay customs duty”, “Pardon!” I reply incredulously, “It’s not new and I have come here for cycle tourism, to cycle around”, I explain. “How long you in India for?”, “I have a 6 month visa”. “You take the bike with you when you leave?”, “Of course”… After a few seconds of contemplation, “OK you can go”. Continuing pushing my trolley I had not walked more than 10 paces when another two officials approached me and began the same interrogation. The female uniformed official looked quite stern, yet the rather rotund black suited official was smiling and seemed impressed with my plans, “Umm cycling in India, that is very good, an expedition… by the way do you have any cigarettes or alcohol?”, “No, I have to stay healthy fit for the cycling”, I reply with a big smile. He gently laughs, does the iconic Indian head wobble and stretches out his arm in the direction of the exit, “You may leave sir, and good luck!”.
I arranged a taxi and was a little concerned how the bike would fit in, especially when I initially saw the vehicle, a small Hyundai Santro! Just as I was thinking, “This is gonna be interesting”, I noticed the roof rack, how enterprising
So many people had warned me about the Indian traffic, however after living in Cambodia for over 7 years I didn’t think it could be that bad in comparison… Before we had left the airport my taxi driver had almost knocked 3 people over and had a couple of near misses with another taxi and an auto-rickshaw. This style of driving continued as we bumped and swerved along the dimly lit pot-holed Mumbai roads towards Andheri (East), accompanied by my drivers horn honking soundtrack…
Swapan opened the door to his apartment with a big smile, “Welcome Mark, you have arrived. Come in, come in”. This was my first CouchSurfing experience, a great concept which I was now putting into practice. Swapan is a CouchSurfing old-timer and he quickly made me feel at home, even though my luggage had more or less taken over his front room. It had been a long day, my eye-lids were soon heavy and I dropped off to sleep. But not before having seen the headlines of a local paper, “90 die in Kolkata hospital inferno”… This story shared its front page space with the lighter news that Virender Shewag had scored 219 runs against the West Indies in Indore, the largest ever score by a single batsman in a one day international cricket match – he is now a national hero and is being bombarded with sponsorship deals.