Describe Indians? Can I phone a friend?

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Trip End Ongoing


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Friday, March 16, 2007

I only stayed one day in Damman, heading back to the monotonous highway the following morning. At around midday I was about to pull into a roadside dhaba for lunch and shade, when I felt a tap at my shoulder. I turned around to see the final proof that I'm the slowest thing on two wheels: I'd been caught up by anothe cycle tourist. Ortlieb panners bulged on the racks of a British mountainbike.
me- Oh. Hello.
Peter- Hi
me- Fancy some lunch?

For obvious reasons it's unusual for cyclists to meet going in the same direction, so we took it as a sign and decided to join forces for a stretch. Peter is cycling from Japan to UK. 1.5years and 26000km into his trip, he's a mine of valuable experience, as well as great company. We toured the minor towns of Gujarat, sharing the hospitality that characterises one of India's least visited but most wealthy states. Barely a day passed when we weren't bought cokes or thalis by friendly strangers. Peter was also the possessor of a detailed road atlas of India, the holy grail that neither I nor Jimmy nor Enda had managed to locate in Mumbai. This enabled him to make the suggestion that was music to my ears after 4days on National Highway 8:
-Do you want to take a detour, on the small roads?
-Yes. Yes I do.

So instead of following the highway to Ahmedabad (pron. Am'dabad), capital of Gujarat and near the birthplace of Ghandi, we found some small roads heading north to a town called Champaner, which a fort, at least 4 mosques and a hindu temple at the top of the only mountain for hundreds of miles had earned a place on the Unesco list of tourism. Sorry, world heritage. We had to get out of Baroda, which involved an hours delay for interviews with the local press. A journalist with a keen eye for the incongruous and interesting, happened to spot us pull over for cold drinks. After the formalities (who are you and what the hell are you doing?) were dealt with, he asked us what we thought of Indians
Me -well, there's all kinds aren't there!
Peter - you can't generalise about over a billion people!
Reporter - ok, so I write 'Indians are poor but honest' ok?
Peter - not all Indians are poor!
Me - ...

Not long after leaving Baroda we were out in the wilds, and the change of pace and scenery was sheer joy. I'd had an image of cycling through India, riding a small road from central nowhere to the back of beyond, shaded by trees on both sides whose branches meet, between fields of dwarf wheat spiking out of red earth and under a clear blue sky. This image has been a large part of my inspiration for taking this trip, and for one day it was right on the money.

Champaner was a small village within the walls of the fort, which gave it real charm. There were few hotels in the village, as most people stay halfway up the mountain, Pavargardh, so we stayed in a half-gutted (it was being redecorated, in lurid pink) guesthouse run by a small, friendly family. The mosques, all relics and dotted in the fields around the fort, were beautiful and peaceful sanctuaries. The temple at the top of Pavargardh, on the other hand, was neither relic nor outstandingly beautiful, while the experience of visiting was about as peaceful as a rugby scrum. In a war zone. 

Before we could even get close to the temple, we had to climb the mountain. This, we were told, involved catching the local bus from Champaner to the cable car station halfway up. We waited over an hour for the bus, which eventually arrived already crammed with people. Immediately a mob formed around the bus, scrumming and scrambling to squeeze on board. I felt bodies pushing in on me from all directions, and it quickly became clear that we didn't have the killer instinct, the will or the elbows to get on board. We fought our way back out of the press to consider our options. As soon as we were free of the crush I performed the usual spotcheck of my bag and pockets, since situations like this are notorious for pickpockets. Sure enough, the pocket of my bag that contained my mobile was flapping open, and the phone was nowhere to be seen. I fruitlessly scanned the crowd, before uttering some select expletives and finally locating a payphone with which to wake up my  poor mother.

-          Mum, I know it's early, DON'T PANIC. Nothing serious, I promise. Only my phone's been nicked, can you ring the company and cancel it?

Feeling that to wait an hour for another bus in order to repeat this experience would be ill-advised, we found a jeep to take us halfway up the mountain. Quite apart from being treated by a stranger to a series of quite unprovoked but nonetheless explicit Indian insults, entertaining the other passengers with my incomprehension, the journey was a nightmare of high-speed switchback corners. The driver seemed to pride himself on getting as close to flipping the jeep as possible, while looking over his shoulder and talking to the passengers. 
 
After all this, the cable car ride to the town of  Pavargardh was a moment of blissful tranquility, but this was merely the interlude. Once in Pavargardh, we had to continue climbing, on foot now, through the bazaar of devotional flowers, sweets, music and other religious accoutrements, to eventually reach the gate to the final approach to the temple.  The crowd around the gate was about three times the size of that around the bus earlier, and even more aggressive. I managed to hold my ground, alongside a group of Indians about my age who nominated themselves my guides. Peter elected, wisely as it turned out, to step back and take his chances outside the crush. Eventually the gate opened, and several hundred people surged through. Knees, elbows, reaching hands and stamping feet fought, pointlessly, for position in the queue. Once through the bottleneck of the gate the pressure eased a little, and my immediate concern that someone might actually die was allayed, but still the pushing continued. The queue now ran up several hundred steps to the very highest point of the mountain, where the small, bright pink temple sat. The line, between 2 and 20 abreast in different sections, was unshaded for most of the hour and a half it took to climb.
 
The temple itself looked like most Hindu temples I've seen, small, with shrines layerd one above the other, and all walls covered with carved details from myth and legend, many of them streaked with coloured powder by pilgrims. The overall impression was of a tiered and intricately iced cake, to which a small child has added the finishing touches. I didn't spend long in the temple, (the push from behind was such that you couldn't) and was shocked to find when I left that the queue had almost entirely disappeared. If we'd waited an hour we could have sauntered up to the temple in perfect tranquility. My guides were unable to explain why everyone had been in such a rush.
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