The vegetarian poultry farm, and other stories

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Camping pretty much always entails waking up early, so by 7am we were packed up and breakfasted (porridge with cornflakes, nuts and raisins for me, still over excited by the new stove). We hadn't ridden more than half a kilometer when we were hailed by a tax collector sitting in his roadside hut, offering us tea. Tea turned into tea, sweets, buffalo milk and use of his standpipe for washing; he actually suggested the washing... i'm down to one t-shirt...

Eventually we left him to his bed (he was the night-shift and his relief had arrived) and continued out of Haryana and into Punjab. Punjab is similar to Gujarat, in that it is one of the more prosperous rural centres of India, has a disproportionately large diaspora and has very little tourism. Either coincidentally or consequently, and I'm inclined to think the latter, Punjab also shares with Gujerat it's open, welcoming, hospitable attitude to foreign cycle tourists.

As dusk was falling and we were once again having difficulty finding a quiet spot to camp, two guys on a scooter drew level with Peter and rattled off the usual questions. For anyone not familiar with travel in India, or indeed most of the third world, the usual questions are as follows:
what country?
job?
salary?
married?
can you help me get a visa?
name?
how much is your bike worth? (this last probably limited to cycle tourists. Sorry, 'bike adventurers')

Formalities over, we were invited into their soft drink factory for some refreshments. We gladly took them up on their offer, and once inside started eyeing up the patch of flat lawn inside the factory walls. Our hosts tried to obtain permission for us to camp there but to no avail. However, one of them knew of a rice factory where we could definitely make camp, so we set off again. While I was trying to keep up with their scooter, another random on a motorbike started chatting to Peter. 

Being engaged in conversation Peter fell behind, until eventually I and our escort had to stop and wait for him to catch up. I was feeling impatient, but this quickly reversed when Peter introduced Timmy, who said he owned a poulty farm, with a/c accomodation...
We lost no time in dumping our original friend, fickle bastards that we are, and followed Timmy's motorbike to his home.
 
Timmy, whose real name was Rupesh, (which was a cause of much hilarity, since my real name is Tim, and Peter's nickname is Rupesh! OK, so you find humour where you can in this situation) lived in a large, three storey home, recently refurbished, air conditioned and in general very fine. We chattered with Timmy, his neighbour Sunil and a couple of their friends, for an hour or so, before being invited to visit their houses in turn. These visits, it quickly became clear, were primarily opportunities for us to express our admiration and tell the owners how rich they were. Of course we obliged, but I noticed that Timmy (who did have the nicest house) visibly winced everytime we paid a compliment to anyone else. He was also more than happy to tell us his monthly income from owning the cable TV franchise for the local area; in fact, I don't think we even asked. In an aside later in the evening Timmy's elder brother commented, apropro of nothing
-Timmy's much richer than I am.

With our three guides, Timmy, Sunil and another neighbour, we were driven into town, where I was strongarmed, mainly by Peter, into accepting a beer, even though only Sunil was not teetotal. He was also the only non-vegetarian, so we surmised that the poultry farm we had been offered a room in may have been his, rather than Timmy's. We returned to Timmy's house around 10pm, where an excellent meal of dal fry, vegetable curry, rice, chapati and curd was waiting for us, which we ate sitting on the bed in the master bedroom. (Oddly, this was where all the entertainment had taken place, even though there was a perfectly good lounge outside)

We had been allotted the kids bedroom, for which the kids were probably grateful, as it meant they slept in their parents a/c room, while we were devoured by mosquitos under the slowly revolving fan. In the morning we were woken before 6am, so we could join Timmy for his morning constitutional, walking to the local park (a small green space in the shade of the municipal water tower). To our surprise the park was busy with numerous circumabulators, as well as groups sitting on the grass doing yoga and gossiping. The yoga in Timmy's 'crew' mainly consisted of snorting,
-To clean the pipes!
as we were told.

The early morning gossip touched on the issue of affirmative action, which is in place all over India in both public and private sectors, with up to 60% of jobs in some areas reserved for 'backward' castes. Among the present company, all of whom were of course of higher caste, this was shockingly unfair. This seemed pretty heavy going before breakfast, even to me, and I refrained from jumping into a debate. We left the park with the posse we'd acquired, and in town were bought a hearty breakfast of deep fried parathas (cross between chapati and naan) and chana masala (chick-pea curry). We passed another hour visiting the homes of the people we met that morning and complementing their wealth, and an educational 5 minutes in the nerve centre of Duri's cable TV. Timmy turned off one of the channels for a couple of minutes, just to show how it worked.

Finally, when I put my foot down and insisted we really must be on our way, we managed to extricate ourselves from our host's hospitality, but not before being told how much Timmy was looking forward to visiting England if he could only get a letter of invitation.

We took it easy leaving Duri, as we were heading for Ludhiana, only 60km away over flat terrain, and already had accomodation arranged. When we'd told Timmy we were heading that way, he immediately called his cousin, Sunita, who happened to be in Ludhiana on holiday from Germany, and obtained an invitation for us to stay with her. This involved a rather fraught few minutes for me when I was invited to introduce myself, in German. I may have bled from the ears.

The highlight of the days ride was finding a canal full of perfectly clear water. It appeared as blue as a swimming pool, and was too inviting to resist. We stripped to our lycras, found a spot where steps had been cut into the bank and a rope provided to prevent bathers from being swept away, and waded in. The water was ice cold. Where the hell did a river's worth of crystal clear ice cold water come from? While we were very slowly and wincingly immersing ourselves, clutching the safety rope for dear life, some local youths appeared, took one look at us, and ran full speed along the towpath, leaping down on to the sloping concrete bank and in one movement springing off it into the middle of the fast flowing canal. The implication was clear: this is how it's supposed to be done. Duly chastened, we passed half an hour or so playing 'anything you can do I can do better, or at least try and probably not die'.

Once in Ludhiana, a huge commercial centre of Punjab, we found a public phone and called Sunita,
-OK, go to the bridge and wait there. My brother will pick you up.
-How will he recognise us?
-...

Staying with Sunita was far more relaxed, since there were no accumulated hangers on, our stay was pre-arranged, and as Sunita has lived in germany for 14years we weren't representing anything particularly foreign or exotic. Sunita's sister, who spoke better English, repeatedly told us how her British visa was refused for want of a letter of invitation. We sympathised, and it seems the embassy were pretty rude to her, which made me angry. It's fair enough to reject visas, that's their perogative, but there's no need to be insensitive. 

We were given charpoys (strung bed, usually found in roadside dhaba's for truckers and cyclists to nap on, basically the cheapest bed going) to sleep on in the courtyard, which was half inside and half out- there was a fan above, and it was surrounded on three sides by the house. We slept well, and were given a traditional north india breakfast- parathas stuffed with paneer (cheese) and onion, with curd (yoghurt). We were very appreciative of this, and the exra parathas and mangos we were given for the road.

After Ludhiana Punjab became somewhat less developed, and by the end of the day we'd reached the top of my very first Himalayan foothill, about 700m above sea level, 20km from the border of Himachal Pradesh. We camped in some woods on the hill, for the first time finding a genuinely wild site where we could be confident noone would find us. I was therefore somewhat amused when someone did find us, the following morning, whilst looking for a secluded spot to take their morning shit. They just looked a bit sheepish and wandered off again.
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