Beat the Heat
Okay, so what happened during the 1,267 mile crossing from Mumbai to Kolkata? (12 days riding and 1 day of pure sleep.)
In Mumbai I stayed at ‘The Social Space’, a fantastic hostel where the guests & staff were like a little family. The majority of guests were staying for quite some time as they were mostly working in the film industry i.e. Bollywood – so, if you ever go to Mumbai checkout the hostel. On moving on I left the hostel early (6am); it took me about 2 hours to get out since with the sun coming up the city was alive. The fumes from the city were incredible, I could barely breath through my nose (particularly since in 2009 I broke my own nose - no need to elaborate) so I knew my throat was going to take a hammering, and it did. Stopping at the only traffic lights in Mumbai, where you actually have to stop apparently, a young boy maybe around the age of 7 years approached me asking for food… which brought home the fact that I’m a long way from Europe now and this would be a recurring theme.
The first day was a test to see how I would cope... I’ve always said heat is my preferred weather and having made so many mistakes in the past I feel I’ve somewhat mastered listening to my body in this area. If this was minus temperatures I’d struggle, having the worst circulation I’m weakened by the cold (look forward to seeing videos of me crying as I cross the States). Having said this, the first day was gruelling; I rode through the heat of the day (43 degrees) savouring my hydration tablets which I’d reserved for this section, allowing me to restock electrolytes on the go.
In the following days I learnt to play the game of taking an afternoon siesta, which I found impossible to achieve but basically, wherever I landed I had to stop there – the sun was so strong it was almost like being pinned down by the heat. However, as soon as you stop you’re swarmed with questions and people wanting to take selfies. Typical questions are: ‘Are you single?’ and ‘Are you alone?’ At first I was taken aback by this but had read about other cyclists’ experiences of this when touring through India. As for those on motorbikes (who asked whilst on the move) I had formulated a plan as early as day 2: ‘Are you alone?’ response, ‘Nope, my girlfriend is up ahead’... at which they’d shoot off instantly. Only failed once, a group of lads stopped and said, ‘There’s no girlfriend is there?’ I laughed and cycled on.
3 days on the roads…I have to say it was a big culture shock indeed! However this is what it’s all about though for me, I’m 100% out of my comfort zone, I’m a little uneasy but I’ve only got to do one thing - look after No.1! By day three I knew what I had to do: cycle hard and get across as fast as possible! So, I was on the road by 5am or just after, hitting 70 miles before 11am. This was my target - maximise mornings, I was on a mission! On a down note I would be doing this pretty much fasted as well! Why? you ask - because finding fast food/ breakfast which isn’t a packet of crisps or a curry is impossible. Also, with the intensity of heat my appetite disappeared... I just craved sugary drinks from which I could get some fast calories and obviously, copious amounts of water!!! On an evening, when things were cooler, this is when I could stock up on the calories; this would include: 2 butter naans, 1 paneer butter masala, with rice, one chilli chicken with rice and maybe a couple of rotis - seems like a decent amount but wasn’t enough to replace all the calories, just enough fuel for the next day’s riding. However, in one sitting this is all I could handle my stomach was definitely shrinking.
The intense heat wasn’t going to slacken, reaching an average temperature of 45 degrees some days even more; the sun was sapping everything from me. I found wearing my bandana over my mouth, nostrils and ears helped but I could feel my eyes frying from the heat and simply had to grit my teeth. The attention from locals grew even higher... I have never experienced anything like it, if you pull over just for a second one or two vehicles would stop and ask what I’m doing and requesting selfies with me. Ah, selfies - one day I counted over 20, in these early stages I wasn’t saying no of course, being a fresh experience. As the days went on however this became shattering. I can’t explain the amount of attention I experienced, it was absolutely insane - every day nearly everyone who passed me would try and communicate in some shape or form. Now, having curry for every meal of the day is something I could get used to but again, when I sat down for a meal, the room was on me! I’d have over 10 people around my table watching me eat, watching me text over my shoulder - personal space was history - I couldn’t help but laugh at how strange it was. Everywhere you ate was the same; I could have shocked them even more if I started using my left hand, oops!
On the same subject, when entering some of the villages it was like a cowboy movie, people would stop what they were doing and gather around me. I remember a few times people explained that they had never seen a tourist before which absolutely blew my mind! ‘Sorry to disappoint’ I replied. I really did look at this as a bigger than me experience from there on... I’m representing other travellers and even my country now. I thought it was so important to leave on good terms so that the next cyclist/tourist has a positive experience too.
An unusual experience occurred one night whilst checking into a hotel. On putting my gear in my room a guy appeared at the door and asked if he could enter, thinking he was an employee or the guy who checked me in I said, ‘Yeah, why not!’ The man just watched and stared at me, which is the norm, so I introduced myself and asked what he did here. He replied, ‘Oh I don’t work here, I’m just here to see you.’ From that point I was like… right okay, I’m very tired so not in the mood to talk - going to get some shut eye please can you leave; a bit taken aback the man exited and hung around on his phone in the hall. I know this may sound extremely weird to readers, but everyone is just curious and wants to know what I’m doing. From day three though I knew I had to be more assertive to push on... after over 20 selfies on day two, I would see my face becoming more drained as the day went on.
Similarly, another night in a strange hotel, at about 11pm (when I was fast asleep) I woke to a phone call from the receptionist asking if I could go to reception to meet some guests who’d heard I was staying there! What even… ??? I hung up and unplugged the phone at this point. Also, I’d make sure you lock the door; staff have no problem with bursting through the door to check things etc. So make a note - lock the door at all times and unplug the phone, then maybe, just maybe you’ll sleep. That is if you’ve got a clean bed!
Another day I had a puncture. Luckily there was a small roadhouse restaurant on the left, on pulling over I saw a shaded area in front of the public toilets (separate to the restaurant) - my thinking was it would attract a lot less attention than utilising the shade from the restaurant. Halfway through a gentleman approached me, not saying a word he stared at me fixing the tyre, then another arrived...after a while one suggested I take the bike to the restaurant since it was smelly outside the toilets... I agreed it was smelly but explained I was fine where I was. Shortly after, the gentleman moved away. So, if you want some peace and quiet public loos are a great place for it. Having said that it doesn’t work every time; when pulling in to use another toilet a bunch of locals all followed me in and on coming out and pulling up the breeches they were all there - I couldn’t even use a toilet in peace!
Mark Beaumont defines the success of an endurance cyclist in terms of how much you’re willing to suffer. Knowing myself, I knew I couldn’t maintain this amount of attention for long, alongside the struggle with the heat and road conditions, so it had to be short term for me. On arriving in Kolkata I was so glad I was doing this experience solo - no one else to worry about, I could struggle and press on through. I honestly wouldn’t wish anyone to be on some of the roads I’ve travelled due to the dust clouds which nearly blocked out the sun, the constant struggle of watching the security of the bike, the battering taken from poor road conditions and the ear piercing horns from trucks which go straight through your body, constantly.
One day in particular stands out from the trip. I was 3 days off Kolkata, I knew it was going to be a tough day but god, it was one of the most brutal days that I can remember.... I entered a large wildlife park where communities were smaller and more remote, not having accessible roads. This section of road was the worst I’d experienced since it was totally ripped up, resulting in a mental and physical battle which didn’t end. All day I was met with shouts to stop with people persistently trying to pull me over. It also seemed like they were contacting the villages ahead since they already had their mobiles out, videoing me. It got a little creepy when someone knew my name/where I was going...which unnerved me, alongside continuous questions about the price of my equipment/bike – ‘It doesn’t matter.’ I’d say, shutting the conversation down. I was warned about this area - people trying it on and they did! It was an unsettling day which left me riding into the night to reach the city and a creditable hotel which was what I needed. To top it off, someone behaved a little weirdly towards me and whether it was the adrenaline from cycling or tiredness I went absolutely ballistic at the guy and luckily things didn’t transpire.
So to recap: try to imagine cycling on a road you’re having to put everything you’ve got into it to focus on just riding safely, horns continually blaring as trucks approach from both directions, dust and fumes covering you, jungle conditions of 45 degrees, everyone trying to get you to stop, little to no food stops and now it’s dark, oh and you’ve just sunk your front tyre into a sand pit sending you flying! It’s fair to say most days I was running on pure adrenaline. That will be a section of road I’ll never forget but probably most proud of, not because it was dangerous or made me feel like Ironman but because I had complete faith in my ability to ‘keep calm and carry on’. There was a sense of: if I can do a day like this and still hit 140miles the rest will come easily.
So, on arriving in Kolkata I had a good three days chill, a fantastic city to explore which if I had the energy to do properly, I would! I remember seeing my first fellow tourists, a French couple! I didn’t leave their side for an hour, sharing stories and having a real conversation which I’d missed.
Maybe on reading this it all looks slightly negative, but I’ve tried to be brutally honest about my experience through this section. What I can tell you is that nothing made me question why I was doing it and this is rare (I’m usually a second guesser in everything I do) so staying positive when times were tough has never been easier and I mean that. Little did I know that the challenges weren’t over yet!
Hands down, I will never ride a bike in India ever again!