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India (3/3), Days 211 – 223: Maithon Dam & Kolkata



Day 211 – 212

As I left the state of Bihar and entered Jharkhand, I said goodbye to endless flat farmland and welcomed small inclined forested areas. It was nice; the air felt fresh and less dry. Interesting what a change in landscape can do for morale.


After a two days’ ride I left the highway and cycled a short distance to the Maithon Dam, a calm man-made lake and weekend escape for residents of Kolkata. A beautiful, quiet setting where small islands are centred in still blue waters, and palm trees line the shore. I needed a rest after hours of battling traffic, so I sat on a ledge and looked out towards the lake. The peace lasted all of two minutes. A car pulled up a few metres to my left. Three young men got out, and without a word, began taking selfies of me.



I returned to the saddle and cycled a few metres down the road. I found a new place to perch when seven youngsters (of all ages) came over to chat. Given up on the idea of peace, I answered their questions, asked where they were from, what their favourite place in India was, and told them I loved their country... It was a nice interaction, fueled by young curiosity. In fact, no one asked for a selfie, but me. Afterwards, I cycled a kilometre along the edge of the dam and found a hotel on the lakeside. It was expensive, way too expensive, but there was nothing else – and the view was nice. The room was colonial-esc and the shower came with hot water, a luxury.



I was the only person in the hotel, so I had dinner in the restaurant and chatted to the employees. Because the hotel was expensive, I branched out and ordered chicken – I had been an acting vegetarian throughout India, a bid to avoid food poisoning. When the chicken arrived it looked suspicious, but I told myself to quit the paranoia.


Day 213 – 216

Why did I eat the chicken?! A question I’d torture myself with as I lay in bed motionless. I couldn’t believe it. Nowhere was safe. Not even an overpriced hotel. I was moved into a more expensive room because the one I was in was booked. No energy to argue, I crawled to the new room and collapsed for 24 hours.


The next day, I couldn’t afford to stay another night, so I forced myself onto the bike. Before I left, I was shown a food bill. I looked at the bill and asked for the manager. When the manager appeared I announced: “I’m not paying the food bill.”


Silence.


“The food in your restaurant gave me food poisoning, which meant I had to stay here for one more night.” I explained.


“Sorry Sir, but I don’t understand why you’re refusing to pay”, the manager replied.


“To be clear: This food made me sick. It caused diarrhoea, body aches and a fever, which resulted in me being unable to move for 24 hours. I have not received one apology from you or your staff. Instead, I was forced to pay for a more expensive room. The only person out of pocket from this situation is me. There is no way I am paying that bill.” I replied, trying to stay calm.


“But, we came to see if you were OK,” he argued.


“No, you came with a credit card reader, so I would pay for the room,” I corrected.


Silence.


A new guest arrived at reception, so the manager gave an eye to his staff and turned to me: “OK, Sir”. I took that as an agreement and I left.


That afternoon, I had no energy so sought shelter from the sun under a tree. I wanted to be alone, but right on que a man appeared (from nowhere) with his motorcycle. I ignored his presence and sat with my thoughts for a while whilst he subcontinent-starred. Five to ten minutes had passed before he asked a question. I answered and then got up to leave. To which, he pleaded for me to stay: “Sir, I’ve just messaged a friend to tell them you’re here, they’re on their way”. Like a lighter to gasoline, he’d just ignited my decision to leave.


I cycled a mere 35 miles to the next town. The first hotel didn’t accept foreigners, so another expensive resthouse took a chunk out of my dwindling bank balance. I wanted to rest, so I barricaded the doors and didn’t leave. Food poisoning was the last straw. My original plan was to leave the bike in Kolkata and do a return trip to Darjeeling by train. But I had no motivation or willingness to see more of the country. A train there and back would require energy to organise and execute. Darjeeling would have been incredible, I’m sure. But mentally, I had seen enough and I wouldn’t have appreciated it. My feelings were past negative, so I decided the best thing was to get to Kolkata, try to enjoy the city and wait for my flight to Thailand.


The next two days, I raced along the highway, counting down the miles until I reached the cultural capital.



Day 217 – 223

Kolkata was my favourite city since Udaipur. It was somewhat clean, the traffic was less all-consuming, the people seemed more relaxed and less intrigued by my presence. I walked freely without selfie requests. The architecture felt familiar – old British colonial style. Tuks-tuks were replaced with large, yellow, 1950s American style taxis. Generally speaking it was calm.



I stayed in a hostel on the outskirts of the city – I had a four bed dorm to myself, a luxury. During the six day period, I listened to my parent’s plea for a haircut. I spent a shameful number of hours in Starbucks, trying to catch up on this blog, which is a never ending task – like laundry. I became friends with Bike Junction, a bicycle shop that supplied a box and serviced the bicycle. I visited the city’s historical attractions, like the Victoria Memorial – a marble building highlighting India’s fight for independence.



After six days in Kolkata, I jolted out of bed and packed my bags ready for the flight. I sat in the hostel’s garden and drank a coffee, contemplating what South East Asia would be like. That’s when the realisation hit. My flight was at 12:30am on 15th November. I was drinking coffee outside the hostel at 10am on 15th November.


I checked live departures: “Flight R262 ARRIVED ON TIME IN BANGKOK”.


I had missed my flight.


I raced to the bike shop to pack the bicycle – the shop was extremely helpful, they tried to get hold of the airline, and spoke to friends who work with the company for their advice. After a few hours, I went to the airport – I figured if I could talk to someone, explain the situation and maybe I could get a new discounted ticket. But, of course, nothing in India is that easy.


I wasn’t allowed to enter the airport without a valid ticket, so I went to the sales office. At the AirAsia counter, two lovely ladies refused to help because they only dealt with domestic flights. I was told to call a number, but the office hours were closed.


“So, what should I do?”, I asked.


“Sir, we can not help you. You must buy a new ticket online.”


“Just to double check, you are a sales office, yet you can’t sell me a ticket for the airplane company you work for?”, I clarified.


“No, Sir”.


I was out of patience. The smallest thing sent me into a rage. The country is full of contradictions – one rule for one person, another for someone else. Some rules are rigorous, some aren’t. Most rules don’t make any sense. And, most people aren’t willing to help.



Once I’d got over India’s inconsistencies, I bought a new flight for that evening from the AirAsia website. After I checked-in, I was pulled aside. They had found ‘suspicious items’ in my bags. I waited half an hour until I was escorted to the basement and began the tedious ordeal of pulling apart my bags. I had eight triple A batteries, which are “forbidden” – they went straight in the bin. I also had a power bank which was not allowed in hold, so I had to add it to the cabin bag. I had given up questioning the unquestionable and accepted the new flying rules.


At passport control, the guard took an unusually long time to examine my passport. Due to the time it took to resolve the triple A security risk, I had less than an hour until the flight was scheduled to take off. I got more and more agitated. Eventually, the guard left his seat and took my passport into a side office. ‘Is this a wind up?’ I thought. Shortly after, the guard returned with his superior.


“Excuse me, can you please step aside”, the superior requested.


I moved to the side of passport control.


“Why were you in Pakistan!?”, he continued.


“Travelling. I’m cycling around the world”. I answered.


“Where did you go in Pakistan?”, he asked.


“Gilgit, Islamabad, Lahore…”, as soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have been so honest. The guards’ eyes widened.


“You went to Gilgit–Baltistan?! Why were you there?”, he demanded, practically frothing at the mouth.


I could see where the conversation was going. So, I took a deep breath and went on a tangent about the trip: “...Do you want to go through my Instagram page, website or Google Earth account – I’ve marked everywhere I’ve stayed?


Look, I am just a cyclist who cycled the Karakoram Highway. ”


Suddenly the guard's demeanour changed.


“You cycled from England to India? Wow, Sir. Strong man. Please, have a good flight”. He returned my passport and I walked to security.


At security, two men got stopped for having five iPhones each – wrapped together in sellotape. Suspicious, no? They were allowed to board the plane with their phones. What’s the difference between an iPhone and triple A batteries? Fuming.

__


I feel bitter about my time in India. It drained me of energy, money, and above all love and motivation for the trip. It’s the only time I thought seriously about packing it in and catching a flight home.


I felt trapped. Trapped from the noise, trash, pollution, and onslaught of attention. The mentality of most people I met was so far removed from what I know and had experienced in every country prior. Personal space is a foreign concept; consideration for others is an even stranger methodology.


Take selfies, as an example:


I was eating at a restaurant when a man sat next to me and took a selfie without asking. I had a fork in my mouth. He then took my cap off, put his arm around my shoulders and yelled: “We need to do it the Indian way!”. If I wasn’t famished, I would have grabbed his phone and thrown it at the window. In restaurants, I often caught other customers taking photos from their tables. On the road, a motorcyclist pulled up alongside and asked for a selfie. I was ill and running out of daylight hours, so I said no. For five minutes, he asked repeatedly, not accepting no as an answer. He then tried to block my cycling path by breaking in front of my tyre. I managed to cycle around the motorcyclist, but his inability to look past his own needs, priorities and understand my perspective almost caused a crash.


I don’t mind selfies, I’ve had no problem with them before India. The issue is not the act of a selfie, but the assumption that it’s their god given right to take one. And, the lack of consideration for their subject. Yes, there were hundreds of positive encounters, but the ones that weren’t are the ones that stuck, unfortunately.


A cyclist I met in Cambodia rode the exact route I did and also nearly caught a flight home. I thought I was alone, but in reality, every person I spoke to, who spent more than a couple weeks cycling in India, felt the same.


On a more positive note; Udaipur, the Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Bodhgaya and Kolkata had moments of magic. The interactions with children on the street, the roadside stalls, learning about Buddhism and Hinduism, speaking to different groups of teenagers throughout the ride, the hotel employees that became my social network, and the simplicity of rural life – were all incredible, unforgettable experiences.


I will visit India again (the Himalayas and the south), but not by bicycle. And I wouldn’t recommend anyone to cycle the route that I took.


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