Warning: This is going to be a long update, as we wanted to wrap up our India trip in just one go.
Our three toughest months are over by now: WE SURVIVED INDIA. There were times when I thought we will not survive and there were times we thought we might return home early. We’ve never felt bad about the cycling, never ever, that’s the part we just loved, it’s been all the other miseries we had to experience in India and the famous and second to none hospitality didn’t make up for it.
We left Agra in the fog and only cycled 50 km to Fatehpur Sikri to see another famous palace and mosque from about 400 years ago. By the time we arrived at the guesthouse it was sunny again and we spent the next 1.5 days in the garden to relax and make use of the sometimes working internet connection. While the guesthouse management was nice, the food OK and the rooms clean, we again faced a few issues. Somehow we never managed to find a place where things just work as they should. The first problem was the electricity as the guesthouse had power cuts all the time and the generator would only work for a few important parts of the place. Upon arrival they proudly told us that they had hot water 24 hours a day, but when I wanted to take a shower in the late afternoon to avoid using the bathroom after sunset as it got too cold in the evenings, there was of course no electricity and hence no warm water. I was told to wait about 15 minutes, which turned out to be more than two hours. By then it was already dark and cold. When I could finally take a shower I opened the hot water tap and suddenly felt electricity running up my arm, a very scary feeling. I flinched and thought I was going crazy by now and tried again, but the same happened again, the irritating feeling in my arm got even worse. Didn’t we learn at school that electricity and water aren’t a real good combination? I was petrified but still tried to close the tap, while by now boiling hot water was coming out of it. I dressed again, reported the issue and after a few more excuses from the management we moved next door to another room, to wait another two hours for a hot shower. At least we got a ten percent food discount when we left. Later that evening we had dinner at their restaurant, and saw a heap of sawdust on one of the chairs. We told the waiter and he just said, “yes, there are little rats in the ceiling, we are feeding them, they are nice animals and don’t worry, they don’t do anything”. He did not waste any energy to clean the chair, the dirt would be soon back anyway. By now we really got sick and tired of India.
We visited the palace and the mosque, but could clearly tell that we were no longer in a sightseeing mood – too many temples, palaces, forts and what have you. We took a few photos and returned home after about two hours.
The next day was once more easy going as we only cycled about 30 kilometers to the world famous Keoladeo wildlife sanctuary, which is mainly known for the many migratory birds. We cycled through the park with a guide and binoculars and it’s been a beautiful afternoon. I can tell that I am more a nature person and enjoy watching beautiful scenery and wildlife much more than buildings, at least I am getting much less tired from it. We spotted antelopes, lynxes, deer and thousands of birds including cranes, storks, kingfishers, many different kinds of ducks, an owl and an eagle and many other birds we don’t know the names of.
Law and order
The next day we had to leave again as we wanted to arrive at our friends‘ place three days later – the plan was to cycle to the family we met on our first day and stayed with for several days as they invited us to a wedding of a family member. We decided to go through the countryside again as we enjoyed that so much at the beginning of our trip but weren’t aware that we would cycle through a very poor and dangerous area, as we were told later by the police. The roads were once more extremely bad, I had my first puncture ever and we soon noticed that we wouldn’t be able to reach the next city where we hoped to get a room at a guesthouse – this meant homestay or camping again.
At around 4pm we stopped at a crossing in a village to ask for the way. As always we immediately were surrounded by 20 to 30 people looking curiously at us, testing the tire pressure and touching some other parts of our bikes as well. When Johan got the directions we tried to move on, but I had some difficulties as I was still surrounded by the crowd. Suddenly a man attacked me and hit me very hard at a very inappropriate place and run away. I immediately yelled at him – this is somehow my only defense strategy – and Johan and a few people run after the guy. Luckily the police was close by, stopped him, took him into custody and beat him up in front of the huge crowd (which I did not approve of!). It turned out that the guy was drunk. The chief police officer later even asked me if I would want him to beat the guy in his office, I of course didn’t want to.
We were then asked to cycle to the next police station to file a report and two police officers escorted us on a motorbike. Once arrived, the chief officer was waiting for us outside the building at a table in the sun, surrounded by a few people. These few people became more and more over time and we learned later that they were the villagers living in the same village as the arrested guy. An hour and two ‘chais’ later we were asked to join the chief in his office to write the report. I had to tell him again what exactly happened and he also questioned Johan about the same. Then he told us that we had to stay the next day as well, as we had to go to court for this kind of assault. As we weren’t in the mood to let the offender screw up our schedule once more, we told him that we cannot stay longer. He then explained that if we would accuse the guy for sexual harassment, we had no choice, but if I would write in my report that the guy ‘abused’ me, we could leave the next day. So we did the latter.
In the meantime many more people gathered outside and when I went out to get some more clothes the guy’s mother suddenly approached me, fell on her knees in front of me, embraced my both ankles and started to weep. Another man told me, that they all feel very sorry for what has happened, but the guy is a very poor man and I should excuse him and tell the police to let him go. Unable to respond to that as I was still in shock, I unwrapped the woman’s hands from my legs and went back in. The chief of the village arrived in the meantime and sat together with another man in the office asking us again to let the guy go. We clearly told them that we were not willing to do so, as the villain did something very bad, influenced by alcohol and should get his punishment. We also told them that it doesn’t matter if he was poor or rich, but a man just doesn’t hit a woman, period. I started to feel really bad and can fully understand women who do not want to report abuse as all the men around them make them feel very guilty. In the meantime Johan got a phone call from a guy in the UK telling him that it would be the best for the both of us to let the guy go. This really scared me. Would they follow us the next day to ‘really’ hurt us? Should we just give in as I was OK? But then I thought to myself that it is not OK to get hit for no reason in the middle of the day and that it is not OK to get touched where he touched me, and that being drunk is not an excuse at all. And how can this ‘poor guy’ afford alcohol anyway? Why doesn’t he ask for money or food instead of hitting me? Hours later we signed our reports – I had to write two, Johan had to sign another two and we stayed the night at the police station. At least we had a safe place to sleep.
We left early the next day – I with a queasy feeling – to catch up on kilometers as we stopped early the previous day. I did not feel comfortable the whole day as we passed through the same strange area with even stranger people. Towards the end of the day we again encountered some violence, this time thankfully not against us. About 100 men armed with sticks were blocking a street when we arrived and they even raised their arms when we tried to pass, this time I got really scared as I wasn’t sure if they would hit us or not. One old man yelled at us, also raising his armed hand, but we could just cycle away, surviving once again.
I am not sure why the last few days were so unpleasant as we didn’t encounter much of this during our first weeks. But I have to admit that the harassment already started after about two weeks cycling. I got verbally pestered every day. Men would call me all kinds of names in English and in Hindi and I am more than glad that I don’t understand Hindi as I am sure that it was as inappropriate as the English version. After three months in India I think it isn’t a safe country for a woman to travel alone if I even got harassed while Johan was always close by. And it by the way didn’t make a difference if I wore short or long trousers, short or long shirts, I would always get the same nasty comments – all day long. I understand that it is very unusual in India to see a woman riding a bike, as you hardly ever see women on a bicycle except on the back of her husband’s bike. But does this justify this behavior? I don’t think so and I am glad we safely ended our Indian adventure.
Eat, Pray, Love
A rather unpleasant day ended very pleasant. We cycled until dusk and as the only hotel in the village was fully booked the village luckily had an Ashram where we could stay. It wasn’t just an Ashram, it was the Ashram where the movie ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ with Julia Roberts was shot and she stayed more than a month in the same room we did. Really! They told us that she even slept in the same bed, which I doubt as the room was quite shabby and I just cannot believe that a Julia Roberts is able to live like that for a month. The only reason why we believed the story was the western toilet in our bathroom which looked relatively new and the photos with Julia on some of the student’s mobile phones.
The evening wasn’t pleasant because of Julia, but because of the people we stayed with. An Ashram is a place where people work, live, meditate and study together and it is a very spiritual place. You don’t pay at an Ashram, all you can do is donate money at the temple, which we of course did as we also got free food including green tea, snacks, dinner and breakfast. Most of the time we were accompanied by a 19-year-old student, who hardly spoke English, but told Johan “I don’t like you” with a big smile on his face. A few explanations later we had a good laugh together and he apologized for his “good English”. The following morning he showed us around, we took a few photos and left to finally meet our friends again.
My big fat Indian wedding
The last part of our Indian journey ended with a wedding. I was really looking forward to it as we’ve seen a lot of processions but were never part of the full ceremony. Johan was less enthusiastic and tried to calm me down as he thought the day might not meet my high expectations. And he was sooooooo right. We arrived at our friends’ place two days before the wedding, as I needed to buy a dress and we had to drive about 80 km to another city. Sunita, the sister of the bride, had already left as she was part of the organizational team so we spent the two days with her husband, his two sons, his sister and his mother. As always we weren’t allowed to do anything other than sitting in the sun, drinking tea and eating delicious food. Not that Khushiram (the boss of the gang) would do much more all day long, which is really amazing. He is a farmer with nine acres of land around his house and all he does all day long is sitting in his courtyard, smoking the hookah, receiving friends, visiting friends and taking or making some phone calls. Everything else is done by the women: bringing the phone, the food, preparing chai, preparing food, milking the cows, preparing snacks for visitors, washing (including our clothes), washing his face, giving him a facial massage and mask in the courtyard every other day, taking care of the kids (they are five and seven years old and still don’t dress themselves), opening the gate when he wants to leave on his scooter or by car, opening the gate again when he is returning and so on and so forth. The hookah gets prepared by his servant who also cleans the car and the tractor, works a bit on the fields and prepares the fire in the evening, for the rest, he is also just sitting with his boss and they talk and talk and talk and talk (and if Johan wasn’t around the servant would take my photo secretly;-)).
The following day we went to the market to buy me a suitable outfit for the wedding. I was told that I had to buy two dresses – one for during the day and one for the evening. I convinced them, that I would just wear one dress all day long and I am glad I insisted on it. Before we got the dress I also had to go to the hairdresser, an experience in itself. It took the coiffeur more time to make my hair wet than to cut it. All she did was hold up my hair in the back three times and cut away almost 10cm, then she turned to the front, showed me how much she would cut off, to which I agreed, but unfortunately she did not cut it off below her fingers as my German hairdresser would do, but above, meaning another 2cm too short. This part she did on the left and the right, and ready she was. The whole procedure took about five minutes. SERIOUSLY. It doesn’t even look too bad from the front, that’s as far as I can judge, but Johan still insists on improving the cut from the side and the back.
At the market, I got another five minutes to choose a dress, the tailor then measured me to tailor-fit the dress within an hour. To kill time we got some henna painting on our arms. As men are not allowed to join women for the shopping poor Johan had to go with Khushiram to visit one of his friends – a dentist. They were just sitting in the doctor’s office – Khushiram on the dentist’s chair while a few small boys were preparing false teeth from some kind of metal. Scary, and we’re more than glad that we did not have to see a dentist in India.
The big day had come. We were supposed to leave between 10 and 11am and as we experienced before that we don’t get any advance notice, we were ready as of 10.30am. And we waited, and waited and waited…….. until we finally left at 2.30pm. Thankfully, as it turned out to get even worse. During the last days we tried to find out a bit more about the wedding, without success. Khushiram either didn’t understand us or just had no clue what was going to happen.
I wasn’t allowed to wear my new dress so I just went in my own clothes. When we arrived at the bride’s father’s house, there were about twenty people busy doing something. We quickly said hello to the bride who was about to go to the beauty parlor to get dressed and to make her up. Her husband to-be was somewhere on the road between Delhi and Bhiwani and t would take until about 10pm until the both of them would finally meet. This was by the way an arranged marriage, as it is common in India, this family doesn’t approve of love marriages. I had long discussions on this subject with the women.
In the meantime we were placed in the living room with some snacks and chai and waited and waited and waited…. until the bride’s father asked us if we would like to witness some important part of the wedding ceremony: male family members sitting in the courtyard on a plastic blanket facing the bride’s father to demonstrate respect, counting money and handing over a 10 INR bill to everyone. This took about 30 minutes and then everybody went off.
And by the way people were dressed very casually and I was once more glad that I did not waste any more money on another dress I would never wear again (except maybe at carnival). We now also understand why Khushiram didn’t want to leave earlier. Before we went back to the living room a few relatives surrounded us (mainly teenagers who would call me honey bunny when Johan wasn’t around) to ask us the usual questions and practice their little English.
About three hours after our arrival we left to the wedding place – a huge convention center as about 500 guests were expected. We entered through a nicely decorated gate into a courtyard which served as the dining hall. Long buffet tables on both sides framed the place. Inside was a stage with a huge couch on top where the bridal couple would sit later with chairs in front of it for the guests. And of course the mandatory DJ with huge ghetto blasters for the deafening music. When we inspected the buffet – which was still in the preparatory phase when we arrived – we saw people sitting on the ground behind the tables preparing the food. Wonderful we thought, as it didn’t really look hygienic – and it wasn’t as we both got stomach problems the next day.
We continued waiting and waiting and waiting… and learned later that the bride was sitting in one of the rooms in the back with a few other women until the groom would arrive. At around 9.30pm – most guests had arrived and eaten by now – we heard some very loud music and were told that this is the groom’s party and he was about to leave in a christmas tree-style decorated carriage and two horses to come back later on. The groom looked gorgeous in his traditional wedding suit, but was very tense and nervous. We went out to join the party as there was finally something going on. A music band was playing in front of the carriage and people were dancing. We moved at snail pace from the back of the wedding place to the front of it, where the groom finally descended to join his bride, who was waiting on the other side of the gate for him, surrounded by her family’s women. She looked as beautiful as the groom in her red dress with thousands of shiny stones and golden chains and henna paintings on her hands, arms and legs. After she threw rice over her husband to-be they both walked together into the huge hall where they separated again. The groom would sit on the couch for a while to get his photo taken and after another 30 minutes the bride joined in. And then a million photos were taken with all family members one by one, presents were handed over, and more pictures were taken and the music played as hard as you can imagine.
After about an hour we decided to move outside again to eat a bit more to make sure we’ll have an upset stomach the next day. At about 11pm the main Hindu ceremony begun. The groom was seated underneath a baldachin together with a Hindu priest and some close family members and in the middle they had placed some offerings for the Hindu gods such as flowers and food. After some replacements of the offerings from one plate to another and blessings of the groom, the bride joined and the same procedure continued all over again. After another 10 minutes that felt like 10 hours (it’s been freezing cold as well), the couple had to walk around this little baldachin five or seven times, people around us couldn’t agree on the number of circles and this time I didn’t count. During this ceremony – to remind you this is the official part of the wedding – most people left and the event people started breaking down the place: carrying out chairs from the inside, breaking down tables, cleaning up the dishes and just making a lot of noise.
Next to Johan – actually I should write on top of Johan sat a drunken man in his late fifties. We were quietly sitting and watching the ceremony when the guy suddenly turned to Johan and asked very loudly “How are you?” He then tried to explained the ceremony to us but as his English was limited to his first sentence and “I no English” and he was too drunk to talk clearly, everybody around us started laughing and they were more interested in watching the three of us than the wedding itself. It was actually hilarious as the guy wouldn’t stop touching Johan (which is normal between Indian men and a gesture of friendship) and Johan constantly tried to move away – to no avail.
Another interesting story about alcohol by the way. When we asked if alcohol was served we got a clear no. But within an hour after our arrival most men smelled as if they just had had a bath in Whisky and we could tell that they all had drunken. We didn’t know how and when they managed to get the drinks, but they clearly had alcohol.
Thankfully Khushiram wanted to leave immediately after the final ceremony and we were looking forward to a nice warm bed when it turned out that there wasn’t a bed at all for us – they just had forgotten about us, despite us asking about three times if we had a place to sleep and if we had to take our sleeping bags. The first got OK’d, the latter refused. After a few phone calls and about an hour later we were back at the convention place and got a filthy room with attached bathroom but no water and used blankets to sleep.
All in all the wedding was a boring and disappointing event as it was rather unceremonious, hardly anyone danced and people only stood around talking, eating and drinking. At times I thought they were more interested in us than in the wedding itself as everyone wanted to take our picture.We left Bhiwani the next morning at about 9.15am, arrived in the village by 11am, packed, had breakfast, said our last goodbyes to our Indian friends and embarked on our last part of the journey to leave Delhi on February 3.
India has overwhelmed us both positively and negatively, at times tough at times enchanting, eye-opening, deafening, disturbing, annoying, colorful, amazing, threatening, cold, full of contrasts, dirty and stinking, beautiful and odorous, charming, friendly, intimidating, offensive and defensive. We met nice, warm-hearted and hospitable people but also hostile and frightening humans. India is a country of contrasts where all is possible and which you at times love and at times hate. As I wrote at the beginning it’s been the toughest country so far and we were glad our time had come to leave.
We cycled exactly 3,400km through the North of India including the states and territories of Delhi, Haryana, Maddhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. If you are interested in our exact route, go to our home page and select ‘Our Route’. We spent exactly three months in India of which we cycled nine weeks or 63 days (including 24 rest days). On average we rode 87 km per day (excluding rest days). Our total mileage now adds up to 6,628 km.
By now we spent three wonderful days Bangkok in a nice and clean hotel, slept for the first time in three months NOT in our sleeping bag but between white and clean bed sheets and enjoy the tropical heat, the food variety including fruit we don’t even know the names of and long missed meat. We’ll leave Bangkok on Thursday, 7 February, for Ko Samet, an island south of Bangkok to relax before we embark on our third part of the trip – exploring southeast Asia.