Camels, Palm Trees and Bikes

It had been a bit of a dry spell in terms of traveling. A few weekends in Delhi after I got back from China, and then along came Diwali and all the associated festivities to celebrate locally. But there’s only so many weekends in a row you can spend in Gurgaon. So two weekends ago I broke the spell with a bike trip to Pushkar, and then took some days off work to go a Hindu wedding in Goa and explore the West coast. It’s been a good fortnight.

Pushkar is one of the oldest cities in India located in central Rajasthan. A popular pilgrimage site and a well known tourist spot. We went to see the annual Pushkar ka Mela, a five day camel and livestock fair that draws in both traders and tourists. I guess we hit the last weekend of the fair because I wasn’t aware of much livestock trading, but there were plenty of camels around and the place was packed with people, Indian and foreign tourists alike.

We set off in the early morning of Saturday 31st. Four bikes with pillions and a car convened at the Kapoors and departed at 3AM, two more by bus. Fourteen in total. A colleague from work and another guy from AIESEC joined the bikers, along with the usual mix of Indian, Russian, Polish, American, Moroccan, Peruvian, German, Italian, French, Singaporean and British. Alex, my new German room mate who arrived on Tuesday the same week, joined us for his initiation.

I took the pillion of Nakul’s bike, an Enfeild Bullet, and we rode in tandem with the others. Once out of Gurgaon, it was great to be on the empty highway with the wind on the face. It was bitter cold, the temperature has dropped a lot recently, especially counting for the wind chill. I didn’t get much sleep the night before but the rush of the cold wind was enough to keep my eyes open, at least for a while.

Just as the sun was breaking through the bike broke down. We were fortunate enough to be right outside a gas station, and I watched the sun rise in the cold morning air whilst Nakul fiddled with the bike to figure out what was wrong. Safiye and Phalgun stopped with us. After fruitless attempts at starting the bike, we cautiously woke two guys who were sleeping in the garage office. Another guy stirred from his sleep on a wooden bed outside. They were very helpful and located the problem swiftly, something to do with the fuse, and we were back on the road within the hour. It’s these comedy moments, when four of us are momentarily stranded at a deserted garage in the middle of nowhere, dreary eyed, waking up strangers to request assistance, that make trips like these so memorable.

The journey thereafter was tough. The roads were smooth and straight all the way to Jaipur, but sleep deprivation was getting to all of us. For the drivers, it’s just a matter of focusing on the road. For the pillions, its not so easy to keep the eyes open when sleep is wanting. There was some beautiful scenery in parts, rolling hills breaking through the first light. But then there would come long spans of desert with nothing to look at but the paintwork on the road. It was then that the going got difficult, desperately trying to keep myself from falling asleep and staying upright on the back of the bike. With nothing but the underside of the seat to hold on to, it may not have ended so well had I failed to desist the urge to sleep. Exhaustion necessitated a further two stops, one for breakfast and one a while later, so we lost another two hours. By late afternoon we were through Jaipur and into Pushkar, at our hotel the “Pink Floyd.” I’m guessing ten to eleven hours from Gurgaon including the stops.

A cold shower at the Pink Floyd woke me up and soon we were lingering in the crowded streets amidst fabric makers and fruit sellers whilst evening arrived. When hunger became irrepressible we found an intriguing place to eat in a side street. A fixed price all-you-can eat Indian buffet, with live performances of Indian dance and music. It was the perfect end to a tiring day, and after I consumed everything I had space for, we relaxed in front of the performance area watching the dancers. The night ended with a drink of “special” lasi on the rooftop of the hotel, and then we retired to our room, a bunch of mattresses on the floor.

Pushkar from the top

The following morning I woke early with Daria and Javed to walk up a nearby mountain and temple. From the top we looked out over Pushkar and the encompassing desert with its intervening hills. An elderly man welcomed me enthusiastically and announced that he had two daughters in Bangalore, should I happen to be looking for bride. For the remainder of the morning we explored the city in the daylight and walked around the fair, with a camel ride thrown in for good measure. The group reconvened for lunch in the late afternoon, knowing that soon enough we would have to get back on the bikes to face the journey home.

Travel in style

The return journey was fine to begin with, descending from the hills and along windy roads. Then Jaipur came and went, the sun set, and familiar bouts of lethargy endured. Later into the night the roads were deserted of cars and bikes, save us and the usual bursts of large Tata freight trucks. I battled to remain conscious as we weaved in and out of trucks and accelerated out of tight spaces. At times, in the delirium of headlights and smoke and fatigue, my eyes would start making pictures out of hazy shapes on the horizon. The canvas trailing the back of a truck becomes a waving child and a road sign metamorphoses into an elephant crossing the highway. It’s at these points that you know it’s time to stop for Chai and an energy boost, before things get dangerous. A final stop at the 24-7 McD’s half an hour from Gurgaon, and we were on the home strait, home by 3AM. A challenging ride, but worth it for the company of the other bikers. Now there’s a good way to spend 48 hours.

As if I needed any time to recover from our weekend escapades, I returned to work for two days and flew to Goa the following Wednesday morning. This time there were twelve of us; Kashmiri, Columbian, Brazilian, American, Moroccan, Polish, French, German, Singaporean, Albanian, and British. It was unfortunate that I woke with a stomach infection that morning, the third time I have had stomach issues in India and the second time the morning before a flight. So I spent the morning running between the bathroom and packing my bag, wondering how I would make the two and a half hour flight. Needless to say, I made it.

We rocked up at Goa airport early afternoon and met the groom, Roshik, a colleague of Karol’s who invited us all down here. He has the next two days organized, a bus from the airport to our hotel in Panjim, transport to and from Baga for a party that night, the wedding the following afternoon and the reception in the evening. After dropping our bags in Panjim we ambled around the city looking for a good place to eat. Me, I just moved with crowd clutching my stomach and hoping for a quick recovery before the evening. Back to the hotel for a couple of hours power nap before making our way to Baga for food and drinks with Roshik and his friends. Fortunately the nap did me some good and I was in recovering form that evening. It was a bizarre night at a club / restaurant where we danced first and ate dinner after. Good finish to the night on the beach just across the road.

Walking to the wedding

Thursday morning was a sight; eleven foreigners (minus Alex who was ill) in full traditional hindi dress, the girls in saris and the guys in kurtas, walking down a dusty track towards the venue of the wedding. We took a wrong turning at one point and ended up walking past local traders selling fruit and flowers. I don’t know what they must have thought of the sight of us, but it was amusing to watch their response. The wedding itself was not overly eventful. Roshik sat proud on a chair at the front, as if a king on a throne, before his wife-to-be was allowed to join him. They went through various different rituals including lighting up a fire and walking around it several times. But it was really difficult to know exactly what was going on because the photographer was always standing in the way and there was no PA system. After the ceremony we had lunch and piled back on the bus for the hotel.

The wedding

With some time to spare in the afternoon, me, Rouf, Basia and Karol took a cab out of Panjim to find a place to stay on the northern beaches. We found a place in Candolim two minutes from the beach, and hired “scooties” for the trip back to Panjim and the remaining three days of our stay. It was my first experience of driving on Indian roads with Indian drivers, so I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a tad intimidating. But it doesn’t take long before you’re fighting for your space on the road just as well as everyone else. That evening we attended the reception on the riverside in Panjim. It was a fantastic setting and we all got very sweaty dancing around in kurtas and saris.

Friday morning we checked out of the hotel and motored over to Candolim for three days of sun. I took Jas on the back of the scooter and we missed a turning and ended up at the next beach on, stopped for a drink, and wound up in some sort of lottery prize scam. We were in the holiday mood so we played along, and ended up “winning” seven nights accommodation in a nice hotel in Bali. There are catches, a booking fee, but if I’m heading that way soon anyway it’s not too shabby. Met up with the rest of the gang on the becah in Candolim that afternoon and got a cab over to Baga in the evening for drinks on the beach with friends from the wedding.

Me & Jas

Saturday morning those of us with bikes and pillions got up in reasonable time for breakfast at Infernos and set off to explore the Northern coast, stopping off for a swim at each beach on the way. Six bikes and ten riders. It was a fantastic day bopping around country roads and exploring the less frequented beaches. Reminded me of my January trip to Thailand, exploring the east coast islands by scooter. When the sun began to set we hurried back to Paradise beach, perhaps the most beautiful of the Northern coast, where we watched the sunset from the sea and chilled on the water’s edge. A super end to a super day. Later in the evening, after dinner back in Candolim, me, Saf, Jas, Yasmine and Yasmina cabbed it back over to Baga to make the most of the night’s entertainment. It was a super chilled evening and it ended in a good club just over the road from the beach.

The scootie crew

Sunday was perhaps more eventful than I might have desired. The plan had been for a few of us to motor back to Paradise Beach and chill there for the morning. I took Yas on my scootie and Jas took her own. It was all running smoothly; we knew the way, we were all comfortable with the bikes, the roads were deserted. Then we came to a cross roads and through no fault of her own Jas collided with another vehicle. She was going at a reasonable speed, slowing down for the other vehicle, saw that it was waiting and began to accelerate when the other guy veered into the middle of the road without warning. It is silly that we should encounter such problems with Indian traffic out here on empty roads, but there was nothing she could have done to avoid it. Fortunately, the accident wasn’t too serious. She came off the bike and suffered several serious skin abrasions, one to the face a few on the arms and knees, but that was the extent of it. We were close by to a hospital so got her cleaned up pretty quickly and back in Candolim for a recovery lunch. I spent my afternoon running between the beach and the hire man, negotiating a price to replace the broken plastics on the front of the damaged scootie. Not the ideal way to end a holiday in Goa, but this kind of thing is part and parcel of life in India. TII, as I mentioned in the previous post.

My final lunch in Goa was a beef steak at our favourite spot, Infernos. In the South, beef is much more widely available and since Goa is a Christian state there are no religious constraints on eating the sacred cow. So it was a welcome a site, having not had any form of red meat for the three months since I arrived in India (save a couple of meals in China). Finally, a cab back to the airport stopping off at the off-license to pick up some cheap Feni, a Kashew based vodka that is a local delicacy here. Ironically, it was raining as we left. Goa was crying for our departure.

So that was my fortnight. Eventful to say the least but typical of our Indian adventures. We are all assimilating back to life in dusty Gurgaon this week, and no doubt most of us have the post-holiday blues, especially poor Jas as she nurses her wounds back to health. But it’s only temporary. The weekend is close and our next trip is just around the corner. I can feel it already.

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