India, with Fondness
When I began planning my adventure to pilot my Bike Friday minivelo across the subcontinent of India, I was met almost invariably with the same remark: “Why India?”
While I was tempted often to cheekily answer “To find a wife!” (full disclosure: it has always been a dream of mine to marry a witty, family-oriented and beautiful Indian woman) the actual reasons were far more substantial. India has a long and fascinating history, is the birthplace of two world religions, and is a veritable banquet of sounds, tastes, smells, and emotions. I had heard tales of almost transcendental trips from other bike travelers who recalled their experiences traversing the country, and their zealous accounts only fueled my desire to explore this vibrant country on my own two wheels. As an intrepid explorer, I had also made it my goal to travel to at least one new country per year, and India would bring me to 47.
My plan was set: I would fly into Delhi, take the overnight train to Bombay, and meet up with a friend. From there, I’d cycle South along the Konkan Coast to Goa, then head inland to Bangalore via Hampi – the ancient capital of a Hindu empire. I’d make a stop in Puttaparthi, home to an ashram famous for its rather well-known (now deceased) guru, then from Bangalore take another overnight train (India is massive. Like, massive.) to Hyderabad before heading back to Delhi. My Indian friends thought I was nuts. They voiced their concerns about my safety and the risk of traveling via bicycle. They told of relatives who had been clipped – or worse- by traffic, and while I was touched by their concern for me (while admittedly being scared to death), I knew it was something I needed to do. I love to explore the world from my bicycle, and traversing rural India on two (very small) wheels was guaranteed to be an adventure unlike any other. I had to do it.
Hello, Delhi, or, This City is a Beast
I arrived late at night and took a taxi (easy when you travel with a folding minivelo from Bike Friday that only weighs ____ and folds into an airline-approved suitcase) to my hostel. The atmosphere of the city was palpably electric, and I couldn’t wait to begin my adventure.
The next morning, I hopped into a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw) to meet with friends who had invited me to a traditional Indian breakfast. As the driver twisted the throttle, we were off! The colors of the city flashed by as we wove through the bustling morning traffic, stopping often to ask for directions, call my friends for directions, stop and ask for directions again, and finally, pull to a stop in front of my waiting friends. After an incredible breakfast, we went for a stroll to secure an Indian cell phone SIM card, so I would be able to check in with my friends daily – in theory- and a new bike helmet, as I’d left mine on the plane the night before. I spent the next two days exploring Delhi – from the green oasis South of the city, to the hectic, brilliantly chaotic alleys of Old Delhi. The city seemed to me somehow amorphous – old and new flowed and intertwined – from the impressively modern Metro to the small temples and shops with patiently waiting owners leaning in shady doorways. Traditional met modern everywhere I looked, and the energy of a booming city bursting at the seams with life was thick in the air. I could have easily stayed and continued to eat my way through the cuisine on my search for Delhi’s best butter chicken, but I had things to do.
After three days in Delhi, I assembled my bike.
I awoke early and headed to Hazrat Nizamuddin train station. As I arrived at the station, a porter approached, and after some haggling, took me, my bike, and two fully-loaded panniers to the waiting Rajdhani to Bombay train. As I settled into my 2nd class cabin, I was delighted to see my bike tucked perfectly under the upper sleeping berth. The train was dated with and not all that well maintained, my co-travelers were chatty and inquisitive (not hard to imagine, seeing as I am a brown-haired German who was traveling solo with a very small bicycle), and the fresh sheets, flowing chai, and good service helped me to feel comfortable with a undulating feeling of adventure. I watched my fellow passengers move around the train, as well as the scenery going past as the city faded into the distance. I noted several Indian men passing had very red hair, and mused out loud about possible recessive Irish genes before another passenger kindly informed me that it’s supposed to be very healthy for the hair. As I made my way to the restroom, toilet paper in hand (it’s best to bring your own in India, I learned), I passed Indian men with their hair and beards dyed a bold red. The colors of this country were proving to be no less vivid than I had imagined.
Bombay Bicycle Club
After the train steamed into Bombay (official name Mumbai, but referred to as ‘Bombay’ by the Indian friend with whom I was staying, hence adopted by me), I was delighted to find a refreshing shower and restorative breakfast waiting. We spent my time in the city as tourists, visiting the impressive sights and architectural marvels – The Gateway of India, a monument erected by King George V. that overlooks the Arabian Sea, as well as a breathtaking temple erected for Lord Babulnath. As we approached, a holy cow surrounded by fragrant flowers stands benignly bleated a welcome, and we ascended the stairs towards the intricately carved temple dedicated to the Hindu god more commonly known to Westerners as Lord Shiva. A large stone phallus (representing all the energies of the world and beyond) was centered proudly within, and I marveled at the peaceful atmosphere that prevailed here, 1000 feet above the thronging and eternally-congested city below. I ended my time in the city with a stroll along the sea and a final meal of Bombay’s best Indian burger, the intricately spiced Vada Pav, prepared right on the street in front of me. My first few days in India were already exceeding every expectation I had. But it was time to get pedaling.
Bombay to Kashid: The Rubber Meets the Road
The next day, I made my way to the Gateway of India, my departure point for a 45-minute ride on a ferry to Mandawa. I stepped off the ship, assembled my folding Bike Friday Pocket Llama, lubed my chain, and headed off. I pointed the head badge towards Kashid and followed Maharashtra State Highway #4 South. Traffic was tight to begin with but I soon grew accustomed to the bustle before it graciously mellowed, and I found myself confidently waving back at the encouraging locals who passed. I stopped at a roadside coconut stand for a refreshing drink and carried on.
I had originally planned to cover 50 miles (80km) and make my way to Murud, but as I tend to start my bike trips slowly to allow my body to adjust to the pace, I decided to stay instead in the town of Kashid. After trying two hotels, I arrived at the third and asked how much. “1,500 Rupee a night.” At roughly $23, I felt it was a bit high, so I countered with 800, or roughly $12. “Can’t do that,” came the reply, followed by a quick “Alright.” after I suggested the sum of 1000 Rupee, or about $15. Securing my first sleeping place in rural India was a success! Next mission? Find dinner. I was a little nervous, as I’d heard stories of people getting violently ill while traveling. My Indian friends had given me some sage advice: eat where other people eat and eat what other people are eating. Seemed to make sense, so I headed out to look for a bite to eat. No luck. Most places seemed dead, and there weren’t many options. Dejected, I made my way back to the hotel and an on my way found a small restaurant. A few people were dining, and nobody seemed to be eating the same thing…this could be tricky. I sat down and the waiter appeared promptly. I pointed to a colorful tray on the table next to me. “Vegetable thali?”, he asked. I nodded my reply and was delighted by the spread he returned with. For 100 Rupees ($1.50), a silver platter laden with smaller bowls of fragrant chutneys, vegetables, and rice and warm naan was placed in front of me. Delicious. So far, so good.
Kashid to Harihareshwar: Gears?!
I awoke to a dark Konkan Coast morning. With only 31 miles (or 50km) behind me, I was ready to get going right at 6 am, but the pitch-black morning made me think it might be wiser to start once the sun came up. At 7 I hit the road, still heading South, and made my way to the first of many idyllic fishing villages and towns, Nandgaon. These often-overlooked-by-tourists towns are often my favorite part of the trips I take, and one of the reasons I love making my way by bike. I wound my way through the towns, noting a temple and mosque next to each other. Later in my trip, I would ride by churches, traditionally-dressed Muslims, spend a night in an ashram, and meet Parsis who believed in the teachings of Zoroaster, the ancient Persian prophet. India truly is a land of many religions.
As I pedaled on, I passed a huge statue of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, and saw someone bumping along leisurely in a horse-drawn cart. The beaches were beautiful and the weather was perfect. As I pulled into the town of Rajapuri, uniformed schoolchildren gathered around me and my attention-catching minivelo. “Gears?”, they shouted excitedly, “How many?”.
“Three times nine,” I replied, “You do the math!”
I made my way to a ferry that was just about to embark, and I handed my bike over for loading. As I climbed aboard, three young men gestured at me to join them on the roof of the boat. As I jumped up, the anchor lifted and we set off, giving me a glimpse of an impressive fort just off the coast. One of the three men spoke a little English, and as we chatted amicably, the conductor showed up to sell tickets. 20 Rupees ($.30) later, I was no longer a stowaway, and two minutes after that another conductor came to clip my ticket. Nobody rides for free.
After riding on, I arrived at Harihareshwar, my destination for the night and a small Hindu temple town. After checking into a hotel (and haggling a price) I ate a simple meal of Dal Roti for dinner and fell, pleasantly tired, asleep.
Harihareshwar to Dapoli: We Do It For Love
122 miles down, I awoke ready to continue my adventure. After a long wait at the ferry station, it finally eased into view as a red school bus full of children arrived simultaneously. Once on the ship, they made a riveting discovery: a foreigner with a geared bicycle was aboard. Photos were taken, the bike was thoroughly inspected and my new friends chattered excitedly about my small-but-nimble bike. As I waved goodbye to them, I headed down a small road off the main highway that wound through tiny villages on unpaved paths. The bike handled whatever terrain I threw at it amazingly well, bumping down the road without complaint as I passed young men playing cricket, and arrived finally to a riverbank with the remains of a bridge. I reached for my map which suggested a ferry. There was no ferry. Not a human was in sight.
A young man arrived some minutes later, much to my surprise. He had come for the ferry too, which was a relief. As we waited, we chatted. He was engaged to a woman and planned to marry later that year. “A love marriage?” I asked. “Yes, “ he replied. “My family doesn’t approve, but I’m doing it anyway.” I high-fived him in congratulations as a tiny boat approached. The ferry! An older man jumped out, rolled a huge tire onto the riverbank, and began loading. I was graciously helped with my bike as another passenger joined and the old man grabbed the tiller. We were off.
With another 37 miles (60km) on the meter, I decided to stay the night in Dapoli. The glorious chaos of India was seeping into me, and I was in love with the buzz. As I looked around my home for the night – a truck loaded with eggs, a flower stand bursting with color, and a smiling shop owner leaning in the shade of a cool doorway- I inhaled deeply through my nostrils. India was in my lungs, and in my blood, I felt.
Dapoli to Ganpatipule: Sunset Over the Arabian Sea
Another early morning. I had clocked 196 miles (316km) by now and was battling feelings of exhaustion. In a wonderful turn of synchronicity, I passed a huge statue with some sort of warrior perched proudly atop the planet as I left the city. The road was deserted, and for some time I passed no one and nothing. The silence from the din of this country of nearly 1.5 billion people was a momentary respite, and for the first time since my arrival, I was able to hear only the rhythmic whirring of my cranks below me. But, I learned in India that the moment you think you have peace, a tuk-tuk will invariably show up. The driver honked merrily at me as he passed, and I returned the sentiment with a wave. After another ferry ride and obligatory photos with fellow passengers and the captain alike, I made my way by sunset along a beautiful stretch of beach with youngsters playing scratch cricket and fishing boats bobbing in the glistening waters.
The road swelled with life almost alarmingly quickly. Suddenly hundreds of people were heading somewhere all around me. I pulled over and tapped a passerby on the shoulder who informed me that 8,000 people from the state of Madhua Pradesh were descending on the town for a meditation retreat at a local ashram. I could see the ashram in the distance, and as tempted to join the crowd of people funneling in, but pushed on to Ganpatipule, my stop for the evening. After finding a small hotel (and after a small kerfuffle over unchanged sheets) I drifted off into a restful sleep.
Ganpatipule to Devgarth: A Sea of Honking
As I yawned and stretched and awoke to yet another gorgeous morning. I had traveled 277 miles by now (446 km) and felt I had found my groove. Even the relentless beeping of the traffic now seemed to fade into the background noise as my legs pumped away below me, weaving through the sea of honking.
As I pulled over to enjoy a chai at a small tea shop, I felt a sting on my ankle. I looked down to see a mosquito and quickly slapped it away. Though I was taking malaria medicine as prevention, I felt a slight flutter of worry – my first real one since the trip began. Mosquitos can transmit Dengue Fever, and billboards I had passed warned of it. I continued to apply my repellent and forged on. Thankfully, despite a few more pesky bites throughout the trip, I never developed a fever.
I did, however, develop a keen eye for spotting monkeys. Hailing from Germany, and living now in Wisconsin, one doesn’t often come across primates in their direct midst. The first few I encountered were an exciting novelty, but as the trip progressed and I saw more and more, I became accustomed to seeing our closest (and, in all honesty, somewhat creepy) relatives quite literally hanging around. They and I both partook of the bananas that grow abundantly in India, and I feasted on this clean source of carbs by eating almost a dozen a day. Delicious.
I made it to Devgarth just before dark, and the town felt slightly rougher around the edges than my other stops thus far. I headed for the beach, hoping to find a hotel but learned there were none. Fortunately, a group of young men directed me to a hotel they knew of nearby, which mercilessly had one humble room available. I looked at my phone. It was Christmas Eve and the coincidence was not lost on me. I found a cosy family restaurant nearby and ordered my first Masala dosa of the trip. The perfectly-balanced flavors of coriander, cumin, cardamom and more were so sublime that I ordered a second.
Devagrth to Malvan: First Flat
Merry Christmas, you have a flat tire. After 286 miles (460km) without incident, my Christmas present was a thorn in my front tire. I made my way to the town of Malvan as my tire slowly deflated and called it a day.
Malvan to Mandrem, Goa: Bring on the Beach
I had made it. As I crossed a bridge over one of many rivers, I was delighted to have also crossed into Goa. I pushed on, posed for photos with every roadside samosa (a deep-fried snack with pea and potato filling) stop, and noticed as I drew closer to my destination how I seemed to pass more and more Western-looking churches with nativity scenes. Goa is a hugely popular tourist destination, and the influence was visible. I was slightly worried about finding a room due to the holidays, but luck shone on me again as a moped passed by, waving frantically. It was two young men I had met several towns back (during a photo pose session) who knew of a hotel with a room! I followed behind them and managed to snag a centrally-located room that was five minutes from the beach. Even here, my Bike Friday was the center of attention, but thankfully the beach was surprisingly empty, affording me a few moments to myself to reflect on how far I’d come – literally and figuratively – and I savored the break from the daily grind of the saddle. Five days had passed, and 383 (617km) miles were under my belt. I felt alive.
Mandrem to Ponda: Portuguese Country
After seriously considering staying in Mandrem thanks to its brilliant beaches and relaxing atmosphere, I decided the road was calling and continued on, heading for Ponda. The Santas I passed reminded me that I was in former Portuguese territory, and as I pulled into Panjim (Panaji), the capital of Goa, overshadowed by the magnificent Church of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, I thought of the sailors who would stop there to pray before heading further upriver to Old Goa, where I was now headed. Fueled by a delicious milk pastry from a local bakery, I arrived in Ponda in the late afternoon to find no hotel rooms. After trying several places, I found the last room. The staff was unfriendly, and after the overwhelming generosity and warmth of everyone I had encountered so far, it felt almost jarring. I had an early dinner of Masala Dosa and called it a day. I was usually too tired in the evenings to feel lonely, but this evening I did, missing family and friends.
Ponda to Khanapur: Now Entering Tiger Territory
After a good night’s rest, I felt revived and slightly sheepish about my ennui of the previous night. I was on the trip of a lifetime, and while I had nobody to share it with right now, I couldn’t wait to share it with everyone when I got home. I had so much to tell them, so many photos and stories, and couldn’t wait to share the adventure, struggle, and joy’s of the road. I had made it 485 miles (780km) by this point, and while I was a little saddle sore, my body (and bike) were holding up.
As I started out towards Khanapur, the road quickly swelled with brightly-colored trucks festooned in banners and colorful tapestries bearing the likenesses of various Hindu gods and other patriotic statements. As they wove through traffic, I noticed (with a smirk) road signs encouraging people to drive safely, which were largely ignored. The driving was without logic, maddening in its intensity, and at times, terrifying.
I began my ascent towards Khanpur, noticing signs increasing in number asking drivers to slow down for deer, snakes, leopards, and finally…tigers. Were I to see one, I’m almost certain I would do the exact opposite and speed the hell up, I thought as I continued my climb. I passed several wildlife officers managing the area who flagged me down, took photos with me and – this was a new experience – asked for an autograph. My celebrity status was apparently still on the rise!
Tired, I arrived in Khanapur and found a modern hotel with friendly staff. The room price had been posted on a small enamel sign behind the counter, so I paid the 750 Rupees ($12) without the haggling and fell sleepily into bed.
Khanapur to Morab: You Can Stay With Us
566 miles down, and countless villages and towns behind me. I set out on a wonderfully chilly morning and officially entered farm country. Being the son of a large animal veterinarian, I was in my element. Cattle pulled plows, farmers tended their livestock, beautifully decorated tractors hauled their crops – I was loving it. As I pulled into a small village for breakfast, word spread that a foreigner was in town – on a bicycle, no less. The small eatery filled with people trying to get a glimpse of me, and every few minutes the crowd would shift and a new batch of peering faces would appear for their turn to see. As I ate my meal, observed without pause, I was beginning to wonder if this is how rockstars feel all the time. As I saddled up to leave, the entire town of about 300 had assembled to send me off.
I rode on, and around 6pm as dusk fell and with 12 miles still to go, a local waved me down to have a chat. “I’m so sorry,” I replied, “ I have to rush since I need to find a place to stay tonight in the next town.”
“You can stay at my house!” came the reply. His name was Gy, he told me, and he was in his early 30’s. I followed behind him on a moped back into town and arrived at a small house with one big room which, I learned, served as living, dining and bedroom – as well as a barn. Two cows peacefully chewed cud in the corner and watched out of the corner of their eyes as the house quickly filled with people. Uncles, cousins, neighbors – even the highest-ranking local politician paid a visit. We sat on the floor, as there was no furniture, and I was offered a glass of milk, which I politely declined, not wanting to use any of their meager supply. A young girl stepped forward and offered me a gift: a small plastic flower in a cardboard box. I was touched, as I assumed this was everything she owned, and thanked her profusely. What could I give them to thank them for their hospitality? I found a single dollar bill in my wallet, folded and worn, and handed it to Gy. He was moved and hugged me tightly. As the evening progressed and we sat in the dark chatting, I spoke with a young girl who was studying English in school. “What will you do when you grow up?” I asked.
“She won’t do anything. She’ll marry at 18 and work in the house.” replied her uncle. In rural India, women are often still bound by traditional roles, it seemed. A single lightbulb buzzed to life above us, and after shaking hands with everyone, we visited several more family members’ houses before making our way back to Gy’s. His beautiful wife, pregnant with their first child, welcomed us, and Gy led me to a framed degree on the wall – his own from a state school. He was very proud of it, and showed me his wife’s diploma, too. Her marks in English were significantly better than his, but she stayed in the background speaking very little. Gy turned to me. “Let’s go out for a recess.” he said.
“Sorry?” I replied.
“A recess. Let’s go out for a recess.” He led me out of the house and down a dark alley where he stopped, unzipped his trousers, and began to urinate. More than half the population of India doesn’t have access to plumbed toilets and go in the open.
We made our way back to the house where steaming cups of chai and the most delicious dinner I experienced in India were waiting. Gy and I sat on the floor, the only ones eating, as Masala, roti, pickles, and yogurt were devoured hungrily – all under the watchful eyes of the ever-increasing number of spectators. Belly full, Gy informed me that a local schoolteacher would be putting me up for the night, and he escorted me to a small, sparsely furnished flat. I rolled out my Thermarest and crawled into my light sleeping bag. The mosquitos were relentless, despite a lit mosquito coil that feebly attempted to keep them at bay. I was grateful for the shelter and overwhelmed by the generosity of people who had so very little, yet gave all they could without hesitation.
Morab to Koppala: New Years Eve in India
I awoke to several smiling schoolteachers wishing me a good morning and watched the beautiful sunrise. I had cycled 631 miles so far (1016km), and was feeling strong and healthy. I set out at 7am and passed through more charming farm villages as I made my way East, fighting against a strong headwind that slowed my progress, but was a welcome relief from the heat.
I reached a road that quickly became impassable due to construction and came to a halt. Shoot. What to do? Walk the bike? Loop back? Luckily a tractor with a trailer rumbled up behind me. “Would it be possible to have a lift?” I asked, hopefully.
“No problem! Hop up!” came the friendly reply. The radio was blaring, and four bumpy kilometers later, my bike and I disembarked with a friendly wave. I loved passing through the villages and was delighted every time kids who owned a bicycle would excitedly catch up with me and follow along for a few miles before turning around and heading home.
Towards the end of the day, the headwind and rough road conditions had worn me down enough that I flagged down a passing tuk-tuk. I loaded my bike on the back and we headed into Kukkanura. It felt good to stretch my legs and let a motor do the work for a bit. It was the second save of the day. There was no lodging to be had, so I hopped into a shared SUV that operated as a local taxi as the helpful driver strapped my bike to the roof. We pulled into Koppala where I found a cheap room that was thick with smoke from an offering to the gods. I could barely see my hand in front of my face or breathe, but hopefully, the gods were pleased. Tomorrow was a new year. I was excited to see what it would bring.
Koppala to Hampi: City of Ancient Temples
I awoke in a cheap hotel, exhausted from the intensity of the trip, thus far. I was here, in India, with my bike, blessed with the gift of time and resources to embark on such an adventure, and the love and support of friends and family. I wish that feeling had permeated the entire trip, but at this point I was mentally strained and physically hampered by my own fitness. The indignation of loving, while simultaneously hating this experience of pedaling through India was weighing on my tired bones. I had cycled almost 700 miles (1076) so far, and wasn’t sure if I even wanted to do more. But regardless…I needed a new tire. A hotel worker bid me good morning and pointed to my tire. “Puncture, sir.”
The day sailed by and I was welcomed to Hampi by the ancient temples of a city that was once one of the richest and largest cities in the world. Hampi is a UNESCO heritage site, and was the capitol of the Hindu empire before it was razed in 1565 by Muslim conquerors. I enjoyed a delicious meal, fresh and fragrant, and rested up. The final leg of my journey was coming up.
Hampi to Ballari: That’s the Ladies’
With 333 miles (536km) down, I pointed my bike towards Puttaprthi. I was headed towards the Ashram of the late Sai Baba, famed for the many miracles that had occurred there. I was back in the saddle, and back to the exhausting view of the world from a bicycle. As I made my way along, I passed the occasional ruin of an ancient temple – each a testament to the magnificent empire that once ruled here. I passed street butchers, women washing clothes in the river, and hard-working laborers harvesting rice, hay, and red chili peppers. The small towns I passed through felt almost suspended in time. Everything seemed slowed down, and my appearance on two wheels seemed to be the highlight of many of the residents’ day, exciting young and old alike.
As I pulled over to relieve myself in a bush, a local shouted, “No, no, no! That’s the ladies’! Guys are over there!”, and pointed to another nearby bush. Without signs, it’s sometimes hard to know.
I pulled into Ballari, dusty and sweaty, and found my way to a friendly hotel after attempting to secure a room at one that wouldn’t let me take my bike into the room or bring it securely inside for the night. It was too risky. I strolled into the Muslim quarter and shared a chai and cookie with a local who invited me to sit down and join him. Lovely.
Ballari to Kalyandurg: Free Lunch
I was still headed South, with 784 miles down (1262km) and riding felt awful today. Every rotation of the pedals was tedious. Was it fatigue? Loneliness? The day dragged, and I pushed on.
I stopped for lunch at a small family-owned establishment at the juncture of two roads. The town seemed to have no name, or none that I could discern, and the seats and stove of the restaurant were located outside. The head of the family (and head chef, I presumed) was frying an omelet, so I ordered the same, and added a rice dumpling and chicken curry soup. The flavors were incredible, and as I ate, I watched the chef cooking, wrapping the food in newspapers and handing it to a steady stream of local patrons ordering takeaway. As it was time to leave, I thanked my hosts and asked how much I needed to pay. “Nothing.”, came the reply.
“No,”, I said, certain there had been a misunderstanding, “How much for the meal?”
“Nothing!” he cheerfully replied. I went over to the head chef, busy cooking behind the stove.
“Thank you for an amazing lunch. How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Nothing!”, came the reply. I was deeply touched.
I forged on, somewhat reinvigorated, and chuckled as I passed under the huge, smiling face of Arnold Schwarzenegger – a billboard advertising a gym and welcoming all to the local city of Kalyandurg. As I began the nightly search for lodging, I was dismayed to learn there was next to none. Luckily, I found a room. Priced at 300 Rupees ($5), it was cheap and would do. The owner of the lodge sold turmeric, so I parked my bike next to a pile of orangey roots and went to sleep.
Kalyandurg to Puttaparthi: Help Ever, Hurt Never
873 miles in (1405km), and I was still making my way to the Ashram. I left at dawn and headed down the main road. Some time after lunch, I pulled a thorn from my front tire. Flat number four, so far. Luckily I was able to repair it, all while under the watchful eyes of curious passersby.
As I drew closer to the Puttaparthi, huge billboards with the likeness of Sai Baba grew in number, and I pulled up to the Ashram in the early evening. My home for two nights would be an 80-bed dormitory shared with devotees of Sai Baba from around the world who had come to vedic chant, worship, and apply ash to their foreheads. I met with a man from New York City who was visiting with his mother, a believer who had visited before. They believed Sai Baba was a God, as proven by the miracles she had experienced in her lifetime. My bike fit neatly in the dorm, and I spent the next day chatting with followers and resting.
Puttaparthi to Doddaballapur: Roadside Shock
After my rest in the Ashram, I was on the home stretch. I had cycled 964 miles (1,551km) and had two more days in the saddle. Bangalore began to show up on street signs, and I planned to make my way to Guaribidanuru, but found no lodging so forged on another 25 miles (40km) to the next town Doddaballapur.
As I approached the town, the road narrowed due to construction, where a truck and car had stopped. People were gathered and I saw a body, motionless, on the road. A moped rider with no helmet had been killed. I felt a heavy sensation in my stomach as I pedaled on. My friends’ concerns about traffic were not exaggerated.
I finished my day by finding lodging right away and enjoyed a few omelets prepared by three Muslim brothers in a small local eatery. As I wiped up the last morsels with a chapati, they merrily brought out a huge pot of chicken biryani, but I simply had no room left. It was the eve of my final day on the road. My stomach – and heart- were full.
Doddaballapur to Bangalore: Finishing Strong
My final day on the road. I had cycled 1,002 miles (1,613km), eaten countless idli, and met so many friendly and inquisitive people. I wish I could say I enjoyed every minute of it but the experience was tough. I was exhausted and the overall trip was very intense. My trip was coming to an end, and I felt more than accomplished. I was full of impressions, experiences, adventures, and encounters that most can only dream of. The allure of traveling in a remote setting so far out of my comfort zone, with the addition of having to pedal all day was really starting to wear on me, both mentally and physically. But this was one of the greatest trips of my life. I feel so now and I felt so then.
I decided to stick to small roads to avoid traffic and happily made my way without incident to Bangalore and checked into a hostel called Electric Cats located in a lively part of Bangalore that was packed with a young crowd and filled with breweries, coffee shops, restaurants and bars. I met up with an old friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years and we reminisced about old times and celebrated the successful completion of my bike tour with outstanding chicken, refreshing beer, and a phenomenal desert. I made my way back to the hostel, pleasantly tired. My trip was finished and as I lay there, I thought back to all I had seen. The pictures flashed before my eyes as I tried to remember as many details as I could. Unfortunately, I couldn’t sleep, and it seems only one person in the hostel got any rest that night anyway – the guest that snored like they were sawing logs.
I spent the next three days visiting with a good friend and seeing the sights in Hyderbad before flying back to Delhi at my friends’ insistence for a visit to the Taj Mahal which was stunning.
The next day, as I flew back to the United States in business class, thanks to most appreciated a bump up by Delta, I thought back over my trip. I felt I had packed a lifetime of memories into five short (but incredibly long) weeks in a journey that could never be recreated, even if I replicated the exact same route. I was lucky enough to find lodging at every stop, and the hospitality I encountered everywhere (with only a very few exceptions) blew me away. The food, delightfully spicy, was fresh and flavourful, and by following my friends’ advice to eat where and what everyone else was eating, meant I suffered no tummy troubles the entire time. Meals were, with no hyperbole, a highlight of every day, and I grew accustomed to a cup of sweet chai after every meal, and sitting at tables with strangers without waiting for an invite, as is the custom.
My Bike Friday handled impeccably, with no mechanical issues apart from four flats in the front tire from the stout thorns that often littered the more rural roads. It rides like a “real” bike, and folds into a carry case that is easy to take on planes or trains, which made (and makes, as I still use it for my adventures) it the ideal travel companion.
They say that when you visit a new place, you gain new things but leave some too. I certainly left a piece of my heart behind in India.
*Stefan is currently having his Pocket Llama overhauled and repaired at the Bike Friday mothership before he departs on a Christmas tour of Chile. Be sure to follow him on Instagram, @minivelo.bigworld to follow along with his adventures!