While descending down a steep mountain track, something snaps with a sudden metallic clang and the bike collapses underneath me, I’m thrown head first over the handlebars and slammed down onto my back, winded and struggling for breath. I get up slowly and assess any damage by moving my arms and legs, feeling that my teeth are still all there and there’s no blood coming from anywhere. I heave my bike up off the floor and see that the front pannier rack snapped, throwing nuts and bolts across the path and down into the forest shrubbery. It turns dark quickly and It takes me an hour to find all the small pieces of metal, unload all the bags and slowly piece everything back together with a head torch. It’s only my second night and I’m absolutely thrilled to be tracing through some dark woods, led by a small light and to the sound of my bags rattling over the stones and loose gravel. This is what I came for. Moments of nervousness arrive, it’s dark, I’ve got no food, where will I put up my tent? But all these feelings are overshot by the excitement of it all and I start to see bright stars moving between the tips of the pine trees above.
A light appears through trees and I approach a man closing down his small wooden shop. He’s small and chubby with wiry eyebrows and kind, hazel eyes. I ask him if there is a safe place to camp and he replies excitedly that there is guesthouse available nearby and he will take me there.
Tired, in pain and relieved, I follow the waddling man swinging a bulky LED torch to light the way. We walk up a steep track, through a field, across a small trail that falls steeply away to tall grass and reeds, through several wooden gates, a cluster of goats, up several stone steps and to a dimly lit wooden dwelling perched on a floor of concrete that is unmistakably his own house. The man shouts something and two young children rush out the house and are shocked to find their father with a pink, dishevelled looking foreigner with muck and oil on his face pushing a bike through their front garden, we all greet with giddy smiles and go inside. Inside the house his wife is preparing an array food, fresh roti’s, curried veg, brown rice and sour yogurt.
This family is obviously poor, they only have a few cooking utensils and I’m amazed at how much food she has made with so little. A metal chimney runs from the gas cooker straight through the centre of the small room making it incredibly cosy and warm. I’m encouraged to take off my shoes and sit on one of the matted carpets next to the food and I’m handed an freshly glass of water. Naturally, I look for the cutlery but I think better than to ask, the children stare as I struggle to wolf down handfuls of steaming curry as it drips through my fingers and onto my lap. They offer me more and more and I happily comply, devouring as much food as I could until at last I slipped into a deep food slumber and nearly fall asleep on the warm floor. We all clean out teeth together, a worldwide routine that defies country and class, only we do it in the darkness of night under a blanket of stars and and spit into the long reeds of grass below. I sleep wonderfully through the night and i’m awoken to the sound of cockerels and sickles thrashing corn in the fields. A feast of a breakfast is awaiting me.
Something I learnt very quickly in India is that a ‘Hotel’ doesn’t always mean a hotel in the conventional sense of accommodation. At the end of a piping hot, 120 Kilometer ride through central Rajasthan, I was relieved when I saw a ‘Hotel’ sign arched over a beautiful, ivory cladded gateway and welcoming smiles at the driveway entrance. After collapsing onto a plastic chair, the legs sewn together with thin rope, I flicked off my sweaty shoes, threw the burning socks on the cool, tiled floor and indicated my thirst for a chai as I slouched back and enjoyed the shade from the tarpaulin sheet above me. The sun was still burning down in its last few hours, my thighs were burnt at the line of my shorts and my calves were tight and exhausted so I was a little deflating we he replied quite plainly, ‘sorry sorry, here no room, here only restaurant’, bobbing his head side to side as he spoke.
After talking to the owner for some considerable time about where I had come from and where I was going, by this point his entire family had come out to see me, he didn’t hesitate to offer me a place in his house for the night.
Later that evening after a hot shower and a colourfully paletted tray of food that could of easily fed five men, he invited into a nearby town on his motorbike. We whisped through the night down the highway through the smells of sand and tarmac and into the rumbling cacophony of horns, bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians, I spot a few tug on the arm of their friend in excitement and pointing at the white male on the back on locals bike.
I’m taken to an impressive looking temple and sit down at the back of the room where around two hundred people, men, women, entire families are sat on a swirling vibrant rug watching a film on a giant projector. The film is in Hindi of course with no English subtitles but the moral messages of family, education, friendship and honesty are clear. It’s great to tap into pockets of people’s lives and witness their different ways of teaching and developing their own communities, if only for a day. After the film and a rapturous round of applause, two orange swathed gurus are introducing into the room and take to their chairs on a stage festooned with flowers and golden sculptures of deities I had never seen before. A highly energetic man then starts rambling into a microphone from the front of the hall. My new friend looks at me giddily and persuades me to write my name and home city on a napkin. Then, his rapid and twisting Indian discourse Is punctuated with ‘English man from the city of ‘Burn-mingham’. The hall burst into applause, my face reddened and I’m told to stand up in front and come to the stage to introduce myself. As I approach, the gurus bless me and halter me with garlands of orange flowers around my neck. I say a few nervous words down the microphone, a lot of their faces are stunned and smiling as I speak, and then I thank them kindly for their warm welcome and leave to another round of applause. The ceromony was followed by yet more great hospitality as they took down to the open room beneath the temple where giant pots of stewing curry were being stirred by women with what looked like wooden awes. They sat me down and filled my plate up with mounds of rice, Dahl, curry and curd. We struggled to leave on the bike afterwards because of the que of people wanting to shake my hands, but we finally made it away and back out into the sandy winds of the night.
The following day after refusing to only let me eat half a portion of breakfast, he takes me in his car with his wife to visit some other temples and to visit a local Osho* ashram centre. He prepares one more cup of tea and a plate of biscuits before I’m finally ready to go at nearly midday, I hug him and his family, try to offer him money which he strongly refuses, take a picture and continue my lonely way towards Mumbai touched and humbled by the beauty of only a few helpful strangers which are in abundance across this amazing country.