In the state of Gujarat, situated the north west corner of the country, the government enforced strict prohibition on all alcohol trade across the county in an attempt to improve the health and productivity of it’s people. Yet, the Gujaratis, find a way around it, naturally. Sporadically spaced out across the dry plains and often just on the shoulder of the main highway are local tribeswomen with nothing but a few plastic chairs, a 50 litre plastic bucket and a tray of glasses. These are pit stops for drivers wishing to have an afternoon tipple of Palm wine or, ‘Kallu’, a cheap and easy to produce alcoholic drink often made in people's farms and backyards. The trees bark are slashed and the sap from the bark is collected and then fermented producing a foul, sour taste with hints of acidic white wine. I stopped to observe one of these small stalls in action when a few truck drivers approached me and invited me for a taste. Being a dry state I hadn’t had drink in a few weeks, so the sickly, white liquid worked its magic in just a few minutes. More drivers turned up and I felt obliged to join them as they offered me more wine. After an hour of storytelling, mostly aided with sign action and photos from my mobile, I felt too tired and drowsy to cycle on. I had been determined throughout this trip not to have any help from any other vehicles or lifts along the way, wanting to cycle every inch of the way, so when they offered me a lift all the way to Mumbai, a distance of about 90 kilometres I was staggered, facing a moral dilemma that I thought might pollute the essence of my journey. Then I reminded myself that this trip was about experiencing as much as I could, saying yes to all the unique opportunities that come my way, and so I convinced myself that it would only add to my list of amusing discoveries that had already become an abundant list.
We attached a rope to the bike and hauled it up in the back of a large TaTa lorry. These lorries are in abundance across the entire country and are used for transporting all manner of goods. The inside of the cabin was decked out in an impressive array of tacky decoration, flags, pictures and posters of Hindu gods and sari gladded women bleached colourless from hours of intense sun burning through the cabin on it’s many long hauls. The horn was hilarious with its variation of loud jingles, as was the stereo and it’s one loud setting. The two drivers sang along constantly the crackling, distorted songs in their Malalayam language. They would keep checking with me to see if I knew every new song that came on, which of course I didn’t. The cabin was spacious enough to lie down in and I slouched back, exhausted, rested my feet on the window ledge, letting the cool breeze air my stinking feet. The big, hard sun burnt down on the dry plains, over wide, flat land, barren and beaten by the intense sun. I saw the occasional dwelling amongst the fields where skinny farmers, heads wrapped in cloth protecting them from the sun pulled camels with rope across the land, haltered to their necks and from their ring pierced noses. The smell of animal hind was almost tangible.
After a few hours of driving and a handful of fascinated glares from passing drivers who saw me in the cab of a local lorry with two Indians dancing to and singing with our arms in the air, we finally came to a stop in the middle of the highway, a quick chai stop I thought maybe. A squeak from the brakes and a hizz from the engine and we pulled over onto the sandy bank off the road. A phat tire swung from a sad looking tree and an unlit garage was lurking ominously under the trees a few meters away from the road. ‘You leave now’, they said, ‘we go, different road, not Mumbai’. My face dropped with shock at this news, but then turned again into a smile, a sort of amusing nod, typical India I told myself, nothing ever goes as planned here. I stood on top of the lorry and attached the rope to the frame of my bike and started to lower it down.
On top of a lorry, on a hot indian night, to the smell of hot sand and car fumes, trampling boxes of unknown cargo over thick tarpaulin, to the silence of a dessert, interrupted by other lorries screaming past at high speed as waves of light hit my face. This really felt like an adventure. I lowered the bike down to the ground, and watched as the lights of the lorry passed beyond sight leaving me in the edge of a lightless highway with no idea where to go or how far it was to the next town.
My stomached squelched with hunger, I was crashing from lack of carbohydrates after the rest of the day's ride. The highway is mobbed by loud cars and lorry’s that whizz past as I push on unknowingly down the long, dark highway. After an hour of riding, the only places I found along the way were expensive, air conditioned hotels that wanted to charge £40 pounds per night, an impossible task given my £5 a day budget. I moved further towards the distant lights of a big city, uprising and sparkling in the hot night of the indian dessert. A man on his motorbike rode alongside me for a few minutes and chatted to me on the move, which at first I found incredible irritating due to my exhaustion, but was then suddenly enjoying the company when he suggested attaching my bike lock to the back of his bike so that he could pull me along at a safe distance. We coasted for another half an hour before reaching the next town, an expensive suburb of Mumbai. I thanked the man immensely for his help and advice on where to look for cheap accommodation and then went straight away in search of food and a cold beer. It was 11:00pm by this time and I had started the day at 8:00am. I went into a nearby restaurant, flanked by giant, black palms wrapped in flashing neon lights. All the men inside looked different, I was near the city, closer to money and you could tell, they were nearly all fat! They quarrel and laughed for hours, sipping on beers and whisky, smoking cigarettes and watching the cricket highlights on the surrounding TV’s. I ordered gooey spring rolls, egg fried rice, chips and a large beer.
The food sent me into a deep slumber. I found myself fixated on the cricket game, with almost no energy to move, slumping further and further into the chair. My eyes started to close, feeling the deep need to rest, and drawing in those deep breathes of air just before sleep, only to be awaken by the sudden bursts of laughter from the groups of drunk men in the corners of the restaurant. By this time it was well past midnight, I know I wouldn’t find anywhere cheap to stay in the this seemingly expensive district outside of Mumbai and the thought of searching for somewhere, riding to multiple places, negotiating prices and arguing the occasional cocky receptionist made me even more tired. I accepted my fate of sleeping rough for this night. I hauled my heavy bike from the reception area and started to look for somewhere reasonably quiet and safe where I could sleep. I pondered behind cars deep down dark roads, gaps in the fields on the side of the road, fenced and lightless. I finally stumbled upon a car park around the back of a hotel where a few caretakers were lighting a fire in a dingy garage. They welcomed me in after a few inquisitive questioned and I slept there for the night, on the warm concrete floor next to the fire and the constant low chattering of the three kind strangers. The sound of a gigantic city hung in the background like a soft, all encompassing mist.