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Indian Summer Pt. 2 November 19, 2010

Posted by markswill in About me, Cars and Bikes, Navel Gazing.
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Last week I recalled my flight to India and the film set which essentially was my reason for being there, if not my reason for just being… because after just a week, I’m terminally in love with the place. As a representative of the white, British middle-class that for four centuries ruled a country which still reflects its cultural influences, I also flagged long-held qualms about going there. (But then guilt has always been my key moral paradigm). However although after we left in 1947 and India’s people suffered the residual burdens of crumbling infrastructure, a muddled political system (to put it mildly), and poverty on an epic scale, I soon realised that far from harbouring resentment towards their past colonial masters, the average Indian seems to regard us as benign tourists who now applaud the tangible efforts they’ve made to develop their culture and economy on their, rather than our terms.

But I’m running ahead of myself here. My first impression after landing at Delhi, and even more so having arrived at our final destination, Udaipur, was of the sheer writhing mass of humanity. Now I’ve visited hugely crowded third world(ish) cities before, most notably Buenos Aires, Beirut and Taipei, but in Udaipur the density and speed of the traffic, and the jostling crowds on the pavements – such as there are any pavements – were characterised by something I’d never felt before in such circumstance: an acceptance of the status quo and occasionally stressful and uncomfortable though it was, they just wholeheartedly embraced it.

Just another roadside attraction...

And although the ascent of India as a manufacturing powerhouse means that the trappings of consumerism may soon undermine its good-natured character and possibly even the slightly less satisfactory caste system on which it’s based (c/f honour kllings), for now it’s a pleasure to subsume oneself in.

Mind you, I went there with the half-serious intention of hiring a motorcycle to ride around on, preferably one of the Royal-Enfields continuously manufactured there long after their British parent company’s demise in 1970, but I quickly realised that my reputation as a wild-boy biker paled into insignificance alongside the maniacs who rode Rajasthan’s mean streets – and they were mean, as in poorly- or flat-out un-surfaced. Not only do 99% of them ride sans crash helmets and rearview mirrors, but they ride as rapidly as their single cylinder 90 – 175cc locally-made Hondas, Lambrettas and Yamahas can go, if anything reflecting the facetious claim I made years ago in my Bike magazine column, namely that because road travel is inherently dangerous, we should spend as little time on them as possible, ergo we should reach our destinations as fast as we can.

The family that rides together, stays together?

But that of course didn’t require me to miraculously negotiate the (literally) sacred cows who wander aimlessly wherever they damn well want and shoulder-to-shoulder bikers behaving with similar abandon.

Apparently possessed of a sixth sense, abetted by constant use of their horns, the Indian biker weaves in and out of the traffic with breathtaking skill and bravery, often with two or more passengers aboard. But then so do the drivers of the tuk-tuks (motorised 3-wheeled rickshaws) and indeed just about every other road-user. So rather than risking suicide, I traveled mainly by tuk-tuk, a process involving much amiable haggling over fares, usually less than £1.50, and usually with a running commentary or life-story from drivers who treat you like a family friend. And naturally the tuk-tuk drivers’  perpetually extended family could supply anything you casually mentioned you were interested in seeing or buying during the ride into town. They also virtually insisted on waiting whilst we dined in lovely roof-top restaurants overlooking the city’s man-made lakes – which towards the end of my stay were burnished with firework displays celebrating the forthcoming Diwali festival. Magical.

Not your average Methodist chapel

But like the beggars that do indeed run after you as you walk around, that is the ones who aren’t legless and sitting on trolleys, the tuk-tuk drivers will back off if you politely just say ‘no’ and let you get on with your wide-eyed enjoyment of the sights, sounds and colours. For me these included the creaky old Mercedes- and Leyland-based Tata and Ashok trucks with their elaborate decorations and wiry drivers who loved being photographed alongside them, the thousands of tiny stalls selling everything from spices to hardware, to beautiful dress fabrics, the Hindu temples both in and outside Udaipur, and the ramshackle architecture that an unplanned, dirt-poor but entirely functional city betrays as its growing pains.

White van man he ain't

En route to the film set, the villages may’ve lacked the relative sophistication of Udaipur, but they were equally vibrant and colourful – how different from our European landscape where their counterparts are mere dormitories serviced by a geographically remote Tesco or Morrisons and bereft of any indigenous life of their own. Yes, Rajasthan is hot, dusty, litter-strewn and many of its streets reek of sewage and yes, even though a fine meal of Thali (a sort of Indian tapas) costs less than a quid, the fantastically tasty local food can prove a something of a bowel-challenging lottery, and yes virtually every bureaucratic and commercial function is spun-out, albeit most respectfully, by at least twice the number of people it requires, but despite all this culture shockery, I wore an almost perpetual smile.

So perhaps it was as well that we were already in Udaipur’s small, but refreshingly modern airport  when I realised that my digestive system had finally capitulated to germ warfare – a condition that made the 20 hour trip home as, um, interesting as my brief Indian summer had been… but not in a good way.

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Comments»

1. Alex Ramsay - November 19, 2010

love the pic of the family on their scooter – fantastic colours the mother is wearing

2. Pete - November 19, 2010

Very enjoyable blog, Mark. I’m now even more determined to visit the place.

The family on a bike are a perfect example of personal transport pushed to maximum utility – and why not? A British copper would wet himself with outrage if he saw the like on our streets but there it seems to work (although not without the dangers you point out) on the basis that if everyone behaves madly a sort of insane order will be established. Good reflexes will help, I suppose. (The sari’s proximity to the wheel and an Isadora Duncan-like fate does concern me in this pic though).

Looking forward to part 3….

3. WTK - November 19, 2010

Glad that you’re back from India and back from your writing hiatus. A career turn as a travel writer, and a good one that kindles the local flavor. Is there a Part 3, or will there be another sojourn? It’s about time for your next blog posting so get to it. As an aside, I am ashamed to say that until yesterday I never realized that Bertrand Russell was born and died in Wales. Now I understand why you are living there. Good work!

4. John Seymour - November 19, 2010

Hooray for India. I hope you will forgive me Mark but, in my opinion, you became a great journalist by telling us what you were thinking by describing (without apology) what you were experiencing. Welcome back that man. Long may he prosper.

markswill - November 22, 2010

Well John, once again I’m flattered by this, but “great journalist” ? I don’t think so… neither does my bank manager.

5. misstokes - November 21, 2010

Mark, im so glad you went, and better still lived to tell, and did.
This is so ‘right there’, im feeling a need to wash my face and ooops run to the john (loo)
Keep it up

markswill - November 22, 2010

Keeping it up is the abiding concern of my life these days. but then I am very old.

6. Iain Strachan - November 25, 2010

Wonderful to be reading you again after my formative years digesting all in Bike magazine. How about resurrecting that “cousin” of yours, Mark M. Williams, suitably loaded, and coercing him into some Indian travels, bike ot tuk tuk, it matters not. A Fear and Loathing of the Subcontinent and no less, if you please!

markswill - November 25, 2010

Thanks Iain, but my ‘cousin’ (actually Arthur A. Pitt) is otherwise engaged shivering in mid-Wales and thus unable to take advantage of your suggestion… unless someone else’d pay for it, of course!


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