It’s funny how just the name of a country evokes images and feelings. As we sit in Nepal after crossing India we have found our expectations were very different from the reality. Like many people who first encounter India we had ideas and thoughts about what it would be like to take a large capacity road bike through the country. Very quickly we had to adapt our way of thinking as we came across a fundamental truth. You can die very quickly in India on a bike. This is not being melodramatic. We are also not, in any way, taking journalistic license to boost the story. It is merely a simple fact. Anybody who has done a similar journey by motorcycle will know what we mean and will not need to be convinced. They will know precisely what we are talking about as we have met others on the road and we have all shared similar experiences.
India and driving is chaos.
It is the most frightening thing either of us has ever experienced. It is very nearly impossible to describe what our three weeks crossing the country have been like. As we sit in Pokhara in Nepal the whole experience is still so raw that even after being here for some time only now does sleep come easily and the nightmares have started to fade. On arriving at our current location Bernard could not go near the white dust covered bike for several days. You have to understand on many mornings in India he was physically sick at the thought of riding the bike into the chaos.
Try to imagine weeks of there being no rules you can identify and everybody does what they want when they want. Where wing mirrors are folded flat and never used. Where a driving license can be bought. Of avoiding trucks driving on the wrong side of the road on corners and towards you on the wrong side of dual carriageways. Where carts, cars, pushbikes and rickshaws with no lights suddenly appear. Of camels, elephants, cows and monkeys in the dark on the road; either dead or alive. Where vehicles immediately pull in once their front wheel passes you and force you into the sand on the road’s edge. Drivers of anything and everything pulling out without looking all day and every day. Where traffic lights mean nothing. Of the days and days avoiding being totalled by Indian truck drivers with no brakes and a sense that being bigger means ‘get out of my way’ even when you have nowhere to go. Where ‘handbrake’ involves using bricks behind your wheels. Welcome to motorcycling in India.
While this is all true there is another story of our travels in India. It is the story of meeting so many fantastic people both personal and professional. Thus this entry has two completely different strands, in many ways, this makes it very difficult for us to work our way through mentally to reach some form of closure.
We joined organisations and people who strive to better the lives of blind and partially sighted people under difficult cultural and environmental restraints the like of which is hard to imagine. We spoke with dedicated and committed individuals who work tirelessly with no real support and little or no financial backing in the true sense of ‘service’ to others. So for now enough of the highlights.
It is time to move on and fill in the details.
We would like to dedicate this entry to ‘Neena’ whom we met in Delhi at The Centre for Blind Women.
Tuesday 11th November
Leaving Lahore was a relief after the constant noise and pollution. For days we had coughed up the dust of Pakistan and now we are ready and eager to move on. Virtually all the hotel staff turn out to wave us off as we have been somewhat a novelty to everybody. Well, after all, it’s not everyday that a blind woman turns up on a motorcycle in Lahore!
The road to the border was full of traffic and clouds of dust but we now wear scarves bought specially to try to keep the worst of it at bay. We slither and slide down dust and hard core roads which people drench in water to keep the white clouds of passing vehicles under control. When they do this in places the road turns to mud and we have various ‘exciting’ moments with a combination of traffic and road conditions! Before too long, however, we arrive at the Pakistan side of the border and start the formalities of exiting Pakistan before going through the whole thing in reverse to enter India.
Pulling into the Pakistan Customs compound we see two other motorcycles parked up and they bare Polish Registration plates. Talking to Tom (one of the owners) we find out they are stuck at the border as they do not have the correct paperwork for their bikes. The customs officers looked relieved when we hand over all the required bits of paper for the two of us and the bike; as always they merrily stamp everything in sight with heavy thumps before waving us through the border to the India side.
As we slowly cross between the two official gates coaches full of Sikhs are coming towards us and heading the opposite direction for a celebration of the birthday of the founder of the Sikh religion; actually born in Pakistan as his birthplace is now contained within. We are stopped several times by enormous Pakistan Rangers who check passports and Visas before we cross the ‘line’ to India where just as large Indian Rangers ask for the same paperwork.
All in all, it took us three-and-a-half hours to complete the paperwork at the border and we met a wonderful Sikh at the Immigration counter who made us feel so at home with his sense of humour! Before we shook hands and left he told us he would pray for a happy marriage. His laugh was infectious and welcomed after such a sombre crossing of Pakistan under tight security.
We pull out of the border crossing and bar owners descend from both sides of the road saying “You have come from Pakistan, come in for a beer!” Little did they know we had found the only legal bar in the whole of Pakistan and they responded with puzzled looks at our polite decline of the offer of their beer! Maybe they thought we were tee-total perhaps but we managed to pull through and head out on the road to Amritsar which was 30 kilometres away and our destination for the next few days.
The traffic seems calmer after Lahore and less dense and we are relieved at this. Open spaces are all around us and people work in the fields and the whole picture is what most people would expect of India. Soon we were pulling into Amritsar and trying to find the Guest House we had previously looked up on the internet. We ended up in the right road quite easily really but no way could we fathom the numbering system of the houses as it appeared to be completely random. After twenty minutes of driving up and down we eventually pulled up into Ranjit’s Guest House across the most enormous speed hump ever seen which nearly ripped the exhaust off! We thought poor old Bertha had been disembowelled but a check underneath revealed all was well.
We arrange to stay for five nights as we need peace and calm after Pakistan and neither of us are very well. We still cough constantly and get little sleep as we disturb each other with the coughing. It takes several days before we feel anything like normal. During this time it became very obvious the guest house was, in many ways, pandering to a long-ago colonial existence. I am constantly referred to as ‘Maam’ and ‘Madame’ and the whole place is filled with little balconies and bushes and trees and it is an oasis of calm and tranquillity. It was just what we needed after our experiences in Pakistan. You could sit outside on one of the many balconies and relax around the courtyard and let the day wander past in the quiet. We have not sat outside since leaving Karachi as either the security arrangements precluded it or the air itself was thick with dust and pollution. The sun could not break through the yellow haze which permanently hung in the air as we crossed Pakistan.
When we are feeling a little better (about three days later) we went to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar which is the ‘home’ of the Sikh religion. We wash our feet and done our head wear before we can enter through the arched gateway as people throng all around us; we arrived during the celebrations surrounding the birthday of the founder. Music and singing fills the air constantly from the temple and is broadcast through speakers to the surrounding area. We are queue-jumped to the front by attendants and we enter through the small doorway which people drop to their knees and kiss the step before crossing and then dropping to their knees again, this time to kiss the floor. So many people fall to their knees the orange robed attendants have to work hard to keep the doorway free of bodies for others to enter. Personal space does not exist as we step through the doorway and soon we are compressed into a tight corner as the music fills the air.
It seems very small to me in terms of the physical size but perhaps this is just a measure of the comparisons involving grand gothic and massive architecture buildings such as The Vatican or Notre Dam Cathedral which we have visited earlier. It is also true many of the huge classic structures were deliberately made to impress and humble the visitor which the Golden Temple does in a different way being adorned with 24 Caret gold. It really does shine and glisten in the sun according to Bernard. It seems to be very beautiful but very different to what we have previously seen.
As two British people we apologetically wandered through the Martyrs Garden where, in 1919, British troops killed near two thousand unarmed civilians in a hail of bullets as they protested against “the tyranny of British rule.” It is not the first time we have come across the fact our country has been connected with a less than illustrious event in the pages of history in another country. We first came across aspects of this in Greece where works of art and Greek treasures were ‘liberated’ in the past and taken back to London (where they still reside). Bernard describes a European woman to me who adjusts her hair in the mirror of a parked motorbike while carefully moving her designer sun-glasses so that they are ‘just right’ beneath her smoothed fringe. It strikes us as strange she should be this bothered standing in the squalor and dust of the street as she climbs into a rickshaw, again adjusts her sunglasses, then disappears into the horn honking melee.
During our five days at Amritsar recuperating we watched holiday groups fly in and out of the guest house for their two day stop-over and quick sight-seeing before catching trains in their carefully scheduled visits to the highlights of India. We sit and watch the comings and goings and see things they do not see. We see their car drivers – once they all disappear to their rooms – getting their sleeping bags out of the boots and curling up in the cars to try to sleep through the night. Little things and little observations start to dawn on us as we are constantly approached for ‘rupees’. We walk through the streets and rickshaw drivers follow us constantly looking for a fare. People stare at the two strangers meandering through the dust of the streets far off the organised tourist sections. We walk past the wandering cows which are everywhere routing through the piles of rubbish and competing with scavenging dogs looking for their next meal. We sit with a group of rickshaw drivers on the road and one shows us his prized postcards, Christmas cards and letters from a couple in England whom he had pedalled around years before. Little things but treasured experiences sitting in the dust. Couples come and go from the guest house and we had some lovely conversations with people from all over the UK. We even inherited all sorts of medical kit when they were leaving and we were very glad of the anti-diahorrea tablets and the small boxes of tissue papers but we will not go into this aspect!
We even returned to the Pakistan-Indian border and watched the same ceremony from the Indian side as we had from the Pakistan side. Again the cane did its trick and we had a front row seat only feet away from the strutting Indian soldiers.
I was struck by the fact the Pakistan Rangers seemed to ‘play to the crowd’ more than the Indian Rangers who were very ‘British Military’ in their preciseness. Bernard had not noticed this until I pointed it out and then he realised it was exactly true. It’s nice I can still catch him out with my observations!
I even got to feel the ornate hats of the soldiers after Bernard went and asked an officer for a favour which is denied to everybody else; although he had to bend very low down for me to feel as he towered over Bernard!
Bernard tells me he blushed furiously as I felt his uniform. Everybody else who approached the soldier was shoed away by a very fierce voiced sergeant major who was even bigger than the blushing soldier.
As we wander back to bike we are constantly stopped by people who want to take pictures with us and it takes a long time to get back the half mile to the bike sitting in the dark by now! Two other bikes are there and they are seriously loaded up with a huge amount of equipment; much more than we carry for the two of us. Turns out that it is a German and a Swiss biker who appear from the dark to mutter about “Pakistan was shit” and who say to people “You can look but don’t touch!” In India this is about as possible as a snowflake in hell! Meanwhile people ask Bernard can they photograph the bike and can they sit on it at the same time. All requests are agreed as the bike is on stable and solid ground. Its solidly on the centre stand and people shake our hands in thanks as they excitedly take shot after shot.
Meanwhile our Swiss biker stands guard and defends his bike. There will be hundreds of pictures of Bertha all over India after this one session alone! She is becoming a very famous girl in her own right.
The days in Amritsar soon passed and the bike was loaded for the onward journey to Delhi where we had arranged to meet up with George Abraham the founder of Blind cricket. George had contacted us nearly two years earlier when we were in the planning phase and working so hard looking for sponsors. We were actually on the road going through a shake-down run from Land’s End to John O’Groats when our phone rang and it was George; inviting us to visit him and his organisation in Delhi. So it was we turned Bertha south and headed down the country. I say down the country but it did take an hour getting completely lost in the back streets of Amritsar with people falling out of their doors to look at the ‘spaceship’ trundling down four foot wide alleyways! At one point Bernarrd stopped the bike and pointed up and down the ‘road’ and said ‘Delhi’? By the sounds of laughter we guessed this was not the right route! After a fifteen point turn of the bike we bounced our way back retracing our route and found the right ‘road’; although the term ‘road’ should not be understood in the European sense in any way as will become clear in this update!
The two day journey to Delhi involved our first real experience of driving in India and it was to shape our whole experience of the country in many ways. The standard of driving in appalling. Truly appalling. At one point Bernard even asked at a petrol station which side of the road India drives on; the sarcasm was lost on the attendants who answer innocently ‘on left’; to be met with laughter from Bernard who responded ‘Are you sure?’
Cars and trucks pass on the inside, the outside, on the gravel verges. The air is full of the constant honking of horns; huge air horns! People force you over as they pass you; you have no choice but to brake otherwise they will take you out. Trucks and buses come straight at you on the wrong side of the road and expect you to go off-road. The ‘highway’ passes through small villages where animals saunter across the road and people step into it without looking. Rickshaws and tractors pull across junctions without even looking. And all the vehicles have their wing-mirrors folded flat so that they cannot be used. Chaos. Head-on crashes are common.
For the first time ever I experience Bernard and road rage. It was not pretty.
I could hear a car inches off the left-hand pannier at one point and then Bernard’s voice came through the intercom;”Are you a *ucking idiot! Where did you learn to drive, Lahore!”Meanwhile I can feel the bike tugged to the right to avoid the under passing car and I felt the sound of the exhausts reverberate against a solid background on my right. A few hundred yards later we stopped at a rare set of lights and Bernard pulls the bike up and leans sideways. “I’ll *uckin punch you you shithead if you do that again!” The bike wobbled as I heard a hefty thump on metal.
Me and road rage? I have never really been a person for bad tempered outbursts. Anybody who knows me would probably agree as it does take an awful lot before this happens. To be honest I don’t think I have ever experienced road rage before. I am a slow defensive rider and usually very patient. The person in the car did look truly shocked as my boot put a rather substantial dent in his wing; my gloved fist also indicated my displeasure at nearly being shoved into a concrete dividing wall as my only other optional route. Unfortunately, little did I know that this was to set the standard for Indian driving all through the next three weeks. I must admit through I was immensely proud of the huge wheelie I pulled away from the lights; two-up and fully loaded!
The day passed with our frantic introduction to Indian driving and we were relieved to get off the bike at a town called Ambala for the night where we settled in. After we had showered and eaten and climbed into bed our phone rang. So it was we got out of bed, redressed and went to meet Deepak in the restaurant from the Royal Enfield club who organises ‘World Peace’ motorcycle rides through troubled areas. Deepak told us that the Royal Enfield riders had been ringing each other all day to alert each other to ‘the spaceship’ coming their way on the route. We talked through all the journey and arranged to meet the next day at a town further on for local press to perform interviews.
We arrived the next morning only to find a local rider had been killed in a head-on with a truck and all the Enfield Riders where with the family of the man killed. It is very sad really as he had only returned to India about a week earlier from the United States where he had been living for six years. All his friends and everybody in the club had told him not ride a bike so soon due to the massive differences in driving standards; it was too dangerous for him they said this early. However, being a local lad born and raised he probably didn’t realise what those ‘split second differences’ would involve and our perceptions of what other road users will do. So off he set on a friend’s bike and was killed the very first day. It was a very sobering experience for the two of us.
I think if we had landed in India without driving through deteriorating road conditions and driving standards for three months then it doesn’t bare thinking about. If we had come to India straight from England I don’t think it would be possible to just get on a bike and ride. Before India I had a league table of worst driving. Early on I had the Italians at the top (confirmed by other bikers met on route). After crossing the Montenegro mountains I changed to Serbians and after Pakistan I changed to them. India is a hundred times worse than anything encountered in any country – they manage to make the Italian drivers look sensible and considerate. You really can die here very easily.
Deepak and his friends from the club turned up and met us and it was a sombre meeting really and very, very sad. As Deepak said (and Bernard felt as well) when a bike rider dies then we all feel it and we all experience it. It is true and a fact. It is like when we meet other bikers on the road Bernard always says “Drive safe” when we part and I can hear the sincerity in his voice as he says it. after living and experiencing ‘bikers’ for some time now they really are a unique set of people. Kind, helpful and sincere when they meet. They will do anything for each other and will help in any way a fellow ‘biker’. It really is a universal fact about bikers; whether in England or India they will help each other. To give an example. Within minutes of stopping on the Autostrada in Italy with a brake problem months ago who stopped? A motorcyclist. The same has been true everywhere. Even when we stop for a break within seconds it seems a motorcycle will stop and see if everything is fine. Car drivers can sit for ever waiting for help but not if you are on a motorcycle.
So it was that Bertha ended up with her Indian car sticker (one on the windshield and one on the pannier) as Deepak and his friends went off and came back to put the stickers on the bike themselves; it always means a little more when the stickers become a ‘gift’ from a person.
Before parting from the Enfield riders we received an invite to take part in a World Peace Ride through Afghanistan through to Israel in 2010 with everything provided and arranged in advance. We can use either a factory prepared Royal Enfield with a support team from the factory or use our own bike.
We instantly accepted the invitation after all it is not everyday people are presented with such an opportunity! We set off leaving Deepak and his friends waving in the mirrors as we launched into a frantic day of driving towards Delhi and our meeting with George Abraham and the Score Foundation; who are expecting us.
Bernard’s changing. His driving is becoming more aggressive much like it had to become in Lahore to survive. He now undertakes wagons doing twenty miles and hour in the outside lane and carves his way through the traffic following what other drivers seem to be doing. It is an alien driving style as he has to suspend all of his instincts and ‘European’ rules in order to make progress.
The outskirts of Delhi ramps up the traffic to an unimaginable degree of density and danger. Drivers compress five lanes of traffic into two and everybody seeks an extra inch forward. I can touch cars on either side as they creep forward until the bike pannier is virtually resting on the car. There is not an inch to spare anywhere and there really seems to be no margin for error at all as everything is crammed so close together.
While this is going on the roads and road works deteriorate and we crunch over miles and miles of gravel and hardcore in the entry route to Delhi. We follow directions from people who send us all over the city and we end up 25kms in the wrong direction.
It has now dawned on us that distances and time given by people are actually meaningless. “Just straight” can mean anything. “Five kilometres” can mean twenty five! After stopping at a policeman (who is booking motorbikes!) we receive fairly decent directions and, after several phone calls to George, we pull up outside the home of the Score Foundation and Eyeway.Org.
To say we were warmly received is not an understatement. The whole office came to a stand-still and people were genuinely pleased we had travelled so far to come to see them and their work under truly difficult circumstances; as we were to appreciate over the next days.
The Score Foundation is a Nationwide Trust offering an information service through its telephone helpline (the first in India) along with web site provision which can be found at www.eyeway.org. They also produce a Radio programme (Yeh Hai Roshni Ka Karwan – which we did an interview for). The Radio show is akin to the Radio Four programme “In-Touch” hosted in England by the BBC. The Foundation handles emails, letters, telephone calls from the breath and length of the country on questions relating to Employment, education, discrimination, rights and legal provision.
The office is basic and, compared to UK organisations, the contrasts were stark. Little is wasted in terms of imposing edifices and luxuries. Every rupee is directed towards services. There is no waste on this body at all! I had a very long recorded discussion with George about visual impairment to be broadcast on Radio only to find our whole conversation was lost as the record button had not worked properly (according to George who is, by the way, visually impaired himself – enough said!) The sounds of our laughter could be heard through the office about this outcome.
Over the next few days a schedule had been put together by George and a person whom we came to like very much who lost his sight in a motorcycle accident (Siddharth Sharma); who runs a very successful Public Relations Company in Delhi. Sid (as we called him) met George when the first World Blind Cricket Cup was being organised and he became involved in the promotion of the event and discovered he had a talent for public relations (PR). From that point he has not looked back and gone from strength to strength running his own company.
Not only did we have these visits to organisations but also interviews with New Delhi Television and also the Hindustan Times (the largest paper) were also arranged. It certainly was a frantic few days with little rest as we were shepherded from place to place and meeting to meeting.
We were up early and in a car sent from the TV studio for a live interview broadcast at 8am. The interview came after a lot of bad news about robberies, car crashes and the impact of the financial meltdown on India. It was presented that while so much appears to be going wrong, occasionally, there are stories about people who do extraordinary things which are inspirational and should act as a beacon of hope for others. Such was our introduction as India watched the interview about the journey. From the TV studios we moved to the Boy’s school.
We had a wonderful morning at the boys blind school where the pupils were fascinated by the concept of a blind woman going around the world on a motorcycle.
I was very touched to be asked to present Achievement awards at the Assembly and it was very humbling to be considered ‘significant’ enough a visitor to be offered this honour. It was very moving when the children sang and they were so enthusiastic in their vocals.
The funny thing about the visit was when we made our way from the headmaster’s office to the assembly for the presentations. The headmaster got hold of Bernard’s hand and led us (I have Bernard’s arm) to the assembly through the building. In the hall, obviously, Bernard is taking pictures of the proceedings and later on it became apparent something had been lost in the translation; the headmaster had thought Bernard was partially sighted and needed guiding. Now it is true that I have done my best to guide him but, not in a visual way! Bernard, meanwhile, had thought the headmaster was just being friendly.
It was very funny when he realised his error and was very apologetic at the mistake which we just waved away. We had a very long interview with The Hindustan Times at the Score foundation. It seems the ‘celebrity’ reporter Itee Dewan wanted to do the interview herself when the PR company of Sid told the Times of our arrival. It was very interesting as we ranged across our time on the road and several questions were asked about our thoughts and perceptions of Pakistan. In all sincerity we answered that the Pakistan people (from the embassy in Athens through the whole of the country) were fantastic and so kind during our journey. Bernard had much laughter going in the room on several occasions as he went in free descriptive mode on such events as our famous ‘Kosovon Brothel’ experience along with our crossing so many borders and our treatment by different cultures. It was a very good interview and so funny that I’m sure her sides were aching by the time we had finished.
From this interview we set off in a car to the Centre for Blind Women in Delhi and we had a very poignant and touching afternoon with twenty women who asked a massive range of questions about anything and everything. A lot of the questions seemed to be located around relationships and we talked frankly about how we met, how does a sighted person feel about their partner being blind. It interested them greatly about the concept of a blind person having a sighted partner and they wanted to know all about the extent to which blind people in England are married or in relationships with a sighted person. We had been prepared by the female centre manager for the fact that the culture in India negated a sighted / non-sighted relationship and so my own relationship with Bernard would be a real source of interest.
So it turned out to be for the several hours we sat and talked about what it means to be blind in India and England.The girls were all fascinated with the fact that a blind woman can have a relationship with a sighted person and the real closing of that area came when Bernard was asked;”Men do not want you if you are blind, why would you want to be with a blind woman?”I felt Bernard pause for several seconds as he thought of an answer to a very sincere question before he eventually responded;”If you knew Cathy you would not even have to ask that question. “For the first time, but not the last, the women broke into applause.One of the women whom we dedicated this update to in the introduction is called Neena. She spoke candidly of the fact that when her eyesight started to fail through the onset of retinitis pigmentosa her husband promptly divorced her as it was considered she was now of “little use to him.” As quick as a flash Bernard asked did she know what RP really stood for as it actually has two meanings; she shook her head according to Bernard.”RP can also stand for really pretty”.Bernard says her face lit up and she blushed furiously; he later confirmed she was an exceptionally good looking girl.
It was very obvious she spoke and understood English to a high degree and from that point onwards it seemed she gained confidence as many times she asked questions about all sorts of matters concerning being blind in England. We heard stories of young girls loosing their sight through undiagnosed glaucoma and of them being confined in family homes with no prospects of careers or forming relationships as they were considered a poor match in terms of marriage (largely still arranged according to the people we met). Of all the visits we have had this was the one which affected Bernard the most as it seemed they desperately wanted to know that there is something out there for them.
I explained to them my own past and the fact Bernard was not my first sighted partner and that I too ended up alone and unsure about the future. With the loss of my husband Peter after 19 years of marriage and through re-entering education and by, in many ways, reinventing myself I had the opportunity to meet Bernard; so it was I was on the back of a motorcycle riding through India. The over-riding message I tried to send to them was a simple one and I hope not naive when considering the cultural constraints.
Sometimes life presents you with an opportunity. They may be few and far between but they are always there at some point. You should grab these opportunities with both hands when they appear. Never be frightened by change. Make the decision to always take these opportunities as you never know where they will lead or when the next one will come along. You may not end up in a foreign land on the back of a motorbike but the world can be a truly wonderful place; life can be so rich if you have the courage to go out and grab it.
Our conversations went on in many different directions covering diverse topics such as independent living, guide dogs and travelling alone but it always seemed to return to a simple question.
The underlying theme always seemed to return to relationships and the need we all have to have somebody else in our life to share our thoughts and feelings with. It came across very powerfully throughout our whole time at the centre and it left us both very sad and very moved the extent of ‘need’ we could both feel in the room as the afternoon progressed. In India the centre manager said that these women:”Are doubly disabled as they are blind and they are women.”
It is a very powerful statement from a person who knows far more than we what it means to experience sight loss in this newly developing economic engine room of the world. We left the centre subdued in many ways but enormously glad we had visited as it gave us a real insight into what it means to be a woman and blind in India.
The next day we went to visit the Venu Institute which is attached to the local eye hospital. 17-25 year olds study in a residential setting for a year to gain a recognised vocational qualification to enhance their work prospects. Students come from all over India and from Pakistan as well to study at the centre. The curriculum is a mix of vocational preparation, rehabilitation, computer studies and learning English as a second language. George has a monthly motivational meeting with the students and we spent a very pleasant couple of hours being grilled about everything to do with the trip along with the facilities for blind and partially sighted people in the United Kingdom.
The concept of using a guide dog was extensively explored; particularly by the males!
Travelling independently was a major source of conversation and it was interesting to listen to George recount his experiences of travelling in the UK using the Assistance Scheme (‘Journey Care’) run on the railways in the UK. The students were fascinated at the whole concept that I could travel alone from one end of the country to the other and of my use of public transport to get to work every day travelling independently. In many way it was beyond anything they could envisage in India and George commented it will take many, many years before anything approaching this level of support will be available.
After several hours of a free-flowing question and answer session ranging across everything (again the girls asked about relationships) we ended for a very nice lunch provided by the director of the centre. The girls sought me out in the corridor and it was strange they all wanted to shake my hand and have their pictures taken with me. I never did understand why; it was just something they wanted to do. So for the next ten minutes I shook hands and then posed with the girls for a group picture on multiple cameras while the staff snapped away and Bernard smirked in the background (so he later told me).
After lunch we set off back to the Score Foundation offices for a second attempt at an interview to be broadcast on the radio. This time we were very organised and we had Bernard with us to check the lights on the record buttons and Mr. organised had even brought his own digital recorder with him as a backup. It was a very wide ranging interview taking in such aspects as the level of support we have received from UK organisations in the preparation for the journey and while we have been on the road. It was a very wide and comprehensive discussion about my experiences as a blind person crossing the world on a motorbike and he drew Bernard into many of the aspects as my sighted guide and companion. We traversed my early life as a young girl growing up with failing eye-sight, my educational experiences in specialist and mainstream schools, and anything and everything to do with visual impairment we had seen across the fourteen countries visited so far.
From here we moved to another appointment with the Hindustan Times who had arranged for a photographer to meet us to take the necessary pictures for publication. After all of our experiences of Indian drivers and roads it was very funny to see this four foot nothing photographer defying death taking pictures in the middle of the road as we rode up and down the busy street waiting for gaps in the traffic. After the photo-shoot we received an invite from Sid to go and visit a close friend of his Rahul who had recently returned to India after fourteen years in Mozambique. We had a very pleasant evening at Rahul’s which culminated in us being invited to stay at Rahul’s home for our stay in Delhi rather than at a hotel. Needless to say we thought for at least two seconds before accepting his kind invitation.
So it was the next day we packed all our belongings onto the bike from a completely trashed hotel room (thanks to Bernard) and made ready to move locations. Rahul stood and waited with the ranks of watching people as the spaceship was being readied for launch and had a very interesting conversation with one of the men. It confirmed what the girls at the women’s centre had indicated. As Rahul explained about my blindness and the purpose of our journey the man commented;”In India he wouldn’t marry her never mind take her round the world on a motorbike”
When Rahul told us this later it really did confirm the centre manager’s point about being doubly disabled as a blind woman.
For the next three days our evenings were spent talking with Sid and Rahul; sharing our thoughts and perceptions about everything we had experienced so far. It was really good to talk to Sid as I feel sometimes in India that blind people are very isolated and do not have an opportunity to talk through feelings, barriers and problems that we all encounter.
In England I have been very fortunate as I live in a balanced world. I have many friends who are blind but also many with sight. I have never believed a blind person should exist in either/or because it limits and restricts opportunities to live a full and complete life. Some visually impaired people spend the majority of their time amongst blind and partially sighted people and have little opportunity for personal interaction with sighted people. In India I’m not sure to what extent living a balanced existence is possible.
Opportunities to move about on your own also seem so restricted as neither Sid nor George uses a cane but rely on sighted assistance; largely due to the environment. On talking to Sid about this he said if you turn in any direction in India you will find a person to help you. With a population of 1.2 billion this is hardly surprising really! Indeed Sid has, what Rahul calls, a man Friday who is employed as a form of full time domestic help. In India this is actually a way of life for people who can afford it as everybody seems to have what used to call servants who often live in as part of the deal.
Sid was very interested for example, in my colour identifier which I have used for many years to help me match clothes; very difficult if you can’t see them and just another example of independence! We had long conversations about the advantages of using Braille which he had started learning but became frustrated with as he couldn’t develop the speed he wanted to. I understood this frustration as I too learnt it later in life and my own Braille speed is not as fast as friends who learnt it as a child (when I could still see something). Braille is another weapon in the armoury of tools which a blind person, to me, needs. Our conversations ranged far and wide on these evenings.
On the one day we tried to do the sight-seeing thing around Delhi the Egyptian President very inconsiderately decided to visit which meant the Minaret, the Baha’i Temple and the Tomb were all closed to visitors so half our sight-seeing disappeared instantly!
We did have a great afternoon with me going in and out of every single shop in a road called Janpath in Delhi which is famous for its ethnic mix and diversity of clothes, jewellery and artefacts. Needless to say I had to buy something with Bernard wittering on in the background about the fact we haven’t got space for anything more! He did relent, however, at a small Tibetan shop where I bought a necklace for the princely sum of two hundred and fifty rupees (about three pounds). We ate muffins for the first time in weeks and drank vanilla smoothies amidst the hustle and bustle of the road.
We had a really good afternoon at the Red Fort with it’s long history of the Mughal empire and the subsequent invasion and overthrow by the British who stripped many aspects of the fort of its ornate and beautifully crafted gold leaf decorations. These were prised from the walls using bayonets leaving black stains which still show the original pattern left by the glue. Many people became very rich instantly when they returned to England.
Our final day in Delhi involved a very pleasant lunch with George Abraham, his wife Ruper and his youngest daughter Tara. As always VI issues were talked about but this time with the emphasis on Access to Work in the UK; a government funded scheme to aid disabled people into employment. During the lunch we talked of our onward journey to the Taj Mahal and the need for a tactile model for me to appreciate the structural design of the layout. So it was we all ended up in George’s car with his wife horn blowing her way through the traffic to a shop to find a small but very lovely marble model of the Taj Mahal for me to feel; then feeling obligated to buy it! The Taj was consigned to a package which we sent home which also contained leaflets and booklets we have accumulated on our travels. So to was Bernard’s leather jacket which was a gift from the agent in Istanbul. The weather has grown too hot to wear it and so it is carefully folded and packed into the third box sent home so far.
The morning of leaving seems strange as we gather outside Rahul’s to take the inevitable pictures. While we are sad to leave as we have grown very fond of Sid and Rahul you also know when it is time to move on. You can feel it. Bertha calls from where she is parked and she has been calling for a few days now. We have not been sleeping well due to the incessant traffic noise which fills the air all through the night. The horns never stop in Delhi and they constantly wake us through the night – as a blind person Delhi is a wall of noise and you can have little or no independence in the environment.
We follow Rahul’s car through the traffic and it feels good and bad to be on the move again. After several days of being off the bike everything seems harder; the cars seem closer, the horns seem louder, the braking seems heavier and the bike moves more than I remember as we move through the traffic.People blast past us in a wave of horns inches from my legs and I can clearly hear them talking through the open windows of their cars as they are so close. Bernard has gone quiet and I know he is feeling it too. It all seems too frantic and we wave to Rahul as he turns off and we find ourselves alone again heading towards Agra, the home of the Taj Mahal.
The first few hours of travel are very, very stressful and whenever we enter a small town we run the usual gauntlet of animals, cars, pushbikes and rickshaws. The police also have a really annoying habit of putting barriers across part of the road which means all the traffic has to filter into one small gap to get through. It causes big log-jams and we move the bike through the traffic often at such a slow pace that bicycles are going faster. People aim for the smallest spaces and sometimes the bike moves sideways as cars push their way past and the sound of the panniers on the sides of cars startles me.
At one rare traffic light we are surrounded by people within seconds of stopping and the whole junction grinds to halt as people are inches off us as they look at everything on the bike. People get out of their cars and come over to look at us and the whole thing becomes all too much for Bernard and he starts to will the lights to change. People reach into the cockpit of the bike and touch instruments, satellite navigation, the horn is pressed and indicators are flashed by twenty hands. While this is going on street sellers appear and grab at us and try to sell bunches of brown bananas, trinkets and a whole load of other items. In the end Bernard has to use the ‘kill switch’ which disables the engine as the bike is moving with so many people and he is worried we will go over. I can hear him say “Please change, come on, change” in my ears. When the lights change there is a frantic scuttle as people launch themselves back into their cars and we pull off from the section gratefully.
Petrol stops involve the same problems as the whole area comes to a halt when we arrive. We are surrounded by people within seconds of stopping and it is so wearing. We have no space wherever we stop; the whole concept of personal space does not exist. In India petrol stops are not simple affairs. You have to watch the fuel pumps as many do not go to zero and you pay a hundred rupees for nothing (it is a common scam). You have to insist on your change as the attendant will go missing once you hand over a thousand rupee note for your eight hundred of petrol and you stand waiting fruitlessly while everybody nods and smiles at you. All the time fifty people poke and prod at everything on the bike and you are bombarded with the same questions (“How much for this, for that, where you come from, how many miles per litre?”) You end up leaving the petrol station, often, gratefully for the space the road gives you from people. It’s not that the people are intrusive really, it is they are so curious and interested but it can feel enormously invasive.
Sometimes we will search for a section of road where there are no people so we can stretch our legs and it can take miles. We stop and get off and work the muscles. The sound of a lighter, the inhale of cigarette smoke and then Bernard will groan.
People come out of the fields, cars stop beside us, motorcycles stop on the other side of the road, turn round and cross the road to stand and look at us and the bike. The cigarette is smoked quickly and we climb on the bike and flee to try to find some space and the only personal space seems to be on the road, on Bertha and on the move. It makes the days long and often we are on the move far too long and cover far more mileage than we should. People say, other bike riders, 200 kilometres is a good day in India due to the problems yet we can cover over 400 in a day. It leaves us tired and irritated.
The roads themselves are covered in holes which have been in-filled with sand or with branches and bushes and we weave around the ones we can avoid or a quick “Hang on” tells me we are about to hit something we cannot miss. The resounding ‘bang’ and severe jolt as the bikes shudders from the impact and I feel the shocks through my body and I wonder how it feels through the handlebars.
We cross and re-cross the carriageways with diversion after diversion and the ‘road’ to the other side is often a ramp of gravel and loose rock hardcore to connect the two sides. “No problem, just a bit of loose stuff” comes through my helmet and I brace for the shifting and weaving which comes with this sentence. We skip and slide a two-up 400 kilogram motorcycle through the surface which, months ago, would have had Bernard stressing and getting off to walk the road. Now it simply becomes “A bit of loose stuff”.The weather is warm and we carve through kilometre after kilometre of fields which stretch all around us and Bernard describes the homes we pass. They seem little more than canvas shelters or, at best, a mud and brick structure with whole generations of families gathered around the small plot they exist on. Woman carry enormous bundles of branches and straw and we marvel at the toughness and strength of people who live under such circumstances. Poverty is all around as we pass through the highways and sideways of the ‘off-tourist’ routes we travel to Agra.
We enter Agra hours later with Bernard nervously watching the sun setting in his wing-mirrors.
No matter how we try we often arrive in strange towns with the sun setting which puts additional pressure on finding a place to stay before darkness sets in. As bad as driving in the day light is it is ten times worse when we arrive in the dark. We follow the signs for the Taj Mahal and nearly get taken out by a rickshaw who shoots across the road in front of us without any warning to pick up a fare on our left. The bike skids slightly under the heavy braking and I brace myself for whatever is about to happen. The front of the bike dives and I am thrown to the right with the bike as we stop safely with a stream of oaths coming through my helmet. “You goddam idiot, are you trying to kill us you moron!” Bernard describes how the ‘passenger’ leaps into the rickshaw without it even stopping and the driver’s maniacal grin as he turns and looks at us. “Jesus” was the final comment from Bernard as he straightens the bike and we set off again.
We turn off the road and bounce our way down pot holed surfaces and we wonder at the ‘tourist’ image of Agra when the road turns to little more than a farm track through the centre of the town. My companion watches for hotels while keeping us in one piece and we end up right at the Taj before we have to turn around and head back to an area everyone assures us has hotels. Fighting our way around the chaotic roundabouts Bernard eventually sees a hotel which has everything he needs (somewhere for the bike).
We gratefully climb off as staff descend the stairs to welcome us past the wandering cows who live off the rubbish dump on the opposite side of the road. We unpack and settle in but the noise in the evenings is compounded by the fact it is ‘the wedding season’ and the streets resound to loud music as the elaborate processions that make their way up and down the roads to announce the happy event. Little did we know at this point but it would continue throughout the night and it was added to by the constant horn honking and wild packs of dogs barking; unabated and with no rest and no stillness. We found this to be true from this point onwards and no matter where we stayed. The noise levels through the night now had the impact that ear plugs were needed to even stand a chance of sleep.
Agra was our little treat to ourselves in terms of ‘sight-seeing’. After all, it is the place of the Taj Mahal which has a fascinating history but we will save the background for a later date. The Taj itself is a very beautiful building; but then again, you would expect it to be as it is one of the seven wonders of the world. After having bought the marble model in Delhi it was so much easier to appreciate the layout and structure.
We had a lovely afternoon at the Taj and, for the first time, we employed a rickshaw driver for the whole day. The driver was a lovely man and he became our companion for the day and gave us a lot of very useful information as we wound our way through Agra. Dropping us off at the ‘quiet’ South entrance we entered – through tight security screening – the Taj Mahal and wandering through the gardens past the fountains and to the Mausoleum itself.
Many people do not realise the Taj is actually a tomb built by the emperor for his beloved wife who died giving birth to her fourteenth child! He wanted to build something extravagant and it certainly is beyond extravagant. The story of love is ever so slightly spoiled by the little known fact that, on completion, he ordered the hands cut off of the stone-masons who had worked on the structure so that it could never be repeated again.
Even using sight does not testify to the skill of these men according to Bernard who shut his eyes and came to appreciate the smoothness of the flower carvings on the outside of the building.
The Emperor was later imprisoned by his own son in the Agra Fort in a coup and we visited the place of his rooms which looked out across the river to the Taj Mahal. The Agra fort was a great place to visit and a hugely impressive building. We used a guide for our first pass through to get a background to the building. As with a lot of the guides you agree a price and then they argue over it when the tour is over. Sad really as the man was elderly and the whole thing felt a little rushed as he counted the rupees before he had even been paid.
We returned on our own after the guided tour and Bernard read every board and information sheet available in the grounds. We even played like two children at the ‘telephone exchange’ in one of the buildings which allowed people to talk between rooms due to the construction of the walls; you could talk ‘through’ the rooms to people in other sections. The water was also circulated through channels in the walls as a form of air conditioning for the summer; also keeping the water cool against the cold marble surfaces. Again the presence of the British is commented on by all the guides. They point out all the gold-leaf missing and ‘plundered’ by the British when they arrived leaving the tell-tale dark stains where ornate designs were prized off the glue which held them to the walls. I felt the holes where bayonets had dug jewels out of the stone leaving nothing behind but the emptiness of lost beauty. The Indian restoration project has replaced many of the jewels with coloured glass to try to re-establish what once was.
It is also interesting to note we learned that once the ex-emperor was imprisoned within the fort he had to hold a diamond to his eye as he had a sight defect and the stone allowed him to bring his beloved Taj Mahal which represented the resting place of his love into focus. He sat for the eight years of his imprisonment with the diamond to his eyes looking at the monument to his love for her until his eventual death and subsequent internment beside his beloved within the structure itself.
He would have been very saddened to hear the level of noise within the Mausoleum. The whole thing felt wrong to me but it seemed to reflect India. Even the attendants were blowing whistles to keep people moving and attract the banned camera user’s attention (all forbidden within the structure). The hard marble surfaces bounced sounds in a cacophony of noise which was painful to the ears after a short time.
We arrive back at the hotel after a very long tiring day to find we still have no hot water. Now one of the things you need in India is a hot shower. The dust and dirt and sweat sticks to you. It is oppressive some days and a hot shower is the only thing which works really. It is now day three at the hotel and still we have no hot water. Bernard has been despatched to the front desk by me on numerous occasions about this without any apparent success. What follows is his final attempt to resolve the distinct ‘lack of hot water’.
Bernard – “You remember I told you my wife will kill you today if we still have no hot water?”
Manager – “Sir?”
Bernard – “Have you settled your affairs and made your will?”
Manager – “You want hot shower sir, I turn boiler on!”
Bernard – “No, no, you can turn boiler on, but no hot water comes.”
Manager – “Hot in five minutes”
Bernard – “It might be hot, but not in our room”.
Manager – “Maybe ten minutes sir, you want me to turn boiler on?”
Bernard – “You do not understand!”
Manager – “Understand sir, want shower, I turn boiler on. You have cigarette and water will be hot.”
Bernard – “it will not be hot!”
Manager – “yes, yes, very hot.”
Bernard – Bangs head on desk in true Fawlty Towers fashion much to alarm of manager and staff.
Manager – “So sir, you are saying water will not be hot?”
Bernard – (lifting head off desk) “Praise the Lord, you understand!”
Manager – “I will turn boiler on for you”
And so it went on. In the end, as I waited very patiently, the staff delivered a very big bucket of hot water to the room with a very satisfied smile he insisted Bernard put his hand in the bucket to check the water was truly hot and a big “Problem solved?” grin appeared on his face.
We sat in the room and looked at each other and just started laughing as he looked at us puzzled. We couldn’t help it. The staff must have heard us for a long time as we sat and giggled. We gave up and just accepted. It is India.
We get up at 6am and leave Agra to escape before the traffic reaches critical mass and we are on the road at 6.45 in the fog and life is so much easier as we do not have to dodge the hundreds of missiles coming at us from every direction. Even the bad roads do not seem as bad as we are not competing with other users for the ‘no pothole’ route!
The road out of Agra soon leads us to a much more rural India than we have so far experienced and we stop to let troops of monkeys cross the road and we gently slow down to work our way around them as they groom each other in the morning light. We stop and Bernard describes a man who is on a small motorcycle throwing fruit to the monkeys as they scamper across to pick it up from near him before running back to their family groupings. Youngsters cling to their mothers as they congregate around the ‘breakfast’ giver and there is the excited chattering of dozens of them in the air as we sit and listen. The mist (or smog) is very heavy and reminds us of England a long time ago and it rolls across the road limiting our speed. It also makes missing potholes very hard and we clatter and rattle through many of them no matter how hard Bernard tries to avoid them; they just suddenly appear as the road surfaces abruptly changes without any warning.
We fairly blast blast along as the mist clears and the plan is stop at a place called Kanpur which is roughly halfway to our destination of Lucknow as we have decided to leave India and go to Nepal by the shortest route possible while also sticking to the major highways (Rule number 3).
It all starts to go badly wrong as we enter Kanpur and we follow the Lucknow signs down off the highway into traffic hell. Space on the ‘road’ is at a premium and everything seems to think we can do what a 100cc bike can do i.e. get out of their way! We climb over speed bumps the size of Everest and often the bottom of the bike grounds on them – no matter what speed – with a loud bang which you can feel through the foot-pegs. No quarter is given in this environment and the number one rule is ‘keep the wheels moving’. If you stop, you will find it hard to get moving again and so we approach junctions and underpasses with the intention of not stopping. It is very dangerous and very scary to ride this way but there is no other way in India – it is what everybody does and to ride any other way is actually more dangerous as nobody expects anybody to stop!
The Indian wagons are inches of us as we try to find the road to Lucknow with the intention of stopping for the day somewhere. We fight our way through this heaving mass of metal and follow the signs before ending up back on the ‘highway’ with no signs for Lucknow. In the end we went through this hell three times before finding the barely visible sign which had been obscured. It was only when we started to follow the wagons (our friend Gordon in Athens advised this and we heard his voice in our heads saying “Always follow the wagons”). Only then did we succeed in finding the route to the NH25. Thank you Gordon.
Unfortunately it was not before we ended up in a tangled heap at a junction in the middle of all this moving carnage. As we entered a junction with vehicles coming from all directions a rickshaw driver came from our right and Bernard made a choice – hit the rickshaw or lay it down. So it was we ended up with our very first – but very gentle – meeting of the ground as he managed to virtually stop the bike sideways before we fell off! We were instantly surrounded by people who stood and watched with the – now stopped – wagons inches off the bike. Bernard instantly turned to me and reassured me everything was fine and we were perfectly safe before doing anything else.
Two police (supposedly managing this traffic) came over and helped Bernard pull the bike upright as petrol poured over the ground from the tank. They wanted him to clear the junction straight away but he refused to push the bike to the side as he mimed and explained my blindness which meant he could not leave me to do this (I would have to come first). They understood straight away and waited while he reattached dislodged equipment and climbed back on the bike before I too took my place back on the seat. By now hundreds of people were around us and we nudged people out of the way with the front wheel before stopping a hundred yards up the road. The lighter clicked and clicked several times as Bernard calmed himself down with the effects of nicotine. At times like this I wishes I smoked as my hands shook as much as his did! Fortunately we were unscathed but just a little shaken by the experience.
We set off again and ended up in even worse road conditions as diversions took us over unsurfaced roads thick with dust and slow moving traffic. We went through a busy market as part of the diversion which was gravel surfaced and stone chips flew in all directions from the hundreds of wagons all around us. It was a snail’s pace and, for Bernard, physically exhausting keeping the bike upright in spaces involving inches between vehicles and slower than a walking pace. We could not stop at Kanpur as it was impossible for Bernard to watch for Hotels, the traffic, the bad roads, and keep us alive. So we ended up going further on all the time looking – when possible – for a stop for the night.
We found our way to the NH25 eventually which led to Lucknow and resigned ourselves we had to travel further and keep looking. Bernard’s second real ‘road rage’ occurred shortly after fighting through all of this and getting the bike to the NH25; approaching the rear of a car following behind a wagon on a dual carriageway. He moved the bike over to overtake while (he told me) watching the driver in his central mirror to make sure eye contact was made. Just as he reached the back of the car and accelerated to over-take, the car pulled out. The only thing I knew was the bike was launched sideways and I was forced back with the acceleration.
I had a choice. Brake hard and probably still hit the car or accelerate hard and aim for the gap between the car and the barrier. It was just one of those choices bikers make every day. The bike shuddered and a massive wobble occurred as I threw it right and then left to round the car. We missed him, but only just. As I pulled in past the wagon he passed me and scowled at me. I went nuts. I punched my wing-mirrors and hurled abuse at him through his open window “use your *uckin wing mirrors, you bloody idiot, it’s what they are there for” as I looked at the mirrors folded flat against the side of the car. I could willingly have got off the bike and assaulted him – or tried to. I was pumped up and completely furious.
He drove off and we pondered on the side of the road what had happened as I waited for Bernard’s adrenaline to work its way through and out of his system. The day continued in the same vein with unremitting pressure and stress.
The road from Agra to Lucknow was my worst experience to date. It had all of the madness of Lahore and Delhi. It had shocking roads which declined when you thought it could not get worse along with the lunacy of Italian drivers all rolled into one package. There was no road, there was gravel, hardcore, dust, traffic and it all leaves your heart pounding in your chest. By the time we get to the outskirts of Lucknow road rage is boiling again and I hate everything to do with India. I want out.
We pull up exhausted and emotionally drained after 280 miles reaching Lucknow. The hotel staff paid the price as Bernard was brutally honest about the food and the hotel itself within an hour of arriving. After savaging the restaurant staff for the food (at not a cheap hotel as it was the only one we could find!) the room was invaded by the noise of an extremely noisy wedding celebration. Bernard fairly bounced down to the reception and could not restrain himself as he demanded a room change and refused to pay the stipulated costs to be kept awake all night. Needless to say, the room was changed and people walked about him warily from that point onwards. We fall asleep to the sounds of Indian car horns and wedding parties caressing the night air; both of which are vaguely muffled by ear plugs.
As we sat in the hotel in Lucknow and tried to make sense of what is happening to us we talked for hours about events. It became apparent during these conversations the Indian use of the horn is their way of letting everybody know they are there. This is why they pull out without looking. They are not looking because they are listening. If they hear no horn, they pull out. The horn is the signal to them. Thus it was I gently broached this with Bernard and he started to practice the movement of his left thumb for when we returned to the road. When we first left Lucknow (again incredibly early for Bernard!) his first attempts were very ‘British’ with a little ‘beep, beep’. It was a very apologetic attempt at being Indian which rapidly – over the day – became as loud and boisterous as anything on the road. He beeeeeped anything and everything. If it moved he blew his horn. If it didn’t move he blew his horn. He actually started to feel at home and only slightly concerned at whether his horn was actually loud enough – he felt perhaps that the two Fiam Horns were not quite masculine enough and needed extensions; much like most of the Indian drivers.
The Road to Gorakhpur
When we left Lucknow we had decided enough was enough and we needed to get out of India before it killed us. I am not over-stating this fact we really did think India would kill us. Bernard, by now, is feeling sick getting on the bike and he does not want to ride at all. He actually feels physically sick as he prepares the bike for leaving and he confesses it has been this way for many days. It’s time to leave and we decide to head – by the shortest route – to Nepal.
Our first attempt is blocked as we take the NH28C North only to find trucks stuck in deep sand and so we return to the NH28 and head towards a place called Gorakhpur which has a north bound route out of it to Nepal. The road signs are of little use to us as Bernard cannot read them and he uses a combination of compass and map to find a way onwards! If we thought previous days had been hard, this one was to prove savage, truly savage and we still wonder how we managed to get through it in one piece.
Bernard is now in ultra defensive mode on the roads and he uses cars, trucks, anything to act as a shield in front of him. People do drive their cars, wagons and buses on the wrong side of the road constantly (single lane or dual carriageway it does not matter). He has now taken to pulling over and waiting for something to pass him before he tails them and lets them take the brunt of the oncoming traffic. The day is spent with everything bad about Indian roads (or no roads) on what is supposed to be the National Highway.
About 50kms short of Gorakhpur the road stops and we are diverted off the highway and we descend into a lunar landscape which looked impossible for a road bike with limited ground clearance – I think it will rip the bottom of the engine off. The road looks like thousands of mortar-bombs have gone off in it. It is like an air force has bombed it using runway busters. The potholes are close together and there is no route which does not involve closely packed potholes. The wagons bounce up and down at 10mph as they chuck up white dust in our faces and you cannot ride a road bike in these conditions. You have to bash through them. You cannot ride slow as the traffic is too dense and the bike too heavy to control as you are launched up and down through the holes. The only way is to drive quicker than you think you can and it is this momentum, or forward motion, which allows you to go from pothole to pothole. While we are bashing through this landscape, four by fours are beeping their horns so that they can pass you 2mph quicker than you are travelling. Wagons doing 12mph want to pass wagons doing 10mph and everybody wants to get past us as we hammer the bike through these conditions. The shocks and jolts are truly tremendous and I cannot believe we will get through this without coming off. It felt like it went on for ever and ever and would never end. I still cannot work out how we stayed alive in this. It took us 9.5 hours to do 180 miles. This fact alone tells the story of the road conditions. My hands were numb and every muscle in my body was hurting with the shocks and bangs of the bike through this environment. Physically it was torment as it was like riding a bucking jackhammer all day while keeping clear – by inches – of the vehicles all around us. It was motorcycling hell and unless you have done it it is impossible to describe really. It was on this road I discovered I was feeling every year of my age.
I hated it. I absolutely hated it. It was the most frightening thing I have ever encountered. Every second for hours on end imagining crashing. Every second imagining wagons hitting us and running over us. Every bang indicated we were coming off. I was constantly braced and everything hurt, my head, my neck, my ears from the obsessive horn blowing sometimes inches off us. I was truly frightened and willing it to end for hours and hours. As bad as I felt I knew the front must be truly horrendous to try to manage the bike under these inch-perfect conditions. I knew there was no room at all as I could hear the traffic and the bouncing of the wagons all around us. Bernard could not speak for a long, long time and all I could do was imagine. I didn’t like what I was imagining. I wanted to scream “stop the bike, stop the bike, I want to get off”. I kept quiet as I knew if stopping was possible he would have done it; even just to take a picture which he never did as it was too dangerous. Therefore I knew it was not safe to stop and we would both have to endure it to the end.” Bernard tried to lighten our experiences at one point as we crashed through the potholes with a typical comment of “Have you still got all your fillings in your teeth?” Retribution is a wonderful thing as a few kilometres down the road the bridge on his top left teeth fell out! That soon taught him sometimes humour should be used in a more guarded way and he shouldn’t tempt fate! Now when he smiles he has two broken teeth and a gap to show the world of what the road to Gorakhpur did to him.
We eventually arrived in Gorakhpur completely destroyed; emotionally, physically and psychologically. We were safe but we didn’t feel it. We followed a very kind young man on a scooter who led us directly to a hotel and we do not even know his name but we were so thankful for this act of kindness as we had absolutely nothing left.
We stumbled into the hotel and collapsed in all senses after this day. Indeed it took us many days to get over it and it is only now (in Nepal) that we are truly able to relax and the nightmares have stopped about wagons running over my head in a wave of blasting air horns.
I sat in the middle of the floor of the hotel room staring at the ordered bottle of beer in front of me and I was completely finished. I was numb physically and emotionally. In many ways I felt psychologically destroyed. As I sat and stared at the still untouched bottle Cathy called from the bedroom that she needed something. I couldn’t move. I really couldn’t move. Nothing functioned. Eventually I found my voice and called to her “Give me just ten minutes, just ten minutes of selfishness, please just leave me be.” For the first time I had no will-power and it was very hard to handle. She left me alone.
For days after this 180 miles the slightest thing made me jump. Any sudden noise and I would startle like a frightened rabbit as we waited in Gorakhpur for the memory to fade.
I didn’t want to be left alone at all and cannot face the prospect of getting on the bike; the same is true of Bernard. We are completely emotionally shattered and very very tired as the degree of stress meant we could not sleep well but only fitfully.
It was at this point that we were both now completely in agreement; out of India as fast as possible by the safest route. We were now so paranoid about road conditions we hired a taxi to take us through part of one of the suggested routes to the border with Nepal. We checked and rechecked Maps and information on the internet; in many ways feeding our own paranoia with more and more unanswered questions. Little things are now starting to impact on me such as being approached in the car park of the hotel by a group of men and one says to Bernard:
Bernard has heard this comment before and he always responds by pointing at me and saying:
“She is an even greater woman.”
It tickles me when he says this but, underlying this, I feel annoyance at this comment.
I feel annoyed as what they appear to be saying is that:
“She is blind and a burden, why do you do this?”
Bernard, in his more naive moments, takes it to mean:
“You’ve brought a bike all the way from England”
I don’t think the comment is meant in this way. It has happened on numerous occasions in Pakistan and India (and even in Nepal where we now wait for Christmas). It is like Neena said in Delhi, because you are blind some people consider you are of no use or cannot contribute in any meaningful way.
We will never know what is in people’s hearts when they make this point but, in many ways, this journey is to challenge that perception itself as we meet people on the road, in cafes, hotels or petrol stations.
It is what we do every day away from the Newspaper interviews, TV or radio which makes little inroads into people’s thoughts about what a blind person can do. Like everything else in life, we all have to start with the little things and bigger things can start to change.
After a few days we felt well enough to leave Gorakhpur and head on the road to Nepal. Both of us were very nervous about getting on the bike but it was a case of ‘no choice’. It had to be done. Fortunately, the road held apart from little sections but the very early start again aided us as traffic was light and we bounced down the fog covered roads unscathed.
Passing people would have thought we had won the lottery.
In many ways, we had.
It was the lottery of driving a motorcycle in India which means you can live or die very easily and without knowing.
It is a lottery we survived and never want to experience again.