In November 2008 my teenage son Sam and I reached India, having already cycled around 5,000miles from Ireland. Due to increased terrorism outbreaks we had been unable to cycle into Pakistan and had decided instead to fly from Iran down to Kerala (we had previously only planned to cycle through Northern India only via Amritsar and Rajasthan). This detour made up for the distance we had missed in Pakistan and proved to be our favourite part of the whole 10,000-mile journey. It was an overwhelmingly beautiful experience from day 1, despite arriving in a deluge of rain. Cycling away from Kochi's (previously known as Cochin) tiny ramshackle airport, we immediately found ourselves drenched and with our wheels sinking into a muddy, potholed road.
"Be careful Sam," I called out, "this is prime puncture territory!"
Sam did not take kindly to what he saw as a suggestion that he had not already considered this and he was therefore pretty crestfallen when he indeed succumbed to a puncture about 10miles from Fort Kochi. Nothing, however, could dampen our spirits about being in India. Beauty and intrigue surrounded us. Lush fields, trees and crops stretched to the horizons. Colourful huts with small naked children splashing in puddles lined the road. Calm, smiling people carrying produce to or from markets took the trouble to wave and call after us. This was very special.
The overwhelming sense of beauty remained undiminished during our whole two-months in India. The people were lovely and there was so much to interest us in this busy, multi-faceted country, yet at the same time it was tough. Sometimes very tough. The roads ranged from bad to appalling. Stomach upsets sneaked up on us just when we thought we had become hardened to the diet. The traffic in the cities and the behaviour of drivers throughout India was tragicomic and the state of some guesthouses seemed like a film-set exaggerated beyond belief but we loved it for all these flaws. It attacked our senses from the moment we woke until the moment we fell asleep – even in our dreams in fact.
That first day in the rain, we sat at the side of the muddy road, trucks showering us with filthy water, and thought about trying to repair Sam's puncture. There was no way we could do it there, we realised. We pumped it up and rode half a mile before it went down again. This continued for about three miles until eventually the rain gave way to sun. Things looked rosier. Walking for a while, we were spotted by an old man sitting on a box at the roadside.
"Puncture-wallah!" he called to us. "Acha sahib, come come!"
We wheeled the bikes over aware that we were probably about to be ripped-off. We had grown somewhat suspicious during our journey so far. I pointed to the flat tyre.
"Puncture. How much?" I asked
The man wobbled his head. I was aware of this body language.
The puncture-wallah stood up and began removing heavy tools from his box. They were crude and looked more suited to truck mechanics. In the box I could also see a large tube of vulcanising solution and an array of butchered parts. He began removing the tyre.
"Please be careful," I said.
Quickly and deftly the man removed the innertube and located the puncture. In no time he had made a patch from a section of old tube and began roughing it up with a file. The job was completed with a soft mallet which he used to make sure of a good bond, before replacing the tube and tyre. I pumped it up. It was fine.
"Thank you so much," we said. "How much?"
The man rocked his head again. "As you like, sahib."
Nothing I said would make him give me a price. In my pocket I had some change. Having just arrived I was not sure of the exchange-rate. I held it out in my palm and the man nodded. I poured it into his palm and he smiled graciously. 50 Rupees. I was not sure how much that was worth, but I was sure it couldn't be much. Later at our guesthouse I realised 50 Rupees was only around 60p ($1). Despite the fact that the tyre had now gone down again, I felt this was a bargain, until the guesthouse owner told me 10 Rupees was the going rate!
After nearly a week in Fort Kochi, Sam and I were eager to discover more. We headed off into the hills inland. These soon gave way to mountains with stunning tea plantations, where the riding was hard. We had plenty of adventures in this area, which are all documented in detail in our book, Long Road, Hard Lessons. There is a bit of film taken on the road from Munar (Kerala) to the Yellapatty Dam.
After the mountains we headed back to the coast and up to Goa, where we took a well earned rest in a beachside thatched hut for 10-days. From there we headed up into Marharastra and Mumbai, just in time for the Mumbai Siege. We were held up in a village south of Mumbai until the siege was over and we cycled into the city the following day to see the Taj Hotel still partly on fire with bullet holes in nearby cafe walls.
"Get out of here," an Australian bank worker screamed at us, "It's not safe here!"
But we stayed. We loved it and were sad to move on.
Continuing from Mumbai we made our way via the picturesque city of Udaipur, through Rajasthan and up to Delhi, where we met my wife and younger daughter. They stayed with us for Christmas and New Year, travelling around Rajasthan along with some friends. Sam and I were sad to set off towards Varanasi and Calcutta without them. It was on our way to Varanasi that we passed through Uttah Pradesh – an area we had been warned to avoid. People were unused to foreigners here and everywhere we went – especially in rural areas – we were surrounded by groups of men and boys asking questions. On one particular day we had spent hours cycling in deep mud where the road had been diverted and I was exhausted. As we pulled over to look at the map, Sam saw a large group of young men outside a shop heading towards us. This had already happened a number of times that day and I was totally fed up with it.
"Oh dear," Sam muttered. "Keep calm Dad."
My temper was not good but I was doing my best to remain calm. These guys meant no harm I was sure, but I could do without more inquisition at this moment. They arrived and the questioning began.
"You are American sir? No, Germany? Italy?"
"England," Sam replied. "We are from England."
One man pointed to Sam's bicycle. "Cycle? Is this a cycle?"
"Yes," said Sam, "It's a cycle."
"No, no I don't think it is cycle," said another. "Petrol?" The man pointed at the water bottle.
"No," said Sam,"water."
Another young man pointed at the rear panier. "Motor?"
"No, luggage," said Sam, opening it to reveal some dirty washing.
"Friend?" said another young man, pointing at me.
"Papa-ji," I said, "Father. I am the father. He is my son."
"Where is your Mercedes?" asked another man. "Why do you ride cycle – you are rich man?"
And so the conversation continued until we managed to move on. Like all Indians they were kind and well meaning, but I felt glad to escape their questioning and equally glad to be out of the mud. Five miles further on, however, stopping to buy water from a shop, we were surrounded by more inquisitors as we were having a refreshing drink from the bottle. Quickly the crowd around us grew until there were twenty or thirty of them, clamouring to get close to us and to examine our bikes. I became exasperated. Anticipating the usual questions, I dismounted from my bike and somewhat theatrically began a pre-emptive spiel.
"Good day dear fellows, my name is The Doctor. This is my trusty assistant, Sam."
Sam was staring at me. He looked worried. The audience looked on, wide-eyed and fascinated.
"Dad, have you completely lost your mind?" muttered Sam, quietly.
I continued. Showing them the bicycles I began pointing out the various parts.
"These are time machines. We have travelled here from another realm of time you see." I pointed to my bar-bag. "This is a warp accelerator. It is powered by plutonium. Can I buy plutonium around here?" I pointed to the grocery shop.
"No sir," said one man. They all shook their heads.
"My brother can find it for you, Doctor sir," said another man. "Yes, yes, it is very expensive but he can obtain for you a good discount."
After a few minutes of this drama, my exhaustion overtook me and the performance had to be brought to a close. The men of the village waved after us as we left. Unfortunately I was unable to perform the disappearing tardis trick but they seemed adequately impressed with the bikes nonetheless.
"Dad I think you need a day off," said Sam. "For a moment back there I thought you might end up being carted off to an Indian asylum!"
Arriving in Calcutta (now called Kolkata) a week or so later, we knew we would soon leave India behind. It was a sad thought, but we knew we would come back. Thailand would be great but India had truly won our hearts.
The full story of this 9 month expedition can be read in our bestselling book 'Long Road Hard Lessons.' available on-line at Amazon and Smashwords as well as in Waterstones and other bookshops in Great Britain.