India; a second opinion and a small disaster

Rural India
Rural India; warm, humid but otherwise good cycling

This post describes my lowest moment in India, I urge you to read it in context, India was an amazing place to cycle through but not without some significant challenges. Challenges due, almost entirely, to sever inner city pollution, coupled with the respiratory nature of cycling:

‘I feel sick.’ That was what I thought after a week of India. I didn’t eat anything bad, I didn’t have food poisoning (although Ellie wasn’t so lucky). It was the pollution, it was the heavy, yellow, suffocating stench of half combusted diesel. The longer Ellie and I stayed in Mumbai the more our health deteriorated. After a week we felt weak on the bikes, running was strenuous and even walking up a few flights of stairs left us feeling dizzy and headachey – I never usually get headaches. Once, after climbing about six flights of stairs with Ellie in Bandra we reached the top flustered and breathing heavily. Ellie and I hesitated at the top and caught each other’s eye, our expression was identical; a mixture of concern, surprise and mild embarrassment. This wasn’t normal at all. India was killing us, or I should say the cities were killing us. As fantastic as India is the big cities like Mumbai really do have a serious pollution problem.

Ellie in the pouring rain
Ellie in the pouring rain (late monsoon in 2012)

Cycling out into rural India was the least healthy activity I’ve ever engaged in. The ride took hours, I was hungry, I was tired, I started to feel very, very sick, I was coughing up the same type of substances that are released from the exhaust of a tuk-tuk and for the first time on a cycle tour I was close to tears. It was one of my least favorite moments. Every vehicle that passed bought a new wave of thick fumes, honked its horn, ogled at us for a moment and then slowly, painfully passed us; their old and exhausted engines, strained and protesting at the magnitude of their overloaded cargo, struggled to go faster than us on the bikes prolonging the amount of time we were subjected to noxious fumes. Then, as they struggled away; ‘BEEEEP!,’ sometimes shouting and other carnage and then, just as we’d breath a sigh or relief, the next truck would pull up alongside us and the farce would continue with yellow fumes whipping around the bikes like some strange aerodynamic wind-tunnel experiment.

Ellie's broken derailer
Ellie’s broken derailer after being grabbed by her spokes

We did make it into rural India eventually and it was beautiful, the cycling was good, the views were amazing and the air was much cleaner. A couple of days in and Ellie and I were getting into a stride, riding south towards Goa. Our lungs had almost recovered from Mumbai, the population density was lower and despite a late monsoon season dampening the second half of everyday things looked set to improve. However, four days in and after another monsoon evening and subsequent damp morning Ellie’s bike self destructed. As she climbed up a steep hill and changed into her lowest gear, the derailer , that presumably had taken a knock at some point, got too close to her wheel. The spokes of the wheel snagged on the derailer pulling it backwards and eventually upside down, snapping it off completely and leaving it wedged between her rack and wheel. Game over.

we stopped the first van we saw and negotiated passage to the next town
we stopped the first van we saw and negotiated passage to the next town

I carry plenty of spares on the bike and can jury rig almost anything but this was one problem too far, even if I could have made a temporary fixed gear out of her bike the hills were too steep to tackle without a full range of speeds. The rest of the day consisted of throwing our bikes on top of a van, being overcharged for the privilege, catching two trains and finally a taxi back to our Couch-Surfing hosts house in Bandra West, Mumbai and planning out departure to Australia.

It wasn’t the most golden travel experience to date, but a worthy challenge and excellent experience all the same. These are the character forging parts of travel.

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