India

no relief...

It has been hard to cross India... In fact, it has been hard appreciating, discovering, traveling in India. To be honest, we almost wanted to leave India as we entered it and, as we write these words from Lahore, Pakistan, we are indeed quite happy to have left India behind us.

Words and thoughts we are not comfortable with. However, despite all our efforts, we keep of these country memories of sweat, noise, crowds barely letting you breathe, mayhem and discomfort. From our bicycles, we have to had to build ourselves shields to protect ourselves: from the crowds, the crazy traffic, the dogs, the beggars... We are suddenly facing a reality that is hard to bear - even to accept - , throwing to our faces so many of the illnesses of our world: poverty, lack of hygiene, education, healthcare... In other words, we are experiencing the "thirld world" , this term no one wants to us anymore, at a great scale. This reality is even less bearable because we do not know how to react. We are confronted, every hour of every day, to the Indian system of castes. So unfair, based on inequalities between the different levels of society. A system that seems so anchored, so un-changeable, un-movable. No less than modern slavery, this system shows us its face every day, with no shame or second thoughts whatsoever. Everyone reproduces on the ones belonging to the caste below them the sufferings, the disrespect, the contempt that themselves get from the caste above them (particularly true at the bottom of the caste system). We are repulsed by this system, so rigid and so reproduceable from one generation to the next. We would like to kick it in the face, if only it was possible to move or change things this way. We find it hard to appreciate "the moment" in India, because, so often, these little signs remind us of the harsh reality of the caste system. In India, before being a man or a woman, one is a name, the one of a caste. And everything else comes from that name. When we are having tea for example (one of so many!), how can we appreciate the lovely conversation we are having with the owner of the teahouse, when in the same breath he treats the young boy cleaning our cups and working for him like an animal...?

Of course, we have enjoyed having a conversation with upper caste Indians, the only ones we have met who spoke English. Some of them, like this woman, the owner of a restaurant who offers us her lawn in the back of the restaurant so we can camp (a precious green patch in India!), some of them like her speak to us about their country and the need to make education of ALL Indians the 1st priority. It is fair to say as well that some things are changing in India. The government is trying to put in place positive discrimination measures, so that the people out of the caste system or at the lower levels of it can also decide of their future... But still, from our bikes (and we are very aware that from our bikes, the India we discover is only a certain part of India, this country being so diverse), on the roads of India, the reality we are faced with seems so rigid and stable, "unshake-able". We find it hard to imagine real, massive development in India - although some tangible signs of development are clearly visible - without the end of the caste system. But it is not just about decreeting the end of it at government's level, from the top. It is in the minds and veins of this country's inhabitants that this system has lived, for so long...

Apart from the caste system, there is the traffic of course... Exhausting if we want to be positive, extremely dangerous would be more accurate. On the road, there are a few policemen from time to time, but there are more there to add to the scenery than anything else it seems. The problem is quite simple: these people, especially the bus drivers, drive like mad, or like cows (you choose). On top of that, life seems to be a concept that does not weigh much around here... So to run over a cyclist or 2, or a bloke on his cart and donkey is not really a deterrent. We do not give up and ride, with determination, one lane out of the 2 lane road (2 lanes going both ways). It seems this is the only way to get the vehicles to slow down and not to run us over. The drivers seem surprised, not so used to cyclists more stubborn than them! And as we enter Sikh country (going accross the Punjab province, north/east of Delhi) they are even less used to see a woman as stubborn as them! In a men's world, but really a men's world, Yvoine does not give up and keep on screaming the roadcode to these people who have forgotten the bases of it. And if that is not enough, Mike adds another layer, threatening... To cut a long story short, we are now safely in Pakistan, and, surprise, on the road here, the buses, trucks and other vehicles leave us a bit of room when they pass us and slow down if there is no room...

The heat too has been a challenge. Our thermometer soaring over 50 degrees, under a harsh sun! Usually, we get on our bikes before sunrise (but not to early though, given the dangers waiting for us on Indian roads... traffic being even busier at night than it is during the day to avoid the worst of the heat). We then try to stop late morning, if possible, before it gets too hot. Everytime we stop, around 100 people (at least!) instantly surround us. We realise pretty quickly that the concept of "personal space" is not the same to everyone. One becomes claustrophobic in these conditions: the crowds closing in, the incredible noise, always, the heat that weighs down on us like if a lead or steel ceiling was collapsing on our heads, the smells... In these conditions, you understand how welcomed the first monsoon rains are. They start as we reach northern Punjab. We are wet to the core, but the rains bring the temperatures back down to 25 to 30 degrees, and get the crowds to run away to find shelter...

Despite all of this, we will still keep a few good, happy or charming memories of India. A country so diverse, with so many different faces, moving forward and changing. The marvellous "maharadjas" on their scooters fascinate us of course: all these turbans and those big beards... We feel like we have arrived in the middle of a 1001 nights tale! Or our first breakfast with Ali Baba himself, whom we duly see bless with incense his scales, his till, his account book and his power box! After all, if the scales weigh right, the till gets and keeps the money in, the accounts get entered in the book properly and the power goes, if indeed all of this happen, so then today would have been a good day! Or again, another memory: the one of this guard, a riffle in his hands, who offered us melons. And of course, we cannot forget this little guy who, standing on top of a load of mangoes on his cart pulled by a couple of oxes bigger than Mike (yes, you read right), throws us a few of his wonderful fruit...

And finally, how can we possibly forget this very special moment, listening to the Sikh songs in the silence and cool of the night, as we sit along those magnificent marble alleyways, admiring the "Golden Temple" in Amritsar, the most sacred place to the Sikhs? It is so good to see that 24 hours a day, all year around, this sacred place, this religious building welcomes, without discrimination, men, women and children, preparing some 30000 meals a day and offering accomodation for the night to whoever needs it. We do not feel that foreign in this atmosphere where people come to meet and meditate. And we leave India on a positive note...

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