Trip Archives: Around the Indian Ocean

Eleven months of traveling in 2008/2009, roughly around the Indian Ocean, taking in South Africa, Madagascar, Reunion, Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia, and India. I cycled about 7000km on this trip, and aditionally hitch-hiked, sailed, and traveled by car, train and container freighter.

Departure

Took a cab to the Airport. Security is super-tight there. Non-travellers are not allowed inside the check-in hall. They have to obtain a visitor’s permit and stay in a separate waiting area. The check-in luggage got screened directly after entering.

British Airways was good for a laugh. There’s no extra fee for taking a bike on the plane. However, the bike box counts as over-sized luggage and they charge 25 British Pounds for that.

At the carry-on luggage screening, my backpack was taken apart completely and they wondered about my stove, a box of rechargeable batteries, and my stash of foreign coins. Also, they didn’t let me keep the duct tape I’d bought to possibly fix the bike box in London.

Finally, there was yet another security check by BA personnell before boarding the plane, but that was harmless.

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More sightseeing

In the morning I went to see the Mumbai laundry at Dhobi Ghats and walked through the Mahalakshmi slums along the western railway tracks to Worli. Apparently, several thousand washermen do Mumbai’s laundry at that place every day.

Daniel had gone to Surat on Saturday night and came back to Mumbai yesterday night. He went to one of the suburbs in the morning to do some filming for a movie about children working in salt pans. We met at noon and did some more sightseeing around the old colonial part of the city.

Then we took a train from Victor terminus train station, one of the places of the 26/11/2008 terrorist attacks, to Bandras, one of the posh suburbs. Had a look at the almost completely vanished remainder of an old Portuguese fort and Shahrukh Khan‘s villa. Finally, we had a long stroll along Juhu beach, which was ”crowded”.

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Packing the bike

Went to the SPARC office to get my bike and take it to the cardboard-box-shop to get a box of the right size. The boss had one of the guys working at the office, Sunam, accompany me to do the negotiations. The biggest box they had at the shop was too small and they still wanted to charge 10 Euros for it.

Sunam knew another scrap dealer and I got a fridge box for a more reasonable price there. I modified the box for the bike to fit properly and packed everything up.

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Sightseeing

Walked around the city for hours, seeing the Gateway of India, the Taj Mahal hotel, the university (beautiful building, but entry is restricted), the High Court (same same), the Colaba quarter, and much more.

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Surat – Mumbai

Brought the bike to the Parcel Office (kind of the check-in for large luggage and cargo when traveling by train) and made a porter unhappy by refusing to pay him an unreasonable sum for loading the bike onto the train.

The platform was changed last minute and I almost missed the train. The bike was no better of, it reached Mumbai with the next train.

So I sat there in Mumbai Central station waiting for the bike, when a guy said ‘hello’, asking me if I was Todd. Sure, that’s me, and the guy was Daniel, who coincidently happened to be at the station with a friend.

We waited for the bike together and then walked to the office of an organization called SPARC which is run by slum-dwellers and works for organizing the slum people and giving them a voice and fighting (politically) for proper housing. They are really nice people. I got invited for lunch and they let me stow my luggage and the bike there for the day.

Meanwhile, Daniel had arranged for me to meet the founder of and moving figure behind SPARC, a guy called Jockin. So we took the train to Dadar, one of the biggest slum areas in Mumbai, where the organization has another office.

Walked around the nightly central Mumbai and to the Ali Something mosque. It’s been built on an island in one of the bays of the Mumbai peninsula, connected to the mainland only by a walk-way that is flooded at high-tide.

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Surat city

Arrived in the early morning and spent the day wandering around the city. Also bought a ticket to Mumbai for the day after tomorrow. Again, I chose the one with the shortest waiting list. And that was first class this time.

Received an email from Daniel, telling me he was in Mumbai for family reasons.

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Bhuj – Surat

The previous days were filled with watching TV, drinking loads of water, and feeling well to varying degrees.

Exchanged a few more emails with Daniel, the guy from Surat I’d met a couple of weeks ago on the highway. I’d decided to visit him in Surat and went to the train station to get a ticket for tonight.

The best option, as far as the waiting list is concerend, was the A/C 2-tier class. It comes with curtains and only 6 beds per compartment.

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Bhuj again

Woke up at 6am to vomit. Looks like I got a little food poisoning yesterday.

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Harijan Vas – Khavda – Bhuj

Got up around 7. Unfortunately, the only breakfast there was was a cup of tea. And as I learned a little later, my stove is broken. So dates and figs were the only food for the day. That wasn’t much of a problem as the distance to Khavda was only 22km. Interestingly, even though the river beds are dry, there were some puddles along the road.

I got overtaken by a car, which suddenly stopped a few meters ahead. When I reached it, a window was wound down and two guys started talking to me in German. Turned out their driver had just told them that a ‘crazy German’ was cycling this road.

Loads of military on the roads, and the odd helicopter in the sky.

Reached Khavda before noon and stopped at the first road-side stall for some tea. Talked a bit to the guy sitting next to me. After a couple of cups I rode on to see what the village looked like. There wasn’t much to see, so I returned to the tea stall. The same guy was still there and I asked him about a place to get some food. He invited me to his place for lunch. He lived with his family in a small village outside Khavda.They had 3 bhungas and a rectangular house. All the buildings are single-room and serve two or more purposes each. While I was having luch, the Israelis I’d met at the police station in Bhuj walked around the village.

Thought about my options over a nap. With no permit beyond Khavda, strong military presence, and a broken stove, they were pretty limited. Even though I had the address of a friend of Aarif’s where I could stay for the night, I decided to take the bus back to Bhuj this evening.

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Bhuj – Harijan Vas

Checked out and left around 9am. The entire hotel staff was present when I prepared the bike for the ride. Temperatures were still pretty pleasant, but that changed soon. The terrain became pretty flat and vegetation became more and more sparse. Saw some villages with the traditional round bhungas as well as modern rectangle-shaped houses. The road has some bridges, but at this time of the year all the rivers are dry. Crossed the Tropic of Cancer at some point.

A west’ish wind got stronger and sometimes the road (and everything else) vanished in the dust. Saw a little twister that passed by a few kilometers away. Had a break and sat down in the minimal shade of a traffic sign. Two guys stopped to check if I was alright and to take a picture of me. Every now and then signs pointed left or right, but most of the time there was nothing to see, no village, no road, not even a track.

Reached Bhirtiyara in the afternoon and had a lengthy break. Right outside the village was a police check-point and my permit for the Kachchh district got checked. Harijan Vas was just 50m ahead at the roadside.

Aarif, the guy from the artisan shop in Bhuj, had given me the address of a family there where I could stay for the night. So I stopped at the first bhunga and asked for directions. Immediately was I stunned by the beauty of the girls’ and ladies’ clothing, and, to be honest, by the beauty of the people themselves, too.

I found the place. They knew I was coming by and invited me to a tea, an English-Hindi mixed chat with the elders of the family, a stroll around the village, and finally dinner with the head of the family. Later that evening there was a kind of party (for lack of a better word) at the local Hindu temple, that involved cooking for the entire village, and singing. Due to the language barrier I didn’t really find out what the occasion was, but I was told it was not a religious one.

Unfortunately, I was so tired that I had to miss out on the singing part. My bed was set up outside the bhungas. I learned that some of the people prefer to sleep inside (probably under a fan), while others sleep under the stars. With no mosquitoes hanging around, the latter is definitely a great choice.

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Not happy

Went to the police station today to get a visitor’s permit for ‘the restricted areas of the Kachchh district’. The application process is straight forward and I got the permit. One just has to list the places one wants to visit as well as those where one wants to stay over night. I just listed pretty much all the bigger places in the area (ie. those shown on the map) and hope the smaller ones are automatically included. I also asked the police officer about crossing the Rann from Khavda to Dholavira. The answer was a disappointing ‘no way’. Apparently, everything up there is military area. Great. Well, I’m not going to discuss my thoughts about military (or terrorists) here. I just wish they’d all p*ss off.

Well, not all was bad today. I met three Israelis and a Argentinean/Spanish couple at the police station, all of which also applied for a visitor’s permit. Afterwards, I joined the couple in their search for the Folk Museum. Took us about 20 or 30 minutes because all the maps of Bhuj they had were simply wrong. The entry fee to the museum is 2 Rs for visitors, and 50 Rs for foreign visitors. We skipped the museum (because it was about to close for the day) and kept wandering about. Stopped for a tea when an older dude on a beautifully decorated and painted camel came by. He posed for our cameras and then offered me a ride around the block. Cool!

I picked up my new luggage bags from the tailor and did some shopping. Back in the hotel, I chatted some more with Aarif, the guy from the artisan shop. He showed me some of the products he’s selling and explained the process of creating them. For example, he’s got some drapery and saris that are specially dyed. Many hundred or even thousand little knots are made into the textile, which, when dyed, stay white (or whatever the original color was). These dots then form a pattern or image. The knots are made by women in the villages of the Kachchh (those that specialize in this kind of work; different communities specialize in different crafts: embroidery, dying, woodcarving, etc) after their daily work in the house, to add to the household income. Depending on the size of the knots, they get paid between 50 Rs (bigger knots) and 300 Rs (smaller knots) per 4000 knots. Depending on the size of the cloth and the pattern, knotting may take from 20 days up to a year.

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Love and Hate

I’ve heard and read a few times now (from tourists, of course) that one must either love or hate India. I’m not a friend of such black-and-white views, but if I had to decide I’d say: I love India.

The people here are beautifully friendly, interested, smiling, chatty, and so much more. I’d stay longer if I could.

Of course, there cannot be love without hate, which is why black & white doesn’t work anyway. Poverty is one of the deficiencies in India, and it is hard to believe the contrasts that are visible everywhere.

A couple of days ago I met a man, Daniel, on the highway who works with an organization that helps underprivilegded children in the Surat and Bharuch area. We’ve exchanged a few emails since then and maybe, if the Rann doesn’t take all the time I have left in India, I can meet him again and learn more about his work.

In other news: It rained today. I just hope the salt will stay dry (enough).

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Still Bhuj

Found a tailor today who’ll sew me new bags. Yay! Only drawback is that it’ll take him ’til Monday evening. That means I’ll only leave on Tuesday.

Also walked some more around the city center with its small streets and backyards. People are friendly and helpful. Walked into a Travel Agency that I found in a small alleyway on the first floor – kinda in a strange location. Asked the guys there about the Rann. They said there’d be no way to cross it from Khavda to Dholavira. This matches with the satellite imagery I’ve seen and one of my maps. However, the other map of mine and two guys at reception of my hotel I spoke to the other day say there’s a path or even road.

Later on I talked to a guy, Aarif, who works in a Kutchi artisan shop in the hotel. A couple years back he was in Leipzig, Germany, with some people from villages north of Bhuj, to build a traditional hut (bhunga – भुंगा) in the Museum für Völkerkunde. He gave me their names so I can visit them on my way to Khavda. They are also artisans, doing embroidery and other things. Aarif told me that I’ll definitely need a permit from the police to go to Khavda and beyond. He was pretty sure that there’s at least a footpath between Khavda and Dholavira because villagers use to walk there. He even called a friend in Khavda and asked about the path’s condition. The friend confirmed the existance but also said that police or military or whoever might deny me passage because of the Mumbai terrorist attacks on November 26, 2008 and stricter security regulations at the Indian-Pakistani border. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but I’ll check with the local police tomorrow or on Monday.

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Bhuj

Arrived quarter past 8am in Bhuj. Got my bike back and had me and my stuff autorickshawed to a hotel. I sat next to the driver in the front row. This was when I realized that I’ll never travel in such a vehicle over bigger distances. It’s simply too small. I couldn’t properly look through the windshield and the handlebar got stuck at my knees.

Got a new SIM card in the first shop I tried. Great that things can be so easy sometimes.

Went for a stroll around the city in the afternoon. Tried to find some raffia baskets for the bike, similar to those I used in Madagascar, but to no avail.

Walked along some street and heard loud music. It came from a Hindu temple construction site. There were people everywhere and I stopped to watch and take a picture. An older man came over and offered to show me around. First he took me to a part of the temple where folks were praying. Apparently one of the gods had a birthday or something. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get all the details. Then he took me to the monastery part and showed me the quarters of the monks. It’s basically a big hall with aisles and beds and some cupboards left and right in these aisles.

Then he brought me to a monk who was sitting on his bed, and two other lads sitting on chairs next to him. He greeted me with something along the lines of “There we have a German guy, let’s see if he speaks English.” I was a bit confused about how he’d know that I was German, much to the amusement of the crowd. Turned out someone had phoned ahead… We chatted around for a while before I continued my walk.

The city center of Bhuj is amazing. Small streets full of people and shops. As usual in a town with more than 2 streets I got lost. Eventually I got too hungry and took an autorickshaw back to the hotel. It was literally around the corner.

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Vadodara – Bhuj

Tried to figure put what to do with broken coles bags and without SIM card. In the early afternoon I decided that the remaining time wouldn’t be enough to cycle all the way to Bhuj and the Rann. So, hitching or train. Hitching is fun, but train is faster. Autorickshaw’ed to the railway station and got a ticket for tonight. Departure 9:48pm, arrival in Bhuj 7:18am tomorrow. I was fifth in the waiting list for the ticket. Hasted back to the hotel, packed, and loaded all my stuff including the bike into another autorickshaw, and headed back to the station.

The ticket got confirmed and I brought the bike to the parcel office.

Took a seat on my platform, waiting for the train. Some kid started taking pictures of me with his cell phone. My usual ‘weapon’ is to take my own camera and take a shot in return. He soon came over to chat. He was waiting with his mother for his sister who’d arrive with the train I was gonna take. We were joined by another guy who was about to take the same train as me. The train was late and there was some confusion about the platform and eventually I had to hurry to find my coach and couldn’t even say good bye.

I’d reserved a bed in ‘A/C 3-tier’ class. 8 beds in a compartment, 3 on each side and 2 at the aisle. No doors or privacy, and most interestingly, women and men mixed. Note that there’s even a (non-compulsory) ‘Ladies’ waiting room’ at the railway station.

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