I pedalled from mainland India's southernmost point, Kanyakumari with no plan except to head north. Understandable, two weeks earlier I had been expecting to be in China by now. The past week I had contacted a handful of Indian friends and friends of friends asking where the most beautiful, 'must-see' places were. When they mentioned a place I saved it on my map; I figured I would devise a route incorporating these places in as sensible a route as possible. Within a few days I had recommendations covering every inch of my India map; visiting all by bike would take years. Back to square one... I would head north.
New route planning technique - Anyone I met while cycling I asked where to go. Which road is nicer? Which town is more interesting? Often it was a binary choice; a coastal route or an inland hilly route. I flitted between both, trusting my local advisors implicitly. After all, they live there, and know the area and the roads much better than I do. Maybe even better than the internet! Travelling without plans, completely clueless where you will be tomorrow, may seem terrifying, but after a year on the road this freedom never fails to thrill me, intoxicate me, scare me, and make me believe that just about anything can happen. This freedom is a luxury I won't have forever; I'm definitely going to make the most of it while I can!
I think my team of local advisors did a pretty darn awesome job of guiding me across their corner of the world, don't you?!
Unlike other Asian countries I had visited, Indians understand travelling. Many even dreamed of travelling themselves. In Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan people had approached me, baffled, - “You have no job, wife, or children... Why are you travelling?”. In India however, youngsters would ask me wistfully how I had managed to persuade my parents to let me travel. I found many young Indians wishing to travel were registered on Couchsurfing, either hoping to glean tips from travellers, or simply live vicariously through others. Almost every night in South India I stayed with people. I stayed with students, families, bachelors, expats... I stayed with farmers and with rocket scientists. All had an interest in travelling. All were like-minded. All were good people. This is my kind of travelling, bypassing the tourist attractions and meeting with the full spectrum of society, living in the same way as they live. Beautiful friendships forged, lasting memories and unusual stories to share was always the outcome.
India is a big country. The 46 hour train journey should have been a good indicator really, but only when I began to cycle did I start to grasp how intimidatingly giant India actually is. An exhausting day in the saddle scarcely make a dent on the map. How many pedal strokes will it take to reach Delhi I would wonder as my legs mindlessly rotated. One million? Two million? More?! It could have begun to feel like a real chore, but thankfully this monotony was avoided by the phenomenal variety of India, where each state is virtually unrecognisable from the one before. Crossing the state line was like entering a new country, with even the language changing to another of India's 22 major languages. I heard many people refer to India as 'unity in diversity' – I love this! Historically, these states would have been enemies at war, but now they are together, comprising India, with their individual differences something to be celebrated. From a traveller's point of view, this variety is perfect, and keeps you on your toes, as you constantly see, do, eat, experience something new. I'm pretty sure about 60% of the time in India I was bewildered by what was going on around me.
With this celebration of differences came a tolerance and an understanding I haven't seen anywhere else. You can pass a mosque, a church and a temple within 100 metres, with followers of each appearing to live in relative harmony. One monk in a temple beckoned me, 'Come and worship your God.” There was no expectation that my god must match his.
Imagine if we could adopt such an atmosphere around the world? Food for thought.