A change of pace
Anyone tracking my journey (via the ‘Track me’ page on my website) may have noticed that my progress stalled on arrival in Jaipur, India.
The informally termed ‘Pink city is one of India and Rajasthan’s culturally historical gems. The old town, or ‘walled city’, comprises a grid network of roads flanked with covered pavements. The uniform paintwork of the facades account for the city’s nickname (though to me the paintwork is closer to terracotta than pink). Towering imperiously around the nucleic old town rises dusty, arid hillsides. Atop these natural vantage points are several walled fortresses built to protect the city from invaders.
In this city my progress eastward has been arrested due to a wholly unexpected event. The causation of this event is a tale of two halves which begins three months, and six countries ago, in Georgia.
Regular readers of this blog may recall an entry labelled ‘Reaching the highest Home’. In this episode I described an successful and apparently untroubled traverse of Georgia’s High Caucasus mountain range with my father.
Our trip was certainly successful, one of the highlights of my whole journey in fact. I confess, however, that our expedition was not as trouble free as I initially suggested.
The event I allude to occurred on the evening of our sixth day in the Caucasus. We had just conquered the monstrous Guli pass at 3000 meters and ambitiously summited Guli peak that same day.
The evening threw long dark shadows over the valleys of Guli’s eastern flank as we descended from the pass. We were too high to make the nearest town and instead resolved instead to camp at a locally famous plateau of high altitude lakes. From the pass we would have to lose a kilometer in height, then re-ascend for three hundred meters.
As an accident prone individual, I often find that the most treacherous moments of an activity are not during the difficult and technical sections where one's attention is fully employed, but instead during the attentional lull which immediately follows a technical challenge. So had it been many years previously cycling in the south of France. Having navigated a fast and complex mountain descent I reached a straight, flat section and, letting my concentration wander, cycled straight off the side off the road into a rock filled gulley.
One would hope I would have learnt my lesson lying bleeding in that French gulley. Unfortunately I am not so wise, and history has repeated itself.
The descent from Guli was narrow, with a steep drop on one side and several tricky river crossings. In the fading light we picked our way downward to the wide jeep track which led back upwards to the lakes. Wobbly legged but glowing with the days achievements we gunned along the wide track, enjoying the fifty meters of flat ground before the road started climbing again. I was grinning widely and already thinking happily of camp and dinner.
White pain lance through my ankle and I collapsed, hitting the ground hard on account of my heavy pack. I lay in the dust groaning as Dad hurried towards me. I crawled to the verge and waited for the acute, fiery stabs to subside.
Walk it off, I thought. It’s just a twist, ten minutes and it will be fine. My ankle throbbed and vehemently protested as I gingerly put weight on it. Leaning heavily on the fence post I had scavenged several days earlier I hobbled after Dad in the dusk, upwards towards the lakes.
It wasn’t until later that evening that, hunger sated and tent pitched, I apprehensively rolled my sock down to inspect the offending joint. The outermost side of my ankle was ugly and swollen like a baseball. Dark purple bruising curved under the knobbly mass like a malicious smile and my heart sank. It looked terrible. I was desperate not to cut short the previous few days of this adventure we had left. I knocked back some ibuprofen and wrapped the whole joint in a stretchy bandage.
The following morning we shuffled into town and I postponed our return train to Tbilisi. We would continue walking after days recovery, monitoring the ankle closely. I was foolhardy perhaps, but determined to finish what we had started. We pushed on and arrived in Ushguli four days later.
In Georgia I had postponed but not solved the problem. I started riding immediately towards Azerbaijan to avoid the central Asian winter, so the ankle never healed properly and has been unstable ever since.
The second half of this tale begins three weeks ago.
I wild camp with extra caution during the first few days in each new country. Ideally I am either completely concealed from everyone or known to a particular person, perhaps camping on their private land.
It was the evening of my first full day cycling in India. I had left the Pushkar camel fair and was one day shy of Jaipur.
Darkness fell and I hadn’t found a secluded pitch; I started asking locals about using their land. During one inquiry I unwittingly approached a school, a large concrete skeleton of a building that looked only half finished. One of the teachers spoke of a hotel only two kilometers up the road. I wouldn’t usually settle for a hotel, but as I said, I am always overly cautious during my first days in a new country.
I pedalled on and soon found the ‘hotel’. It was an open fronted breezeblock structure on a raised concrete foundation. The beds, elevated wooden platforms, were set to the back but visible from the road. For 100 rupees, or just over a £1, it would do.
I whiled away the evening listening Harry Potter on audiobook and chatting in broken English to the manager. Later, I selected the most concealed of the three bunks and crammed the bike behind it. Nothing makes wooden boarding comfortable like a long day in the saddle and I instantly slipped into a contented slumber, thinking of dreamy days in the warm flat lands of Rajasthan.
Disaster mark II struck in the dead of night. Needing a pee at 3am I roused myself and groggily tottered towards the open front of the hotel. The toilet was outside the building, twenty meters away. I reached the edge of the raised foundation and stepped downwards.
With a sickening crunch my right ankle, the same as I had injured in Georgia, crumpled beneath me. I half screamed and gasped raggedly as terrible pain shot through the joint, far exceeding that of the original injury. With dreadful familiarity I inspected the welted mass of bruised tissue and fluid that was once my ankle. I knew this time something had gone badly wrong.
The following morning I pedalled the remaining 80 kilometers to Jaipur almost exclusively with my left leg, doing my best to protect the bandaged right.
A joint specialist in Jaipur was efficient in his analysis. He told me I had completely torn my ‘anterior talofibular ligament’ from the bone, a common sporting injury that but slow to heal.
MRI and X-Ray scans confirmed the analysis the following morning. Cycling was forbidden for six weeks at least and I was lucky not to have done further damage. Not without sympathy, I was recommended to return to the U.K for physiotherapy and continue my journey in several months when recovered.
Slightly dazed I returned to the hostel to organise the thousand thoughts bustling across my consciousness. If I stayed in India I would be paying for healthcare and would have previous few days left on my visa by the time I recovered. If I returned to the U.K my healthcare would be free and I’d be able to spend Christmas with my family.
This wasn’t, however, how I had envisaged my homecoming. I didn’t want to hobble home on crutches having got only halfway to New Zealand, to spend the next months on the sofa in London when I should have been spinning through northern India. It would have felt too much like a defeat, like a failure.
No. I had to take the bad with the good. This setback is part of my journey, to be taken in my stride and overcome. I would take physiotherapy here in India, and when I am able, I will continue.
I now sit on the roof terrace of a hostel in Jaipur. I look through the city’s early morning haze and see three kites dancing a furious battle high over the rooftops. I am ten days into six weeks of daily physiotherapy.
This is an unexpected interlude in my journey, but not necessarily a negative one. It is a change of pace for me. A chance to get under the skin of a place and its people. As Rocky says, ‘it’s not about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.’