Living in Pink

I gaze across at the opposite wall of the trendy, European style coffee house which I have recently frequented.Young tattooed Indians extract high quality coffee on the wide counter of bare wood to my right, a potted fern stands nearby. I come here out of some indulgent desire for familiarity and a privileged desire to momentarily escape the chaos of six million people making their livings.   

I sit down at a window table and reach for V.S. Naipal's ‘India’, in which the author explores social India through a series of interviews. Naipal's gritty, boots-on-the-ground work has so far been limited to Mumbai; the passages about the slums made particularly tough reading. I sip on my speciality Kenyan Americano and Dylan croons ‘Shelter from the storm’ over the speakers.

A thought occurs to me which makes me equal parts amused and embarrassed. Amused because I have just cycled for seven months to be here and find myself sitting in the most westernized establishment could find. I read about Indian life in a book when if I got up and took a step out of the double glass doors I would find myself experiencing the real thing. Embarrassed to contrast my ‘soft’ literary exploration with Naipal's unflinching efforts in Mumbai.

I selfishly try to quell these thoughts and resuscitate my mood with a gulp of thick black caffeine. My attention flounders momentarily in a chemical quagmire of cigarette smoke and alcohol residue from the night before and eventually rounds once again on that all too familiar question. Why are you doing this?

By “this” I mean my general journey. Travelling from London to New Zealsnd by bicycle. The question actually occurs to me almost every day, sometimes many times. Dont misunderstand, it's not because I'm not confident that what I'm doing is worthwhile, it's bloody awesome, and the best thing I have ever done. I think about this question because I get asked it constantly and my answers very significantly, often depending on who’s asking. Sometimes I simply want to “travel the world.” This one’s nice and easy for when I don’t want to prolong a conversation. If I have more time I might talk about how I was disenchanted by the dreadful routine of a nine to five and was falling prey to a spiritual or cognitive lull or some combination of the two. If I want to seem mysterious to intrigue a beautiful girl, maybe it is because I am endearingly socially askew. A young person disengaged and on the periphery of the thousand revolving social circles of electric London, the place which should be the soul of my party but has never quite felt like it. Not quite here, not quite there, and always wondering where it is I would actually like to be.

I am not being fickle. All these reasons are true. Ok so when it comes to that last one maybe I pander a bit as the intriguing misfit, but when your trying to pull you play the cards you have, right?

Anyway, the purpose of this blog was not to present a rambling account of the motives for this unusual occupation.

I have been in Jaipur upwards of a month now. My ankle is healed. The ligament has been sufficiently encouraged to repair its fractious relationship with my its joint, and yesterday I was given the greenlight to re-animate my stalled eastward migration.

Jaipur is an excellent place to be stranded. I was told on arrival here that five weeks of physio therapy would be required to fix my torn ligament. I had an opportunity, so far unique within my journey, to shed the persona of camera wielding tourist and risk some more meaningful encounters.

In my experience meeting local people is the quickest (and most effective) route to getting ‘under the skin.’ Following the initially unfavourable prescription of FIVE STATIC WEEKS I launched myself into the task of making as many friends as possible, starting with the local couchsurfing community.

Couchsurfers are, theoretically, a like-minded bunch with a shared interest in cultural exchange. Couchsurfing is demographically indiscriminate. No fucks are given pertaining to race, religion, caste, income or any other variable which can be used as a root of bias. Accordingly, the variety of experiences on offer is formidable.

One of my early couchsurfing encounters here opened a window into one of India's most proliferate professions - the tuk tuk driver.

‘Salim’ is shorter than me, stocky, with an immaculately well groomed beard and a sharp quiff framing olive skin. When I greet him he grins and looks directly into my eyes. His smile is wide and mischievous, his eyes are dark and make me somehow nervous. A  suppressed rage seems to simmer just below the surface.

Salim drives one of the thousand tuk tuks  which rattle their way across the city every day. The number of drivers is ever increasing, while tourist numbers this year hit unusual lows. The effect of this disparity is sharpened by the arrival of Uber and similar companies. The supply exceeds the demand and Salim too often describes his day as ‘empty' when I ask him how business was. When business is good a driver stands to make 700-800 rupees, or £8. For those who rent their tuktuks, half of this will go to the owner, and the other half to support the family. In Salim’s case, parents, grandparents, four brothers and a sister.

Despite inconsistent business and a large family to support, Salim offers free tours of Jaipur on his couchsurfing profile. When couchsurfers make contact he spends entire days driving the same routes he takes daily with regular tourists. When I asked whether he is bothered that he is essentially performing his regular job unpaid, Salim answered with one of his particularly favored phrases: “Man makes money, money doesn't make man” followed by “sometimes you have to look at the human and not the money.”

One evening Salim took me to a local chicken restaurant with his younger brother. The restaurant overlooked a junction of four or five narrow tarmacked roads. Each drained a steady stream of cows, horses, trucks, taxis, people and swarms of mopeds into the convergence, where opposing streams swirled around each other like eddies in river. Salim led me up a staircase to the second floor. Plastic flexible tiling covered the floor, the walls were bare and several plastic tables and chairs were dotted around, most empty. The inhabitants of the occupied chairs stared as usual at the peculiar, out of place foreigner who had just walked in.  

Before arriving we had sat near to the central train station in Salim's tuk tuk and shared a bottle of Indian rum. I was feeling emboldened and during dinner indicated towards the surfboard shaped scar which crossed the inward end of his right eyebrow. I asked of its origin. Salim grimaced and, smiling, gave a half chuckle which once more belied a sense of suppressed anger and frustration. He told me that one night he was driving two young Indian men to their homes. They had been drinking. When they arrived, rather than giving Salim his fare, the young men had beat him and left him in the street.

With declining numbers of tourists and increasing numbers of drivers, Salim navigates a ferociously competitive environment. With no set wage it is financially unstable and a life on the roads of India is naturally a dangerous one, indicated by the incident I just described.

In these conditions it would be all too easy to lose faith. Despite this, Salim retains a positivity, generosity and a willingness to help his fellow humans at his own monetary expense. It is humbling to witness.

Thankfully Jaipur, and Rajasthan generally, is culturally rich and their is no shortage of temples, fortresses and other landmarks of interest at which to pass my time. In the knowledge that I had time to kill I spent as long as was feasible and enjoyable at each sight and so languidly dragged out the tourist trail for more than two weeks.

When such pastimes were exhausted I turned my attention to less conventional occupations. One of the aims of this expedition which had so far gone unmet was to visit local schools to share some stories and lessons I have amalgamated over the previous months.

With this in mind I contacted the headmaster of Jaipur International Public School, an English speaking primary near to my hostel. In bright sunshine two days later I stood on the school fields with the assembled school and delivered a short account of my journey. This was followed by a longer presentation with photos to the older children in a classroom. The kids were loud and curious. I was especially pleased that some questions dwelt on the particulars of travelling by bicycle, as well as travelling generally.




I have left the writing of this post to the last possible moment. This was fortunate as my penultimate night, Christmas evening, was perhaps the most memorable. I met up in the early evening with three friends. Piyush is merchant navy officer I met on one of my first evenings here and two young Norwegian women who I met more recently. They are in Jaipur for six weeks to teach English to local underprivaleged women.

We joined Piyush's family for a delicious traditional dinner on his terrace, and celebrated Christmas with an all night tour if the city, re-visiting the famous forts and temples in the eerie star scattered darkness. At 5.30am we drove up to the imperious Nahargargh fort which stands guard above the city. Jaipur glistened below us like the best Christmas tree you have ever seen. Soon the sun broke above a distant bank of fog, or pollution, and bathed the scene in cool light.






I leave Jaipur tomorrow with excitement but also a tangible sense of melancholy. I have not felt as acutely the impending loneliness of solo travel since I left home seven months ago. This interlude was not part of the plan, but I wouldn’t swap these memories for any in my twenty two years. This place has given me friends for life and memories so bright that I irrationally worry that I have peaked, and they can never be bested. I know this is not true, but the only way to prove it is to get back on the bike and start pedaling.

Comments

  1. Dear Kit, you popped into my head today at random as I realized your Wilson cousins in Boston had not checked in in a while - and lo and behold it is the very day that you are setting out again after your enforced layover in Jaipur. Agonising to read of your injury, and inspiring to hear of your courageous decision to carry on with the journey. So, just to wish you all the best on the next leg, (no pun intended) and Happy New Year! Jane, Jamie, David and Alistair Wilson

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  2. Hey kit,
    I'm not witnessed when you halted for night between Jaipur and Agra Journey.
    Because I'm not there that time.
    But my brother Ankit and my Uncle welcomed you there . you know what? after your leaving everyone mesmerizing the moment of your Togetherness on that night.
    all they are very happy for having you and being a part of your beautiful journey.
    They missed you a lot!
    Happy Adventurous and safe journey.
    And all the best for the coming Leg of your journey.
    Wish you happy new year!!

    My one question for you do you remember the village name where you Halted on 28 Dec night ?

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