School talks and deadly kites

Trip Start Jul 01, 2010
Trip End Aug 08, 2011

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Flag of India  , Gujarat,
Thursday, January 20, 2011

My journey to Gujarat was noticeably more difficult than the preceding day's ride, despite the much flatter terrain. I got a puncture soon after leaving Rajendra's family home, and the 20 or so young Indian guys who soon crowded around me by the highway were not so conducive to effecting the repair. My next encounter was a family from out of state, walking the highway. They flagged me down, told me they'd been pick-pocketed and requested food. Finally, the police on the Rajasthan-Gujarat border stopped me for a chat. The sun was roasting me as I sat with them, but I stayed a while as I didn't want to upset them.

I found myself feeling unusally weak as I neared Himnatnagar, but I found a lodging in a hotel undergoing reconstruction (and resembling a bombed-out ruin from the outside) and then went out for food.

I awoke the next morning to find I had my fifth or possibly sixth case of Delhi Belly, so prolonged my stay another day. The people of this town were apparently not used to seeing tourists like myself, and with my feeling ill I lost my patience several times with all the staring - sometimes it is hard to keep in mind that behaviours have different meanings in different places. There are truly few behaviours which can be considered objectively 'rude'; I should tolerate those who turned and stared as I passed, accept that if I spun around almost every pair of eyes was on me. Instead I hid from the world in my hotel room, recuperating and escaping into the e-book I was reading.

I was well enough to cycle the next day, and took a perfectly stupid route to Ahmedabad, making what should have been 75 km or so closer to 100 km. By evening I'd managed to find the house of my friend Janak, who had invited me all the way down here to talk at the schools. I was welcomed inside and they showed me great hospitality. The big ride had not helped my stomach however, and the next day I rested a little before going out with Janak to see the 2nd day of the Uttarayan kite festival, which is held 14-15 January every year.

We walked through old Ahmedabad's streets and Janak explained the engineering behind the architecture of the medieval homes. They utilised an ingenious roofless vertical conduit, about three times the size of a typical elevator shaft, to which each room was connected via shuttered windows to maintain a comfortable flow of cooler air in the Gujarati heat.

We climbed the stairs to the rooftop terrace of one such house, where we found several families flying kites and sharing food. Everywhere flew kites, and looking at the roofs around me I saw happy faces, looking skyward in abandon. But this was war! Each flier aimed to cut the string of his rivals' kites using the glass-encrusted string of their own kite. Most people could remain airborne 2 minutes or so before being cut down by somebody else, their kite drifting gracefully to oblivion (or some kite heaven) on the steady wind. Pro-fliers wore bandages around their forefingers, which would otherwise be cut up by the string.

I was given kites to fly several times and although I didn't master the art of steering properly, did manage to cut one kite down. It was a lot of fun, and the atmosphere amongst all of these neighbours and friends on their roofs was fantastic. As the sun set, large fireworks of the types used for professional displays were launched from ordinary family rooftops all around. I pondered the risks, both of mis-firings and also the fire risk, but everything seemed to pass alright.

The event was not without mishap, however. Reading the newspaper the next day I learned that across India many birds had been injured or killed when colliding with the glassy kite strings, and that several motorcyclists had died after colliding with stray strings that happened to be at their neck-level. In addition, many people had fallen from rooftops, including a young German tourist who was critical for a while but eventually recovered.

The next day I was taken to the first school at which I was to speak. I arrived just as a free meditation training session for the teachers was getting underway, and joined in. My quarters were the "patient rest room" of the school. At the next morning's assembly I gave my account of my journey so far. With the older students sitting exams this day, the audience was much younger than I'd expected, and I found that I had to curtail the talk and skip to my experiences in India on account of the flagging attention of the youngest amongst them.

After the talk I was treated like something of a star, with many children requesting my autograph, Facebook ID, phone number, email etc. It was a strange feeling, and not the sort of attention I'm used to at all.

On many recommendations, I visited Mahatma Ghandhi's ashram in Ahmedabad, which centred on an historical exhibition of the highlights of Ghandhi's life, including newspaper clippings, his talks and other memorabilia. It was fascinating, and I was surprised at how radical and determined Ghandhi had been. His success was indeed deserved.

A school outside the state capital of Ghandinagar was my next speaking appointment (haha!). Rajesh picked me up from the first school and ferried me to the next one, also served as translator as the students didn't speak English. Again they were very young, so just the highlights of my journey were given. Then I was given a traditional Gujarati welcome by the school and did a very brief interview for a local Gujarati TV channel.

Rajesh and I then went to see the nearby 'Step Well', a cavernous underground construction which had held megalitres of water for the local population. The geometry of the place was remarkable, as was the engineering - stone columns apparently sat freely without mortar or cement. The labyrinth of tunnels below the well had had to be closed to the public some time ago, after visitors had wandered in and not been seen again!

The school's manager kindly offered me to stay at his 'party plot' - basically a large, private grassed area where weddings are held. I stayed a couple of nights there, once getting terribly lost in Ghandinagar's perfect grid of featureless, identical wide avenues, after going out shopping one evening. By chance I stumbled upon the party plot again after an hour or so of cycling all over.

Gujarat's mid-winter heat was really starting to make itself felt, and after considering going further south to Mumbai or beyond, I elected to go easy and give myself time to get out of India comfortably before my visa would expire at the end of February. With typical ill-consideration I picked a line on my map that looked like it pointed to my next destination, and thereby committed myself to several days of riding over some of the worst roads I've seen anywhere...
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