So, after our luxurious stay in Tadoba we’re back to chapati (bread), pani (water) and basic accommodation…oh, how the mighty have fallen!
Tadoba to Pauni – 117km
We’d promised Deepak, our fantastic safari guide, a photo with our loaded bikes before he set off for his safari first thing in the morning. As we had a big cycling day ahead it wasn’t a problem as we needed to be up early (5:30) and packed anyway – plus it meant we could have breakfast before we left. But as it was dark it isn’t the best photo….
Nice and cool for us at the start of the day though…unfortunately the very new, smooth road outside the resort finished about 2km down the road and we were on bump-a-thon for the next couple of hours.
We passed through some really rural areas which was very pleasant. I’m not proud to say that initially in India we’d felt a bit intimidated when the country folk had stared at us, but now we realise it’s more out of curiosity than anything else and nothing for us to feel worry about. There were a couple of nice moments….firstly, when we saw a camel train…..
These are not animals taking tourists out to the desert – they are working camels, owned by a family, off to do their daily business.
And we saw a similar group of oxen and carts with families on board just a short while later…
We made it to Pauni by mid-afternoon. It was pretty hot by this point and we were definitely a bit pinker than normal. Up until now we’ve been using factor 50 Ambre Solarie sun cream, but we ran out of it about a week ago. We bought some factor 60 Indian sunscreen and we don’t think it’s doing the job. It might be fake (it’s not even a name we recognise) or just shite…either way we need to find something better! Anyway, a bit sunburnt, we found our digs in Pauni.
First impressions were not good, and that was mainly down to the staff attitude. As per normal it’s staffed by 20-something men, who were incredibly slow at doing just about everything, including all the obvious check-in stuff, which meant that we hung around for ages while they examined our passports like we were absolute aliens. In the meantime, a random (non-hotel staff) young guy, with reasonable English, tried to ‘help’, but he’d obviously been in the adjacent bar all afternoon and was actually a bit of a pain in the arse. His big mistake was to accompany Martina and one of the hotel staff to inspect our offered room and bore to full force of her ‘I’m a bit tired, pissed off and not having it’ moment. Funnily enough we didn’t see him again and the hotel staff suddenly became a lot nicer – especially when we indulged them in a photo session after dinner, which they loved and was actually quite fun. We’d had a couple of beers by this point and were feeling the love..maybe that’s the way to tackle India….permanently a bit pissed!
Pauni to Deori – 103km
Although we are on our exit from India into Bangladesh, Bharat in Nirmal put us in touch with a friend of his (Harshit) who works with indigenous tribes. We thought that it would be interesting to see these minority tribes in their natural environment, especially when given such a great opportunity along the route we are travelling. So yesterday and today have been functional rides to get us to the right place to meet up with Harshit.
Today’s journey started with us once again travelling through some pleasant rural areas with some craggy outcrops. This is leopard and tiger terrain if ever we saw it and there were a few wildlife warning signs around to show that we were right!
We then got onto our first major highway for a while. We used to think that highways were quite exciting, but we both commented today that it has now become a bit dull! There’s not a huge amount to say about this part of our ride other than the road was okay, temperatures only got to about 32 degrees and there were a few hills towards the end.
It was when we got to Deori that things took a bit of a turn for the worse. We’d booked a room in a hotel, which when we arrived were told that they had no rooms, even though we had an email confirmation, which we showed them, and had already paid. The conversation got a bit heated at times – on the Indian side I hasten to add, as Martina and I kept our cool. The hotel is above a sweet shop and cafe and random customers chipped in to the conversation, very helpfully repeating that there were no rooms and laughing. We sat down and emailed the booking company (Yatra) to tell them what was going on as their phone line wasn’t working, and while we were doing this, a guy who had rather annoyingly tried to photograph us on his phone, told us that there was another hotel 1km down the road. Decision made, we headed off – although at the last minute a guy who seemed to actually work at the hotel, appeared and said that they had a room on the third floor …too late mate, we were off!
We found the other hotel, and they had a room available – great! When I asked the price, a guy that was eating in the cafe held up three fingers, which was then translated into 3,000 rupees (approx £30) by the guy we had been speaking to. This is way above what we would normally pay – cue being ripped off – so we said no and walked out. We’d seen another lodge on the other side of town, which we knew we could use as a back-up. The “negotiator” followed and said 2000, followed but 1500 rupees – miraculously it had halved in price! No thanks – but after a bit more negotiating we got him down to 1000 rupees and we were in!
Blimey, is everyone trying to rip us off in this town?? Well actually, the answer is yes! A little later Yatra phoned to follow up on our email and asked what had happened at the first hotel. They then went away to speak to someone from the hotel and called us back to tell us that the hotel manager had said we’d refused a room because we couldn’t keep our bikes there and a bunch of other lies …and offered us a 50% refund…how very nice of them! We declined this offer, so the Yatra lady connected us on a three-way call with the manager with her acting as translator. Funnily enough he backed down immediately with absolutely no fight – the spineless <insert expletives here> and agreed to a full refund. So, with that sorted and a roof over our heads for a cheaper price than the original hotel, we did feel rather chuffed that we’d persevered with the right result. But honestly it left more of a bad taste and a feeling that we are just done with our time in India.
Deori to Darrekasa – 48km
But in the story of thelifecyclers…for very down there is an up…
We were up and out early as per normal and were met by Harshit and his Pragati on a motorcycle about 20km down the highway. We had a quick chai and got the introductions out of the way before following them up to the village of Darrekasa, which is home to the Gond tribe.
There are literally hundreds of minority tribes living many different old-style lives all over India. This particular area of central India has quite a few, many of which stem back to when the area was ruled by Gond Kings. Their area of influence stretched all the way from Adilabad and Chandrapur (both of which we have travelled through), right across to the coast in Odessia in the east – so a really huge part of central India. Of particular interest is that the kings actually ruled from the area around Chandrapur itself. So, we now realise that many of the small villages we’ve pedalled through over the last couple of days are likely to be tribal villages. They certainly appeared to be very quiet, with old-style houses and much less traffic. We’d even commented that there were more bicycles and less motorcycles on these particular roads.
As an ethnic group these tribes are very much under-represented in society and very often persecuted. They tend to live in areas that are rich in minerals and natural resources, so big corporations influence government decision-making and policies to gain access to these limited resources, while pushing the tribes off their land. One particular story saw a tribe pitted against a mining company to save their mountain, which they worship as a god and on which they all live in various different villages. The tribe won the legal battle, but this certainly isn’t always the case, and apparently a U.K. charity that worked with the tribe in this battled has since been banned from working in India – which is a reflection on who is favoured in governement policies. Throughout our tour of India we have asked people about Mr Modi’s current government. Where before people had generally liked him, the story over the past few weeks has been very different and he’s not particularly liked in central and southern India as his policies adversely affect the people in these parts – as this particular story goes to show!
So, what makes people tribal? At a basic level it’s religion, lineage and culture. Tribal people worship the elements and the earth as their gods rather than worshiping idols. They generally only marry within their own tribe, they have their own way of doing things (farming, fishing, building, crafts, etc) that are in synch with nature and they follow certain rituals and ceremonies. Whilst we were in the village we went to the nearby Kachargarh Caves which is the most sacred site tribal site in India. At the entrance to the main cave there were a load of enormous honey bee hives dangling from the roof with swarms of bees around them.
The caves are spectacular, though we were glad we weren’t there a few days earlier as they’d just had a 5-day festival which attracted half a million people from across the country. We did complete the final part of the pilgrimage as it should be done, about a kilometre on a very knobbly and stony track, in bare feet, which was a bit tough on our poor soft western soles!
Harshit has been working with many tribes over the past 5 years documenting and photographing their lives. He very much does this for the love of the people as it isn’t an ‘official’ project – he’s just taken it upon himself to try to capture this tribal information before it is potentially lost. He’s only 27 years old and we are completely inspired by what he is doing as it’s as not a job that he does for money. Pragati had been working for an non-government organisations (NGO) that works with the tribes, but is currently on sabbatical as she has become a bit disillusioned with some of their working practices and motives. In our short time together we talked a lot about their work and the tribes, which was really interesting and gave us real insight into tribal life and the challenges they face.
Having arrived in the village we were met by Ushakiran, a tribal elder women, her sister and niece, at their house where we were to stay for the night. Apart from being one of the tribe, Ushakiran is a prolific writer on tribal life and along with her husband, who sadly passed away in November last year, is an authority on the subject for which she has been awarded many prizes. We immediately warmed to her as she was very welcoming, which she did in a traditional tribal way…
Although her English is a bit rusty we had some great conversations with her – not only about tribal life, but she also wanted to know what life was like in the UK and did we have tribes too? She has a large plot of land where they grow various crops as well papaya trees, sugar cane and a small banana plantation. We were lucky enough to sample papaya straight off the tree, freshly cut sugar cane and rice and lentils (in the form of a dal) which all came from her land – and all of which were delicious.
Our visit coincided with village market day and as Ushakiran had to do her weekly shopping we were invited to join her. The village only has about 400 people and so the market is a very small, but no less interesting, affair.
We think that Ushakiran secretly rather enjoyed showing the two westerners, who’d arrived from London on bicycles, off to the rest of the village!
Once the shopping was done we went for a wander around the village and were invited into three different traditional tribal houses.
The welcome in each house was, once again, very warm and we chatted to lots of different folk.
We saw women starting to prepare their evening meal and the outdoor mud cookers that they use as well as women cleaning rice that they had grown themselves.
In one particular house there was a grandmother, mother, three daughters and two of their friends. We had a lovely interaction with all of them; one small girl was rather shy to start with, but by the time it came to the photo session she’d come out of her shell and was stroking Martina’s hair! (The one standing in front of Martina in the photo above)
It was really nice to talk to Indian women for once as it’s usually the men that we have to deal with whilst on the road – though these are, of course, not the usual Indian women we’d be likely to meet anyway. These ones in particular have a cheeky sense of humour, and even though they didn’t speak English, it came across in translation, which was very endearing!
Their houses are amazing! The walls are made from a brick core covered in mud and the rooves are made of individual handmade tiles, held up by wooden and bamboo rafters – we’d pay a fortune for those tiles back in the UK.
For some reason I’d thought that the floors would be dirty, but the compacted mud they use is amazingly clean and continually swept…and the houses were far cleaner than many of the hotels we have stayed in on our journey here. It was really lovely that they were more than happy for us to have a good look around. One of the women said it was her dream to have a proper brick house.
We then went back to Ushakiran‘ s house for a great dinner and then bed – we all shared the main room, but as guests of honour Martina and I got the cot-type beds to sleep on, while poor Harshit and Pragati got the floor!