After 3 continents, 9 countries and 5,000 miles, we have finally found roads worse than Italy! We were kind of expecting it, although we were struggling to see the bottom of some craters! Ronnie and Reggie Ridgeback were being pounded today. But for every bit of poor road (and there was an awful lot), the scenery was worth it. After a sweaty climb we passed through Badrama Wild Life Sanctuary home to Elephant, Tiger, Gour, Sambar, Black Panther, Deer, Wild Boar and many other species. The animals didn’t fancy coming too close to the national highway- don’t blame them with the twattish bus and lorry drivers- but we certainly got a feel for it, cycling through lush tropical jungle/ rainforest, hearing all kinds of birds and other animals, with butterflies darting around our handlebars, we just had to soak it all in. Holly would have loved it especially the signs all over the place of quotes from famous people; one from Leonardo De Vinci read “there will come a time when a man who murders an animal will receive the same punishment as a man who murders another man.”
Reggie’s gears were playing up, but after quick Dom’s diagnostics, we identified a lose handlebar bag which was blocking Jon from changing up. All sorted and we were on our way. The road meandered through large flat rice fields, and then we hit the most amazing village. So many bright clothes, this lively place had a big noisy market, and most women were carrying stuff they were either selling or buying on their heads. I was pleased as we got some gold video footage, Jon still snapping away like a possessed Japanese tourist!
On arrival in Deogarh, things looked bleak, and the only accommodation on offer would have struggled to pass as a stable. But the newly refurbed Hotel Manta Palace came to the rescue with another bargain £10 a night rate.
Lots of people turned up at 7.30 this morning to see us off, including the electrical store owner and one of the cops from last night. Even the mayor turned up! And everyone wanted more photos! Today we were heading for Sambalpur, but as the Italians had been road surfacing some Indian bridges, our progress was slowed up.
This is real India, with lush forest lining the road, monkeys bouncing over the tarmac, lots of hillside temples, and loads of rice fields. And the friendliness continues – we even got a keyring from a petrol station, despite handing him a bag full of our rubbish!
Not a good start – Kalyan very kindly guided us out of the city, but after leaving him we realised we had left the map behind at his house. At least it is one road (national highway 6) to Kolkata so we should be alright.
First stop was Arang (about 40km), where Kalyan’s brother lived. He is a doctor and we met at his pharmacy. The celebrity status continued with people crowding round, recognising us from the paper, and the first person diagnosed with cancer in the town even popped in to say hello. We had a quick veggie lunch at his place, and then off we went, with 6 hours to cover 72 miles to Sarai Puri before sunset.
Around 5pm and still with 14 miles to go, a police Jeep pulled alongside, with the chief asking where we were going. We pulled over and it transpired that he had seen us on TV being given our honour by the Cultural Minister and wanted to help. What a touch – he was in charge of Sarai Puri and we said we were looking for the resthouse. Our understanding was that he would go on ahead and show where to go when we reached the town.
3km to go, and a shout from a roadside restaurant (shack), and the police chief and his officer were waiting for us. This celebrity status is really growing on me. On his instruction people gathered around giving us tea, biscuits and water while we told him about our travels. We thought this was the guesthouse, and were preparing for a war with Vijay and his mosquito mates, but they said we still had 3km to go. On with the bike lights, the police put their lights on and we had our very own escort.
We pulled up the driveway to a crowd of 10 helpers – the chief wanted his photo first, so we all sat on the Jeep’s bonnet. (last time I tried to do that on a police car I almost got arrested!) You see, this guesthouse is for government officials and ministers. It was like our own private house. Then we were asked what we like to drink (alcohol), Jon opted for whisky, me for beer, and off one of the helpers went. Platters of fruit were laid out, and another helper took our dinner order. Chief and his officer were loving it, looking after us, seeing all the photos of our travels, and at dinner were especially interested in our Garmin calorie counter. It turned out that chief was into his fitness, and despite a rounded belly bursting through his rollneck jumper, was very pleased with himself doing 8km of powerwalking a day. He demonstrated this by marching round the table like an Indian Benny Hill. I say blame the iphone, which regularly appears at the dinner table, for what happened next. Jon’s latest ‘app’ is a health calculator, and chief wanted to see how fit he actually was. Plugging in his height and weight, Jon already knew that the result wasn’t going to be pretty. “Too Fat” was its verdict for chief, and the whole dinner table burst out laughing! Possibly the funniest reaction I’ve seen on a persons face for a long time, chief was well put out, and before deciding we should all call it a night, did another 10 laps of power walking around the dinner table, trying in earnest to suck his belly in.
Today was India Republic day, the anniversary of the date where India officially achieved its independence. Kalyan rocked up at our hotel with an abundance of newspapers under his arm, we took our breakfast and went through the articles following the press conference. We managed to get coverage in every major media publication in Chhattisgarh – in total 22 newspapers and 7 TV channels including local, national and international. We were soon recognised by people who had read the articles and either wanted a photo or an autograph- very weird.
The days schedule was much less frantic than yesterday and we took some time to visit a cultural site before the evening event. Kalyan had arranged for us to receive an honour from the Chief Minister in front of 50,000 people; BONKERS doesn’t quite sum it up. Kalyan had briefed me in that I should explain the link between him and I, I had asked Ruhan if he knew anyone in Raipur and he put me in touch with Kalyan, a music director who had worked with Lata Mangueska (India’s most famous signer), I was given a few names to memorise and we had been learning a Chhattisgarhi phrase to say so my head was full to bursting.
We were given seats near the front and when I heard ‘cycle’ mentioned I knew we’d be up. Kalyan got on the mic and said a few words in Chhattisgarhi then invited us up onto the stage. I used to get so nervous speaking publicly even to small rooms of 10 people and before this challenge I would have crumbled for sure but I did my thing told them the message we are sending out is that if you feel something is out of the ordinary, not quite right or you’ve noticed something strange then speak to a medical professional, early detection is vital. You should also speak to family, friends, colleagues anyone you trust, the worst thing you can do is try to fight cancer alone and the most important thing is positivity no matter what your situation positivity is the secret. Dom also said a few words then we said the one phrase we had learned ‘Sable Baria Chhattisgarhi’ which means Chhattisgarh is number one! The audience applauded and cheered and we were shown back to our seats but the crazyness just got more extreme. Soon after we sat down an entire class of public school children came up to us and touched our feet (a sign of respect to elders) and gave us more flowers to wear round our necks. We watched a bit of the show, some children had arranged a dance routine telling the story of Indian independence, and then left. With the show still going on in full swing when we stood up every man and his dog wanted their photo taken with us- we tried to please everyone but after a dozen or so photos we headed past the stage to where the car was parked. Funnily enough the car had been boxed in which left us like sitting ducks to the rapidly expanding crowds, neither of us minded though, it was our moment. One lady came up and congratulated us on a ‘wonderful thing’ that we are doing and said how proud of ourselves we should be and another teenage boy had bought all the newspapers we were in and stood and starred in admiration. Despite our heads inflating bigger than the elephant man it really makes it all worthwhile when people can see and respect that you’re doing a good thing and that they understand your message. The most random thing though had to be when a girl asked us to sign her hand!
Over dinner Kalyan and Krishna talked about how they would like to make an album with Holly and Ruhan to raise further awareness in India- definitely something to look into once the cycling is finished. I’ve been blown over by India and am really keen to come back to do some charity work (but not without Holly next time).
Kalyan had planned the whole days schedule precisely, not even enough time to scratch our arse. Ruhan had told him that we needed maximum awareness in the media and boy did Kalyan come through with some magic. The day started with a live news program where we were connected to a studio in New Delhi- even though the anchor was translating everything I was saying into Hindi without any problems Dom annoyingly kept tapping my leg telling me to slow down which knocked my concentration, fortunately I didn’t trip over my words and the piece came across well. From there it was onto Raipur’s cancer hospital; Mekahara Government Medical Institute where we met some of the cancer patients and spoke to Dr Choudhary; if you think your job is hectic then think again, this guy sees 300 cancer patients everyday!
The biggest cancer problem in India is mouth cancer from people chewing tobacco, but Dr Choudhary also pointed out that there is a need for sanitation awareness as women who are diagnosed with cervical cancer has often stemmed from sexual transmitted diseases from poor hygiene.
After the hospital it was off to press club for our news conference. We received another honour, as well as the traditional bouquet we were each given a trophy, and I was also presented with a fantastic art piece. (see gallery)
Next it was a visit to the India National Congress Party, for yet another honour. Kalyan has been telling everyone that Holly is a famous pop singer in the UK, as big as Michael Jackson! Congress wanted to hear some of her music which captured their full attention – Holly would have loved it. I was also asked to play one of Holly’s tracks on TV talkshow interview later that day. We really need to do some Indian homework – Dom was caught out by Bollywood, and we both know diddily squat about cricket.
Another random one was the evening function we attended – a kids painting competition. Again we were invited up on stage to receive…wait for it…yet another honour – this time from the Cultural Minister. So a brilliant day of publicity for the Tropic of Cancer for Cancer Challenge, and full credit to Mr Kalyan Sen for his coordination. The poor guy was shattered after running around with us all day, and having to translate everything.
Woke up by the world’s noisiest chef literally throwing pans around the kitchen next to our room!. At least we only had a 45 mile morning cycle to Raipur where we had arranged to stay with one of Ruhan Kapoor’s friends, Kalyan Sen. We later found out that Ruhan had asked Kalyan to arrange lots of publicity for us – little did we know…
Trying to understand the directions from Kalyan, we managed to negotiate the tight bustling streets lined with jewellery shops, and meet with him outside the local police station. He was a big friendly greying Indian, with a very relaxed attitude. He had recovered from throat cancer two years ago, and showed us this massive scar on his neck, and with both his parents sadly passing away from cancer, our challenge was very close to his heart. He lived in a large music academy which his father had set up in the 1950s, and after being shown around (also had an auditorium for 1,500 people attached), time for a quick cup of tea and biscuits and then it was off on our press schedule!
First stop was a folk music festival at the school his late father set up. The performers had to contend with two dirty cyclists rocking up and distracting the whole audience. We saw three children perform traditional songs, and when they finished, we had to sign autographs and their school books with our words of wisdom – weird!
We did a quick TV and press interview there, and then lunch was brought in for us – we had to hide away to have a break from the autographs! Kalyan then took us to a pan stall – this is like an Indian mouthwash (weird stones with a brown leaf cover which you are meant to chew), which is very popular – no surprise with the amount of spicy food they eat. Well you should have seen what it did to the pan seller – he would have been less stained if he had tipped a tin of Ronseal wood stain over his head! Needless to say my one went straight in the rubbish bucket, but Jon was happy munching away on old stained leaves for a good 5 minutes.
Then the most random press we have done on the challenge so far. We headed down to the Raipur Flower Show, where we were going to meet the Raipur Mayor and receive an award. We sat at the back, but spent 10 minutes splatting Vijay’s mates, and then over the mic “will Mr Jon and Mr Dom please come up to the stage”. Talk about embarrassing, we sat up on stage with the Mayor and four other judges, while about 100 people came up to collect different awards and trophies for their flower displays. We felt like a couple of prize lemon plants, and then we were invited to say a few words to the audience of around 400! Jon volunteered me, so I reluctantly took the mic, and then had to make up how proud everyone should be of their work, my first impressions of Raipur, and how much my mother would like the plants and flowers on display! Certainly not a highlight of my public speaking career, the interpreter had a bit of a job translating that lot!
We rounded off one manic day with a lovely vegetarian meal (can’t wait until we can eat some red meat again!)
4am and shouting kids, tearing up and down the corridors. Brilliant, nothing like a bit of Indian parental control! So that’s where the packed tutuk of people stayed last night. We counted at least 20 people in one room, and I’m sure that is one funky town bathroom!
The hotel was all locked up, so we got our own back as we wanted to leave at 7am, waking up all the staff to unlock the shutters. Cycling off into the morning mist, the scene was stunning, with the sun rising ahead. Lots of cycling through forest today, so we needed eyes for any threatening wildlife as well as those w**ker bus drivers!
We found a cheap hotel just before Raj Nandgaon, but the owner took it upon himself to befriend us, and when he saw the screensaver on Jon’s phone (Holly in a couple of small bits of fabric), he wanted to talk about her. Jon was not amused and in the end, we had to tell him to do one, so we could get some peace and quiet!
Short cycle to Bhandara today, managed to find an uber cheap hotel next to an internet cafe on the national highway 6 (the road we’re following all the way to Kolkata). As I was checking in I noticed two western guys with a laptop, Dom started talking to them and it turned out Franz and William were travelling across India on motorbikes promoting womens football. Franz had been in India for a couple of years teaching kids in villages how to play football. Their masterplan was arranging 20 womens matches across India, and then take this key development case to FIFAs head office in May before the World Cup. Ironically they had travelled along the national highway 6 in the other direction so we were able to swap some advice on what lies ahead.
In the evening we were just chilling in our stable, when a knock at the door led to 6 policemen inviting them into our room. They wanted to know what we were doing, and then proceeded to go through our bags. One bloke tried to look like he knew how to use a computer in front of his captain, but just about succeeded to open up my documents. Actually, it turned out that they were local political people, nervous of four westerners arriving in their small town.