Excellent, Chubbs knocked on our door and he was only 45 minutes late. We had packed Ronnie and Reggie into two small boxes, so we needed a third just for the wheels. A bit of jigsaw arranging, and I squeezed in the boot, while Jon was in the front with Chubbs and the driver. Jon had to put up with him mumbling away, trying to talk without the spit dribbling out of his mouth!
Navigating the traffic, the driver tried to squeeze onto a slip road that was already packed. A cracking of bumper plastic followed, as our car’s bull bars rammed into the car in front. The driver was not happy, but Chubbs pretty much told the driver of the other car that it was just a scratch (his bumper was hanging off!), stop making a meal out of it and go on your way with wild hand movements – legend!
A bit of excess luggage blagging was required at the airport, luckily we had a newspaper article with us, as we checked in 3 bike boxes, two rear panniers and three other bags! We then amused ourselves watching an Indian having a proper barny at another check-in desk. He got himself so worked up, that I think his friends had to get him a bottle of water to avoid his head from exploding.
A quick transfer in Bangkok, and it wasn’t looking good with the connection as they had mislaid one of our bags. Some frantic calls later, they had tracked it down and we were on our way to Chiang Mai. We were looking forward to our stay at the Amari Rincome Hotel, which had been arranged through their PR company. 4* deluxe room with wi-fi and a hot power shower, now we are talking!
Our ongoing Nokia mince is finally over. The impounded Nokia 6710 Navigator by the jobsworth parcel company (an Indian one isn’t pretty) is now safely in our hands. Thank you to Angus at Wunderman, Young and Rubican and Nokia for providing us with a device holding all key city maps, which will certainly help us when we arrive in Hong Kong.
Next stop was a bike shop for some packing for Ronnie and Reggie. It looked like another Egyptian nightmare of cereal box packaging, until we stumbled upon an 80 year old bike shop came to the rescue. Actually the manager had seen us on TV and was pleased to help.
Saying goodbye to Anthony, he was a bit more chilled today, although still insisted walking very slowly all the way round the stadium to get a street tea – our stomachs have just about got used to this drink. We hope he can arrange a big car to the airport tomorrow otherwise we’ll need to go tutuk customising!
Anthony was running an hour late, not ideal with our schedule today, but explained it was his drivers fault. Not surprising seeing how the traffic is here – it feels like we’ve spent 3½ days of our 4 Kolkata days stuck in a traffic jam!
First stop was Mothers House, Jon upset a nun within about 30 seconds of arriving by taking her photo, but we felt a huge sense of peace standing next to where this great woman was buried. Next stop was one of her centres for the retarded and mentally handicapped people, who would otherwise be suffering out on the streets. Rows of beds lined up in the large dorms, certainly not the nicest place I’ve visited, but at least it was clean and again very peaceful – in contrast to the mayhem of Kolkata’s streets outside the walls.
Back in the car we realised that we were in the midst of another fully absorbing whirlwind of a day – all traffic jam eyes on our car, I really did feel like a celeb. Rocking up at a children’s orphanage, all the frantic phone calls received by Anthony and his assistant (I’ve named Chubbs, as his cheeks are always packed with tobacco) made sense. We walked into a room packed with about 100 children, patiently sitting on the floor waiting to be given a present from a huge santa style sack at the front. We were honoured with flowers and a Bindi, and then had the privilege of handing out the bags of presents to the kids. Complete bedlam was an understatement, but what an amazing moment.
If that didn’t push the kids hyperactivity into overdrive, we then went outside to hand out bars of Dairy Milk, Wispas and Natural Confectionary sweets to hundreds of outstretched arms, before being quickly ushered back into our car and some relative calm! Thank you to PHD and Cadburys for arranging this (we did stash some bars for us too!)
Back to Chubbs – his cheeks are so full of this mouth tobacco (oral cancer is the biggest cancer problem in India), that he could barely speak in case his red saliva dribbled out of his mouth. Every now and again a bucket full of his red spit was projected out of the car window! We just had enough time to woof down some rice and ropey old goat/ chicken or something else (which we obviously left), before getting back to the stadium to collect our bikes for the press conference. We opted to load up the bikes with our luggage before following our driver into the traffic chaos. He informed us that it was just 2km down the road. Well 3 motorway junctions, two flyovers, 45 potholes, several cows, a two wheeled tutuk (work that one out) and a 10 lane roundabout which the police stopped just for us, we arrived 40 minutes late at the entrance of Kolkata Press club, for our press conference. About 40 photographers and cameramen packed the driveway, and before Jon could make it inside, he had to battle 5 TV mics!
The press conference was arranged by Picasona, a healthcare company responsible for funding new hospitals with cancer wards in Kolkata. This was the best conference yet as we were able to really push home why investment and education into early cancer detection is so important, especially testicular cancer. There were top doctors, a bishops and the former Indian Davis cup player/ coach (not my most intelligent question when I asked if he had ever seen a match at Wimbledon – he probably played in several!)
Hold onto your pants bro – the press conference finished after dark and we had to make the same journey back to the stadium – certainly up there with the scariest cycle on the challenge (although Cairo still tops it!)
3rd and 4th February
Today was my birthday and after completing the huge milestone of cycling across India, we felt worthy of a double celebration courtesy of Mum and Dad. We headed south from Kolkata for one night and two days of safaris by boat in the world famous Sunderbans, a vast network of narrow rivers and mangroves. The land is dead flat so in low tide a muddy forest floor is revealed, home to tigers, monkeys, deer, wild boar, crocodiles and many species of birds. But once high tide reaches, much of the visible land submerges, forcing all the wildlife deep into the forest. The tigers often swim between the islands, but sighting are still rare, they have a taste for the ocassional human when they fancy something different, and the last death was just a week before we arrived – a local fisherman was seen as easy prey.
The camp was all-inclusive, we took that literally and were keen to get our monies worth. So we turned up with a dustbin bag full of our funky washing, which hadn’t been washed properly since Nagpur. You should have seen their faces when they opened the bag to reveal filthy diesel covered cycle jerseys, salty sweaty shorts and crusty socks. As one guy examined the clothes (at full arms length) he said something in Bengali to his colleague, tears rolling down his face from the odour, I think it translated to something along the lines of “Ganesh, get the masks and that industrial strength powder, cancel your plans for tonight this might take a while”.
Dom had already negotiated 20% off the cost of the tour, but we caused further bemusement when we only had half the cash on us, miles from any ATM. We agreed to settle the remainder back in Kolkata where there could be room for further negotiation. The camp was awesome, it had won a number of awards for creating jobs, being eco friendly and preserving the natural habitat.
The local villagers put on a special play for us before dinner, telling us a mythical story about some prince who didn’t wish to share his birthright land, at least I think that was what it was about, as it was all in Bengali.
The bungalows were comfortable, Vijay and his army were kept at bay by the trusty mosquito nets, although there was an annoying 500 decibel frog outside our room, but that didn’t stop the best night sleep we both had in ages. Probably helped by the two large bottles of strong kingfisher to celebrate my birthday!
We did get a great shot of a tiger swimming (ok, so it was a picture hanging on the wall of our bungalow, but it came out really well), saw lizards, crocodiles, kingfishers, hawks, deer and wild boar. An amazing two days, we have to say a big thank you to Help Tourism (www.helptourism.com ) for their generous charity discount, and it was great to learn more about their conservation projects across India, when we arrived back at their office in Kolkata.
Got up early today, food parcels at the ready, excited at a monumental milestone of reaching Kolkata. Along the way we amused ourselves by shouting “small cock” at any beeping moped driver, but after at least 100 went past, it became a tad boring! 70 miles later and we hit the outskirts – one word – mayhem! We were meeting our contact (Anthony) at 4pm at Salt Lake stadium which was a good spot that all the taxi drivers knew, and arrived early about 2.45pm.
Wembley stadium it wasn’t, although there was almost the same police presence at the main gate. This was one crumbling football stadium (worse than any I had seen in Argentina or Brazil), but we were told the accommodation was good, so we held our breath as Anthony guided us through the damp corridors to the state Youth Hostel. Actually there was a match on (which explains the police presence), but 1,000 rupees a night, you are having a laugh mate!
We bit our lips as we were very appreciative that Anthony had rearranged his work schedule to meet us. And slowly it sunk in how respectful we should be. This very old formal gentleman, worked with/ and was a very good friend with Mother Teresa and is now president of her International Awards Committee. Amazing. An old school Roman Catholic, he said that God’s wish was to clear his diary of appointments today so he could met us – our late Grandfather would have been so proud.
Later that evening, two of our parcels arrived from England. It was the consignment from Cadburys, packed with Dairy Milk, Wispas and Natural Confectionary Sweets, and our visas for the next countries. Thank you to Tommy, Charlotte and the Cadburys client – you made my day and Jon has some chocolate for his birthday tomorrow. We do have to try and save some, as Anthony is arranging for us to see all the areas of Mother Teresa’s work, and two hospitals on 5th Feb when we return from Sunderbans.
There was another guest who was staying at the resthouse, and he told us that we must inform the local police when entering West Bengal as it is a very dangerous stretch of road. After volunteering Jon to go inside the police station, they were grateful to us for letting them know and off we went. A few kilometres on we could see why. Passing the riot policevans, burnt out lorries and cars littered the road, which was tightly lined by very dense forest, and we put 2 and 2 together. Renaming it “hijack highway”, we were pleased not be cycling this at night.
As it was a shorter ride today to Kharangpur, we got there about lunchtime, and after dismissing one hotel which was like a truckers knocking shop, we found ourselves in a very raw town, with lots of creative descriptions of lodging. Our first hotel mincing in India isn’t bad, and luckily we found a nice garden restaurant and motel shortly after.
Bit worried about today’s cycle. We need to cover 94 miles to get to a town where we think there might be a hotel. Everyone we’ve asked has said yes, but we now know that the Indians say yes to everything!
We set off early, with the committee of hotel workers asking loads of questions – I think it was about 6 staff to 1 guest. We were also loaded with our veg bryriani food parcels, which we are getting the hang of, but they kicked off about an accidently smashed sprite bottle, and tried to charge a security deposit – jokers – in no uncertain terms we told them no!
Jon’s turn to struggle a bit, especially as we hit the worse type of hills for him – long straight gradual inclines, but after lunch make up for it with great downhill through thick rainforest today. The road opened up into a dry, rugged landscape with jagged rocks lining the road. And perfect perches for the wild monkeys. I was actually quite nervous that one would jump up on the panniers, as a few hissed and made snarling faces as we raced past. A little like our first day of the challenge cycling through areas of Kent, avoiding the chavs and their pushchairs!
When a motorcycle pulled alongside, we thought it was another “heading for Kolkata, from Bombay, with my brother mate”, but actually turned out to be our shinning light. Although my initial impressions were cold after he gobbed out some pan spit (looks like blood) onto the road in front of me, Kumar guided us 1km to a government resthouse and showed us where some restaurants were on his motorbike – legend. At only 150rupees a night (£2.50) it was our best deal yet, although another visit from the cops meant more explanations of exactly what we were thinking to cycle the National Highway 6 across India.
We braced ourselves for the monster hill climb today, which we had seen on the veloroute.org map three weeks ago. The breathtaking scenery continued, and even when we started climbing up the 1km elevation, and the blue coloured mountains rolled into the distance, our love for India grew even stronger.
A small village didn’t know what had hit them when we stopped to get some well earnt sprite, although I don’t think kiosk man was too happy that I dumped our 8 empty water bottles and lunchtime rubbish on his sprite crates!
Racing down the hills to sea level, we found a government hotel on outskirts, but I don’t think they’ve had any guests before. They didn’t know what to do, 6 people hanging about were trying to help, but being more annoying than anything, I felt sick and faint and just wanted to collapse in the room. And then no power for an hour – brilliant, so we sat in the dark waiting for something to happen. Luckily the one redeeming point of another shabby digs was that they had sat TV, so able to watch the Dark Knight in English!