Mumbai to Udaipur, Day One

Mark is antsy to leave Mumbai, as am I. It’s ridiculously hot and sticky here, and the nights are all but sleepless for me between the heat, the noise, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head till sunrise. I have killed so many, in flight and perched in waiting, that the walls of our room are streaked with blood. Outside our windows, closed, comes the incessant yelping, barking and shrieking of the street dogs, testimony of their hard lives and struggle to survive. It is not a happy lot here for a dog that I can see, most of whom are emaciated, mangy and wounded.

We leave Mumbai with a view to arrive in Udaipur in two days. We are riding a 150cc Hero Impulse that Mark purchased with the help of his friend Divy, a young fashion designer to whom he was introduced several years ago by Tiffany. Divy not only located the bike for sale and negotiated the necessary repairs with a local mechanic, but also made arrangements for the bike to be registered and insured in his name since foreigners aren’t allowed them in theirs. Divy is polite and friendly, with a powerful wanderlust much like Mark’s and mine. We met up with him the day after he returned from a three week trip to Japan. 

In Mumbai, the streets were buzzing constantly with cars, trucks, taxis, tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters, people pushing carts, bicycles, pedestrians, cows, and dogs. The cars, from what I gathered, are driven by India’s emerging middle class. The masses however (and never has that word felt more appropriate to me than it does here, in this city of ~ 20 million people) can’t afford cars, hence the abundance of aforementioned modes of transport. 

As we drive north on Highway 48 and leave the city behind, the only thing that changes are the presence of more trucks, and the improved quality of the tarmac. These are a few observations that I, from the entitled vantage point of the pillion, have the freedom to make:

  • Motorcycles and scooters, many 2, 3, 4, even 5 up, some carrying cargo in front of or behind the driver or between the driver and a passenger, lane-split constantly around cars and trucks that are too big to do so. For the most part, these bikes have engines less than 150 cc in size.
  • Though wearing a helmet is now compulsory in India, more than half of the drivers I see aren’t wearing one; the vast majority of pillions, even young children, aren’t wearing one. Infants in arms or laps are a common sight.
  • Many of the women wearing sarees (which is most of them), sit side saddle. A lot of them also wear sandals or flip-flops, as do the drivers.
  • At speeds of up to 50 kilometers per hour from time to time, Mark and I are moving faster than most of the other motorcycles and scooters on the highway. I wonder if this is because the rest are so heavily weighed down, the little engines can’t go any faster, or if the slower speed is compensation for the lack of helmets and any protective gear whatsoever.
  • Cows wander along the perimeters and as we approach cities and towns, they cross the highways and lay down on them.
  • Dogs do the same. We pass more than one fatality.
  • Small fires are burning on either side of the road, and by the acrid smell of burnt rubber and plastic, it must be trash.
  • Every body of water that is covered by a bridge has a sign announcing “Bridge over …” (River whatever)
  • The median strips grow wider and greener, with brightly colored pink bushes popping up. Azaleas?
  • Many of the trucks are brightly colored as well, with designs, symbols, and logos. Many sport decorations such as streamers, tinsel or pom-poms from the bumpers, and artificial flowers tied to the antennas. The fronts are painted with Goods Carriage, All India Permit and the like, while the backs have messages designed for the overtaking traffic: Horn Okay, Please Sound Horn, Blow Horn, or simply, Horn Please; Wait for Side; Please Use Dipper at Night; and India is Great.
  • A truck with Hare Krishna on its side drives by, evoking a childhood memory of young robed men with shaved heads in the 1970’s, chanting and spreading the word.
  • Everyone is beeping their horn almost constantly. It’s nerve wracking. Every now and then a truck will make a sound that reminds me more of a cell phone ring tone than a vehicle horn.
  • From out of nowhere I smell cloves. Later, fennel.
  • Alongside the highway at irregular intervals – some miles apart, others side by side for a mile or more – are restaurants that go by the name hotel. They have names like Hotel Relief, and Hotel Decent. If you want to find a place to sleep, you have to look for one that has the word Rooms. We stop at one to have a cup of tea. When I get back to the bike after using the toilet, a man with 2 little girls is talking to Mark. He introduces them to me as his daughters, and explains to us that this is the first time in their lives they have encountered foreigners. They are lovely little girls, maybe 5 and 7, in matching pink polka dotted dresses and short haircuts. They shake my hand and say their names. They are utterly charming.

We call it a day in the state of Gujarat, staying at Hotel Novus in Bharuch. There is no hot water in the shower, and the water from the tap is so salty we can’t drink it. When I ask for the complimentary bottle of mineral water that we were told came with the room, they charge us for it. The beds however are comfortable, and for the first time since I arrived in India, I get through the night without a single mosquito bite. Five stars.


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