Mumbai to Udaipur, Days Two and Three

We get off to a good start in the morning but after a couple of hours we have gotten hopelessly lost around the city of Vadodara. Our mistake is getting off National Highway 48, thinking we will save time by avoiding Ahmedabad. (In general the highway is in excellent condition, in contrast to city streets with their crumbling and broken asphalt and concrete, frequent speed bumps, and lack of signage toward state and national roads.) By the time we have found the 48 again, it’s clear we aren’t going to make our reservation in Udaipur this evening. We pull over and call the guest house to let them know.

As we drive further north in Gujarat, the land becomes more agricultural. In spite of this, the roads are still packed with vehicles as well as people and animals. The cows are either very dumb or supremely confident of their sacred status, wandering as they do with, into and across lanes of traffic. Some even lie down on the road itself while others choose the sandy median strip with its flowering bougainvillea (wild plumes of magenta, white, yellow, coral, lavender and pale gold shooting out in all directions) on which to repose. In the hours and miles we spend on the road, we witness not a single injury to a bovine.

In spite of road signs informing drivers “Don’t Drive in Wrong Direction,” many vehicles come barreling down the inside lane (we even witness one hugging the right (fast) lane) as if they can’t be bothered to drive the half mile or so to the next u-turn opportunity to go in the right direction.

The people tend to walk along the edges of the highway, but here too I marvel at the risks they take, some crossing over the median strip or walking parallel to it into the oncoming cars and trucks. I see lots of women, wearing sarees and bare feet, carrying atop their heads: pots, baskets, sticks, huge bags (flour? lentils? rice?). We whiz past a bobbing haystack, then a small tree, beneath each one a tiny woman, her back straight as a board. I have not yet seen an Indian with poor posture. 

In the fields little fires burn and smoulder, and I wonder if this is a small scale form of slash and burn farming. Further on we pass banana plantations, then field after field of green and brown stalks dotted with white, cotton I think. Tractors begin appearing on the roads and the cattle have changed to the breeds with the large neck hump and big horns I’ve always associated with India (Brahman?). Goats and sheep begin to make an appearance also, in herds for the most part, and we see donkeys, several all white ones, including one that has faint pink stripes painted onto it. We also see what appears to be a wild pig, peacocks and peahens, camels (Dromedary, with one hump rather than Bactrian, with two), and one lone monkey sitting on a fence along the highway. 

In Himmitnagar we pass beautiful murals painted on the walls along both sides of the road, the pictures telling stories or conveying messages: “No tobacco world day” and “Save Tree”. A bus passes us with “Namaste and Well Come Aboard” written across the side. Every now and then a woman driving a scooter (rare) or motorcycle (rarer) will roar past us, her body leaning forward on the bike, hands tight on the grips. I have come to think of them, especially the ones dressed all in black with their robes flowing behind them and their head scarves covering all but their eyes, as ninjas. Entering a small town we pass a funeral procession carrying the coffin on their shoulders, singing, in the middle of the road. They are brightly but smartly dressed.

We stop every hour or so, usually just to stretch our legs and drink water. Every second or third stop is at one of the roadside “hotels” to have a cup of tea and something small to eat, and use the toilet. The servers (they are always men) hand us the menus then stand by the table waiting for us to decide what we want. I place my order, consistently and fervently pleading with the waiters to leave out the spice. “I promise you,” they tell me. “No spice? No problem!” But whatever I am served sets my mouth on fire. They hover over us, watching us eat, but they don’t bring the bill until we ask for it. Back at the bike, people coming and going crowd around us, sometimes greeting us or asking a question but more often just staring. They get in close, cross their arms, and lean in, looking intently at the motorcycle controls, at our gear, at our faces and bodies. There is no such thing as personal space here, and curiosity is a virtue.

In the state of Rajesthan we start seeing camels more frequently, pulling carts now rather than wandering freely, and black buffalo walking on the roads or working in the fields, their friends the little white cattle egrets riding on their backs or following close behind. We notice cows decorated with flowers, greenery and tassels, ribbons and tinsel tied to their horns and between their ears, tiara-like. They must be fairly docile to allow that, powerful creatures that they are.

The landscape too begins to change. A tall, skinny cactus-like plant grows in thick clumps, and the palm trees, so abundant before, are scarce now. The air is drier, the dirt is sandier, and there are fewer vehicles on the highway. This is what I feel the most, the space that has opened up with the dramatic decline in population. Suddenly I can see high hills in the distance with nothing between them and the road but miles of land covered with trees, rocks and nothingness. For several seconds at a time there is no vehicle on our tail, no truck to pass, no staring pedestrian to avoid hitting. It’s the first time since I arrived in India that I’ve gotten a sense of how vast this country truly is.

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