I cycled away from the pleasant experience at Bloombuds School and Boarding House, I was on top of the world, smiling and singing to myself. It is often unexpected experiences such that which can make and define a trip. But throughout the course of the morning the elation soon wore off. I had to make three emergency stops, find a bush and do my business which had ramifications affecting my mood and energy levels. Just what I needed when I had over 100 kilometres until Mau, the next significant town. For almost the entire day I was continually calculating and recalculating my time of arrival based on my average speed, I was desperate to arrive before dark.
My odometer ticked over 100 kilometres, I still had 16 kilometres to go but fortunately I had made good progress. I stopped and sat on a stone walled bridge for a snack when two cheerful looking, animated elderly men came and sat next to me. One had a cheeky smile, he could speak very little English but we managed to have a mutually enjoyable exchange. He showed me the headlines of the local paper and I tried to explain what I was doing with an elaborate display of charades. He genuinely couldn’t believe that I had cycled 100 kilometres, called me a liar, smirked and shook his head, then slated me for eating a bruised banana. Apparently the locals would throw them away. To a cycle tourer, a banana, even if bruised and turned to mush is gold dust on an eight hour day.
I waved goodbye to my new friends and cycled the final stretch with a new found vigour. I’m not sure whether it was an endorphin boost from having a laugh with the locals or perhaps the banana, but I felt great and raced into Mau. I cruised the streets anxiously in search of a hotel, with the full expectation of being refused by all and making a detour to find a camping spot. Concentrating too much on staying alive than which direction I was heading, I managed to miss a turn and found myself in the market district, which just so happened to be home to Hotel Adil. Despite its back-alley feel and dilapidated facade, it miraculously held the foreigner license. What a result. It was basic and felt a little like a small prison cell but it had a shower and a pillow, that was all I needed. I was delighted and cooked up a storm on the stone floor, lay back and sighed a long sigh of relief.
By the morning, I had paid the price for not taking the time to splat all the mosquitoes in the room before falling asleep. I woke, face and hands, the only parts of me outside of my sleeping bag liner, covered in bites. I checked myself in the mirror, I had stepped back in time to the adolescent with raging acne, fantastic. Lesson learned.
I packed up to depart on my last solo ride. It was a 114 kilometre day and the most part was spent cycling into a headwind along a dusty, noisy highway. I entertained myself by racing children on bicycles who couldn’t resist trying to overtake me, only to be shamed when I crank through the gears and whizzed past smiling “Come on!” I plugged my ears and pedalled away the hours to my high octane, motivational punk rock playlist.
Sarnath is a small, historic town that lies north, on the outskirts of Varanasi and an important pilgrim site for Buddhists. I spent two days exploring the area visiting temples and ruins but the climax of my visit, except for the ridiculously cheap and delicious Thali, was the Garden of Spiritual Wisdom. In contrast to the days spent fighting crowds and traffic, I spent an entire afternoon laying in absolute peace, reading on the perfectly tended lawn.
The next morning I cycled the final 12 kilometres into Varanasi, stopping off at a bicycle shop to buy a cardboard box for packing my bicycle in readiness for the flight to Sri Lanka. I had arrived an hour too early so I propped myself next to the locals reading the local paper and enjoyed a few bhars of sweet, milky tea, a natural and biodegradable clay alternative to the disposable paper or plastic cups. It never failed to amuse me when a full grown cow just casually wanders up the high street.
I purchased a bike box and checked into the hostel. I usually prefer my own space and avoid dormitories but I thoroughly enjoyed the company of the fellow travellers who I became acquainted with. I had a number of logistical tasks to complete before I could relax and enjoy my final new days in India; sourcing packaging foam and tape, disassembling and packing my bike, sorting through my gear and deciding what to keep and what to send home, send the package of unnecessary items home and then book a taxi big enough to take myself and bike box to the airport.
Taking my bike apart and packing it into a box is an extremely awkward and at times, stressful game of Tetris, and perhaps my least favourite part of a cycle tour. But after a few hours of perseverance and breaking my multi-tool in the process whilst attempting to release one of my pedals, Victouria was tucked away comfortably for the voyage. The hostel was extremely helpful and handled the packaging and sourcing of a courier for the items I planned to send home. I was delighted to be rid of 11 kilograms of kit that I would no longer need in the heat and humidity of Sri Lanka.
I had three days in Varanasi. My time was largely spent in cafes with new, short-term travel companions, wandering and finding myself at many dead ends or lost down the narrow alleyways of the old town and soaking up the atmosphere, people watching and observing the many ceremonies and rituals that take place at the ghats by the River Ganges. Varanasi felt different to the cities I had previously visited in India. As one of, if not the holiest of cities in the country, Varanasi had character and purpose. It was eye opening to witness the significance of the river, not only to worshipers, but also to the locals. At different times of the day you can watch as people bathe, wash their clothes, swim, meditate and even lead their thirsty live stock down to the waters edge for a drink.
I had fallen back into old ways, I was so focused on Sri Lanka that I hadn’t took the time to research Varanasi before I had arrived and found it was quite a shock when faced with a completely naked indigenous man covered from head to toe with white ash. Though, the warm, friendly smiles of the religious Sadhu peoples pierced the initial awkwardness before they continued their holy practices by the hearth before them. The highlight of my short stay and perhaps the most popular tourist activity was a sunrise cruise along the river as the ghats slowly came to life, bathed in a warm orange glow.
I was excited to move on to the sixth and final country of my cycle tour. Sri Lanka had promises of beaches, palm trees and tea plantations. I’m anything but a ‘beach bum’ but it had been almost 5 years since I last swam in sea and there was something special about paddling out into the Indian ocean after seven months of cycling through the Asian continent.
I arrived at Varanasi airport to learn that my first flight had been delayed and I would therefore miss my connecting flight. Fortunately, the airline was extremely helpful and figured the next quickest route to Colombo and printed out the necessary boarding passes. Though this new itinerary resulted in a total of three short flights as opposed to two and I would arrive 12 hours later than planned. I mentally prepared myself for a sleepless night. But at the other end I would be reunited with Mario and an entirely new adventure in an entirely new country with new food, a new culture, a new climate and new people lay ahead.