It was 7 in the morning when I woke up in the small town of Baraut. I promptly went back to sleep and did not get up until 9. I’d arrived here at nightfall and stayed up late fixing a punctured rear tire. Sleep had been good and under blankets it was nice and warm. The air was still one of early spring, hovering around a refreshing 12 degrees. The hotel room was pleasant for 1000 rupees, with my only gripe being the lack of hot water. Showering the night before had been enough to get me shivering. But as I said, the blankets were comfy and warm.
Baraut is a good example of an Uttar Pradesh town. It stands on the intersection of two main roads which run through its center. As you get closer to the town, the main road gets more and more stuffed with cars, busses, vans, trucks, donkey carts, tuk-tuks, three-wheeled bicycles, two-wheeled bicycles, horses, dogs, push-carts, moving platforms and obviously people. Traffic slows to a crawl. With all of this the noise skyrockets. So does the pollution, as deep black diesel exhausts mix with thick clouds of dust. At the end of the first day of riding I spent some time coughing to clear my lungs and air pipes. I would not have been surprised if the black goop clogging my nostrils had turned out to be flammable.
The traffic is a blast to observe – people trying to squeeze into every tiny opening in the hopes of moving forward, not thinking that in the process they fill the oncoming lane which means that nobody’s going anywhere. It’s funny. At least when you’re on a bicycle and there’s still room enough for you to bypass others.
The roadsides are just as interesting – filled with ramshackle workshops for vehicles of different sizes, eateries (I cannot in full honesty call them restaurants, but that doesn’t make the food any less good), junk-shops, fruit and snack stalls, children playing, youngsters walking home from school, vehicles parked in the most irrational locations, garbage heaps (in some places the ever-present garbage is more concentrated) and animals who are so blasé that you could drive into them and they wouldn’t care.
When the traffic gets too congested to see properly, then you’ve reached the intersection, the center of town. Here smaller roads branch out into the town and metal workers are replaced by clothes and grocery stores, jewelers, tailors, textile shops and pharmacies. The air above the streets is filled with shop signs, banners, blinking lights and wires. Oh the tangles of wires. The exhaust and dust permeate these narrow streets as well.
But the colors and sounds distract you from that, especially when the temples start their horns and drums, or the mosques call out for prayer. Both of these religious places (and the odd church) blend right into the messy hubbub of everyday life. From a distance you might spot minarets or the golden tip of a Hindu temple, but on the ground level most of these places are just as dusty as the any other building on the street. Here, religious places are not destinations for tourists or pilgrims, but part of everyday life. And if everyday life is colorful on the inside but dusty on the out, then so are the places of worship.