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22 July 2015

Tour Director Annie Owen leads ACE’s adventurous exploration of Gujarat: Traditional Crafts and Tribal Communities. A photographer, printmaker and illustrator, Annie has a passion for the Indian subcontinent, where she has travelled regularly and extensively for over 20 years. When we caught up with Annie recently, we asked what first drew her to this special country.

"I first travelled to India in 1991, because I wanted to see two things: the Taj Mahal and a tiger. I wrote children’s books at the time, and my passport gave my occupation as ‘author/illustrator’. I arrived at passport control and the guard, wearing flip-flops with his khaki uniform and unconcerned by the 300 other passengers waiting in line, grinned broadly and demanded ‘draw me!’ I fell in love with the country at that moment and have been back over and over again, each time finding something new to intrigue and fascinate me."

When Annie went on to mention that one of her visits to India comprised a solo bicycle ride from Pushkar to Udaipur – a journey of over 450km through Rajasthan – we in the ACE office could hardly believe our ears! Fascinated, we asked to hear more. Below is part one of Annie’s incredible journey. Join us tomorrow as the story continues…

Lead Me To The Lake Palace: Part One

Tour Director Annie Owen leads ACE’s adventurous exploration of Gujarat: Traditional Crafts and Tribal Communities. A photographer, printmaker and illustrator, Annie has a passion for the Indian subcontinent, where she has travelled regularly and extensively for over 20 years. When we caught up with Annie recently, we asked what first drew her to this special country.

"I first travelled to India in 1991, because I wanted to see two things: the Taj Mahal and a tiger. I wrote children’s books at the time, and my passport gave my occupation as ‘author/illustrator’. I arrived at passport control and the guard, wearing flip-flops with his khaki uniform and unconcerned by the 300 other passengers waiting in line, grinned broadly and demanded ‘draw me!’ I fell in love with the country at that moment and have been back over and over again, each time finding something new to intrigue and fascinate me."

When Annie went on to mention that one of her visits to India comprised a solo bicycle ride from Pushkar to Udaipur – a journey of over 450km through Rajasthan – we in the ACE office could hardly believe our ears! Fascinated, we asked to hear more. Below is part one of Annie’s incredible journey. Join us tomorrow as the story continues…

LEAD ME TO THE LAKE PALACE

By Annie Owen

There was a distinct lack of ceremony as I lowered my brand new bike, bought and ‘personalised’ with gears the previous day in Jaipur, from the roof rack onto the sandy ground. Three local men sipped their chai in the early morning sun as they watched me ease myself through my own quirky range of warm-up exercises, don my alien helmet and climb onto my trusty steed to cycle off into the distance. I felt very alone and very determined as I set off from the holy desert city of Pushkar heading for the fabulous Lake Palace in Udaipur. This ride was going to take 6 days and cover over 450 km. A long way.

I was to be shadowed throughout the ride by my good and patient friend, driving his Ambassador car containing large quantities of water, energy powder, almonds, bananas, sun cream and bicycle spare bits, and from which he would cheerfully encourage me to carry on, calling confidently “You are finding this easy!” as I ploughed along in the midday heat longing to stop, or ground a little further up a hill, swearing silently to myself and wondering, grimly, how he would know.

 

 

 

DAY 1

Pushkar was only a few miles behind me when I began to climb the ‘Snake Mountain’. I am not good at hills, preferring long days of dogged cycling and rewarding distances. I wondered nervously what I had taken on as both my temperature and that of the air rose higher and my little computer failed to clock up more than a few kilometres. I fretted as I gulped water. Would I make it? But I did, and the road levelled out a little. Soon I had passed the 20km distance, which is the minimum I allow myself before a chai-stop. Only 430 km to go.

As soon as I pulled up at any chai-wallah’s village stall, I was surrounded by large groups of men gazing at a) my amazing headgear, b) my bicycle’s unusual and impressive ten gears and c) themselves in my posy reflective European sunglasses. Indian village men are very vain about their appearances and some considerable turban adjustment took place. Someone held my hot, sweet chai while I lifted the rear wheel off the ground and changed a few gears up and down to murmurs of understanding and appreciation, a performance which was to repeat itself many, many times over the next 6 days! I swallowed my now tepid brew, the crowd parted, I waved at the 30 or so people beaming down at me from the roof of a passing bus, and pedalled off past 2 surprised pigs and some sniggering schoolboys and out of the village.

It was hot. I stopped from time to time to take photographs when the colours of the women’s saris or men’s turbans proved just too irresistable, or somebody had balanced an unusually ludicrous number of items on their head, or a tractor was carrying a record number of gossiping workers back home. Each time, far ahead, my friend would spot this and wait until I caught him up again when I would point breathlessly at my water bottle and he would fill it up from the lukewarm stock in the car. I nibbled almonds or ate a warm and squishy banana then carried on. I began to feel really tired. I discovered that I had covered 60km and it was early afternoon. No villages appeared on the deserted road and I realised the importance of organised meal stops. Bananas and almonds just don’t quite do enough.

After another 10km or so I knew I needed to stop and get out of the scorching sun for a few minutes. I spotted a tree and three small houses, left the bike and staggered to the shade where a bemused and kind lady in an orange sari modestly covered her head as she indicated a string charpai onto which I sank gratefully but not gracefully.

The children gazed in fascination at this pink and perspiring woman. I hesitated to look at them directly as my unfamiliar and very pale blue eyes often result in babies screaming in fright, but these children were not bothered. A younger woman tugged at the teats of a nearby goat, milking it directly into a pan which she then boiled for chai which I drank gladly. A few words in Hindi and a great deal of smiling and pointing expressed (I hope) my thanks, then I was off again, somewhat revived but by the time we reached Piplar Town, late in the afternoon, the sun was sinking low and I was exhausted.

I looked at rooms in the tiny town’s 2 hotels but they were indescribably filthy, already occupied by wildlife and had not been used for months. I peered philosophically at the back seat of the Ambassador car, preparing myself for desperate measures. I certainly couldn’t cycle another metre and felt tired enough to sleep anywhere but my friend could see this and suggested trying the dhaba he had spotted on the highway on the edge of the of town. Soon I was swigging water and watching someone clear a dusty store-room of boxes, and carry a charpai inside it. Three youths spent some time cleaning a nearby toilet for me. I washed, albeit publicly under a cold tap and changed into clean clothes. Bliss! I was handed a large plate of fresh steaming rice with a generous dish of dahl, which I devoured with gusto, giving me just enough strength to locate my emergency half bottle of whisky from which I took a large gulp and gazed up at the stars. I slept well that night.

 

To be continued…

More information on Annie's upcoming tour to Gujarat can be found here.

 
 
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