I feel absolutely ridiculous complaining about it, but it’s been tough. I just don’t know what to do with myself. An existential struggle, I suppose. Some would call it a good problem, but it fills me with doubt and I have no clear path or vision for my future.
I must disclose to you my immediate circumstances. I live with my extraordinarily generous and patient parents who support me fully and ask for less than a pinch of responsibility in return. I generally laze about the house and accomplish little to nothing with my days. I drink too much and spend most of my active time socializing. That, in all fairness, has been great. But it can’t go on forever.
And I had a dream once. I wanted to wander through some places that, in today’s world, count as difficult or dangerous. It wasn’t slashing through the Amazon, sure, but it was something that took preparation and confidence. I would go overland, circling the Arabian Sea from India and making my way south through Africa. And I was ready.
And then I skidded off the road and flipped over my handle bars. The doctor could have felt my heart hit the floor when he told me I needed surgery.
I sought a second opinion. I confidently told my parents the big, private hospitals would take care of me. World class medicine, all that. At my third hospital in two days, I watched the doctor lean back, lifting the x-ray to the light. He looked at me evenly.
“I believe your best option is returning to your home country.”
So here I am. And I’m more lost than I ever was on the side of some rural road with an idling bike and a map and a gaggle of English-free rice farmers smiling at me.
Is it ridiculous, saying something like that? I have money and no obligations, and I could just ship off and wander a bunch more, either back in South Asia or, really, anywhere else in the world. But it doesn’t feel right. I just don’t find inspiration in it the way I used to. The wanderlust seems to have dried up. I think.
The other main option – workrentgroceriesdataplan – has its appeal, but it is also far from inspiring. When I returned from my last trip, I’d been away for two years and felt ready to settle down and live a centered life for a while. But this time I got cut off halfway through. It was a forced homecoming.
Hence the doubt. I’ve started preparing cover letters and sending in resumes. If I get a good job that makes me feel like I’m contributing I could see myself staying. But it’s hard because the jobs I really want I’m completely unqualified for.
I’m about eighty percent sure that I’ll slog it out for now. My life as a traveler isn’t over, I hope, but it is on hiatus. I’m sorry for taking so long to wrap up my trip and explain what happened, but I have only recently come to terms with it myself. There was supposed to be so much more.
I’ll try to post a few retrospectives soon. I hope it won’t take me as long to come up with them as it did to write this.
Traveling with your parents is different from traveling on your own. Didn’t you know?
They arrived in Delhi at three in the morning. I was still drunk when I awoke to them banging on the window next to my bed. Good thing our room was on the ground floor, otherwise they would have had trouble rousing me from my sedative induced slumber. The reunion was sweet, if blurry. I hadn’t seen them in almost seven months. Not a massively long time but my parents and I are quite close and we get along well. I’d missed them.
It’s great to spend time with them again, but it isn’t without sacrifice. Inevitably my travel style has been forced to change. They only have a month and obviously operate on a different budget from mine. Our hotel in Delhi cost ten times what I consider my maximum expenditure for a room. It was nice and, miraculously for the city, quiet. We ate at fancy rooftop restaurants with suited wait staff. Yum.
It hasn’t all been upscale tourism, however. We took the sparkling new metro around the capital, ate in some local restaurants, and booked our train tickets by going to the railway station ourselves, rather than through a travel agency. I’m fairly certain my parents wouldn’t have attempted some of these things if I wasn’t here to hold their hands. When a sleazy tout outside the station told us that the booking office was closed for Commonwealth Games renovations (office is closing for the painting), I sneered at him and went into the station anyway. My mom, having read the “scams” section in the Lonely Planet, knew he was bullshitting, but I could see the doubt in her eyes as he confidently asked us to accompany him to the ‘temporary booking office’. We’ve since heard from other tourists that, at these offices, the staff will apologetically explain that the three hundred rupee train you want has been canceled, but for only ten thousand rupees a taxi might be possible…
Now, though, they are doing fine without me. My dad went and had street-side chai with some neighbourhood men this morning before mom and I were even up. A few days ago my mom spent some time with local women looking through the photos in the guidebook. Upon finding a spread of women draped in a rainbow of saris, they discussed for some time the various fashion decisions – bangle arrangements; colour schemes; nose, ear, and toe rings. They had no English, my mom no Hindi, yet an amicable exchange was made. India is like that – the locals generally love everyone, making it easy to explore. I write this as my parents wander the fort and city of Jodhpur on their own. I decided a chill morning in the hotel was in order.
And that, perhaps, is the largest difference between travel now and travel pre-parents. We are always doing or seeing. Admittedly, Rajasthan (the state we’re moving through) is full of interesting cultural, geographical, and historical sights – forts, palaces, desert sand dunes, intricately painted village homes – but I still enjoy taking the time to relax. Indian streets are not relaxing.
I’m not accusing mom and dad of being ‘listers’, those with a set itinerary of must-sees and can’t-be-misseds. We plan each few days at a time, enjoying where we are and worrying about the next bridge when we get there. But still my mom does her homework on the internet, checking out hotel reviews and reading the LP thoroughly for advice, which is fine. But sometimes you need to get your nose out of the guidebook, not worry about what there is to see or do, and just enjoy the atmosphere, smell, and sound. Well, the smell and sound are often not so enjoyable, but they should still be absorbed.
We’ve been successful, nevertheless, with local buses and such. I say successful, which in India means only that we’ve arrived at the destination we intended within a general time frame we expected. Our bus here from Jaisalmer had perhaps twenty-five seats and fifteen sleeper berths, but approximately eighty people on board. When we arrived in town it took five minutes for our massive clown car to empty out. During the trip I had five teenage boys reading my (English) book over my shoulder, watching every selection I made on my iPod. They hadn’t heard of The Tragically Hip (which is, by the way, amazing desert road music).
And so things are fine. I couldn’t travel like this all the time, but for a month I should be okay. It’ll probably be difficult to get back into moldy, ghetto hotels once they leave, but I’ll be happy to be eating with locals most of the time (the food is generally amazing and ridiculously cheap). What I miss most is the complete freedom that solo travel on a motorcycle brings. I leave towns when I want, without having to arrange a driver or book a train. I stop where and when I want, rather than at restaurants the bus driver chooses, based on which ones pay him enough commission. I do things at my pace.
And, best of all, I get to ride my Tara. I miss her so.
My mom wrote a guest post for the site. Enjoy.
I have been trying to blow the vegetable dyed powder off of Evan’s computer. Today is Holi, the Hindu celebration of spring, and all morning coloured powder has been thrown about. In anticipation Evan suggested we all buy cheap clothes that could be thrown out after, and right now he and his Dad are off to a family celebration of an all round entrepreneur named Jimmy that we met across the street from our hotel (don’t ask). I took down the license number of the auto rickshaw just in case.
By now you will know this is not Evan, but his mom. We are on day 5 here in India, and it has been quite the time. Evan started us off with a gentle orientation to the madness of Delhi by taking us to that most Indian of institutions, the main railway station, not once but twice on our first day, hunting for his motorcycle which had been shipped from Chennai after he left by train to join us.
After scrambling to keep up with him through the masses, wandering through dark crumbling rooms along the platform, he was reunited with his precious bike, and then because it did not have any petrol and he forgot his keys, he abandoned us to find our way back to our lovely little hotel through one of the craziest of bazaars by ourselves. We passed, and it has been “bring it on” ever since.
You can approach India cautiously, or remotely, carefully or with disdain. We have decided to go for it, albeit at a slightly upgraded level than Evan is used to. We have ridden the Delhi metro (a dream compared to the TTC), taken many auto-rickshaw rides, which Ken compares to bumper car rides at the Ex and walked through slums and alleys where we greeted people and they greeted us. Evan has a smattering of Hindi and people love him for it, that and his playfulness result in singular street interactions.
Not that there are not issues. I have never felt fearful, but you have to kind of judge how much being ripped off you are prepared to take, and a certain tolerance level makes the money fueled interaction more enjoyable. Today I danced with some sari garbed women with drums, had my face layered with florescent pink powder and was expected to offer up some contribution, which I did happily (50 rupees, just over a dollar). They were laughing and giggling and so was I. Last night two boys with a drum asked politely if we would like to see their puppet show, and they sang us three songs, explained they were not yet fully trained puppet masters, so they would only make the puppets dance, not tell the ancient stories. When finished they looked up expectantly and Ken and Evan paid up a generous $5.00.
Rickshaw drivers expect you to bargain and you know that even when they have come down, you are paying three times what the local pays, but who cares? It is India.
Big excitement this morning. As Canada and the US were playing for Gold, India and Pakistan were playing at the World Cup of Field Hockey. When we booked this hotel in Jaipur, the state capital of Rajasthan, Evan asked carefully if the rooms had TV and ESPN. Assured they did, we booked and after arrival he spent most of the day harassing the staff about the fact he couldn’t find the essential channel on our TV, and once found, then about the quality of the picture. They even traded TVs at one point, and the hotel’s owner promised that if it was not acceptable he cold come to his home and watch it there.
The game started here at 1:45 am so this was quite a commitment! We have been all a bit sleep deprived, we arrived in India at 3 am and stayed up talking the first night, the second night, suffering from sensory overload, couldn’t sleep, the third night had to be up at 4am to catch the Dehli/Jaipur express, but none the less we set the alarm and watched (Ken and I vaguely) the game. India won their match too.
We have not worried about what we eat. Good food, mainly vegetarian, though we did have a great Tandoori goat leg the other night. Street food is good too, though every thing is cooked in boiling oil.
Fruits are wonderful. The only concession we have made is bottled water, which we drink lots of. It’s hot here but bearable. Our two hotels have been great, the one in Delhi reasonably priced by Delhi standards at just over $100.00 and the one here, not quite as well appointed (no bar fridge), but clean and spacious at about $40.00 a night. We have already learned to look for hotels with courtyards and gardens. The calm is wonderful after the chaos outside and the birds are great.
So far so good. I think it will be a bit hard for Evan, this is a bit of an adjustment, traveling with your parents. While we are not listers, we do like to visit museums and tourist sites, and so we are slowly reaching some kind of balance between “hanging out” and visiting the gorgeous forts built by the Mughals and the tombs and gardens they are justly famous for. Also its hard for Evan to be part of the backpacker scene while he has two 60 year-olds in tow. Occasionally we all need our own space and so that is why I am typing in the garden of our hotel while they are out at the Holi party. Ken and I visited the fabulous Humanyan Tomb and walked thru the Lodi gardens without Evan, bravely traveling round by ourselves.
I am trying hard not to be parent like, but its hard. I made him get up and wash his feet the other day before he put them on the bed, so I haven’t been too successful, but we are trying. Check in with us after another week or so and see how we are doing.
There’s no denying the hassles of India. I’ve focused mainly on the good parts but that isn’t entirely honest. Travel here can be a bitch – the harassment from touts, the lack of personal space, the maddening traffic – and I might as well admit it. But despite the frustrations that permeate this country I really do love it.
Before you even arrive you hear stories. OmygodtheheatgarbagesomuchpovertyTHESMELL. It’s been said before and yes, things can be crazy and chaotic. The first few days, inevitably in a major hub like Bombay or Calcutta, can trigger an existential crisis. My visa is good for a year but on day three in Delhi I was questioning my whole trip. It’s important you stick through this period and try to appreciate the humour of it all.
You’ll find it difficult to laugh, at first. But with time and plenty of patience it will come. It helps to remember that every infuriating experience just ends up being a great story. Allow me to demonstrate, using an experience from just a couple days back.
My train from Chennai to Delhi – a 34 hour mission – was scheduled to leave at 10pm. I pulled in on Tara at eight, giving myself two full hours to arrange to have her packed up and loaded on the luggage car. I ran out of gas just in front of the station. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because you have to empty the tank before it can be transported anyway. But it did result in a ridiculous experience.
A group of auto-rickshaw drivers ran over. They indicated with shouts of NO PARKING and gestures around the corner that I wasn’t supposed to stop there. I asked after parcel booking. This was met with more points around the corner and a chorus of parking, parking! Like people everywhere, Indians have a wonderful ability to hear what they think they know you are saying, rather than actually listening to you. I had to repeat my request for the booking office several times before they managed to shut each other up and pointed toward the station.
Now began discussions of packing! In order to load the bike on the train, she needed to be wrapped up to prevent scratches or dents when crammed in with other baggage. I went through the same thing in Varanasi, but the station there is much smaller and I had only two people offering their services. Now I had about 8 locals gathered around, some of them from the original crew of rickshaw drivers who had insisted I couldn’t park where I was parked. Others had sort of materialized out of nowhere.
They tried different tactics. Some of them took me gently by the arm and whispered things like good packing, my friend into my ear, their breath hot on my neck. Others pushed the close-talkers away while sucking their teeth, assuring me loudly and confidently they were cheap and best. I began asking for prices. The tallest man assured me that, at five-hundred rupees (eleven dollars), he was offering the best price. I burst out laughing.
In Varanasi I’d had it done for 100 rupees, and they’d done such a good job I tipped them another thirty. These guys, a group of misfits if I’d ever seen them, wanted five times as much. I took my bags off Tara with a flourish, alternating between exaggerated laughter and disbelieving utterances of pahnch-soh rupee (five hundred rupees in Hindi). I slung my bags over my shoulder and began walking toward the station, intent on finding the booking office and looking into packing with them. The men watched me walk away, yelling sir! sir! packing!?
NYA PACKING! I bellowed over my shoulder, feigning anger. PANCH-SOH RUPEE?! BAH HAHAHAHAH!
Most of them looked crestfallen, though a few grinned at me, appreciating the theatrics. I thought I’d made my point.
It took me a while to navigate through the madness of Chennai Central, but eventually I found the office and asked after packing. The balding official behind the intricately barred window told me you bringing the bike here, please. I asked how much for packing. He repeated his request, intent on not interfering in my bargaining with the packing wallahs who inhabit the station. I pressed him again. One hundred ten, he muttered.
I wandered back out. Weaving through crowds of colourful sari-clad women sleeping on the station floor with babies tucked under arms, I got a little lost again. I emerged and found my way back to where I’d left Tara. She was gone. I looked around frantically, visions of vindictive locals speeding through my mind. I saw a crowd of men in the nearby rickshaw parking lot, and sure enough Tara occupied the middle of their circle.
I walked quickly toward them, yelling out HEY, NO FUCKING PACKING. As I crossed the raised median to enter the parking lot I stepped down into an ankle deep pool of stagnant water that reeked of garbage and piss. Gross. I was hoping they wouldn’t notice, because it would seriously hamper the emotion I was trying to show. Though this was around when I stopped faking the anger and began actually feeling it.
There is a point, even after seven months here, when this country makes you lose it. Slipping on my stinking, soaked flip flop, I roughly shoved the men who didn’t back away from Tara quickly enough, kicked up her stand and began pushing her toward the station. They called after me, a few of them following alongside, pleading with me for packing, sir? I told them to get their hands off my bike. They acquiesced.
I quickly jogged her up into the building, calling out for wandering locals to clear the way. Inside, I began bargaining with the packing wallahs who started at three hundred. Ek-soh das, one hundred ten, I told them flatly. They shook their heads and quoted several different prices. One them tried the close talk again, whispering that he was the best at two hundred. I returned the favour, but instead of speaking into his ear, I menacingly leaned into his face. His glassy, bloodshot eyes widened as I came only a few inches away. No, I growled. Ek. Soh. Das. He agreed.
I tried to cool down as they packed. The Chennai night was hot and muggy, and I was sweating heavily from the anger and effort of running the bike through the station. I needed some water, but didn’t want to let them pack the bike without my supervision. I flapped my collar to get some air, and tried joking with the loitering locals to calm myself. They had seen the bargaining go down and were amused by my firmness and grasp of Hindi. They asked where I was from, and gave knowing nods when I told them I was Canadian. My tension began to melt.
The bike now packed, I shoved my forms and paperwork through the bars at the balding official. He took one look at Tara’s registration and snorted. This original. Needing copies, pl
The hopeless romantic in me is alive and well.
Between the days of diving and the evenings of low key parties, there hasn’t been much time or impetus for writing. Scuba diving is an experience that resists description – until you try it you can’t quite understand what it’s like. The setting has the opposite problem: it so perfectly fits the tropical paradise bill it’s cliched.
Still, a few words on where I am are necessary. The Andaman Islands sit much closer to Burma than to the Indian mainland, but the British set up a penal colony for Indian dissidents and, following Japanese occupation in WWII, they were incorporated into the newly independent India. Geographically, they have much more in common with South-East rather than South Asia. The sand is creamy white and soft, like baby powder. The water that idyllic turquoise that adorns postcards taped to computer monitors in Canadian offices. My home is a rickety bamboo and wood structure looking in on a sandy courtyard of coconut palms. It’s beautiful and basic.
The simplicity, however, makes it hard to write. Unlike the crazy days of motorcycle crashes and cliff-edge roads, here I find myself lost in a blissful monotony of beach, hammock, book, food. It’s a holiday from traveling. The diving provides some keyboard-worthy highlights, no doubt, but I don’t really think I can do justice to the sensations of weightlessness and peace. The visuals are intense – tiny tropical fish, intricate coral structures, soaring sea turtles – and the empty darkness of the night dive was unforgettable. But if you aren’t a diver, how much common ground can there be?
Eventually, my laptop-opening motivation came from a girl. I can’t figure out if I should be surprised.
She arrived with a friend from university who was meeting me here. They’d been on the same flight from the mainland and had taken the ferry together. Because I had booked a room where I was staying for the friend, she decided to come check it out.
The instant we locked eyes I felt something. I saw in her face, in her sharp intake of breath, that she felt it too. I’ve never had that happen to me before. I was instantly worried and tried to play it cool through the introductions. A newly-minted doctor from Germany, though she hasn’t really lived there for years. My name is Evan.
One well acknowledged facet of the backpacker scene is the easy hook up. In party-centered spots such as the Thai beaches people are free from the social pressures of home and lubricated by local whiskey. Things begin and end quickly. There is an unspoken agreement to leave out any emotional attachment, both parties fully aware of the temporary existence that comes with traveling. And it’s fine.
In India, things are different. People are in the country for longer and can spend more time in the places they visit. They are often slightly older (say, 26 instead of 21) and more focused on culture, history and/or spirituality. Alcohol is taboo, taxed or even banned in certain areas, owing to the devout nature of local custom. Travelers talk in term of connections, not getting laid. Things remain temporary, obviously, but less so.
The situation is unique. It’s a middle ground that allows for beautiful relationships with deep emotional links without much risk of painful breakups. You know you only have a week or three together so you allow things to get intense quickly and you part in bittersweet acceptance. I made a mistake with this system last fall, getting too attached after a month with a girl up in the mountains. We went separate ways for two months and, when I tried to rendezvous with her down south, I found she’d met another guy. It was painful but entirely my fault. A learning experience.
With the doctor, things developed in a hurry yet felt natural. I found myself revealing things to her, things I reserve for my closest friends or family. She reciprocated and we would spend hours just prodding and poking. There was trust. She challenged me intellectually and didn’t hesitate to call me on my bullshit. I had to be sharp with her, any laziness would be pounced upon.
She was also jaw-dropping.
Now she’s gone. I want to be melodramatic but it doesn’t feel right. If we reconnect, wonderful. She’s a traveler and so am I. Odds are, however, that we’ll never see each other again. And it’s fine.
And therein lies perhaps the most valuable and life-touching aspect of long term backpacking: the other travelers. People from all over the world with amazing stories and experiences and perspectives. They barely know you and they push you and inquire into you, forcing you to inquire into yourself. You barely know them and you trust them and share rooms with them, talking about their fears and dreams before you know their age or last name. And, after all you’ve shared, you may never see them again.
And it’s fine.
I want to start off this piece with a thank you. I really appreciate you reading what I post up here, especially considering it is happening with less and less frequency. I am privileged to know you. Unless, of course, this is the first time you’ve ever visited the site and the timing is just a coincidence. In that case… welcome!
Since my lazy lack of adventures over Christmas and New Years on Om Beach, I’ve covered a lot of ground on Tara. I’ve been to some undeniably authentic Indian cities, such as the one-time royal capital Mysore and Calicut. I’ve seen thousand year old temples built during the Cholan empire, which spread Hinduism far beyond India. It is to these kings we, as global backpackers, owe a massive debt, as without them the wonders of Angkor Wat and the idiosyncratic culture of Bali wouldn’t exist. I’ve been to a zoo where I watched a Bengal tiger and two lions try to out roar each other. I watched ten men haul a huge, levered fishing net out of the sea for a piddling handful of tiny fish.
While the bounty of the deep is in question, it did serve up an obvious highlight. I visited the very south tip of the subcontinent, Kanyakumari (Cape Comorin). There I watched the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean meet and mingle, getting to know each other (a little too) well. I wasn’t alone, either. I just happened to find myself there during a state-wide winter festival of Hindu pilgrimages. And the Tamil new year. Oh, and there was an eclipse. On the morning of January 15th, I joined some many thousands of Indian tourists, pilgrims, and families, as well as a handful of overwhelmed foreigners, to watch the sunrise. That afternoon the sun was reduced to a shimmering ring around the dark silhouette of the moon. At this very auspicious (love that word) moment, I plunged into three seas at the same time, and floated in the eery half-light of a solar eclipse.
Otherwise, the South has been a disappointment. Making comparisons is often difficult when traveling, as places are good for different reasons. But there is little doubt in my mind, now, when I consider the great dichotomy in traveling India: North or South? For me, North India represents the heart of the country in all its stimulation and frustration. South India, alas, is too touristy, too easy, and too expensive.
I should, out of fairness, give the South its due. I have come through it during the peak tourist season, when prices inflate dramatically and short term tourists abound. This has limited the sense of adventure. As well, I’ve stuck to a fairly tried and true tourist regiment, stopping in the major centres and seeing the major sights. Distances are shorter down here, compacted by the geographical slimming of the continent, and so I spend less time driving on Tara through village and field, and more time in cities.
There are some interesting draws, without a doubt. A Keralan local claimed that his state is a third Hindu, a third Muslim, and a third Christian. I saw far more mosques and churches than temples in Kerala, so I haven’t felt to need to verify this independently. Most of the churches are either Portuguese or, interestingly, Syrian. A throwback to the good old days of Christian Syrian merchants, sailing the seas and, obviously, pounding the Bible around. I tried to withdraw some rupees from the Catholic Syrian Bank, but the ATM was out of order. Damn.
I went out for dinner with a local man and a group of his friends in Trivandrum, Kerala’s state capital. The man, who I’d met on the beach over New Year, was Hindu, but his friends were a mix of Muslim and Christian. I described how Canada is big enough to fit three Indias within it, yet has a population approximately equivalent to Bombay. We discussed a little of my latent Christianity as we ate fish, beef, and chicken while drinking several beers. I think all of our Gods disapproved. The beef was delicious, if holy. Tandoori seafood, not to rub it in, is divine.
Yes the food down here is an obvious one, but warrants a mention. In Mangalore (not to be confused with Bangalore), I had chicken roasted in ghee, a clarified butter. It was incredibly rich and tender, melting in my mouth and exploding with fatty flavour. Southern thalis (set meals) come on a slab of banana leaf, with a pile of rice and several small dollops of various veg curries and soupy dhals. You basically mix it all around with your hands like a chunky finger painting, then scoop up misshapen orbs of rice and curry and stuff them into your mouth. The flavours blend beautifully, and the tactile sensation of the hot rice and mushy curry adds to the enjoyment. I’ve been eating with my hands for the last few months, and am starting to worry about how you’ll treat me when I return home and start packing my mashed potatoes and gravy into little balls with my fingers. Don’t judge.
Despite the culinary treats, my tour through the South is about to end. I’m currently in Pondicherry, the erstwhile French colony that still maintains just enough of a whiff of its Gallic roots to deserve a few days – despite the extraordinarily overpriced food. From here I’ll head to the pentasyllabic Mamallapuram, and then to Chennai to catch the boat out to the Andaman Islands. I’ll live on a beach, dive, snorkel, hammock, read, etc for a few weeks before heading up to Delhi to meet my parents, who arrive at the end of February. Until next time…
In the lull between Christmas and the New Year most travelers seem to be moving. One spot for the holiday, one for the party. Lots of people are heading north to Goa, where the beaches are busier and pricier yet maintain more nightlife. Here in Gokarna, the only parties are groups of revelers around beach fires sipping on rum and pulling on hash joints.
It’s a good time, to say the least, but for many it’s simply too relaxed. They want throbbing bass lines and laser light shows and world class DJ’s. Not I.
I’ll stay here, sleeping in the same bamboo and palm leaf beach hut, enjoying tandoori calamari at the same couple of restaurants, reading on the same patch of sand, floating in the same bit of Arabian Sea. It’s repetitive, sure. But stressful it is not.
I’ll take this opportunity (I hope) to impart on this site some observations and musings I’ve been developing during my time on the road. You may have noticed that the vast majority of my blog posts are focused on where I am and things I’m seeing. On mishaps with Tara or adventures with locals. What I haven’t done is sum up India in and of itself, regardless of my interactions with it. A brief introduction follows, but I hope you’ll see a few more posts up here before the end of the decade.
It isn’t immediately obvious when you first arrive, but India is a startlingly multicultural country. For many of us it’s difficult to distinguish even between people of different South Asian nationalities, let alone within the countries themselves. Yet only half of the population of Nepal is actually Nepali by ethnicity, even if they’re all (mostly) citizens. In India, with the population exceeding a billion and a civilization as old as civilization itself, the differences can be startling.
In the mountainous north, every valley has its own traditional clothing, festivals and delicacies. Even many of the facial features and body types differ between the various regions. Many Himalaya residents resemble Tibetans more than Indians, with Buddhism dominating. Just to the west is Islamic Kashmir, where locals have sharper features and are just as likely to have red hair as black, and green eyes as brown. I’ve been asked several times if I was Kashmiri.
In the south of the country skin tones are darker and facial features more rounded than in the north. There is considerable overlap, obviously, as millennia of migration and regional warfare mix bloodlines. But I’ve learned to recognize a South Indian from a North Indian. Noting differences in regional languages helps make the distinction, but it isn’t an easy process.
In India, there are 18 official languages and over 250 recognized dialects. Despite being the official language of the federal government and of most entertainment (Bollywood included), Hindi is only spoken as a first language by 20 percent of the population. As a result many locals are multilingual, speaking passable Hindi and English in addition to their mother tongues.
The other major regional wild card is the food. Ah, the food. In all its glory, Indian food must rank amongst the great cuisines of the world. It is most easily split along geographical lines, with the Northern styles most common back home. Punjabi dishes such as malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and palak (saag) paneer dominate restaurants all across the north and central regions of the country. In the South, one finds spicier dishes such as vindaloos and also crepe-like dosas, stuffed with potato curry and served with a coconut chutney.
But the real key to local Indian food are the smaller distinctions – the local delicacies. Unlike the vegetarian dominated Indian food, Kashmiri food involves lots of meat – especially goat and chicken. Lamb rogan josh is a personal favourite. In Calcutta, street stalls sell egg rolls – the closest thing to a breakfast burrito you’ll find. Even smaller towns and cities will boast a particular sweet or dish as locally famous. Samosas are ubiquitous yet in certain places they come with chick pea curry and curd (yogurt) and in others potato curry and green chilli sauce.
Even something as simple as a cup of chai carries with it different flavours and serving styles. In the northeast cities, such as Varanasi, the tea comes in a small clay cup which is amusingly smashed on the ground when emptied. Apparently this used to be more common, as the idea of reusing a glass touched by a member of a lower caste was unimaginable. I can’t help but wonder if economics, rather than a relaxing of caste-based discrimination, had an effect on this policy changing over much of the country. At three rupees (seven cents) a cup, it must be hard to justify giving a wholly new vessel to each customer. Far in the north of India, at an altitude of 4000m, I had the best cup of chai yet. Up there, with access difficult to important spices, the locals grow their own on the mountainsides, often using wild ingredients. It was a spicy tea, almost too much so. Amazing.
I’ve only been here for five months, but already I feel better equipped to recognize the profound diversity that exists in the subcontinent. I try to stop at sweet shops in every town I’m in and ask for whatever they make locally. I walk into local restaurants and suss out what most of the people are eating, then order ‘one plate,’ pointing at someone’s meal. Sometimes, depending on the English abilities of the staff and clientele, I have absolutely no idea what I’m eating.
When I come home (eventually), I’ll spend some time searching out regional Indian restaurants. I’m just a little worried the chai will be a let down.
It’s Christmas Eve and I’m on a beach in India. I sort of expect a little homesickness or loneliness to sneak through this time of year.
But I sit here, eating a breakfast of fruit and yogurt muesli and listening to the surf crash into the golden sand, and I feel fine. I miss you, no doubt, and wish you could be here with me, but other than that I don’t really feel the need to come home. I have to give a good chunk of credit to the weather, which is so perfect here it’s embarrassing. I’m fully aware of the atmospheric happenings back home in Toronto and I have absolutely no desire to switch this for that.
Here my most stressful moments involve dodging cow shit on the beach. Yes, even on the beach there are cows everywhere. They plod slowly through the sand browsing for carelessly unguarded morsels. I watched one devour the thorny leaves lopped from the top of a pineapple. A grumpy bull with imposing horns ate a plastic juggling ball that some hippies had left lying about. He chewed on it for about five minutes but eventually got it down. Much consternation amongst the hippies.
Other than cow watching, there isn’t much for us to do here. Maybe I’ll play cricket with some domestic tourists and English backpackers (I’m a terrible bowler, but am making improvements in my batting). Perhaps lie on my back in the Arabian Sea and watch the sea eagles wheel above the palm fringed jungle that lines the beach. Their wings are two shades of chocolate, their heads and chests the colour of fresh cream. They soar effortlessly in the coastal breezes and thermal updrafts, making a mockery of even our best attempts to be free.
‘Us’ is a motley crew of internationals, ever evolving as some split off and others are assimilated. The family, as we call it, has its roots in Varanasi, where 11 people from 10 countries played soccer in the sand on the banks of the holy Ganges. Across the river from us smoke rose from a dozen funeral pyres, the families watching quietly as their loved ones returned to the goddess of the river. Since then the core of the group moved to Arambol beach in Goa, where more members were initiated with a game of soccer near the waves. This ended in disaster, naturally, as Andy from London broke his toe trying to separate a Russian tourist from the ball. Indeed Russian and European holidaymakers (two-weekers, or T-dubs, as we call them) have taken over Goa, it seems, so we’ve moved south to quieter beaches in the next state Karnataka.
Which is where I currently find myself. On the only-in-India named Om Beach, near the holy town of Gokarna, where beards and dreadlocks are ubiquitous. The family now consists of Andy, Andrew from Melbourne, Grace from Wellington (NZ), and the upcoming arrivals of Nils from Sweden and his Israeli friend Martin. We’ve also met a pair of Argentinians and a trio from South England (the cricketers) who were interested in our plans for Christmas Dinner and Secret Santa. This last idea should be especially hilarious, as there is no shopping on this beach (a world away from Goa) other than the occasional jewelry or fresh fruit vendor who stalks the sand harassing sunbathers. I get the impression everyone is going to be getting a bracelet and a half dozen bananas this year. Maybe a papaya.
I’m considering bottling some sea water. Swimming at night here is a trip in and of itself, regardless of what you’ve been rolling in your cigarettes. It’s hard to describe phosphorescence to someone who’s never seen it, but imagine millions of neon green fireflies in the water who only light up when you agitate them. The white foam that trails behind your hands and feet as you swim turns to bright green, and the ocean lights up around you in a thousand tiny flashes. It’s a scene, man.
So Merry Christmas. Don’t let the weather (or the man) get you down.
I had crashed. A village man and his wife were lying on the road next to me, their bike as smashed up as mine. I lay there for a second breathing heavily, my heart pounding. I pulled myself to my feet. The adrenaline dulled the pain, so I had to visually analyze myself for injury.
About two months ago I named my bike. It’s actually quite a good story. Sorry for waiting this long to tell it.
Ever since I saw the Indian army guys riding their Enfields, I’ve wanted to paint my bike green. I loved the look of the dark, army green on the old-school, WWII style bikes. It’s remarkably cheap to have it painted, and it personalizes the bike. But, first, I needed a name.
In Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, I took a ten day Buddhist philosophy and meditation course. We learned all about different Buddhist deities and some mantras (repetitive prayers) you could do to them. Some of the more religious aspects of the course were difficult to swallow, but many lessons were more practical and applicable to everyday life.
After the ten days had finished, I returned to town and found a hotel. Trying to have a shower, I realized I didn’t have my towel. I had left it back up at the monastery where we’d taken the course. No problem, I thought, this is why we travel by bike. So I rode up the hill out of town.
Arriving at the monastery, I said hello to the monks and volunteers and grabbed my towel. I hopped back on the bike and headed out. As I rolled through the little village nearby, I saw the nun who had been our main teacher at a chai shop. I pulled over to thank her again for all the lectures. She gave me a hug and wished me well. Noticing the idling bike outside, she asked if it was mine. Yes, I said, it was.
“This is very dangerous, you realize?”
“Yes, it is, but so far so good,” I said happily. Knock wood.
“You know what you must do? You must do your mantras to Tara. Especially Green Tara, she is the protector. Ask her for protection on your bike.”
Tara, eh? Green, you say? Well, my Buddhist nun teacher, you’ve just named my bike.
So, now on Tara, I began the customization process. I bought a two piece brown leather seat. I rode to Rishikesh and, through my Scottish friend Ross, was introduced to a trustworthy mechanic. I left my bike with him when I went trekking to a glacier, with instructions to paint it. Now she’s a matte green, with black trim and chrome piping. I also had a sticker guy outfit the front license plate with her name in an appropriately esoteric font: TARA.
She’s a beaut, an absolute stunner. Her vintage styling, as the pre-1990s (she’s from 1980) bikes were still built to WWII design, along with the new colour scheme… I get lots of compliments. She probably gets more attention than I do (deservedly).
So Tara and I were south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, on the road the Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2600 years ago. The afternoon was getting on so I was in a hurry. Driving at night is never fun, as it’s hard to see potholes or people (both are everywhere) and the bugs are out in force. I was going about as fast as the bike comfortably goes, around 65km/h, when rounding a bend I saw a motorbike parked on my side (the left) of the road. It was beneath a tunnel of tree tops, which shaded the road attractively. Without thinking, I moved out into the center of the road to pass by.
I saw the second bike come out from behind the parked one at the last second. A villager and his wife were on their little 100cc bike, and clearly didn’t see me coming as they pulled out. I slammed on my brakes, locking my rear wheel into a skid as I tried to steer to the right, the far side of the road, to avoid him. But, instead of stopping, he accelerated in an attempt to cross the road in front of me. This moved him, of course, to the same side I was now leaning toward.
I was probably doing at least forty five or fifty when I smashed, head on, into him. They say it all moves in slow motion when things like this happen and such was the case for me. I remember twice yelling paisahb, which means ’sir’, as I saw him pulling out. At first it was a short, desperate, (hilariously) shrill, PAISAHB!! I remember a sinking feeling in my chest as I realized that we were going to crash, that there was nothing I could do to avoid it. Oh shit, I thought, here it is. I remember bracing myself, flexing my muscles and clenching my jaw. This, along with the fact that I was on the heavier and faster vehicle, is probably what led to me escaping relatively unscathed.
My second paisahb was through gritted teeth and only halfway through when we hit (as in paisah-BAM). I was thrown to the right, Tara’s rear wheel lifting off the tarmac and twisting in midair. I rolled and lay there on my back, breathing and staring at the sky in shock. I pulled myself to my feet almost immediately. Checking myself over, I had another shock when I realized I was fine. I felt a little pain in my knees, elbows and wrists. A trickle of blood from a few tiny spots of road rash on my hands and joints. Otherwise nothing.
I looked over to where the man lay on the asphalt. He was woozy and bleeding from his nose. Locals (who, I gathered, he had been talking with on the side of the road before pulling out) ran over and carried him and his wife to the side of the road. She was wailing and clutching him, but physically unharmed as far as I could see. The man lay there, bleeding, with a faraway look in his eyes. I crumpled at his feet. Unable to communicate my sorrow verbally, I touched my forehead to his toes and said paisahb over and over again.
The other villagers, now growing in number, pulled me to my feet shaking their heads. They clearly thought that I was not in the wrong and so shouldn’t be showing such strong deference. Issues of blame hadn’t quite crossed my mind at this point. I automatically assumed responsibility mostly due to the fact that this was his country and I was the foreigner. I was, therefore, in the wrong. If I wasn’t joy riding around his country this never would have happened.
I have heard from other biking foreigners that the best thing to do when you get in an accident is flee the scene immediately. They told me horror stories about mobs of angry villagers beating foreigners and having them arrested. That no matter whose fault it was they’ll always blame you and hold you financially or criminally responsible. God forbid you ever hit a cow.
I had no such experience. The locals were very supportive and making sure I was okay. I said tikka, tikka, saab tikka (good, good, all good). I helped them pull the two crumpled bikes off the road. We put the man, who was now fully conscious and doing fine, in an ambulance and his wife followed on the back on another bike. I sat on the side of the road breathing, fighting back tears of shock and fear. I was physically fine but shaken badly. The locals, in standard form, simply stood in a circle around me and stared. A few who spoke some English showed up and were quite helpful. I asked them about getting a truck and whether I should go back to Patna or toward Bodhgaya. They told me to wait for the police.
We waited for the police for over an hour. I crossed the road away from the gathered villagers and sat alone on the dirt shoulder, staring into the rice fields. Children played with old bike tires and sticks, running down a dirt path keeping the tire rolling. Water buffalo rolled in a little pond. Some villagers squatted in rice fields, cutting the stalks at the root and flattening them down to dry in the sun. I cried quietly. I called my friend Steve from Montreal and discussed what I should do with the bike. He told me to get to the biggest city nearby, as it would have the best mechanics. He asked if I was all right. Yeah, I’m fine, I lied. For the first time in the past four months, I really, truly missed you all.
The police arrived in the form of five men in camouflage with automatic rifles and thick moustaches. The villagers told them what had happened. The story was obviously sympathetic to my cause, because their first questions for me were about how I was doing and whether I wanted to make any case against the man I had hit. I asked them if the man and his wife were okay. They assured me everyone was fine. I told them, using my best Hinglish and gesturing to myself and the people gathered around me: this is important, yes? People are important, not bike. Bike is only money. Money not important. They all nodded sagely. I wrote down my passport, visa and bike information, as well as my address in Canada and my father’s name (?). The police seemed satisfied.
Attention turned, however, to Tara. A local man with decent English had set off on his bike to find a truck because, otherwise, she was not going anywhere. The front wheel and fender were smashed and twisted. Both front forks and shock absorbers were cracked in several places, contorted wildly and oozing shocker oil all over the road. The headset, the heavy piece above the handlebars that houses the headlight as well as the speedometer, had a huge crack down the side. Both the brake and clutch levers were broken. The only things on the entire front part of the bike that survived were the handlebars themselves, the headlight (miraculously) and the small number plate with the gold and black lettering: TARA.
A small, pickup sized flatbed truck arrived. We spent some time loading Tara into the back and tying her down. It was now dark. We tried to drive back to Patna to a mechanic, but the headlights didn’t work on the truck. Much arguing between the truck driver and some locals. We drove, with the hazard lights flashing in the darkness, back over potholes to the nearest village. I sat in the cab and watched about twenty different locals take a shot at flicking the headlight knob off and on, wondering why their magic touch didn’t get it working. I even had a go.
Another hour sitting in a chai shop on the side of the road with the police. A second truck finally arrived, again with the same enterprising local man leading it in. It was actually more of a auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle crossed with a pickup truck. But it did have a decent flatbed in the back, just big enough to shift Tara out of first truck and tie her down, again. I thanked the man who had found both trucks profusely, but he refused my offer of money. A saint, he was.
We rattled back up the highway and into the teeming city. Patna was still busy in the darkness. We checked hotel after hotel but all of them were full. Just outside of town a massive livestock fair was underway. It took another hour to find a hotel with any vacancy, and it was the worst place I’ve stayed in the country. For a ridiculous 600 rupees, about 14 dollars, I had a grubby room with a leaky bathroom. The windows were busted – one of them was lazily covered by a piece of styrofoam – so mosquitos flooded into the room all night. I slept terribly there.
The next day I took a bicycle rickshaw to a street lined with auto mechanics. I found one guy who said he knew Enfields, but I doubted the sincerity of this. The damage was extensive enough that I wanted a serious mechanic with lots of experience on Bullets, rather than just some 100cc scooter guy who would fiddle around. We found a bicycle-flatbed guy to bring the bike from the hotel, and during this process I noticed an official Royal Enfield showroom and shop.
It was probably a little more expensive, but the uniformed mechanics were so confident and smooth during the day that I felt great watching her get stripped down and rebuilt. Tara was whole again, to the tune of about $300.
I’m also doing much better. I’ve spent some time chilling out under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. I’ve since made it to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism, where I’ve met a great international crew of travelers. I’ve spent evenings watching football (soccer) and playing poker. We even played some football on the bank of the Ganges here. It’s been a nice recovery.