Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Mom and Pop Shop

Thursday, March 18th, 2010

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.

Mother India

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

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.

Hassles, frustrations and love.

Thursday, February 25th, 2010
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 panch-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 almost seven months here, when this country makes you lose it. Slipping on my stinking, soaked right 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, please. Fuck. I had forgotten to get copies of the papers. I sighed, hoisted my heavy backpack on my shoulders once again, and ambled out into the steamy darkness.
Twenty minutes of wandering through cycle-rickshaws and buses, I had my copies. I made my way back, assuring all sorts of transport wallahs that I didn’t need their services. I got to the office to see several locals in front of me, each with their arm through the bars waving forms and rupees. I was frustrated again, now as much with myself for forgetting the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy as with the red tape itself. I waited patiently for the locals to book their packages before adding my sheaf of papers to the desk.
While the paperwork was being completed, the portly station manager appeared at my side. He began explaining that the luggage car was full and I wouldn’t be able to take the bike on the train. It would have to wait for tomorrow. I smiled winningly at him and assured him that saab-kooch milega, anything is possible. He furrowed his brow, confused. I was trying Hindi on a Tamil speaker, which was more than useless: it was counter-productive. The Tamils are resentful of the Northern, Hindi-speaking establishment. Many of them refuse to learn Hindi or refuse to speak it even if they understand.
I dropped the Hindi and began pleading with him to get Tara on my train. I didn’t want to be in Delhi without her. He explained that I had booked her too late, that it was now less than an hour before departure. I gaped at him.
How could I explain to this man the last hour or so? The rickshaw drivers, the packing wallahs, the paperwork, the wandering the streets asking for Xerox? Xerox possible? I shouldn’t have stopped for that chai. I wanted to explode, but there was no one to blame. India had done me in.
But the station manager smiled, took me by the arm. How long you are staying in Delhi, sir? A few days, I mumbled. Excellent sir, then you are having no problem. I am taking care of your bike. It is on the same train tomorrow. I promise this, sir. You are waiting one day then going to Delhi station. The bike is waiting for you then.
I took a deep breath and thanked him, shook his hand. I went and said goodbye to Tara, which amused the loiterers greatly. I explained that she was my wife, that I’d spent more money on her than any girlfriend I’d ever had. The joke slayed my audience, as it always does. I bought myself a magazine and some biscuits and made my way to the platform. I boarded the train, finding my pallet and saying hello to the men with whom I’d share the four-bed berth. They were Southerners who were heading north for business. We exchanged names and pleasantries.
After a few minutes of polite banter, one of them asked the inevitable.
So, what is your thinking of India?
I smiled without hesitating. I love this country.

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

Island Travels

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

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.

The South

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

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…

A lull and Indian diversity.

Monday, December 28th, 2009

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.

Christmas

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

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.

Tara and a Crash.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

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.

Tara

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).

Tara 2

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 paisahBAM). 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.

Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s difficult to know where to begin. I wrote a piece about my drive into Nepal, I thought it appropriate to pen something on my drive out. As you may or may not be aware, the model of motorcycle I’m driving is a Royal Enfield Bullet. And one thing about bullets, for all you CSI fans out there: the exit is always messier than the entrance.

After my trek and some time living it up in the supremely touristy Pokhara, I slipped off to the small hilltop village of Bandipur. I’d had it recommended to me by a few locals along the way (as well as a few tourists, and the Lonely Planet) so I checked it out. It was nice, a quiet place with nothing to do but walk in the fields and hills around town or sit at a table on the flagstones and drink tea. A little too popular with the domestic tourists, however, who fill the village square and play ringtones on their mobiles well after the power is shut off and everyone is sitting around by candlelight. Such is travel in Asia.

From there I zoomed south and east, making for the border. A few hours out from Birganj, the border town, I heard a noise. Ignoring it (optimistically), I continued until I was sputtering to a stop on the side of the road with nothing in sight but rice fields and water buffalo and a single lonely farmhouse. Standing in front of this farmhouse was a young man, in his late teens perhaps, staring at me. I began checking the few things I know to check when the engine stops – spark plug, petrol line, air filter, carburator. Everything seemed in order. The young man sauntered over and asked if there was a problem. Assuming the worst (correctly), I asked after a mechanic. A few kilometers further down the road, he said, in the next little town.

Walking down the road slowly while trying to stay upbeat, I realized a few km is quite a ways in the midday heat. A farmer on a tractor came up behind me with another villager perched on the back. I flagged him down hopefully and, without much hesitation, he pulled over so I could hop on. I smiled and mimed motorcycle mechanic to them (to do this, stick out your hands like you are holding handle bars, then twist your right hand as if revving a throttle, then mime a wrenching motion). They nodded and on we went.

There was no mechanic in the next town. I asked two different men who both spoke some English and they were both quite confident I was out of luck. Both said the same thing: only in Parsa, 7 km back the other way. Sighing, I flagged down a local bus and hopped aboard. We puttered down the highway, passing the farmhouse with my bike sitting lonely out front. Seven klicks and five rupees (about seven cents) later, I was in Parsa at a mechanic.

The mechanics there were busy, and none of them seemed too excited about having to go four or so kilometers to look at some stupid tourist’s Bullet. They rarely, if ever, get Bullets driving through this part of Nepal (though they’re not unheard of in richer Kathmandu) so these guys probably weren’t too comfortable working on them. I sat there watching them poke around a little scooter for twenty minutes and started getting impatient. I asked about going and checking it out and was told to ‘just wait’ a few times. Two of the mechanics were just sort of watching the main wrench doing all the work, so again I asked if we could get moving. ‘Just wait.’

Eventually I got fed up and walked off looking for another mechanic. I found one, but he wouldn’t go take a look down the road either. ‘Bring you bike here,’ he said. Yeah. I stood on the side of the road for a minute. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to the original shop and simply wait patiently for them to come with me to take a look. I had already walked off, so returning would have been admitting defeat, or something. Immature, I realize. Seeing another local bus heading back up the road, I impulsively flagged it and took it back to where my bike was waiting. Trying again to fix it myself I began getting frustrated and hot.

This is when that same young man, clearly trying to help, turned on a Nepal-Pop ringtone on his phone and held it out, about six inches from my ear, for me to listen. I asked him, with as much polite patience as I could muster, to please turn it off. He did. I struggled with various parts of the bike. I think at one point I threw my screwdriver into the dirt in disgust. He then suggested I go see the mechanics who have a shop only a few hundred meters back up the road. I suppressed the urge to ask the obvious question: WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU MENTION THEM BEFORE??. I just borrowed his bicycle and went to find them. We ended up towing my bike into their shop.

It took me a few hours, but I finally realized that these guys had never seen the inside of a Bullet before. The sun was setting, the sky darkening, and they were trying many of the same common issues I had been looking at. After ruling out electrical or petrol flow problems, it had to be something inside the engine. So they opened her up.It was at this moment, when they were pulling out pieces and looking at them like some previously undiscovered dinosaur bones, that I asked them to please stop working. I was putting the bike on a truck for India, where Enfields are common enough that mechanics don’t have to assume the role of amateur archaeologist.

That night, thanks to a helpful local man, I slept in a guest room at the local agricultural development bank. It was a training base for more than just farmers, I quickly found out, as it had walls and barbed wire and a big gate and 24 hour security. Yet I spent the evening there with the cook, her husband and their two daughters. I sat quietly at a table, watching her prepare dhal baat for me and her family. The administrator, who spoke passable English, came in with his son and we chatted briefly about my plans and Nepal in general. His son was studying at an English boarding school so he pressured the shy kid into practicing English with me. I drank tea and watched all of them pour over a local newspaper so they could order new ringtones on their phones. They were all very impressed with my terrible Nepali and the fact that I ate the rice and soupy dhal with my fingers, as they do.

The next morning I was standing on the side of the road with a half dozen local men flagging down trucks. It was tough to find a driver willing to load my bike in the back who was also heading to Birganj. Eventually the locals started trying to flag buses. I questioned the logic of loading my bike onto the roof of a bus, rather than the back of a truck. There is the obvious difficulty of loading (bus roofs are higher than truck beds) and the fact that the bike would have to lie on her side, rather than stand up straight. Oil leakage would be inevitable. Eventually they got a bus to stop and the driver seemed eager to get me on board, but luckily another local had flagged a big Tata and for 700 rupees (ten dollars) they would drive me and the bike three hours to the border town (but not the border).

There I was, for the second time, riding up in the cab of a truck with my bike riding in the back. The wingman, Raz, was twenty-one and spoke a little English so we hit it off. They had picked up a few other locals who use trucks like buses, and I bought forty rupees worth of peanuts and bananas and shared them with everyone. The driver, a gruff older guy with a terrible sounding cough, wasn’t too excited to have me around and didn’t partake in the mini picnic.

We stopped every so often for no obvious reason. To a puncture wallah to top up the tire pressure. At the side of the road to talk to a few other truck drivers for a few minutes. Less than 10km from our destination we stopped for lunch. I remained patient and paid for all three dhal baats. On we went. We stopped for diesel and something I didn’t catch happened, but it ended with Raz grabbing a hose from under the seat and leaping out the door. We sat on the side of the road waiting. I got out to look for him, but the driver honked and waved me back in and we drove off without him. I never got to say goodbye to ol’ Razzy.

In Birganj, finally, the driver was eager to be rid of me. He tried several times to boot me out on the outskirts of town, but I knew the words for ‘let’s go!’ (jam jam!) and kept waving toward the center of town. He would grunt and grumble something and drive on. One time he tried flagging down a bicycle rickshaw, as if we were going to balance my 200kg bike on his little cushioned rickshaw seat. Eventually, as the traffic got thicker and we were clearly close to the core of the city, I allowed myself to be hustled out. We got a couple passersby to help unload my bike and there I was, back on the side of the road in the afternoon heat. I stood there helplessly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to get this bike the final 5km to the border.

A teenager on a bicycle saw me standing there and came over to speak with me. He was studying engineering and so spoke good English. He went off to see if there were any small trucks or auto-rickshaws to take me to border. I noticed a mechanic working on a couple of 100cc bikes so went to inquire. No, he didn’t know anything about Bullets, but there was another mechanic just down the road…

And so this, miracle of miracles, was how I ended up being unceremoniously dumped out of a truck on the side of the road in a Nepali border town within 100 meters of an amazing Bullet mechanic who, thanks to three years of working in a Malaysian factory, spoke decent English. I would spend about seven hours sitting in the dirt in front of his shop as we took my bike apart, replacing rocker pins and both valves. The mechanic and his father were both jovial bike lovers and I had a great time joking and wrenching with them.

The next morning I roared out of Nepal and, some unplanned days and rupees later, into India.

Ahh, India. It was good to be back. I won’t go into detail just yet but there is something intangible about India and her people. I flew south, along a bumpy, potholed highway past more rice fields and water buffalo and smoky bamboo hut villages. I wandered through one of these villages in search of bananas, getting some pretty surprised stares from everyone. I eventually found the market and got a dozen little bananas for 10 roops (about 22 cents). I triumphantly showed them off to all the perplexed villagers as I strolled back to my bike.

I was now in Bihar, India’s poorest state. It is beset not only by poverty but also a Maoist political rebellion and a corresponding campaign of violence. Indian newspapers contain stories of bombed schools or government buildings almost daily. I wasn’t too worried. Cruising through the wonderfully named Muzaffarpur, choking on dust and truck exhaust in the intense traffic, I asked directions. More than a few locals told me I was on the right road. I wasn’t. I wanted to get to Patna, the state capital, but they had sent me down the indirect road that would take me to Patna eventually, rather than the direct but smaller highway. I managed, thanks to my road map and my willingness to ask everyone for directions, to find a little back country road that connected my wrong way highway with the right way highway. The road was, for the most part, smoothly paved and weaved it’s way pleasantly through fields and villages. I got plenty of stares and smiles as I went. Mostly stares. I’m not claiming that these locals have never seen foreigners before, but I guarantee it’s been a while since one went chugging past on an Enfield.

Patna is a small Indian city of to million people, bustling with the urgency and endless horn honks that are ubiquitous in any settlement of decent size. Struggling in the traffic, I wove through town asking endless directions from police and older gentlemen who looked likely to speak English. My system is simple: I roll alongside a man on a bike or bicycle or perhaps standing roadside, and offer a polite paisahb, which means ‘sir.’ I then name the town I’m looking for with a questioning tone. They usually indicate a direction with hand motions and some broken English. Eventually finding the road south, I ripped toward Bodhgaya.

I was about 35 kilometers out of Patna when I crashed. More on this soon.

Diwali! (and movement)

Sunday, November 1st, 2009

Sorry about disappearing there. Had a good time in Rishikesh and have spent the last week making my way into Nepal. Some pretty rural places along the way, so no real internet. But I went tiger spotting (without actually seeing one) in the Nepali jungle and am now in Lumbini, the birthplace off the Buddha. More on this soon. Here’s a post on a religious festival in India).

It would be a played out travel-writing cliché to call India an exciting melange of the ancient and modern. Every stupid culture is a blend of old and new (except, perhaps, for those isolated indigenous tribes that have yet to discover the world of fridge magnets and R. Kelly). Even relatively infantile countries such as Canada and Australia combine old European perspectives with fresher (mostly American) influences.

In India, however, the word ancient actually applies. This is one of the oldest civilizations on the planet, centered around its longest running major religion. Hinduism developed over 1500 years before Christianity, and the famously Buddhist concepts of karma, reincarnation and liberation from the cycles of rebirth are actually appropriated directly from it. Hindus consider Siddhartha, the Buddha who began teaching the Path to Enlightenment 2500 years ago, to be one of the ten major incarnations of Vishnu. Buddhists disagree, of course, but seemingly without anger. Big surprise, there.

Considering the origins and longevity of the tradition, it was with some excitement that I considered where to be for Diwali, the widely celebrated Hindu festival of light and renewal. Much like back home for Christmas, locals hang strings of coloured lights from their homes and businesses. They light candles and release floating lanterns down rivers. Garlands of (real, so often wilted) flowers are strung up everywhere, and people are generally happy and wishing each other a Diwali Dhamaka!

Based as much on time and distance as auspiciousness, I decided to stay in Rishikesh. It’s position alongside Ganga endows it with some holiness, and its mountainous surroundings provide some scenic background as well as cooler temperatures. It still reaches thirty in the afternoons here, though the evenings are pleasantly cool. Asking locals about the celebrations, however (Lanterns? Singing? Candle lighting?), I was met consistently with a single word: fireworks.

Of course. What other direction could modern Indians take the celebration of light conquering darkness? What better way to symbolize knowledge overcoming ignorance than with explosions? And I mean fucking explosions! These aren’t the piddling Roman Candles you stupidly fired at your friends when you were fourteen. Nah, the locals here can get their hands on some of the big fellas you’d trust only with trained professionals. Locals like the pack of preteens in the alley behind your guesthouse.

Hilariously, the most popular option seems to emit little to no light at all. They’re just little cylinders of gun powder designed purely for maximum pop. The blast easily registers an eleven on Spinal Tap’s dial, and if you’re close enough you actually feel the concussion wave. There’s nothing quite like watching three Israeli girls jump six feet in the air, spin around with death stares blazing, only to see two sheepish six year olds giggling behind them.

Yes, the absolute lack of safety precautions which makes life in India so exciting becomes even more obvious during Diwali. Instead of stepping a reasonable distance away, the locals seem preoccupied with ducking their heads. I guess as long as only your back and shoulders get singed you’re doing well. A spinning disc unit that throws off ankle-level sparks was danced around by three kids about four or five years old. Much to our shocked amusement, they all lifted their pant-legs, as if scorching their feet and ankles was fine but holes in trouser hems would be unacceptable.

It was a much rowdier celebration that we had expected. The staff at our guesthouse restaurant didn’t close up until 11, which meant we had fireworks exploding in front of our third floor balcony until midnight. At least you could brace yourself for the sound of artillery fire thanks to the bright glowing light that filled the room as the rocket ascended to eye (and ear) level. The police and army stations that are ubiquitous in every tourist town were understandably on guard. Bombs and gunfire could have been going off all night without them having any idea.

It was quite the party. It lasted three nights of adventurous walking in dark streets and laneways. Dodging cow, horse, dog or mystery shit is a normal part of pedestrian life here. So is avoiding the aforementioned animals, semi-drunk young men on scooters, maniacal jeep drivers trying to dump their loads of tourists, and truck drivers with questionable brakes.  It’s been fun adding flaming projectiles to the mix. One group of locals started firing rockets into the river. Some of them bounced off the surface and careened onto the opposite bank, where other groups of locals were sending off their own barrage. I watched a South African friend get saved by a rickety fence as a runaway rocket struck it and bounced to the ground before exploding.

India, the land of near misses.