Picture yourself stranded on the side of an Indian highway with a broken throttle cable. It’s your first full day on the bike you’d bought the day before for 40,000 rupees, about $900. It’s well over 40 degrees with the humidity, and the sun is hotter than Demi Moore’s kiln in Ghost (there was a kiln, right?). The worst part: the cable didn’t snap while rolling down the highway. No no. You pulled over because two locals on a motorbike were yelling something unintelligible at you while pointing at the back of your bike. So, diligent as you are, you pulled over to check the scene. Bungied to the luggage rack of the bike is your backpack, and one of its straps was loose and blowing in the wind. Egad.
I left Delhi early this morning to get a head start on the worst of the city’s traffic. I mean early. I was in the shower at 4:30, downstairs eating a ‘Cinaman Roll’ and drinking ‘Nescafe Milk’ at 5:00, and fiddling with bungie cords by 5:30. At 6:30, I was still in Delhi. I had been on the bike for nearly an hour, but hadn’t left the city. It’s not that the city is massively sprawling or anything; I was lost. Horribly lost. After a while I managed to find the road I wanted, but was heading south instead of north. The aforementioned sun gave it away, however, so I turned around and was on my way. (I did need some help from a nice man and his wife, just to give credit where it’s due).
I stopped in a dhaba, a cheap eatery, along the way. They dot the highway-side like truck stops, only they aren’t usually accompanied by petrol stations. I had some channa masala and four naan. I wanted two but when the serving boy asked if I wanted more I thought he was asking if it was good so I answered with a thumbs up and got two more. I ate them anyway. With my fingers. Yum.
I rolled on up National Highway 1, the road from Delhi to Amritsar, the Punjabi city across the border from Lahore, Pakistan. (Punjabis are mostly Sikh and make up the majority of Indian expats in cities like Toronto. They’re the ones with turbans and beards who cook things like butter chicken). Along the way I dodged cows pulling flat-beds full of sticks or leaves or sacks of goods unknown. Huge trucks had “GOOD LUCK HONK HORN PLEASE” written across the back. I obliged, as per the rules of Indian roads. I think I’ve already got them down. There are only two, and they are as follows:
Indian Road Rule Number 1: Bigger vehicles ALWAYS have the right of way, even if you are going 80km/h down a highway and he is making a u-turn to hit up the fruit stall on your side of the road. Too bad, motorcycle, you have brakes, right? Use ’em.
Indian Road Rule Number 2: Use your horn all the time. Like, several hundred times an hour, several thousand if you’re in the city. It is not an expression of anger or impatience, although it can be when the foreigner in front of you has stalled his motorbike right as the light turns green. Usually, though, it simply means: “I’m coming. I’m coming. Hello, here I am.” Mirrors, you see, are optional. I think Indian drivers use their mirrors the way Westerners collect stamps. It’s a quaint old hobby that is rather boring but no one really minds if people decide to get into it. It’s essentially harmless, and only about ten percent of people participate.
A few hours into my trip, at a little town of several hundred thousand called Ambala, I pulled off NH1 and onto NH22. Quite a step down, I realize, but we still had two lanes in each direction (though the shoulder is most often used to go against traffic, even by trucks) and a raised, grassy median in between – to limit u-turns. A few km in, I stopped a petrol station and filled up for 440 rupees. Not five minutes later, the friendly locals are gesticulating at my bike and yelling something. Between the wind and the roar of my bike (and she roars, let me tell you), I couldn’t even tell if they were speaking English. But I thought why risk it so without looking for a proper parking lot, I just pulled over on the shoulder.
So now I’m stuck. The cable end that attaches to the throttle has clearly snapped off. I have a spare in my bag but no tools to remove the throttle and replace it. Also, even with tools, I would have no clue what to do. After a few minutes of stressing, I actually use my brain and decide I will – wait for it – look around. Up ahead, less than 200 meters up the road, I see a dhaba. Not a bike shop, but at least something. I grab the clutch and run my bike up the highway and into the dirt parking lot.
Almost immediately, a few young men and boys come out to take a look at me. I get the impression they don’t have too many foreigners stopping by. They all head wobble and discuss my situation in Punjabi. One guy looks at me with a concerned expression: “No mechanic here.” Thanks. No matter. Within seconds, two of them are on cell phones while the other directs me toward that oasis of the Indian world, an air conditioned room. I sit, watch some Punjabi hip hop videos and drink chai while my new friends track down a mechanic who can scoot out to the dhaba to take a look. One guy strikes up a conversation, despite his very basic English. Soon we’re discussing American cultural dominance. It goes like this:
Friend: You like thees music?
Me: Yes, like American music.
Friend: Yes? Like Amereeca?
Me: Yeah, look at them – same clothes, same music (I was pretty sure he wouldn’t understand ‘beats’ so I did a little dance in my chair to indicate what I meant), only not in English.
Friend: Yes, thees Punjabi.
Friend: Punjabi culture feeneesh. Ha ha ha.
The mechanic rolls up clutching a spare cable, and I bolt outside to watch him work. He quickly pops the throttle off, replaces the cable, and snaps everything back into place. He expertly starts the bike and revs her beautifully. She’s never sounded so good. Handshakes and thank yous all around. I give him 150 rupees, or $3.50, and I’m back in the saddle. I embarrass myself by stalling it three times before making out to the highway, but eventually I’m off and running again.
Back on the road, I see more gold in English form. I pass several oil tankers with ‘FLAMMABLE MOTOR SPIRIT’ painted colourfully across the back. My favourite, however, might have to be the government PSA signs that remind me, in both English and Hindi, that ‘LIFE IS PRECIOUS.’
Don’t I know it.
I’ve slept terribly here. At first I chalked it up to jet lag, which I’m sure has been part of the problem. But there is definitely something more going on, now a few days after getting here. When I sleep, it’s only for two hours at a time. Every time. I can stack together several of these two hour blocks if I’m lucky, but I’ll wake up – wide awake – every two hours, no matter how long I’m down. What’s more, I’ve been dreaming vividly, and remembering it, both rarities for me. All of the dreams have been set in Toronto, as if my mind has refused to believe we’ve left.
Steam dreams, I’ve started calling them.
It’s so hot here, there is no cold side of the pillow. If I lie in bed reading or watching TV, I have to roll over every twenty or so minutes to allow the sweat on my back to dry. After twenty minutes on my side or stomach, I have to roll again to dry that side. Rinse, repeat. Needless to say I’m excited to get out of Delhi and into the cool mountains, but I’m still waiting on my motorbike.
The dreams, as I mentioned, are all in Toronto. They involve people from different points of my life, often mixed. I was wrestling one of my university roommates, under water, in front of my junior high school. I was riding my bike down Spadina Avenue with a girl I used to work with, singing Milli Vanilli.
I had a great one in which I was driving a luxury convertible around the city with three high school friends. We pulled up to a stoplight and, crossing the street in front of us, there was the old grumpy guy from Corner Gas. He was lugging several bulging bags of heavy groceries. My friends and I knew him quite well, enough to know he lived in the east end like us, and that we could give him a ride home. He resisted but we persisted, and before you knew it we were spinning away with him wedged in the back. Suddenly I was having that classic dream frustration of not being able to properly control myself or, in this case, my vehicle. For several seconds I simply couldn’t find the gas pedal, then a split second later my foot was made of depleted uranium and we were gunning it straight at a bus. Luckily, the laws of physics don’t apply, so we simply bumper-carred off of obstacles and spun out into the grass in the Don Valley. At this point, things got weirder.
I jumped up and, turning to my companions, laughed.
“It’s only a dream, fellas! So none of it matters. I’ll by flying home now.”
And, sure enough, I jumped out of my seat in the classic comic book flying pose: right arm extended upward, left arm clutched to my chest, right leg fully extended, left knee brought up. This is, clearly, the most efficient flying position a human being can manage. I actually did pretty well: I leaped up and though I felt the tug of gravity as I climbed, once I reached the apex of the jump gravity got lazy and gave up on me. Now I was sort of suspended six feet above the car. My friends applauded sarcastically. I started kicking my legs (yes, I tried the swim, the egg beater and the bicycle kick) and flapping my arms. I climbed a few more feet this way.
Then, in a minor epiphany, I remembered: The laws of physics don’t apply. So I simply closed my eyes and, holding that comic book flying pose, I willed myself into the sky. After a few seconds I opened my eyes and saw that I had climbed at least another thirty feet or so.
“This is going to take a while,” I thought. I started looking for a streetcar.
At any rate, you get the idea. Has anyone else experienced something like this? It’s not like I’m delerious or anything. I’m staying well hydrated (I’m approaching eight litres a day here) and I’m eating well. It’s just damn hot.
So as I sit here in a cafe typing this post, I’m reminded why I travel. I just completed an in depth conversation about Canadian politics, the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite, and how widely French is spoken around the world with four Iraqi guys and a girl from Paris. The Iraqis are all here on student visas, studying software engineering and pharmacy. They mix seamlessly with the Israelis at the table next to us, at least to the uninitiated – to whom Hebrew and Arabic sound the same. Being in know, I’ve caught a few glances back and forth, though the Iraqis seem to relish their position as the only Arabic speakers around, considering about sixty percent of the foreigners I’ve met here are from Israel. A little stick in the craw, I guess.
Speaking of sticks and craws, my backpack finally arrived here today, almost a full forty-eight hours after I did. What a fantastic feeling, drying myself off with a towel and changing into clean clothes. Though I had gotten used to standing under the ceiling fan for ten minutes every time I showered, which in this heat was about four times a day.
Now, you may be asking: “Evan, why the hell didn’t you blast a few rupees on a towel and a change of clothes?”
To this I would reply: “Fuck off. I travel how I travel. When you come to India you can blow through forty bucks and day and leave in a month. I have two years ahead of me, and so frugality will become a way of life, not a decision.”
Now I have splurged, in a sense. I spent almost $50 on a cell phone and an Indian SIM card. I also spent an hour this afternoon drinking chai and discussing $1000 motorbikes with an amicable fellow named Didi. By sometime tomorrow afternoon, I should be the proud owner of an Enfield Bullet, the classic British designed, Indian made cruiser for foreigners like me who want to peruse the countryside at will. I can’t wait to name her.
At any rate, I’ve added a few photos to the gallery, click here or on the “Photos” link at the top of the page. I’ll follow up with some notes on Delhi and my guesthouse soon.
I’m here in Delhi on day one, and I don’t have a backpack. So no change of clothes, no soap, no towel, no everything else I had in there. Luckily (thanks, mom) I have a little carry-on kit that packs some cleansers, a toothbrush and toothpaste. It also had a little face towel, about six inches by six inches square, which I am now using as my full body drying tool. Needless to say, I’m spending a few minutes after every “rinse” standing under the ceiling fan in my guesthouse room. It’s overpriced at 400 rupees (a little less than $10), but it has a private bathroom and a tv with some amazing stuff on it. So far the highlights have included copious amounts of cricket and Bollywood, along with a Hindi dub of Mortal Combat.
Yes, Air India lost my bag. I got a nice little taste of Indian bureaucracy as a result, though. After filling out some form in triplicate, I had to take a copy of it over to customs to have them verify that it was cool for me to leave the airport without the checked luggage I had already declared on a different form. After giving it a vigorous stamping (with a stamp, not his foot), the customs official handed it back to me somewhat derisively. I asked him politely if I now needed to take it back over to the Air India “baggage recovery” desk. In response, I got my first head wobble. Yes, that most infamous of Indian gestures. He dropped his head in the slightest of tilts to his left; a sort of curt, sideways nod. It felt like getting inducted into a club, and has pretty much made the whole experience worthwhile. Provided the bag shows up today, of course.
It’s hot here, hitting the high thirties by day, mid thirties at night. The humidex, the air pollution, and the even the noise make it worse. But I like it. This is what I came for. The heat and the insanity. No joke. The drive in from Indira Gandhi International was hilarious. At one point I could have easily reached out the window of my little Tata cab and not only touched the motorcyclist next to us, but I easily could have smacked the Indian Army jeep riding on his other side. All of this at 90 kilometers an hour. I can’t wait to get my motorbike.
Continuing to work backwards, my flights were mostly uneventful, if long. On the flight from Toronto to JFK, a young boy sitting next to his father got very excited. As we lifted off from the ground, he began to yammer uncontrollably: “We’re in the sky, dad! Wow! Look! We’re up in the sky! Whooaaahhh! Dad! We’re in the sky!” Dad (and everyone else) rolled his eyes. I was thinking, “Damn. We’re in the fucking sky. No shit.” I love flying, in a perverse, masochistic sort of way. Even though the whole procedure is really a pain, the whole “being in the sky” bit never gets old. Plus, as a bonus, we travel at 900 kilometers an hour. Rad. I got to India in less than 24 hours. Fucking India. Love it.
It reminds me of this Louis CK bit on Conan. I’ll leave you with the clip, take care ya’ll. Photos to come.
“So. Two years?”
“Wow, like two years??”
The funny thing about this conversation (which I’ve had a few times with a few of you) is that I don’t think I’ve accurately conceptualized traveling for two years. It’s like distances in space: we can talk about them in numbers, without actually having any clue how far Mars really is from Earth.
Now, that’s not saying two years is all that epic. I can remember two years ago, and it’s not even hard. Seriously. I was away for two years last time. But the difference, I think, is that I won’t have a home or a job or a steady circle of friends for the entire period. I will, in essence, be nomadic. Weird.
I have, in honour of this thought, produced a little list of cons and pros to this lifestyle I’ve chosen. I like to call it:
Two years of:
- drinking and brushing teeth with only bottled water
- incredibly wrinkled clothing – every day
- saying permanent goodbyes to friends less than a month after meeting them
- arriving into town after town without knowing a soul
- frustrating non-conversations thanks to language barriers
- living out of a backpack
- learning new languages then promptly forgetting them after moving on to a different region/country
- eating questionable food from questionable sources
- missing you
But, of course, the trip also means I get…
Two years of:
- meeting adventurous people from all over the world
- becoming really close with whatever is in my backpack
- dreaming about quality tap water
- eating some of the best food the world has to offer, at prices that will make you laugh
- learning about the world I pretend to understand, but really don’t (yet)
- having hilarious conversations with locals in broken English
- trying to convince you to come out and meet me somewhere
- glory. pure, pure glory.
Not an exhaustive list, by any means. I’m sure I’ll add to it later. But for now, it’s a good pre-emptive account of life on the road.
So the link above should play the White Stripes track, I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself, which was apparently written by Burt Bacharach (nice). It’s been stuck in my head for a couple days now. And it sums up at least fifty percent of the reason I’m going traveling. I just don’t know what else to do with myself. So fuck it, I’m out.
But the last few weeks are making me question this decision. I’ve really, really had an amazing time with all of you. And even though my last post gives Toronto a lot of credit for being so damn cool – despite the naysayers across the country – the real accolades should go to my friends and family.
It’s like going to a shitty bar but you’re there with a big group of amazing people so you don’t even notice the douchebags at the table next to you. Not that Toronto is shitty, just the opposite, but you get the point. I’m lucky to have several circles of friends here, so whenever I get bored of one group, I can simply start hanging out with a different one. Kidding.
But seriously, this is a much harder exit then when I last left. When I went on my seven month excursion to South East Asia, I was leaving a life in Taiwan that I was done with. I was ready to move on, which made leaving easy. Here, not so much. I love you guys, and this is hard.
Thanks, by the way. This is clearly a good problem to have. So while I may not know what to do with myself, at least I know I can come home to you.
like a summer rose
needs the sun and rain
I need your sweet love
to beat love away
Here’s another track, it’s Catherine Wheel’s Goodbye, perhaps a bit more appropriate than the White Stripes. Maybe a bit too sappy, but once you get a theme going it’s hard to slow the momentum. Especially when ’90s shoegazer rock enters the picture. Let the tears flow, it’s ok.
The funny thing about all the goodbyes and the sadness is that I’ll see all of you again, perhaps sooner than we expect. Feel like getting away for a few weeks or month? Look me up, maybe we can meet somewhere. Hell, there’s a significant chance I’ll get homesick and come home earlier than planned. You never know.
But, I know this: Goodbye.
it’s only love that stops you from walking out the door
tears fly somewhere close to remorse
and sometimes its easy
to all my friends I love
I still don’t find it easy
to all my friends I love
So as I count down my final few days in Canada, I am oddly calm. I suppose I should be rocketing off walls, but instead there’s a sort of Zen I seem to have acquired. It’s actually sort of off-putting. The forest is quiet. Too quiet.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I can’t help but wonder if there are any implications I’m not catching. I’m a little apprehensive about getting on that motorbike, especially having just watched some travel show host ride a rickshaw through Delhi traffic. But it’s more than that, and I think I’ve figured it out.
I’m going to miss it here. In the spring of ’07 I came home after two years in Asia, and for the first time I really appreciated all Toronto has to offer. I won’t get into all the details about why this city impressed me so much, but let’s just say I’ve rarely been bored since coming home.
So yeah, I’ll admit it. Part of my calm, my so-called Zen, is rooted in sadness. It’s restraining me from really expressing how exciting this is. I know I’ll be back, and for the most part things here will have remained the same, but there is a level of regret. It’s natural, I suppose, but feels strange.
At any rate, I love you all, and will miss you. So come meet me somewhere.
Hey, so here’s my first attempt at adding a flickr gallery. I’ve installed a plugin called slickr, which takes your photos from flickr and displays them in a fancy manner on your wordpress blog.
Not sure how much sense that makes to the uninitiated, but hopefully there are some pretty photos below. I’ve taken a few from my trip to Havana earlier this year, just as a test. Hopefully this works!
Update: So I got it working, but unfortunately the galleries will get displayed (for now, this might change) on my “Photos” page, which is here.
There it is, right in the headline: “Ottawa recommends against non-essential travel to Mexico.” It seems this is another classic case of overblown fears and media sensationalism. Surely we should be shaking our heads at paranoid government advisories.
It’s hard to say. At the time of writing, some 152 Mexican deaths were being attributed to the new strain of flu (although these numbers aren’t confirmed yet). Some 2,000 seem to be infected. In a country of well over 100 million people spread over 2 million square kilometers, the odds of meeting an infected person seem slim. Further, the virus is only fatal if medical attention isn’t sought early enough. Compare this to the common, seasonal flu, which kills on average 4,000 Mexicans annually.
Still, there exists a real danger that the virus could mutate further. Some strains seem to be more deadly than others, which might explain where there have been no deaths outside of Mexico (yet). One possible development would involve a strain that survives for longer out of the host, allowing it to transfer between people without close contact. Remember that scene in Outbreak when the camera flies through the air ducts and Dustin Hoffman looks up at you all shocked and breathes: “It’s airborne.” Yeah, like that.
The point, then, is that some of the overblown media hysteria might actually accomplish something. The SARS panic in 2003, as well as the perpetual bird flu fears, have left governments well prepared for this sort of outbreak. Ottawa has enough antivirul medication for full treatment for over 5 million people, a sixth of the country. Ontario has enough for a quarter of the province’s people. Public events are being cancelled in Mexico City, and vacationers are monitoring their symptoms.
So while this isn’t a time for panic or fear, it is a time for diligence. This whole thing will probably disappear slowly and we’ll forget all about it. The cynics will feel vindicated, deriding the governments and news organizations that treated the situation so seriously. What those critics are ignoring, however, is how much worse things could have been if we weren’t on top of it. The fear of a massive pandemic is not irrational – especially if it spurs international cooperation to nip the outbreak in the bud.
This isn’t good. Here I am a year or so before I plan on walking across the Indian border into Pakistan, and I read this in the news:
Pakistani paramilitary troops rushing to protect government buildings and bridges from encroaching Taliban militants just 100 kilometres from the capital quickly came under fire today by gunmen who killed a police officer, authorities said.
To the uninitiated, this may seem like old news. Pakistan, after all, has been battling Taliban-eque militants for years. Even before the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the Pakistani government had relented de facto control of vast regions along the border to local leaders.
But this is different. This isn’t one of those chaotic “tribal regions” governed by warlords and radical clerics. This is a province only a hundred kilometers away from the capital. It’s as if Cornwall, Ontario was taken over by a French seperatist army. Or if Richmond, Virginia fell to the marching Confederates. Or Northampton had fallen to invading Scots.
All of this comes, in classic fashion, a few days after the U.S. announced that it would continue sending $1.5 billion in military aid to Pakistan to help combat the militants. Clearly not all of that money is reaching the front lines. Raise your hand if this surprises you. Bueller?
All I can hope is that somehow the tables turn. But as America beefs up its presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban only have one place to go.
Who knows, perhaps when I arrive Afghanistan will be the safer option.
(The map below illustrates what I’m talking about. The purple areas are those “Federally Administered Tribal Areas” whereas the green are administered normally by the Federal government in Islamabad [the capital, highlighted in red]. Some of the areas I was quite excited to visit include Peshawar, Dir, and Chitral [highlighted in yellow]. The red province is Buner, the recently invaded region. You can see my predicament.)