Pushkar > Kishangarh > Jaipur > Dausa > Bharatpur > Agra 380km

Merry Christmas (or its Eve) from India!  Our Christmas Edition blog entry features a couple short stories.  Some of them contain the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  Some of them begin with the truth but may be slightly exaggerated or fabricated for your reading pleasure.  What is the truth?  And where did our creative license go one step too far?

Entering the town of Pushkar we were harangued my a smattering of touts wearing Utah Jazz basketball shirts. It’s so interesting to see the demeanor of wonderfully kind Indians change into obnoxious, won’t leave you alone Indians when a “tourist town” is reached.  What added to the awful arrival was another flat tire.  Ah hell.  That was our last good tube.  Will our journey continue or will a flat tire ground us?  In the morning we go off in search of a “bike shop” to repair our flat tube.  Luckily, all of India seems to run on inflatable wheels and patching punctures is an Indian speciality.  We spot a large bowl of dirty water lying on the side of the road, the tell-tale sign of inner tube repair, and get to quick work.  Fifteen minutes later we have two tubes patched and ready to go for $0.33.  (Why a bowl of water?  Locating these tiny holes is often impossible, so the inflated tube is submerged in water.  Little bubbles are a mechanics best friend when searching for holes too small to see.)

Katy is getting a little more and more nervous about the sweeping traffic that flies all around us each day.  India’s roads are not for the faint of heart.  I keep telling her that if a giant truck is going to run over us and kill us then there really isn’t much we can do about it.  She continues to wave her arms and shout at anyone who gets too near.  Coming into Agra a motorbike pulled right in front of us and slammed on the brakes to talk to friends about our unusual appearance in their town.  Katy yelled, “Get the &*%$ out of the way you *&%$.”  Another near death experience averted.

We took two jeep rides to get from Bharatpur to Fatehpur Sikri to see the deserted capital of the Mughal empire.  The highway between these two towns is separated by an uncrossable median with breaks that only occur every 10 kilometers or so.  Our driver stopped at one gas station, but kept going because he didn’t want to wait in a 4 car line.  Instead, he crossed at a designated break in the median and for the next 10 minutes drove into oncoming traffic to get to a “better” gas station – one car would swerve to our left, a motorbike to our right, a couple honks to warn pedestrians.  The drivers in India are so accustom to this that all of this was done without relative alarm or panic to the other 15 passengers in our 8 seater jeep, and Katy and I laughed the whole way.

On our return ride we hopped in another jeep, excited for what lie ahead.  Immediately, friends were made with three women dressed in their sarees, nose rings and wardrobes of Bollywood cinema.  Roasted peanuts, in a bag of carefully folded newspaper of course, were passed around the jeep as a snack before departure.  Anticipating a harrowing return jeep ride with possible death, we deemed it vital to our survival to make friends with this group of gawking Indians and so I got a roll of Oreos out of my pocket to share.  When offered “Milk’s Favorite Cookie” the lady next to Katy grabbed the entire roll, apparently having never seen a snack we bought 8 meters away from the jeep stand.  Then Katy offered her a single piece, she looked at in inquisitively, carefully brought it to her nose and in one brief sniff absolutely refused it and gave it back.  However, the Oreo we offered to the collage of men in the back of the jeep was quickly broken up into five or six pieces and shared amongst the crowd.

Everywhere we go people stare.  This often turns into drivers of motorbikes, cars and trucks not paying careful attention to the road.  We assume that at some point this would turn into a problem, how the events would unfold, we weren’t quite sure.  On our ride into Agra on a relatively calm two way highway we approached a boy on a bike riding in our same direction.  He heard the commotion from others and turned to stare.  His staring went on a little too long as his bike slowly drifted off the highway, into a thorn bush and he ended up face down on the pavement.  Poor little guy.  Gotta watch where you’re going.

India is freezing cold.  A dense fog permeates the land from 6pm until 11am, preventing the sunshine from warming anything up.  The other day Katy rode in her Mont Bell jacket and a hat.  I couldn’t feel my fingers.  At night we cuddle around a small space heater, inside our down sleeping bags and extra blankets.  It’s freezing balls over here.

Do you remember the groper who used to roam the BYU campus like an untamed lion?  Well I think he might be in India now.  I was attending to letting out a little air pressure to help with the bumpy road when I heard the distinct slapping sound of a woman’s hand crossing a man’s face and Katy shout, “You’re not allowed to touch my breast.”  Hmm, I thought.  That’s a new one.  I jumped up and put the pesky little fellow in a headlock.  When his vital signs signified death we buried the body, said a dozen Hail Mary’s and Our Father, invoked the Gods of Jainism, Hinduism and the Sikhs before enjoying a hot cup of chai and continuing on our ride.

For $32 a night Katy and I stayed in the Lord Krishna suite at the Pearl Palace Heritage Hotel.  A large statue of Krishna and Rama was carved on the door to keep out evil things.  Our room was hand painted, adorned with bowls of flower petals, had a music switch in the bathroom, 24 hour hot water and complimentary TP.  In the morning an English newspaper was slid under our door.  Katy and I spent the evening reading our horoscopes, palm reading, getting Henna tattoos, massages, cooking lessons, chanting sessions.  Stuff like that.

Birder's Inn.  Bharatpur.
Birder’s Inn. Bharatpur.
Why get a sedan when you can fit your family on a motorcycle?
Why get a sedan when you can fit your family of 5 on a motorcycle? Infant in red blanket.
Brr. It's cold out here.
Brr. It’s cold out here.
For Christmas I just wanted a family photo.
For Christmas I just wanted a family photo.
India by morning.
India by morning.
Amber Fort, Ganesh entrance.
Amber Fort, Ganesh entrance.
Elephant.
Elephant.
Clean clothes.
Clean clothes.
Sikri, capital of the Mughals.
Sikri, capital of the Mughals. Death penalty by elephant stomping.
Camel Walk.
Camel Walk.
Goat transport.
Goat transport.
Cute.
Cute.  I’m not perspiring, that’s dew.
Comfort.
Comfort.
Tube repair.
Tube repair.
And after a month in India we found Ronald.
And after a month in India we found Ronald.
Krishna and Rama
Krishna and Rama
Hawa Mahal, Jaipur.
Hawa Mahal, Jaipur.
Charming.
Charming.

Jodhpur > Chandelao Garh > Beawar > Pushkar 44km, 112km, 68km

We spent three days and four nights in Jodhpur. 

Jodhpur, the blue city.
Jodhpur, the blue city.
Mehrangarh Fort, not too shabby.
Mehrangarh Fort, not too shabby.

It was the first time we’ve voluntarily stayed put for this length of time, our delay in Turkey (and subsequent trips to the middle east) was due to mechanical problems, an extra couple of days in Kathmandu to get a Myanmar Visa, waiting in Varanasi for our cross country train.  All of these stops were compulsory but for three consecutive days we hunkered down in Jodhpur of our own accord.  It wasn’t until the fourth morning, when my reinvigorated body had the strength to force loud, deep productive coughs that I figured my body strong enough to get back on the noisy and windy road.

To aid in our recovery, Katy and I looked high and low to find a little bit of “western comforts” hiding in the subcontinent.  We knew that wealthy people lived in India, we see them passing in their bright white cars with their drivers, the polite waves, the predictable questions.  For three days we did our best to see their side of India.  A nice guest house was first on the list, complete with a western style toilet and toilet paper, it was the nicest place we’ve stayed in a month.  We then set off in search for a grocery store.  We’ve been in India for almost three weeks and we have yet to see anything that resembles a grocery store.  With a little bit of hardwork, and an auto rickshaw ride across town, we found one.  Complete with 2 aisles and a checkout counter, we were in awe. 

“They do exist,” Katy quietly uttered as we walked in relative silence throughout the store.  It was spotless, and we carefully admired the out-of-place store similar to the first time we entered a Buddhist Monastery, Hindu temple or some other place of worship.

“Should we get one or three,” I asked, holding up a jar of peanut butter, jam and nutella.

“One of each or three of each?” Katy answered with a question of her own.  We weren’t sure when we would next cross paths with these life saving comfort foods, so we stocked up and were on our way.

Sometimes bland is delicious.
Sometimes bland is delicious.
Simple taste, simple pleasure.
Simple taste, simple pleasure.
Trying to turn Indian food into veggie wraps.
Trying to turn Indian food into veggie wraps.

The next stop was at Glitz Cinema.  If you’ve never been to “the movies” in India, then you are missing out.  It was actually my second visit, I saw the movie Ungli in Varanasi last week and it was such a strange experience I insisted that Katy come and see Action Jackson, Bollywood’s newest big hit, with me.  At the ticket counter, a dirty sheet of paper written in Hindi with English numbers was poorly taped to the window with 4 different prices listed.  I assumed the different prices were for matinees or evening shows and then I wasn’t quite sure about the other prices, maybe adult or children or maybe weekend or weekday.  I was wrong.  The best seats in the house (not too far away, not too close, and right in the middle) are the most expensive tickets with worse seats being cheaper.  Odd.  Then the movie began.  Advertisements before the show were great.  First a little girl who cries when her father lights up a cigarette, only to give him a big hug moments later when he tosses his pack of cigarettes.  Then 4 commercials in a row recruiting people to join the Indian Navy.  The Indian Navy, an ocean of opportunity.  Last but not least, a reminder to pay your taxes.  Katy and I turned to each other and laughed out loud.  Five minutes into the movie a guy approached us and asked for our food order.  Unsure what our options were, we declined and resumed the somewhat difficult task of following the plot of a movie that is in Hindi.

Just as the movie was getting good, the film stopped, the lights turned on and everyone (well, everyone is a bit misleading, I think there were 11 people in the theater) jumped up and headed towards the exit.  We then noticed the words INTERVAL projected onto the screen and so joined the others in the lobby before the film resumed.  I guess all films should include an intermission.  The only other highlight worth mentioning came about 20 minutes before the conclusion of the film.  The main actor lit a cigarette and immediately the words SMOKING KILLS were seen in large block letters on the lower right hand corner of the screen.  The movie changed to another scene and the words disappeared, but as soon as the actor returned on picture the words were back.  Wow, I thought.  Talk about a country that is really pushing back against smoking.  And maybe it is working, we see very few smokers here.  But I’ve always assumed the lack of smoking is due to poverty.  IF there is one thing that unites all Indian men it is their red stained teeth.  Stained red from the paan, or masala flavored chewing tobacco that they enjoy as much as University of Michigan students enjoy their morning coffee.

The following evening we were in the small village of Chandelao Garh, 40 kilometers east of Jodhpur.  As the children swarmed and insisted on photos, Katy I knew it was time to break the obnoxious trend of kids clinging to tourists and so we thought we would do our best to teach them some games.  It’s hard to explain the rules to Kick-the-Can, Duck Duck Goose, Red Rover or Red Light Green Light to kids who don’t speak English, but we did our best.  (Its also hard to explain Red Light Green Light, we realized, because they have most likely never seen these all-too-familiar western world inventions). 

“All the little children,” I lowered my hand to my waist to signify the little people, “need to sit in a big round.”  I used the word round instead of circle, because that was the word they used when they attempted to teach one of their games to us.  The directions didn’t quite get through, so I drew a large circle in the sand and then sat down and motioned for the kids to do likewise.  After they were all seated, and surprisingly quiet, I began.  I’ve never seen a duck or a goose in India, so we played Cow (guy), Cow, Goat (bakari).  I touched the first child’s head, guy, guy, guy and then when I reached Katy, bakari.  I demonstrated the simple game and the children went into an uproar.  Katy then did the same, choosing a young girl.  They instantly understood, except for a couple cases of running the wrong direction, not sitting down after a single run around the circle and they were in heaven.  It seemed odd that a game so commonplace and universal in one country was entirely unknown in another other, especially because it is often the children of different cultures that are always so similar.  The game could have lasted forever, but invitations to have tea with some of the older people in the village unfortunately put an end to our game.

One, two, three go.
One, two, three go.
For some reason everyone wanted to me on my side and we won this contest easily.
For some reason everyone wanted to be on my side and we won this contest easily.
Duck Duck Goose.
Duck Duck Goose.

A day later we entered the city of Beawar worn out.  As we stopped our bike in front of the Hotel Jyoti Palace, I turned around to ask Katy a question that gets asked everyday, “Do you want to check us in or should I?” 

“100 kilometers is too much,” she answered, obviously on her train of thought and not responding to my question.

“I agree.”  It was true, 100 kilometers in a day back home or in Europe was manageable, but here it is just a little too much.  “I don’t think that it is the distance that is so tough, it’s just that you have to be in India for 6 hours, its too much exposure to these people.” I continued.  The best way to explain this is to imagine that Katy and I are Gods in a distant land.  Everyone waves.  Everyone stops to say hello.  Motorbike after motorbike passes and asks the exact same questions, “from which country you are? very nice cycle, where do you want to go?  It is friendliness on overboard.  Cars stop on the side of the road and middle aged men block the road, hail us down, and request pictures.  Today we passed 3 or 4 dozen military trucks full of soldiers, they all wave.  And so when Katy told me that 100 kilometers was too much, she wasn’t talking about the physical aspect of the feat, she was talking about the mortal inability to respond to the waves and hellos.

Hello.
Hello.
Just another group of men who stopped on the side of the road and requested photos.
Just another group of men who stopped on the side of the road and requested photos.

“Well, they are the friendliest people we’ve ever met, there are a billion of them, and they aren’t going anywhere,” I joked, reassuring myself as much as I was responding to her.  We had a nice laugh, exchanged the look of “when in India” and Katy went in to see about a room.

The hotel was full and so we continued down the road to Hotel Manoj.  Katy entered the hotel, and from the street I heard the echo of her voice, “Hello, hello, helllloooo.”  A lady appeared and after a kid was pulled off the street to help translate English, a couple phone calls and the assurance to wait for just 5 more minutes a man appeared on a motorbike.  He was wearing dark blue jeans, black leather shoes, a blue dress shirt and a dark brown tweed jacket.  His fingers were covered in gold and diamond rings, he carried a little bit of extra weight (a tell-tale sign of Indian wealth) on his medium build and had a large glowing smile.  After the check in process we were offered, but it felt like we were requested without much of an option, to come to his home and have tea.  He also said we could use the WiFi at his house.  I told him that after a quick shower we would come down and we could go.

“No, first tea, then you can have a shower,” he demanded in a polite tone.  It seemed that he was a man of “no small reputation” and so I agreed and told Katy to hurry and change.  I was also very curious to see how the wealthy in India live, we’ve seen our fair share of what everyday life is like for the average Indian, but getting a glimpse of affluent living has been somewhat more elusive.  The three of us filed onto his motorcycle (it seems that 3 is the proper number of people to ride on a one seater motorcycle) and rode off to his house.  It was the first time in 5 months that I thought I should be wearing a helmet.

Once in his home, we got to talking.  His three kids live in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.  His friend had spent 25 years in Hong Kong and 10 years in Dubai.  Katy spoke with his daughter in law, Priyanka, about her recent marriage.  India is a country that believes in tradition, and one of the strongest of these traditions is the arranged marriage.  Two weeks ago in Gorakhpur Katy and I were asked if our marriage was a “love marriage” or an “arranged marriage” and we weren’t exactly sure what the question meant.  In America, it seems, there is only one type of marriage.  Prikyanka told us there are three types of marriages in India: the traditional arranged marriage, the love marriage and the love-arranged marriage.  She said that almost all weddings, especially in rural India where 80% of India’s population lives, are arranged marriages.  The parents of the bride and groom decide on who their children should marry.  But it isn’t a decision they make lightly.  A large number of factors weigh on this decision, the most important of which is the children’s horoscope.  The love marriage, as we were told in Gorakhpur, is the marriage that is least likely to succeed in India.  And I suppose it makes sense.  If two people marry for no reason other than love, then the marriage will surely end when the love ends.  And given the divorce rate in the western world it is hard to argue against this.  Love marriages exist almost exclusively in the metropolitan cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.  The increasingly common, but still a minority, is the love-arranged marriage.  When two people fall in love, as Priyanka did with her husband, they must then get the approval from their parents.  They introduce their parents, who have the final say.  The parents then consider the many factors involved in a marriage – caste, career, education, interests – and then they look at the children’s horoscope, or astrological sign.  Priyanka told us about her computer program she used to enter her and her husbands date and location of birth and the two were then either matched or not matched on 36 different categories.  She told us that she matched in 28 different categories, very high, she assured us.  Katy and I thought we might ask if we could give her our information, but then realized it might be better to just continue our lives assuming that our love-marriage was good enough.

Negotiating tea, our personal driver and a visit to a preschool.
Negotiating tea, our personal driver and a visit to a preschool.
Katy and Priyanka
Katy and Priyanka

Then we were asked if we wanted cheese bread.  I wasn’t so sure, but when grilled cheese sandwiches with ketchup came out, I was at home.  The best thing about grilled cheese sandwiches is that once the griddle is nice and hot you can cook them as fast as you can eat them.  I had 4.  A personal driver was then called (this was where I started thinking, you know what, I could get used to this) and drove us to the temple and then dropped us off at a restaurant for dinner, only to return an hour later to return us to our hotel room.  It’s amazing what you can find in India with a little bit of money and a little bit of luck.

Dung and weeds, fuel for cooking for 800,000,000 people.
Dung and weeds, fuel for cooking for 800,000,000 people.
In the next life, I'd like to preach the gospel to people like this.
In the next life, I’d like to preach the gospel to people like this.
They continue to amaze me.
They continue to amaze us.
Just keep on pushing.
Just keep on pushing.
Preschool.
Preschool.

Jaisalmer > Pokaran > Balesar > Jodhpur 110km, 102km, truck

I saw the two of them, the goras, or foreigners, sitting at breakfast on the rooftop terrace of the Shahi Guest House in Jodhpur. It was 10:45am, a little late for tourists to be having breakfast. Katy was in a long sleeve flannel shirt and a pair of black and white paisley pants cut off around the calf.  Clayton’s hair was pulled back into a long ponytail.  He was wearing a lemon colored shirt that said ISTANBUL across the front with a picture of a man in a small boat fishing a bicycle out of the sea.  The shirt gave me reason to wonder if the double-cycle parked in the open air lobby of the guesthouse along with all the noise and commotion of the local kids at 11pm last night was their doing.  They looked tired and well rested at the same time, as if, they had a good night sleep but that wasn’t sufficient to rejuvenate their bodies.  Then they spoke.

“Well, yesterday definitely goes down as thee worst day of our trip,” Clayton declared in a half-accusatory half-nonchalant attitude.  He rubbed his eyes, yawned, tried to remove some earwax with his pinky finger and reached for the menu Katy had already looked over.

“Do you really think so?” Katy questioned as she looked up for the first time from her red Amazon Kindle.  She paused for a moment and then added “Yeah, I guess you are right.”

As he looked over the menu, flipping the pages of the badly worn somewhat laminated menu, his face murmured in its expression and his eyes rolled.  “More curry, just what I was hoping for,” he said sarcastically, it was a sarcasm that appeared to have years of experience.

“Keep looking, you might find something you like.” Katy encouraged him, apparently knowing something he didn’t.  I could also tell that she felt bad for him, but I couldn’t tell why.

“Whoa, muesli with curd.  And nutella toast.” He celebrated as he flipped to the last page.  “I guess it’s no Grape Nuts with Winder Dairy, but you know what? This place isn’t half bad.”

“No, not that bad at all, especially since this is the first place we’ve stayed that has a hot shower, with a curtain, a toilet I feel safe sitting on AND toilet paper,” Katy hummed without looking up from her Kindle.

Wow, that’s strange I thought to myself.  Where have these foreigners been?  As their food was delivered their moods brightened and I heard them recount in great detail the, in my honest opinion, pathetic but adventurous course of their travels over the past 24 hours.  I’ve seen a lot of foreigners come through the Shahi Guest House in the last 20 years or so, and well, these two are just a little bit different.

The downward spiral of their trip began a week or so ago, in Varanasi.  Katy first got sick, then Clayton, then a 36 hour train trip, then two days ago a 110 kilometer bike ride from Jaisalmer to Pokaran.  This stretch of events set the stage for the “worst day of their trip” that happened yesterday.

They left their guest house at 11am.  What they were doing all morning, I’m not sure.  But if it were me, and I were riding a bike (of all things) across the desert of Rajasthan I’d get started 4 hours earlier to avoid the heat of midday. At 11am they set off.

But, they set off in the wrong direction.  They had to go back into town to get some money out of an ATM.  Being from India I can only say two things: 1 – why did you leave this for last and 2 – good luck.  As they approached the third, and probably last, ATM in the small town of Pokaran, Katy celebrated that the ATM actually worked, and Clayton said “well it’s about time” and they were anxious to finally be on the road.  A large crowd had gathered (I’m sure everywhere they go us Indians just love staring at their double cycle, I heard it even has 10 gears).  Then, just as the 40 or so onlookers prevented the two goras from leaving Clayton spoke, “Well, I’m sure you are all wondering why I called you all to this meeting?”  It seemed as though Clayton is only able to get through this country one joke or sarcastic remark at a time.  And then they were off.

They joked about the dead camel they saw on the side of the road, just a kilometer from their guesthouse, and they made particular mention of the tearing-ripping-crunching sound as the stray dogs chewed on the camel’s head.  They then argued about their phone not working, Katy reminding Clayton that he is often impatient and Clayton with the look of, well yeah, what do you want me to do about it, and then adding “well, you could use the camera on your phone, had you not broken it.”  It seemed to be a topic they had argued about before, and as quickly they argued they left it alone and moved on with their story.

They then rode 30 kilometers or so until Clayton apparently threw in the towel.  He pulled the bike to the side of the road, got off, and declared “I’m walking.”  And his complaints were legitimate, sort of.  His body was most likely exhausted – sick for the last couple days and not eating any Indian food, he guessed he’d lost a couple pounds in the past week.  He said he had a headache, which could be true.  But then he added some logic of his own: “Where are we going?  Why are we out here?  What the hell am I doing, sick and tired and this damn headache, riding across the desert? 

“We’re going to Rishikesh, like we planned,” Katy answered cautiously, knowing that when Clayton is in a bad mood, Clayton is in a bad mood.

“Well then why didn’t we take the train to Rishikesh?  If we want to go to Rishikesh then why did we take the train to Jaisalmer?”  he asked. 

“What do you mean?  We’re bike touring, this is what we do, we’ve been riding our bike for the past five and a half months, how is today any different? Katy challenged the somewhat obvious nature of Clayton’s complaints.

“Well this is how I see it.  When we were riding across Europe we had a destination – Istanbul.  Every time we got tired, or there were mountains, or whatever else we just kept on going cause we had a goal – arrive in Istanbul.  But now we have no goal, it just feels like we are riding around for the fun of it,” Clayton continued.  “Every time we get on a train, or in a jeep or any other non-cycling mechanism it breaks down your mental fortitude to stay on the bike when things get tough.  If we took a train all the way here, why don’t we just take a train back?  Let me put it this way, let’s say you are in the LOTOJA and you are 130 miles into the race, you get sick, your mind starts to wander, you have some riding pain, what do you do?  You finish the race.  But now let’s say they remove the finish line, there is no race, do you ride the next 70 miles?  Of course not, you throw in the towel, especially if you feel awful.”

Clayton’s argument had some logic behind it.  Their 6,000+ kilometers across Europe were relatively easy – never sick, good food, nice people and a large finish line at the end of 4 months of cycling.  But now things were different, sick in India, no set destination, people who Clayton claims are the “friendliest most obnoxious people on Earth – depending on what mood you are in” and I could see the reason behind his argument.

Katy was quiet for a moment, it seemed she wasn’t disagreeing with him, but didn’t have an answer for the problem.  Finally, after walking for 100 meters or so down the road she replied, “So what do you want to do?”

And without hesitation Clayton answered “All I want . . . is to sit in my basement . . . where it is quiet and have a large bowl of Grape Nuts with cold Winder Dairy milk . . . and do nothing.”

Were this the extent of their day, I’d be the first to say they hit a low point.  But it continues.  With this mindset, and no apparent solution, they continued to walk down the highway.  Katy pushed the bike, about 15 meters ahead of Clayton, as they walked down the highway, Clayton stopping momentarily to cough and stare at the camels, goats and cows.  Clayton finally caught up and the two resumed conversation.

“Maybe we should go somewhere for Christmas,” Clayton said.

“Yeah, like where.”

“I don’t know, Switzerland, the South of France, Australia, Italy.” Clayton tossed out a handful of suggestions.  “Where do you want to go?”

“Utah, my aunt in Portland, see our families. We could go to Jackson Hole and stay at my cabin,” Katy answered, in what seemed to be a knee jerk response.

“Sorry, but I’m not going back to the States for Christmas,” Clayton answered.

And then the conversation died and they continued walking.  After a while, I suppose they realized they’d never reach their destination on foot, and so they climbed on their bike and continued to ride through the desert.  Thirty kilometers or so later they were back off the bike and walking.  Their argument continued.

“Where is this place of yours?” Clayton demanded.

“The map says it is in 25 kilometers.” Katy quickly answered.

“I don’t think I can go another 25 kilometers.  I feel terrible, let’s just stop at the next guesthouse we see.  What are we racing through this desert for anyways, we’ve got nowhere to be.”  Clayton stated pretty matter of factly.

“But what about our reservation at the Desert Haveli? I called and made a reservation.”  Katy seemed pretty set on her reservation but it didn’t seem like Clayton really cared.  Clayton argued that since we didn’t leave a credit card number they could just blow off the reservation, but then Katy started getting a bit emotional, and with tears in her eyes yelled, “But that’s the one thing I wanted to do out here, stay in a nice place out in the desert.”

“Why do you always have to get so emotional?  If you want to stay there, that’s fine, but you don’t have to cry about it.”

And so they got back on their bike, this time Clayton really not looking so great, and continued the 25 or so kilometers to the Desert Haveli.  They passed many other guesthouses, some even looked really nice – at one point they passed Manvar Haveli, a very nice resort where an elderly gentleman complete in white robes and orange turban motioned for them to stop – but stubborn as these two are, they continued. Clayton dared not say a word because Katy was set on “her” guesthouse and “her” reservation.

Finally they arrived at the Desert Haveli, sun starting to set and Clayton collapsed to the ground (the resort happened to have grass) as Katy went in to look the place over.  A moment later Katy came back out, “This place is gross, and expensive, we can’t stay here.”  Clayton rolled his eyes and said, “Okay, well what do you want to do?”  “I guess we should keep on going.”  Rather reluctantly they climbed back on the bike.  When they reached the road Clayton stopped and asked “What way?”  It is in this manner (making Katy make the decision) that if things turned from bad to worse Clayton could lay the blame on Katy for choosing what to do.  Katy suggested going backwards to Manvar Haveli, but that was half an hour or so in the wrong direction and Clayton refused.  “I’m not going backwards.”  And so they continued down the road.

After about 15 minutes they came upon Manowar Resort and quickly pulled off the road and went into the outdoor courtyard area.  A friendly Indian greeted them, offered them chairs (there was only one table and four chairs in a courtyard that could easily seat a hundred people) and asked if they wanted some tea.  Clayton declined, first asking if they could see a room.  Oh yes, yes, was the response.  Minutes passed until Clayton asked again to see a room.  Finally with some pushing Clayton convinced someone to show them a room, all the while Katy tried to get online to send an email home.  Clayton was led outside of the courtyard around the side to a rusty, old shed.  A gentleman yanked on the door until it finally opened and said, “Here is nice, you like?”

“Oh no, I don’t think so.”  Clayton laughed.  And knowing tourists, I wasn’t surprised.  An Indian might be willing to sleep anywhere, but the old tool shed, covered in dirt, with broken stuff everywhere, no lights, rodents and half of a bed is somewhere that foreigners never agree to sleep, even if they can choose their own price.  They got back on their bike and were just about to leave when the owner of the place ran across the road.  “Next town is 20 kilometers, they have hotel there.”

And so the journey continued.  Clayton wishing that they had called it quits a couple hours ago, Katy wishing the Desert Haveli was cleaner and now agreeing (in her mind) that she should have just stopped back at one of those other places.

The twenty kilometers came and went.  The sun set, the air was nice and cool, the scenery beautiful.  India is great in the late evening in the winter.  But then darkness came and they entered the small town of Balesar in the dark.  The lights from motorbikes, tuk-tuks and overloaded trucks illuminated the dust and pollution ever present in the air.  It’s something you get used to India, it just takes a couple years.

As they pulled to the side of the road, just past the central market area, neither of them were in a good mood.  And with the battle of navigating the crowd of onlookers (the first thing you notice when you get to India is that people stare at you, everywhere you go, they just stare), finding someone who speaks English and finding a place to stay they still had their work cut out for them.

They talked to one guy on a motorcycle, who they followed to another guys shop, who pointed them to his friends place, who they then followed down an alleyway, across a gutter and to a small room at the back left end of a narrow street.  There were no markings to designate the place as a guesthouse, but they were out of options.  Clayton stayed outside with the bike (and in a staring contest with the group of kids who had followed from the main road) as Katy went in to check out the place.  Katy and the man argued a moment over the price of the place, negotiating 600 Rs. instead of 800 Rs. ($10 instead of $13) and then the two carried the bike into the room.  Katy grabbed the passports for the official “checking-in” process.  While Clayton stared at the room in disbelief.

The beds looked as though they offered their last comfortable night sleep about a decade ago, and hadn’t been cleaned in the same number of years.  That sort of filthiness that only overuse and neglect can generate.  At first glance, Clayton quickly began deciding if he’d try sleeping on the floor, standing up or if he dared touching the bed.  The walls were filthy, covered in stains of chewing tobacco spit from countless previous tenants.  A little bathroom immediately elicited the gag reflex.  Truly I’ve never seen a place so vile.  Then Katy returned.

“What the hell.”  Clayton raged.

“What?” Katy answered, although to both of them, the answer was obvious.

“Are you meaning to tell me that I rode my bike, all day, feeling like shit, across that desert only to wind up here.  The grossest place I have ever seen.  I mean honestly, in what world did you come into this place and say, yeah, this is okay.  That Desert Haveli place must have been really bad if you agreed to stay here.  I don’t even want to talk to you.”  Clayton was furious.

Katy crumbled.  She was an emotional wreck and it showed.  She felt bad for making Clayton ride the second half of the day because she refused to give up her reservation and what she hoped would be a nice place. Compared to this place, the Desert Haveli, was a palace. It wasn’t her fault, but she felt responsible.  But that was then and this was now.  Assuming no alternative options, Katy reluctantly agreed to stay.  As the tears began flowing she fought back, “Well where else are we going to stay?  It’s dark, I’m tired and I didn’t see any other places in this town.  At least I got the place down to 600 Rs.”

“Oh wow, you saved us a whole $3.  Congratulations.”  They were doing what married couples do best, argue.  They knew very well what bothered each other, and they let each other have it.  “You are actually going to sleep here, on that bed.  I dare you.”

The bickering continued until Clayton lost it, “Okay, well, enjoy your shit hole, I’m leaving.”  The man who had rented the place was standing just a couple meters away, but the two didn’t care.  They packed up their bike, Katy argued for a moment trying to get the $10 back to which Clayton added, “Just forget it, he’s never going to give it to you,” and the two of them walked back down the small road toward the bustle of traffic. 

“Okay, before we get back out into that mess, what is our plan?  Are we looking for another place or should we just hire a jeep to take us to the next town?”  Clayton asked.

Neither of them answered that question, but the look in their eyes was enough.  They had had enough, and they were off to a larger town.

An hour and a half and three trucks that were all too short later, the two finally secured their bike in the back of a pickup truck, agreed on a much-too-high price (we love foreigner prices, they don’t know how much anything costs in our country) and they were on the road to Jodhpur.  As the truck buzzed down the empty road Clayton stuck his head out the window and stared up at the stars.  It was truly a beautiful night.  Then, Clayton placed his arm around Katy’s shoulder and gave her a half hug. The two exchanged smiles as Katy placed her head on Clayton’s shoulder and just like that, the anger and frustration of a terrible day on the road melted away as hopes of a warm shower and clean bed filled their tired, confused minds.

The Thar Desert, Rajsthan.  It really is beautiful.
The Thar Desert, Rajsthan. It really is beautiful.
The Shahi Guest House, Jodhpur.  A bright light at the end of a dark, noisy tunnel.
The Shahi Guest House, Jodhpur. A bright light at the end of a dark, noisy tunnel.
Temple Artwork - been fueling India's population growth for thousands of years.
Temple Artwork – been fueling India’s population growth for thousands of years.

The other side of travelling.

(Sorry no photos, but the writing is decent).

Four nights ago I woke up to a river of liquid parading out of my left nostril.  I always think it odd that when a full-force runny nose hits me, it first attacks from a single nostril.  Aren’t they connected?  I wonder back to my medical school days and ponder on the bizarre reality that in the past 4 hours of continually interrupted sleep I’ve attended to my left nostril a couple dozen times but my right nostril somehow, miraculously, appears to be untouched by the foreign pathogens invading my body.  I try to get some more sleep, and eventually realize that using an entire roll of toilet paper on a single runny nose might not be wise (diarrhea seems to always be right around the corner over here on the subcontinent) and so I resort to more imaginative methods of dealing with this river of a nose.

Morning comes and the day goes on as usual.  A trip to the train station to buy some train tickets – somehow we ended up buying tickets from Varanasi to Jodhpur and then another train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer.  This would land us in the far west of the state of Rajasthan and would allow a 4-5 week cycle through Rajasthan, Agra and Rishikesh before returning to Delhi to catch a plane to Vientiane, Laos where our SE Asia journey will begin.  The only downside to this purchase is the now impending reality that we have 36 hours of non cycling travel ahead, 24 hours on the train to Jodhpur, 6 hour layover, 6 hours on the train to Jaisalmer.  Oh well.

That evening as we sat in a rickshaw, clunking through the busy traffic on our way back to our Hotel, I noticed a growing headache – which is strange for me – I usually don’t get headaches and so attributed it to all the noise and mild dehydration (it’s tough to remember to drink a lot when we aren’t cycling, for some reason it’s also hard to remember to shower).

By morning the headache was full force.  Pounding.  At this point I blamed Katy, she was sick the prior day and must have passed the bug on to me.  As the day rolled on body aches, a fever, chills and fatigue were the norm.  I slept mostly.  The accomplishment of the day was descending two flights of stairs to lay on some grass cause I was going crazy lying in that room.  That night I got online and did what medical students do best – speculate at possible diagnoses, create a differential diagnosis.

My differential diagnosis was 1) the flu/cold/viral illness 2) Malaria 3) Dengue Fever 4) Food poisoning 5) the wrath of Lord Shiva for not paying my devotion (and rupees) to the Sadhus.  Looking at the list closer I realized that #4 was unlikely – no stomach problems, that #3 was unlikely – I’d had dengue before and this felt different (thank goodness), and so that left #1 and #2.  So what to do?  The unfortunate truth is that malaria and the flu present with almost identical symptoms: fever, chills, headache, nausea and vomiting, body aches, general malaise – all symptoms common to the flu and malaria.  The runny nose suggested the flu or other viral illness, so did the fact that Katy was sick earlier this week (Malaria can’t be spread by people) but that’s the problem with medicine, there seem to be no definites, just likelihoods and probabilities.  Katy and I had been in rural Nepal and India, where Malaria is alive and well, and I was dealing with my fair share of mosquito bikes (I think I have 9 on my left kneecap) and so we were taking Malarone (malaria prevention) for the past week or so, but I felt terrible and couldn’t imagine that the flu could knock me out like this.  The reasonable (and encouraged by Katy) next step would be to go to a hospital and get a blood test to check for malaria.  The test is done by putting some blood on a slide, adding a dye to stain the parasites (the causative organism of malaria, which is transmitted by mosquitoes) that live in your red blood cells–which means the test is only as good as the person performing the test.  But, medical school kicked in and I decided to investigate further.  The CDC lists acceptable treatments for malaria, depending on location and the prevalence of drug resistant organisms.  It just so happens that taking one Malarone pill a day is preventitive and 4 pills a day will treat an active infection.  Voila, just saved myself the hassle of sitting in a dirty hospital, getting poked with a needle and navigating the chaos of Varanasi while I felt like garbage.  So I began the extra doses, this way I’d cover my bases with the possibility of malaria and the flu should resolve on its own.  I’d also make a mental note to give 10 rupees to the next Sadhu I saw, and then I’d be set.

By morning I felt somewhat better.  But I was weak, hadn’t eaten much in 36 hours.  But the headache was diminished.  Was it the medicine working?  Or was the flu passing from my system?  I don’t know, I’m just glad my body was beginning to recover just in time for our 36 hour train adventure.

3pm.  Arrive at the train station to place our bike in “parcel” service to be transported in the luggage department.  We were a bit hesitant leaving our bike in the hands of others but, 36 hours later we collected the bike in Jaisalmer with only two what-are-you-thinking moments.  The first was when a man at the station with a paintbrush and a cut in half 2L Coke bottle filled with a vile black substance approached our bike.  He had been painting destination codes on the burlap and plastic coverings of other parcels.  His brush got within about an inch or two of Katy’s seat when Katy grabbed his hand and laughingly said, Actually I’d prefer it if you didn’t paint on my bike seat.  In a bit of arrogance and anger (it was a rough couple days), and because I knew the man didn’t speak any English, I added, “yeah, that seat costs more than what you will make this month and we’d like to keep it as clean as possible.”  (Sometimes I lose my patience, often when tired or sick, and other parts of my personality unfortunately shine through).  Then, 24 hours later, a parcel carrier refuses to allow Katy and I to walk our bike from the train to the parcel room and so we are walking behind him, making sure our bike gets off to the correct destination.  We reach a flight of stairs and the man, without hesitating, lifts the bike off the ground to balance it on his head to begin climbing the stairs.  Whoa, whoa, whoa there, I quickly shout, as I realized that our frame bag might not be the best place to carry the weight of our bike.  In America we carry things with our hands, let me help you out here, as I grabbed the bike and forcibly pushed it back down to the ground.

The first train left at 6pm and arrived the next day at 10pm.  Only four hours late, apparently due to the fog.  My favorite part of the ride was using the restroom, where human waste slides through an angled tube and splats onto the railroad tracks below, attracting the swine and rats for a nice easy meal.  Some people would think it is downright nasty, some claim it is an “environmentally friendly” way to dispose of feces/stool/crap/poo/shit, whatever you want to call it.  Katy is just happy that it is one less smell she has to worry about as she tries to sleep.  Then at 11:45pm it was back on the train, and another optimistic night of sleep, until we reached Jaisalmer, right on time at 5:35am.

Sick, tired, irritated.  Nothing that a couple pills, a good night sleep and 110km of hopeful desert solitude won’t cure.

And a bit more Varanasi

I have seen more dead bodies in the past two weeks than my whole life combined.  In fact the number of dead bodies I have seen is off the charts.  We haven’t been seeking out crime scenes and we aren’t in the “shady” parts of India.  In fact, we see these dead bodies being marched out right on the main streets.  Granted these bodies are wrapped in gold cloth, covered in red and gold tassels with flowers, strapped to bamboo boards, and being carried by 10 men chanting loudly in a funeral procession, but it is still a dead body nonetheless.  You don’t see these too often back home so it is a bit unnerving how often you see them here and how common place it is.  A dead body when you are drinking your lassi, a dead body when you are being rowed up the Ganges, a dead body when you are buying bananas, a dead body tied to the top of a Jeep driving down the street, a dead body on the way to the train station.  You name it.  I guess the better question is why. 

In Hinduism, the Ganges river is the most sacred river to Hindus.  The river is literally believed to have come from heaven and since it came from heaven that is also the way back to heaven.  And of all the places on this river the most sacred is the city of Varanasi, the Great Cremation Ground, because those who die and are cremated on the banks of the Ganges here are granted instant salvation. Varanasi is one of seven sacred cities that can provide Moksha which is liberation from rebirth, basically breaking the reincarnation cycle which explains all the dead bodies since all Hindus desire to die here in Varanasi.

Our good friend, Lizzi Edwards, when she heard about this asked us why continue on our trip at all.  Since Varanasi might be the place to kick the trip and the bucket if the Hindus really did get it right. She definitely has a point. 🙂

Clayton and I could join the many families here and settle down, have a few kids, buy the traditional motorcycle for our little family of at least five to ride together.   We could also try to understand what Hinduism is all about.  (You try reading Wikipedia: “Hinduism is a diverse system of thought with beliefs spanning monotheism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, pandeism, monism, and atheism among others; and its concept of God is complex and depends upon each individual and the tradition and philosophy followed.” Huh?)  It may take a lifetime but at least maybe we wouldn’t come back as the holy cows if we are cremated here. Funny, I don’t think our parents would like this too much.

Besides eating in India, we have been visiting the sites.  One of the best known in Varanasi is the Manikarnika Ghat, the Burning Ghat. This is where the cremation actually happens.  Funeral processions march down to the ghat, the body is then placed in the river to have the feet and face washes.  Then the quality and quantity of wood to cremate the body is precisely measured and the body is set on top. A brief ceremony happens and off the person goes to heaven.  The burning happens 24 hours a day we are told and since it is a Hindu ceremony, women are not allowed.  Pictures are also not allowed so we do not have any to show you but this place really gets at all your senses so much to see and smell.

Near Varanasi there is a sacred place for Buddhists as well, Sarnath. This is where Lord Buddha gave his first sermon.  Clayton and I spent a bit of time in Buddhist monasteries  when we were in Nepal and Tibet four years ago.  It was interesting to compare the differences between the structures and worship practices of these two religions.  Buddhist temples are often very clean, peaceful and decently quiet, besides some great monk chanting of course. 

We are eager to get back on our bicycle.  We have spent quite a bit of time here in Varanasi, much more than we anticipated.  We booked ourselves in 2AC class on the Jodhpur Express today—the train was full in this class until today which is why the delay.  After this train ride of 24 hours (yes, 24 hours) we have a 6 hour “layover” in Jodhpur.  Then another 6 hour train ride to Jaisalmer.  We will be in an entirely different state: the desert state of Rajasthan. It is time to say goodbye to Uttar Pradesh, the state we have been in since we got to India.  We are excited to see the desert, find some camels to ride and get back to cycling. 

Buddha
Buddha
The Buddhist Monk chanting. I am sad Elizabeth and Charlotte didn't get to see more of this in Nepal.
The Buddhist Monk chanting. I am sad Elizabeth and Charlotte didn’t get to see more of this in Nepal.
Sending off some prayers.
Sending off some prayers.
Sarnath
Sarnath
Now that is a prayer wheel.
Now that is a prayer wheel.
Notice the three Brown Bread Bakery signs.  Knock off stores open with the name.  That doesn't make things confusing at all.
Notice the three Brown Bread Bakery signs. Knock off stores open with the name. That doesn’t make things confusing at all.
Where can we get a license plate like this?
Where can we get a license plate like this?
Lighting candles for families.
Lighting candles for families on the Ganges.
Clayton doing his thing.
Clayton doing his thing.
Out for a morning meditation.
Out for a morning meditation.
Laundry drying in the dirt. Wasn't it just washed? Oh washed in the Ganges.
Laundry drying in the dirt. Wasn’t it just washed? Oh washed in the Ganges. Drying in the dirt. I am confused.
The contrasts.
The contrasts.

IMG_8317

Just a restroom on the Ganges.
Just a restroom on the Ganges.
The kite flying ghat.
The kite flying ghat.
Rupees
Rupees

Varanasi

“It must be impossible living in the US.” Not exactly the sentiment I would have expected someone in India to say about the US.  However, given the topic (vegetarianism) I had to partly agree with them.  Clayton and I were sitting in a small restaurant near the Banaras Hindu University.  We were squished onto a four foot bench across from a friendly couple both completing their English PhDs at BHU.

There are so many vegetarian options here in India.  We went to one restaurant two nights ago–41 different options for Paneer.  Not to mention the other 100+ veg options. (Paneer is an Indian cheese. It comes in cubes, maybe similar in size and shape to to tofu but much tastier.)  It is often hard to remember what life is like back home, but as Clayton and I have been thinking about vegetarianism, all we can remember is the amount of meat people in the US eat and how meat is pretty much the focus of many meals. I can probably think of 41 different ways people eat chicken but I am sure one restaurant wouldn’t facilitate all those options.

At this particular restaurant we were having our latest craze: Masala Dosas.  Crepe-like pancakes wrapped around potatoes, onions, peas, carrots, and of course whatever delicious goodness that makes up masala.  These are typically a southern India dish but seemed to be served up quite frequently here in northern India.  Dosas are also eaten for every meal of the day.  Can you think of a food that people back home eat for every meal of the day?  (Hint: Clayton and I could only think of one and it may not technically count.)

Masala Dosas
Masala Dosas

On the topic of eating, we have been having the continual debate: to eat street food or not to eat street food.  Clayton’s stomach seems to be made of much stronger material than mine.  He has been quite brave in some of the things he eagerly puts in his mouth.  I am much more cautious on the other hand.  I will share some of the arguments in favor of street food:

  • The sooner you get sick the better–build up the endurance.
  • What you see is what you get.
  • How do you know they aren’t (fill the blank) in your food in the back?
  • Hot and ready.
  • All the Indians are doing it.
  • What was the point of bringing all that Cipro, if not this.
  • Wash it down with some delicious chai.
  • It is 1/5 of the price.

Now there are many arguments against eating street food: sanitation, you don’t know where those pots, hands and water have been, the list goes on. However, given that most everything on the street ends up the golden delicious fried color that we came to love in the Delta, part of me argues the boiling hot oil has got to be killing at least most of the bacteria. Right? I have also pretty much taken up vegetarianism since arriving in Nepal.  The roadside butcher shops are a bit much to handle and so all the vegetarian food everywhere has its advantages.

We will just have to see how my stomach fairs, besides you are only in India once…err, this makes twice for us.  The food is definitely one of the reasons we are back so here is to eating both street food and not street food in India.

Chai or Milk Tea. Clayton's favorite.
Chai or Milk Tea. Clayton’s favorite.
Fancy Lassis from the Blue Lassi Shop. Banana Apple on the left.  Plain on the right.
Fancy Lassis from the Blue Lassi Shop. Banana Apple on the left. Plain on the right.
Buttered toast. Who knew it could taste so good.
Buttered toast. A nice variation from Indian breakfast.
Deliciousness
Deliciousness
Not quite the same as Dodge's Chicken in Arkansas, but I'm not picky about my orange-tinged fried foods.
Not quite the same as Dodge’s Chicken in Arkansas, but Clayton is not picky about orange-tinged fried foods.
BHU
Banaras Hindu University
A Chemistry Lab at BHU
A Chemistry Lab at BHU
The Publication Cell.  This was very fitting since Clayton's first research paper was just published back in Michigan.
The Publication Cell. This was very fitting since Clayton’s first research paper was just published back in Michigan.
Vishwanath Mandir Temple at BHU
Vishwanath Mandir Temple at BHU