Today was memorable. Not enjoyable. Memorable. There’s a difference.
Most people use potholes to differentiate between “good roads” and “bad roads”. Were we to use this classification scheme, you could – technically – say the road we fumbled down today wasn’t that bad. There were only 7 or 8 potholes. However. However. Each of those potholes was a monstrous 6 miles long, separated by rare instances of smooth pavement where we could collect our thoughts before entering another giant pothole.
But let’s start at the beginning. My alarm went off at 6am. I got up and looked around the room for the laptop (since I’m an author now I have a pretty regimented writing schedule). While scrambling in the dark, I heard something. The drone of a television, or maybe radio. I opened the window and a loudspeaker radio from the center of town was going at it. Just like previous mornings, Communist Radio – as Katy and I like to call it – woke up the entire town. Just before 7am a couple hymns were sung, and we knew it would wrap up soon.
We got on the road at 9:30, and around 11 figured breakfast/lunch was in order. We ordered cow neow (sticky rice) and dabbed it in some spices. The Lao love their spices.
Then the first pothole started. It’s always comical at first. Holy balls Batman! This road is awful. But the awfulness doesn’t go away. And it isn’t funny. Then the mountain started. Up and up and up. Multiple false summits, we kept grinding. When you’re sweating out of your shins you know you’re getting a good workout. Around 2 we reached thee summit, told the Koreans to stop taking our photogrpah, put down a Vita Milk and a couple bottles of water (cause I was dry on the inside) took a couple shots of soy sauce (cause you really need your sodium, or if you’re an athlete – I’m an athlete – we prefer to call it electrolytes) and got back on the road.
Going down a mountain inside a pothole is worse than going up. All your hard work is wasted as you grab the brakes for two hours. We did see a mother pig getting ravaged by some piglets, so that’s nice. The tandem is pretty awful on the bumpy roads. To let off some steam – Serenity Now! – I started throwing some unkind comments to the Lao folks. They don’t speak any English so I assumed if I just yelled in a high-pitched friendly tone no harm would be done. Probably not true, but better than yelling at my wife.
“Hey, I rode my bike around the world and your road is the worst.”
“It looks like y’all are working hard, but that dirt is gonna wash away when the rains come.” (I mean honestly, how can you fix a road with a rake?)
“Why don’t you elect a new government that will build you a decent road?”
I’d get about halfway through one of these shouts of built up frustration when they would all wave and shout hello. So much for trying to vent.
Then it got dusty. As in, giant trucks roll past and a dust cloud engulfs us. Lung damage, vision problems, gritty teeth, fingernail sensitivity. Dust gets everywhere. Dust also hides stuff, like giant rocks. That’s how we got our first flat tire and broke our first spoke. My perfect wheel, crafted in a cheap guesthouse in Kathmandu, suffered its first broken spoke. I made Katy fix the flat tire cause it’s good practice for her.
Then it started getting dark. Dust clouds are cool in the dark cause you can’t see anything. You get to stop for a while and wait until you have permission to continue. Then another rock, maybe the size of a swollen ankle, and another flat tire. (Magically I hit both of these rocks with the back tire, the long wheel base of the tandem is a nightmare on a bad road.) Katy hailed a truck for a lift into town but I reminded her that Pratts aren’t wusses and we finish what we start. I’ve always told her that stubbornness is my best trait. Don’t give up. Ever.
After dinner (dinner is always feu, which is similar to Vietnam’s pho) we sat down at a small fire with two middle aged men, one with a machete and the other with a pack of cigarettes. I got out my sunflower seeds, they pulled some yams out of the coals. We swapped. Then the smoker placed a two foot stick of green bamboo in the fire. He carefully rotated it, water bubbled out, and twenty minutes later he decided it was “done” so he handed the stick to the machete friend. A couple carefully placed cuts later and Smoker Deng pulls some rice out of the bamboo and we have a second dinner. My tandem handling skills in the dark on lousy roads are slowly improving, but I definitely need to work on my rice cooking inside bamboo over a small fire on the side of the road. That would be the cow’s neow.
8:50pm. Lamache Restaurant, overlooking the Mighty Mekong River. A soft breeze blows through the palm trees, music drifts across the river and Katy puts in another order for mango with sticky rice. We brought a couple extra mangoes from the market because we like our sticky rice extra mangoey. Which is different than mangooey. It’s hard to believe that at some point these fairytale dinners in mystical places will come to a crashing halt.
For the last five days our home has been Highway 13. Our wheels have pointed north, from Vientiane through the tourist infected town of Vang Vieng where tattooed and bikini strapped twenty something years olds stumble down the street looking for another beer, up through the endless Dr. Seuss inspired jungle-infested mountains and to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Luang Prabang. Highway 13 is the largest highway in Laos, but in a country of 6.8 million people, where rivers have always been and always will be, the major form of transportation, the highway feels unimportant.
There are no lanes, no paint in the road, no shoulders, no medians. It’s just a strip of pavement, smooth at best, bumpy and laden with dirt filled potholes on average, and getting a new layer of smoking hot black tar that sticks to our tires at worst. On Highway 13, children rule the road. Four and five year olds cross the street without looking, their 2 year old siblings on their backs. Boys roll old bike tires down the road, carefully navigating the tires every turn with a small stick. Little girls scream sabaidee as soon as they see us approaching, and immediately a crowd of children turn their heads and start waving. Older children are sent off to find firewood, bananas, rice and other items from the hills.
After the children, the animals have next priority. Chicks squeak and chirp as they follow their mother hens carelessly across the road. Bamboo chimes hang from the necks of cattle; they wander aimlessly because they don’t know where they are going and unsure when they will get there. Unlike the cows of India, these cows move out of the way if we head straight at them. It’s indicative of the Laos people in general, they are quiet and shy whereas the Indians are loud and in-your-face.
The road has felt empty, ten and fifteen minutes will pass before we see a car, motorbike or our tourist van plying the road between cities. The tourists will invariably wave, and we’ll think to ourselves you’re missing the best part. Gas stations are rare, most gas is stored in 50 gallon drums along the side of the road allowing motorbikes to refuel without getting off the highway.
The road is a snake. It winds. Most of the time, we can only see 50 feet ahead of us. So when we are climbing our second or third pass of the week we are left to imagine how much longer we will have to climb. Our legs have felt weak, having not ridden in the past 4 weeks, but the 20,000 vertical feet we conquered in the past five days are getting us back in shape. It’s not often that I can see noticeable quad muscle growth in just a week’s time.
Two days ago, after a demanding 8,000 vertical feet, we came within 3kilometers of our destination and I stopped, asking Katy if she would rather walk. My legs were shaking and I could have fallen asleep in the middle of the road. I went to bed that night at 5:30, cause when your body wants rest, your body wants rest.
For the past two hours we’ve been grazing. First on the menu was some Mekong River fish, about the size of my head. Stuffed with lemongrass, slits on all sides and drizzled with other herbs and butter, it is stuck between a splint of bamboo, tied shut and put on the coals to cook. When done, it gets a side of eggplant and spicy peppers and served on a bamboo leaf. You know you’re enjoying Laos food at its best when you have a fish head in one hand, juices and oil are running down your chin, your lips tingle from the peppers, and a pair of chopsticks are in the other hand. Mmm.
Four days ago Clayton gave George the assignment to write a blog entry after a great bike ride, “It’s your turn Dad.” But 3 days later, you know George’s phrase, “hey! I’ve been busy,” and Clayton is still waiting. And now George’s assignment has grown into documenting what has been an exceptional week. This explains the lapse of blogging this week and so I will help out my husband with a little writing of my own.
Before I begin, I left Clayton and Katy the second week of November on a dirty side street in Thamel, Kathmandu, Nepal. For the last two months I’ve looked forward to this trip to Cambodia and Laos, but each morning I’ve woken up with the thought, “I can’t believe those two are stillon their bike.”
First things first, in Luang Prabang we rented some mountain bikes and rode a 25-mile loop into the Chompett District, northwest of Luang Prabang. (And I thought those two would want some time off the bike.) We had to first put our bikes on a boat (giant canoe) to cross the Mekong River. Our boat driver pushed off from shore before checking to see if the engine would start. The current wasn’t too brisk and we were rescued a quarter mile downriver. Transferring bikes and people from a boat that is 25 feet long but only 3 feet wide onto another boat of similar dimensions can be very comical! George’s weight distribution almost sent us all swimming.
At last we were on our way biking on a very hilly dirt road. A bumpy road, rutted tire tracks, and hills after hills tested my legs. But not Katy. She can power up hills like nobody’s business. We think she was so happy to be the one out in front for a change. The country was extremely rural, with small villages consisting of just three or four homes here and there. No one spoke English . No signage. Just us and Clayton’s GPS (which is usually asking town people for directions and a lot of pointing). The best is to come upon children playing in schoolyards.
Around noon I started getting hungry and didn’t think the single can of Pringles in Clayton’s pack would feed four hungry mouths. “Don’t worry Mom, we’ll find a meal,” Clayton reassured me. After Duck Duck Goose at a Primary School we stopped at a village funeral luncheon. Clayton doesn’t hesitate in diving right into funeral luncheons. Who wouldn’t? After sticky rice, chili paste, greens and meat, George was motioned to enter the village temple to see the coffin of a deceased wife and pay for our lunch ($2/person) by an offering to the funeral. Or maybe he was invited in cause he looks like a bank.
The day was magical. “Look George! We aren’t in Kansas anymore.” Rice fields. Water buffalo. Poinsettia trees in bloom. Palm trees. Bamboo houses with thatch roofs. Children transporting siblings to school on the back of their bike. Laos is a beautiful country. And this day we discovered how beautiful the people are.
Thanks Clayton for being our bike guide!
My turn, oh my gosh. Big shoes to fill. Very well, where do I begin? The details of our week were quite . . . inconsequential? This is Clayton’s Father, Dr. Evil.
Humor aside, we’ve had a fantastic last couple of days.
One issue my wife Charlotte and I have discussed is how much time, when traveling somewhere new, should be spent in a particular location. Should you move around a lot and see as much as possible or settle in to one location for a longer time to let the place sink in a little deeper. This trip has definitely been the latter approach. First three nights in Siem Reap Cambodia to see Angkor Wat and all the associated temples – some Hindu, dedicated either to Vishnu or Shiva, and some Buddhist, dedicated to the Buddha. Every king back in the Khmer period (900 – 1300) had the job of building an awesome temple, and as Clayton’s youngest brother Eli might say, I’d like to congratulate them all on a job well done.
One thing I enjoy in particular about traveling is learning about the different religious beliefs and practices since, in the long run, that will end up being the only part that matters. One big plus of Buddhism over Hinduism is its relative simplicity: just one Buddha versus the seeming chaos of deities over in India. But I am not crazy about the Buddhist chanting. It is low pitched and very nasal, and gives me a bit of an upset stomach. So three days in Cambodia was a great way to get started.
Then we flew to Luang Prabang Laos, and this is our sixth day here. And it has been just great settling in here for a solid week. This is kind of a tourist mecca in Laos – the number of guest houses has tripled since 2005. But it is still a quaint, charming small town, on the Mekong River. We are staying at the northeast end of town on a peninsula where there are numerous Buddhist monasteries populated mostly by 12 – 18 year old “novices,” who will decide by the time they are 20 whether to become full-time monks or go out in the “real world.” We have talked to several. Very nice young men, which is no surprise because the Lao people (“Laotian” is no longer used – that is a French vestige) are perhaps the most consistently kind, gentle, and HAPPY people I have been with anywhere. It seems everything is funny here.
The country is poor but people are industrious and energetic. There is no sense that the relative absence of things that Western culture has been so good at producing is cutting into the quality of life here. We have had great food, and some of the best food has been the cheapest. Clayton leans very strongly toward “street food” which he claims has much more flavor – including the barbequed chicken feet he picked up for a snack this afternoon. Also, lots of sticky rice.
Sticky rice is the ‘bees knees’ of Lao cuisine, and will be mentioned in a separate entry.
This has been a great place to live for a week. I would recommend Luang Prabang to anyone who just wants to settle into Indochina for a while in a beautiful mountain setting and relax, have some adventure, and hang out.
I need to give credit where it’s due, however, for the high quality of our trip. Clayton and Katy are like a travelling machine. Trained professionals. When we arrived here Clayton led a night tour through town – down a dirt alley, then down very steep wooden steps, across a bamboo bridge over the smaller river in town, up to the night market – all as if he lived here. And I have had a few conversations with Katy and different locals where I have no idea what is being said and Katy is just following along as though a native. So we do have first rate tour guides and that is very much appreciated. It has been totally fun traveling with them and really not having to figure anything out. (Because after all – I’m an old man, I’m confused.)
Charlotte has already written about our 25 mile bicycle ride into the hills. I get to write about our overnight trek back into the mountains, which was the next day. We got into a tuk tuk taxi first thing and were escorted by our guide Nong. The others in our group were Hi, (he was our porter and didn’t speak any English, I don’t think), and one other tourist, Helmut, from Germany. We drove about an hour north and then headed on foot and over river up into the mountains. Lunch was served on a couple of banana leaves in a little outdoor hut, consisting of sticky rice and an assortment of vegetables, and was delicious.
We passed through several villages along the way. One problem I had is that they all reminded me of some scene from a Vietnam War movie – Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, Apocalypse Now, even Forrest Gump (“Get down, shut up!) where the villages all get napalmed and incincerated. It was nice to see some of these beautiful villages where that wasn’t happening.
Just before we stopped for the evening we walked through a Hmong village. There were perhaps 80 dwellings, and people there living a very basic life. Weaving bamboo, taking care of farm animals, that sort of thing. Speaking Hmong. Even Clint Eastwood learned to love these people.
Then we climbed over the brow of the next hill and below us lay a Khmu village, roughly the same size. We wandered into town just before sunset. It was amazing. This little town is completely self-sustaining, with many pigs and chickens and ducks, wandering everywhere between the various dwellings, which are made of wood and bamboo. The people were living about the same as say a thousand years ago, with a few notable differences: many corrugated metal roofs, a couple of little stores where you could buy a soft drink (warm), several motorcycles, and some electrical generators.
Otherwise this could have been an ancient village. We had sticky rice (of course) for dinner, we watched them kill the chicken we ate, and also had a good assortment of greens. Among his many other roles, Nong was an excellent cook. The kids were everywhere, playing, playing, playing, and laughing. There were a couple of central bathing areas where you could clean up.
After it got dark we crawled into bed. We slept on mats placed on wood platforms inside a home with dirt floor. The home right next door had just been completed, and the local custom is to inaugurate a new building by partying all night. So the generator was used to power music that went well past midnight, I think, at a very high volume. Bad timing for us sleep-wise, but now and again these things just got to be done! The music was really great: a little disco-ey, and some reminded me of Pink Floyd, but all the singing was Asian (maybe Lao, how would I know)? All very danceable.
Morning came and we didn’t want anyone to think we were a bunch of stiffs. So when they stoked up the music again at breakfast time first Katy, then Clayton, then Charlotte and I stated dancing out in front of our place. And attracted quite an audience. They were all very amused – by Katy’s dance moves, Clayton’s celebratory hairstyle (ponytail on the side, reserved for special occasions), and somehow although this is one of the most surreal things I have ever done, it all somehow seemed to fit. The little kids joined in and it turned into a nice morning dance party with the Khmu hill people in northern Laos. Little did we know at the time that the women had resumed the inauguration ceremony inside the new building by drinking rice wine from long straws. This was a fantastic experience.
A couple of words about our guide, Nong. Like many of the Lao we have met, he was extremely friendly and upbeat. He was maybe 27 years old. His English was excellent, and he was very well educated and informative on a wide variety of subjects. He had grown up in a small village not unlike the Hmong and Khmu villages we visited. He was just an exceptional person.
He told us that between 1972–74 his parents, before they had married, lived in a cave about 50 kilometers southeast of Luang Prabang, for about two years. The reason? Nong said that during that time the United States was constantly dropping bombs in northern Laos. I knew about the secret bombing of Cambodia that stemmed from the Vietnam War but I had never heard this before, and was dubious. I checked it out. Between 1964 through 1973 the US carried out one bombing mission, EVERY 8 MINUTES, 24/7 – for nine straight years. More bombs were dropped on Laos than the US dropped in all of World War II. Tens of thousands of innocent people were killed. There are still TONS of unexploded cluster bombs dotting the northern Lao countryside, and several hundred people annually get killed by them. The full extent of all this was not disclosed until the Clinton administration. The missions were carried out because Viet Cong soldiers were here.
Sorry to end this little insert to The Touring Tandem’s blog on a downer. But after having been exposed to a wonderful culture full of very beautiful, happy people I was just a bit stunned and disgusted by this information. When Nong sensed our collective reaction to what he had told us, he was quick to add, “It was a very hard time for the Lao people, but we don’t blame American people for that. People are usually not the problem, it’s a problem of government and politics.” And the topic changed and Nong laughed again.
Vientiane, Laos. Chillax. I think that’s the best word to describe the capital city of one of the five remaining communist countries in the world. Chillax. As in chill and relax. When we arrived a couple days back I imagined we had snuck up on southern California from maybe 70 years ago. A lot of laid back folks, good street food, and instead of the beach the Mighty Mekong River. A couple days there until a flight to Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Cambodia uses the US dollar as currency, which really puts a damper on my ability to barter. It’s easy to haggle over the price of a tuk-tuk when you’re bartering between 40 or 50 or 60 Indian rupees. But when a guy tells me a ride is $2, I just have a hard time saying, “No, how about $1.75.”
On April 17, 1975 Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh, Cambodia. On that day, kids put down their toys and men left their shops and lined the streets, cheering their arrival. They assumed their civil war had come to an end. They were wrong. Three days later, 90% of the 400,000 inhabitants had all been forced from their homes into the countryside. For Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge, April 17, 1975 was year zero. They day he would restart civilization and build an agrarian communism. His plan was to remove all education, religion, business and family and create a new people who basically did two things: grew rice and pledged their allegiance to the state. Anyone of mixed ancestry was killed, those who wore reading glasses were killed (they spent too much time away from the fields), if you had an education or knew a foreign language, also killed. (Which is strange cause Pol Pot was educated in France and spoke French). Over the next three years a quarter of Cambodia’s then 8,000,000 population would die, either buried in one of the hundreds of mass graves throughout the country or starved to death (Pol Pot sold much of the grown rice to China in exchange for weapons to maintain military control).
Seventeen kilometers south of Phnom Penh is Choeung Ek, the mass grave associated with the Tuol Seng Prison in Phnom Penh. Tuol Seng, or S-21 as it was commonly called, was the Khmer Rouge’s infamous torture chamber and prison. During Pol Pot’s reign of horror, he became possessed by the idea that others were in league with the CIA or KGB. As soon as he suspected this behavior (in either a man who had been a farmer all his life or someone inside his inner circle) they were sent to S-21 and tortured. The only way to end the torture was to confess to wrongs they didn’t commit. Then, around 6:30pm, a couple times a month, 50-70 people were loaded into trucks, told they were being taken to a “new home” and delivered to the killing fields. Under the loud drone of a diesel engine and blaring Khmer Rouge Party music, mass graves were filled and covered before morning. About 20,000 people were killed in Choeung Ek. As Katy and I walked through the site, a peaceful, but tragic, calm was present. These people’s lives were ruined, but the torture was over. A sign on the trail read, Don’t Step on Bones, next to some bones that had slowly made their way to the surface during the yearly rainstorms. Further down the trail a couple teeth were seen on the trail. It’s impossible for me to look at other people in this country and have any idea what someone their life might be like. Every time I see a Cambodian, I think to myself, “Is that person forty?” Cause if they are older than forty they lived through something more horrible than I can even imagine. Then I wonder, were they on the being killed or the killing side? Were their family members innocently killed? Or did they ruthlessly kill others, possibly with pickaxes in order to save precious bullets, so they wouldn’t be killed themselves?
Then, something a little more cheerful happened, we went to the airport and met . . . . . . my parents. Whoa. It was a realization that back home still exists and in three short months we will be there.
We spent the last three days with them at Angkor Wat in Siem Reap. Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex in the world (and since we are a temple loving people, and also Vishnu loving people, we thought it might be nice to pay a visit). My parents spent a lot of time arguing over the more industrious people – the Khmers who built Angkor Wat in 35 years or the Mormons who built the Salt Lake temple in 40 years. My father asked our guide a host of questions about the temple (all the temples happen to be Hindu temples, and since my father’s recent visit to India, he has become a bit of a Hindu devotee) but most questions were answered by a sentence similar to, “We think they kept records that talked about stuff like this, but all the records were looted.” Where did the heads of these statues go? Looted. Did something used to be here? Looted.
At church this morning, a lady in an orange and blue plaid shirt and peculiar green pants that kind of looked like pajama pants got up from her seat in front of us to give the final talk of sacrament meeting. It didn’t look like she wasn’t wearing shoes as she walked up the aisle and it appeared that many years of hard work had taken a toll on her. She began to speak (all translated through a headset by a missionary) and talk about her difficult life at home, poverty, a son who drinks too much, her conversion to the church three years ago and her resilience to push on. She started crying at the pulpit, and they weren’t tears of fleeting emotion or spiritual sensitivity. She cried about how difficult her life had been. I can only imagine why she might have been there without a husband. I can’t imagine what it might be like to live in real poverty. I got the feeling this lady has never taken a hot shower or laid down under clean sheets. She’s probably never been on a vacation and will never sit down to dinner in a restaurant. In LDS circles, people often say things like, “oh, but in the next life all of this will be made right.” How will a life of suffering and a life of prosperity and ease be “made right?”
Contrary to the difficulty of Cambodia, or maybe because of it, the first thing you notice when you fly into Cambodia (or Laos) is the friendliness of these people. I think friendliness of strangers increases in direct ratio to the distance we have travelled away from the United States. Cambodians (and Laotians) other enduring trait is a love of laughter. Our tuk tuk drivers, waiters, guides, church members, everyone we meet can’t get through a couple sentences without a chuckle here or there. Although, if you get them speaking about how they feel about the Israelis, Chinese or Koreans they will definitely speak their mind.
Today we all flew from Siem Reap to Luang Prabang, Laos. Laos is enchanting. After Slovenia, it is #2 on my list of “places I knew nothing about the day I entered them but now absolutely love.”
Shhhh.Don’t move.It’s so quiet.Very quiet.And calm.And clean.
When we landed in Vientiane, Laos everything was instantly different.The line to get a visa on arrival was short and lacked the ridiculous amount of paper work we saw in Kathmandu.Just a friendly man, who answered our questions, stamped our passports and pointed us in the right direction.We got to the baggage claim last, and there were only six bags left – four of them were ours – and no people in sight.I can’t remember the last time I was in a public building and couldn’t see any other people.Just sitting by their peaceful selves, our bags looked lonely.Even our bike could tell we had left the commotion and India and it could relax.
We grabbed our bags and exited the area.No one checked our baggage tickets.No one tried to rip off our arm and pull us into their taxi or to their hotel.I withdrew 1,000,000 laotian kip from the ATM, not because I’m a millionaire but because an 8,092 to 1 exchange rate calls for some large currency.
Placing our bags into the bag of the taxi felt more like teamwork than a fight.The man smiled and we jumped into his car.Their were white lanes painted on the road, indicating where cars should go, and unlike our taxi ride this morning, our driver spent most of the time in his lane.A sidewalk on the side of the road was clean and clear, I imagined that people walk down the road without ever wondering if they are going to step in red paan (chewing tobacco) spit or cow manure.An evening walk could help you unwind, not get wound up.We approached a red light and our driver stopped.This is weird! And then another car pulled up behind us and left us 10 or 12 feet of room.Space.Order. Logic.Reason.No cows.Very few people on the streets.I thought I was back home in the States.We continued our drive and the out of body experience continued.There were no potholes, no unnecessary speed bumps every 30 or 40 meters.Quiet and peaceful.
I guess I should have guessed things would be different a couple hours earlier when I boarded our Thai Airways flight from Delhi to Bangkok.The plane was just a little bit different, bright pink and purple seats, airplane attendants in a different style of dress.When our plane landed it was warm and humid, a stark contrast to the cloudy and cold days we’ve had lately in Northern India.We entered the terminal and were hit by a wall of cold air, hmm, air conditioning.A free public wifi service actually had a signal, and content on my phone (mail and Instagram) actually uploaded.The bathrooms were stocked with complimentary toilet paper (strange I know) and we ordered Dairy Queen desserts from a lady named Mook.
Our time in India was great.I already miss it.But I didn’t realize how truly unique that place is until I left.I’ve only been gone for ten hours or so, but I already miss the chaos, the hordes of people, the chai shops, the bicycle rickshaws, the utter confusion, the holy men, the wandering cows, the rickshaw drivers who always try to rip you off.It’s natural to be fond of the difficult times in your life, the times that really push you to the limit.That was definitely India.Sitting on the limit, never sure which way you would fall.
Our last night in India was spent with two of Katy’s work friends from Google.We took a quick tour of the building (gym, fitness room, room to take a nap, massage room, micro kitchen complete with snacks, cafeteria – all the typical basics you would expect from a company).After our visit we went to dinner in Cyber City in Gurgaon.It is arguably one of the fastest growing areas in India.Ten years ago it was basically farm land, but today it is multiple high rise residential buildings, the offices of many international companies and a slew of American chains – KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Dominos and then some others like Starbucks, Krispy Kreme, Red Mango, Dunkin Donuts.It feels very European and none of it existed ten years ago.Most people see it as tremendous progress and development, which it surely is, but it is also sad (I think) to believe that progress is synonymous with the introduction of a bunch of American food chains.No one wants to travel around the world to go to Starbucks in the morning, have KFC for lunch and look for a pizza delivery place for dinner.What is so great about India is that part of India that will never change.
(warning – Clayton’s rambling ahead)
For better or worse, the vast majority of the 1.2 billion people that is India, will never change.It will still be chai-wallahs and samosa chaat on the street.It will still be a rickshaw driver who assumes I have tons of money (cause I do) and it will still be gritty, real and authentic India.Lives will still be defined by the caste system, marriages will still be arranged by parents.It’s a different reality, one that is hard for me to wrap my head around, but it is India.Most people in India have very few options of what type of life they will live – they’ll do the type of work their parents did and they’ll marry who their parents suggest.
Walking home from dinner in India I’m confronted with numerous people sleeping on the side of the street, on top of a piece of cardboard and under a single blanket – a guy who sleeps next to his bicycle rickshaw, all of his world possessions in the world right there in front of him.If he works all day he might make a couple bucks, enough to have chai with his friends, a meal or two, chew some tobacco and find a nice spot of ground to sleep on before waking it up and doing it all again in the morning.I’ll stop and reflect on my own life.Then I’ll look back at his life.I’ll grapple with the ideas of fairness, gratitude, poverty and suffering.I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between poverty and suffering.Much of India is poor, very poor.But poor by Western standards.They appear happy and healthy and are doing well.They are vibrant, they smile and are full of energy.It’s a tough life, no doubt, but one they’ve been living for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, I’m not sure that just because I have arrived in India, their life is suddenly “unfortunate” or “miserable” or “sad”.It’s unfair for me to project that onto them.
Many people, myself included, will travel to a place like India and then leave with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that our life is “not as bad as theirs”, that we are “so blessed” and that we have “so much.” (We then quickly return to our boring neighborhoods where nothing interesting in a thousand years will ever happen.)I don’t like this idea.What is “so much?”A nice car?Lots of student loans?Enough money to travel?A cabin?A closet full of shoes?A basement full of bikes?A sailboat in the garage?Three or four pairs of skis?It’s easy to think that we are “better off” because we have lots of stuff.Yes and no.No doubt, money solves a lot of problems.It provides food, shelter and access to health care – not something that everyone has.But money doesn’t necessarily get us anything really meaningful – relationships with family or friends, fulfillment from work, devotion to God, a positive attitude.India may not have a lot of money, sure, but they seem to be doing pretty well in these other areas.They work hard, have families and make religion a central part of their life.That guy sleeping on the cardboard box may not have a lot of the things I take for granted, but tomorrow morning when he goes to work, I’ll be he’s got a smile on his face. And when our time on Earth ends he’ll be able to take that smile with him and all of “my stuff” will just be stuff.
PS: Apologies for slow and inconsistent writing as of late (or maybe you are happy to have less SPAM in your inbox). I’ve started writing a book (about this trip) and it turns out this endeavor is 1) very time consuming and 2) extremely difficult.
From the rooftop terrace of the Ishan Hotel, in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand, India there are many sights and sounds to observe.To the north are the foothills of the Himalayas, with dark clouds tumbling down from above threatening rain and stormy weather.It’s not the rainy season, here on the Subcontinent, but when you’re in India all bets are off.The Himalayas will begin here and then wind and weave hundreds of kilometers until cut up and through the sky with their magnificent 8,000 meter peaks before arriving at the vast, barren 5,000 meter plateau of Tibet.
To my east is the Laxman Jhula, a cable suspension bridge that crosses the Ganga River (Ganges River).The bridge carries every type of traffic, donkeys loaded with supplies, motorbikes, domestic and foreign tourists, touts hoping to snap a picture and make a buck, the wayward cow, sadhus (the holy men) in their orange robes, shoeless kids selling flowers in paper boats with candles to those hoping to send some Karma down the river.Monkeys traipse and swing on the suspension lines, stealing glasses from foreigners and taking a cracker from a kind local.On the opposite bank of the river is a nine story orange building with bizarre steeples at the top with the words YOGA TRAINING CENTER plastered across the front.When you come to the yoga capital of the world, you better be ready to slow down, focus on your breath and forget your body.Because as we were told last night, your body is a block, it is not real, your body will die and disintegrate and you will still be here, focus on your breath, when you focus on your breath your body will disappear, your body causes you suffering, your body is a block.
To the west is a small square, with a large statue of Shiva looking down on a busy man, sending stalks of cane through a diesel powered engine, producing juice for a handful of guests who sit in plastic chairs in the middle of the road.Beside him, his son uses the same stalks of cane to smack the holy cows that are looking for a free meal.The horn of the motorbike tells pedestrians to move over or risk losing an elbow.Chanting is heard in the distance.It seems chanting can always be heard in the distance.
When the metal roof above my head starts thundering and the screech of dying children is heard, my heart skips a beat, but then I relax.It’s just the monkeys.It’s just the monkeys.Many animals bicker and quarrel here in India, but only the monkeys make such a crazy inhumane screech that you worry if someone, someone innocent, has lost their life.
This morning we took a small hike up to a waterfall, a couple hundred meters above and 3km upriver from town.The sun was out, sweat dripped down my face, I grabbed two large rocks for the journey up to do some exercises to start reversing the upper body atrophy that has occurred over the last couple months.I think I’ve lost 20 pounds since we’ve left, and it hasn’t all been love handles, gut or butt.
India is a unique place, one I may never figure out, but I’ll definitely keep coming back.In the past month we have cycled just about 1,600 kilometers, or 1,000 miles, in Nepal and India, and it has been a wild ride.It wasn’t until southern Nepal we met kids who had never heard of McDonalds.It wasn’t until India that we were brought into local schools and asked to teach Physics or English.It wasn’t until India that when we tried to pay for food or tea our payment was refused because we were a guest in their country. It’s also the only country where I had to put on headphones to listen to Phish to prevent myself from kicking the many motorcyclists off their bike as they harangued me with a dozen questions.It’s the only country where we often got off our bike and walked because traffic and road conditions were so horrible.It’s the only country where you ride down the highway and expect trees in the road, lots of oncoming traffic in the wrong lane, dozens of requests for photos, speed bumps galore and a million smiling faces also exclaiming the exact same thing; ooh, lovely double cycle, very nice.It was the country we were the most excited to get to, the one we, at times, were the most excited to leave, and I suspect it will be the hardest to leave when we get on a plane in six days.
In the past week we’ve been at the Taj Mahal (rather lovely), chanted with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in Vrindavan, and found a grocery store that sells things like blueberry muffins, salsa and almond milk.MIRACLE.
In six days we are off to Vientiane, Laos where our journey will resume (after a visit from my parents) cycling through the hills of Northern Laos and then Thailand and hopefully Malaysia and maybe we will get down to Singapore.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
one bike's adventure . . . . . . . . . two along for the ride