When I travel I like to go beyond my comfort levels.
At home you are surrounded by the familiar. Here I reach out and force myself to be receptive to the world and people in a way that I never allow at home. Cycling through small villages and seeing a place on a bike forces an openness and interactions beyond anything possible on tours insulated by guides or even sticking to the backpacker circuits.
In hindsight I think our first week was traveling through the most challenging area we will visit. Of course that perception is impacted by being brand new to the country and overwhelmed by what now seems normal, but still I think it was a sensory shock introduction.
Agra, where we started, is a rough industrial town that happens to have one of the world’s largest tourist attractions. It’s predatory to visitors and relentless in getting every dime out of you, but as I saw as we rode out it’s also a dirty, overcrowded, shockingly unsanitary place. It must draw most of its workers from the surrounding rural areas that bring many of their customs right into the city.
The first week we went through rough village after village, which I understand now were at subsistence level living, where people had very little and conditions were filthy. I saw women doing everything – backbreaking labor, and men seemed to do nothing. I was grateful not to be a woman born in NE Rajasthan.
There were children everywhere in these villages – and after seeing other areas where children were uniformed and in school I think perhaps this area was one where many children had no school or were not attending for whatever reason. This led to a lot of behavior the first week with kids that I’ve not seen since … biking through those early villages we’d have dozens of kids surround us and at times turn aggressive (trying to touch, throwing things, etc.) as we rode through. We had to organize in groups to get through. It was like they were less supervised, and with no school were just around looking for something to do and had less social barriers on how they interacted.
The north has much lower literacy rates, so I think now what we were experiencing the first week was in large part a product of being in an area with less education, less exposure to the outside, less ability to ever leave circumstances.
Perspective of more time in country since helps me see that is just part of India, and probably one of the poorer areas with less opportunity to move beyond subsistence living. But that first week was a hard landing and pretty rough introduction to a wonderful country – an introduction to the country that had me wondering if I really wanted 8 weeks of this?
But things changed as we moved south and west and new India’s keep emerging. I had a wonderful comment on the blog that India is like many countries in one and as you pass from state to state it’s like having a visa to many different countries in one. That insight is right on.
I expect the second half of this trip to be easier and more cycling-centered than the first. We have more ride days and fewer rest days. Stretches of bad roads have generally been shorter and more spread out. We are traveling in places that are less conservative and where we can go without drawing curious crowds of spectators and worrying about offending. Where our behavior and dress and actions are less scrutinized and evaluated. This allows us to just be more natural. The cycling is starting to become more like a traditional cycling tour- beautiful scenery and conditions that mean most miles are a joy. I’m grateful for time through the north, and now have a better knowledge base to understand what I was seeing.
But I love to ride, and am looking forward to a more cycling-friendly south.