I’m a long way from India.
I’m sitting in the sun with an incredible view of the San Juan Islands, snow capped Mount Baker and the choppy white-capped water at Guemes Island (rustic) resort off Washington’s coast. The sun is out, and it if we are lucky it may get above 60 today… the first full day resembling what spring ought to be since I returned from India a month ago.
My friends have just left for a paddle with the seals and the bald eagles and the otters while the water is still calm and the currents are still. Sadly, I’m benched from paddling letting my shoulder finish healing.
(Remember the fall off the bike two weeks into trip where I cracked the helmet? Turns out I also separated my shoulder AC joint …NO WONDER IT HURT! So now, three weeks into PT I’m regaining mobility and strength … and trying not to be stupid and delay the recovery. Luckily biking on it for 6 weeks didn’t seem to exacerbate the damage, though the doctor did proclaim it was “very impressive” which I think is the medical equivalent of “you are an idiot”.)
So instead I am using the beauty and solitude to finish this blog … I finally feel like I’ve digested this trip enough to articulate the final chapter.
I could tell the story of my India trip in two ways, and they would both be technically accurate but fundamentally incomplete on their own.
India trip Version 1: Amazing people, culture and adventure
- Daily encounters with people who were so warm, curious and generous towards me it literally took my breath away and made me hope I behave half as well to those I meet.
- Lovely countryside with beautiful, empty rural landscapes completely contrary to what I was expecting in one of the world’s most populous countries.
- Chaotic, interesting and vibrant cities that mixed the ancient with the modern-all with unending vibrancy, energy, sights and smells.
- Seeing the momentum of a frantically growing economy –for those who have benefited as well as those left behind … and the thirst for education and signs of people grasping to be part of it.
- Seeing the differences in the states and people as we traveled through, and really appreciating the diversity here – and being amazed by it.
- Fascinating art and forts and palaces and history.
- Seeing – yet rarely understanding – the open spirituality and strongly held religion practiced openly and joyfully.
- Some excellent riding days with beautiful scenery, gratifyingly sweat inducing climbs, and all the elements that make you feel like you cycled hard and were rewarded for the effort.
- Fabulous complicated fresh food that allowed you to literally taste the culture.
- An aliveness that makes my home and routine seem so painfully dull and predictable in comparison punctuated by the constant stimulation and guaranteed surprises literally around any corner on any given day – very addicting.
- Overcoming problems (like getting lost, bike repairs, sickness, injury and frustration) and the satisfaction of moving forward anyway that makes it sweeter.
- A trip challenging enough it forced me to think about my actions and reactions differently.
- Probably most importantly, a fantastic group of interesting, exciting and accomplished people to ride with who I learned from, and many who were truly an inspiration due to what they accomplished and their spirit and attitude. It’s rare to be lucky enough to encounter a group of people like this, and that’s also attributable to the company that organized this trip and the quality and energy they attract.
Version 2 India trip: Can’t believe I’m doing this …
- A rough start where in the first two weeks the air pollution triggered a bronchial infection and a secondary respiratory infection that required two rounds of antibiotics to clear, set off multiple asthma attacks and required riding in a mask for the rest of the trip.
- A bike crash that cracked my helmet and painfully injured a shoulder.
- Constant damage and repairs needed on the bike due to the pounding it took on rough roads.
- Roads and traffic that made riding conditions difficult and occasionally genuinely dangerous.
- Fewer glorious riding days than difficult days … the work to reward ratio with the quality of the cycling was flipped.
- Some serious injuries that sent riders home – which was a sobering and frightening wake up call for me.
- A country that is still developing with many things I found very contrary to my western perception of how things should be such as trash and litter piled everywhere and basic sanitation issues that overwhelmed with the sights and smells of open sewers and lack of basic sanitary facilities.
- Begging and poverty (though less conspicuous than I expected).
- Rare but alarming encounters with rock throwing kids and groping, harassing men and boys that left me put off and grasping for explanations wanting to excuse the behavior.
Both versions are accurate descriptions. Neither is complete without the other.
To gloss it over and only tell the good stories would be a disservice to the experience, the complexity of this amazing country, and what made this trip so memorable and something potentially life changing for me. At the same time I’m afraid the shock value of the negative may have overpowered the positive to those reading this, and I don’t intend that perception at all because I don’t feel negatively about this trip.
But among the many things I’ve learned keeping this blog is how difficult it is to balance internalizing and understanding a complicated and intense experience without terrifying your family and friends or crossing undefined boundaries in how it impacts others sharing the experience.
What I can say is that I’m convinced that seeing India on a bike was absolutely the best way to experience it because you are thrown into the interaction with the greatest thing about India- the people. While in my opinion it’s not really a great country for cycling as we traditionally think of it at home, cycling forces you out there every day where you are totally exposed to the good and the bad with few buffers – and the experience is mostly good.
It took me forever to realize this, but in India cycling was the vehicle to experience culture. Cycling was not the central experience or always a good experience.
This is not what I expected, and was a source of frustration. I realize how much I thrive on those good riding days – it feeds the part of me that craves a long beautiful climb and back-to-back long, challenging ride days and the technical skills of riding as a team with pace lines with other trained cyclists. But once I finally recognized that was not what this trip was about, I could fully appreciate it for what it was … the best possible way to experience India full on, all the time, no buffers. And that is pretty great.
The experiences that stand out for me are like the women in Ft. Dahmli who gave me the arm band as a blessing. The family I met at the ferry at Ft. Cochin for a fun and friendly ferry ride where the 10 year old girl gave me a friendship ring and a kiss at the end. The parents of the bride who invited many of our group to his daughter’s wedding- and the guests who made us feel welcome. The schoolboys in Rajasthan who gave me a personal tour of all the wells, vegetable gardens and important places in the village and introduced me to dozens of relatives and friends – including their teacher who was less than amused about them skipping class to visit with me. The constant chorus of hello from children as you ride by and waves and cheers and smiles. The countless people who cheerfully pointed me in the right direction or asked: What is your name? What is your country? Where are you going?
I’ll remember these encounters forever and am grateful for them. They are not possible if you are traveling the backpacking circuit or on a regular tour where you are insulated from people.
If it was an easy experience it would not have been as rewarding. Who remembers the easy things in life? If it was what I expected it would not have been as challenging and I wouldn’t have learned as much from it.
Would I do something like this again? Absolutely. Would I bring a more appropriate bike? Heck yes. Would I take better advantage of the invitations to tea and dinner and into schools rather than worrying about cycling the distance everyday? Probably, because if the best experiences are the encounters rather than the cycling then part of making the most of it is knowing when to say yes to an invite and when to enjoy the ride.