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Insane India: Anecdotes and First Impressions

Posted by on Mar 6, 11:17 PM
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Some unfamiliar faces. Click to see more...

India. Where to start? I’ve deliberated for too many hours about how to focus this post. Hence, I’ll simply narrate and digress into reflection as the inspiration ebbs and flows, as per usual.

“You will love it or hate it,” I was told by some Europeans who had cycled in India and fallen into the former category. I was prepared to give “loving it” my best shot.

…frenetic chaos and bumper-to-bumper, horn-blaring traffic of the typical Indian city, and Amritsar is no exception.

We crossed through the famous Waggah Border from the half of the Punjab that lies in Pakistan to the other half in India. This border that intersects the state of Punjab was hastily drawn by the British when Pakistan was partitioned from British India in the year of independence, 1947. Bloodshed was enormous on both sides . Hindus and Muslims massacred each other by the trainload as each group fled one newly-Sikhcreated state to the other—Hindus to India, and Muslims to Pakistan. These days the Indian half of the Punjab is dominated by a third religion, Sikhism. The Sikhs are easily discernible from the rest by their head coverings, and the men generally have long beards, while both sexes usually wear the full Shalwar Kameez that is also the traditional garment of the Pakistanis. Sikhism began as a sort of blend of Hinduism and Islam, where monotheism and reincarnation are combined with an austere, iconoclastic philosophy that began as a pacifistic religion. After a several years of violent persecution from the Muslims and Hindus the Sikhs grew increasingly warlike. Armies of Sikhs were later employed by the British for their courage and dignity in warfare. These days they are the majority in the Punjab and though they are a small minority in India as a whole, they are influential in the government. The prime minister of India at the time of this writing is a Sikh.

Our ride to Amritsar was only 30km. This city of one million is not a typical frontier town—it’s actually pleasant, though not tranquil. The noise, dust and exhaust fumes accompany the frenetic chaos and bumper-to-bumper, horn-blaring traffic of the typical Indian city, and Amritsar is no exception. We expected this sort of atmosphere. Lucky for us, we had the promise of an oasis from this hubbub to temper the intensity of the experience. Amritsar is the most significant city of the Sikhs and home to their Hirmandir Sahib Temple, more commonly known to English Borderspeakers as the “Golden Temple.” In the strong tradition of Sikh hospitality all people, pilgrims and tourists alike, are allowed to stay in the dormitories surrounding the temple free of charge, though donations are encouraged. In addition, a massive hall serves as a cafeteria for an average of 80,000 people per day. One may step into this tiled hall, surrounded by the clamor of stainless steel plates and utensils being tossed around as they pass through various states between the wash and the meal, and queue up for their meal. Everyone is directed to sit back-to-back in long, orderly rows on the floor. Various servers walk up and down each row with a basket of fresh chapati (unleavened flat bread—like a wheat tortilla), a bucket of vegetable curry or dal (a curried lentil stew), ladling it into a section of each plate at a rapid pace. The food is simple, hygienic, quite tasty and free!

They sent us off the next morning with friendly wishes, and a full bottle of the Royal Stag that tasted not half bad at the time.

The maximum stay (to discourage freeloaders) at the Golden Temple is three nights, which we took full advantage of. The entire complex, with the broadcast ambiance of the mellow drumming overlaid with soft male vocals, is a haven of tranquility from the irritating hustle of the city outside. From here we took relatively (I stress, relatively) quiet, secondary highways to the modern capital city of the Punjab, Chandigarh, which was designed by a French architect. It is modern, but there’s not much more to say about this three-story-or-less sprawl of broad avenues. We did befriend some young, Sikh cyclists there who had us over for a amazing dinner party.

GuardWe had a couple of other notable instances of hospitality on the way to Delhi. The first was with a upper middle class Sikh family in their country home, where we had shown up at random and asked to camp on their property. Randall and I were quickly invited to sleep inside instead and treated to a supper of delicious curries following an aperitif of Indian whiskey. They sent us off the next morning with friendly wishes, and a full bottle of the Royal Stag that tasted not half bad at the time. We had only gone some 50km the following day when we were invited to stay with a Punjabi family from New Jersey in the town of Horshiarpur, and were treated with similarly generous hospitality. We even watched our first Punjabi film: a romantic comedy, of course, with plenty of song-and-dance interludes, these more tasteful than the Bollywood variety, though not less amusing.

As we neared the capital of the Subcontinent the traffic predictably worsened. On the final day I had been run off of the road seven times or so by the reckless commercial trucks and buses, who overtake each other heedlessly with no consideration of pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists or even cars, all of which take lower precedence in this clearly defined hierarchical universe that is India. As a British friend of ours aptly observed, “pedestrians and two-wheelers are non-entities.” Dodging cows that lumber across the road to the next sprawling mass of rubbish for a munch adds another element of challenge.

Thanks to my good friend Alice, who spent months in Delhi on a Fulbright scholarship, we were lined up to stay with some American friends of hers in a wealthy suburb of South Delhi. It was an unbelievable relief to arrive at their luxurious condo, my face streaked brown in layers of dust, pollution and sweat, ears ringing from the noise of traffic and constant honking that often reaches rock-concert levels, and to have a hot shower (the weather is cold in North India in the Golden TempleWinter) and wireless internet at hand. Nathan and Luke were very fine hosts and helped us to “feel at home” more than one could imagine possible in a country that I feel is the very antithesis of the West. Since we had more options for home stays with some Indians of Delhi we decided to stick around and wait for a train with fewer stops to minimize the chance of our bikes disappearing from the luggage cars. So, we stayed with Rakesh and Deepah of Gurgaon. They have a fantastically-custom, spotless, domed house with all sorts of environmentally-friendly innovations, including a system that allows the rainwater from the entire property to be processed and eventually used for the washing machine and other household needs. IT professionals, outdoor-adventurers and parents of a adorable, two-year-old girl named Shinh, this family has incorporated a strong blend of secular Western ideals into their lifestyle. For the last few days we stayed again in southern Delhi with Navneet and his family, whom we met on Couchsurfing.org. He’s an avid cyclist with an interest in touring, so we had made some indefinite plans to do some traveling together at some point.

…because we were running so late for our Christmas arrival we deemed it best to board a train to the state of Kerala and cycle the last 300km to our final destination.

The state of Kerala, in the deep south of India, was to be our next stop. Originally our intention had been to bike the 2,700 km (1,900 miles) to the orphanage, but because we were running so late for our Christmas arrival we judged it best to board a train to the state of Kerala and cycle the last 300km to our final destination. Also a strong Sikhsmotive for taking this path was our utter detestation of cycling the roads of India. I love cycling for the solitude and peace that it brings to my soul. Here, one cannot ride even the small country roads without a constant flow of obnoxious, dusty traffic, and faces staring unabashedly at the strange apparition of a white person on a bicycle. Here, if someone rides a bike, it’s because he is too poor to own something with a motor. Physical exercise, except for that spent on soccer or cricket, is to be avoided at all costs, and to be chubby is a sign of prosperity.

I’ve never smiled at someone here and received anything less than a broad, genuine grin in return, and sometimes an affectionate wobble of the head as a bonus.

Bus crashOn the plus side, the Indian people are friendly. When walking down the street I make eye contact with one of the countless faces that are staring at me I will almost certainly receive a smile. lI’ve never smiled at someone here and received anything less than a broad, genuine grin in return, and sometimes an affectionate wobble of the head as a bonus.

An astonishing cultural trait that I had somewhat anticipated is the religious devotion of the Christian Indians, which manifests itself in an unparalleled and unashamed displays of piety. I found this to be very touching. Mexico is the only other place that comes to mind in this regard and I would assume that the people of Latin Europe have, in times past, also showed such a devotion for things spiritual. In this age the Indians take the prize for most openly devoted Catholics.

These broad generalizations that I make are, of course, just that. There are plenty of exceptions. However, it is important to understand that in spite of the religious minorities—Islam, Christianity, etc.—the “tone” of the culture is overwhelmingly Hindu. This religion has shaped the society and its values (or their absence in some cases) for millenia, just as all of the values of the West are, though taken for granted as such, rooted in Christian culture.

I deserve to be treated like dirt because we must have done evil in a past life to deserve it. At least I wasn’t reborn an intestinal parasite.

Rickshaws In Hinduism you have a priestly caste whose aim is, whether they admit to it or not, to live in sumptuousness while the lower castes, who live in varying degrees of squalor, exists in order to serve these Brahmans. If reincarnation is true, then it is perfectly reasonable that those who lived badly in a past life should, in the current life, be content with the few cards they are dealt. And they seem to be content. Though these days they seem to have enough to eat they are overwhelmingly impoverished. Yet there is no hint of discontent no matter how much they are beaten down and ill-used by the upper caste(s) of Hindus. The attitude of the poor Hindu is that “I deserve to be treated like dirt because I must have done evil in a past life to deserve it. At least I wasn’t borne an intestinal parasite.” This is a very convenient rationalization for the rich.

The moral code of Hinduism is thin and offers enormous flexibility. For instance, one is allowed to commit an evil if he will profit from it somehow and if he can get away with it. The end conveniently justifies the means. Therefore, you have a huge subset of the population that has developed the art of lying, cheating and stealing to such a degree that sly cunning almost Leavingcomes naturally. Petty theft is absolutely rampant and ignored by the police, while on the other end of the social spectrum, political corruption is nothing short of universal. Infanticide, though officially illegal, is still a common practice among the Hindus (in favor of boy babies). And the ideal of a common good appears to be completely alien to almost all of Hindu society. The word “considerate” does not appear to exist in many of the 400-plus languages spoken here, as one can observe simply from the behavior of street traffic or the man shamelessly tossing garbage into the street (or over the wall onto his neighbor’s property).

The people of India are, in the true form of Asiatics, disarmingly generous—if they are not doing business with you. I’ve had cars pull up next to me as I pedaled along and hand me snacks through the window. Our companions on the “Sleeper”-class, 43-hour train ride were very pleasant, laid-back men from the South of India who didn’t break out a snack without repeatedly offering a portion to everyone in the adjoining seats with a smile and characteristic head-bobble.

Fort Kochi is a mild Portuguese settlement on the steamy, green, lush coast of the Arabian sea. It’s a boring area but has a lot more soul and charm than most foreigner-dominated places in Asia. Randall had to steal our bikes off of the train Women of Punjabafter it was parked because the Parcel Office Manager, a man with inane Indian bureaucracy flowing through his very veins, absolutely refused to unload the train until late that evening. When we saw how the trains were “unloaded” here we weren’t about to be absent when our bikes were tossed onto the sidewalk from two meters in the air. Of course, no one was guarding the unlocked doors of the luggage cars, and none of the workers in the vicinity raised a finger as Randall proceeded climb into the cars, shift the cargo around, and finally unload our bikes. One nice thing about India is that you can take a lot of liberties. One rotten thing about India is that anyone can take a lot of liberties.

There’s nothing quite like the experience of repairing a flat when one has fifteen curious mustached men forming a circle and one or two of them playing with the gadgets on your handlebars.

Chinese netsRandall and I had been needing some solitude from one another on the road. From here we each separately braved the terrifying, crowded roads and curious observers for two days, over the mountains that separate the states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and met in the town of Tenkaci. It became my goal to constantly keep my eyes peeled for the rare secluded spot so that I might have a sweet banana with peanut butter sans a crowd of intently staring young men. Whenever I had a punctured tire I had to take what I could get. There’s nothing quite like Roadside statuethe experience of repairing a flat when one has fifteen curious mustached men forming a circle and one or two of them playing with the gadgets on your handlebars. Sadly, I began to be impatient with the motorcyclists pulling alongside and making the friendly and curious inquiries “where are you going? What is your good name? Where are you from?” after it happened for the fifth or sixth time each morning.

Photos courtesy of Randall.

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Last Updated: Jun 26, 11:50 AM

  • Odometer: 46,033 km / 28,604 miles
  • Countries Visited: 30
  • Calories Burnt: 2,301,650
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  • Times Stolen from: 8
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