After assembling the bikes in the Delhi airport we rode into town. We had not slept in around twenty four hours so our only option was to find a hostel. Later that evening I met with Andrew Fedorov, a friend I had made in Athens whom I had spent the better part of a week becoming hostel degenerates with. He is here in Delhi working an internship with “The Caravan”. When he showed up at the hostel I still had not slept but being caught up in the moment decided to join him on the roof for a few rounds of Kingfisher. I’m quite sure the night went until three or four in the morning and I can’t forget the cricket match in the musky alley with a group of local kids, or Jason deciding it was appropriate to offer high fives to every person on the way back to our room.
Sickness struck us hard. Jason’s existence was limited to within a few meters from a restroom. I slept for a whole day and recovered after only a few trips to the bathroom and some residual upper respiratory nonsense. We spent the next several days in Delhi. Jason stayed in the bed mostly while I forced myself to get out with Andrew. One night he took me to what he described as a “karaoke bar where you don’t sing”. We met with some of his friends in a seedy downstairs restaurant with a stage at the end of the hall and a man welding something underneath a staircase just to the left. There were five or six girls sitting on chairs on the stage and taking requests for songs. Someone would suggest something, then these girls from their stools would stare at their cellphones while they sang. I was told later that they were singing mostly religious songs which made the whole situation so much stranger when a young gentleman made his way to the stage and “made it rain” towards the modestly dressed young women.
The misery of Indian traffic has me now strongly advising anyone against a cycle tour in India. If you want to constantly dodge serious injury or death, breathe toxic air and be surrounded by water that you wouldn’t dare even brush your teeth with then by all means go for it. This is not to say you should not go to India, but perhaps going by train or motorbike up into the mountains would be a better bet. The heat and traffic are minor issues when compared with what I call the “celebrity phenomenon”.
Indian people are extremely friendly but after a few days it gets to be a bit much, especially if you have just covered 100 plus km and just need to sit in the shade and drink water. People would wait in lines on their scooters while riding down the road in order to ask us for a selfie or just stare for a few minutes and not say a word. Cars would pull off in front of us and try to flag us down to also once again ask for a selfie. This would happen dozens of times a day and was very fun for the first few miles. Making friends on the side of the road and showing off different parts of my bike to people who were generally amazed at everything about me was quite nice. The loathing of this routine hit me all at once after waking up in my tent early one morning at a roadside restaurant parking lot and seeing a strange looking Indian man leaning over Jason’s tent and watching him sleep. He stood there staring for several minutes and I mumbled to myself that it was going to be a long day. Just stopping on the side of the highway for a quick water break in a place it seems no one would hang around will garner a crowd of twenty to thirty people. They come out of nowhere, and always when I am the most exhausted, hunched over my handlebars dripping ounces of sweat down over my front tire. I try to induce tunnel vision so I can ignore the circle forming around me but just as I muster the energy to break out of the crowd and maybe move a few hundred meters up the road to stop and breathe again, a man grabs me firmly by the arm begging for a selfie as if his families life depends on it. The whole ordeal is so strange it is hard to comprehend what is going on. Many of these people have nice smartphones and tablets yet are wearing worn out clothing and busted out sandals and here is this middle aged man grabbing at me in the same manner a teenage girl might reach up towards the stage in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert. The physical exhaustion combined with this situation and a dash of social anxiety made it quite hard not to turn to violence.
This is not to say India was just one terrible experience after the other. We stayed with a family in a village outside the town of Hodal and woke up to monkeys climbing along our balcony and bright blue birds perched alongside one another on a powerline which swooped low to the ground and back up to a pole which was clearly handmade. Our hosts made us breakfast then took us up to the top of the king’s court. A beautiful crumbling one hundred year old structure which was casually being taken back by nature behind their home. Later that afternoon a giant piece of metal flew off a truck and struck my front tire severing a spoke and rendering my front brake useless. We pushed our bikes across the street to do the repair and a shop owner came outside with bottles of cold water and offered to show us to a bike shop if we needed it. One night we cycled through the night and into Agra. The lights of the traffic piercing through the haze of pollution made everything seem brighter. We approached the center of the city by a curving highway along the river and at this point the darkness made it seem like i was going fifty km an hour. I recalled several nightmares of this exact place as a child.
We stayed in Agra for a few days before moving along towards Varanasi. We had been held up by sickness and procrastination so we decided we needed to start blending in some hitchhiking in order to make it to Kolkata on time for our flight to Hanoi. We flagged down a small truck which was able to take us one hundred km. We stood in the back of this tiny vehicle and watched the sun go down as our driver weaved through the crowded streets. I laughed at the aggressiveness of his driving and the amount of innocent lives it seemed he was risking every minute or two. It was nice to see India from this pace. Once it got dark we stopped in a town and picked up some guy and a bunch of crates of vegetables. I leaned over the railing of the truck and made a gesture for food towards a street vendor. He handed me a small newspaper plate of something fried and smothered in delicious blood red sauce. I gave him the equivalent of maybe ten cents and he was happy. Further down the road a massive storm began dumping on us. Our driver pulled off the road and we took shelter with other drivers under an awning while Jason took advantage of the weather to wash his face.
Once in Varanasi we again indulged in the privacy of a cheap hostel. I began to feel quite hopeless at this point. What the hell was I doing sitting in this smelly room? One afternoon I decided to walk down to the Ganges river. I had heard of this place where there are open cremations over wood fires on the banks of the river. A morbid curiosity led me down to Manikarnika ghat, one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion. Hindus believe if their body is cremated in this location then they will skip the reincarnation process and be sent straight to nirvana. Its entirely possible that an ancient lumber salesman made this entire thing up because for 3500 years a source fire has been burning in a temple alongside the river and the streets surrounding the ghat are stacked forty feet high with wood. It is strange to get lost in this formation at night with the knowledge that all these structures will soon become the fuel for thousands of bodies. The first time I walked down there a man tried to scam me out of five hundred rupees by telling me that people from around the country come there to wait to die and he volunteers at a hospice for them. He went on to say that many of these people are so poor that they cannot afford the wood to burn their own bodies after they die. He took on a tour guide tone with me which was entirely unwarranted and invasive. He thought he had mastered the greatest guilt trip of all time for western tourists. I waited for him to get to the point so I could honestly tell him that I did not have any money with me. He did not believe me and went as far as to suggest that he walk me to an ATM. Of course I didn’t have a bank card on me either and the audacity of this suggestion made me extremely upset. Not only was this man essentially stealing money from people but he was using the most sinister tactic. I had just come down here to see some dead bodies after all so I just told the man kindly but firmly to fuck off.
Later that evening Jason and I returned to the ghat together. We met a nice boy who showed us around after assuring us he was not going to ask for any money and simply wanted to hang out and speak english. I felt bad that he had to preface his introduction to us with the fact that he would not ask for anything. I felt even worse that when we finally said goodnight to each other I half expected him to ask for some cash. He didn’t and Jason and I walked home. The chaotic street we had walked down on was now nearly empty. It seemed all the people in the road earlier had moved to the side and were now sleeping in front of the shuttered shops. Cows were picking through the trash in the median under the warm non-fluorescent streetlight and for the first time I found myself becoming relaxed.