Ate All the Curry and There’s Naan Left

India was my first real taste of a culture unfamiliar and uncomfortable to me. Immediately the overwhelming amount of car horns and beeps from motorbikes was incredible. It was incredible in the way that the most annoying thing in the world might be incredible. Back home, if you were to honk your horn it might mean, “hey fuck you!” but here in India the horn seemed to lose its power. Everyone has a sensitive trigger and uses the horn for any reason at all.

Get out of my way! BEEP

Hey I’m coming. BEEP

Hello my friend! BEEP

I just ate breakfast! BEEP

Ya know I haven’t used my horn in a while… BEEP

It immediately became annoying and seemed unnecessary. Even if the logic was that there were 6 billion people here and they wanted to let you they were coming at all times for safety purposes, it seemed to have been worn out considering I tended to zone out and ignore the horns after a while since I heard it every 1-2 seconds.

Right off the bat, when we arrived in New Delhi I was hit with a sickness I hope I never meet again. Some call it the “Delhi Belly”. What a cute name for such a horrific situation. The only comparison might have been when I had giardia on the Appalachian trail, but even though I was also uncontrollably sitting on the toilet every 10 minutes at that point, at least it was isolated to one area of the body. This on the other hand was both ends. As I was sick, and it seemed like an inappropriate time to leave and venture off on a bicycle through the most populated country in the world having to shit or vomit every 10 minutes, we stayed put in Delhi for a few days.

The streets outside our hostel were covered in human life and was very cool to see the parades that seemed to randomly happen. Colorful powders were covering the bodies of the people holding giant India flags and usually rolling a giant float, hand covered in flowers and other colorful things. Drums were included in these random marches of people and their faces were happy and expressive. Trash was more often than not thrown immediately on to their ground after being used. Done with a bag of chips? It was then thrown on the street without a thought. Finished enjoying a coffee in a to-go cup? Chuck that thing in the street. I found myself searching for a trash bin or a receptacle in which to throw my trash but was greeted only by an accumulation that had been swept together or a burning pile of trash on the curb in which to throw my trash.

Once I was feeling better I joined Josh on an exploration of our surroundings. The restaurants served inexpensive but delicious food. Hygienically, it was very overwhelming to see how things were done considering nobody used utensils or cutlery. You have one hand with which to eat and one with which to clean. The food was usually slapped onto a metal plate and you’d then rip a piece of bread or “naan” and use that to grab your curry or whatever you had on your plate. It was delicious but I couldn’t help to think that this nightmare caused my sickness in the first place. I considered drinking out of the sink or pitchers of water for about .5 seconds before deciding i would be buying bottles of water from here on out.

While in search of beer, the only way to purchase it was a sketchy caged sliver of an alleyway where a man stands behind a counter behind a cage you might see in prison. Hand him your money and he hands you your beer. There were no prices on anything in order for the person to haggle the price of just about anything he was selling from fruit to beer to sandals.

The Population of India is over 1,300,000,000 human beings. That’s one billion more people than the US and I’d be surprised if i was wrong about every single one of them staring at me as I rode across India. When I would stop to drink some water there would be a crowd of 10-20 people surrounding me. They’d stare unemotionally and not say a word.

“what’s up homies? You like the way I drink my water?” I’d say lightheartedly

No response. Emotionless stare.

But it didn’t stop there. No matter what there was a crowd of staring people and at most I’d get a few words out of them. This switched from feeling like a rock star where i enjoyed the attention and the stares and points, to frustration of never being left alone for even a moment. This included riding my bike. There were times when id be riding up a slight incline and as i looked behind me there would be a line of single dudes waiting their turn to ride up next to me and smile.

“Hello my friend! Can i have one selfie please” they’d sometimes say.

“Sorry dude”, I’d say “I’m obviously riding my bike and if i stop for you ill have to stop for everyone that’s waiting to get their selfie.”

“PLEASE MY FRIEND”

“no”

“okay my friend I am missing you already” he’d say while riding off until the next guy rode up next to me and the process repeated.

At a point near the end of our time in India, I had stopped to buy a cold can of coke and a couple bottles of water. I was immediately hounded by many people poking around with complete disregard of personal space and a man in a white robe holding a basket. Out of my peripheral vision i had noticed him showing me his basket, probably asking if i wanted to purchase it.

“No man i don’t want your basket, its very nice but no thank you.”

As he continued to push closer my eyes refused to look at him and i thought maybe if i just ignore him he will go away. He continued saying something in a language i couldn’t understand until finally opening the basket as i simultaneously was turning around to yell “fuck off”. At that point a cobra popped his stupid ugly face out of the basket which i thought my man was trying to sell me. Nope, he was trying to show me his legless armless creepy ass cobra who seemed unhappy to be locked up in a hot basket all day.

“Get that fucking thing away from me!!” i yelled as i bowed up ready to hit the guy.

His friend must have sensed the seriousness of the situation and pulled him and the snake away.

I fucking hate snakes.

_______

Agra is a city about 150 miles from New Delhi and we arrived anxious to see the famous Taj Mahal. We stood in the hot sun waiting in a massive line but once we were inside the courtyard walls it all became worth it to see this massive marble structure and its surrounding property. We got there relatively early hoping to beat the crowds but apparently that was everyone’s plan as well. The Taj Mahal was made to honor and house the tomb of his favorite wife in the mid 1600’s. During it’s building process there were said to have been 1,000 elephants and 20,000 artisans hired to complete the process. The whole construction was estimated to have cost 32 million rupees which is about 52 billion rupees today ($827 million US). All this done for this guys wife. If i die please don’t go through all that trouble.

After walking around all day we rode our bikes back to the hostel for the night. On the way back we heard a voice coming from a tuk tuk driver.

“do you want tuk tuk ride?” he said while looking right at us

“no man…were literally riding our bicycles right now” I said in exhaustion

_______

Our next big stop was Varanasi. It is considered the holiest of the seven sacred cities and had a huge impact on the development of Hinduism in India. Hindus believe that death in the city will bring salvation, making it a major center for pilgrimage. As josh and i rode our bikes thru the city we were exposed to dead and dying bodies in the street. It was a heavy thing to see a dying old men and women weighing nearly nothing just waiting to die in the city in order for his spirit to be brought to heaven. That night josh and i explored the city on our own. There was an eerie feeling due to the dim lights and oldness of this city. As we approached the Ganges river thru tight dark alleys and dimly lit tunnels we started to smell the fire. Sparks of orange fire flew in the air, the hissing of burning bodies filled your ears and a smell existed that only exists here as you looked over several piles of wood burning a tightly wrapped body until its ashes could be put into the river. Each body takes upwards of 1,000 pounds of timber to burn completely and occasionally a partially burned body might be put into the water and sometimes not even burned at all. A young man took us around and talked to us about what happens here and why. I thought about the differences in appreciating life and death and how different parts of the world have different ways of dealing with it.

________

Josh and i ventured across India on our bikes trying to keep it together with the frustration and uncomfortable situations we had been going through. It took a lot sometimes to hold it in when all we wanted to do was scream. The easy and the hard have to exist for life to go on. As I’ve said in earlier posts, you cant go down the mountain without climbing it first.  Its important to have the uncomfortable situations as well as the good situations to balance your life. I need to accept more and be willing to appreciate a different culture while putting myself in that different or complicated situation. We’re all on this earth trying to figure it out and we may never do it.

BEEP                  BEEP        beep

BEEP BEEP                 BEEEEEP

BEEEP                         beep                       BEEP

BEEP

 

Turning Thirty

It had worked out that our timing would bring us around the Ukraine border for my 30th birthday. While biking through Romania we had realized that we could touch 3 countries in one day and that day just happened to be August 27th 2016. I had never been concerned with leaving my 20’s and venturing into my 30’s but the time had come and somehow the closer it got, the more concerned I became. No longer could I latch on to the words of others saying, “do it while you’re young”. This was different. Thirty is an age where you can no longer use your young age as an excuse to be free and ride around the world on a bicycle. A thirty year old has a career, and a wife and they’re trying for kids to start their family in their new house while paying the mortgage and complaining about their jobs. As the date approached I thought about this but only briefly as the thought of how happy I am with my life’s decisions crept back into thought. I was turning thirty, but it didn’t matter.

On August 26th, Josh and I had been riding through rural Romania on our way to the Moldova border since that was the only way we could enter Ukraine. Nearing the end of our night when we would otherwise look for food and maybe a couple of beers we happened across a small bar in this small town. There were a few guys standing around outside drinking beers and looking our way as we had stopped. They invited us over in their attempt to speak English and we sat there smoking cigarettes and drinking cheap beer while we showed pictures of our journey and struggled to cross the language barrier. One of the men we had been sitting with invited us back to his home for some homemade vodka and continued conversation since he had invited his female friend to his home because she spoke English. When we arrived to his house in the middle of his small town of around 150 people, it was well past dark and we had already gotten a buzz on from the beers. Our new friend’s house had a very modest feel to it and had a few chickens and pigs roaming the small plot of land. Before anything else he had whipped out the homemade vodka that was sitting in a vat behind the house. It was smooth and actually quite nice as the three of us enjoyed a few sips before his friend came over. Once she arrived, the four of us continued drinking our homemade spirits and the laughter grew. At some point in the night, he drunkenly brought out his accordion and started, very impressively, playing Romanian music on it.

“its my birthday tomorrow” i told him

When I mentioned this our middle aged vodka making happy friend began playing an impromptu song that he somehow combined happy birthday, happy new year, and god bless america into one hilariously drunken happy song. As I sat with my new friends drinking homemade booze in his backyard on furniture he had made himself, listening to him play his accordion under dimly lit lights I thought this is becoming one of my favorite birthdays I’d ever had.

The following morning we woke up early a bit hungover but ready to start our venture across two country’s borders and totaling three countries in a day. We arrived to the border of Romania and Moldova in no time and despite the large line of cars waiting to go through, we decided to “rockstar” our way towards the front of the line and see what happened. With no trouble at all our passports were stamped and we were in a new country. After about 10 miles of Moldova (3 beers during a break) we arrived to the border of Moldova and Ukraine. At this point I had been carrying license plates that I had found on the side of the road and had accumulated around 12 of them from various countries. The plates were obnoxious and would make a lot of noise whenever I went over a bump, but I thought it might be nice to have down the line.

“Why do you have these?” the border patrol officer said as he noticed my licenses plates.

As one man with medical gloves was going through every bag I owned taking apart everything searching for drugs or anything they could find another stood by with a powerful rifle in his hands.

“They’re memories of where I’ve been” I said, trying to actually justify why I had been collecting these license plates for so long

The man probably wondering if I had taken them off cars or if I was some serial car thief roaming the earth on a bicycle, handed the stack of plates to another officer to be run in their database. My immediate thought was, “man I hope I didn’t accidentally find a license plate that had been previously attached to a stolen car.” While the plates were being run, the gloved officer continued to search through my things. At some point feeling intimidated with the gunman and the aggressive searching of my things, he came across my ukulele.

“what is this?” he said with a thick Russian accent

“its a ukulele” i said while awkwardly stroking an air guitar.

“okay you play for me now.” he said without taking his eyes off of his current search.

I had only just gotten the ukulele and was not as proficient as I would have liked to be in front of my new crowd, and not to mention I had a bit of stage freight in front of my tough guy officers and that gun about 10 feet away from me. Once the music started (as terrible and shaky as it might have been) a crowd of about 5 others had gathered until the man who told me to play must have been put off by the lack of skill and wasn’t entertained anymore.

“okay you stop now.”

Josh’s things were being simultaneously searched at this point and we had forgotten about a small mason jar of oregano that had been gifted to us from some new friends in Greece weeks before. As the officer reached in nearing the bottom of one of his rear panniers, he pulled out this small jar filled with what must have looked like some shaky marijuana. The small crowd who had come to watch the show was now laughing and thinking, what balls these American dudes must have to try to bring weed across the border.

“WHAT IS THIS?” said the Ukranian officer in this best James Bond villain accent.

“oh god, its oregano” we laughed “smell it!” josh said

“why do you have oregano”

“to put on pizza and stuff” josh said

“you have pizza oven on bicycle?!”

The man smelled the bottle of oregano, sifted through it with his gloved fingers for whatever he could find and found nothing but fresh oregano.

“just keep it..” we said

After an intense search through this small bottle it was handed back to Josh, who threw it immediately in the trash, not wanting to accidentally run into this situation again.

Eventually we were set free, after what seemed like hours of sweaty palms and anxiety attacks. The license plates were handed back to me after individually checking each one for any red flags. We knew we had nothing to hide but this process was the most intense we had to date and couldn’t wait to get through it. As if nothing had happened, as if we hadn’t just gone through a long stressful process, they were satisfied.

“okay you go now” he said. All of our things spread across the floor.

“so we’re good? we can enter?” i said

“YES GO..”

And just like that, no birthday cake or happy birthday song, we packed our things back onto our bikes and we were into Ukraine. Our bikes and bodies in tact. Entering with everything we had on the other side minus one small bottle of oregano.

Turning thirty rivaled any birthday I’ve had in my life. I went into it having a slight fear of getting older and came out of the day with a sense of happiness and excitement. In 30 years of life i have been growing towards bettering myself and focusing on what makes me happy. I have tried to surround myself with situations in recent years that will continue to help me grow and sometimes those situations are the unfamiliar and uncomfortable. The thought crosses my mind occasionally that I’m always getting older and I’ll never be in my twenties again, but the more I focus on this moment right now and the pursuit of my own self growth, the less age matters.

That night Josh and I snuck under a fence, with a sign which must have read Do Not Enter, on the riverbank near the border and set up our tents in a tiny amount of space in the trees.

I lay in my tent, happy, content, thirty.