West Bengal: India

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Following the rickshaw drivers across the bridge back into India I feel elated to be back in the country and simultaneously felt as if I had never left.

The jostling of people, lorries, tuktuks and rickshaws crossing over the river, all stopping and starting with fierce jabs on the brakes and the all important hands almost perpetually on the horn.  The solid wall of sound and sudden proximity of so many people makes me smile and feel as if Im greeting an old friend.  Ah India … your noise, your vibrance, your lack of personal space and privacy!  I realise quickly that I’m contributing to the weirdly syncopated anti rhythm which the flow of traffic has because people are slowing to get a better look at me and the bike.  Nothing I can do though.  Im blocked on all sides and just have to be drawn along in that unremitting way that traffic has.

Its not too long a distance and Im soon across the bridge and through immigration with only a minor issue from an external security guard when he asks to see my passport. Since he is in plain clothes I ask to see his id and he is mortally offended by my temerity and rudeness!  Soothing completed, ruffled feathers smoothed and Im dodging through the bustling market (which is squeezed into the land between the train track and the river border) stamped passport in pocket, avoiding vehicles, pedestrians and animals and looking for a quiet place for my first chai.

I find a little dhaba on the road out of the bazaar and top up on water and chai whilst watching a couple of men consume a startling quantity of raksi.  I leave before they try and stand up and find myself on an immaculate piece of tarmac which carries me out of the more residential area skirting the border, initially along a main highway and then, as planned to the back roads which will be winding up to Darjeeling.

The day is hot and I find myself riding through little villages with the usual small multipurpose stores and dwellings along side the smooth road and unexpectly enormous houses.   I feel a little like a tropical version of Alice or Dorothy with huge trees around me, 2 and 3 story homes all painted in the brightest hues and startling combinations and the winding road stretched out before me.  This jungle is very much in evidence here and the houses are surrounded by tall coconut and banana palms.  I wasn’t expecting such a level of apparent affluence here.  The homes look more like Caribbean beach hotels and my understanding of how India functions is challenged again.

I realise that too often the concepts of poverty and lack are the lens through which I see India when in reality it is not this simple.  The spectrum of wealth is much broader and more evident in specific places and it appears that here, near the tea plantations, is one of those places.

This area of jungle gradually clears as I cycle and on the open, flat land tea bushes then stretch out all the way to the foot of the Lesser Himalayas, a name that does nothing to diminish the fact that the road up to Darjeeling is incredibly steep and over the next 2 days I spend most of my time pushing Tilly and dodging out of the way of speeding taxis, with the occasional cup of real tea, grown in the local plantations, to quench my thirst and sooth my soul.

After a night camped in one of these tea fields, marvelling at the smoky, woody smells surrounding me, I am up before dawn and hear the sirens signalling the start of the tea field day.  Its the wrong season for picking and the workers, mainly women, are pruning (hacking) at the tough branches of the bushes to encourage the new growth of tips to make our tea.  The Makaibari estates produced the first certified organic tea in the Darjeeling region and continue to export several pickings each year, most of which are beyond my price range!  However in the back streets of Darjeeling it is possible to find good priced bags of hand picked local tea and I found a delicious smoky picking!

Once up the ridiculously steep side of the hill and enroute to Darjeeling I camp over night in a shelter next to the tracks of the famous Himalayan Narrow Guage Railway.  As I’m settling to sleep a car stops and there are excited sounding voices nearby.  No one disturbed me but the sudden, rapid flashes of light and laughter make me wonder “are they taking Selfies beside the tent”?!  The railway was a major feat in engineering in the 18oos and is still an amazing sight.  train pass within inches of homes and businesses in some places as it makes its iconic way between Siliguri at 140m above sea level to 2,220m in Darjeeling, all within the space of about 30km.  The tracks make notable twists and turns to accommodate the gradient (Agony Point anyone!) and the diesel and steam trains make their slow way back and forth daily, emitting the occasional whistle.  I was lucky on a couple of occasions and threw Tilly to the ground, diving across the tracks just in time to activate my waving arm as the steam train sped past.

I immediately like Darjeeling.  The steeply sloped town with multi coloured houses and red corrugated roofs gave me a feeling of home.  Perhaps this is the reason for the British  taking such an active interest in the place back in the day.  The scenery is stunning and the 180degree view from the roof of my guesthouse gives me a glorious sunrise in the morning and sunset in the evening … with Kanchenjunga peak looking spectacular whenever it is not shrouded in cloud.

Walking around the town, especially the Chowrasta (central ‘square’) area gives me endless opportunities to people watch and drink tea.  I’m still struggling with my diet and wheat and dairy don’t so much creep back in as dive bomb me.  Eating out in any town is so much cheaper and easier if I don’t consider the implications to my health and go for the cheap and cheerful sweet, milky chai and deep fried veg samosas or circular, flat, fried pasty equivalent.  Or the delicious and ever present veg moms with fiery red spice for dipping.  The food is always delicious and street food is a big weakness for me.

Street food in all countries is so much more than just eating for sustenance.  The close proximity of purveyors standing around or sitting and eating together lends an air of camaraderie and I always end up having hilarious conversations with the people I meet. The food is usually hot and in India and Nepal particularly, glistening with oil.  Red, spicy chilli sauce is a staple and the amount I want or can handle is often an initial ice breaker with the locals all staring at the newbie in their midst.  Fresh chilli makes me sweat regardless and whilst I evidently enjoy this I often see humorous twinkles in other peoples eyes as they see my colour rise and beads of sweat start to roll off my temples!

Spending time in any town gives me the opportunity to become a ‘regular’ with specific food and chai sellers.  One place for puri subji in the morning.  One woman for chai at the Chowrasta.  One woman for chai in the afternoon. One place for my vegetable so I can cook on the guesthouse roof.  Initially lurching from one meal to the next it usually takes a week of static living for my appetite to settle to normal.  In a week I can go from being an open mouthed, novelty attraction sitting by the chai sellers fire or in the corner of the puri shop to receiving an initial cursory nod and food or tea without having to say anything.

Christmas in Darjeeling was a slightly surreal experience. Architectural visual prompts giving me feelings from England in the hills of India.  Sleet and fog on some of the days, bright sunshine on others, the old British Colonial town houses old tea rooms which put on an extravagant display and since ‘Glenerys’ is famous in the region and all of the people I spoke to told me to visit I sit and happily consume several mince pies with my pot of proper Darjeeling tea.

Darjeeling is hotly contested place.  The Gurka ethnic group in the region are actively protesting for ‘Gurkaland’, a region with state status and the ability to manage its own affairs.

After Darjeeling I decide to aim for Sikkim for the New Year.  The road down to the river road is hideously steep and as always wish for disc brakes and a stronger system.  Taking a side road in the hope of finding a secluded campspot on New Years Eve I see a suitable patch of ground in a tea plantation.  Its got a great view of the Himalayas but has a couple of houses within shouting distance so I go and inform the first one of my intention to camp.  After a quiet conversation with one woman who happily confirms I can camp I am setting up the tent when 6 Nepali/Indian women and assorted children from the nearby houses race down to meet me all talking at high volume and greeted with open arms I land squarely in the midst of a tiny but full on New Years Eve celebration.

In the course of the evening the women get hilariously excited by everything, stumbling drunk, dance like fiends and hug me like a reunited family member.  A husband of the one of the women (most of the men were off having their own separate gathering) turned up with his car complete with huge soundsystem in the boot and the whole party vibe reaches a crescendo!  Nepali pop played at high volume and frenetic dancing.  I’m in heaven!  In the morning before I leave I eat traditional rice pudding with the selfie pout-pulling children and we all laugh about the nights antics.

West Bengal is the gateway to Sikkim and so after a days continued downhill ride I camp by the river and enter the state the following day.  I spend a  month in Sikkim on steep roads follows before I am back in West Bengal enroute to Assam.

After that month in the Lesser Himalayas I am happy to be back on solid flat road for a while.  The plains area is dusty and much hotter than the mountains but getting some decent days of cycling in rather than constantly pushing the bike is a joy.

Its a joy short lived because my stretched out cycle is punctuated with a spate of flat tyres.  These continue with unfortunate regularity as I cross West Bengal and Assam and always happen at the most inopportune and most visible moment.  I began to live in fear of the sluggish, wobbly sensation which denotes a reduction in tyre pressure and the likely hood that once off the bike and organising the repair I will be surrounded by a group of the ‘helpfully’ curious.

My road wound through Siliguri and Jalpaiguri.  Outside Mainaguri I got caught up in a massive BJP rally which I had heard about and was attempting to avoid.  Unfortunately my information about its location was incorrect and the groundswell of people and traffic all heading for the event carried me along.  To be in that large a group of highly excited, pumped up people was not something I felt comfortable with. India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was helicoptered in for the event and men, women and children attended in droves.  Flag waving and fist pumping, they came by all manner of vehicle.  Crossing fields of crops from the road to get up close or hanging out by the newly erected loud speakers on the road or ‘festival ground’ as it now looked.

A night of camping in wet jungle, watching fireflies dance and listening to the sounds of the rally goes turn to night time revellers was followed by a wet day of temple visits and invitations to join in a different type of revelry.  Today was the day of Saraswati Puja.

Saraswati is the goddess associated with the arts and education so all of the schools were shut and the young people were dressed in their finest clothes.  Young women in stunning saris brightened up a dreary, wet day and somehow managed to look immaculate inspite of the mud and rain.  I stop on the road to watch the antics of one class of young people jumping up and down to the sounds from the towering speaker stack, in the now muddy, wet ground next to their school.  A plate of sweet fruit and rice prashad (religious food offering) is immediately thrust into my hands and I’m drawn in to meat their Saraswati.  All along the road to Cooch Bihar on this and the following day I see people dressed in their finery, enjoying what I find out is not a 1 day but 3 day holiday thanks to the specific planetary alignment this year.

Day 2 of the holiday is thankfully a sunny one and is the day I reach Cooch Bihar.  As I get close a huddle of tuktuks and a lot of shouting catches my attention.  It has the desired effect because I stop to the delight of a young chai shop owner and his numerous customers.  I am soon sat in the shade receiving a comlimentatry cup of sweet tea after refusing all the other options.  Alcohol, hash, codine linctus … they work down the list but I think I will stick with my sugar addiction, not that sugar is much better than the others.

Stopping there seem to be a blessing because I receive detailed instructions and a map on where to go in Cooch Bihar, get free wifi, which places to visit and then demands for a promise that I will visit Guwahati and the Kamakhya mandir.  I’m not sure why but I have been told this before and I seem to be drawn that way!

For some reason Cooch Bihar sets my teeth on edge.  I feel uncomfortably visible and don’t want to leave my loaded Tilly alone for too long.  Finding a lovely stall owner to look after her beside the Cooch Bihar Rajbari (Royal Families estate) I hang out by the gate and watch 100s of young people promenade, in the old sense of the word but with selfie sticks in hand, around the grounds.  The women float about like so many graceful and colourful butterflies with the Palace as their backdrop.

Cycling away from the centre of the town I find the river at sunset and look around for potential camping but find the area to be suspicious and inhospitable to the point of people refusing me use of their washrooms.  This was such an unusual position to be in that I left beautiful are at speed. As it starts to get dark I leave the town in one direction, then in the other then back again as a result of not keeping my phone and maps charged up.

The deafening noise from dozens of different sound systems and the flashing lights from a hundred Saraswati shrines, leaves my head spinning and adds to the unsettled confusion and drop in confidence that I feel.  Its not a good mental place to be and eventually after cycling around for about 3 hours but getting no further than 3kms on the other side of the town I find an area of open agricultural land and camp.  My ability to sleep through nights at festivals comes in handy as I am aurally assaulted on all sides by Hindi pop and dance music competing for dominance.

The road I am on goes close to the Bangladeshi border and I’m always nervous about being too close to borders with no visa but there are no problems and I continue to camp over the next few days seeing increasing evidence of both Hindu and Muslim in their different places of worship.  Its important for me to keep reminding myself that India is  the place for spectrums of belief and behaviour.  Never exclusively one thing or the other.  Poverty and Wealth; the Modern and the Traditional.  When I am surprised by seeing modern machinery in the fields next to traditional ox and plough I remind myself that this surprise is as a result of my one sided, often romanticised view of tradition not the reality of India today.

East Nepal

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Reading time: 21mins

Word Count: 4152

It’s with a heightened sense of excitement, expectation and fear that I finally leave Kathmandu.  Later than I had ‘planned’ has become the norm and I should therefore be adding on VAT (value added time) to any decisions I make.  Logistical issues surrounding finance and posting packages to the UK create tensions I don’t need and finally I’m away, heavily loaded and sure that bike and kit was never this wide or cumbersome before.

I initially follow the hectic main road out of the city complete with cars, buses, lorries and motorbikes all whizzing past, spewing fumes and (once past the city limits) chucking up clouds of yellow dust which finds its way into every pore.  I chew road grit, spit wet dust and am doubting my capacity to endure as the first climb rises up before me.  Its a baby climb but I’m out of shape and puffing and blowing all the way to the top.  

This becomes the norm for the duration of Nepal.  My previous, sickly, hazy memories of the country were of nausea, sweat, rain and humidity.  These are being overlayed with sensations of dust, fumes and an out of shape body and mind.  My worst fears of having become too used to the sedentary life are realised.  I have become lazy and want an easy life.  However cresting the hill at Dhulikhel and seeing the road wind down before me, through varying shades of green vegetation and yellow earth I remember the joys of cycling and am back in the moment, content to have the (not too smelly) local rubbish tip as the team reunion campsite.  I confess to internally wailing about the damage humanity is wreaking on the planet but I settle down to a good sleep only briefly disturbed by a truck pulling into my lay-by for their few hours sleep.

The initial route plan is swiftly reassessed as I realise I took a wrong turn the night before and am in no mind to cycle back up the hill I just started coming down.  So I press on, winding down past houses and through small villages of wood and corrugated iron homes.  Past tiny local stores selling a million different types of chewing tobacco but nothing that I might need, past the dhabas (local cafes) of varying size and apparent cleanliness.  Stopping at one I am treated to cups of tea first by a local who whoops with joy and laughter at me riding in on a bicycle and who I have no doubt will be regaling his friends and family with stories of a crazy woman who he bought tea for and second by a couple of Italian’s who have been out in the hills doing social work with one of the  specific ethnic groups located in the region.  We talk briefly about the social situation here in Nepal and they tell me about the issues particularly with alcohol abuse, domestic violence and human trafficking.  

Sitting, drinking tea, in the midst of this beautiful sunny scenery the content of the conversation seems even more harsh with the dichotomy of the moment.  Human trafficking was and still is a huge issue, specifically since the earthquake in April 2015 and the fuel blockade by India later in the same year .  Rural life for Nepali people is already tough.  Confronted with the aftermath of an environmental disaster and then the additional economic and social strain of massive fuel shortages, rural communities were preyed upon by opportunistic gangs of smugglers and human traffickers who have decimated vast numbers of communities.  People of all ages and genders sold into and enduring forced labour and/or sexual exploitation.  Families either complicit in the ‘transaction’ or ‘coerced’ into situations they don’t want to consider.  I am reminded that for all the beauty I see there is a raw edge and again I feel gratitude for the life I have.

The morning is spent on glorious down hill curves and the traffic on this more minor road has diminished from the roaring I experienced on the previous day.  Reaching the river at Dolalghat where the Indrawati and Sunkoshi rivers meet I am initially pointed across the bridge and fervent hands gesture that is the only direction go.  Checking the solar powered up map I spot the road (track) I want is before the bridge and have to make fake pack adjustments until my helpful friends have departed so I can got the way I want to go … oh why did I not listen!!

The road (track) I take is along side the river and is narrow, steep in places and deep in yellow dust.  Huge dumper trucks speed past, enveloping me in clouds of black fumes and dry dust, forcing me to keep a weather eye open and to hold my breath as they pass. The track eventually leads past several rock plants, processing the river bed for building materials and ends abruptly at a junction in the river which meanders off right and then rejoins the main flow.  The river is fast but not too much so.  The main issue is that I’m out of practise with getting the job done and a bit mentally weak.  So I set up camp, cook up some rice and veg, walk the goat track which everyone else is using to get past the evident landslide up to the village and wait for the morning.  Decision making can wait.

It’s a stunning place to camp.  River views, water rushing past, high cliff behind me and solitude.  As the light in the sky dims the apparently empty river valley spills its secret store of houses and villages.  Like watching the lights of a thousand fireflies, the terrain comes alive with lights going on and the number of people living on each side of the river staggers me.  In daylight it’s impossible to see anything, the houses blending seamlessly with the landscape. 

In the morning I walk the goat track again, walk the first part of the river crossing and assess the probable depth of the second from the waves at the crossing.  Decision made.  River crossing – Go.  Goat track – No.  Its far too steep and precarious to carry a bike over so I hike the bags up and start the river crossing with Tilly.  

I have wildly underestimated the second part of the journey and as I wade, knee deep, across slippery stones I realise carrying the bike will not be easy.  I have also been spotted by men working on the river bank.  As I get part way across the river and wobble one of them does the full body, evident at 50 paces, equivalent of rolling his eyes; drops the rock he is moving and splashes over, yanking the bike off me.  As we both reach the other side he hands it back,  laughs and runs off to get dry clothes (probably).  His crew are in fits of good natured laughter which follows me as I head up the track to collect the bags and head on towards Lubughat.  

The track bumps and winds alongside the river giving me lovely views of the water and the agriculture that it feeds.  It’s December and I can see grain being sifted in the fields, which frankly upsets my inner concepts of time and season.  After a night camping outside a shop and a dinner of delicious millet and greens being consumed I do ‘the comedy side swipe’, randomly and abruptly changing direction to face up hill.  Its a big hill!

The day is foggy and thankfully I cannot see the breadth of the mission I have just set out on.  As I make my way up the rocky, dusty ‘road’ I can hear women walking down a footpath not far from me.  Disembodied voices which laugh and chat, passing relatively close and then going down, beyond me.  Further up the mist starts to clear and what was a wall of grey nothing is revealed as a village, then a large school.  Bells start ringing, dogs bark and the ethos carry across the valley to the other side of the Sun Koshi.  When I set off in the morning I had not anticipated 2 days of pushing, sweating and swearing the bike up such steep tracks.  Lorries and scooters pass me occasionally and the passengers are always craning their necks to get a better view of the under powered idiot with the large baggage.  

The rocks get bigger and the track steeper so at Cauld Wel village I stop.  Meeting a giggling group of maybe 11year old girls who shout at me and tell me I’m lazy I temporarily loose my temper and tell them they are rude.  I hate this part of me.  Being called lazy or being laughed at are like red rags to the Taurean in me.  Ashamed, I push Tilly up the next bit and follow them to their school as requested and throw the place into chaos.  Children hanging out of windows, round door frames, teachers herding  students as if they were cats.  One of the teachers, very sweetly, tells me to go and camp by the shop (and potentially let them get on with their classes).  I do so, ending the day with dhal/rice thali and watch various villagers get wrecked on home made raksi, a situation I am to become very familiar with.

Alcoholism and the consumption of homemade raksi is an ever increasing problem in the rural areas of Nepal and India.  In local shops I have seen people start on their ‘daily dose’ at 8am, opening time, and continue from there.  I’m rarely in the same place long enough to see the aftermath but on occasion see what it potentially looks like.  Women with black eyes.  Truck rolled over in road.  All possibly raksi related.  I’m often offered, sometimes pressured and always decline.  It’s not something I want or can physically/mentally/socially cope with.  Its another of the coping strategies which the Italian’s I met previously are starting community dialogues about in their rural projects.

Night falls and the stars come out.  The Nepali night sky is vast and incredible.  No light pollution and I can see galaxies ranged around me.  Everyone in the village is worrying about the cold and I haven’t managed to convey that it’s closer to English autumn rather than winter for me and is therefore not a problem.

When I leave the village in the morning it’s to the sounds of Nepali pop/folk songs playing on a roof-top loud speaker across the valley and the local dogs are lending their voices in accompaniment.  The road continues to be difficult and I’m still pushing rather than riding up.  After passing a local Buddhist ceremony in one village and stopping for tea and biscuits in the next I finally reached the top of the hill.  Its a glorious sight (not just because I am convinced its down hill from now on) and I can see the river sinuously winding down through the valley from where I came and past me to where I am heading. 

I was wrong … it wasn’t the top of where I was going but for a moment it felt good!

For the next 30mins I actually manage to ride my bike.  Its bliss and I’m smiling broadly at nothing and no one before I reach the next village.  Its a hot day and the pushing was tough so I stop at one shop then another before I find the possibility of a yellow water container to fill my water bottles from.  A salty snack later and I’m back up the track searching for a spot to rest in the shade  My spot emerges in the form of an unoccupied house with shady porch just off the road.  As I sit eating the remainder of my snack I see a young boy of about 9 or 10 walking up the road and past me carrying the same yellow water canister, in the commonly used head/back rope/sling set up, as I have just emptied in the shop back down the road.  I’m totally mortified.  He passes me 2 more times before I meet him further down the road at the local spring.  His water trek is about 20mins walk each way and I have no idea how many times each day he does this multi trip chore.  A chore which I have just added to. It reminds me of the impact I have often unknowingly and unintentionally.

This nights stay was a generous hosting from a shop keeper in the town of Yangbel.  Initially asking if I can camp beside the school I am immediately pulled into the family, given chai from their abundant thermos (of course) and then mountains of rice, roti and dhal.  The food is delicious and after an evening of listening to Nepali music on their shop radio whilst numerous neighbours came over for raksi I am tucked up in a double bed, blankets smelling comfortingly of moth balls, and flicking through my photos with the young teen granddaughter of the shop keeper with whom I am sharing the nights sleep.  I’m not used to sharing a bed but sleep soundly inspite of her warming her cold feet on mine!

We are all woken before dawn with the sounds of grandfather doing his daily puja. The smell of candle grease, the sounds of the infamous Om Mani Padme Hum at high volume, grandfather padding around the corrugated structure which forms their home. It reverberates to every movement and bangs worryingly as you cross a patch in the floor.  This square iron box, divided into 4 rooms and housing at least 11 people sits directly above the grocery store, sewing establishment and barber/pharmacy/raksi seller.  The babies (Prince (20 months) and Princess (3)) are swaddled up in warm clothes and Princess runs around demanding sweets and attention from anyone staying still long enough.  Youtube videos have a lot to answer for as a song comes on the radio and she starts dancing and posing outrageously.

I often struggle internally with the adoption of seemingly ‘adult’ behaviours by young children as they mimic people they have seen or videos watched.  I also wonder if I’m just attributing a meaning and an anxious context to something which has no reality for the children themselves.  A dance is a dance.  Movement is just movement.  I can ascribe meaning to gesture as a person well developed in social context but the reality is that it’s not real not mandated.  The biggest driver for Princess’ dance is the clapping and laughing from the family which fuels her frantic dance and almost tips her over, to everyones amusement.  Just as the night before as we all huddle around a fire outside the shop everyone is smiling broadly at her antics and clapping in time with her fist pumping and hip swaying in almost time to the music!

I leave stuffed full of breakfast roti and dhal.  After a brief stop at a tiny monastery I have a morning of slow speed downhill on inches of dust over a surface of gravel.  Its hideous and not the sweeping curves on a solid surface I like.  It feels like riding unstably on ballbearings and at one point Tilly tips me off at slow speed in an embarrassing skid which thankfully no-one else witnesses.  The road is relatively busy with army personnel trucks, buses, cars and scooters kicking up the obligatory amount of dust and covering me as I make my slow way down.

I sometimes feel that cycling up is easier then down as I have greater control of the bike. My hands and wrists are quickly sore from the braking and once back down on the flat I am grateful to see the sinuous black tarmac ribbon stretch out in front of me!

The Tamil district hillside through which I have just ridden is stunningly beautiful for all its steepness.   Wildflowers everywhere.  Houses in startlingly bright yellows, acid pinks and electric blues.  At this time of year multitudes of people out on terraced areas, working the fields and stacking bundles of maize and straw or sything tall grass for their animals to feed on.  The work to feed the family is never done and people start at daybreak and don’t stop until dark. Children are included in this level of work and I saw little ones fetching and carrying for their elder siblings or the adults.  Watching these time honoured tasks in the midst of such sweeping dramatic landscapes it can be difficult not to romanticise the life but make no mistake, its tough and relentless.  Another reason why the escapism of alcohol has a draw.

The remainder of the day is following the main road alongside the Rosi Khola (Khola = river in Nepali) and I end up chatting with a man who’s impeccable English (and ability to swear in said tongue) is down to his job as a cook in the army bases in Iraq.  He sorted me out with a sensibly priced hotel and I cleaned all my kit and myself of the “too many dust” that had accumulated.  Next stop – more Sun Koshi!

After another day riding the tarmac ribbon I reach the next part of the Sun Koshi valley and find a stunning secluded campspot complete with ready made fire pit.  Its just as well because on starting up the primus stove I am treated to no fuel and no flame.  Taking it apart I notice that the tiny O ring on the connector has degraded and as I try to reseat whats left break it entirely.  Several minutes of cursing and pondering I have a plan. Problem 1 – no O ring in correct size.  Not an insurmountable problem thankfully but that has to wait for good light in the morning.  The fire pit is utilised for tea making and I’m grateful I have back up banana in the bag.  Always carry some ‘no cooking required’ food’!

Dawn breaks and I’m up watching the waders in the shallows.  Pretty but timid birds which disappear  every time I try to get a photo.  Back to stove problem.  Carefully cutting the only other O ring I have I remove a tiny portion and then seat it in the correct place.  After a couple of adjustments and a worrying amount of fuel spraying me and the tent I have working stove again.  Not perfect but working safely!

3 days of following the valley.  It’s as stunning as the hillsides which continue to be steep sided and very much in evidence. The road is wide, traffic not to hectic and I cycle along merrily, passing some villages where I stop for samosa wrapped in musty, old, school text book pages and camping in others before a puncture halts me late evening outside one such village and I camp on the equivalent of the village green opposite and well set back from a very excited dhaba owner and his young wife.  He is intent on speaking all the english he knows as fast, as frequently and as loudly as possible.  Its a common misconception that a lack of language implies a lack of hearing!  His wife takes charge of my phone as I set up my tent and repair the puncture.  This is not the first and won’t be the last time my phone disappears into the hands of one person without my permission and knowledge and returns to me with a memory card full of selfies and videos!  There is no ‘mine’, there is no privacy in Asia! Community is all!  Tent setting, cooking, bike fixing.  All done to an audience.  As usual people want to taste my food!  It’s sadly the same ingredients and a poor comparison to what they are used to.  I have the suspicion that they think I can magic a hamburger and fries from a bag of rice, dhal and veggies!

The following morning is mostly spent with young men zooming up and down the mostly empty road on Tilly and me with my hands to my face pleading “Bistari, Bistari” (slowly, slowly) to their amusement and dismissal.  Leaving the village I have several climbs ahead and these pass, as all do, slowly and with regular stops for photos.

Eventually I reach the town of Ghurmi where the road splits and rather than heading closer to Everest I opt for what turns out to be another hard and dusty but unexpectedly short climb.  Short comes about in the form of transport. After a few hours of chatting to goat-herding grannies and wincing every time another cloud of dust envelopes me, I spy a truck stopped on the opposite side of a large hill-hugging S bend.  It turns out to be waiting for me, so 20minutes later as I draw level with them and they offer me a lift it feels rude to say no!   From the high seat of the empty cargo lorry I see the sheer cliff descents more clearly and the lack of barrier to avert disaster feels more apparent.  On one occasion we stop and the driver does a quick bodge job on the gear and throttle cables which had apparently stopped functioning. I try not to squeak in fear but one rapid spin around the outside of the curve causes me to grab the drivers mate by the arm in an involuntary response. He laughs at my fear and I’m suitably embarrassed.  Images of mini vans halo’d by a beautifully back lit cloud of dust contribute to my wish I was still on terra firm, camera in hand and still cycling. 

Finally in the midst of one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve ever seen I decide that I really must camp and not be driven down the hill to Katari … in the dark … on those bends.  Best decision because after a quick goodbye and scouting out a place to camp I have a solid nights sleep and wake before dawn to a slightly cloudy but none the less stunning view back across to the Everest region.  Later in the morning as the clouds clear I finally get my view of the peak … and then it is gone!  I turn downhill again and have another day of battling my brakes before arriving in Katari town just in time for a couple of days of public marriage ceremonies to take place.

After a day of watching Nepali women float around the town in bright saris, see horse and carriage parade up and down the main street several times and listen to Nepali pop blaring out over a set of  speakers balanced on the back of a truck with men fist pumping and gyrating along side it rather than attempting to hold it down (all whilst eating far too many samosas and drinking chai) I move out on a less hilly and more jungle orientated road.  It’s fine for cycles I’m told!  Now if there is one thing that I should have learnt by now is not to assume that people understand what it means to cycle on a bicycle with loaded panniers.  The road is not fine!  It is an atrocious mess of gravel base with thick dust topping and filled with heavy, earth moving machinery to boot!

Mostly there is dust, sometimes there is a sudden fjord of liquid mud to wade through.  There are short bursts of steep and then more down as the road undulates through what was, until recently, pristine jungle complete with beautiful villages and homes utilising every type of natural and manufactured material at their disposal.  It’s sad to see the destruction of this place but when I consider the greater ease of movement and the increase in possibilities which might make peoples lives easier I cannot be too sentimental.  Balance is key in everything and here the road is very necessary.

The only certainty is change and as with all things this eventually happens.  After some lovely moments shared with 2 young men walking between villages (1/2 a day walk) who help me push Tilly up a steep section, a dinner audience and a near miss with having to ‘perform’ my approximation of Nepali dancing in one village I reach the final push out of Nepal, the Mahendra Highway.  

It heads over the Koshi river at Bhardaha and the accompanying dam where fishing rather than agriculture is the main focus.  I ,of course, stop to see the flat bottomed, wooden boats in the weed tangled inlets and the mist rising off the river in the early morning.  

From here its a straight run to Kakarbhitta town at the border and whilst there is much to see on every side the jungle does not hold my attention for long and my focus does not stay more than a moment on the houses, interesting graveyards, markets and people who dot the roadside.  Even the sudden sight of a tea plantation only briefly halts me. My eyes, like those of the Kakarbitta rickshaw drivers doing the bridge border run, are now firmly fixed on my re-entry into India.   

Cyclist?

Sitting around in Kathmandu.  Visa anxiety.  Long overdue route consideration. Self doubt.  Questions about life choices and personal identity.

Endless opportunity for contemplating the long journey to reach here, the people I have met, the places I have seen, the methods of transport employed and realising that the easiest part of the journey is actually the cycling!  It’s a hilarious realisation because for   the majority of people who question me about bike travel this is (understandably) their main focus of stress.  Am I fit enough? Can I cope with that amount of cycling?  Anyhow after these thoughts subsides another, more insidious and problematic for me right now … am I actually still a cyclist?  What does that mean to me?

The distance travelled to arrive at this point in geography and in time has been by bicycle more than any other mode of transport but does this carries emotional weight  and anxiety in a forward thinking way since I haven’t travelled by bicycle beyond the immediacy of the local shops in my neighbourhood (be they in Nepal or Thailand) for the past 4 months.

And prior to that the distances travelled (theough Nepal in the rainy season) had been slow and extremely unsteady.  I had (and sometimes still) spent too long identifying myself as a sick person.  True, the toll on my body and my psyche had been tremendous but retraumatising myself by ruminating on the past was creating additional problems and had (has) become a habit to keep myself within ‘safe’ boundaries or rather just limiting myself.

I guess what I am trying to process is … do I really still buy into the lifestyle of the cycle tourer?  Does this method of travel still spark my imagination and light the sort of fire in my belly (that joke is on me!) which will propel me up dirt track Passes, carrying enough food and water for an indeterminate number of days out of sight of habitation, amenities and the (potential) solace and safety of others?  Do I really want to spend more of my life, predominantly alone, doing this?

I believe so but recent sickness has led me to reassess the capacity of my body, my mortality and therefore how I spend the time allotted to me.   So the jury is still out and will I believe remain out until I have a couple of 100 kms tucked into the waistband of my newly replaced, ready-to-be sweat soaked, travelling trousers.

I still believe that the process of travelling by bike is the best way to travel the world, that the opportunities for interactions with local people/all people and the immediacy of access to the flora and fauna of any given region is unparalleled.

That bicycle travel is the most environmentally sustainable, gives people a level playing field within which to relate, is cost effective and is a means of maintaining a positive level of psychological and physical fitness and flexibility, from wherever you start.

It has also given me a place to practise mindfulness of the present moment and to see the world through a more conscious mind.  Note the use of the word ‘practise’! It certainly isn’t an easy one for me but when my body is engaged in an activity like cycling (or dance or Tai Chi) my mind finds it easier to settle into a more conscious rythmn.

Anyway back to ‘now’ … these are only ideas, only concepts until they become worked through in the reality of any given situation.

I guess the bottom line for me is that I have become ‘lazy’ and (again) used to a level of comfort that does not translate to the lifestyle of the grubby, semi-ascetic transcontinental cyclist (which I previously identified with).  Life with daily access to filter coffee, a plentiful supply of water – both hot and cold, a warm bed, personal safety (of the level which means I don’t even usually consider it), shops providing a boggling variety of food and access to (basic levels of) company as and when I want it.

All these aspects, which were previously not taken for granted, have returned to being the norm and I am uncertain, after such a long period of sickness and recuperation, whether I have the resources to adapt again to that voluntary ‘have not’ lifestyle.

Mentally I play with the concepts as I wait for an indicator (India visa shaped) which will determine my ongoing route and which will herald the start of a new phase of this journey.

How I identify is up to me and whether I continue in this manner will be determined in the not-to-distant future!

In my head I hold a memory of my tent set up on a far away piece of Plateau in Mongolia, in the midst of a herd of camels, after the stresses of the previous days … because, for me, travel by bike always holds the spectrum of the mind-blowingly amazing through to the heart wrenching catastrophic.  Containing extremes is at the heart of touring.

One day major theft and the next the opportunity to dance my heart out, alone except for the company of camels who have come to join me for breakfast.  The space for magical moments as well as the tough times …

And it is being out of practise with the psychological and physical elements of endurance, through the tough times and into the magic, that will pose the biggest issue I think.

Back to the need for focus.

Back to just pushing through!

Back to …

One pedal, One pedal …

And the consciousness of the magic in every moment.

Ego Check Chiang Mai

Imagine standing in a car park in the middle of Chiang Mai, Thailand, clutching a coffee pot to your chest like it is the last line of defence against emotional oblivion (it is) and choking back hot, salty tears of frustration, rage and (right there at the back) of recognition and self compassion.  The man in front of you is someone you only met 30 minutes earlier and your body is bathed in sweat from the heat, the humidity of a 35degree Thai summer’s afternoon and the stresses of the mental and emotional gymnastics that you have willingly walked into and are patently out of practise with.

It should feel strange to radically shift gear from the superficial financial dealings of acquiring a second hand French Press to a discussion on the nature of Self, of the Ego and the creation of problems I personally have with the fact that I think I am intelligent but am in fact just totally besotted (in the worst, most blinkered way possible) with my own capacity for Ego and it’s ability to lift me out of the ground swell of the ‘norm’ and ‘elevate’ me to higher ground.

At least that was the pronouncement of the unknown French Press purveyor … and to be honest, I confess to being guilty as charged.  

The discussion with this unnamed, never-again-seen European was as intense as it was swift.  Somehow we immediately interacted with a level of tacit, non verbal agreement akin to synchronised high divers, went through a couple of preliminary warm-ups and then just leapt into the emotionally unknown together.  To say it was a profound experience is wrong.  It was completely normal … well normal in the sense that my life over the past few years has been filled with interactions that are unexpected and that ‘unexpected’ has become the norm.

However his level of interaction showed me just how much confidence in my own ability to cope with my internal, emotional life I have integrated more recently.  I wasn’t afraid to dive in with this unknown man, I wasn’t afraid of myself and a consideration that I couldn’t take care of myself emotionally didn’t even cross my mind.  All indicators that things have changed for me in the more recent past.

Chiang Mai offered so many of these instances for discovery and growth.  A chance to choose from a variety of dance being the most consistent.  Biodanze, danceMandela, ecstatic dance, naked dance … all opportunities for me to express myself and my femininity in ways which previously I had generally avoided and which, specifically, I have found more difficult to give space to whilst focusing on cycling, camping and the careful navigation of individual interactions with (specifically) men whilst solo traveling.

Down time in Thailand, allowing my body and my mind to recover from the trauma of being sick, gave me a much needed space to interact with people who are open to expressing their emotional and spiritual selves and who are keen to share their thoughts and insights with other interested individuals.

Hence the impromptu discussion about my ego.

The idea went, as much as I could grasp it, that every time I focus my intellect on understanding a situation, that it is through this lens (the ‘elevated’ intellectual) that experience the world, I am creating distance and separation from the very aspects that I am wanting to bring together.  The ego of ‘I’ creates a mediating buffer from which source or soul is separated from other … 

And it was at this point that my tears of frustration started to flow.  Every time I tried to verbalise a level of understanding the man in front of me stopped me and pointed at my ego’s dance to maintain control of the situation.  How to then step outside myself (ah … the myself that identifies as me!) Confused yet at the circular prowling of this caged beast?! … Confused and Frustrated? … Very much so and as a result the defences started to go up.

For no other reason than he gave me an opportunity to experience this interaction and look at myself, that aspect of my ego, I am grateful to this unknown man .  It wasn’t fun and certainly wasn’t pretty but he stepped up and held his space, neither demeaning nor reassuring me but letting me do what I needed … which in this instance was admit to anger, push on for a while and then call ‘time out’ when I had had enough.

I left the car park, cycled for a few minutes and found a side street to let off steam.  Which for me meant have a good cry and allow the tension to dissipate.  On reaching an equilibrium and being able to cycle back to my current abode I weaved my way through traffic giggling outrageously and with tears of amazement and hilarity rolling down my face.

Its not every day an opportunity like that comes along … is it?!

 

Sick

Where to start .. the beginning almost doesn’t make sense because it’s so far away and so many personal layers have been uncovered and shed in a process of sickness and rebirth which sounds cliched and overly dramatic and was, or rather is, a reality I never expected.

I’ve experienced different levels of pain in my life.  Numerous bicycle and equine related  accidents, a hole in a sacral disc, accompanied pinched sciatic nerve … but nothing prepared me for the stress of a pervasive, claustrophobic, slow suffocation of sickness that enveloped me in Varanasi, India at the very start of my time there.

Varanasi was supposed to be a positive time.  My parents had booked a 5 week tour of India including the Golden Triangle and between sections of their tour had arranged to come to Varanasi on the train to meet me.  Having only recently left my brother, Ben, behind in Shimla after nearly 2 months of cycling together, India had become an unexpected pit stop for family and the country that had been on my mind for so many years had changed its focus to accommodate these visits

It was coming up to the 3 year anniversary of my departure from the UK and I had reached the famous city on the Ganga River which had been a dream for me since I had first learnt about the Hindu religion as a teenager and become fascinated by the drama, the colour and the apparent paradoxes of life and spirituality, blending in ways which say ‘of course’ rather than ‘no’.

Varanasi had become a focal point for friends and family as I had told them that this was ‘the’ point on the map, the destination … and the act of telling people this, whilst not my actual belief, had become a real point and the crux of many parts of this journey – saying something enough times it starts to take on that life, words consciously or unconsciously creating or moulding a mirror reality.

I had planned to stay in Varanasi for at least a month and soak up the atmosphere, learn some Hindi beyond my usual basics and perhaps take some music or dance classes … after all Varanasi is famous for its love of the Arts as well as being home to in excess of 3000 temples and shrines.

However the city, which positively oozes the spirituality, colour and drama I had fallen in love with (albeit the sanitised versions) between the pages of dusty text books, in the burgeoning Fair Trade and hippy shops of sleepy Exeter and harmonising with the notes of quasi-spiritual Hindu/Buddhist/New Age musical collaborations through the ‘90s, had other plans for me.

For all the talk of spirituality Varanasi, like the rest of India, is a very ‘real’ place.  It is a place where these other worldly concerns, concepts and emotions are held in the same hands that hold birth and death, sickness and solitude.  Life among the streets of this city winds, mandala like, in crazy patterns and daily I found myself happily falling over the dogs, rubbish, cows, food stalls, children, adults, temples and shrines and in love with the city itself time and again.

Its a place that is easy to get lost in, metaphorically and actually … time passes and Death sits, contentedly … knowing that inhabitants of the city and visitors alike will all reach their roads end at some point.

Spending time in a room I had found behind one of the larger ghats was peaceful and gave me a ‘home’ whilst I visited my parents in their guesthouse.  We enjoyed time with walking the ghats in the morning only to be beaten back to the shade of a coffee shop out from under the glare of the beating sun.  We all got involved in Holi, India’s famous festival of colour.  They over on their side of the city and I down on the ghats with the gyrating, colour throwing masses and on the roof top of my neighbours house – the young children being more fierce in their intent to change my skin colour from white to Avatar blue than any of the teenagers on the streets.

Unfortunately following the festival, Jan (my mother), experienced ongoing chest infections which continued throughout her time in India and then into Nepal and Terry (my father) had problems after … India is a place that can be physically and therefore mentally very challenging!

Time flew by and our 8 days together was quickly over.  They departed for the next part of their tour, which coincidently involved Varanasi again so we knew would meet again in a couple of weeks.

I moved to a more social, hostel space which a friend had suggested.  A hostel where a space on the roof cost 50rs and a room 250rs.  A place where the street dogs came for shelter and food and where the local monkeys hung out, visually pinpointed food through open shutters and darting in through unattended, open doors with laser like precision and a ferocity born from recognising and capitalising on the fear of Westerners unused to such antics.

It was also where I had my initial experience of the violent, debilitating double-ended body explosion I would not wish on anyone and the start to a physical drama which has yet to play out its final act.

The initial stages of sickness lasted for 12hrs and after a night of mostly sleeplessness on the balcony outside the washroom, a room magically became available and I was able to move my kit from the roof, regaining some of my lost sleep and throwing an inordinate amount of disinfectant around in what now seems like a vain attempt at ensuring no-one else would fall prey to this nasty parasite.

One of the other women in the hostel was just coming round after experiencing the same symptoms a few days earlier and I assumed that I was going to have the same prognosis, after all she bounced back pretty much unaffected and was happily eating, drinking and sleeping normally again. I had no idea that this was the start of a much larger and longer lasting problem for me.

As it was I was lucky to have my own space because as my health nose-dived into a turbulent sea of nausea, discomfort, diarrhoea and eroded mental and physical energy I split most of my time between lying horizontal on my bed wishing and waiting for a time where I could feel ‘normal’ again or in my private washroom fervently grateful for a small room I could call my own, have immediate and unrestricted access to and use at will and at all hours of the day and night.

The truth is … ‘normal’ never came. I am lucky …  I have never experiences such levels of vulnerability and physical loss.  6 weeks of sickness with long stretches of not eating, 10kg of muscle weight burnt away by my body as a means to keep me together, limited activity in the city and sporadic forays out into the back streets with rapid retreats as my guts became the internal enemy were my experiences of Varanasi. In spite of that my impression of the city are still filled with my amazement at its beauty in the face of so much duality.

Lying on my bed I was regularly visited by a range of wild animals.  Not so much in the vein of Snow White taming these creatures with her sweet nature and more a realisation that they had taken the measure of me and saw me with a distain derived from my weakness and inability to move fast or prose a threat to them.   Watching geckos chase each other across the walls and ceilings became one of my few past times whilst wishing the washing machine behaviours of my stomach would subside.  Dark ring tailed chipmunks and the ever watchful monkeys saw the same aspects of my vulnerability.

Keeping my door locked and myself cocooned inside became a daily occurrence.  Without this my door could be flung open by teeth baring, opportunist monkeys intent on riffling through my shelves for the single lime or Bael fruit they had previously spotted.  Bael fruit is the food most recommended in Varanasi for those individuals with gut issues and whilst initially I liked its honey stickiness after a time I grew to associate it with the sort of sickly, headachy mustiness that nausea can create over any food.

Time ran forwards, fast paced and equally stood still in that strange dynamic which long term sickness can provoke.  I felt the most vulnerable I have ever been.  My sense of ego, my strength, my physically, my ability to manage everything alone … destroyed by this constantly creeping fog of nausea and by my body’s attempt to keep me going by eating through all my reserves and beyond.  Throughout the sickness the loss of 10kg, mainly of muscle, has had a long lasting impact on this cycle ride and has changed my internal and external structures, emotionally and physically.

I feel that a lot of my previous psychological structures, interwoven as they often are with my physical bearing, have been broken down in ways that were only possible through longer term, pervasive sickness which is less about putting up a fight and more about a fluid, dynamic level of acceptance.  In more traditional western concepts these could be categorised into masculine and feminine aspects respectively and I throughout life have favoured the masculine aspects of myself for my assumption that they will keep me safe … but not here and not now.

The sensation of my body being at war with an internal enemy, a new and unknown experience, was profound.  My body, a place I have both berated and been proud of in its capacity to endure, was at a loss with how to handle this unwelcome intruder.

It’s name was Giardia.  A protozoa parasite infection carried in water and/or food. A microscopic organism with the capacity for eons of destruction.  At best an undetected, asymptomatic visitor which passes ‘harmlessly’ through the system and onto the next unwitting host.  At worst it fixates, attaches itself to the host and starts it’s rapid destruction of the gut wall .. replicating to ensure its dominance and then proclaiming mastery.  Vomiting, diarrhoea, weight loss, persistent nausea, erosion of energy and dehydration are its physical symptoms.  Futility, malaise and depression are close kin to such nasty, home companions.

Hours spent in my own company watching the drip of a tap onto the washroom floor and no trust for the safety of the water around me.  That lead into … days of initial energy and the brief possibility of respite followed by a quick return to an immobile Savasana that never feels positive. That lead into …  weeks of personality eroding malaise, nausea and a forgetfulness of who I am at a core level and what I am doing.

3 visits to the local hospital, 3 courses of antibiotics and numerous weeks of bouncing along on the bottom of the ‘wellness’ axis, under the (ever diminishing) illusion of ‘I can cope’, I finally manage to book a train ticket to Dharamshala.  It was an unexpected and desperate move – geographically backwards – to friends, where I had stayed with my brother in the previous November but I need stability and some feeling of nurture which familiarity and friendship can provide and which I finally admitted I was unable to sufficiently self-generate.

The journey to the train station was relatively uneventful. The final loading of Tilly into the baggage carriage, frustrating (‘keep the bags on, get them packaged, pay 100rs for them to be stitched onto the rack, no they cannot stay there, take them off’).  However the final hauling of 6 items of luggage up and down 2 flights of stairs, across a platform and finding space to be wedged into a narrow gap between scores and scores of jostling, sleeping or picnicking families triggered an utterly horrific reaction and sent me into a near physical but definitely psychological mess.

Sitting, head bowed to my knees, upright but otherwise foetal I have to concentrate hard for long, long minutes for the all too familiar rush of salivation and dominant nausea to subside and for me to control the involuntary ‘desire’ to vomit everywhere.  Sweat is pouring out of every pore.  My clothes are saturated and the only reason I’m not in tears is the awareness of the eyes of every Indian ‘Auntie’s’ within a 100m radius on me and the fact that their well-meaning fuss, should I cry, will disintegrate the last vestige of my emotional strength – at which point I feel that I will be lost.

By this point the weight of being alone in a country without the level of healthcare and immediate support has taken me to breaking point and whilst still a stubborn bull am considering giving up and returning to the UK to bathe in the glories of familial attention and the NHS. However as I mentioned … I am stubborn, to several faults.

The tide of nausea finally subsides.  Looking out across the hordes on the platform I lock eyes with a nearby octogenarian Auntie, who immediately rouses her family and prods bananas and water in my direction, neither of which are desired but I manage to placate her by slowly swallowing and keeping down a mouthful of fruit.

The train is thankfully only an hour delayed and when it arrives I slide into my bunk and sleep for most of the journey, grateful to be out of the city and physically and emotionally making changes to my situation.

A short bus ride at the other end, a brief reunion with my friends in Dharamshala and breakfast in the morning is followed by projectile vomiting, which gets me 2 more hospital visits and a further, final course of antibiotics.

This final course denotes the beginning of the end for Giardia, but it doesn’t go without the drama of a final fight.  Jaundice, dehydration, an enlarged liver, toxic hepatitis and a week in hospital follow on from a bodged antibiotic prescription which finally kills the parasite in my guts – along with any of the good flora and fauna which was conceivable left after the injustices of the past months.

This final course is like Nepalm going off in my body and leaves me wide open to infection and attack.  In a final act of injustice the last of an immune system which I have been merrily developing since (pre) birth and which has served me through countless years of life happily grubby and assured of my internal strength and immunity, is wiped out and I am bereft.

As usual, however, at the time I believe I will be back to ‘normal’ within a matter of weeks and so it is a surprise to me when a month on I am still not ‘well’.

Varanasi – River, religion, ritual

Varanasi, Benaras, Kashi …

City of a thousand years.  City of the Sadhus. City with a list of names as long as it’s list of attributes. The city of Temples, Religion, Art, Culture, Tradition and Education … one of the oldest, still very much alive and very vibrant, living cities in the world.

The famous Ganga (Ganges) River flows through the city and it is the aim of every Hindu to die in this city and receive good karma through this final act which will confer salvation on their transitioning soul.

It is estimated that the city has over 3000 individual temples and having seen just a fraction of these in my immediate locality whilst spending time there it is entirely possible.

Time spent in Varanasi was unfortunately plagued by sickness but nonetheless the city has left me with solid, impression of an immense, vibrant city with a historical, artistic and spiritual core.

Walking the maze of alleys and following the ghats beside the river it is easy to become metaphorically and actually lost.  Within the city can be found vices for every temperament. Hashish … bang … try it with the local lassi. Opium, ketamine, alcohol … everything is possible here. Masala chai and milk sweets.  A local shop keeper was initially happy dealer to my raging sugar addict, scoring dominating my waking hours and India fuelling the urge through its socially sanctioned past time of sitting for conversation and sweet drinks and snacks at any and all times of the day.

Start the day with a full throttle caffeine, dairy and sugar fix.  Maintain with regular refills of raw and refined sugar masquerading as local delicacies and end with more of the same.  Easy to slip into a languid, opioid-appearing, smiling, sweetened food coma.

If, however, you want to gorge on a buffet of artistic and spiritual delicacies (the 2 heavily interrelate) there are opportunities for observance and expression of all kinds and classes for every interest.  More shrines and temples to visit and rituals to observe or bells to ring than is surely possible in one lifetime.  Flute, sitar, tabla, raga singing and temple dancing to learn and practice.  All can be easily arranged by the shop keepers selling both knowledge and equipment and if they don’t have it in stock or provide it directly then their cousin definitely will.

Sitting or lying in Munna Hostel for hours on end, sweat pouring out of every pore from the early summer heat and a nasty water borne sickness I watch the ebb and flow of the River Ganga as she is toyed with by the tides.  The banks of the river slowly changes shape and will change back again over time.  Boats filled with the faithful crossing the river to picnic and pray on the other side, adapt their crossing routes as befits the time of year.

The river is at the heart of the city.  Cremations happening daily, if not hourly along the banks.  The physical debris of this practise being washed from the shore, further on into India, eventually out to sea and en route to near atomic disintegration and the enlightened Hindu/Buddhist age old tangent on physics as we all eventually become part of the universal whole.

Sunrise and sunset rituals are of such extravagance and populated by vast numbers of people who come to Varanasi on personal, often large scale, family pilgrimages.  The religion business is booming in the city.  Individuals with a blanket on a well-trodden thoroughfare and shop keepers alike are able to sell candles, incense, marigold garlands, red powder for a tika on the forehead.  Brass figures contorted into the shapes of deities; printed laminates, postcards and fabric banners or flags depicting your families’ favourite deities.  Ganesha, Shiva and Kali (both with and without consorts and familial entourage) are all readily available for a few rupees.  A walk on any of the side alleys can furnish you with offerings for any of the thousands of temples and shrines you could easily fall over on a short wander in the city.

Goats, cows and dogs are everywhere – which means an incessant supply of smell and shit, to mingle with the explosive amount of rubbish that the human inhabitants of the city produce.  In the early summer, as the temperature soars, the air in the alleys becomes fetid with rotting matter.   Unfortunately static due to being trapped by the high walled, narrow nature of the alleyways, breathing the air becomes an unpleasant necessity and the sensation of the city invading the body through the unguarded, open pores becomes an undesirable reality.

Given the size of the population of this city my thoughts turn to concepts of recycling and of ‘improvement’.  I see it as a danger to consider how to situations can be ‘improved’ in ways that might work well under different circumstances and to try to impose them wholesale.   There are systems in place here, flawed but available and local people are deriving a level of finance from sifting and collecting plastic, metal, paper and fabric from different sources for repurposing and recycling.  I sort my limited waste and add in some of that from the hostel so one morning when I spot the young local man who has started sifting through a waste mountain outside I am able to mitigate some of his initial sifting with a bin bag of plastic.

By doing this I am actively choosing to support a specific individual and not his companion, who on arrival has no chance to get involved in the sifting, since its already been done pre-contact – nothing is without impact … it’s always how I choose to (consciously or unconsciously) direct that impact.

Given the level of veneration that the local bovine population are given I briefly find it amusing and bemusing to see an older woman squeal in fear at the sight of a large cow blocking her path.  I take charge and escort her past only to realise the common sense of her angst when the truculent cow turns her head and butts me hard up against the alley wall, almost winding me.  Being crushed by a large beast is not on my agenda and and (again) I make a mental note to be more cautious of what appear to be local ‘idiosyncrasies’.

The love of the arts professed by Varanasi’s inhabitants stretches to the sharing of musical moments where the houses are so close together that the playing of religious mantras is an experience that the neighbourhood shares.  I confess that listening to one particular mantra (3 minutes on its own, eons in total) on repeat did take me near to insanity.  Undertaking flute or sitar or singing practise cannot be concerned with other people’s impressions or ideas … or would never be undertaken. There is very little concept of ‘private’.  All experiences are shared ones in places where all the aspects of living (and dying) happen so close together.

Animals and children are not given the sort of protection that I am used to in the West. Yes, thats a generalised statement but its more about the general concept than the individual reality.  In Varanasi (as in other places) I see children, ragged clothed and dirty, begging for money, sleeping rough both with and without families … I see cows and dogs with any number of ailments and injury, evidence of broken bones badly ‘healed’ and sickness and sores on every and all bodies.  It’s traumatic and the things I see are not even the tip of the iceberg.  There is no way to convey the amount of need that there is here in the city.  The inequality as evident here in India as it is in any other country.  The middle class of India exploding over the past 10 years and the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ expanding in proportion.  That is not to say that I don’t see happy, well fed or apparently contented animals and children … but these are less in need of visibility.

My time in the city, mediated by the distressing behaviour of a broken body and molten, messy mind, is punctuated by various religious festivals.  I experience the joyful colour of Holi, the riotous noise of Hanuman’s birthday along side the ghats and the cultural delights of a music and dance festival at Sankatmuchan Temple.  Its the sort of music that wrenches the soul from the body and transports you to another place – the sound is often alien and the syncopation of the type that I am not used to but perhaps this helps in the transportation!

The sounds emanating from the city during festivals are of the normal kind but with the volume turned way beyond the usual maximum and with intent and purpose …  spanning greater localities and crossing water from dusk to dawn, no actually from dawn to dawn.

The ritual proclamation of daylight from hundreds of households across the city with the tinkling of a tiny brass bell becomes magnified and a tide of sound sweeps through the area with the light.  The city, home to vehicles of all imaginable shape and size, wakes fast and the noise from a thousand horns, buzzers and bells increases from a dull, night time rumble to a fully-fledged roar which permeates even the most protected, walled off nooks.

During festivities it’s entirely normal to round a corner and be confronted by a wall of sound from a top heavy sound system.  Or to see and mostly hear a small boat with an enormous, impossibly stacked set of speakers, decked out in red and gold flags and ribbons, motoring its way up and down past the ghats, supported by a large ensemble crew of fist-pumping locals all madly gyrating to music more at home in the local club than temple … but then India is more competent than any other country I know to fuse the religious with the ‘real world’, the numinous with the ‘normal’.

As a result of Life, Death is, of course, the counterpoint and a daily occurrence in this city, as any and everywhere else.  However, death here is a very much more public event than in many places.  Death on the banks of the River Ganga, within the city of Varanasi is a much desired (we all have this aspect of being human in store for us so why not create the ideal version) end for Hindus who believe that their location will assist them in attaining some karmic points and achieving a positive transition for the soul.

Varanasi can also amongst all its other names be considered a city of death since this is an aspect which so many desire, here of all places. Walking in the city can involve the sound of one (or more) cremation entourage chanting its way up and down alleyways, which deceptively bounce sound off their high, narrow walls, and into the midst of which I often inadvertently found myself.  Pinned up against the walls, often at the same level as the barefaced, marigold bedecked, body on its way to Manikarnika or Harish Chandra ghats (aka the burning ghats), I was neither disgusted nor afraid.  A body is just that, no longer the person it once was … for me, just a shell.

Time spent walking past the ghats … the smell of burning wood, the acrid smoke in my eyes and lungs, the flames, the charred remains of the pyre which I can’t decide are either body or wood (often deciphered as views of both), the dirtied, bright orange/yellow of the marigold wreaths and the burnt red/gold of the material used to cover the body … the starkness of the metal cradles holding the last vestiges of life, the shoreline black from hundreds and thousands of previous gatherings which remind me that we all end up the same way in the end … these sensations all gave me the gift of foresight … not that I often use it.  They reminded me of my own mortality and of that of those around me.  Life is seldom, if ever as long or as positively eventful as we desire it to be. Whilst I remain aware of it, being reminded of this is a grateful gift.

Life and death intertwined outside, lying in sweltering sickness on my bed inside, some days I hear the sounds of a death ensemble enroute to the ghats one moment and then the shrill annoyance of a local housewife screaming at one of the monkeys who has stolen some fruit or the batch of roti’s she was just baking, the next.  The revolving cycle of life is in visual, auditory and emotional technicolour.  Here, moment to moment, it is more tangible than any place I have ever experienced it, perhaps due to my sickness induce vulnerability but possibly because of the thousands of years and millions of people that this city has seen come and go.

Attending the morning and evening aarti’s on Assi and Dashashwamedh ghats is an intense experience.  In the morning the sight of the sun rising over the river and the sound of the singing would be peaceful and reverent aside from the creeping sensation that its mainly the tourists who want to be up that early.  In the evening there are several thousand people sitting on amphitheatre style steps stretching down to the river and boats filled with people, rafted up and stretching far out into the middle of the Ganga, all watching the bright, visual spectacle of a highly choreographed religious ritual.

The beautifully dressed priests, wearing cream and gold clothing, perform the ritual swinging of brass lanterns and peacock feather fans, methodically ring brass hand bells and liberally throw holy water and rose petals around all the while moving to the beat and intoning of their musician companion’s voice, drum and hypnotic harmonium.  It was impossible for me not to be swept away in the visual and musical drama of the moment.

Beside this river live numerous Baba.  Religious Baba who have left all worldly possessions and social ideas behind them.  Baba who have found that they can carve out a living by creating/fulfilling religious necessities and duties for individuals who will pay for the privilege of being blessed or having their fortunes told, or essential rites being performed on behalf of their families (living and dead).  Baba who can also cater to the masses of domestic religious tourists and international cultural tourists by fulfilling the stereotype and by providing the necessary photographic pose.  There are also Baba who are living beside the river and whilst waiting to die keep everyone plentifully supplied with cups of hot, sweet chai or honey lemon … after all its just another way to make ends meet at the sunset of life.

Varanasi. Alongside the river all manner of  life and death is possible.  Everywhere there is a photo. Every alley twist and turn produces iconic images and every moment is decisive.  Every second here is filled with sensations and colours, textures, smells and sounds which threaten to sweep me away into a hedonistic oblivion.

Varanasi may well be the oldest city in the world which remains in current, lived existence.  The layers of its past, present and future are all evident moment to moment and the interrelationship between what might be seen as distinct aspects are blended to form a place as cohesive and (sometimes sickly) sweet as any dessert I happily, if intermittently, enjoyed there.

 

Vicarious adventuring?!

 

Dare I mention the dread ‘C’ word?! Is NYE any better?!

After all, I am so far away from the socio-cultural signs that indicate this time of year to me that I have only just realised the date and am in shock that I am still getting the required amount of vitamin D!

So … if you are stuck for gift ideas then please take a look at my newly organised ‘Get Involved’ and ‘Contribute to the Cycle’ pages!!

Why not consider making a donation on behalf of your best friend via the links provided or getting that difficult second cousin a ‘beautiful handwritten postcard’ or a set of Combination Photo prints (made to your ‘desired specifications’) and sent from my current location (December 2017, Himachal Pradesh, India) to arrive just in time to send them non-denominational good wishes at the start of the coming year, 2018!!!

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I am very lucky to have met some amazing people whilst cycling, a large number of which are involved in giving back to their local communities in a variety of practical ways and who have inspired me to find ways in which I might be able to do the same.

I am hoping that I will be able to to make a contribution to some charities that I believe in … And … if I can provide something that will brighten up your ‘fridge/day, make you, your loved ones, friends and/or family smile or feel part of this adventure and linked to all parts of our amazing world …

Well then … that’s just great!! ❤️

Why is (gender) violence still an issue?

25th November 2017 – UN International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women

200 million ….. 71% of all trafficking …. 35% of the global population ….. 1 in 3

These stats are intended to be be incomplete … I want you to look at the United Nations page in order to understand the full horror of these numbers …

Gender based violence has not been eradicated, gender equality has not triumphed in the way that I was recently been told (by a man) that it has.

It is a sad fact that in this day and age there is still the necessity that a day of awareness is focused on the issue of gender based violence.   In fact there have been days of awareness each month of 2017 designated by the UN to highlight the issues that women around the world face daily.

For millions of women around the world managing the fear or reality of gender violence is a daily battle, be it from an intimate partner, as a result of horrific practices such as female genital mutilation or from a person utterly unknown to the woman until the moment that an encounter turns to threat and potentially violence.

But what about the other ways that gender violence can manifest itself … child marriage, bride capture (Central Asia), human trafficking and the detention, torture and removal of a woman’s human rights. 

The United Nations defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or mental harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

Ethnicity, sexual orientation and levels of disability all contribute to higher instances of gender violence, as does living through times of humanitarian crisis and war.  When I consider how many countries, areas and therefore groups of women come under these umbrella terms the scale of this issue feels greater than Atlas’ and the task of eradicating it like that of Sisyphus.

And yet in spite of these multiple threats of violence and inequality women continue to provide homes for their children, work, support each other, provide love and care for others and to travel independently.  Violence pervade all areas of life and travel is no exception.

Travel as a solo woman is a challenge not to be underestimated.  There is a constant awareness of the potential for harm and the vulnerability of this lifestyle that is more as a result of gender than anything else.  In different places I find that I am disrupting the social norms and this creates an additional element of vulnerability for me. 

Whilst travelling I have had many discussions with other solo women about their lived experiences and their fears.  There appear to be far more women travelling experiencing sexual harassment and/or violence and the threat of violence whilst travelling than there are women for whom this has not been an issue.

One woman I met expressed this with a sense of fatalism, saying that because she chooses to travel solo she is convinced that she will end up as a victim to some form of sexual violence, because she is without male protection.  Another woman I met has written a wonderful but harrowing blog article about her awful experiences in Iran and the emotional backlash of these experiences.  Still another wrote to me for advice on how to manage the harassment she was facing as a result of her age and gender.

I have developed my own strategies for managing encounters with men which hold potentially threatening or even overtly threatening undertones.  I have had to develop a very forthright manner, one which takes the lead in the encounter, maintains a ‘friendly’ but dominant position and which gives the impression of determined, inviolate solidity and containment to the exclusion of others, for anyone considering sending opportunistic volleys into my well boundaried personal space.

As a result of honing these strategies and learning to walk the tightrope of potentially violent interactions (all the while aware of the possibility of falling) I have recently successful diffused 2 nasty situations and numerous other potential issues, thus keeping myself safe. 

All this comes at a price … the price of my trust of men, the price of my ability to interact ‘normally’, openly with those men who pose no threat and are offering positive relationships, interactions and cultural exchanges.  I have to be conscious of the potential for developing racist skews in my attitudes, that reflect certain types of media stereotypes and I have to manage the instances of being told by men that I am too dominant, that my lack of femininity, is unattractive and therefore there is something ‘wrong’ with me. 

It is incredible to me to see that at this time some men, European men, who I believe should have a more enlightened awareness, still hold archaic views on the ‘correct’ behaviour for women  and do not have (perhaps do not wish to develop) a level of insight into the reality for many women … that there is still a struggle for equality, it is not a ‘done deal’ and that on a worldwide scale women are still treated in demeaning and violent ways simply as a result of the their gender.

It is sad for me to reflect that instances of both perceived and actual violence change (at least for a time) my ability to trust certain men, cause me to emotionally wobble in my confidence and feeling of safety and to question whether I want to continue travelling this way. 

I am grateful that so far in my life the worst I have had to deal with is the aggressive, unwarranted unwanted touching of my clothed body, the aggressive verbal demands for intercourse and the stomach wrenching fear that a situation could explode into violence possibly sexual .  It is a horrific thing to consider that I am grateful that these things are ‘the only’ things that have occurred because in my mind is the awareness of what else could happen and I’m sure I am not alone.  To know that girls and women are grateful not for safety and security in their world but that they have ‘only’ been violated in a ‘minor way’ should be seen for what it is …

Any type of violence against another is a humanitarian shame.  I have not written here about sexual violence perpetrated within same sex couples or the violence that is perpetrated by women on men. These situations are equally damaging to the individual and society and whilst there are statistics for this I am aware that reporting in all these scenarios never reflects the actual numbers as a result of the perceived ‘shame’ and (self)blame that reporting brings upon the aggressed against individual. 

I have also not written about the impact on men of violence against women as a social concept and men’s awareness and distress at their perceived status as potential aggressor and rapist.  As travel becomes more available and women travel to all points of the globe alone it is important to reflect upon the social narrative from ‘home’ about the men encountered in different countries.

Violence in general suffuses all our lives in overt and insidious ways which cause damage to all of us and as such needs our attention, focus, positive education and, lets be honest, money … worldwide funding is necessary for changes to be made since I am not convinced by the potential for a spontaneous paradigm shift.

To live a life, any way of life, in fear or to mitigate ones behaviour simply because of one’s gender and the perceived vulnerability it creates for one not freedom it is a is a humanitarian shame.  Let’s eliminate violence against women … lets eliminate violence … lets leave no-one behind.

Written in thanks to the other women and men I have met crossing 21 countries who embody the best of humanity, in solidarity and love for the other women who have experienced the worst of humanity. 

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http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/in-focus/end-violence-against-women

http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs239/en/

https://trientrapt.com/2017/03/11/50-shades-of-blue-en/

http://www.strangerless.com/how-to-know-a-solo-female-cyclist-does-not-sell-sex/

 

The (he)art of travel

 

There is no ‘correct’ way, no predetermined route … I make Plan B (for backup!) and Plan A evolves as I meander my way across the face of the globe!!

The fear of missing out (FOMO!!) on something or someone or somewhere is still within my psyche but as I have travelled my philosophy of ‘I go left I see left, I go right I see right … I cannot be in both places at the same time so every choice is a good one and will lead me somewhere’ has helped me to manage this.

If I didnt have this philosophy and I made and stuck with plans I wouldnt have met the amazing people I have met or ended up in some of the most wonderful and random situations … places I had never expected to be.

Seizing offers and opportunities always lands me some unexpected and often gives me insights previously unthought and ideas previously untapped.

Related Book recommendation “The Art of Travel” Alain de Botton …