Calcutta at last. Or rather…Kolkata. The past 1,200 miles from Mumbai to Kolkata have been one of the hardest pushes on the tour. That is to say, that I have not ridden at a steadier, faster pace for a long time. Not since being in the U.S.A. Perhaps it is also to say that India is a difficult place to travel. It is not all difficult. It is very easy in many ways. Amazingly cheap, lots of hotels with television and air conditioning, it is easy to find internet access, I saw a dentist and got a cavity filled here for $7.25, and you can find places to print out and laminate stuff all over the place. I made cards in Mumbai that explain Seize The World as well as basic epilepsy information and first aid in four different languages before leaving Mumbai. The Hindi card proved invaluable while explaining what I was up to during my bicycle ride to Calcutta. So – India is challenging, but it also has all kinds of opportunities, amenities and comforts. Kind of feels like you could do anything here.
The route I followed was National Highway Six – NH6. It is sort of an Indian equivalent of the U.S. Route 66: almost-entirely two-lane road, lots of little hotels and cafes along its length, lots of flavor and character, lots of spice. NH6 is mostly a road for truckers, and it passes through rural farm country along its entire length with only a few cities to break up lush green farmland and forest. There is a tremendous amount of poverty there, and although it would be easy for me to say, “it is amazing how happy these people are considering how little they have,” I really was not able to tell. I have never seen more dire poverty in my life than what I saw during my tour of India. People crawling through landfills of trash and eating what they picked up, people staring into space and hitting the ground with hammers, and scraping dust with brushes. i.e. absolutely menial labor. So – although all of the people I met were bubbling over with joy and hospitality, it might be a bit hasty to assume that everybody in India is similarly joyful all the time. I had the opportunity to observe people – people who did not introduce themselves – who looked quite miserable as well. I did not spend more than twelve hours with any one person that I met along NH6 – I was a tourist. And everybody loves a tourist. Especially in India. Wherever you turn, there is always another person, sign, sticker, or truck that says, “Happy Journey,” to wish you well. “Happy Journey sir.” It was.
In addition to there being a lot of poverty, there is also a large middle class population on NH6, particularly in the cities: Mumbai, Nagpur, Raipur, Sambalpur, Kolkata. People working in schools, hospitals, and shopping malls. In India, this kind of work usually seems to buy a family a Honda Hero Motorcycle. This is the Indian branch of Honda, and, by far, the most common motorcycle on NH6. I saw many, many families riding motorcycles. Three and four people on one motorcycle. Men wearing suits and ties, women in beautiful sarees carrying babies, smiling, telling jokes, talking on cell phones, often pulling alongside my bicycle for a quick chat about what I was doing before moving along to return home or to go to work, etc. Upper-class people in India drive Bolero SUVs. Boleros are equipped with extra-loud horns. Boleros look very similar to the boxy Land Rovers that you might imagine roaming around on safaris in Africa. They hold their own against the trucks, and they make spectacularly dangerous – and noisy – passes that usually run me off the road. I saw many … well, perhaps two – destroyed Boleros along the side of the road. This gave me some consolation, but not much. In the United States, when you see a person driving recklessly, you think to yourself: “It would be great if this idiot gets caught by the police around the next curve.” And sometimes they do. In India, you think, “I hope that this idiot gets crushed by a truck around the next curve.” And sometimes they do.
As I rode my bicycle along, the most difficult thing to deal with on a daily – and hourly – basis on NH6 was people. You will remember me saying this from my last update: it was not difficult people or mean people, but simply lots of people. Almost all of them friendly people just wondering where I was from and where I was headed. During my journey, it was these people who occupied my thoughts and who were the source of much of my stress during the journey in the sense that they denied any ability to have personal space during the day. In retrospect, not a big deal as I sit alone in a cool hotel room updating this website. However, these people were all that I could think about during the ride. Now that I have reached Kolkata, I realize that it is not the friendly people who make India difficult – not at all. It is huge numbers of people and widespread poverty that make India difficult. Before any traveler goes to India, they will almost certainly hear stories about all kinds of craziness. When I first got here, I was careful to line up a decent room at a hostel in Mumbai, and to carefully choose a non stop flight so that my arrival would be as easy as possible. It was. I almost thought that all of this hype about India was bogus. But then I noticed things too. A police officer hitting a small kid on the back as I rode my bike past on a climb, the kid seemingly unaffected, middle class people living on the floor of a gas station, a bone sticking out of the skin on the leg of a cow, people walking on the street with broken legs. These things were background noise at the time. When I saw the kid, I was thinking to myself, “That kid just got hit pretty hard. I just really hope that the motorcycle behind me does not pull alongside, because I do not have the energy to tell another nice family about where I am from and where I am going…” Now I realize that it was the kid that was important. The motorcycle did not matter. That is what it is like…you cannot quite imagine the shift in your personal space and time in India until you ride your bicycle across it by yourself. My desire for space became paramount, to the exclusion of everything else. Even kids getting hit by the police. I am happy that I lost my space though, because if I had not lost it then I would not have met Indians. And the truth is that almost every single encounter was positive. It may have been exciting, hilarious, helpful, energizing, relaxing, or all of the above. Taken together, my encounters with people on NH6 were certainly worth losing a little bit of time to myself. And a LOT better than the alternative: loneliness. I met one man who told me that his cousin is working in Texas. It made me very happy to hear that his cousin is well and enjoying Texas. After experiencing India, I would be worried that an Indian in the United States might feel quite lonely. So what does it actually look like? Throughout the entire experience, the landscape is very green, the weather very hot, rainy and humid, and the people very colorful and friendly. Large numbers of sturdy, dusty trucks with ten wheels that roll up and down the highway at 25 mph bouncing all over the place that say “Horn OK Please,” or “HORNDO,” Or “AWAZKARO,” or “Blow Horn,” on the back: all variations on that last one. The writing on the trucks raises a chicken and egg sort of question in my mind. Which came first in India: the horns or the signs on the trucks? Whatever the answer, the result is that now, the road system in India is totally dependent on horns. If you have a horn, you had better use it before passing, because trucks do not have mirrors. What? No mirrors? No – why have mirrors? Instead, they have brightly painted signs on the back that say “Horn OK Please.” Ah Hah! Cars on NH6 do have side view mirrors, but they fold them in because the passes are so tight that the mirrors would get broken off if they didn’t. So…horns. That is your only hope on NH6. The good news is that there is a vibrant cycling community on this highway. Because nobody makes very much money along NH6, lots of people (hundreds of thousands) ride bicycles. From six year old boys and girls to ninety year old men carrying their wives side-saddle on the cargo racks. You see businessmen on bicycles carrying impossibly large cargoes of pots, pans, brightly-colored buckets and dishes. There are trikes as well: full-size adult cargo tricycles. They carry cargo. They are loaded up with bricks, wood, water, or in some cases they are loaded with fully-covered cabins that have doors , seats and school children inside on their way to or from class. The less-well-off families go with the Honda Hero approach to commuting, but they use bicycles to do it. The father pedals the bike, his saree-clad wife sits on the cargo rack with baby in hand behind him, while a younger child sits on the handle bars in front of him. Four people making their way comfortably and calmly on one bicycle down the highway. There are no shoulders on NH6, but bikes use the pavement until a truck or a Bolero blasts their horn to move them off into the mud or off onto a hardened dirt path on the side that usually exists from so many bicycles rolling by. All of this traffic moves steadily up and down NH6 through the noise, rain, danger, bumpiness, mud, heat and humidity throughout the day and night. It is incredible. NH6 in India is about the worst place on the planet that I have found to ride bicycles, but I have never found a place with more of them. There is more good news. There are bike shops – “Cycle Stores” – everywhere on NH6. People say that Italy is the heart of cycling. That is so much BS. India is the heart, soul, capital, and epicenter of cycling. In India, almost everybody in the country (not the nation, I mean the countryside) rides a bicycle – in the cities, people walk, use taxis, etc. Bicycles are how people get around in India. Really heavy bicycles. There are two companies that seem to dominate the market here: Avon Bicycles and Hero Cycles. The bicycles are steel monsters that are sort of like the Schwinn Cruisers from the 50s that you still see rolling around just as they were in the 50s. Steel everything – frames, wheels, racks, cranks, fenders. Kickstands and racks are often made of re-bar. So it was comforting to be in a place where I could easily find tubes, patches, racks, re-bar kickstands, etc. I knew that if I had some sort of a catastrophic failure in India, that I could probably purchase a Hero Cycle for $50 or so that would last for the next four or five hundred years. I did not trust Avon as much. This all reminds me that a few months ago in Athens, I wrote about purchasing a fabled pair of Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tires. I should give you an update on the status of these tires considering how excited I was when I wrote about them from Athens. I am pleased to report that the new tires are performing well after 3,000 miles of traveling. During the first 6,000 miles of the tour, I used eight tires – that I remember. I had at least thirty flat tires. Perhaps even two or three times that number. At one point I had twelve patches on one tube. Flat tires were an ongoing nightmare. After dealing with the problem for way too long, I decided to finally cave in and buy bigger tires, moving away from my initial idea of having a road bike-ish bike (ahem…yeah, that was a bad idea. Live and learn I guess.) I had known that Marathon tires were supposed to be the best tires in the Universe for some time, and was lucky to find some in Athens. So I bumped up to some big tires (1.1 inch to 1.5 inch…700×28 to 700×38) Way, way better setup. So – first 6,000 miles: eight tires, 40+ flats (roughly). Last 3,000 miles = same two tires, three flats. I can live with that. I am also using some tire liners to up the protection level a bit further. I don’t want any nonsense, not even from the Marathon Plus tires. We may be on wonderful terms right now, but best to avoid any unpleasant experiences. I am carrying a spare Marathon tire (and have been for the past 3,000 miles) as well. If all goes well, I will carry it with me all the way home and not have to use it. I will give you another update on the Marathon Plus tires when there is more news (or lack thereof I hope) to report. Okay. Back to reporting on India: Whenever I stopped for a bite to eat along the highway, at a hotel – restaurants are called hotels in India – my bicycle would always attract a crowd. In the beginning this was a bit tiring, as I would always answer the same questions. But then, I became excited by the simple idea that there were so many cyclists in India and by the idea that there were so many people interested in a bicycle. Well… It seemed that wherever I went, people would ask me about almost anything. The reality is that the reason there are cyclists in India is that there are poor people in India. Give them money and they turn into motorcyclists; give them more money and they become Bolero drivers. It is not really from an interest in cycling that they ride Hero Cycles. However, because they all do ride Hero Cycles, they know about their own bicycles, and they are interested to see something different.
This made me think that a clever businessman could probably make some money if they could find a way to start some big factories in India or Bangladesh (right next to India) and begin producing some better bikes in India. Sell a basic steel bicycle with a few gears on it and some sturdy aluminum components with really strong wheels and good tires. Line up some good subsidies from a few willing governments – India, the E.U., the U.S.A., U.K., etc. – and begin underselling Hero Cycles and Avon. If you get good subsidies, you could make it work. Maybe. It would be an invaluable service to Indians who are dealing with some fairly awful bicycles. No fun to commute on 50-pound single-speed steel bikes, especially if you have to carry a couple of passengers. I post this on the web site in the hope that some inspired person will find this and make it happen. It would be great to return to India one day to see people riding around on bicycles that were easier to handle. Of course, I don’t know the first thing about government subsidies or factories.
So…at the end of my tour through India, I am glad that I came. I can see why people fall in love with the place. It really does have a certain feeling that you can do things here. Want to go out and laminate some cards at 2 in the morning? Sure. Want to get a filling for your tooth? Okay, have a seat…350 rupees when we’re done. India is a dusty, smelly, colorful, reckless, fun, and practical place. People get things done here. Often with a great deal of bureaucracy that nobody quite seems to realize is pointless, but they get it done. (It can take 45 minutes to check into a $10 hotel by the time people are finished signing you through the various ledgers, notebooks, and authorization forms to take down your passport information). The reason that India was on the itinerary for Seize The World is that it was one of the places in the world about which I knew the least. To me, this is a great reason to visit a place. Right now, India is still near the top of the list of places about which I know least. India seems to be confusing for everyone. Even the people who live here. As I toured from Maharashtra, where people speak Marati, to Orissa, where they speak Oria, to Calcutta, where Bengali is common, I got a good idea of this. There are other beak languages in India as well: Hindi, of course, and Gujarati among others. English and Hindi are sort of the two common languages in India it seems, Hindi being the more common language, at least on NH6, English being common enough for me to order edible meals at the hotels and to have 15-20 encounters/day with English speakers on Honda Hero motorcycles. So…those are a few of the mysteries that I have uncovered about India. There is a tremendous amount more that occurred while I was here that has not gone into this update. There were many people who I met during the course of the adventure: Ragau at the Indian Oil Station near Nashik, Rabin at the Jamankira College in Orissa, Tushar and Onkar the photographers out on the highway, and Raj from Chopstick Express in Nagpur among many more. These people all made the journey through India a great experience, many of them with help, food, advice, directions, news stories, and support for the journey.
When you visit India, I have no doubt that you will meet similar people. That is why I think that it is common to see slogans such as “I love India” and “India is Great” on trucks, pins, t-shirts and bumper stickers all over the country. Because in its own crazy way, India is great. Do I love it…? Well . . . it might be an acquired taste.