Finding other Tourists: August 12th
Despite waking up and feeling like we'd just inhaled a lifetimes worth of campfire smoke, I think we're starting to get a feel for India. The first week provided me with the first true culture shock of the trip and with it came feelings of bewilderment, stress and being far away from my comfort zone. The retreat to Shimla and our time since has eased me into the culture at a more leisurely pace and I'm starting to enjoy it immensely. One thing that threw me off was the lack of smiling. It's the first place we've visited where people won't instantly return a smile, instead they just stare. At first I thought everyone was unhappy; it put a sour taste in my mouth and made me feel unwelcome. I've now realized it just takes a little extra effort. If you continue to smile, despite the intense stares, eventually it will be returned with a head bob and a wide grin.
We left Saket Guesthouse after a quick breakfast and found ourselves, once again, winding through the lush green hills. Only this time, there was very little traffic. The only traffic we saw, was when a landslide had covered the entire road. Giant boulders, mixed with wet mud filled the road and we had to do a little off road riding to avoid the tractors and trucks that were working to clear the road block. We got head bobs and thumbs up as onlookers watched us slip and slide through the muddy detour.
We stopped for lunch on the outskirts of Nahan, had coffee and chow mein and continued on our way. As we dropped in elevation, the temperature rose. We saw continuous sun for the first time in India and our boots and gloves were finally beginning to dry (thank God, they were on the cusp of growing mold and were starting to smell with mildew). The winding roads soon turned into congested towns/cities and our steady pace turned into a crawl. It took us 2 hours to travel the final 32 miles to Rishikesh (our destination for the day). Rishikesh is known as the retreat where The Beatles spent 2-3 months, most likely doing a large amount of drugs and writing the majority of The White Album. When we finally arrived, we pulled out our new copy of Lonely Planet and found The Bhandari Swiss Cottage, a "budget" hostel that seemed to be right up our alley. We found the place, pulled in and were greeted by a friendly staff who were highly inquisitive (as usual) of our bikes.
My view while writing this blog day
It turns out, the Bhandari Swiss Cottage is a beautiful building perched on a hill that overlooks the Ganges. It's also one of 4 or 5 other hostels/hotels/guesthouses in the area. Meaning, for the first time in a long time, we're with other "white" travelers who speak English. We didn't speak with any of them… Maybe it's because I've forgotten how to speak with other English speaking people (other than Graham and James), maybe I was nervous to speak to other travelers, or maybe I felt goofy wearing our Kurdas, was tired and just wanted to go to bed. Either way, it felt odd not speaking with any of them. After dinner we did a quick walk around the block: saw a couple yoga studios, secretly bought beer from a teller who pulled them from a hiding place and went back to our room. Bhandari Swiss Cottage has AC, I slept great.
Blogs and Yogis: August 13
Today was essentially just a blog day that was accompanied with a relaxing yoga session. The frustratingly slow internet required the entire day to upload the pictures and edit the various parts of the blog. The power surges and random blackouts that disabled the internet made it and even slower process. Luckily the view from the balcony of our room was incredibly beautiful, and we spent some time calling our family and girlfriends while the blog was uploading.
Lounging on the patio writing and uploading the blog
Towards the end of the day we were convinced that we should do something other than sit around the hotel so we did a yoga session. Rishikesh has been named the yoga capital of the world, so we had to try it out. There were only two other people there, and the yogi spent a good portion of the time doing adjustments on us which stretched us out pretty good. We ended with some harmonic om’s that resonated in my head. I have never actually done an om before so it was a pretty cool sensation. After over an hour of deep stretching we felt loose and relaxed. We are all pretty convinced the yogi instructor picks up quite a few foreign girls using his yogi charm. Most of the foreigners around seemed to be single women in their early thirties, and the two women in our session seemed to adore him. He also had a pretty slick motorcycle which added to his appeal. He seemed to be quite aware of this, and we half laughed/half admired his demeanor.
In order to top off our lazy day we grabbed some beers from the local market and headed back to the room. I believe it is pretty difficult to sell alcohol legally in India, and the beer was hidden in the back of the fridge. When he pulled them out they were wrapped in newspaper so that you could not see what it was. They used this same tactic at a few restaurants that we ate at, and it’s a little comical how obvious it is that you are drinking beer. We finished our beers, and I finished uploading the blog before we went to bed after a day of writing/carefree lounging.
The last touches before uploading for your viewing pleasure
Celebrities: August 14
The cool air of the A/C felt amazing as I slowly opened my eyes and welcomed the new day. Most hotels only have sleeping arrangements for two so we have been alternating who sleeps on the floor and today was my day. My backpacking pad may as well be an air mattress though so it really doesn't make too much of a difference. We slowly worked our way out of bed and showered before heading down for a big "hash brown" breakfast and some delicious coffees. As we ate we discussed what we needed to do before we left which included paying, ordering parts from Amazon to be brought by Rebecca (Michael's girlfriend) and to work on some sponsorship things. As soon as we finished breakfast we split ways to take care of all the items on our list. Despite the planning we found ourselves finishing up all our tasks as lunch approached and decided to get lunch before departing from Rishikesh.
Everything went smoothly and efficiently from there and we were soon on the road with full belly's. We had resolved to make some good distance in the next couple days and this was to be one of many big riding days, despite the late start. We were soon disappointed by our ability to cover ground as we were traveling primarily by small, congested back roads full of pedestrians, arto's, bicyclists, potholes and a number of different livestock. In what was remaining of the day we only managed to cover around 150 miles. Despite not getting where we were hoping to we were all in good spirits and the scenery was spectacular. We passed through Haridwar, the sacred city that sits at the junction where the Ganges enters the plains. This city is the heart of a giant pilgrimage each year to collect water from the Ganges. The small towns we were passing through began to look much more rural and less developed as we traveled and as dinner time approached we found it difficult to locate a place to eat.
Stuck in traffic as usual
We eventually stopped at a small shop that consisted of an awning with a few tables and a small booth in which the cooking was done. We asked for a menu and were told that we could only have chicken as that was all they had. We graciously accepted as we were now getting quite hungry. When we had first pulled into the restaurant a few curious bystanders had approached to see who we were. The small crowd, however, was quickly growing. Soon enough it felt as though the who town was congregating around us. Curious kids came to look at us and our bikes and when the owner of the shop would shoo them away they would quickly come scrambling back. Eventually a man who spoke decent English arrived and began a conversation. As we answered his question the now very large crowd would shuffle in as close as they could get to hear our answer. He informed us that we were the first tourists in that town and that everyone was just curious but not to worry. Another English speaker soon appeared and joined in the conversation. We quickly learned that much of the town was in fact congregating and we were introduced to the "mayor" of the town who had been quietly standing in the crowd since it began to grow.
The crowd gathering to observe us eat
A large pile of chicken and a soda soon appeared in front of us and we quickly ate up. The chicken was deliciously spiced although it could have done with a bit more meat on the bones. As we ate we conversed with our friends, posed for numerous pictures from mobile phones and shook hands. The crowd was so closely packed around us that a few kids were using my shoulders as armrests and I could feel breathe on the back of my neck. We finished up the meal, shook the hands of our new found friends and hoped back on the bikes. The crowd parted as we turned on the bikes and made our way onto the street where a traffic jam was beginning to form.
The crowd giving us a big send off. We blocked off the entire road
The sun drew closer to the horizon as we drove away in amazement at what had just happened. We had decided we would try to camp earlier and started scoping for a pull off before it got to dark. We tried one but were quickly approached by a man. After asking if we could sleep there and him pointing down the road and saying hotel, we gave in and moved on. It didn't take long before we found a small path that led us next to a well beside a field that was well shielded from the road (though not far from it). We quickly set up camp and I crawled into bed to avoid the buggies. Even the mesh bug nut covering my hammock turned out to be too hot though and I was soon covered in sweat. If someone had seen me they would have thought I just exited a sauna and there was nothing I could do to cool down. I did my best to mop up the sweat with my shirt but it would return a few moments later. I resigned myself to a restless sweaty night and managed to fall asleep without too much effort after a few chapters in my book.
Our campsite next to the well. Careful using the bathroom!
Indian Independence: August 15th
We set Graham's alarm for 6 in order to get an early start and avoid a bit of traffic. The alarm went off and we were all so exhausted from hardly sleeping the night before that no one was opposed to hitting the snooze button 4 times. We finally woke up at 7 and got all of our gear packed up. It was our first camping experience in India. It wasn't the worst of the trip, but I've definitely had better nights sleep.
We actually found a spot that wasn't over run with people
We rode 20 or 30 miles before stopping for food at a restaurant called Jubilee. It was an enclosed building and had a fan above the table. The difference in temperature between the tent (from the night before) and the fanned air was insane. The restaurant felt cold, all because of the tiny fan. We ordered breakfast and left. Per usual, there was a crowd of people around our bikes checking them out. Only this time, the majority spoke English. We spoke with a few of them, but one group that stood out was a pair of Indians who worked for IBM and were taking a 4 day motorcycle tour. They were the first motorcycle tourists we'd talked to since being in India. They were also riding a Royal Enfield, a British military motorcycle that has caught our eye and is highly popular in India.
Fan cooled room and an overwhelmingly filling breakfast
We got on the road and started riding. After 150 uneventful miles (only had to dodge a couple cows, humans, goats, dogs, trucks, bicycles, cars and artos) we stopped for lunch. James had been feeling a little under the weather all day but it seemed like it started to really hit him while we were sitting under a thatched canopy eating rice with beans. He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open and could hardly eat his food. He did not look good. Mid way through our meal, the rain started. I couldn't help but think of the quote from Forrest Gump regarding his time in Vietnam, "We been through every kind of rain there is. Little bitty stingin' rain... and big ol' fat rain. Rain that flew in sideways. And sometimes rain even seemed to come straight up from underneath." If I had to categorize the type of rain we were watching, it'd definitely have been the big ol' fat rain. We decided to try and wait it out, to see if it would pass, so we ordered three chais and waited. After 20 minutes or so, the rain subsided and we were ready to get back on the road.
James nursing his chai while trying to grab a quick nap
August 15th, 1947 is the day India received independence from the British Empire. We got to witness first hand, their independence celebrations. We reached the outskirts of a town called Faizabad and were bewildered by the giant amount of traffic, even for India it seemed abnormal. We saw a couple scooters start riding through the side streets and decided to follow them and found ourselves weaving in between restaurant stalls, a makeshift barbershop, a couple small stores and almost collided head on with a donkey carrying a cart of bananas. After a mile or so of "off roading", we found the cause of the traffic jam. It was an Independence day parade. All the children were dressed in their school uniforms, and marching to the beat of their band. It was awesome to see. The only thing was, the parade continued on the road we needed to be on.
After waiting 10 or 15 minutes there was a pause in the parade and the police let a group of cars, trucks, motorcyclists and artos through. That’s when the fun began. Everyone seemed to be in such a major rush to get clear and away from the parade, that no one was willing to wait for anyone else, which ultimately resulted in a giant traffic jam. Literally a traffic jam; Graham got pinned up against a bus by an arto and could not move. His left side case was up against the side of the arto and his right case flat against the side of the bus, jammed between both vehicles. The arto couldn't back up because there was already 10 million other artos right behind him and the bus couldn't move or else it would rip Graham's side case off. In the end, the arto was finally able to turn slightly and release the pressure from Graham's bike and he was able to ride on. After numerous other close calls and my right side case getting a dent from a passing truck, we made it out of Faizabad. It was an experience I'll remember, but I probably won't try to ride my motorcycle through an Indian parade again.
We started our own traffic jam as a crowd of curious bystanders watched us as we watched the parade
By this time James was starting to feel even sicker. It's rare for him to complain or even mention that he doesn't feel well. Therefore Graham and I started to get worried when he started to mention how terrible he felt. Right after discussing how he felt, I heard James say, "God d*$mnit, my clutch cable is gone" in the intercom. It was a major bummer.
We pulled over, within 5 minutes we had a 15-20 people surrounding us. 5 minutes more and we had 30-40 people surrounding us. Graham and I tried to help James fix his cable but whenever all 3 of us were together, the curious crowd would swarm tighter and tighter until moving was almost impossible. Therefore Graham and I tried to keep the crowd entertained so that they wouldn't surround James while he fixed his clutch cable. We each took pictures with at least 10-15 different children, we showed them our phones, our bluetooth intercoms, the GoPros, my GoPro tripod, anything to keep them from surrounding James. For 15 minutes Graham and I were the most interesting thing, but it was soon shifted to James. The crowd grew tight around him and it took him a few stern, "No thank you, I don't need help", before people finally started to give him space. After 30 minutes or so, which most likely felt like 10 hours to James, his clutch cable was back together and we were able to ride away.
James's head can barely be seen through the group of people surrounding our bikes
One observation about the crowds is that they are simply curious. When we were Dehli, we were constantly being warned about people trying to steal our stuff. Therefore, whenever we were surrounded by a crowd of people, I was nervous about our stuff being stolen. Since then, the crowds have seemed to be completely harmless. There have been so many opportunities for someone in the crowd to reach out and grab my tripod, my cell phone or even my helmet, but not once have I noticed that anything has even been touched. Obviously, I don't think leaving my motorcycle unlocked in the middle of Dehli or anywhere in India is a good idea, but the realization has allowed me to relax immensely and enjoy the crowds of curious people.
With the fixed clutch cable, we started moving again. There was an ominous cloud in the distance and we quickly found out that it was dumping "big ol' fat rain" and we were almost immediately soaked through. James was just feeling worse and worse when the real major doozy of the day happened. We were riding through a small town and, like always, we were dodging all sorts of animals, machines and people, when an older man (~65) tried to cross the street on his bicycle. He came out of NOWHERE. Simply pulled out from behind a truck, didn't stop, didn't look for oncoming traffic, didn't even glance sideways. James was leading and slammed on his brakes, his rear tire skidded out on the wet pavement and he was able to avoid a major collision but wasn't able to avoid the whole situation. His left side case side swiped the front tire of the bicycle and both parties fell to the pavement. James did an acrobatic tuck and roll away from the sliding motorcycle, the man simply fell over. Immediately at least 10 or 15 people started running towards James to see if he was okay. They didn't even bother with the man... In fact, the ones who did notice the man started berating him for being in the way. It was almost entirely his fault, but yelling at him did not seem necessary. I pulled up to the man to see if he was okay. He stood up, showed me his hand, which had a substantial cut on it but was nothing too serious, grabbed his bicycle and was gone. Amidst the ever increasing crowd of people the man just disappeared, most likely because he did not want to be yelled at or accused anymore. With the crowd continuing to increase and the reassurance that the man was okay (minus the cut on his hand) we decided to continue driving. We were all shaken up, we new hitting a person was a possibility but now it was a reality. Granted, it was the best of a worst case situation, but it still left a terrifying image in all of our heads. We drove extra careful and extra slow until we found a hotel to stay the night.
The hotel had the option for an AC room (1,100 Rupees) or no AC (600 Rupees), $18 or $10. The non AC room had a fan and we figured we'd give it a go. We carried in our luggage, took showers and headed down for dinner. We ate and went back to the room to try and sleep. Having been sick all day, breaking his clutch cable, and downing his bike while trying to avoid a collision, James was asleep within a couple minutes. Graham and I were not. The room became incredibly humid and musty from our wet clothes, the fan didn't move the air nearly as well as we'd hoped and the open window (which we couldn't close) continued to let in mosquitoes. It took a couple hours and a few rounds of mosquito repellant before we were finally able to fall asleep.
I tried to capture how dirty James and Graham's shirts are, but it doesn't do it justice
Observations on the Road: August 16
I couldn’t be happier when the sun finally rose. We had spent most of the night sweating profusely and being swarmed by mosquitoes. It was too hot for a sheet so the mosquitoes had free range on our motionless bodies all night. We had to keep the window open otherwise the room would instantly heat up to an unbearable temperature, and in the middle of the night I even opened the door to the room so we could get a little more air flow. It was frustratingly cooler just outside the room.
We got out of bed and grabbed some breakfast at the restaurant next door and then packed our bikes in preparation for a long ride. The rides have been absolutely exhausting so far because you are constantly trying to avoid being killed or killing someone else. James’ clutch cable was also precariously holding itself together so we needed to find a place to snag a new cable before we were stranded on the side of the road.
About 5 minutes down the road we found a Honda motorcycle service center and figured they would have to have a clutch cable, however when we pulled in and asked them all we got was a few head wobbles and insisting that they did not have the cable. We were a little shocked that a service center wouldn’t have a clutch cable, but figured we should probably head on and ask somewhere else. Fortunately a man came up to us who spoke English very well, and after explaining our situation to him he interpreted. The service center employees were under the impression that our bikes must be extremely complicated and there was no way that a standard clutch cable would work. When we insisted that we at least try, they came back with a perfectly good clutch cable and Jolene was good to go in no time. In the meantime Michael adjusted his chain tension, and we drank tea with our new interpreter. He told us he was “royal’ blood and was a descendent of the Rajputs who were famous for their warriors in the 1600’s. We didn’t quite know how to respond, but he was very proud of his heritage so we put on our best impressed face.
With the bikes now ready to go we headed out onto the road headed east towards Gorakhpur. Once we were on the highway we finally found a less chaotic and beautiful road to ride along. The highway was not packed with traffic, and we gracefully glided around the trucks as we ripped along the freshly paved road. When we came into little towns the traffic would become more intense, but we managed to squeeze through them pretty quickly and we were making great time!
During this ride there wasn’t any specific event that happened, but because I wasn’t focusing on be squished every second I finally got a chance to admire my surroundings and take it all in. I’ll try and describe a few of the things that have become fairly normal while riding along the highway, but when I stop and think about it they are actually quite strange. There is hardly even one person on a motorcycle, and quite often it is an entire family of five somehow squished on to the tiny 125 cc bikes. There are water buffalo everywhere, and they seem to be more intelligent and quite a bit bigger than the cows. Speaking of dumb cows, they enjoy laying down in the middle of the road and do not care at all if you come within an inch of running straight into them. People carry heavy objects on top of their heads and are very good at balancing it. A small truck that I would think could carry maybe 5 people usually carries closer to 15. They pack 7-8 people in the truck with their limbs hanging out the windows and then 4 guys stand on the back bumper while another 4-5 sit on the roof of the truck. It’s actually quite impressive that the small trucks can even move with all the weight they pack onto them. You almost never lose sight of a tall brick chimney that they use to fire clay and make more bricks. The farther we head east the more rural it becomes and buildings not only have thatched roofs, but thatched walls as well. There is a minority Islamic population and the women are covered from head to toe in black robes with only a slit for their eyes. It is not uncommon to see a young child defecating beside the road. The geography is incredibly flat and along either side of the road it appears to be either farm land or jungle that continues on forever. If we stop for more than 2 minutes we are almost instantaneously swarmed by dozens of people.
I have now become acquainted with the notion that nothing here seems to have any understanding of the dangers of the road. Cows lie down in the middle of the highway, people casually stroll across the road without looking, cars drive down the wrong side of the highway fairly often, and dog and goats insist on running straight at you instead of off the road. Unfortunately there are often signs of this ignorance along the road. We have seen many large trucks flipped over in ditches as well as head on collisions. Dead dogs along the side of the road are fairly common, and James already hit a biker who decided that he didn’t need to check if anyone was coming down the crowded highway. It is incredibly frustrating sometimes to try deal with this ignorance as we have come very close to seriously injuring ourselves or others many times. This seems to just be common place on the roads in India so we have taken to driving only during the day and making sure we are on our toes at all times.
One of the big trucks shooting past
We had been riding the majority of the day, and by now it was around 3 pm. We hadn’t stopped for lunch yet and we were starving. Unfortunately we did not find a place to eat for another hour because there was hardly any infrastructure next to the highway, and when we made it into a congested town it was to hectic to look for a place to eat. We ended up at a little shack and had some delicious fried curry and tomatoes as well as a steaming hot chai. They pumped some water from a well, and put it into a little bucket that disturbingly looked very similar to the buckets to splash your butt with in the bathroom. We decided to spend the extra 40 cents and get bottled water. While we were eating our bikes created a traffic jam as everyone who went by had to stop and take a look at them. Everyone in the surrounding area also came over to check it out and there was a crowd of at least 30-40 people completely surrounding our bikes. We could barely see little glimpses of them through the crowd and I was glad that everything is pretty safely locked to it.
Good snacks and our butt splashing water bucket
We continued on feeling refreshed and made it another 100 km to Gopalganj. On the way we passed through Kushinagar which is the final resting place of Buddha. There was a big arch with a few statues of Buddha at the entrance to the town, but other than that it looked pretty similar to every other town we have been to in India. When we got to Gopalganj we were a little dismayed. It was a pretty slummy town with decaying brick buildings that were falling apart into the decaying trash that surrounded them. There were massive pigs rooting through the trash, and we did not see any signs of a hotel. We stopped at the nicest looking building and asked if we could sleep there. A nice old man, who was impeccably clean in his white kurta and blue payjamas, informed us that there was a hotel a little ways further into the town and then asked us if we wanted to come in for tea. I wanted to spend more time with this thoughtful looking man, but we were pretty exhausted and just wanted to find somewhere to sleep before the sun went down.
We found the hotel, but unfortunately it was right on the main street, and 30 seconds after pulling up we had created another traffic jam. People crammed into every space around the bikes and spilled onto the road while Michael and James figured out how much it would cost and inspected the room. I stayed with the bikes to watch over them, but seriously doubted I could do much if someone decided to take something. We decided this would be home, but would take everything off the bikes and put it in the room. As we pulled our stuff off to carry it up someone would materialize and run it up to the room for us. At first as was hesitant to give someone all my earthly belongings, but they were running right to the room and coming back for more. None of us carried a single thing to the room. Our 9 aluminum boxes, 6 soft bags, 3 duffels, 3 tank bags, and 3 helmets were all ferried up to the room for us.
When we had unloaded the bikes the shop owner next to the hotel showed us a safer place to park. We rode down the street a little ways to a school that was gated and even had a spot for them to be protected from the rain. This was turning out to be pretty nice and we were paying about 3 bucks each for the room. Me and James hopped on the back of our new friends 125 cc and tested out the local style of travel while Michael hopped on another guy’s bike to head back to the hotel.
When we got into the room a guy came up, switched on the swamp cooler, and turned the TV to an English channel. We were entranced. We hadn’t watched TV in over 3 months and we were paralyzed for the rest of the night. We thought about going down for dinner, but just then the guy who carried all our stuff up knocked on the door and asked if we wanted food in the room. This was the best hotel ever! We ordered up some delicious food that cost the outrageous price of 2 bucks each, and relaxed with a few X-Men movies and some paneer butter masala. Quite the luxurious end to a successful day.
Kids, elephants and flat tires! Oh my!! August 17
A knock on the door brought me out of my book and awoke Michael beside me. We had all crammed on to the bed in order to maximize the potential cooling power of our swamp cooler/humidifier turned fan and were sprawled out quite attractively. Graham opened the door to reveal our smiling hotel attendants with three cups of coffee. We gratefully accepted the coffees and sipped them as we woke. After a quick breakfast we were driven to the school, where our bikes had been safely stored, by the owner of a neighboring shop. As we got in the car the man asked if we would like to meet the students and we quickly and graciously accepted his offer.
Our friend who translated for us and took us to visit the school his daughter attended.
We arrived at the school and were introduced to a number of the faculty including the owner and founder. I suddenly felt extremely underdressed in my filthy and very smelly Sunski t-shit. We were then brought into the first of many classrooms where our enthusiastic "Hellos" and "Namaste's" were greeted with wide eyes and silence. We introduced ourselves, where we were from and what we were doing in their town. The teachers and faculty then arranged them in front of us for a picture. A few high fives and fist bumps brought a few more smiles and a bit more enthusiasm to the class. When pictures were done with that class we repeated the process for each classroom. It took a bit for the kids for warm up to us and at first they seemed a bit scared or nervous but we were soon getting high fives from everyone. We visited a classroom with some older students who eagerly shook our hands and introduced themselves. As we exited the school Michael was pulled back into one of the classrooms for another round of high fives but we eventually made our way out. We were then lead to the founder's office where we were given coffee. The founder was a practicing Orthopedic Surgeon out of Delhi and had opened the school in Gopalganj, his home town, to encourage learning. After a pleasant conversation we made our way back to the hotel with our bikes, packed up and headed out of town.
Posing for a picture at the school. We missed the memo on the dress code and probably smelled pretty bad but they loved us nonetheless
It was drizzling lightly as we left which felt amazing as it was still very hot. The roads were good for the most part although where they weren't good they tended towards the terrible side of the spectrum with very large, unavoidable potholes. We were approaching a very large river and an intimidating, pothole filled bridge, when I heard Graham give an excited yell, "Elephant." There, walking along us on the shoulder of the road was a farmer casually riding his elephant. Seeing an elephant being used as a pack animal was a first for all of us and quickly snapped me back to the reality that I was in a very different and exotic location. As we continued on we passed beautiful rice fields and marshlands with people hard at work. People collected some reed like plants in waste deep water, bundled them up then twisted any excess water out of them. Water buffalo, cows and goats wandered the sides of the roads alongside groups of kids and parents alike.
People working in the background as we sunscreen up
Michael who had begun to feel very unwell that morning and had developed a bad case of diarrhea was having a hard time keeping things inside. Every 50 miles or so we would pull off on the side of the road where as few people as possible could be seen and he who disappear down the side of the road to fertilize or more likely water a patch of grass. At one stop a motorcycle driving by decided to stop and say hi. Two well dressed young men got off their bikes and came over to take selfies with Graham and me who were next to the bikes. Michael had not made it far off the road on this occasion and was clearly visible squatting in the grass. The men seemed unfazed and returned a wave as Michael gave them the peace sign. We took some quick pictures and they were off again, riding down the wrong side of the road they way they had come.
Michael stopping for a potty break
We stopped to fill up on gas and grabbed a delicious but surprisingly orange plate of fried rice. We remounted and prepared to ride off hoping to get to Purnia where we were planning to stay for the night a bit early so Michael could rest up and get well. Unfortunately that wasn't in the books and we soon found Michael had a flat tire. We turned around and pulled into a small patch of shade at the gas station and prepared for a battle with the tire. Fortunately, Michael had they brilliant idea to just take the tire off and take it to a tire shop that we were pointed to by some of the gas station attendants. Graham ran the tire over to the shop and in less than half the time we would have changed the tire, a small 10 year old kid changed the tire. Graham returned victorious and we plopped the tire back on and finally hit the road.
Putting the tire back on
We continued on enjoying the scenery and the evening riding until it started to rain. The stinging rain and accompanying clouds brought darkness even more quickly and it was soon apparent we would not be making it to Purnia where we were hoping to stay for the night. Visibility quickly turned to nothing as our windshields dotted with rain began reflecting the high beams of the oncoming traffic. While there was a median it didn't seem to be a big deal to ride on the wrong side of the road so any lights coming towards us posed a serious danger of a head on collision. Some cars and tractors were not even using their lights or only had parking lights as well. To add to the sketchiness of the ride there were dark clothed bicyclists and pedestrians, goats, cows and dogs littering the road and unpredictably crossing. Our eyes strained to pick out any motion that may prove to be a danger and we were all on edge. We finally spotted a hotel and let out a whoop of joy. Unfortunately, the hotel was on the other side of the road and required quite a bit of sketchy driving operations to reach it. This included a U-turn on the highway where Graham t-boned Michael and went down while trying to make the turn. Everyone was fine except for Graham's injured pride. We arrived at the hotel and were greeted by an unfriendly snobbish receptionist. When we finally got the bikes safely parked and got up to the room we were all exhausted. Michael quickly hoped in bed hoping to make a quick recovery while Graham and I went to the restaurant for a tasty dinner. The rest of the night went quickly with Graham and me trying to get a few blogs things accomplished before passing out.
Cruising next to rice patties
Rising through the Clouds: August 18th
There was a sharp knockon the door. Graham opened it and one of the hotel staff had 3 chais ready for us. It wasn't a bad way to wake up. Especially since I'd slept from 7 pm the night before. My stomach had settled a bit and I felt ready to try and eat/drink something. We went to the restaurant in the hotel and had breakfast. Around 8:30 we were ready to checkout. The manager tried to charge us an extra 300 rupees ($5) for having an extra person in a 2 person room. James had slept on the floor and the only extra amenity we received was an extra towel. I complained heavily about the extra charge but he only dropped it from 300 to 200 rupees. Other than the receptionist, everyone at the the hotel was extremely friendly, hospitable and of course curious. All our riding gear was still wet from the night before but the sun was shining, the day was beautiful and we were excited to be on the final stretch towards Darjeeling. We rode a hundred or so uneventful miles when we stopped for a quick lunch. We knew from our map that we were about to start a 6,000 foot ascent into the Himalayan foothills and the roads would be steep, winding and most likely soaking wet. As we ate lunch, the rain started. Again, it was "big ol' fat rain" and didn't relent for the 45 minutes we sat under a tin roof drinking tea.
It's hard to capture how hard it rains, but atleast a few drops can be seen
We finally gave up on waiting for the rain to die down and decided to go for it. Before we even got on our bikes and had them started, my rain jacket, motorcycle pants and boots were soaked through. We had 36 miles until we got to Darjeeling and despite the rain, we were ecstatic to ride the legendary road leading to the old British Hill Station. We reached a toll station, paid the fee of 5 rupees (8 cents) each, and started climbing. The road, by all standards, was a single lane, however cars and trucks came zooming through the fog nearly causing us to ride off the road. The switchbacks seemed extra dangerous because every right hand switchback seemed to have a jeep barreling down on us. After ~10 miles and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, the fog really moved in. The rain was still pelting and we could hardly see each other despite our bright tail lights. A few geniuses coming down the road failed to turn on their head lights, causing us extra fear and paranoia as we couldn't see them until they were 20 or 30 feet in front of us. Often resulting in us slamming on the brakes and working to avoid being hit.
A screenshot of our map, showing a portion of the switchbacks
Despite the weather and the wonderful Indian drivers, the road was fantastic. The fact that the pavement was as pristine as it was (fewer potholes than any other road in India thus far) was incredible.
We made it to Darjeeling and it was still raining and we were still in a crowd. We found ourselves on Gandhi Road and looking at a strip of hotels. We each went into one and checked prices/quality of the hotels. James entered Snow Lion hotel and it was the winner. A bit expensive at 1,500 Rupee ($23) per night but it was a marvelous room and it was the driest hotel we'd been in thus far. We unloaded some of our gear, dried ourselves off with the towels, put on dry clothes, grabbed our umbrellas and started exploring the town. We got dinner, had our first beers since Rishikesh, bought some candy, and wished desperately that the clouds would disappear.
Darjeeling is known for providing some of the best views of Mount Everest, Lhotse (3rd tallest mountain in the world) and many others. However, because we're here during monsoon season (average rainfall of 25" in the month of August compared to Seattle's average 5.4" of rain in January) means it is cloudy, misty and the views of the mountains are most likely impossible. We are upset by the fact that we haven't and most likely will not be able to see the Himalaya's, but the fact that our stuff is drying and we're dry, is a consolation.
We went back to the room and enjoyed the Wifi by having a 5 way Skype session with Rebecca and Kelly. As per usual, Graham was the unfortunate 5th wheel, but he felt alright because he received compliments on his mustache. We said goodnight to the girlfriends and fell asleep. Enjoying the most comfortable room we've been in since India.
Damp days in Darjeeling: August 19th
My alarm went off at 4 am, and I woke up surprisingly quickly. I was really excited about the chance to see the 3rd tallest mountain in the world for sunrise and I had slept incredibly well in our hotel room. Unfortunately when I looked out the window it was pouring rain and we were completely enveloped by a cloud. James also felt ill still, and getting up for a sunrise view seemed fruitless. I laid back down and we slept for another few hours.
When we woke up for good, we looked up a few places to eat and then decided on Keventers. We ordered up a big plate of eggs, bacon, sausage, and toast with an ice coffee milkshake to wash it down. There were several things we wanted to get done in Darjeeeling, so we set about the town to explore. We found a good place to get cash for Myanmar, a post office to ship some stuff home, a motorcycle shop with some things we needed, a place to take passport photos, and some delicious Darjeeling Tea when the rain started coming down so hard that the streets flooded with water and we were forced into a café.
If the clouds weren't there you could see Everest where they are pointing
While we were in the café I realized I had to walk back to get my passport, and as I walked back through the flooding streets I became a little overwhelmed with everything. I was in a bit of a slump, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. I gave Sarah a call and after we talked for awhile I felt a bit better, and ventured back into town to try and find Michael and James. I did some errands along the way, and as I checked things off my list I began to feel better. I realized I just needed some time alone to do some things independently of everyone else. Deciding on what to do between the three of us was wearing me down a bit. Just doing something instantly when it came to my mind without negotiation was liberating, and after an hour or so of roaming the town I found Michael and James back at the hotel feeling that I had overcome my foul mood.
We walked back out to do some shopping and ended up getting some pretty awesome Nepalese and Tibetan clothes. Michael had a Skype date so he went back to the hotel, and James and I picked up some knock off Arcteryx pants for about 15 bucks each. I am pretty convinced they might actually be legit Arcteryx because the quality of the fabric is superb and they might be the comfiest pants I have ever owned. We grabbed a delicious dinner of tomato soup, garlic bread, and veggy pizza before heading off to Joey’s Pub.
While I was off finding myself this guy demanded payment for happening to glance at his cobra
We had planned to meet Michael at one of the only places to grab a beer in Darjeeling, where other travelers are known to converge. We got lost for awhile before finding Michael just outside the entrance looking for us. We ordered some beers and met a British guy and his dad who had just got to India a few days before. Luke, the British guy, had been travelling for around a year and had plans to keep doing so until a bicycle trip from Alaska to Argentina in 2017. We talked for awhile about travelling and swapped stories. Their experience in Kalcutta sounded quite hellacious. They saw a women hit by a car lying dead on the side of the road, a severe epileptic attack, and some pretty dodgy areas. I am not to upset we won’t be going there.
Eventually the conversation turned to politics, and the discussion of guns was brought up. Throughout the trip people have been constantly aware of the shootings that happen in the US, and are very curious to know what we think about it. They are shocked at how many shootings there are, and how lax the gun laws are in the US. They said that hardly anyone in the UK has guns, and not even their police are armed. You can get a license for hunting, but it is a pretty difficult process. It is unfortunate that globally the US has an image of harboring gun loving physchos, so we tried to paint a better picture of the various view points across the US on gun rights. We eventually finished up our beers, and headed back to the hotel to pass out in our luxurious little room.