eliot & drew bike through india for 3 months, trying to inconspicuously do some good in the world.


Friday, May 28, 2010

Glad to be home - Missing India

Man, it sure is good to be back in my home country. Stuff smells, tastes, looks, sound, etc as I remember it, as it if it were some long ago dream of a place I used to live. It feels odd to be on the right side of the road, for example; it does feel like stepping into a daydream memory, as my thoughts of the US have become such since being in India for 3 months.

All that being said, I miss India - India possesses a sort of reckless freedom and general sense of community with strangers that is just different back here. Although here in the US, people tend to be pretty friendly with one another regardless, it's a different sort of rule in India. You might shuffle and shove the people you cue up with, step on toes and seem generally unaware and unconcerned with the goings on of the hundreds of people you interact with daily, but underneath it all there is a sense of connectedness that has the strangers around you looking out for your best interests.

Of course, this is coming from a US-born gringo, which, when I communicated my statehood, often solicited a big smile from most Indians I met. So I certainly have a bias I cannot shake or report from otherwise, it's just through my lens. And in no way do I feel a curt or unwelcoming feeling in my home country. It's not like that. As with most things, it's just a little different.

The little differences are what make the most impact for me. So many things on the surface I could tell you about India you would likely already know, like the population density, the tech boom, the state of the country's services, Bollywood, the mess and sprawl and other news headline-borne bits (though to really understand these things you must experience them, as they take no prisoners). But if I could come away with anything significant from this journey to tell you, I would, as usual, start with the people.

A young man approached me in the Mumbai airport with a government survey card and a smile as I waited for my flight back to the US. He asked if he could have a few minutes to ask me some questions about my trip through India from a foreigner's point of view; I said sure. He then went through a very calculated and methodical "choose from least to greatest" SAT-style dissection of my opinion of my time in India. At the end of the interview, he asked me if I had any comments, complaints or general statements to add at the end.

It was a space on the page with a couple lines; I was stumped as to how to sum up anything significant for this guy and the Incredible India campaign that might help them with only two lines. Anything you say will help, he said, urging me not to leave it blank. So I wrote what I had said to many other Indians who only had a minute to chat with me: nicest people in the world.

Broad statement perhaps? True, but if I only had a few words to sum it up, I have no bones about it. Best people, across the board; most gentle, generous, open, curious, kind and engaging people in the world. Not at all saying that other countries do not have ample supplies of great human beings; they most certainly do. But India works on a different sort of scale. It's just different.

So he smiled as I scribbled it down, maybe thinking I was placating him with pleasantries, but I smiled and said, "Look man, I could write a book about my time here, with good things and bad and so many bits somewhere in the middle. But if I gotta surrender just one line to you, that is it. Nicest people in the world." He smiled and shook my hand, thanked me in the way so many Indians had done for just a few minutes of conversation, and walked away to hunt down another foreign-looking person for more data. The people in India, whether they know it or not, possess a sort of warmth that is all their own.

I met rude, pushy, inconsiderate, bossy, obnoxious and brittle Indians along the way; one can scarcely expect not to meet folks of all sorts when being anywhere where people are found, especially in the numbers which exist in India. But even those characters, prickly as they may have been, more often than not would turn a smile by the time I was through knowing them, be it 3 minutes passed or 13 hours on the floor of a cattle car train rolling across a grassy range.

Being in company with Indians seemed like being part of a larger organism, where all the cells are working on their own agendas as cells do, but still all are connected in an unconscious manner. It's a funny feeling, and I miss it. Drew and I postulated that it comes from living in a society with so many people living so close to each other that it simply becomes practical to be part of the system. Almost as if the important role of family in the Indian life boils down underneath the entire society, binding them together as a sort of larger human family.

I could be rambling now, but you get the gist. It was pretty taxing at times to just exist on a daily basis in India, sometimes to the point where I wanted to pull out my hair. But just when the mercury was rising in my head to the breaking point, I would get a little blast of reminder that India flexes and curves with hardship and strife, and people, although it may not look like it in traffic, work together.

Drew and I often said to each other that Indians were "making it work." No, we don't watch a lot of Project Runway. What we meant by this was, although things would often seem hectic and chaotic and running off the rails, people there just know how to make it work, in their own way. One point three billion people had sure as hell better know how to make it work! They do, and I believe it comes back to the same sense of unconscious community awareness, where everyone is looked after if they return the favor, and help to make it work. Again, this is coming from a foreigner's perspective, but it felt that way nonetheless.

That's what I miss; that, and the roiling cities, soaring Himalayan foothills, flat red dirt desert sunsets, crystal turquoise waters, tropical byways, foggy mountains, steady rolling trains, flat blacktop curving through gentle foothills and masala dosas and constant cups of chai. But above all, the smiling people add the cream atop the cake, welcoming you in without reservation.

I do wish to return; would love to spend more time on a motorcycle over there, and visit all those places that time didn't permit. India is a complex, beautiful, devastating and challenging place to travel, but like so many things in life, it's what you make of it. As an American, it gives me perspective about humanity that is hard to describe. I feel extremely fortunate in so many ways and love where I come from, but I also have a yearning to again become engulfed in the kindness and intensity that India pours out for its visitors. Like I said, it's just different. And different is the whole point, right? Right.

Thanks very much to everyone that supported us in any way during our journey. It means a lot to have the help and wisdom of so many behind us. Let us know when we can return the favor.

Until next time,


Monday, May 10, 2010

back in the US, back in the US-S-S-A!

so i've been back in the united states of awesome air-conditioning for 6 days. what can i say? it's good to be home.

hindsight narrows the feeling of the time i spent in india. days spent wondering when and if i'd ever get back to my friends, my wonderful girlfriend and my family seem like they flew by.  all the trails and frustrations are funny now.  all the sights are just snapshots in my head. the hard work is just a memory, the only evidence of which is that i'm much skinnier and my legs much more muscular than when i left.

there are before and after photos coming soon, but for now the basics - my hair is about four inches longer, my calves about twice as vascular and i lost 22 pounds - down to 162 from 184.  that last bit is a little disconcerting on my 6'2" frame. a steady diet of burritos and pizza will see the weight come back.  hopefully an improved metabolism and a new found love of going REALLY REALLY far on my bicycle will turn it into good weight. but i digress.

what do i remember from india? the heat, the crowds, the lack of personal space, how absolutely sick of dosas i was by the end. do i miss anything though? this is the hard answer, and it's "no." i think it's hard to miss the cattle-car trains, the same chana masala everyday and the constant (often physical) prodding by the locals.  i have a longing to jump into another long distance tour and try to make it all again but it's a love of struggle, of fighting and physical exertion. next time i won't get off my bike, that's the lesson.

india is a challenging place. that's the word that kept coming up over the trip.  i now believe the maxim: there is an unspoken agreement in the fraternity of world travelers: you aren't one until you've been to india. i can't imagine a country that's harder to endure over several months. it's just not easy to travel there when you're on the streets, in the small towns interacting with regular indians on their own terms. am i being harsh? certainly. but india snapped a tendon in my leg, gave me what is probably a tapeworm, challenged every sense of personal value, cultural understanding and ounce of patience i had. so we're even.

now, what will i take with me from all this? first and foremost, the unbelievable generosity of indians. seriously: without the help and guidance of about a hundred different people scattered all over the country, we would have been sunk. we were poorly prepared, untrained and totally fumbling - and yet time and again, total strangers would step up to keep us fed, watered, bedded, and safe. i will never forget the generosity of the anjali inn, kunal, shilpa, the truck drivers in aurangabad, and a dozen others who kept us going when the heat, the touts, and the pollution seemed ready to crush us utterly. my thanks and my sincere gratitude goes out to all of you.

second: an appreciation for history. i don't think i've ever been surrounded by anything as old as Ajanta in my life. this overwhelming feeling that i can only describe as religious pervades places that ancient and i'll never forget being in awe of the sheer age of some of the places we visited. paired with this is an intense desire to preserve these places.  stopping an indian from urinating on the carvings at ajanta (not one but THREE TIMES) really makes me want to set up a fund or something. oh wait - UNESCO beat me to it. maybe i'll take up vigilante world heritage site enforcement? like Smokey the Bear-cum-Punisher?

third: patriotism. i'm not saying i come from the best nation on earth, but texas is my home. every time i step outside the borders of my nation, i am pleased and overcome with how different the world is. it's grand. it's great. we need it. but it ain't home. i'm american / texan and i love it - my country isn't perfect, but that's not what i'm talking about.  the smells, the sights, the tastes ... and above all the love of freedom. the respect for other people's freedoms. it's marvelous. sure, we sacrifice a sense of community and a strong family bond that indians have got IN DROVES (and i'm jealous, i'll admit), but i'm beholden to no man or woman when it comes to religion, job choice, marriage choice, political affiliation, vocation ... just amazing. you don't realize how prevalent LIBERTY is until you leave it bosom. it's good to be home, baby. i missed you.

there's more coming - some long articles covering overviews of different parts of the trip. for now, i'm home and i couldn't be happier. india was a wonderful challenge and i'm so very glad i did it. take it as a lesson, if you'll indulge me - go fight yourself. put yourself out there in the world, make yourself do something you don't believe you can do, believe something contrary to what you believe even if it's just for a day, dig deep and figure out who you are.

you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Goodbye, Mumbai

The last four days have been a blur - 48 hours on a train culminating in a 1am ride through the streets of Mumbai stopping at trashcan fires to ask for a lodge, the dim plea of please-don't-rob-me set under my desperate melody. Found the Anjali inn - remarkably my aimless wanderings had placed me 1.5km from thier door, another remarkable unpredictably-predictable India moment. Crashed here for three nights, spending my days resting, occasionally braving the heat to explore Juhu beach, Bandra market and Powai lake. Mostly I sipped bagpiper-and-sprites and watch gilmore girls. I'm not proud of it, but it's the truth.

In six scant hours I'll travel to the airport, argue about my bags being shipped, probably experience several small dramas of life and death and rest unrestfully in the terminal until the joy ... the total joy and pleasure of Emirates begins. Lotions and cologne in the bathroom, in flight tv and movies, stewardesses with smiles and gin & tonics, comfort, ease, rest and - 23 hours later - home.

Home. Home!

Goodbye street cows! I'll actually miss you! ... In the hypothetical sense.