[From September 2007.]
There’s something out of place, something like an out of tune instrument in the orchestra where I can’t discern which one. And I’m staggered, blinking through the spell of half day heat, parting hand clasp with the border guard in a crisply tailored uniform who grins in puzzlement or encouragement at the bicycle and the trailer, not knowing what to do so I’m pushing it through the gates and then across meters of a buffer between nations separated back then by violence but also hope and the realization is almost a cool breeze: silence.
There is a serenity here, no trucks or buses, autorickshaws or scooters, the haze is sunheat through still air not diesel smoke mayhem that makes ordinary chaos seem soldierly, no dust or maddening horns. The border, I suppose vehicles don’t or can’t pass through, only porters hauling posture shattering boxes of this or that, the ones on the Pakistan side all in cool mud brown shalwar kameez, the ones on the India side in improbable Caribbean sea blue, patter and hiss of sandals as they reach the line, gently handing off the parcel to their counterpart, nods, humble quiet, turning to make the way back up the line, finally showing the soak stain between shoulder blades, and I’m wheeling the bicycle out of rank but no one minds.
I have arrived in India, a month of far away behind me already, Pakistan lovely memories, through the last checkpoint, affable fellow checking my customs slip, they didn’t even open my bags, he laughed as he asked if I had narcotics– “what is your country?” “America,” “Ah, America!” — in odd clicking shoes, and they are awed, skeptical? when I sheepishly honestly tell them when they ask gathered around how much in rupees the bicycle might cost. Impossible to be alone, in one sense of alone, anyway, a crowd now, “where are you going?” “where is your family?” “what is your name?”, the kids are most enthusiastic in their uncomprehending understanding that I’m just on a journey of some sort, “Shimla,” I’m thinking about the distance as are they, “In the USA,” “Joe” a little unweildy in their mouths just as theirs are in mine, I mount up and pedal slowly, waving, the running younger ones eventually dropping back as I catch up to the traffic of donkey carts hauling hay or tin mystery, bicycles with passengers sometimes two, sitting side saddle on cargo racks, sometimes speeding up to match me for a laugh or a few phrases, “how are you? are you fine?” Onward in the nonvindictive but still merciless heat to Amritsar, two hours away.
I get closer to the city and traffic gets more dense. No, no, that’s the wrong image. Instead think judgment day meets LA freeway on two mud and dung caked potholed broken lanes, a swirling catastrophe of making disaster mundane and heart leaping holy fuck did that bus just brush me at 40 miles an hour head on as the driver waved a friendly hello and leaned on the horn? And my only strategem is matching speed with the scooters as we take our place far left, a serpentine sometimes self organizing wave parting through or around stationary food stalls, pedestrians, the occasional car or moto coming the wrong way on the shoulder, because, well, I don’t know that just happens. A stylishly dressed woman with what I presume is her mother on a scooter shoots past, slows down and she’s acting as if she’s been expecting me, “what is your country” and I must look like a deer, eyes rolling to the back of my head as metal mosh pits pulse around me, but she’s as if this is all natural, “come to my house for tea.” Alas, I am trying to get to the Golden Temple for sunset, so I decline.
Not having reached a transcendent state of desirelessness, I indulge myself in three wishes per day. Day one: relief from poverty in India; you were here, you who know I’m wishing it; pizza.
I am lost but the flow of humanity guides me to where I want to go, gestures to the underground bicycle parking area, must be a thousand in this garage. The glorious temple, holy pilgrimage site for Sikhs, wondrous resplendent gold. I wash my feet as I enter, the affable greeters at the entrance stop me, converse among themselves gravely, finally judge that I qualify as having my head respectfully covered if I wear my North Atlantic Velo cycling cap backwards. And so I enter. I spend the night in the pilgrim’s free dormitory, I eat dahl and bread from the temple kitchen that charges nothing and serves from cauldrons 24 hours a day to all who need sustenance.
I’ve only been hit twice so far, once that first day by an older Sikh looking straight at me, his fascination a prelude to my cashing in all my luck chits to stay upright. The second time comes early the next day when I am riding in an otherworldly peloton with six or seven other riders, all waiting their turn to ride alongside me to chat for awhile, I’m the only one pedaling, of course, what with all of them on scooters and all. So I’m pushed against the barriers in the enthusiastic gesticulating of my riding companion, wobble with the trailer swinging me about as if a giant holds the ruder and I’m the dingy. I’ll finally lose it when another scooter passenger — the driver concentrating on, I dunno, not getting killed? — when the passenger who I have been chatting with for fifteen minutes tries to hand me a sheet of paper and pen, “write down your address please?” traffic five abreast downhill at 50kph headlights flick ahead, that truck is passing a car that is passing a cart that is avoiding walkers, my sweat slick on the bars, now I’m yelling, “are you nuts WE ARE GOING TO DIE” met with quizzical nonchalance, pause, consideration, “no problem, no problem, Mr. Joe, you tell me and I’ll write it down!” And I’m back from the horrified flare, grinning, can’t sustain anger, people waiting in line to be friendly, if these are my last moments, no point in being impolite during them.
I observe in others and then personally manifest heretofore uncontemplated peaks of filth, clothing so saturated with my sweat and road grime that it just seems part of the essential bonding forces in the threads. This makes for curious cycling, too, as my hands are too sweaty to twist the shifters, so after each break where I dry my hands sufficiently through evaporation, I speculate as to which gear I might like for the next few hours. The singlespeeder in me is irrationally smug at this circumstance. There is no shortage of chai stands and dhabas — a kind if roadside restaurant — along the way, and likewise no shortage of invitations to stop to chat from my riding companions, I end up declining more often than I would like but I am committed to covering at least some ground each day. That border crossing was also a crossing into a certain loneliness, perhaps, one that is always in company but where all conversations are introductions, relentless locating of oneself in another’s imaginative repertoire, goodbye I won’t see you again, this contact almost a metaphor for movement, for pedaling itself or maybe the other way round. Reading Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (thanks RS), yet another world keeping me alert to ever present contrasts.
Meals of dhal, naan or chipatis, tomatoes and onions with salt, my new favorite Coke has taken over the world product, Limca, a kind of lemony lime 7UP, though I still prefer when they just squeeze the juice of a lime into the bottom of a glass then fill it with club soda, why don’t I do this at home? I will. Between stops I nibble from my cache of crackers, like Ritz but more crumbly and stale, I had Cliff bars but ditched them, or rather ate them in the middle of the night in the restless quest for a lighter load. Been told that the bridge ahead is out, but that there is a crude footbridge that I can carry my bicycle across. Arriving, things are not as advertised, and it would require some considerable acrobatics on my part to drag my things the many hundreds of meters of precariousness. Seeing my plight, a man with a tractor and an empty cargo bed offers to load me up, and we make the jolting crossing, I am tossed about and covered in dirt like a bit of meat turned in breading in a bowl, but some perceptual threshold of grittiness has long since been exceeded and I don’t think myself any dirtier. A group of highway workers on the other side unload my trailer and bike and we sit in the shade for a bit before I head on, soon to collect more riders. I stick to roads off the main highway, guided by wisdom colliding with well meaning confusion of locals — “the road you seek is about 10 kilometers from here, but I have had many beers today, I run a business in Sacramento!” — onto farm tracks and into a 120k day, the trailer like a black hole’s event horizon or just purgatory behind me. I reach the outskirts of Pathankot (“Ba-TAN kot”), India has just beaten Pakistan in the world finals for the short game of cricket, and people are going into celebratory gyrations, fireworks, streets mobbed, some guys drag me into an appliance store where an impromptu party is happening, I drink a beer and am a little spinny from a long day, find a guest house, eat, fall asleep to drums and trombones outside the window.
Wishes: clean clothes; miraculous overnight complete disabling of all horns in India (but could they drive? Would everyone just walk? Would they then honk at each other walking?); that I was doping.
“I think you will have much intercourse in Dharamsala.” “Huh?” “You will have much intercourse, Mr. Joe.” Spurred by the deadpan, I gently wrestle the possibility that he means that I will have many conversations and philosophical chats. “Um, okay, thanks, then.” And he accelerates away, as if that was a perfectly ordinary way to end our mid-ride exchange. Another day, the expected extraordinary kaleidescope, but also the dreamy coherence in not making any sense when the brand new modern living room set is being transported across town by a mule and there’s a boy sitting on the couch on the cart and a satellite dish store is next to the place where unidentified large pieces of something are being sparks flying screaming metal welded with some shitpile of trash on the other side, and everyone on mobile phones, learning to smile a little more naturally at the inevitable photo that they’re taking of me, then the rolling countryside, tea growing country just passed into Himachal Pradesh from Punjab, more roadside temples here, Ganesh usually, behind bars and a burning lamp. Stop at a dhaba and a bus rolls in right after me so I am the not completely willing life of the party, just wanting to rest a bit, open and ready speculation about whether the trailer provides solar power, whether the rear shock is a small engine, whether the water bottle carries the petrol, whether I am sane. The bus leaves but the families running the stand are eager to talk, two teen daughters and two younger sons, the boys riding my bike up and down the road fiddling with helmet and “shockers” while the daughters, one shy, tersely on the brink of curiosity, the other in track pants and a soccer shirt a litany of wonderings about the USA, photos and laughter and address exchanges, recopied for legibility three times, persnickety, she, ending with, I gather the younger one’s in Hindi assurance to her parents that she’s moving to America to marry me, widespread approval. Charming, don’t think that’s going to work out, but she has my number.
Haven’t eaten enough, bonking, misjudged distance, and now it’s dark and the road is a calamity of trucks buses cars carts cows scooters everywhere, headlamp a small offering to the gods, I stay on asphalt when I can, I dive to the dirt shoulder expecting it to be there when I need it, cross-eyed maybe the sweat is actually fear, I’m humming out of body, one hour, two in vortex of inky night and headlights cracking the sky and horns the requisite thunder. Right in front of me there’s a squeal of tires and a dog is yelping, rolling, tumbling and I’m too nowhere to think about it until later when I tremble and am sad for it. Night at a roadside stop, not a model of luxury, wonderful fellowship of chai stand guys though, almost full moon struggling free of ridges in the distance, the earliest foothills of the Himalayas that I’ll begin to climb tomorrow, wishing now for a reliable enough memory to recall the undoubtedly profound philosophical progress I’ve made on embodied cognition today, for a curtain to separate the shower from the rest of the bathroom, could this really be a great puzzle in this part of the world, like non-mixing taps in the UK, “no, really, it’s easy, you can have a curtain between these and everything won’t get wet, and check this out, when the taps mix you can regulate the hot water, but that’s only for you Brits because you have some.”
Bike touring rhythms are simple, eat, load up, pedal, talk, eat, this, the least appropriate bike for the job, full suspension cross country racing machine, but I’m headed to another race, after all, and any bike can well go any where, so quit wondering what bike you should take or what your setup should be, we’re not talking BMX or freeride here, of course, let’s stick to this side absurdity. The goal for today, climb the 5000 feet in twelve miles up to Mcleod Ganj, past Dharamsala but just, the home in exile of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and, it turns out, the home of countless hippie dressing vagabonds who I might judge more harshly if I could cast stones. I select middle chainring big cog, not knowing how much I’ll suffer, must look into repudiating desire I suppose, and it’s this grind up into the clouds, mesmerific switchbacks, cheers from hands and faces hanging out of buses, going not so fast that children can’t walk along side saying louder and louder “how are you!” (yes, I mean that punctuation), even after I tell them. And I arrive, not as exhausted as I thought I would be, another truth about bicycle touring and adaptation, I drip my way into a noodle shop and have the most exquisite spicy bowl of momos in cramped, happy quarters, served by a Tibetan, I wonder what pain she or her mother had to endure to cross the mountains to the north in order to get here, this place, touristy and clean (or has my sense of these things evaporated in the heat?), I’ll splurge at a $14 per night place here and tomorrow will visit the archive of Tibetan works, the temple, the museum. There are rumors of pizza.