Journal entry from India

[From September 2007.]

You’re going to be distracted and want me to pause and say something of how Hilary Duff got to be on my iPhone at all, but that’s not the story I’m trying to tell, nor is the genealogy, involving as it does Youtube and a television show I’ve never seen, particularly engaging beyond what I’ve just said. At any rate, Hilary Duff is received with some considerable enthusiasm, as is Cake, bobbing their heads to the rhythm and sort of nodding as if they could discern some affinity, however distant, with the punjabi tunes they had just shared over the static crackle treble of their mobiles. Seeing no resemblance myself, I chalk it up to the local minima of innate or at least cross contextually stable agreeableness found by the gradient descent algorithm of the pop music machine.

The ride back down to the plains from Dharamsala was fast and winding, a drop into insistent arid heat, losing four thousand feet in twenty miles, I’ve adapted to the trailer’s temperamental disposition, and we get along as long as I do not make any sudden moves, kind of like a kitty, except in this case turning or braking at high speed are the poorly received things. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, as it forces me to cultivate a certain riding style with abandon as I blow past scooters on smooth accelerating lest the trailer get angry arcs around corners. Silly pride when a bripping buzzing moto pilot tells me he couldn’t keep up on a broken dirt incline, a mix of awe and scolding in his voice. One night spent in a state run hotel curled under the roaring ceiling fan, on more for the turbulence it creates for the mosquitos than for the cool, indeed cold of the middle of the night, an hour of television surfing for the change.

The roads marked on my map are adequate for getting me where I am going, though there is the inevitable and mildly unnerving bit about having it seem like the end is nigh, crushed by a bus or cows with an admirable but dangerous sense of entitlement. So whenever I acquire riding companions who know the area, I inquire concerning alternative routes on quieter tracks. Which is how I ended up riding in twilight three hours from where I expected to be, directed by enthusiastic but suspiciously completely skeptically offered advice, did I say twilight?, fairly dark right now, I’m contrasting, without drama, no, really, digging out the headlamp and pressing on with the alternative of flagging down a painted Tata truck to load me up. Lovely evening, my shirt stiff salt encrusted beyond the usual conceptions of intolerably dirty, a cornfield on a terrace below me, corn drying on the rooftops, three or four guys walking toward me waving, so I wait, it’s not like however late they are going to make me will make a difference.

They are insistent that I stay the night in their village, I’m not going to make it to Darlaghat, I’m a little confused about whether I should counter insist that they ask their moms, but they seem in their early 20’s so maybe they don’t have to. They carry my trailer down a series of rough dirt steps and cheer when I ride them, into a collection of yellow and lavender trim painted concrete buildings sprinkled in the fields which seem unusually intimate hemmed in by the edges of the terrace that the village occupies. First we sit for chai in what I gather is Santosh’s room, very sparsely appointed, posters of Hindu gods that are as colorful and stylized as Hollywood promotions for the X-Men, instinctively think they are put up ironically but I know they’re not.

Much later the boys will interrupt and correct one another through the story of Ganesh, the elephant headed god, and their affect will completely fail to reveal what they take to be the factual status of the tale. My parents would talk about Catholic saints with an unmistakable reverence that this quartet lacks, but there is no hint that this is a quaint fairytale about them, either. Nor is there any interrogation or even curiosity about my religious beliefs. Religiousity is undoubtedly ubiquitous here, roadside temples, pilgrims, abounding images, gestures of respect for the divine, but unlike Pakistan, where, for instance, that fellow ran across a six lane whitewater of traffic in order to ask me if I am Christian because he is, almost lied to validate his efforts, there has been exactly no interest in my faith. Or the first time I visited Morocco and where the road was washed out, covered by a menacing torrent from recent storms and trucks and cars were backed up for half a k, so we were all out in a jolly social occasion waiting for the water to go down, it turns out, we would find out in a few hours, too few, alas our impatience, that Toyoto Camrys float a little bit, that tidbit earned at a high premium of terror, but under a full moon now, mint tea from a mysterious source, and the dense circle of men: “Who is your prophet?” “Um, I don’t have one.” Complete disbelief all round. Pause. “It is okay, you can tell us.” I shrug. “We know it’s Jesus. No problem, it’s okay.” “Nope, not Jesus.” “Look, we know your prophet is Jesus, it’s okay, you are still great friend Mr. Yousef.” “No, my prophet is not Jesus, I don’t have one.” Best not to use the word “need” here, I sense. Silence, more puzzlement. “Oh! Yes, Moses!” I laugh out loud, maybe not the right thing, but, well. “Nope.” Budding excitement. “Mohammed! Is it Mohammed?” “Not Mohammed, either.” They politely change the subject, the certainty that I am lying in their eyes. With another group at another time I’ll offer Buddha to see what happens, and this garners grudgingly respectful acceptance, as if I’d gotten off on a technicality that had to be allowed.

But Pankoj and Santosh, the two who can speak English, don’t ask me anything and the others move on. Tomorrow Santosh will give me a plastic gold painted bracelet with Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu on it for luck on my journey, and I’ll be grateful. By this time word of my visit has gotten out and people from around the village come to greet or at least look at me. Babies carried in arms, whole families come around together, have their questions translated, that I am American is not taken especially strongly in either valence, that I am headed to Shimla by bike significant kudos. The boys are on break from college in Chandhigar where they are studying accounting and management, they ride scooters down there each week and come home on weekends. Pankoj’s mother makes dinner, absolutely show stoppingly delicious, rice, three kinds of dahl and something with cauliflower, her son translating her pleading apologies that everyone in the village is vegetarian and they have no meat. I hope that my elation seems genuine, it is. For the first half I eat in silence with P, then I ask him to tell his mother that her cooking is divine, she emerges long enough to blush, then more of the family come out to watch me finish. We’re eating with spoons, I’ve only seen spoons for days, really, and I jokingly ask about forks, miming tines with three fingers as bafflement turns to recognition, “we used them once for chinese food” and the smaller boy rushes off for a long time to return with one triumphantly presented, now I’m performing at eating, not exactly a daring act as I eat rice but everyone is stunned, astounded, marveling at my prowess, then they wanting to try, not to eat but just to pick up the stuff.

Cultural frankness obligates me to play some country, present on my player not out of anticipations of anthromusicological sharing, I confess, but, like I said, that’s as much as I’ll say. They like that too, then react surprisingly negatively to Death Cab for Cutie, Metallica and Dr. Dre, even as it is amusing to sort out that the latter, no, is not in fact a medical doctor, which they are relieved to learn. The request had been for American music, presumably that people their age listen to, so I held aside the rarified and, to the extent that I have any, the sophisticated. And it was already two in the morning, in our wake magic tricks involving cards (theirs), shared photographs (ours), and, not unrelatedly, extensive discussion of, well, women, it readily and immediately apparent that they had hardly ever talked to any that they weren’t closely related to, which was notetworthy not least of all as they had pictures of girlfriends all in far away towns. I wonder if all oracles are like this, not really any special insight but well more than utter confusion of the clueless petitioner and so seeming sagacious.

“Who are the famous people in America?” “You mean, like, Madonna and Michael Jordan, Hilary Clinton, Bill Gates?” “Yes, yes, and George Bush, but from a long time ago, more like Ghandi?” “Oh, uh, Martin Luther King…,” quizzical looks, “Abraham Lincoln…,” nothing. “Washington was the first president, and he is famous for a boat, yes?” “Huh?” Later. “What is the size of motorcycles in America?” “Oh lots, I once had a Yamaha 750.” Theatrical, animated alarm turning to the kind of twitching elation in exchanged wild eyed glances that can only be had by twentysomething boys upon hearing about machinery and the palpable potential for speed. “A 750? A 750!” And later my turn, struggling to maintain concentration on a theme so dear to them., “So, wait, what happens if the batsman hits the ball, deflects it, but it still hits the, uh, wicket?” “That’s the best thing the bowler can hope for, best quality play!”

Back to two AM, and our conversation has ranged over bewilderingly diverse topics, “okay, time for bed, then,” and Pankoj starts arranging the blankets, there’s a bit of a scrum, but this can’t be right, I’m mildly concerned, to clinch the position next to me, there are four of us on the bed, we’d call it full sized in America and that’s striking me as especially funny now, plus one kid on the couch and I’m looking around smiling nervously, nodding for no reason at all, “uh huh, yes, good night,” smiles all around, so I put my head on the pillow, pretty still sleeper, really, and the lights go out and we go to bed right where we are. I recall dimly and obscurely a self that would have found these last eight hours irremediably puzzling, but apparently no longer, and I just roll with it. I wake up and I’m handed chai, soon on the road again, 95k to Shimla, an extraordinary time, their generousity, kindness, fellowship, curiousity.

Pedaling, the hapless Superlight, damn that bike is silly, wishing for the Hooligan or the Karate Monkey (now in better hands), reduced to the yawn task of merely smoothing out Himachal Pradesh roads, chain begging for a bit of care, it’s fine, I am tired from long days but it seems like it is just the thing this body does now, habitual and not requiring the intervention of the illusory executive of reflection, like reaching for the breakfast bowl or tilting your head and reaching out your hand as prelude to easy embrace with a friend. A morning of sporadic conversation and I am not annoyed, that’s not it, but I can feel the tension at another “where is your country?” and, more to the essence of the matter, everyone, but everyone asking if I was traveling alone and why not with friends or my wife and children, wouldn’t it be so much better, so an occasion to reflect on collectiveness and isolation, is mine the madness, I wonder, artificially selected for in my part of the world for a tolerance or even craving to be alone some of the time, human mirror images of those silver foxes bred in Russia, and just like them in being a departure from the main trend, I repeat, might mine be the madness? The density of humanity here, the scarcity of resources of the sort that would suffice for the preconditions of privacy and therefore for the wanting it, walls, separate beds for all, energy to heat vast enough dwellings so that one could be far away from others, lack of pressure to produce sustenance through endeavors that are more efficiently achieved corporately. I suspect that we tend to think that the conceptual somehow drives the desiring, as if people in places where groups are ascendant think in terms of wanting company and engineer their world that way, rather than in the other direction, namely that the conditions channel us. Then we reinforce them, what values do pop songs sell, all that music I played for the boys? How many of those songs fail to mention “I,” fail to insist on a perspective indexed to a single unified entity? None. Okay, Hetfield says “I disappear,” but I’m pretty sure that that’s not what he means. That’s the fiction on offer.

Some observations, no sense in pretending in some paroxysm of contrived sensitivity that I don’t notice a difference.

1. When you queue up in India, it only kind of means you’re queuing up. It’s more like you’re placing yourself spatially in a situation where you might achieve your aim, provided you’re aggressive and wily enough. So, me, rising voice: “Yo, G, I’m in line here!” after having, oh, fourteen guys cut in front of me. (“Gee” has the compelling property of meaning something close to “yes” in Hindi and of, to me, meaning “gangsta,” a term of endearment that makes me feel more menacing and establishes my American cred should anyone in the crowd have seen Law and Order or the Eminem movie. But I actually am from the big city and I’m Puerto Rican; this gambit may seem affected in your hands, so tread cautiously.) Folks so scolded tend promptly to get in line right behind me.

2. It substantially clears things up when, when someone says something will happen in ten minutes, you ask, “do you mean ten minutes or an Indian ten minutes?” since the difference between those two is just under an hour.

3. Squat toilets have many and notable benefits over the crappers we use. The downside is the squatting.

Trying to thread between the smug imperial arrogance of thinking that I know how things should be done and the romanticization of the exotic leading to a mind imploding relativism. I feel confident that I can discern collosal clusterfuckery when I see it, and there is no shortage of it here, right, like it’s a good idea to have a roundabout where roughly half the drivers go the wrong way because that’s the way they’re headed. Over these last days I have changed my mind about driving habits here, though, which isn’t to say that I am comfortable on the road, but there is a rationality to them given the local conditions. Driving in the middle, not of the lane, of the road itself, as in on the centerline when there is one? Makes sense if the road edges are likely to be broken and chattering, and at any rate might offer unpredictable elements of other sorts, pedestrians, dogs, wrong way moving bicycles or errant large rolling difficult to identify things. Two vehicles approaching one another waiting to the very last moment to veer where the smaller one is expected to yield? Often a simple utilitarian calculation, the behemoth usually a bus with 150 people on it, counting the roof and the bits that one can cling to on the side, the car just an affectation of the ignominious wealthy. These bus drivers, a friendly lot, appear to think that, since I am on a bike, they couldn’t know that it is a proper mountain bike, but since I am on one, that I can retreat to the verge no matter what its base wretched condition, no matter that it might require actual skill at riding technical bits, and that it’s true is small consolation.

Or the horn thing. Put aside that it creates a sanity robbing cauldron of a cacophony of hateful, loathesome and hostile seeming demon screaming in a perpetual armageddon. So, put that aside. Curved roads. Unimaginably crowded non-rights-of-way. Vehicles orders of magnitude different sizes and speeds. Extremely unpredictable narrow curving roads . Vision, normally the largely sufficient perceptual faculty for driving in the West, evidenced by piercing or earthquaking urban car stereos not having any worse effects than deafness or being annoying, or Harley Davidsons, vision is impotent. Locating moving objects must then be achieved through other means, horns become an echolocation, indirect and distributed because you as a driver are not the source of the sound information that you’ll exploit, others will rely on your sounds, a rational group effort, if you can count on it, a surrogate for your will, which is mythical anyway so may as well place it in the social environment. Making me invisible and therefore stupid in several senses, until I get over my self consciousness at yelling “HEADS UP!” and, depending on my stress, coarser seeming things, like “HELLO, HI, EXCUSE ME, LOOK THE FUCK OUT,” though I mean no ill will. Thus, virtually no rear view mirrors, or intact ones anyway, everyone looking straight ahead all the time, a blind person could almost drive here, though I am unpracticed so do not close my eyes much to test this hypothesis.

Most of you can skip this paragraph after this sentence. And I spend a substantial part of the morning thinking about how folk norms of belief acquisition and revision allow for their own modification and replacement, heck, that’s what science is, and this often yields principles of belief that require a more distributed cognition element to them because the folk norms are evolutionarily? calibrated to individual efforts over small distances and temporal spans, human collectivities have become bigger. But there’s no provision for going back without epistemic misgiving, they’re asymmetrical, and maybe this is what is meant by truth, which would be interesting because the truths are then for creatures that are not the same as our folk self conception as isolated or tribe sized epistemic engines, a view I am already suspicious of, see above.

The climb back up into the Himalayan foothill station of Shimla is not so much a venture or adventure as a kind of meditation, or a Victorian era parlor astral projection of uniqueness, self referential consciousness into a void where body is all that remains and becomes utterly corporeal in repetition. Some data channel in the environment, the bartop computer?, hints that I am moving at 8 kilometers per hour on an ascent that lasts five hours into the sunset or into my drained absence. Cycling this way, sweat, breath, tick, tick over and over pedal strokes, aches, heartbeat, rhythm, this is (not “I am”), this is process not person. I arrive to the lights and remnants of the British occupation nearly cracked, find the Spar Lodge where the race organization has hinted at a made reservation for me, in two days I start a nine day mountain bike stage race from Shimla to Manali. Must rest a bit, expect to snap back to the idea that I have an identity, persistent habit, that. On the other hand, no longer in bondage to that selfish wishing, well, except for like that Pink Floyd song, maybe I am making progress.