update 23.  

odds and ends in india

27 June 2008

Total kilometers cycled: 36,485

India: Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka

Specific country info on routes & roads/food & accommodation/the locals available here.

Am I a vagabond?

June 7th marks a special day for us.  It's on that day in 2006, that we set off on our overloaded bicycles to begin our new lives as vagabonds.  That's essentially what we are, people who wander from place to place with no permanent home.  I'd always pictured a vagabond as a scruffy, little man with a knapsack tied on to the end of a stick who rode box cars and slept rough.  The kind of man you might see wandering around the wrong side of town taking a swig from a bottle of cheap wine in a crumpled paper bag.   The vagabonds of my youth were people to be politely avoided. 

The word vagabond has repackaged itself for the 21st century.  Vagabonds have even got their own cyber home on the internet, a site called  vagabonding. Ah, what a comfort to be able to label ourselves at last.  Today's vagabond is a perfectly respectable individual who's taking time off the treadmill of domestic life to experience the world.  That's got a weighty ring to it. Might even be able to use it on a résumé to explain those long gaps between jobs.

Creatures of Habit
 Since settling in Mysore six weeks ago (to do yoga, what else), I've been embracing the kind of monotonous life most people want to escape. Travel, it's said, releases us from domestic habit.  But do we really want release?  Isn't absence of habit something akin to the unbearable lightness of being?  Everyday I'm up at 5 am. Before 6:00 I'm unfurling my yoga mats in its usual spot.  I've staked out the right hand corner of the back row, and God help the newcomer who inadvertently  encroaches on my turf.  After two hours of sweaty contortions, we're liberated.  On the way home, I stop off at the corner shop to pick up a half liter of Nandini milk and a copy of the New Indian Express.  I could read the India Times, the Hindu, the Herald Beacon or any number of English newspapers. But I don't.  Admittedly, I'm sometimes tempted to change.  I glance at the headlines of the competing papers, and even thumb through to the International news section.  But in the end, I always remain loyal to the New Indian Express, and, horror of horrors, I even find myself looking forward to the light reading in the 'world vignettes' column.  Today's whopper stories included 'Swallowed, yet alive: cane toad in Sydney stays alive inside dog's stomach' and 'Unexpected birth: London woman unaware of pregnancy delivers in hotel room after party'.  But don't get the wrong idea, it's not all low-brow rubbish.  On Sunday there are the matrimonials--  'Industrialist seeks groom for educated,fair-skinned daughter--caste no bar.'  
Everyday at half past twelve we cycle over to Mahesh Prasad for lunch, Eric takes his usual  22 rupee (30 cents) thali and I go for the nourishing and even cheaper 12 rupee rice bath.  Then there's our 2 o'clock slot at the internet cafe before we head off to afternoon yoga with Prakash. You get the idea.  We're back on the treadmill.   After all the uncertainties of life on the road, I'm reveling in the regularity of routine.

Gotta love the Indians
I've always been fond of Indians.  The first time I ever really got to know one was in Tokyo of all places.  That was back in 1995, the first time I ever left North America.  Shashi spied me wandering aimlessly around the subway and invited me for a cup of coffee.  He was an inveterate wanderer who taught me a thing or two about international travel.  His most endearing quality was the bountiful patience he exhibited with me, probably the greenest traveler that ever was.  These days I may poke fun at novice travelers who carry their valuables in a fanny pack, give money to rickshaw drivers who claim they've been struck with a serious disease and can't afford medical care and backpackers who spend six weeks in South India without ever knowing what a dosa is.
But back in 1995, my life revolved around Starbucks coffee, appointments for manicures, and refilling my closet with a new wardrobe from Ann Taylor every six months.  I was clueless about the world beyond the borders of the United States.
Shashi put up with my squeals of 'Oh look, it's another American,' every time we passed a westerner in downtown Tokyo. He taught we how to wash clothes in a bucket and dry them without the aid of a machine.  He wowed me with tales of his travels to places with exotic sounding names like Mandalay, Chiang Mai and Kalimantan.  One day we spent a whole morning scouring Tokyo's markets for spices, with which he then proceeded to cook me the best egg curry I've ever eaten.

Indians in India are also nice people.  We contacted Babu and his wife Shree Vidya through Hospitality Club and they agreed to host us during our stay in the Hill Station town of Ooty.  As we crested the last hill and were making our way into town, they flagged us down in their foreign-made car and lead us to their home.  In the driveway, Babu flipped open the trunk and produced two Samsonite suitcases which he lugged into the house.  It was then that we realized that this was just their holiday home. The kind couple had taken off in the middle of the week to make the trip up from their primary residence just so we'd have a place to stay. Now that's hospitality at its finest.  Vidya spoiled us with her delicious home cooking and Babu showed us all the hidden spots that only locals know about. Then they arranged for us to go out on a pedal-boat around the lake.  Some sort of cruel Indian torture for cyclists?  

Our landlord is also a great guy.  At least one morning a week there's a soft rap at the door and Raju calls out 'tiffin'.  My eyes light up because I'm always famished after yoga and 'tiffin' means Raju has come bearing culinary gifts.  Soft iddly and spicy sambar, crepe-like dosas and coconut chutney , and my personal favorite, uttappams, something like pancakes made of rice flour and coconut milk.  It's all typical South Indian breakfast food and Eric and I both love it.  

Sometimes Indians make me laugh.  I love to listen to their lyrical, sing-song English and inventive language.  
"One month, madam, you will be fuuulllllly flexible!," claims Prakash, the fully flexible yogi at the temple.  
"The people in Kerala are fuuuullly honest,"  affirms our landlord who's just back from holiday and believes the Keralites are much more trustworthy than the people in Mysore.
"Be careful, madam, one member was killed by elephant two days back," warns a passer-by as we cycle through a national park spotting elephants every 100 meters or so.
"All members are paying the same, madam.  Indian people, tourists, China people." insists the shopkeeper in a small village when we complain about the price of oranges.
"Keep your two butts on the floor," commands Ajay the Ashtanga master as my left buttock lifts when I go deeper into  a twist.
 "Come back any time.  We are liking you people.  No need to buy," chimes the merchant at the corner shop.
"Lovely complexion, madam, what cosmetics are you using?" questions the next door neighbor who is enthralled with my wrinkly, sun-damaged skin.  My skin's fair and therefore she believes 'better' than her lovely, smooth coffee-colored complexion.

I suppose we weird foreigners also make the Indians chuckle. There's a surprisingly un-scruffy stray dog, Ramu he's called, that keeps watch at the building site across the street from our flat in Mysore. He hobbles around on his three good legs and I've taken to giving him a few biscuits when I pass.  The construction workers, a motley crew of women in tattered saris and shirtless men who wear flip-flops, are both appalled and amused.   Now I can't go out the front gate without being engulfed in hoots of 'Ramu, Ramu' as the crew alert the dog of my impending arrival.  They giggle and tease me as I pass, making the universal hand to mouth gesture meaning they also want a treat.  Crazy white lady, they're probably thinking.

Tibetans off limits
Five years imprisonment plus fine, that's what you risk as a foreigner if you fancy a visit to the Tibetan settlements in South India.  By the time we saw that sign, we'd already gazed up at the imposing Buddha in the sumptuous Golden Temple and chatted with many of the smiling monks in their flowing maroon robes.  The police have cracked down, we were later told, and regularly make mid-night busts at the Tibetan operated guesthouses to catch those who illicitly house foreigners.  Unwary backpackers have their passports confiscated, quivering tourists are threatened with prison, Tibetans with expulsion and finally, when enough baksheesh has been paid, the foreigners are escorted out of the off- limits area. We've visited the so-called Tibetan 'refugee camps' on previous trips and never had a hassle.  The settlements used to be a favorite with travelers who came to enjoy a peaceful corner of India amongst the kind-hearted Tibetans.  Apparently, the Tibetans were attracting too much Western sympathy and enjoying so much economic prosperity that the Chinese government put pressure on the Indians to clamp down.  These days, if you want to call in on the Tibetans, you'll need a special permit only issued in far-off Delhi.  Or you can chance it like we did.

Road Reflections
Setting off for Africa on our bicycles was a way to test ourselves, to get out of our comfort zones, to know our limits and go beyond them, to feel alive, to wake up fresh each morning with the promise of a new adventure.  It turned out to be a whole lot of hard work and suffering.  Are we ready to return?  You bet!  We're still convinced that cycling is the best way to experience the world. No dusty bus windows that shut out the sunshine, no fancy SUV that becomes an instant barrier between you and the locals, no group tours that insulate you from your surroundings.  Cycling's the way to go.

But I'm scared.  Fretting that my newly fleshy thighs won't be able to go the distance on the climbs that lie ahead. Worried that I'll go berserk the next time I'm served up a plate of rice and beans.  Troubled by the thought that maybe I'm not up for any more adventure and would be happier leading a quiet life somewhere that I would learn to call home.  But hey, that would be clinging to the comfort zone.  And that shouldn't be what life's all about.

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