“Chris, Morgan, get in the car.”
“Oh, I’m sure that won’t be necessary” I replied.
As soon as I glanced outside towards the masses of shouting students, I wasn’t so sure. They did look pretty riled up.
Morgan and I had just given a talk about our travels to 400 students in the high school of a rural town called Kalwalkurthy, and afterwards we had invited them to watch us take off on our cycles for our next destination. Now, the principal wanted us to get into his car so we wouldn’t be mobbed on our way back across campus, to where our bikes were parked.
“Please, get in the car,” he repeated.
It was an awkward situation, but I really didn’t feel like arguing with him. Morgan and I slipped into the back seat, and the driver pulled out into the crowd, honking the horn to part a path through the bodies. As we passed through, energetic students started yelling and pressing their faces and hands against the rear windows, peering in at us and running alongside the moving car. Morgan and I turned towards each with wide eyes, thinking the same thing. Oh My God.
After reaching the cycles, we saddled up and took off towards the main gate of the campus. When we rounded a corner, we were confronted with a roar. The students were lined up, all 400 of them, along the main drive – first the boys, who patted us and whooped as we rode past, and then the girls, who batted their eyes and handed us flowers they had picked from the planters.
This is what it feels like to be a celebrity, I thought. It was an odd sensation. I’d never had my presence affect people in such a way.
It was already the third time we had been swarmed in such a manner since entering the state of Andhra Pradesh a week prior. Even the previous day, we had been surrounded in the center of blue collar town called Dhone, where people asked us to sign autographs on their hands, and I ended up on the second page of the morning newspaper.
The incidents have been hilarious, if not a bit overwhelming, but they left us wondering, why is this suddenly happening to us? Morgan and I discussed the development over rice and curry at a recent lunch.
We think there are a couple reasons. For one thing, Andhra Pradesh is the most rural and agricultural state we’ve been in since landing in India. It is not a place many tourists go, so we’re pretty rare to begin with. Think of Iowa, with its endless cornfields. Andhra Pradesh is pretty similar, except with cotton and lentil plants.
The other thing we noticed is that people only crowd around us when we have our bikes, especially when they’re fully loaded with bags. When we’re on the street in our pedestrian clothes, we just get the usual strange looks.
In fact, the bikes themselves become a key part of the celebrity act. People press in around them just to be able to touch them — anywhere so it seems. Kids feel the pressure of the tires, or test the hardness of our bike seats. Those with a bit more bravado go in for the gear shifters and brakes.
But the real catch comes right after someone asks how far we’ve come, or how far we’re going, and people realize that we’re actually using our bicycles as a means of long distance transport.
Whereas in Germany we were honked at as just another pair of annoying bike tourists crowding up the highways, in Andhra Pradesh we’ve been treated almost like heroes. Very strange heroes, with very strange looking shorts and farmer’s tans. Bike touring is just something they’ve never seen before, and they’re excited about it.
The experiences have left me feeling inspired in a way. Morgan and I always joke that if people knew how unglamorous bike touring really was, they wouldn’t think so much of us. From our perspective, it can be a grind: fatigue, sweat, weight loss, and grime (though we love it dearly). But it’s been cool to see the excitement we’ve brought people by merely stopping in their towns. It’s reminded me that we can touch, and maybe even inspire, people even when we didn’t even intend to. I mean, all we were really trying to do was stop for a quick curry lunch before continuing on to the next lodge.