Every community we enter has an expiration date. From the time we get there, to the time we leave, the clock is ticking. The window of opportunity closing. We know only have so much time to cover a story there before moving on, before we lose our enthusiasm and our welcome as guests begins to wane. The duration is usually no more than about two weeks.
Take our recent story in Brahmanapally. We hit the two week expiration date right on cue. I know, because right after that mark I noticed myself not wanting to go outside in the village anymore. I felt like staying cooped up in our hosts’ church all day, lacking the energy to deal with the kids, their grandparents, and their neighbors. The way they crowded around me in the streets. The endless handshakes, trays of tea and biscuits, the repeated questions in broken English. Even after two weeks in Brahmanapally, the townspeople hadn’t lost any curiosity about the two foreigners who showed up on bicycles. Meanwhile, I’d lost my enthusiasm, and our relationship with Father Raja began to feel forced.
This was a big problem. Having those interactions was the reason Morgan and I traveled there to begin with — to spend time getting to know India’s rural communities. When we had learned about the town’s cotton crisis, and the sacrifices farmers were making to secure their children’s futures, we had decided to write a story about how Brahmanapally is changing with globalization. I had been collecting notes and conducting interviews on the topic with an energy that I hadn’t felt in months.
So two weeks later when I was shut up in Father Raja’s rectory, I knew the expiration date had been reached. It was time to move on. The issue wasn’t that the people of Brahmanapally had become any less interesting, or important, or charming. My relationship with Brahmanapally changed simply because after two weeks, I needed a sense that our journey was continuing. I was cheating my interactions with the people because I no longer wanted to be there.
Admittedly, one reason for this was because we had what we needed for the story. The interviews were done, the photos organized and color corrected, the quotes carefully documented. It sounds cold and calculating but it’s true; there was nothing else to do in town. We had finished our work, and I already felt the call of our next story — the next unknown destination that would take us further down the highways to Shanghai, and closer to the body of feature stories we set out to accomplish.
The other reason is that Morgan and I are not interested in becoming a part of a community on this trip. It takes longer than we are willing to stay. Our goal of writing stories in many different locations means we will always remain passersby, mobile observers who set roots too shallow to become fully integrated. We are perpetual guests on this trip, in cultures vastly different from our own. With that comes a social boundary, beyond which we have not been able to penetrate deeper; Moving from “guest” to “community member” involves a line we have not been able to cross, and a commitment we have been unwilling to give.
That line was toed in Brahmanapally. Over two weeks we had done the casual conversations, taken part in the local activities, and bonded with farming families about as far as our mutual language barrier would allow. They were privileged glimpses into a different lifestyle. But we knew the interactions weren’t going to change much after two weeks. It would take much longer than that. Truly feeling a part of a community takes months, many times years. We cannot operate on that type of timetable if we ever want to get to Shanghai.
In that way the community expiration dates are limiting, sometimes frustrating for reporters trying to get at the meat of a situation. But they also move us forward, bringing new challenges and change of environment. The most apparent way this affects us is in the oscillation of bike touring and writing stories. When we first left France, we had no idea how the two could intermingle; it didn’t seem possible biking and journalism could be compatible. Now we absolutely depend upon them to counterbalance each other. They are the cyclical nature to this trip that work to push us forward, a critical feature of which demands that neither cycling nor journalism stints can be too long, or else we tire of them. We feel ourselves becoming static, unfocused, and unable to write. Such was the case with me in Brahmanapally, and in other similar episodes of the past including Istanbul and the mountains of Georgia. It happens in biking too. Sometimes we become so sick of biking every day that we can’t wait to get off the saddle for a while.
In every case we have a solution. We move on. Sometimes all it takes is a new story to cover, or a new bike tour to go on, to bring back all the excitement and enthusiasm that makes this trip so wonderful.
Sure enough, we were reminded of that feeling as soon as we left Brahmanapally. With the pink church towers fading behind us, wind rushing against our faces, and leg muscles straining after weeks of inactivity, we felt the surge of moving forward again. We were going back to the grunge and grease of bike touring. The sunburns and the 6 hour hauls. The mystery generated by everything unknown coming up ahead.
The excitement of knowing we were on our way to discovering many more Brahmanapallys in our future.