This last bike tour, a 10 day haul from Nagpur to Jaipur, may have been our most memorable yet. Not all, mind you, was memorable in a good way. Our groins are aching from hundreds of kilometers of potholed roads, pieces of equipment broke off our bikes right and left, and good food was oftentimes hard to come by. Of course bike touring always brings the good with the bad, and this last tour was no exception; we had some amazing cultural experiences over the last week and a half. Here are three stories that Morgan and I will be laughing about for a long time.
Diwali is one of the biggest Indian holidays of the year. Also known as the “festival of light,” Diwali is like the Indian equivalent to Christmas, a time when family and friends get together to celebrate, exchange gifts, and honor the Hindu goddess Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth.
Oh, and they do one other thing. Light fireworks. Lots and lots of fireworks.
From dusk until dawn, it sounded like the city of Nagpur was under a bombardment. We did our best to contribute to the shock and awe. Invited to celebrate the festival with a student named Vishal and his family, we joined his neighborhood in unleashing an arsenal that made the M80’s I used to pick up in Chinatown look like a joke.
What was amazing, and wonderfully entertaining, was the total disregard for safety. I saw mothers smile while watching their five-year-olds light off bombs so powerful you could feel the concussions in your chest. At one point, a group of men set off a bottle rocket that zigzagged off course and nearly entered an apartment window. Elsewhere, showers of sparks frittered across the narrow alleyways, pelting motorcycles and cars that braved the gauntlet. This last fact we learned firsthand, when Vishal took us on an open air ride through the city. It felt like passing through the pyrotechnics of an amusement park ride, except on this Indiana Jones, the fire could, and actually would touch you. Vishal laughed like a maniac while dodging the “atomic bombs” that were powerful enough to blow a hole in his tires. It was exhilarating. My ears reminded me the next morning. They were still ringing when we set off on our bikes.
Morgan Gets Chased by Monkeys
We still haven’t been able to get over the novelty of seeing monkeys on the sides of the road in India. They’ll just be chillin’ there, four dozen strong at the tops of mountain passes, surveilling us from the trees and vaulting along the posts of road barriers. Most motorists ignore them, but we always slow down to watch. It still seems so exotic.
Of course, there are rules when passing through a monkey’s domain. For one thing, monkeys don’t like the paparazzi. Morgan discovered this when he tried to snap some close-ups. Here’s his personal account of the traumatizing event:
When I saw them, I thought it would be a marvelous opportunity to try some nature photography. I parked my bike 50 meters downhill from the primates, pulled out my camera, and started moving towards them slowly, trying to be as unthreatening as possible. Even so, they didn’t like it. Every time I got near, the monkeys scattered, moving further up the road or into the trees. I got nervous; I was going to lose my golden shot! Where there had been scores of monkeys, there were now less than 20. My camera and I moved directly across the road, closing in on the last group, just two or three left on a nearby tree. One got into the low branches and stared right at me. We were maybe ten feet away from each other, his eyes level with mine with a lens in between, when I started clicking. The monkey barred his fangs.
I’m being a real idiot now, going, “yeah monkey, gimme more of that! More fangs!” I was stoked on the shot.
The monkey jumps. The idiot learns just how scary can monkeys can be when they feel threatened. It charged straight at me, all muscle and sinew and speed. It had gone half the distance between us by the time I turned to run. As I pivoted, I saw two of his friends forming a squadron a few feet behind him.
The following seconds qualify as some of the scariest in my life. The only thing that saved me from getting a Darwin Award was that I was on the only terrain in which a human can move faster than a monkey—going downhill on a paved steep surface. I was running downhill faster than I knew I could, actually squealing — the little girls’ kind of squeal when she’s watching her first horror movie.
Two other monkeys came at me from the side, in a pincer attack—the monkeys were smarter than the idiot—and I got past their fangs by a matter of feet.
When I got back to my bike, two Indians on a passing motorcycle were laughing at me. It took me a while to work up the courage to bike up the hill past the monkeys, who had come back on the road. When I did, they didn’t even look up.
The worst part is, a bad SD card reader would later delete the photos that I risked my life for.
Arrival in Itawa
There were 10 guys, and a lot of shouting, in our hotel room. They were nearly in panic, working to rewire the florescent lights so they turned on, sweeping the floor, and replacing the bed sheets with the freshest ones on hand. Ok Ok, they finally motioned, we could come in now. I was grabbed by the arm and pushed inside.
The noisy men did not leave. They crowded around us while we sat on the bed. Moments later a bald, turtle-looking man squeezed through the bodies and introduced himself as O.P. Sharma, the only English lecturer in town “at your service.”
O.P. Sharma was as excited as anyone to see us in Itawa. We’ve been mobbed many times in India, but never have we created a stir like we did entering Itawa. We got into the town after dark, after a long and frustrating day on the bikes. We had gotten lost a few times along the way, and once we arrived in town we couldn’t find a lodge to stay in. It didn’t take long for an ever-multiplying entourage of shouting children to surround us. They were aggressive, touching us and pulling us to what they said was the only guesthouse in town. When we got there, the place’s owner had to shove them out the door and latch it to keep the children from overrunning his lobby. The kids pressed their faces tight against the windows, fogging up the glass while they continued watching us from outside.
“I think we may be an unusual sight” I joked to Morgan.
Back in the hotel room, O.P. Sharma and the noisy men ask for our dinner menu. Is there anything special we would like to have? Rice and chicken would be great, we said. I’m sorry — they respond — bread, lentils, or vegetables are all we have. Okay, then we’ll take all three.
“Sorry sir, but there are no vegetables.”
Then the town’s head of police enters, bringing along his partner Mr. Pot Belly to add to the room’s crowdedness. He had been called in for crowd control, but just for the hell of it decided to check our passports to make sure everything was legit. He flipped through them slowly and deliberately, before handing them back and asking if we had our visas.
After thanking the officer for his fine work, we asked O.P. Sharma to tell the noisy men we’d like to shower. Oh, and did the guesthouse have any towels? There was a look of utter despair on the men’s faces. “I apologize, we don’t have those kind of facilities” O.P. Sharma said ruefully. Then the hotel owner stepped forward and untied his head turban, offering it to Morgan.
Finally, it was time for dinner — the long anticipated bread and lentil feast. It was late, and we were tired and hungry. We went downstairs, but didn’t make it to the dinner table before encountering another group of men, this time with a camcorder, microphone, and LED backlight. It was for our interview with the local television station.