Mary Ann Thomas
Every 100 Kilometres, A New Country: Bicycling Across India
2 September 2017: Three days before the flight
When I was a child.
As the daughter of Indian immigrant parents.
Is that how this starts?
Going to India every year since I was twelve.
Is that how this starts?
I’m on my way to India again, but this time it’s a little different. In a few days, I will fly to India with my Canadian friend, Daniel. We will put our bicycles in boxes, check them on the plane, and reassemble them in a place neither of us has ever been.
We’ve been planning this trip for a few months, but I use the word planning loosely. We decided we’d bicycle across India together through a series of emails. I threw a couple points on a map: Ladakh, one of the northern-most points of India, and Kanyakumari, the tip. It looked nice and doable, and he agreed. So we’re going to bicycle across India. Together.
I’m a bike tourist. Three years ago, I rode across the US and Canada, over 6000 miles, 10,000 kilometres. After that trip, I looked at maps of India and wondered, could I bike tour there? My family is from Kerala, in South India, and while I’ve been back many times, I haven’t travelled much without the protective shield of aunties and uncles and cousins. I’ve never journeyed without a plan or gotten lost among a sea of brown faces.
Daniel has done much more international travel than I have. He’s navigated route finding in cities where he can’t speak the language, figured out SIM cards on six continents, and dealt with bedbugs and food poisoning around the world. And so we bring our experience, our skills to one another, so we can help each other find the way, be the kind of team that we’ve never traveled with before.
In our planning sessions over Skype, we’ve talked about how our dynamic might be ideal for a trip of this kind. We’ll both benefit from the privileges he gains from being a tall white Canadian man. And while I’m not fluent in any Indian languages, there’s a level of familiarity I have with navigating India since childhood and, perhaps, a level of access we might gain from my brownness.
I know only one thing: I’ll be landing in the Himalayas, with 3500 metres of earth underneath me. The highest I’ve ever been.
Two days before the flight
I talked to my dad while driving north to meet Daniel. He said, “If you need anything, anything at all, you know.” Pause. “You have a friend here.” I almost stopped the car right there on that freeway.
If you know anything about Indian dads, you know they tend not to be “friend.”
It’s on the brink of this journey to my father’s birth country that he tells me to consider him a friend. Even if most of the bicycling will be in places he’s never been to, there is a sense of return. I’m returning to the motherland, the fatherland, my ancestral place. I’m choosing India and, if all goes well, I’ll make my way back to Kerala.
The long way.
5 September 2017: Day of the Flight
“Are we really doing this?” I ask Daniel as we settle into the airplane. We’re leaving Vancouver today and flying to Ladakh, the Himalayas. It’ll be thirty hours of travel, including our layovers in China and Delhi.
He nods his head as he adjusts his neck pillow. He pulls his phone out for a selfie and fingers his wispy brown hair and lightly bearded cheeks. “I guess so.”
I say, “For the last six months, since we had this idea, it’s like we’ve just been playing chicken, like we’ve been driving head first into a potential disaster just to see who will back out first.”
“Well I’m not quitting, so we’re doing it. Unless you’re quitting,” he says.
I shake my head no. “We’re doing this. Biking across India.”
Daniel leans in for a selfie with me. “We’re really doing this.” He poses with his lips pursed and clicks.
I move back in my seat and take a deep breath. This is ridiculous, our plan, our lack of plan. But everything that needs to happen has worked out so far. The bikes are boxed up and and checked in oversize baggage; our luggage went down the conveyer belt. Hopefully, the next time we see them is in Delhi, fully intact.
Wish us luck. Gentle baggage handlers. Tailwinds. Smooth roads. Calm drivers. Pray to whoever, whatever you believe in.
JAMMU AND KASHMIR: Where Borders are in Flux
Day 3, 0 kilometres
Over the last few days, we wandered the main drag of Leh, filled with colourful prayer flags strung between buildings. We hiked up a mountain to an old palace overlooking the massive valley where the city of Leh sits rimmed by golden mountains. We walked among ruins trailed by skinny stray dogs. We ate momos, a Himalayan dumpling, and thukpa, a hearty noodle soup.
Ladakh, this region, is known for high mountains and Buddhist culture. It is our starting point. We move slow. We both came up to the mountains from sea level and every few feet, stop to catch our breath in this thin air. As we walk around the main strip of the city, many shopkeepers call out to us, trying to entice us to buy scarves or handicrafts. Today, in a narrow alleyway away from the main drag, we chatted with a man who sold me pants. He’s been here since 2010, when massive landslides wiped out hundreds of buildings, killed hundreds of people. In its wake came organisations from around the world willing to put money into historic preservation of heritage sites. He tells us that tourism expanded since then: people from all over the country sell pashmina shawls in this remote mountain outpost, people from Nepal and mountain villages have become trekking guides. There’s international tourism, much of it driven by adventure! Mountains! Remote Himalayan treks! And there’s domestic tourism driven by culture! Snow! Tibetan handicrafts! Vacationland!
With the current news of hurricanes in the US and the Caribbean, and anticipation of more to come, I’m thinking about how disaster ruptures lives, businesses, and cultures. The aftermath creates situations in which the people who benefit the most are people like me. People with mobility, access, passport privilege, people who don’t mind spending the extra rupees to say that they started in the Himalayas.
There’s so much that feels connected, from Leh to New Orleans to Hampi to Brooklyn. But there’s so much I don’t know, this journey is just beginning, and I don’t think I can go by feel alone.
What I know: people here lost life as they know it and I benefitted. In travel, I’m recognising my privilege in less of a, I’m #blessed way, and more of a, landslides killed people and I don’t have to think about that at all way, I don’t have to recognise how that changed a landscape in a way that maybe brought me here.
Day 6, 38 kilometres
Today, day one of riding, was tough. Diesel fumes and dust and high elevation made me remember my asthma; it was mild and I took care of myself with frequent rest stops. We pedalled uphill on a 10 to 15 kilometre stretch against one of the fiercest headwinds I’ve battled. It was rewarded with at least eight kilometres of steep downhill. We FLEW.
Daniel has less experience bike touring than me, which proves to be a strength. We have short days planned so we can adjust to this bike life together. Thirty or forty kilometres here and there, and soon? Maybe we’ll be out of the mountains.
Day 13, 342 kilometres
The last few days have been spectacular and phenomenal and unreal, but also hard. First, we had food poisoning and each spent 12 to 36 hours vomiting, nauseated, or with diarrhoea. We are now being very careful with food choices. Then, we found ourselves in a dingy town and Danny got bedbug bites, so we packed up our luggage, crossed the street, and found something nicer. The next day, after 60 kilometres of slight uphill following a gorgeous cerulean river, meeting a few shepherds, and getting chased by village children demanding chocolate and offering high fives, we ended up in the dingiest town ever with very few sleeping options. I spent that night scratching at my own bedbug bites.
In the morning, we started as soon as the sun came over the mountains and bicycled through a dim mountain sun haze, with each ridge glowing bright. I was exhausted from such little sleep, but Danny is great at assessing needs. After we made tea on the side of the road and binged on cashews and biscuits, the day turned around. We climbed our last high Himalayan Pass, Zoji La, the one everyone has warned us about. Once we reached the top of the pass, the road became cobblestone. Cobblestone and dirt and gravel, and a landslide required we walk our bikes up the gigantic hill we’d come down and go down an even shittier way to town. On our way up, a bus driver and his companion offered us two apples and we legit broke down crying. Those apples broke the dam and we cried all day.
When the detour ended and we reached the main road, we glided onto some of the smoothest pavement possible. With no pedalling, we flew down 16 kilometres of the smoothest pavement and arrived in a small valley town called Sonamarg. We found a hotel with working WiFi, a novelty. We’re safe and comfortable.
We knew the bad things, like the food poisoning, the bedbugs, the dirt roads, the detour, would happen eventually, but it was a surprise to have it all happen within a week of starting our ride. One wonderful thing about our dynamic as a pair is that we don’t let each other get away with anything. In our hard moments, we remind each other: this is a privilege. So few people in the world get to be in these truly unbelievable places, even fewer by choice. Us? We get to bike.
Day 17, 494 kilometres
Today we biked through kilometres worth of stopped trucks. The drivers took naps in the shade of the trucks, gave each other quick-n-dirty shave jobs, and sat cross-legged on the ground with roti and daal spread out on newspapers between them. In this truck-tunnel, some auto rickshaws came through to say hi to friends, and uniformed children walked home with their moms lagging behind.
We’re in Muslim Kashmir, where men introduce themselves, then say, “Muslim name,” with direct eye contact and a head nod. Here, the call to prayer wakes us up and reminds us the time, and, if I ask a man a question, he turns to Daniel to answer. And yet women are more visible here compared to Ladakh. Women wear every shade of pink and green and shimmer when they walk, holding each other on the sidewalks, grinning ear-to-ear and waving often. Groups of young girls walk together, point and stare at our bikes, a world of gossip that I don’t understand traveling between them.
Most commonly asked question: “First time to Kashmir?
PUNJAB: Land of Sikh Warriors
Day 19, 862 kilometres
The truth is that bike touring in India is chaos. Every day, we join the mess of the streets, we become part of this strange stream of trucks and cars and goats and cycle-rickshaws and horse-pulled carts and buffalo. Since Jammu three days ago, we’ve learned to avoid the heat by waking up at four in the morning and riding hard until noon. In these early hours we watch sunrise, we see high schoolers jogging, and we hear much less honking.
We get many confused stares, but also lots of thumbs up from drivers. In Punjab, there is a kind gesture of raising the right hand to the forehead and then lowering it with a smile and head sway. Today, two men in immaculate green and blue turbans and suits drove their motorbikes next to us and asked, “Where are you from?” When Daniel answered Canada, they motioned for us to stop.
“I love Canada!” one said. “Many Punjabis are in Canada. Actually, most of Canada is Punjabi!” His love for Canada was a love for his countrymen abroad and I didn’t want to fact-check him.
Our host in Jammu said, “In India, every 100 kilometres is a new country,” and I’m finding that to be true. Punjab is a new country, a new world. There are white, orange, and blue Sikh temples in every village. Tall men in pink, green, royal blue turbans wave at us from the roadside and invite us to share langar, the free communal meal offered at each temple. Punjab is a small state, a Sikh state. In reaching here, we’ve crossed areas dominated by Buddhism, then Islam, then Hinduism. I love the many Indias I’m crossing on bicycle. I love that the multiplicity within India affirms the multiplicity within the diaspora, that there’s no one way to be brown, there’s no one way to be Indian.
HARYANA: Carved from Punjab
Day 32, 1069 kilometres
It was at an intersection of three states, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Punjab, that people flooded us with kindness. People wouldn’t let us pay them. The guy who made us sugarcane juice, the tailor who repaired Danny’s ripped pants, the fruit stand guys who loaded us up with bananas, apples, and pomegranates. We even got interviewed for the local Punjabi paper.
It was also here that we confronted the stereotype that it is unsafe for an unmarried man and woman to travel together in India.
After the Punjabi reporter interviewed us, he recommended that we go to a nearby dharamsala, or pilgrim’s resting house. We wheeled our bikes through a gate recessed from the street and entered a courtyard. Open doors on all sides revealed young men lounging on beds. Men stared from an upstairs balcony. One man loitered near the entrance gate, so I asked, “Rooms?” He nodded and left us.
“What do you think of this vibe?” Danny asked.
“It’s a lot of dudes,” I said. “But let’s see if the guy I talked to can figure it out.”
He arrived with a shorter guy who was all smiles. “A/C room?” he asked. I said yes. He grabbed a ring of keys and led us upstairs.
“What do you want?” a deep voice bellowed from behind us. We turned to face a middle-aged man. I told him we wanted a room. He faced me. “Do you have ID? Are you married? What is your relation?”
“Friends,” I said.
“No rooms for friends,” he responded decisively.
We hurried back down the stairs, put our helmets on, and found a guesthouse that didn’t ask questions.
We are two queer adventurers, a pair, not a couple. That evening, we discussed our options going forward. We could tell people we’re married, newlyweds. We could take two separate rooms. Danny prefers not to lie. He says that by telling the truth, maybe we will establish a good precedent for future unmarried couples traveling through here. I go back and forth. I want the access of cheap accommodation at temples, but I don’t want to be in all-male spaces all the time, and I don’t want to affirm the idea that a woman must be legally attached to a man. We’ll play with this as we travel, figure out how we want to present depending on where we are.
What’s important to me about this day, this story, is the good. For most of the day, people were so good to us. I know I’m going to remember the disgusting feeling of a man asking about my marital status, as if that’s the only way I can be considered human, but I also want to remember the humans who were so excited about our tour that they wouldn’t accept money from us. There is conflict, but there is also generosity.
RAJASTHAN: The Largest State in India
Day 27, 1363 kilometres
I spend a lot of time thinking about labor and access. What we are doing is hard. It’s compounded by dry heat, by sun exposure, by the constant honking of horns as a soundtrack, by buses whizzing by, threatening to collide with our fragile bodies, by the goats and cows and motorbikers and dogs that run into the road without warning.
From the road, I see so many people doing jobs that are harder than this. Like the guys smashing rocks one at a time in the Himalayas on two-lane roads inches from a cliff. The young men steering construction equipment with no one to direct traffic around them. The women carrying hay bales on their head. The girl toting a baby goat in one arm while yelling directions to horses and pulling the leash of a dog with another arm. The countless men and women we see and hear sweeping dust and sand off roads, driveways, sometimes just smoothing out dirt so it doesn’t develop worsening ruts. These jobs that don’t have the luxury of a rest stop in an AC building, or taking a day off whenever. What we’re doing, biking, is not harder than rocksmashing or construction work or moving hay or herding horses or sweeping dust. Biking is nothing like living in India.
We have a lot of access. A lot of access to life and grit and with the internet, I can tell stories. But if I am to be believed, please also believe the other brown people telling their stories. Please believe the corner store owner and the gas station attendant and the people like my parents, the professors and scientists. Because biking is not harder, biking is not truly more interesting that these countless stories of getting the job done.
Day 38, 1693 kilometres
There’re some things.
First. When I started biking long rides in college, I found myself in some kind of elated state. It was such pure joy, like the closest I’d ever been to flying, pushing myself through air to get to where I’m going. I didn’t have to rely on trains or parents or buses, I left when I wanted, I didn’t have to spend money or talk to anyone or be in the vicinity of people who would catcall or talk shit. I flew past perceived and real dangers, I biked to and from my hometown and college, then my college to NYC and Philadelphia, then the beach. I fell into bike touring and followed that original sensation of flying.
It’s only when bike touring that I can hit a high like this, nothing can compare. Last night, we followed a dozen bicyclists from the local bike club through Jaipur, a city famous for its pink buildings, on the night before Diwali. Diwali is the festival of lights. Buildings glowed with lights strung up from rooftop to the ground. Fireworks sounded from every direction and every time we looked up, the sky filled with light. Riding a bike is one thing, but chasing new friends through a bright, colourful night while fireworks exploded was different, a celebration of life itself. It had been so long, years even, since I’d had that pure feeling.
Second. On my first long bike tour, when I crossed the Northern Cascades and saw emerald lakes, when I climbed up a 3000-foot mountain pass and then dropped to a desert on the other side in Montana, when I slowly crawled up Teton Pass in the fog, the mountains made me think, How could I live without this? How did I ever live without this? This knowledge of the world, this view, this understanding that the Earth can take my breath away and that, in being so insignificant, I can also be free?
I’ve had that feeling many times in India. How did I ever live without the flavour of fresh lime soda with unknown, but delicious spices, or intensely gingered masala chai? How did I ever live without these lights? How did I ever live without hearing the high pitched tones of devotional songs from temples, or film songs blaring from tractors as they chug up and down the roads? How did I live without the many colours within a single sari, the stylish ways men find to tie a towel around their waists? How did I live without the body and Earth both used as a canvas for artistic expression, even when people don’t call themselves artists? What is a life without these moments, sounds, colours, flavours, smells?
Day 40, 1820 kilometres
I wonder if I’m giving you the wrong idea when I use filters on the photos I post to Instagram and Facebook. I tend towards filters that make things look crisp, bring out the blues and greens and reds, make my skin flawless. But India is not crisp. There are colours but there is also a brown filter of dust and wear on almost everything we see, and while I know I’m flawless, I also know I’m flawed.
I’m going to be more careful about how I filter. I don’t want the whites to look whiter, I want you to know that it is rare for us to be in a space that doesn’t have cracking paint and gray fingerprints on cream walls. I want you to know that most of the places we stop for chai or a meal don’t have floors. I want you to know that the cleanest, neatest our bikes ever look is after a full-service deep clean, riding only on highway without sand patches, draped with our sweat-stained clothes.
We are making an effort to shift our gaze out. In that effort, we’re trying to shift our observations from how we are perceived towards what others are experiencing, towards empathy. We are reminding each other daily, asking “What do you see here? What is going on there?” There is value in both of us being self-aware as travelers, and yet the internal narrative about who we are can get repetitive when it’s played on loop for thousands of kilometres, and what’s more interesting, or important, is to be here right now. In the messiness, the beauty, the humanity, the curiosity, of India.
We are spending the night on the cots of a dhaba, or roadside rest stop, which we learned is a common and cheap way for people to spend the night in relative safety, if not comfort. For the last eight hours, we’ve avoided the sun by reading, writing, and playing rummy. Now you know. We are really not so tough. Just a couple people who sometimes bike.
UTTAR PRADESH: Where the Taj Mahal Lives
Day 44, 1933 kilometres
I know it’s hard for people to witness poverty in India. I’ve been seeing it since I was a kid. Limbless people gazing up hopefully for a rupee or two, people banging on car windows, rattling tin cans of coins, juxtaposed against my family visiting from the US, with our dollar bills and air-conditioned cars and new clothes. I watched wondering about the coincidence inherent in my citizenship, about my role in a place where I am expected to wear gold and instantly know how to be a good Indian daughter, but without any context.
When I was younger, my family visited the Taj Mahal, a tomb built by a king for his wife out of grief and sorrow and love. It has become one of the seven modern wonders of the world. As a teenager, I couldn’t see this jewelled marble structure without seeing the poverty adjacent to its walls. I saw the symmetrical building’s reflection on the pools in front of it, but also watched street kids with desperate eyes pull on the clothes of passersby, asking for food or rupees. I was overwhelmed, disgusted even, with the hypocrisy of my family spending so much money to come to this place when others have so little. And I couldn’t believe in India, a country that would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on maintaining the Taj Mahal, while hundreds of millions of people live below the poverty line. Of a country spending so much to maintain a building created by some rich dude while others have so little.
I’ve been feeling the hypocrisy, the “could I have been that person?” less on this trip and I’m not sure why. Is it because we spend most of our time in low-cost situations, where the walls between us and the average person are fewer, where there is no car door glass to keep us from humanity? Is it because I’m jaded, and poverty has become mundane to me? Is it because we have seen less of the extreme poverty thus far, fewer limbless people, and more of what I’ll call functional poverty, like women getting water from pumps, men working fields or squatting for their daily duty, and humans bartering and trading and sharing cups of chai, working together to make sure everyone gets fed?
Then there are days where we spend thousands of rupees on decadent food and I’m left thinking about the kid with no pants, or the ten-year-old who made us lime soda in Jaipur and I just wish these kids would be in school, and I know I don’t deserve this fancy food, I don’t deserve this life at all.
BIHAR: Where Buddha Attained Enlightenment
Day 50, 2006 kilometres
We found ourselves in Bihar. My uncles warned me when I was younger that this state was known for violence and lawlessness, but could never explain why. I’ve been trying to read about it, find out how this whole state got cast as dangerous. Bihar is one of the most rural states and, since before independence, the farming class has agitated for better lives, often through violent uprisings. High profile bombings, killings, and riots have given Bihar a reputation.
Why are we here then? It was on the way. We didn’t know that in order to ride from Varanasi to Kolkata, we’d go through several states first. Bihar happens to be one of them.
While our experience so far has been limited to the main highway, Bihar seems like most of India. Friendly truckers smiling and waving. Dhabas, hotels, and occasionally villages where traffic turns into a nonsensical shitstorm and all our energy goes into surviving. Few women, lots of goats and buffalo, and many abandoned structures consumed by ivy. Also, humid, denser air, palm and banana trees, more jungle, less desert. My biggest complaint is the highway. It’s smooth, but there are thousands of trucks. And while I love truck culture, and in some ways it feels like the most familiar version of Indian culture at this point, I don’t love wondering whether a truck is going to judge its size well enough for me to not get hit. We’re taking a detour tomorrow, getting off the highway in search of a holy site, and I’m looking forward to some calm.
Day 60, 2186 kilometres
Here, in Bodhgaya, is where Buddha attained Enlightenment. The Mahabodhi Temple, a pilgrimage site for Buddhists around the world, stands next to that spot. They say the tree at the temple grew from a sapling of the original tree that Buddha sat beneath. When I visited at dawn, hundreds of monks and lay people performed prostrations at sunrise; once the sun was up, they drank chai and ate some kind of appam with pickles for breakfast.
In this town, Buddhist practitioners from many countries built temples to represent their cultures. I got lost a few times on my walk between temples, meandering down alleyways to find monasteries, statues, and parks. At the Japanese temple, I listened to the deep chanting of a thin man reverberate against plain walls. At the Bhutan temple, elaborate scenes adorned the walls, including one of the Buddha meditating in the mountains above skeletal, grey people. Hundreds of people wandered from one temple to another, removing their shoes outside, taking pictures of art within.
Until this bicycle journey, I had only heard of Bihar in the context of violence. I had no idea that it was the spiritual home for Buddhists around the world. If I had looked at a map closely before deciding to bike from Varanasi to Kolkata, if I had known that Bihar was on the way, I might have let the state’s reputation get in the way of our cycling route. I may have never ended up in this holy place.
JHARKHAND: Carved from Bihar
Day 62, 2394 kilometres
Right now it’s so hard for me to talk about today because I first have to talk about yesterday. Yesterday, I started the day miserable. Everything in my body felt inflamed, my knees feet hands forearms brain, and chai helped get me out of that funk. I kid you not, chai is spiritual. So we biked and biked and ate and biked and at some point I was less miserable but had occasional dizzy spells, and my heart was racing like too much caffeine but I only had one cup. So I drank a litre of water and we were in a new state, Jharkhand, and the road was empty highway stretches with no villages and few Tata trucks and uphill all the way. And I was just doing the miles and reminding myself that when bike touring, nothing happens unless I make it happen, nothing changes unless I propel my body forward on my bicycle. The only way to feel better is to move.
So we biked. Ended up at a dhaba. Most dhabas are run by young men, managed by older men, and cater to truck drivers, who are also men. Most of the time, I feel like I’m living in a men’s locker room. But at this dhaba, teenage girls beat grains on the roof, children ran up and down the stairs, and I met the owner’s mom, who smiled and welcomed me. The presence of women, teenage girls, and small children convinced me it would be a good night. We shared chai and dinner with the guys running the place, but when we went to sleep in our tent, f*ck! They blasted the Hindi movies, turned on the lights in the corner we were sleeping in, and it sounded like a party. So were we safe? Yes. Did I sleep? No.
We packed up the tent at dawn, had a cup of chai and a few biscuits, and bicycled away. At some point today we befriended a truck driver from Haryana and I got to sit in the driver’s seat of his truck and it was all my dreams come true. And now we’re at a fancy hotel, the fanciest hotel, they even have a f*cking piece of glass separating the shower from the rest of the bathroom and I haven’t seen any kind of bathroom divider in two months. Two months. Two months.
I need to remember today. I need to remember yesterday.
WEST BENGAL: Where East India Begins
Day 65, 2669 kilometres
We are in Kolkata, once known as Calcutta, a city that was once the heart of the East India Company and the entry point for the British Empire. In this state, West Bengal, we’ve seen women running commercial kitchens and shops in India for the first time. I have so much admiration for these women and all the women in this country who are agents in their own lives.
At a hotel last night, I presented my passport and OCI card (Overseas Citizen of India) while Danny removed his gear from his bicycle. The clerk opened my OCI card instead of my passport and asked if we were married. I said no. He shook his head and said, “No, Must be married.”
I smiled and laughed. I told him that we’ve been traveling for two months in India, that no one has made an issue of us being unmarried before. I said, “You will have no problems.”
He fixed his eyes on the ground and said, “Local police.”
Danny rushed in and said, “I heard police. What’s going on?” I explained and he yelled at the clerk, “Ok, bye! We’ll go somewhere else.” I told the man as we left, “It is not local police that are the problem, it is you. Two months we’ve been in India. Two months, no problems.” He muttered local police as we walked out.
We went to a hotel down the road. No one cared that we were unmarried.
There’s something about people thinking it’s impossible or dangerous in India to travel as an unmarried man-woman pair. The danger is this: if a hotel manager is suspicious, he can have the police raid the room and accuse the woman of sex work. It happens across the country, and it happens regularly. I knew that before embarking on this trip, my brown woman body could be called into question, particularly in relation to Daniel being a white man. I agreed to this risk, but decided I would not let my movement be controlled by outdated laws.
There was that one dharamsala in Haryana where we were denied entry, but we later told ourselves it was more on religious grounds than legal ones. Yesterday was the first time we were flat-out refused from a hotel, a non-religious institution. It was the first time someone argued that local police would make problems. And to me, that’s actually an accomplishment. We’ve made it thousands of kilometres without major issues, despite being in a country where women often have to justify their existence in relation to a husband or father. People have been skeptical, confused, concerned, but it’s ten of the time. Ninety percent of the time, it’s Wow! Amazing! Great job! And No Problem.
So we hope for the best. And India, mostly, is the best.
Day 71, 2669 kilometres
We spent the last few days on boats. A boat to get to the Sunderbans, a mangrove forest and national park that straddles both India and Bangladesh. Five rivers come together with the Bay of Bengal, so roads are limited and ferry rides frequent. People who live out here make their living by fishing and collecting honey. Honey collecting is fascinating to me. It requires leaving the relative safety of the villages by boat and traveling to the tiger-dense islands, to search beehives. When the men leave, their wives remove their bangles and jewellery and live as if in mourning. For 20 to 30 days, the honey collectors sleep on their boat to avoid tiger attacks. They pray to their jungle goddess for protection and wear amulets against harm. The tigers swim between islands and dozens of honey collectors are killed each year in those moments when the men enter land to get honey. To get the honeycomb, the men smoke out the bees, climb trees, and cut it out from the hive, while making noise and watching for tigers. It’s dangerous, profitable work, but it only happens for a few months a year.
We spent the last few days with quiet. The Sunderbans is one of the most peaceful places I have been in India. There aren’t dramatic mountains to make a whirlwind of awe and emotion, just slowly swaying water, tides shifting, the soft sound of oars against water. While Danny decided to stay in a cabin on land, I slept on a boat in the middle of the river. Clouds hid the stars, but the intermittent sound of chanting and drumming and singing throughout the night reminded me that there are so many ways to find the holy.
I felt at home in this isolated place. The guide, Sonu, told me about being the first person in his family to leave the country and travel, who knew the names of so many birds and kept a continuous supply of chai pouring; the Captain, who they said was a grumpy old man, but who let me steer the ship for an hour and showed me pictures of his newborn grandbaby; the food, Bengali food is no joke and while I don’t remember the names of all the vegetables, I do remember the feeling of, “Oh f*ck I’m so full I can’t walk.” There’s more to say and I’m overwhelmed and I want to go back. So thank you, those who made me cry for joy.
ORISSA: A Holy Temple, A Sexy Temple
Day 86, 3206 kilometres
We rode on smooth highways yesterday. At one point, Danny fell behind. He gets frequent requests for selfies from motorbike drivers and, since he loves the attention, he often says yes. I waited for at least ten minutes. Just as I saw him in the distance, a white car pulled onto the road’s shoulder. I thought, Great, now they want pictures with me. The car doors opened in sync and five men hurried towards me. The tallest introduced himself as Ajay. “We are cyclists,” he said in a deep monotone voice. “We spoke to your friend. We would like to host you in Bhubeneswar. It is 20 kilometres past where you planned on going.”
I told Ajay my name and shook his hand. Then I paused until Danny biked up. “You met these guys?” I asked. Danny nodded. Ajay’s seriousness confused me, but his friends were giving me full-tooth excited smiles. ran
“Okay, so what are you thinking?” I asked Ajay.
“I own a cycle shop in the city. You come to my shop. Then, you will stay with Chandan.” He motioned to one of the guys, and I shook his hand as well. “Tonight, you can meet some of our cycling group. They will be very excited to see where you’ve been. Tomorrow, some of us can cycle with you.”
When we arrived at the cycle shop, we found that everything was taken care of: lunch, dinner, transportation, and a few hours swapping stories with the cycling club. This morning, the guys guided us out of the city. From the minute we got to Bhubeneswar until we left, we didn’t worry about a single thing. In India, the cycling community is like an extended family, even when they present as strangers on the side of the road.
We left them and continued south toward Konark, famous for the Sun Temple. The temple was built for the sun’s rays to pierce the entrance in any season and is covered with images of sex, all kinds of sex. Men and women, men and men, women and women, group sex, elephant sex, monkey sex.
For Danny’s birthday, we made it to a gorgeous resort where we jumped in the water, sand as far as the eye can see, and not a single person in sight. India can be so many things, crowded, congested, loud, but also desolate and peaceful. From our beachfront cottage, we will sleep with the sound of waves crashing against shore.
ANDHRA PRADESH: Where South India Begins
Day 89, 3659 kilometres
There’s a lesson here that maybe I need to make more explicit. There is no one India. There are so many Indias. Since the Himalayas, people have told me, “Every 100 kilometres is another country.” Different language, fashion, hair styles, hand gestures, food staples, spices, flavours, religions, religious practices within the same religion. Rajasthan is so different from Kashmir is so different from Kolkata is so different from seaside communities surrounded by water.
Indians in the United States are often seen in the context of only a few major media examples, like Apu from The Simpsons or Mindy Kaling. But I’m neither a doctor nor a caricature, I’m not a comedian. It’s when in India that the true diversity of this country and its people becomes clear, India is not one thing or one place. This diversity is cause for celebration. Knowing there’s a myriad of ways to exist, to be, within a single country can allow individuals the freedom to change, to grow, to build even better worlds within this one.
And for me, it’s finding the multiplicity within this country that gives me permission to create my own relationships here, build my own relationships with places here. My relationship with India does not have to be defined by my parents’ leaving this country, by a sense of loss, of losing access to my culture and language. If there are so many ways to exist here, I have agency, I can construct a life for myself here. I am never lost.
It’s been almost three months, more than three thousand kilometres. I traveled to places I had no idea existed and made friends with people who I would have been intimidated by, even scared of, a few months back. We’ve only now entered South India, where my family is from, and, as we slowly cycle towards the tip of India, I know I have so much yet to learn.
Mary Ann Thomas is a VONA graduate and Writer for VONATravels.
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