Monthly Archives: December 2014
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
India. A full on attack of the senses. At times amazingly delightful and others a sour kick of reality. Bright colours flash with beautiful saris, delightfully surprising foods and curious smiles. School children walk in long rows down the road on their way home. A shy wave here and screaming “Hello!” there. Dusty cities open up into beautiful landscapes of marsh plains, coconut trees and rice fields. People toil with water buffalo on the land. Some carry heavy loads or guide goats to greener pastures. They all stop to wonder.
Magical temples and cows at every corner. Cows stealing bananas, eating from garbage dumpsters and always where you least expect them. They own this place. Deified creatures of wonder. Different types lumber through streets, crossing at their convenience, as the car horns blare. Amazing to stare at though.
But the horns. They blare on repeat as buses barrel like crazy through traffic and by crowds of people. Incessantly they ring. Different types of horns fire at piercing volumes and indicating patterns. The soundtrack to my insanity. I brace myself as the next wave comes. I loath the one that sounds like a circus. The bicycle puts me down at ground level for all of it. Right in the field of energy giving strength and crushing difficulty. The use of the horn here makes China look tame. There is no end and no escape.
But, why did I come to India? Because it is a place I have always wanted to see. Because it would be a challenge. Because I knew it would be crazy. Plain is boring and India is anything but. No cycling tour around the world is complete without struggling through and experiencing the wonders of the land of Kings, historic conquest, dazzling foods, religious power and the multiple faces of forgotten souls. I love it, it drives me to the edge of insanity, but I will never tire of it. Each day is a fight and each a surprise. I am learning a lot about myself in India and where I hope to be in the future. The struggles I face are only momentary and have helped me to become more in tune with reality of the world around me. For everything missed, there is something gained inside.
I arrived from Kabul, Afghanistan in Chennai, on India’s east coast. With the road blocked by being refused a Pakistan Visa and Canadian citizens only being able to tour Iran with an expensive guide, I was forced to fly out of Afghanistan. I flew to warmer weather and a new adventure. India was never on my original route, but things are always changing. With little planning I was launched into the tropical whirlwind that is South India. Welcomed into the home of an American living in Chennai, I stayed for a few days as I reassembled my bike, sent a ton of backlogged messages and prepared my route. The goal was to ride to the southern most point of India, Kanniyakumari, then head up the west coast towards New Delhi, as I explore the different regions in time with their food, people, history and customs. Along the way I will be visiting the next community with Free the Children, as we raise funds to help build a new school. For more information on Verdara, Rajasthan Province, check out the community profile as well as the video from Free the Children on their work in India HERE.
If you would like to donate to my charity and help be apart of building the new school in Verdara, India click HERE.
Riding out from Chennai I was buzzing. The streets were crazy, the traffic and air thick. There was food everywhere, fresh papaya, bananas, pineapple and street snacks. On my budget it is only local fare for me, which is full of flavour and exciting spices. The dosa and samba are go to staples. Eventually the busy city opened up into quieter country, where I could breath a bit and quit looking in 360 all at once. I pedalled to wonderful places like Mahabalipuram and then onto Auroville. I was welcomed into Auroville with open arms and allowed to camp at a place called New Creations for a few days. Auroville is an fantastic place where people come to live the simple life based upon healthy eating, mediation, yoga, peace and close community bonds. Some people live here full time, others come for half the year and some like myself are just passing through. For more information on Auroville check out their website HERE.
From Auroville I continued on riding long distances and pushing myself in the heat. I eventually reached the tip of India at the beautiful Kanniyakumari. From there I moved onwards on my journey up the west coast towards New Delhi. I now rest in the backwaters of Kochi, in a peaceful oasis on the southwest coast. It hasn’t been a race in India, but I have been able to cover long distances. With over 1000km of road already down and a top day of 162km, I feel like anything is possible. I even had time to break my third back rack on the rough roads. I hobbled along with a light heart over bumpy roads and patched the snapped metal with duct tape for a day and half until reaching a place with a spare rack. I have felt strong, motivated and energized by riding in the warm weather. Though my sunburnt nose would argue otherwise.
One thing I was very excited about on my first few days were the temples. They are everywhere. They are of all different shapes, sizes and forms. They are beautiful. They are intricate. They are individual to each region in terms of history, location and emphasis. Some of the cities date back to 1500BC. The temples of the south also boast as some of the oldest in India. Magical places to walk around barefoot in the early morning.
As I pass through different little villages, towns and heaving cities, it is apparent how important Hinduism and religion is here in India. It pervades many aspects of daily life. A lot of it I am only beginning to understand. But I am doing my best to read and ask questions in order to uncover the idiosyncrasies that make this place tick. Though many parts of the old system of India have been outlawed, such as the caste system is still very much alive in parts if you talk to the locals.
Hinduism in a nutshell is made up of a complex company of gods and deities, each with different specialization, power and purpose. I’m sure we have all heard of the trinity of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. The faith is heavily based upon the principles of religious harmony, unity of existence, divinity of humanity, as well as knowledge of the three Gs: Ganga (river). Gita (script), and Gayatri (mantra). Among all of the numerous animistic gods and polytheistic powers, there is the resounding faith that all can be joined within one ultimate unity. I have not even begun to understand the myriad of gods or the customs of following the faith. However, one passage I read from the Upanishads, sums things up very clearly and makes things that much more complex.
‘When a teacher was asked, “How many gods are there?” he replied, “As many as were mentioned in the formula of the hymn of praise to the Vis-va-devas: three and three hundred, three and three thousand.” “Yes, but how many gods are there really?” He was asked again. “Thirty-three,” he said. “Yes, but how many really?” “Six.” “But how many really?” “Three.” “How many really?” “Two.” “How many really?” “One and a half.” “How many really?” “One.” “But, then, what are these three and three hundred, three and three thousand?” “Oh, they are only the various powers.” ~ The Upanishads
For me though, it is all about the chai stand. That is my temple. I love it. Don’t get me wrong, my allegiance is with the pure and healing energy of Chinese teas. But, the sweet jolts of energy at 15 cents a pop can’t be beat. Getting me over the long distances. Shining holes in the wall that call me off the road for momentary breaks and recovery. The chai man is a person of skill and power. He controls the hoards tapping in waiting as he froths another pipping glass of dark sweetened tea at arms length. The mixing gives it the airy taste, cools it to drinking temperature and combines the ingredients perfectly. With a few arm movements and a splash of tea the job is done. I think of the great respect I have for these men. It is a thankless job in cramped and very hot conditions. For one day I remember thinking of opening my own chai shop with whizzing hands and an indifferent pride for my craft. Quiet dreaming and empty thoughts over long distances.
Continuing on up through the west coast, I think back on how far I have come. All the people that helped me get to where I am. The road drifts on by with the whirling grind of traffic and the rolling hills of Kerala. My bicycle ticks over 7500km since beginning this journey. Snapshots clip in my mind of days long gone months ago while riding in little Chinese towns, a funny time, a simple smile, a good meal, or nights sleeping out under the stars. I think of people back home during the holiday season. How I miss my family, girlfriend and friends. How I hope to make up for all the time I have spent away. In three years I haven’t been able to be home for Christmas. Sorry Mom&Dad. Sometimes there are too many hours to think as I spin silently through the day. But if you ever catch me laughing to myself while riding along down a backroad somewhere, I’m not crazy, just deep in thought. To the road ahead. Happy holidays!
“What is poverty like in your country? Is it the same as here in Afghanistan?.. More chai?” ~ Local Shopkeeper, Kabul
News reports flash on a grainy television in a busy cafe around noon. Everyone stops what they are doing. The daily update. The newscaster reads from a piece of paper. A man driving a motorcycle had rammed a British convoy car with an explosive device strapped to him, killing 5 people and injuring many others. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack. People in the cafe go back to their work or food shaking their heads. This is nothing new. Wondering at the news, I asked where it happened. Turns out not more than a few kilometres away. Later that night a guesthouse was the target of another attack, resulting in a gunfight. Helicopters whirled all night long in the sky. In the last ten days, eight attacks in the capital.
I went back to eating my kabuli palao, thinking to myself. Should I be worried about this? I know I am not invincible, but everyone has been so nice. This is a beautiful country, how can such horrible things be happening on a daily basis? I feel relatively safe, or maybe that is just the man in sunglasses guarding my guest house with an AK-47. The food is so good. The markets are bursting with colours and sights. Mountain peaks loom in the distance. There is more fascinating history and local customs than I can even begin to understand. The people are proud. They are strong. They all simply want peace. To not have to look blankly at TV screens giving more bad news. These people need good news. Something to hold onto. Hope for a better future.
I was only in Afghanistan for a short time. When I left the situation seemed to be declining in the capital, with the US declaring they would leave more troops in Afghanistan than expected to train police and the army on how to combat the Taliban insurgency. However, during my time there I asked more questions, had more memorable conversations and felt a stronger sense of pride for having come than anywhere else I have been. The people were passionate about their home and hopes for the future. It was inspiring, an education and a harsh reality check.
To begin to understand the present state of Afghanistan, you have to look at the events of last thirty-five years. In essence, they have been at a state of war since then. For some people, this is all they have ever known. If they were born in the seventies, they came along at the end of the heyday for tourism. It was once very popular to go to Afghanistan for travel. It was off the main road, but still safe, exciting and full of history. For those that saw it, they would remember a very different Afghanistan. That all changed with the Russian invasion and the ensuing years of civil war. This followed by the Taliban take over, along with their fundamentalist Islamic government and policies. (All men were to grow beards, no music, no education for women and compulsory burqas in public, to name a few.) Onwards to the US led ‘War on Terror’, the ousting of the Taliban and the creeping unrest that still plagues the country today with regular suicide bombings and rebel attacks.
“The Taliban are not a force to be considered invincible. They are distanced from the people now. They are weaker than in the past. There is only the assistance given by Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden and other extremist groups that keep the Taliban on their feet. With a halt to that assistance, it is extremely difficult to survive.” ~ Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan Political Leader, Assassinated September 9th, 2001
But who exactly are the Taliban? Are they Afghanis? Where do these people reside? Where do these extremist values stem from? Are suicide bombings and oppression of rights in the Koran? How do the local people feel?
The Taliban literally means, ‘students’, and that is what they are. They are typically young Afghan refugees or Pakistani boys with bleak opportunities for the future. These boys go to religious schools called Madrassas found in many parts of Pakistan, funded by Saudi Arabian money. Osama Bin Laden, was not an Afghan and neither are a lot of the leading members. The Taliban preys on the desperation of young boys to build an army groomed for extremist hatred. They give them guns, fill them with corrupt ideals and offer them money, which their families need. Usually, they have few other options. When you hear about attacks on the news it can be very confusing to understand which group is aligned with whom. Some governments and organizations playing both sides of the fence. There are two factions of Taliban, one defined group based in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. They both bear the same name, but are not always on the same side.
These are not opinions expressed and presented in the Holy Koran or the Muslim people. After reading parts of it, I can see the many commonalities between texts like the Bible and Torah. The message, the goal and ideals. In the Koran it even repeatedly mentions people like Jesus and Moses. However, it has been used by Madrassas in Pakistan as a tool to teach boys how to think, based solely on the interpretation of Taliban values. Seeing Islam practiced in Afghanistan in its purity, I can attest to that. The main teachings of the Muslim faith are based upon kindness, helping others, giving away wealth and giving thanks to the one God, Allah. These are kind people that opened up their homes, shops and lives to me, with no expectation in return. The Muslim people have been the most welcoming of anywhere I have traveled in the world. Fact!
I arrived in Kabul, the capital, after a few days of touring around Mazar-I-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan. I elected not to cycle due to safety and local advice. With my bicycle stowed, we headed over the famed Salang Pass along switchbacks of snowcapped mountains on the edge of the Hindu Kush. The road was in a word, destroyed. Built by the Soviets in the 70’s, it is in desperate need of repair. However, that would involve shutting down the main line of transportation in an already struggling country. Dust billows so thick that even in the bus I couldn’t breath. Cycling would have been a nightmare. On the descent we passed through the beautiful Panjshir Valley, where the dust settled along river and leaves are still changing colour.
I arrived in Kabul, disoriented and on the edge of town. I packed up my bike and moved towards the city centre to the cheapest guest house I could find. The cheaper the better. High-end hotels have recently been prime targets for attacks. I did my best to keep a low profile, by blending in with the new modern Afghani look, sporting a leather jacket and headscarf. Quite often I was mistaken for an Afghan while I was out walking around. One man I talked with named Fardid said, “I thought you were from Afghanistan, until I saw the way you eat rice with your hands.” Guess I need more practice.
During my time in Kabul, I was met with amazing admiration once people found out I was a tourist. If they spoke English, most people began by asking me where I worked. Once they saw I was there for my own curiosity, the people were always excited. Tourists are a thing of the past at the moment. I was also decidedly in Afghanistan during the ‘off season’, whenever that peaks I’m not quite sure. One shop owner regaled me of the glorious past on the famous Chicken Street. Over chai he discussed what things were like back in the seventies. You could see the twinkle in his eye, longing for the past. Foreigners coming from all over to collect antiques and experience a culture worlds away. There are still parts of Afghanistan where you can literally step right back into a century ago.
The following day I bought a carpet from a man who was 86 years old. Even before discussing the possibility of purchasing one of Afghanistan’s beloved handmade carpets, we drank chai sabz (green tea) and talked about our families, his journey through life and my own. He had owned a carpet store in Kabul for 65 years. He said that, “Now my time here is finished, this is your time”. What he must have seen through the years as Kabul was changed and shaped through Kings, war, prosperity and decline, is beyond me. My brief revelations and experiences are nothing. He invited me back for lunch at his shop the following day at 11:30. “Don’t break your promise,” he said. I was right on time.
I walked in the ruins of the King Amanullah Khan’s, Darul Aman Palace. I strode in the peaceful oasis of King Babur’s Gardens. I explored the ancient Ka Faroshi Bird Market, dated back over 300 years. I struggled through crowded markets. I watched quietly with wondering eyes at the hard realities of war in the faces of the people. In the most heavily mined country on the planet, people struggling along in the street missing limbs still trying to get by was a common sight. There were many people begging, mostly women and children, due to the lack of jobs and availability of education. It was too much at times, as I retreated to my little guest house, reeling on overload from the outside world.
One message I heard again and again as I traveled about talking to people was, “Our neighbours (countries) don’t want Afghanistan to be a good country, like we were before”.
Afghanistan is amazing. The things I learned there cannot be taught or understood from brief clips on the evening news. The problems plaguing this country are deeply rooted, complex and will require years of recovery, positive initiatives and a whole lot of work. But there is hope. Maybe I will even be able to help. I will return here one day. I will come back looking for that better tomorrow. To see tourists walking in rows down Chicken Street and jostling each other in the markets. To see the long lost twinkle in the shopkeepers eye. I look forward to it. But for now it is simply hidden. Don’t forget Afghanistan.
***I now fly to Chennai, India from Kabul. With the road blocked to Iran by annoying Travel Visa restrictions, denial of a Pakistan Tourist Visa and a strong desire not to cycle in Kazakhstan or Russia in the winter, I head to India. It is somewhere I have always wanted to go and where I will build the next school with Free the Children in Rajasthan Province. Though my straight line around the world is broken, I see it as a perfect opportunitiy to cycle one of the most exciting, beautiful and historic countries in the world. Better to experience this world with a positive attitude, then riding for the sake of riding, through snow covered Kazak Steppe. I will be cycling a loop from Chennai down south near the tip of India, up the west coast through Rajasthan and eventually heading inland to New Delhi. Click the link to donate to the next school in India.*** CLICK TO DONATE