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Thursday, 23 October 2014

India: Cycling in a Land of Extremes

Written by Dale Fehringer
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We were cycling through a village in rural Rajasthan, India, waving and saying “Hello” to the children who lined the road to greet us when a middle-aged man came out of his house and asked us to stop for a talk.  We braked and stepped off our bikes to see what he wanted.  His brown skin and black hair were offset by a white dress shirt and tan slacks, and he had badly-bucked teeth and a huge smile on his face.  He asked where we were from, and when we said the U.S. he asked which state.  Yes, he had heard of California, but he had not been there.

 

A small crowd started to gather, including a woman half his age who we guessed was his daughter and several teenage boys who stood listening to our conversation.  We complimented him on his English. 

 

“I learned English from my father, who was in the Army,” he replied. 

 

“Now I teach English in this village, and also Science.”

 

“Are these boys your students?” we asked, indicating the teenage boys next to him.

 

“Yes,” he replied, “And there are more.  There are very few teachers, so the villages must share them.”

 

“Are they good students?”

 

“Only average,” he replied, teasing the boys.  “The girls study harder.”

 

We visited with him about President Obama and world affairs, and then he invited us into his house for tea. 

 

“We are very sorry, but we can’t,” we explained, “the rest of our bicycle group is waiting for us.”

 

We hated to turn him down, and we told him what an honor it was to be invited into his house.  He smiled and looked wistfully at us. 

 

“Then I thank you for talking with me, and I wish you the best,” he said, and he took each of our hands in his in farewell.

 

As I rode off I looked back to see the English teacher standing in the dusty road in his tiny village, about to go back to his life.  I got misty-eyed as I thought about how far apart our lives are and how we had made a connection halfway around the world. 

 

 

 

We were in Rajasthan, India for a two-week cycling trip organized by Explore, a British tour company.  There were 14 of us; from Canada, the U.K., and the U.S., and we were accompanied by two local guides.

 

It was a fairly intense trip.  We cycled 12 of the 14 days, and covered a total of 380 miles. The tour company supplied bikes and made hotel arrangements, and the guides furnished water, snacks, and recommended restaurants for our dinners.  All we had to do was show up, cycle, and enjoy this amazing land. 

 

Land of Extremes 

 

Some of our friends thought we were nuts when we told them we were going to cycle in India.  “You’ve got to be kidding,”they said, “On those roads?” 

 

Well, as with most things in India, we found the roads to be extreme: some were smooth, well-paved highways, and others were dirt roads with potholes and mud puddles. 

 


 

We found many such extremes in India – beautiful and ugly, colorful and plain, rich and poor.  For example, we saw a young woman in a bright yellow sari walking down a road with a five-gallon bucket of water on her head, holding the bucket with one hand and a cellphone to her ear with the other hand.  We watched a new Mercedes Benz car blast its horn as it zoomed around a camel cart loaded with straw.  And we saw homeless people cooking and sleeping on sidewalks outside magnificent palaces. 

 

But there was also a constant: the friendliness of the rural people.  They seemed happy to see us and welcomed us into their villages.  Especially the children.  To us it appeared that the people in rural India have very little, but they seem content with what they have. 

 

Work in Progress

 

We started in New Delhi, a sprawling city of 13 million people and heaps of traffic.  We were there during Diwali, a multiple-day festival that includes gift-giving, parties, outside lights, and fireworks.  We took a rickshaw through the narrow alleyways and crowded streets of Old Delhi’s spice market, which is a raucous and aromatic scene.  The traffic and the smog were overwhelming, and after a couple of days we were ready to leave Delhi and cycle in the countryside.  On the way,we noticed several construction sites, where crews were putting up high-tech office buildings and high-rise housing units.  A road sign read “Work in Progress,” which to us symbolized India’s current condition. 

 

Women of Rajasthan

 Saris 

We were enchanted by the women of rural Rajasthan.   Their natural beauty is enhanced by dark skin and pearl-white teeth, and they wear vibrantly-colorful saris as they go about their daily chores.  We saw beautifully-dressed women fetch water, do laundry, milk cows, and work the fields – always smiling – and we enjoyed exchanging greetings with them as we passed them on the roads. 

 

Typical rural villages have dirt streets, a few basic businesses, and small, ramshackle houses.  Most of the homes have electricity, but few have running water and many have dirt floors.  To get around, the locals walk or pedal antiquated bicycles; for longer distances they travel three or four to a motorbike or ride on top of crowded jeeps. 

 

 

 

Avoiding the Cows

 Cows  

It took some time to get used to seeing and dodging the cows that roam Rajasthan; standing in the roads, lying on the sidewalks, and grazing in piles of garbage.  Cows are sacred and they aren't slaughtered.  They aren’t disciplined in any way, either, as far as we could tell, so they walk, stand, and lie wherever they choose.  Cars, buses (and cyclists) go around them, amid traffic jams and a cacophony of horn honking.  We were told there are steep penalties for hitting them, so we carefully avoided the holy cows.

 

We asked why it’s OK to milk cows and use them to work in the fields but not eat them.  The answer we got was that cows are considered holy because the Hindu God, Krishna, was once reincarnated as a cow, to help the people by working for them and giving them milk to drink and dung for fires.  By honoring this gentle animal that gives more than it takes, Hindus believe they honor all creatures.     


 

Jaipur, the Pink City

 

The city of Jaipur was one of our favorites.  Known as the Pink City of India, Jaipur Has a population of around three million. Founded in the 1700’s, Jaipur takes its nickname from the pink dirt that was used to construct many of its buildings.  Recently, Jaipur was the site of the movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. 

 

The Palace quarter of Jaipur includes a massive fort, the Nahargarh Fort, which was formerly the residence of the King.  Today it’s a prime tourist attraction.  We rode an elephant up the hill to the fort, toured the royal palace, and explored the grounds, which include an observatory, a sundial and instruments to measure and track celestial spheres. 

 

That night, we were treated to a Bollywood movie in Jaipur’s Raj Mandir theatre.  The gaudy exterior is just a warm-up for the interior, which is over-the-top kitschy.  The movie was in Hindi (with occasional English phrases), but we were able to follow the plot and enjoy the Bollywood music and dancing.  We were entertained by the very vocal audience of young Indians who whistled at the heroine, cheered the superhero, and booed the bad guys.  It was a wildly-unique Indian experience!

 

The Pushkar Camel Festival

Camels

Our longest cycling day (around 60 miles) started in Jaipur and wound through the countryside to Pushkar.  This is a quiet and peaceful part of India, with flat roads, semi-arid landscape, and fields of lentils, chickpeas, and peanuts.  As we rolled through the small villages we were greeted by throngs of curious children who lined the dirt streets to stare, giggle, gawk at our bicycles, and say “hello” or “where are you going?” 

 

We ended our day at the Camel Festival, outside the city of Pushkar.  Thousands of camels were assembled for the auction, and the grounds were filling with tents, campfires, and people milling around.  Vendors sold camel gear and souvenirs, men squatted over open fires cooking and watching their camels, and women carried out buckets of camel dung on their heads.  We saw a group of men milk a camel and then heat the milk over an open fire to make chai tea. 

 

Many of the camels were decorated with harnesses, flowers, and colorful designs and we saw a camel doing "tricks"to the amusement of a sizeable crowd – shaking hands, lying, and sitting on command. 

 

In Pushkar, we watched a ceremony in an ancient temple dedicated to the Hindu creator-god Brahma, and we walked to the sacred Pushkar Lake for a blessing from a Hindu priest, which included chanting, sprinkling of holy water from the lake, and smearing our foreheads with a mixture of spices, rice, and sugar.  During the blessing we witnessed another of India’s extremes when the priest interrupted the centuries-old ritual to answer an incoming call on his cell phone.

 

 


 

 

The Rug Weaver

 Madan

Near the city of Udaipur, we cycled through a peaceful valley divided into small, neat fields.  A group of women in brightly-colored saris moved slowly across a field, harvesting rice by hand.  We toured a magnificent temple of the Jain religion (a sect of Hinduism) that is supported by more than 1,000 intricately-carved marble pillars.

 

At the top of a hill in the country, we sipped chai tea and watched the owner weaving a beautiful rug on a homemade loom.  He sits cross-legged on the ground outside his small house for 10-12 hours a day, working on rugs that are his own design, using homemade threads and tools of wood and iron made by his grandfather.  He showed us some of his rugs and we bought two small ones.  As we were leaving, he took our hands, told us how grateful he was, and wished us Namaste. 

 

Taj Mahal

 

The day we were to see the Taj Mahal our alarm went off at 5:30 am.  It was pitch black outside, and already there was a smell of burning wood in the air from thousands of fires that cook the breakfasts around the city of Agra.  We walked out into the hazy morning to our bus, for the short drive to the Taj Mahal.  There was already a crowd outside the grounds, and we were separated into men’s and women’s lines and taken through security. Once inside, we sat on a marble bench, waited for the sun to rise, and heard the story:

 

In the 1600’s the emperor’s wife died following the birth of their 14th child.  Before she died, she made the emperor promise to build a tomb for her. The Taj Mahal fulfilled the promise.  It took 20,000 people more than 20 years to complete it.

 

When we first saw it the sun wasn't completely up, and it loomed like a mirage in the haze.  From a distance itseemed to be three white domes floating in the air.  As the sun came up and burned away the haze, we could see the marble base it rests on and the towering minarets at each corner.

 

We took photos and started to walk toward it, and as we got closer we could see that it's really octagonal, with four long sides, and four shorter slanted corners.  And we could make out the Arabic writing and inlayed figures on the marble walls.

 

We put covers over our shoes before walking onto the marble base and then climbed the steps and walked to and around the building, which is about the size of a school.  Its marble surface is smooth and cool to the touch, and we could sense the influence of the people who had spent their lives building it.  Inside, there are just two things:  the tombs of the queen and the emperor who loved her.

 

We made our back slowly to the entrance gate, and stopped every few minutes to take photos and admire the Taj.  As we walked further from it the details gradually faded away and shadows began to form on its walls.

 

We stood for a while and absorbed what we had just seen.  None of us were disappointed in any way.  The Taj had lived up to our expectations.

 

Land of Enchantment

 

Our tour came to an end shortly after we saw the Taj Mahal.  It was a wonderful conclusion, and it typified India for us.  This is a land of enchantment, mystery, and extremes; a beautiful country with a lot to offer and a lot of problems.  The beauty of the women and the excitement and curiosity in the faces of the children were amazing, and we will remember them forever.

  

 

(c)Dale Fehringer 

Last modified on Friday, 24 October 2014