Uttar Pradesh: Don’t Take It Personal

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I’ve dropped the F-bomb plenty of times over the last two years and thirty thousand kilometers.  Maybe when a giant container truck comes speeding past, situated right between me and the sun so that it momentarily blocks all light.  The horn deafens me and the heft of the moving truck creates a vacuum that sucks me along, so for a few instants I neither see, hear, nor feel anything, and I wonder if maybe I’ve moved on to the next realm.  Once the truck finishes overtaking me, it belches diesel fumes and kicks up dust into my face, the unpleasantness of which brings me back to my senses, reassuring me that I’m still alive, if barely.

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(So long, Nepal, and thanks for all the Dal Baat)

I’ve also dropped it when I slam into potholes or slip into cracks in the pavement, when I see a particularly gnarly stretch of road up ahead, when I turn a switchback and see that it’s only a few hundred meters before the next one, when my fingers simultaneously cramp and go numb from holding the brakes while sliding downhill in the rain, and that one time in Guwahati when I sped around a corner one night on my way back to my friend’s house only to come about two feet away from colliding with a stealth buffalo standing in the middle of the alley.

Never before, though – not once during all this time – have I looked directly into someone’s face and screamed it at them.  I have always been able to muster up some amount of understanding or compassion, like “Yeah, I suppose it was hard for him to see me coming,” or “He’s probably going to get fired if he doesn’t make the delivery on time,” or “he was probably reacting to another driver on his other side.”  I believe this to be an effect of both wisdom and prudence: the former because getting too angry wouldn’t bring me any benefits, and the latter because I would certainly be the loser in whatever sort of confrontation should grow out of it.

Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest, most crowded and, thus, most chaotic states, where I spent the first two weeks of my new three month visa, got the better of all this logic, training, and restraint.  On more than one occasion, I found myself not only dropping the f-bomb but making eye contact with someone and launching it directly at them, with some part of me hoping that it will blast them off the face of this earth.  I also developed a few unsavory gestures, such as the “scorn face and finger wag” (useful when people are driving in the wrong lane…on a divided highway), the “shush” sign with one finger in front of the lips, the “you’re deafening me” sign with one fist pretending to stab a knife into my eardrum, the dismissive “get out of the middle of the lane, a**hole!” hand flap (used when someone is coming the wrong way down my bicycle lane), and the “wtf?” palms-turned-upward, eyes-wide-with-shock-and-disbelief move.  This last one is actually of Indian origin; I picked it up pretty quickly, since it’s what about 95% of them do when they see me.

Oh, and I also fantasize about attaching a basket to my handlebars and filling it with tomatoes (5kg/1$) or cow dung (collected for free from the side of the road or just about anywhere else)  to chuck at vehicles that piss me off.

I want to be fair about U.P., so I’ll say the following: the main highway is one of the best roads I’ve been on since last spring when I left Thailand (where, if memory serves correctly, everything was totally perfect all the time).  It’s generally two or three lanes on each side of the divider, has a shoulder for bicycles since they’re so common here in the plains, has lots of little overpasses so that traffic jams in between cities are kept to a minimum, is remarkably free of potholes, and could not possibly be any flatter.  There’s less elevation gain in 2000km of UP cycling than in 25km in Nepal.  The roads are so nice that I can ride eight hours and 180km in a day without developing cramps or saddle sores, and I have enough energy left over to write blog posts in my tent or go out for food and drinks if I happen to have a host that night.   The traffic in between cities is really not that bad, and since the roads are so wide there’s actually plenty of room for tomfoolery.  The scenery at this time of year is mostly rice paddies planted with mustard greens and villagers making towers out of cow poo, so it’s not a particularly interesting ride, but it’s prime territory for zoning out to podcasts or an audio book of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

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(poo cakes)

Still, there’s just something about this part of India that makes it easy to fall into a constant state of cynicism and frustration.  For example, here are a few standout memories from my first few days after leaving Nepal.  Imagine them all as incidents standing out against a background white noise of honks and background scenery of piles of plastic bags.

Day 1 :  Within half an hour of setting out, I pass a roadkill dog pushed off to the shoulder of the road, crows pecking at its viscera.  A few hours later, another one, which nobody has bothered to take out of the middle lane.

Day 2:  Within an hour of setting out, I pass a roadkill dog and chastise myself for thinking cynically that I’ll probably see two a day from here on out.  I see another one or two an hour for the rest of the day.

Day 3:  More roadkill dogs, one dead horse, and a traffic accident in which a husband and wife on a scooter plow directly into a semi that was entirely, perpendicularly blocking  three lanes of westbound traffic while waiting for a hole to open up in the eastbound.  The semi wasn’t even moving – I guess the husband was just hoping it would?  I heard the screech of brakes from behind me, then the sound of a slam in front of me, saw the woman get thrown from the scooter and land on her back, wailing, and saw the man bounce back a few meters after the collision.  His foot snagged under one of the bike’s passenger footholds, so that he didn’t actually fall off even when the bike fell over.  He just lay on top of it, bouncing a little bit like a diving board.

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(This trash pile was in the middle of what was otherwise the cleanest place I visited in UP, the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology at Benares Hindu University.)

And so on, and so forth, the whole time.

In addition, something about the people here is just a little off.  I know I’m strange, that I must be quite a sight, that I deserve some stares, but the way it tends to go down here is just plain creepy.  If I stop for ten seconds to get a drink of water, a crowd forms, mumbling about my gears (“Gearcycle?”   “Unhhhh, Gearcycle.”)  and prodding my bags.  People come close enough to peer over my shoulder as I check the GPS on my cell phone.  I stop to relieve myself by the side of the road and a group of ten guys crosses the whole six-lane highway (admittedly, free of traffic at the time) to get a look.  I pass a teenager on a bicycle with ease thanks to my sweet gear setup, then he pumps his pedals as hard as he can in order to pass me again, then he pulls back in front of me and slows down to his original pace, after which I pass him again in a matter of seconds; this may go on for ten minutes.  Or guys on a scooter come up behind me and just sit there in my blind spot for fifteen minutes without saying a word.  Or, when I park my bike at a fruit stand, one guy comes up and flips open my handlebar bag – not to steal anything, but just to see what this weird white dude has in his stash.  Oh, yeah, and nobody, not even kids, says “hello” or “namaste” or anything resembling a greeting.  It’s only silence, or “where from?” or the previously mentioned “Wtf” gesture.

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(The streets of Lucknow, one of the biggest and most prosperous cities in UP.)

In other words, I’ve never felt quite so foreign, so out of my element.  In Nepal I was yelling “Namaste” at just about every scooter or pedestrian I passed, and getting at least a sizeable smile for a reply.  My memories from southeast Asia include mobs of children spotting me and my friends through schoolroom windows and then erupting outwards, screaming “Saibadee!” (Laos) or “Sawatdeekap!” (Thailand) or “Suwasadai” (Cambodia) or “Minglaba” (Myanmar) or “Xin Chao” (Vietnam).  Here in UP, for whatever reason, there seems to be a distinct lack of friendliness towards the foreigner.  Not to say there’s any particular enmity.  It’s not even that people are ambivalent.  It’s obvious that many of them – particularly dudes aged 15-50; women and children tend to be either too involved in their own work to notice me, or so shy that they pretend they don’t – want to know where I’m from, where I’m going, where I’ve been, what I’m carrying, why I’m not married yet (“no wife, no life,” is an admonishment I’ve heard more than a few times), why the hell one would possibly choose to travel like this, and all that other usual stuff that people everywhere always ask me.  But they don’t ask.  They just look.  If I smile at them, they don’t smile back.  They just keep looking.  At me, of course, but it feels like through me.

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(6 lane highway, up to 14 or so at the toll gates.  It’s gonna be like this for the next thousand miles, buddy.)

Without some positive feedback of smiles and greetings from the locals, all the other crap – the pollution, the noise, the heat, the fog, the dust, the roadkill, the poverty, the stares from the weirdos – becomes quite tough to bear.  I feel myself perpetually angry in way I never have been before, in a way that I’d rather not be.  So what if it’s not standard practice for them to say “hello” to everybody, just the same way as it’s almost never standard practice to say “thank you” as much as we English speakers do?  Why is it that in China I didn’t expect anyone to speak English and didn’t get upset when strangers started talking me up in Chinese, and in Thailand I took every encounter as chance to practice my Thai a bit, but when people start speaking to me in Hindi here I find myself responding dismissively, “English, dude,” as if they had no right to try their local language first?  Why do I hold people responsible for driving chaotically here when chaos is the law of the land?  Why do I want to grab people by the shoulders and shake them violently when I see them littering by the side in the road, when in China I’ve seen government trucks dumping tons of waste directly into rivers and shrugged it off?  Is this some sort of racism in me, bubbling up only now that I’ve finally left the land of Mongoloid races and Buddhist religion which as served as my home for most of the last decade?

And what is my job as a traveler, anyway?  To observe, to learn, to enjoy what I can, to accept whatever else – but not to judge, and certainly not before I can speak the language, ask a question, or even approach an understanding of a local’s perspective.  This country doesn’t owe me an easy journey, a welcome with open arms, friendliness at every turn, somewhere free to sleep every night, or anything at all.  Further, freedom isn’t only the ability to choose where to go and when, but the ability to choose what attitude to adopt and how to respond, internally and externally, to whatever happens to happen.

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This all became a bit clearer to me once things started to go right.  A young snack vendor who charged me one hundred rupees ($1.60 ish) for what should have cost ten found me on Facebook and thanked me for making his day.  A guy pulled up next to me on his motorcycle, chatted me up in good English, and took care of me for two nights and one day when I passed through his town later.  Street vendors warned me to put my bananas in my pockets, then came to my defence when the monkeys spotted my goodies and started to chase me.  Proprietors of roadside restaurants allowed me to camp in or behind their buildings, sometimes even comping my meals.  None of the crap changed – I still swerved around dead dogs several times daily, still had my head pummeled by horn honks, still got weirded out by those stabbing stares – but in time I became able to see it all as if through different eyes.  Things that pissed me off for the first week simply felt absurd; I chuckled at the ridiculous traffic the same way I did from the back of a friend’s scooter.  In some sense, I came to regard things not as happening to me but just as happening in the in the place where I happened to be.   It’s similar to something I wrote about way back when when, in China, once, briefly, I learned how to not get annoyed by the honking: the sound is there, and it’s unpleasant, but it’s up to me to decide whether to take it to heart or let it go.

Now it’s a month later and all that stuff has passed: the anecdotes are there in my memory, but all the anger and frustration have faded, so much so that even having bothered with them in the first place seems like a terrible waste of energy.  Couldn’t I just have chosen to be happy from the very beginning?  And if so, can’t I just do it now?

I don’t want to say I’ve learned anything – particularly in view of the fact that my realization in China was something like 2 years ago now, and I appear to have just reawakened to the same fact a second time – but I guess I do owe UP a bit of a thank you for helping me see it again.

Phew, that was a long preamble!  Let’s get on with the story…like, you know, that one time I went to the Taj Mahal.

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It was a 600km detour in the exact wrong direction, meaning I had to ride an extra 1200 on my way down south, but my good cyclist buddy Mingyulee, who got here a year before me, insisted that it wasn’t too be missed.

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Can’t say it’s not impressive.

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When my parents asked me how it was, all I could think of to say was, “It’s just…really big.”  I think what I meant to say was that it’s enormous in proportion to its utility, which is precisely nada.  Churches and cathedrals can be huge, but they also accommodate lots of people, offering spaces for prayers and for services.  The Taj is just (“just”) a mausoleum that took a thousand elephants and twenty thousand men twenty years to build.

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With an entry fee of $13, dozens of touts out front, and a few hundred tourists inside – even at 7:30AM in the low season – I couldn’t help but get that empty feeling inside.  How many of them spent how many thousands of dollars to come spend an hour in front of this big hunk of stone taking photos?  Then again, I guess the same could be said of my 40-hour cycle ride.

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Varanasi, another UP-Must-See.  Among the holiest cities for Hindus, full of temples, pilgrims, and riverside pujas (religious ceremonies).

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The “Ghats,” s several kilometer-long brick boardwalk with steps offering access to the Ganges river.  Pilgrims believe that washing in the water cleans them of their sins.  Indians who can afford it often arrange for their corpses to be packaged and sent to the cremation Ghat – where a few small fires burn 24/7/365 – for their final rites.

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The fact that the river is full of cremated corpses and the effluent from a city of 1.2 million doesn’t seem to bother anyone.

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Bodh Gaya, home to the Bodhi tree under which Buddha found enlightenment.

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The tree.  It’s the center of a pleasant, open-air temple complex where Buddhists from all nations come to pay homage.

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The Mahabodi Temple consists pretty much of this single spire and the small shrine inside.

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Devotees come to offer fruit, rice, and snacks to the Buddha, but it’s so stuffy and crowded inside that nobody can manage to stay for more than a minute or two.

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Most of the action takes place outside, where everyone prays, chants, meditates, or pays obeisance in whatever way their particular sect of Buddhism teaches them to.

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From CH 04 (res)

 

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Who needs guidebooks and world heritage sites when you’ve got characters like this every three inches?

 

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“Hey Bro, one snap please!”

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The guy on the left is the one who overcharged me by a factor of ten for some green peas.

 

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Adolescent chef wielding purple UP carrot.

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Some little f*xxers near the Taj who asked me to take their picture, swarmed around me on the pretext of looking at the shot, and then proceeded to try to pick my pockets.

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Upon seeing me walking around in a tanktop: “Bro, why don’t you maintain your body?”

 

 

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River trip with my impromptu host Ketan and his friends in Kanpur.

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4 dudes share that bed.  I don’t mean in this picture, I mean every night.

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Typical roadside restaurant camping experience.  I’ve now got uncles numbering in the thousands.

 

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Surya, my host/guide/chauffer/culinary advisor in Varanasi.

 

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One Response to Uttar Pradesh: Don’t Take It Personal

  1. wd says:

    Stealth buffalo man, gotta watch out. Is it May 4th yet?