The Art of Jugarh: One Part DIY, One Part WTF

I don’t remember the day it started, but I do remember the first day when it got bad.  Chris and I were on our way to Shillong, Meghalaya (“Abode of the Clouds”), northeast India.  We had stayed the night before with a local Khasi tribe Adventist pastor, his three kids, and his wife, who had been given an oven and taught to make banana bread by German missionaries some years before.  It poured that morning, with such ferocity that we wondered whether the monsoon had finally showed up, and whether we’d be better off turning around and heading for the plains.  That would have meant skipping those wondrous “Living Root Bridges” of Nongriat, though, so we packed our bags and waited for the rains to end.

Around midmorning, they did.  We said our goodbyes and took a group photo, along with a loaf of banana bread for the road.  Within a few minutes of setting out, I could tell something was up: with each turn of my wheels  I felt a thump, as if I were running over miniature speed bumps, or had a chunk of one somehow attached to my back tire.   I had been semi-ignoring the issue for months, figuring that the roads themselves were to blame.  I preferred not to believe that the bike itself could have an issue.  Though, if it did, it was probably something in the rear axle.  Might have gotten bent that time we hitchhiked for two days in a rickety mack truck to get back over the 4,200 meter pass we had ridden over across a few weeks previous.

Except that I had had the axle and hub checked, cleaned, and greased just two days before in Guwahati.  The problem had to be something else.  Now the thump had grown so severe that it felt like more of a shudder – with every revolution, my bike and I would bounce an inch or so to the left and make a sort of clunking noise.  Not the sort of irregularity that you want when trying to deal with the totally unpredictable Chaos that is Indian traffic.

It was raining again, so Chris and I pulled off at a restaurant on the side of the road.  While Chris took pictures of the saddest looking puppy ever, I finally bit the bullet and inspected my bike closely.

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Sidewall wear.  Each time this worn-out segment of tire hit the ground and took on the full pressure of the weight of the bike (and, more significantly, me and and my last few Indian meals), the inner tube squished down, pushing outward and to the left.  That explained both the bump and the tremor.  I pictured the likely future in my mind’s eye: the wall would become so weak as to be unable to contain the tube, at which point either the pressure from within or the pinching from the rim above would cause the it to rupture.  Something similar had happened to Chris not too long before – a loud pop, the sound of rim scraping on pavement, a few days of hitchhiking and public transport to get to a bike shop, and a full week waiting for the right new parts to come in.

The source of the wear was still a mystery.  Had I been underinflating my tires?  Maybe it was those four months’ worth of “Heinous/Hellacious/Atrocious/Bodacious” roads?  Maybe because all those mangoes we were gifted in Myanmar put too much weight on the rear of the bike?  Thankfully, those questions didn’t actually need answering.  I switched to my spare tire, and once the rain let up, we kept on keepin’ on, because we wouldn’t be true fauxbos otherwise.

Dysfunctional as it was, though, I didn’t want to toss the old tire.  It barely had nine months and 10,000km on it, and the tread was still plenty good – I had used my last one for a full year and nearly 15,000.  That, and it was a primo tire, Schwalbe Marathon Mondial, nearly puncture-proof.  Also somewhat expensive and hard to replace.  It was quite an eyesore, all gnarled, dusty, and dilapidated, but there was nowhere I could store it except rear and center, right on top of my backpack.  It got in the way every time I needed my jacket (often) or my ukulele (not), but I was determined to stick to my “No Trash” rule and get this thing rehabilitated.

Which turned out to be hard work.  I looked around Shillong, capital of Meghalaya, but couldn’t find anyone who seemed like they might be able to fix it.  500km later, I also failed to find anyone in Siliguri, the 2nd biggest city in West Bengal.  Up in Darjeeling, home to so much trekking and MTB activity, nobody could help me; bike shop owners told me to go to the tire stores in the bazaar, where I was told, surprise surprise, to go back to the bike shops in town.  It wasn’t until I reached Hub Outdoor in Gangtok where the owner, a certain Mr. Palden Sherpa, who takes his 7 year-old son on weeklong MTB excursions through Bhutan, that I got the important life lesson I had been lacking: “You need to learn Jugarh.  No tire or bike store is going to fix that for you. Go take it to a cobbler.”

I knew just the place.  Or rather, the dude.  Around the corner from my host’s place, on a particularly large and untrodden patch of sidewalk, an old man was always sitting there Indian style on a mat on the ground, surrounded by piles of insoles and stacks of cans of polish.  He spoke no English.  I didn’t know whether I was supposed to speak to him in Hindi or Nepali, but it didn’t matter, because I think they’re just about the same, even down to the fact that I don’t know either.  I produced the tire and pointed out the sidewall, making gesticulations that to me indicated sewing.   Without words, the cobbler picked two suitably-sized leather patches from his stash of swatches, glued them to the inside and outside of the tire, and sewed them together with some thick-gauge rubber string.  Within two minutes and at a price of two dollars, the coil of rubber I’d been toting around for a solid month had been restored into an actual, useful, even valuable object.  I still didn’t know what Jugarh meant, but  I liked it.

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(Original picture lost to the ravages of time.  Eventually, these patches became both an addiction and a necessity.  By the end of my time in Nepal I had about ten of them between my two tires.)

I returned to Mr. Sherpa’s shop to proudly show him the results.  He nodded knowingly.  Such Jugarh-ing is apparently a normal fact of life for Indians.  I asked him, “What’s that word you used before?”  “JOO-garhrh,” he said, with a roll on the second syllable that sounded vaguely piratical.  “How would you translate it into English?”  Despite his nearly flawless command of my mother tongue – likely his third or fourth language – he wasn’t able to come up with an answer.  “It’s like…you just find a way to make it work.”

Ohhhh.  It means to “MacGyver” something.  Not that I said that to him.  It probably wouldn’t have pleased him the way it did me.


Having been on the road a while, and being naturally cheap (if not necessarily inventive), Jugarh is something of a lifestyle for me, so I enjoyed having a new word for it that I could use when talking to locals.  Saying something like “Oh, yeah, I just did a bit of Jugarh on this tire here, now it’s almost as good as new” almost always earned me a smile and a laugh.  [Not quite as good a reaction as I would get after I learned the Nepali for “I’m a fartknocker” (mo buhdua ho), but pretty good.]  I even used the phrase to other cobblers when the problem cropped up again and I sought their assistance on another segment of the tire.  “What do you mean you can’t fix a bike tire.  Just do some Jugarh, uncle!”  Mission accomplished!  Later acquaintances told me the Jugarh means “improvising,” while the internet seems to think it means “innovation.”  A recent Slate article, source of that image above, included it in a list of generally untranslatable words that subtly express a concept missing in English.  Do a google image search for what sort of things count  small computer CPU fans attached to the back end of chopsticks so your noodles get cooled off before they hit your mouth, a truck cab sat on top of a donkey cart, wearing motorcyle helmets while chopping onions – and you’ll see why no definition really works.  If I ever happen to run into someone who works for Merriam-Webster’s, I know what word I’m going to suggest for the next edition.

So, that’s a long way of saying that I love Jugarh, both the word and Idea, and that I have some of my own Jugarhifications that I’d like to share with you.  After about a thousand days of being bounced around in my panniers and subjected to all sorts of other use and abuse, there’s hardly anything I own that hasn’t tried to kick the bucket at least a time or two.  And there’s hardly anything that I haven’t managed to Jugarh back into shape.

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Case 1, my proudest Jugarh, accomplished long before I knew the word.  Spontaneous sidewall eruption (thanks to a tube explosion of unknown origin; the protruding tube pictured above is the replacement), Cambodia, January 2014.  Only 2,000km into the life of this new tire.  Repaired right there on the side of the road using two Jugarh all-stars: superglue and duct tape.

(This image here is what popped through my when I noticed the other tire giving way eight months later.)

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And a slice of rubber spacer to distribute the pressure of the tire over to the still-intact part of the tire.  This high-quality MacGyvering took about fifteen minutes to think up and work out.  It gave my tire another TEN THOUSAND kilometers.  Then, when it fell apart, I had a cobbler fix it up all fancy, and got another 3,000 out of it.

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If it’s a little hard to tell what’s going on there, that just means it’s a truly inventive and competent Jugarh job.   My front rack here started getting all wobbly on account of a snapped eyelet, threatening to swing inwards and wedge into the spokes.  Definitely don’t want that.  Turtle Brother, my companion at the time and a pro bike mechanic in real life in Korea, scoured the ground nearby and picked up some string and aluminum (?) wire.  We tied everything together, ran the wire through, cinched it up with some pliers, and Voila!  No more front rack issues for the next 20,000km.  Good fix!  Much easier than buying a whole new bike frame.

Bonus Jugarh down in the bottom left.  See that roll of old inner tube cinched together with a cable tie?  That’s buffering a spot where my pannier had rubbed a divot, and then a whole, into the aluminum rack.

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1)  Eyelet on back rack snaps.  No place left for the beam to connect to the bike frame.

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2)  Clever neighborhood mechanic uses a rubber splint to attach a small steel plate to the beam, then drills a hole in the plate.  Runs the original screw back through.  It does the trick.

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3) Six weeks later, the bolt breaks in half.  No way to remove it except to find a friendly mechanic/Jugarhist willing to drill straight through the frame of my bike (eek!).  Not a mod to be undertaken lightly.

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4) Widened the hole, replaced old bolt (now smithereens) with new, longer, thicker, heavier one.  And a few extra washers for good luck.  Still working, one year later.  Even survived Nepal!

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We wrapped a bunch of these rubber strips around just about every joint that could accommodate them, hoping to add some extra stability and reduce weather exposure.  Now that a year has passed it’s all starting to unravel…

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So, that takes care of the tires, the frame, and the racks.  What else can go wrong?  Well, the foam grip on the handlebars can start to split.  Easy enough to take care of with a length of twine.  Looks more earthy now, too.

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This large water bottle holder (highly recommended) used to have a little elastic strap running through there to secure the neck of the bottle into place.  One man’s trash is another man’s treasure: within thirty seconds of the elastic snapping  I spotted some discarded rope on the roadside.  The rest was history.

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By the way, have you ever wondered how I manage to keep that super-cool flag fluttering behind me at just the right angle all the time?  Answer: Obtain five feet of bamboo from a farm.  Cut off bottom foot and attach to rack with duct tape.  Cut off next foot and discard.  Use the remaining length (now tapered enough to fit into the base) for the flagpole.   Booya.

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Speaking of duct tape…these guys will still work for raisins and peanuts. FYI I do have one as-yet undamaged one that can manage curries.

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Just in case.

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When the cord started trying to escape the mouse, I thickened its base with duct tape and jammed it back in.  It prolonged the mouse’s life another two or three months until an unfortunate run-in with some toddlers and puppies.

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My camping pot.  The left handle had cracked and fallen out, making the pot rather difficult to lift, particularly with boiling water sloshing around inside.  Rather than toss it out, I took it with me to the bazaar in downtown Darjeeling, where I found a little hole-in-the-wall electronics shop with a kindly uncle hooked me up with a foot of wire and some electrical tape.  Then he went ahead and did the whole job for me.  And wouldn’t take my money after.

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Did you really think I could wear this thing daily for three years without having a little stitchery done?

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Thankfully it’s nicer on the outside than on the inside.

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Know what the last words I heard in Chinese before crossing into Laos were?  “Hey, your butt is showing.”  It was the dude behind in line at immigration, pointing out that the monkeybutt had separated from the spandex at point 2.  Could be from all that cycling, but spandex is also particularly vulnerable to getting pinched in chairs and stuck on protruding nail heads and that sort of stuff.  So many Aunties have gone to work on these that by now they’re probably more patch than pant.

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My Om coconut, which serves to protect from ghosts (locals in more than one country have told me that) and remind me of an old friend.  It has an unfortunate but understandable tendency to crack every time my bike gets knocked over.

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The front may be aesthetically pleasingly held together by that luscious string, but the back has become a bit beastly.  The crack was sealed with superglue from the front, and with a slimy paste of wood glue and woodchips on the back.   Plus some spongy stuff from the side of the road to absorb the shocks from all those potholes.

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Aaaaand my old shoe, which started giving up at about 20,000km, even though I kept wearing it until about 30,000.  The Annapurna circuit proved to be its undoing, but I couldn’t find a suitable replacement or decent cobbler up there at 13,000 feet, so I did what I could.  Which was this.

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Now, lest you get to thinking that The Art of Jugarh is only useful when something needs to be repaired, I tell you: think again!  While admitting that I don’t actually know what the word actually means, I’m going to go ahead and assert that it can also apply to using objects for purposes other than what they were intended for.  For example: plastic bottles like this one can be reused to carry your staple grains!  They’re much easier to work with than plastic bags, which rip and tear and leave potential ant food all up in your panniers.  Plus if you can find your rice or lentils wholesale, you can avoid the bag altogether.

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The PB jar makes a nice home for some of my cleaning gear, which is so filthy that I wouldn’t want it in my panniers even after double-bagging it.  Nice bonus: the jar fits into  bottle holders on the outside of the bike.

The glasses case is a nice way to sequester stuff you don’t want squashed, like ointments and pills, or scraped, like matches.

And that toothbrush?  Yup, picked up out of a hotel room garbage can.

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The rest of my cleaning kit: non-matching creepy-ass work gloves and a few pieces of cloth, all picked up from roadside ditches in Vietnam.

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A rolled-up jacket, a rolled-up pair of pants, and my sandals – what have they got in common?  They all work as pillows, if you’re sufficiently exhausted or sufficiently serious about being a fauxbo.

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Should you need more of those compression straps, don’t pay five bucks a piece for brand names at a fancy shmancy outdoor gear shop.  Patronize the local seamster or seamstress, who almost certainly has both elastic and velcro in stock.  They can make them in custom sizes, and even crazy designs (that X there is to secure the lid of my camping pot while we’re on the move), for less than a dollar a piece.  Plus it’s a good excuse to go interact with someone from a level of society you might not have occasion to cross paths with otherwise.

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This is a bit of a only-cyclists-care thing, but don’t you hate it how if you want to replace these little Ortlieb inserts, you’ve got to pay $6 per four pack?  And isn’t it worse that they only sell mixed packs of 8mm and 11m, so that two of those are guaranteed to be the wrong size for you?  Seriously, three bucks each for those little boogers, and you’ve got to throw two other pieces out?  Why not just sell them for $6/ 4-pack and let people pick their size?

I couldn’t stand the senselessness of it all so I collected wrong-sized ones from friends for a while, then when I finally found a toolmaster, I borrowed his Dremel and hollowed them out a little more.  It might have taken me two years of scrounging and four hours of labor, but I finally got what I needed without appeasing The Man.

Though, to be fair, I do love Ortlieb.  Their bags are great.  Just give us cyclists a break on these little inserts, would ya?

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Replacing the original nylon band with this twine wasn’t a big deal, but figuring out that I could run the whole thing through a loop at the top of my tent ant effectively turn it into a lantern was.  Awesome, one less gadget to buy!

Thus ends the tour of all my broken crap.  I hope you have enjoyed this collection of random bric-a-brac, along with all the strange stories which have glommed onto it.  I myself have truly enjoyed this walk- or was it more of a hobble? –  down memory lane.

However, I’m sorry to say that this post is going to have to end on a sad note.  Some objects, it seems, cannot be resuscitated, even not by that odd mixture of DIY and WTF known as Jugarh.  Please join me in wishing a fond  final farewell to the two (I guess three) hardest-working members of my team:

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All that carnage wreaked by my buns o’ steel.

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My Merrells.  The tops are still in decent shape…by my standards.

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But even I can’t sanction this.

Thanks, guys.  It was great while it lasted.

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12 Responses to The Art of Jugarh: One Part DIY, One Part WTF

  1. Suze says:

    Yeah OM COCONUT!!!

  2. Sunny says:

    All I can say is amazing. And I reckon that I still have a long way to go after reading your blog.

  3. Myra says:

    Great inovations. Some day you will need to read meetings with remarkable men by g.i. Gurdjieff . I have been in a group that studies his method since 1971. He and his friends used stilts to rise above the sand storms in the desert and some other unusual devices.

  4. Andy says:

    I did some similar impromptu bike repair a while ago:
    I’m still using the improvised solution

  5. Mom says:

    Macgyver would be proud. Do I recognize some Mom handiwork on the X strap?

  6. mingyulee says:

    what a poor Mike!
    The fenders look still nice!

  7. Greg Sandford says:

    Duct Fuct Jugarhing! That was hilarious and damn inspirational. I was reminded of concept of function and aethestics in Zen and Art of Motorcycle. I laughed hard when I saw you put a piece of discarded rope on your bike as an added decoration. You’re a badass!