Friday, December 30, 2011

On the malaise of modernity

Perth, Australia, December 31, 2011

I recall with nostalgia, the days when I awaited with some anticipation the annual letters of distant friends that highlighted with wit and nostalgia events that transpired for them and their families, during the previous year. As this year is about the end, in contrast, its with some apprehension that I contemplate this blog, aware that many have asked if I will “blog” our travels to Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan this year and deciding what it is that I really want to say. For now at least, since I am comfortably ensconced in Perth Australia, our second home, or perhaps more correctly our first and only home, since we have sold our house in Toronto and all of our earthly possessions, other than our touring bicycles and minimal amount of gear with which we travel now reside, in a 10’x 17’climate controlled storage unit in Toronto, in what was formerly a factory that manufactured widgets, I feel the onus of what to write about acutely, in our rapidly changing world.

I am much too aware, that in this age of desk top, lap top, note-book and net book computers, not to mention the pervasiveness of smart phones, tablets, and the advent of social media and countless apps, communication is increasing at an exponential rate and yet I find that most messages are correspondingly denuded of content. Devices as status symbols are becoming the message as witnessed by the little signature lines that proudly state that the message was brought to you courtesy of some i-phone, i-pad, berry or some variant of an android attesting to the smarts of the owner.

While not quite a Luddite, since I own a most basic cell phone, and travel with a netbook, I am aware that majority of people are content answering the most frequent of questions in their communication: “where are you”? and “what are you doing?” I have a need to express, if anyone cares, what I am thinking and feeling and of course long to hear from others beyond the simple indication of where they are located and what particular activity they are engaged in.

Travel has always been an eye opener for me, especially over the last nearly two decades, in the less economically developed parts of the world and the influence of technology on our behaviour and our values.

I recall being in Israel in the early 1970s, and people lamenting how prior to the prevalence of telephones, friends and family used to arrive unannounced and were entertained spontaneously. Today, I am told that in some contexts its considered impolite or intrusive to telephone someone without arranging for a telephone conference time by some other device.

I am also old enough to remember the great European tradition of coffee houses, where the cadre of intellectuals and the romantically inclined would while away hours discussing some important matter of state, possibly the next revolution or some revolutionary romance, as the case may be. Today, coffee houses are virtually devoid of any conversation as the focus is on the keyboard at hand, or perhaps on intrusive cell phone conversation.

I can also recall the days when going to a gym meant some interaction with people and when it was common practice to exchange greetings on the street. Now with i-tunes most people are plugged in and tuned out, oblivious to the world around them.

Another effect of technology is that we are googelized, and no longer experience the world directly, but filtered through some technology that allows us to live vicariously from second hand information that we can so readily collect from cyberspace. No need to experience the snow, sun, rain or humidity when the trusted device provides minute by minute updates. The world of opinion leaders and reviews can tell us what to eat, read, watch and consume, and if need be, most or all our needs can be delivered to the comfort of our homes. If we do venture out we can fully expect that peak, perfect experience we have had the opportunity of googelizing to a predictable pablum like pulp.

The advent of all enabling technologies also have social consequences that reinforce patterns of dependent behaviour. Cell phones initially were sold as communication devices to be used in cases of emergency. Now we have become so fearful of not being able to communicate where we are and what we are doing at all times, that even seven year old children must have the latest smart phones, so parents can helicopter over them and protect them from all manner of perceived evils that may befall them. Needless to say, with a heightened awareness of the dangers of the world, children no longer walk to school, take public transit, play on the streets but join their parents, safely cocooned indoors: kids glued to their video games and the parents to so called “reality” TV shows or spreading the latest disease of inane videos to go even more viral.

While travelling on two wheels on the back roads of south-east Asia is not a complete or by any means the only anti-dote to escaping the malaise of modernity, it is a step in the right direction. The world is a far safer, warmer, more welcoming and exciting place, than the dependency inducing self-indulging technologies would have one believe.

It is still possible to have unique, unanticipated “aha” experiences by leaving behind the creature comforts of our confines. However, time is running short. As we in the economically advanced world are quertying away much about nothing, oblivious to others around us, the planet is being blanketed by the same devices and there are no guarantees that our world will be a safer and happier place for it. Au contraire, given the recent experiences of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movements demonstrate, anyone with or without a legitimate case can cause governments to topple or the rights of democratically elected peoples to be trampled upon. Worse, anyone can produce a device of mass destruction causing much more than minor social disruption. Do I hear the clarion of anarchists to unite? But that’s another story. Happy New Year.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


Three weeks ago, Alison and I decided to sell the house I have lived in for nearly 31 years, which needless to say involved a great deal of de-cluttering,selling most of our furniture and letting go of STUFF, which no doubt in our newly found lightened, if not enlightened but homeless state, will allow us the freedom the explore more.

It is as if I have to let go of the past to make room for the future.

As I applied this principle of making room on my computer's C Drive, I came across the piece below that I wrote on the occasion of the tragic death of two infant boys.


All life is impermanent. We are all children of the Earth, and, at some time, she will take us back again. We are continually rising from Mother Earth, being nurtured by her, and then returning to her. Plants are born, live for a period of time, and then return to the Earth and in doing so, they nurture our gardens. We humans are unique in our knowledge of our own immortality, and our ability to deal with our own passing through reason. We also have choices about and some sense of what we leave behind.

Today we are here to reflect on the passing of two souls who did not yet have the awareness of the meaning of life. We are also here to comfort two parents and in some way all of us, who have the ability to reflect on the imponderable question of “why”.

Leslie and Susan from their meeting and deciding to share their lives, from their determined plans to have a family, from their earliest knowledge of life having been formed, from the moment of knowing there were two fertilized eggs, to the surprise of anticipating two tiny males, with each passing week watching them grow, planning for their care, the myriad of details, its hard to conceive of two beings more anticipated by two parents than whose passing we are here to observe today…alas, they are no more.

We are grieving with Leslie and Susan… for what might have been: the hands they longed to touch, the faces they longed to kiss. Their arms hold no small lives; their hearts are filled with sadness. We are all confounded by the overwhelming sense of loss of never seeing the world through four eyes and two inquiring minds, to not knowing what they might have looked like, what they might have thought and what legacy they might have left behind.
Our rational minds crave order. We have a tendency to think that life is a linear progression, where we go from A to B to C and so on, and if don’t get to B we can't get to C. Events like this, tell us that order can be an illusion. If we think carefully about our own lives, we know that the pattern of our past is often serendipitous and accidental as when fertilization formed the miracle of two lives; and the mystery of why they are no more. We don't know why.
Perhaps our challenge in life is not to know precisely where we are going, but to prepare ourselves so when those wonderful moments of serendipity occur or when we are confronted with mysterious painful ones, such as the passings we are observing today, at times like these we can listen to our hearts and know what it is we need to do. So in remembering the loss of two tiny souls, let us reflect on the joys, the excitement, the anticipation, let us remember how their possibility fertilized our imaginations and hope that their memory will yet take us to a higher plane, where our hearts can roam free and where we can listen to the little voices inside all of us. Life is impermanent; memories live for ever.

September 23, 2003

Finally, our trip in Northern India and Nepal

As the first taste of winter has arrived in Toronto, and am planning this year's winter getaway,I am reminded that I left the blog incomplete. I have no excuse. Below is our route, should anyone like to follow our fading tire tracks.


January 8 – February 15, 2011

Date Destination Distance
Jan 7 Perth - Kuala Lumpur 0
Jan 7 Delhi 0
Jan 8 Delhi - Gurgaon 0
Jan 9 Palwal 72
Jan 10 Vrindavan 87
Jan 11 Vrindavan 20
Jan 12 Agra 78
Jan 13 Agra 0
Jan 14 Agra 0
Jan 15 Agra 0
Jan 16 Dhaulpur 61
Jan 17 Gwalior 69
Jan 18 Datia 76
Jan 19 Orchhe 50
Jan 20 Orchhe 0
Jan 21 Nowgong 110
Jan 22 Khajaraho 71
Jan 23 Khajaraho 0
Jan 24 Khajaraho 0
Jan 25 Panna 47
Jan 26 Satna 73
Jan 27 Chittrakoot 83
Jan 28 Chittrakoot 0
Jan 29 Allahabad 137
Jan 30 Allahabad 0
Jan 31 Mirzapur 95
Feb 1 Varanasi 67
Feb 2 Varanasi 0
Feb 3 Varanasi 0
Feb 4 Varanasi 0
Feb 5 Varanasi 0
Feb 6 Varanasi 0
Feb 7 Sarnath 18
Feb 8 Sarnath 0
Feb 9 Sarnath 0
Feb 10 Sarnath 0
Feb 11 Sarnath 0
Feb 12 Gazipur 72
Feb 13 Dohrighat 81
Feb 14 Kushinagar 92
Feb 15 Gorakpur 57
TOTAL 1,516

1,516km in 21 full cycling days = 72km per day (average)


Feb 16 Sunali 100
Feb 17 Lumbini 26
Feb 18 Lumbini 15
Feb 19 Butwal 46
Feb 20 Tansen 40
Feb 21 Waling 62
Feb 22 Pokara 62
Feb 23 Pokara 0
Feb 24 Pokara 0
Feb 25 Bandipur
Feb 26 Bandipur
Feb 27 Malekhu 76
Feb 28 Kathmandu 46
Mar 1 Kathmandu 0
Mar 2 Kathmandu 0
Mar 3 Kathmandu 0
Mar 4 Kathmandu 0
Mar 5 Kathmandu 0
Mar 6 Kathmandu 0
Mar 7 Kathmandu 0
Mar 8 Kathmandu 0
Mar 9 Kathmandu 0
Mar 10 Kathmandu 0
Mar 11 Daman 0
Mar 12 Daman 0
Mar 13 Heteuda 57
Mar 14 Sauraha 74
Mar 15 Sauraha 0
Mar 16 Narayanghat 24
Mar 17 Butwal 118
Mar 18 Chatauta 66
Mar 19 Lahami 60
Mar 20 Kohalpur 118

1,136km in 18 full cycling days = 63km per day (average)


Mar 27 Radrapur 100
Mar 28 Moradabad 75
Mar 29 Ghaziabad 14
Mar 30 Ghaziabad - IGI Airport 0
Mar 31 Toronto 0

GRAND TOTAL: India + Nepal 2,841km in 42 full cycling days = 68km per day

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Changing gears in Kathmandu

When we set out from Delhi to Kathmandu, we not only had in mind a ride through a kaleidoscope of sights and terrain, but a mission to support a cause that Alison is involved with, namely to raise funds for a program to help kids in various parts of the world have educational supplies. Alison calls her mission Kinder Kit Fundraiser: B.I.K.E = Bicycling In Aid of Kids Education and thus far she has raised more than $3000 but I am sure she would be delighted by additional contributions, which can be made by following the link

After a couple of days of sightseeing, being in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we shifted into a neutral gear an became tourists. There are in Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur literally thousands of temples, stupas, monasteries scattered around narrow alley ways and the famous Durbar Square which dates back many centuries. Besides the Nepalese Buddhist and Hindu temples, there are a large number of beautiful Tibetan temples with lamas in Burdgundy robes, all in a setting of east meets west and everything in between. As might be expected there are countless shopping and eating opportunities and the gamut of places from simple rooms in guest houses to five star hotels, all in a valley that on a clear day seems magical and on others, it’s easy to see, or should it be not seen why it’s one of the most polluted cities in the world.

While we did a lot walking, riding buses and taking an occasional taxi, we changed gears, not that of bicycles, but immersing ourselves in a humanitarian organization from Israel, called Tevel B’Tzedek that is doing some marvelous work here. We have literally moved in with them over the last six nights, since Alison in particular wanted to learn about the organization and to participate in trips that started very early in the morning to see firsthand in the field the fruits of their labour which indeed are impressive. Alison also had some meaningful input into some organization development issues with TbT, which is one area of her expertise.

Their achievements to date are substantial in terms of empowering youth and women, education, agriculture and early child development which can be seen from the numerous school and extra-curricular programs, arts activities, women’s groups, farming, bio gas, sanitation, water supply and health education programs which they have established.

TbT adopts a holistic approach by working closely with established community leaders and partners, and has 23 Nepali staff who manage and operate programs throughout the year. Each year, TbT operates both long and short term volunteer programs. The four month ‘’Full Program’’ operates twice a year with two cohorts and the 5 week ‘’Backpackers’’ program consists of 6 cohorts between October and May. TbT conducts extensive orientation sessions for the volunteers to prepare them for their placements including Nepali language, culture, history, site visits, workshops and discussions on Jewish values and responsible volunteerism.

During our field visits we saw terraced fields of various crops that only a couple of years ago were dormant. TbT brought water from nearly a half kilometer, introduced wells, toilets that are linked to a system to produce bio-gas for cooking year around, concrete enclosures for animals, and a new fishpond. We met with various youth, womens ‘groups, saw programs for blind kids, day care centers, school programs and much more that were TbT’s initiatives. Perhaps most moving was our living and at times participating with 20 young very energetic and enthusiastic Israeli’s who are going through a one month intensive training program, that includes learning Nepalese, prior to them going into the field for three months.
After a couple of days’ delay, which in large measure was due to the need to get an extension of our Indian visas, an entirely unpleasant bureaucratic experience, as of the time of writing, we are planning to leave from Daman, a hill town at an elevation of 2,300 meters, unless we continue in neutral gear at the urging of our hosts and stay for Shabbat.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Pokhara to Kathmandu and the 99% solution

The distance from Pokhara to Kathmandu is only 200 kms but when traveling by bicycle, these measurements can be deceptive, since they don’t take into consideration the terrain and that we have been on the road for over two months, with hardly a rest day, which as rare as they are consist of hours of walking and climbing, as fueled by the inexhaustible sights at the expense of depleting our energies. All this as an introduction to the conclusion that after 2,069 kms, and having reached the village of Naubise, we decided to cover the last 26 kms to the city of Kathmandu by hitchhiking in the back of a small pickup truck, a bumpy and hair raising experience as we crawled up the steep mountain, leading to the rim of the Kathmandu valley. The road is steep and tortuous, but what makes it daunting, is the continuous stream of trucks, buses, cars and motor cycles fighting for space on a narrow road traveling in both directions, often slowing to a crawl, and at each hairpin turn we could see the traffic ahead of us snaking up and down, like a train, hardly an inviting experience for two loaded, and admittedly tired cyclists. While disappointed, I was not entirely unhappy to have opted for the one per cent solution.

After Pokhara it was 71 undulating kms to the foot of the hill town village of Bandipur, the last 8 kms of which is straight up hill and we had already done about 30kms of climbing, we took the local shuttle truck which to our delight was just leaving. The village perched on a level portion of a high hill, became one of our favourite stops, as we enjoyed not only the uninterrupted views of the Himalayas in the distance, but the fact that this one street village with a handful of guest houses, with no car or motorcycle traffic, is a well preserved “museum” like Newari community, carrying on life as it has done so for centuries, warm and welcoming, almost oblivious to even to the in-your-face, small group of Japanese tourists, who with giant telephoto lenses, were taking pictures in unison one afternoon.

Apparently Bandipur for centuries was an important trading center on route from Tibet to India, and traders built two to four storey dwellings from local and imported hard woods, with shops on the main floor and accommodations above. Some 70% of the buildings in the village are original and many are well preserved, even though some 50 years ago, the highway below diverted the traffic, which has led to the community’s decline, hence a magical window onto the past, with women carrying heavy loads of wood or fresh grown produce, children playing amongst the handful of temples and the occasional goat or cattle that passes by. We explored the track up several hundred meters to get the best view of the snow-capped Himalaya and the lows down the valley, with verdant agriculture. The two nights spent in a family home with a marvellous view of the valley were fair compensation for the basic nature of the facilities.

The early morning ride downhill to the main highway was exhilarating in the cool mountain air with the clearest views of the high Himalayas, taking nearly an hour to cover the eight kms. The constant breaking and the alternating coolness in the shade and warmth in the sun invited us to stop frequently. As competitive as I can be, I did not mind being beaten by the many groups of young kids on the way to school who raced us running downhill but had the advantage of taking the near vertical footpaths as we slowly followed the serpentine road.

While in Pokhara, the manager of our first class hotel recommended that we stop in Malekhu, where there were fine accommodations and we were looking forward to a goodnights sleep, as more than half of the 76 kms we covered were uphill. Alas, the first place that looked somewhat inviting was full and we were forced to settle at the Midway Garden Restaurant, in a room with cold shower, that I will leave to the imagination, although at about three bucks a night, was decent value.

The upside of the Midway Garden was that its restaurant opened at 5 a.m. for hungry truckers so that we were able to get going early in the morning, in anticipation of riding to Naubise, the last stop before Kathmandu. Although only 46 kms with lots of steep short hills, we were ready to settle for the night and it took some searching and the intervention of a very friendly English speaking man, who took it as a principle of national pride to ferret out for us the two potential places to stay for the night, both of which seemed worse than the room the night before since they had no nearby toilet facilities and were no doubt appeared darker and dingier since most days, electricity is unavailable for about half the time.

We had a late lunch to consider our options, and as the day was at its warmest and our mood at the lowest, we decided to flag a bus or truck down, when a driver for a local hospital picked us up and we covered the last one percent of our journey, in the back of his truck. Not entirely out of altruism, he dropped us at a guest house, no doubt anticipating a commission, but after a near two hour in ride we were happy to settle near the heart of the main tourist district in Kathmandu, the Thamel, and I managed to salvage some of my pride by striking a hard bargain and we moved out the following morning to a comfortable hotel next door, after carefully considering a myriad of options.

Still, for the first day, having been dropped in a middle of this teaming metropolis, I went through a bit of emotional adjustment asking the question “where am I?” an experience I am sure many tourist ask as they travel on organized tours and not having been connected to the land that they traverse. The experience reminded me of the many times when we took walks in the evening in the small villages of India, when many a local out of amazement would ask, “where are you from?”, as if we were Martians who have landed on the planet. When we told them we are from Canada, they probed further to find out how we got there and to be even more surprised to be told that we came on bicycles.

Happy cycling or being where ever you find yourself or others find you,


Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Nepal: what a difference a border makes

After a rain soaked arrival in the border town of Sonauli on the Nepalese side, we were not only glad for the return of sunshine that we had experienced uninterrupted for six weeks, but also for the palpable differences between India and Nepal. As much as we loved the colours, sounds and the intensity of India, Nepal while similar, felt like a new world, cleaner, less frenetic and laid back, nowhere more so the in Lumbini, which is a World Heritage Site, known for being the birth place of Buddha. The village is essentially a one street, one block affair with a few guest houses, stores and a couple of street level eateries and yet the village attracts thousands of pilgrim from around the world. The only chai shop has a few tourists and many more locals and in the early evening there is a steady parade of cows and goats, heading home to mud plastered thatch roofed dwellings.

Of course the main attraction is the giant park known as the Lumbini Development Zone, referred to as the Sacred Garden, where most Buddhist countries are building or have built giant temples and monasteries to complement the much revered Maya Devi Temple, marking the exact site of the Buddha’s birth. The Sacred Garden was designed by an architect from the land-starved country of Japan and measures one by three miles, so there are vast tracts between each nations temples that are best explored at a relaxed pace on bicycles.

We spent two nights here not only decompressing from India but to dry most of our belongings. To our good fortune, there was a major celebration of 77 years of nuns having been in Lumbini and we were invited to a luncheon, where we had authentic food as well, some local input to our next destination, Buthwal.

Instead of retracing our steps from the day before, we followed a road due north, which as promised had no traffic and for the first 10 kms was paved. Unexpectedly however, the remaining 20kms was a dirt track and gave true meaning to being off the beaten track. Still, it was a window into a Nepal where people still live off the land , mostly without electricity, and adults wear brightly coloured traditional clothes, including fezzes for men and scarves for women and where children delight in having their photos taken. Just before we reached the highway to Butwal we happened upon a wedding and had the pleasure of sharing the celebration with an extended family dressed in their colourful costumes, while a band with brass flutes, drums and 10 foot long brass horns played on.

Butwal is a prosperous commercial center which is literally at the footsteps of the Himalaya mountains and it was all too obvious as we walked around town that we were heading due north on the road that pointed straight UP at a steep angle, very much in contrast to our riding in India, which for the most part was flat.

Our destination was Tansen, a hill town appropriately named, some 40kms away, and while the distance seemed short, since nearly all of it was uphill. At the end we were much more tired, than after some of the 100+km days on the flat roads of India. Clearly the more than 2,000 kms we had cycled while in Australia and India were not sufficient for the demands of the long and steep mountain climbs. But what a thrilling ride it was as the road snaked in deep cut gorges, parts looking like the Fraser canyon of British Columbia, with spectacular terraces and rice fields and rushing blue waters below. As always, we had warm welcomes from the smiling locals in tiny villages.

Despite feeling the challenges of the climbs, we explored the town on foot drawn to the most notable site in town a 300 year pagoda like temple. Alas it was on a narrow, medieval like street, heading straight down, one for which most western building inspectors demanded handrails. Still, even from a distance it was captivating and a smiling elderly gentle man meditating in lotus position engaged us in pleasant conversation. It would have been too rude to refuse the invitation to sit with him and indeed the warm rays of the afternoon sun, and the cool still mountain air was an ideal environment for reflection. Unfortunately, my mind wondered fleetingly, from the exquisitely carved erotic sculptures on the columns of the temple of 300 years ago, reminiscent of Khujaraho, to the brass doors, bells and sculptures, but more importantly to the effort to stand up, and how much will my knees be talking to me to make the climb up to the highly recommended restaurant, filling the most urgent environmental imperative: food.

In Tansen, we stayed at the White Lake Hotel, although there is no lake in sight, but at a height of 1,550 metres, we soon understand the appellation, as the valley from our room’s balcony was a shimmering “white lake” of cloud-like dense mist below, illuminated simultaneously by the sun rising and the moon setting at the same time.

From Tansen, we were heading to the lakeside town of Pokhara, at the foothills of the Himalayas, about 120 kms away and given the previous days topography, not a destination to be reached in a day. Adding to the mystery, was the unknown terrain nor knowledge of places to stay along the way. In fact from a cyclist perspective we were one terra nova. Unlike previous trips, we encountered only two other cyclists in Veranasi, and a fairly exhaustive search of the internet showed very few others who had followed our route.

The road continued to follow some river valleys with moderate undulations there were lots of climbs of severity between various mountains. By the 40km mark we noted several very simple places offering food and lodging, one even had a tailor shop with “shirting and suiting” but none looked inviting. I also wanted to reach the halfway mark so we pushed on. Perhaps my growing exhaustion, coloured my perspective, but we decided on a lodge, the Nature View, at Waling , that had a small clean room with a detached washroom down the hall and a hot water bucket shower, but at five bucks a night, served our needs.

The following day we headed to Pokhara, where after another day of river valleys, deep gorges and rice terraces, and some tough 62kms of riding, it’s as if we arrived in yet another world for we are now in the heart of trekking country, with the 8,000 metre Annapurna mountains of the Himalayas serving as the backdrop and the main attraction, and the giant white clad teeth like peaks are clearly visible from our room, at the recently completed Hotel Trekking Inn. (A place I would highly recommend to anyone visiting these parts).

Like kids in a candy shop, we are soaking up luxuries and amenities: 24 hour hot water and a bath tub in which to luxuriate, and even a mini-fridge; television with news in English albeit all the woes of the world are not comforting; countless places offering laundry using washing machines versus our hand washed clothes in cold water; restaurants of every nationality so we have pizza and Israeli salad for lunch instead of searching for the elusive fried noodles and veggies in the villages; and shops stretched out along the lakes side road for a couple of kilometers. We spent the day shopping, in a meditative walking pace sharpening negotiating skills to acquire of a few essentials, a rainproof Gore-Tex jacket for Alison which thankfully does not have a pirated major brand’s label, new sunglasses and some shorts for me. We both get haircuts for the price of a Starbucks coffee and acquired a pocket book, carefully considered for content and weight. As we look ahead, we are already contemplating extending our 30 day Nepali visas, as we are truly enjoying this side of the border.


Friday, February 18, 2011

Leaving India: persistence and overcoming impossibilities

After a long unscheduled “rest”in Sarnath, it felt good to be back on the bikes and ride comfortably about 70 kms to the Uttar Pradesh (UP) Guest House in Ghazipur, which had been recently upgraded with good quality furniture and mattresses, the latter being the most notable requirement of tired cyclists, and as on many occasions, we were the only guest in the hotel, and it being run by the state government, had the full complement of staff to look after our dinner and breakfast needs.

The next destination, Doharighat had an identical UP guest house and we looked forward to a good night’s sleep, having had yet again an easy ride through small villages and open fields with yellow mustard seed plants and the occasional sugar and rice fields throw in. I duly approached the person behind the UP reception desk in a deserted lobby who told me quite curtly that there were no rooms to be had and then he disappeared. My suspicions were raised since there were no cars or buses in the parking lot so I just stood there patiently for a couple of minutes when Person #1 returned and I asked again if we could get a room, to which he said no. I smiled and tried to look pathetic and told him that we had been staying in UP guest houses through our travels and we were very tired after riding 80 kms.

A few minutes later Person #2 appeared, an obvious superior and after some discussion takes place between them and it’s clear that Person #1 was sent to look at a room. More discussion and Person #2 say sorry “but it’s impossible”. I once again play my ‘”we are card carrying members of UP Guest Houses” and are very tired and we don’t want to cycle 60kms to the next town and could I at least see the room that they had been discussing. Person #1 shows me a room with peeling walls but with same nearly new furniture and the much coveted mattresses that we enjoyed the night before. By this time Person #2 arrives and directs Person #1 to open another room that looked perfectly OK, other than the fact that the linen need changing and tells Person #1 to give me this ’’impossible room’’, and by the way he tells me there is no hot water.

Person #3 now appears - clearly he is the lowest man on the totem pole- and I ask him when the others have departed if we could get new sheets, towels and buckets of hot water and with the aid of a few rupees he returns smiling with everything we asked for, which only goes to show that in India even the impossible is possible with a little patience, persistence and showing appreciation of those who actually do the work. Later we dined again with the place all to ourselves, with its full complement of staff.

From the mundane issues of accommodation, we were looking forward to Kushinagar, as part of our on-chronological tour of the famous Buddhist sights demarking his life: Kushinagar being the place where the Buddha died and was cremated in 563 BCE, having come from Sarnath where Buddha gave his first sermon, to Lumbini where we are today, the place where Buddha was born.

The highlight of our stay in Kushinagar was the Mahaparinirvana Temple, that houses a 5th Century six meter long reclining Buddha, that was unearthed in 1876. Set in a beautiful parkland, the temple was truly serene and moving, as a continuous stream of devotees, in a small tomb, chanted, lit candles and brought offerings of flowers, incense and money, some of which ended in the right pocket of the attendant. As in Sarnath and in Lumbini most major Buddhist countries are represented with the own temples and meditation complexes and devotees wearing their national colours move in unison to the various holy sites in these communities.

After a short ride to Gorahkpur, we faced a nearly 100 km day to the India-Nepal border town of Sonauli. Despite the fancy digs at the Park Regency we found six staff sleeping on the lobby couches at 7:15 a.m. well past the time the restaurant was supposed to open, so we decided to leave on near empty stomach to beat the heavy morning traffic, typical of all large Indian cities. We had covered about 10 kms when over a span of a few minutes the western sky turned black and the fierce winds forced us off the bikes and rain began to fall. Fortunately within a few minutes we found a house with an overhang and a half open rollup garage type door where we were protected from the heavy downpour and were able to put on several layers of clothing to keep warm. Through the open door, two kids about three and five offered us chairs inside their room, brought us tea and snacks while we could only make out the shadows of their mother, who no doubt, out of modesty, kept out of sight.

After an hour it started to clear and conscious of the fact that we had done only 10kms and it was past 9:30 we started to ride first in the drizzle and using heavier downpours as an opportunity to consume road side chai but our frequent stop making it to our destination seemed like a remote possibility. Still, we had made some progress and after a good lunch by 1pm, we “only” had 50kms to go. By this time we were both thoroughly wet but persisted at the goal of reaching our border destination; waiting for a bus might have caused hyperthermia and moving was the only way to keep warm. With only a few kilometres to go and still about two hours of daylight left, we had more tea and our favourite “snack” a two- egg- bread- omelette from the road side egg-wallah.

Fortunately by this time the rain stopped but it was getting colder, thus I was elated to find the local UP Guest House only to be demoralized as they were obviously full, and preparations were well under way for a wedding. A quick inspection of the only other optoin in town convinced me that our best option would be to sleep on the Nepali side, the only limitation being the bumper to bumper traffic and slowly setting sun. The road was a giant mud bath that added to the challenge, but by persistent manoeuvring of our bikes between cars, truck, buses and rickshaws enabled us to push our way to Immigration . We cleared Indian Immigration reasonably quickly and in about 15 minutes we also had our Nepali Visas.

We were both getting seriously cold and a couple of full hotels added chills to our spirits as the prospect of riding in the dark the four kilometers to the next town started to loom large. Fortunately, persistence paid off and we did land, in the near dark, at the Mamata Hotel, recently completed with a lovely room with hot water. We were both on the verge of tears of joy. Later a small group of overland adventurers in a sizeable bus, who had arrived at the hotel the same time as we did, told us that it took them three hours to grind their way through the border traffic, which goes to show that cycling has its advantages, if you are persistent and are prepared to ride the distances to soak up the local scenery, which at times come with some rain and loads of possibilities.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Selected Images of India #4

From Sarnath: the week the wasn’t

The last time I set digits to the keypad, we were anticipating a Shabbat dinner but it wasn’t the way things turned out. Ever since arriving in Varanasi, to a person, told us that everyone gets ill there, no doubt in large measure due to the abysmal state of sanitation and the water quality of the Ganges. Not that we are smug but Alison and I have had more than thirty cycling trips between us in south east Asia and India, without ever being sick. But by last Friday it was clear that Alison wasn’t about to continue our streak and by late afternoon had a mild fever and severe stomach woes. Disappointed as we were, we could not make it to Shabbat dinner. A few days resting, a dose of Ciproflaxin, and a steady diet of water and tea lead to Alison’s partial recovery. This allowed us to return to Chabad House for a welcomed meal, accompanied by lively discussion of life and Judaism. It turns out the both the Rabbi and his wife, she in her late thirties and he in his forties found their calling after a life of work and travel so we could well appreciate his advice and experience that amongst other things one is best off eating street food, where there is a large turnover and one can see what is being served.

Still, by Monday we decided to cycle to Sarnath, only 15 kms from Varanasi which promised being much smaller in size and the center for Buddhism, to be quieter and also less polluted. The roads getting there, mostly dust tracts under an expressway under construction. On arrival we were delighted to find that Sarnath wasn’t anything like Varanasi, which I earlier described as the confluence of all the contradictions of India. Sarnath is the place where Buddha gained enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and gave his first sermon in 528 BC and the sites and monuments here have been holy to Buddhist ever since.

Sarnath continues to attract large numbers of pilgrims of many nationalities and yet retains the charm of a small village with basically one main street lined with vendors offering fruits, vegetables and stalls and small shops selling a treasure trove of religious art, ornaments and Buddhist books. There are spacious Burmese, Bhutanese, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Tibetan and Vietnamese temples many with monasteries where many come for retreats and dharma gatherings.

So in this environment of green spaces and lovely gardens, only moderate air pollution our good fortunes continued as did Alison’s recovery. We found Shivam guest house, built less than a year ago with huge rooms, with large windows and gleaming tile floors and beds designed to accommodate a family a at least five, the perfect place but Alison’s recovery was slower than we anticipated. So much so that we approached the local clinic to discover that we had to register for the lofty sum of one rupee and the medical consult with the doctor and all of the medications we received for all possible travel related ailments which hopefully will last for at least another thirty trips, were completely free of charge!

While this wasn’t the week we planned, by tomorrow, we should be on the road, not only of recovery but one of exploration of this land of many incongruities: one of the calmest, smallest communities, a place revered by Buddhists the world over, next door to the holiest and most chaotic Hindu place of worship; in a nation with many poor people, an ill Canadian is treated by a doctor, free of charge. Had we stayed with our original plans, Sarnath might only have been a short stop on our route; such is India and we are thankful for the week that wasn’t.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Varanasi, known as Kashi, the City of Life

It has been said that India is not a contradiction in terms, but sets the terms for all contradictions, and this is especially true in Varanasi. I give a few rupees to a beggar and an Indian man next to me says “good karma”. Later I read in the India Times that the American Bill Gates is urging Indian billionaires to be more charitable. Indeed in India there are many billionaires and countless living in poverty.

Just before arriving, on the perfectly smooth four-lane expressway cows wandered and not unexpectedly trucks and cars travel in the wrong lanes, as everywhere in India. At the city’s periphery there are gleaming modern Toyota and Ford car dealerships next the tent cities and mud dwellings and women making paddies from cow droppings and artfully arranging them by the road side. The pavement stops and suddenly it’s a mud track due to construction and traffic is at a standstill. Throughout the congested narrow lanes of Old Varanasi, where a cow can barely pass, one always needs to be on the look-out for speeding motorcycles.

But it’s along the Ganges, locally the Ganga, one of the most holy of rivers to Hindus, in this City of Life, where life and death stand in stand in dark contrast. Pilgrims come to pray and the sick and elderly come to die. By all accounts one of the most polluted rivers in the world yet by the thousands healthy-looking people pray at, swim in and drink the water of the Ganges along the dozens of ghats. There are colourful and very moving puja ceremonies before sunrise and at sunset. Amongst the ghats are several special “burning ghats” for cremation, bodies wrapped in white, placed on piles of wood, surrounded by family and ; most have their ashes scattered in the holy water. But even here there is a class divide: one ghat for the untouchables and the rest positioned such the wealthier are closest to the water. Unlike the healthy, in seeming contradiction most of the ill and dead animals are not cremated but are weighed down by stones and sent into the Ganges.

The celebrations of life and death seem almost equally serene as the prevailing belief is in reincarnation. The “puja”, meaning respect incorporate elements of most religious and folk art/dance traditions that I have seen. There is the constant chanting, ringing of bells, use of water, flowers, incense, candles and lights. The blowing of a conch sounding just like the shofar, the use of smoke and candles as in Eastern Orthodoxy and the delicate hand and body movements of the dancers of Thailand and Indonesia. All this in a setting where huge crowds gather; cows, goats, dogs roam freely. The crowd is mostly women in multi-coloured saris, men in their woollens, often covered with thick blankets to ward off the chill of the dawn or dusk, children selling small offerings of flower pedals with a candle to be floated down the river, holy men in pure white or deep orange robes and thankfully, not that many foreign tourists, who seem to arrive by the busload and head straight for larger boats to observe the ceremonies are far enough off shore such that only their ineffectual flashing cameras indicate their presence. Most independent travelers appear as mesmerized by the fusion of activities and only an occasional oriental stands out as he or she makes grotesque faces in contorted positions, for the benefit of the camera.

Beyond the river there is a maze of streets to wander in the old city, a number of temples, a vibrant university set along landscaped boulevards and several major arterials full of all the modern conveniences of a city of about two million. We have been here three days but decided to stay an extra night, having found several restaurants and street vendors to our liking, one special one being the Aum Café, run by a spiritual ex-Californian woman with simple, healthy food and she is proud of using only fresh ingredients and for not having a can opener, and free wi-fi is an additional bonus.

On Thursday night as we are strolling after dinner, the unmistakable figure of a man with a large black hat, black suit and white shirt, a Chabad Rabbi appears. He is putting up posters in Hebrew, having only arrived the day before that Chabad House is open and we will be having a Sabbath service and meal with him this evening.

What is the chance of such a Sangam, the confluence of events, in this case two tourists, who had planned to move on the day before, meeting a Rabbi, who had just arrived in town the day before, on aminor side street at the south end of Varanasi: only in India, the land of contradictions and conjunctions?

Namaste and Shabbat Shalom


chief explorer

andrew's bicycling tours

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Selected Images of India #2

Erotic sculptures from 1000 years ago

Life as it is, from Khujaraho to arriving in Varanasi

If it was not for this blog, the countless photos and the universal ritual of reviewing the daily tally of digital images which I imagine is similar to great white hunters of long ago, tallying their daily kills. In our case, we have two cameras and Alison in a humorous moment suggested saved our marriage, as such we can each focus on our own experiences. Without these reminders I would have difficulty recalling, where we have been, what we have seen and try to review it in some orderly manner. Beyond the daily kilometers covered, which now totals 1,200, soon at some level all the myriad of experiences start to meld into a gigantic pot full of everything India is well known for, compounded by the fact that we are experiencing it by being self-propelled on two wheels and at times internalizing all of the nuances, as we move from place to place, and by osmosis we become Indianized, a word not yet in the Google Dictionary.

From Khujaraho to Satna, we rode through pleasant country side and for the first time I became aware of the marking on the map, “Panna Hills” which by the standards of the Rockies or the Himalayas are mere random errors on the generally flat landscape, but they still engaged slightly different muscles groups and were a welcome variety and a taste of what’s to come as we head towards Nepal. It being Indian Independence day, we were regaled in every settlement by everyone heading to a school yard or other point of assembly carrying small flag and the speeches and singing followed us for most of the day. As luck would have it there was yet another wedding in the hotel we were staying, and after dinner we were “invited” to join the festivities and sample the fruits and sweets that were offered.

While I do a fair amount of planning for each trip, after Satna I was not sure which way we were going to ride towards Varanasi, the quality of the road surface and the promise of a place to stay being two key considerations. The two faint pink lines on my map, which I was told was a single lane road, and reassured that it was in good condition became our route to Chitrakoot, and what a great ride it turned out to be, with virtually no traffic and at least half the distance through rolling hills and forest with little or no habitation.

In Chitrakoot we spent the afternoon and evening wandering the narrow streets leading to Ram Ghat, one of the revered bathing places to mingle among the pilgrims and worshipers followed by a boat ride on the river, each river boat being saddled with an additional passenger: a pink eyed pure white rabbit.
Just as we were starting to have dinner, a couple from Australia arrived and perhaps like us, not having seen a foreign tourist for many days, and none on bicycles yet, they were eager to trade stories as like-minded people do. Each encounter is a quick recap of a life and we soon learned that the Ozzies had rented their home for five years and are thus “forced” to be on the road for the most part for the duration, needless to say, prompting us to give consideration to extending our own four month foray.

The ride to Allahabad promised to be challenging as the map indicated a distance of about 130 kms and in anticipation we had an early start and the tanks were filled with morning chais and parathas. What we did not count on were the abysmally rough road surfaces which constituted about the first 50 kms. Conscious of the need to keep a steady pace the pounding took its physical and mental toll, for in the early low angle of the sun, the road like a mirage shimmered perfectly smooth, and for very short periods indeed it was quite ride able, but for the most continued like an old rock and roll song, ‘’shake, rattle and roll’’. Slowly my mindset changed: rather than experiencing disappointment as the apparently smooth surface in the distance turned out to be otherwise, I gradually assumed that the road will be rough and took delight in the few smooth patches as they materialized. It brought to mind the slogan on a T shirt I had seen earlier “MBA Master of Bad Attitude” which could be interpreted in many ways but it became a mantra as I conquered my own attitude to the road and accept “Life as it is”.

Thankfully, the road did improve and by the 110 km mark as the sun was once again slowly sinking, to my horror I saw Alison lying motionless on the road about 25 feet behind. By the time I raced back a concerned crowed had already formed and traffic around here were rerouted and she was able to tell me that she did not see the rut in the road and had fallen off her bike. In a minute or so she regained composure and reflected on her scraped elbow, a large bump and we were directed to a nearby first aid station and her wounds were attended to and she soon recovered her composure. While only about 25 kms from our destination, we considered taking a bus but she made the heroic decision to ride the distance. We arrived at what later turned out to be the outskirts of Allahabad in near pitch darkness and it appeared nobody had heard, or understood, the direction to our planned place to stay.

As our map of the city only showed the core, we moved in the darkness, each with rear flashers but with no way for me to see Alison cycling behind, she kept singing “I am right behind you” until at one intersection a confident young man of about 18 was able to draw a small sketch, which to my horror indicated several turns and about four more kilometers to go. My lateral suggestion to hire a rickshaw and follow it to our destination was met by a firm directive from the local youth: “You will not hire a rickshaw; you will ride”. We followed instructions and we continued in the Saturday night traffic, moving at a snail’s pace towards our destination; a half hour later our guide who was on foot gave us an encouraging smile and a wave as we waited to make a turn at a particularly congested intersection.

Using the Catholic Cathedral as our landmark, which we discovered was beautifully lit at night; I pull up to our hotel, only to have my heart sink to be told that they were fully booked. More cycling and several “sorry no rooms” we finally arrived at Hotel Valentine, thankfully several notches above a “love hotel”. After 137 kms and riding, including one hour in the dark, I instantly loved the room but was still motivated to negotiate a 35% discount. And yet again, after a dinner were ‘’invited’’ to a very lavish wedding in the fancy hotel across the street, where we enjoyed the fireworks, the music, the chanting and the sweets; - After all, this is life as it is in India.

On Sunday morning we were inexplicably drawn to the huge Cathedral, where a moving service in English was in progress to commemorate International Leprosy day and was our way of reflecting on and giving thanks to our own good fortune. We then toured four majestic tombs from the 1600s but the highlight of the day turned out to be a visit to the “Sangam” meaning the auspicious confluence, in this case of two holy rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, which draws hordes of pilgrims, which every 12 years attracts a staggering 17 million. This year’s Magh Mela, a couple of days away, is a more minor celebration but judging by the sea of tents set up as far as the eye could see and the throngs of people everywhere, we quickly understood why there were no rooms to be had.

Next day we stayed at the Utter Pradesh Government run guest house at the foot of the bridge crossing the Ganges. Luckily they had a room for us, one of a few of several dozen that had been renovated, the rest being gutted and under construction. Once again, amongst the rubble we had a great stay and as the only guests, the full attention of staff with a delicious dinner and early breakfast as requested.

The smooth concrete road leading to the edge of Varanasi was a joy to behold only to be jolted into another reality as the main street leading to our destination was under construction, reminding us of the Ying and Yang of life. Once again, we found the hotels listed in tourist guides, especially with views of the Ganges, fully booked. Thankfully, there are no shortages of places to stay and a modest hotel, in a quiet location with a large balcony and a magnificent view of the rivers awaited us, a sharp contrast to the throngs at the main ghats, and the labyrinth of narrow streets that seem to attract speedy motorcycles. All is well as we accept life as it is.


Monday, January 24, 2011

Agra to Khajuraho: Eat, Sleep, Ride and Reflect

After leaving Agra and seeing the incomparable Taj Mahal and Agra Fort, it seemed as if everything would be an anti-climax but quite to the contrary, partly to the cessation of the pulsing tooth and getting into a rhythm of the trip, its seems as if each day has its own uniqueness not the least of which is eating, sleeping, riding and having time to reflect on the marvels of the universe.

Within a few hours of riding from Agra, we left behind the heavy cloud of smoke and grime, so characteristic of large cities and the agglomeration that is an extension of New Delhi. To our delight, the temperature also warmed up, starting the day in the high single digits and reaching the mid-twenties quite rapidly, as the blue sky became the norm. Riding in glorious sunshine with a faint coolness in the air, is ideal for cyclists.

Even the traffic started to abate, obeying the gravitational model of traffic generation: the volume being directly related to the size of the cities and inversely related to the distance between them. After Agra only Gwalior and Jhansi were of any size, and soon thereafter, we left the four lane national highway, for the mostly quite two lane roads. Much has been said about the chaotic traffic in India, and certainly in the cities and at most cross roads, where people, animals and goods are transferred from wholesale to retail; from large buses to small tuk tuks, from trucks to small vans, it is noisy, dusty and with a fight for space seemingly disorderly. And yet, after a few days of riding, cyclists are the most nimble and despite our loads, we are able to navigate and like the locals, we too can fight for a fair share of the space. Although I have no musical talents, nor did I ever aspire to acquire any, at times in the heaviest of traffics jams, I think of the hapless concert master, on the first day of an orchestra’s rehearsal, full of head-strong musician: everyone knows the score, ie. the rules of the road, and yet wants to play the music their own way; in the midst of all the other players, I am humming the choral section of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and while not a perfect rendition, it feels and sounds good.

One of the joys of riding and particularly being in India, is that it’s largely vegetarian, and after two and a half weeks, and riding about 700 kilometers, we still not have had any meat, and that the food is wonderful. Partly because of building up a healthy appetite, but mostly because of eating “authentically” on the street and on the roads, without menus, without a discussion of the degree of spiciness, no specifying of ingredients, (unlike the interminable ritual of order a coffee in the western world), there has not been a single meal which has not begun with both of us declaring “this is delicious”. There is the ubiquitous chai, hot, spicy and fragrant, an ounce of which is an energy booster, and at its best, from a chai wallah who takes pride in adding fresh ginger and boiling it long enough to meet an exacting standard. For breakfasts, potato stuffed parathas with thick yogurt-like curd have become our staples. For lunch, usually at a place where truckers stop, it’s a “tali”, meaning a complete meal of several dishes, (ie curries, dhal, aloo gobi, rice and tandoori baked breads), the best feature of which is that it’s an all you can eat affair, and we have a prodigious appetite and the food is offered and served with delight. Along the way pick up bunches of small bananas, tangerines and as fragrant guavas are in season, we buy them by the kilo. In the evenings, we have simple bread omelettes, full of spices, a simple soup or perhaps more breads, and in the touristy towns, it’s hard to resist pasta, which unlike in most places in North America, has not been siting pre-cooked, is freshly cook, el dente!

Accommodations have also been excellent ranging from staying in one of only eight rooms in the fortified palace in Orchha from the 1500s run by the Madhya Pradesh tourist department, where being the only guest were treated royally, to small guest houses along the way, where the staff to guest ratio is at least five to one. On a couple of nights, there being no heating available, we did benefit from having as many as six heavy blankets as the temperatures dipped to single digits: this and our mode of travel, the fact that we are not eating meat, is our contribution to lowering carbon emissions.

Beyond the basics, the riding, scenery and sights have been also great, such that between Orchha and Nowgong, we covered 110kms on the flat to rolling two lane country road, almost effortlessly. As in most parts of the world, where people still live off the land, it’s the people waving, smiling and greeting, who make the journey special.

As if great food, comfortable stays, and friendly people were not enough there is the ever present antiquity, which is barely if at all mentioned in our guidebooks, the focus of which are the star attractions. In Gwallior, we had a peak from a distance at a fort from a distance on top of a 300 foot hill as we rode into town. After a quick shower, and no lunch, we took a ride to the easterly gate, where a magnetic force seemed to draw us up a steep cobble-stoned ramp, through five different gates to ward off attackers, to the fort itself and various temples. Exiting by the western gate, we were once again full of “wows” as we marveled at the massive carvings directly into the stone face of the hill.

Between Gwalior and Datia, from a distance of about 10kms over the horizon, a series of spires loomed large and even though it was getting late in the day, we were drawn to Sonagira, well off the main road, with dozens of breath-taking temples dating back to the 1500s. Later that day, stopped at a small village cross-roads, peaking through an opening was the Datia Fort, eliciting more “wows” of excitement. To add to our delight the only guest house in the region had a recently remodeled room, with a clear view of the fort for us to admire in the rays of the near full moon, and a warm welcome from Israil Khan, who is from Kochin, who is a Muslim, but we could not help but imagine that at one time, his last name might have been Cohen?

We are now in Khajuraho, a small village with about 25 astonishing temples dating from 900 to 1100, reminiscent of Angkor Wat in style and period of construction. This was the place I initially found by accident and being one of the more remote World Heritage sites, held special attraction and allure. It being well of the beaten path also accounts for why so many of its delicate and intricate stone carvings have survived in excellent condition for more than a 1000 years. Although comprising only about 10% of the total, the most dramatic are the erotic carvings, some a meter in height, showing the range imagination that might make not only the ancients but some current visitors blush. To some they might give a new meaning to the term “hard-core” but above all the carvings illustrate a profound joy and love of life, a love of life that continues to permeate this Incredible India. Our life is simple in this land full of contrasts where appropriately the national flower is the beautiful lotus that can flourish under any, and often adverse conditions whose pedals are held together by central stem, perhaps like a divine force that unites all people of diverse religions and beliefs.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Some selected photos

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Cycling 80 kms to the nearest dentist and monkey proofing in Agra

On day three we arrived in Vrindavan, the birth place of Hare Krishna, a spiritual center with 4000 temples. The town is like most things in India, a study in contrasts. From the ancient temples dating back to the 1500s with intricate carvings, falling into disrepair, to a new monstrous one being built by one man at a cost of about $300million, who according to a local fancies himself to be a god. The road approaching the town is beautifully paved and huge condo towers are sprouting in the fields, whereas the pilgrimage route around the town, is like a bumpy road in the desert, apparently the result of someone having forgotten that sewers are to be built before the road is constructed, hence all the digging and bedlam.

During our first morning, we meet Rasa, a professional musician, a warm, charismatic, Polish man with a calm presence, who lives in Shanghai, and was off to a music lesson but we agree to meet for dinner in the hotel, where he owns a unit, having intentions of perhaps living there on a full time basis. While touring the town with our bikes, I become more aware of a nagging tooth ache, which has progressed over the last few days, which I reluctantly decide will need attention.
At the information office of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness ISKCON, a very friendly person, while short on tourist info is most willing to help with finding an endodontist in Agra, some 80 kms away. The prospect of going back to Delhi, and having to retrace our route and spend a few days there, just did not appeal. Within seconds he proudly shows me the results of his search, and I am copying the particulars when I notice that the address is somewhere in California. On my mentioning this he says “Google is not God” to which my instinctive retort is that “God is not Google”.

At Vrindivan, as in many spiritual centres of the world, the search for meaning goes on, and the struggle is best manifested in the two solitudes: God and Google.
Late over dinner with Rasa, after an exchange of travel experiences, our talk returns to the meaning of life and his being a devotee of Hare Krishna, we share opinions about the emptiness of the western way of life with all the material possessions, versus the contentment of many India, with so little. He is impressed by our mode of travel and our preference partly out of necessity, to not consume anything but food and accommodations.

He offers me his dentist in Delhi, a driver wallah who could drive us to Delhi and back in one day at a reasonable cost, but I politely declined, having myself found on the internet, a dentist who seemed highly qualified, who does general dentistry and also a specialist in the technically complex process of implants. Thanks Google!
The ride of about 80kms to Agra was noteworthy as my pedal stokes kept pace with the pulsations in my tooth, but my mind was more occupied by the prospect of having a root canal treatment in a strange setting since I my own selected purveyor of dental services in Toronto for the last 45 years. But after three appointments with Dr Ajay Singh, I think my tooth is now well and we were able to enjoy the sublime experience of the Taj Mahal at sunrise. To try to describe the experience is to repeat the trite as this is truly one of the marvels of the world and one that more than lives up to its reputation. Beyond the majesty of the lofty structure, the intricate details in white marble is the knowledge that it was built in 1631 as a tomb by Shah Jahan after his wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. Can there be a greater devotion to another? The sequel to this saga, and surprisingly it has not been made into a Hollywood blockbuster, is that the son of Jahan imprisoned the father, for either squandering the people’s money or squandering his inheritance.

Walking back to our Hotel Maya, a lovely guest house filled with colourful Magen Davids, one for each of the six chakras and our resplendent with white marble floors, walls, marble end tables to match, I am thankful for all that we have and reminded that our most immediate need, after a number of cool days and nights, when nothing would dry,the temperature warmed up, and our laundry is safe and dry, having strung all of our clothes through the sleeves on the line. Welcome to monkey proofing your laundry in Agra.

Namaste + Hare Krishna

From New Delhi to Vrindavan, India

On arrival in Delhi, the front page of the newspaper blared that the school vacation is extended because of the cold, and that numerous flights, thankfully not ours, and trains were cancelled because temperatures are about five degrees below normal with record lows of 40 years. Because of the cold theatre owners were bemoaning the fact that people are not venturing out in the evenings and numerous deaths were associated with the deep freeze. Cold is hardly what one associates with Indida and It’s a small consolation, but we did have early warning that this will be a cool trip, not as in the 70’s lingo but as in temperatures being lower than what one generally associates with India. My early planning suggested that nights would be in the teens and during the day, it would warm up to about 20 degrees, with a likelihood of some fog and a rare drizzle.
During the ride from IGI (Indira Gandhi International) airport, we were in our own daze, having departed from Perth at 2:30 a.m. but we rapidly had a sense of being in India. The traffic had its unique way of flowing, thanks to the belief of drivers that by constantly blowing their horn they create imaginary spaces where there is none, and that flashing the bright beams, somehow acts as jet propulsion energy, a new branch of quantum physics, an invisible after burner, speeding them along to the next opportunity to break precipitously.
At our comfortable guest house, Soni Villa in Gurgaon, we were warmly greeted by Sunjay the manager and Sunny the owner. The old fashioned single element electric heater in our room, potentially deadly to the touch, did take a bit of the chill off in our marble clad room, clearly designed to cope with the heat of summer. We spent a day getting acclimatized by walking about in this sprawling suburb of high rise office buildings, hotels, shopping malls and apartment blocks that have transformed the sleepy rural village over the last 15 years.
One benefit of starting our cycling in 4 degree cold and 100% humidity, was that packing our gear was remarkably quick: we wore nearly all our clothes, properly layered. By riding we quickly got a sense of the “real” India. There is no substitute to seeing first-hand the massive pace of construction with high rises sprouting out of fields, heavy machinery alongside women in colourful saris toiling along the roads. From a real estate perspective, most telling are the simple 10’ by 10’ tent structures used as sales offices to sell the apartments.
Yet within 20km, we were back in familiar India – with colourful markets, vendors selling fruit, fabric and clothing, Brahman bulls in the street, water buffalo along the roads, carts being drawn by camels and horses, motorbikes, motorized tricycles and trucks overloaded with wares, and the constant noise of horns blaring as vehicles navigate roads and intersections. We stopped in a delightful small town, Sohna for a delicious meal: our standard fare of chipatis, daal, aloo gobi and sweet fragrant chai which we enjoyed at a simple family run place, watching the many men with colourful turbans and huge bushy mustaches – each craggy face furrowed with deep lines and piercing eyes, they were friendly and happy to be photographed. We watched women in colourful saris of red, orange and magenta, wearing thick shawls against the cold, toiling in the fields or engaged in other manual work, while children shouted greetings to us as we cycled by. Day one of our 80-day adventure involved a cool 72 km in the saddle – so far, so good.
Day two found us tempo riding along National Highway #2 a multi-lane expressway, of sorts, where traffic flows in every direction and a stay at Grace Hotel in Palwal, by which time we were getting used to the practice of the ancient art of highway usury. After a simple meal on the road, we were presented with a bill about double the norm. I said no and smiled. The waiter said yes with a straight face. I said no with an irritated voice. He said yes with a sterner face. I said no with a big laugh. Ten minutes of back and forth and the waiter retreats to consult and we leave after a reduction of about 40%, smiles all around.
At the above hotel, I asked the rate, to be told 2500 rupees. I say but website indicates 1400. An immediate OK; to be followed by a demand for taxes and service charges of 25%. We shake hands on 1500 all in. Welcome to traveling on the tourist highway. It pays to pay attention and not just to the traffic.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

New Year, Perth Australia and New Delhi India

I believe that this is my 16th time in Perth, (and Alison's 26th) which perhaps explains why I have not yet been motivated to blog about the experience, even though I could describe in excruciating detail the 26 hours of actual flying time and the nearly 48 hours it took to get here, by way of New Delhi. But having done it so many times, its no longer memorable and even the experience leaving Toronto at minus 20 degrees and arriving in plus 40 degrees Celsius, seemed hardly worth a mention. Then there are the endless bicycle paths along the river, lakes and ocean, the exotic cockatoos, pelicans and the famous black swans, and did I mention the white beaches of the Indian Ocean, and yet I have stayed away from the blog as if this is all so "ordinary".

Perhaps its spending time with family, ranging from Issy the patriarch in his ninth decade and his great grandson,Daniel in his nine month, and the familiar family patterns of eating, sleeping, nightly movies etc. which has been so much the focus of our stay; the fact that in about two weeks we logged about 450kms on the bikes and the odometer on my bike passed 71,000 kms also seems to have gone by without much fanfare.

Then I came across an article by Matt Ridley that described how the brain is more active when it is surprised. It cited an experiment wherein volunteers followed a moving pattern of dots while having their brains scanned. Occasionally, a dot would appear out of step, which caused the brain to be more active.

Ridley then goes on to suggest that based on related research, that the human mind's main preoccupations is prediction, which is based largely on past experiences, and that the longer the memory of past events, the better ones ability to predict future possibilities.

In my case, as my short term memory is fading, I look forward to those random dots and recharging the memory bank with memories and experience, of which which I am sure there will be many, as we enter the New Year, in New Delhi, India and travel on to Kathmandu on two wheels.

Wishing you many new dots and experiences in the New Year,