Sunday, March 29, 2015

Culture shock: going from India to Spain; from people to places

The morning we were leaving India, just two days ago, a friend wrote, among other things "I thought of you and the upcoming change in weather that you will experience, to say nothing of the change in culture." Below is my slightly edited response.

As you so well anticipated, I have been reflecting on the upcoming transition from India, and Asia in general and going to Spain where it will be sunny but cooler, but more importantly a change in culture and traditions. As much as I love travel, I am painfully aware of some misgivings about the transition and if it were not for the fact that Alison has never been to Spain, I am not sure it would be my first choice as a destination specifically, and Europe in general; perhaps its because my own background. Like the joke about a person bragging that he is going to Europe, and the other responding, "Big deal, I was born there". When traveling, I am also aware of the saying, if you like home cooking; eat at home and Europe is very much like home.

It goes beyond that and I cannot explain it in my still foggy state of mind at 5am this morning, albeit I am having my first coffee (mud). I think it goes to the root of culture. I find people in Asia generally warm and welcoming, curious about us as strangers. I have written about being stopped and asked for photographs; people on motorbikes and scooters constantly barraging us with questions, mostly in one of the many incomprehensible languages in India, and with a little bit of English, wanting to know our country, where we are going, how we like India, how old am I and inevitably, parting with a smiling wave wishing a "happy journey".

In India, we attended three huge and very lavish weddings, where we felt like we were the guests of honour and part of the family and it was genuine, perhaps in part because my own craving for family, as I am now an orphan and my children live some distance away.

Then there is the countless random acts of kindness. Asking directions often leads to a person taking upon himself to say, "Follow me on a motorbike", and patiently taking us through crowded city streets, as we move much more slowly, to our intended destination.

Riding along on a quiet country road, a couple of hundred feet away, I see a man running in the field as if chased by a wild elephant. His one arm is waving and the other is holding his shirt and he clearly wanting us to stop. I slow down and his intent is clear and he is totally out of breath when we meet by the roadside. He opens his shirt tail that he was holding and with a big smile hands me a banana, which just happens to be my favourite food on the road. Then another banana, and more. I count about six and ask Alison to help. Like a bottomless pit he keeps offering more and between us we have trouble holding onto them. We try to resist but he insists and we have nothing but a smile and many thanks to show our appreciation for the 12 bananas he has just given us. We wave and he runs back to the field to continue his work.

We both ride with two round side-view mirrors on our bikes. One broke due to a minor mishap. We pass a store selling frames and mirrors. The owner comes to us and I point to the broken mirror and he immediately tries to take the mirror off and is frustrated that he has to wait for me for to use a special wrench to remove it. He gives it to one of his workers, who spends about 15 minutes just removing the broken pieces as they are soundly glued. While we wait, we are offered tea and are peppered with questions. A half-hour later we are set to go, a repair that would nearly be impossible to effect in Canada and he refuses payment. "You are our guests in India."

At a highway dhaba, a truck stop eatery. We have tea and cookies. Once again, the owner and his family refuse payment, saying "You are visitors in India". The only thing they ask is that we hounour them, by taking a photograph of them!

Similarly there are countless bicycle puncture repair places. One of my inner tubes blew up in such a way that I did not even attempt a repair. Almost as a test, I approach a fellow, show him how to use my pump on the special valve and a few minutes later my tube is as good and new and he waves me away with a smile when I offer payment.

The list goes on.

In the western, (sometimes called the civilized world), when we talk about our travels in Asia, the most frequent question asked: "Is it safe?". There is of course, poverty in India. People work incredibly hard, and yet I have never felt unsafe, felt any kind of threat, day or night. I suspect most of us have a fear of the unknown, the stranger, people who look and behave differently than we do. But I have never felt fear here and only some mild degree of discomfort a few times, largely due to an inability to communicate, which is overcome by smiles, handshakes and the countless greetings and the simple acts of kindness, of perfect strangers.

And now we are in Barcelona. Of course it does not help that I have my own misgivings of big cities, the very high youth unemployment and a history I associate, to some extent with differences in religion, culture in Europe and South America, where crime is more rampant. As if to reinforce my preconceptions, just yesterday one of Alison's friends, who has lived in Barcelona wrote:

Be aware that the pick pockets are REALLY bad in Barcelona - so much so that you shouldn't have your phone out when you're walking around - if you have to text or make a phone call don't do it walking around - especially if you're anywhere between Plaza Catalunya and the port, sit somewhere in the middle of a cafe (i.e. with people between you and the sidewalk).

Yesterday, our first full day in Barcelona was perfectly wonderful as we walked the city for about 8 hours practically non-stop, feeling perfectly safe in the streets crowded with tourists, enjoying the brilliant, crisp, sunny day, with my valuables safely stowed in a money belt and my cellphone carefully hidden. The city and its architecture is stunning: clean, vibrant, orderly and is very much in contrast to India. The shock of prices will take some time to adjust not the least of which is the 7 Euros to enter the Cathedral, which we passed on, as we have little to repent.

It was while buying a SIM card for the phone that the major contrast emerged. Vodaphone, the company that gave us nothing but headaches in India is the largest service provider here so I approached them with some reluctance. Thankfully they reinforced their poor organization by telling me that they are out of SIMs and that I should try their competitor Orange, a French company, that I knew was the second largest in Spain.

The young woman at Orange was a delight. She was on the phone but indicated for us to wait and she had a beaming smile as she spoke to another customer. I also could not help but note that she was very attractive: tall, black hair, tanned skin, perhaps of Indian background??. She wore a black blouse and black jeans which were accented by an orange belt, which matched the colour of her lipstick. To boot, she was very efficient and in a few minutes we were on our way with the SIM installed and functioning.

Only when we were leaving it struck me that in India, we would have asked (and she would have been proud to have been asked) to have her photograph taken. I am sure there is some deep meaning in the fact that In Spain, at least thus far, we take pictures mostly of buildings and places; in India, it was mostly of people.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

tricks of the trade

In my earlier blog about what this fool has done, I described our travels by bicycle as comparatively easy, and now that we are Delhi and feeling elated about having cycled 4,333 kms, the trip in hindsight appears almost seamless with no significant untoward events . Admittedly, there were some hot humid days in Goa, and the five days leaving Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas were very tough - for reasons of topography ie mostly hills and some unusually inclement weather. However, overall, our ride of has been quite comfortable due to a number of reasons.

This trip began with the notion of riding from Goa, through the center of India to Amritsar near the Pakistani border, to the Himalayas and return to Delhi. One of the challenges in planning this was that, unlike other well cycled areas, I could not find any other blogs, travelogues or other mention of anyone else doing this route or one similar to it.

One of the biggest challenges we faced was trying to ensure we could find accommodations each night within a reasonable riding distance of 60 - 70km each day. As such, my route planning consisted of finding dots on a map, sized and shaped to reflect the population of the place, to ascertain whether we could bed for the night, a task not helped by Google since the word 'hotel' in India is often synonymous for an eatery, but the thought of sleeping on table tops was not very inviting.

Fortunately, we discovered that Google uses the Indian Yellow Pages Directory to map "hotels". However, in a rapidly growing and tech savvy country like India, where very few use landlines and even fewer advertise in the Yellow Pages, we were pleasantly surprised to find more good quality lodgings, many built quite recently, than indicated by Google. As well, after a few weeks of riding and finding lots of comfortable places to sleep, and hotels/eateries along the way, and with our improving physical stamina, we were on a number of occasion able to cover more than 100 kms per day, giving us a wider selection of destinations and places to stay.

Of course a lot more goes into a bicycle trip than eating and sleeping, and I wanted to share some the simple aids and tricks of the trade, that have made our travels over the years so much more enjoyable, as shown in the photograph below.

Given the objective of travelling as lightly as possible and without carrying too many duplicates, it is important to be able to repair clothes, shoes, bags, bicycle parts that crack, break, tear or otherwise become unusable.

My first choice for repair almost anything is duct tape: strong, flexible and quite fashionable in the colour black. Duct tape is suitable for many tasks that require mending, binding or patching. In an emergency it has even served to fix a thread bare tire.

Next in line in my bag of fixes is super glue, in gel format. Gel, unlike its conventional format that oozes everywhere, and usually binds one's fingers to everything to which it is applied, has the same properties of strength with the virtue of having the consistency of toothpaste, and staying in place once applied.

I also carry some chicken wire: highly flexible and strong to bind and secure larger objects together, a case in point on this trip is the repair to my alloy bike rack that cracked in three places. Since the rack repair would have required very high temperature welding, my gel super glue and chicken wire has done the trick for the last few months.

In the food department, our all time favourite is a half liter light and compact, electric kettle. Along with two plastic bowls and two small cups, we have been able to enjoy tea and coffee, at any time (albeit that finding dark, French roast Arabica coffee in India has been a minor miracle! as was finding mint tea for Ali) and we have also discovered the joys of preparing whole grain instant noodle soups, as well as quick cook oats, which are especially useful for early morning starts to beat the heat or afternoon snacks.

The bowls are also handy for salads, with a simple folding knife and a peeler, we have made Israelian (as it is often called here) salads of tomato, carrots, cucumber, onions and peppers and combination of fruits as well.

There is also a 20 foot length of yellow nylon rope, great as an indoor or outdoor laundry line which is a must if you plan on traveling light and washing clothes frequently.

A three inch LED flashlight (rechargeable by simply plugging into an electric socket), is most handy when walking at night; reading the small print on maps and of course, during the fairly frequent power outages.

There is also the boy scout's favourite: Swiss Army knife, with it scissors, blades, files, magnifying glass, pipe cleaner, tweezers, toothpick, bottle and can opener etc.

However, there is no substitute for some innate curiosity, a bit of child-like wonder, a sense of adventure to discover the joys of travel, hopefully helped by a few tricks of the trade.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

What One Fool Can Do...

One of the joys of bicycle touring, is not only the ability to travel independently to experience the sights, sounds, smells and the totality of the landscape, but also the mind is free to roam. At times like this, I make connections among ideas, and even think that I have discovered some profound insights. Alas, like waking from a dream, some of these ideas may make little or no sense in the cold light of day.

I recently read the book, "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed, a story about a young woman's terribly grueling tale of hiking solo 1,700 kms of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), with no prior experience or training in backpacking. At the end of her journey, she meets someone who expresses an interest in doing the same hike, and she says "You could. You should. Believe me, if I can do this, anyone can". Having read about her ordeals, I was struck by the fact that, I am sure I could not do what she did, nor do I feel that I should and am highly unlikely to even attempt, anything remotely as demanding as hiking the PCT. Maybe?

Then I paused as I considered that over the last 20 years, Alison and I have toured on bicycles, more than a dozen of the countries in south-east Asia, and are now on our longest trip, the fourth in India, four months and about 4,000 kms, which most people would consider challenging under the best of circumstances, let alone, independently on bicycles. Still, I cannot help thinking that since we learn to ride a bike at the age of five or so, and riding a bike is something we never forget, that with a bit of practice and training, most would be able to what we do: travel on two wheels, in a foreign land, with comparative ease.

The second incidence I have been reflecting on is a comment a British tourist made, while we were having lunch, in a lovely hotel restaurant. She wanted fresh orange juice, and the waiter unsure of the requirements, came back with a tetra pack of processed orange juice, to which the tourist, quite exasperated exclaimed, "why is there no fresh orange juice?" At this point Alison went to our nearby room and offered her some of our oranges, to which she responded with total incredulity "where did you get these?" What was even more perplexing is that she was traveling with a car and driver and oranges are everywhere. In fact, not only oranges, but all kinds of fruits and vegetables are available, in villages, at most country road intersections, from peddlers on bikes, from backs of trucks and even directly from farms.
Lastly, there was an article in one of the Indian newspapers about travel and that "people are searching for meaningful and authentic experiences" and "not conventional luxury travel which is available in almost every destination". They go on to suggest that the key is technology that can connect people who offer for example "authentic" in-home dining experiences, travelling by ox cart, to linking individuals on a web-based service called "withlocals" that includes personally guided tours through the slums of Mumbai, and so on.

I have also been reflecting on suggestions that Alison and/or I should write a book about our travels. While flattering, the last thing I would want to do is write a travelogue as there is already an infinite amount of information on what is out there, from guidebooks, web based organizations like TripAdvisor and the plethora of online booking sites with recommendations, personal blogs and stories and so on.

In fact, what in my mind connects all of the above: not considering a solo hike of the Pacific Crest, a tourist not stopping to buy an orange from a local market, and the oxymoron of using technology to provide "unique" experiences, and me not wanting to write a book on travel, is that most of us are inherent followers and resistant to trying new things. I believe all of the information out there has a counter-intuitive effect. Too much prior information raises expectations and often leads to disappointment: restaurants that do not live up to their billing, the Tower of London being a relative dwarf, and having seen pristine romantic photos of the Taj Mahal, many are disappointed to find it inundated with noisy tourists that obliterate the views etc.

Worse, having reviewed all the sources of information and analyzed places to see, hotels, restaurants, viewed the videos, read the blogs and peer reviews, many conclude "why bother". Why experience the reality of it all, when we can stay comfortably in our own surrounds, in our easy chairs in front of our giant computer/TV screens in ultra HD, ready access to drinks and munchies and eliminate all uncertainties and surprises and all the perceived discomforts of travel?
Yet, I continue to blog, post some photos of where we have been, trying to focus not so much on the details, but on feelings and ideas that travel generates, in the firm belief that with a little bit of planning, practice and using some common sense, that it is possible to have authentic independent experiences. Based on our own travels, I believe that the world is generally safe, that people despite language and cultural differences are friendly and welcoming, and that this is true even in, and perhaps especially in, a country like India, one of the most exotic and rewarding places to travel.

What one seventy year-old fool can do, you can too.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

All the news thats fit to eat

It was about 9:30 in the morning, and we had already been riding for about two hours, having left early to beat the heat. After consuming a fairly ample self-made "bed tea" and "bed porridge", which is another story, we had cycled some 35kms in central Maharashtra, when it felt as if we were climbing a steep hill and the same time, facing severe headwinds. Its seemed like no amount of pushing was getting us ahead: a sure sign that our bodies were rapidly running out of fuel.

Thankfully, we soon came to a cross-road, which had a few stalls, where locals were sitting sipping chai in the morning sunlight. There was also a large crowd congregating around a man, quite rotund (a sure confirmation of his popularity and financial success), who was dishing a yellow looking something from a two gallon pot. We gestured to him that we wanted to eat and nodded as he served up two plates of his steaming offering. The food tasted so marvelous that we in unison ordered a second serving, feeling our bodies instantly energized. Our sense of well-being was enhanced by the colorful yellow rice, with hints of saffron and bits of vegetables and spices, which is a local staple called poha. At the time, I could not help but think that this was the best fried rice that I had ever eaten, which triggered thoughts about our eating experiences over the last two months while cycling through India.

Had we been is some recently opened, star-chef operated restaurant back home, loved by the critics and followed by those in the know with a several month wait for reservations, I could imagine a waiter with attitude handing out menus to the privileged few, no doubt printed on fine parchment, which would call the rice dish we had just consumed as "melange aux riz provencal supreme" with accents flying in every direction. In finer print It would poetically embellish and describe it as "organic South Indian hand picked long grain rice, suffused with saffron and gently sauted with locally sourced, seasonal vegetables".

While fine dining may be the flavour of the day, for those who hunger for the latest trends, nothing satisfied us more than the plate of poha at a time we needed it: grub, food, substance, nourishment, energy served by an amicable man who ladled heaping spoonfuls of his one and only offering to the masses and to two hungry and appreciative cyclists.

In fact, during most of our Indian travels the best foods are enjoyed at eateries without menus. They are inevitably places that cater to truckers, who vote with their wheels. On the road, truck stops need no reviews nor star chefs, no menus nor flowery adjectives (which seem to enhance anticipation, but often disappoint). The wheel counts at the side of the road are proof of the pudding, not that the food is mush. The truck stop eateries, or dhabas as they are known locally, predictably offer dahl and vegetable dishes that come piping hot, highly spiced and in huge quantities, accompanied by freshly sliced onions and pickles. There is always an ample supply of hot-out-of-the-oven tandoori breads and if still hungry, a bowl of steamed rice at the end as a filler. And the service is always impeccable: quickly prepared with refills offered without demand. We have yet to leave a highway dahba on our combined four wheels hungry or well served and our pocket book hardly dented.

These reflections also remind me how much of our food in India is sourced directly from markets, bought in bulk, taken away wrapped in newspapers, tied with strings and how little of it is pre-packaged. But what is more glaringly missing are lists of ingredients which has me thinking how we in our developed world no longer eat food, but consume an infinite possible combinations of calories, fiber, fats, salt, sugars, pre or pro-biotics, various nutrients etc. As such, food shopping becomes a mind-boggling exercise in juggling combinations of ingredients and the bewildering array of choices becomes a quest for some kind of Nirvana. Food consumption in our western world and the endless possibilities leads to industries promulgating obviously conflicting diets based on fats, protein, carbohydrates, which in turn supports an industry of cooking and recipe advice and a complementary industries designed to help us lose the weight from all the over-consumption, whether its through diets or various eating and exercise regimens.

Of course in our developed world, the luxury of choice, and the constant preoccupation of evaluating, measuring, comparing, and always seeking the ultimate to give us the sense of well-being, applies not only to picking restaurants, buying food, but to nearly everything that we acquire. With rapid advances in technology, yesterday's "it" goods or services become outmoded, which in turn, create a pang for the latest, in an ever-expanding cycle of acquiring and disposing, bingeing and purging, but never being truly satisfied.

The latest fad is all the "Fit-Bits" and related digital health paraphernalia, designed to measure steps, calories, energy expanded, hours slept, distances traveled etc. all in the aid of achieving some ideal weight and state of physical fitness. All through India, people working in the fields, in construction, carrying huge stacks of wood and gallon jugs of water, seem every bit as fit as their developed counterparts, and very few seem to carry extra weight and somehow they seem to manage on fairly basic diets. From an evolutionary point of view, based on those who live north of the Arctic Circle who traditionally lived on a diet of near 100 protein and fat,and those near the equator, who traditionally lived mostly on vegetables and fish, our human body, unlike car engines that can only function on high-octane fuels, we humans are able to function quite well on some pretty basic foods and any combination thereof. Our food malaise for most, stems from a multitude of choices and over consumption, accompanied by a sedentary life style.

A few days later, we yet again are running low on energy as we approach a group of food stalls. We eagerly order two servings of the irresistible yellow rice mixture, which we consume with relish, hardly noticing that they came wrapped in newspapers: all the news thats fit to eat.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Is seeing believing?

During the early years of my high school, I was fortunate to secure through close family connections a job as an electrician's assistant, despite having no more knowledge about the subject than flicking on a switch. The job paid well and while the title seemed glamorous, the the work was anything but: more like several levels below an apprentice sanitary engineer. Beyond the pay, the job had benefits: working using some physical skills, with brick and stone-masons, mostly friendly Italians, who took pity on my meager lunches and shared their giant coolers filled with sandwiches, fruit, desserts and mandatory wine, which was a godsend to an underage teenager. None of these benefits could hide the fact that I was the low-kid on the totem pole. We were working on new schools and my job consisted mostly of using a hammer and chisel to knock pre-designated rectangular shapes in cement blocks to accommodate light-switches and electrical outlets, with an occasional junction box thrown in. Despite cement blocks being relatively soft, and making the openings precise required some concentration, most mistakes could be disguised by cover plates, and if the opening was entirely too large, by groveling to the brick-layers a little mortar would fix my errors. Still, hardly a day went by without the hammer finding the soft-flesh of my knuckles or fingers, and by the end of the summer I had well-pronounced scabs attesting to why I did not rise in rank with experience.

This long winded introduction is by way of establishing my bona fides for the use of and admiration for a hammer and chisel as instruments of construction. These recollections came back to me after seeing and marveling at Kailasa Temple, one of 34 cave temples in Ellora, India, designated as a World Heritage Site. Prior to our arrival in Ellora, we had seen some magnificent cave temples in Badami, and Aurangabad but somehow the scope, size and audacity of Kailasa, has me seeing but still not believing in this creation.

To be clear, cave temples are carved out of massive rock formations, using only a hammer and chisel. These vast temples are not made of soft, sedimentary rock formations but of solid granite, far harder than the soft cement blocks I experienced in my youth. My respect for this instrument is enhanced by the knowledge that most of the other art forms are essentially applying replaceable elements: a canvas can accommodate lot of paint and brush strokes and cover up lots of mistake. Buildings of brick, stone and marble also have tolerance and the ability to cover up errant pieces.

Hard stone, unlike my over-sized electrical cut out boxes, cannot be covered up with a plate, or mortar and a coat of paint. An errant strike of a hammer and chisel leaves a lasting testament and would ruin the entire entity. As such, I try to imagine the mind set of King Krishna 1, in the year 735 who started the construction and all the labour that took to complete this undertaking, two hundred years later, Seeing the results still seems incredulous.

The work began at a cliff top and the entire temple complex is carved out of a giant rock face. Estimates suggest that about 3,000,0000 cubic feet of rock was chiseled out and from which an integral sculptural masterpiece created, some calling it the greatest monolithic sculpture in the world. The footprint of the complex is double that of the Parthenon in Athens, is half as high; about 276 feet long, 154 feet wide and about 107 feet high. Within this giant space are temples, immense monolithic pillars, monasteries, chiselled staircases, elaborate archways, life sized elephants and galleries, all covered with thousands of remarkable and prodigious sculptural statues and decorations on virtually every surface, each of which, is a stand-alone work of art.

One guide book description: "Here is rock cut architecture at the apex of technical skill of eight and ninth centuries. combines immensity with grace, energy and superb genius. Its conception and planning are matched by the jewel-like execution. Hundreds of architects and sculptors created this grandeur out of living rock in an inspired period of the country's art history."

This is our fourth day Ellora. We looked at and passed on staying in two of the only rated hotels in the modest village. Fortunately, further down the road we found a sign advertising "Ellora Heritage Resort" opened only a few months ago.

Our cottage is set in a beautifully landscaped, serene garden perfect for contemplation and viewing the caves from a distance, as if to give a different perspective. Our host Imran, a charming man of the world, does everything to make our stay comfortable, including a surprise birthday cake to celebrate Alison's milestone. And yet, no amount of quiet contemplation has me convinced that "seeing is believing". I still marvel at who ever designed the master plan, how did that first strike of the hammer on a simple chisel resulted in the marvel. Despite the tranquil setting or perhaps because of it, The Kailasa Temple, remains unbelievably inscrutable.

Happy contemplations

after writing the above, I wanted to attached some more details,perhaps some independent photos and descriptions, and like most of us, turned to the Google gods, and the second search item is the video which lends some credence to my own musings?