Sunday, December 18, 2016

Feeling Grateful in India

It is impossible to be neutral, as the national tourism advertising slogan proclaims, about "Incredible India". This is our fifth trip to this vast and diverse land. As always, India challenges even seasoned travelers, including ourselves. No one who spends any time here can remain indifferent about India: the colours, the smells,the tastes,the sounds, the intensity, the contrasts and extremes, in every sphere imaginable.

We have now spent nearly a month here, and as I am trying to encapsulate the experience, it is an overwhelming sense of being grateful is the theme that keeps emerging. Even expecting the unexpected, will leave one with a sense of heightened awareness of so much that we tend to take for granted in our non-Indian lives.

On arrival, I approach the pre-paid taxi stand with bulky panniers and two bicycles wrapped in plastic bags, and explain our destination to the dispatcher. Given the shortage of cash because of the recent demonetization, he is happy to exchange a small US note at a favourable rate to himself, and produce a receipt for the fare. On reaching the cabs, the on-the-ground coordinator points to a car, the size of a mini, opens all four doors and the trunk, and directs the driver to do the clearly impossible: get us, the bikes and bags in the car. He inquires about taking the bikes apart, strapping them to the roof, getting them in two cars etc. I stand around with a smile, while a dozen or so other drivers offer suggestions and debate the obvious conundrum. I wait patiently and after a bit convincing, we march back to the dispatcher, to get a refund. Welcome to India, the land of possibilities and impossibilities.

While anywhere else I might have become annoyed or angry at the good natured scene just played out, in India, acceptance is learned from experience, and I was grateful for the refund of payment and then to have negotiated a fare to our destination in a larger van.

On arrival at our hotel in Chennai, I am grateful that they have a copy of our reservation. Since we landed very early, they offer us a standard room without a window, not the deluxe we expected. No problem ... a couple of hours later after we have showered and rested, an army of helpers arrives to transport our bags across the passage to the deluxe room and am feeling grateful for the quick response and service.

In most eateries, the service is exceptional and I feel grateful for the care and attention: a spoon requested is proffered on a plate, the food is always served from the right, dishes removed on a tray and when we ask for sugar for the curd, the waiter spoons and stirs it carefully in the dish, and asks for our approval.

I am grateful for the chai wallahs who serve steaming tea and expertly pour it from a small cup into a metal bowl and back again to mix the sugar and spices.

I am grateful for the cool tingle of that first sip of soda water to produce the effervescent drink, when we were fortunate to have found a room with a mini-fridge and a seller of soda the night before.

As we are riding beside a train track, I am grateful that the terrain is almost flat, and we are making good progress, along rice paddies and sugarcane fields, where farmers till the land with tethered oxen and women in shimmering saris gather the harvest.

I feel grateful for the symphony of songbirds that entertain and the dazzling flashes of fluorescent blue wings of kingfishers as they circle around us.

I feel grateful for the marvels of human imagination and energy, that created the impressive ancient stone carved temples.

I feel grateful for the chanting that accompanies us we ride past many temples and shrines.

I feel grateful for the smiles and pride of the people who feel honoured for having their photographs taken, while staring into the camera with solemn pride or a broad smile.

I feel grateful during the first week of our trip for the people waving for us to stop for selfies, which provided a few moments of welcomed rest.

I feel grateful for sharing a conspiratorial smile with a group of women, who had liberated a few pieces of sugar cane, that "fell off" a well-loaded truck.

I feel grateful that I am feeling refreshed in the morning, dressed in my cycling gear when the locals are wearing earmuffs, toques and sweaters in the near 20C winter temperature.

I feel grateful when bus and truck drivers give lots of warning from behind by incessantly blowing their horns and more grateful that I only feel the rush of air as they pass.

I feel grateful when I give pursuit to a passing tractor, the driver accelerating and I keep up at top speeds for what seems like eternity, and feel relieved as the driver, with a wave and a smile, turns off the road.

I feel grateful when that faintest white line on the google smart phone map, turns into a narrow but smoothly paved country lane that transports us back to a way of life from at least a century ago.

I am grateful that the repeated clicking sound emanating from the bike is only the magnet of the cycle computer which when adjusted a millimeter or so, produces silence.

I feel grateful to Alison who has the patience to fill in the requisite 'C' Form on each hotel check in, requesting passport and visa details, date of arrival and departure from India, where we are coming from and where we are going to, father's name and place of birth etc.

I feel grateful to be sharing these marvels with Alison for the last twenty plus years, who rises to the challenges of cycling with enthusiasm and often motivates me to push further with curiosity and energy.

I feel grateful for the many journeys of exploration on two wheels, and for passing 94000 kms on the odometer.

I feel grateful to be able to have these impossibly enriching experiences in India and so much more, even though we are cutting our trip short, due to the cyclones slowing our progress, being challenged to overcome the frustrations of the shortages of available cash, and some minor but nagging health issues, that are slowly improving.

Will I be grateful for the snow, the cold, the slush, the grey skies, the layers of clothing of the Toronto winter? Surely after India, anything is possible.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Traveling Taiwan on Bicycles

Alison and I have just circumnavigated (or should that be circum-cycled?) the wondrous island of Taiwan and it has been one of our most prized experiences. Those who have follow our adventures by way of this blog will note that over the years I have eschewed the detailed day-by-day descriptions of where we went, the meals we ate, the distances, elevations, the hills, winds, humidity, as well as the human and mechanical breakdowns and other monumental conquests we overcame or endured. I have done this quite consciously, since a ton of information is readily available to anyone with a computer and the manual dexterity to use the search function. Even the use of fingers is being supplanted by voice commands, so anyone with voice and curiosity can readily obtain more information than will ever be needed to explore any part of our planet.

I have also become aware, that the availability and computing power of even a fairly basic smartphone, which I have been using over the last few years, has made travel by bicycle or by any other mode progressively easier. A few years ago, we only had guidebooks and basic maps, which were sufficient for getting from A to B and to indicate where to find places to stay and eateries. Now, almost anything a traveler might need is available by your fingerprints, including I might add, photographs of fair quality.

In fact, I have come to conclude that having too much prior information by way of reviews, descriptions, photographs, street view maps, ratings and commentary by other travelers can lead to unending research and build expectations that will rarely be met in reality. The actual experience, with all the anticipation, will likely disappoint. Such unmet expectations can also apply to creations by star chefs described by a stream of hyperboles; to the person you might "meet" on an online dating site; to the image imprinted on everyone's mind of the photoshopped Taj Mahal, glowing exquisitely, bathed in the morning sunshine, with nobody around.

The reality is that there will be busloads of tourists, haze and humidity and the Taj Mahal will never be quite as pristine as the travel posters suggest. Still, the Taj Mahal is beyond beautiful intricate sculpture, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, well worth whatever it takes. It might also help to pray to the weather gods for some sunshine, which is not controlled by Google, yet.

Having too much information also creates the illusion that by absorbing it all, we have already been there and done it, so why bother going? The tendency to live vicariously through others explains the popularity of reality TV, travel shows, the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel etc. for those who are adept at using a remote. I might also ad how Virtual Reality, VR, completely captures a person's attention to the exclusion of anything else, including participating in the real world and steals time, limiting its availability for other real experiences.

Too much prior information may also provide an excuse for not doing some activity, due to a minor facest that we may not like as we more and more seek the elusive notion of perfection. Glam camping at $1000 a night anyone? Over the years I have discovered that experiencing almost anything first-hand is better than doing so vicariously and staying home. Yes, there may be some discomforts, annoyances etc. but buy stepping outside of our norm, our comfort zone, that little bit of the unknown, will allow us to expand our horizons, to grow, to experience a unique joy as we marvel at the diversity of our planet.

For me the most enjoyable part of travel is the journey itself... those moments of discovery, surprises and the people we meet along the way, which are not in guidebooks but seem to unfold in some mysterious manner. In this regard, Taiwan was a particular treat. Unlike other trips, where I have done all the planning by myself, in Taiwan, I had extensive input from Andrew Kerslake, a former American, super enthusiastic and knowledgeable about riding, which is evident from his very informative blog on cycling in Taiwan, "Drew" is also a wealth of information on the history and culture of Taiwan and takes delight in helping others. Needless to say, we benefited immensely from his suggestions to the point I am still feeling some remorse, for not being able to do everything he suggested, some for lack of time, others beyond our control.

Beyond information, Drew extended himself by introducing us to his family, and to his good friend, Michael Turton (another cycling enthusiast and blogger about the cultural and political scene in Taiwan ), and through them we met and stayed with Jeff Miller, and his wife, another cyclist and full of insights about Taiwan. And tonight we are having dinner with yet another of their friends, Kenji Sugata, originally from Japan, also into riding and designing bicycles and much more. Such warmth and hospitality is something we had yet to experience in any other places we traveled, and has immensely enriched the journey and our depth of understanding of Taiwan.

While Drew, Michael and Jeff were exceptionally welcoming, they were not atypical of many others we met, mostly non-English speaking Taiwanese. I cannot recall the number of times people, seemingly out of the blue, approached us with bags of food, offered help for direction without being asked, umbrella when raining, offered us a place to stay or took delight in our presence and asked to be photographed with us.

All in all, a joyful experience I would recommend to all: preferably on two wheels but if that is not an option, then by use of the exceptional public transit infrastructure that ranges from high speed bullet trains, to an extensive network of buses and local trains and trams, to quite inexpensive taxis, which unlike in other countries, come with working meters.

For those interested in details, with the intent to whet your appetites, here is a summary of what we did:
Cycled 1,100km around the entire island: Down the Taiwan Straits on the west coast and back up the Pacific Coast on the east, almost exclusively on specially demarcated cycling lanes and paths
Cycled up towering mountains and into deep gorges, to magical lakes and waterfalls; through long tunnels and over suspension bridges, through forests and rice paddies
Marvelled at the many ornate Tao, Buddhist and Confucian temples and shrines, adorned with colourful dragons, mythical birds, gods and goddesses; with offerings and incense and a constant stream of devotees
Explored bustling cities and towns with bright neon lights; indigenous village regions, quiet fishing villages and beach areas
Stayed in some great hotels, B+Bs, guest houses, a monastery, a love hotel, beach cabins, and a faux castle
Enjoyed the end of the cherry blossom season and relaxed in many hot springs

This is a small country, yet the people, culture, landscape and scenery is so different from place to place. There is something for everyone to enjoy - be it temples, Hakka culture, indigenous people, nature, mountains, ocean, architecture, cities, fishing villages.

Some of our most memorable places and experiences were
Hsinchu - Wandering around the colourful Chenghaung Temple, with its fearsome gods and deities, offerings of flowers and fruit, gongs, drums, incense and stream of devotees
Lions Head Mountain (Shihtoushan) - Cycling up towering mountains and lush valleys, and staying at Quanhua Temple:
Taichung - Exploring the innovative arts and culture centres, Calligraphy Greenway with its many sculptures
Itathao (Sun Moon Lake) - climbing to 733m through beautiful windy mountains, covered with trees, bamboo, huge ferns and moss, amid bird song and cherry blossoms
Chaiya - Exploring the big city with its neon lights, and temples and koji pottery (and crossing the Tropic of Cancer)
Tainan - Wandering around the Dutch Fort of 1653, and the beautiful Confucius Temple from 1666
Fanshan - Relaxing at a beach cottage after visiting the Donggang Temple with its gold plated archway and crossing the 2km bridge into Pingdong county
Kenting - Cycling to the most southerly point of Taiwan, to Eluanbi Lighthouse and and its sprawling gardens (not even spoiled by the busloads of visitors in this tourist town)
Dongyuan - Cycling up beautiful mountains to traverse the southern part of Taiwan, and staying in Paiwan indigenous region
Jinlun - Relaxing in hot springs with a jacuzzi overlooking huge mountains
Taitung - Cycling downhill all the way to the Pacific Coast
Chenggong - Hanging out in fishing villages and harbours stacked with blue fishing boats in Ami country
Yuli - Cycling to Pebble beach and high up the mountains through the East Rift Valley and a 3 km tunnel
Taroko Gorge - Cycling through towering cliffs of marble, along narrow roads carved out of the rock face, with its tunnels and bridges, and temples and shrines
Nan Fang Ao - Wandering around the delightful fishing harbour and beach
Toucheng - Following the cycling path along the Pacific to the surfing area at Wai Ao Beach and extraordinary modern Langyan Museum
Fulong - Cycling along the rugged coast on Caoling Bikeway, with its amazing rock formations, blue ocean and visiting the mining towns of Jiufen and Jinquahi.
Taipei - Walking the vast international city with its unique blend of East and West, old and new, mountains and rivers