Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Road Again

No sooner did I get my bike built and roll through the doors of the airport did I get my first questions after asking for the road to Shimla, at the base of the Himalayas. They came from the same man in this order, all rhetorical, if he were to just stop and observe:

Question 1: Alone? Ahhh...yes, I think to myself, do you see anyone besides me? I guess if you count my bike, which I sometimes pretend is my boyfriend, I’m not really alone!

Question 2: You are riding your bike to Shimla? Actually the thought crossed my mind to walk to my bike all there carrying my heavy load!

So here I am again, on the road again with plenty of spectators and questions to ask and answer! I missed the road, which was apparent this year, considering I did two different tours during school holidays; one in The Atlas Mountains in Morocco and another in Cuba. Both were amazing and helped me get that nostalgic road feel back and wet my appetite for more, which is why I decided to head to the Indian Himalayas.

Yes, I’ve got the Swiss Himalayas right out my window in Lausanne (also known as the Swiss Alps) but it just isn’t the same. At the moment, I’m also one of those people who needs a complete physical and mental disconnect in order to feel refreshed, which is why I opted to go so far away.

The Alps in the back drop of Lausanne

I just can’t get enough of the road! I miss that liberating and carefree feeling that comes with bike touring. The feeling of not having a worry in the world, except to make sure you’ve got a warm, dry place to sleep at night (which is many times not even necessary) and the feeling of total freedom to enjoy the present moment as you never know what the next kilometer will bring.

Somehow I’d forgotten the best part about tour cycling, which has nothing to do with the bike, except that it’s your means of transport. My favorite part of this lifestyle are all the experiences and funny stories it allows you to enjoy. Consider today, I’m still chuckling to myself as I recall the event. I left Shimla with about 80 euros of rupee. The guidebook I’m using warned me to go to the bank in Shimla as it is the only town with ATMs for the next 600 km. Since my guidebook was printed in 1997 and the prices of the hotels have more than quadrupled since then, I thought that surely the towns along the way would now most likely have ATMs for foreigners. Call me absent-minded, but I like to think of myself as optimistic and hopeful!

After ascending into the mountains, I stopped at Narkanda, at 2700m, an Indian town that is known as a ski destinations nestled in the mountains, above a steep river valley. Of course I imagined Swiss chalets and shaved hillsides with chair lifts in my head, but it looked nothing of the sort when I arrived. Narkanda was more of a humid lush jungle with terraced lands on steep mountainsides. I did however find an ATM, but the first didn't take any of my cards. I tried again at the second ATM that was actually connected to a bank and still had no luck. I walked into the adjoing bank thinking they could help me out or even exchange currency. No such luck, although they were rather thoughtful and called around for me to see where I could successfully get more Rupees, only to find out this could only be done in Shimla or Manali, my final destination.

I didn't start to panic as I had a backup plan which was to attempt to do the next week of riding on a shoestring budget or go the opposite and stay at super nice hotels that take Visa. Just as I was starting to contemplate in detail each option, one of the men there asked me what currency I had. I really only ever carry Euros, but this time my friend in Switzerland had given me a 100 US Dollars. She had asked me for a favor, to kindly donate the money to someone, or several people, who had a need. It was extremely thoughtful of her and the idea really excited me. I tucked the crisp 100 Dollar bill in my wallet.

There I was at the bank with a client inside who was eager to get his hands on a hundred dollar bill and i was equally desperate for Rupees. He told me to sit down, invited me to a tea, and we decided how we would do this transaction. None of the bank workers actually knew the conversion rate so I showed him on my app the equivalent value in rupees. He talked with his friends there and the word commission came up. So instead of the listed value I subtracted a Dollar, he gave it a second thought and did the Indian head bob! YES!!

Voila! I was in luck, now with enough money to make it to Manali where I would have to take out more rupees. I was incredibly lucky to have encountered this man. He seemed more delighted that I promised to add him as a Facebook friend rather than the 100 Dollars he said he was never going to spend and keep as a “souvenir” for show and tell.

I left the bank chuckling all the way downhill, 35 km to the bottom of the valley. I was one lucky lady now with a stash of cash but also to be witnessing a remarkably unique landscape on bike!

I’ll have to do some math, but with a hotel room averaging about 10 dollars a night and a plentiful meal about 75 cents to a dollar, I think I should have enough money for the first part of my trip, even if I stop and have a handful of chai teas a day, which is what I’m averaging now.

And actually if you think about it, I needed to exchange my friend’s hundred Dollar bill anyway. Now I just know exactly what it’s worth! I just have to find the people who need it!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Welcome to India

I'm always amazed at how fast I can switch mindsets and go from crazy busy at work in a stressful environment to complete disconnect on holiday with no worries in the world. If only I could do that switch daily when I finish work…..

The school year was extremely busy and stressful. It was as if i was a first year teacher again. My confidence were completely shaken at the start of the year and I found the transition to work life after being free and in the saddle for about 2 years to be pretty rough. No need to go into details. Thankfully, I don’t think next year could be worse.

After being crazy busy with last minute grading, preparing my summer travels and getting my apartment ready for subletters, as the train doors closed, with my bike in a box and my gear on my back, I found myself with nothing to do as I rode the train to the Geneva airport. What a liberating feeling; no list of things to do, nothing to preoccupy my mind, nothing pressing at the last minute. I just sat and zoned out looking out the at the gorgeous Swiss countryside that never gets old for me.

I really should have slept on my flights to Delhi via Doha but i a sucker for the movies they play on the entertainment system on the back of the seats. After watching a dozen trailers I got through about 3 movies and did doze a bit. Once in Delhi I booked a domestic flight on Air India to get me as close to the Himalayas as possible effortlessly, which landed me in Chandigarh. It all went smoothly and my bike arrived as well, unfortunately more banged up than I would have liked. I built it at the airport calmly and headed out, making my way towards the mountains slowly.

It’s my second time in India, but the first time cycling here. Everything changes when you are battling the traffic and chaos on the road rather than riding in a rickshaw or taxi. It took me about 10km to warm up once again to riding on the opposite side of the road, but that is easier to get used to than the honking. Indians use their horns more than any country in SE Asia, even Myanmar which was pretty unbearable.

Horns here serve many purposes: Warning I’m going to pass you; I’m impatient, I think I’ll honk; it’s a blind curve I better honk to let them know I’m around the corner; careful cow, monkey, or dog, get out of the middle of the road; or hey there cyclist kudos to you! Therefore, honking is just one continuous sound and it’s hard to know the true reason for why they are honking! In Europe there are no honking signs to keep the transit noise down, but in India the trucks actually say blow your horn. I’ve thought of sticking a big sign on the back of my bike that says, “Don’t honk, I hear you!!!” I think they would honk anyway

India, I had forgotten the little things I love about this country that surfaced again after my first 30 kilometers of pedaling. First is the head bob. Nowhere else in the world to they bob their head back and forth so smoothly and continuously to imply “yes”. It cracks me up. They look like one of those little toy figures that have that ever bobbing out-of-proportion head. And yet I have still not figured out what head action means know as they pretty much say “yes” to everything! Is the road hilly? Yes! Is there a hotel up ahead? Yes! Spicy? YES!

I also get a good laugh at the dyed hair style that surprisingly I’ve only seen men wear. They dye their hair this bright, almost fluorescent, orange that looks so far from any natural color, I can’t help but think it would go nicely with the older women in Spain who go for the bright purple dye, also a very natural color.

I’d forgotten how funny the cows are here. We all know there are huge cultural difference from country to country, but the same goes for animals in foreign countries. A Swiss cow puts an Indian cow to shame. The cows in Switzerland are immense, larger and more robust than any cow I’ve ever seen. They graze so systematically around the open countryside, never passing their electrical fence barrier. When it come to being round up, their farmer makes it seem rather effortless. Their udders seem to have an endless supply of milk and they let other people know of their presence with their huge bells around their neck. In India, cars come within centimeters of cows as they plop themselves down of the big belly right on the side of the road. The don't seem to be worried at all about finding food, appearing emaciated in comparison to those of Switzerland. Whereas those in the Swiss fields are nicely colored with their markings, here their markings look like a primary school science experiment! Oddly, here, no one seems to mind their presence by the side of the road but I have yet to see a cow road kill either, impressive.

Like other countries in Southeast Asia, the stores amaze me. You can find anything, any time you want for incredibly cheap prices. I didn’t come to shop, but I’ve been in desperate need of a proper industrial seamstress to replace the buckles on my Ortlieb panniers. I never got around to getting the sewing machine out at home and all but one original buckle works! On my first night, I find a seamstress, in this case a man, and in 15 minutes and 50 cents later all bags have nice new clips. You can’t beat that!

India, so far it has warmly greeted me, both literally and figuratively. Fifteen minutes into my ride I’m so sweaty the sunscreen on my face is dripping down my face. My whole front and back of my shirt is soaked, I ring it out at my first stop 2 hours into my ride. Even my shorts are wet coming from the sweat on my shirt. It’s about 35 C and 99% humidity or so the barometer of my hair reads. I’ll be happy to climb up into the mountains just to have cooler temperatures and less humidity.

In a day and a half, i’ve climbed to the base of the Himalayas, riding 130km and climbing about 2000m. The fun has yet to begin along with the amazing scenery!