Cycling West Bengal, India. Where Brake Pads and Egos Go To Die

Nepal / India

by | Jan 17, 2017

12/22-12/30/2016

I’m back in India and the mountains are just as I remembered, mostly. But to get to them, I still had to cross about 100km of flat, humid, mosquito saturated, mold infested, diesel spewing monotony. It has been my experience that border crossing areas are really the worst part of each country. Conversely, I would expect them to be some of the best. Kinda

like, “Welcome to our amazing country! Come a little further. This is only a taste of what you can expect here!” Again, not my experience and here was no exception. After slogging along for most of the day, it was getting late. There were no hotels in the area, in an area that I would have expected at least one. The air was heavy and was weighing on me. There is once again a heavy military presence and thus no place to even camp. I’m still traveling with my 2 new Swiss friends. Nearing dark, we were told that we could find lodging at the Nature and Wildlife Sanctuary, which sounded amazing! The area is known for elephants and the elusive one horned rhinoceros. The idea of potentially sleeping among them was thrilling. After about 45 minutes of pleading, reasoning, phone calls made appealing to higher authorities, we were given 2 rooms in what they described as the “Holiday Bungalow” Their words, not mine. It was shelter to be sure, and it set the new baseline for which all future accommodation will be measured against. “Well, at least its better than the Holiday Lodge…”, we could later say. These rooms are given to visiting officials in the area, so it really was not a public facility. Sometimes you just have to ask. Each room had a bed, which really was just a very tired, broken down 3” piece of foam, however with only mild suggestions of mold, and a much needed, much used, mosquito net to drape over. The walls showed years of accumulating and ever growing mold, not shocking due to the humidity of the jungle area we were in. The common bathroom had a squatty potty that likely hadn’t been cleaned since the Bush administration, and also a faucet for a bucket bath. Recalibrate. This is the standard and is what I signed up for. I will say, however, that almost without exception, I find it always better to take a bath and go to sleep clean after a long day on the bike, regardless of the bathing standards. Soap can clean just about anything. It just serves as a good reset, and honestly, once I adjusted my standards, I was clean and slept peacefully, albeit without a rhino siting. Tomorrow, the battle renews…

West Bengal is a gorgeous, green, mountainous pocket, snugged in between Nepal and Bhutan. The main draw is the city of Darjeeling, known for their famous tea and views of Kangchenjunga. Never heard of it? It’s only the 3rd highest peak in the world at 28,169 ft behind Everest and K2. Immediately, we were going uphill. The roads here redefine the term “steep”. Remember the game “Chutes and Ladders” when you were a kid? It was no doubt modeled after the roads in West Bengal. They will crush your ego, your legs, and your motivation with uncompromising hour after hour, impossibly steep turn after turn, until you are left decimated in a fetal position on the side of the road as the convoy of Indian tourists zoom by in their 4×4 vehicles blasting diesel exhaust into your already compromised lungs.  In fact, the roads are so steep that there are steel spikes driven into them, by hand, that provide traction. The spikes are spaced about 10” apart, stretch the width of the road, and are on all roads with this insane pitch, which is literally hundreds of miles. The main difference between Nepali and Indian roads however is infrastructure. The roads in India are impeccably manicured compared to their Nepali counterparts, and provide a nice reprieve, even at this pitch, from the chalk that I endured the past 2 weeks in eastern Nepal.

I have made the choice to ride with my 2 new Swiss friends for a while. After cycling solo through NW India and then Nepal for nearly 4 months, this is my first time with company, and its rather nice. I feel like I get to be myself a bit because the language barrier is now removed (mostly), although I’m not certain they always grasp my sense of humor, or outgoing antics with the locals. Is it possible I’m not as funny as I think? Eh…they’re Swiss, close to Germany, and neither are known for their humor. The Swiss duo of Ivo and Bridgette have been touring the world by bike for over 3 years now. They are former teachers, in their mid 30’s, who have racked up over 50,000 km through all of Africa, South America, China, Siberia (in the winter), North America, and have even cycled the Iditarod race course in Alaska…during the race. If you can imagine it, they’re been there with their bikes.  I have a lot of catching up to do.

We arrived in the mountain top town of Darjeeling after 2 very full days of the aforementioned uphill war. Our legs and bodies were tired from the mountains in eastern Nepal and now West Bengal, so we all agreed that Darjeeling was a good place to rest for a day, which turned into 4.

Darjeeling sits at about 6,700 ft with amazing views of the tea plantation blanketed valleys below. Christmas is nearing. The primary religion in this area is Hindi, and outside the hints of Christmas around town, including a Santa statue playing a saxophone, draped with selfie taking Indians, located in the main square, it passes as just another day. There are modern amenities here, including a Pizza Hut where we enjoyed Christmas dinner. Yes…very trite. Our guest house was quiet and meticulously spotless. For the first time in India, I actually used the pillows and sheets. There was wifi, sorta, and we were allowed 1 hot shower per day. How is that regulated you may wonder? There is a separate power button located in the hotel owner’s suite that controls the hot water geyser (pronounced “geezer”) in each bathroom. Each morning, at 6 a.m. she would turn on the power for 45 minutes to heat up the 5 gallon tank, then promptly turn it off. Just the sound of water boiling and the potential for a hot shower was exciting. It’s a bit militaristic, but I found it more comical than the Swiss. They really like their hot showers. The hotel owner is a woman of Chinese heritage and has a heart of gold. Her husband actually built the hotel. After a couple of days there, I slipped easily into a normal routine of yoga and meditation in my room when I woke at 6 am., followed by a wander into the market where I found a guy that made outstanding masala omelets, veg chow mein, and scalding chai, all for less than $1.50. From there I would return back to my room to read for a few hours before meeting the Swiss for a lunch of veg momos. Afterward I would spend the afternoon in the market, people watching and clowning around with the locals, before meeting up with the Swiss again for dinner.

There is another issue that we have been forced to deal with over the past week: money. Two months prior, the government recalled all of the old 1000rs ($15) and 500rs ($7.50) notes and replaced them with 2000rs ($30) notes. If you didn’t exchange them before 12/31, they became essentially a cocktail napkin. Worthless. The real issue however is that they limited all ATM withdrawals to 2500rs ($38) per day. Even in India, that is a paltry amount of money. The result? 2-5 hour long lines at every ATM until they would run out of money, which happened in about 2-5 hours. Even though the sign read “24 hr ATM”, they were always locked down overnight. Some ATM’s wouldn’t refill their currency for days and simply wouldn’t open. Remember micro economics in college? Here it was, on display. Scarcity affecting behavior. It was nerve racking. Even if we could find an ATM that had funds, 2500rs would only last 2 days at the maximum, causing us to once again find an ATM with funds, wait in line, and of course incur high transaction costs. If it was bad in a tourist place like Darjeeling, good luck finding money in a smaller town. Even when you did get money, you would get 2000rs notes from the ATM and most places, especially street food merchants, simply could not make change.

Feeling rested and rejuvenated, we pushed out of town toward Lava, the last mountain stop before descending down a route that resembled more closely an elevator shaft than a road, a road that actually wore Bridgette’s brake pads down to the metal, necessitating a change mid way down. In the small mountain town of Lava, we encountered another first: the concept of a home stay.  It was a hotel, owned by a family. On the surface it didn’t appear any different than a typical smaller hotel, except it was owned and operated by a family who would cook, clean, and cater to whatever you needed. It was truly like being at home. This particular homestay that we found was new and we were the first ones to stay there. It was a gorgeous building. I felt self conscious and too dirty just walking in the front door. (When was the last time you said that in India?) Everything was immaculate. Hot showers, home cooked meals, crisp white towels and linens, toilet seats that were not broken, yet (because most Indians are used to squatty potties so with a western toilet many of them squat on the toilet instead of sitting.) They even gave us soap and toothpaste. It was luxury. The price? 800rs (about $12). “Are we in India?” I leaned over and asked Ivo with a confused, yet sarcastic tone that hopefully he picked up on. Guilt washed over me the same way sweat and filth from the day of cycling washed down my body and onto the new white, tiled floors as I enjoyed a hot shower. I haven’t worn socks in 5 months, only barefoot in Keene sandals, so even though my feet were clean, I still left a faint silhouette everywhere I walked.

It was New Year’s Eve, again, another anticlimactic day. No count down. No dance party. Nobody to kiss at midnight. After an amazing dinner, I retired to my room with a hot cup of chai in a fancy new mug. I turned on some music and fittingly, on shuffle, one of my favorite tracks by John Coltrane came on. “I Want to Be Happy”. Ask me a year ago where I would be now. Riding my bicycle through the Himalayas? Not a chance. An unforeseen gift. I sat in my room, contemplative, reflective of a year of exhilarating, unquenchable highs and crippling lows. I am once again reminded of the 3 renunciations that I learned in Rishikesh that we must do in order to make room in our lives to achieve true happiness: Physical, mental, and emotional.

  • Physical items provide only fleeting glimpses of happiness so do not attach any value to them. They will leave you feeling empty.
  • Free yourself of mental negativity, cognitive dissonance and other things that clog up your mind that prevent happiness from having space to flourish.
  • Finally, make peace with and release the emotional scars and traumas from the past so you have space for new highs.

As a man with a lifelong, razor sharp, Type A personality, this year was rough. Being humbled…is humbling. There’s a line in the song song “Oviedo” by Blind Pilot that rings true:

I didn’t know…I didn’t know, I’m not in control.

I didn’t know…I’m not invincible.

By 9pm, I turned out the light for the day, the year, and this chapter in my life, eagerly anticipating what boundless opportunities the new year and next chapter would bring. Open heart and open mind. Out with the old. In with the new. I’m ready. Namaste.

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Wash room at the Holiday Bungalow

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Holiday Bungalow

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My bike is camouflaged in the moss

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Sweet Lime!

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What up, dog?  Chillin…Rest days are the best

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Merry Christmas from Darjeeling!

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Daily ATM line

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Meat counter in the market

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Best street food in Darjeeling

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View of Kangchenjunga

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View of Kanchenjunga

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Eyeing up the open bag…and smart phone

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Gotcha!  Ivo will owe me for saving his phone

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Bridgette’s brake pads

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Yes, even a cork screw.  It was that steep

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Traction

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Uh oh…slowly step away from the Nutella

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The World Spins By is an intimate journey of loss, curiosity, and love—recounted one pedal stroke at a time along Jerry’s two-year bicycle journey back to himself. 

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