Assam. The Land of Smiles, Selfies, Absurd Kindness, and Ordinary Beauty.

Nepal / India

by | Jan 17, 2017

1/1/2017 – 1/7/2017

I am an asshole. Or, at least that is how the people of Assam make me feel. I have never experienced such overwhelming, unsolicited kindness. They do it for nothing else but because that is their way and expect nothing in return. It is humbling and inspiring. We are like rock stars on tour. “Selfie, brother?” I am asked every time I stop and even times

when I am not stopped but rather beckoned to stop. It is sometimes when I simply pull over to pee. People roll up next to me when I’m pedaling and attempt to have a full on conversation, just excited to meet me. Unfortunately their conversation is limited to a few small phrases. The landscape of Assam conjures memories of the heartland of the United States. For me, that is Michigan where I grew up. There are dense forests flanking farmland across a sprawling, flat landscape. It is a patchwork quilt like my grandma used to crochet. I’m a mountain guy, and typically, I loathe cycling across this type of terrain, especially for 600km (about 360 miles). It is hot, flat, dry, and overall uneventful. Initially, I planned to get on either a bus or train and save myself the drawn out monotony of 6 long, mindless days. I would have missed this ordinary, yet extraordinary beauty if I did.

We were enjoying breakfast in a small tea stand when the urge hit me. I inquired about a toilet. Typically they are down some narrow stairs, out the back of the building, and pretty grim. This one in particular was just outside, underneath the back of the stilted building. It was just an area where they dumped their trash…among other things…and was only about 30 ft from kitchen where our food was being prepared. The ceiling was barely 5 ft high and the ground was littered to the point that I felt like I was walking through a mine field. I couldn’t recalibrate. This was too much. Seeing the discomfort in my face, I heard a man say, “Come this way, brother. Best bathroom. Open to all.” He led me out to the tea field. The sites and smells of fresh tea provided an ambiance like no other. As I crouched down, just low enough where the top of my head was barely visible above the tea plants, a man carrying a water bottle for me had seen the top of my hat and approached. “Here, sir. To wash,” he politely offered. “Thank you…thank you…I’m fine. Just leave it. Thank you, really,” I repeated, imploring him to give me my space. He was just trying to help.

A 4 lane paved highway stretches the length of Assam, west to east. There is a definitive wealth disparity here. A shiny new Mahindra SUV zooms by me, as I spin by a man pushing a cart full of rocks. He is barefoot, wearing tattered clothes. His skin is dark and weathered, showing years of hard work in the blazing sun. I imagine he is my age, but he looks much older. One of his sons is riding in the wagon, while the other son guides a cow behind us. They are maybe 7 and 10 respectively. Another man walking at slightly a swifter pace is carrying chickens by the feet, 3 in each hand. They all smile and greet me with a “Namaste” as I warmly return the greeting. Is the man driving the SUV any more happy or content with his life than these men? This is something I have been observing and pondering for several years now. What is the key to happiness? How much is enough?

Take 1 turn to the left, off this highway, onto a broken dirt road and I am immediately transported back in time to a much slower, and simpler life. People are plowing fields with ox, and picking vegetables by hand. There are tiny villages that dot the landscape where children rush out from their homes, yelling “Cycle, cycle!” Men of all ages pull up next to me on their cycles or turn around when coming the other direction. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” After being asked this by nearly every person that I encounter, I’m convinced that this is the extent of their English and is their very basic and best attempt to connect.  The women, whose beautiful, dark, almost walnut colored skin radiate against the contrast of the pungent colors of their flowing saris. “Namaste”, I say with a grin as I slowly pedal by and they return with giggles and their own, “Namaste!”. It’s heart warming to see the smiles and genuine happiness as I leisurely roll through each of their villages. Stopping for any reason, even to check the map to ensure that I am going the right direction through the spider web network of primitive roads, inspires a collection of interest. Stopping for food is like a party. Everyone wants to sit and eat with me. A year ago this may have been overwhelming but now I relish in it. The human experience. It is unquenchable. I am once again, resoundingly reminded that life is about the journey, not the destination. You can take a bus or plane and go see the Taj Mahal or Everest Base Camp, but you miss all the good stuff along the way. The people at those destinations are waiting there, expecting you. The people you meet along the way are not and they are the ones that provide me the most joy.

It’s New Year’s Day, just another day for me. I hear a “ping” from the back wheel. I quickly realized that I broke a spoke. I am short of my destination for the day but far enough ahead of the Swiss that I know I will lose them if I detour. I have no way to message them. It’s getting late so I stop at the closest town. Fortunately there are bicycle repair shops on every corner but it is Sunday and also New Year’s day. Many places are closed and the ones that are open do not have a spoke to fit my bike…because I’m an idiot and don’t have a spare spoke. “Hello! Where are you from? Where are you going?” a man from across the narrow dirt road yells. I’ve heard and answered this inquiry more times than I can count and honestly I just wanted to get my bike fixed. It’s getting late, I’m in the middle of nowhere, and I’m getting a bit frazzled. Breathe. Don’t let your circumstances overshadow how you react to someone else. They have no idea what is happening in my mind. I smiled, crossed the road and was immediately surrounded by 6 men, all wanting to meet me and take selfies. The man who called to me spoke quite good English. I was able to communicate to him what I needed. “Ah, you have brawkin sprahk? Come with me. Best mechanic in town.” After a few more selfies, he hopped on his motorcycle and I followed him to another shop across town, about 5 minutes away, only to find out that the mechanic was at lunch and would return at 5pm. In the interim, we struck up a nice conversation. He is 33 and works at the bank in town and invited me to his home where his mother made us lunch. He shares with me that she has cancer and he lives at home with her and spends his money taking care of her. She speaks no English but has a glowing aura about her as she smiles joyfully when she serves us lunch.

At 5pm, we rolled back to the bike shop to meet the mechanic. Of course, he did not have a sprawk to fit. All were either too long or too short. But then…he figured that it was possible to bend the end of the spoke so that it was the correct length and whamo…wheel is fixed! This took literally 9 minutes. I was prepared to hand him 500rs (about $7.60) just from shear relief and gratitude. He asked for no payment, refused payment, but then when pressured, said 50rs. I forced 100rs ($1.50) on him and you would have thought I handed him the winning lottery ticket by his reaction. India…you just keep giving.

The next day I rolled out along the same patchwork dirt road system, feeling again relieved and humbled by my experiences.   “Where are you going? Where you from?” someone called out to me, only with a distinctly different accent. By good fortune, I had caught up to the Swiss who were stopped in a village having lunch. Good fortune simply because of the spider web of roads and numerous different route options. There is no random. We cycled together to the final town in Assam, Udalguri, where we would spend a rest day before entering the mountainous state of Arunachal Pradesh.

Udalguri is what I would imagine walking the red carpet at the Oscars must be like. Tourists do not go to Udalguri and surely not by cycle. Word of our arrival quickly spread. “You come from Darjeeling? By cycle?” they would ask in astonishment. When we told them, actually, that we came from Ladakh in NW India, through Nepal, and then Darjeeling before traveling across Assam to Udalguri, they thought we were flat out lying.

Once again we found a hotel where we staked our claim as the first guests. It was spotless, and down the hall there was a gym. At 6 a.m. the next day, the music was booming, I was already awake, so I walked in to work out. The place was packed. Honestly, I just wanted to lift a few weights, stretch and be on my way. “Sir, can we take selfie with you?”, I was asked almost immediately as I walked in, then again when I was working out, and throughout my work out. Guys set up weights, bars, and benches for me, offered to spot me, and took pics while I was working out. “How do you like Assam?” I was asked numerous times during my workout (and throughout the week). With a beaming, exuberant, ear to ear smile, every time I’m asked, “I LOVE it.” What else can I say about a place that has been so warm and welcoming and treated me not like a foreigner but a member of its family. I nearly got on a train and would have missed this.

Later in the day, I was searching for an internet café. It was clear that the US sim card in my phone, although working in West Bengal, was being blocked by the military in Assam. I walked into a shop and met Avee. He is in his mid 30’s, with long hair pulled back in a pony tail, and spoke great English. “You need wifi? Here, give me your phone. No charge.” We spent the next hour chatting while I paid bills on line and sent a few emails. “Does anywhere in Udalguri sell curd (yogurt)?” I inquired. “You want curd? Wait here.” He called one of his employees and sent him out. “No, no…I can go,” I pleaded. “You are a guest in my country. It is no problem,” he kindly fired back. Ten minutes later, the boy returned with a clay pot of fresh curd, which I slurped down in about 3 minutes. “You want another? How many. Two? Three?” Avee inquired. With a couple more words in Assamis (the local dialect), the boy zoomed off and shortly thereafter came with a larger clay pot. “That is 3 curd. Is that enough? Asked Avee in a genuinely kind and appeasing manner. “Yes, yes! This is great. Thank you! How much do I owe you?” “No, no. I told you. You are guest in my country. How do you like Assam?” Avee inquired again. What the fuck…how do I answer that??? I just laughed, and with an unfakeable smile, beaming, ear to ear. “I LOVE it! I have never met kinder people in my entire life!” With a warm, proud smile, “Good,” he replied.

Seriously…if this keeps up, I won’t be able to stand it. And to think, I almost got on a bus. I would have missed this ordinary, extraordinary human experience. Soften. Be kinder. Give…more, for no reason but just to do it.


Orange is the new…


Not the first or the last selfie


One stop shop


It’s easy to smile when you’re on a bike


Cycling toward Bhutan


Low carbon emission travel?


Bike pooling


Soccer dad mobile?


Every day.  Every where


How to ride a bike that is too big for you and will be for the next 6 years



How to transport bamboo


The land of selfies


d Dosa as big as my head and a selfie while eating it


Bridge of bamboo?





Secondary roads in Assam


New spoke install


The mechanic who was even more excited than me, if possible?


My friend the banker who spent his afternoon helping me


And I thought I was traveling heavy


Ordinary beauty


If that heart in the mountains is any indication of what lies ahead, I won’t be able to take it


Definitely some tension in the area, but we never felt it




c Cool concrete sculpture


Stumbled upon a youth outdoor boxing tournament


These guys bought us dinner, much to our resistance.  Too much kindness here

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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.