A fellow cyclist I had met a week or so earlier had told me that the hill town of Shimla was “not India.”
As I ascended to the town’s altitude of 2,200m over a dusty, rock-strewn road, constantly engulfed in the black ‘Tata’ fumes that had been bombarding my respiratory system since my arrival in the country, it still felt like India to me.
When, 10km out, all but one section of highway that had been reduced to a single narrow lane due to landslide, I was forced against a wall by an impatient bus, resulting in a broken spoke, followed by an hour on the roadside sucking up more fumes as I carried out repairs, it still felt like India.
As I entered lower Shimla and, having random things shouted at me in Hindi, found a cheap hotel where I went through the usual ‘negotiations’ required to acquire an oversized shoebox to spend the night in, it still felt like India.
When however, I climbed the steep, concrete stairways, through dark alleyways housing hidden market stalls, I emerged in a place that was anywhere but India.
A long walking mall snaked its way over ‘The Ridge’, lined with immaculately fitted-out stores, bearing names such as Reebok, Nike, Jag and Canon, among many others that can be found in any consumption centre in the West. Most telling of this town’s somewhat unique status in India were the large number of ‘Help Wanted’ signs hanging in the windows of the said stores.
On the upper ridge I came to a expansive square overlooked by a golden statue of the ‘Father of the Nation’; Mohandas Gandhi, where the children of the massive numbers of middle-class Indian tourists who flock here can take horse rides and buy colourful novelty balloons. The women can adorn themselves with intricate henna tattoos painted on their hands, forearms and in some cases, legs, in a pavilion that stands adjacent to a pale yellow catholic church dating back to the times of the British Raj, who favoured Shimla as a cool retreat during the summer months. The crucifix atop the central tower looks down over the mass of buildings running along the deep walls of the valley below.
And the men can do what Indian men do best; sit and drink chai while shooting the breeze.
Due to a strange long-term craving for chain-store pizza, I dropped into the local Dominos and splurged on the two six-inch pizzas for 120Rs ($4) deal, with the intention of eating one for lunch and saving the other for dinner. Both were punished within ten minutes.
I then visited a ‘real’ coffee shop and although I was unable to bring myself to pay the price of two meals for a coffee, albeit a really good one, I kept returning just for the intoxicating aroma. This was definitely not the scent of India.
Though peaceful in parts, Shimla had but a fraction of the peace and tranquility I had been yearning for since entering India, which had over stimulated all of my senses, but none more so than my hearing. I needed relief from the engines and horns and all of the tension that accompanies them. I sought it further north in the Parvati Valley.
It was to prove futile.
I arrived in Jari, 20km into the picturesque valley, utterly exhausted, capping off an intensive 5 weeks in the saddle that had begun all the way back in Kathmandu. I was immediately disappointed. Though placed in a pleasant setting, the half-kilometre long town was a dusty bottleneck for passing trucks and buses, as well as Sikh pilgrims headed for the gurdwara deeper within the valley. Always riding two to a motorbike, they would flash past in an ear-thumping wave of orange turbans and flags, proudly hoisted from their front forks.
Exhaustion and illness kept me there longer than I would have liked, but I eventually ventured 10km further into the valley to Kasol. Still searching.
While it definitely has its charm, due mostly to its setting amidst a dense forest of pine, a powerful river, the groan of which can be heard from anywhere in the area and views of a distant glacier, Kasol is a plastic town where Hebrew is as likely to be heard on the streets as Hindi. It has unwittingly become a Jewish place of pilgrimage for young Israelis who typically travel in packs of long-haireds about to be shorn upon entry into the service or long-haireds who have recently been released. They all smoke massive amounts of charas, cruise around on 20-year old, objectionably loud Royal Enfield motorbikes and generally, being short-term travellers, have money to burn at the late-night restaurants where shak shuka and humus is served alongside shahi paneer and malai kofta. The two residing in the room beside mine were traveling with a subwoofer, four speakers and a laptop and cranked out Israeli soft rock at all hours.
This was not what I was looking for, but again I was trapped here longer than desired, as the four-week battle between my immune system and an invading stomach bug had finally come to a head.
Anyone that has travelled through India, particularly anyone travelling on a budget in non-tourist regions, will know how difficult it is to stay healthy and how when healthy, the threat of illness looms over ones shoulder and makes itself known with every twist, turn and rumble of the stomach.
The level of general hygiene is by far the lowest that I have ever seen and is renowned for making it incredibly difficult, once invaded , to repel the occupying force and prevent further invasions. It is unpleasant to consider, but the fact is that toilet paper is only used by tourists and soap is rarely found at the dhaba sink used by the cook. Rice is scooped by hand from plate to thali and multiple glasses of chai are served with a finger dipped in each glass. Vegetables are sliced on dirt floors and dishes are washed with a rinse in cold water and either a rub of the hand or a scungy, old rag. Hordes of flies make it difficult to find a clear path between plate and mouth and sly mice can be seen rummaging through the sacks of raw ingredients sitting open on the floor.
Added to all of this is the fact that I do not have an adequate water filtration system (or any system at all for that matter) and my conscience (and bank balance) can simply no longer allow me to buy bottled water, given all of the piles of garbage I have throughout my travels, topped by plastic bottles that will remain on this earth long after I am gone. Thus, I am forced to drink the local pani, which while I believe it to be mostly quite clean, is still a potential source of invasion.
While one tries to logically separate mental and physical wellbeing, the two are inherently linked, so while a stomach bug only directly attacks the body, it is the effect the inflicted damage has on the mind that causes the constant dread of attack. These effects are invariably exacerbated for a solo traveller such as myself, for when the going really gets tough, I lack the support in having someone to talk to or to procure supplies while I am confined to bed.
At the height of what felt like a Tet Offensive on my insides, I rang Mum a day before her birthday, assuming that she would be having a quiet night and that we could share a chat, for if anyone could lift my spirits, it was my Mum. As it turns out, she was hosting a gathering to co-celebrate her own and Auntie Jenny’s birthday, which happens to fall one day before hers.
The phone was lifted in West Pymble and I could hear the laughter and chatter of my loved ones in the background as Adam answered, “Hello?”
I immediately knew that I was in no state to talk. I was down. Deep. Deep in the deepest of crevasses. Deeper than I could remember ever having been before. No matter how hard I squinted, I struggled to see the sliver of light penetrating from above. I did not know which was to turn. Nothing appealed. I was lost in the dark yet again.
One thing that Kasol does have going for it, is good food. This was to form the basis for my efforts to counterattack and put a decisive end to this Godforsaken war.
Having not eaten meat for two months due to cost as well as a lack of availability and quality – one guidebook put it well when it wrote that it looks as though the animals served in India have all died of starvation – I splurged on substantial meat injections three nights in a row. There were not too many sheep grazing in those parts and beef was obviously strictly off limits, so I was restricted to chicken pasta, a chicken burger and a chicken pizza. Fortunately, variety was by no means critical to this plan of attack.
Some might say that eating meat to fight stomach bugs in India is somewhat of a paradox, but my army had been decimated. Some of my best soldiers had been violently expelled from my body and flushed into oblivion. I needed reinforcements. I needed to gamble of mercenaries who I knew could turn against me, but who if they remained loyal, could prove to be the key to victory.
The war raged on. More soldiers were lost. Spirits were battered. But in the end, the Poultry Platoon served me well and we emerged victorious. It had been a costly battle that left me feeling weak and listless. My spirit was hanging by a thread, but intact and with the bug decimated, ready to rebuild.
As soon as I felt strong enough, I gladly left ‘Little Jerusalem’ and the Parvati Valley and followed the Beas River north to the quaint town of Naggar. Still searching.
Once the capital of the Kullu Valley, Naggar is home to a 500-year old castle that has been converted into a hotel and sits high on the road to Upper Naggar overlooking the lush, green valley below. I climbed this road past the castle, past the much revisited German bakery, past the local cricket pitch/volleyball court and towards the Roerich Gallery, which houses many beautiful Himalayan mountain works by the Russian artist, Nicholas Roerich, who spent much of his life and died in Naggar. It was here, high above the highway, amidst more sweet-smelling pine, that I checked into a peaceful guesthouse run by an eccentric Frenchman. A passionate long-termer married to a colourful Indian woman, the mother of his four daughters, his energies were intensely focused on creating a vision he had of a warm, homely, welcoming place for travellers to rest their heads in Naggar. He went days without leaving his small property, preferring to stroll its hilly terrain in his traditional Kullu dress and cap, seeking inspiration.
His life seemed so simple and yet, it was so easily recognisable that he is truly happy.
It did not take long for his positive energy to begin rubbing off on me. I spent my days exploring the hills along local trails, well worn by residents of the many surrounding remote villages. The red beauties of the thousands of apple trees shone under the sun, just begging to be picked and chomped upon. It had been a long time since I had had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into the crisp flesh and tasting the sweet juice of this fruit that has long formed an integral part of the Antonio diet and I took to indulging in at least half a kilo per day. They say that one keeps the doctor away and at that stage, I wanted to keep the bastard as far away as possible.
I was feeling physically strong again and in a positive frame of mind. I was beginning to regain the sense of why I was here. Most importantly, I was letting go once more.
There are a few philosophies that I live by to assist me in my life as a bicycle nomad. One is that of life being a ‘series of temporary states’ – I may be stuck cycling in the cold, wind-blown rain in the remote mountains of Vietnam, but it is ok, because eventually I will be dry and warm again. If not tonight, probably tomorrow. Eventually.
Another is care of two special friends from my days in Georgina St, Newtown and is that of ‘taking it on board’ – there are ants crawling in my sticky rice. Take it on board! There are ants in everyone’s sticky rice. What else are you going to eat halfway down the Mekong?
And a third, which encompasses all others, is that of ‘letting go.’
On an island off the northwest coast of Malaysia in just my fourth week on tour, I met a Queenslander who had been travelling the roads of the world on two wheels for the previous four years and was slowly making his way home. Over dinner, we discussed our personal motivations and philosophies behind travelling in the manner that we do. “Mate” he said, “It’s all about letting go.” Sixty-odd weeks later, I know exactly what he meant.
Letting go is about unburdening one’s self of control, dependence and desire. About understanding that no matter how many countries one cycles through, the Void, Jack Kerouac’s Hozomeen, will always remain, unaffected and unmoved. About appreciating that there was a yesterday and there will be a tomorrow, but that lives are only lived in the here and now.
It is about a thousand things that I can neither put into words nor fully understand, but that I can feel and I felt them stirring inside me once more in Naggar. I liked it here and I did not know how long I would stay. I had found the mental space I had been searching for to open up, let go and travel in the darkness no more.