My release from the prison of Dhamma Sikhara marked my re-entry into the real world and strolling back to my possessions in Bhagsu was a strange feeling. A transformation had taken place within me and the world seemed to emanate a slightly lighter hue, but the people seemed the same. They still offered me the same blank looks of strangers, but I returned them with a smile from within.
The following day as I hit the road, even things that would usually make me cringe, such as an approaching truck driver hanging half his body out the window, honking his horn, waving and shouting greetings at me, brought a smile to my face. The 10km downhill to Dharamsala was accompanied by a spontaneous fit of laughter that has been characteristic of the tour – a true laughter of the moment. It was not to be all smooth sailing however, for circumstances over the following four days seemed determined to test my newfound, though undeveloped, skill set of maintaining the balance of my mind and remaining equanimous under pressure.
When I eventually decide that this horse that is the tour has run its race and I pack up my panniers and shove the King Brown in a dusty corner somewhere, there will be countless aspects that I will look back on very fondly; the impossibility of predicting what my day will bring; the unexpected, heartwarming interactions with complete strangers; and most of all, the unfettered freedom. One thing that no budget bicycle tourist will ever miss though, is the all too often frustrating search for a place to rest their head at the end of a long days ride.
Sixty-odd kilometres after leaving Bhagsu, as I approached a small, innocuous town, I felt ready to call it a day. I was directed to the only guesthouse, which had but one room available and with attached bathroom, double bed, TV and carpet, it was too luxurious for my humble tastes, i.e. too expensive. I carried on.
After another twelve kilometres of the ups and downs that I had been enduring all day, I arrived at another town where there was no accommodation, the holy man at the local temple turned me away and I was directed to go another 24kms. I remained balanced and carried on. I felt strong and still in good spirits. The sun was getting lower in the sky, but I figured that no more than half of those 24kms could be uphill and I would be happily showered and sitting down to a hot thali by sunset.
I figured wrong.
Little did I know that I was cycling to the spine that was to mark my exit from the foothills. Once again, reduced to stopping every few hundred metres at the none too subtle request of my thighs, I kept reminding myself that I had been here countless times before. But somehow it never seems to get any easier, at least not physically. Mentally, I remained balanced. I arrived under the cover of darkness to yet another un-noteworthy town and as I have become accustomed to, was repeatedly directed to a luxurious hotel with fantastic mountain views. The locals, seeing a foreigner, immediately assume that they are rich and want to stay in the number one spot in town. When I explain to them that I am looking for something for ”ekso rupia”, they laugh at me. “Not possible,” they reply.
A helpful man told me to go another two kilometres along a side-road off the highway and I would find a place to stay. It was then that I lost the balance of my mind. Exasperated, I pathetically proclaimed that I could ride no further, for I was spent and could not see, as if he could do anything about any of my predicaments. Nonetheless, I had little choice, but to follow his directions, fully expecting to find myself at yet another dead end being directed by yet another clueless local to go yet another few kilometres. True to the man’s word however, after two kilometres the road was lit up by market activity and countless signs bearing the blessed word, ‘Hotel.’
Unwittingly, I had reached the holy town of Chintpurni. Ignoring all of the touts, I found my way to a pilgrims rest house devoted to Hanuman, the monkey God, where I got a room for pachas rupia (half of ekso). I joined the throng of devotees sitting around the enormous banyan tree at the Devi temple – some praying, most chatting – and my balance was restored. As always, everything had worked out in the end.
The following morning, I was finally spat out of the mountains at great velocity and onto the vast plains. This however, exposed me to that hill that offers no reward; the wind, which for the last 17 months, has seemingly suspended its usual circulations and blown squarely in my face. Of course, a cyclist traveling in the exact opposite direction to me over the same period would say the same thing – it is easy to focus on the headwinds of life, while ignoring the tailwinds.
That afternoon I spent forty minutes cycling around a decent-sized town scoping out the plethora of accommodation, but frustratingly to no avail. I carried on. Ten kilometres later, I approached a ‘resort,’ which I nearly cycled straight past, assuming it would be beyond my means. Upon closer inspection however, I noticed that the exterior might just be faded, peeled and chipped enough to suit my tastes, i.e. it might be cheap. Negotiations went well and I entered a run-down fantasy land, complete with a kiddies train, jungle gym, a small, man-made lake with discoloured, plastic pedal boats bobbing on its surface and a games hall containing pool table, table tennis and video games. This was all set around two large grassy areas that were being prepared for a typical lavish Indian wedding to be held that evening.
Lured out of my room by the thump of the Hindi pop being blasted out of a set of enormous speakers, I prepared for a covert mission codenamed ‘Operation Buffet.’ My cover was blown before I had made it to within fifty metres of the long tables and I was directed to a dark corner out of sight of the couple of hundred guests, where I was attended to by waiter after waiter offering me an array of dishes and drinks. I had a good view of the happy couple on their thrones patiently greeting all of their guests one by one and of the hired dancing girls on stage, so I was very content.
The following night, I made it to a hideous town where I bypassed all of the hotels apart from a set of grotesque concrete cells operated by an equally grotesque, morbidly obese man, whom I daresay was unable to move from the bed in the courtyard he greeted me from. This place was even below my low standards, so I entered the local gurdwara and approached the temple’s baba ji who was dressed in his turban and long, white robes with a leather belt fastened across his chest, securing his Sikh dagger to its sheaf at his waist. He seemed absolutely delighted to see me and upon my hand-gestured request, showed me to a modest room to call my own for the night and offered me some lunch of what else? Rice, chapatti and dal.
I have been living off the charity of others more and more of late and once one removes the guilt associated with accepting charity, it is a heartwarming experience. Such guilt is completely unwarranted because such charity is never given with the intent of expecting anything in return, including the hierarchy of power between giver and receiver or righteous and meek, that is created by guilt. At a Hindu temple on the side of the Grand Trunk Road I stayed in a week later, a baba said to me, “It is my duty to serve you.” Hearing this spoken in a complete matter-of-fact manner, without a hint of subservience or self-righteousness as we sat before his revered and fearsome God, Kali, sent a wave of pleasant sensations throughout my body. This was the spiritual India that I had heard so much about. The India that enters one’s soul, nestles within and makes a permanent home there. This was the India that changes people.
Approaching temples for hospitality initially began with a primarily financially-based motive, in that they are free! However, I have since discovered a reason far, far more valuable than a couple of hundred rupees or even a couple of thousand. At a temple, I am a guest rather than a client and such a distinction creates an environment that is far more conducive to the peace, happiness, harmony, love and compassion that I am trying to surround myself with and find within myself.
Unfortunately, such a distinction can also have undesirable effects, for a guest often has certain ‘obligations.’ In the case of the gurdwara, after settling in to my room, I took a stroll down the dusty main street where I was approached by a typical, pot-bellied, bushy-bearded Punjabi who told me that he was my baba ji’s son. He requested that I jump on the back of his motorbike for a cruise around town. I politely declined and headed back to the temple for some quiet time. He and Daddy were there waiting for me looking somewhat perturbed, “What’s wrong?” they asked, “Problem?”
“No problem,” I replied. They obviously could not understand that after six hours cycling on the side of the busy, construction site of a road that is the highway, the last thing I wanted to do was to suck up more fumes and subject my ears and body to more horns and the rattle and vibrations of a clunky, Indian motorbike.
Not wishing to cause further offense though, when the son insisted that I ride with him, I felt I had no option but to reluctantly agree. We jolted our way through the traffic and back out to the highway. If my eye sockets were only half-filled with dirt, dust and other pollutants at this stage, then this filled them right up.
“This is the road to Dharamsala,” my driver yelled at me over the drone of the engine.
‘No shit mate, I’ve been cycling it for the past three days,’ I thought.
“Oh really?” I replied.
I was trying to remain equanimous and live the moment, but it was a challenge – I could not help but think of all the other moments I would rather be living.
I soon discovered the real purpose of our little trip and I was not surprised, for it is something that I have experienced many times before. It is ironic that ancient India is the birthplace of so many wonderful techniques aimed at dissolving ego, for in modern India, ego is king and being a white westerner, I am sometimes a source of puffing that ego up.
First I was paraded in front of his buddy ten kilometres out of town who having ‘pumped gas’ in Pennsylvania for a year, spoke passable English and was a nice chap. Then it was to a nearby village where we stopped outside several shops, just long enough for his friends who owned them to see him with a white guy. We went into one and I was introduced to a man who spoke not a word of English and looked like he had nothing but utter contempt for my chauffeur. When I was offered powdered opium from a large, plastic bag, I declined and urged the fat Punjabi for whom my aversion was growing stronger every minute, to get me back to the gurdwara so that I could get some sleep.
We eventually departed and twenty minutes later when the temple came into sight, I felt relieved – soon this three-hour tryst would be at an end. When we cruised straight past it, my stomach dropped, “Where are we going now?” I pleaded.
I could not believe that someone could be so out of tune with how their passenger was feeling, for by now I was past the point of despair and entering the realm of violent anger. Perhaps he just did not care.
The family home was a shrine to the youngest son, who as a supposed member of the Indian hockey team, living and playing in Florida, was the pride of the family. There were several photos of the second son, his wife and their children, but not a sign of the eldest, who as a fat, unemployed bachelor spending his days dropping opium with his deadbeat mates, may just be the black sheep of the family.
He suggested I stay for dinner and I suggested (again) that I would really like to get some sleep. He insisted (again) and briskly ordered his sister in-law to cook something up and she briskly obeyed. After dinner, he showed me to ‘my room’ and this time it was my turn to insist. He did not take the news that I did not want to spend the night at his home well. It was like breaking up with a girlfriend, but he eventually sulkily agreed to return me to the gurdwara.
“You should spend the day here tomorrow,” he said upon dropping me off.
‘I would rather cut off your dirty, straggly beard and eat every last hair,’ I thought.
“Oh I’d love to but I have to meet someone in Chandigargh,” I replied.
I had left myself with just forty easy kilometres to cycle to Chandigargh, or so I thought.
I awoke to the pitter patter of rain and dull, grey skies looming over the gurdwara, but I set out nonetheless. After all, I had to meet someone in Chandigargh. The road began as it had finished the day before, but now the dust had turned to mud and heavy trucks and buses splattered it over me, the King Brown and my bags. The weather and road soon fined up though and I entered the wide, bicycle-friendly streets of India’s only ‘planned’ city at midday and went about setting a new personal record. After four hours and twenty extra kilometres that involved two gurdwaras (sikh temples), two mandirs (Hindu temples), two dharamsalas (pilgrim rest houses), one bus station transit lounge, one Red Cross homeless shelter and countless hotels, I still had not found a place to stay and was wired. I eventually begrudgingly settled for a slightly pricey room in a panchayat bhawan (community centre).
In any case, it was less than ten Aussie dollars and I had a hot shower, a comfy double bed and three movie channels and I certainly could not say that I had not tried. With at least five days of relaxation ahead of me, this leg was over and it had definitely tested my equanimity and ability to maintain the balance of my mind. The path is long and obviously I still had a lot of walking to do, but for the time being, I was going to lay back, smoke a joint and watch ‘Blades of Glory.’