Not only was René Magritte a surrealist and India in fact is often a surrealistic experience. But also we got the impression, that there is actually not that one India. We have seen only a few of its states and still they all seemed to be different. In a way Nepal felt just like another Indian state. After all Sikkim for instance has been a sovereign country until 1975. So there is probably a much bigger difference between Goa and Sikkim, than between Nepal and Sikkim.
But let me begin somewhere else.
Already before we left Germany we weren’t sure if we visit India at all. Back then mostly because we weren’t sure if there is any border crossing possible into Myanmar, which was the only way to continue from India via land. So we actually thought about travelling through China until we found out about the Moreh/Tamu border crossing. Cora also was sometimes annoyed by the people in Iran and we heard several times, that the Indians are way more intrusive. Usually we don’t listen much to these kind of warnings, but when cyclists tell again and again, you start to take it seriously. In Bishkek a guy comming from India also told us about the very busy roads and how he was unable to enjoy cycling on them.
Cora often wanted to skip India and directly fly to South East Asia, because she wanted to escape that. But we decided to do it anyway. After all, that’s why we travel: We want to see for ourselves and not just believe stories and opinions of others.
When we landed in Delhi some things immediately changed. The most obvious was the left hand traffic. Also the terrible air pollution, the never ending honking and the millions of cars. Indeed we knew this was going to be tough from the first minute on.
After leaving Delhi towards Nepal we both dove into a more and more numb, meditative state of mind. We tried to ignore the honking and everything else around us. Just like you endure a ride in a very crowded bus: It will be over soon. We just tried to distract ourselves with some thoughts and kept on cycling, hoping for better times in Nepal. We saw real poverty for the first time on this journey. Not comparable to simple lifestyles in Central Asia or to European definitions of poverty. But I was also shocked by the environmental destruction. A terrible smell even 50 km outside Delhi. Dense Smog. Black rivers. Really dark black rivers like in a dystopic science fiction movie. It almost looked like oil is moving through the landscape. Waste everywhere. People everywhere. Animals everywhere. Noise everywhere. I don’t want to repeat myself. It was just not a pleasant place to be. And that’s this spiritual country, with its gurus and four-armed gods? That’s what so many people adore? I couldn’t believe it.
Let me think about it
Let me think about it
Let me think about it
After spending our second time in India I started to see other sides of this country. There is something about it, that is appealing. Something a lot of western people probably lack in their lives. I was thinking about how to describe it, when suddenly this video came to my mind. If you are not German, you need some info to understand:
Joachim Bublath studied chemistry, mathematics and physics. You will easily recognize him. In my childhood he was the host of the most famous science show on German television. It was called „Knoff Hoff“. That’s „Know How“ pronounced Germanishly.
Nina Hagen is a musician. I don’t like her music, but that’s a mattter of taste. She claims to be spiritual because Hare Krishna. She grew up Hare Krishna and later Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna. Krishna Hare. Crystal sphere!
The talkshow is about „UFOs, angels and aliens“, which is actually already a very unusual topic for this rather political and serious talkshow.
So when I saw this talkshow the child in me really cried. Reason had left the room. The hero of my childhood lost. Science 0:1 Hare Krishna. What a shame. They were sitting in a TV studio. The show was being broadcast via a satellite and streamed over the internet. And I am sure Nina Hagen came with a car and not via Hare Krishna. Science made all this possible. Without science Nina Hagen sat on a tree, reading the future in a crystal sphere.
Mr. Bublath escaped just like I wanted to escape India. There are no rules in India. Everybody does whatever he wants. You get interrupted, stopped, touched, annoyed everywhere. You just cannot rely a second on others. Nobody sticks to any rule, but everybody would benefit if they all did. The barrier gate at a railway crossing opens. Everybody pushes the gas pedal. Then the whole traffic gets stuck in the middle of the railway track. Because everybody just wants to move this one meter in front of him. There is no thought spend on the second meter or the third. In German there is a saying: „Dumb like one meter of farm track“. It fits pretty well here. You take what’s there when it’s there and that’s it. Yeah, and maybe that’s exactly what’s appealing about India. You don’t have to stick to rules. I tried it. I cycled beside Cora so we blocked the whole lane. Nobody was honking. They just accepted that and tried to move around us. You can stand in the middle of the street. Some maybe honk, but nobody cares in the end. Not even the police. So in case you want to experiment with what you really want in life, you can definitely do whatever you want here. I am sure, they have seen everything. I don’t want to tell you in detail what we have seen.
But science on the other hand is all about thinking before acting. It is about asking „why?“ and foremost it is about scientific proof instead of accepting the first suitable answer as an explanation. And of course I was raised that way. I am educated in science and therefore I know the advantages of it. As soon as you accept non-scientific explanations, you need another explanation and another answer for every question that cannot be answered with the first explanation you got. That’s probably why there are millions of gods in Hinduism. With Newton’s laws of gravity you can calculate a lot of different situations. It works in most fields. When it doesn’t anymore, the theories of a guy born in the beautiful city of Ulm take over.
I remember one discussion in India in particular. It was in Falakata, where we spend the evening with Amit and his family. Amit was very well educated. That’s why our talk went beyond the usual questions about our trip and our equipment. We also asked a lot of questions. He told us, that the Indian people are very fearful and are afraid of ghosts. They see ghosts everywhere. He said his wife doesn’t leave the house after dark, because she sees a ghost in the garden in front of their house. And in fact, also in Nepal, they pull down the shutters at 6pm. After that you will walk on an empty street even in Kathmandu and on both sides there are only metal walls. They all lock themselves inside their metal boxes. Ceci n’est pas moi! In the truest sense of the word: I want to live and think outside the box.
But one thing was bothering me still: Is science a way of destroying spirituality? Are the western people all more or less versions of Doctor Faustus, unable to see and express their devine, true self? Do they in turn maybe see Mephisto, the devilish ghosts, inside of themselves? Do we lock ourselves behind politically correct masks instead of metal shutters? These were some tough questions and I tried to answer them for myself on endless roads. Again and again I found myself trying to prove, that my way of thinking was better, more advanced and had lead to people landing on the moon. You know, things I never accomplished myself, but I liked to use it as an argument to belong to the right group. That way I was part of the winning team. Great. We all like that.
But as you can see I realized that and honestly I am a bit proud of it. After all I – myself – realized it. I didn’t land on the moon, but came pretty much back down to earth. So if there is no need to be on the winning team any more I can be completely true to myself. I truly believe, that I don’t need four-armed gods to be spiritual. I see an apple fall from a tree and even though I am capable of calculating the speed it has at the moment of impact, I have to admit I have no idea why it falls in the first place. Even if they find some gravity waves or a new formula. None of them will ever explain why. There are axiomes in science, that never get questioned. You could easily call them gods.
And in the end, scientific formulas are tools that make smartphones and mars rovers possible. Knowing these rules is like being able to read and write. It is just a skill. And we are educated in these skills, but a lot of Indians are not. Still beneath these skills, the cause for all of what we do is the same in every person. We can direct it more precicely. We can cover true affects under reasonable thought and maybe fool someone for a while. Usually ourselves.
I am ok with this situation. I cannot de-educate myself. And a lot of Indians cannot educate themselves. So yeah, I guess we all have our challenges in life. And in the end, visiting India made me think about all of this one more time. I even took the time to write it down and share it with you. But for the Staredevils these thoughts probably seem very useless and they probably don’t understand why anyone would share such an obvious observation. Just like I don’t understand how anyone could stare and observe me for so long.
I tried my best to understand the Indian people. And we met some Indians, even among the Staredevils, who actually also tried to understand us. And these moments were valuable and human.
So from a distance India already fades into the forever nice, fantastic, blurred and idealized travel memories. But I won’t let that happen. India and Nepal were still the most annoying countries I have ever been to. I would just lie to myself if I would tell you any different. I am happy we did it. I am happy it is over, too. It left its traces definitely. And my childhood hero just became a little bit more human after all.
I thought a lot about poverty during our time in India. Already in two earlier posts I told you that I have thought about poverty a lot. And in fact I thought about poverty a lot. And more important I actually thought I would be able to write about poverty a lot. But it is a very complex topic. I wrote down what I read on two signs in the Metro in Delhi. They were placed above some special seats:
Sign 1: For old or physically challenged
Sign 2: For senior citizens and differently abled
So I got the impression, that being poor is not only a bad financial situation, but also a word you can hardly get rid of as soon as it sticks on you. If you have enough money, you are no longer retarded, old or disabled. You are instead differently abled, a honorable senior citizen or physically challenged. And I got the idea, that maybe it was about time to not call it „poor“ any more. Because poor actually also means worthless, bad, maybe even criminal. And since people spend a lot of money to have nice signs like the ones in the metro, it seems to be very important for them. So why does nobody call the poor differently? The „Financially Challenged“ or the „Eternally Humble“ for example. There is actually no other, no positive perspective on poverty. Even if someone tried, people would find it cynical. A poor must be poor and he/she must suffer and stay that way. A soldier suffers too, but at least after death is considered a hero, even if he just died on the way to work in a car. If someone had cancer people will tell that he fought until the end or even beat the disease. No matter if he had already given up and only some chemo therapy helped him. But if you are poor, you are poor. You never be a hero for being poor. You never fight until the end. And you never beat poverty. You are just poor and that’s it.
So I was thinking about that and I was trying to see something positive in poverty, because I actually don’t like pitying people. I think it is very disrespectful. I rather like to appreciate how they manage to cope with the situation. Also I am no big fan of telling myself, how little my problems are compared to theirs. For me that’s a very masochistic approach. Everybody has a right to take his own problems very seriously.
So yeah, you see I had gathered some thoughts on poverty but after a lot of time I realized that I don’t know enough about the topic. So my opinion towards poverty for now stays an unfinished sympathy.
Update March 12th 2019: I think the worst thing of being poor is not your own suffering, but your inability to give. You are reduced to a begging, longing, wishing, suffering being, who is always in need of something. And one thing is so incredibly clear after such a long time of travelling: One of the most human urges is to be hospitable, giving, caring an considerate. For most people it feels shameful if they cannot give anything. Even some of the poorest people I met were willing to give. And today I understand what’s the biggest duty you as a traveller have: Be grateful! Because what these people almost never experience, and especially not from a European is gratitude. We think we need to help them by giving them food, medicine and education. But we hardly consider to give them the oportunity to give back. Often we even think they have nothing to give at all. And that’s when we make them poor.
Food and Accomodation
In the three months in India and Nepal we only pitched the tent twice – both times in Meghalaya. All other nights we spend in hotels, guesthouses, homestays and sometimes we got invited or stayed at a monastery or police station. And during all the time we never used the camping burner. Last time we used it was in Kazakhstan.
So that’s a pretty luxourious life, right?
Staying in hotels is no luxury. I mean we often stayed in very low budget guesthouses with ugly rooms and cold water only. But that’s not the actual problem. Even if we had stayed in 5star hotels all the time it wouldn’t have come close to luxury. The reason for this is simple. We always had to arrive in some town or city. So we never had the peace of mind to just pitch the tent anywhere as soon as it gets dark. That’s why we often arrived at night because there was just no other option than to reach a particular city. And arriving in a city means a lot of attention, noise, hassle and bad air. It also took us longer to find a hotel than it usually takes to pitch the tent.
We had often spend a beautiful day in beautiful scenery, but every evening we had to enter one of these ugly, noicy cities.
I admit not having to prepare your own food is a bit of a luxury. The food was delicious. Better than anything we could have prepared. But that also means a lot of days were just about cycling. Lunch break. Cycling. Dinner break. Cycling. Hotel room. Watching TV. In my memory a lot of days are more or less the same. But we saw a lot of movies. They have some English channels in almost every hotel and they show recent Hollywood blockbusters.
Even though we stayed in hotels all the time we haven’t seen a washing machine after we had left our warmshower hosts in Delhi. You can only use a laundry service. They wash by hand and the clothes suffer pretty much from that.
Statistically we’ve spent 68 nights in hotels, 9 nights at warmshower hosts, 4 nights in monasteries, got invited 3 times, spend 2 nights in the tent and 1 night at a police station.
Still the average amount of money spend per person per night was 3 Euro. That’s less than ever before. I wouldn’t call India and Nepal cheap, though. Most hotels were really basic and often not clean, with used sheets on the bed, cold shower and no sit-down toilet. However, almost every room had a TV. Sometimes we even got towels.
Staredevils, Honky Kongs and Dudes
I have bashed the Indian and Nepali people quite a bit in the last posts. I hope you understand that we met a lot of these annoying guys, but also very friendly people. India also was more about the people in general, because that was most of the environment most of the time. You can write about 4 weeks in Kyrgyzstan within a few sentences. The rest can be said in pictures. Not in India. It is all about the interaction. And so much has happended, that I didn’t write about everything. It just would have been too much. We of course remember great people like Raj (Kichkha), Antony (Kathmandu), Madhukar (Kathmandu), Amit (Falakata), Ashish (Shilong), Sayyed (Badarpur) and Bigram (Jiribam). But especially the extraordinary kindness of the Sikh in Hapur.
However, the Staredevils, Honky Kongs and Dudes actually had a bigger impact on our personality. After arriving in Myanmar that became pretty clear: We have become a bit more arrogant and harsh and lost interest in any unnecessary conversation. It took us a few days to recover. The Burmese people helped us a lot, though.
After talking to Amit it was clear, that the staredevil phenomenon is actually a typical group dynamic. Indians are fearful, he said. And in fact usually a single person almost never stared at us. Usually one guy approached us, sometimes even truely interested in us. Then others joined, but just stood there and stared. It is irritating, because they don’t smile at all. You are like an interesting machine, an object. You are the power glue. There is no interest in the person you actually are or your story. And it is not because of the language. In Iran they talk to you 20 minutes in Farsi and invite you for watermelon and tea and then you leave and you didn’t understand a word. That’s not the case in India. It is just not about you. It is about them. They want to look at you. That’s it.
The Honky Kongs were not only annoying, but often painful. However, when you see all the dead animals on the road, you can imagine sooner or later also a child or another person gets hit and dies. So often people just honk to make clear they are passing. Some start at the beginning of a village and stop when they leave it. Unfortunately everybody gets used to the honking. So they need to use more powerful horns or play a certain melody instead of a horn. They have reached a level which is deafening and that in turn requires even louder horns, because nobody is able to hear them any more.
The Dudes we really didn’t expect in India. From Delhi to Nepal there were very decent police officers. In general the police is reliable and supportive. But still there are a lot of real jerks. I actually like the dudes a lot, because it is always fun with them and I know that some of you also enjoy the dude stories a lot. So I decided to tell another one. It’s actually a dude’s Christmas story.
Once upon a time the dudes got a new toy for christmas. The key to their future: Three equally shaped big metal signs. They put two of them on one lane with maybe 50 meters in between. Then just half way between the two, they put the third one on the lane in the opposite direction.
Before they did that, this part of the road was just perfectly straight. Now they put another sign at the side of the road: „Accident prone area“. You don’t say! Maybe because there are now three heavy pieces of metal standing around in the middle of the road.
So everybody has to slow down and either a car from one or the other direction can pass. But never two at the same time. What does that mean? That means you now need three dudes to control traffic. In the end they just placed an artificial construction side in the middle of the road and now they act as traffic lights. Mission accomplished. Their jobs are safe.
In Europe you get some financial aid as soon as you are unemployed. In other parts of the world you apparently get a uniform. Then they tell you: „Go solve some problems! If there are no problems, go create them!“
And even that seems too difficult for the dudes, so they get these extra gimmicks. That way creating problems gets even easier.
We have crossed India and Nepal, climbed on 5416 m and only took a 4WD on the last few days towards Myanmar. Since we left Germany we traveled more than 18.000km. We crossed into South East Asia via a land border, which saved all our plans for the next months. During our time in South East Asia we want to visit Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Maybe we even make it to Malaysia and Singapore, before we finally take a plane to Japan.
Good-Bye India and Nepal. Thanks for freaking us out!
All blog posts about India and Nepal in chronological order