TRIGGER WARNING: This article mentions a case of rape and goes into the correlation of rape and racism.
After exciting Nepal on the westernmost border near Bhimdatta we had about 10 days left on our Indian visa. And close to 800k to cycle. Not that much especially given that the territory is mostly flat. We actually wanted to cycle into the mountains – I dreamed of 5000m passes in between Manali and Leh but winter had these roads still firmly in its grips and so it was not to be.
To be honest after cycling in Bengal a month ago our expectations were pretty low and we kind of just wanted to get to Pakistan already. In between the ever busy traffic we did manage to find some quiet roads though.
I loved this big outdoor market which popped out in the middle of nowhere. We stopped to have a drink and soak up the atmosphere and for once it was rather relaxed.
While still in Kolkata our host Pankaj had told us: ” You know, all these stories you heard about Indian men? It’s all true.” So basically he told us to be really careful, as rape is unfortunately not that uncommon, also towards foreigners. This is a difficult topic in my opinion. You might have heard of the gang rape of a 23year old woman in a bus in Delhi who later died from the injuries. The case got a lot of international attention and shocked me to my core as well. On the other hand in her article On Rape and Racism Emily Chappell describes extremely well how racist it is to assume that white women are more likely to be raped in places like India instead of their own home country. She says that most rapes happen with someone the victim knows and about 40% of all cases occur at home (UK numbers).
The thing is I did notice a big difference in how I got treated by a lot of men in the areas of India we cycled through, especially when Torsten was not around. A lot of them seemed to get very excited and thus came way to close to me, wanting to shake my hand (which is not common amongst locals with different sexes who don’t know each other) and tried hugging me whilst taking selfies (also not common between locals who don’t know each other).
So for the first time during these travels I really felt that I had to adjust my behavior a lot. It’s not that I have a problem with shaking someone’s hand or hugging someone I just met but I became aware quickly that these actions were received in a different way than intended by me. So I started ignoring most men around me, stopped shaking hands and if someone stood to close to me I would go away. These modifications became second nature rather quickly and I noticed that it became easier after that.
The thing is of course that everyone is different and as much as these modifications helped me cycling in Northern India, there were also a lot of interactions that went a different way. We had people follow us on motorcycles out of curiosity, got asked questions in many different languages, got asked for oh so many selfies and especially Torsten could get quite overwhelmed with 50 people gathering around us in the matter of seconds once we stopped in a small village. But then we had people follow us on a motorcycle to first get me a bottle of water, then one for Torsten and then a bag of bananas for both of us. We had people stop their car to ask if they could help us and more people offering to translate at food stands or helping us to find accommodation.
So traveling’s a fickle thing you know. There are no exact Dos and Don’ts, you might follow some guidelines but then you need to listen to your gut and common sense.
That all being said, I did not feel comfortable camping in Northern India (in the plains) if alone for the reason that it is so intensely populated and hiding seems to be impossible. So when we found ourselves looking for a place to sleep one evening with no accommodation around, Bachi’s family took us in for the night. We had an amazing stay with them. Our common language was a bit of English which was exhausted soon enough. That’s when I got the most perfect early birthday present: Bachi painted my hand with Henna! Usually cycle touring doesn’t go well with a lot of beauty routines and I’m really fine with that. Maybe this is why this shared experience without words was even more special and incredibly relaxing. Afterwards her grandma showed me how to apply oil so that the painting would keep longer.
On the next day we crossed the Ganges and had breakfast on its shores.
Afterwards we found some quiet roads again but cobble stones make for slow going I tell you. So it was dark when we arrived in Jagadhri.
No matter though, because this is when we met Amardeep and Kamal. And these two absolutely fantastic people would continuously spoil us for two days – my birthday included.
Apart from sharing their wonderful quiet oasis of a house and garden and their food, they also shared a lot of knowledge about their religion: sikhism. We both knew next to nothing about that before so it was really interesting talking to them and learning that sikhism is based on Christianity, Islam and Judaism but kind of tries working with the best traits from each of the big religions.
Torsten had fun trying on a turban…
…and I got presented this wonderful shawl which is worn in the temple.
As my birthday coincided with the Sikh’s most important holiday we visited a temple and got to know ‘Langar’: The Sikhs think that it is rather hard to focus on praying on an empty stomach and this is why there are big free communal meals in every temple. These are run by volunteers and as a sign that everyone is equal, all the people sit together on the floor.
On the morning of our departure Kamal tought me to make stuffed prata which is a doughy pastry filled with potatoes and herbs. Crazy delicious! These two days with Kamal and Amardeep were just what we needed: lots of fantastic and interesting conversation, a quiet garden oasis, lots of milky tea and a fabulous birthday celebration. Thanks heaps you two!!!
After Jagadhri we kind of had enough of cycling in this region. We considered taking the train to Amritsar but were baffled by their rather laborious requirements of taking bicycles on board. So we cycled to Chandigarh, marveled at the very chic town and took a bus to Amritsar the following day. We rather wanted to spend some time at the Golden Temple instead of enduring more honking, congested roads and inconsiderate drivers.
And we didn’t regret that decision one bit. The Golden Temple is absolutely fantastic. The Langar here serves over 100000 meals every day and between 200000 and 300000 on weekends. Even more on special occasions. There are a few cooks who work there permanently but again most of the kitchen is run by volunteers. Never in my live have I seen such huge pots, so many onions being cut, so many people being fed every ten minutes. And the food was damn tasty on top of that!
As foreigners we were invited to sleep in a separate compartment. Food and accommodation is all free but you are invited to leave a donation and/or volunteer.
We arrived at the accommodation at about 11pm after our bus journey. Unwashed, tired, and a bit overwhelmed by the thousands of people outside. And this is when we hit a streak of luck once more: The only free beds were next to Jen and Lluis, two amazing people who were currently on a walk from Bangkok to Barcelona. A walk! We kind of woke them up when we entered the room and then – as tired as we were – just couldn’t stop talking about everything.
The next day we spent exploring the temple and its surroundings and as a parting gift from India we even got to enjoy some fireworks.
So long, India, so long. We will be back one day fur sure. Probably not on bicycles, but we sure will have to have a look at all those mountains we missed this time…