Turns out it’s really hard to cycle around the world but not because our bodies don’t want to continue. The physical hardness is reassuring: if my legs are sore this is still happening. Sore legs are simple. The hardest part of cycling for the last 6 months from Tokyo to India has been doing it together.
At some point it mutated from having an adventure together to being stuck in a ziplock bag with bad air and continuous petty arguments. We unlocked the ziplock seal, let the stink out and got some fresh air. We split ways 10 days ago and are cycling apart until Delhi where we’ll run into each others arms and never argue again.
With Jorja in tears but smiling from the steps of her hotel I joined the honking scooters and taxis and pedalled off into the Shillong traffic trying to only think about how to get through it. 25km down the road I spoke to a lady who splits her years between the Khasi Hills in Meghalaya and operating a restaurant in Germany. She told me about a Canadian family in a valley nearby who rented cabins. It was out of the way but hearing, ‘Canadian’ and ‘valley’ (I’m from the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia) was too familiar in such a confusing time to not be pulled there. I felt like I was home the next morning sitting at the table eating an omelette and drinking coffee with country music playing. I cooped myself up in a cabin for a full day, ostensibly reading but mostly worrying and not knowing how I’d ever really start. The trick is just to start moving I told myself and on the second morning I forced myself to pack up and get ready. I got as far as getting my helmet on only to spend hours staring up at the mountains trying to find the motivation to ride. Their dog followed me across the fields, through the stream, and back onto the road. We had a hug and he was barking at me while I cycled slowly away. Once I rode away from there I knew this trip had changed massively for the better. For the 15 days since we split in Shillong Jorja has been hiking and swimming around Cherrapunji, having a real break while I rode to a small city set among the steep West Garo Hills called Tura.
When I’ve told people here in Tura that, “Yes, I am cycling alone but my girlfriend is 300km to the east and we will be travelling separately” it’s either been completely misunderstood or a change comes over their faces and they speak about how dangerous it is: the other people down the road will rob, murder, and rape Jorja (and maybe me too) and we should be together. Funnily enough that’s what Jorja’s Khasi friends tell her will happen when she gets to the Garo Hills. I remember all the people who told me to ‘look after her for us’ before we left Sydney for Tokyo and guilt sinks through me. The thing is, if I was Jorja and people were saying I needed a man to be safe – with the unspoken implications of further weakness and inability – I would have to prove them wrong just like she will. The idea that a man is required so that a woman can have an adventure is dismaying and needs to be destructed.
I’ve been attracting the extremes of people, so nice they’re my new best friend or so weird they’re trying to lick my face. A policeman, fully uniformed, stumbling around with a toy gun pretending to shoot kids in Haflong tried to lick my face after holding my hand and singing Red Hot Chilli Peppers – imagine the slow-mo pasty white saliva dripping tongue millimetres from my nose and my body bending back like I’m in the matrix dodging bullets.
One day I stopped at a crossroads where some men were drinking in the shade and sat down with them. While I was catching my breath a drunk middle-aged guy squatted on his heels in front of me, reached out his hand and dug a dirty thumb nail into a scab on my shin ripped into it and looked at me with glazed eyes and a growing dumb smile on his face. While I blew up at him he looked at me with an expression of what did I do? All the while his friends were laughing which made how angry I was seem petty. I’d only been off the bike in the shade for 2 minutes and was pissed off another weirdo ruined my shady rest with another bizarre thing.
And then there’s the new Facebook friends, good people who’ve become so intimately involved with my wellbeing there are daily messages of encouragement and questions of where I am now and how I’m doing. All from an initial interaction consisting of a selfie and handshake.
Turns out it’s really hard to keep cycling while cycling around the world. In Imphal we stopped for a week, another week in Shillong and today is a week for me in Tura. It’s been the staring crowds and our deteriorating relationship and the thousands of kilometres adding up to a need to stop for long enough to feel like the restart hasn’t come too soon and we aren’t dreading the same things we couldn’t wait to escape from.
The night before entering Garo Hills on the way from Shillong I stopped and asked to camp by a decaying, once brightly painted but now dulled to flaking pastel, catholic church on a hill. Some boys were playing cricket and despite me insisting it wasn’t necessary or better than outside they set me up in a schoolroom. Two of them took me down to the well for a wash, filled up a big bucket of freezing water and gave me a scrub thing they cut from trees. In the 6 months or so since we started from Japan I’ve opened up to strangers with a speed I never thought I could. Complaining that the water was much too hot while yelling out from the shock of the cold in the cool dusk breeze they laughed and managed to find small jobs to help me. We sat together later that night hardly talking, looking up at the church from the school steps listening to the choir practice, singing hymns vaguely remembered from my childhood. I laid down on a bunch of desks shoved together disorientated about what this new life of cycling alone would become circulating in my mind but on lower volume than the days before. When I woke up I realised I was latching onto familiarity and comfort wherever I could get it, from the idea of being with Canadians to church hymns 25 years deep in my memory.
I’d eaten at the school that morning at 7am and had a litre of water to tide me over until the next shop, but because it was Palm Sunday and this area of India is 98% Christian no shops were open. My chain was skipping because I’d put a new chain on an old cassette and as I worked up and down mountain after mountain of switchbacks my knees started playing up. It was new pain, knee pain has only ever been aching up and down a scale, but this was a slicing pain and I couldn’t physically bend either knee while it happened. So I’d coast and single leg pedal for a while and I’d try to extend my legs and see if the slicing was done. As the day went on I realised that there might not be any shops with food, no restaurants, and no places to get water til Tura, which was 88km through mountains away. In the afternoon my phone was telling me I’d cycled 8km in an hour, then 6km, on the same hill. I was descending too fast when a idyllic stream came into view beside me like a mirage and then was gone, I couldn’t bring myself to stop and ride back up and didn’t see it again.
At around 3:30pm after the last descent before the final climb into Tura there was a group of 20 guys outside a shop that was open. I ate 2 packs of biscuits like a starved wild animal, ripping into the packaging with my teeth and downed 2 litres of water. I sat in front of the shop in the dirt with the crowd gawping but I refused to acknowledge them. I felt like I’d been losing a fight all day. A drunk man came over trying to look tough, broadening up and standing too close. He told me to give him 100 Rupees. I stood up slowly and then yelled in his face at the same volume I’d yell at a cabbie trying to run me off the road to either give me 100 Rupees or to get the fuck away. I stood there breathing heavy staring into his weakening expression – in hindsight I wanted an excuse to fight back at what the day had given me. To be fair his friends all looked embarrassed he’d tried it on and they left together after he looked back at me a few times pretending he had some intimidation to offer. So far the description of Garos as awful drunks from the Khasi was proving true.
10 minutes later I was at the end of the valley with Tura still 12km ahead, all uphill, when a convoy of modified Gypsy’s (Indian made 4x4s) roared past me with drivers yelling out, ’Welcome to Garo Hills!’ and ‘Welcome to India!’ Watching them stretch out a gap and then disappear I was still working through if I should have asked them for a lift, or asked if I could hang on for the way up when I saw they had all stopped. I pulled up to a drivers window and said, “You guys going to Tura?” A minute later me and my bike were bouncing along in the back of the open 4×4 powering up the steep hills and I couldn’t stop smiling. Binny, the guy who was driving the jeep, dropped me at Madam Phoebe’s, a new homestay up at the top of a quiet hill on the edge of town. At night I can look out off the roof at the sparse city lights going way down the hillsides and see the headlights of individual scooters move up through the dark streets.
It was easy to stay 2 nights here. And when my knees hadn’t improved it was easy to stay 3 and now that I’m past a week I’ve found dozens of things to get done and arrange before leaving. I’ve made excuses to stay. Binny has been my friend and tour guide since arriving, we’ve been going to parties and markets and up on the highest hills looking over the city and into the jungle where he grew up. There’s a small network of people who know me here through Binny and Madam Phoebe and I’ve met people who saw me on the way and say, ‘Ooohh it’s the cyclist!’ There’s a place with beautiful samosas and a little shack restaurant that does meals in banana leaf to go and bottle shops with cheap beer.
This urge to get to know a place snuck up on me. Maybe it’s exaggerated now that I’m alone and looking for connections that weren’t needed before. I keep finding myself wanting to be somewhere other than India and feeling guilty for not enjoying what insane opportunity is in front of me here. Hard to know if I’m being a whinger or if it’d be hard for most people. I thought of Ryoo who we met in Japan and had cycled around most of the world. His response to me asking advice was that everything makes you strong and gentle so just enjoy it. I don’t feel strong or gentle but he’s probably right.
Here’s Binny who has been a total dude and easy friend since giving me a lift into town
I’ve made a new route from Dhurbri north skirting along the southern border of Bhutan, a place I always wanted to visit but at $250 per day is out of budget. So I’ll look at it from the border, stay beneath it and above the Assam plains. In Darjeeling a package will be waiting with essentials and luxuries and crucially in Gangtok I can replace my worn cassette and pedal smoothly again.
Despite making plans and looking at the map most of my mind is on Jorja. I have respect for people that can travel solo for a long time but part of me thinks that’s just who they are. Is that how it works? If you’re built that way you can do it and if you’re not you can’t? There are big questions to work through: Am I doing the rest of this alone from Paris? Are we both going to go around the world alone? Are we going to be able to go back to normal life without slipping into the bitter argument routine we’d gotten ourselves stuck in? Years ago when I was thinking about this the idea was simply to ride my bike around the world. It was the best idea I ever had and it was possible. Here I am almost 7 months in and the hardest part isn’t continuing to wake up and pedal or any variable of broken gear or visa arranging, it’s being able to cycle alongside an awe-inspiring woman who wants to do this too.
I met a man here in Tura on my first night, a 60 year old stoner who plays jazz guitar, was born in Bombay but has been living in New York for decades. He’s strolling through semi-retirement from a finance career travelling with few responsibilities. We talked into the night and all morning before he left, both repeating, “Look, I don’t want to bore you” and then continuing to talk for hours. He showed me pictures of lions and enormous blunts from his African safari, he talked about his kids, clearly gunning for big-time lives, and about his wife. In less than a day this guy had turned into my mentor. He spoke about when he got married decades ago someone at his wedding read from The Prophet a quote about giving a marriage room to breathe. He thought his marriage had survived because they learned to stay apart at times, to travel separately unless it fit naturally to do the same thing in the same place. So here was this man I had respect for with a functioning version of what Jorj and I had arrived at out of desperation. What hasn’t worked for too much of the last 7 months is over, and we’ll either be riding separately and staying together or riding separately and have had 3 years more full than any other time in my life.