We are almost at 6 months on the road and I can’t decide on how to reflect on it. Just now, as we cycled to this off-the-highway campsite, I saw a wild elephant who had a human friend. The man allowed me to approach it, and as it twisted it’s trunk to sniff my hand I looked into it’s deep, dark eyes. I tried to take in it’s lines and weight and mood in a single wary glance, mesmerised at the view. A car stopped to take photos of Dan and I not at all interested in the elephant…perhaps this is how I feel about our 6 months on the road: while I am trying to look deeply into the world trying to connect with it and make every moment last I am being distracted and pulled in for selfies. I will never get enough time to get to know the very thing I am desperate to understand. (might need explaining)
India is even more this way, however having Drew in his first week on the bike it means we have been riding very slowly, sometimes no more than 30kms in a day. Which has allowed us to stop and drink sweet, milky and spicy chai in every town, boiled fresh when you order it it comes in annoyingly tiny shot glasses. I sat with yet another glass of Chai in the corner of a mountain top village, in a dark wooden room that jutted out like a ledge off the mountain I sat with yet another extra man around me feeling the autumn like weather outside and feeling extra cosy.
We found this extra man, Felipe, about 10km out of Imphal a week ago. He is a bronzed skinned 36 year old man, with tough black hair and eyes that slope down like a hound. He is a PE teacher back in his home country of Portugal and is taking a year off to cycle tour. He started from Bangkok on the exact date as we started in Japan, September 1st. He wiggled around South East Asia visiting many of the countries we had at very similar times. After a few days of cycling together Dan and he had realised that they had crossed paths outside of Vang Vieng in Laos 3 months ago.
We all sat there, quiet in the moment, in this little wooden room that jutted out of the mountain, sipping our tiny hot chai, and the wind blowing pretty dust through the wide cracks of the wood paneling that swirled around the room for a while and out the bright door, I felt comforted that if nothing more comes from cycling around the world I am making friends, friends that share commonalities that help me become wiser, stronger, more enlightened. That the hours, days, years spent cycling to nowhere in particular will never be in vain. When our bank account is emptied, my legs have done as many km’s as they can, when my face no longer hides the sun damage, I will be able to count my fortune in a physical way.
I had asked Felipe a question of whether he thought he had changed much as a person since starting cycling his bike through Asia. We were cooking dinner in the outside courtyard of a Baptist church. We had lied about our religious beliefs to the paster who seemed mistrusting and bothered at our request for safe sleep in his church grounds. None of us believers of any faith we pulled in any connections to a church we could. Felipe being a teacher at a catholic school, Drew having left the Jehovas Wittnesses when he was 16 but is now an aethist, Dan having gone to church as a young boy and me… well I just remained silent and as angelic as possible – and when asked if we were christians we all chimed an enthusiastic ‘Yes’.
Felipe had responded to the question of his growth with a story about how he hadn’t traveled before this trip and when he had arrived in Bangkok had a complete flip out about what lay ahead of him, he couldn’t even look at his bike he said. He spent time talking about it with a few close friends who suggested he take some time, go to the beach, calm to a point of reason and make a decision. Through his fear he chose to get on his bike and cycle. When he asked the question back to me I realised I was still trying to find an answer to questions like these. I blabbed about how much more patient I am, not sure if it was true or not, and how traveling with Dan makes me a better person, not sure if it is true or not.
Every time someone asks me a question like this – Why are you choosing to cycle? What is it that you are doing it for? I try to make the most impressive, meaningful answer I can but the words of ‘personal growth’, ‘discovering life’, ‘meeting new cultures’, all sound weak and not quite truthful.
I’m doing it for ‘shits and giggles’ probably wouldn’t go down well but I do know that I want to be a better person because of it, and I am sure I already have changed but I don’t consider myself a good person. I have changed many ways, I am braver for one, even if it is that I am less afraid of the dark. I think I will only know how much I have changed when I go back to the life I led before so I can compare to my old self.
I questioned all this in that church yard after asking Felipe a question I couldn’t truthfully answer myself, spending the sunset cooking dinner and listening to the songs of the mothers choir group at weekly practice just inside the doors of the church. The lights went out in the town beneath us, as they do often, covering the hilltop in blackness with only a few spots of flickering candle light to assure us the town hadn’t completely disappeared. The mothers choir continued singing, clicking the buttons of the torches they all brought to give them some light. We moved over to a fire the 20 year old church caretaker had made for us and listened to his phone playing tunes like ‘hallelujah’ or Beyonce’s ‘Ava Maria’ and sharing some packaged cake which reminded him of the cake his auntie sold at her store in the village before the 2nd biggest landslide in India slipped the earth from underneath it.
It took us many days to get to Kohima, which was only 130km from Imphal. We had a lot of time to get to know Felipe and when we said goodbye in Kohima it was with a number of hugs, meaningful grabs of the biceps and genuine sadness that we had no more time together. We said goodbye at a motorbike repair shop in the mountain city of Kohima – he was travelling west while we were heading north. The colourful city stretched across multiple mountaintops like a blanket resting atop a sleeping body. Dan’s freewheel had seized mysteriously overnight and we had been police escorted to this motorbike repairers who weren’t able to help us.
We were told the city of Dimapur had a bike shop where Felipe was on his way too. So in less then 5 minutes our plans to head north that were built over days had changed. Drew and I started the 75km downhill towards our new destination while Dan had accepted a lift by a man who was heading that way anyway.
The road while downhill was still a little difficult, inconsistent surfaces and with many blind corners we wiggled our way without Dan crossing tightly from mountain to mountain. We met with Felipe who had stopped to wait after learning we were on the same route when Dan had passed him yelling out from the tiny silver bug car.
Once we were with Felipe the road widened and the curves became smoother, it became a valley rather than tight crossing of mountains and we all leaned into a fluid rhythm of curving around the bends in a line, taking over cars at opportune moments all together, whirling in the pleasure of the slight downhill that meant we could give encouraging peddling to get to top speed and only tapping our breaks around bends. Felipe and I were smiling at each other all the way down having a better feel for our bikes than Drew we were able to bend and roll with confidence, playing with each others line through corners, showing off to the military men sitting and watching us out the back of the large carriers with our agility on our cumbersome bikes that look more like a bundle of bags than anything else.
The Assam Rifles military that floods the Manipur and Nagaland region are not intimidating even though they often stand in balaclavas behind machine guns that are mounted on top of large cars. They wander the streets AK47’s in hand or riding in the back of trucks waving and happy to see us, never intimidating.
We levelled out and followed a beautiful river into the very edge of Dimapur. We stopped for some more Chai, and as we sipped the last of them a roll of thunder signalled fat raindrops to fall one by one. I was sticky and hot from the few days of not showering and welcomed the rained to wash it from my skin. Riding through the outskirts of Dimapur as the short thunderstorm passed over sending a few gusts across our path I felt wild and alive enough to let out a quick ‘WEEEW!’ in delight. The rain stopped and we finished the last few km’s trying to look for Dan’s hotel.