Three crazy countries, three crazy cities, fifty million awesome people
In the past few weeks we’ve come from a world dominated by landscape, through a world defiled by human destruction and development, and now into a world that is defined, almost wholly, by the thickness of humanity itself. A place like this can only really be explained by its human relationships, and none of the other feelings we could describe (besides, perhaps, that of affection) actually matter. We recently biked away from Dhaka, by some accounts the densest city on earth, in a dazed state of reflection. I was still recovering from a high fever, and both of us suffered from the water. Happy to be on the road again and out of the chaos, but sad to be leaving our new friends and one of the most amazing cities that either of us has ever seen.
Bangladeshis call what we’re doing “bike-packing”, and I’m sure they would agree that the experience of it depends on several things, first of which are the people. The biggest landscape on earth – the Tibetan Plateau – was made human and beautiful because it is inhabited by one of the richest cultures on earth. If there were a contest for the coolest people in the world, which there should be, Tibetans might compete for the podium, with style and toughness and humility that might only be rivaled by the Berbers. Even more so, the touring experience depends on the roads. We got angry at the drivers in China; the insane maneuvers and disrespect for us little guys. But in Chengdu they’d found a fairly satisfactory way to separate us from them, making the city of fourteen million feel like a manageable and fairly unremarkable metropolis.
Not so in Dhaka. There is no separation, and the city is nothing if not remarkable. The drivers are insane here too, but you can’t really get angry with them because they’re everywhere, and if you did you’d be angry at the world. We assembled our bikes at the airport after the long, stressful string of events that got us there, and began biking towards the heart of the city. We turned out of the airport drive and immediately it was a log jam. Honking, yelling, engines revving, pushing, squeezing, inching along. Ten kilometers from downtown, and already we were in the middle of insanity. Colors and dirt, and everywhere everything interesting, every scene was an explosion of life.
Roads and sidewalks were packed for the entire ride into the city, and as we rode they got more and more vibrant and crazy. Rickshaws everywhere, empty ones packed the intersections and full carriages packed the road, along with fully caged three-wheeled taxis carrying schoolchildren and huge, banged up buses that looked like they’d been pieced together by amateur welders in a garage. After a long struggle with the traffic we finally found the city center and needed to track down an internet café to see where our host lived. When we found out it was ten kilometers away, back in the direction we came from, we realized we’d been defeated. Ate a meal of the best “Indian” food of our lives for a dollar each, bought a cheap Chinese phone, and found a room upstairs.
Dhaka is a place where the saturation’s been cranked up. The color, the smells, the taste of food, the emotion, the density the humanity. Everything is thick and extreme, and in many ways good. At first it was overwhelming. Every time we’d stop, a crowd of curious bodies would gather and quickly grow. And everyone in the road would stare at us, unblinking and glowing with interest.
In situations when I was alone, there was nothing to distract from the awkwardness of so many sets of staring, incommunicative eyes. I’d tell myself that I didn’t need a distraction, and boldly meet a few pairs of eyes, testing to see if my smile could coerce theirs. Long, staring, smiling silence. If an English speaker found me, I’d use verbal communication as a crutch for this test I felt like I was enduring. We’d talk for a while, and then that painfully friendly person would leave, perhaps with a hug, and the eyes were back – not on my gear, my interesting bike, or my ragged clothes, but on my eyes, all of them. This test, it feels like a riddle. What should I be feeling, how should I react? How solid is my soul that it can hold out a street packed full of eyes, how free is my heart that I can let them in? The saturation’s cranked up in my head, too, and it’s a hypercolor tripped-out kaleidoscope of confusion. But color is good, and goddamn, humanity wears it well here. By the time we left Dhaka the eyes felt like a kind of warmth, and it almost felt lonely when one would leave… Wait, what’d I do?
The traffic in Dhaka is fun for a day or two, like a video game. But it’s not a game you want to play every day, because if you lose you might die. Squashed under or between buses, flipped over the errant front wheel of a rickshaw, dumped headfirst down an open manhole. Your life depends on clear wits in this mad traffic, so it’s no surprise that the majority chooses a safer, wit-free option. The biking game is the fastest way to get around, but it is really only available to the young and strong, and for those whom it is not an option but a necessity: the poor.
Rickshaw pullers provide a ubiquitous carbon-free alternative for traveling short distances, but even their existence is contested. Unofficially, there are five hundred thousand of them. Seriously, half a million. And like most modern Asian cities, Dhaka is quietly trying to phase them out to remove impediments to motorized traffic. This is a heated debate, and there are valid points on both sides, but for our own part we think that the loss of the Dhaka rickshaw would be beyond tragic. We’ve seen what happens when engines take over, and we’ve seen the opposite; in some cities rickshaws and pedal-vans still reign. There’s no question which places are more safe, clean, and livable. There is no question, either, which places are imbued with more culture and personality, and a thousand rickshaw bells are infinitely more pleasant than one sustained car horn.
We tried pedaling the rickshaws a couple times out of interest. Once we borrowed one from our French connection in the city, Alexandre, and other times we switched places with the drivers. Tiny, rail thin men pull these things, often with up to four people in the back, on top of the eighty or so kilos of the rickshaws themselves. We thought our Himalaya legs would impress, but we were easily passed by every other rickshaw on the road. I could probably bake up a bad excuse, but bottom line is these little guys are way tougher than we are, and their labor gives the city incredible color.
Bangladeshi culture is beautiful, educated, and proud. It’s a young country with an old history, and as seems to be the case with most Asian countries, theirs is quite sad and brutal. This sad brutality is strong in the collective memory of all Bangladeshis, yet they are proud to have been listed, by some index, as the happiest people on earth. “Yes, we are poor, we don’t have much, but we have what we need. What do we need? We have everything.”
Although they are poor, they might be the most generous people either of us has met. Generous with their time, money, help, affection. Anything they can give, they give, and nobody worries about who’s buying the tea. We were also welcomed more warmly than anywhere else we’ve been. It’s a city of seventeen million and it seemed like every one of them wanted to talk with us. And our beards, almost five months of growth, finally made a payoff in suggesting that we might share with them all the common bond of Islam.
Our host in Dhaka was Muntasir Mamun, a man of constant movement. He’s a cyclist, traveler, designer, photographer and well-known activist in the city. Not only was he an insightful and inspiring person to talk to, but he also hooked us up with a close-knit group of cyclists and university students that befriended us and ended up acting as our guides to Dhaka life and culture. After taking us on great rides around the city, we were often treated to some local smoke, and the musicians among them played and sang popular Bangla and Hindi songs into the night. Somehow everyone we met can and does sing, without provocation. You could see this as an indication of fault in our own, self-conscious American culture, or you could just marvel that all Bangladeshis are genetically equipped to jam.
We left Dhaka after ten days – much longer than we’d anticipated. I spent the last day in bed with another 102 degree fever while Rob biked around the city for the cameramen at Channel 24 TV, and we set off the next morning with two of our new friends, Shom and Imran. Both of them are also passionate cyclists, in a city like Dhaka, so clearly we were inspired by them. There are actually thousands of proud cyclists in the city, and the activism of groups like BDCyclists has helped propel the sport into the public consciousness. The size of the movement even suggests that a city as unlikely as Dhaka could become a city of cyclists. This is great news for the world.
Shom and Imran offered to bike with us all the way to the border – two and a half days of riding – and of course we accepted. Their guidance turned out to be incredibly important, and we already miss their companionship. We owe them a huge thanks, and many apologies for the thousands of questions they had to field about us: “American. Cycle world tour. American. No, not Muslim. Cycle world tour. American…” and so on.
After a good ride and a sad goodbye, we crossed yet another hectic border, into India (pronounced by dreamers the world-over as iinnndiyuuuh). You imagine a place even when you try not to. You have ideas from what you’ve read or seen in the movies. Its mystical, imaginary, and in a way inhuman. Then, when you cross that border it’s played out in real time, people moving around and doing normal things, the mystery is gone and the real magic is revealed. Every first day in a new country is crazy – we’ve said that before – and India was no exception. This is definitely not Bangladesh.
After biking a ways past the border we realized we wouldn’t make it to the next city, and stopped to ask for a place to sleep. The first guy we talked to invited us into his home without hesitation. Literally, without thought, he said “ok yes, come on”. We met his family and were ogled over for an hour while the sun went down, and slowly his goofy welcoming and unintelligible English revealed itself as drunken ramblings. We were used to the friendliness from our previous hosts, but at the border the religion had changed. Bangladesh is 95% Muslim, making it a place where drinking is underground and thus under control. This was clearly going to be a different experience.
Soon we were denied a bed by his wife and he was kicked out on his ass with us. He led us to the nearest Hindu temple where we’d all sleep, and out on the town it became clear that he was the town drunk crazy person. Our status in that town was ruined by his antics, but luckily we had bikes, so we moved on in the dark. Later that night we met another overly enthusiastic man who again invited us into his home, “if you don’t mind, we are poor, our toilet is unsuitable,” and this one stuck. He and his family were amazing hosts, showering us with gifts and affection, and introducing us to their entire neighborhood. The Indians we’ve met have been so uninhibited with love, and so passionate about life, that being here will likely change the way we look at the world… but that’s a story for down the road, when it’s all soaked in.
Now we’re wishing we had more time for that to happen. We’ve lost time in nearly every place we’ve been. On a bike it’s impossible to hurry through the places you love, and tough to move at all in the places you don’t. On top of that, the urban highways of South Asia have reminded us what we’re doing to ourselves on this trip. We’re both starting to feel a bit like mice in a box, if the owner of that box shook it for five hours a day while blowing a whistle, every day for five months. Stress is beginning to take its toll, and here, under the watchful and observant eyes of every Indian that sees us, we are forced to wear a smile while it does. I guess that’s the problem with an urban bike tour.
Three weeks ago we sat in an apartment in Chengdu, China, owned by Dhane, one of the most generous hosts anyone could ask for. We drank good coffee and ate a huge home-cooked American breakfast as we listened to the election unfold on NPR. It was a keen reminder for us that we were not home, and that when we did get home, good things would be waiting for us. China is a different world, where a quarter of the world’s population is fed false and heavily controlled information. Where free thought is frowned upon, and the knowledge that it is a police state is implicit; it doesn’t need to be shown through actual physical force, as it does at home.
Since then we’ve seen the world’s most terrible traffic in Dhaka, and here in Kolkata a society so stratified that old men run barefoot in rags, supporting their whole families on a couple dollars a day by pulling the weight of Indian businessmen to their mansions. In many ways all of this is beautiful, and in all ways extremely interesting, but we’re more aware now than ever that we’ve got a good thing at home, even if it is enormously imperfect.
The goal of this trip, as many of you know, is to use the knowledge we’ve gained here to make home better. We’re cycling to do that, but in the end a bicycle won’t save the world, people will. We’ve met so many amazing people on this journey, and we’ve been reminded that a person in isolation, or two people in isolation, are nothing. It’s our relationships that define us and allow us to change the world around us. The remainder of this trip will be about people, and from what we’ve seen many of the people here are the best of humanity. We ride with the hope that some of that karma rubs off and we can bring it home… twenty days as of tomorrow.