Kolkata to Varanasi – 8 days
In India, one is faced with the realization that in order to survive here, you have to love human beings a lot more than the average westerner. Indians, possibly due to necessity, are blessed with an unconditional love for humanity that binds them together. There’s an affection between people here that simply doesn’t exist at home. Maybe that’s the great Indian mystery that everyone here seems to be searching for. But there’s a darker side that we would soon witness on the highway; the harsh realities of a massive population living in difficult conditions results in an almost fatalistic attitude toward death. Western cultures have an innate fear of death. In India, they embrace it. Our fear of dying means that death is hidden away, tucked neatly out of sight, forgotten. Not so in Varanasi, where bodies are publicly cremated on the bank’s of the Ganges, the sacred Mother River. And even less so on the roads, where dying becomes a public act, played out in front of the unsympathetic masses.
We cycled into Kolkata braced for the worst: superhighways, endless traffic and insane honking. Instead we found ourselves biking along tree-lined boulevards with cycle rickshaws and old men on steel bicycles. This was not Dhaka. Unwilling to believe that this peace could exist in a city of 14 million, we kept asking directions to the city center and kept getting the response that it was just around the corner. Impossible. But then we turned the corner and saw the ‘City Center’, a giant shopping mall in the middle of the suburbs. That explained the miscommunication, but we were still lost.
Fortunately, the friendliness of people towards someone on a bicycle should never be underestimated, and once again, we found ourselves rescued by a kind soul on a motorbike. With difficulty, we followed Lalu through the steadily worsening traffic, constantly swerving to prevent collisions with the bus and auto-rickshaw drivers that threatened to flatten us and struggling to avoid the buried tram lines that lie in wait for an errant bike tire. Kolkata’s peaceful suburbs belie a disconcerting truth – inside the outer shell of greenery lies a chaotic interior that is treacherous for the cyclist.
He brought us to Sutter Street – India’s answer to Bangkok’s Ko Sahn road (tourist hell). During our two weeks in Bangladesh, we could count the number of westerners we had seen on one hand, but from where we now stood with our bikes we could see at least a dozen. This was going to be different. Lalu departed with offers of dinner and Johnnie Walker “black label” at his home, pleased that he had left us in the company of our own kind.
Tourism has the ability to ruin a place, and when Lalu rode off, it left a vacuum around us that three touts immediately rushed to fill. We’ve found that in tourist India, if you aren’t being escorted by, talked at, or sold to by someone feigning friendship to get your rupees, then you soon will be. Fortunately, outside of the touristed areas most Indians are every bit as friendly as their Bangladeshi neighbors. But coming from Bangladesh, where the lack of tourism has preserved their innocent friendliness, India’s friendship with a pricetag model can be really hard to swallow. Thankfully there are many exceptions, and over the next 5 days we were introduced to the diverse cycling community that bravely breathes Kolkata’s tainted air, the worst that we had yet seen.
Kolkata describes itself as the soul of India, and it shows. There is fascination hanging in the air. You can see it in the headlights of the classic Ambassadors cruising down the street, unchanged since 1953. You can feel it in the eyes of the garbage sorters picking through street trash at 1am, and you can see it in the eager faces of the committed and passionate cyclists who call this city home. Our first introduction to Kolkata’s intrepid riders was Oveiz, who, over the course of a year, lost 60kg by riturally cycling Kolkata’s streets at midnight. He rode at night for two reasons; Kolkata’s streets are insanely crowded and choked during the day, and the Kolkata Traffic Police have enacted a ban on cycling in the downtown area. This makes it virtually impossible to ride around the city during the day, but there are still those that try.
Prateek Singh, much older than his 18 years, runs an online mountain bike magazine (MTBmag India), works as a guide for Himalaya Trailways and dreams of becoming a professional mountain bike rider. He’s also a member of Ride2Breathe, an online cycling community that encourages cycling for health and as the name suggests, a way to clean up Kolkata’s horrible air pollution. “How can people be expected to cycle with this pollution; but how can we fix this pollution without cycling?” Another Ride2Breathe member, Mithun Mas, who introduced us to the city’s best dosas, chai, and lassis, rides at the other end of the spectrum – most recently completing a 600km road ride in less than 40 hours.
At 6am the morning of our last day in the city, we met Prateek, Mithun, and several more cyclists from Ride2Breathe for their daily ride. Our group grew as we rode towards the suburbs, picking up additional cyclists along the route. We biked out to The Wetlands, an oasis of calm and greenery east of the city and got our first taste of trail riding, Kolkata style. If this trip has taught us anything it’s that invariably, cyclists are good people. We said goodbye to our new friends, once again inspired by the tenacity and warmth of South Asia’s cycling community.
That evening we boarded a train to Gaya; forced by time constraints and a sense of self-preservation off the bikes and onto a faster mode of transportation. We both knew to expect crowds at the station, but still we were unprepared for what we found. The mass of people coalescing at the station had never seen the likes of us either, and so the persistent infinite faces of the curious added to the chaos and claustrophobia. We checked our bikes as baggage, and then fought our way through the throng to the line of people that was fighting for a place on the train. Under these conditions, you are forced to be kind of an asshole, and with guilty consciences, we pushed old women and children out of the way to get to our seats, which were promptly filled with additional bodies. We did not sleep much that night.
We biked out of the train station at 6am, before the sun had risen above the arid agricultural landscape and passed through quiet towns full of men and women riding old steel bicycles. We cycled on small roads, along canals and endless rice fields as the flat ground stretched away to the dusty, distant horizon. But whenever we stopped, the horizon would be erased within a matter of seconds by the crowd of people that always seemed to materialize out of thin air to watch us. At first, two or three people would wander over, which always attracted more and more to join, until eventually we would be surrounded by 40-60 curious stares.
As we passed through the small towns, an entourage of cyclists would invariably coalesce behind us and escort us to the next town, grinning and laughing as they chatted us up. More often than not though, someone from the cycling posse would find it necessary to challenge our speed and coyly race ahead, covertly glancing back to see if we could match him. This has been a common phenomenon here, and we’ve often found ourselves getting passed by male cyclists who, only moments earlier, had been leisurely propelling themselves down the roadway.
Eventually, the joyride ended, and we found ourselves following NH2 – a 4 lane monster that runs between Kolkata and Delhi. The bicycle bells and cycle posses were replaced by the roar of trucks and a constant guardedness that was necessary to avoid being run over by traffic that was now coming at us from all sides. We broke the monotony of the highway by drafting passing trucks. In this dangerous game, the magic number was 40. As long as the trucks stayed below 40km/h we could draft behind, pulled by their wake, but as they sped up, we were spit out into the turbulence that followed. We caught several of the passing trucks, getting some easy miles in the process, but the realization of what our Moms would say about this practice quickly put an end to the fun.
The road between Gaya and Varanasi was the most treacherous road we’ve biked, and as we neared Varanasi, a grim reminder of the frailty of our existence lay sprawled in the roadway. Trucks were swerving crazily around an obstacle in the center of the road, and even from a distance I recognized with dread the unmistakable shape of a human body. The way people were ignoring the body I assumed the man must have been dead for some time, but as I drew even with the man I could see blood burbling from his mouth with every breath. Holy fuck, this guy is still alive! ……Wait, why the hell isn’t anybody fucking helping him?
Stunned, we pulled over, got off our bikes, and stared in disbelief at the inaction around us. We rushed over to the man, followed by a group of bystanders, and literally had to form a wall around the man to prevent cars from running him over. Still, some assholes had the nerve to force their way through the crowd. At this point, people were still standing around, almost afraid that if they acted, they would somehow be associated with the accident. It was heartbreakingly frustrating; to know exactly what needed to be done to help, but unable to give instructions or communicate with anyone. We literally had to stand there and watch while the man edged closer to death. Alex cried out to everybody and nobody that the guy needed to go to the hospital – someone call a fuckin’ ambulance! He waved over a passing police car that slowed momentarily to look then sped onward – this was apparently out of their jurisdiction.
The man groaned weakly and rolled onto his side, blood pouring from his mouth. It was then I noticed the gaping hole in his forehead. Oh shit. I took a towel and wrapped it around his head to stop the blood flow and stabilize his neck with my hands. We stayed like this until the police arrived. Predictably, they hefted his body off the ground like a sack of flour while I followed, trying my best to keep his neck stable. Before I could intervene, they threw him into the back of the rickshaw, shoving his body roughly along the seat cushions.
As the rickshaw drove away from the circle of onlookers, I glanced down at my hands to see them covered in his blood and the clear yellow fluid that surrounds a human brain. That’s when the realization hit; I just watched a man die. Someone in the crowd thanked me. For what? Before we rode on we looked at each other, unspeaking, detached the helmets from our bikes and put them on our heads. Biking into Varanasi’s swarming traffic two hours later, we moved cautiously through the consistent haze of smoke that emanates from the city’s publicly cremated bodies, hyper-aware now of the danger of Indian roadways. As we rode, death’s presence seemingly permeated the air around us, viscerally connecting us to this ancient city.
If Kolkata is the soul of India, then Varanasi is its spiritual heart. Varanasi is nothing if not dramatic. Life oozes from this city like the ever-present cow shit oozes between your toes during a missed step. Here, the ancient bumps shoulders with the ultra-modern, animal with human, tradition competes with development, and life merges with death. If any place can teach us about the harmony of coexistence, then this is it. And the lesson here seems to be: we are all equal in death. Life might enter and play out its existence in this city at ground level, but it exits as smoke into the sky.
Varanasi’s rooftops are home to a culture of the sky. At dusk a rushing noise emanates from myriad rooftops across the ancient city as kites race upward on invisible strings, lifted by the same winds that carry the dreams and smoke of burning corpses to heaven. The silhouettes of brazen simian thieves trace rooflines in their search for stolen food. Birds dart above the buildings, unaffected by the crazy dance of the overhead kites. And people all across the city escape up onto their elevated parks to watch the drama unfold.
Below, the narrow labyrinthine alleys of the old city are a gloomy contrast to the freedom of the sky. People, bicycles, cows, motorbikes and goats push and crowd into the dark, rank corridors, foul and beautiful.
Brushing shoulders is a fact of life here, and the occasional collision hardly elicits a reaction from locals (unless it happens to be me, and then they laugh). Despite the closeness, these alleyways have tremendous charm and character, and it is here that you will see dead bodies pass by in chanting processions, bound for cremation. Eventually, the constricting passageways explode upon hitting the Ganges into the massive, dramatic line of ghats that line the riverbank.
This is where life truly blooms in Varanasi. Most importantly, the ghats provide steps for sacred sunrise bathing in the Ganges, where, despite water so polluted that Alex and I wouldn’t even stick in a toe, thousands perform the ritual daily.
In two holy places, known as the burning ghats, the steps flatten to provide a dry platform for the cremation ceremonies taking place continuously throughout the day. In other areas, the ghats create open space for markets; seats for barbers, masseuses and vendors; platforms for praying and meditation; and amphitheaters for spectators. They are ancient and have grown organically over hundreds of years, but yet work together in concert to create amazing public space. When looked at as a whole, Varanasi gives the impression that it was meant to be this way, always destined to become a layer cake of history, death and life.
For the past 5 days, we’ve been surrounded by the somber aura of death, but not in a bad way. Like our struggles with altitude sickness in the Himalayas, experiences like this force us to accept the hard fact of our mortality, and this acceptance in turn creates a sort of inner peace. Although we like to pretend it isn’t, death is a part of life, and ignoring it only makes it scarier. We’re now in Agra, sitting on a rooftop watching the sun set behind the Taj Mahal – what many call “the greatest monument ever built to love.” The tomb of a loved one is a fitting symbol for the Indian spirit, a country that’s infused at once with death, love and the overwhelming beauty of life.