How Much is a Good Story Worth?

Lodging in India is always an uncertain thing. Especially as bike tourists operating with the plan of no plan on a daily basis we're never sure where we'll end up resting our heads each evening. India is a big place and travel guides such as the Lonely Planet do not include most of the towns we've traveled through.

Recently we biked from Cochin on the coast to Mysore in a high plateau area on the far side of the Western Ghat mountains. We were rewarded after a decent climb over the mountains with rolling hills of coffee, tea, and teak plantations. These transitioned in to two different, but connected Tiger Reserves.

The signs asked visitors to minimize sounds in order to reduce stress on the wildlife. Silence on any roadway in India is an absurd and unachievable expectation, as the honking of horns is its own language that will never be silenced. Being serenaded by horns, we traversed the beautiful landscape, and imagined the tigers and elephants roaming behind the tall grasses, having dance parties to the disjointed beats created by each driver, ringing our bells to add to the melodies.

As dusk arrived we cruised in to a town only to be met with very high hotel prices. The lowest offer we received was a room for $16 US dollars, an absurd amount for the sub continent. With the confidence of fools, we decided that we would have dinner and then search for a camp sight nearby. In the dark with our headlamps attached we headed for the perimeter of the park. Rationalizing that we would be safe because no animal would likely be on the perimeter of the park or near the road where horns continued to honk and trucks slowly rumbled uphill.

Mikey was more confident than I was. As we laid in our tent I kept asking questions about why our current location was safe. The eagle scout in Mikey was able to provide excellent answers and we had moved all of our scented belongings away from our tent (a bag that contained oranges, cashews, and peanut butter). Reassured I fell asleep with the sound of cars and horns nearby. An hour and a half later we were awakened by the sounds of bells and the clanging of chains.

Bells and the general clanging of things is normal for nights in India when Hindu temples are around. But in the Tiger Reserve there were no temples around and we were quick to figure out that domesticated elephants were grazing on the road near by. To our surprise the sound of traffic had ended too. When I asked Mikey "What do you think we should do?" He responded "This is new territory for me, I'm not sure."

Together we made the decision to pack up our tent and bike back to the town. The elephants didn't seem too concerned about our presence, but we still worked quickly as they slowly grazed and moved in our direction. As they got closer they found our bag of goodies and in one mouthful consumed our snacks. After a taste of the delectable treats they were more interested in examining our goods. Haphazardly put together we rolled down hill to avoid any further inquiry.

It didn't take long for us to realize that with the traffic and noise gone, we were not alone, and wild elephants were sounding alarms to let us know we were not welcomed as guests. Adrenaline can bring power to tired legs, and we bolted down hill. At the park entrance the gate was shut, and the light in the guard house was on. Assessing the situation we found a path around the gate and continued to accelerate as the guard was commanding us to stop. Hollering support to one another in the form of "go, Go, GO!!!"

The chase didn't pass the verbal stage and we rolled in to the hotel we'd declined earlier inquiring if the $16 room was still available. The staff asked no questions and showed us to our room, humbled by our stubbornness we shut the door. In hidden safety we laughed ourselves to sleep.

In the morning we reviewed the circumstances of the night and vowed to make better decisions next time.


Mikey on India and Our Lies as Circus Bums

Howdy Folks,

The long and short of it is: 1) Our shits are solid (the best consistency they have been in over a year for that matter), and 2) We have not lost our passports.  Thus reassured that all is well in southern India most of you will likely not finish reading this email.

For the rest of you: Ali's transformation into total bike bumness is nearly complete.  At this point little differentiates the experience of riding with Ali and riding with Royalty in Exile World Tour.  1) We've run out of toilet paper and gone native.  2)  We've slept in some dank hovels that make Anne Arundel County holding cells look like the Best Western.  3)  We eat what ever is put in front of us and ask questions later.

Since I last wrote, we cycled across the Terrai region of southern Nepal, rode an elephant in Bardia National Park, visited the Mikey Medium English School for ten days (which was difficult), and took a 42hrs train ride from Delhi to Travandorum, southern India.

In Travandurum we met a great Taiwanese fellow named Henry who has been cycling in India for several months without meeting another cycle tourist.  I don't think many cyclists venture down here.  They are scared by the tropes of chaos and horror on Indian road ways and the heat. However Henry was uber-enthusiastic and sent us off with a good luck talisman, good tidings and optimism in our hearts.

Our first night we camped in a wooded area next to a family restaurant.  In the middle of the night Ali started shouting at a man who appeared to be messing with our bikes and panniers, and brandishing a large knife.  As I leapt out of the tent in my skivvy's I thought to my self, "Not this again!"  Camping-out in the jungle one night in Western Nepal we had a similar incident, except it was three bandits and a sword.  However on this night the bandit turned out to be the rubber tree tapper.  We had unwittingly locked our bikes to his rubber tree.  In the morning we noticed beads of Elmer Glue like fluid spiraling down tree trunks, dripping into halved coconut shells, on ever tree around us.

We cycled south to Kunnakumari, the very southern tip of the Indian sub-continent; where the Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean, and Bay of Bengal meet.  Throngs of barefooted pilgrims, wrapped only in checkered picnic blankets filled the streets and temple. At sunset we waded out into the sea and enjoyed the spectacle of thousands of Indian pilgrims splashing and having fun in the waves. The funny thing about Kunnakumari and other pilgrimage sites is that few, if any, European tourists visit these places. I think it is because European tourists don't actually like to mingle with Indians.

From Kunnakumari Ali and I cycled north along the east coast into the state of Tamel Nadu following our typical  "plan of no plan."  We ended up at Turukchender, another major pilgrimage site.  Hinduism is confounding, and so Ali and I wandered around the periphery of the temple unsure if we wanted to wade into confusion inside.  Long after dark we bucked up our courage and made our way into the temple.  Built of ornate stone work, the temple was filled with a crush of alters, butter lamps, people and activity. We were quickly ushered down into the damp recesses of the temple, packed tight into narrow corridors with many hundreds of shirtless face painted Hindu men.  The air was thick with humidity and the smells of sweat, frankincense, and mildew.  It was pretty much exactly like the Temple of Doom.  When we got to the chamber where a blond woman would normally be sacrificed, we were instead instructed by the attendant Brahman to look into the eyes of an idol to see our future, or something like that.  It was awesome.  My future looks great.  Ali's, well Ali's is up in the air.

Next we headed inland, crossing miles and miles of rice paddies, banana and coconut plantations.  One night we rode until after dark looking for a good place to camp or a cheap road side lodge.  We arrived at a typical small, crowded, and dirty town.  After inquiring we found out there was no lodge in town, however we were taken to the local mosque and given a room reserved for visiting worshipers.  Although the room bore uncanny resemblance a prison cell from "Midnight Express", Ali and I both felt comfortable.  I know no two Islams are the same, but after the confusion of being in Hindu pilgrimage sites, a mosque and Islamic community seemed familiar, like we knew what to expect and the code of conduct expected of us.

The next evening we found ourselves in a similar situation, but with one exception: the Jumbo Circus was in town!  Three dollars bought us ring side seats, up close and personal with the chunky acrobats in lime green and pink Lycra costumes from the 80's, close enough to smell the midgets, and get splashed by the man who would drink two gallons of different colored waters and then barf them back up, separately by color.  After the crowds left we pitched our tent with the food vendor's and for one night dreamt we were part of the circus.  I dreamt that in our act, I'd light my farts on fire while jumping through a hoop of swords and Ali would tame wild asparagus before your eyes.

Since then we have cycled back over the Western Ghats and down to the sea.  After a long (100+km), hot day we arrived in Alleppy filthy and tired.  Wandering lost, searching for a cheap guest house, a guy called  to us from the gate of a very nice looking heritage house hotel.  Ali and I just looked at him with tired eyes.  "Thanks, but your place is way out of our price range."  However he persisted and Ali jumped off her bike and followed him in.  Thus we ended up spending the Thanksgiving holiday in a wonderful room that we were instructed to say we were paying more than twice the price we were in fact paying if anyone asked.  The hotel staff was great fun.  They served us a wonderful seafood Thanksgiving feast, and were all too happy to take my money when I played a gambling version of Rummy with them.

Now we are in Cochin, ready to head north along the coast, and then cut inland to Mysore.  We are excited to meet a friend from St. Mary's, Jesse McD, who will cycle with us the last few weeks of our journey.

Hope all is well.  What do you want from India?

Be cooled,

Fat as a Good Thing

In Tajikistan last winter I was surprised to learn, and it took some time to get use to being told that I was fat was in fact not an insult but a tremendous compliment.

I was frequently greeted in the mornings with statements such as: 
"You are looking very fat today!"
"How fat you have become!"
"You are fat and beautiful!"

This form of compliment also exists in Nepal. The people of Bauniyan have previously known me only through my wedding pictures. "You were so fat at your wedding, but now, after months of biking you are very thin."

I recently completed a book May you be the Mother of 1,000 Sons, it is a book about the lives of women in India. The book shares how in Bollywood, big is beautiful and a famous actress was quoted as saying "I hate being a fatty, but if I lose weight my fans in the South will no longer support me."

Different strokes for different folks I suppose, but there is likely a balance between the extremes of aesthetic beauty that are appreciated in different regions.  

A Month in Nepal

I am sitting in an internet cafe in Southern India. We've been in India for a month. Since studying Hinduism and Buddhism at University, India is a place I've always wanted to come. Before our arrival people tended to look at us funny when we mentioned our plans to bike tour on the sub-continent.

Well, I am here to tell you, you ride your bike in and out of Kathmandu, Nepal and India seems like a day at the beach. Kathmandu is a city with narrow streets and tall buildings, it's easy to lose or have no bearing on your location from the time you turn your first corner. It feels surreal, like a video game, to share the road with pedestrians, motor cycles, buses, dump trucks, holy cows, dogs, Sadhus, and everything else you can imagine.

Riding out of Kathmandu was intense. A windy mountain road where buses (yes, plural) were flipped over, cars with tires that had fallen off, and long lines of black exhaust spewing trucks. On bikes we could thread the needle between the stalled traffic and the oncoming vehicles. At the end of the day covered in soot we found a hotel where the owner informed us we wouldn't look so dirty if our skin wasn't so white.

On our second day out of town we decided to stop and do a three day white water kayaking clinic. Pradeep, Nepal's free style kayaking champion, was our coach. He was perhaps the most patient teacher I've ever had. We spent our days learning to eskimo roll and running the Trisuli river, our nights were spent by beach bonfires, the whole experience culminated with Mikey and I running 3+ rapid. It was awesome and we would love to do it again at Royal Beach Camp Nepal.

Before the traffic thinned out I questioned Mikey's statements about Nepal being a great place to bike tour. He visited and toured in 2005 at the height of the civil war when the Maoists had put a bond on all motor vehicles. I kept thinking to myself how nice the roads would be without traffic.

Well, half way to Pokhara (a gateway city to trekking in the Himalayas) the traffic thinned out, the Himalayas became visible and it was clear that this was in fact an amazing place to be on bicycle. Riding from Pokhara to the Terrai plains region was the best road we biked in our multiple months of travel. The Terrai is flat, super flat, and we crushed some serious km on our way to Bardia National Park. The wildlife that Bardia is known for is its tigers and rhinos. Luck wasn't with us, but we did get to experience the gigantic leeches which resulted in me squeeling and teetering on the edge of tantrum as we walked through the parks tall grasses. With the noise I projected, it's no surprise we didn't see any larger wildlife.

After Bardia we spent 10 days in the village of Bauniyan. In 2005 Mikey stopped in Bauniyan and befriended two brothers who expressed an interest in establishing a school for impoverished children in their region. Over the years the brothers kept in contact with Mikey, or more accurately, his parents through calling the Church homestead. In 2008 the idea of a school became a reality, and from that time Grass Roots Education Nepal a Maryland based non-profit has been funding student scholarships and teacher development at the Mikey Medium English School in Bauniyan.

We were welcomed to Bauniyan by the students, their families, the teachers, and other community members. The Bhat brothers and their families were great hosts! Ambika Bhat has a wonderful laugh, and our antics gave her lots of material to fuel her giggle. Our attempts to cook Chapati bread on the fire was filled with misadventure resulting in deformed and ashy treats. Ever graceful, Ambika was sure to tell us we'd done a good job while chuckling all the while.

We were sad to leave Bauniyan, but our visas were expiring and India awaited...


Mikey on Kazakhstan and our first days in Nepal

There are similarities and differences between cycling with Cam, and the rest of the "Stinky Finger Band", and cycling with Ali.  One difference is that while cycling with Ali we never seem to completely run out of toilet paper.

After a protracted stay in Bishkek, waiting for Indian visas, we got out of dodge and into Kazakhstan.  Because the border crossing in the East (Karakol/Kegen) is currently closed, we had to use the crossing nearest to Bishkek/Alamty.  Because the area we were interested in cycling is in the east we caught a bus to Almaty and then quickly caught another to Taldy-Kurgen.  Kazakhstan is really big, so if you check on a map it probably looks like we didn't really travel that far, but it took a full day of bus travel.  I'd like to note that the Kazakh side of the border instillation is unquestionably the most chaotic and scary border crossing I have ever encountered.  Border crossings are the scene on which states act-out control and sovereignty The disorganization, panic, and violence of the scene really struck me as out of control and utter failure of the authority.  Pedestians and vehicles amassed behind a gate for about an hour.  When the gate lifted hundreds of people rushed for the narrow double doors that led into the customs building.  Above the din of motors we could here women screaming and watch grown men plowing into the crowd.  We watched little old ladies with lots of contraband tied around their waists pay small bribes to the officials as they pushed through.  It was stupid and frightened me, and I'm not faint of heart.  Luckily a nice young man, I think he was an ethnicity from the Caucuses, helped us get through in one piece.

From Taldy-Korgen we cycled south-east toward Tekkaly,  before crossing the mountains into the desert basin of the Ili river, which flows out of Xinjiang, China.  The riding was blissful, the camping spectacular.  The roads in Kazakhstan are generally good, mostly paved asphalt.  The rolling way carried us through little Russian and Kazakh farming villages.  Gold was the primary color of the landscape.  Seeing the big pastel combine tractors cris-cross the golden wheat and hay fields was like watching a sexless Soviet's wet-dream. We camped on stream banks surrounded by the golden autumn leaves of yellow birch and willow.

Crossing the desert plane was a challenge as the wind picked up to gale force.  Ali started to simply refer to me as her windshield as she hung in the eddy behind me.  All You've got to do what you do best, and in those moments being a windshield was what I could do better then anyone else around.  At one point we were riding with a strong cross wind, both of us were leaned over into the wind.  When a truck broke the gale we would swerve momentarily until we could regain our windward cant.

Last year Ali's birthday was our first day in Tajikistan, she sat in a puddle of someone else's vomit.  This year we spent Ali's birthday holed-up in a rain soaked tent in a narrow canyon.  When the rain eased we left our tent standing and sprinted to the closest village, 20 km disistant, to buy supplies.  We enjoyed several hours of reading, chess, tea, and birthday lagman in the best, and only, resturant in town.  By the late afternoon the clouds cleared and we enjoyed a liesurely ride downhill back to our caynon camp.  In the afternoon we hiked down river into a narrow gorge.  As we rested we caught sight of a small herd of ibex fleeing us on the opposite bank.  It could have been a worse birthday, but Ali asked me if next year we could just have a party.  I think that's fair.

In Almaty we enjoyed sweet backed goods and the hospitality of Lisa Min, a fellow Fulbrighter, her husband Andrew, and their Chiwawa mutt, Rufus.

After a night in the Dehli Airport we arrived in Kathmandu early in the morning.  Highlights in Kathmandu included: beer that doesn't suck, half-price after 9pm German bakery goods, wait-staff that isn't totally apathetic to the needs of their customers, monkeys, watching bodies burn at the ghats, Karmasutra temples, and bike riding in crowded narrow allies that is like playing Tony Hawk but better.

But the lights, sounds, and colors of Kathmandu are overwhelming after the sensory deprivation of post-Soviet Central Asia, so we got out of town as quickly as possible.  Along the way we picked up an American cyclist who is afraid of South-Asian traffic patterns and doesn't like to ride very far.  We helped him get out of Kathmandu and on his slow way in the countryside.

On a whim, Ali and I pulled into a river side rafting and kayaking resort to check out what they had to offer.  Four days later we emerged with water up our noses and in our ears.  Al i and I enjoyed 3 full days of instruction by Nepal's freestyle kayak champion, a wicked strong little guy named Pradeep.  After a lot of time spent up-side-down underwater I finally got a handle on the Eskimo roll.  Ali is was right behind.  On our last day we ran some big class III rapids, in which both Ali and I flipped.  This was a great experience as we both demonstrated composure and skill we had learned over the preceding days.  I was able to roll back up, while Ali signaled for a T-rescue and had the patience to wait in swirling white water for Pradeep to get to her.  At the kayak camp we enjoyed the company of Scandinavians and great Nepali guides.  This has definitely been a highlight of our journey.

Back on the road we enjoyed the scenery of steep ripe rice terraces and lush jungle foliage.  We are currently in Pokara for one night before we push on to Bardina National Park, where Ali is looking forward to riding an elephant.

Wisdom from the rear-end of a Nepali dump truck, "Love is like a Chinese mobile...there's no garentee."

That's the news.  Stay cool,


Kazakhstan. The most developed of all Central Asian countries, this status clearly communicated to the naked eye through visible infrastructure and grocery stores with an abundance of food produced and packaged in Kazakhstan. For us, the paved roads were amazing, the trickle down of oil and gas money has reached many of the remote regions we biked through. Not to worry though, Nazarbiev, the president for all twenty years of independence, is one of the richest men in the world. A presidential slogan goes something like this: economic stability is needed before democratic reform can take place. One thing is certain: politics are complicated everywhere and the semantics of words such as "stability" can justify the suppression of a healthy civil society.

We biked for 10 days from the regional capital of Taldy-Korgan in a round about way to Almaty.

Day 0- Mosh Pit Imitates Border Crossing
As old women and children cry out in pain as they get pressed against walls by a mob pushing forward to try and enter Kazakhstan, we looked on in dismay. I respond by giggling nervously and Mikey keeps repeating "I don't want to go in there, this is crazy."  There was no political crisis, just a normal day at the border as far as we could tell. As we wait in a state of indecision the crowd thins, but just as we get close to the door, more people are let through. Young men sprint towards us faster than the old women who are behind them sprinting too, a border guard tries unsuccessfully to replace a fence that has been knocked over and we find ourselves right in the middle of the mess. It was a unique experience and the craziest border crossing either of us have ever seen.

Day 1- Up and Down Just like a Roller Coaster
On our way out of town we met a married couple who were professional cycling coaches. They were excited to talk with us and after fumbling with bad Russian and English phrases we discovered the woman was ethnically Tajik, we found our common language and our communication improved after this. She showed us her scars to prove she had raced for her country. Totally awesome.

Day 2- Golden Fields and Mountains, lots of them

Day 3- Holy Blow Jobby, I'm stuck in a Wind Tunnel
We climbed a pass and crushed some serious km this day. As the sun set we overtook a group of young men finishing a game of Buzkachi. They were interested in us, we were interested in finding a camp sight. One man tried to  get our attention by yelling "Police, Stop." We yelled back, "We're ginger bread men catch us if you can"...he didn't.

Day 4- I'm Confused, Your the Police, You Have a Car, the Car has Gas, and You're Going to Help Us, and You Don't Want Money...We're not in Tajikistan anymore ToTo. 
All foreign nationals from developed countries must register with OVIR (something like the FBI) within 5 days of arriving in the country. This was our fifth day and the clock was ticking. In the small city of Koktal there was no OVIR office. A local police officer gave us a ride to a larger city 15km away, closer to the border with China, he thought there was an OVIR office there, no such luck. We can't get registered. To my great amazement the officer doesn't ask us for money. We ride into the desert at dusk and fall asleep as our dung fires fight the mosquitoes.

Day 5- Hurricane conditions on the Steppe. 
We wake up to sand blowing in our faces and exfoliating our skin; we feel fortunate there is only 50 km to a town that will have a hotel. Riding we kept a 15 degree tilt in to the wind and made it to town before lunch time. A hot shower never felt so good.

Day 6- Wrong Turn in to the Head Wind
South Eastern Kazakhstan has some beautiful canyons, and there are many roads that lead in to and around them. We asked the wrong question when heading out of town "Which way to Sharyn Canyon?" Well 40 km into a head wind we realized we took the long instead of the short way. Mikey proved his worth as a windshield this day. We ended the day with a short climb and then decent into the canyon region. We set up camp on the river in a beautiful spot, the hard work had paid off.

Day 7- My 31st Birthday
The rain ensured a relaxed morning in the tent. When the rain subsided to a sprinkle we sprinted to a near by town to relax in a cafe and restock our food supplies.

Day 8- "The Grand Canyon It is Not" and Overwhelming Generosity
One of the great natural wonders of the country had a very small sign signaling where to turn to find it. After some turns down the wrong dirt paths, we found the right one...10km down a bumpy road we were impressed to find a beautiful Canyon region. We headed out of town and attempted to exchange some dollars in to Tengay at a larger village truck stop. No one would exchange our money for us, instead our hands were filled with gifts of chocolate, bread, and money from fellow customers. We were overwhelmed to say the least. It's amazing how potentially bad situations can lead to really positive moments and memories.

Day 9 and 10- The Final Sprint in to Almaty

Day 11 and 12- Time in the Big Apple of Central Asia, ALMATY
Almaty does not feel like Central Asia. I'd heard rumors of all the options grocery stores had on the shelves and I was happy to find that these rumors were true. I ate an entire block of blue cheese in one sitting and it felt really, really good.
We were hosted by a Fulbright Scholar and her husband: Lisa, Andrew, and their cool dog Rufane. We were delighted to sample the German bakeries around their flat.
On our final evening we visited the local Banya--cold pool, hot showers, Finnish- Russian- and Turkish spas. I followed the example set by large Russian women and beat myself vigorously with oak branches. It felt good.
Kazakhstan, I will never forget your head winds, your glorious pavement, and kind people. I hope our paths cross again in the future.


Song Kul Lake

At the recommendation of some Swiss cycle tourists we headed from Naryn to Song Kul Lake, it was good advice! Song Kul is an alpine Lakes surrounded by mountains that is at approximately 3000 meters. Where the mountains fade in to the lake is Jailoo territory. Jailoo is the term used to describe summer pasture land; higher altitude pastures are used for 5 months out of the year,  May to September.
As we rode from the pass towards the lake, the bold blue of the water showed from 25 kilometers away. It was like a siren beckoning us to come closer. We coasted down hill, greeting shepards along the way, and riding along side their herds of beautiful horses. It was breathtaking!
As we got closer to the lake to our surprise we met a solo German bike tourist, Hannes. We spent the next two days riding together around the lake. The whole time we were riding it seemed like the road was right next to the lake. When we decided to stop for the evening and camp on the lake shore, we found that because there were no trees, there was no sense of scale or distance. To our surprise the lake was over 2 kilometers from the road.

We set up camp and were treated to a wonderful sunset. As we crawled in to our sleeping bags the thundering hooves of horses surrounded us, they grazed while we slept. In the morning as the sun was rising we awoke to a natural alarm clock...a cowboy whistling as he corralled his horses in a different direction. Truly a unique experience for us all!