The strangest thing about being in India is not speaking the language. While English is one of the country’s official languages, the common person’s grasp of it is crude at best – Hindi being the real ‘lingua-franca’ in this decidedly large and polyglot nation. Having spent rather a lot of time in Latin America, the sights/sounds/smells of the poverty and improvisation of the so called ‘developing world’ l find familiar, even comforting. So while l felt welcomed by the din and squalor of the seething mass of humanity that is New Dehli, l was (and still am put off) by my inability to communicate.
My Spanish language skills honed by years of playing small town 20 questions, wherein the questions were always the same. Order and phrasing varied regionally and individually, accustoming me to the nuances of what’s going on around me. Even when people are speaking Portuguese l can understand about half of what they say – and certainly get the gist. But here l’m continually at a loss, this being my first time in India and indeed out of the Western hemisphere.
I’m here thanks to my dad, his company Wantok Adventures, and the Zanskar river. He has been running trips (and inviting me to go) on this amazing high Himalayan river for the last 10 years, and l finally took advantage of the opportunity. My mom was the trip leader on this particular expedition, and wanted me along for moral support (she is a rafter, adventurer and lover of the outdoors but not really a guide) so l let my arm be twisted – leaving a treehouse project half finished – and flew to India. The official trip lasted two and a half weeks, with about a week of that on the river – time to see a lot. We traveled through Kashmir and Ladakh, visiting the house boats of Srinagar, and various temples and monasteries, and rafted a beautiful river in an amazing canyon. But flying halfway around the world (and to the Himalaya no less) for just 3 weeks just didn’t seem right, so l brought my bike. With no plans other than to explore the world’s tallest mountains.
I ended up in Leh, tourist town and jumping off point for most people traveling in Ladakh, with most of a rather unusual bicycle in a very dilapidated box (the TSA ripped my box open and didn’t tape it back together, so it arrived in India a pile of parts, fortunately not missing anything too important/hard to replace). l settled into a guest house and set about battling the language barrier. It took me two days of learning my way around/searching to find the axle nut l was missing, and finding an ally in all things bicycle related: Sonam Norboo of Himalayan Bikers, who has the best maintained and outfitted rental bikes in town, and is also a really nice guy. I spent a fair amount of time in (mostly in front of) his small shop helping rebuild hydraulic disk brakes/suspension forks and hanging out drinking tea. Always a pleasant respite from the travails of getting unusual gear made in a country where you don’t speak the language.
This time around l’m traveling with a different bike (which deserves and will get it’s own post), and necessarily, a different cargo system, which l had elected to create in India. Having brought various unobtainables and raw materials with me, namely, rubber splicing tape, hose clamps and a worn out (rafting) drybag ( which my mom donated) to repurpose into a frame bag and seat bag. The (self fusing) splicing tape went around my carbon(!) fork to protect it, from what are in essence giant water bottle cages – bent out of wire l scavenged from a chain link fence and secured with the aforementioned hose clamps. All of which l did easily and quickly – myself – once l found wire to repurpose, but making the bags was a whole other can of worms.
Designing the frame bag took most of an evening and all the cardboard (for making patterns) l could find, but then l spent the next two days trying to find a tailor who would sew it for me, or who was even willing to try to understand what it was l wanted (and how straightforward making it was). The pattern was traced on the material, with fold and cut lines marked; l had my bike with me, and a cardboard replica for demonstration purposes, but my mime skills must be atrocious; that or these folks were so unused to thinking outside the box/creative problem solving that they just didn’t know how to go about trying; because l never found anyone even willing to try cutting out the shape l had outlined on the fabric.
In the end, despairing of ever getting my bag made, l returned to the one tailor in town who spoke some English and staged a sit-in of sorts. I picked up the shears and cut out my pattern, sat down at a treadle sewing machine, said l’m renting time on this machine and started sewing. Which shamed him enough that he stopped me, and took over sewing – though still l had to point out and verify every seam. It took about a half hour, but we got it done, and he charged me about 8 dollars, and must have felt bad for over charging , because then he bought me lunch. To stiffen and attach my new frame bag l bought the shortest length of (amazingly flimsy) PVC conduit l could find from a very confused electrician; borrowed my friend Sonam’s cooking stove and melted the pipe flat and bent it to the required angle. A few bolts and a couple of shoe laces later and my frame bag was complete.
Armed with my newfound ‘process’ l made my saddle harness the next day with the assistance of a cobbler (the material was too thick for a sewing machine). Just sat down next to him (with everything already cut out and laid out) pointed to the first seam and said “sew”. I sat on the side of the road next to the shoemaker, bare foot and top hatted, while he sewed my strange contraption and the 2 year old daughter of the lady next to us (selling jewelry and such) ripped pages out of a book of henna designs and pressed them into my hands as if she could magically transfer the designs without the aid of henna or skill; and three young monks, saffron clad but wearing Western t-shirts examined my arrestingly unusual bicycle. Quite the picturesque scene, so much so that all the passing tourists took advantage of it. And while l have only the picture in my head, there are perhaps hundreds of digital copies floating around the world, maybe one day one will cross your path. In any case l had bested the language barrier (unfortunately without learning a single word of Ladakhi or Hindi) and luggage accounted for l had only a few odds and ends to take care of before l could actually start riding.