On our way down The River Ganges we encountered a terrorist attack in the holy city of Varanasi. Our hearts go out to all the families of those injured.
The Dudes float into Varanasi
The team has arrived in Varanasi! Ten days and 400km after purchasing our small tin-boat, we’ve finally rowed into the holiest of Hindu cities. The ghats—steep stone steps which lead worshipers to the Gange’s waters—continue along the banks for over three miles. It’s sensory overload as we watch families burning the bodies of their deceased loved ones in public, dhobi wallas washing clothes against stones, and people performing their bathing rituals beside them. Masonry steps climb high above the commotion and disappear into a labyrinth of narrow alleys that make up one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world.
Our boat trip came abruptly to an end when we sold our boat to the first person who made an offer. We paid 5,000 rupees (100USD) and sold for it 3,500 (70USD). We all felt pretty good about the deal and quickly spent the money on a nice hotel and some cold beer to celebrate.
Beyond a couple of rashes on JJ’s and our camera-man Dave’s feet, we are in perfect health. I don’t know how I avoided the rash. Maybe it was my insistence on not touching the water and demanding to be carried to shore… Sorry fellas.
The boat was a real contrast to the rickshaw, where it felt like we were on a parade through rural India, and we were the zoo bears. On the river we experienced a peace I didn’t know was possible here. The people we encountered— fishermen, farmers, and cow herders—cared little about a few white guys in a boat.
Josh’s now calloused hands work the bamboo oars
Everything is somehow coming together; we’re following the Ganga by any means possible and seeing India as the locals do. And the reward is huge! We are seeing a side of the river that few people know. It is surprisingly meek; giving almost all of itself to the people who worship and depend on it. Between temples and holy cities its waters are pumped for irrigation, tanneries dump their toxic waste into it, and cities dispose of their garbage and untreated sewage into the river.
Amazingly, it still supports wildlife. Besides our dozens of unexpected encounters with the endangered species, the Gangetic River Dolphin, we also saw hundreds of turtles, catfish being pulled from fishermen nets, and innumerable shorebird species finding their meals along the polluted shores. I do not know how the Ganges survives, but she does. She is a god, after all. With our rowboat sold, we are back to being “tourists”. We will be moving on in a few days, but we’re not sure how. And we like it that way…
Josh and I row through a film of pollutants.
We just rowed into Allahabad! It has been five days of unsupported travel in what is proving to be the most revealing portion of our journey.
The three of us perch awkwardly on the small deck of our 13-foot wood and sheet-metal boat. None of us are experienced rowers, and wielding our heavy bamboo oars makes us look like Wilderness-kindergartners learning the Outdoors ABC’s.
Even if we did know how to row, we’re finding that the river is extremely tricky to read. At best we’ve got 10-feet of water under our hull. If we make a wrong turn we run aground.
Our boat doesn’t draw much water—maybe 4 inches—but on day three we collided into a sand bar. We’d all hoped this wouldn’t happen; primarily on account of the excrement and industrial effluence we’d seen flow into the river. None of us had touched the water yet. I began wading through the filth, trying to free the boat. My efforts were futile: soon Josh and Dave were pulling by my side.
We saw a lone dog tugging at a small mass. I joked that we would push until the carcass. We had seen dead livestock left to rot along the shore, and using carcasses as landmarks had become a dark joke between us.
As we got closer, no one spoke. The dog was pulling on the lower torso of a human body. The skull and spinal cord were lying 10-feet downstream. It was a moment of rare somberness for our crew.
We knew we’d see things like human bodies going into this trip; putting the deceased into the Ganga is the most sacred and effective method for delivering a soul to Nirvana in the Hindu religion. Still, we weren’t ready for what we saw.
Making camp on the banks of Mother Ganga
We set up camp on a sandy plain that stretched past the horizon. The sun set slowly over the mythical Ganga and the heavens gave birth to a radiant sky full of stars.
How can one river produce such contrasting emotions? It’s a river of unmatched mysticism and beauty that also collects more pollutants than any other river on the planet. It’s a living paradox.
We still have about 200km of rowing until we reach Varanasi, and the Ganga has more to teach us, I’m sure.
Shopping for the best open boat
We sold the rickshaw this morning and purchased a boat. It’s 13ft long, has a sheet-metal hull, a wooden frame, and seems to be held together by nothing more than hope and a few nails. It cost $100.00US—a good deal by any standard, but not exactly confidence inspiring.
The rickshaw went for the same price to two men we met at an open-air chai stall this morning. They pedaled up and down the street 3-times, honking the rickshaw’s little green horn and waving to the large crowd, which had gathered, like astronauts in a parade, before riding off into the smog of downtown Kanpur. It would have been harder for us to say goodbye if it hadn’t been so funny.
It’s a 400km row to Varanasi and it’s the dry season. We’ve been told that “nobody does this section of river,” several times. Our rain tarp is an orange plastic picnic table cover. If we hadn’t just pedaled a rickshaw 500km through northern India, this might have once seemed like a bad idea.
We’ll christen the new vessel at sunrise tomorrow and see if she floats.
It’s unknown when we’ll have internet access again, but we’ll give you an update as soon as we can.
Expect more from the river soon…
I explain “why rickshaw?” to a small group of 30 men
We are in Kampur now, well past the 500-kilometer marker, and getting into the swing of life on a rickshaw. Our glorified tricycle is proving to be the ultimate tool for understanding daily life in rural India. The travel is tremendously taxing, but the insights are proving to be the butter that sweetens our roti bread.
I’ve had two main cultural realizations from my time on the “rick”:
1. Indian dudes love foreign dudes on rickshaws.
Holy Krishna! I’ve never been so aggressively admired. On a stop to buy bananas, over 70 gawking males of all ages swarmed our rickshaw, engulfing us in less than 3 minutes. It’s only men surrounding our three wheel—three-man—bike. Boys to elders, they descend upon us; many with a fixed stare otherwise reserved for watching paint dry. Others ask questions in broken English, like: “Where are you? Can you give me a dollar? I have your email? Why rickshaw? Autograph?” They follow us by foot, bike, motorcycle and whatever else might pass as a “vehicle” in India, often for several kilometers shouting “stop!”
It doesn’t help that our story has been plastered across 3 different newspapers. Reporters have stopped us almost every day of our trip. With our popularity growing, traveling is getting intense. It’s the worst in the cities. We’ve actually gotten into the habit of changing out a fresh pair of legs to “motor past the mobs,” as we say. If only we could bike faster than 12 mph.
2. Americans traveling by rickshaw is an Indian paradox.
“Why no jeep? Rickshaw is for poor,” a boy shouts as the third passenger on a moving motorcycle.
It seems most of our ubiquitous attention is due to our chosen mode of travel. Although the caste system was legally abolished in the 1960’s, the country still revolves with the ancient gears of priority over equality. There are sects who talk with the gods and sects who talk with the dead.
Americans traveling by rickshaw is as foreign an idea as having two kids from ranking castes swapped in a twisted remake of “Parent Trap.” It’s my hope that this is our little way of showing that anyone can do as they wish. For us, I guess that’s biking a single-speed rickshaw along The Ganges for a spell.
Josh and JJ ride through the morning fog
The crew left Haridwar three days ago after finding a hot-deal on a rickshaw. Unfortunately for us Vishal, our friend and translator, went back to Mumbai for a friend’s wedding. We miss him dearly. And, it’s not only because our collective knowledge of Hindi barely allows us to obtain water, food, and shelter.
Now we are in Moradabad; 159km from where we started rickshaw-ing. As a rolling-unit, we weigh roughly 700lbs (3 backpacks, our camera gear, 3 six-foot-plus Caucasian males, and a baby-blue steel-frame single-speed rickshaw which none of us can lift on our own.) Our average speed is 7.7km per hour. We have to push it up even the slightest incline, and we switch out the poor soul who’s pedaling every 2 hours.
The Ride So Far:
We inadvertently spend our first night camped-out in the jungle after getting lost 26km from Haridwar. “I wish I knew how to ask if this is a safe place to camp,” JJ says. Josh replies, “There’s nobody here to ask.” None of us sleep.
We find ourselves on page 7 of a local Hindi newspaper. We assume it’s about our rickshaw trip across Uttar Pradesh, but none of us know Sanskrit, so it’s hard to say for sure. “Any press is good press,” I say.
Day 3) We experience our first flat tire. Over 40 Indians stop to help. “You always get help in India,” JJ observed. “Whether you want it or not.” Twice, oncoming buses run me off the road.
Next photo we’re hoping for the front page:)
Want to see what gear we’re using in India? Check out Outside Magazine’s blog.
As part of our journey tracing The Ganges River, we decided to bike a 700lb rickshaw 500 kilometers. Great idea right?
Yogi the elephant discusses the finer points of Ganga River Mythology with the Dudes.