Onwards into Rural India

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Me, not sore and unbruised, before my trip.

As I sat here typing, my forearms were slightly sunburned, my palms were tender—not my fingers fortunately—and my legs and behind were sore, all temporary souvenirs of my recent one-day guided bike trip to rural India. Those trivial pains are gone. The memory of the trip is not.

Art of Bicycle is a company that offers guided bike tours in India. I read about the company in the Lonely Planet India guidebook. I wanted to be adventurous so I decided to book a trip last week and the day of my trip arrived on Saturday.

I should note here I have not ridden a bicycle for at least…it’s been years, I do not know how many. Other than the tour guide, and the driver of the support car, there was only one other rider named Ray. We met at UB City Mall at 7:30 a.m., and were driven for about an hour to our rendezvous at the Country Club where we started our trip proper.

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The hill in the distance, across the river, is Biligudda (white hill) across a river. Behind white hill is Karigudda (black hill). This particular white hill does not remind me of elephants.

The total trip distance was 21 km, broken up into sections, as well as some unplanned breaks. The first stretch of the trip was 6 km, with a stop at the Big Banyan Tree. The Big Banyan Tree has a misnomer; it’s massive, but massive begins with the letter “b” so I guess it did not have the same auditory ring to it. This particular tree is 400 years old, spans three acres, and is only the fourth largest Banyan tree in the world, . The other three are in Calcuta, Mumbai, and Delhi. I could not get a decent picture to show its size. It was that wide.

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The branches of the Big Banyan Tree. They grow downward to plant their roots.

Whenever we passed young school children, they became excited and starting to babble. They yelled hello, and smiled, most of them waving.

The first time we passed school children on the road, they were reaching out their hands for a high five. I foolishly attempted to high five one of them, thereby losing my balance, and veering close to the children, almost hitting them. I did not try that stunt again, content with a smile and a wave. It was odd to have the color of my skin be a reason for excitement. Celebrity because of melatonin.

We stopped at a random house to watch two men construct a bamboo bed to house the cocoons of silkworms. The men each sat on one side of the bamboo bed. They tied a coconut rope onto the head of a large needle, and passed the needle back and forth to secure bamboo coils onto the bed in widening oval shapes. It looked like a maze.

In the next village, we saw the fully constructed bamboo beds with the white, fuzzy cocoons already attached to the bed. If you shake the cocoon, you can hear the hollow sound of the silkworm knocking against the walls like candy in a plastic eggshell during Easter. A group of women pulled the delicate strands of silk from the fully matured cocoons, and collected them in a basket.

Eventually the silk would be transported to the city, and turned into a product to be sold at a market. I usually do not consider the individual steps in the chain necessary to produce a good. When I eat a sandwich, I do not think of the farmer that grew the grain, or the driver that transported the bread to the city, or the baker that toiled in front of the oven.

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Silkworm cocoons nestled within bamboo coils of a bamboo bed. Bamboo, bamboo, bamboo.

I was unused to such long riding, and by the time we stopped for lunch about 1:30 p.m., I was physically exhausted. My legs were sore and tired. We arrived at our last bicycling stop about 1:30 p.m.

After the bicycling was over, we stopped for lunch at Kamat, a restaurant that serves Kannadiga style cuisine. This has been the best meal I’ve eaten in India so far. Instead of serving food on a plate,they substitute a large banana leaf in its place. The four of us ordered the special meal. It was essentially a buffet, except we did not have to leave our seats to restock our “plates”; the wait staff regularly stopped by the table, and if there was a lack of any particular item, they replaced it. All of us greedily consumed the meal as we had worked up an appetite. It was a gruesome spectacle, as we devoured the meal with our hands. There was sweet chapatti with ghee, corn roti and rice roti, of which I prefer the corn variety. For dips, we had various sauces. Three of them were spicy, while another lent a cooling sensation to the palate.

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Delicious cuisine served on a large banana leaf.

Our trip was not over yet. The last stop was a toy factory in Channapatna, a town famous for its manufacture of wooden toys constructed from the Aalemara tree, commonly known as ivory wood. The craft originated in Persia, but has been practiced in India for about 400 years.

The wood is left out in the open air for two to six months to season; formerly composed of 80 percent water, after the seasoning process it’s only 8% water, making it nearly weightless. Once the wood is finished drying, it’s left in an oven for two or three days and smoked.

Workers set the wood on a machine, operated by a pulley belt, that rapidly spins the wood. The workers use tools to carve the wood into different shapes as it spins. Underneath the workstations, there were wood shavings in piles about 10 to 12 inches high. They don’t go to waste; instead, they are collected to be ground into a fine powder, and used as incense.

The final step is colouring the toys using a paint stick created by mixing lac (insect secretion) with a different combination of three vegetables dyes: kumkuma, turmeric powder, and indigo. Different combinations of the dyes produce nine colours. The stick is pressed against the plain wood as it rotates, and the colour spreads quickly across the entire surface of the wood.

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The finished product. This is one of the toy sets available. My fellow bike rider, Ray, bought a set for his children.

We ended our tour and returned to the car to begin our drive home. The three of us fell asleep on the way. It was an exhausting day. But I find I enjoy leisure more when it is first earned by activity.

Odds and Ends

  • My newspaper uses the British spelling of words, so if you notice certain words are spelled differently than the English (US) version, it’s not a misspelling; I’ve changed the setting of my word processor to English (U.K.) version. E.g. color is spelled with an extra “u” after the “l” in the British spelling. Also, I will, from now on, call Oreos “chocolate sandwich biscuits” instead of cookies.
  • Sorry for the long, long, long, long, long time between posts. I have reasons that sound like excuses, so I won’t share them.
  • I’ve seen a lot of motorbikes used as family vehicles here. It’s not an uncommon sight to see a father, a mother, and their two kids nestled protectively between the parents on one motorbike. I rode on one with two other people, me making three. It’s surprising, but probably unsafe, how many people can fit on one motorbike.