Travel Storytelling: A Hallucinogenic Mushroom Trip in India
My month-long road trip to document Indian bike culture went to hell on the twenty-first day. It was late April in Rajasthan—the beginning of the desert state’s summer swelter. At 3 PM, the temperature hit 118 degrees. I bagged my camera and retreated to the living room sofa of my guesthouse in Bundi town. Beneath the ceiling fan’s drubbing of scorched air, I broke out into a sweat that drenched my quick dry outfit and soaked into the sofa’s velvet cushions, staining them a darker shade of red. I was feeling faint and thirsty, but my throat was too dry to accept water. A bad case of heat exhaustion, I assumed.
The guesthouse owner decided to call-in a doctor.
“Tell me everything you did today,” he asked while shining a flashlight into my eyes.
As I mumbled through the day’s itinerary, two monkeys leapt through the living room window and vaulted onto my chest. Flesh had peeled away from their jaws, exposing bloody strings of connective tissue. Their gnarled hands clutched red-hot motorcycle exhaust pipes. The Doc remained calm. “And where did you buy the milkshake you drank this afternoon?” he probed. His flashlight erupted into a disco ball of nightmares. The monkey twins cackled and whooped. They began singeing the metal tubes against my flesh.
My diagnosis was about to get ugly.
I dropped into Mumbai, India a month earlier on assignment to photograph the Subcontinent’s first-ever UCI sanctioned road race. Eddie Merckx was there in-person to make the kickoff speech. “The Tour of Mumbai will eventually help uncover a genetic needle in this 1 billion population haystack. An Indian lad could be a future Tour de France champion,” he concluded. With those words, my attention waned from the results of the race itself (Saxo Bank-SunGard’s JJ Haedo placed first) and re-focused squarely on India’s cyclists—what does this genetic cycling haystack look like? I decided that a road trip was required to figure it out.
Back on the sofa in Bundi town, a boy dispatched to question the milkshake vendor returned with news. A few hours earlier, I was led to a back alley beverage stall by one of the season’s last hangers on, a French neo-druid at tail end of her spiritual tramp through Asia. In my mid-day’s thirst, I unknowingly gulped what the Doc described as,
“A lifetime stoner’s triple dose of hallucinogenic bhang lassi shake.”
“Visions” he described, “they will last throughout the night into tomorrow. Let the bad go. Follow the good.”
With his parting words, “Follow the good,” I found safe passage through the darkness. I opened my laptop and started clicking though the nearly 20,000 images I’d made of Indians on two wheels—a sliver of the country’s estimated 200 million daily cyclists. I reveled in the smile of the untouchable caste man I’d met in an anonymous brickyard. Between cycling to and from work, the bulk of his waking hours were spent shoveling cow shit into brick oven infernos. A wandering mystic, whose colorful robes floated like mirages above the tarmac in the late-afternoon haze continued to bend my mental state between real and surreal. Traveling tchotchke salesmen, door-to-door pressure cooker mechanics and milkmen. Mumbai’s dabbawallahs, who deliver 200,000 lunchboxes daily with an error rate of one in six million. Schoolboys dressed in carefully pressed outfits. They all posed without objection next to their bicycles—the stigmatic emblem of the developing world’s poor. My mind wandered freely. It’s the same tool that citizens of the West use to proudly certify ourselves as cyclists. A tool that each and every one of my subjects told me they’d immediately trade for a motorcycle if they could afford one—if they had a choice.
In wealthier pockets of India, that choice is becoming reachable. Each month, hundreds of thousands of Indians are swapping their bicycles for a new, low cost breed of carbon burner called the HeroHonda Splendor. It’s the world’s first million unit selling motorcycle.
For every newbie who checks into the cycling trend in the West, thousands are lost in the East.
And with those thoughts, the visions of monkey twins returned. This time, they were frying me with shiny exhaust pipes marked Splendor. I mused, “What if I didn’t have the choice to be a cyclist?” The monkey twins pressed and roared.
“Follow the good,” I repeated out load. “Follow the good.”