On She Goes

Two Wheels, All Heart: A Bike Tour of India

On biking through a country where you’re a guest and at home.

Mary Ann Thomas
Mary Ann Thomas
February 27, 2018
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At the end of 2017, I biked more than 3,000 miles from the Himalayas to the southern tip of Tamil Nadu. Over four months, my bike tour of India took me through 12 states, and I passed Buddhist monasteries with prayer flags waving on mountaintops, Sikh gurudwaras serving free communal meals, towering minarets of mosques, and colorful Hindu temples built like pyramids with sculptures in every corner. I biked across pristine blue rivers and clogged, trash-filled canals. I entered cities like Kolkata, where a six-lane highway overpass made it easy to cross miles of the city without traffic, and cities like Chennai, where the stop-start of auto rickshaws, buses, and SUVs going the wrong way made each pedal stroke seem like a fight against death. I heard conversations in Ladakhi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Hindi, English, Telugu, Tamil, and more. While I’ve always considered India a home for me, bicycling from north to south showed me that there is no one India. In most of the country, I am both a foreigner and a guest.

Even though my parents are from Kerala in South India—and I’ve visited every year since I was 12—most of the country was still very unfamiliar to me. There are 22 official languages in India, along with hundreds of spoken languages. While India is often thought of as a Hindu country, there also are so many other religions here, including Buddhism, Islam, Sikhism, and Jainism. The trip was a trial by fire and showed me more than I could ever absorb.

In West Bengal, I reached the ocean for the first time.
photo courtesy of Mary Ann Thomas

Riding a bicycle is an act of independence. I pedaled across the United States and Canada a few years ago, so I already knew about the flexibility and persistence this mode of travel demands. Bike touring requires that a person use their body to propel themselves forward and get to where they want to go. A bike tourist attracts attention in any country, but in India—where bikes are mainly a utilitarian way to get to school and work, to sell coconuts and chai, and to transport massive loads of supplies across town—I stood out. I rode a touring bike with drop handlebars, panniers hooked on all available spaces, and wore a helmet. I looked nothing like a person riding their everyday bike. Bicycles are everywhere, but bicycle touring is rare.

I looked nothing like a person riding their everyday bike.

There’s also the fact that in many places in India, women and girls don’t ride bikes. During my tour, I rode 600 miles through Jammu and Kashmir before seeing a single Indian woman or girl on a bicycle. In many parts of North India, women were rarely in public spaces at all. Regardless of whether the region was predominantly Hindu or Muslim, certain cultures within India confine women to private spaces and limit their mobility. After 1,000 miles, I counted only two Indian women I had spoken to. All the other shopkeepers, hotel managers, and people on the street I had interacted with had been men. During the weeks where I interacted with men exclusively, I felt isolated, even intimidated by the possibility of venturing into the world alone. With a tall white man as my travel partner who biked alongside with me, I didn’t typically have to test those boundaries. As a pair, we surprised people and attracted curiosity, challenging their expectations as unmarried individuals traveling together and by the very act of bicycling. In places where women aren’t physically seen in public life, my mobility on a bicycle challenged the norm.

Many Indians ride bicycles for transportation; often two or three people will sit on a single cycle.
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

In other places like West Bengal, the government issues free bicycles to encourage mobility, recognizing the role of transportation in education and economic success. There, for the first time, I saw women who were running chai stalls, kitchens, and shops; I saw thousands of schoolgirls and women on bicycles in both rural villages and bigger cities. As soon as we crossed into the state, I could relax, simply because the eye contact and generosity from women made me know I was cared for and protected.

No matter where I biked, people were curious. Each day, strangers rode their motorbikes next to me on the roads, gathered in circles at chai stalls to hear stories, and shouted from trucks, all wanting to know about what I was doing. The first question was always, “Where are you from?” When I say the United States, many smile and ask, “But your face is like Indian?” or, “But your skin is like mine?” I tell them that my parents are from Kerala, but I was born in the US. In the US, I’m asked where I’m from on a regular basis, and the heart of the question is the same in India as in the US. The real question in both places is, “Why are you brown?”

At the top of our highest point in the HImalayas, thousands of prayer flags whipped back and forth on the wind.
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

When I was first asked this in Ladakh and Kashmir at the beginning of the tour, it startled me. It seemed like the person was calling me out on my citizenship, like they were telling me they knew I wasn’t just an American. After those first couple questions, people usually transitioned to “Where are you going? Welcome to India! Is it your first time?” Often, people asked, “How do you find India?” They wanted to know how I liked the food and whether there had been any difficulties. I always answered, “The food is delicious! But it is too hot for me.” People want their country to be seen in the best light; they want others to have a good time while here.

I am a guest, and many people want to ensure that I have been treated well.

In India, a common mantra is “Atithi Devo Bhava,” or “Guest is God.” One host in Andhra Pradesh explained that in the ancient Sanskrit texts, the Upanishads, “Mother is God, Father is God, Guru is God, and Guest is God.” In his interpretation, this means that we don’t know how a god will present themselves in any moment. We should be ready to provide for other people—our guests—as if they were gods. When motorbikers rode up next to me asking me questions, they often asked whether I needed anything and offered their contact information. Strangers have bought meals for me, given me homes for the night, and paid for hotel rooms. By being a tourist and therefore an “other,” I am a guest, and many people want to ensure that I have been treated well. I didn’t expect this spirit of hospitality on the journey. Every time someone paid for my meal, I was both surprised and grateful.

The Golden Temple, the holiest pilgrimage site for Sikhs, sits surrounded by water in Amritsar.
photo by Mary Ann Thomas

I spent four months answering “Where are you from?” and finding ways to explain how my story fits into the story of the subcontinent. I learned to accept that I’m from Kerala, but not from most places in India. By riding a bicycle, I was able to taste so many street foods that I will never be able to name, and drink chai with mysterious flavors, all within reach as I passed them on the roadside. I crawled up mountain passes and baked in the heat of the desert. The physical intensity of cycling, paired with the mental strain of navigating traffic, language, and culture, taught me to take a rest day every three days no matter what. I embraced my role as a guest, even while Indian. I’ve been the guest, and thus treated with generosity. In leaving India, I’m considering the ways in which others are my guests in life and how I can treat others with the kind of hospitality I received here: like gods.