The road turned sharply left and angled steeply up. I watched it disappear into the trees and then finally reappear as a tiny line up the mountainside.
So this must be the start of the “significant climb” they had mentioned in the ride briefing the night before. Switchbacks. My bicycle was already out of gears after ascending to the base of the “significant climb”. There were no more low gears to make it easier – it would be a matter of getting up the mountain with what I had.
I was six weeks into a two month bicycle trip through India that meandered from the northern city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, more than 4000 kilometers to the southern tip. Being well-trained for endurance riding home in the states met the physical challenges of cycling through India. But I had quickly learned that successfully biking through India was not just about physical fitness. The real challenge was navigating unpredictable encounters with friendly locals, insane traffic and crumbling roads, deafening smog-filled cities and whatever happened to be waiting around the next turn.
Today I was climbing up to the famous hill station of Ooty in southern India. There was a residual fatigue in my muscles after weeks of cycling challenging roads. But there was no way I was getting off the bike now.
As I reached the first curve of the first switchback a cheerful sign perched on the edge of the cliff self-importantly proclaimed “Hairpin turn 36 of 36” with the name of a hotel that proudly sponsored it. After I strained to the next curve there was another sign “Hairpin turn 35 of 36.” And then I understood. Clearly I had a lot of climbing left to go.
I settled into a rhythm – occasionally getting out of the saddle to add my body weight behind my leg strength to push up the steeper parts of the hills. As cars went by – gears grinding as they strained up the mountain road, the driver and passengers stared out the windows – some honking or waiving but most with a bewildered look that said, “What is wrong with you?”
As I climbed up that mountain, something awoke in the deep recesses of my brain. I recognized it. It comes to life whenever there is a big challenge and it drives me to finish. And not only finish but finish strong. I think of it as the remnants of the most primitive DNA left in the dark recesses of my brain – the same DNA that drove the first reptile to crawl out of the pond.
So the reptile and I pushed that bike up the mountain, counting off every meticulously numbered and signed switchback. As I spied another rider in my group and kept pushing until I passed them. Always with a cheerful wave and great job and other words of encouragement. But secretly the reptile rejoiced. One down. Who’s next? I kept climbing. Kept passing. When I passed the first guy the reptile did a little back flip. I was suffering but loving it.
After miles of climbing the road finally flattened out at the top. I rode into Ooty and found my team. I was the first woman up. I beat many of the men up. I felt great. Strong. This was the biking challenge I love. It was a trip making challenging climb – and the hardest climb I’d ever completed. The reptile was satiated. But one rider pulled me aside. “Did you hear?”
Attacked by Elephants
She told me the unthinkable. One of our companions had been attacked by an elephant and trampled at the base of the climb. He was being taken to the hospital in Mysore four hours away. He was conscious but badly injured. No one knew if he would be OK.
Fear knocked out exhilaration. Fear for the life of our companion. Disbelief that something as random as an elephant attack could kill one of us when the daily danger of traffic and bad roads and unpronounceable diseases had failed so far. Being attacked by an elephant was about as likely as being attacked by a bear while hiking in my home mountains. It could happen, but it just didn’t.
The self-satisfied back-flipping reptile was firmly relegated back to the dark recesses of my brain. The exhilaration – which, for a brief moment, had made up for the weeks of challenge and injury and sickness – disappeared for the last somber days of travel.
Our companion survived and recovered. He told his story later: A mother elephant with her baby nearby charged and attacked him when a car inexplicably honked at her. He fell off the bike trying to turn back down the hill, abandoned the bike and ran into the bush. The mama elephant stomped the bike and then chased him down. She tripped him with her trunk and then trampled him. His helmet was crushed. It’s remarkable that he survived.
I struggled to understand the highs and lows of that day for the rest of the ride and long after returning home. What started as an epic ride - the ultimate big climb story to tell cycling friends back home - instead forced me to confront the realities of travel by bike, travel abroad and my own fears.
We all take a risk when we travel. That is what separates those who travel from those who stay in the comfortable familiarity of home. We all find the balance point where we take precautions to mitigate known risks and give ourselves permission to go ahead and do what we want. And we all ultimately deal with the repercussions when the unpredictable happens anyway.
I chose to mitigate the risk of cycling through conservative rural India by riding with a group. In India local women are often relegated to lives of early marriage and unrelenting labor. They live behind veils and modest clothing in the confines of a family structure meant to limit their exposure to men. Western women who venture well off the tourist path into these rural areas are unusual. And western women on a bicycle – particularly without a male escort - invariably prompt scrutiny, intense curiosity, and occasionally harassment.
The Boys on the Bridge
I could see what looked like a crowd milling about in the distance. As I rode closer they turned and faced me and closed ranks, forming a physical barricade across the narrow bridge.
As I pedaled closer I realized what I was seeing. At least thirty adolescent boys and young men blocked that bridge. And I realized they were all waiting for me.
Something in my brain switched to “on”. Danger. I went from placidly pedaling along a long flat road on a 120 mile ride day wondering when I’d hit the next rest stop to an adrenaline-driven physical alertness.
What to do? Stop and wait for the safety of others? Or ride forward and engage?
Much of what shocked or frightened me when I first arrived in India weeks ago - the traffic, the rubbly roads, the pockets of extreme poverty or the piles of trash and filth - didn’t even faze me now.
By now I was used to intense scrutiny everywhere I rode. I didn’t mind the close physical presence of ten or a hundred people pressing for a closer look. They examined every inch of me in my funny western clothes and unknown bike helmet. But my bright orange Bianchi bicycle was the real star of the show and I regularly stopped to give little tours of how my bike works with its computer, the gears and the brakes.
So far my weeks had been punctuated by one positive experience after another with the people I met along the way. I was regularly offered food, chai and directions. A hundred people a day called out “Hello”. They honked and cheered as I climbed hills. They rode motorcycles close alongside to ask questions and practice their English. I learned to trust the goodwill and kindness of these people and believed that they would treat me well and help me if needed.
But right now I was alone. The next rider could be an hour behind me. And I could hear the buzz of those boys on the bridge – getting more excited and louder the closer I rode.Were these boys up ahead just curious? Or was I in for trouble?
I rode up to the barricade and greeted them with the traditional greeting and blessing “Namaste” three times with prayerful hands and a bow in three directions. They completely surrounded me and pressed close. One of boys was clearly the ring leader. He licked his lips. Tried to touch. Tried to impress his friends. He was going to be trouble.
I reached around him to a young man and he took my hand. I introduced myself, “Hello. My name is Leigh”. Anyone with any schooling in India knows this English phrase, even in the poorest villages. I took another hand. “Hello. My name is Leigh”. Now they all wanted to take my hand and introduce themselves. They introduced their friends. I repeated their names and smiled. The lip licker was pushed aside.
The other boys opened a path across the bridge. I was allowed through. Perhaps they saw I was not just a rich Westerner who was too arrogant to stop. Perhaps they saw I was not a loose fair-haired Western woman like in the movies. Maybe I became a person in their eyes, who had a name and who took the time to stop and say hello. Perhaps I was allowed to pass simply because I was not outwardly afraid.
I showed them my bike – the gears, the computer and how the brakes work. But by now I was less interesting. The negative energy that had been building had evaporated. I said goodbye and rode on without resistance. I stopped out of sight and called the ride leader, hoping that by stopping I had dispelled the tension but still concerned about the other women coming behind me.
The Rewards of the Journey
Trusting my instincts – and my previous positive experiences in India -- helped me navigate this situation safely. But I’m not blind to the other possible outcomes of that encounter.
Alone and on a bike you can’t always get away from a band of boys blockading a bridge. Or from an irate mamma elephant. Or safely navigate the known dangers of cycling in a developing country. Or escape the unthinkable dangers that are impossible to prevent or avoid.
Ultimately there is nowhere to hide. You choose to travel by bicycle because the rewards vastly outweigh the risks. You learn to step outside what’s comfortable and interact because you must. You can’t be afraid of the very people you are there to visit or hide from the country you are there to experience.
As I learned to connect with the people I met in India, I also learned to trust that most of these people are good. Engaging with the presumption of kindness and respect almost always opens doors and engenders the gentle treatment and acts of generosity that become the most rewarding memories. I won’t change my travel choices out of fear of future random elephant attacks. I will still travel, and still travel in a way that exposes me to more adventure, more rewards -- and more risks – than the conventional tourist.
But I will have more respect for the unpredictable power of place, and more humility about my ability to prepare my way to safety.
Leigh Pate is a writer and photographer living in Seattle.