Hop on: a desert cycling tale

One of the going away activities from my 2005 X PRIZE internship in the Mojave Desert, California, was a chance to eat lunch with Burt Rutan, Mike Melvill, and a few of the other rocket men of the Scaled Composities SpaceShipOne team. Midway through lunch, a gray-bearded man came in. He had been cycling across the desert, at midday in May, and wanted to show Burt his invention, a remarkable thermal material that could help the boys in Kuwait. (“Or Iraq,” Burt corrected.) It was aluminum foil. He also had an older invention: Braille candy. (“You can taste the colors.”)

Anyway, the point is that people cycling across the desert in the middle of the day are carrying more than a week’s supply of The Crazy.

While I was in Jaisalmer I rented a bicycle from Narayan Cycles for a midday ride west out of the city, into the Thar Desert. Suriya suggested it would be a nice ride to see the Jain temples at Amar Sagar and the cenotaphs (“umbrellas”) at Bara Bagh. Hell yes: adventure. (More on Suriya and family to come in a later episode. He’s a good friend of mine in Jaisalmer.)

Before going, I glanced at a guidebook so I’d have a rough idea where I was going and what road to take to get there. All I had to do was to take the highway west from Hanuman Circle, near where I was staying. Amar Sagar would be 5 km to the west. A place called Mool Sagar would be 2 km beyond that. Perfect–a path and a distance.

Here bicycles are simple machines: one speed, crunchy bedspring seats, U-shaped handlebars set to the plane of the street. Jaisalmer has the simplest traffic I’ve seen yet in India, but it is still a challenging to dodge pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, motorcycles, autorickshaws, cars, jeeps, and cows. (And cowpatties.) Jaisalmer is a small city. Once you’ve passed Hanuman Circle you’ve passed everything but the military guards at the “Thundering 27” base, the guards with the red Japanese fans on their heads.

Then: nothing. The Thar Desert is not a scenic desert–at least not the small bit of it that I experienced. Granted, I’m prejudiced towards the Mojave Desert of California, the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas, the Canyonlands of Utah. These are legendary places to me, wonderlands of mountains and arches and canyons. The Thar Desert along MDR 53 wasn’t even that scrubby. On one side of the road there was a landscape of smashed sandstone, perhaps being quarried for building projects in Jaisalmer and beyond. On both sides were sparsely distributed plants with large rubbery leaves.

The road less cycled

The children were friendly. From the sides of the road, from the dilapidated buildings set back in the dust, and from places I could hear but not see, children waved and yelled, “Hello!” Women filling water jugs at a leaking irrigation pipe giggle and said, “[Something something] gora” among themselves. Men passing on tractors slowly rotated their heads to follow my passing. Exchange the turbans for feedcaps and it was just like Central Illinois.

At Mool Sagar there was nothing. Nothing. I went an extra kilometer down the road to be certain. Nothing. Kuch nahin. There were a few miserable houses and rock-bounded plots with no houses at all–much like California City, California. How do people survive on the fringes? Why do people survive on the fringes? I turned back, left them there. Maybe it’s better on the fringes, on the outside. At Mool Sagar I had an omelette and a chai with a few stone cutters before returning to the east, to Jaisalmer, capital of the fringes.

Settlement at the end of the world

Later, in the guidebook, I would read more closely about Mool Sagar: “…Mool Sagar, a run-down oasis with a Shiva Temple.” Ah.

About 5 km from Jaisalmer there is a junction. Ten kilometers to the north of the junction is Lodurva, the home, I’m told, of a collection of Jain temples. I hadn’t found Amar Sagar yet, so what the hell? Why not go to Lodurva?

There at the crossroads was a boy in a light blue ninth-standard school uniform. I prepared my best Amar Sagar kahan hai? (Where is Amar Sagar?) Before I could ask, he pointed at the back of my bike. I returned a quizzical look. He motioned again, and mimed that he wanted to sit on the rack. Oh, you want a ride? Yes, I’m going to Jaisalmer city. Let’s do it. Hop on.

Off we went down the desert highway, a gora and his boy–or was it the other way around? We puttered along for 3 km, exchanging simple Hinglish questions and answers.

About 1.5 km from Jaisalmer, as we passed Indira Indoor Stadium and entered Defence Land, the boy on the back said something I didn’t quite hear. “[Something] five [something] rupees.” Ah, how cute. No, young man. I come as an informal emissary of the United States of America. I am here to do Good Work. I will not charge you for this strange ride across the desert. Go forth. Uncle Sam loves you.

“Money. From you to me.”

“What?”

“500 rupees?”

“What?”

“500 rupees? I am poor boy.”

“No.”

“100 rupees?”

“No.”

“500 rupees?”

And so on. The treacherous little bastard continued to ask for money. It’s one thing to ask foreigners for money. It’s another thing–and certainly not a problem–to ask for a free ride. But it takes a real deviant to cop a ride and then ask for money from the driver as he pedals through the noontime grit.

After another half kilometer of being hounded for cash, I stopped. “Get down.” I rode the last stretch alone, free of one white man’s burden.

Major District Road 53

2011 Jaipur Half Marathon: The gauntlet

The Jaipur Half Marathon… I shouldn’t have run it. But here I am, three weeks later, and the bastard hasn’t killed me yet so I’m going to post this before the Auroville Marathon finishes me off.

I shouldn’t have run it. I mean this. I wasn’t in Jaipur to run. I was there for the Jaipur Literature Festival. The half marathon was a coincidence. I learned about the half marathon offhandedly, and I didn’t commit to anything. The Mumbai Marathon, on 16 January, was a road marathon and I don’t train much on roads so I was extra sore. And I had been pampered in Mumbai by Pradeep and his family, so I was also extra whiny when I got to Jaipur. It was the perfect storm for copping out.

But don’t worry, Dear Reader, after thirty years I’m not about to start letting common sense enter the equation. On the day before, an old friend in Illinois found the registration venue for me. (And I quote Mel: “rajput sabha bhawan, bagwan das road. i have no idea what i wrote, but i hope it helps.”) I went there. The sign said, “Registrations OPEN for Dream Run Entries Only Today.” If you follow the rules in India you are a fool. I went in. They let me register for the half marathon.

Sunday. 23 January 2011. 6:00am. Dark on the western side of one time-zoned India. Wake up in my running clothes. Pin my numbers on my shirts (That’s an intentional plural, numbers, front and back–only in India.) Tie my shoes. Here’s the exciting part: it is the first day since running Mumbai that I was able to bend down, tie my shoes, then stand up without using the bed or table to lift myself.

6:30am. Out the door. And then not out the door. It’s early. The guest house staff is somewhere else, asleep. The front door and outside gate are locked. Well, gosh darn it, I guess I’ll have to go back to sleep. Back upstairs to inspect my window for possible ways to climb out. Back downstairs to check one more time and–damn. A sleepy man fumbles through his keychain, letting me escape into the inky blue morning. I accost a rickshaw driver at the first intersection–the hunter has become the hunted. He’s too surprised to even jack me over on the rate to Albert Hall Museum. Victory.

The sun threatens to rise. A runner in a Santa Claus costume runs up to me and says, “Hello! I’m Santa Claus!” Indeed. A young boy, learning a new trick, doesn’t ask me for 10 rupees, he asks me for an extra timing chip because he, ah, needs one. It’s not like they just give out extra timing chips, little man. I wish they did. I looked down at my shoes and realized that my own timing chip was resting safely on my bed at the guest house. Lucky.

7:10am. The race is set to start at 7:00 Indian Standard Time, so it’s not late yet. There are other foreigners (read: pale people) in the running crowd. That’s good news. The per capita being-stared-at index went down a few notches. A few Running and Living guys came down from Delhi. They spotted me because I was sporting a Running and Living jersey from the Panchkula Half Marathon.

7:20am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. To the next gate. I try running 200 meters to warm up. Not happening. My left calf and right quat muscles are furious. 200 meters is less than 1% of a half marathon. I try running backwards to see if my projectile crying will serve as a form of propulsion. It works. Six years and two aerospace engineering degrees haven’t gone to waste after all. (Hire me.)

7:30am. The gate opens. The runners surge forward. Dignitaries–politicians, actors, the sun–cheer from raised bleachers. A movie camera rises into the sky and captures a sweeping shot over the passing runners. The official Jaipur Half Marathon song blares from enormous speakers. I know it is the official song because the Hindi word for marathon is marathon. Hey, Chicago, where’s your official marathon song? That’s right.

Right. The half marathon itself. It hurt a lot. And then it was over.

What? More? OK.

The start of the Jaipur Half mraathon had everything I ever expected in an Indian race. It started late. There were stages on the sidewalk with drummers and music and dancers. (I appreciate the dancers in the Boys Town segment of the Chicago Marathon, but I have to admit a preference for dancing Rajasthani girls.) On the opposing sidewalk there were masses of working class men in stocking caps and rough cotton shawls giving the universal gape for, “What the hell is going on here?”

My goal was to not get hurt. I slacked off after the first kilometer, but then #5569, a high school boy running his first half marathon, came up and encouraged me to pick up the pace–and thanks to him for doing that. I tried to communicate that I didnt’ want to. I’d say, “You go ahead,” and sweep my hand forward. He’d respond, “With,” and give a sweeping gesture to come with him and his friends. OK. Slower pace, faster pace, it didn’t matter since every step hurt. I kept pace with them until 5 km, then no more, no more.

The first 6 km were a straight line down Jawaharlal Nehru Marg. Then we U-turned and returned. At the turnaround, race officials flicked some red stuff on our shirts as a marker to prevent cheating. It was a good idea. I say this with 50% conviction. The other 50% is reserved for when/if the red splotches ever wash out of my jersey.

As we looped back we met the Dream Runners. Ah, yes, they followed us. I should have known the dancing girls were for them. Blast! The upside was that they provided key crowd support for the half marathon runners–for me, at least. I’m not sure they asked all of the brown runners where they were from and how they liked India. Around 10 km, near the halfway mark, we cut west, left the Dream Runners, headed off into the wild.

Let’s all give the traffic cops the kudos they deserve. They had the uneviable job of holdin gback the increasingly mutinous Jaipur traffic. Every passing minute brought more pedestrians, more scooters, more rickshaws, more cars, all eager to take back their share of the morning road. In the second half of the race we runners were quite dispersed, tens and hundreds of meters between us. The held back drivers gaped in menacing disbelief at traffic cops stopped them at major intersections for each single, straggling runner.

In some cases the traffic prevailed and we shared the road. OK. I expected this in India: functional madness. We all went to our destinations in our own ways. I don’t know how we got there, but we got there. That’s India. I don’t know if I could do it every day, but it’s fun in doses.

And on and on. Past St. Xavier’s School and right onto MI Road, a major road now eerily devoid of traffic. Left through the reconstructed Ajmer Gate and into the old city, the Pink City. Through the not yet opened markets. I had an advantage here: I studied the course map before running. We were almost done. Good news: my brain sent a message to my legs that is was now acceptable to feel broken.

The traffic circle at Choti Chaupur–people crowded around like a tunnel like the sidelines of the Tour de France. The traffic circle at Badi Chaupur–more of the same, but larger, as the name suggests. (In Hindi, choti means small, badi means big… I think. Obviously I’m no expert.)

Almost there. Back onto MI Road, which is no longer devoid of vehicles. In Indian traffic as in oceans, it is foolish to think you can stop the tide. Into Ramniwas Bagh and Albert Hall Museum, down to the last few hundred meters. The next wave of traffic isn’t vehicles–it’s Dream Runners. They block the road in front of the finish line. That’s why most races have chutes and barriers at the end of the race. After 21km, no one wants to finish via a gauntlet.

As I noted earlier, I consider myself an informal ambassador of the United States of America. As such I see it as my solemn duty to introduce Indians to American culture. I taught the mass of Dream Runners a few (American) football moves: the cutback, the spin, the hurdle, the stiffarm. Thank me later, Hillary, thank me later.

Unofficial time: 1:50:50.