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Archive for June, 2008

Unable to wear out our welcome in Istanbul

Friday, June 27th, 2008

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If a Turkısh person ever challenges you to a hospıtalıty contest, my advıce would be to sımply admıt defeat and avoıd unnecessary labor. 

Fırst, fıve of us showed up at the apartment of Bılge.  We knew her only from a loose contact wıth her sıster, but she welcomed us and our huge pıles of crap ınto her house as ıf we were her relatıves and our stuff was not dırty and stınky.  Her sıster Aslı (our connectıon) returned early from Indıa to fınd us sleepıng ın her bed, eatıng her food, and usıng her shower.  She responded wıth warmness. 

When theır mother returned from theır summer house a few days later, we prepared to move out, but cheerful bubbly women merely prepared dınner and fed us.  After dınner she left her own house and went to sleep wıth a frıend.  We gıggled and felt bad, but the next day she came back and cooked us lunch and dınner and kept us hydrated wıth tea ın between.

Netzy and Jım wıth Aslı and her parents.

We had not meant to stay so long ın Istanbul, but Nakıa s vısa problems contınued, so even when the gırls father returned to Istanbul for medıcal treatment we found ourselves stıll stayıng at the apartment.  Of course, we decıded to move to a hostel to gıve hım a stress-free envıronment.

Before we could effect the move, however, Aslı found us a frıend to stay wıth.  In addıtıon, she provıded an enormous amount of help wıth Nakıa s vısa and translatıon help wıth bıke purchases, and also shuttled us around town before everyone had a bıke.

The Köprülü sisters, L-R Asli & Bilge in back, and Bilge’s boyfriend up front.

In addıtıon to the two sısters, we met Fatıh, who has hosted several of us at hıs home on a number of occasıons and cooked us a real Turkısh dınner. He ıs by far our bıggest fan ın Turkey, both of our musıc and our bıcycle trıp.  He ıs a engıneerıng-desıgn student and a fantastıc artıst wıth burstıng energy and warmth.

Fatıh and FBR ın Istanbul

We now fınd ourselves stayıng at a bustlıng house of sıx of young people, mostly students.  We share food and they gıve us Turkısh coffee.  We use theır hot water and dırty theır dıshes and they stıll smıle when they see us.

We share coffee wıth Asın, one of our many hosts.

Hooray for Turkısh hospıtalıty!


Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

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We have landed in Istanbul, Turkey, right on the edge of Europe. Normally we don’t land, of course, we just roll up to a stop–but it seemed a flight from India to Istanbul was our best option considering all the red tape facing us for an Iranian visa (a required guide at 100 USD per day plus an indefinite wait) and since June was already upon us, we left the ground for the second time in over 10,000 km of biking.

Thanks to a brief conversation in Kolkata we found a flight on Air Arabia that would just fit within our budget.  The catch was that it involved two red-eye flights back to back with a 12 hour layover on the Arabian peninsula.  For us, no problem.  A few of us decided to see part of the famous city of Dubai (comparable to Las Vegas) while we waited in the United Arab Emirates for the waking hours.  This was our first transitional shock.  We went from India’s cheap local food and foot traffic to excitedly pointing out establishments like Krispy Kreme, Pizza Hut, Hardees, Baskin Robbins…  In the outskirts of Dubai we encountered heavy automobile traffic and high rise buildings, reminding us of U.S. cities, but interlaced with ornate mosques and minarets rising between the storeys; all of this plopped in the middle of sand for miles around.  Curious, we checked prices at the local supermarkets and found them to be more similar to U.S. prices as well.  That evening we ate our packed peanuts and bread supplemented by McDonald’s ice cream cones and wondered  what the “Europe Leg” of our trip would be like.

And here we are, facing Europe just across the Bosphorus Strait.  We are staying on the Asia Side of the city, in a very nice apartment in a very comfortable neighborhood.  The young Turkısh woman we talked to in Kolkata back in March, who told us about the flight, also invited us to stay with her when we came through Istanbul.  She gave us her sister’s phone number and the address to the apartment, and told us she would arrive a week later.  We met her sister for the first time just outside the apartment, and were welcomed as if to our own home.  Here we can cook, wash clothes, shower, use the internet, and even watch a DVD in English occasionally!  We are well provided-for.  

As part of the transition to the European continent we have been eating fresh bread, cheese, and pasta rather than rice.  (Our fuel tanks are equipped with highly developed converters).  So far this culinary change seems to have had no ill effects, and we are greatly enjoying the new flavours of Turkey.

Another important transition for FBR came together two days ago when we added a mom to our crew.  Jim’s mom flew in to join us for the summer as we cross the Eastern side of Europe.  Welcome Netzy!  Once again we are five members–with a new mom dynamic–about to tackle a new continent.  We look forward to hearing her perspective from this side of the blog.

In the next couple days we anticipate touring this ancient historical city of over 15 million, seeing some sights, checking on visas, enjoying our new friendships, and finding two bicycles–one for  Netzy and one for myself so we can continue pedaling our way to Paris.  Stay tuned…


Out and around in Delhi

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

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Delighted to find meat and fresh nan for low prices, I spent quite a few hours wandering around Darya Ganj, the old part of Delhi. It’s a predominantly Muslim area where men in white shalwar kameez and women in black layered robes ply the narrow streets. I stopped in for a late lunch at one of the nan/meat eateries I’d seen on my many circuits of the area one afternoon. I sat down and was joined by a man with a trim mustache, dark button-up shirt and Western-style trousers. The man was silent, until he announced he was paying for my lunch. My attempts to dissuade him collapsed in the failure to which I have become accustomed while trying to turn down Indian hospitality.

streets of darya ganj

The streets of Darya Ganj.

He was a particularly shy man, and he certainly hadn’t bought me lunch in order to practice his English. By thinking of all the questions I could muster, I learned his name: M. Atiq, and that he had five children, all of whom save the youngest attended a Catholic school. His business, the manufacture of sequins and spangles, had taken him overseas to France and to Saudi Arabia, where, he being Muslim, had taken the opportunity to do the Hajj. He bought me a big bottle of mineral water and saw that my plate stayed full of nan. Once I had become full enough to render any sort of movement uncomfortable, he considered his hospitable obligations fulfilled and took his leave of me.

Another night Drew, Pete and I sat outside of a closed shop in a much different environment, a minimall with shops selling only foreign goods, while Drew and I polished off a liter and a half of ice cream and Pete raged against the automobile, among other things. After the ice cream, which surely trickled into our beards and smeared our lips, Shameer approached us. He wore Western dress save the knit cap covering his head. He ran the Halil meat market across the way from us. Apparently unpurturbed by our ludicrous appearance, and curious because of our much better looking bikes, he complimented us on our pursuit of the bike trip. “You are great according to me,” he said. “I am living normal life, every day I see the same things, same people,” he confided, “Everyday you see different things.” I’m sure we don’t deserve any such praise, but far be it from me to turn down compliments.

We visited a mosque with our friend Cameron on the east side of Delhi one night. The mosque housed the tombs of two pilgrims, sacred to the Suffi Muslims associated with the shrine. In the crush outside, we bought flowers and decorated clothes to drape over the tomb. Leaving our shoes under the care of the shoe men at the front, we followed Cameron down the the long, narrow, marble corridors, stepping over beggars and trying to ignore their outstretched hands. In the sanctuary, the space opened up, but the crowd grew denser. We (men only, according to the sign) pushed our way into the tiny shrines housing the tombs of the saints and fought to place our offerings alongside everyone else’s. Men paused here and there, despite those struggling to make a circuit about tombs, touching the carved entrance way, or stooping to kiss the feet of the tomb. I was relieved to make it out.

Suffie musicians

Suffi musicians.

We listened to the Suffi music, played especially on Thursday nights, and then sat around, with the homeless waiting to be fed and multitudes of others who were that night at the mosque. Several people came up to us, as they often do in India, to chat. Cameron, with his Hindi, was especially popular.

Click here for Suffi music recorded at the mosque.

Two men approached me. They were big and burly. One cradled a child in his arms. They asked the usual questions, I gave the usual responses. It was a typically pleasant encounter.

men from the mosque

Later they came up to me as I recorded a prayer sung by an Imam. I asked the man with the baby the meaning. He struggled with the English, consulted a burkha-clad woman (his wife?) and then told me, “It is a prayer to Allah, saying he is great, and asking for peace on the world.” Good enough.

Click here to hear the Imam’s prayer. Apologies for the background noise.

A Day in Agra

Friday, June 13th, 2008

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I’m sitting in the thick shade eating my kilo of lychees and taking handfuls of self-made trail mix. It’s hot. I can feel my sweat trickling from the effort of eating, and stuff is falling around and on me. The first thing was a dead ant, its legs crinkled. Next was a leaf substance of some sort. The hostel manager comes over to talk to me about where we’re going next and how hot it is. Behind his head the culprit peeks down sideways from a hanging branch: a parakeet. Its green color is hard to pick out of the foliage, even with the scarlet beak. Most birds move in quick, jerky spurts, or bob about; not parakeets. They move more deliberately, steadily pulling the branches towards themselves as they make their way around, slowly. This one seems mostly unperturbed by our presence, and continues foraging, heedless of the litter he drops on his human neighbors.

It’s not only the parakeets. It seems like litter is everywhere–even surrounding the “Clean Agra Green Agra” signs. Before I bought my lychees I was riding down the narrow shop-lined streets, frequently braking for motor rickshaws (three-wheel taxis), motorcycles, honking cars, an the occasional ox cart or stray ox. The cows like the litter. I don’t know whose they are, but there are cows here and there, eating through the garbage or just standing with dulled eyes in the middle of the street, oblivious to the traffic rushing and stopping in jerks around them.

On a quieter street a ways back, closer to the Holiday Inn Agra, I had stopped to ask a man selling lychees off his cart, splashed with water to keep them fresh: “How much for ek kilo?”

“Ek kilo, 150 Rupees.”

Thirteen yellow flags fly up in my head, five of them registering on my face. 150 Rupees is roughly $3.75. I look at him and squint my eyes. I know this price is way too much just like he knows I’m not from around here.

“I’ll look around,” I say. I make to start off and he holds up a 100 Rupee note.

“Too late,” I mutter over my shoulder as I pedal off. It shouldn’t make me angry anymore, but I can’t get used to being taken advantage of. I want to trust people to be fair.

“Guest is God” is a Hindu saying suggesting guests are to be honored and treated with the utmost attention and respect. Sometimes we’re Guest, sometimes we’re Tourist. I haven’t heard the tourist saying, if there is one, but I could probably come up with a fairly accurate guess. Something like “Tourist is Target (for high-profit ventures).” Well, I’m just looking around anyway.

The shops seem to be themed in various areas. Here are the carpentry shops, making and selling furniture–mostly beds. Here are the hardware shops with plumbing and such. Here now are the small fried food shacks and snack shops selling a quick mixture of betel, tobacco, and spices by the packet. All the while I am winding and weaving down the road, taking forks at a whim, trying to go in a general south-east direction. Some movement along the building above me to my left grabs my attention; a monkey navigates a narrow ledge making use of pipes and wires above the crowded streets. They, similar to cows, have holy association here in India and can be found along the country roadways and in the city streets–particularly around temples or wherever food can be easily gotten.

In some areas we passed I saw signs saying, “Please don’t feed the monkeys.” I guess it gets to be a problem. I remember at The Cape of Good Hope in South Africa some years back the baboons had learned to spot a tourist with food. There the local staff warned everyone: “Don’t have ANY food showing, anywhere. Eat only in designated areas.” We thought little of it, until we saw our advisor turn his head from eating his sandwich and a baboon dropped from the roof above the table, snatched half of it, and was gone in less than three seconds. Later, a child walking behind his mother was slobbering on a popsickle. A baboon loped up to him, stripped the iced suger snack from his hands, and finished it a few yards away while the stunned family justed gasped and stared. “Tourist is Target” apparently is a well known maxim shared among more than just the local human population.

“Ahh, another lychee seller…” I pull over to find out what these small red fruit go for on this street. I stand there like a patient idiot for a few minutes right in front of his stand, as is my custom. Sometimes people are embarrassed because they don’t speak English, so they kind of ignore a foreigner. Others seem to grab at you when you least want their product. (”You want rickshaw?” “Um, I have my bike…”). This man seems just occupied in what he’s doing and biding his salesman time. When we finally make eye contact I ask, “How much?” He flaps a 50 Rupee note. “Hmmm, that’s better,” I think to myself. Still, I wait and watch other buyers. It’s my best trick; and it buys me time to think through negotiations and comparative prices of other fruits I’ve bought. Another man nods at a cluster of lychees.  “Teesh,” the salesman says. I rejoice inwardly that I know “teesh”. Teesh is Thirty in Hindi. (You pick up some things after a few months). Still I wait. A woman asks; “teesh” I hear again. In the meantime the assistant is measuring out a kilo for me and bagging it, to facilitate the buying process. He hands it to me. “Teesh?” I ask the salesman, somewhat rhetorically. He hesitates, then nods and averts his eyes. I hand him the money and leave, feeling a sense of triumph and curious emptiness. I got the price, but I just want to be human without battling for justice. I want to belong, not to win. Well, he got a fair price and I got some juicy lunch, so maybe that will help to fill me up.

What I need now is to find some quiet space to read and eat and sit, away from the business interactions and rush and stop of traffic, honking and revving. I head back to the hostel to find some thick shade in a place where I belong, if only temporarily, and hide my head from the heat of the day.  “Ahh, solitude.  Solitude and food,” I think to myself, “Great–What’s this?  Where did this dead ant come from?…”

FBR, (we now pause for status identification)

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

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We have arrived in Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.  When I say “we” I mean the three guys — Peter, Jim, and Drew.  We don’t know exactly where Nakia is, but we hope she’s safe in Nepal, where she intended to be.  You see, she had already visited Agra and Jaipur, the two cities we were latest seen frequenting, and since she didn’t get a chance to check out the Himalayas, she opted to trek for a few weeks in Nepal while we cycled through India.  So, last we heard, our fourth member Nakia was heading up to Everest Base Camp. 

Nice to hear from Adam in the States — he’ll be in India and Nepal shortly, as far as we know.  So, we keep doing these crazy loops around eachother–around the world, but still hold on to this identity that will face a serious challenge (and already is from the chapati based diet here in the north): Fueled by Rice.  We eat just enough to keep our integrity.  I’m not sure what we’ll be eating mostly once we hit Europe… maybe grass and roots, if the Euro holds out against us.  I’ll certainly enjoy a Donor Kebap in Turkey though.  “Could you just sprinkle a little rice on that for me?  Thanks!”

Stay tuned for thoughts on Agra and experiences in Rajasthan, and maybe even some from Nepal sooner or later. 

 Cheers, FBR

So the plan is for the four of us to meet in Jaipur at the Airport and fly to Istanbul in five days, about when Adam makes it to Nepal.  Of course, we’re still a team–just not always in the same place at the same time.  But when we are, we’re always in the same place at the same time.

Where did the other guy go?

Friday, June 6th, 2008

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After a few months of being the first one to depart from the bike ride with the reason of “girlfriend” topping the list, or just being the first sensible one some mothers may conclude, I have found time to both reflect and slowly slip out of the lifestyle of the cross-country biker. I often find myself diving into my days work, planning weekends, trying to keep up with reading, politics, news, planning for my summer trip to India/Tibet (which i think will be more of an India/Nepal trip with the current political situation in Tibet) and attempting to keep up relationships with family and friends. I also however find my mind wandering back to where the others are and what they are doing. I am often asked what my plan is and if I will soon be entering what some people have defined as “the real world.” Regardless of what the producers of MTV tell us I’m not exactly sure what our society defines as “the real world”, however I get the feeling it has something to do with a cubical, a mortgage, and yard-work. All of which are fine but after spending five and a half months biking across eastern Asia I haven’t been ready to just jump into that yet.

My mind will often wander, to the other side of the world. To the interesting people I met, to the ones who treated me like family, to the one’s who tried to take advantage of me, to the one’s struggling to support their families, and to the one’s searching for meaning in life. One thing that traveling has done however is that it also provided me with material to compare my own culture and world to. Minneapolis Minnesota is truly a unique place, even if it is spending the weekend mowing the lawn. The truth is that most people in this world don’t do that. I find myself viewing people I meet here in the Midwest as much more interesting than I had with my know-it-all attitude after graduating high school. Overall I’m pretty proud to represent the Midwest, and am not afraid to flaunt it. People have suggested to me before that when traveling I should tell people that I am from Canada to avoid the assumed stereotype that goes along with being American. Even though I have nothing against Canada I would be much more ashamed to not admit that I am from the U.S. I question how any one’s perception on the world would ever change about my country if I can’t represent it in a way as I see as fit. I feel I am a good enough representative and ambassador to talk with people in other countries about issues that relate to my country, if not I don’t have much business traveling. Secondly in most of my travels I haven’t really gotten too much negative feedback about being from the U.S. Sometimes the issue of politics is brought up but people are generally very understanding in separating a person’s personal life form politics, they too don’t always believe in all of their own government’s history.

Things that have stuck out since i have been home, or that I find somewhat quirky about America, include but aren’t limited to the following…

Consumerism - Gee gatz do we (including myself) consume a lot. From transportation, to recreation, to food, to our homes we consume one heck of a lot of goods. And as obvious as it is to anyone living in the U.S. I find myself hyper-sensitive to it. What others do doesn’t offend me, it’s a matter of comfort and who is to say people don’t deserve to be comfortable? Especially once someone is used to living a specific standard of life-style and that life-style is the norm for an entire population. Our society revolves around consumerism, buying, selling, buying, using, throwing away, buying, selling, it is a dizzying endeavour. I can’t quite yet fall comfortably into it without feeling just a little guilty. I try to live a low impact lifestyle but find myself constantly comparing my lifestyle to ones I have previously led and to ones I have previously seen. I believe there is a balance between consuming and living comfortably that can be met by just being conscience about how we are impacting our environment and each other. Just being aware of our impact helps us reduce when possible, even if only a bit.

Being Green - Since I have come back I have noticed a huge tend to think “Green” Woohoo! I hope it isn’t more than that, a trend. I think some businesses are taking advantage of it and advertising as “green” even when they could do way better, but at least it has the potential to start changing minds. Right now as most of you know the gas prices in America are reaching about $4.00 a gallon, fine with me, let em’ keep going up. The only way people are going to change their attitudes is by affecting their pocket books. You won’t hear me complaining about high gas prices, besides, they are still about half as high as in Europe. One thing I don’t think some people realize is that not only our environment is at risk with our dependency on foreign oil but our national security as well. So to those politicians promising to “lower gas prices” and without clear plans for taking care of this problem but bolstering their stance on national security because they can go into the middle east and fight a war, shame on them.

Lately I think of the saying “Think globally, act locally.” We must start with ourselves in order for there to be a change worldwide.

Some of you may be wondering if since I’ve been back in “the states” if I am able to bicycle much anymore. The answer is yes, I do get the chance to bike and often. I know there are many reasons to bike but I personally use biking as a means to commute. I currently have two jobs, one being about three miles from where I live and one being about 14 miles from where I live. I have access to the cedar lake bike trail nearly the entire way into downtown and the green-way is only a short way off. I still end up having to drive twice a week or so but I try to bike whenever possible, mostly because I truly do enjoy it as a socially just way to get around.

Another hobby of mine as some of you might know is fishing and earlier this spring I decided I needed a canoe. So for the past month or so I have been both pedaling and paddling on a regular basis. In order to keep the non-carbon emitting theme alive i have designed and built a bicycle trailer for my canoe to be pulled behind my bicycle and yes as you can imagine it is quite awesome. It probably weighs about as much as the band wagon but at 15.5 feet the canoe takes a little wider turns. Once I get going it really isn’t too hard to move, but you do feel it on the hills. I am two miles from Cedar Lake, which connects to the lake of the isles and Calhoun right in the heart of Minneapolis (which also happens to be stocked with walleye and muskie) People love seeing me ride and offer lots of support. When stopped people love to check out both the canoe and trailer.

Adam with Bike and Trailer

Overall I do miss biking, meeting new people, staying in small villages, being swallowed by huge cities, and never knowing what the next hour will bring.

Thanks again for all the support, and I can genuinely say the other’s still biking seriously rock, let’s give them a round of applause for finishing the “Asian” portion of the trip, seriously, they just biked across Asia!!!

Also in case you forgot here are some other St. John’s alum who recently finished a bike trip across Tanzania.

Going Up Hill

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

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[This is Drew again. Careful readers will note that I have posted two old posts about the mountains. They will also note that Jim and Peter have been dominating “post time” and consequently I have had to dredge my inbox for quick-post literature in order to re-appear on the scene with some authority. What. Hope you can handle the time warps. I had written this hopeful for the Fergus Falls Daily Journal end of April, should they be interested. No word as of yet… but I’ll keep pressing on, one pedal stroke at a time.]

Going Up-Hill

My knuckles are tight against the handle bars, my back bent and aching, my shirt soaked in sweat. My legs are burning and my muscles cry for me to quit; my breaths are shallow and quick, quickening. I can hear them in the silence of the heat, a frantic metronome for my tires crunching bits of gravel on the pavement. Even though I’m in the lowest gear of my 21-speed mountain bike, it’s all I can do to keep the pedals turning, keep them turning, one pedal-stroke at a time…

That’s part of our bike trip mission statement: “Fueled By Rice: Spreading the spirit of tolerance and cooperation around the world one pedal-stroke at a time.” Admittedly it sounds a bit pretentious. We have no specific plan based on research analysis for spreading tolerance and cooperation, which (after many exhaustive consultations) is funded by a reputable philanthropic organization. We have no scientific system to measure our success at helping to create a more tolerant and cooperative world. We are just five Twenty-somethings with an idea to bike across half the world, and a hope that understanding between two countries, like the understanding between two individuals, can start with a simple smile. One smile at a time, one pedal stroke at a time… But never has this idea been so literal to me as now, climbing into the Himalayas.

We began our trip west from Beijing in September 2007, five graduates from The College of St. Benedict and St. Johns University planning to cycle 9000 miles across fourteen countries over the course of one year on a budget of $2000 USD per person. Beijing to Paris in one year, by cycle. I also thought the idea was a bit crazy. But when it was decided that as part of the trip we would carry two guitars, a South African bongo drum, and an erhu (pronounced “Are-Who”; a two-stringed Chinese violin) and try to make music together, I thought we should go for it. After all, what is an idea worth if you never give it a try? But of course, that was before reaching the Himalayas, the world’s highest mountain range. Now pulling a trailer full of instruments up a mountain didn’t seem like such a great idea. What was keeping me going?

Of all the possible influences that kept me pushing on, one thing was certain: to keep moving forward I had to be coached. I had to talk myself through it moment by moment. I was coaching myself forward, and a mantra was being repeated in my mind like an echo from the past: “Keep ‘em turning! Keep ‘em turning!” These were not my own words; instead, they had been given to me by my high school Track and Field coach at Hillcrest Lutheran Academy, Mr. Backstrom. I can still hear his voice talking me through each lap of the mile as he ran back and forth across the football field to offer encouragement: “Okay, you’re right on time, doing fine, just keep it up; keep ‘em turning, keep ‘em turning…” Now here I was facing a different physical challenge, and his voice had become my own, giving me the strength to keep going.

These weren’t the first hills I’d ever tackled. Although not as seemingly endless as the Himalayan mountains, the hill at Cleveland Elementary School was daunting enough to the determined Fergus Falls soccer players during that week of training at the beginning of the season affectionately known by the athletes as “Hell Week”. Each year that I played for the Fergus Falls High School soccer team, Coach Bjerke would gather us at the base of the hill and say, “Okay boys, let’s hit it hard. The payoff is at the end of the season. The payoff is in Sections, boys. Give it what you got; first group, ready, Go!”

The payoff is at the end. This message also trickled through my memory to give me hope. Now is the pain of pedaling; then is the glory of achievement. The payoff will be down the road (or up rather!), when I reach that windy summit and see the hills fading into the hazy distance. The reward for this pain will be the rush of humming down, down, through pine forests, letting gravity offer the breeze to effortlessly cool my exhausted body. The hard work of now will pay off in the end.

Of course, these collected thoughts are the benefit of arriving, of looking back. I can look back and see how even now, in north-eastern India, I am pushed to greater achievement by my coaches from Fergus Falls, Minnesota. At the top, at rest, I can reflect that in life I will face other metaphorical hills that will require me pressing on, and that any success I might achieve is thanks to the various coaches who gave me their encouragement, wisdom, and inspiration—parents, teachers, family, and friends, as well as sports coaches. But join me back on the hill as it switches endlessly back and forth, threatening to discourage my aching, sweating body from pedaling on, and these encouragements meld into a buzzing of voices and impulses. “The payoff is at the end; keep ‘em turning, keep ‘em turning; one pedal stroke at a time, one pedal stroke at a time…”

Agra, city of the Taj Mahal

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

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Well, we have made our weary way to Agra, and arrived (yesterday). We pulled in about 9 a.m., doing the last 40 km in the cooler part of the morning–from 6 am to 9 am with breakfast in there somewhere. The International Youth Hostel here was very accomodating and quite affordable, so we registered and fell asleep. I was woken by a the strange suffocating sensation of still heat that makes the sweat bead on your forehead and chest. I went and sat in the hall so the sweat could trickle down my back as well. It’s hot here, and occasionally in a regular fashion, the electricity goes out and the fans slow to a sickening stop. It was after noon anyway, so I decided to stay up and check out lunch options.

The reason we were so tired was partly due to highway travel — the constant rush and roar of fast moving vehicles coupled with the horns and jams of the occasional cities along the way–and partly due to two nights of small sleep.

The first night out of Delhi we met some other Indian travellers who had us discussing/listening to US politics and downfalls until 11 p.m. The mosquitos were just starting to party then, but managed to save “an FBR feed” inside our tent that night for between 1 am and 4 am. We were up at five with the sun.
Second night we spent camping in the eerie light of a refinery’s bursting torch tower, not far from a McDonalds (?!). One of the strangest atmospheres yet. Five a.m. just comes too early and the nights don’t cool…

But I didn’t mean to complain the whole time about lack of sleep. We’re doing better now, and I hope to see the Taj Mahal this very evening. Jim and Peter saw the morning version today. Besides that we’ll be enjoying the winding, flea-market streets of Agra for another day before we pedal west to Jaipur.

We’re feeling caught up on sleep and major monuments, mostly. Thanks for catching up with us.

Encounter in the Himalayas

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

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This is an article I wrote for Faith & Fellowship magazine–my denomination’s church publication–about meeting a childhood friend randomly in India mid-April.


Crossing Paths: Chance Encounters with a Fellow Alien



Just a couple weeks ago I got an email from my brother titled: “David Nordtvedt in Calcutta”.  To most people this would be entirely unremarkable.  But this surprised me on two accounts.  First, David Nordtvedt was a fellow Lutheran Brethren missionary kid (MK) I knew from childhood in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.  Second, I had just left Calcutta.



My friends and I were heading north in Eastern India, seven months into our year-long bicycle tour from Beijing to Paris.  At the time I had no idea where in the world David Nordtvedt was, but it would seem that David and I had barely missed a fortuitous chance encounter in a random city half a globe away. 


Since we were traveling by cycle, we would still be in the area for a while.  Our next major stop was a tea-growing city in the mountains of West Bengal called Darjeeling.  We would be there in about a week, so I sent David an email saying, “Wow, sorry we missed.  You wouldn’t happen to be going to Darjeeling in a week…?”  Since internet access is sporadic, I didn’t get David’s response until I was sitting in a computer lab in Darjeeling four days later: “As a matter of fact…”



That particular weekend happened to be the Bengali New Year, and he and some friends from Calcutta were planning a get-away to Darjeeling.  Great!  Our fortuitous chance encounter seemed to be guided by other forces. 


We finally got together over dinner and spent the next day hanging out and catching up.  It still seemed quite strange that while we had had no contact, our paths would cross like this.   I got to thinking: what are the chances of meeting a fellow Lutheran Brethren MK anywhere in the world at any given time?  Actually, better than you might expect; it seems there are MKs scattered all over.


When we met up with David and friends we hadn’t been in touch, so as we wandered the alleys and sampled street food he told me about studying in western India, volunteering in Bangladesh, and his current plans to enroll in graduate school in the Philippines this Fall.  His older sister, Annalise, has been working for the past several years at the international school in Taiwan where the Nordtvedts were missionaries.  Micah, the oldest, is living in Seattle but working on a project that documents the lives of missionary kids around the world, which finds him traveling just about everywhere.  I think of my fellow MKs in Cameroon.  That I know of, two (Mark Hunter and Steph Lazicki) are currently living on the African continent; Pat Lazicki spent some serious time studying in Ghana; her oldest sister Suzy has been living in China for several years; and Alyson Gerstmann is traveling all over the United States as a truck driver.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised to meet David in India.


Being a missionary kid doesn’t necessarily mean you haven’t settled somewhere normal, but there is a good chance you haven’t—or you just haven’t settled. 


A little over a year ago my family and I were casually milling at the home of Dr. Paul Hiebert, my dad’s friend and PhD advisor.  Dr. Hiebert had been a missionary kid as well, and subsequently spent much of his life in India as a missionary and anthropologist.  He said to me then, with a twinkle in his eye, “You know Andrew, being a missionary kid means your fate is sealed.  Either you’ll end up a missionary or you’ll do some sort of anthropological work, but you’ll never feel like you have your own culture to call home.”



For our high school graduation my friend Ryan Garvin sang a song with the words, “Home is a place I’ve never been.”  These words stuck with me.  They call to mind a passage from the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.  The early Christian leader is telling about the great men and women of faith who have gone before.  He says,

        “All these people were still living by faith when they died. … And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.  If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.  Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:13-16 NIV).


The assumption is that all who live by faith also experience a deep and curious longing for a better country – a better existence.  For some these feelings are undoubtedly stronger than for others, or perhaps occur more frequently.  I think MKs have a special perspective on this passage.


For an MK, the early fabric of identity is woven through the various colors of sometimes vastly different cultures, which means that we may have few qualms about traveling to a place where the daily market includes freshly butchered chickens and tubs of live eels, but it may make us uneasy to spend time at a mall, a party, or a dance club.  Even if we develop the ability to enjoy such things (we are trained to adapt), we may never feel like we truly belong.  Of course this can be isolating at times, but it should not be a lament.  I would never trade my experiences growing up in Cameroon for a different, more homogenous life – even if it means I remain caught between cultures, interested in many but belonging to none.


Our several days in Darjeeling were a nice rest before we moved west to Nepal, and the unexpected meeting of a fellow MK made it all the more special.  As we were preparing to once again go our separate ways, David asked, “Do you mind if I pray for you guys?”  We gathered together, and I was grateful for this bond that we shared through prayer.  Though at times we may feel like wandering aliens and strangers in this world, we belong to a special community – those that can talk to and trust the Author of Life.  And so together we hold on to this hope for which we live: that we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.