November 13 fell on a Friday a few days ago just as it did in 1991 during our bicycle trip in India. We laughed at the date that day as we set out from Mysore. We had experienced blissful days bicycling by the pastoral fields of Karnataka after the festivals. Farmers harvested grain and carted it off with ox-drawn carts. The chaff-filled air gave the sky a golden hue and we glided on traffic-free roads over gently rolling hills. But Karnataka was in deep in conflict with the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu over a water dispute that had raged for over a hundred years. The day we set out, Karnataka declared a strike that prohibited vehicles from driving on the roads. That would make for a peaceful day to bicycle south, we thought.
Harvest in Karnataka
We were so wrong! The day of the strike we came upon a road block after ten miles. About sixty people, mostly boys and teenagers with a few adult males, surrounded us. They yelled and jeered with an edgy excitement. We talked to the ringleader and asked if we could continue through. We explained that we wanted to travel to Bandipur, twenty miles up the road. He instructed us to wait ten minutes while he considered our request. We leaned our bikes against one of three trucks the crowd had forced off the road. We put our backs to our bikes and turned to face the pressing mob. The ringleader held a flexible stick about a yard and a half long, which he snapped like a whip around the throng to keep them in check. He nearly hit us! The agitated crowd yelled, their frustration fueled by those around them. We asked whether the roadblock was because of the Tamil Nadu water issues. No one understood that much English, but when they heard the name of the state, they yelled louder and beat the air with their fists.
We decided to turn back to Mysore. As we approached the city, masses of protesters swarmed in the road blocking our path. I caught sight of flames grabbing at the blue sky. Hundreds of young men chanted and pumped their fists in the air while others set an effigy of the prime minister ablaze. We cut down a side street, veering off course. When we thought we had dodged the mob, we swung back to the main street but encountered yet another mass of protesters marching in our direction. We turned down more side streets and arrived safely at our hotel, only to find that the gates were locked.
The hotel gates were locked…
The next day we read in the paper that an estimated five thousand demonstrators had marched in the streets of Mysore. Ten people had been wounded in Bangalore, one person had died from a gunshot wound, and mobs had burned two movie theaters.
Our previous experiences had filled me with wonder and gratitude and now I trembled with fear and uncertainty. Yet, I was thankful that we had a safe harbor in our hotel amidst the chaos around us. The sudden change in tone reminded me that nothing lasts for ever and how important it is to adapt and be flexible so we can change course in the face of danger or unexpected obstacles. Plus, that night at dinner we met the most interesting fellow bicyclist who ended up biking with us for a few days after the civil unrest calmed down. He took us on a detour into the mountains we might have missed without him. We also gained deeper insights into the history and politics of India as we learned the back story of the hundred year-old water dispute.
A negative and scary incident led us to a positive one. That often happens in life. Sometimes we don’t see it at the time and only recognize it in retrospect. Reflecting back on your life, are there times this has happened to you? Did a negative or unsettling experience lead to you something positive?
You can read about the our around-the-world bicycle odyssey in my book;