I have three new walking buddies.
Meet Saha, Ishi and Bal—the crew helping me getting me through the next few months.
Saha is my new walking cart, though, lately, my preference is to call her a walking trolley.
Ishi is a 38-liter High Peak backpack that has been converted into Saha’s harnessing system.
And, Bal, he gets to be my personal, mobile warehouse, hauling other additions including a warmer sleeping bag, a lightweight winter jacket and wool socks which should come in handy when we arrive in north India sometime this winter.
Laugh as you may, but I name stuff. Plants, cars, and life-essential gear. If things, like my walking equipment, have a name then I can give them responsibility and make them part of the team, the team whose job it is to make my life easier, or, optimistically, be stronger than me when my strength fails.
Here’s the story I invented about my crew.
Saha the Trolley
She started out as a gift I bought with money Lluís’ parents gave us for the trip. She arrived as a functional and standard Dixon Roller Pack, a tool that after Uzbekistan I decided to experiment with.
Uzbekistan broke me, and I swore I would never want for water the way I did there in July. Finding a more effective way to haul water and cold-weather gear, which I initially packed very little of because we had sweltering heat and humidity since January, took on greater significance this fall. Putting more weight in my already heavy pack (which teetered over 20 kilos when I loaded up extra water) no longer was a viable option.
We had debated the trolley concept long before we started the walk. Do we get one or not? There are pros and cons to both sides. One massive plus is obvious: A trolley reduces and redistributes the weight strain on our backs. The biggest downside to a trolley is being forced to stay mostly on heavily-trafficked, paved roads, which in many parts of Asia is a nightmare. Ironically, too, despite its wheel, a trolley makes us slightly less mobile because we can’t maneuver ourselves as quickly as possible through overcrowded cities heaving with humanity, rickshaws, delivery carts and buses. In a nutshell, a trolley helps save our bones and bodies from extreme overuse but forces us to think more like a vehicle than a pedestrian.
We tried a version of a cart when we crossed over from Thailand to Burma. It was a tough carry-a-ton-of-boxes, Asian-style doily, but it wasn’t a walking cart that could go long distances on a daily basis over various kinds of terrain.
That cart, which I simply named “Cart” because I didn’t want to get too attached, fell apart in three days, its bolts and wheels came unhinged and needed several inconvenient impromptu roadside repairs that involved a truck mechanic and tools we created from trash we found along the shoulder.
We gave it away for free to a woman who happened to be standing in front of her house when we walked by frustrated with Cart on the fourth morning. She accepted it with a confused look on her face, as if to say, “Where the hell did you just come from, and how did I just become the recipient of this very random thing?” We left her to ponder those questions as we picked up our backpacks and kept walking.
The trolley debate resurfaced this summer while I dragged myself through Uzbekistan’s desert. Saving my health, preserving my body’s longevity and having water when I wanted it won the argument. And, I promised myself extra congratulatory kudos if I could successfully try this out in the street of Bangladesh and India. If I could weave myself around the ground-levels messes we would find throughout South Asia without suffering permanent injury, I had a chance of making my trolley a longer-term companion.
After some research, I opted for the Dixon one-wheel trolley, which would strap to my hip and chest and roll behind me. There were a few other options out there – two wheels, three wheels, a push cart, a different kind of pull cart, a jogging stroller.
In the end, I opted for this for a few main reasons: 1. it was an affordable option and something that could provide a good return on investment without posing too much risk that would break me if something went wrong; 2. Bob Dixon offered great customer service, and we had several phone conversations both before and after I placed the order; 3. he was able to ship it during the weeks I was in the U.S. (other companies had much longer lead times), and 4. I avoided very expensive export shipping fees overseas
Logistically, getting Saha into the field was its own journey. I took her as extra luggage to Europe, repacked and plastic wrapped her from Barcelona to Bishkek, and repacked her again to make the Bishkek-Istanbul-Dhaka-Cox’s Bazar connection. She got lost in transit once transferring between airports, and, two months in, we’re still in a get-to-know-each-other phase.
But, here she is, Saha. In Sanskrit, Saha means mighty, enduring – exactly what I want in a walking companion and a trolley. There’s no room for wimps on this trip, only the strong and foolishly courageous can come along.
To make her feel like she was mine, and to make her look “ugly” and well-used so she would be less likely to be targeted as flashy item worth stealing, I made several modifications. Some I made up, and other times I consulted cyclists I hung out with in September, tapping into their expertise of long-distance wheeled travel.
I attached a plastic doormat as a splashguard, expecting to walk through mud in the last days of Bangladesh’s monsoon season. I cut up old rubber bicycle tubes I found laying around the bike workshop in the Bishkek house I was staying in, and wrapped them around Saha’s metal frame to act as a bumper. I used bicycle tires for extra protection near the axle, assuming we would have to go up and down many curbs and hotel stairs. And, I converted a metal coat rack into a sort of basket that would prevent my backpack, fellow newbie Bal, from sliding down the frame and getting caught in the wheel.
But it was the harness I was most worried about.
Ishi: My harness solution
The original hip and chest harness that came with the trolley probably would be okay if I was walking moderate distances for a couple of weeks. But its lack of thicker padding in places where I wanted more cushioned support (my hips, lower back and shoulders) had me reconsidering options from the first test walk around Bishkek.
The other concern I had was linked directly to the worst-case scenario planning I do on a continuous basis in my head.
Knowing that I would add a daypack to my back with at least 3.5 liters of water, two of which would be in a Camelback pouch, I couldn’t figure out how I would quick-release myself from the original harness during an accident. One scene that kept playing in my head was that we would be walking on a very busy Indian road and I would get side-swiped; I would roll down a ditch and I would be tangled up in a harness and a cart. How was I going to get my daypack filled with water and the harness/cart completely disconnected in milliseconds if I found myself in a dangerous situation?
Linda, a cyclist who previously worked at an outdoor shop and specialized in fitting backpacks, and Ugaitz, another cyclist who had a good eye for the mechanics of things, brainstormed harness ideas with me.
Ishi, my new orange friend with a bright red rain cover, was the answer.
I found her in one of the better outdoor shops in Bishkek and immediately liked the well-padded shoulder straps and hip belt and the design of the back support system. The internal pocket for a water pouch had extra appeal.
I initially planned to completely remove the backpack part of the backpack, using just the back frame, straps and hip belt. But, Linda suggested that I keep it intact, and use it to carry the few things I needed every day while I’m walking, things like my sun hat, sunglasses and water filter. Keeping it whole would minimize the amount of adjustments and give a backpack for future use. We only needed to find a shoemaker who could screw in the hooks and, viola! we would have a much-improved harnessing system.
Ugaitz, Linda and I did a walking field trip around Bishkek, and found Sergei sewing sandals in his cluttered shack on a tree-lined street. With a little bit of Russian and lots of pointing and smiling sign language, we explained more or less the task at hand.
Sergei went to work on restitching the harness hooks, and the three of us tested their strength yanking the straps to see if they would hold, pulling the cart up and down the street in circles and suggesting a few other tweaks.
About an hour later, the backpack took on her new role in my life. She was the connecting link between me and Saha. She deserved an important name, hence Ishi, a diminutive for the Hindu goddess Durga, one of my favorite goddesses.
In pictures, Durga rides a tiger and wields all sorts of weapons to clear barriers, destroy evil and create an auspicious environment. I’m counting on Ishi to help do that in my walking space.
Bal, the warehouse
I have another new piece of equipment for this leg – a 70-liter ruby red Deva pack from Gregory Packs.
Back in March when I my most precious and all-time-favorite 35-liter Gregory pack (whose name is Seren, the Welsh word for star) started to rip apart and cause me nerve pain in my left shoulder and arm, I contacted Gregory and asked if they could help me out. They offered me a 40 percent discount on a new bag.
The problem, however, was they could not ship it to me in Thailand; Thai customs would declare the bag competitive to products made there and would charge exorbitant import duties. And, it was not clear if the bag would arrive during the two-week break we had to renew our visas. So, to avoid those complications, I bought the best backpack I could find in Bangkok, a 55-liter Deuter bag I named Pakpao, Thai for flying a kite (it’s also the female kite used in Chula and Pakpao kite-flying competitions).
Pakpao is a good bag and I will find other uses for her. But, she lacks many of the features I’ve come to love about my Gregory pack, the most useful of which was a full u-zip giving me complete access to the inside of my pack. The Deuter pack had a small u-zip at the bottom of the bag for my sleeping bag, but everything else is top-loaded, meaning I had to keep taking things out and repacking them as day would go on and I need things at different hours.
Since I knew I was going back to the U.S. during an unexpected summer break and was now having a walking trolley delivered, I decided to ping Gregory again and see if the deal was still on the table. It was.
I used money my dad gave me to help offset the cost. And, that’s part of why I named this pack Bal. Bal, which has a connection to my last name, is a Bengali’s boy name meaning heart, mind, soul, arm, wing, power and honey— a strange combination of words that add up to mean travel to me, and by default the bag I take with me.
I never owned a backpack this big, but it is probably the right size for the kind of multi-year-journey we are doing through different environments. I knew eventually I would have had to send Seren, the pack I left with in January, home. I wanted to start with her but knew she wasn’t big enough to carry the different warm layers I would need somehwere along the way.
Also, Bal replaces the duffle bag that came with the walking trolley. While the duffle bag is a good fit, it’s not easy to carry as a pack. In my worse-case planning mode, I had to think through what I would do if my trolley, Saha, breaks beyond repair. The answer is I need to pick up my stuff and carry it. Carrying a backpack is easier than carrying a duffle bag.
The truth is I have no idea how this will all come together. Unlike Lluís who has had very few gear changes since we started in January, I can’t yet find the perfect mix of equipment, clothes, necessities and those one or two extra luxury items worth carrying. I often feel each change makes me less efficient, the opposite of what I’m going for.
All I know is that this is the experiment for now. I can’t say with absolute enthusiasm that I love it. Honestly, it has been pretty tough getting through Bangladesh’s mega, overcrowded cities with a trolley, and it will be pretty much the same challenge in many parts of India, where we are heading later this week.
Still, I press on, adjusting as I go. I keep thinking about what can be done differently and what needs to be improved. I try to learn from the past so I can take better steps in the future. Often, I have no idea what is the right way to do anything, but I leap in and do my best.
This, too, has a name. It’s called life.
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