I went to India over a decade ago, and I still think of it as one of the most unique life experiences I’ll ever have. For starters, the CDC recommended I take a preventative malaria treatment before even flying there, so I knew right off the bat it was going to be quite different from any other trip I’d been on.
India is an incredibly diverse country filled with so many different colors, sounds, smells, and textures, which are usually always turned up to 11. As soon as I landed and left the airport zone (I flew into Mumbai), I was thrown into a crazy whirlwind of people and movement that makes Manhattan during rush hour seem like a mid-day stroll.
That’s why when Jan Schiefermair wrote us from Austria to share this video of him and his crew blindly traveling through India, I knew their naivety was going to be accompanied by some ridiculous anecdotes.
As I expected, the crew (which included Pass~Port rider Calum Paul) broke every tourist “rule” you’ll ever hear about India and somehow even managed to get some skating in. I don’t think anyone would consider India a “skate destination,” but these guys had a quintessential skate trip experience filled with the right mix of exploration, experimentation, and a bit of danger.
What was the main motivator for you wanting to go to India?
The “goal” was to just experience India with some good friends and to take a different route than the usual inexperienced tourist in India. We didn’t plan to produce skateboarding footage for any specific project, we just brought along a little camera.
The times we actually skated were pretty rare, mainly because of the lack of spots in general. We also spent a lot of time on trains, figuring out stuff, and looking at things. In the beginning, we were totally overwhelmed by the heavy traffic and super crowded busy streets. Everything felt totally chaotic. As soon as we started to just get in there, skitching the Tuk-Tuks and motorcycles to wherever they would take us, I felt like we became a part of our surroundings and we started finding an underlying order in all this chaos.
I was kinda surprised when I finally looked through the clips we filmed. I couldn’t even remember we actually skated that “much” [laughs]. But most of the footage we brought back home is just random Indian streetlife filmed by my friend Schörgi. Years went by and now I finally went over the footage and edited a little video.
“The times we actually skated were pretty rare,
mainly because of the lack of spots in general.”
You mentioned that you took sips from the Ganges River, which is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. Did you get sick at all?
Yes [laughs]. Probably one of the most unnecessary and stupidest things I’ve done so far. We did a little sunrise boat trip in the area of the corpse-burning places in Varanasi, and we were still a bit tipsy from the night before. I decided to give it a go and take a sip from the Ganges. We’d been joking about that and it just had to happen. As my friends saw me do it, they just went for it as well, so we all had some of the holy water! Moments later a dead cow floated by. It was bloated to double its regular size. Unreal scenario.
There are a lot of cows roaming around in some cities. What was that like for you guys?
Cows are everywhere in the cities. Surreal for our western eyes, but we never had any cows that didn’t let us pass or something. It was fun to see that the cows can go wherever they want. They’re holy in India and no one is allowed to touch them. You see cows in strange places, like in a train station or in the middle of an intersection in heavy traffic. They can be anywhere, basically.
“You see cows in strange places, like in a train station or in the middle of an intersection in heavy traffic.”
What was the best thing you guys ate? Did you mess with the street food or keep it strictly restaurants?
We had street food pretty often, it was the best! I know, every travel guide will tell you that’s a no-no, but to be honest, the only time something tasted and looked really sketchy was the one time we had lunch at this kind of fancy restaurant that no one else was in.
It’s better to stick to the local stuff. Just go where all the locals go, they know what’s up! I mean it makes total sense: street food is usually fresh because they’re doing business all the time. If you go to a restaurant you probably have a good chance to get some meat that’s been laying around for days. I didn’t have much meat in general. I stuck to the veggie stuff most of the time.
Maybe we were just lucky, but none of us got sick or had stronger diarrhea than usual. As far as I know.
Were there any issues with the language barrier?
You can get by with English and gesturing pretty well. I can’t remember an unmanageable language barrier except once, but more on that a bit later on…
You mentioned you guys got around on trains. Were you guys train-hopping like nomads?
I kinda wish we would have gone for the hobo train hopping style but no, most of the time all of us had train tickets. The train rides in India are an adventure in itself.
We had some long rides. There was a 26-hour trip. There’s a lot going on in these trains, lots of people, of course, everything is super narrow and trash cans are almost non-existent in India. At every bigger train station, people would jump into the wagons and sell stuff, like chai and food. You could also buy a fresh pair of socks, listen to some weird musicians, or watch a quick Hijras show.
We met our friends from Australia up in New Delhi in the north of India. Then we took trains down to Mumbai, which is southwest. We didn’t have any plans or ideas about the stops in between. None of us had any experience with India, so it was pretty much a trip into the blue. The only idea was to try to avoid the classic tourist hot spots.
We went to this proper-looking train ticket office, and this guy basically planned a whole two-and-a-half-week trip for us, but only the train tickets, obviously. We were just rolling with it. This brought us to the Kama Sutra Temples in Khajuraho. They are around 900 years old and covered in stone-carved ornaments depicting sex scenes. A really beautiful place. All in all, we went around 3,000 km by train.
Did you ever come across any other skaters? Any signs of a local scene or shops?
Not at all. We didn’t even see a waxed curb. We didn’t see a single local or shop.
What were the local people’s reactions to seeing you guys skating and filming?
They were stoked. I can’t remember anyone getting angry. Maybe a bit curious sometimes. The first time we hopped on the boards was in Delhi to skate some flat rails, and in no time, we had about 80 people watching us. Some kids started doing circus moves next to us and people were having a good time. They seemed to enjoy the slams even more than the makes. The few times we actually found something to skate, the people around us would stop what they were doing, gather around us and the show was on!
One day, we somehow ended up in the slums of Varanasi, an absolute no-go area as we were told later. We skated some little stuff there and soon people were cheering. We became friends with some local kids and played a short game of cricket with them, much to the delight of our Australian mates. Afterward, they happily escorted us through their living area.
Sometimes I had the feeling that we didn’t only consume the local culture, but also brought a culture of our own. It seemed like most of these people, if not all, had just seen a skateboard for the very first time in their lives, and they loved watching! Even some Indian Sadhus were hyped. One of them came up to us after watching us shred for a while and got all philosophical. He saw similarities between skateboarding and yoga. Practicing balance on your skateboard was a metaphor for finding balance in life, according to him.
The only people who seemed kinda confused about us were some other tourists. That’s where the video title comes from, “Why did you bring your skateboard?” an American woman in a hippie dress asked perplexed. Legit question, I thought, standing next to the Ganges in between some open corpse-burning places. I didn’t have an answer for her.
What about alcohol, what is the typical Indian cocktail or go-to beer?
It’s weird with the alcohol in India. It feels kinda illegal, but you can find a half-hidden booze store in every city, or you just ask at a hotel. You can get some Kingfisher beers literally everywhere if you want to, but alcohol is super expensive compared to most other things, like food or public transport.
Some people consume alcohol, but the guys frequenting the booze stores seemed pretty fucked up to me. You won’t see any Indian students enjoying a cold refreshing lager at sundown with a view, but maybe they do, and they keep it hidden.
I noticed they smoke a lot of ciggies and they chew Gutkha, some sort of chewing tobacco. It’s super cheap and tastes like washing powder. You can find orange-reddish stains in literally every corner of some cities. It took me a few days to recognize these spills are spittle from guys getting rid of used Gutkha. In other corners, they’ll hang pictures of Indian gods. You won’t find orange spittle there.
There was a night we wanted to get a bit more fucked up than usual, so we tried to get some fun stuff. Eventually, we bought some shit, and let me just quote my friend Patrick here, “I don’t know what it is, maybe some rat poison, but it’s definitely fucking with my brain”.
Were there any issues with language barriers ever?
Let me be frank, we made a mistake. It was our last night in Mumbai and we had a few hours left until our flight. We got some booze and ran into some Indian breakdancers. We drank with them and did a bit of “breakdancing”, all well and good. After that, we headed in the direction of the airport and lost the B-boys on the way. We still had some time left and saw a construction site, a half-built house in a dead-end street basically. It’s always nice to drink with a view, so we thought we’d go up there.
We did our thing and had a good time. Eventually, we wanted to make our way to the airport. When we went down the stairs to the ground floor a bunch of people jumped out of the shadows, armed with bamboo sticks. They were pissed off. They immediately started hitting us without a warning. After we took a good beating, they made us sit down in the corner and started slapping us in the face, humiliating us.
We were outnumbered big time, and fighting back was not an option. At this point, we still had no clue why they were so upset. We offered them money, which they declined. Finally, someone explained in English what was going on. Apparently, we were chilling on the roof of an unfinished mosque and they felt deeply offended by us drinking and pissing down the roof.
The English-speaking guy told us that he called the police and if we were lucky, they’ll arrive before something really bad happens. That’s all he can do for us. Needless to say, we were scared shitless. Luckily, they arrived shortly after that in a Mad Max-looking bus. We were taken to the police station and thought we were gonna spend the night in jail. But they just took down our data and called us some Tuk-Tuks. Apparently, they were Hindi and didn’t mind our little cultural clash too much. In the end, we boarded our flights, a bit shocked, but happy to be alive.
What was your biggest takeaway from the trip overall?
Watch out where you pee!
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