Archive for August, 2009

My 27th Birthday.

Sunday, August 30th, 2009

It was a hot one o’clock on the afternoon of my 27th birthday, and I was busy looking for a  welder. I had stopped at two or three villages along the road, pulling over and asking “There is welding?” to friendly locals. Thankfully, ‘welding’ is one of those words that Hindi has adopted from English – like cricket, sandwich, and handkerchief. The villagers all shook their heads – “No welding. You go Keylong.”

Damn it. We had left Keylong more than an hour ago, and were 30km or so down the road toward Sarchu, our next stop. My luggage rack had semi-disintegrated – clearly a lethal cocktail of speed, heavy bags and roads rougher than dry riverbeds had poisoned its structural integrity. So Matt and Ross were waiting at a dhaba with all my shit while I backtracked looking for a welder.

The plan had originally been to leave around eight o’clock that morning. It was the day after my night of drinking with Yogesh the mechanic. We weren’t planning on an epic day – Sarchu is four or five hours from Keylong – but when you leave early you allow extra time for breakdowns, chai stops, and unforseen obstacles. However, as you may have guessed from the first sentence in this paragraph, we didn’t leave at eight.

Matt hadn’t filled up on petrol. The station was 10km back outside of town, so Ross and I topped our tanks and plastic jerry cans on the way in. There wouldn’t be another gas station for over 300km, not until the outskirts of our final destination at Leh. So while Ross and I waited, Matt had to backtrack to the station. Ten kilometers may not sound imposing, but the road was terrible. It took him an hour just to go, fill, and return. Then he had to fix his leaking can, eat breakfast, smoke a fag, drink a chai, rearrange his bike, etc. We left after eleven.

So down the road an hour or more and I hear frantic honking behind me. We all pull over and investigate the damage. In the condition the rack was in, there was really no carrying baggage. Three welded connections on one side had all snapped, so the rack was limply hanging against the rear fender.

The rack rattled and bounced as I flew back along the road. I managed to find a staging camp for the road work crews but their welder was off for the day. Eventually I was forced all the way back to Keylong. There I found a welder and explained to him what I needed done. He set to work.

In the meantime, I tried to hitch a ride to the highway hotels so I could call Matt and let them know I’d be another hour at least. I managed to steathily haul myself up into a flatbed that had a dozen locals riding in the back. They were all off to work the roads and looked at me like I was crazy. We rattled down the highway. I saw the hotels approaching and realized that unsolicited hitchhiking meant you couldn’t ask the driver to stop. Luckily some army trucks were idling in the middle of the road so the flatbed had to slow down enough for me to leap to the ground.

The mission, however, was fruitless. Matt’s phone had no service and so I couldn’t get through to them. I bought a couple bananas from a roadside fruit stall and as I waited for my change I heard a jeep start up and start rolling toward me. I flagged the jeep down with one hand while collecting my change with the other. In India you flag rides the same way you call a waiter: palm down waving, as if you were fanning the top of a short person’s head. The lone passenger was some sort of dignitary – when the driver saw me waving he shook his head and gestured as if to say I can’t give you a ride, I’ve got THIS GUY to drive around. But luckily Mr. Important saw I was a foreigner and instructed his driver to pull over. Dropping me off back at the welder’s, they refused my offer of money.

The welding completed, I hopped back on just as another foreigner on an Enfield pulled up. From North California, Bergen was also on his way to Leh. His luggage rack had also snapped, but I told him I couldn’t wait around because I had to go find my friends and get moving. He laughed. “I’ll catch up to you,” he said.

An hour later I was strapping my baggage back on the rack and the three of us were moving. It was late now, after 3, and we weren’t sure we’d make Sarchu before nightfall. Indian roads are dangerous by daylight. At night, it gets far worse. Trucks use their high beam lights and blind you as they pass by, so that imperfections in the road are invisible for the first few seconds afterward. It’s scary.

Bergen caught us as we began to climb the Barachala La, the third highest road in the world. Then there were four. We struggled over the pass and down the othe rside, reaching the improbably named Bharatpur City at sunset. A half dozen yurt-esque tents lined the roadside, offering beds and hot food and cold beer. We picked one fairly randomly and were promptly introduced to a Nepalese family. A charcoal fire in a old petrol can was brought in for heat. Cold beer and Old Monk rum flowed freely. Hot soup, dhal, rice. Bergen brought out his banjo and played us a few tunes.

It was a unique birthday. A Scot, a Brit and an American. A Nepalese family. A tent at 16,000 feet. I slept under seven or ten yak wool blankets. We woke up and were brought chai in bed. The altitude was killer, a difficult sleep for all of us. The Nepalese mother brought us crushed garlic to rub on our temples to help with the headaches. We also took some Tylenol. After a breakfast of aloo parantha (Indian bread stuffed with spiced potato) and onion omelets, we set off again.

It was this next day of riding that would finally bring about the end of my biking the Manali-Leh road.

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Drinking with Mechanics in Keylong

Saturday, August 29th, 2009

It was around 10 pm when the mechanic started drinking. With a sheepish, sideways glance as if asking my permission, he cracked a bottle of Kingfisher Strong. He still hadn’t figured out why my bike wouldn’t idle, and was clearly getting frustrated. Watching the booze flow didn’t exactly fill me with confidence.

We spent a day in Keylong getting our shit together and resting after the mentally exhausting climb over the Rohtang Pass. A mechanic fixed my broken throttle cable where I’d left her along the main bazaar, but then we drove her over to the shop for more work. This was before eleven. I met a wrench named Papu, who was calm and confident and started taking apart the engine to see why she was lacking power. He seemed to diagnose the problem and assured me the work could be finished by day’s end, so I went to get a quick bite for breakfast.

When I returned, Papu was gone. A younger wrench who I hadn’t seen before was busily fastening on my carb – upside down. Ross and I looked at each other wondering if we were crazy. We weren’t. He really was putting the thing on the wrong way. There were a number of other locals milling about, and luckily one of them spoke fluent English. I’ve quickly gotten the impression that bike shops are public hangouts here. Friends and relatives come and hang out for a few hours, even though they aren’t mechanics and don’t have their own bikes.  Through the translator, the young wrench told me that Papu had left for the day, off to another town.

What?

So the head mechanic, Yogesh, was called. This was to be his day off, but now his main guy had fucked off and he had to show up to calm some jackass foreigner who for some reason desired a properly positioned carb. Now he had a half finished bike that wouldn’t idle and had to run through the entire diagnostics procedure all over again. Piece by piece he took the bike apart, blowing into valves and tightening nuts. By nightfall, she would still cut out as soon as the throttle was released.

The social scene evolved through the hours. Yogesh’s brother in law showed up with Yogesh’s three year old. The tiny guy’s mother had disappeared at some point so poor Yogesh had to double his shop as a daycare. I played with the kid and watched the work being done. Soon the beer was being cracked. Kingfisher Strong is infamous in the backpacker community. The label lists the range of alcohol content – EXCEEDING 5.25% BUT NOT EXCEEDING 8.25%. Hilarious. Soon another shop rat had arrived with a plastic Coke bottle full of homemade rice whiskey. I asked them what percent the whiskey was – they laughed. Between 20 and 30 percent I was told, with non-committal head wobbles all ’round.

Great. It’s now eleven pm and my bike has been in this shop for half a day and now we’re drinking two different types of booze with unknown alcohol content and my bike still won’t idle. Eventually the coil was replaced, and it seemed to have a positive effect. While things were far from perfect, I could tell they weren’t getting there in the state we were all quickly entering. At one point Yogesh was using his teeth to tear copper wire off an old turn signal light. He was feeding the wire through a hole in the carb and tying it off around a screw.

“This. This more power you bike.”

“Great,” I said.

I got the hell out of there. He asked for 700 roops and I gave him a thousand, telling him it was for his boy. He thanked me and I rode off back to the hotel exhausted. The next morning we wanted an early departure for Sarchu, a glorified tent camp perched on the side of a mountain. Again, though, we would end up waiting for Matt all morning. But Ross and Matt would end up waiting for me all afternoon.

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Crossing the Plain of Corpses.

Friday, August 28th, 2009

We began with four.

We were Ross from Glasgow, Steve from Montreal, Matty from Cornwall (the English one) and myself. Ross had been waiting for Matt to get his bike ready for over two weeks, while Steve and I had only recently gotten our shit together for the Trip. Ahh, the Trip. From Manali, in the foothills, over some of the most ruggedly beautiful landscape in the world. The end point was Leh, high in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. It is often accomplished in three long, grueling days. We weren’t counting on it.

The Trip began with probably the hardest pass we would cross. While far from the highest road, we had to climb over 2000m in less than 40 km, and the pass was infamous for being broken, muddy and choked with buses and trucks. It is known as the Rohtang La, which translates to Plain of Bodies Pass. Or is it Stacks of Corpses Pass? No matter. Before the road was built it was punishing. Now, even with the road, there are a few deaths every year, thanks mostly to careless driving and awful conditions. It was intimidating, but we kept our minds focused on the idea that we’d be getting through the worst of it on the first day.

So we set off. We intended on leaving nice and early, around seven, but Matt was completely disorganized and so took a while loading his bike. We left after eight. Nine kilometers into our trip, Matt turned back. We had barely climbed a few hundred meters and his bike was already struggling. We rightly assumed it would only get worse – the pitch, the mud, the lack of oxygen starving your lungs and carburator. So Matt turned around.

Then there were three.

We pressed on.  Ross and Steve had spent months and months on their bikes, but I was a total newbie after only two weeks on my ride. And, as per usual, my ride struggled. She was overheating and losing power. We made some simple adjustments, but still I was not doing very well. At one point, stuck in the mud below a steep hairpin clogged with jeeps, I was ready to turn back. I felt defeated, and only Steve’s enthusiasm saved me.

Steve, a middle aged Anglo-Montrealer, had just rented a farmhouse back in the foothills further south. He had a well tuned bike and minimal baggage. He laughed at Ross and I with our tarpaulin wrapped packs loaded on our luggage racks. Still, he was a positive guy. I was sitting there, swearing loudly to myself, my head slowly cooking inside my helmet, up to my ankles in soft mud, ready to call it quits. I had just taken three or four runs at the corner, but the narrow lane next to the jeeps had the deepest mud and the steepest pitch. The jeeps were stuck behind a line of trucks and buses, all of us waiting for a rockslide to be cleared.

“OK man, let me give you a push. One more try dude.”

“Fuck man, she’s not going to make it.”

“One more try, man. What’s one more try?”

So we tried once more. Steve and Ross grabbed a side of my luggage rack each and ran behind me as I revved her up in first gear. My rear tired fish-tailed through the mud but I got up and around the corner. I didn’t stop. For the next two or three switchbacks I just hammered it in first gear and honked furiously at the tourists and locals and army guys who were standing bored next to their idling trucks. I wasn’t about to stop, not now that I was moving.

So we made it. Slowly, painfully. We crossed the top somewhat anticlimactically. It wasn’t until we were riding downhill for the first time in two hours did we realize we had already crossed the infamous notch in the mountain. We stopped and celebrated with handshakes and awkward hugs. Some chai from the small tents serving as dhabas to truck drivers and tourists. A couple of local tourists from Delhi riding their bike to Leh sat and had tea with us. We all got terribly sunburned in the thin atmosphere. Our lungs strained for air and we were soon giddy and dizzy from oxygen deprivation.  We had to wait almost thirty minutes for a bulldozer to clear a pile of rock. Finally we were headed downhill and made it to the town of Koksar, at the bottom of the pass. Here, we ran into trouble again.

Steve’s bike wouldn’t start. It was the best of our bunch, newly rebuilt and running clean. But something was cooked in the electrics and she just wouldn’t turn over. A group of soldiers came out of the adjacent army base to check us out. The army presence is massive up here in the mountains, as the region is wedged between the Pakistani and Tibetan frontiers. India has border disputes with both countries (China, not Tibet – sorry). The soldiers called back inside the base and a couple of their mechanics came out. For two hours they tinkered. We waited. Eventually Ross and I went on, at Steve’s insistence.

Then there were two.

We flew along the valley toward Keylong, our stop for the night. Brand new tarmac for fifteen kilometers allowed us to kick it into fourth gear and really fly. The scenery was incredible and for the first time that day we were truly enjoying the drive.

We pulled into Keylong as the sun was setting. My throttle cable snapped just in town so Ross found a cheap hotel and moved our stuff into it. After showers and a smoke we wandered along the market to find a restaurant. Coming around the corner was the unmistakable ‘BOP BOP BOP’ of an Enfield.

“Is that Steve?” I said, hopefully. The bike came around the corner and we saw the blue tarps and the smiling face of Matt. Fucking Matt. He had made it. Somehow. It took me a minute to believe it, but there he was. He had seen Steve, who was back in Koksar arranging for a truck to take his ride to Keylong and a mechanic. We took him up to our hotel and, after dinner, slept like rocks.

Then there were, improbably, three.

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Where to begin…?

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Sorry for disappearing there, but I’m alive. A few days ago I arrived in Leh, the capital of the Himalayan region of Ladakh. The trip here from Manali should have taken 3 days, but instead took twice as long. The thought of summarizing it all to you scares me shitless, so I’ll just cop out.

Here are a few words that might describe the mission. The first is epic. These might also work: ridiculous, agonizing, sensational, and awesome (in the old-timey, ‘it involved some feelings of awe’ sort of way, rather than the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sort of way). I hope those help.

I’ll also divulge some important things I’ll learned about India

  1. The Hindi word for ‘welding’ is, thankfully, ‘welding.’
  2. There is always time for chai.
  3. While bargaining with Indian truck drivers because you want them to drive your busted-ass motorcycle 175 km over the second highest pass in the world to a town with a mechanic try offering to buy them lunch because it brings the price down.
  4. Indian roads are terrible.
  5. It’s amazing what altitudes over 15,000 feet do to the human body. It’s frustrating what they do to your motorcycle as it also needs oxygen to survive.
  6. It’s probably not a good thing when, after 8 hours of working on your motorbike, the mechanic starts drinking.
  7. Finally: Spending your 27th birthday at almost 16,000 feet in a parachute tent with yak wool blankets and cold beer and freshly made dhal and three cool friends and a Nepalese family is a special, special experience.

Love you all, thanks for the birthday wishes. More tomorrow, I hope.

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On backpacking.

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

So I’m still stuck here in the foothills, having been delayed once again. We leave for the real mountains tomorrow morning, but for now I’m still in the town of Vashisht (for a fun game, substitute an H for the V.) This is due to the dynamics that occur between backpackers, and so I figured now was a good time to discuss the traveller scene.

You’d think it would be a weird, awkward experience. Not only are you in a country as foreign and intense as India, but you are there alone. As a result, you’re forced to meet people who are also foreigners. If you had never travelled independantly, you’d anticipate being beset by weirdos and crazies. At least you’d meet a bunch of douchy meatheads or something, right?

With the occasional exception… no. The vast, vast majority of travelers, especially in a country like India, are pretty cool. At the worst they’re boring but harmless. At best, you meet some of the most interesting, engaging and stimulating people anywhere. I’ve never travelled in Europe, but the impression I get is that the scene is somewhat mixed. The same could be said about Thailand, where there’s a strong chance of running into a sex tourist or some drunk at 11am Brits.

Here, though, things are ccol. I spent the other night in a house on a farm. We drank Kingfisher and smoked charas, the weak, resiny hash locally made by rubbing marijuana leaves together. The stuff grows wild and free all over the mountains here, and the apple orchards not exclusive to apple trees. I was with the standard mixed crew: an American, three Brits, a Swede, two Israelis, and a Scot. We talked philosophy and spirtuality, we discussed Jurassic Park (the movie, not the book) and the various hunting tactics of spiders. There were some massive jobs creeping across the walls devastating any bug lazy enough to rest for a few seconds. It was a good show. The hosts cooked an amazing three course meal and wouldn’t accept any compensation.

It was a special evening, but not all that rare. Travellers of this sort tend to be generous and trusting. You’d have to be a pretty abrasive or intolerant or perverted person to alienate a group of hippied out backpackers. A girl we’ve met had 7000 Roops (the newfound slang for rupees) stolen out of her bag while she was bathing at hot springs. My Scottish friend, Ross, handed them the same amount, the equivalent of $150, telling them to pay him back when they can find an atm. They did, in kind, a few days later.

So I’m stuck here, mostly due to one guy. We’re on the wrong side of the high mountain passes, getting rained on every day by clouds too heavy to cross the peaks. Once on the other side, we’ll be in a strange sort of high altitude desert. But Matty, from Cornwall, is having bike problems. Every day for the last week he’s been unable to leave. So we’ve waited. He appreciates it, for sure, no one wants to make this three day mission alone.

We leave tomorrow, for “sure” this time. But for now, I’m off for dinner. Oh, and my head wobble is  coming along nicely.

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Name my bike.

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Let’s get high.

So the bike appears to be finally ready to make the grand mission. In a couple days, I’ll be taking her into the proper Himalaya – the roof of the world. Only 50 km up the road is the first real test – a 3980 meter (13,057 foot) pass, about 2000 meters higher than the town I’m currently living in. Beyond that, I’ll be crossing passes at 4500, 5000, and 5300 m (17,390 ft) in the three days it will take to get to Leh, where I’ll spend a week or so. Just beyond Leh is the highest road in the world, Khardung La, at 5600 m (over 18,000 feet).

(There appears to be some dispute over this, naturally. The Chinese claim that GPS readings show the pass at less than 5400m, meaning some roads in Tibet are higher. Well I’m not in Tibet on a motorbike, so China can eat my exhaust).

To put that in perspective, Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Europe, is 4800m. That’s a peak. These are roads. Fun.

At any rate, it’s high time my bike got named. I’ve basically been tossing around feminine names, as I’ve done with my bicycle at home (Ladyboy) and my scooter in Taiwan (Doris). I’ve joked with people here about naming her Britney. It makes sense: she looks and sounds fantastic, but man is she fucked up inside.

At any rate, I’ve already had a few suggestions in the comments of my last post, but please feel free to add your own. I’m going to let this come semi-organically, but if a cracker of a name arises, it’ll probably stick. Thanks in advance.

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Into the hills

Friday, August 14th, 2009

Bit of a roller coaster few days. Been making good time in our Canadian/German/Irish convoy, and we’re now well into the foothills of the Himalaya. The scenery is impressive, to say the least, and the temperature is a welcome relief from the plains. The villages and towns up here are much more peaceful than the larger cities down south, and some Tibetan influence is starting to show up in the faces, dress, and culture of the locals. I’m beginning to realize why so many people come to India and never leave the north.

But my bike is in trouble. Serious trouble. I had one mechanic tell me I might have to sink another $500 into it, then sell it and buy a different one, because the bike would have chronic problems. As you can imagine, I’ve sought a second opinion. I went to a shop that came highly recommended by every bike owner I’ve met in this area, and he told me that a few hundred dollars should do it, and the bike will be good to go. I’ve been stressing for a day or so, but  feel better now.

I suppose now is a good time to introduce you to the world of the Royal Enfield. This is a motorbike originally designed and built in Britain. It was brought to India during the 1940’s, I believe as part of the British arming of the Indian Army (which was, still to this day, the largest volunteer army ever assembled). The bikes are old school – manual, heavy as shit, and loud like a Harley four times the size. They are still built to the old British specifications, but now in Chennai. Mine is 350cc, which is rather small for motorbikes, but the bikes have a certain romantic authenticity. Especially when you’re riding them around India.

Despite all the upside, however, the Enfield has one big downside: they break. All the time. They are as famous for being unreliable as they are for being fun to drive. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a problem with mine on the very first day I drove it. And things have only gotten worse. I burned through a set of clutch plates on my second day, only to have issues with my clutch being over-tight – causing more problems with the new plates. Now that I’ve handed it off to a mechanic of some repute, I’m just praying things work out. I clearly got ripped off quite cleverly by my salesman in Delhi, but there’s little I can do about that now so I’ve shrugged it off and I’m not worrying about it. I’m going to get her fixed up and away we’ll go. Maybe I’ll name her soon. Any suggestions?

At any rate, I’ve uploaded a new gallery of photos here. I spent a day in a mountain town called Mandi with incredible views and a market surrounding a quiet garden. I wandered the market and garden, happening across a frenzy of action – free rice pudding! One turbaned old Sikh was furiously folding leaves into bowls, as two other men ladled the delicious desert and handed it out in a hurry. Apparently this happens once a week, though most locals were somewhat mysterious as to why a group of men pass out a few hundred gallons (they kept refilling the pot, over and over) of rice pudding to the townspeople. I found out later, from someone who had seen the same phenomenon in a different town, that it was to honour Shiva. Of course! Rice pudding for Shiva. Makes complete sense.

Either way, it was a tasty offering. The roasted cashews were a nice touch. Enjoy the photos!

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On the (side of the) road.

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Picture yourself stranded on the side of an Indian highway with a broken throttle cable. It’s your first full day on the bike you’d bought the day before for 40,000 rupees, about $900. It’s well over 40 degrees with the humidity, and the sun is hotter than Demi Moore’s kiln in Ghost (there was a kiln, right?). The worst part: the cable didn’t snap while rolling down the highway. No no. You pulled over because two locals on a motorbike were yelling something unintelligible at you while pointing at the back of your bike. So, diligent as you are, you pulled over to check the scene. Bungied to the luggage rack of the bike is your backpack, and one of its straps was loose and blowing in the wind. Egad.

My bike.

I left Delhi early this morning to get a head start on the worst of the city’s traffic. I mean early. I was in the shower at 4:30, downstairs eating a ‘Cinaman Roll’ and drinking ‘Nescafe Milk’ at 5:00, and fiddling with bungie cords by 5:30. At 6:30, I was still in Delhi. I had been on the bike for nearly an hour, but hadn’t left the city. It’s not that the city is massively sprawling or anything; I was lost. Horribly lost. After a while I managed to find the road I wanted, but was heading south instead of north. The aforementioned sun gave it away, however, so I turned around and was on my way. (I did need some help from a nice man and his wife, just to give credit where it’s due).

I stopped in a dhaba, a cheap eatery, along the way. They dot the highway-side like truck stops, only they aren’t usually accompanied by petrol stations. I had some channa masala and four naan. I wanted two but when the serving boy asked if I wanted more I thought he was asking if it was good so I answered with a thumbs up and got two more. I ate them anyway. With my fingers. Yum.

I rolled on up National Highway 1, the road from Delhi to Amritsar, the Punjabi city across the border from Lahore, Pakistan. (Punjabis are mostly Sikh and make up the majority of Indian expats in cities like Toronto. They’re the ones with turbans and beards who cook things like butter chicken). Along the way I dodged cows pulling flat-beds full of sticks or leaves or sacks of goods unknown. Huge trucks had “GOOD LUCK HONK HORN PLEASE” written across the back. I obliged, as per the rules of Indian roads. I think I’ve already got them down. There are only two, and they are as follows:

Indian Road Rule Number 1: Bigger vehicles ALWAYS have the right of way, even if you are going 80km/h down a highway and he is making a u-turn to hit up the fruit stall on your side of the road. Too bad, motorcycle, you have brakes, right? Use ‘em.

Indian Road Rule Number 2: Use your horn all the time. Like, several hundred times an hour, several thousand if you’re in the city. It is not an expression of anger or impatience, although it can be when the foreigner in front of you has stalled his motorbike right as the light turns green. Usually, though, it simply means: “I’m coming. I’m coming. Hello, here I am.” Mirrors, you see, are optional. I think Indian drivers use their mirrors the way Westerners collect stamps. It’s a quaint old hobby that is rather boring but no one really minds if people decide to get into it. It’s essentially harmless, and only about ten percent of people participate.

A few hours into my trip, at a little town of several hundred thousand called Ambala, I pulled off NH1 and onto NH22. Quite a step down, I realize, but we still had two lanes in each direction (though the shoulder is most often used to go against traffic, even by trucks) and a raised, grassy median in between – to limit u-turns. A few km in, I stopped a petrol station and filled up for 440 rupees. Not five minutes later, the friendly locals are gesticulating at my bike and yelling something. Between the wind and the roar of my bike (and she roars, let me tell you), I couldn’t even tell if they were speaking English. But I thought why risk it so without looking for a proper parking lot, I just pulled over on the shoulder.

So now I’m stuck. The cable end that attaches to the throttle has clearly snapped off. I have a spare in my bag but no tools to remove the throttle and replace it. Also, even with tools, I would have no clue what to do. After a few minutes of stressing, I actually use my brain and decide I will – wait for it – look around. Up ahead, less than 200 meters up the road, I see a dhaba. Not a bike shop, but at least something. I grab the clutch and run my bike up the highway and into the dirt parking lot.

The dhaba.

Almost immediately, a few young men and boys come out to take a look at me. I get the impression they don’t have too many foreigners stopping by. They all head wobble and discuss my situation in Punjabi. One guy looks at me with a concerned expression: “No mechanic here.” Thanks. No matter. Within seconds, two of them are on cell phones while the other directs me toward that oasis of the Indian world, an air conditioned room. I sit, watch some Punjabi hip hop videos and drink chai while my new friends track down a mechanic who can scoot out to the dhaba to take a look. One guy strikes up a conversation, despite his very basic English. Soon we’re discussing American cultural dominance. It goes like this:

Friend: You like thees music?

Me: Yes, like American music.

Friend: Yes? Like Amereeca?

Me: Yeah, look at them – same clothes, same music (I was pretty sure he wouldn’t understand ‘beats’ so I did a little dance in my chair to indicate what I meant), only not in English.

Friend: Yes, thees Punjabi.

Me: Yes.

Friend: Punjabi culture feeneesh. Ha ha ha.

The mechanic rolls up clutching a spare cable, and I bolt outside to watch him work. He quickly pops the throttle off, replaces the cable, and snaps everything back into place. He expertly starts the bike and revs her beautifully. She’s never sounded so good. Handshakes and thank yous all around. I give him 150 rupees, or $3.50, and I’m back in the saddle. I embarrass myself by stalling it three times before making out to the highway, but eventually I’m off and running again.

Back on the road, I see more gold in English form. I pass several oil tankers with ‘FLAMMABLE MOTOR SPIRIT’ painted colourfully across the back. My favourite, however, might have to be the government PSA signs that remind me, in both English and Hindi, that ‘LIFE IS PRECIOUS.’

Don’t I know it.

The kitchen staff

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Steam Dreams…

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

I’ve slept terribly here. At first I chalked it up to jet lag, which I’m sure has been part of the problem. But there is definitely something more going on, now a few days after getting here. When I sleep, it’s only for two hours at a time. Every time. I can stack together several of these two hour blocks if I’m lucky, but I’ll wake up – wide awake – every two hours, no matter how long I’m down. What’s more, I’ve been dreaming vividly, and remembering it, both rarities for me. All of the dreams have been set in Toronto, as if my mind has refused to believe we’ve left.

Steam dreams, I’ve started calling them.

It’s so hot here, there is no cold side of the pillow. If I lie in bed reading or watching TV, I have to roll over every twenty or so minutes to allow the sweat on my back to dry. After twenty minutes on my side or stomach, I have to roll again to dry that side. Rinse, repeat. Needless to say I’m excited to get out of Delhi and into the cool mountains, but I’m still waiting on my motorbike.

The dreams, as I mentioned, are all in Toronto. They involve people from different points of my life, often mixed. I was wrestling one of my university roommates, under water, in front of my junior high school. I was riding my bike down Spadina Avenue with a girl I used to work with, singing Milli Vanilli.

I  had a great one in which I was driving a luxury convertible around the city with three high school friends. We pulled up to a stoplight and, crossing the street in front of us, there was the old grumpy guy from Corner Gas. He was lugging several bulging bags of heavy groceries. My friends and I knew him quite well, enough to know he lived in the east end like us, and that we could give him a ride home. He resisted but we persisted, and before you knew it we were spinning away with him wedged in the back.  Suddenly I was having that classic dream frustration of not being able to properly control myself or, in this case, my vehicle. For several seconds I simply couldn’t find the gas pedal, then a split second later my foot was made of depleted uranium and we were gunning it straight at a bus. Luckily, the laws of physics don’t apply, so we simply bumper-carred off of obstacles and spun out into the grass in the Don Valley. At this point, things got weirder.

I jumped up and, turning to my companions, laughed.

“It’s only a dream, fellas! So none of it matters. I’ll by flying home now.”

And, sure enough, I jumped out of my seat in the classic comic book flying pose: right arm extended upward, left arm clutched to my chest, right leg fully extended, left knee brought up. This is, clearly, the most efficient flying position a human being can manage. I actually did pretty well: I leaped up and though I felt the tug of gravity as I climbed, once I reached the apex of the jump gravity got lazy and gave up on me. Now I was sort of suspended six feet above the car. My friends applauded sarcastically. I started kicking my legs (yes, I tried the swim, the egg beater and the bicycle kick) and flapping my arms. I climbed a few more feet this way.

Then, in a minor epiphany, I remembered: The laws of physics don’t apply. So I simply closed my eyes and, holding that comic book flying pose, I willed myself into the sky. After a few seconds I opened my eyes and saw that I had climbed at least another thirty feet or so.

“This is going to take a while,” I thought. I started looking for a streetcar.

At any rate, you get the idea. Has anyone else experienced something like this? It’s not like I’m delerious or anything. I’m staying well hydrated (I’m approaching eight litres a day here) and I’m eating well. It’s just damn hot.

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Iraq, a backpack and some shopping.

Saturday, August 8th, 2009

So as I sit here in a cafe typing this post, I’m reminded why I travel. I just completed an in depth conversation about Canadian politics, the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite, and how widely French is spoken around the world with four Iraqi guys and a girl from Paris. The Iraqis are all here on student visas, studying software engineering and pharmacy. They mix seamlessly with the Israelis at the table next to us, at least to the uninitiated – to whom Hebrew and Arabic sound the same. Being in know, I’ve caught a few glances back and forth, though the Iraqis seem to relish their position as the only Arabic speakers around, considering about sixty percent of the foreigners I’ve met here are from Israel. A little stick in the craw, I guess.

Speaking of sticks and craws, my backpack finally arrived here today, almost a full forty-eight hours after I did. What a fantastic feeling, drying myself off with a towel and changing into clean clothes. Though I had gotten used to standing under the ceiling fan for ten minutes every time I showered, which in this heat was about four times a day.

Now, you may be asking: “Evan, why the hell didn’t you blast a few rupees on a towel and a change of clothes?”

To this I would reply: “Fuck off. I travel how I travel. When you come to India you can blow through forty bucks and day and leave in a month. I have two years ahead of me, and so frugality will become a way of life, not a decision.”

Now I have splurged, in a sense. I spent almost $50 on a cell phone and an Indian SIM card. I also spent an hour this afternoon drinking chai and discussing $1000 motorbikes with an amicable fellow named Didi. By sometime tomorrow afternoon, I should be the proud owner of an Enfield Bullet, the classic British designed, Indian made cruiser for foreigners like me who want to peruse the countryside at will. I can’t wait to name her.

At any rate, I’ve added a few photos to the gallery, click here or on the “Photos” link at the top of the page. I’ll follow up with some notes on Delhi and my guesthouse soon.

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