Archive for December, 2009

A lull and Indian diversity.

Monday, December 28th, 2009

In the lull between Christmas and the New Year most travelers seem to be moving. One spot for the holiday, one for the party. Lots of people are heading north to Goa, where the beaches are busier and pricier yet maintain more nightlife. Here in Gokarna, the only parties are groups of revelers around beach fires sipping on rum and pulling on hash joints.

It’s a good time, to say the least, but for many it’s simply too relaxed. They want throbbing bass lines and laser light shows and world class DJ’s. Not I.

I’ll stay here, sleeping in the same bamboo and palm leaf beach hut, enjoying tandoori calamari at the same couple of restaurants, reading on the same patch of sand, floating in the same bit of Arabian Sea. It’s repetitive, sure. But stressful it is not.

I’ll take this opportunity (I hope) to impart on this site some observations and musings I’ve been developing during my time on the road. You may have noticed that the vast majority of my blog posts are focused on where I am and things I’m seeing. On mishaps with Tara or adventures with locals. What  I haven’t done is sum up India in and of itself, regardless of my interactions with it. A brief introduction follows, but I hope you’ll see a few more posts up here before the end of the decade.

It isn’t immediately obvious when you first arrive, but India is a startlingly multicultural country. For many of us it’s difficult to distinguish even between people of different South Asian nationalities, let alone within the countries themselves. Yet only half of the population of Nepal is actually Nepali by ethnicity, even if they’re all (mostly) citizens. In India, with the population exceeding a billion and a civilization as old as civilization itself, the differences can be startling.

In the mountainous north, every valley has its own traditional clothing, festivals and delicacies. Even many of the facial features and body types differ between the various regions. Many Himalaya residents resemble Tibetans more than Indians, with Buddhism dominating. Just to the west is Islamic Kashmir, where locals have sharper features and are just as likely to have red hair as black, and green eyes as brown. I’ve been asked several times if I was Kashmiri.

In the south of the country skin tones are darker and facial features more rounded than in the north. There is considerable overlap, obviously, as millennia of migration and regional warfare mix bloodlines. But I’ve learned to recognize a South Indian from a North Indian. Noting differences in regional languages helps make the distinction, but it isn’t an easy process.

In India, there are 18 official languages and over 250 recognized dialects. Despite being the official language of the federal government and of most entertainment (Bollywood included), Hindi is only spoken as a first language by 20 percent of the population. As a result many locals are multilingual, speaking passable Hindi and English in addition to their mother tongues.

The other major regional wild card is the food. Ah, the food. In all its glory, Indian food must rank amongst the great cuisines of the world. It is most easily split along geographical lines, with the Northern styles most common back home. Punjabi dishes such as malai kofta, chicken tikka masala and palak (saag) paneer dominate restaurants all across the north and central regions of the country. In the South, one finds spicier dishes such as vindaloos and also crepe-like dosas, stuffed with potato curry and served with a coconut chutney.

But the real key to local Indian food are the smaller distinctions – the local delicacies. Unlike the vegetarian dominated Indian food, Kashmiri food involves lots of meat – especially goat and chicken. Lamb rogan josh is a personal favourite. In Calcutta, street stalls sell egg rolls – the closest thing to a breakfast burrito you’ll find. Even smaller towns and cities will boast a particular sweet or dish as locally famous. Samosas are ubiquitous yet in certain places they come with chick pea curry and curd (yogurt) and in others potato curry and green chilli sauce.

Even something as simple as a cup of chai carries with it different flavours and serving styles. In the northeast cities, such as Varanasi, the tea comes in a small clay cup which is amusingly smashed on the ground when emptied. Apparently this used to be more common, as the idea of reusing a glass touched by a member of a lower caste was unimaginable. I can’t help but wonder if economics, rather than a relaxing of caste-based discrimination, had an effect on this policy changing over much of the country. At three rupees (seven cents) a cup, it must be hard to justify giving a wholly new vessel to each customer. Far in the north of India, at an altitude of 4000m, I had the best cup of chai yet. Up there, with access difficult to important spices, the locals grow their own on the mountainsides, often using wild ingredients. It was a spicy tea, almost too much so. Amazing.

I’ve only been here for five months, but already I feel better equipped to recognize the profound diversity that exists in the subcontinent. I try to stop at sweet shops in every town I’m in and ask for whatever they make locally. I walk into local restaurants and suss out what most of the people are eating, then order ‘one plate,’ pointing at someone’s meal. Sometimes, depending on the English abilities of the staff and clientele, I have absolutely no idea what I’m eating.

When I come home (eventually), I’ll spend some time searching out regional Indian restaurants. I’m just a little worried the chai will be a let down.

Christmas

Thursday, December 24th, 2009

It’s Christmas Eve and I’m on a beach in India. I sort of expect a little homesickness or loneliness to sneak through this time of year.

But I sit here, eating a breakfast of fruit and yogurt muesli and listening to the surf crash into the golden sand, and I feel fine. I miss you, no doubt, and wish you could be here with me, but other than that I don’t really feel the need to come home. I have to give a good chunk of credit to the weather, which is so perfect here it’s embarrassing. I’m fully aware of the atmospheric happenings back home in Toronto and I have absolutely no desire to switch this for that.

Here my most stressful moments involve dodging cow shit on the beach. Yes, even on the beach there are cows everywhere. They plod slowly through the sand browsing for carelessly unguarded morsels. I watched one devour the thorny leaves lopped from the top of a pineapple. A grumpy bull with imposing horns ate a plastic juggling ball that some hippies had left lying about. He chewed on it for about five minutes but eventually got it down. Much consternation amongst the hippies.

Other than cow watching, there isn’t much for us to do here. Maybe I’ll play cricket with some domestic tourists and English backpackers (I’m a terrible bowler, but am making improvements in my batting). Perhaps lie on my back in the Arabian Sea and watch the sea eagles wheel above the palm fringed jungle that lines the beach. Their wings are two shades of chocolate, their heads and chests the colour of fresh cream. They soar effortlessly in the coastal breezes and thermal updrafts, making a mockery of even our best attempts to be free.

‘Us’ is a motley crew of internationals, ever evolving as some split off and others are assimilated. The family, as we call it, has its roots in Varanasi, where 11 people from 10 countries played soccer in the sand on the banks of the holy Ganges. Across the river from us smoke rose from a dozen funeral pyres, the families watching quietly as their loved ones returned to the goddess of the river. Since then the core of the group moved to Arambol beach in Goa, where more members were initiated with a game of soccer near the waves. This ended in disaster, naturally, as Andy from London broke his toe trying to separate a Russian tourist from the ball. Indeed Russian and European holidaymakers (two-weekers, or T-dubs, as we call them) have taken over Goa, it seems, so we’ve moved south to quieter beaches in the next state Karnataka.

Which is where I currently find myself. On the only-in-India named Om Beach, near the holy town of Gokarna, where beards and dreadlocks are ubiquitous. The family now consists of Andy, Andrew from Melbourne, Grace from Wellington (NZ), and the upcoming arrivals of Nils from Sweden and his Israeli friend Martin. We’ve also met a pair of Argentinians and a trio from South England (the cricketers) who were interested in our plans for Christmas Dinner and Secret Santa. This last idea should be especially hilarious, as there is no shopping on this beach (a world away from Goa) other than the occasional jewelry or fresh fruit vendor who stalks the sand harassing sunbathers. I get the impression everyone is going to be getting a bracelet and a half dozen bananas this year. Maybe a papaya.

I’m considering bottling some sea water. Swimming at night here is a trip in and of itself, regardless of what you’ve been rolling in your cigarettes. It’s hard to describe phosphorescence to someone who’s never seen it, but imagine millions of neon green fireflies in the water who only light up when you agitate them. The white foam that trails behind your hands and feet as you swim turns to bright green, and the ocean lights up around you in a thousand tiny flashes. It’s a scene, man.

So Merry Christmas. Don’t let the weather (or the man) get you down.

Tara and a Crash.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

I had crashed. A village man and his wife were lying on the road next to me, their bike as smashed up as mine. I lay there for a second breathing heavily, my heart pounding. I pulled myself to my feet. The adrenaline dulled the pain, so I had to visually analyze myself for injury.

About two months ago I named my bike. It’s actually quite a good story. Sorry for waiting this long to tell it.

Ever since I saw the Indian army guys riding their Enfields, I’ve wanted to paint my bike green. I loved the look of the dark, army green on the old-school, WWII style bikes. It’s remarkably cheap to have it painted, and it personalizes the bike. But, first, I needed a name.

In Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, I took a ten day Buddhist philosophy and meditation course. We learned all about different Buddhist deities and some mantras (repetitive prayers) you could do to them. Some of the more religious aspects of the course were difficult to swallow, but many lessons were more practical and applicable to everyday life.

After the ten days had finished, I returned to town and found a hotel. Trying to have a shower, I realized I didn’t have my towel. I had left it back up at the monastery where we’d taken the course. No problem, I thought, this is why we travel by bike. So I rode up the hill out of town.

Arriving at the monastery, I said hello to the monks and volunteers and grabbed my towel. I hopped back on the bike and headed out. As I rolled through the little village nearby, I saw the nun who had been our main teacher at a chai shop. I pulled over to thank her again for all the lectures. She gave me a hug and wished me well. Noticing the idling bike outside, she asked if it was mine. Yes, I said, it was.

“This is very dangerous, you realize?”

“Yes, it is, but so far so good,” I said happily. Knock wood.

“You know what you must do? You must do your mantras to Tara. Especially Green Tara, she is the protector. Ask her for protection on your bike.”

Tara, eh? Green, you say? Well, my Buddhist nun teacher, you’ve just named my bike.

Tara

So, now on Tara, I began the customization process. I bought a two piece brown leather seat. I rode to Rishikesh and, through my Scottish friend Ross, was introduced to a trustworthy mechanic. I left my bike with him when I went trekking to a glacier, with instructions to paint it. Now she’s a matte green, with black trim and chrome piping. I also had a sticker guy outfit the front license plate with her name in an appropriately esoteric font: TARA.

She’s a beaut, an absolute stunner. Her vintage styling, as the pre-1990s (she’s from 1980) bikes were still built to WWII design, along with the new colour scheme… I get lots of compliments. She probably gets more attention than I do (deservedly).

Tara 2

So Tara and I were south of Patna, the state capital of Bihar, on the road the Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment 2600 years ago. The afternoon was getting on so I was in a hurry. Driving at night is never fun, as it’s hard to see potholes or people (both are everywhere) and the bugs are out in force. I was going about as fast as the bike comfortably goes, around 65km/h, when rounding a bend I saw a motorbike parked on my side (the left) of the road. It was beneath a tunnel of tree tops, which shaded the road attractively. Without thinking, I moved out into the center of the road to pass by.

I saw the second bike come out from behind the parked one at the last second. A villager and his wife were on their little 100cc bike, and clearly didn’t see me coming as they pulled out. I slammed on my brakes, locking my rear wheel into a skid as I tried to steer to the right, the far side of the road, to avoid him. But, instead of stopping, he accelerated in an attempt to cross the road in front of me. This moved him, of course, to the same side I was now leaning toward.

I was probably doing at least forty five or fifty when I smashed, head on, into him. They say it all moves in slow motion when things like this happen and such was the case for me. I remember twice yelling paisahb, which means ‘sir’, as I saw him pulling out. At first it was a short, desperate, (hilariously) shrill, PAISAHB!! I remember a sinking feeling in my chest as I realized that we were going to crash, that there was nothing I could do to avoid it. Oh shit, I thought, here it is. I remember bracing myself, flexing my muscles and clenching my jaw. This, along with the fact that I was on the heavier and faster vehicle, is probably what led to me escaping relatively unscathed.

My second paisahb was through gritted teeth and only halfway through when we hit (as in paisahBAM). I was thrown to the right, Tara’s rear wheel lifting off the tarmac and twisting in midair. I rolled and lay there on my back, breathing and staring at the sky in shock. I pulled myself to my feet almost immediately. Checking myself over, I had another shock when I realized I was fine. I felt a little pain in my knees, elbows and wrists. A trickle of blood from a few tiny spots of road rash on my hands and joints. Otherwise nothing.

I looked over to where the man lay on the asphalt. He was woozy and bleeding from his nose. Locals (who, I gathered, he had been talking with on the side of the road before pulling out) ran over and carried him and his wife to the side of the road. She was wailing and clutching him, but physically unharmed as far as I could see. The man lay there, bleeding, with a faraway look in his eyes. I crumpled at his feet. Unable to communicate my sorrow verbally, I touched my forehead to his toes and said paisahb over and over again.

The other villagers, now growing in number, pulled me to my feet shaking their heads. They clearly thought that I was not in the wrong and so shouldn’t be showing such strong deference. Issues of blame hadn’t quite crossed my mind at this point. I automatically assumed responsibility mostly due to the fact that this was his country and I was the foreigner. I was, therefore, in the wrong. If I wasn’t joy riding around his country this never would have happened.

I have heard from other biking foreigners that the best thing to do when you get in an accident is flee the scene immediately. They told me horror stories about mobs of angry villagers beating foreigners and having them arrested. That no matter whose fault it was they’ll always blame you and hold you financially or criminally responsible. God forbid you ever hit a cow.

I had no such experience. The locals were very supportive and making sure I was okay. I said tikka, tikka, saab tikka (good, good, all good). I helped them pull the two crumpled bikes off the road. We put the man, who was now fully conscious and doing fine, in an ambulance and his wife followed on the back on another bike. I sat on the side of the road breathing, fighting back tears of shock and fear. I was physically fine but shaken badly. The locals, in standard form, simply stood in a circle around me and stared. A few who spoke some English showed up and were quite helpful. I asked them about getting a truck and whether I should go back to Patna or toward Bodhgaya. They told me to wait for the police.

We waited for the police for over an hour. I crossed the road away from the gathered villagers and sat alone on the dirt shoulder, staring into the rice fields. Children played with old bike tires and sticks, running down a dirt path keeping the tire rolling. Water buffalo rolled in a little pond. Some villagers squatted in rice fields, cutting the stalks at the root and flattening them down to dry in the sun. I cried quietly. I called my friend Steve from Montreal and discussed what I should do with the bike. He told me to get to the biggest city nearby, as it would have the best mechanics. He asked if I was all right. Yeah, I’m fine, I lied. For the first time in the past four months, I really, truly missed you all.

The police arrived in the form of five men in camouflage with automatic rifles and thick moustaches. The villagers told them what had happened. The story was obviously sympathetic to my cause, because their first questions for me were about how I was doing and whether I wanted to make any case against the man I had hit. I asked them if the man and his wife were okay. They assured me everyone was fine. I told them, using my best Hinglish and gesturing to myself and the people gathered around me: this is important, yes? People are important, not bike. Bike is only money. Money not important. They all nodded sagely. I wrote down my passport, visa and bike information, as well as my address in Canada and my father’s name (?). The police seemed satisfied.

Attention turned, however, to Tara. A local man with decent English had set off on his bike to find a truck because, otherwise, she was not going anywhere. The front wheel and fender were smashed and twisted. Both front forks and shock absorbers were cracked in several places, contorted wildly and oozing shocker oil all over the road. The headset, the heavy piece above the handlebars that houses the headlight as well as the speedometer, had a huge crack down the side. Both the brake and clutch levers were broken. The only things on the entire front part of the bike that survived were the handlebars themselves, the headlight (miraculously) and the small number plate with the gold and black lettering: TARA.

A small, pickup sized flatbed truck arrived. We spent some time loading Tara into the back and tying her down. It was now dark. We tried to drive back to Patna to a mechanic, but the headlights didn’t work on the truck. Much arguing between the truck driver and some locals. We drove, with the hazard lights flashing in the darkness, back over potholes to the nearest village. I sat in the cab and watched about twenty different locals take a shot at flicking the headlight knob off and on, wondering why their magic touch didn’t get it working. I even had a go.

Another hour sitting in a chai shop on the side of the road with the police. A second truck finally arrived, again with the same enterprising local man leading it in. It was actually more of a auto rickshaw, a three-wheeled vehicle like a motorcycle crossed with a pickup truck. But it did have a decent flatbed in the back, just big enough to shift Tara out of first truck and tie her down, again. I thanked the man who had found both trucks profusely, but he refused my offer of money. A saint, he was.

We rattled back up the highway and into the teeming city. Patna was still busy in the darkness. We checked hotel after hotel but all of them were full. Just outside of town a massive livestock fair was underway. It took another hour to find a hotel with any vacancy, and it was the worst place I’ve stayed in the country. For a ridiculous 600 rupees, about 14 dollars, I had a grubby room with a leaky bathroom. The windows were busted – one of them was lazily covered by a piece of styrofoam – so mosquitos flooded into the room all night. I slept terribly there.

The next day I took a bicycle rickshaw to a street lined with auto mechanics. I found one guy who said he knew Enfields, but I doubted the sincerity of this. The damage was extensive enough that I wanted a serious mechanic with lots of experience on Bullets, rather than just some 100cc scooter guy who would fiddle around. We found a bicycle-flatbed guy to bring the bike from the hotel, and during this process I noticed an official Royal Enfield showroom and shop.

It was probably a little more expensive, but the uniformed mechanics were so confident and smooth during the day that I felt great watching her get stripped down and rebuilt. Tara was whole again, to the tune of about $300.

I’m also doing much better. I’ve spent some time chilling out under the Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya. I’ve since made it to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism, where I’ve met a great international crew of travelers. I’ve spent evenings watching football (soccer) and playing poker. We even played some football on the bank of the Ganges here. It’s been a nice recovery.

Exit Wounds.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

It’s difficult to know where to begin. I wrote a piece about my drive into Nepal, I thought it appropriate to pen something on my drive out. As you may or may not be aware, the model of motorcycle I’m driving is a Royal Enfield Bullet. And one thing about bullets, for all you CSI fans out there: the exit is always messier than the entrance.

After my trek and some time living it up in the supremely touristy Pokhara, I slipped off to the small hilltop village of Bandipur. I’d had it recommended to me by a few locals along the way (as well as a few tourists, and the Lonely Planet) so I checked it out. It was nice, a quiet place with nothing to do but walk in the fields and hills around town or sit at a table on the flagstones and drink tea. A little too popular with the domestic tourists, however, who fill the village square and play ringtones on their mobiles well after the power is shut off and everyone is sitting around by candlelight. Such is travel in Asia.

From there I zoomed south and east, making for the border. A few hours out from Birganj, the border town, I heard a noise. Ignoring it (optimistically), I continued until I was sputtering to a stop on the side of the road with nothing in sight but rice fields and water buffalo and a single lonely farmhouse. Standing in front of this farmhouse was a young man, in his late teens perhaps, staring at me. I began checking the few things I know to check when the engine stops – spark plug, petrol line, air filter, carburator. Everything seemed in order. The young man sauntered over and asked if there was a problem. Assuming the worst (correctly), I asked after a mechanic. A few kilometers further down the road, he said, in the next little town.

Walking down the road slowly while trying to stay upbeat, I realized a few km is quite a ways in the midday heat. A farmer on a tractor came up behind me with another villager perched on the back. I flagged him down hopefully and, without much hesitation, he pulled over so I could hop on. I smiled and mimed motorcycle mechanic to them (to do this, stick out your hands like you are holding handle bars, then twist your right hand as if revving a throttle, then mime a wrenching motion). They nodded and on we went.

There was no mechanic in the next town. I asked two different men who both spoke some English and they were both quite confident I was out of luck. Both said the same thing: only in Parsa, 7 km back the other way. Sighing, I flagged down a local bus and hopped aboard. We puttered down the highway, passing the farmhouse with my bike sitting lonely out front. Seven klicks and five rupees (about seven cents) later, I was in Parsa at a mechanic.

The mechanics there were busy, and none of them seemed too excited about having to go four or so kilometers to look at some stupid tourist’s Bullet. They rarely, if ever, get Bullets driving through this part of Nepal (though they’re not unheard of in richer Kathmandu) so these guys probably weren’t too comfortable working on them. I sat there watching them poke around a little scooter for twenty minutes and started getting impatient. I asked about going and checking it out and was told to ‘just wait’ a few times. Two of the mechanics were just sort of watching the main wrench doing all the work, so again I asked if we could get moving. ‘Just wait.’

Eventually I got fed up and walked off looking for another mechanic. I found one, but he wouldn’t go take a look down the road either. ‘Bring you bike here,’ he said. Yeah. I stood on the side of the road for a minute. I’m not sure why I didn’t go back to the original shop and simply wait patiently for them to come with me to take a look. I had already walked off, so returning would have been admitting defeat, or something. Immature, I realize. Seeing another local bus heading back up the road, I impulsively flagged it and took it back to where my bike was waiting. Trying again to fix it myself I began getting frustrated and hot.

This is when that same young man, clearly trying to help, turned on a Nepal-Pop ringtone on his phone and held it out, about six inches from my ear, for me to listen. I asked him, with as much polite patience as I could muster, to please turn it off. He did. I struggled with various parts of the bike. I think at one point I threw my screwdriver into the dirt in disgust. He then suggested I go see the mechanics who have a shop only a few hundred meters back up the road. I suppressed the urge to ask the obvious question: WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T YOU MENTION THEM BEFORE??. I just borrowed his bicycle and went to find them. We ended up towing my bike into their shop.

It took me a few hours, but I finally realized that these guys had never seen the inside of a Bullet before. The sun was setting, the sky darkening, and they were trying many of the same common issues I had been looking at. After ruling out electrical or petrol flow problems, it had to be something inside the engine. So they opened her up.It was at this moment, when they were pulling out pieces and looking at them like some previously undiscovered dinosaur bones, that I asked them to please stop working. I was putting the bike on a truck for India, where Enfields are common enough that mechanics don’t have to assume the role of amateur archaeologist.

That night, thanks to a helpful local man, I slept in a guest room at the local agricultural development bank. It was a training base for more than just farmers, I quickly found out, as it had walls and barbed wire and a big gate and 24 hour security. Yet I spent the evening there with the cook, her husband and their two daughters. I sat quietly at a table, watching her prepare dhal baat for me and her family. The administrator, who spoke passable English, came in with his son and we chatted briefly about my plans and Nepal in general. His son was studying at an English boarding school so he pressured the shy kid into practicing English with me. I drank tea and watched all of them pour over a local newspaper so they could order new ringtones on their phones. They were all very impressed with my terrible Nepali and the fact that I ate the rice and soupy dhal with my fingers, as they do.

The next morning I was standing on the side of the road with a half dozen local men flagging down trucks. It was tough to find a driver willing to load my bike in the back who was also heading to Birganj. Eventually the locals started trying to flag buses. I questioned the logic of loading my bike onto the roof of a bus, rather than the back of a truck. There is the obvious difficulty of loading (bus roofs are higher than truck beds) and the fact that the bike would have to lie on her side, rather than stand up straight. Oil leakage would be inevitable. Eventually they got a bus to stop and the driver seemed eager to get me on board, but luckily another local had flagged a big Tata and for 700 rupees (ten dollars) they would drive me and the bike three hours to the border town (but not the border).

There I was, for the second time, riding up in the cab of a truck with my bike riding in the back. The wingman, Raz, was twenty-one and spoke a little English so we hit it off. They had picked up a few other locals who use trucks like buses, and I bought forty rupees worth of peanuts and bananas and shared them with everyone. The driver, a gruff older guy with a terrible sounding cough, wasn’t too excited to have me around and didn’t partake in the mini picnic.

We stopped every so often for no obvious reason. To a puncture wallah to top up the tire pressure. At the side of the road to talk to a few other truck drivers for a few minutes. Less than 10km from our destination we stopped for lunch. I remained patient and paid for all three dhal baats. On we went. We stopped for diesel and something I didn’t catch happened, but it ended with Raz grabbing a hose from under the seat and leaping out the door. We sat on the side of the road waiting. I got out to look for him, but the driver honked and waved me back in and we drove off without him. I never got to say goodbye to ol’ Razzy.

In Birganj, finally, the driver was eager to be rid of me. He tried several times to boot me out on the outskirts of town, but I knew the words for ‘let’s go!’ (jam jam!) and kept waving toward the center of town. He would grunt and grumble something and drive on. One time he tried flagging down a bicycle rickshaw, as if we were going to balance my 200kg bike on his little cushioned rickshaw seat. Eventually, as the traffic got thicker and we were clearly close to the core of the city, I allowed myself to be hustled out. We got a couple passersby to help unload my bike and there I was, back on the side of the road in the afternoon heat. I stood there helplessly for a few minutes, trying to figure out how I was going to get this bike the final 5km to the border.

A teenager on a bicycle saw me standing there and came over to speak with me. He was studying engineering and so spoke good English. He went off to see if there were any small trucks or auto-rickshaws to take me to border. I noticed a mechanic working on a couple of 100cc bikes so went to inquire. No, he didn’t know anything about Bullets, but there was another mechanic just down the road…

And so this, miracle of miracles, was how I ended up being unceremoniously dumped out of a truck on the side of the road in a Nepali border town within 100 meters of an amazing Bullet mechanic who, thanks to three years of working in a Malaysian factory, spoke decent English. I would spend about seven hours sitting in the dirt in front of his shop as we took my bike apart, replacing rocker pins and both valves. The mechanic and his father were both jovial bike lovers and I had a great time joking and wrenching with them.

The next morning I roared out of Nepal and, some unplanned days and rupees later, into India.

Ahh, India. It was good to be back. I won’t go into detail just yet but there is something intangible about India and her people. I flew south, along a bumpy, potholed highway past more rice fields and water buffalo and smoky bamboo hut villages. I wandered through one of these villages in search of bananas, getting some pretty surprised stares from everyone. I eventually found the market and got a dozen little bananas for 10 roops (about 22 cents). I triumphantly showed them off to all the perplexed villagers as I strolled back to my bike.

I was now in Bihar, India’s poorest state. It is beset not only by poverty but also a Maoist political rebellion and a corresponding campaign of violence. Indian newspapers contain stories of bombed schools or government buildings almost daily. I wasn’t too worried. Cruising through the wonderfully named Muzaffarpur, choking on dust and truck exhaust in the intense traffic, I asked directions. More than a few locals told me I was on the right road. I wasn’t. I wanted to get to Patna, the state capital, but they had sent me down the indirect road that would take me to Patna eventually, rather than the direct but smaller highway. I managed, thanks to my road map and my willingness to ask everyone for directions, to find a little back country road that connected my wrong way highway with the right way highway. The road was, for the most part, smoothly paved and weaved it’s way pleasantly through fields and villages. I got plenty of stares and smiles as I went. Mostly stares. I’m not claiming that these locals have never seen foreigners before, but I guarantee it’s been a while since one went chugging past on an Enfield.

Patna is a small Indian city of to million people, bustling with the urgency and endless horn honks that are ubiquitous in any settlement of decent size. Struggling in the traffic, I wove through town asking endless directions from police and older gentlemen who looked likely to speak English. My system is simple: I roll alongside a man on a bike or bicycle or perhaps standing roadside, and offer a polite paisahb, which means ‘sir.’ I then name the town I’m looking for with a questioning tone. They usually indicate a direction with hand motions and some broken English. Eventually finding the road south, I ripped toward Bodhgaya.

I was about 35 kilometers out of Patna when I crashed. More on this soon.