Archive for the ‘North India’ Category

Bargaining with Kashmiri Boatmen

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

As much as any place I’ve experienced, Kashmir is a land of businessmen. They aren’t swindlers, however. Unlike the Vietnamese, they never give you the wrong change or alter a price once an agreement has been reached. But they speak excellent English and know exactly how to respond to every objection or excuse. Here’s a typical conversation we’d have sitting on the veranda of our houseboat. The merchant quietly paddles his shikara (similar to a broad, wood plank canoe) alongside our steps and bids us a good morning.

“Hello, my friends.”

“Salaam Alaykum,” I respond, touching my right hand to my chest.

“Walaykum salaam. You would like to see some of my beautiful things?”

“What you got with you, brother?”

“Oh, some beautiful things my friends, wonderful. All locally made, by hand. My family has a small workshop.”

Always locally made. Always by his family, which has a shop nearby. Perhaps we’d like to visit the shop? We’d have more than one shikara merchant try to sell us the same stuff, so either they are all in the same family, or they’re lying to us.

“You see my friends? Many beautiful shawls. All one hundred percent local Pashmina wool. Kashmir wool, you know? Very famous, very expensive except in Kashmir.”

“Oh, I’m not a big shawl guy, brother.”

“Yes, but your mother would like? Your girlfriend would be very happy with these yes?”

“I don’t have a girlfriend, brother.”

“Perhaps if you bought some shawls, you would then, yes?”

Soon he’s climbing aboard our boat, resisting our protests and assurances that we won’t be buying anything. It’s free to look, they all say. No effort to look, my friends. Once again, the Indian disregard of personal space is demonstrated in full. I was enjoying my Haruki Murakami book, but I guess I’ll put it down.

Now there are a few dozen wood carvings or paper mache jewel boxes or shawls or carpets or necklaces or uncut stones or small blocks of Kashmiri hash arranged on a white cloth on the floor of the veranda. One boatmen only sold baked goods: chocolate covered cashews and butter cake and peanut cookies. Two different men cruise about in boats piled high with everything you find in convenience stores: Coke, Lay’s, Marlboros, toilet paper. One guy started offering us opium and heroin.

Our attendant, Golam (goh-lahm, not Gollum), would come out on the porch and watch us bargain with the guys. We quickly learned that kickbacks went to houseboat owners when their tenants bought something. Golam would quietly encourage us to speak with certain boatmen rather than others. He’d assist in the sale. Once, when considering a carved chess set, Golam was an active participant.

“Nine hundred rupees for this one? Seems expensive, my friend.”

“No sir, not expensive. Look at the board, the pieces, hand carved walnut wood. Walnut very expensive wood, you understand?”

Golam scampered into the dining room adjoining the veranda, pulling back the table cloth.

“You see? This table also walnut wood. Insects do not go inside this wood.”

Thanks, Golam. As if my big worry with my little chess set was a termite infestation. I ended up buying it anyway, damn it. I bought a few things, in fact. I got a jeweler to make me a necklace with piece of Kashmiri jade the size of a quarter.

“Kashmiri jade? It is from Kashmir?”

“Yes, my young friend. It is local jade.”

Sure. I read an article in the Economist about how wines from Ontario and BC are allowed to claim they are a product of Canada even if the grapes were imported from Chile or Australia. So long as they are ‘cellared’ in Canada they can be sold on shelves alongside wines made from homegrown grapes. I  get the feeling that Kashmiri jade is a similar situation.

But, all the visits from paddling merchants aside, it was a peaceful place. A small, quiet lake full of birds. Kingfishers splashing into the water next to you, smacking the wriggling minnow against the porch railing before swallowing. Our houseboat owners provided us with a small shikara of our own, so I would paddle out beyond the weeds to the middle of the lake for my daily swim. At around 1000m, Srinigar is pleasantly warm and sunny. I read my Murakami, did some writing, took a shikara ride through lotus gardens. Calls to prayer echoed across the lake from mosques on the far shore. Chanting and singing in the pre-dawn and post sunset hours marked the feasting that is necessary during Ramadan, the month of daytime fasting.

After six days on the boat, however, we moved on. Ross and I rolled off to Dharamsala for a date with the Dalai Lama. From Hindu to Buddhist to Muslim and, now, back to Buddhist. Indeed, one of the spiritual hearts of Buddhism. Also, back to the monsoon rains of the Himalaya foothills.

Life in Leh

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

After much adventuring, which I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading about (right?), we were in Leh, the capital of the region of Ladakh. It sits at 3300 meters, or about 10,800 feet, above sea level.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom. It was expanded by Buddhist kings, who by the 9th century had extended their realm from Kashmir in the west all the way to the Tibetan border to the north and east. The kingdom is protected from invasion by what I personally regard as the harshest terrain in the world – the highest mountain passes on the planet within a desert as dry as the Sahara. The Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to prominence in the 14th century, and battles with Muslims from Kashmir lasted a few hundred years. Leh was established in the 16th century.

Modern Leh is a traveler mecca. Locals from Delhi and Bangalore and Mumbai eat Tibetan momos (fried or steamed dumplings) or thukpa (noodle soup) on rooftop terraced restaurants. Foreign backpackers from Israel and New Zealand and South Africa smoke charas and laze on cushions drinking lassis and eating chocolate banana pancakes. People go trekking for days to incredible snowy peaks. You can visit isolated mountain villages where locals irrigate tiny meltwater streams to sustain their agriculture. Huge Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are built like forts up the cliff faces. Some are hundreds of years old, but are still home to resident monks.

We visited one such site, Thiksey Gompa, built in the 15th century. It was an impressive series of whitewashed buildings climbing up a steep hill. With the altitude, it was a daunting task to ascend, but the magnificent Buddha statues and vistas over the Indus valley were well worth it. The stark desert contrasted with the green fields of irrigated land. The masonry was smoothed by hand, which results in ascetically pleasing finger grooves all along the white walls. The rich, saturated saffron of the monk robes soaks up the sunlight. Beautiful stuff.

The next day, we drove up the Khardung La. At 5602m (18,379 ft), it’s the highest motorable road in the world. At this point we were Ross, Steve, Leon from Ireland and Ruth from Brighton, England. Ruth took some incredible video of us racing up cliff edge roads overlooking ridiculous views. At the top, we took some well-posed photos with the signage and caught a glimpse of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, off in the distance. Up there everyone is a tourist, so even the army trucks would stop so the soldiers could get a photo taken with the sign. You see we drove the road, but they built it. A few fifty-something cyclists pedaling to the top stopped us from celebrating our accomplishment too seriously, as our bikes had motors.

The rest of the time in Leh was very relaxed, the aforementioned cushion and charas scene was well enjoyed. I had some of the best western food I’ve tried in India. The heavily Buddhist atmosphere of the place lends well to it’s chilled out atmosphere, and it was easy to meet plenty of interesting travelers with unique stories and perspectives.

But, eventually, we were off to Kashmir.

To Leh

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m getting somewhat bored of telling you about my ride to Leh. This doesn’t bode well for my book writing prospects (were there any?), but regardless I’m going to briefly summarize the last couple of days of big trip up into the mountains. It was much more epic than it’s about to sound, but I’m lazy.

So we set out from Bharatpur riding in our newfound foursome. We began to climb a series of neverending switchbacks called the Gata Loops. We climbed and climbed. Bergen pulled away with the purpose of making it all the way to Leh in a single day. So then there were three. I was a few switchbacks behind Ross and Matty until they both crashed on the same corner. Matt went down overcompensating to avoid a massive pothole, and Ross went down out of sympathy.

Ross had his foot caught in his luggage rack, so Matt had to lift the bike off. I pulled up just in time to see them laughing about it. We stopped laughing when Ross’s bike wouldn’t start. Matt insisted we put it on a truck to Leh, but Ross persisted tinkering until he drained the flooded carb and she booted to life. Well done, mate.

Further down the road we were winding through a prehistoric canyon. It was like that canyon in the first India Jones where the Nazis had the Ark but Indy had a rocket launcher pointed at it threatening to blow it up but then the other archeologist who was working with the Nazis called his bluff cause Indy ain’t gonna blow up the freakin’ Ark, geez. This was where my wheel exploded.

It wasn’t the tire, it was the rear wheel. I was descending around a tight hairpin when my rear brake shuddered and the wheel snapped into a lock. I skidded to a stop with a FUCK. Ross and Matt had been dropping faster than me and I just had time to watch them lean around a bend and gone. Silence. The river slid under the bridge whispering to itself as if discussing my predicament.

Trucks came down the hill behind me. I flagged the first honking driver to help me move my frozen ride off the road and onto the shoulder. He slowly picked his way around me and roared off. Another two drivers saw the path of least resistance and turned the corner themselves. Alone again.

It was fifteen frustrating minutes before Matt and Ross returned. We struggled until a Belgian couple with experience helped us diagnose the problem: the wheel was done. I needed a truck. My baggage and I hitched a ride seven km to Pang, the nearest ‘town’.

The next morning I found the local welding/tire repair tent and asked after a mechanic. No luck. I discussed taking the bike to Leh with some truck drivers. A Delhi tourist staying in our yurt translated. They wanted 5000 roops ($120) for the pleasure. I offered 4000 and lunch. Still way too much, but I was stuck.

Swaying up in the cab as if riding an elephant, it was a twelve hour trip to Leh. I watched friends blow by on bikes. I saw some of the most incredible scenery this planet has to offer. I spent twelve hours with Indian truck drivers in the Himalaya.

As ridiculous an experience as it was, you should understand it was beyond disappointing. I was devastated I didn’t make it to Leh. This was a mission we were undertaking and I didn’t get there. I didn’t ride over the Taglang La, the second highest road in the world. Still, what a day. Remind me to tell you about it sometime.

I pulled into town after 10 that night. In the dark I had to convince the driver to leave me at a hotel instead of the airport. I had some chicken byriani and went to sleep. I was in Leh, five days and a lot of rupees later.

So there you have it. I’ve just spent the last week in Leh eating pizza and drinking proper cappuccinos and meeting people. It’s a real scene up here. I’m on to Kashmir now, more soon.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.

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!

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

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.