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.