I installed myself in a hotel on Cape Comorin and went out in search of a nice beach to spend the day. As I rode towards a small resort 40 kilometres away with bathing costume, towel and diary in my shoulder bag, I passed a roadside mechanic. I pulled over. My bike had been backfiring lately and cleaning out the carburettor seemed like a good idea.
I soon regretted it.
Within ten minutes of leaving the makeshift garage, I knew my bike was running even worse than before. I returned to the mechanic.
‘The bike doesn’t feel right at all anymore,’ I complained. ‘It’s jerking and stalling constantly.’
The man looked blankly at me: he didn’t understand.
I sat on the bike and mimed it. ‘Look, Enfield goes putt, putt, putt, then stops.
And also the ride is not smooth at all.’ I made jerking movements, but still he didn’t understand.
‘Does anybody speak English?’ I asked the assembled group of a dozen spectators. They laughed and shuffled self-consciously in their flip-flops.
‘Angrezi?’ I repeated.
The group of men parted to let in the owner of the electrical shop next door.
‘You are having a problem, madam?’ he asked as he shook my hand. ‘I will be happy to help you.’
I thanked him and said. ‘Could you tell the mechanic that my bike is not working properly. It is jerking and stalling. I don’t know what he did but it made the bike worse than before.’
The mechanic, upon hearing this, shrugged his shoulders and sighed as he mounted the bike to take it for a test ride. When he returned, he announced that it only needed some additional tuning. With a great show he revved the bike as he adjusted the flow of petrol to the engine.
It didn’t make any difference and I asked that he continue looking for the problem.
He muttered something and played with the screw controlling the flow of air to the engine, but still the bike sounded all-wrong.
I could feel the mechanic getting more and more defensive as I was getting more and more annoyed. What on earth had he done to my bike? Cleaning a carburettor is supposed to be very simple – though still too complicated for me – so how had he managed to make it run so badly?
He tried tuning it some more but when it became obvious he was failing, he announced via the shopkeeper that the problem had nothing to do with him. In his view, some mechanical part was malfunctioning and the best thing to do was to ride to the nearest Enfield dealer in Trivandrum. In other words, ‘Piss off, lady.’
It took me six hours to cover the 60 kilometres to Trivandrum. The bike kept on stalling and it would sometimes take me ten minutes of kick-starting it in the heat of the afternoon to get it going again. Finally I couldn’t start it up, and sat dejected on the side of the road. It was six o’clock, dusk was falling and the town of Trivandrum was still 15 kilometres away. There were no hotels in sight and I was going to have to lock up the bike, find a ride to Trivandrum and come back tomorrow with somebody from the motorcycle garage.
As I dismounted, a well-dressed man who had been observing me from across the road, walked up to me.
‘You are having a problem?’ he asked.
‘My bike has broken down. Do you know a place where I could leave it for the night?’ I asked. ‘No, but I know a mechanic just 200 metres away. I’m going that way, I’ll take you there.’
He placed his shiny black briefcase on the saddle and helped me push the bike to the garage.
‘I am sorry I cannot stay with you,’ he said as he bade me goodbye. ‘But I have a business meeting to attend and I must leave you.’ He picked up his briefcase and I watched him walk away, his shirt-back drenched in sweat.
The mechanic examined the bike and identified a dirty spark plug as the culprit. With a clean plug, the bike started up on the first attempt. What a relief. Then he took it for a test ride and discovered that the tank was empty. How could that be? I calculated I should have another 5 litres in the tank. It didn’t make any sense.
Anyway whatever the reason I still needed some petrol so he sent his assistant on a scooter to the nearest petrol station to buy a litre. Finally, I left much relieved. Within a maximum of half an hour I should be in Trivandrum.
But that was without counting on breaking down again only three kilometres further down the road. Swearing, I pushed the bike to another mechanic – the ratio of mechanics to Indians is higher than that of pubs to Dubliners. And this mechanic changed the spark plug and sent me on my way.
It was now completely dark and I could feel the bike was still not running well; it stalled again a number of times but each time I managed to clean the spark plug and start it up. Finally at 9 pm, it stalled for the last time and no amount to spark plug cleaning or even a new spark plug could get it going again.
According to my city map there was a hotel only 300 metres away; what it didn’t say is that it was a hotel 300 metres uphill from here. By the time I reached the hotel I was nearly in tears. Actually, I lie, I was in tears and the muscles on my arms and shoulders were twitching involuntarily.
The next morning I walked to the Enfield dealer who sent a mechanic over to my hotel. I watched with nervous anticipation, as the young boy dressed in clean blue overalls examined my bike and chuckled. In less than 10 minutes, he found the problems, all of which were embarrassingly obvious, that is if you are remotely mechanically-minded: (a) the choke was permanently engaged, (b) fuel was leaking from the rubber tube that links the tank to the carburettor, (c) the rate of fuel coming out of the tank was miss-adjusted and (d) the petrol I’d bought when I ran out was in fact kerosene, although I paid the price of petrol.
No wonder the bike wasn’t running well. But the really infuriating part is that nothing major was wrong with the bike. It was only my lack of knowledge that turned minor faults into what felt to me at the time like a major disaster, especially as I was pushing the bike up the hill in the dark.
A few days later, I finally made it to Kovallam, a beach described in my guidebook as beautiful. However it proved a disappointment: too many new and ugly hotels and restaurants had been built right up to the seafront and the strip of beach crawled with hustlers. It was impossible to relax on the sand because every few minutes someone would approach me to sell sarongs, necklaces, shells or soft drinks.
Unfortunately a shake of the head was not enough to indicate I was not buying and the trader would stand expectantly, and very close to me, in the hope that I’d realise I really did want to buy a drink or, more likely, that I’d buy one just to get rid of him.
However, I found the perfect solution: eight kilometres south of here is a luxury hotel complex with a swimming pool and a private beach where traders are banned; and although a room here would cost $100 a night, for a small fee I was able to use the facilities. I know I came to India to meet the people but there comes a time in all long journeys when people are what you seek to avoid, especially those who try to sell you something.
I got into a conversation with one of the managers of the hotel complex who asked me why I was travelling on my own. Usually I answer that it’s because I like the freedom of making my own decisions and not feeling responsible about whether my companion is having a good time.
Although that is true, there is also more to it. A large part of the pleasure I feel comes from the aloneness of riding my bike. With my helmet on and my big leather jacket, I feel cocooned from the environment. Yes I’m in it, but I’m also protected from it: nobody can approach me, talk to me; I’m in their world but they can’t get into mine. It allows my mind to wander without interruption.
Unless a cow comes galloping across my path.
When I ride with someone else, I remain preoccupied with where my companion is. Too far back? Too far in front? I cannot lose myself inside my head.
I realise it’s an indulgence and if I were to lounge on a sofa for hours on end, thinking sometimes frivolous, sometimes deep, sometimes ridiculous, sometimes outrageous and sometimes simply stupid thoughts, I could be criticised for being a dreamer and a time-waster. For some reason, I see the act of sitting on a moving motorbike, at least, as a valid excuse. So maybe that’s the real reason I travel alone: I like to day-dream.
Of course I could also come up with some worthy, and I add also true, reasons: alone, I become more observant, meet more people, do not immediately vocalise my opinions and therefore perhaps judge less and experience more.
I headed inland to Kodaikanal, a hill station set up by American missionaries in the 1840s. I expected really to like Kodaikanal, not just because of the cool weather but also because of the mountain scenery. However, although the drops into the valley are very dramatic, I found the partially finished concrete buildings depressing; also the empty drink cartons, the candy wrappers, the old newspapers, and the empty cigarette packs that litter every ‘scenic’ viewpoint. It seems churlish even to mention it since I’ve been faced with the litter ever since my arrival in India, but for some reason it’s more difficult to ignore here than elsewhere.
Another thing that annoyed me, and that says more about me than anything else, was the multitude of honeymoon couples. My hotel almost exclusively catered to them, and I found the coyness of the brides and the bravado of the grooms irritating. I know I should be more understanding: they won’t always behave that way, in many (most) cases they’re only just getting to know each other and each one is behaving in the way they think is attractive to the opposite sex.
How does it display itself? Well, there is the couple walking along a mountain track. The boy leaps off the track and jumps onto a boulder overlooking the valley and strikes a pose. He says nothing but glances down to his hand, which holds the camera and I imagine he wishes his new wife had it so she could take a picture of him. She is saying something in an agitated, pleading but also almost giggling tone. I suspect she’s asking him to be careful and come down. She then switches to English and says almost crying, ‘I’m afraid.’ He smiles, jumps off and puts his arm around her shoulder consolingly.
Everybody is happy.
Okay, okay, I know, you think I’m jealous – people in love and all that. But when variations of this scene are repeated all around me, I find it hard to get that warm feeling all over again.
Three days later and my mood hasn’t improved.
The day before yesterday in Trichy I got into an argument with an auto-rickshaw driver who was refusing to use his meter. It’s almost standard practice for drivers to quote a flat, usually between double and triple, fare for Western tourists and pretend incomprehension when you ask them to switch on the meter, or claim that it’s broken. Although I accept to pay more than the local rate, which is still by our standards very cheap, I also get very annoyed at that presumption.
I asked four different drivers to take me to the main fort in Trichy and at the fourth attempt I launched into a long tirade about how he was giving Indian auto-rickshaw drivers a bad reputation. I think he gave me the Indian equivalent of ‘get lost’– at the very least – and accelerated away. After such an outburst, I was of course too proud to hire another rickshaw and walked half an hour back to my hotel to pick up my bike.
Then yesterday as I was checking into my hotel in Tanjore, I tried to convince the receptionist that there should be a discount for single occupancy – there rarely is, but it didn’t stop me from asking. He refused and I insisted to speak with the manager.
The older man concurred with his employee. ‘I am sorry madam, the rooms are the same price for single occupancy as for double occupancy.’
‘That’s silly, most hotels give a discount for single people,’ I lied.
‘This is a government hotel and our prices are fixed.’
Although I had already unloaded my bike, I almost turned out of the reception hall when it occurred to me that we were only talking about a couple dollars. Why cut my nose to spite my face again? Instead with bad grace I sighed and said, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll take the room.’
That evening I had dinner at one of the best restaurants in town where I met a young Dutch couple that’d arrived in India only a week ago. They had suffered from some sort of stomach problem ever since landing here and today was their first day more or less back to normal. Despite the bad start they loved everything about their trip.
‘We’ve always been interested by Eastern religions,’ she said.
‘People here understand that spiritual values are more important than material values,’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she agreed. ‘Even poor people seem to have an inner peace we don’t find back home.’
‘Don’t you find the constant begging difficult?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she answered. ‘It is our duty as rich tourists to pay them for the wisdom they teach us.’
Christ! Are these people real?
I concentrated on my dish of rice with a sauce of prawn and cashew nuts. But where were the cashew nuts? I called the waiter over.
‘Excuse me, I ordered prawn and cashew nuts, but I can’t find even a single cashew nut.’ He laughed. ‘No cashew nuts? Ha, ha!’ And walked away.
‘What’s so funny about that?’ I mumbled to my companions.
I called him back. ‘Could I speak to the manager, please?’
The manager, dressed in a suit and tie, came to our table.
‘What seems to be the problem, madam?’
‘Ah, but you see, madam, we use cashew nut powder here, not whole cashew nuts.’ ‘Really? But how come I cannot taste them?’
‘Probably because of the spices, we use strong spices in India.’
‘Is that so?’
After he left our table, I turned to the Dutch couple and realised they were squirming in embarrassment. I was behaving atrociously.
Months ago I remember writing that I didn’t want to turn into one of those sour-faced tourists who assume everybody is out to cheat them. I suspect that Dutch couple thought it was already too late.
It took a beautiful ride on my bike to put me back in a good mood. I set off after lunch to Calimere Bird Sanctuary on the Bay of Bengal.
Usually I do most of my riding in the morning and try to reach my destination by early afternoon. That day however, I left at three o’clock thus missing the hottest part of the day and rode alongside a brilliant and sparkling blue river with the sun behind me. Around five o’clock the country lanes filled up with farmers and schoolchildren going home at the end of their day. They were obviously glad to finish work/school and I got many waves and smiles.
I arrived at the bird sanctuary just before sunset and was allocated one of the ten empty rooms in the government forest lodge. Although I was the only guest, I had to promise the forest ranger I’d leave by 10 am tomorrow because a group of government officials and scientists were taking over the lodge. Preparations were in full swing for their arrival and the staff was putting up colourful paper banners to welcome them. This was obviously a big event and I could feel the excitement as they argued about where to place the banners.
I climbed onto the roof of the lodge and watched a fiery sunset, and although I could only see a few birds in the distance silhouetted against the sky, I heard a cacophony as each bird species tried to outdo the others.
The next day I went into the reserve to see the birds, but it turned out that hearing all of them at sunset was the closest I even got to the local feathered wildlife. The marshes are the breeding grounds for many migratory birds – a board in the lodge lists 243 species – but most had already left to cooler climates, or simply hidden.
I then tried to get into another part of the sanctuary where blackbucks lived but the entrance gate was padlocked. That surprised me since the forest ranger himself had told me about this section of the sanctuary. I looked around and noticed a few metres to the left of the gate, amongst the bushes, a gap in the fence just wide enough for my bike.
I squeezed my bike through the gap in the fence and rode into open flat fields. There were no paths, just a mesh of narrow tracks on a flat, featureless plain and the odd bush. I could see blackbucks on the horizon but every time I tried to approach them the thumping noise of my bike chased them away. After an hour of riding, I reached a large area of thorn bushes. Remembering what those thorns can do to tyres, I turned around. Though I now carried a spare inner tube, it did not want to try it out. I found my way back to the gap in the fence by following my own wandering tracks back.
To continue the nature reserve theme, I rode up north near Chidambaram to stay on an island set in a protected area of backwaters and mangrove forests.
I parked my bike on the mainland and took a small rowing boat to the island where a hotel rents five cottages and fishermen live in a small village three kilometres away. I tried to walk to the village but again got lost and decided to turn back as my feet started sinking into the swampy mud. As the other cottages were all empty, this felt like my private fiefdom and I had the full, but unobtrusive, attention of the guard who came to check on me every couple hours and would bring me back supplies from the shops whenever he went over to the mainland.
Early one morning I hired him to take me in his rowing boat deeper into the mangrove forest and onto some of the more than 4,000 canals in the area.
Although very impressive and apparently peaceful, the canals are the breeding grounds of the most ferocious army of mosquitoes I have ever encountered. They managed to get me through my shirt, jeans and socks. Of course they completely ignored the rower who also informed me that there is malaria in the region so I rushed back to my room to take the weekly malaria pills I should have taken two days before.
On my way up the Bay of Bengal, I stopped for lunch in the town of Pondicherry, which used to be a French colony and today retains a strong French flavour in its architecture and, more importantly to me, in its restaurants. I was served my first beef steak in India by a waiter who spoke fluent French. It was delicious.
Mahabalipuram (after constantly stopping for directions that name just rolls of the tongue – more or less) is a small scenic town 60 kms south of Madras, now called Chennai, built along the sea front, full of shops and stalls selling sculptures of Hindu deities carved out of soapstone and wood. Walking down the street you can hear the tapping of the carvers’ chisels behind the doorways.
Although a beautiful little town, it stinks – literally. I was staying in a lovely cottage just by the beach and enjoyed sitting out in the courtyard under the shade of coconut palms and bougainvillea. That is, I enjoyed it only for a moment until I noticed a smell of faeces mixed with the smell of the sea and the tropical flowers. The beach just outside the walls of the garden was the villagers’ toilet. The incense stick provided on the coffee table did little to help.
I pushed on to Chennai. Although the fourth largest city in India, it has a small town feel to it. This is in contrast to the numerous small towns I’ve gone through that feel like frantic, major industrial cities. Chennai has a very impressive marina and the traffic is controlled by an extensive one-way system that is generally obeyed by road users.
While walking around the city I came across a large crowd of young people outside a cinema. They were waiting to buy tickets to see the film Titanic and the queue went right around the building. As I walked pass, a young man asked me if I could go to the booking office’s Ladies Queue to buy 12 tickets for the film.
Most places including cinemas, post offices and train stations have a separate, and much shorter, line for women and if there isn’t a separate queue, women can simply walk up to the counter in front of all the men.
Pleased that at least he’d noticed I was a woman, I agreed.
The next day I loaded my bike onto a train to Mumbai, a journey of 30 hours. I was going back to Mumbai to catch a flight to Israel where my sister was getting married. I’d come back to India a couple weeks later.
This was my first train trip in India and I was quite excited about it. The network is the largest single employer in the world and it is an incredibly complex but efficient transport system. Since it was such a long journey I booked a first class berth in a four-passenger compartment. Unfortunately what I hoped would be a break turned out to be very unpleasant. Both the air conditioning and the fan were broken and I got food poisoning from an omelette I bought at one of the many stops during the journey. I spent the next 20 hours being violently sick.
I’m sure the train went through some very nice scenery but what I’ll remember from this trip were my numerous trips to the increasingly dirty toilet, and the suffocating heat.
When the train arrived in Mumbai, the railway staff unloaded my bike with the same delicate touch they used for the post-bags and broke my clutch lever. I gingerly rode up to Malabar Hills to stay with Indian friends introduced to me by a friend in London. I would be leaving my bike and most of my gear with them for the next two weeks while I was in Israel.
Israel felt like a modern Western country rather than the exotic oriental country I remembered. I used to think that Israeli drivers were the most undisciplined drivers in the world but now they appeared as docile as sedated sheep. Even the food seemed rather plain and a bit tasteless.
I was glad I was seeing my family here rather than at home in London. This way I could pretend that this was not an interruption in my journey but just a slight digression. And it would be an opportunity to see whether they felt I had changed. Silly me. People spend a lot less time thinking about us than we think they do. And family dynamics tend to stay pretty much constant. I think we just go back to the role we had during our childhood. I may feel pretty confident now, but I am still intimidated by my father, still guilt-ridden by the worries I cause my parents and still bossed around by my older siblings.
When I returned to Mumbai and my bike, I had another long journey ahead of me. I was heading for Calcutta and had a choice between a one week motorcycle ride in the pre-monsoon heat across the heartland of India or a 36 hour journey in an air-conditioned train. I chose the train.
This time I consumed only biscuits and mineral water and had a comfortable if rather boring journey. The only excitement, and I could have done without it, happened before the train even pulled out of the station in Mumbai.
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