‘Big Thumper’ was starting to give me trouble again: it was stalling, backfiring, and had little pick-up. The first mechanic diagnosed a dirty carburetor but cleaning it did not resolve the problem. A second mechanic identified dirty points and although it seemed to run better for a while, the problem still returned. And the third mechanic thought the points needed resetting, but that made no difference whatsoever. I wasn’t too worried as I was going to one of the largest towns in India, Ahmedabad, where I knew I could get a complete service at the Enfield dealership.
Ahmedabad is a big industrial city with unbelievable congestion in its streets. They make even the streets of Delhi look like the highways of the American Midwest on a Sunday morning. Once you’ve joined a group of moving vehicles, it’s almost impossible to leave the flow. There is not even any room to pull over to consult a map.
On my way to the Enfield dealership I got completely lost and had to ask for directions.
I noticed a man in his thirties, wearing an unfeasibly white shirt in all this pollution, walking down the street.
‘Excuse me,’ I shouted through my full-face helmet. ‘Does this road go to Gandhi Memorial?’
‘Gandhi Memorial? I go there. I go with you,’ he said as he climbed onto the back of my bike before I could stop him.
As I followed his instructions, we spoke. ‘Where are you from?’ he asked. ‘England.’
‘What is your good name?’
‘Michèle. And what is your name?’
He answered and added, ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ ‘A woman.’
That seemed to silence him and I concentrated on manoeuvring my bike through the traffic. Suddenly I noticed that he had moved forward on the seat and was now pressing against me. I shuffled forward to get a bit of distance between us. A few seconds later he moved in closer again and was now squeezing my bum with his thighs. Again I moved forward and was now almost straddling the fuel tank.
But still he pressed against me. Finally exasperated I slammed on the brakes and ordered him off the bike.
‘Okay, that’s as far as I take you,’ I declared. ‘I’ll find Gandhi Memorial on my own.’ ‘But it is still far,’ he replied.
‘I don’t care. Just get off the bike right now. NOW!’
Finally I found the Enfield dealer. The manager promised to give the bike a complete check-up and have it ready by 6 pm. In the meanwhile I took an auto-rickshaw to the beauty parlour used by his wife where I had another of those complete pamperings consisting of a haircut, a massage, a manicure and a pedicure for next to nothing.
When I returned to the garage, the mechanic was putting the finishing touches on the service (he was cleaning the bike). He told me he’d found the cause of my problem had been a dirty carburetor. I wasn’t convinced since it had only recently been cleaned.
I also asked the mechanic to adjust the front brake but rather than tighten each of the three￼￼points separately, he simply tightened the cable on the handlebar so much that the front wheel could no longer turn freely. Since this was one of the things I’d learned from the Yorkshire man in Dharamsala, I ended up teaching the mechanic how to do it.
And to top it off, when he tried to repair the side indicators, he managed to short-circuit some wires and had to replace the fuse.
By then I had serious doubts on the quality of his workmanship but decided to ride back to my hotel 20 kilometres away since it was already 8 pm. I was barely out of the town when the bike stalled. It continued to stall every few kilometres all the way back to my hotel and the journey took me over two hours. I was furious. The mechanic had only made the problem worse.
In the morning I rode – with difficulty – back to the Enfield dealer and complained. ‘I am not happy with the service I received yesterday,’ I told him. ‘It took eight hours for my bike to be serviced and I got it back in worse condition than before. And this is from an Enfield dealer.’ I added. ‘Not from some scooter mechanic on the side of the road.’
‘I am sorry madam. He is a new mechanic and he is still learning.’
The dealer got on the phone and spoke rapidly in Gujarati but at one point switched to English and said, ‘I want this customer to leave fully satisfied.’
He hung up and turned to me. ‘I have asked the best mechanic in Ahmedabad to look at your bike.
And you will not be charged for any parts since the guarantee is still valid and I will not charge for the labour. I am very sorry about what happened.’
The rest of the day was spent in a small workshop by the river in the town centre, watching an old man who didn’t speak any English work on my bike. He moved slowly but with confidence. He checked the points, the carburetor, the tappets and eventually after six hours of work, he identified a damaged part: a small rip in the rubber tube to the air filter.
A little boy was sent out to buy a replacement and returned two hours later (!). With a new tube, the bike ran a bit better but it was still stalling regularly.
The mechanic decided to stop for the day and I returned early the next morning. While he resumed his search for the problem, I decided to take a walk in the nearby streets of this run-down quarter of Ahmedabad.
I stopped by a shoe polish man squatting on the pavement. In front of him he had placed a row of small bottles of polish: a red one, a black one, a white one and an ochre one. From these he could create just about any shade of shoe leather.
My boots were very dirty and I decided to have them cleaned. The man placed a sheet of plastic on the ground for me to sit on while I removed my boots. I sat watching him work and admired the look of intense concentration on his lined face as he cleaned, waxed and polished. For the price of a few rupees, my boots looked almost new.
Then something strange happened that was to be repeated many times, in various forms, during my year-long trip. He didn’t anticipate that to put the shoe on I would need the laces undone. Instead, after shaking the dust out of the laces and wiping them with a damp cloth, he threaded them up all the way to the top of the first boot and tied a beautiful knot.
Amused I took the offered boot and undid the laces to put it on. Was that a moue of displeasure around his mouth? He repeated the process with the second boot and again showed some annoyance when I undid his work.
When I returned to the mechanic, he was all smiles. He’d found the problem: a faulty ignition coil. The boy was sent out and returned, again two hours later, with a replacement.
A test ride confirmed he’d indeed found the cause. I was thrilled and he looked even more thrilled. I tried to pay him but he refused, indicating that the dealer would be paying him. He ￼￼wouldn’t even accept a soft drink and instead insisted on buying me one.
Much happier now that Big Thumper was running well, I started making my way down to Diu, a beach resort described as a quieter Goa. It also has the added attraction that unlike the rest of Gujarat, the purchase of alcohol is legal.
I broke off my journey to stay at the Velavadar National Park where I stayed at the lodge on the reserve and once again I was the only guest. That seemed to be the pattern whenever I left the major towns.
I drove through the park both at sunset and sunrise to see the wildlife. I saw male and females blue bulls (they look like a cross between deer and cattle) which can live without water for long periods of time even in high temperatures. I also saw three large herds of blackbucks, a type of antelope of which the male has distinctive spiralled horns, wild boar, pallid harriers, which are migratory birds from Europe and a female lesser florian. The latter looks a bit like a peacock and there are only around 1,500 birds that survive in India. Approximately 80 come to this park during the mating season and when they go away, no one knows where.
I continued towards Diu and stopped for a few hours at the Alang ship-breaking yard, which stretches for 10 kilometres along the seafront. Although only set up in 1982, it is now the biggest ship-breaking yard in the world. Its commercial success is due mainly to the low cost of employing the 50,000 workers who risk their lives everyday to pull apart enormous ships, often literally by hand. At least 20 workers die every year through accidents and some years, it’s more than 100.
I met a plot manager who spoke very good English and proudly showed me the two Russian destroyers he was in the process of dismantling.
‘The workers are very skilled and come from far to work here,’ he said.
‘Where do they come from?’ I asked.
‘Bihar, Orissa and Utter Pradesh.’ Those are among the poorest states in India.
‘They come here because of the high wages,’ he explained. ‘They can make as much as 100 rupees a day.’ Three dollars.
‘Do they work both day and night?’ I asked, having heard that the yard never stopped working.
‘No, no. They work only fourteen hours every day. After that they go sleep and eat in the housing provided by the company.’ He pointed to the endless rows of shacks where the 50,000 men, some with their families, lived.
‘Can you explain to me what happens when a new boat comes in?’ I asked. He hesitated. ‘You asking so much questions. Are you a journalist?’
‘No,’ I laughed. ‘I love boats. That’s why I’m interested.’
‘Alright.’ He pointed to an old P & O passenger cruiser, anchored out at sea. ‘The boats sail in with a minimum crew. And they stop as close to the beach as possible. The crew leaves the boat and go home or to their next job. Now the boat is ours. At high tide, we bring the ship to just 50 metres from the shore.
‘Then we strip everything. You see the small boat coming from the big boat?’ he asked me.
It was carrying gas cylinders. ‘Yes,’ I answered.
‘That’s how we bring the things into shore. We put it in the boats and bring it here to the beach.’
He pointed to various heaps on the sand. ‘You can see we have different qualities of steel, we have cabling, wood, gas cylinders, wire netting. Everything is sold by weight. We also have furniture. Did you see it when you came to the yard?’
I nodded. On the road to the shipyard I had passed probably the world’s largest garage sale. For
￼￼over three kilometres, all I could see were neatly arranged piles of plates, cups, chairs, bed-frames, mattresses, curtains, towels, telephones, fridges, washing machines, doors, sinks, toilets, fans and wall lamp fixtures.
This is what the Indian tourist bureau writes about Diu:
“Diu, a beautiful blend of sun, sand and sea is God’s gift to those in quest of a blessed turf where the weary weight of this unintelligible world can, for a while, be lightened and the waking soul can hear the music of the spheres.”
With this in mind, I expected great things. Unfortunately, the first day started off rather badly when I couldn’t open up my new padlock on my bike. I had just bought the lock the day before but didn’t realise the key did not match the lock. Maybe to some people it’s obvious you need to check the key matches the padlock but not to me.
I spent an hour going from hardware store to hardware store growing more and more despondent as the consensus was that I’d have to go to the nearest town on the mainland, 20 kilometres away, to find a locksmith. My last attempt was at the scooter mechanic who lent me a hacksaw. I was pleased, but also worried, to discover how easy it was to saw through the lock.
While at the garage, I met the mechanic’s brother who worked at London’s Heathrow airport. This had been made possible for him because residents of Diu could, prior to 1961, apply for Portuguese nationality. The older population still spoke Portuguese.
Despite this bad start to my stay in Diu, I agree with the tourism bureau that this island provides its visitors with a very relaxing interlude: the pace is gentle, the beaches deserted, the sea calm and the sea food delicious. My week in Diu felt like a holiday from my holiday; my main activities were lying on the beach and eating great meals. I came across some tourists who had been here for six weeks already. It would be easy to do.
I met a civil servant in his mid forties and his wife in Diu’s marketplace. The couple lived 300 kilometres away, in Ahmedabad, and had come for a short break, leaving their children with their grandparents. I was reading a newspaper and asked them to explain some of the various political parties fighting for the elections.
The man answered, ‘I’m fed up with elections; we’re not really interested in all that; we prefer the simple life. These politicians, they make fun of us.’
When I asked him if he was going to vote he said yes but that he had not yet made up his mind who he’d vote for; he wanted to see which candidates each party would field and then he would decide whether this candidate was ‘a good man.’
He complained that politics were corrupted. ‘Politicians are only after the money they can earn when they are in power. They don’t care about the people. They don’t care about our welfare. And if it looks like their party is losing popularity, the politicians just change parties, or create new ones.’
I was back on the road again, heading to the north of Gujarat. After a particularly long day I treated myself to a good meal in the town of Rajkot, in one of the top restaurants recommended in my guidebook. Although there were some empty tables I approached one with a red-faced middle- aged Westerner.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’ I asked.
‘Of course not. I’m glad for a bit of female company.’ ‘Are you from New Zealand?’ I asked.
‘No. I’m Australian,’ he replied. ‘Do I look like a bloody sheep shagger?’ He leaned over and added with a sly grin, ‘So you didn’t fancy eating with those bloody Indians then? Hehe. Can’t say I blame you. Or was it my general good looks? Hehe.’
Shit, I thought. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
I smiled. ‘No, I just fancied a conversation. I’ve been on the road and I haven’t really spoken to anybody for a while.’
‘Oh! So you just want my conversation then, not my body. Oh well, too bad, then.’
He chewed on a chapati. ‘Okay, let’s have a conversation, maybe you’ll change you mind later about my body. Haha.’
‘So what do you think about India?’ he asked.
That’s a strange question, I thought. Usually I only got it from Indians.
I answered. ‘I’m having a great time here, I love it. It’s such an adventure, even with all the hassle, I…’
He interrupted me. ‘Yeah, all that bloody hassle. I can’t wait to get out of here. I’m sick and tired of them Indians. Always asking for money. You can’t trust any of them.’
His beer bottle was now empty and he bellowed across the room. ‘Another beer!’
‘Oh, you’ve had bad experiences then?’ I asked.
‘Bad experiences? Every bloody day here is a bad experience,’ he replied. ‘One day they try to cheat you, another day they try to poison you. And to top it off they’re all so bloody stupid.
Honestly, have you met a smart Indian?’
‘No,’ he disagreed. ‘There aren’t any’.
The waiter approached our table with his beer.
The Australian continued. ‘Don’t you find that the Indians are stupid?’
The waiter poured the beer, bowed slightly and walked away.
‘I think he heard you,’ I said.
‘I don’t bloody care. He’s probably too stupid to understand.’
The Indian family at the table nearby turned around to look at us and I looked down. Guilty by association.
Smiling, one of the diners asked my companion, ‘Which is your country, sir?’ ‘Czechoslovakia,’ he lied.
‘Surely, you mean the Czech Republic, sir?’
India 1 – Foreigners nil.
I tried to stop only every 500 steps to catch my breath.
I’d counted 2,852 steps so far. How many more to make a total of 10,000? That’s the number of steps up to the top of Girnar Hill, with its Jain and Hindu Temples.
I should have started at dawn, like everybody else, when it was cooler. But instead, I started
￼￼￼climbing at 10 am when most people were already coming down. Every time someone came down, they smiled and spoke to me. Always the same questions.
‘What is your name?’
‘What is your country?’
If I wasn’t quick enough they’d also ask which city. The answer would then usually elicit the exclamation, ‘Oh, London proper!’
In all fairness to the Australian man in the restaurant, it does get rather annoying, especially after the first few dozen times, and the first few thousand steps.
Most of the people were families and children on school outings. There were also some old people and ill people hoping that this pilgrimage would bring them relief. The most moving was a couple leading their blind daughter slowly down each step. She also had a clubfoot and seemed mentally disabled. Despite the effort she smiled broadly and grunted at each step. Her parents had a patient, loving but pained look on their faces; they stopped by each beggar lining the route to donate a rupee or two.
My next destination was a nature reserve in an area called the Little Rann of Kutch. There, I befriended another guest, an Indian man called Vijay who invited me back to his home for lunch in nearby Ahmedabad. At the end I stayed for five days. Initially I expected him to make a pass at me but although we became very good friends and confided many of our thoughts, he never did. Instead he treated me as a friend and confidante. He was very interested in the world outside India and enjoyed discussing English literature, about which he knew much more than I did.
His house, in a walled complex of a few hundred luxury villas, was built on two levels with separate servant quarters. Until a year ago, Vijay lived with his wife, in this, his parents’ home.
They had now separated and she’d gone back to her family.
While Vijay spent his days at work, I used his computer and internet connection to communicate with my friends and family back home. The servants periodically came up to check if I wanted another glass of iced tea or a snack. They even washed the dust off my bike whenever I took it out.
When Vijay returned from work, we’d have a glass of Indian rum, despite the prohibition rules in the state, before going out for dinner with his friends in town.
Vijay’s social group was totally fluent in English. In fact they spoke it better than Gujarati even though they had done all their schooling in India. I was introduced to a professional cricket player, a designer of western fashion and a business consultant.
Evenings went on till late, glasses were constantly replenished and the conversation revolved around the latest political scandals, business deals and Booker Prize winners.
As I sat on a beautiful white leather sofa, I reflected that rural Indians would find these fast living, fast talking Indians almost as strange as they found me.
For New Year’ Eve, Vijay organised a party in his home and invited forty of his friends. I had nothing suitable to wear and so I bought a tight pair of jeans at Benetton and borrowed one of Vijay’s white shirts which I tied about my shrinking waist. We danced to the tunes of ABBA and Queen and drank lots of rum. No-one mistook me for a man.
The next day, while we stayed in to nurse our hangovers, Vijay spoke to me about his family. His father’s family had owned rice and sugar plantations in Burma and lived there for three generations.
During the Second World War, his father, aged 13, fled the Japanese and made his way to Mumbai where he worked as a coolie in the railway station for four years. He then got a job working for a pasti-wallah (a person who deals in second-hand books and newspapers) and educated himself by reading books in the shop. From there he found a job as a clerk in an insurance company and eventually set up his own company trading cotton in Yemen.
When the Korean War erupted, and disrupted the normal trading routes, he made his fortune, which he promptly lost when the war ended. He became an employee again and today Vijay’s father was the finance director of one of the biggest corporations in India. Not bad for a kid who started out as railway porter.
Vijay’s mother was also a businesswoman whose small physique belied a very strong personality. In addition to her normal job in an insurance company, she spent an hour every morning trading petrochemical products on the phone before going to the office. She acted as a middleman between suppliers and consumers.
One morning, I sat in her bedroom having a cup of tea and watched her wheel and deal on the telephone while she lay on her bed. Although the conversation was in Gujarati, it was obvious from her voice that she was a tough negotiator and did not waste time.
After hanging up the phone, she looked up and questioned me about my job, trip, and personal life.
After a few minutes, it became clear to me that she was really trying to find out how long I would be staying and what my intentions were regarding her son. I reassured her that I would soon be moving on and that my friendship with Vijay was purely platonic.
Vijay, like both his parents, was a very high achiever and an entrepreneur. Whilst still at university he started selling computers and then set up a business selling office equipment. He’d just bought his partner out by borrowing from business friends in exchange for post-dated cheques. He assured me that this is a common way of doing business in India.
The morning of my departure, I sat at breakfast with Vijay and his mother and noticed a heavy atmosphere and a lot of murmuring between the two servants in the kitchen. I asked Vijay if something was happening.
He explained. ‘We just heard that our housekeeper’s brother has been kidnapped. He’s the driver to one of the biggest businessmen in Ahmedabad.’
‘How did it happen?’ I asked.
‘We don’t know exactly. Our housekeeper just heard this morning on the telephone. The police found the car abandoned at one of the major roundabouts in the city centre. They think the businessman, his driver and his bodyguard were kidnapped at gunpoint from there.’
‘What’s going to happen now?’ I asked.
Vijay replied. ‘Well it depends if the kidnap was for ransom or to get rid of a business rival. If it’s to get rid of a business rival then they could end up dead. If it’s for a ransom, it will probably get paid and they’ll all re-appear in a few days.’
‘Which one do you think it is?’
‘I don’t know, I hope it was done for money.’
I later learned that the prisoners were eventually freed.
Don’t forget to come back next week for chapter 10 of Michele’s fantastic journey when she she meets some sacred cows.
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Am enjoying reading about your ride!
Just last year i rode around India, Nepal and Bhutan on my RE Classic 500cc. A total of 13000kms over a period of 72 days. Was an amazing ride!