Saturday, August 6, 2011

India 2011

From January to April, i travelled to India with my friend Andy.
We were lucky enough to get sponsored by Royal Enfield, who lent us for free 2 beautiful motorbikes. Andy stayed only for the first month before heading back to cold old London to work.

The following is an article i wrote for Royal Enfield about that first month with Andy.

Photos HERE

It's late January and it's already very warm under the sun but the wind in our face makes it comfortable as we reach our cruising speed. With a series of zig zags, Andy overtakes a couple of characteristically coloured Tata trucks who seem to think the road is theirs. The deep roar of his engine shadows the sizzling hum of the trucks. I follow in his wake, honking to make sure they realise there's two of us (they could check in their mirrors if only they had some). We quickly leave them behind: on our Classics 500, we are often the ones doing the overtaking.
We've just started our journey, and with a long 1300km ahead towards Hampi and then Mumbai, and with just 3 weeks to do it, there's no time to waste.

I reflect on how lucky we are to be doing this. Since we had landed in Chennai, just 10 days earlier, Susheel and his family had done so much for us, hosting us and introducing us to their way of life. How unlikely was all this to happen ? If Susheel hadn't been a member of the local Parkour community, Andy wouldn't have contacted him before our trip to tell him about our plan to tour India on motorcycles, taking photos of the trip and of me doing Parkour. Therefore we would have never been introduced to Susheel's cousin, Sid, and none of this would have been possible...

A dog runs across the road right in front of me, drawing me back to reality as I slam my brakes. It was a close one. There'll be more. In India, unexpected events are to be expected constantly.
The roads are busy and dangerous compared to the disciplined driving we're used to on the calm lanes of our countries. We're accustomed to rules and procedures, but Indian roads work in a more organic way. One will overetake wherever and whenever they please, or drive on the opposite lane even if you're on it, and even cut you off without looking, forcing you to either pull off a driving stunt, or crash into them.
Sure they have rules too, but who follows them ? One is absolutely free on the road, for best and for worst!

Andy's stomach is getting better but the ride is still rough on him. His "Delhi belly" condition had forced us to stay longer than planned in Chennai, but at least it had given us the opportunity to get to know the bikes. Also, we had been introduced to Sachin, Ravi, and Praveen -all working for Enfield- whom we had been put in touch with by Sid, Susheel's cousin and CEO of the company.
We had emailed them prior to the trip to let them know of our plans to buy motorbikes, and to find out if they could be of assistance in some way, but we were far from expecting the response we received (which I'm barely summarising here): "Ok, we can get you a couple of Classics 500 for the duration of your trip, nothing to pay apart from the petrol you use, they'll be ready for you when you arrive." !

The sun is on its way down as we reach Hampi, after a couple days' ride. The evening light soothes our tired minds and highlights an already spectacular sight. We find ourselves riding among ancient temples, surrounded by palm trees, rice paddies, and boulders as far as the eye can see. But it's not yet time to relax: a large river splits the Unesco protected sight into two, and the only bridge linking them has been taken away by the monsoon floods. We must search for another way across. It's on that other side that we will find the interesting boulders that we've come for. Indeed, Hampi is a world-renowned climbing destination!
It takes some effort to find a raft that will take our massive 500s, and even more to actually make the crossing: precariously balancing our bikes on the very edges of the overcrowded raft as it tosses around amid the current. Neither of us would find it very funny to have to go fishing for our 200kg motorcycles, and even less to make that awkward phone call to notify the Enfield people...

Hampi is a paradise! In total, we spend 2 weeks climbing, riding, chilling, making people jealous with our motorbikes, and getting an occasional food poisoning. It is a very touristic place, so it's not here that we'll get our "real India" experience, but it is really cool nevertheless! After some days, people in town start speaking about the Parkour guy who jumps from a boulder to another and I even end up teaching a class, at the request of some of the foreigners there. The boulders seem to have been put there for the sole purpose of being climbed and jumped. I seize the opportunity to challenge myself in the way that I like best: by facing obstacles that are as mental as they are physical. And when I'm not leaping over vertiginous drops onto narrow and uneven landing surfaces, I slash my fingertips on the tricky climbing routes, or jog through the paddies and up the sinuous stairs to the perched monkey temple. There, I can admire the panoramic landscape and the monkeys playing and scaling with effortless ease along the steepest surfaces (when they're not busy steeling food and cameras from tourists).

When finally we decide that we're ready to ride off towards Mumbai, we realise that we're seriously running out of time. Andy's flight back to London is just a handful of days away, and to add to the situation, his damaged chain sprocket threatens to let the chain loose and cause an accident. Luckily, the Enfield service points are never far, and always efficient. Within an hour the problem is fixed and we can proceed with our journey, relieved.
The following day turns out to be intense. Starting at sunrise, we ride all through the day with few stops and decide after sunset to stop for the night. We could camp, but in India, with so many people absolutely everywhere, this proves to be a difficult thing to do.
We fail also to find anything else than luxury hotels to spend the night in, no matter how hard we try.
Both Andy and I are on tight budgets, and luxury is out of the question anyway, as I strongly believe it impedes the spirit of adventure. The way I see it, adventures should be messy, uncomfortable, and unpredictable. If not, they become mere trips. And at the handle-bars of our kick-ass Enfields, it's adventure that we're after...
Finally, resigned, Andy asks out loud what we had both been thinking about for a while:

"Should we ride all the way to Mumbai tonight ?"

It's already past 10pm. We're exhausted after this already long day of being careful not to die on the road, dodging dogs and monkeys, potholes and bumps, and even people with little care for their own life.
As dangerous as Indian roads may be in the day, they are much worse at night. For instance, buses will still overtake each other as you come from the opposite direction, but this time they'll blind you with their powerful headlights when they force you out to the side of the road, while you hope that there is a side of the road...

We shake hands, wishing each other luck, and we hit the road.
When we finally arrive in Mumbai, it's late into the night, the streets are at rest and we wish we could be the same. Risckshaws are parked and their drivers sound asleep on their back seats, a few lit petrol stations here and there still show some signs of activity.
It all feels surreal; here we are in one of the biggest cities in the world, and it feels emptier than the smallest town we've seen in India.
We wander around, making wrong turn after wrong turn as we struggle to locate Andy's friend who'll be hosting us there. I don't know whether to laugh or lose patience, so I take turns doing both. At last we find our way.
Greetings with Andy's friend, small chat, quick shower (on my own), lights off and I fall asleep before my head touches the pillow.

A couple days later, Andy was flying back home, leaving me for another 2 months -without a clear plan in mind- to further discover the wonders of India.
I could tell you about the ethereal brightness of the salt desert, or the teaching by the Dalai Lama that I attended amidst the majestic Himalayan range, or even the mysterious chain of events that shaped my path before me... But if I did that, then I would have to mention the wonderful random encounters, the peaceful meditation on long stretches of road, and the incredible rumble that my whole India experience caused within me. And surely a single article would hardly be enough to fit even half of it.

India works in mysterious ways; it takes you by surprise on every level. I hated it often, loved it sometimes, but without the shadow of a doubt I feel glad to have gone through it. And I wouldn't have wanted to experience it in any other way than with my good buddy Andy, a Royal Enfield, and the road ahead.



Nicolas Romero said...

WOW! Traceur and Biker! Incredible! Mr Tom, You're always an inspiration.

Regards from Mexico!

Aaron said...

Hurrah! Another post! Was a good one too. Wish you could have told more of your journey though!

Fire Hu said...

What an amazing article!

gato said...

Welcome back Thomas!
As usual great to read from you.
Lookin forward to have you here!

PS: I spent a couple of weeks around corsica this summer with my motorbike. This kinda trip is the best!