Three days ago, it was the two year anniversary of me buying my motorcycle. This got me thinking about (and reading through my journal entries) the rides I’ve done. Of course, things are beautiful in Ladakh and Spiti (entries coming up!), but also in my memory are some of long rides through not-so-interesting terrain.
I used to say I don’t spend more than five hours a day riding because I get bored and tired. But there are occasions where I have, and here, just to write about what I felt, I will describe a few of these rides to you.
“There is a direct union of oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single, indivisible entity; it is very much like riding a horse. A car cannot become part of one in quite the same way.” — Oliver Sacks
I am somewhere in Assam — between Guwahati and Tezpur. I can feel the vibration of my motorcycle as it thunders along the highway at 80 (maybe 90 (maybe 100)) kilometres per hour. The villages of Assam are whizzing past.
There is so much green, and so much water here. There are nets on stilted bamboo contraptions everywhere, and I keep thinking about their purpose as I ride — what else could they be for but fishing? But if they are for fishing, how come the nets are not in the water? Maybe they take them out during the day? I can’t figure it out, but it occurs to me that the whole culture here in the wet Northeast of India must be inextricably tied to the water: river and rain.
Music and podcasts alternately make their through my earphones into my ear. I feel the wind inside my supposedly windproof jacket. There is always an uncomfortable chill at these speed when it’s not hot. But today, even the discomfort is pleasing.
Kids, lotuses, farms, trucks filled with gas or water or sand or cement or people, houses built on elevated platforms to stay safe during the annual floods, coconut sellers along the road; they all pass by. As I confidently lean into the turns, I feel united with my motorcycle and I understand — for maybe the first time in almost two years — what Oliver Sacks was saying.
I am somewhere between Goa and Bangalore: closer to Goa, because it’s only been an hour since I left Agonda in South Goa. It’s raining and I’ve stopped for a samosa.
No, skip half an hour. It’s raining and I’m riding.
I’m on a single lane road through what appears to be a forest — trees of the greenest green on both sides. It’s still raining. It’s not a storm, but the road is wet and the rain falls heavy enough that I keep wiping the helmet glass every minute or so. I love these roads; even when it’s not raining, there’s usually no traffic, and there are very few potholes. Should I take the phone out of the mount in the rain?
Fuck! There’s a puppy on the road. It’s looking at me, but doesn’t seem to have any desire to get out the way!
I press my foot down on the brake as hard as I can. Which is the brake I’m supposed to use when it’s raining? The back or the front? For all my internet research, I can’t remember a fact when it’s useful. I pull the front brake lever hard as well. The bike slows down a bit, but because the road is so wet, there’s no way I’ll stop before I get to this dumb dog that’s refusing to move.
I feel my back tire skid out to the side a little, but I don’t stop braking. I remember my riding lessons in Illinois. Look at where you want to go. Look a little to the side and the bike will go there!
The advice is good, but I can’t take my eyes off of the puppy. I continue skidding past and look back, terrified of what I might have done.
Now, the idiot is walking to the side of the road, completely indifferent to how close it was to dying. Dumb dog. It probably doesn’t even care how fast my heart is beating, how heavily I’m breathing, or how there is now sweat mixed with the rainwater on my hands. I drive slower for a bit, but soon relax into the rhythm of the road and the rain again.
I stop for lunch at roadside restaurant and eat a below-average fish thali. I expect looks and amusement at my drenchedness, but get neither. The owner of the restaurant and the servers show absolutely no reaction or surprise. They’ve probably seen worse.
It stops raining after lunch. The sun begins to shine through the still-present clouds. It’s so beautiful that I feel like screaming into my helmet with joy.
As the sun begins to set, I am on the big, wide, smooth, highways of Karnataka. I am too excited to stop for the day. I keep riding through a dull orange sunset into the night. The obstacles here are no longer the road or the weather, but boredom, sleep, and idiots coming the other way who don’t turn off their high beam. I sing loudly and stop frequently for tea.
Back in the United States, I spent a lot of time in my dear car on the expressways. When I felt sleepy, I would pull over into a gas station, drink crappy coffee, and find new flavours of chips to eat. Here in India, I drink tea and find new flavours of Kurkure. Life changes, but also does not change.
Fast-forward a few months to this April, I rode from Darjeeling to Delhi over three days.
The first day was a great ride, descending and riding through huge tea estates. There were a few scary moments when my back brake stopped working as I was riding downhill, but then it started working again of its own accord, so all was good.
The second day was mostly spent on the swelteringly hot highways of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. This was where I really understood that agriculture is an important part of India. I mean, I knew it theoretically from my school days. But riding beside farm after farm, village after village, watching the workers eating lunch or carrying hay or wading through ankle-deep water in the rice farms gave me an unexpectedly strong surge of love for this country.
The third day is what I still consider to be my worst ride in India. It was hot. When I say hot, I mean as hot as Lucknow or Kanpur in the middle of Summer. I know it’s true because it was Summer and I rode through both Lucknow and Kanpur.
When you’re on a motorcycle at 80 kmph, it usually feels a little colder than it actually is, because of the wind blowing in your face and through every gap in your jacket. Above a certain temperature however, this wind itself becomes hot, and the ride becomes exhausting. You are literally drained of water. Your mouth becomes dry and the water in your bottle offers little relief because it too, is hot. You almost want to screw plastic pollution and just buy a bottle of cold water, but you resist bravely.
I was stopping for Musambi (Sweet Lime? Key Lime?) juice along the road almost every half hour.
Then I got on the Lucknow-Agra expressway. This is a swanky new road that the Google Maps Lady (GML) put me on as the fastest route to Delhi. My water bottle was empty as I got on it, and my fuel was getting there. But I wasn’t worried because this was India! There’s always a gas station and a dhaba nearby.
Not on this expressway, though. There was nothing. Nowhere to get liquids for me or my motorcycle. GML promised me that there was a gas station five kilometres off the expressway, so I got petrol at least. Still no water, or tea, or a cold drink. I was sweating, my head was spinning and I had to stop a few times just to breathe in some cool air and not faint.
There were two big exits, their signs promising food and petrol, but the buildings were empty. The watchman told me to keep riding as I approached, saying it would be at least a few months before they opened for actual business.
My hands were also weak and almost shaking. I wanted to give up for the day, but going back was the same as going forward. It was the longest three hours that I have ever spent on the road.
There was a kid selling soft drinks from a cooler and a few snacks just as the expressway was about to end. I bought two 500 ml bottles of 7-up and drank them both in less than ten minutes. That was probably more carbonated drinks than I had had in the whole of the year. For “lunch”, I had a Rs 5 packet of Haldiram peanuts.
And then I was out. The rest of the ride through Agra to Delhi was still hot, but felt luxurious compared to what I had just been through. Barring a frustrating puncture fifteen minutes before I reached my friend’s house, nothing too uncomfortable happened.
Let’s go a few months back now. To the December of last year. I am riding from Shantiniketan (three hours from Kolkata) to the India-Bhutan border.
It has been a very frustrating ride so far. GML has been trying to take me through villages to avoid the truck traffic on the highway, but she can only do so much. There are trucks everywhere. There is smoke, dust, and so much noise of horns and engines even the music blaring through my earphones can’t drown it out.
I want to stop because I’m tired, but I also don’t want to stop because this truck parade is unrelenting, and I don’t want to spend a moment more in this pollution than I have to. So I keep riding, my irritation with the world growing. GML takes me into yet another village. The road is bumpy and full of potholes. It’s still preferable to the highway, but I’m in a bad mood and I’m not enjoying this any more.
A van passes by me, carrying many more passengers and stuff than it was designed for. It stops a few metres ahead, to pick up even more people. They are now climbing onto the roof. A bunch of kids run by me towards the van. A girl from the group, laughing and barefoot, looks behind at me and waves and laughs. I wave back, suddenly feeling alright.
Another kid shouts at me from the top of the van, “Will you give me a lift?”. He’s joking, because when I wave for him to get down, he laughs.
The ride becomes bearable even though nothing has changed.
So, that’s what a long ride in India feels like. There will be wind on your face, but apart from that, there’s little that you can predict.