For the past three and a half years I’ve been exploring the roads, the highways and byways, of India on my motorbike. I’ve probably traveled more than 50,000 km all over the country – the only area I haven’t been to is the north east. I usually go on longer trips, 4 weeks or more, and I try to avoid the sterile and boring to ride highways and look for the lonesome roads, the country tracks. To put it mildly, these are not always in tip-top condition – but most of the time it’s well worth investing that extra time and effort. Simply because it’s here that you can dig deeper into the country and get a real feeling for it. I believe it’s on roads like this that India shows its true face: beautiful but sometimes very unforgiving. The landscape can be stunning but all too often it’s scattered with litter and scarred with garbage dumps. The people you meet are among the most innocent and curious that you’ll find but they’re horribly left behind. All these are pictures that we don’t usually find in Western media which pushes the image of an emerging, rapidly growing economic power.
I started to ride a motorbike a few months after arriving in India. Before that I had 20 years devotion to the humble motor scooter and my longest trip on the 50 ccm two wheeler was from Berlin to Heidelberg – a grand total of 650 km! It took me three days and what a great way it was to explore the country roads of my home land away from the straight and narrow of the Autobahn. But motorbiking in India is a different story. Upgrading from a scooter to a motorbike wasn’t so much of a challenge – the real challenge was how to cope with the sheer unpredictability of any kind of Indian traffic situation. Whether on a four lane highway where on-coming traffic shouldn’t be so surprising, not even on the fast track, or arriving in an urbanized area where the density of everything suddenly and dramatically increases. In less than a minute you move from the free breeze in your face to jostling crowds of people, an exploded zoo of animals, swarms of children and jostling competitive traffic: anything from bicycles and auto rickshaws, to oxcarts, pick-up trucks and motorbikes. And the noise is simply ear-splitting. There seem to be simply no rules – it’s freestyle, self-organized traffic where each driver seems to take his life in his hands and act like there were no tomorrow.
My first long tour was on a Honda Hero Impulse 125 ccm – a dirt bike – from Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh all the way up to Manali in the foothills of the Himalayas.
On my way back I went through Rajasthan and Gujarat. The same bike took me to the south of India. Climbing up the Western Ghats was one of my most memorable experiences – it was like driving through the lands of the Avatar movie. Spectacular landscape, fascinating light and lush nature. And plenty of tea plantations.
After a year on this very dashing bike I bought a new one that was a bit faster when I decided to go on a four month trip to Kashmir and Ladakh. Now the 200 ccm KTM is a very speedy bike, but for me – who had to endure it on long rides – it was simply too small and too tightly upholstered which made for a very ass-numbing experience at the end of a long day.
And then, last year in Diwali I had this Eureka moment. I was on a tour with a friend going from Bombay to Goa (again on the KTM) when he offered me to ride his “Bullet”. So I got my first taste of how it feels to ride a right Royal Enfield – the supreme incarnation of the motorbike in India that’s been in continuous production now for 75 years. Only my first taste was disappointing. I felt it was way too heavy for me and that I couldn’t handle it properly. So I gratefully hopped back on my KTM. But two days later temptation overcame me and I tried again, and that was the start of a beautiful friendship. I’ve bitten the Bullet ever since. It’s like a luxurious sofa on wheels … and once it starts rolling, believe me, it really does roll.
Exploring India by road has given me a pretty good sense of how just huge, wild and diverse this country is. Distance has taken on a new meaning here where I can drive 500 km but when I look at the map I’ve hardly moved from my starting point. Using Google maps in India – which is what I do while traveling – can turn out to be tricky once in a while because, as I’ve found to my cost, Google maps don’t scale right. Very often distances on the map might look the same but in fact can vary from between 50 km to 150 km which really screws up your day’s travel schedule. And Google won’t show you how winding the roads are either which is another important factor when you’re calculating travel time.
Usually with the Bullet I do 350 km a day, and rarely stretch myself to cover a grandiose 600 km. If I have to, it means I’m KO in the evening – because 12 or more hours on the bike on bumpy roads is definitely too much. It only happens when I want to reach a certain place or when I’m forced to continue because I can’t find a decent place to stay for the night. There are no hotels or homestays in the villages and small cities. There might be places where you can sleep – but seriously after a day on the bike I do need running water (preferably hot water which is a challenge in itself) and I do need a toilet. My face is a mask of dust and dirt, my clothes are ready for laundry and my hair – even though most of the time I’m wearing a helmet – is so stiff with filth it can hardly be brushed. So sometimes the only option is to move on. Over time I’ve developed a routine where I check out various places online for my next destination – but this doesn’t always work out.
When I finally reach my destination it’s always an adventure finding the place where I plan to stay. Hardly anyone in the streets speaks English and, on top of that, hardly anyone can read – so my Hindi written papers are no help either. It’s pretty much trial and error until I find someone who understands what I want. In the bigger cities it’s slightly easier to find someone who speaks English and I’ve discovered that auto rickshaw drivers have some very basic understanding and at least some sense of direction. So very often I let an auto rickshaw driver be my guide. Sometimes I ask the policemen standing along the road and to my surprise three times a police guy jumped on his motorbike and showed me the way. Probably a special gallant service for lone western women on motorbikes!
The wildness and diversity of India is a continual source of fascination and inspiration. But sometimes it also frustrates me and makes me angry. I see the wildness in the ways the trees grow and the forests and lawns are “not maintained”. I see it in the way the waters flow and fall and how the mountains are shaped.
The co-existence of nature and humans – sometimes brutal, sometimes harmonious – adds its part to the picture. The endless bright colors of the saris with the brownish and greenish shades of the landscape in their background are stored in my memory for ever. The eyes of the children, sometimes empty, very often curious and astonished to see “something like me”. The huge number of wild animals roaming around: tigers, leopards, hyenas, jungle cats, snakes, elephants, camels, donkeys, monkeys, goats, buffalos, pigs, cows, insects and endless number of birds, the infinite variety of sounds you hear – all this expresses India’s abundance and messiness and its beauty. The women working in the fields, taking care of their children and carrying home water and other goods on their heads have become a very familiar scene in my life. But what frustrates me and makes me aggressive is the way that men are absolutely dominant in the rural parts of the country – and by “men” I mean bunches of mostly uneducated, unemployed guys hanging around acting macho like little lords of creation but not moving a muscle to make a more decent life for their villages. On the contrary they make things much worse. In the early hours of the evening they start drinking their local wine and rum, and when they’re pissed out of their tiny minds they’re in a fit state to go home and beat and abuse their wives and very often their kids too. It’s disgusting, abominable but unfortunately way too often just part of the fabric of daily life. Women count for less than nothing in these rural areas.
I don’t know how many of India’s 700,000 rural villages I’ve passed through on my travels. This is where most of India’s population is living, probably some 800 million people. And this is where India is the most exploited. These villagers live without any water supply and electricity. They’ve hardly any health coverage and no kind of sanitation. Malnutrition is chronic and just part of life – they have too much to die but too little to prosper. Yes, government schools have arrived in some parts, but often enough teachers don’t show up or children don’t attend because they have to work in the fields. There’s no TV and if a village has a phone it’s simply one very basic cell phone for receiving in-coming calls with no chance of making an out-going one. The homes are mostly just one room with no furniture where three generations of the same family plus an odd goat or two sleep on the ground. They carry cans of water to wash themselves after they’ve emptied their bowels somewhere else. Sometimes they’ll follow the call of nature right next to the road, sometimes along the railway tracks, sometimes in the fields, and very often kids will squat down on heaps of uncollected garbage where pavements should be. Right next to the chickens, pigs, donkeys, goats and cows looking for something to eat. This mixture of rotting garbage and excrement sends out an acrid nauseous smell which hangs in the air and sticks in your throat. When they set fire to it, which they very often do, it becomes truly excruciating.
But still these people laugh. They are very friendly. They are happy – much more happy than many of the people I see in the streets of Bombay, Bangalore and Delhi. Or back home.
Why is this?
This is a question that puzzles me and that I often mull over while crossing India on my motorbike. So far I haven’t found an answer. But I think it has something to do with NOT having access to the Western or the so-called developed world. These people accept their lives for what they are and enjoy what they have. For “us” it seems like nothing – for them it might be a hard life but it’s a happy one. There is an innocence and a curiosity about them which urban culture has lost.
Riding my bike is a form of mediation for me – my mind becomes free. Many of my best ideas were born on these trips. There’s no tension. No phone-calls. No e-mails. Nothing to worry about. The roads and nature are wide open. All you need to do is to go. And you can go endlessly. I become one with the bike and the road and the surroundings. I don’t count the kilometers I am riding, I simply enjoy the NOW.
I feel the country.
The sun. The dust. The rain. The dirt. The air. The noise. The smell. The density. The wildness.
(Thank you my dear Paul Morland for adding some “Shakespearean Art” to my text)