Had had a great day and a half at the Shisha Café in Pune, playing a good show with saxophonist Maarten Visser and bass player Mishko M’ba and hanging and, not to be forgotten, eating lots of fantastic food washed down with mint cocktails and dhoog, a salty Iranian lassi with mint (anyone have a recipe for that?). During a few great days in Pune including , Mishko asked me if I really was going to give up now, as I was planning to take a train from Pune to Chennai to save some time. Turned out of course I wasn’t – no train was found and I didn’t try too hard as completing the whole trip on my own two wheels was a very attractive idea anyway.
So on Sunday morning, 20 November, after another day’s break with Pierluca and family at their house on the beautifully quiet compound of the international school where he works, I rode out onto the NH4, the highway between Pune and Bangalore.
Beautiful hills around Pune. Not for the first time I was reminded of Arizona in the USA. Red sandy rocks, dry, the hills abruptly sticking out of the plains. Around 60 kilometres before Satara, the speedometer gave up again, and in combination with the horn that had now completetly stopped working, this was enough reason to pull over at a garage. There was nothing they could do about the speedo, but my broken horn was replaced with a nice loud one. The broken horn had imitated a bad pop song: jumped up half a tone at a crucial moment. And, like we know from the bad pop songs, that means the end is near. Can’t say I wasn’t warned.
Feeling good, I rode on. Confident. Around Kolhapur, the landscape changed – the hills no longer dominated or rather formed the landscape, but interrupted it, and the plains out of which they jumped got more and more green. Sugarcane is a favourite, lots of fields with the high waving reed. Alternated with empty patches, explained by the numerous ox carts and tractor pulled trailers full of the stuff. Got stuck behind a lorry for a while because the guy in the passenger seat tried to pull a piece of sugarcane off a trailer they were overtaking. Laughing and pulling, he gave it a fanatical try, until his driver got fed up.
Riding into Karnataka, things kept getting greener. I got the idea it’s essentially still very dry, but I crossed a number of rivers (so wide…) and it seemed they’ve got a good irrigation scheme going. The road was shiny and black, and the traffic not too dense, so in general it was pleasant riding. Still, there’s the occasional taste-of-shock moment, for instance when two boys on a motorcycle crossed the road. I figured they saw me, and would either speed up or slow down. He didn’t do anything, so I had to hit the brakes to avoid slamming into them. A litte while later, a similar incident had a less fortunate ending, though I was not involved. For some mysterious reason a dog all of a sudden took off crossing the road at high speed and miraculously reached the divider in the middle of the road undamaged, only to run straight under the wheels of an oncoming lorry on the other side. I couldn’t watch too focusedly as I had to stay aware of the traffic around me, but the last thing I saw was the dog on his back, motionless. Hope something essential broke quickly, making the whole affair fast and painless – though that may be too optimistic. In general though, there’s a lot less roadkill than earlier, probably because the traffic is so much denser.
I’d ambitiously set my goal for Hubli, with Belgaum as an alternative. Naturally I ended up in Belgaum, in the charming bus station and market area. Found a tiny room in the Relax Hotel (picked for the name, of course) and left the bike at the guarded bus station parking.
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Had a stroll around, and popped in to one of the little barber’s shops for a shave. I love that feeling of just sitting back and surrendering. Half done, the electricity went off. Strong hands massaging oil into my scalp by candle light. The gobi manchurian I had afterwards was bright red and fried to the point of burning. Exactly as it should be. At the market, some vendor I asked for cigarette paper wanted to sell me lots of jam and soy sauce and tomato sauce. Very cheap price sir, I needed it for myself, for my family, for all my friends. Didn’t matter I told him I’m travelling with as little luggage as possible – and if he’d see the amount of stuff that fills my room at the moment, he’d rightfully argue I’m not doing a very good job at that anyway.
It seems I’ve gotten into the habit of starting the day with crossing some hill range – first thing on the programme the next day again. Beautiful, as usual. After the hills though, things became a little too northern French – just fields and fields and fields, flat and boring. Sometimes industry. Sugarcane, later a crop I didn’t recognise – very dead looking with big white flowers. Till I realised they weren’t flowers, but fluffy white balls – cotton! My assumption supported by the room that I walked in to looking for the bathroom (pinky) in which, Joseph-Beuys-like, a whole wall was covered in the white balls.
The hills were reminiscent of Hampi – large boulders, looking like glacier deposits and making me wonder again if there’s any ice age history here. Something to find out. The fog gets a bit much at times – if not caused by industry or exhaust fumes, it’s because people are burning stuff on the side of the road. Any rubbish they can find, no matter what substance. They talk about living in big cities being an attack on the lungs, but try riding down an Indian highway for a few days…
After the turn-off to Panaji, Goa, the road became two lanes – apparently I lost the highway and stayed on the parallel road for a while. That was fine too, I seem not too worried about the traffic anymore. Was the road to Goa tempting? Not really, I’m looking forward to a few days of relaxation but not as a break. I didn’t come here for a holiday, I’d rather take it easy in Chennai for a bit while preparing things and start meeting people, as it will all take some time to pick up anyway.
Apart from two very friendly Bangaloreans who whizzed by a Bullets, I saw further proof of the strength of these machines when I encountered a small pick-up truck towed by a 500 cc Enfield bike.
I met more Bullets, all on their way back from a big Enfield rally in Goa. They rode at speeds I wouldn’t dream of – I’m still too uncomfortable with the traffic or too worried about the bike, though theirs might have been newer and / or stonger models too.
Speaking of traffic, I’m starting to understand the crossers: they often do see me, but are simply calculate their speed according to how fast they see me coming. Still, I’ll keep slowing down, just in case they didn’t see me – not too rare either.
Eighty kilometres before Bangalore, darkness fell. What to do? Lost precious minutes of daylight trying to make sense of the contradictory instructions to find a lodge in or around Tumkur – eventually I seemed to have to go back on the highway, in the direction I came from. No thanks, so I carried on direction Bangalore, only to see, within minutes, a lodge on the right hand side – next to the fly-over I was on. Impossible to get there. Carried on in the darkness, having the usual blinding trouble with highbeams of oncoming traffic. They make it impossible to see what’s coming, to recognise if it’s a truck, a rickshaw, a small car – consequently, I can’t guess its speed. When yet another couple of small cars cut in trying to overtake each other while overtaking a truck that was in the right lane I relaxed: just let them do what they do, crazy or not, and stay out of their way. Then realised that only minutes before I’d forced myself in between a bus and a lorry that were overtaking a slower lorry – what’s the real difference?
Then, oh joy and relief, after the toll booth: street lights! All the way to Bangalore. Rode onto a fly-over and only when I entered it I saw the sign that two-wheelers can’t use it. A lucky mistake: in my elevated state, I flew over the ant hill below. I wasn’t too worried as there were a few more bikes, including one being pushed – against the direction of traffic. Traffic was jammed till we passed a small truck with a smashed cabin turned in our direction – another ghost rider or a high impact collision?
It felt just like Bombay, coming off the fly-over into motionless traffic, but it soon opened up and I was in Malleshwaram in a few kilometres. Didn’t find a place to stay there, so I rode on to my trusted Shiva Ganga in the weaver’s and tailor’s area Balepet, only losing my way once. Unloaded the bike and went to Sheethal’s to shake the boss’s hand and have a great masala dosa and kesari bath, washed down with a wonderfully strong cup of tea, South Indian style.