When I switched on the wifi on my computer, it didn’t find a single network in the centre of Vellore, a middle-sized town in the hot and dusty plains of Tamil Nadu. Some things in South India do not change, it seems. Women with turmeric-yellow palms and faces, cows roaming the street, men urinating on the the pavement, the scent of sewage and spicy sambar, the leaning piles of paper everywhere in the Ideal Police Station. (And even if new things do arrive, the old stay too.)
I had arrived on a bus with Greg Simmons‘ horde of audio engineers on their annual field recording trip (which, as has become tradition, included an oto.3 recording session). They carried on to Goa, I figured Vellore might be a nice little place to visit, after bypassing it on my motorcycle journey two years ago. We had lunch and Greg’s army boarded their next bus while I walked in the direction of what I thought might be the centre. To my surprise, all hotels were full. Because of the harvest festival pongal, or was it my white face? Contemplating alternatives involving more long-distance bus rides, I stopped checking every hotel, just walked into a few that seemed friendlier. In one of those a solemn white haired man was willing to let me a room provided I’d get a stamp of approval from the police station – so it had been my foreignness indeed. Unfortunately, when I found the place the responsible officer had left for the day. No problem sir, I was assured before I was simply left alone, and indeed, after some convincing and leaving an extra deposit in the form of a large sum of money and my passport, I could move into my room.
My dinner was this trip’s first rava masala dosa, crispy and tasty. Quickly done too, in one of those dimly TL-lit halls, concrete floor and metal crockery banging through the reverb. I had a heavy piece of triple chocolate cake to look forward to whilst battling the mosquitos in my room and going through the results of the recording session, so went looking for some accompanying tea. But alas, it was too late, No tea anywhere, including the stall of the angel-faced chaiwallah next door – matching smile, hairy ork-ears provding counterpoint.
Had a good tea the next day though, at the barbershop, between shave and eyebrow-trim. The barber had sour breath and divided his attention between running a razor over my cheeks and a televised pongal cow ceremony. Water buffalo (one at a time) were set free into a crowd and excited men jumped at them and held on to their humps as long as they could. Anyone who made it for more than two seconds punched the air triumphantly while the cow, unbothered now, disappeared around the corner. The barber and his friends got very excited. The spectacle reminded me of what I’ve heard of Pamplona in Spain – raging bulls chasing the crowds in narrow streets. The much more sedate water buffalo featured in the Indian version seems merely scared and just wants to get away. No one got hurt. There seemed to be different teams in different uniforms, and mysterious people outside the camera frame kept throwing gifts down from a higher platform. The audience, apart from a few smiling tourists, was all male.
Freshly shaved, I took an autorickshaw to the bus station – and found a large, beautifully fortified temple complex just behind the Ideal Police Station, including guards in matching style. Would have been nice to check out. Next time. After this reacquaintance with South India and a nice stop on my way to a few days of relaxation in Bangalore, I got settled in Madras – make new friends at Hotel Broadlands, practice Indian pharans and American rudiments, unpack my ukulele, and enjoy bookshops and espresso at the Express Avenue Mall. I am now ready for our shows with oto.3, starting tonight, at Counterculture in Whitefield, Bangalore. On to the soundcheck now.
When I visited Berlin in 2007, I lived in my yellow camper van in the Volkspark Friedrichshain amongst other mobile-home dwellers during what must have the coldest spring since the banana war. Snowstorm on 21 March. The Kastanienallee in nearby Prenzlauerberg welcomed me with its squatted cinemas, small dance studios, open source computer workshops, independent cafés, and underground venues.
Now, five years later, a lot has changed. Cheap food is still widely available, but is now washed down with latte machiatos by people wearing designer shirts. The buildings look fresh and young mothers with clean children in carrier bikes check their friends’ moods on their iphones.
My friend Jeremy Woodruff and his family have been living in this area since 2005. With some musical friends, Jeremy started up the successful Neue Musikschule Berlin, which recently expanded and moved into a building in the Turkish area Kreuzberg – where he let me stay for the time I was in Berlin. At a lunch with the Klang der Krise thinktank of academics that Jeremy invited me for, a longtime inhabitant of Kreuzberg told me about the holy grail: menemen! At Kottbüser Tor, supposedly. She was right, and not only did I find menemen, also çorba and demlı tea. Home sweet home.
After my adventures at DIY Church Radio and the Pizza Suicide Collective, the official Elephant Songs Berlin was a rather exclusive affair. Old friend Ingrid turned up after musicians Jeremy and Oori Shalev had arrived, and she was and remained the only audience that night. The room belonging to Jeremy’s Neue Musikschule was cosy and warm, and I was excited to share the room with Tony Buck’s collection of drums from all over. After setting up and venturing out to stock up on wine and other essentials, we improvised on our drums and whistles for a most enjoyable hour.
And now, to paraphrase mister McEwan, get me out of fucking Berlin! I rode down the streets that had become my friends on my nightwalk from jazzclub Sounds the previous week, crossed the river, and then I felt the spark plug being blown out of the engine. I now know from experience that an internal combustion engine is all about compression. Ever tried to explode a blown-up paper bag that’s already got a hole in it? You hit nothing, no resistance. No explosion. Same thing happens when there’s a hole in the combustion chamber. A fix turned out to be fairly temporary, and I’m now stuck in a youth hostel in Steglitz, of all places. To be contintued. Somehow.
After taking my morning pictures, I knocked on a few doors, hoping to find someone to unlock the door to my bike. Everyone I talked to seemed to understand what I wanted, and then disappeared without anything happening. Eventually another hotel guest talked to some of the people, and the guy who was in charge turned up, fully clothed, washed, and combed – not just recently awoken at all. He quickly left and returned with a large blue bucket, and went into my room. After some more shouting from the other guy, this confusion was cleared up too, my bike was liberated, and I could leave this charming little town called Balesar.
The landscape changed every kilometre. It’s amazing how many faces the desert has – of course there’s the dry sand dunes that I imagined, but it’s so much more alive too, sometimes making me wonder if this actually was the desert. I guess it all comes down to how stuck you are in your definitions.
A long tea break with my book and several cups of tea and a lot of water on a charpoy in the sun warmed me up after going against the strong and cold wind for a few hours. This desert air is too dry to retain any temperature – freezing until the sun is out, and then it burns.
After Bap, the landscape opened up into endless fields of rocky sand with a little vegetation. Here and there enormous waterbuffalo and skinny cows were munching on the leathery bushes.
Takes some getting used to, all these animals on and right next to the road.
Dogs are smart: they react to horns and generally take the shortest way out. Cows are too thick to react to anything until you’re very close, then they panic and trip over their own legs. Goats are too arrogant to react to anything, but too clever to get run over. Sheep get very nervous when separated from other sheep. A specific, and very tricky, kind is mainly found near road crossings in villages – men with big bellies who cross without looking. The extent to which they lean backwards is an indication of how important they are, and is inversely proportional to the likeliness of them moving out of the way for traffic. This, like so many others, is the time for pragmatism rather than principled idealism – right or wrong, running into one of these people would be a major hassle so I give in without further thought.
In these open fields, the wind is no longer cold but even stronger and more head-on. Every oncoming truck brings a shockwave – best reacted to by covering your mouth and gripping the bike with your thighs, rather than squeezing the handle bars and locking arms and shoulders. What was it that Ewan McGregor said? Loose hands? Open hands?
I found a nice room in desert town Bikaner. Headed out for some food after dark, and after kindly turning down an indecent proposal from a guy on a bike, I found good noodles and a lemon soda seller who produced the most amazingly loud squeek with the gas from the bottles he opened. Walking back with a full belly, the guy on the bike found me again, following me, sometimes stopping on the other side of the street, sometimes overtaking me and coming back. When I eventually asked him what he wanted, he declared he was gay. I told him I wasn’t interested, wished him good luck, and we parted with a handshake. Until that surprisingly friendly turnt of events, it wasn’t exactly threatening, but certainly uncomfortable. And it made me think about how often this must happen to women, who may not even always be sure they can probably take on whoever attacks them, simply in terms of physical strength.
I’ve been in this desert for a while now. Lets try and get into the Punjab tomorrow.
Spent the best part of my last night in Madras stuffing my life into the few (…) bags I can take on the bike – I always end up packing at night, which is why I prefer to leave in the morning: just in case, it gives you the extra hours that were originally set aside for sleeping. (Of course having to catch a train or plane is a better incentive to get things done than having to ride a bike, so I left in the late afternoon after all, just in time for sunset coffee on Elliot’s Beach. Read more about the beginning of my drumbiker journey to northwest Europe (started, of course, by going straight south) in bye bye broadlands.)
After the 4 or 5,000 kilometres it took me to get from Katmandu to Madras, the counter is now at 31108. Let’s see where it’ll be when I pull onto the driveway of my little Amsterdam railroad house.
I never made it to the beach – in Mamallapuram I’d told myself I’d go in Auroville, but once I arrived the bike’s needs seemed to be more important than my beach boy aspirations and I ended up in a mechanic’s sidewalk-garage for the better part of the afternoon. He charged me the princely sum of 100 Indian rupees to play with the idle screw on the carburettor a little, telling me the contact breaker points were ok. While I’m still not sure of the latter, the bike does run better now. It’s funny, I’ll happily tear apart a gearbox and put it back together perfectly, but the precision work of tuning the bike by turning a few screws a couple of degrees is fully over my head. I guess I’ll learn – I guess I’ll have to – but for now I was happy watching the mechanic’s practiced fingers do the job, meanwhile admiring the bike he was restoring and chatting to a Frenchman who’d been in Pondy for 20 years and owned four Taurus Enfields, the diesel model. An amazing 6 horsepower bike – the upside is it runs forever on a drop of decommissioned cooking oil.
After Pondicherry, the ECR, the East Coast Road, was less busy and even more pleasant. Around a month before I left, a cyclone had hit the Indian east coast. We’d felt it in Madras, and in Auroville and Pondy the effects had been huge (Auroville got its electricity back just a few days ago) but around Cuddalore, the storm’s centre 30 kilometres south of Pondy, the wreckage was unbelievable. It’ll be a long time before there are grown trees again in that region.
In Chidambaram, I had a refreshingly touristic stop: after tea and a bottle of water, I visited the Thillai Nataraja Temple, leaving the bike with all its luggage in the care of the proprietor of the teastall.
After leisurely exploring the temple, which is dedicated to Shiva as the cosmic dancer Nataraja, whose dance created the universe, I was very happy to wave at all the tourists filing into their buses, climbing on my bike, and leaving on my own, with no one telling me what to do where and when. Just before Thanjavur I stopped for a delicious South Indian pure-vegetarian meals (doesn’t matter if you order one or one hundred, it’s always “meals”) and afterwards walked over to a tea lady a few hundred metres down the road. She used a beautiful contraption involving a brass urn and glowing coals but would let me take photographs.
My original plan had been to ride along the coast to India’s southernmost tip, Kanyakumari, and go to Trivandrum and further up in Kerala to play with musicians there. However, with gigs in Bangalore and Madras continuing into the middle of the month, time was running out – and I didn’t find musicians in Kerala yet either. I need a producer! (And a cameraperson, pr hero, accountant, fundraiser, mechanic, and sound technician.) Then Ranvir Shah told me about the Sacred Music Festival, organised by his Prakriti Foundation in Thiruvaiyaru every spring, and invited me to come along and play there. Followed three days of concerts and being shown around the temples and countryside of the area, including a great lunch (oh I’ll miss South Indian food) at a restored traditional house, now open for tourists.
On the second night of the festival, I had to honour of playing with nadaswaram artist Mylai S Mohanraj and his group of nadaswaram and tavil players. Unprepared and without much discussion (music being the only language we both spoke), I added my grooves to their powerful temple songs. Newspaper The Hindu noticed.
The next morning, after a dawn visit to the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur, I rode on – direction northwest, from now on. Redneck in stead of sun in the face.
I was planning to leave at check-out time. 11 am. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, after postponing waking up for half an hour and taking my time packing, I left my luggage in Klaus’ room and tied the suitcase that lives in Madras onto the bike to take it back to the studio – tried to get a rickshaw but they were on strike till 6 pm. Grr. But actually nice, a last bit of riding in Chennai. Lunch at No Reel Corner, around the corner from Maarten’s studio that was half my home in the last five months, was good as always, and equally unsurprising was the espresso at Barista’s on Khader Nawaz Khan Road. I spotted a cybercafé and since I had no idea when fast internet would be available again, I spent a few hours uploading clips and tracks of the first Elephant Songs, that took place in Bangalore the last two weekends.
I had a vague idea I’d be doing the usual: take my time in the cool part of the day and go outside when it’s hottest, around and after lunchtime. Fortunately, after loading the bike and chatting to fellow Broadlands inhabitants, it was already five o’clock, the heat was disappearing and the shadows were longer. We said our goodbyes and I wobbled nicely down the beach road, past the San Thomé Cathedral (again not visited this time, despite really liking the place when I discovered Madras in 2000) and across the bridges. Took a left to Elliot’s Beach for a final Barista moment (mostly because I simply really like Elliot’s Beach). Puffed up with pride when someone started talking to me because of yesterday’s article in The Hindu but slunk away to order my coffee when his attention, photographs and all, was aimed exclusively at the bike – by whose numberplate he’d recognised me to begin with.
Rode into the fading daylight and of course got lost. With lots of friendly help I eventually turned onto the ECR – to find out the bike still doesn’t really want to do more than 60 kilometres an hour, 70 max. When I open the throttle, it speeds up as expected, until the increase suddenly stops. More gas doesn’t seem to make a difference. Or do I not dare to try hard enough? Better get the timing checked & tuned tomorrow. Is that stronger shaking, especially at low revs, because of the new, larger sprocket or does the time of the spark, and thus the explosion, also play a part in that?
At some point the engine just died, after having been feeling uncomfortable for a while. Turned out I was very low on petrol, but this didn’t feel like just running out of petrol. Or did it? Have to get reacquinted to this bike, its smells and temperature and movement.
Arrived in Mamallapuram and a friendly American at the bus stop told me about this hotel. Acceptable meal on a rooftop, with fantastic tomato soup – actual chunks of garlic and tomato in it. Kashmiri shops and tourist-friendly restaurants with matching prices down the whole street. Lots of dreadlocks, flowy cotton clothing, and bare tanned arms. An Israeli with a bushy beard and mourning eyes tried out the overtones on his plastic recorder in a shop door. Am I back in Thamel? Ah no, they have a beach here. With cows, of course. Having dinner in the sea breeze is a good feeling.
The first official episode of Elephant Songs played in Bangalore for two weekends in February. We kicked off at the famous B-Flat in Indiranagar.
The next weekend, we came back for a show at the beautiful Plantation House and at the Fireflies Music Festival. Musicians were Maarten Visser on saxophones, Keith Peters on electric bass, Robbert van Hulzen on drums, and at Fireflies we were be joined by guitarist Amit Heri.
A few days ago I had an enjoyable hour of chatting and playing on Yugi Sethu’s talkshow, in the company of friend & multi-talented singer Yogeswaran Manickam, also known as Yoga. The show is scheduled to be broadcast next Saturday, 21 January, and will be available online too. We talked about music, about India, about motorcycles, and of course about how all those things and more combine in my upcoming trip. We also discussed the origins of the name Elephant Songs and what that phrase means to me.
When afterwards I switched my phone back on, I found an urgent message: if I’d be interested in a recording session the next day? Yes please thank you very much – and then of course the question what to do there forced itself on me. I had’t planned to start the Elephant Songs adventure till mid Feb, but I guess this trip will be all about grabbing opportunities when it presents themselves, and there’s already a few more exciting things coming up before riding to Bangalore to play at the Fireflies festival on 19 February as my first post-Chennai stop. Call it an extended prologue.
On the evening (night, on the Indian schedule) of Friday 13 January, Maarten and yours truly took drums and saxophones to the beautiful VGP Studios on Mount Road, where we met Yoga and organiser Jai Shankar Iyer and studio magician Greg Simmons with his team of eager Australian sound engineers. The spaces looked like bank safes, with big heavy doors. The recording room doubled as home to a number of unmatching parts of filmsets and whatever was hidden beneath its wonderful red carpet redefined the term “sprung floor”.
I’d called Yoga after the talkshow, and he agreed to join the evening. I knew a few of the things he does, but also realised there is a lot I don’t know about him and I had no idea how he would approach this session. I’ve been playing with Maarten since he invited me to join oto.3 on my last visit to India, about a year ago, working with him in that group and in other combinations, including a weekly duo gig at a mediterranean restaurant near the Harley showroom. I don’t think Maarten and Yoga ever played together, though they’ve know each other for a long time and have both often worked with Paul Jacob. The latter, in an article in The Hindu, said something that very well describes part of my motivation for Elephant Songs: “What we create together is far more powerful than what I or any single musician can achieve on his own. We live in dark, difficult times of ethnic violence and power struggles. Music can do much to educate us, bring people together, make us feel our common humanity.”
We took our places in three corners of the studio, facing each other, and after Greg finished setting up the mics, the first elephant songs were recorded.
Maarten brought a graphic score that he titled rolmops: with dots, lines, and squiggles he instructed us how to play our ways through a somewhat defined structure. We did three takes, getting more and more into it; Shane Choi filmed the largest part of the third take with his phone.
Yoga came with a beautiful lullaby that started with soft call and response phrases and then went into a gently rocking waltz. It was great to feel how we all played comfortably, in our own ways with our own instruments and backgrounds, at the same time listening to one another and creating music together.
I’d worked all day on an idea that ended up being called date shake, in honour of the fantastically refreshing frozen-milk-drink they serve in the juice parlours on Triplicane High Road.
When looking for information on Armenian music a few days ago, I’d learnt about their tetrachord system (or understood the information that way, I will never hold Wikipedia responsible for my haphazard interpretations). The system seemed to be about the intervals between the first four notes of a major scale, which are repeated from the fifth note up. Then treat that top half as the bottom half of a new scale, and you’ve modulated a fifth up. Playing with this I constructed a piece that keeps jumping around different major scales, in constant ambiguity as to whether the four notes start or end on the tonic.
In the studio, it turned out that elaborate structures and large collections of notes don’t necessarily lead to enjoyable listening. We ended up playing only the first two sections of my piece, the ones that consisted of an idea, an instruction, rather than a detailed score. Yoga’s melody had worked very well, because he just sang it and Maarten and I joined in. I, on the other hand, couldn’t sing my melody very well (having constructed it only hours ago). A good lesson: next time I’ll bring stuff I know well, that I can explain well, and that I have a clear idea for. Take it from there, make it our own once we get the basic thing. The project is called Elephant Songs after all, so let’s bring songs indeed. Also Maarten’s more workshop-like approach had worked well, that’s also a way to treat (part of) a session.
However, despite the insecurities originating with the feeling I wasn’t prepared well enough, I am very happy with this session. A good start to an intriguing project, with great musicians in a beautiful space. I’ll try and make this chapter complete by organising a show that will also launch the tour, updates will follow. Then the next stop: Bangalore! Two or three shows in the second weekend of Feb, including the B-Flat on Friday 10, and then Fireflies on 19. To be continued!
After editing the footage of riding through Nepal, included in mountains! please? iMovie was no longer the intimidating dark cloud that had stopped me from putting up clips of the oto.3 concerts in Amsterdam in the early summer. So here it is, enjoy!
And all those who missed those shows, don’t worry because new opportunities are around the corner! To begin with, we played at the wonderful Plantation House in Bangalore last month – dressed in fine shirts provided by designer & maker Shalini. Yesterday, Tuesday 20 December, we performed at the launch of basement21, the newest & hottest artists’ collective in Madras, South India, concluding a two-day programme there. On Monday 19, German / Belgian choreographer Arco Renz showed his work and discussed how his constant travelling all over Europe and Asia affects his work – and how it doesn’t, people being people all over the globe. Tuesday night was opened with short dance films (different from documentations of dance shows) from the Yellow Line Project, presented & discussed by Preethi Athreya, who made one of the films.
For more info on oto.3, including audio recordings and more video, check out the official page.
The hill crossing on the day I left Bangalore had to wait till after lunch – but then, so did most everything on that day. After spending many hours waiting for a meeting that never happened and accepting further delays caused by multiple half-decent but oh so welcome espressos (espressi?) in the very place where I first was introduced to non-decoction black coffee in India many years ago, I set out to find the highway. Now I now I don’t have a very strong sense of direction, but if this is supposed to be the fastest and smoothest way to Madras, don’t you think they could signpost it a bit better?
When I eventually found the highway, my stomach told me it was lunch time, so I pulled into the parking lot of what turned out to be a non-veg restaurant mainly catering to people imbibing vast quantities of cheap booze. You’ve got to give it to the non-vegetarians though, the food was excellent, tasty and spicy.
After lunch and the hills that followed, I rode into fields of green coconut plantations in neat rows and other vegetation with rocky hills rising out the the rolling landscape here and there. Sometimes the hills turned into mountains – higher, bigger, less green and more rocky.
I slowly realised I’d never make it to Chennai, and then also gave up on Vellore. Just before dark I found a stuffy room in a friendly hotel in the busy little town of Ambur. The bike found a place to stay for the night in the guarded parking lot next door and I went for a walk while the powercut left the room in the dark. I found a dosa place that looked good, but felt like walking a little more. Food on my mind, I was trying to rembember where I had my first dosa, not more than a few days ago. I’d missed those sourdough lentil-rice pancakes, very happy to be back in their native lands. Thinking about local dishes, I realised that I hadn’t had pav bhaji anywhere in Maharashtra – the red stew eaten with white buns drenched in clarified butter. Not that I really minded, my relationship with the stuff has always been somewhat ambiguous, but when the sweets shop I entered for juice or tea proudly announced to have the Marathi junkfood on the menu, I didn’t resist. I asked the cook to put cheese on the sandwich I also ordered. He looked hurt and confused, was silent for a second, and said no, it has butter and chutney. The food was mediocre and when I washed my hands afterwards, a gigantic cockroach didn’t even try to hide in the woodwork around the mirror. I did not stay for tea.
After a good night’s sleep, I was on the road early. A breakfast of deep fried puris kept me going till I reached the confusing route into Chennai, amusing myself with the signs along the way that were intended to inspire caution. There is someone at a desk somewhere who makes these things up. One day, I might apply for that job. “Fast drive could be last drive” may not be too creative, but how about “Death is natural, you don’t cause it”?
After the confusion of the Poonamallee High Road (mainly caused by my wondering if I was on it or not), I quickly found Triplicane and parked my bike in the courtyard of my home in Madras, hotel Broadlands. The testride from Kathmandu to South India, some 3,500 kilometres, has been a great pleasure and I’m looking forward to got on to the road again in four or five months. But first, let’s find out what a musician’s life in Chennai is like.
After a few very pleasant days in Anand, I needed a few hours to get comfortable in interlocal traffic again. Sanderien and I had been riding around, city style, mainly from coffee to lunch and back. The highway was difficult: three lanes, with the slow and large traffic in the middle. I’m supposed to be in the far left lane with the other two-wheelers and tractors and rickshaw. But, my speed being much higher than theirs, it’s safer and easier (same thing?) to overtake in the fast lane – but that’s where the fast cars are as well, zooming around the slow traffic. They own the road, brake, change lane, stop without warning. The traffic was dense, and I was not enjoying myself.
A bus that I was overtaking started overtaking a truck, filling the lane I was on. We were nearing a bridge with a high sidewall, and by the time we got there I had so little space my foot brushed the concrete. The whole time I was calm and convinced I could avoid real danger by acting the right way, and I did. Shockingly uncomfortable, though. Tried to get past the bus for a few kilometres but it was too unpredictable, swerving across the road rushing from gap to gap between other traffic. I pulled over for a soothing cup of tea.
A little while after getting back on the road, a grey SUV almost drove into me doing a U-turn, its speed no reason for concern but just so careless… I was not happy on the road, so I stopped early. Found a hotel with vacancy a little after Bharuch, around five o’clock. They kindly told me to wait till namaaz was over and they’d show me the room, which turned out to be perfectly acceptable. Nice restaurant, early night and I’m planning to have an early start tomorrow – if all goes well, I’ll be in Nariman Point cinema tomorrow night, or else I’ll find a place to sleep just after getting onto the road to Pune, avoiding Bombay’s nightmare traffic.
I left early in the morning, after confirming my suspicion that the orthodox-Muslim looking, white-clad and bearded proprietor of the hotel and his colleagues were Momin. My question got me a big smile and an extra handshake. These Momin are all from the same village: one village runs the entire catering industry on the highway from Gujarat to Bharuch, I’d been told. And apparently further south, too: till Surat, and all the way down to Bombay they still ran a lot of roadside places, though they were no longer the only ones. I had a lot of Momin tea that day.
The road was still too full but it felt better, or maybe I felt better. Enjoyed my first cup of Bombay tea after spending some time riding through the suburbs, and was told it’d be another two hours to Colaba in the deep south of the city, because the traffic wasn’t too heavy this time of day. I expected I’d recognise more the further south I got, but I just kept getting lost until I suddenly found myself at Flora Fountain. Spent the evening walking around Colaba and reading the book about Gujarati prime minister Modi I just bought.
Morning traffic in Bombay on top of a half-decent masala dosa proved a good way to start the day – you’re not going very fast, it’s never dangerous but it does wake you up. Still before VT the bike was knocked from under me while I was asking directions – some old lady’s driver had not been paying attention. She was so sorry, so sorry, oh so sorry, and drove off. At least both petrol carrier racks are now crushed. A good day for symmetry.
Just before the bridge I had a nice chat with a fellow Bullet-rider, and a little while later I was overtaken by someone in full black leather racing gear who gave me a big thumbs-up in passing. Yes, I like my jacket too. The only two people on this overcrowded road not just in a shirt and slippers.
As soon as I left the suburbs, the road to Pune started with a pass over brown-and-green hills. This was clearly not the road the bus takes – that must be the express way, off limits for two-wheelers. I think I did join it at some point, maybe there’s only one road for part of the way. Got off that shiny and busy road when it seemed right, and continued down the smaller road.
Not many places to stop for tea, unfortunately. When I eventually found somewhere, a guy with a hip haircut and an urban curiosity walked in a little after me. Vivek was from Bangalore and got bored a month ago, bought himself a fire engine red bicycle, and rode from somewhere up in east Rajasthan via Gujarat to Pune. Only when I saw his bicycle parked outside, I realised I’d overtaken him earlier – I’d noticed the used and sturdy leather luggage rolls on either side, but hadn’t realised what a sophisticated cycle it was and thought he was one of the toiling old (or old-looking men) on bicycles you see everywhere.
I arrived in Pune well on time, found Koregaon Park and the Shisha Café easily enough (turn left, continue till you get there), and enjoyed a nice reunion with musician friends for a few days.
Had lunch on a blitzvisit to Udaipur after riding the last 250 kilometres on the fantastic NH76 cruising at about 80 kilometres an hour. Something doesn’t work out in this equation but I don’t know what it is. The fact that I started out riding more slowly, like every day? The engine seems to like 60 in the early morning, then slowly moves up to 80. Sometimes it would like to go up to 90, but I don’t usually let it – let’s find out a little more about this bike first, its likes and dislikes and its strong and weak points. Or was it my late departure, due to more poha in Bijolia before leaving, as opposed to my usual habit of covering a hundred kilometres before breakfast?
It can’t have been my two tea breaks, though one took a little longer than expected because of the lovely family that served me. The chai lady had a loud and raspy voice, which came out best when she laughed. Of course no one spoke a word of the other party’s language, but that was fine. Camera worked miracles too, they all posed and then the lady took the thing from me and took my picture as well as pictures of her wedding photographs and the icons of their deities.
Back on the road I realised I was no longer so easily shocked by the traffic, even though it was getting more intense as I came into a more populated area. Rolled in to Udaipur and easily found the Lake Palace Road – German bakeries, English speakers, white people in shorts, and screenings of the James Bond film Octopussy advertised in all the rooftop restaurants.
Lunch was in one of them. Backpackistan is fantastic – good food, friendly people who speak English, relaxed atmosphere, and of course the city is beautiful. I had been planning to be here last night and get to Anand today, let’s see what will be possible. It’s a good place for a break anyway. Decided I couldn’t possibly hide my face from all my fellow tourists and rode out city style. The border of the tourist island is very clear, and it made me think about how we often visit one such spot, load ourselves onto planes taxis buses trains and get down in the next one. Island hopping overland. I guess is what we always do anyway, to whatever extent, but it’s nice, thanks to the bike, to lose the distinction between the route and the destination.
The border with Gujarat was an Efteling gate and a police road block (fences & boulders) with no stopping again. Had a cup of tea on the other side of the gate and when I left, the bike’s fuse gave up, leaving me with no electricity hence nothing. Fixed the fuse and rode on to Modasa (which, according to my counter, was 30 km further than the signs said). I turned off the highway, onto a highway. I’m not quite sure what’s up with this tarmac fever but it was good for me. Till I once again came across the dark side of highway construction: the construction. That meant we were thrown on a side road with a broken surface, potholes, piles of sand, dogs and all the other usual suspects. During the last bit it was dark. The air felt smooth and pleasant, even though it deposited buzzing mosquitoes into my ears, where they were trapped under my helmet. The oncoming traffic of course had their high beams on, making me totally miss a man who was crossing with two cows until I was uncomfortably close.
In Modasa, I was turned away for not being Indian by a succession of hotels gradually moving into the center. My fuse kept blowing up and I was getting a little frustrated with the progress of this evening. Being eventually out of fuses I tied the wires together directly, and stopped at my last resort with smoke coming out of the headlight and the smell of burnt plastic. Spectacular but a bit worrying. Finally found a hot, expensive, and unclean room and nothing to eat anywhere, not even at the bus station across the road. I bought water and crisps from shopkeeper Usman, and optimistically asked him if he had some electrical wire. To my surprise he started rummaging around on his floor and pulled an unconnected dusty meter of cable from behind a cupboard. If this would be of any use? Most definitely, Usman, thank you very much. I walked back to my room, looked at my bike that was parked on the pavement of the main road next to the bus station. Must remember to make safe parking a priority? Sometimes it just doesn’t work…
Next morning as soon as it got light I checked the bike – nothing seemed wrong in the headlight. I fixed the fuse with Usman’s electrical wire. It worked fine, so slightly puzzled I rode the bike to a good parking spot, parked, and the fuse blew again. There was no problem with the brake light switch, so what could it be? Looking for electricity clues, I noticed the chain was very slack. Cursed myself again for not having tools. While waiting for the mechanic someone promised me, I looked for the last electrical thing that had been touched on the bike. In Kota, the mechanic had been connecting some wires in the front of the bike, when I couldn’t leave because all electricity had gone. And indeed, the connection was unisolated and caused a short circuit when turning the handlebars – to park the bike, for instance. Still waiting, I had breakfast and a shave and then got fed up, asked the wiry hotel man if he knew someone. He did, and took me there, introducing me as German. “Indian mischief”, he explained, folding up giggling and slapping my back. The chain got fixed, and the uncovered connection taped. Then the mechanic tore a strip off his rag and tied the cables togetherl dismissed my fuse solution, and sent me on my way. I loaded and left and put in my fuse solution at the edge of town and put my biking gear on.
Rode into Anand hours later, found the Vidyanagar Coffee Day easily and was completely happy with my double espresso and brownie while waiting for Sanderien.
I left the Shahbad Government Resthouse at dawn and turned onto the still empty highway. Sometimes you were supposed to understand, without warning, that you had to go to the other side of the divider, going against the flow of (non-present) traffic, because a landslide or some other problem blocked the side of the road I should be on.
A little later, slowed down for a herd of cows taking their morning walk – I think around 200 cattle, cows and water buffalo, covering all four lanes of the road and its shoulders. Once again I regretted not having a fast way to take photographs.
At Kishanganj another herd, a little smaller. Stopping to let them pass, I noticed a tea stall and sat down for breakfast. Nice hot chapatis and dal, followed by aloo palak. When leaving (taking my time, as more often happens, to get the engine going) someone pointed at my rear tire, and led me to the puncture wallah next door to put some air in. Or maybe a lot. Crossed the surprisingly dry Parvati river and rode into Rajasthan.
What to do when your tire blows at 90 km an hour? Hold on, tell yourself to take it easy, let it swing but let it slow down too. It’ll be okay. Then I remembered hearing about using your clutch being a great way out of certain emergency situations.
The one at hand was not one of those situations, it turned out – without the back wheel being gently slowed down by the engine, I lost control and was launched headfirst onto the road. A man from the other side came to me, and described how he’d seen me swerve for some time to yet another man. We put the bike on the divider. Someone went away to find a puncture wallah, and we waited. When he came, he took the rear wheel out and replaced the old tire – fully torn, he told me off for having such a poor quality tire – with my spare one – wrong size, please change as soon as you get to Kota. Unfortunately, when we put the bike back on the road, the hub of the front wheel turned out to be broken. With the tension in the spokes gone, the rim was bent so badly it rubbed the front fork legs. I very slowly rode to the village a kilometre back, the fact that it was against the flow of traffic completely unimportant. We loaded the bike onto a small truck that appeared, and after I said goodbye to my new friends, we were on our way to Kota. Halfway, I moved to the bed of the truck to hold the shaking and rattling bike. Eye to eye with magnificent camels when we came to the town. Many shades of deep brown, and their fur shaved in beautiful geometric patterns. Lots of triangles on the ones I saw. And those faces, pointedly indifferent, completely disinterested rather than arrogant. Still, I was convinced the one I was next to at a red traffic light was contemplating spitting at me.
I left the bike at the Royal Enfield dealership in Kota and one of the boys rode me to the nearby mall. I limped around in the airconditioning for a while, had an acceptable dosa in the food court and sat down for a double espresso at the always slightly disappointing Café Coffee Day. Now that I sat down, with nothing to do, I realised how tired I was.
After the bike was done, I found my way out of town, getting to the highway after only a few wrong turns. But what happened to my lovely NH 76? A slab of tarmac in the sand, unclear edges and only just wide enough for two directions of traffic. Traffic which consisted of slow and loud black diesel smoke spitting trucks. The image was probably nice – late afternoon light, the picturesque trucks, through a dry landscape of sand dunes and sturdy bushes.
Helped by two friendly guys on a bike that I could almost keep up with, I merged onto the main highway and rode on, relieved to be on my way again. Exotically echoing the cattle this morning (a long time ago now), a herd of camels cross the road, silhouettes against the deep twilight in the west. Time to find a place to stay. Which turned out not to be too readily available, I had to continue another 45 kilometres to get to Bijolia, I was told. Bijolia was nice enough though, a big room on a large courtyard full of cars and bikes and building materials. A group of Sikh men cooking a delicious-smelling potato concoction. The square outside the hotel had bicycles and pigs and poha! One of my favourite breakfasts, that I used to have daily when staying in Pune for a few months, a few years back. It’s yellow rice, pounded in some way. Onion chili garlic and served with coriander and these deep fried vermicelli they use for snacks here. Two plates of that, a few cups of good tea, and ready to retire.
Oohhh I like it here. Warm and welcoming and friendly. Mister Gautam showed me my room in the Government Resthouse – a small palace, slightly crumbling in a grandiose way. A bath room full of big black ants and their deceased kin, a western toilet, and hot water! High ceilings, a large supporting arch in the middle of the room, double bed, sofas, table, curtains, a little mosquito repellent thing that plugs into the electricity outlet (is there a name for these things?). Makes me feel like I’m in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. Also the lovely small-town feel. So at ease. Mister Gautum is a Civil Servant in the roadworks department, managing the resthouse is one of his duties. He treated me to a cup of tea when I walked by, on my way to find something to eat. We had a little chat, then I moved on to the hotel, as they call restaurants in India. (If you want to sleep, ask for a lodge or guesthouse.) Great food – but what’s with the chapati? Always waiting for you to finish your chapati, only then you get your rice. I gave up tonight – they kept bringing the little bread pancakes, so I just didn’t have the rice. I guess it’ll all be ok once I make it down south.
When I’d left in the morning large chunks of meat were scattered over the road, initially one or two every hundred metres or so. Too many to simply have fallen off a truck, or not? Went on for kilometres and kilometres, with towards the end a large amount just before the toll booths. After that it was a little less, until it stopped. Cars swerved to avoid it, but except that no one paid any attention to it, apart from the crows and the dogs.
Photographs that were not taken today include the lonely, bright purple flowers in the divider of the road, the herd of camels in the early morning, the very beautiful and incredibly bored-looking girl on the back of a motorcycle, the two trios on motorcycles, whom I later met at breakfast (paan stained smiles from six happy people), the piaggio full of bones – probably water buffalo though I imagined them to look rather like small elephants.
If a crashed vehicle faces the oncoming traffic in the places where I learnt driving, it’s usually a sign that something went very very wrong. Now, judging by the way the front end often looks, or by the fact that one example consisted of a burnt out truck and a twisted frame of a tractor, the assumption that some of these accidents are serious is a safe one. But the reason one of the cars is facing the other one, is usually because it already was – it was heading in the opposite direction. Why take a detour if the only price you pay for the shortcut is going against the flow for a while?
There’s more that I’m not used to on these highways – speed breakers, for instance. Usually unmarked – except in the puzzling case where a sign appeared after two rather mean, high bumps, causing me to drive extra carefully for another kilometre or so.
I rode for a long while, teabreaks providing welcome relief from the unforgiving saddle. At some point during the ride, on one of the many intersections that a village always is, a small green truck some distance away turned and blocked my path. I reacted appropriately, and only after that I realised I’d done that fully automatically, hardly registering doing it. I noticed having slowed down, then realised the truck was there and that its appearance was the reason for my actions. Good to know I’m that reliable, but clearly time for a break. More sweet strong milky tea, please.
Just before Kanpur, I crossed the river Ganga, its banks full of people. Ready for today’s festival? The city on the cliffs that rise up steeply out of the river, housing (busy, people ready for the festival?), Kanpur on the other side. The banks rose up steeply, vertically, housing lots of swallows. I rode through some suburbs and lots more country, later on crossing the Yamuna river. I came – around Orai, if I read my map correctly, by a beautiful big palace in the style I always think of as Moorish. Similar to some of the things in Hampi. Would be nice to know more about India’s history and be able to understand why that building looks like it does.
Around Jhansi, the land became hillier. Then an irrigated area started, much greener. Back to Savannah, reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Africa. The ones with the giraffes. For a while, there were a lot more cows on the road. Then, after riding around a lake that didn’t show on the map and featured boats as well as submerged buildings and trees (a seasonal lake? overflowed river?), I rode up into the hills. On the other side, a maroon bullet and its handsome rider came down, enthousiastically honking. For a few kilometres, cutting through the hills, there were no cows. Only large, fierce-looking dogs and a few monkeys with halos of white hair. Up on the plateau, the cows were back. The land moved between savannah and cultivated plots separated with small walls.
When I ran out of petrol, a man stopped on the other side of the road. It turned out the few buildings I’d seen about a kilometer back, were a village with a man in a garage who had a large drum of petrol. He sold me one in a plasic bottle with no top, and my saviour took me back to my bike, which we’d left in the care of someone who was with him. He wouldn’t accept anything for his services, and after we said goodbye I was on my way again. Riding into the beautiful national park, just road and dark green trees and hills. Still savannah. Here and there ruins of buildings – what happened there? Evicted when the area was turned into a nature reserve, or simply abandoned? No sign of population anywhere. The air felt pleasantly cool at the end of the afternoon and with the riding wind, while the sky was becoming a slightly deeper shade of pale blue.
I soon realised buying only one liter had been a mistake – not much chance of a petrol station within thirty kilometres, not out here. But I was assured several times I was getting close to fuel, only thing is the stories varied between a chai shop where they sold the stuff from a drums like the previous guy, and a proper petrol station. I found a truck stop with tea, a barber, men on charpoys, and petrol! Got four liters, a cup of tea, and resisted the temptation for a shave as after all I was on my way to Kishanganj, wasn’t I. And when I’d turned around earlier to get to this place (not even against the flow of traffic, I found an alternative after initially not seeing many objections against the ghostriding joy), I had noticed sky in the east was getting a very dark shade of pale blue.
After filling up at the petrol station a few kilometres onwards, the signs still told me I was on or on my way to the NH 76, the road to Kota. Very quiet, lots of cows going home. And why not? There’s more traffic of cows and goats and farmers than motorised vehicles here, so it’s only logical they use the easiest road, in fact simply the there is. Two kids, against the traffic direction, very relaxed, chatting on their bicycles. No problem, just swerve around them. All so calm… water buffalo cows goats, dogs – strays or employed?
Kishanganj had seemed nice conclusion of today’s ride – on the banks of the river Parvati, the third holy river of the day (they’re all holy, aren’t they). However, when the sun touched the hills on my left, I stopped to exchange my sunglasses for clear ones. When I looked up again, the sun had disappeared. Kishanganj another 75 kilometres away, and though the road was in excellent condition, I didn’t want to risk not seeing cows, boulders, things fallen from trucks, or unlit slow moving vehicles. Skipped the turn-off to Dewri as I’d decided for Shahbad because it sounded nice. And indeed, I couldn’t have wished for a better place to finish the day. Some villagers argued about which lodge to send me to, but a tall smiling man dismissed all the other ideas and decidedly showed me the way to the Government Resthouse. Of course I don’t know what the other one(s) were like, but I’m happy here. I’ll save Parvati for breakfast.
Got up in my Nautanwah hotel just before sunrise, brushed my teeth, paid my rs 50, and pushed the bike out of the courtyard. It was still there! Even the petrol! Was feeling a little apprehensive about leaving it there last night after some semi-aggressive guy kept going on about arranging things for me at the border (which I’d already passed), owning the whole place, wanting an extra charge for the bike parking, and me not being in my own country. No idea what the whole point was, but it was all vaguely threatening. After I’d checked in, some friendly boy had turned up from nowhere and took me to a cheap & best little eating place. (Ahh … only in India does the dal taste like this – is it the cumin? the kind of lentils?) He simply took me there, declined all offers of food for himself, just hung around chatting to some friends here and there and making sure I ate well. I took him for a cup of tea afterwards and that’s where this other guy started talking to me and then walked all the way back to the hotel with us. There my escort disappeared, and I was left with this guy. After pretending not to understand him and remaining friendly for some time, I got fed up and told him the receptionist had already given me permission to park it there. He got quiet, looked somewhat confused, and disappeared slowly. The staff didn’t seem to think anything of it. I didn’t quite get the whole thing. Kept checking the bike every hour for a while, the staff continuing to reassure me it was ok. Finally I decided to trust the situation and went to bed.
Looking at the map before departing, I noticed that Gorakhpur, the originally planned destination for yesterday, was actually to the east, while I’m supposed to be going west. Fortunately, there was a direct road to Basti, west of Gorakhpur, which would cut some kilometres. Most people tried to send me via Gorakhpur anyway, but I found a happy bus driver who told me how to get to Banti, on the way to Basti. A nice small road, and sometimes the cold, fresh-in-the-nose fog even lifted enough to see what was on the side of it. Though soon I had no time to pay attention to that, riding the clearest evidence of McGregor’s law so far – bad roads are worse than no roads. What do these people do to their road surfaces? Unbelievable, kilometres of broken tarmac, I thought potholes by definition are holes in something smooth but here they proved their full capacity of independent existence. Maybe no road after all.
Had chick peas, tea, and jilebi for breakfast somewhere on the side of the road, and I understood Basti was seventeen kilometres away. A few tea breaks later, I realised seven and ten actually meant seven times ten. Seventy.
Finally, at Basti, there it was: the highway! My first Real Indian Highway. Felt sorry I didn’t have the possibility to shoot photos or film of my entry, because real it was, with fences and a divider in the middle, separating the traffic directions. But the Indian highway turns out to have its own flavour, it couleur locale, as it showed me quickly enough. Whenever there was a village, cows, people, two-wheelers and cars just crossed. Indian fashion: go when there’s some space, doesn’t matter is the traffic that is rushing towards you has to hit the brakes. Crossing traffic didn’t even seem to be aware of this fact. One guy may really not have been aware of what was going on around him, his head buried in a bale of hay that sunk onto his shoulders.
Another thing I had to get used to was the oncoming traffic – in our lanes, on the left side of the divider (don’t forget this is India, left side of the road traffic). Cycle rickshaws, motorbikes, fast luxury cars, and enormous All India Permit Goods Carriers. With their headlights on, so no one would miss the fact they were coming. That all this doesn’t alway end well was silently testified by the overturned and sometimes burnt out car wrecks on the side of the road.
Of course you’ve all read and heard lots of these horror stories – and of course they’re all true. But also don’t forget these are incidents, it’s at the same time generally ok traffic that you’re riding in. You need to stay alert but it’s doable. I sagely tell you, experienced as I am after a full day on the road.
Passed Ayodhya – where Rama was born – without noticing, then missed the signs to Kanpur and got lost in Lucknow.
Asked another motorcyclist: “You know the way to Kanpur?”
“Direct or bypass?”
And he showed me out of town, back on to something leading to the highway. Got lost a few more times but not badly, on grand boulevards with matching buildings. Wanted to get out of town before stopping for the night, and just outside Lucknow, the sky showing the first signs of twilight, I pulled into the big and empty plaza of a roadside hotel. Very expensive, and looking fancy with dark blue reflective glass everywhere, construction not yet finished but the building already falling apart. The hygienic standards were appalling, but the hot shower was great, I scrubbed all the dust and dirt off me and put on clean clothes to go to dinner.
Nayana organised a Bullet for me when I was in Bangalore a few weeks ago. On this visit, I was lucky enough to borrow it again, so I could find out how I liked a somewhat longer trip on a bike like that. And do I really need to say it? I loved it!
When on the train that previous time, she and I had a little sms-conversation, which resulted in a minor misunderstanding: when I picked up the bike, it turned out to be a “reversed feet” model: brake on the left, gear shift on the right. One up, three four five down. So on top of wearing shorts and slippers (where I’d faithfully been wearing my kevlar-lined jeans and motorcycle boots on my cute 100 cc Hero Honda in steaming Madras), I had to relearn my reflexes. Hm hm.
But I tried thinking of it as reorchestrating a drum groove, and it was surprisingly easy. A blessing in disguise: it took away my worries about this aspect of the overland India-to-Europe trip, which will have to be done on a bike like this. Dutch rules & regulations make it virtually impossible to import a bike from after 1998, and the older models all have the British layout for the feet. (Ever had to quickly put a foot down in a U-turn whilst still using the rear brake? Then you know why this design makes sense in England as well as India, where after all they drive on the wrong side of the road.)