Perhaps the most exciting time of my life was spent in a state of wonder and often bewilderment while backpacking across India and Nepal.
I urge all of you with a sense of adventure and quest for excitement to pencil in a trip to India sometime in your life.
Warning: You'll return to your previous life as a very different person however so be prepaired.
Listen to the full story: (55:19) - WARNING: Does contain some swearing!
Arriving in New Delhi
Nothing in the west had prepared me for the surreal and bizarre chaos that is India.
As I stepped from the gloom of the New Delhi airport into the bright Indian sun I was surrounded by mayhem, bedlam, heat and filth. Dust, clamor and noise, swirled all around and being a westerner made me the target of constant hassle.
I pushed my way out of the airport but the hawkers and touts were unrelenting.
"Come to my hotel. I own very fine hotel, cheap, not far"
"Rickshaw? Rickshaw? Where you go?"
"Money change? I make very good rate"
At six feet tall I stood head and shoulders above most of the locals, which made it difficult to hide in the crowd, especially while heaving around a backpack the size of a bathtub.
Everyone either owned a hotel or had a brother that owned one and would give me "very good rate"
I'm a British guy who had been living in The U.S. for the last 15 years and I suddenly got a wild hair to go traveling. For the previous year, two of my sisters had been planning a round-the-world trip and at the last minute I decided to join them. This was my first visit to a third world country and little did I know what was in store.
My sisters, Kathi and Jaqui had earlier left from England , with our mum, who they had talked into going on the trip for at least the first month. They had arrived in India a week or two ahead of me.
As I looked around in bewilderment I heard a recognizable yell above the cacophony. "Steve!"
I turned my head to see two enthusiastic English girls wading through the crowd, waving and shouting at me.
They dragged me out of the airport, found a taxi, haggled a price, and we were off.
Dusk was settling over the trash strewn streets and even in the middle of such a large city people were lighting small fires in the roadside gutters to prepare their evening meal. Smoke from the flames, mixed with vehicle exhaust, created a choking, eerie scene in the fading light. My lungs recoiled in shock as they were forced to inhale the mixture and my eyes and tongue wanted desperately to retreat from the stinging fumes.
It appeared as though all law and order had broken down and survival was the only goal.
Because I had not seen Mum for such a long time, we had decided to surprise her with my presence. But it was quite late by the time we finally arrived at the hotel so I was smuggled into a tiny room where I crashed on a bed made of half inch plywood covered by an inch thick layer of foam.
Exhausted, and in a state of utter confusion and travel fatigue I fell into a dark, uncomfortable sleep.
I awoke the next morning around 10ish still fatigued and already planning my return home.
India was just too filthy for me.
I must confess that, as I lay on, what for me was like a bed of nails I felt a strange mixture of exhilaration and horror, exhilaration at being abroad in a strange new land so deeply drenched in myth and fable and yet, I was horrified at the reality of the squalor I had witnessed upon arrival.
One of the first and strongest revulsions I experienced was the spit everywhere. New Delhi-ites chew a tobacco product, and rather than carry a spit cup the way decent American red-necks do they simply flob this stuff allover, on the sidewalks, the lamp poles, the parked cars. All the buildings had streaks of reddish brown spit as high as 5 feet from the ground. It was EVERYWHERE. I'm not some kind of prissy clean freak. In fact I'm more than happy to wear the same shirt four or five days in a row but even for me this coughed up filth everywhere was a bit of a shocker, and, as it turned out, just the tip of the iceberg.
That first morning I finally slithered out of the "bed" dressed, and went off to surprise Mum.
I stepped from the shadows of my hotel room into the glorious Indian sun, and immediately felt less depressed. This was my first taste of India in the morning sunlight and everything instantly changed. The balcony from which I peered overlooked a city teeming with life. On the streets below enterprise was at full pelt. Taxis were honking, buses were trundling and cycle rickshaw riders were weaving dangerously in and out of the stop-and-go traffic and from this height I couldn't see the spit.
Mum was relaxing, reading a book at the top of our hotel in an area that was part roof and part corridor.
I had to nonchalantly walk past her three times before she finally looked up from her book, saw me and then immediately, carried on reading.
My sisters had quietly sidled up to watch and we looked at each other perplexed.
She probably read just a few more lines of her book before her brain quietly told her that her first born, who was supposed to be in America , was here in India and had just walked past. She then shrieked out loud, dropped the book, and leaped to her feet. We were all seriously worried that she might have a heart attack!
Because Mum and the girls had already been in Delhi for a week, we immediately left for Nepal , high in the Himalayan Mountains between India and China .
I still wanted to return home but I thought, what the heck, I've come this far I might as well stick it out for a little while longer.
A strange planet
The train stations in India are like being dropped onto a strange new planet and trying to make sense of utter insanity! People are everywhere. Whole families fill almost every inch of floor space. I think it's where they live.
To reach the booths selling tickets, we climbed a short flight of stone steps, entered a dark, cavernous room filled with people, crossed to another flight of steps and ascended into a another large, dimly lit room containing lots of eager train passengers and a bull.
The ticket office had many rows of windows with enormous lines of people lined up in front of them. They appear to have been waiting days to get a ticket, and may have. We tried to stand in various lines but everyone kept shaking their heads at us and pointing further down the row of windows.
Confused, we skirted the bull who was laying down, relaxing in the middle of the room and went to a booth with no line at all.
We soon realized that we kept getting moved from line to line was because there are different windows to serve different types of people. Some, for instance was just for women. Ours had a sign saying,
"Members of Parliament, Foreign Tourists and Freedom Fighters".
I'm presuming that everyone thought we were freedom fighters.
We found our platform, made a big pile of rucksacks under the bright Indian sun, and waited. A cow slowly ambled down the railway tracks, foraging for what, I have no Idea. Eventually the train arrived causing everyone on the platform to start shouting and waving at the cow trying franticly to make it move out of the way. At the very last minute, realizing that something very large was barreling down on it, the cow hopped on to the next track.
Travelers to India who will be using the trains should take a slingshot to shoot at the rats on the tracks. I'm not saying this facetiously I mean it. The train won't be on time and this will occupy you until it arrives.
Although thinking about it, rats are probably sacred or something so it might be best to ask first.
Because our train journey was going to be a long one, the tickets we had bought were for what Indians call sleepers. Carriages with hinged wooden arrangements that serve as back rests during the day and fold down to make bunks at night. There are three to a wall, the top one is perilously far from the floor but that might be a good thing I thought because it seemed to me, a more difficult climb for cockroaches.
I consider it to be a bit of a stretch calling the train a "sleeper" because I got barely any sleep at all! All through the night, the train stopped at different stations about every 45 minutes and vendors clamber aboard shouting as loud as they could! The most common item for sale was "Chai". A deliciously sweet cup of tea often served in small disposable clay pots. It costs about three rupees per cup and because it was available everywhere we went this makes India , in my opinion one, of the most civilized place on earth. (That is, apart from all the spitting and defecating. You'll read more about this later.)
If you are ever the houseguest of friends that have traveled in India do this. Get quietly out of bed, one night at about 4:30 am , stand just outside their bedroom door and start shouting "CHAI, CHAI, CHAI" as LOUD as you can. They'll think its funny and thank you for bringing back many happy memories of their Indian travels.
Another common item hawked up and down the carriages of trains are short pencil length twigs. People were handing over money for these things and so I thought they must be of some value but I couldn't for the life of me figure out what.
I later saw a man attacking his teeth and gums with one and realized they are used instead of toothbrushes. He was really giving it beans and seemed to be quite pleased with the results, giving me a large wide grin displaying his remaining teeth.
One thing that we did not realize until half way through our travels, is that when you book a bunk on a train it is only yours from 9pm until 8am. And so at 8 o'clock in the morning you must fold it up and let others sit down.
We had no idea.
We awoke the next morning at about 11am. The bunks across the centre isle from us were folded away and about 13 Indians were quietly sitting on a space that should hold five and staring at us while we slept.
Still not knowing that we no longer had any rights to these bunks we slowly woke up, collected all our stuff and by about 1pm folded our beds away. Some of the Indians opposite immediately, and much to our annoyance, switched to our side. All that time they never said a word. I know I would have. At 8am on the dot, I'd have been shaking someone shouting, "Hey Buddy, you don't live here you know!" The locals, however, were so polite they never showed any anger at all.
There are some stunningly beautiful places in India and then there are places like Gorakhpur . This was my first real taste of an Indian city other than New Delhi and although I don't mean to hurt the civic pride of the residents of Gorakhpur but it has to be said, the place is a shit hole! Rotting, rat infested piles of garbage line the roads much worse than in other towns we visited.
Eventually we left the train and boarded a bus to Sonali on the border of India and Nepal. Being my first experience on an Indian road my excitement level was pegging (to use an radio term) We would pass water buffalo shuffling along the road, piled high with all manor of edible green flora from the fields of local farmers. We passed a man and his wife out for a ride on a small wobbly motor scooter, taking along their two sons, their newborn baby, his mother-in-law and some chickens. This was a common sight.
As we neared the Nepal border the low flat fields gradually gave way to higher and steeper inclines slowly preparing us for our assent into the highest mountain range in the world.
Visas for India must be obtained in advance of travel but to enter Nepal they can be arranged at the border. After all our passports were checked and stamped, we found a rickety old bus headed to Katmandu , threw our backpacks onto the roof, and clambered aboard. Now things really start to climb. Up until this point in my life I hadn't realized that Katmandu actually existed. It was a mythical place of legend and song and here I was on a bus going there! Far out (as they say).
Sitting on an unstable, wobbly old bus, only inches from a thousand foot drop and speeding round blind hairpin bends on the wrong side of the road is something I'd never done before. At every curve we came to, there might be five slow moving trucks crawling up a steep section of road, but our driver would just swing out into the oncoming lane and crawl past them, gears grinding and the engine screeching like a high pitched gravel train. It might take him a while and he invariably encountered several vehicles coming the other way who had to slam on their brakes and swerve, but he did it! Instead of being completely terrified, as I should have been, it was actually quite thrilling. Because our mother has a terrible fear of heights, we had to go to great lengths to keep our hands clamped firmly over her eyes but even she seemed quite calm after a while. She reasoned that, these guys do this all day every day and that we were safe as houses because they know what they are doing.
It turns out that this logic is hopelessly mistaken and the girls and I later learned that buses full of hapless tourists and unfortunate locals regularly plunge off the side of cliffs but we never let Mum know that!
When I say that drivers go round a blind curve on the wrong side of the road I'm not just saying that for dramatic effect. They do. At least our drivers did.
I think the attitude of everyone on the road is either, "I know it's my lane but there is probably someone around that bend coming straight toward me at high speed so I must be ready", or "I know I'm in the wrong lane but they can all just GO TO HELL!"
If you plan on going to Nepal someday here is a tip that will stop you from looking like a complete idiot in front of the locals.
To play a little joke on foreigners who come up from India , everyone in Nepal has set their clocks forward 15 minutes.
We had been in Nepal for four or five days before we realized this and only then found out because we were sitting in a bar for about a quarter of an hour waiting patiently for "Happy Hour" to start not realizing that it actually started 13 minutes ago! My sisters were pissed off knowing they will never be able to get back that lost 13 minutes!
Very very clever
Once we arrived in Katmandu we explored the ancient city on cycle rickshaws.
They are great fun to use but here is an interesting tip. It's very unlikely that the rickshaw owner will be able to speak English although he won't let you know that. You will therefore tell him where you want to go, haggle a price and climb aboard and all the time he has no clue what you are saying except rupee prices.
"How much to take me to the Freak Street "? I'd ask.
He has no idea where I want to go, only that I want to go somewhere.
"100 Rupees" he'll reply.
I'd then smile at him trying to give my face an expression that conveys I know he is trying to pull a fast one and I'm having none of it.
"Oh no, no, no, no," he says "80 Rupees"
We both know that I will end up paying 50 Rupees but there is a certain song and dance that we both have to perform to get there.
"30 Rupees" I'd say pulling my pockets inside out to show him I have no money. I would do this completely ignoring the enormous backpack hanging from my shoulders that looks as though it's stuffed with cash.
He will shake his head vigorously smiling all the while and say "60 Rupees"
"50 Rupees and that's my final offer"
"Ah Yes" he'll say wiggling his head in many directions as he motion's toward the seat for me to hop on.
He has no clue as to where he is taking me, but it doesn't matter, because wherever it is, he is charging me at east twice what he would charge a local.
As soon as I sit down he'll start pedaling in the direction he was facing before I arrived, searching for someone wearing a tie. It is probable that a man wearing a tie in India or Nepal will be able to speak English.
I presumed, each time he stopped and spoke in Hindi to someone it was a friend of his and he was asking how they were doing. After pedaling for about a quarter of a mile and two brief conversations with passersby, he said something to someone who would then turn to me and ask.
"Where you want to go"?
I happily told him, presuming that he was just making conversation with me. He then addressed the rickshaw guy who would invariably turn around and pedal back the way we had come. This is all done so cleverly that for the longest time I had no idea they could not understand me. I would even make conversation as we traveled and they were able to answer me in such a way that made me think they understood.
One of the tricks up their sleeve is the head wiggle. Nepalese and Indians often answer a question with a strange wobbling of the head that looks like both a shake and a nod at the same time. It's quite clever because it means they are able to correctly answer any question I ask of them whether they know what I'm saying or not.
The two types of rickshaw are the pedal type, which is a bench, mounted behind a single cyclist, and the motorized kind, a small three wheeled machine that tips over going round corners.
The pedal type is really for two people but can, if you really try, carry three large westerners and all their luggage with some effort. At slight inclines someone must get off and push. Timing it just right to climb back on before going down hill can be tricky but fun.
To be fair though, tip the guy well, it can't be an easy job.
Every time you travel in a motorized rickshaw you'll think it's going to tip over on corners but I actually saw it happen only once.
By now I had traveled many thousands of miles from my home in Michigan and was, to use a tired and clichéd, but suitably dramatic phrase, at the roof top of the world.
We had arrived in Katmandu, Nepal's capital city in November, which is the beginning of the dry season. The sky was a crisp, deep blue with no haze and wonderful visibility. I climbed to the top of the hotel and out onto the flat parapet to see if I could see my house. When I left, I had builders coming in to do some work on the driveway and was curious to see how it was going.
Katmandu is 4,600 feet above sea level and it lies in a valley with the Himalayan mountains towering all around it in the distance. Katmandu has packed in more culture per square foot than almost anywhere else in the world and is actually comprised of three historic cities, Katmandu, Patan and Bhaktapur. One can be pretty much be guaranteed that whenever you rattle in to Kathmandu there'll be a festival of some sort about to take place.
My sister Kathi then arranged a little surprise for all of us. Unbeknownst to anyone, she had been talking by telephone to our third sister Jenny who lives in Melbourne Australia and had secretly arranged for her to fly to Katmandu to join us. As we were walking down one of the cities busy tourist allies, Kath started complaining of an upset tummy and felt that she should go back to the hotel. This, it turns out, was just a ruse. As soon as she was out of sight she bolted to the airport, met with Jen, and then they both dashed back to find us still strolling down the same ally just two shops further down. It was Mums shrieking that alerted me to Jenny's arrival and we all then had to swear that our fifth and final sibling, our brother "The Spade" was not planning on jumping out of the bushes somewhere along the road, waving his arms shouting "SURPRISE!"
We spent a week or so in Katmandu and then traveled to Pokhra, nestled alongside the beautiful Phewa Lake , where we spent a wonderful few days before heading on to Chitwan forest.
Up to this point I had experienced two major cities, New Delhi and Katmandu and I expected Pokhra to be an enormous bustling metropolis but once we got off the bus, walked to the end of the street and turned left that's about it. At the time I remember being quite disappointed thinking "What will there be to do in this little place?" I'm making Pokhra out to be a smaller city than it really is having a population of around 180,000 and there was about as much to do there as I wanted. As I now look back, perhaps my fondest memories of the entire trip were of breakfast with Mum down by Phewa lake. Each morning we would choose one of the many shoreline restaurants catering to the foreign trekkers that visited Pokhra and take our coffee and pastries down to the waters edge.
It was bliss.
All around were majestic views of the Dhaulagiri , Manalsu, Annapurna and Machhapuchhre Mountains , but unlike New Delhi , and Katmandu now some 125 miles away, Pokhra was pollution free. This is a place where soul and spirit will once and for all decide who's boss and then for evermore remind me, "I've been to the Himalayas !"
How to save some money
Here is an anecdotal example of doing things yourself rather than buying a packaged tour.
We were riding on the back of elephants, rhino spotting in The Royal Chitwan national park, my sisters and mum were on one elephant and I was on another with three strangers.
One of the other members of my group was an Australian guy who had heard from someone else that they only paid $200 US dollars for the same trip from Katmandu and he was upset because he had paid $250. He asked the person behind me how much he had paid and got really annoyed when he found out that it was only $185. I'm glad he didn't ask me because we had done everything ourselves. We had taken a rickshaw to the bus station in Katmandu , bought our own tickets to Pokhara and on to Chitwan. Found our own rooms, paid for our own meals and drinks and went in search of an elephant owner on our own. Adding in the cost of a return bus ride to Katmandu we paid about $27 US dollars each!
Five of our most exciting days were spent white water rafting.
At the time I never gave any thought at all to the response I would receive from people back in the west to the statement "We also went white water rafting in the Himalayas"
I gotta admit though, It is a heavy duty thing to say.
After about a month wandering the mountain kingdom we made our way back to Katmandu where we said goodbye to Mum at the airport and then started heading downhill to rejoin the rest of the flat landers and spend Christmas in Goa a small state on the west coast of India.
Being a tourist, I was a very desirable passenger to any rickshaw driver as they could fleece me "something wicked". Because of this, every time I left an airport, bus terminal or railway station I was besieged with rickshaw drivers offering "Very good rate." It's annoying to be greatly overcharged, but I knew that they were overcharging me the equivalent of pack of gum back home.
The main problem is not so much the inflated cost to us, just because we are westerners, it's simply being hassled. The girls and I got so sick of it along with the hellish ordeal of buying a train ticket that we decided to buy motorcycles and travel under our own steam.
It turns out that there is a Factory in Madras that still makes old English Royal Enfield motorbikes. They now simply call them Enfields but the only difference between the bikes today and back in 1958 is that they now have electric indicators.
The decision for me was made after fighting my way out of a railway station in Lucknow and seeing one of these bikes in the parking lot. It looked like something a '50s greaser had just parked to go into a milk bar somewhere. I had to have one.
Luckily both Kathy and Jaqui were up for the Idea, and so went in search of a dealer. Our hopes were somewhat dashed when the pleasant Indian Enfield dealer in Jaipur informed us, that there was a three-month waiting list for a new bike and that we would have to buy second hand machines. The name of the dealership was, I swear "Swastika Automobiles." Their logo was two large red swastikas painted on the outside of the store. I almost expected to see Hitler goose stepping angrily through their door pissed off because he couldn't buy a new Enfield .
If my understanding is correct, the swastika was originally an ancient mark of good luck used by Hindus, Buddhists and many other religions and cultures and that Hitler chose it because of it's popularity and, as we know, turned it into the most vilified symbol on the planet. It's a shame.
We were still besotted with the idea of Enfields and later that day, as luck would have it, we met a couple of westerners on Enfields who told us "Naw, the best place to buy Enfields is in Karol Bagh in New Delhi . You can get new ones straight away there."
We were off.
I bought a new 500cc Bullet Machismo out of the showroom and my sisters each bought used 350cc Bullets from Arun Maddan at Maddan Motors and Lally Singh who we affectionately called either "DooLally" or "Dilly Dally Lally". Both names terribly undeserved I should add.
We had the bikes fitted with panniers and racks for our luggage and had the long bench seats replaced with single sport seats. They just look cooler. I had the stock handlebars replaced with wider ones for no reason other than I wanted to.
Brand new Enfields are available in America and cost between $3,800 and $4,200. In India the base price of my bike was about $1,350 and even after all the extras I still had only paid $1,600. I had to get a document from the British embassy stating that they didn't have a problem with me buying a motorcycle and then present this to the dealership.
The first night with the new Enfield I learned the single most important lesson of all.
AT NIGHT, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR BIKE OUTSIDE ON THE STREET.
We were staying in a cheap hotel just off Paharganj in New Delhi and as I approached my brand new bike the next morning I immediately could tell that something was not right. My heart sank as I saw that the battery had been cut out and was gone. Ragged, ripped wires hung from beneath the seat like a metallic wound. I was angry and cursed the thief using every foul, unpleasant word that I could think of or make up but the truth is he (she?) did me a great favour. They only took the battery which cost me $20 to replace. They could have very easily stolen the entire bike which would have been a crushing blow. In hindsight, it cost us $20 to learn that we only stay in hotels with courtyards from now on.
Every time we rolled into a new town, filthy and exhausted from a hard days ride we would search for the cheapest hotel with an area suitable to store three Enfields overnight.
Kathi had never even sat on a motorcycle before let alone tried to ride one. Arun lent her a used bike to learn on while hers was being readied for our trip. She spent an afternoon training herself by riding around and around the very busy roundabout of Connaught place in the middle of New Delhi!
My bike and Kathi's bike were ready to go but we still had to wait a few days for some work to be completed on Jaqui's machine and so, rather than wait around in a hotel room we thought it would be a good idea to road test the two bikes we had, by taking a trip to Agra.
Probably the most famous of all the treasures of India is the Taj Mahal located in the ancient city of Agra and is regarded by many as one of the eight wonders of the world. Built by the Mughals, the Muslim rulers of India at the time, the Taj Mahal is made entirely of white marble. Definitely a place to see if you are only 253 kilometers away and have no idea of the danger ahead.
Which we were and we didn't.
Before we had even left New Delhi however, Kathi's bike broke down. We had to telephone the gentleman we bought it from, Arun Madaan, crying for him to come and save us. Arun headed straight to our rescue, and with a pair of pliers and some electrical tape, fixed the problem right there at the side of a hot, busy, bustling New Delhi road. We should have seen this as an omen but we didn't of course. Instead we chose to revel in the excitement of riding motorcycles in a huge Indian city and threw caution to the hot, dusty, exhaust filled wind.
This was our first, self powered, trip on Indian roads, and as we left the city behind us and motored along the road to Agra, we quickly realized that we would probably die before nightfall.
I was in front with Kathi riding pillion on the seat behind me and, because Jaqui knew how to ride a motorcycle, she was on Kathi's bike following along.
Indian roads are so potholed and damaged it's impossible to go too fast, a fact that apparently only we knew and all the drivers around us drove as though possessed of immortality. We soon learnt that the only safe way to travel was as close to the verge as we could manage, ready at any moment to drive off the road and out of the way of a truck coming around a blind corner towards us in our lane. This is in no way an exaggeration.
I was leading the way and so it was my job to be ready to veer off the road at a seconds notice. Jaqui had her eyes glued to me and so she had the luxury of 2 seconds notice. We had to do this often.
Because of the slow going, what we thought would be a days ride turned into two days and so we stopped at a hotel along the way.
The next day, as we finally rolled into Agra, Kathi's bike broke down again.
I sat crossed legged next to the broken machine and, with my pitifully few tools, tried doing some things to the engine that I had seen people do in movies. I wanted my sisters to believe that, as their older brother, I would handle the problem and get us going again. I know cars pretty well but bikes had never been my thing and so, after a futile hour, I gave up and we had to rethink our situation.
Arun was, of course, much too far away and so we were on our own.
The girls then did, what seemed at the time, a brilliant thing.
What, at the time, seemed brilliant.
At the main intersection back to New Delhi there were many trucks with canvas covers parked outside dingy roadside cafés. The drivers were getting a quick bite to eat before their afternoon journey home. Kathy and Jaqui made some inquiries and soon found a couple of guys with an empty truck who were heading back to New Delhi. We agreed on a price and they helped us lift the lifeless bike into the back of their vehicle and get it tied down. The girls then climbed into the truck and, with me following along behind, we started the return journey.
What happened next is perhaps the most puzzling, bizarre and potentially dangerous event of our entire travels.
Everything went smoothly all the way back to New Delhi until we reached the outskirts of the city. The truck pulled into a petrol station and, as I followed, I thought "good, I should also get some gas". Dusk had been slowly closing in for the last few miles and so now it was quite dark which meant that, in the gloom of the dimly lit petrol station, I didn't notice that the truck had not pulled up to any of the gas pumps and instead had parked near a public telephone. Not realizing this I rode my bike up to one of the pumps and started to unlock the gas cap.
After some fumbling with the lock for a few moments, I was about to start filling the tank when I casually looked over to the truck and saw that the drivers mate was hastily walking back from the darkly lit telephone to his side of the lorry and as soon as he jumped in, the truck drove away.
Not understanding what was happening, I franticly fumbled the nozzle back onto the pump just in time to see my sisters alarmed expressions as the truck shot out onto the road and was quickly out of site.
In a state of near panic I kicked the Enfield 's starter which luckily fired first time. I zoomed out of the gas station forecourt, almost hitting a black Ambassador motor car, just in time to see the truck make a sharp left turn further down the road. I have never before ridden a motor vehicle with such reckless abandon and I hope that I never have to again.
Every time I screamed the bike around a corner I was just in time to see the tail of the truck make a turn further down the road. I was dodging and darting, dangerously in and out of the heavy evening traffic, swerving around cars, trucks and busses oblivious to the angry horns blaring at my insane driving. All the time I kept thinking, "No way are you fuckers stealing my sisters" It was hard to believe that this was actually happening. Driving dangerously no longer mattered. Driving illegally didn't matter. All that mattered was staying within sight of that damn lorry and my two sisters.
All the way back from Agra the truck had been driving at a reasonable speed and I had no trouble keeping up. They then stop on the outskirts of the city, make a hasty phone call, and then take off as though there in a Grand Prix for trucks.
Again, I was damned if they were going to steal my sisters.
By now Kathi and Jaqui had managed to crawl to the very back of the lorry by the tailgate from where they could see if I was still following. They were both holding on for dear life and as they were violently thrown around I could just see their worried faces in the dark distance each time they rounded a corner and the orange light from a street lamp fell across the back of the truck.
To this day I don't know how I managed to keep up with them. I weaved madly in and out of the city traffic, ignoring all speed limits and almost clipping the bumpers of a hundred cars, as I gave chase. I would cut off multiple vehicles that were forced to slam on their brakes as I rocketed blindly into heavy traffic from a side street.
Then, after about half an hour of this lunatic race, the truck suddenly, and without warning, slowed down. I caught up to them and then quietly followed as they drove to our requested destination my wild heart beat slowly calming.
Not a word was said between us as they unloaded the bike, we paid them the agreed amount and they drove off into the night.
Kathi and Jaqui were very shaken up, as you can imagine but apart from that they were fine.
We postulated for days after about the incident. Did they want the bike? Were they planning to sell my sisters into white slavery? Did the truck driver simply need to use a toilet really badly? We had no way of knowing, but one thing we did agree on was that, if my sisters had been sold into slavery we would have felt sorry for the poor man who bought them thinking he was getting two quiet and servile English girls. Within a week he would have been ready to pay someone else to take them off his hands.
Apart from a hotel owner in Bangkok , threatening us with a nasty great big sword two months later, this was the most harrowing episode of our trip. But, on the bright side, I did get to see the top of the Taj Mahal off in the distance as I tried to fix the broken bike.
One of the day to day problems while backpacking is laundry. Keeping our clothes clean during our travels was usually a fairly simple procedure but there are risks. Most of the hotels in which we stayed have an arrangement with a local, who, for a small fee, would take our clothes down to the river and give them a good thrashing on some rocks. What they do however is to mark each item with a waterproof pen of some sort so that they know whose clothes belong to whom.
On one occasion I dropped all my laundry off at a store front location in New Delhi and when I returned to collect my now clean clothes the next day everything was fine except for one white shirt. It was a brand new white shirt that I had bought just for this trip.
Everything had the now customary mark which, for this store, was a big blue dot however, for some reason, on this particular item of clothing, the person doing the work had put the symbol in the middle of the top of the back on the inside of the shirt where the material is doubled up, which, on a white shirt, had of course bled all the way through. I now had a beautifully laundered bright white shirt with a big blue blotch the size of a quarter right in the middle of the back.
I'm kind of ashamed of it now, but at that time, still being held hostage by my preconceived western ways of thinking I "threw a wobbler." Instead of shaking my head, muttering "India, what ya gonna do?" I got angry and demanded that they fix it.
The shirt now looked absurd!
They took the garment back, not really understanding why I was not happy, but they could tell by my hissy fit that I was not pleased and so they agreed to remove the spot.
Whoever had given the instructions to the actual person down at the river must have said "get rid of this blue stain NO MATTER WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO" because, even when the material started to tear they did not stop scrubbing.
The next day I was presented with, again, a beautifully clean shirt but this time it had an enormous ragged hole in it as though it had been shot at point blank range with a 12 gauge shotgun.
Now here is where I got really stupid. Instead of thanking the store owner, taking the shirt back to America and wearing it like a badge, a souvenir of the madness of the third world, with lots of shouting and yelling I handed it back to him and demanded that when I returned the following day it be fixed.
Because something like this would simply not happen in the west I thought I was being singled out and they were purposely trying to make me look like a fool. That night my sisters calmed me down and in not so many words made me realize that it was in fact me that was making myself look like a fool, and we were in India now where things were different and that I needed to grow up and "go with the flow."
I entered the store with some trepidation the following day but low and behold they handed me my shirt with no spot and no shotgun blast. It was perfect. They had repaired it so cleverly and with such accurately matching material that I was actually amazed. I really couldn't believe that whoever did the repair had found such an exactly matching piece of white cloth until, that is, the next time I tried to wear it and found that the tail was missing and the back would no longer tuck into my trousers.
One incident that I am proud of, however, happened on the train from New Delhi to Bombay. We had decided that, with Kathy's inexperience on a motorcycle unlike our trip to Agra, it would be best to avoid the very busy roads of the capital city and leave Delhi by train and so after an enormous amount of hassle, baksheesh (Bribery) and swearing, we finally had the bikes drained, wrapped and loaded, along with us, on the sleeper train to Bombay. As dusk fell I was having a hard time reading. When we went round a bend I could see that all the other carriages had their lights on except ours. I fought my way to the end of our carriage to where a large crowd was gathered. It seems that the knob for the light switch had broken off and the conductor and a few others were trying to twist the remaining piece of metal with their fingers. Just before leaving America I had bought a few things from a travel shop, and a penknife that was also a pair of pliers had caught my eye. I couldn't imagine when I might need such a thing but being a guy was all the reason necessary and so I bought it. Here was my great moment. I found the penknife and reached among the throng, gripped the metal stub of the switch and with one easy twist all the lights in the carriage snapped on. I think at that moment I justified every guy and his love of gadgets.
I was the hero of our carriage and the group of men that had been struggling with the switch all wanted to see my knife so that they could marvel.
The conductor then did a strange thing. He opened one of the blades, a serrated one that was as sharp as could be, and to test its sharpness he cut into his thumb. I don't think he expected it to do much damage and so was quite startled when it cut deep! I expected the worst, and was sure he would start shouting at me and have the three of us thrown from the moving train, but instead he started showing his thumb around as everyone "ooooed and aahhed"
Arrival in Bombay
We finally arrived in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, quite late at night exhausted and just wanting to find a hotel in which to crash.
Even at this late stage into our travels I was still living with a foolish western mind set and was presuming that because we had bought tickets to Bombay and had paid for our bikes to go to Bombay we would all go to Bombay. Apparently, at this time of night there was no one at the station able to unload the carriage containing the Enfields and that in a half an hour the train was leaving with our motorcycles still aboard!
I then simply snapped and turned into the cliche of the typical, pompous, overbearing English man and started ordering people about as though India was still a British colony and I was in charge.
"You there, open up this carriage door and look lively," I shouted to some poor Indian who happened to be walking past. I was tired, hungry and not about to loose three, perfectly good motorcycles.
"Don't give me that head wobble thing," I yelled. "Get a key and let's get this door open!"
I'm not especially proud of how I behaved, but it did get the job done. I wouldn't act this way to border guards of course, but, in desperate situations, to station porters and the police it seemed to work.
We finally got a team of guys to empty most of the contents of the carriage onto the platform and dig out our bikes from deep within.
We still had to unwrap them and fill them with oil and petrol and after all this was accomplished mine wouldn't start!
Brand new and it wouldn't start!
Looking like a horses ass.
There is a definite knack to starting an Enfield Bullet that can take a while to master. You have to slowly, pretend to start it, holding open the decompression lever, moving the piston to top dead centre and just when it thinks you're simply an idiot you let go the decompression lever, quickly thrust down on kick pedal and startle it into firing up.
I thought that I had mastered this technique but obviously stress, hunger and exhaustion caused me to lose it. A large crowd had by now gathered, even, at this time of night and all stood silently watching my futile attempt after attempt to start my bike. I could tell that my two sisters were near quiet hysteria and we all just wanted to get going. It was after about 20 minutes of fruitless struggling that I learned another valuable lesson that is worth remembering on any trip to India . If a teenage boy approaches, wanting to help out, let him. You'll definitely end up looking like a horse's ass when he starts your bike on the second kick but at that point who the hell cares?
The truth is, nearly every Indian we met sincerely wanted to help us any way they could. Apart from those whose livelihood is dependant upon fleecing foreign tourists, Indians would consistently lend us a helping hand when obviously needed. This is just one of the many nice things about Indians but, could, at times, be a double edged sword.
Trying to help.
Out in the countryside sign posts were few and far between and we would often ask for directions. Having probably never left their village and not wanting to let us down by telling us that they were sorry but they did not know the answer to our question, they would make something up.
I'd ask, "Excuse me, which is the road to suchandsuch?" pointing to a junction in front of us with two roads heading in opposite directions.
I'd get the ambiguous head wobble in reply.
Hoping to nail them down to a more definitive answer I'd ask "So that's the road?" I'd say with my finger indicating east.
The head wobble again but this time it looked more like a "No" answer.
I would shift my finger to point west and say, "That's the correct road then is it?"
Exact same head wobble.
Showing them the map did not help either because they had probably never seen one before, and so it just looked like nonsense to them. Finally, just wanting to please us, they would make a decision and show us which road to take and there was a 50-50 chance they were correct.
If I had flown first into Bombay and it had been my initial experience of India I would have thought that it was completely filthy and grimy but because I had already been to New Delhi , Bombay struck me as being quite nice.
Leaving the angry, swirling, hornets nest of traffic in Bombay was a horror but we made it.
Feeling the squeeze.
At one point during our exit, I was riding "rocking chair" which is the middle of the three bikes. Kathi was 50 feet in front of me and Jaqui was somewhere behind. I was feeling very much the protective big brother and as I watched, two buses ahead of me started closing in on either side of Kathi, their drivers showing no concern that they were about to sandwich a girl on a motorcycle. Just when my panic at what I was witnessing reached fever pitch both the buses broke away and headed in different directions leaving Kathi wobbly but safe. I didn't find out until we were done riding for the day that the buses had both hit Kath's handle bars at the exact same instant and lifted her front wheel off the ground for a few feet!
The next week was spent in a wonderful, leisurely ride down the western side of India catching occasional glimpses of the Arabian sea far off to our right. Along the way we would stop at simple and cheap roadside hotels and find simple and cheap restaurants serving simple and cheap food. We rode slowly through dusty towns, whose main roads were filled with sheep, goats, water buffalo and people.
We finally rolled into Goa as high on life as one can get
Sometimes I think I must be the stupidest man in the whole world.
A belief, I'm sure, held by many.
Ever since we started our journey, Kathi and Jaqui had been talking about spending Christmas in Goa . Apparently this is the place to be if you're a westerner in India and it's the Christmas season. Every time they spoke of Goa however, I thought it was just a town, not realizing that it was an area of some 3,702 sq KM. It seemed that every westerner we met was heading to Goa for the yuletide season and I was getting really worried that if we didn't get a move on all the hotels would be full.
Very similar to the birth of Jesus story except that none of us were virgins.
Not even close.
We arrived in Calangute, a town on the coast just north of the capital Panji and found a suitable place to stay. The warm, salty breeze let us know we were close to the ocean. The pathways between buildings and roads were more sand than soil and scrubby dunes populated with lofty swaying palm trees stood between us and the sea. It was nice knowing that here, we could settle in and relax. The daily chore of packing and unpacking the bikes was over, at least for a few weeks.
Having your own transport during your time in Goa is vital. If you go there the first thing you should do is find a motorbike or scooter rental place and get yourself fixed up.
One person that we would definitely recommend is Mahesh Phuja. He lives at the other end of India in Manipal but comes to Goa for Christmas to rent and fix Enfields for westerners.
Sunbathing with bulls.
Sunbathing on the beach in Goa can be rather be exciting. I was lying on the hot sand with my eyes closed one afternoon softly baking in the blazing sun when a shadow fell across my face. I slowly opened my eyes to see a Bull the size of a Chevy with horns like bayonets towering over me. I quietly gathered my towel and lotion and moved further down the beach, not so much out of fear, (although that does play a part) but more because I didn't want to be shit on! I would instantly have become a laughing stock amongst all the other foreigners becoming known as "The guy who got shit on" thus making it much harder to pick up girls.
Bulls, like cows, are of course sacred in India , and they pretty much do as they please. Every Wednesday in Anjuna, there was a flea market. It was held down by the beach. The makeshift stalls covered about an acre and left walkways between the rows of vendors just wide enough for two people to squeeze by. Bulls would often wander down the narrow isles and everyone just moved out of their way. One of the Wednesdays that I didn't go, two huge bulls got into a nasty argument over a female. It was like a rodeo, apparently with the two bulls charging each other, locking horns and leaping over and smashing everything. When it was over the Indian stall owners just dusted off their wares and carried on as though it was normal.
On any trip to India, excreta, in all its various forms, will play a major part. There'll be your own panic when you have your first case of "Delhi Belly". You'll enter into denial when someone informs you that what you just ate was cooked using cow shit and you'll gasp in utter shock the first time someone has a crap on a street corner next to you. To anyone from the west it is a most sacred and understood right that we enter alone, into a small room built solely for the purpose of hiding us while performing the most basic of all natures functions.
Not in India .
The unused land alongside the railway tracks does the job.
Whereas in the west one would be mortified if the bathroom door accidentally opened, it doesn't seem to faze Indians one bit that 600 people on a passing train all know that they had corn for lunch.
Maybe we should learn to lighten up a bit!
Indians, like a lot of the third world, have no need for toilet paper, preferring to simply use their left hand instead so it's only sold where tourists can be found. I would buy three or four rolls at a time and always carried a roll in my day bag!
I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that the smiling storeowners who sell us the strange round rolls of paper, have no idea what we use it for.
And I think its best we don't tell them.
They do not use utensils when eating and only eat with their right hand, their left hand being used instead of toilet paper. One thing that, thankfully, I didn't think of until after my return to the West was this.
Because of using their hand in the bathroom as they do, Indians therefore consider their left hand as "Dirty" and so I am presuming that all the cooks in all the restaurants in which I ate, prepared my food by cleverly only using their Right hand. I mean after all, If they will not use their own left hand to eat I'm sure they wouldn't use it to make my sandwich!
Oh yes and get used to people clearing their throat in a very loud way. I have always tried to avoid coughing up flem in public but Indians seem to use it as a form of greeting.
Back on the road again
Christmas in Goa was fantastic but one can only take so much frolicking so during the second or third week of January we loaded up the Enfields, lashed down the extra fuel container and headed south and east.
We continued our India trip through Udupi, Mysore , Bangalore , Manipal and on to Chennai ( Madras ) where we sold Jaqui's bike to a couple of travelers heading in the opposite direction.
While in Madras , I visited the Enfield Factory where all the bikes are made. It's just like I would have expected a factory in 1940s or 50s England to be.
Because I was a westerner and had shown up at the factory gate riding an Enfield I was treated as something of a celebrity. A minor one to be sure, but still, I was welcomed into the main offices and assigned a personal tour guide. I was led through cavernous rooms lined with huge, greasy machines stamping out metal shapes with an angry ferocity. Everything in view had been built before the word "safety" had been invented and so I walked gingerly between the noisy grinders, lathes and mills not wanting to loose my footing and become part of someone's new motorcycle.
One enormous area housed row after row of skeletal looking Enfield frames. Another had hundreds perhaps thousands of engines waiting to be bolted into their new home and kicked into life. In the dusty air, paint fumes, grease and gasoline wafted alongside the tired history of an ancient machine factory. A relic of an age and a way of life hardly known on these shores. And yet it was all still relevant. It was still an important and vital part of India's transportation needs. Completed motorcycles were patiently waiting in lines and rows for their adventure to begin just as my adventure in India was winding down.
Because the girls had arrived two weeks or so ahead of me, their three month visa was up that much sooner than mine. We had sold the one bike but both Kathi and I wanted to ship our bikes back to the west.
Kathi's bike to England and mine to America .
We found a shipping agent, not to far from the Madras docks who would make the necessary arrangements but there were two problems.
One, we had to show receipts for legal money exchange that covered the cost of the bikes and two, we needed a document from the police in New Delhi, where the bikes were registered, that they were free to leave the country. It seems that the Indian authorities want to make sure that the vehicles were not involved in any legal matters before they went overseas.
The second problem was simply a matter of waiting for the correct paperwork from the New Delhi police. Or so we thought. The first item however, really was a big problem. Foreigners traveling in India must legally use state approved currency exchange offices to change their money into Rupees. We however had not used any, preferring to use black market money changers because the rate we received was half as much again as through the proper places. I would not have considered doing what I did next three months ago, but after spending so much time around the low level corruption in India called "backsheesh" I knew how to solve the problem.
Oh the terrible fraud.
I went to a legal money changer and changed $2. This meant that I now had a legal receipt. I then went to an office supply store and bought a bottle of "white out". After erasing the date and amount I took the doctored receipt to a printer and asked him to print me 50 copies. He looked me straight in the eye and said "Normally I would charge 200 Rupees for this job but I know what you are doing and so I charge 400".
Fine with me.
Back on the fourth floor of our crumbling hotel the girls and I, using different colour pens and handwriting, filled out enough receipts to show that we had changed money legally to afford to buy the bikes. We gave the phony bills to the shipping agent who seemed happy with them.
The girls then left for Sri Lanka and I waited for the document from the New Delhi police.
We had given our hotel address for it to be sent to and I was assured by Mr. Vidyasager the shipping agent, that it would arrive within a week. It had to because I was under the same 3 month visa constraint as the girls and legally I had to leave the country within two weeks.
My days then consisted of checking the mail at the front desk the first thing each morning and then having a leisurely breakfast in a café across from the hotel. To kill time during the days I often took the bus to the shippers just to check everything was moving along okay and after that I would explore Madras . They already had the bikes crated up and just needed the final paperwork. This went on day after day and I started getting very worried. Every day I would check at the front desk and every day I received the same negative answer. The day that I had to leave the country was getting dangerously close and yet every day , still no mail.
Finally, the day before I had to leave and I was almost at my wits end the young Indian porter who helped out at the front desk come bounding up the stairs and banged on my door. It had arrived. He held in his hand a very official looking letter from the New Delhi police.
I immediately jumped into a motorized rickshaw and sped across town. I excitedly entered the large front office of the shipping agent. With it's high ceilings and lazy fans swirling in the hot air the room still had the feel of colonial Britain . Years of whispered efficiency were soaked into the discolored white walls. Things moved slowly in this building and had done so for decades. I asked for Mr. Vidyasager and was waved into the back offices where the work gets done. I passed desks with huge stacks of paperwork and busy agents arranging forms in duplicate and triplicate that would send goods from the big Madras port to destinations all over the world. I found my agent and hurriedly handed him the letter which he tore open and inspected. As he read it he kept nodding and muttering yes, yes, good and when he finished he handed it back to me and said "This is no good. It's not what we need" I was devastated. That was it then. I had to leave India tomorrow and the bikes would simply stay here and get taken by god knows who. Just when my despair was about to overwhelm me Mr. Vidyasager continued "This is not a problem we just forge them"
Forge them? I thought Forge them? Why the hell couldn't we have forged them two weeks ago and I could have been on the beach in Sri Lanka all this time.
After Sri Lanka we flew to Thailand , then overland to Malaysia and Singapore. At that point I left the girls and flew to Australia for a month and finally back to America.
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