Backpackers in India like to describe those wild and improbable scenes of humanity that only happen there with the phrase: sab kuch milega. ‘Everything is possible’ is the frequent and forgivable mistranslation, as everything does seems possible in India—everything except an orderly queue, somebody who knows how to give good directions, and social mobility. However, the phrase is more accurately rendered as everything is available. Which is just as good, as my hope at the time was that somewhere in the everything of India, there was a motorcycle for me.
I began the day this dream was realized in the way that I began any other day in the Abode of Sacred Knowledge. With a bucket of cold water over the head and a bar of soap. This was a luxury, as most of my fellow ashramites shared a communal toilet and shower—this is what you get with the basic 100 rupee ($2) a night room. I sought out superior accommodation and splashed out for the deluxe 150 rupee ($3) room, which came with an en suite ‘shower’ and ‘toilet.’ The toilet was a hole in the corner of the room in which to defecate, along with a tap and hand bucket to keep said hole clean, as well as shower. As this arrangement means one is essentially shitting in the corner of the same room that one sleeps in, it is questionable whether one is truly better off in the deluxe room.
In any case, after I washed up, I slipped on my refurbished footwear and headed out of the ashram and across the older of the two suspension-bridges that span the Ganga at Rishikesh. The plaque indicated that it was built by the British in 1939, but the silver paint job and minimalist design gave it a veneer of modernity. The neat cement slabs that made up the bridge deck were held aloft by a pair of mighty cables, tied to a set of towers at each end. The term ‘pedestrian bridge’ fails to adequately describe all that crossed there. A kaleidoscopic scene of human beings flowing with and against a tide of cows, goats, scooters and motorcycles, weighed down with passengers carrying things, all kinds of things, things you can believe and things you cannot, all for mischievous caravans of monkeys to snatch at as they danced about the wires.
At the other end of the bridge, a sort of stretch-auto-rickshaw, called a tempo, took me and a dozen others into town. There were only enough seats for eight people, but still people boarded. Nothing is ever full in India and the national motto might as well be: there is always room for one more. I stood on the outside steps, clinging to the edge of the vehicle and making sure to press against the side whenever we grazed by other vehicles, which was all the time. After some miles travelling like this, I saw three motorbikes gleaming in the afternoon sun outside of a narrow shop and leaped off.
A young boy, who looked like he should be in school, worked around another motorcycle inside the tiny, one-room garage. He was watched by two men in blue jeans: an Indian with a long main of thick dark hair, tied back in a pony tail, and a young white man with a bush of curly red locks held back by a blue floral bandanna. They sat on kid-sized plastic stools drinking steaming hot chai out of tin cups. There were few decorations in the shop, and fewer tools. At the rear, a gold-framed Sai Baba, together with a collage of Hindu deities ornamented with a garland of orange flowers, coloured the otherwise dreary place.
I poked around for a bit, examining a brake lever here, and peaking at a carburetor there, doing my best to look like I knew more about motorbikes that I did, which was absolutely nothing. Of the three bikes, which were resting too close to one another to walk around, one in particular stood out in the way that it irritated me. Red letter-stickers on the air-filter spelled out the phrase Om Shanti. Om, of course, is the deep humming sound yogis and babas make when they attempt to transcend temporal existence and become one with the universe. No place for transcendental meditation on a motorbike, or so I thought—incorrectly. Shanti is simply the Hindi word for peace, but is often said in double to mean something like muy tranquilo. The tank fared better: brilliant silver, paved down the middle with a black stripe, trimmed with gold—the factory-standard paint job for a 350cc Royal Enfield Machismo. The paint work was actually special, but there was no way of knowing that then, not in the searing afternoon heat of Rishikesh.
“You bondin’ with that one mate?” said the white guy with the blue bandanna and Scottish accent. He strolled toward me, looking every inch the cool traveler in worn jean and cowboy boots. It was a look that came with time. Maybe out of some over-zealous desire to be prepared, North American and European backpackers (myself included) tend to arrive in tropical countries in the latest Arctic survival gear, with such items as : quick-dry pants, towels that shrink into your pocket, and water-resistant socks. In my experience, the longer you’re away, the less you look like a mountain climber, and the more you look like your would anywhere else. The Scot looked like himself, what Maslow might call a self-actualized traveler.
“I don’t think so,” I replied, “I’ve never rode a motorcycle before.”
“Well I’ll tell you what mate, if you’re interested in this bike, I can show you how to ride it in an afternoon. This afternoon in fact. It’s easy mate, just call me Cloxy.”
“Cloxy? How the hell didya get a name like that?”
“My real names Claus, but the Indians can’t pronounce it right, so they call me Cloxy, I don’t know mate,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve been riding bikes ’round India for years,” he said, kicking a leg over the seat. Is that my bike, he’s sitting on? I wondered.
“And you can teach me?”
“There’s not much I can do for ya if you’re gonna be standing there all day,” he said, rolling the bike backwards out of the shop.
The Indian with the pony-tail called out: “Cloxy,” and threw him the keys.
The Scotsman snatched the keys out of the air and in the same judo-motion inserted them into the starter. He was too cool for school that Cloxy.
“You can trust Happy,” Cloxy said, “he’s a good man.”
Happy strolled up to us and shook my hand with both of his. He said: “This bike is very strong, you take, no problem, I make a good price for you.”
“I’ve just got to learn how to ride it first.”
“This is not a problem.”
Cloxy kicked and I heard the bike with the black stripe come to life for the first time. He roared it for effect. I honed in on the rumble of the bike as my eyes took in the endless parade of cars, auto-rickshaws, trucks, delivery bicycles, goats, goat-herders, and errand cows that fought the dust and smoke of the Indian road, all waiting for us to join them.
“This might be a problem,” I said, and slid in behind Cloxy. “Hey, you don’t wear a helmet?”
“I like the feeling of the wind in me hair too much,” he replied, tightening his bandanna.
Sometimes I think you can judge the general vehicular madness of a place based on the average number of legs on a street dog. In Canada, for example, your average runaway has a full compliment of four legs. In India, your average street dog has about two and a half. I wish I could forget the time I witnessed this process in action while on the back of an auto-rickshaw humming over the Yamuna River in Agra. A dog strayed into the road at the end of the bridge. The driver made no attempt to steer away from the creature and the last thing I heard was a soul-crushing yelp as the auto-Rickshaw collided with the side of the dog’s skull. He didn’t get a tip.
Happy waved merrily as Cloxy eased us into the madness of the main-street. Happy and Cloxy, I thought, what a duo, in them I have placed my life and wallet. I watched intently over Cloxy’s shoulder as he moved up through the gears and maneuvered through the obstacle course of Indian traffic. How does he not hit anything? Everything moved so fluidly, so mysteriously, as if conducted by an invisible magic. Backpackers loved to describe the Indian road as ‘organized chaos’. But I despised the term as it lacked clarity of thought. Something is either organized or it is chaotic. They are polar opposites. Locked inversely together; the one increases as the other decreases. There can be no organized chaos. Organized chaos simply means organized. So what was the Indian road exactly? I wasn’t yet sure.
“We’re gonna need a drink for later,” Cloxy said over his shoulder.
“How?” Rishikesh was dry and so was it’s closest neighbour, Haridwar. Both are holy cities.
Cloxy looked back, “Sab kuch milega.”
We rode 15 miles out of town to the place where the municipal boundaries of Rishikesh and Haridwar meet—at what you might call the holy divide. There, Cloxy had found an English Wine Shop, which was a curious title for a shop that was neither English nor sold wine. It did however, sell cheap Indian rum, and Cloxy wasn’t the only person who knew of this little gem. A flock of drinkers rushed the caged-off counter, waving bills. As I said, everything is possible in India except an orderly queue.
On the ride back into town, in between questions about when to switch gears and how to avoid hitting stray animals, I saw a man on the side of the road. He was lying stretched out there, his head cracked open. Blood and brain fanned out over the pavement, and a pair of police officers tried to keep back crying women and screaming men.
“I take these sights as a reminder,” Cloxy said, “when you don’t wear a helmet, you have to drive perfect all the time.”
I clenched the whiskey in my hand, and watched over Cloxy’s shoulder as he rode, the hot wind flicking his bandanna. Was it worth it? India has the most dangerous roads in the world. They claim around 183,000 lives every year. That’s a city of human beings. Gone. The leading cause of death is heavy transport vehicles and buses colliding with pedestrians and motorcyclists.
Cloxy took us to his guesthouse, where he poured out two glasses of rum, and passed one to me.
“To Enfields,” he toasted.
We took a mouthful before he added, “…when they work. Remember, if they’re not leaking oil, they don’t have any oil in ’em.”
The rum was terrible. The label read ‘XXX’ like a bottle of cartoon poison, which would be funny if illegal liquor didn’t kill so many people in India every year. And even if you did survive drinking the stuff, you might have wish you hadn’t when the hang-over set in.
“So where ya thinkin’ of headin’ after you learn how to ride this girl?”
Cloxy took another gulp of poison and cringed. “Oh shit, that’ll be a few days over the mountains. Not just any mountains, the fuckin’ Himalayas mate. Yer timing is good though. The road is closed most of the time. The government only opens the road in the summer after the army gets in there and clears out the debris and snow. It’s a serious trip mate, a serious trip. I’ve never rode it myself. They say those mountain passes are some of the toughest roads in the world.”
“Lucky I’ve got a good teacher.”
Cloxy hovered his glass before his lips for a moment. “Just remember this mate: every rider passes through three phases. In the beginning, you’ll be cautious. You won’t be very good at reading the road, but you’ll be too scarred to do anything stupid. Once you get the hang of the bike and stop thinking about every little thing you’re doing, and just start feelin’ your way, then you’ll enter the second phase. This is the dangerous one mate so watch out for it. This is when you get cocky and get into accidents. And everybody who rides gets into accidents, its the karmic law of the universe, it’s really just a question of how bad they are. If you survive this phase, you’ll smarten up and enter the final phase. This is when your caution returns, and comes together with your confidence. This is the phase that you want to reach. Before—I would suggest—you start riding over the highest road in the world.”
I took a fast gulp—no point prolonging the pain. “I should get goin’ here Cloxy, I’m passed curfew, and the gate-baba really has it in for me.”
“Curfew? Fuck mate, you should stay on this side of the river. This side’s got the highway. Come by here tomorrow morning and we’ll get you on the road.”
“I’ll see you then,” I said, and began jogging down the hill to the pedestrian bridge. Gone were the colourful crowds of the daylight. At night, when the cool mountain air rushed down into the foothills, the bridge swayed and danced above the river. I walked gently across the bridge until I reached the midway point. The wind rushed through the bridge, pushing it to the point of maximum tension. The bridge deck flapped in the wind, like it wanted to break free from its piles and fly into the night. I held onto the side and laughed, hanging high over the cosmic Ganga Ma. One day, I thought, I’ll have to cross this bridge on the bike, that’ll be the first test.
When at last I reached the ashram, the gate-baba with his stone face made a big show of fetching the key and unlocking the door.
“Dhanyavaad ji. I’ll be on time tomorrow,” I said, “I promise. ”
I was falling out of favour with the ashram. I’d yet to show up for yoga, meditation class, the group dinner, and now I was violating the curfew. In a place full of meditators, fasters, cosmic-believers, mystics, and spiritual seekers, I felt like something of the anti-yogi. But it mattered little, for we all have our own ideas of what it means to be free and alive.
On the second day, I crossed the bridge to find Cloxy relaxing on the carpeted floor of his guesthouse tea room, whiskey in hand. He got straight to the point: “Do you know how to drive stick?” he asked.
“Nope,” I replied.
“Don’t worry, It’s easy mate, if you can get first gear, you can get them all, that’s how it works.”
We joined the bike on a cement plateau in front of the guesthouse, and I flung a leg over her and took hold of the bike. I ran a hand along the black stripe that divided the silver tank in two. “That’s how it works,” I said to myself. Continually. Repeatedly. At every stall over the better part of the next hour. “Get the first gear, get them all.”
After an endless series of failed starts and stalls, punctuated with occasional movement, Cloxy said: “Why don’t you take a shanti drive around the cliff road, it’s deadly.”
“Deadly mate,” he said, “it’s a deadly drive,” and winked.
I tried kicking the bike over: nothing. I gave her another kick: nothing. The guesthouse staff had come to enjoy my training, alternatively giggling and clapping at my every oscillation of fortune.
“It’s not about the power, it’s about the path,” Cloxy said, “Don’t just kick it down, kick it through the circle.”
I repeated the words to myself, “It’s not about the power, it’s about the path,” stood up slightly, and pushed the starter through the circle. The bike came to life with applause from the guesthouse staff.
“Thank you, thank you.” Ok, so now I’m on the bike, and it’s running. “How do I get down the hill again?” I asked.
“The hill? You mean the ramp?” Cloxy said, unable to hold back his laughter.
“Yeah, that huge bloody ramp at the end there.”
“You’re tellin’ me you want to ride a bike over the highest mountain range in the world, but you’re afraid to go down a little ramp? Just get her rollin’ mate, and go down easy using yer break.”
I looked along the concrete plateau, toward the ramp at the end, which descended to a narrow dirt side road. I’d have to turn quickly at the bottom, to avoid going straight into a creek that lay there. The main road was being rebuilt in typical Indian fashion, which meant a new road was being laid down on top of the old, absorbing all of it’s imperfections (and there were many). Construction vehicles honked as they roared back and forth, spraying gravel and dust everywhere.
I looked down to my left foot, and clicked one down for first. “You don’t want to be looking down to change the gears, just feel them,” Cloxy said.
I gave her a little throttle as I let the clutch out and the bike moved along the plateau to the spot where the concrete sloped down into the creek-side lane-way. Rolling down, I grabbed the breaks on and off, stuttering the fall of the bike. When the front tire hit the dirt, I started to turn away from the creek and onto the main road, where a pair of trucks were barreling down the road. Naturally, one was trying to overtake the other.
The bike crossed from the dirt onto the gravel. I was thinking about whether I should speed up and get onto the road, or stop and let the trucks go by. In the end, I did both.
I’d never been in second gear before, so when I pulled in the clutch, looked down to my left leg, and flicked up, I wasn’t exactly sure how it would feel. The bike wobbled in the gravel. The truck in front spat dust across the road as it approached, while the truck behind didn’t seem to be making any room for me.
I have to stop.
I hit both breaks, but was faster on the front, and the bike slid away from me. It’s a strange feeling loosing control of a motorized object, heightened perhaps when you’re straddling it between your legs without a helmet.
“When you come off the bike,”’ Hutch once said, “you don’t experience it, you just observe it.”
I saw myself fall over with the bike onto the gravel. It wasn’t going fast enough to skid, it just plopped right over on top of me, suspended above my leg by the rusty old crash-bar. And before I knew where I was, I was laying on my side on a gravel road with a truck steaming towards me. I mouthed the two syllables mounted across the grill: TA-TA. I was certain in that moment that the last thing I would ever see in my life was the TATA company logo, just like the 36,000 other motorcyclists who are crushed by trucks every year in India.
The truck swerved away from me and into the oncoming lane, forcing a car coming in the other direction to steer off the road, somehow managing to still pass each other at full-speed. The truck blasted dust and gravel across my body and face like a shotgun.
“Are you alright mate,” Cloxy yelled out as he ran down the ramp, “you’ve got to turn her off or it’ll damage the engine.”
Cloxy got to the keys before I did, and flicked them over. “How was that?”
“Deadly,” I said, pushing off the ground with my forearm.
“Don’t worry about it mate, I’ve done the same thing goin’ up the ramp.”
Cloxy and I brought up the bike together, and I brushed off my shirt and pants. I lifted up my pant-leg, to see where the tailpipe had kissed my leg.
“I’ll get it,” I said.
“Ah, I know you will mate, this is as hard as it’ll ever be.”
I slid a leg over the bike again and retook the handlebars. The bike felt different now that we’d been in an accident together, the way any relationship changes after the first fight.
I got the bike started after four painful attempts. This time I waited for all the traffic to pass before I pulled onto the gravel.
“That’s it mate,” I heard Cloxy say, as I rolled along the side of the road, in first.
“Alright,” I said, looking down at the shifter. Clutch in, click up, clutch out.
She started to chug so I gave her a bit more power. I relaxed a little bit when the gravel came to an end, and the road turned into tarmac.
“Next one,” I said, and looking down, flicked the gear up once more with the clutch. And then, taking the first gentle corner of the ridge road, the valley came into view, and I saw the Ganga sparkle in the sunlight as it twisted it’s way through Rishikesh, and then I realized, I’m riding a motorcycle. I’m riding a fucking motorcycle in India baby. The world beyond my immediate senses drifted away and disappeared, and I felt the past and future fuse with the living, breathing moment.
“Yeehaw mother fuckers!” I was one with the universe.
Then, the road descended down a hillside populated with speed-bumps. Since, I didn’t understand how the gears worked, I held in the clutch and applied the breaks to slow down. The problem came when I’d try and accelerate in the gear that I was in, which was usually third—causing the bike to chug and stall. This occurred at every speed bump.
Without a feel for the gears, I struggled tirelessly to get the bike back into neutral, so that I could restart. There was no heads up display to tell me which gear I had stalled in. Clutch, gear up, clutch, gear down. Where is it? Starting the bike was no easier. I’d average about twenty kicks before I’d get her going. After each stall, I reached the point where I felt like I’d never get the bike going again, and slumped over the bars. My leg was raw from all the kicks. And then there was the sheer terror of the next speed bump, and my vein attempts to keep the bike from stalling.
After spending the afternoon descending this one hill and its seven speed bumps in this manner, I wound up stuck at the bottom of the gorge, in a dried up river bed, unable to get the bike started. Another half an hour must have passed before I came to the conclusion that I was out of gas (I wasn’t). Eventually, a kind, elder man on a scooter agreed to take me to a petrol station and back. I didn’t have a jerrycan, but this being India, a coke bottle sufficed.
I filled up the tank, and thanked the man on his way. My leg was still soar, but now, brimming with petrol, I felt better about my odds. I rose up slightly, and drove my foot triumphantly through the circle.
“Fuck!” I smacked the side of the tank. I was tired and hot and fed-up and irritated. “Why the fuck won’t you start!”
I’d spent the whole day on the side of the road. I’d stalled, and restarted, and stalled, and restarted. I hated the bike. I hated it. It wouldn’t listen to me. I hated it. My whole body was sore. I was tired. My forehead ached from the heat of the sun. I was fed-up. I’d sweated right through my shirt. I hung over the bars at the bottom of the road, defeated. The moment lingered forever. That image kept coming back: the man’s head split open on the side of the road, and his brain running out. That was almost me.
I decided to capture this moment with my camera and so rested it on some rocks and set the timer. It occurred to me that many years hence, I would look back at this photo in one of two ways: as the day I had that stupid idea to learn how to ride a motorcycle in India before I smartened up; or the day a great adventure began. Just then, I heard an engine.
A pair of guys on motorcycles pulled up beside me.
“What is the problem?”
“This bike is a piece of shit.”
“This is not a problem,” one of the boys said and went straight to the engine.
“Yeah it’s kind of a big problem.”
“This is your problem,” he said, and shook the carburetter in his hand. The whole thing was loose, barely attached to the engine, sucking air. The man reattached it as best he could with the rusty clip.
“You need new,” he said, pointing to the clip. And then he jumped on the bike, and with an effortless kick, brought the bike once more to life. He revved the engine—and how she roared in the hands of somebody who knew what they were doing.
He turned the key and slid off. “You try.”
I saddled up. The men looked on eagerly, wiggling their heads. I turned the key. I put my foot on top of the kick-stand—it’s not about the power, it’s about the path—and I kicked through the circle with a touch of gas. The machine awoke like a big cat. The men left before I could thank them.
The ride back to Cloxy’s guesthouse wasn’t nearly as eventful, just me and the foothills and the Ganga; best described as shanti shanti. It was almost dark when I pulled the bike up the ramp and onto the plateau. One of the groundskeepers gave me a thumbs up. I pealed myself off the bike, took a few steps and collapsed on the grass.
I heard Cloxy’s voice: “Forget yoga mate, riding a bike is a full-body experience.”
He was sitting back in a chair, feet up on the balcony, sipping a drink as the sun snuggled into the foothills.
“You comin’ up for a drink,” he asked.
“Just give me a minute here.”
After I worked up the strength, I joined Cloxy on his balcony, where we drank and laughed well into the night and beyond the curfew. I didn’t know it then, but that was the last time we’d see each other. I don’t remember his parting advice, but I’ve probably learned it the hard way since. More than days, more than miles; travel like life, is best measured in hellos and goodbyes, those brackets of love and friendship.
I reached the ashram in the wee hours of the morning. Tipsy. The gate-baba was fast asleep. I thought of my promise not to wake him again. There must be another way in, I reckoned. I walked along the front. The gate was three times my height, angled and spiked at the top to keep the monkeys out. But there must be a way: one morning I woke up with a monkey in the corner of my room. I watched as he opened the lid to the garbage and peered in. On that occasion I threw a word at him—”Monkey!”—and on another, a pillow. If the monkeys could get into my room then so could I. We were cousins after all.
The mischievous little simians got in because I slept with the room door open in a vain attempt to escape the long, hot Indian night. There is no A/C at the ashram. Not even in the deluxe rooms. Only a ceiling fan, which stops when the power is shut off every night for 6 hours. Part of a power conservation system which tended to keep the poor areas in the dark. There is a special kind of dread reserved for that moment when the ceiling-fan motor clicks-off, and one stares up at the slowing blades like a dying pet. Then the air stops moving and the heat-monster has her way with you
The high barbed fence at the front of the ashram would be difficult if not impossible to climb. But there were four sides to this square. One side of the building abutted a muddy creek, which collected all sorts of garbage and waste that would complicate any climbing attempts made there. That left the free side and the back of the building. I checked the side first, examining the solid brick edifice for any climbing opportunities. The different shades of brickwork revealed the history of the place like geological strata. They suggested that the long wall had been extended several times (maybe Indians were getting taller, or jumping higher, or had taken to pole vaulting). I’d seen similar patterns all over Rishikesh, most likely to keep the hordes of pilgrims from invading during holy festivals, where space became exceedingly scarce. The wall offered no obvious holds and in any case was topped with concrete mixed in with glass shards. From a strict architectural point of view, the ashram seemed more like a fortress than a holy place.
This left the back-side. Things didn’t look any better there. I looked up to my window on the second floor. Like all the others, it was barred like a prison cell, another anti-monkey measure. The window was impenetrable, I’d have to come through the door. It all came down to the back wall. There was a pipe I could use. And two rows of thin ledges, separated about six feet vertically. The first row of ledges came to my chest, and I couldn’t get my foot on it in any meaningful way. It’s like you had to be a yogini just to get into the place. Then I saw a foot-ball sized rock and rolled it over. It was just enough of a boost for me to get one foot onto the ledge, and using the pipe, pulled myself up. I was now on the ledge, back flat against the wall. I shimmied across the wall from one ledge to another, until I reached a brick that protruded from the wall, roughly halfway between the ledge below me, and the ledge above me. I had to work at keeping my centre of balance as close to the wall as possible. Stretching out a leg, and reaching up to the second row of ledges I pulled myself first up to the brick, and then to the second row of windows. I was now standing on a two-inch deep ledge on the second story of the structure. The fall probably wouldn’t kill a man—maybe a yogini.
I lay still there, pressed against the wall, as a hot wind ran in between the wall and the arch in my back. This was the hardest part. The roof had a wide overhang that I could not reach around. Up was not an option, so I delicately passed from one ledge to another, until I reached the corner. Here the building dropped back down to one story. But there was a difference of five feet from the last window ledge to the lower part of the roof. A drainage pipe near the edge tempted me on. I leaned as far forward as I could go, and grabbed the pipe, which would have to support my full weight if this was going to work. I pulled, pushed, and shook it. It was rattling a bit, but that didn’t necessarily mean it would falter. I relaxed against the wall.
This was it. My attempt to climb into the ashram had come to this moment. Will the pipe hold? I reached out once more and seized it in my hand. In that moment I realized I was full off cheap rum, suspended over an alleyway, trying to break into an ashram in India. I took a breath, and kicked off the ledge, swinging my torso around the pipe toward the edge. For a split second, I feared there might be spikes on the other side of the wall, but I got my arm around, and then a leg. And pulled myself over the wall and onto the roof. And in this way I reached the first story.
I could barely hold my excitement as I ran over to the wall, and stepped up a ledge, which was enough to get my hands onto the second-story roof, and pull myself up. I got an elbow over. Then swung a leg up. And with a sort of pull and roll motion got the rest. I stood up with both hands in the air, exhilarated for a brief moment. But then I saw them. Still and patient. The unfinished staircase leading into the sky. I ran toward them. “Woohoo!” I yelled, as I charged up the first flight, and then the second, taking the final step with a jump that brought me to a perfect halt on the top of the staircase of unfulfilled dreams. Raising both hands in the air over the great courtyard before me, I looked over top of the yoga hall to the mighty Ganga, sparkling in the moonlight. Somewhere across that river, was a bike waiting for me, and for that short, private moment, I was king of the ashram.
On the third day, I had to make a decision. According to a bank slip, I had only enough money for two more months in the ashram in the deluxe room, or three more months in the basic room. I called my bank and got a hold of someone who dealt with retirement savings.
Eventually I reached a human, and I said: “I know this goes against all of the financial advice that I’ve heard since I was a kid, but I’d like to pull out all of my retirement savings.” I was 27.
“All of it sir?”
“Yes, all of it.”
“Sir, can I ask you what you’re planning to do with this money?”
“Yeah sure, I’m going to buy a motorcycle and ride it over the mountains into Kashmir.” It felt like somebody else was saying the words and I was just listening in: buying a motorcycle, driving over mountains, heading to Kashmir.
“Do you ride motorcycles in Canada?”
“Actually no, I’ve never ridden a bike before.”
The line went silent for awhile. I knew the whole thing sounded nuts. We’re drilled since childhood that life is but a steady save for retirement, that golden hour when one can live out delayed dreams. I’d thought about it. Let’s say I left this money in the bank and waited until it became a million dollars, or whatever the bank’s outrageous projections made of it, what would I do with the money then? Well, I’d go back to India and buy a motorcycle so I could drive it over the Himalayas. The only difference is that I’d be sixty five. I’m alive now. I’m in India now. Dreams are a trick we use to lock away the things we want to do now, in the future. I didn’t want to dream. I wanted to live.
I’ll never forget what she said next: “You know, I don’t think you’ll regret this decision.”
I don’t think she was a banker at heart. I tried to imagine her. The voice on the other end of the line. Her work place. Her computer. The half-drank cup of coffee on the otherwise bare desk. The clock on the wall counting down the work-day. A picture of some seemingly exotic place pinned to the cork board, or perhaps right there on the desktop, a window to a dream. I’d been there too.
I was committed now. To the bike. To Kashmir. To the world. The die was not cast, but it had been rolled.While I waited for the money to transfer, I withdrew the last bit of money I had in the world, and gave it to Happy as a deposit on the bike. It wasn’t much really, but in rubes, the stack was enough to choke a horse.
I found Happy at his shop. “I’ll give you the rest in three days,” I said.
“Let me show you how to count money,” he said, arranging the bills neatly in his hand. He flicked one after another rapidly against his workbench until a loose bill popped out and broke everything apart and Gandhi’s face went flying everywhere. We exchanged an awkward look.
“Anyway,” Happy said, “in three days she’ll be all yours, no problem,” and we shook on it.
Happy handed me the keys, and I walked up to my bike, and threw a leg over. I ran both hands down the tank’s black stripe. Almost mine. Key in. Turn. Find the special spot with my foot. Little bit of gas. And kick. Nothing. No problem. Little bit of gas—and kick. Nothing.
“Why are you doing like this?” Happy tied up his long black hair, “This is embarrassing for my shop.”
“Sorry, sorry.” I said, “Cloxy would always start it first time.”
“Cloxy has been kicking bikes for years. Try again, but nicely.”
“I’ll get it,” I said. My leg hovered over the kick-start for a moment, long enough, for me to realize the I’d sunk the last of my earthly savings into this argumentative machine, which together with my backpack, some books and some clothes, was about all I owned in this great cosmic universe. And even those, I wasn’t sure of.
“Full-power,” Happy said, and revved the air with his hand.
It’s not about the power, I thought, it’s about the path, and pushed my burned and blistered leg through the circle one more time. The bike responded with a growl. And I pattered her on the tank. Perhaps we were moving toward a more symbiotic relationship.
I waited for a wide clearing, and with a bit more throttle and a little less clutch, lurched the bike onto the road. I don’t know why I looked down to change the gears, it doesn’t help any, just something natural about looking at the thing you want to manipulate. The shifter was warped and loose, which made changing gears tiresome and frustrating. But I didn’t know any better then, I just assumed all bikes were as cumbersome. I got myself into second, and then, the holy grail: third. I felt a special sensation in third, like I was escaping the messiness of the early gears for a better place, high in the clouds.
I turned off the main road, and began curling up a ridge. Hutch told me I’d find a special temple at the end. I tried leaning into turns, which I announced with a honk, as is the Indian custom. Then the first of many Border Roads Organization signs popped up:
Δ BRO Δ
Thanks B.R.O., but I’ve already learned that one. The sign disappeared behind a bus that flew around the corner. “Holy shit,” I said, cutting toward the edge.
I found myself thinking a lot about the gears, rather than feeling the engine. Hutch once said,“just be in the gear that gives you the most power.” But I never was.
The road twisted up and around the hillside, bringing along an expanding view of Rishikesh and another BRO sign:
Δ BRO Δ
IT IS NOT RALLY OR RACE
YOU CAN DRIVE WITH GRACE
It’s like the signs formed a modern version of Ashoka’s Edicts. Ashoka was the first person to truly unify India. He did so under Buddhism, which was perhaps the greatest boon to that religion. Ashoka had his scribes etch his philosophies and good deeds into stone pillars, and scattered them across India. Many of them were marked with a Dharma Chakra, or Wheel of Life, representing the cycle of death and rebirth, and the path to nirvana. Ashoka’s Chakra is found today at the centre of India’s flag. I wonder what Ashoka would think of BRO’s Edicts that line India’s highways. The next one neatly demonstrated male-chauvinism in driving or sign-making:
Δ BRO Δ
LET HIM DRIVE
A great many more BRO Edicts stood between me and Kashmir.When I reached the top, and saw the temple, I kicked the stand out and strolled over to the chai stand. It looked like any other temple in India, I thought, and it did, but I wouldn’t know why until I saw the Golden Temple in Varanasi—the temple template.
I bought a chai from the chai-walla and asked if this was the Shiva temple Hutch was talking about, “Shiva Mandir kahan hai?”
“Shiva Mandir?” the man repeated and pointed toward a road that circled round a peak, “Temple is very far.”
I took another look, and saw the temple perched atop the mountain. “It’s not that far,” I said.
“China or the moon, which is further?”
I took a slow sip and tried to work out what he was getting at. “The moon.”
“Correct. But I cannot see China from here,” he said, and brought his index finger to the tip of his nose and pointed upwards. “But the moon is right there, I can see it.” Then he split his fingers and pointed them back to his eyes. “Don’t let your eyes fool you.”
I took another sip. “Whatever.”
“Do you know the story of Shiva?” he asked.
“Yeah I got that one.”
“You not knowing, this is no problem.”
“No, really, I know it-”
“This is not a problem.”
“I know it’s not a problem, because I know the story.”
“You knowing the story?”
“Yeah I know the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. Let me lay it out for you: thousands of years ago the gods and demons were at war. Always at war. Vishnu grew tired of the war and jumped in with a clever plan. His plan was to fool the demons into helping the gods create the Elixir of Immortality so they could overcome them. They went about this by sticking a mountain into an ocean of milk, and then wrapping a snake around the mountain. The angels and demons pulled the snake from either end for a thousand years until the snake became so hot it spat out an evil poison. The Halahala.”
“Ah – stop, stop,” the Baba said, “you are a very good knowledge. But I am knowing something too, why is this temple special?”
“It’s got a happy-hour?”
“Every hour happy-hour full-power Shiva.”
“In the story of Shiva, shiva comes down to the Earth, riding her cow, there is the cow,” the baba pointed to a statue of a cow, conveniently guarding the temple entrance. “And Shiva drinks the potion to save the Earth. This temple is where Shiva drank the poison. This is what makes this temple, a special temple.”
I was finally beginning to see how the Churching of the Ocean of Milk was really the architect of the spiritual geography of India.
“Thanks babaji,” I said, and jumped back on the bike and started up the road. The edges were sharp, the road as narrow as two bikes and littered with fallen rocks. I winded upwards for about a mile before coming to the foot of a large staircase, where some teenagers mingled. I hadn’t yet developed the habit of paying babas to watch my bike. I just left her alone, and headed up the staircase. I had a habit of counting steps in local vernacular. I ran out of Hindi on the third step. There were many more.
And then the reward: from the summit, the whole world around me lay spread out, and I saw where the Ganga descended from the heavens and curled around Rishikesh before beginning her long course along the great north Indian plain, nourishing half a billion people before fanning out into the Bay of Bengal.
A boy tugged on my shirt. “Please take chunni,” he said, and pointed me to a table laid with bright red scarfs. They were all the same, scarlet, with gold trim, swastikas, and religious phrasing. Traditionally, Hindu’s tie chunni’s onto trees and make a wish. So called wish-trees. In modern times however, the danger of the Indian road has created a new custom of tying chunni’s onto side mirrors and handlebars, where they are perhaps needed most.
“20 rupee,” the boy said.
“Ok,” the boy conceded. His sister hit him on the shoulder. “20 rupee,” the boy said again.
“Uh oh, too late now,” I said, and handed him over twenty rubes.
I stayed up there until gathering clouds suggested I take leave. When I reached the final steps, I could see there was a teenager standing by my bike. He appeared to be brushing his hair in the mirror, and walked off before I reached him.
I tied the chunni loosely around the bars, so it could flap. I felt the terse fabric in between my fingers tips. Then on my lips. The bike started first time, and we were off.
The clouds were growing darker now as they brushed up against the mountains. I hit the horn drifting around the first corner but nothing happened. I hit it again, but again nothing. I pulled over to the edge of the cliff. Horns aren’t rude in India, they keep you alive.
The wires were disconnected. The kid pulled them out. It wasn’t the last time local kids played around with my bike. Indians are a fatalistic lot, and disconnecting a strangers horn (or carburetter, or break line) is just a way of adding a little colour to life. What does it matter? Your time ends when it ends. I fumbled around with my hands until I got the wires reattached. It was my first repair.
Satisfied that I could “honk as much as I like,” again, as Cloxy once advised me, I continued the descent. The first cool rain drops plopped on my arms. With every corner, the intensity of the rain picked-up, until not before long, I was spirally down a narrow mountain road in a full-on deluge. I was afraid of sliding right off the cliff, but continued down.
Then I saw it. “What the hell?” The tank had changed colour—where there was black, there was now blue.
The black band stretched along the top of the tank had turned into a misty blue ribbon, like the Ganga herself flowing in shades and patterns of rain drops.
How did this happen? I tried to rub the blue off the tank, which was ice cold to the touch—but it remained. The paint must have changed colour with the cooler temperature, like those toy cars that change colour in warm water. I’ve since learned that a team of six men at the Royal Enfield factory in Chennai hand paint each tank. They go through about a hundred tanks an hour. Somewhere in there was a bad can of paint, which left my bike and some others with this unique characteristic.
In between the drops bouncing all around, I remembered Adil’s words, when he first told me that most powerful story in Delhi. In the story of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk: Shiva drank the halahala and stopped it in his throat using his yoga powers. The Earth was spared but Shiva’s throat turned blue and earned him a new name. “Nilkanth,” I said, “The One with the Blue Throat.”
The storm now raged around me. Indra sent her lightning down from the heavens. The scarlet chunni blew madly from the handlebars. I remembered Hutch’s words from when he sat atop his bed in the lotus position: “On the third day you will be a god, and the whole world will be yours.”
After you learn how to ride a motorcycle it would make sense to start out small. Ride around the neighbourhood, maybe across town, and then perhaps go for a day-trip. But I wanted to see Kashmir, and then meant riding the highest road in the world.
(Next Chapter: ?)