How to Ride a Motorcycle in India

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In India nobody uses the lanes, drivers look for empty space then occupy it. Turn signals are applied rarely or never. The right of way belongs to whoever claims it. At intersections without stop signs, all of them, drivers play chicken. The key to surviving this lawless driving system is the horn. It is applied to discourage other drivers from running into you. It doesn’t always work though and people bump into each other all the time. Forget about a few scratches, most of the cars in India have hundreds of dents gouges scrapes and nicks so that their bumpers look like a painter’s frock. There is no way to avoid this. It is unclear to me whether motorists in India have insurance or not.

I know what it feels like to drive with the horn because I took a road trip in India. Agra, the city with the Taj Mahal, is one hundred and twenty miles from New Delhi. I thought it would be an easy trip so I rented a motorcycle, put some clothes in my backpack and took off. I drove for about an hour and then I ran over a screw and my back tire blew out. It felt like a giant man had grabbed the back of the bike and was shaking it like a rattle. The experience was unnerving but I brought the bike to a stop OK. I hit the kill switch, took off my helmet and looked around.

The highway was built on an embankment which afforded a view of the surroundings. Down the hill and parallel to the highway ran a dirt road. A dust cloud followed a man sitting on wooden cart whipping a donkey. A half dozen farmers worked a pale green field. Further down the road three kids rode bicycles and shouted in Hindi. I could not see a town, road signs or anything else that would remind me of the current century. The temperature was closing in on one hundred, I had no idea how to get the bike fixed and it was the most alone I’ve ever felt in my life.

I called the rental shop and was told to call a different number. I called that number and was given a different number. I called that number and the man said he didn’t know anyone that far out of Delhi who could help. He kindly reminded me that per our agreement it was my responsibility to deal with burst tires and suggested I try talking to people. I hung up, squeezed under the barbed wire fence and walked down to the dirt road.

A man on a motorcycle made eye contact with me and I waved at him. He came over, I explained that my tire had burst and pointed to my bike just visible up on the highway. He nodded and told me to get on his bike. His friend squeezed forward so there was just room for me on the back and then three men to a bike we rode to the clapboard town where a few buildings were cement but most were mud or straw. A couple of naked children ran in the street and the man who drove me proudly pointed out the hand water pump which he claimed was the best water in India. When the mechanic finished his work he followed us back to my bike and put a patch on the tire and away I went.

The patch blew out twenty miles later. I wrestled the bike to the side of the road and felt that I would have given any money to be back in Delhi in my comfortable room and not stranded on a barren stretch of highway in rural India. Reality didn’t care so I slid under the barbed wire and found two homeless men talking to a pair of boys on bicycles. One of the boys rode to the town to get the mechanic and I sat with the men on their tarp under the bridge and we didn’t talk because I didn’t speak Hindi and they didn’t speak English. When I used my smart phone they were fascinated but wouldn’t touch it when I offered it to them. The boy who hadn’t rode to town sat on his bicycle and gave me candy and used every word of English he knew which was very few.

The one who’d gone to town came back after twenty minutes sweaty and satisfied and then the mechanic arrived on a beat up Enfield. He replaced the tube instead of patching it and I thanked him and paid him and then I started the bike and everyone waved as I drove away. The blowout hadn’t rattled my nerves it had broken them. I was jumpy and every few minutes I thought that the tire was going to explode. Twenty or thirty times I brought the bike to a full stop and more than once I had to slap my helmet and shout encouragement into the air in order to get myself back on the road.

By the time I reached Agra the sun was low in the sky and my trip which had started at nine in the morning had turned into something quite long. I wanted a shower and dinner but before I reached my house I accidentally drove into a slum where the street was three feet wide and crooked like a maze. Dirty gray pigs rolled in filthy sewage water that ran in shallow streams next to houses. Men hawked mangoes from push carts, women carried babies and everybody stared at the stupid white boy who had driven his motorcycle into a place he shouldn’t have been. Google Maps proved useless and the only thing that helped were a few kids who spoke English. They helped me escape and I found my house and took a shower then had dinner at a restaurant with a view of the sunset over the Taj Mahal.

Over chicken curry I reflected on the state of Indian highways. Every mile or two there was a pile of broken automobile glass which you had to be careful to avoid. Sometimes a toll was only for cars and all the bikes drove onto the dirt shoulder to avoid the tollbooth. There were no speed limits and no traffic police. The barbed wire fence was there to keep animals off the road but also to stop people from using the highway without paying. A fallible system, at some point I helped two men pick up a motorcycle and shove it over the fence. That was the Indian approach to things, bend the rules. I finished dinner, went home and slept for ten hours.

The next day I had planned on visiting the Taj Mahal. However, when I arrived at the entrance gate I learned that a ticket for Indians was 40 Rupees and a ticket for foreigners was 1,000. I refused to pay this on the principle that I disliked India and didn’t want to give them my money. Instead, I had lunch on top of a tall hotel and enjoyed the Taj remotely. After lunch I returned to my room and passed the day in a haze of anxiety, I was very nervous to drive the bike again. When you drive a motorcycle you’re trusting it with your life and I trusted my bike like a rabid dog.

The following morning I ate breakfast of toast, a banana and black coffee. A fast shower then I sat cross legged on my bed and made a deal with the universe. If you just let me back to Delhi safe, I promise I will never again rent a motorcycle in a third world country. Deal? It would be difficult to exaggerate how ill I felt yet I saw no way around driving back.

The worst bike I ever drove in my life

When I tried to start the bike the battery was dead. Two men pushed me till the engine roared to life and I thanked them and drove to the gas station to fill up. I got on the highway, drove for an hour and then violently slammed my feet into the ground to stop from falling over when the rear tire blew out. I pulled onto the shoulder and shut the bike off.

I had expected the tire to blow out and I felt calm. However, when I looked around I didn’t see anybody on the dirt roads or in the fields. There was no town, my only choice was a rest stop two miles away. I put the bike into first gear and it ran perfectly at walking speed while I guided it forward, the flat rear tire going thwack thwack thwack on the pavement. It was a cloudless ninety-nine degrees and the sweat poured off so it looked liked I’d been rained on. I drank a liter of water but even so I began to feel like I was going to get heat stroke. Just a quarter mile from the rest stop I had to rest in the shade so I didn’t throw up. It took fifty minutes to walk the two miles and nobody had stopped to see if I needed help.

At the rest stop I poured water over myself and lay sprawled on a couch while three incompetent adolescents removed the rear tire and replaced the tube. Without confidence they reassembled the bike by trying parts in one position and then another. I wished the trip was over but it wasn’t, I had ninety miles to go. At twenty-five miles an hour, even slower in Delhi, that was many hours of driving.

The kids got the bike back together and demanded more money than we’d agreed upon. I said I wouldn’t pay but they were hellbent on highway robbery so I reluctantly handed over what amounted to a dollar fifty then went to the convenience store and drank a liter of water in sixty seconds. The bike waited for me outside, black and hot as a skillet. I got comfortable, started the engine and drove for seven hours without incident. The tire didn’t fail, the bike didn’t blow up and I arrived home as the sky was turning orange. I was grateful to be safe but mostly exhausted and dehydrated, the drive had taken everything I had to give.

The home I returned to in Delhi was a single large room that had a balcony and air conditioning. My landlord described the neighborhood as posh although down the road was the burnt shell of a car and past that a public toilet you could smell from thirty feet. Next to the toilet a man sat on the sidewalk with his scissors, barber’s chair and robe. He would cut your hair for fifty cents or give you a shave for thirty. Other men had restaurants on the sidewalk and after you finished eating they’d slosh your dishes in tepid water and then somebody else would use them.

At major intersections beggars tap tap tapped on the windows of my car, holding their hands out for money. Some beggars were women done up in garish makeup and others were waifish girls of eight or ten carrying infants on their shoulders. Their faces were smeared with dirt and with their hands they made scooping motions that terminated at their mouths. If you gave money they yelled out and other children would come so that two or three sets of hands were reaching through the window and you felt overwhelmed and sad and wanted the light to change so that you could drive away and not have to think about it anymore.

People dumped their rubbish wherever was convenient. A man on the street in front of me was surprised when a bag of garbage landed on his head. A woman from a second story apartment had carelessly dropped it on him. The garbage ended up in the water. The water in India was, in every case I ever saw, polluted black as a tire with trash along the banks, pushing against concrete bulwarks and floating around in eddies. Sometimes I couldn’t smell the water and other times it reeked like capitalism’s hangover. Oily smelly muck the color of silver ran in crevices between buildings and dumped into the water with a splish-splash like a tiny waterfall.

On television the Indian authorities bleeped swear words but did it poorly so that the entire audio track went out every time someone said damn. When an actor lit a cigarette an image was superimposed on the screen saying tobacco is injurious to health and this actor does not condone smoking. They pixelated the middle finger and if an actress lost her clothes they cut the entire scene and the movie felt strange.

The food was delicious and spicy and the worst thing were the menus which only listed unrecognizable names so I rarely knew what the words represented. I would ask for not spicy chicken and they would point at something and I’d order it. Almost always it would be quite good although still spicier than anything in America. Chicken mughlai, mutton shahi korma and butter chicken were my favorite dishes and I ate them with parotta and raita.

I have a friend, the smartest man I know, who liked India and I asked him why. He said he liked that everyone is sharing in the experience with each other. I thought this a wonderful way of putting it. India is a tough country that’s ludicrously hot, overcrowded and extremely poor. People fight fiercely to stay alive the safety net is death. Yet the struggle is shared and anyone can turn his head left or right and see thousands of others living no better or worse than himself. While the essence of India wasn’t my favorite flavor, it was a fascinating experience that I imagine could be riveting for someone willing to accept the bad with the good.