The Flaneur: Moto Journals 1 — Settling into the Ride

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The first in a seven-part series.

After three days of running around Dharamshala I’ve finally got all my gear. All together it weighs about 20 kilos: clothes, camera equipment, notebooks, first aid, hash, spark plugs, tools, tire tubes, clutch cables and other spare parts for the inevitable breakdowns in the middle of nowhere. I’ve fit it all into two old rucksacks and strapped them into the bars on either side of the wheel. This weight makes the bike drive wobbly as it accelerates, but once it gains speed things even out.

It took awhile to get the balance just right, but now things are set. The luggage is finally strapped to the 350cc Royal Enfield.

I go into the toilet to put on my riding gear: padded trousers, an armored jacket with burn holes in the sleeves, steel-toed boots, Gortex gloves, a keffiyeh to tie around my face for dust. Then I walk up the hill and lean on my bike waiting for M-.

After a few minutes she emerges from her dance studio, followed by friends and family.

I grow impatient as they take pictures. The monsoonal clouds above are beginning to sprinkle and we need to get going.

I put my helmet on and kick-start the engine, revving it loudly to signal my eagerness. Its roar is thunderous and clean, the result of substantial last-minute maintenance at various mechanics around Dharamshala, who banged and ratcheted it into working condition, for now.

I rev the engine as M- gives her sister one last hug goodbye. She climbs on her bike and together we ride away waving, watching our lives in Dharamshala recede in the rearview mirror.

From now on it will only be the two of us, alone for thousands of kilometers through the high-altitude deserts and mountains of Northern India.

It begins to rain as we pull into a petrol station for our first fill up.

“Rain’s not a good start,” I say, pulling on my riding poncho.

“For Tibetans it’s good luck if it rains at the beginning of a trip,” M- says.

Tibetans are like that. If something unfortunate happens, it’s good luck. If you step in dog shit: good luck. If you undergo hardships at the beginning of a journey: good luck. When bad things happen it means some of your bad karma has finally ripened and you don’t have to deal with it anymore.

With our tanks sloshing full we ride back into the downpour. The rain doesn’t last long. Soon an opaque sun appears through the overcast and the glistening highway grows steadily drier.

Indian highways are some of the world’s most unfriendly. They are narrow, lawless, absurdly crowed affairs, full of cows and suicidally impatient drivers. Wanting to avoid the busy ones as best we can, we opt for the scenic route to Dalhousie, veering off the Kangra-Jammu highway and onto a bumpy orange dirt road that we have mostly to ourselves for nearly a hundred kilometers.

From time to time, enormous, iridescently-colored Tata trucks, decorated like a mobile shrines, with deity stickers all over the windshield and tassels swinging and jangling around the giant back wheels, round the corners honking melodious horns. Sometimes they are filled with dirt and bricks, other times with families and rucksacks.

The road winds us through forests and over hills of orange clay. M- rides in front of me: back wheel wiggling, scarf ribboning behind her like a flag of rebellion.

We pass through a rhododendron forest, past ghost-faced Langur monkeys chewing on the flowers. Cows of course are all over the road, and occasionally we must pull to the side to allow a shepherd and his flocks to pass.

This is my first long motorcycle journey and many of its sensations are new to me.

It feels I’m on a chair hovering through space, the world warping around me, the faces of schoolchildren and villages blurring by.

Vehicles close you off from the world, but on a motorcycle you are within the elements, part of the mixture of humidity and sun and air. Every part of the body undergoes the changes in atmosphere. The steam and the dust penetrate my clothes and touch my skin.

As I ride, I wonder what sort of transformations will my mind undergo during these thousands of kilometers.

I left my iPod behind so that I can be alone with my thoughts most of the journey. For now, it is mostly idle, thoughtlessly aware, hovering, numb as I bump down the road and honk around sharp corners. At other times it feels like I am an alien observer in another’s body, my automatic hands clutching and braking and accelerating of their own accord.

And now I am singing Hank Williams songs and reciting poems aloud.

It is only day one.

We reach Kashmir tomorrow evening.

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