The Indians are coming – Hurrah, hurrah!

8th March 2014 |

Back in 1976 I was riding up the West coast of India towards Goa when I came to Karwar, an interesting fishing port with boats that might have sailed there from 18th century England.

I stopped for a meal at a truck stop and the cook asked me where I was going. I told him.

“Ah,” he said, “Goa going. Nice place. My from is Goa.”

For some reason this phrase, which I thought hilarious, has stuck with me for almost forty years. I can almost hear him talking now.

Goa used to be a Portuguese colony and, unlike most of India, you could consume pork and alcohol openly without shame. It also had fine beaches and already drew holidaymakers, but I was visiting an illustrious British art director called Maxwell who had expatriated himself there along with all his Hi-Fi London sophistication, and seemed rather lonely when I found him.

A goat in Goa

It was the wrong season for fun on the beach, and all I took away from Goa that time was a picture of a goat, but I’ve always wanted to go back and last year I got my wish. From Orangefish Entertainment in Bombay came the invitation to open the second annual India Bike Week, in Goa, all expenses paid.

How cool is that. I mean Orangefish, yeah!

And there was an extra. Would I mind, they asked, riding to Goa from Bombay (you can call it Mumbai if you like) to inaugurate the proceedings. Would I mind a nice, leisurely 400 miles in two days on a pretty fair road in good company? Hell no.

I took my helmet and gloves. I was wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and they found me some boots. From the airport we drove for two hours to a hotel they said was on the outskirts of the city. Bombay was just as chaotic and extraordinary as I remembered it, with the addition of an impressive  cloud of sulfurous pollution that hung over everything

In the morning we all gathered in a large parking area for the grand send-off, and that’s when I learned that I was supposed to start the parade on a Harley. Well, one of my best friends rides a Harley and I don’t want to offend him. I wouldn’t say that Harley was the most appropriate bike for India, but hey – it’s a life style, I guess. But THIS Harley was something else. The saddle was about two inches off the ground, the bars were somewhere over my head and my elderly legs wouldn’t rise to the occasion. I gave it a go, tottering around the parking lot in an agony of apprehension and told them: No way.

Luckily there was Jay Kannaiyan, an Indian adventurer who has ridden halfway round the world and is a lot younger than I am, and he volunteered to assume Harley duties, so I was off the hook and they gave me an Enfield Bullet instead.

There were about a dozen of us, most of them Indians, on a variety of bikes. There was even a Ducati which, sadly, didn’t make it though the second day. I had my own “riding buddy”, called Sharang, the brother of Mr Orangefish himself, who was charged with protecting me, and we were led by a big cheerful ruffian called Vir.

Well we set off, rather late, and it took another astonishing two hours to get out of Bombay. In the city itself the roads were pretty good, but then it turned out that Vir had a treat for us. Instead of the boring highway, he had planned a scenic route, and gradually as the scenery improved, the road crumbled away beneath us. It got so bad on that first day that I relapsed into my Colonel Blimp persona, huffing and puffing and grumbling to myself, “How dare they take liberties with an octogenarian celebrity. I didn’t sign up for the Road of Bones,” and so on. By nightfall we were still hours away from the hotel, manoeuvering around potholes and wriggling through bazaars.

“How do you feel about riding at night,” asked Sharang. With icy politeness I declined, claiming my right to sit in the chase vehicle while the mechanic rode the Bullet. The night grew long. There were incidents. At one point we were surrounded by agitated villagers, and I was whisked away like POTUS in a shit storm. We arrived after midnight and – curses – too late for beer.

Next day was much the same. Somewhere about halfway to Goa they are building an airfield. The site lay right across the route we were following, and we had to ride round it. I only remember it because immediately afterwards the road surface changed from terrible to atrocious. We were crossing a broad, barren expanse of land and this abominable road seemed destined to go on forever.

It’s always difficult to do justice to a really bad surface. This one was composed of splinters of asphalt arranged three-dimensionally in layers, left by several generations of road menders, and it resonated perfectly with the suspension of my Bullet to produce the absolute maximum of jarring. If there had been any way at all of stopping, I would have stopped, but what made this purgatory almost unendurable was the Aussie bloke riding behind me.

The night before I had mentioned that the going seemed a bit rough and his face lit up like a pub in the outback.

“I just love this stuff,” he said, and somehow the idea that this fellow behind me was having a whale of a time was more than I could bear. He had great riding posture, sitting beautifully erect and sweeping effortlessly over this road to ruin. Watching him ride was insufferable. I could just imagine his face inside the helmet, grinning from ear to ear.

And yet somehow, amid my spluttering resentment and indignation, I remembered who I was, who I used to be, and why I was there. Despite the horrible road I began to recognise what a privilege it was to be riding this bike and to be doing this “stuff”.

What’s more, I was falling in love with the Bullet. For the first time in forty years I was riding a bike very much like my old Triumph, with no fairing, beautiful handling, and just the right size for it to be part of me and not me part of it. In fact it dawned on me that I was reliving the best time of my life. I really began to enjoy it, and it would be hard to express what a gift that was.

There were many stops along the way, but I could never understand why these particular places were chosen. This one, at least, had an exhibition of the machines Indians have been riding to work on for the last few decades.

 

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We rode on into the night again, but I had no qualms now, zipping in and out between rickshaws, cows and pedestrians as if born to the trade. We arrived late again, but not too late for beer, and there was rum as well – a lovely smooth rum called Monk, or some such name. And then the Aussie admitted to me that although he did enjoy dirt, these roads were a “pain in the ass”.

On the last morning there were ferries to cross, and coastal vistas to admire.

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We swept into the festival grounds on the third morning and by this time I was feeling more like Peter Pan than Colonel Blimp.

The Indian Bike Week did not surprise me. There was enormous Harley-type noise from enormous speakers, and I was made to ride up a ramp onto a vast stage lit with enough kilowatts to herald the second coming. And there to greet me and share the honours was Nick Sanders, who does very fast what I do very slowly. He looked very happy in the limelight, wearing a Union Jacket he says was made for Roger Daltrey of The Who. The presenters were whipping up a frenzy of enthusiasm and the general mood was more like a political convention than the kind of biker rallies that I’m used to, but it obviously suited the new generation very well.

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Of course it shouldn’t come as a surprise to me that bikes have become a big thing in India. There is a middle class now that can afford them, and they are not all café racers. Some Indians are using them to discover their own sub-continent, and some, like Jay, have battled through the almost impenetrable thicket of bureaucracy to get the visas Indians must have to travel the world.

Jay is a Jupiter’s Traveller and I don’t doubt that there will be many more from India before long. He certainly saved my bacon. He rode that Harley all the way like a champion though he said it left him pretty sore. I have always maintained that you can go round the world on anything, but that’s not what I had in mind.

Sharang and his brother, Shrijit, became very good friends over those days, and their friendship was tested later because I hung out on the beach for a few days and got into trouble. But that’s another story . . .

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Note to British readers: I’m looking for a dry space within reach of London where I could store a few hundred copies of Jupiter’s Travels in Camera. My guess is that they would take up about 12 cubic feet, and they might have to be there for while.

Please email me if you can help. tsimon@mcn.org

Also, I would like to go on a little speaking tour in the UK later this year, partly so that I can sell those same books. I’ve been asked often when I’m likely to be over there, so I know there are some who want to meet me. If you would like to help with this I’d be very grateful. Again, email me please, and we can work out the details.