In my last update I intended to get into the whole India thing, but I barely made it past Sri Lanka before I became overwhelmed….
I took a couple of weeks and used the ‘survival of the fittest’ method of memory organization. Hopefully I have forgotten most of the irrelevant or uninteresting details about India, so I can focus on the most important.
Day 1- Delhi
Remember the issues I had with Morocco? The aggressiveness of the Touts, and pretty much everyone else, the arm grabbing and “stepping in front of me” sales tactics… I was pretty sure I was in for a month of that. I thought India would be poor and desperate, and generally less than sensitive.
So Laura and I decided to start with a bit of the fancy, and we booked a room at Le Meridien hotel. Not just because we are kinda fancy ourselves, but also because we were pretty sure they would let us stash our rolley bags with them so we could strip down to the basics, and travel India like penitents.
OK, so we are at Le Meridien. We’ve arrived late in the night and have just finished demolishing their breakfast buffet.
We intend to walk the two kilometers to the Rajiv Chowk circle thing, then catch a metro train to the Karol Bagh neighborhood and find a couple of characters that I had read about on the internet to discuss purchasing a motorcycle.
Not just any motorcycle, but a Royal Enfield Bullet.
This is important because Royal Enfield motorcycles were British built for use in WW1 and WW2, and then, when the whole World War thing seemed to be slowing down , Royal Enfield sold all the tools and branding to India, for manufacturing down South in Chennai (formerly known as Madras).
From 1949 to 2009 there has been almost no mechanical development to the Royal Enfield line.
There are millions of these bikes all over India, with parts and mechanics everywhere. The design worked so well that they just left it alone for 60 years. Now it seems that the infrastructure has modernized to the point that there are stretches of highway where an adventurous rider could top 60 MPH, so in 2009 Royal Enfield made a new power plant, which would increase both top speed for the bikes and job security amongst Bullet Wallahs.
A Wallah is a ‘Specialist’. For pretty much anything. In this case a Bullet Wallah is a Royal Enfield mechanics, And because nearly all of the Enfields are the Bullet model, and it just sounds way cooler to say Bullet Wallah.
But it’s really hot. Remember, we are leaving Le Meridien to walk to Rajiv Chowk? And it’s hot hot. Like you would imagine summer in India hot. Whooo. And there, in front of the hotel, like a stalker, but conveniently placed, is a Tuk Tuk. But they aren’t called Tuk Tuks here, they are known as Auto Rickshaws.
Anyway, this guy is camped in front of Le Meridien, in the area near the embassies, with no foot traffic. Just waiting. In the heat.
I know he’s gonna gouge us. He’s gonna clean us out, I’m sure of it. We will be paying London prices to eat dust, bugs and exhaust while riding around one of the most hectic cities on the planet in a Vespa powered tricycle.
So I have Laura start negotiations.
The initial price, from Le Meridien to Rajiv Chowk began at 20 rupees. And then I jumped in to start haggling…. Wait! 20 Rupees???
That’s about 25 cents.
To be honest I was shocked. I wanted to haggle upwards because it just seemed way too low. Especially in this heat.
Instead we settled on his price. 20 Rupees.
While on the way to Rajiv Chowk, to catch a Metro train, to a strange neighborhood, to find a couple of mythical motorcycle people, we discussed our plans with our new best friend, Ravi the Auto Rickshaw driver, and he suggested that he could be convinced to assist us in this strange quest for about 800 Rupees.
That’s $12 folks.
Driving in Delhi
You know when road construction on a freeway will force everyone off to detour along side streets? And how the detour signs are never totally clear, so you pretty much just follow the row of cars? Even though you see a few cars go darting off on roads that are probably short cuts?
That’s what it’s like to drive in Delhi all the time. Except with more trash. And trucks. Diesels with no mufflers. And beggars, and bicycles, and bicycle carts, and Auto Rickshaws everywhere. And that crazy Indian pop music and honking. Lots of honking. Nope, more than that. A lot a lot of honking. I’m pretty sure that honking has evolved beyond a safety warning to a song of solidarity. It seems to say I’m with you brother! No, really, I’m right here with you. Right behind you in fact. And I might try to pass you. Or not. As Shiva/Hanuman/Ganesh so wills it.
What should have been a 15 minute trip became a small adventure, mostly because Fred, boy genius, didn’t think to print a map of the location we needed and mistakenly assumed that it wouldn’t be a problem.
We had arrived in Karol Bagh and it was like a small army of motorcycle repairmen had set up camp and taken over the whole neighborhood. As far as you could see the sidewalks and streets were full of parked motorcycles, waiting for repairs, or new owners, to be torn down or possibly converted to boat anchors. All the ground floor storefronts were repair shops, and what would typically be a two lane street in any city, with all the normal small businesses had become a one lane snarl of traffic because there just wasn’t enough space for these thousands of sad looking motorcycles.
Ravi tried asking for directions to find Bullet Wallah Singh or Bullet Wallah Soni, but had no luck, in fact I think most of the responses were filled with compassion and sympathy for poor Ravi, who had to haul around these two lost souls who were clearly not aware of how this place worked.
The solution to all this was to find an Indian SIM card for my smartphone so I could look these guys up on the internet and get their exact addresses. Sounds easy, right?
Each street-side cell phone store told me that they didn’t have SIM cards, and referred me on to the next, which MIGHT have them.
By the time we got to the 5th we finally found a corner store/bodega that was able to sell me an Airtel SIM card, but he needed a photocopy of my passport and passport photos before he could do so. And he had an attitude, like he wasn’t too happy with selling a SIM card to someone he didn’t know. So off we went to find a place to take passport photos.
Luckily there was one about 10 minutes away, a basement photo studio with various backdrops on the walls and the stairway down covered in sample photos of cute Indian high school kids dressed up for something like prom in front of a forest looking backdrop, families with a newborn baby in front of waterfalls, married couples celebrating an anniversary with the Taj Mahal. I chose waterfalls for my backdrop.
So we went back and dealt with the dude, and got the SIM card, bought an extra 250 Rupees of mobile phone credit, and we were off. With the exact address of where we needed to go. To Mr Singh, Bullet Wallah.
15 minutes later we walk down the ramp into the well-organized basement repair shop or Mr Singh. And he’s not there. We are told to return in 30 minutes and Mr Singh will probably be back. So we track down the second person, Mr Soni. It turns out that Mr Soni had moved his shop, but some local fellows were perfectly happy to take us there, all we needed to do was follow them. Now. Right now, come on let’s go. Now Now.
It is entirely possible that they were going to take us to see Mr Soni, but visions of waking up in a bathtub of ice with my kidneys gone were in my mind, so I relied on the old Stubborn n Stupid routine and refused to budge while trying about 10 different phone numbers to reach Mr Soni. Who was there, and he sent a boy to come get us. He liked to refer to the clearly adult men working for him as his boys. I’m not sure if that’s a Mr Soni thing, or a New Delhi thing, but I decided not to do the same.
Mr Soni had about 4 different bikes to choose from, but the type I wanted, with a 5 speed transmission and the shifter on the left wouldn’t be back in until later that day. So I gave him a deposit and asked him to deliver it to Le Meridien at 8 AM the next morning.
Mr Soni gave Ravi the name of a reputable motorcycle gear store, so we went and bought 2 helmets, 2 sets of gloves and a bag that magnetically stuck to the motorcycle tank for a total of approximately $100.
We could have gotten a better price if we had chosen the lower quality helmets, but I figured what the hell, go big...
After spending a good part of the day on the hunt for motorcycles Laura mentioned the Temple of Lakshmi, and that if we went to another motorcycle related place she would probably stab me. I somehow had a brilliant idea right around this time that we should visit the Temple of Lakshmi where Laura could have a chat with the goddess of wealth and prosperity, wife of Vishnu.
By some sort of small miracle the Temple (of Laksmhi) happened to be playing the ‘Hanuman Chalisa’, a 40 verse song extolling Hanumans virtues of badassery. Apparently Hanuman wasn’t a god, but was a monkey warrior for the gods, basically a Hindu version of Chuck Norris. There is even a humongous statue of Hanuman located in the center of a really busy intersection in Delhi, which must be some sort of strategic test; If you are crazy enough to try, and lucky enough to make it to Hanuman without being killed in the traffic, then it is obvious that you have been blessed by the gods.
And all this Hanuman info is relevant because the Hanuman Chalisa happens to be the one Hindi song that Laura has memorized. So she had a grand old time praying to Lakshmi and singing along to the Hanuman song and basically partying with the local Hindus.
Meanwhile, back on the sidewalk, Ravi and I loitered in front of the Temple like time share salesman in Cabo. Except I didn’t really have anything to sell, but I did end up buying a 100 Rupee map of Delhi for 200 Rupees. This was the moment that I realized that almost all products in India have a ‘recommended sale price’ above the bar codes.
Eventually Ravi did take us by a silk shop where he got an obvious commission for anything we might purchase, and the salesmen did a song and dance with some interesting sales tactics.
We were told that a genuine silk shawl will pull through a ring, like a wedding ring, with almost no resistance. So he showed us, and then said ‘but I lied! That was cheap Chinese fake!’. Which was supposed to be a display of his forthrightness and honesty. Because he then went on to show us the real silk shawls, which were clearly the genuine article because he said so. Although he didn't actually try to pull any of them through a ring… hmmmm.
Anyway, they were all disappointed, but very polite about it, when we told them for the 20th time that we were beginning a motorcycle trip, had no space for anything else in our luggage, interest in buying anything, or any intention whatsoever to take back a shawl for anyone, anywhere.
Finally Laura and I made it back to the uber fancy Le Meridien and prepared for our morning departure. We triaged our belongings into ‘things we need to survive’ and ‘other’. The ‘other’ things went into our suitcases, and the rest into the tank bag, Laura’s backpack, and my messenger bag, or man-purse.
I was ready to begin planning the details of our departure. The timing, the route, the objectives and the bare minimum distance we needed to cover before we would consider ourselves beat.
But Laura was already asleep.
I’m not sure how many pages or words I have just written, but this only gets us through a day and a half in Delhi. I’m going to need to send you folks updates regarding our journey on a semi random schedule. To send it all at once would be the size of a book, and it would probably be like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Everyone has started that book, no one has finished it. Including me.