The hangovers here last two days, easily.
I had plenty of time, squeezing the last of the cool air from the AC, to contemplate just how much the Sun dictates the way of life here.
If you miss the opportunity to explore in the early morning, you’re essentially confined to the hostel until the scorching wrath of the mid-day sun recedes. Even in the narrow alleys, the heat stored in the brickwork radiates out from all sides like a pressure cooker.
Sai and I had been over to the Karol Bagh bike market the day before to choose our bikes, somehow, in the mesmerising haze of exhaust fumes, frenetic industriousness, Dehli detritus and bargaining through dubious promises with all the decorum of a bar-fight. The sensory overload draped over us like a thick quilt. We thought we’d done all the hard work. We were wrong.
I dragged myself to the edge of my bunk and dropped, like a slug, to the cold tiled floor.
A quick shower and breakfast omelette bolstered reserves, before heading back to Karol Bagh to finalise the bikes, bright and early (ahem, 10am) in the back of a rickety tuktuk. Unsure of the mechanics ability or commitment, we opted to rent for two weeks and ride the classic tourist circuit, the golden triangle, as a road test before heading into the Himalayas.
When Sai and I left the bike market, at 8pm, we were weathered and defeated. We’d been running forays into the surrounding miss-match of degraded brick built buildings and tarpaulin lean-to’s all day – each time returning to the same “You’re bikes will be ready in one or two hours”. This was despite no actual work going on, and we were powerless to accelerate the process.
It was made an all the more perfect start by the way I wasn’t actually riding my bike – the mechanics decided to try, unsuccessfully, to resolve a fuelling issue ten minutes before the shop closed, despite me telling them it wasn’t simply a case of low-fuel. My first riding in India would be atop a Royal Enfield Himalayan, that while looked pretty cool with it’s enduro looks and matte black paint job, had already curated a long string of detractors thanks to to common mechanical faults and engine parts made of cheese.
Watched from upon high by a giant orange statue of Hanuman, and as the last breath of daytime escaped the day, I smiled. My first riding in India would now be in the dark, an hour across the city. This is something that unanimously terrifies a whole string of internet commentators and foreign office advisers – the overwhelming noise from my pre-trip research coming in the form of “Don’t drive at night”.
The hubbub and commotion at night is another example of how lifestyles have become polarised by the sun. The thick and sweaty nights are still significantly easier to move around and conduct business in than the searing mid-day heat. As such, the roads are most chaotic and haphazard just after dusk, I learned by cutting across three swarming lanes in an intersection that was seemingly controlled by a hive-mind. At no point did it feel stressful or difficult, my 7 years of biking aggressively and stint as a Linebacker had shown me how to exploit a gap when the opportunity arises. I was part of the hive.
Sai and I left the hostel later than we hoped, jamming our gear away haphazardly and running up and down the four flights of stairs to strap everything to the bikes, and spent the next ‘hour or two’ permeating through the suffocating smog of a four lane gridlocked highway under the sting of the mid-day sun. When it eased and we broke away from the city, the frustrations of the past few days began to effervesce away.
Even so, at the first stop for a late lunch I was basically having a seizure due to the building heat. The kind where your eyes always feel a couple of steps ahead of your brain. I was a hot mess of baked exhaustion and barely able to pull back out of the car-park. But not long after, the air took on a sudden chill.
To our left deep, purple clouds were heavy and pregnant and within ten seconds the first drops of rain were falling. Then, like we’d pushed a flimsy plastic shower curtain aside, we were in the deluge instantaneously. I sat in the rain, letting it cool and prickle my skin through the exposed parts of my armour as I rode, rejuvenated.
The torrent receded with the same immediacy as it began, and the sky returned to the vanilla norm. I flicked up my visor and felt the air, gulpy with moisture, as my helmet ticked nervously in the swirling eddies of the storm. This, I came to realise, is the sign you’re only in-between periods of monsoon, not out the other side. Water filled my boots past my ankles.
As we neared Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, everything had completely dried out again (apart from the boots, which were still sticky wells of rainfall).
While finding the hostel, I’d pulled away awkwardly, trapping my right boot firmly between a raised manhole cover and my footpeg as I rolled forwards. With a nasty click and strange contortion, I’d earned myself a sprained ankle on the first real day of riding.
In the common room, sitting in the half light of a few dim bulbs, was a lone woman who was currently enthralled with a SodaStream machine. She was ‘Claire from Canada’, and as the night progressed, through some stronger drinks and disputable palmistry, we discovered that Claire was terrified that everything in India would rape her. People, dogs, ants, everything. Despite being on the road for 7 months, she still wouldn’t take a Chai from a stranger. I felt pretty sane in comparison.
Somehow, through all the crazy, we’d agreed that as Claire wanted to visit Leh but hadn’t had the opportunity, she could ride with us. Sai courteously volunteered the back of my bike.
A little hungover, we mistakenly went to see the Taj Mahal while the sun was highest in the sky, the white marble reflecting the heat brightly back at you from all sides. The next day, we made the exact same mistake for Fatehpur Sikri, a temple complex en-route to Jaipur. We ran (well, I limped) across 50 meters of burning red flagstones to reach the mausoleum in its centre, stopping halfway to get down on all fours to stop the pain in my feet. It was 43 degrees centigrade, I was wearing a flowing blue dress (to cover my legs), crawling across the floor, being called Ali Baba…
The air moving past a motorcycle provided little relief for the long, straight highway ride to Jaipur. It was only once we’d visited Chand Baori, an ancient step-well carved intricately down to an algae green pool deep below, and seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that the riding became comfortable – but with a sting in the tail.
We were watching a glorious golden sunset, and we were two hours away from Jaipur. ‘Don’t drive at night’. We’d fucked up our timings.
The pitch black open highways, with their stream of amphetamine fuelled lorry drivers, erratic, unlit cars blaring their horns and cows standing or gently walking across your lane, make the city dog-fighting look more like kitty-tickling. When we stopped for fuel, Sai, Claire and I had the same wide look of concerned focus lighting up our eyes. An enormous thunderhead, with deep yellow streams of lighting undulating through its mass, sat threateningly ahead of us.
With a sense of thankfulness I navigated alongside Sai through the heaving night traffic clogging Jaipur’s cluttered roads and roundabouts, elbowing into every passing place, keen to rest as soon as possible.
We passed through a large ornate, pink archway, it’s antique wooden doors falling off their hinges, and parked up outside the hostel. With heavy legs and dirty faces, we headed up a long staircase into a cool white marble foyer with a smiling attendant manning the front desk.
We’d made it, and it had been an experience, but I’m not in a massive hurry to ride Indian highways through the night again…