India

North East p.III (More Indian than Indian)

I claw my way back to Assam only to realise the jungle may have changed me forever.

My arrival to Mizoram’s capital in the clouds had been spectacularly raucous. Everything, including the silencer, had fallen from the bike in the last, lame crawl down from the jungle. As the streets became busier, school girls cupped their hands over their ears, crying as their eyes bled. Lazy stand-around men, agape with fish like surprise, ducked under the shotgun reverberation as it smashed every window for thirty miles. I growled the throttle to part the sea of bikes ahead of me, brown stains forming in the seats of the rider’s jeans. I had my antisocial earplugs in, so was maybe a little careless with the noise, but the attention was great. Once a middle child, always a middle child.

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Not where the Silencer should be on a bike.

Riding through the jungle, hell for leather, resulted in a bit of a buckling list of bike repairs. Head bearings, new foot pegs, affixing silencer, new brake front (after only three days) and back, new oil and filters after flooding the bike, new brackets and welding for the knee guards and luggage rack. Pain in the ass, but not difficult to fix.

The battle against adversity had left some deep scars on my identity. I knew I’d accomplished something special by surviving those roads in those conditions, and a peaceful contentedness maybe lasted a few days. But when faced with the question ‘What Next?‘, everything seemed trite. No energy leapt from any possible penned futures. The ensuing incendiary self questioning always burned its way back to ‘What the hell do you want, Tom?’ and was always answered by that blank stare in the mirror. I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t understand what I was riding for anymore.

The larger, exhausted part of me wanted to just relax and switch off for a while – but I felt obligated to eek out just one more adventure. To get into more scrapes. Scrapes made better stories. Was the theme of the blog actually directing my travels? It was too difficult to distill. Instead, I’d strap my helmet on and ride – see where the road takes me.

I stayed one more night, hosted by Partie’s cousins – Mama (who was in fact a strongly built thirty year old man) and Aldrin, hanging out drinking whiskey away from the glares of disapproving parents. Besides, I had to wait for the shocks to be serviced before leaving – the seals of which were actually glued in with epoxy resin by the mechanic in Kaza….(what?!)

The road North was as intermittent and unpredictable as anything else this deep in Mizoram but, rising above the jungle to a plateau, finally consolidated into perfection for the ride along a monolithic emerald ridge which stabbed steeply from the billowing clouds below like a row of dragon’s teeth. It was the kind of unbelievable landscape you’d expect of a foreign planet in a sci-fi movie and must have cast spells of awe over the few foreigners who’d ventured out this far.

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That wonderful ridge was also where I picked up a new facial accessory – bee sting, through the visor…

While unmarked, the crossing back to Assam was as stark as night and day. Gone we’re the western jeans and t-shirts, back we’re the full saris, kurtas and adornments of the Islamic faith. I actually stopped to confirm the border on Google maps, the difference was that instantaneous. From Silchar the broiling jungle was gradually hacked into wide clearings, preparing for a new highway. This meant more big, buried rocks, mud and the longest knee-deep slurry run I’d ridden to date, the road clogged by coaches waiting for a broken down Jeep to swap out a tyre. It was getting late and I was low on fuel, so ducked into beautiful Haflong for a night, Assam’s only hill station.

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Slurry Runs! Again, cutting it close to the Air Intake…

One more day’s riding spat me out in Kaziranga national park. It was probably a crime to spend so long in the North East without going on at least one wildlife safari, after all. The room was expensive and I hadn’t the energy to continue scouting in the deadening grey of sundown. I ordered up two impressively strong ‘He Man 9000’ beers to celebrate the welcome return of highways and ended up dancing around my large, dynamically yellow room which, for the first time in a while actually had hot water.

The worst fog I’d seen in India descended. A cold, white-out fog, that echoed the bike rumbles back like being inside a tunnel. I convinced myself these were OK conditions for a Safari (“It’ll burn off, I’m sure”) while the rest of Assam stayed in bed. In their defence my guide/gun human had all but given up squinting through the veil for the faintest ghosts of distant animals, writing it off as a doomed errand. We waited nonetheless, and were rewarded with a stunning close-up encounter as a family of Indian one horned rhinos crossing the road ahead of us. We were the only jeep left in the park to enjoy it.

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We got pretty close to these badasses.

Riding back to my hotel, I was getting concerned by the lack of communication from my permit guy – who was helping acquire the paperwork for the state of Arunachal Pradesh. I had transferred three thousand rupees into his account to cover the fee and let him know an expected arrival date. All of a sudden he went silent, for days at a time. After one more safari, more productive in the afternoon, I repositioned myself closer to the Arunachal border should the permit come through at short notice. In doing so, I’d accidentally stumbled into another of Assam’s major attractions. Majuli – ‘the world’s biggest river’ – Island.

While many of these claims are stone cold illegitimate (for example, there are around ten “World’s cleanest villages” in India alone and the island definitely seems connected to land on one aspect), it probably wouldn’t cost two thousand rupees a night. A few people had gone so far to describe it as “nice” too. Good enough for aimless, ambling me.

From Jorhat, it’s a bulky, over-loaded boat to reach Majuli. Two jeeps, thirty motorcycles (and counting) and huge crates of supplies took up nearly every inch of space above deck, while the downstairs was a sardine tin of foot passengers. Conscious of queuing etiquette, or lack thereof, I scrummed to the front of the loading plank where one of the crew insisted on riding each bike aboard personally. Silly.

At the first available opportunity I ramped the bulky bullet up onto the deck and began finessing it onto the center stand, crammed against the other, much smaller bikes. The guy smiled, shook my alien hand and handed me a small paper ticket. In full battle gear I was a feast for the local Indian bikers standing all around me. I was also slowly basting under the hot low lamp in the sky.

I’d been on Majuli Island for three, progressively more irate days waiting for my mute permit guy to reappear on the scene, when two young(ish) Indian travellers arrived at my bamboo hut campsite. I’d filled these days by attending a family meal (dressed like a mechanoid on the ferry, I was still invited for dinner) and nearly drowning on a ferry to Lakhimpur to fetch a new battery after the welders (yes, those pesky luggage racks again) didn’t disconnect the battery and fried it dead. The painfully petit ferry, not much more substantial than a Canadian canoe, arrived with the oarsman already bailing out and gulped up river water over the starboard edge, listing heavily, for the entire ten minute crossing. The four passengers, myself included, had to physically balance the boat against flipping over.

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Not to worry – ferrying is a state of mind, not a state of boat.

Back from my errand (on a thankfully bigger boat), I’d ridden the big whoops and tabletops back to Garmur Satra, my home village on Majuli. A stranger came into camp and insisted I ride with him to local woman’s house, where I could stock up on my favourite off-white rice beer and try their locally distilled rice vodka. At night, without a helmet, tipsy on intoxicants riding home along the promontories of deep beach sand which cleaved farmland apart, I felt pretty Indian.

As the young Indian guys (from Delhi and Bangalore) and I sat to eat together on that first night, they eyeballed me curiously. I had cleaned my hands without standing, pouring water all over the staggered bamboo slat flooring that looked like a dull green bar code. I danced my hand over the tray, spinning the curry together with the rice before cupping it towards my mouth and flicking the lump home with my thumb. The guys, eating with spoons and thinking it rude to get the floor wet, eventually laughed.

“Look at you – you’re more Indian than the two of us!” cried Vikas, running his left hand across the short curls crowning his brow. I took it as a compliment. I couldn’t speak any of the hundred Indian languages and I couldn’t read any scripts but I could eat like a boss, my head waggle was on point and I had acquired a comfortable nonchalance which rendered me invisible to all but the most desperate street hawkers.

It was five months to the day since I’d arrived in India – time I turned native.

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Our host cooking traditional Assamese food on a bamboo fire. In a bamboo hut, with a bamboo floor. Bamboo.
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The laid back lifestyle on Majuli is a thing of beauty.
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Majuli Island is fairly unique as far as motorcycling goes. Lots of sand, jumps, bamboo bridges and ferry crossings.

Finally, having been promised the permit would be through “tomorrow”, I skeptically maneuvered even closer to the border with Arunachal only to have, what I expected to be the valves, burst into a wonderful clacking symphony. North Lakhimpur had an Enfield repair shop but their efforts dragged on long into the night, with no sign of the permit. I crossed Ziro, one of the two places I could visit in Arunachal as a solo traveller, off the itinerary due to lack of time. The next morning I headed back East along the river to Tezpur, where I could quickly approach Tawang, the “Switzerland of India”. It was a whole one hundred kilometers before a gentle engine ticking resumed and a quick glance revealed the engine had lost nearly all of its oil. I grimaced the remaining thirty kilometers to a dealership in Biswanath Charali, willing away fire and explosions, and checked her back in for repairs. Yesterday’s mechanics had used 350cc cam sleeves, welded the cracked rods and not even fixed the root cause, despite noticing low oil – a blown head gasket. I was extremely pissed off at paying them close to three thousand rupees to achieve absolutely nothing.

Things were going to shit and with Christmas coming up in a couple of days, still without a permit, my plan to even visit any of Arunachal was in jeopardy. New friends from the Enfield dealership assured me that alcohol was cheap there and they knew people who’d be willing hosts. It really would be an amazing, possibly even white Christmas in Tawang. I had everything crossed.

The Biswanath mechanics fixed the issues, but it had taken all day and once again I was required to ride through the treacle thick darkness. I thought nothing of it, but leaving Tezpur two days later I noticed how the sinew of highway was littered with dead trucks from the night before. Majestically capsized from the raised road, some totally abandoned, others being decanted into smaller jeeps for transport. It wouldn’t be a misrepresentation to call it a truck graveyard (and some of them were BIG, FLAMMABLE dead trucks). The kind of place baby trucks are told terrible stories about by mother trucks. I had fun imagining what kind of lofty drug cocktails their drivers were under as they barreled, euphorically, from the tarmac. Those guys knew how to live.

I was riding away from Tezpur, but not towards Arunachal.

I’d turned my back on those plans out of sheer frustration – even being suckered into a ‘last chance’ twilight ride to the control point at Bhalukpong, optimistic that “It’ll be here today” wasn’t just more pointless hyperbole. I rode back, again after-dark and a long wait, gritting my teeth as big bugs spattered me senseless. Riding away revoked a sense of self-control. I was making the shots, and I was fed up of waiting. Besides, I had hatched a new plan.

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Riding to the Arunachal Pradesh control point, only to turn back hours later and ride through the night.

Christmas in Calcutta. It had a nice ring to it.

I returned to Guwahati for the second time and decided to treat myself to a little Christmas present, a flashy pair of Royal Enfield gloves from the dealership. While I’m usually incredibly stoic in the face of salesmen they also sold me an awesome riding jacket I didn’t necessarily need. I was a little pissed off still, so the retail therapy wasn’t a bad shout and, as the lovely shop guys assured me, I did look pretty flashy.

Otherwise it had been another day of accidental anorexia, so I searched out food in an upmarket digs near a leafy promenade bordered on one side by slick black steel railings and a long lake. I cluttered up a table for four in the atmospherically dim cafe, black and white chequered floor tiles, with riding detritus and sat dreaming of the bubbling marble top hat to a perfect cappuccino. You know – Treat yo’ self!

The effortless affections of friends, glittered by sunlight on the balcony, garbled through the glass doors. Then something caught my attention. A white man.

But this wasn’t just any white man. It had all the trademarks of a backpacker, long blonde hair and runway beard, shorts. I hadn’t seen one for months, and I suspected I missed them. Slowly, as to not draw unnecessary attention, I slipped my phone from my pocket and took a couple of photos of it, oblivious to the world, huddled over its smartphone. Instantly I felt very Indian – remembering how more apprehensive locals who would merely position themselves near me and take a selfie with me in the background, too shy to ask directly. But this felt worse, way more unnecessary, so I put the phone away (after sending an excited WhatsApp to my mom, obviously).

“Hey, white guy!”. Those were my first words to Hans from Belgium. “Mind if I draw up a seat?”.

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It’s Hans from Belgium! In my defence (for the creepy shot) he does look a lot like my brother here – if my brother ever wore shorts and sandals..

Hans was new in town, freshly flown in from Kathmandu, and had five weeks to explore the North East. Like a teenage boy regarding his father with despair, I was a worrying reflection on what he might become – uncorked excitement at finally meeting someone who genuinely didn’t care about, revere or have any unfounded interest in me. A small comfort of home, tempering the savage glaze in my eyes. I realized, for the first time, that I had been lonely on the road, and it infuriated me. There were millions of people living in the seven sister states, some who’d taken me into their home, many who’d helped along the way with advice or assistance, many who’d simply been happy to see me and attempt conversation. What right had I to feel lonely?

I meditated on it during my later riding. It’s the less glamorous, often ignored part of motorcycle touring, the achingly long periods of time alone in your helmet. I came to a conclusion, and a frightening one at that. I liked backpackers (maybe, question mark). It hurt to admit. You can relax, without feeling you need to be an ambassador for your country; A safe harbour for boisterousness and team delinquency. Even though the encounters might be fleeting, it’s frighteningly common to meet people further down the line and pick up where you left off.

But if you’re hammering through villages, cities and states, there’s no time to foster anything but diaphanous connections with local people, who you’ll probably not meet again for a long time and have less common ground with. It’s easy to become a tourist my name and by nature, leaving the most meager imprints on the land and the people you meet. More time is the only way to contravene this natural law, and it wasn’t a commodity I had a lot to spare of, already nearly six months into my trip without riding much further South than Delhi. I settled on a plan. Long ‘sprint days’ to cover ground, making more time for staying over where I found great people and places. I was excited for connections with people, and begun to understand what I might want out of this trip.

I harvested a tip-off for a cheap hotel from Hans and returned, luggageless, to the cafe. With the big lad on the back I rode through the city chaos to a nearby temple complex that was a little underwhelming, ducking and diving the gargantuan green mass of public busses. Unsure of what to do, we got our feet wet in some holy water, touched some sculptures and drank some tea before doing battle with the evening traffic once again.

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The temple was a solid 3 out of 10. With attractions like pigeons, caged humans and a white dove, who’s owner we tried to convince it was actually a chicken.

Hans climbed off heavily after I eased to a halt outside his hotel, just round the corner from mine. Like any riding in Indian cities, the trip had been raked by near misses.

“I bet you’re happy to get off.” The words gurgled through the buff pulled over my face.

“No man, but you sure do ride like an Indian out there..”. I laughed.

“It’s bought the worst out in me, I think I’m probably more combative than anyone else out there.” It was true, since losing my mirrors I’d adopted a ‘just be the fastest one on the road’ policy to reduce the risk of being rear ended.

“Yeah. You’re worse. Definitely worse.”

A finessed hand-eater, a secretive photographer of white people and the most bullish rider on Indian roads. I was already a brother to the locals I’d met on the road – but I was coming close to being a fellow countryman too.

The Indian Englishman, about to catch his first Indian train, the bike stowed as luggage, to Calcutta. Undoubtedly, it would be an adventure..

1 comment on “North East p.III (More Indian than Indian)

  1. Rita McFall

    xxx

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