The circumstances could have worked out better, but it was great to reunite with my old biking companion, Sai nonetheless.
I’d arrived in Visakhapatnam, one of the cleanest, most impressive big cities I’d visited so far in India, earlier than expected – bulldozing down the desert highway all morning. I sent off a quick message to Sai and, awaiting a reply, grabbed a quick eat at a nearby restaurant. It was a classy joint full of dark stained wood, so I was surprised when their veggie burger saw me burst, a colourful array of expletives and heaving, into an emergency hotel booking where I enthusiastically relinquished the burger – followed by a delicious, undigested chocolate ice cream chaser. The apoplectic surging stopped after a few hours, but exhaustion, perspiration and gastric vulnerability remained my close companions for days.
Between my infirmity and the fact some drunk men had stolen Sai’s bike a couple of weeks ago, our hopes for a new year’s blowout in Goa were undeniably dashed; my growing itch for a week on the beach scampered for the foreseeable future.
Instead, Sai and I indulged in a comfortable, rehabilitative week and a somewhat less rehabilitative NYE party at a five-star sea front hotel. The all-inclusive bar shut down at one a.m. and we (the team had expanded to include a drunk Australian family and an Indian guy with his Russian escort) were forced into the thronging streets to get booze – dodging a hailstorm of selfies, hanging out the tuk-tuk door back to Sai’s home.
It was a weird night, full of that classic Indian strain of unpredictability, and one that saw me wincing through two days of hangover until I could muster the twelve hours of riding to Hyderabad, disappointed to leave my good friend and his reliable Netflix streaming behind. It’s funny how you can get attached to the nostalgic creature comforts of home when you’ve got an entire country to explore.
Early morning air, if you succeed in dragging yourself out of bed at ungodly hours, always feels eager with ambition, being keener than the sun. The abandoned city streets quickly discharged me into no man’s land where white sand lined the highways and mams of broken, awkwardly jutting rock swelled over the horizon. Deep purple bleached into a white heat so intense you can smell and taste it. Granite goliaths bordered the interior roads, boulder fields as far as the eye could see. The ride seemed uneventful, if only because I had long since grown accustomed to the thrice daily threats to survival and the need to bail into the sand to avoid four vehicle wide oncoming overtakes. It was exactly why I’d become so familiar with Hindi swearing.
Hyderabad is the wealthy younger brother to Mumbai, dusty and hot, even under the ever-present shadow of snaking concrete overpasses, but also boutique and full of the glitter of Bollywood starlet’s second homes. Threading the urban sprawl was slightly more of a contact sport than other cities, with the ram-or-be-rammed approach angered my passage through the arteries of the city, clogged with cacophony.
A tremble of PTSD was napped away in a comfortable bed under furious air conditioning, before I hired an Uber MotoX (motorbike taxi!), jumped on the back and was delivered to an indulgent little craft beer bar nearby. As it happens, a random white guy flying solo and working his way through the entire beer menu attracts a lot of attention with the waiters. At the end of a long session I’d been enveloped in pleasant conversation, free beers and free food – followed by a more boisterous and energetic motorbike ride back to my hotel.
Hyderabad had all the mod cons of any cosmopolitan city, but it wasn’t mod cons I was looking for, it was action. After stagnant days waiting for my Arunachal permit and forced recovery from recent poisonings, momentum was my ally.
Instead of staying to explore, I slingshot away from Hyderabad orbit with the same velocity I’d arrived with – hurtling out onto broken rural roads, across arid rockscapes, punctured by decrepit trees and razor-edged botanicals and past isolated houses where sun-blackened villagers raked cut grass across the road to dry, sometimes for hundreds of meters. True to form, these roads were also welted with unmarked, rim-cracking speed bumps.
Four jarring hours later, I followed the sunset streamer of tarmac to its terminus – Gandikota, the Grand canyon of India. There was enough time to see the rouge rock bleeding into the evening sky and painting reflections onto the river below. I was the only one there, standing outside the ancient fort on a promontory above a two hundred foot abyss, watching the colour flush out of the day. I expected a few tourists for this spectacular panorama, but the entire village was deserted – a holiday resort being the only place to stay – even then in an overpriced tent outside the complex. Again, not the sort of place I would stay for more than one night.
Tucked up in my sleeping bag I remembered that Hampi was in the general vicinity, a place I knew for its high-profile bouldering scene (rock climbing with crash-mats instead of ropes), but popular with tourists for its relaxed do-nothing vibes and expansive and scattered monumental temples. In other words, it was a trap. A place I planned to stay for one night and actually spent five. I didn’t even get around to doing any climbing…
I was scammed into staying on the wrong side of the river by a local guide, whose temple tour, him sitting on the back of my bike as we rode and hiked across ten impressive temples, was a little too much immediately after my scorching ride to Hampi. The energy to remain upright ended about the same time as the tour finished. Dangling into a roadside dhaba for some deep-fried chilli peppers and chai, I struck up small-talk with a small herd of backpackers who encouraged me to follow them to the North side of the river. I hadn’t even realized there was another side but following them on a twenty-second ferry crossing it was suddenly apparent that this was where the life was, and not ‘all the hotels are full’ like my guide had told me. Bubbling river on one side, simmering paddy fields on the other, a narrow, dirt lane darts from one side of the village to the other, bordered by restaurants, shops and (of course) the German bakeries, pariah businesses for wherever Israeli travellers concentrate.
Falling in with a good crowd and wasting your days is the reserve of the solo traveller. I moved to the North side the very next morning, picked up yoga – I was severely knotted after lots of riding – drank enough rum to start throwing things, chewed on magic seeds (but didn’t climb the beanstalk) and went for one fine ride-out with a ten strong scooty crew, losing everyone at least once along the way. I’d already seen everything in Hampi, but the people kept me there in a happy bubble longer than I’d intended.
Backpacker hostels reemerged as I drilled my way south, whistling through Bangalore and Chennai, keeping the yoga up at local studios. I explored the ruins at Mahabalipuram slowly, in full armour in the mid day swelter. I spent a couple of days in Pondicherri, getting repairs and visiting the independent commune society of Auroville, with their weird dedication to ‘The Mother’ and collective meditation to a giant Crystal ball. Stranger as they seem, their giant golden UFO, the Matrimandir, doesn’t fail to impress with its lavishness – all golden disc panels – and engineering ambitiousness.
I was the proverbial nomad in what was emerging as the softer part of India. The roads were good enough, there was no danger of becoming stranded or isolated and even the near misses felt more comfortable. My Badventure was in danger of becoming an actual holiday. Only a holiday filled with temples and monuments I was entirely lackadaisical about (come on… it had been over six months of temples) and cities that all looked the same to me. Busy, noisy and dusty. I was looking for adventure, but failing that just somewhere nice to hang out for a while. I sprinted through towns after a superficial assessment and saved up days to spend somewhere I hadn’t discovered yet. Somewhere I could congeal with another good crew.
I stayed in Pondicherri, a French colonial town of quaint seaside boulevards and leafy parks, while Pongal festival was going on. With classical French blasé, the festival of harvest seemed to be celebrated minimally with just nods, “Happy Pongal!” and the occasional street painting.
My intended departure was scuppered by a club night that, after reportedly dancing “energetically” (I thought it was good...) and being escorted out at closing time, saw me drunk enough to forget where I’d parked my motorbike. I’d been against the idea of riding there in the first place and was now trapped pacing aimlessly around the side-streets. A midnight monster looking for victims. But no worries, this is India. After ten minutes someone offers to help, finds the bike embarrassingly quickly and pockets my fifty rupees for a job well done.
But here’s the thing. If there’s ever a sign you’re too drunk to ride it’s being unable to find your motorbike. With another hundred rupees and a few words of encouragement (I don’t think he could ride a motorbike, but neither could I in that condition) my new friend dropped me back outside the hostel.
Back in the fold of backpacker friendships, being too hung over to ride would become a minor trend in my ascent of the west coast. I booked an extra day in Pondicherri, showed great restraint to stay dry that night despite the party vibes and set off for Tiruvannamalay, a Hindu pilgrimage town teetering with old hippies, the next morning. The beak of Arunachala Hill, sacred to Lord Shiva, looms above the city while huge, bone-white intricately carved towers cast their own shadows on the streets below. Bike unloaded into a cheap guesthouse I did the usual walkabout, strangely at peace and content with the ‘energy’ of the place. People walked, draped in top-to-toe white lungi and vests, others wearing entirely black, all barefoot amongst the thin spread of litter and cow shit. Friendly smiles were returned as I dropped the occasional head waggle at someone staring my way – I still had my biking armour and big boots on.
Paul, from the Wirral, unexpectedly turned up after dark, supposedly finished with his watercolour that had captivated him all day in Pondicherri. We’d met in the hostel and, riding his 150cc Honda Hero piece of junk, kick-starting it back into life every time we stopped in traffic, accompanied me for a couple of local rides. My four-hour journey was pretty incomparable with his epic battle into the night, chugging away at a modest fifty kilometers an hour.
I was glad he caught me up. His avant-garde interpretations of destiny and predetermination, based on some frankly fucking wild, quite worrying (he didn’t seem mad?) scenarios where he’d received pictures of himself, in the future, along with paintings he’d yet to make from a computer in a university library that refused to turn off even though the power was pulled. The stories were entertaining and led to some nourishing, crazy discussions that were at stark contrast with the serenity of the Ashram we paced around. Or maybe I just hadn’t taken the drugs required to fully comprehend the implications.
My future was (thankfully) unwritten. Tomorrow unplanned and unrestrained. Only one big milestone was within striking distance. To plant my feet on the southern most tip of India, Kanyakumari. The convergence of three oceans.
It represented a real turning point in the trip. From there on in I’d be riding only north, alongside the beautiful Kerala coastline and bridges across salty backwaters.
The descent down the East coast would soon be over – blasting through desert, long highways, busy metropolises and weird cults in just a couple of weeks – always racing towards longer, warmer days and, ultimately, the tropical beaches that had evaded me to date.
…The Badventure was in danger of becoming a holiday. And I needed it.