It was a strange feeling to be back on the tourist circuit again, with so many white faces diluting the crowds. You could convince me that Gokarna, with its perfect double cresting ‘Om beach’, playful ‘bat and ball’ antics, coffee shops and nice restaurants isn’t even in India. Or when soaking in the relaxed, do-nothing vibes of Palolem and playing beach football (the bruises indicate a little too enthusiastically…) with the jungle creeping tantalizingly close to the water, hampered only by and a defensive row of beach bars stretched out long into the distance. There wasn’t a grey weather day in sight and, with the blissful ignorance of someone who’d been wearing body armour for the last six months, it paid to be cautious after catching a little lobster tan that hung over me like a happy red cloud.
Between towns the highways were superb, albeit subject to a much higher active police force than I’d seen anywhere yet in India. More tourists equals more opportunity to collect bribes, right? I harked back to Nepal when I ungratefully received a hundred rupee fine for not having mirrors – though this soon slipped down from a few thousand when I locked them with an impenetrable dissatisfaction behind my eyes. I was pulled a second time only a week later with two Dutch girls on the back and no papers or helmets – but here the police chief actually jumped in front of me and dexterously ninja thieved the keys from my ignition, demanding a thousand rupee deposit until I delivered my papers to the nearby garage, though I understood the implicit gentleman’s agreement that having already been stung I should never show up.
This was in Anjuna, where the days were long and the nights on the beach trying to comprehend Psytrance, were longer.
The whole beach scene was meant to be relaxing but I was suffering with too much time to think on my hands. The inexplicable illnesses over previous weeks had driven me into myself and hampered my enthusiasm to socialize. Pressure built up behind my blogging and, for the first real time during my trip, I began to contemplate returning home. I struggled to see how I can just slip right back into the mix. Even just six months on the road, the symbiotic comfort and loneliness found in the miles rattled away in a helmet, in a bubble, and the people I’d met had unmistakably changed me forever.
As I departed on sabbatical the UK was already busy boring its way to disaster following the controversial Brexit vote. It’s already a country with a gaping wealth gap and growing inequalities, with a bloated and preoccupied middle-class who won’t care for change until societies problems turn up on their very doorstep. A country where instead of finding new ways to restore financial equality we’ve just made things cheaper (and made some rich people richer) – often importing from countries where labour laws are more lax and certain shortcuts, such as the disposal of dangerous chemicals, can be bribed off or go unnoticed. I was in one of these countries. India. Where western manufacturing was undoubtedly filling coffers somewhere – but not in the villages where people were dying of poisoned drinking water or paid desperately little to pick cotton all day.
When, a few weeks into the trip, I’d also heard the conservative party voted against keeping Article 13 of the European treaty, a clause that denotes animals as sentient and secures them suitable welfare, my faith in UK government slumped a little more into resentment, like someone swearing their way to the best spot in a broken hammock. Whether it was for ‘legal phrasing’ or no, the idea that vested corporate interests (like being able to cram 50 chickens into the space you were only allowed to cram one) or even vested private interests (“We can go shoot another fox!”) couldn’t be shaken. The value economy, already pretty dreadfully applied to our edible animal friends, unchained.
I cared, but my comfortable shield of insincerity and I wished I didn’t. I was becoming an activist, but I hadn’t figured out specifically what for, instead just rambling about ‘the man’ and ‘the corporate machine’. It was great. Like being sixteen again.
The blunt realisation I might be a socialist of some kind hollowed out the sense of accomplishment in dicking about on a motorbike along the party beaches of India. Hypocrisy was a lash on my back and, try as I might to enjoy the excesses of Anjuna beach, the impulse to get riding again was irrepressible. I biked to Mumbai in one self flagellating push that, after the highway became a little dull, retained interest by being pinned off the road. While an oncoming driver demonstrated all the predictability of a baby goat in a ball pool, I stuck my line close to the verge. Clearly he should have just completed his maneuver, or done literally anything else, but at the last minute resolved to drive directly into me, on the verge, instead. Just when I think I’ve mastered you – bastard Indian roads.
Having been forced to rugby tackle a tall pile of construction debris, I was in a growly disposition. If looks could kill. It did help that, for the first time in my life, the driver of the car stopped, disembarked and began to apologise. I let him have it for a little while, but the bike was fine and my armour had soaked up most of the impact, so I continued into the night, towards Mumbai. The city of dreams drew me from the highway along almost entirely deserted palm bordered coastal promenades, earphones thumping a retro electro soundtrack in my helmet. Then the city of dreams stuck me in two hours of traffic jams to reach the narrow, pedestrianized back streets where the boutique hostel was hidden. Dreamy.
“Wow, you look impressive” the attractive Swedish hostel employee said almost accidentally as she unlocked the gates for me, hinting at a blush.
“So people keep saying” I replied, smiling. She was right of course, I did look impressive. I had the short-lived blip of swagger given only to those who’ve recently survived another road accident.
I wanted to fall in love with Mumbai, a city that had shadowed me through the last few weeks of work as I devoured the Shantaram books, hungry for Indian culture. It has wild train rides, hanging out the doors as the carriages clack along metallic ribs gauged into the urban sprawl. It has the chaotic markets, dusty and hot – brimming with all the dichotomy of city life; suave youngsters with slick hair, pink shirts and thick rimmed glasses playing cards with a one-eyed man, naked but for a yellowing lungi tucked up beneath his feet. But for as much as I could appreciate its charm, I never loved it. I’d become used to the mesmerizing but appalling clamour of eighteen million other people squashed in beside me and it had become too easy to let the currents of life eddy around me and disappear into the mirage.
When you’re so readily unaffected, you can’t fall in love.
After an overnight stay in Surat with my friend (and owner at the Manali hostel I briefly worked at) Shivam, I scrambled through eight hours of riding to Bhuj, the gateway to Rann of Kutch, as the moisture fled from the landscape around me and wild camels wandered around the tarmac looking for spiky shrubs to chew on. The long, partially deconstructed highway darted, arrow straight through industrial salt farms, with gigantic, snow-boardable mounds of sodium scraped up by diggers. There was enough salt to give you a coronary just by looking at it, and sunblindness.
It felt nice to be back in the stumbling grace of small town streets, too narrow for cars but crisscrossed by scooters and shuffling old women, shouting. At least it was nice to be back in the shade. The deserts start creeping in above Mumbai, through Rajasthan and all the way to the Himalayan foothills, where the mountains shake the water from the clouds. I shared a meal with some of the other hostel guests and repaired the gaping hole in the crotch of my jeans before retiring to bed, exactly as the other Indian nationals in the shared room insisted on watching Bollywood until the early morning.
The salt flats aren’t the most well indicated places in the world, and I had been a little scratchy and sleep deprived last night, but after three failed attempts – one of which was very close to the Pakistani border – I found an old hitchiker who was also going to the flats. A lovely man who refused to shut up, but also gave me complements and excited shrieks about the speed of my riding, which has evolved beyond ‘devil may care’ into ‘god knows what’ throughout my southern highway experience. As we walked into the viewing pedestal, him muttering on about his favourite birds or something, I was trying to twist out another knife thrust in by the Indian tourist board. First Zuluk, now this. The guarding officer had refused to allow me to ride past and furiously denied there was anywhere else I could legally spin my wheels on the salt. It had been one of only a handful of ambitions for India and here I was, on foot patrol, listening to another bloody story about birds.
I dropped the man off on the outskirts of Bhuj, already deleting his name from my memory, and put the thrusters down, disheartened by Gujurat and it’s room full of rowdy Bollywood fans. There was one final shining jewel in the crown of India, one final state renown for its culture and authenticity – Rajasthan – and if I could keep the throttle pinned way into the night, that’s exactly where I’d be waking up tomorrow morning.