I slumped in the syrupy mid-day humidity, air as heavy as the condensed milk in the bottom of my glass, staring as Vietnamese coffee dripped slowly from a tin can filter.
It was a week into my stay, but I hadn’t yet managed to get back to the hostel before breakfast closed at 10am. The nights out on Bùi Viện, enticed against my judgement by two daily complimentary beers, had flown by with alarming regularity.
The last couple of weeks in India had thrummed by in relative peace, or as close to peace as you’ll find in the scuttling human maze that is Delhi. But even with ten days to sell the bike and gently unwind, this type of relentless, international hedonism simply didn’t exist in the subcontinent. My discipline had shrivelled and shock and awe (mostly I’d forgotten what white women constitute as a ‘going out’ outfit…) kept me pinned to the party street a little longer than I’d ever deem reasonable.
The coffee floated in a dark eyelet, beading above the thick yellow milk, until the bleed through the filter began crawling up the side of the glass. I traced the veins through the back of my hand with my index finger, lost in a daydream.
I missed India.
After the mania in Pushkar I booked into a nice, modern hostel in Jaipur and began figuring out which paint-stained clothes I’d attempt to recover and which were heading for the trash. I soaked up the peace in the tidy colony for a couple of days before loading my rucksack onto the motorbike for the final time and riding along the short highway back to Delhi, animating ghosts of Sai, Clare and myself from eight months back.
I checked into one of the many underwhelming hostels in the tourist district and relaxed into the ten days I had to sell my bike before flying out, right at the visa limit. I’d grown immune to the noise, heat, roadside bonfires and the Wall-Street-esque shouts of Karol Bagh market, and possibly even enjoyed myself as I bargained with buyers. Eventually I sold the bike, through a strange triangular payment system, receiving around 800GBP directly into my bank from an English couple buying a bike from the same garage. Good, considering the frame numbers might as well have been scratched on by an epileptic cat after my crash. I did my best to convince the guy to go with my low mileage, modern bike with service history rather than an old Machismo model with thrice the kilometers on the clock, but he was adamant about getting the ‘authentic experience’ on an older bike.
I bit back an impulsive, “Are you a fucking idiot?”, and replaced it with a softer mumble about it being an ‘authentic’ tour of Indian workshops. Luckily for him, he didn’t look short of money to replace all the bolts and components that would rattle off. Nevermind. The dealer would find a new loving home for my bullet and I could move on, so I thought.
Only two days later, and with less than twenty four hours of sand left in my India hour glass, I was back in Karol Bagh inspecting, testing and negotiating the prices of four classic bullets for a couple of Australians preparing for their own adventure, my hard-won mechanical knowledge impressing the wrench monkeys in the shop.
It was a long day, absorbing all focus, and I was contented to be busy. But my last day in Delhi had evaporated away from me.
I sat with a new friend on a rooftop restaurant, looking down at Tooti Chowk, a small square consumed by makeshift market stalls and mammalian frenzy. Located on Paharganj, the main bazaar road, the square squawked its rhythms, mechanical and organic, oppressively even for us located four stories above.
The sun began to set and, looking down, I felt it. I felt all of it. Like it was the first time. The claustrophobia, the mild terror, the senseless throes of defensiveness radiating from tourists drowning in the protean crowds, the needless joy, the inescapable flares of clumsy grandad dancing, hope in the heat, the dust.
The essence of India danced in my chest, captured by virgin eyes. I thought how fruitless it would seem to describe it, to join countless others in their contrived semi-poetic scrawls in travel guides. Words wouldn’t really capture the vitality and my strange, new connection to it that evening.
Of course, beauty is temporal and nothing lasts forever (not to bring you down with a bump..). My marble eyed discovery was burned out under the tired orange glow of the streetlights as I rushed to make my flight in time, despite leaving hours prematurely.
Fitting my last moments in India would be hurrying about with little time to think. Just like that, a page was turned.
It was desperation more than anticipation that drove me from my hostel and into the nearby bike shops. I wasn’t just tired, I was a burned out car-wreck that had acquired a minimum alcohol threshold to function. It was bad news, as my rattling cough and aching bones assured me.
Honda’s cheap and cheerful ‘110cc Win’ is well established as the bike for cruising around Vietnam, particularly for those attempting the North to South (or like me, vice versa) route between Hanoi and Saigon. It is the Vietnamese bullet – plenty of parts, everyone’s a mechanic – no problems. Although with nearly four hundred cc’s fewer capacity, hauling one hundred kilograms of human and rucksack along the undulating Ho Chi Minh trail was sure to be sedate – not my usual rip.
Very quickly, the rat-bike trend became apparent. Everything (even working components…) sprayed matte black. Fashion before function. Difficult to spot oil leaks. It’s a big red flag, but it looked cool right?
After a handful of test rides I was understanding the game. Every single bike had some kind of flaw. Tourists who’d ridden them didn’t understand the concept of fork oil, leaky head gaskets or shorn sprocket teeth. My bike would be the best of a bad bunch.
I took a bike from another traveller, a big, robust man who squeaked every inch out of the suspension travel as he perched atop his steed like a bear on a branch. Even if the bike had problems, three hundred USD is not a lot for a working motorcycle. A small price for freedom.
I hadn’t overthought Vietnam before booking my flight. I hadn’t actually done any research whatsoever, save filling in some airport immigration forms. To come here had been a snap decision and an opportunity to meet an old friend.
Well settled in sunny Saigon, Jon was one third of a weary group of young men, newly single, huddled together in a Wolverhampton bar one year beforehand. Bleakness was on all our plates, each had been a lengthy relationship. Jon splintered away to Vietnam while Alex, committed to his teaching job, stayed behind. I waited until my sabbatical and headed to India. With many months passing I was curious how he was doing and besides, he’d decided to take a break and accompany me for my ride to the coast, when we’d eventually leave Saigon!
The last of the coffee had dribbled through the flimsy aerofilter layered on top of the cream. I don’t know how long ago it had stopped, but it was halfway cold so I threw in some awkward ice cubes and rolled the whole gloop together with a teaspoon.
I was a week into my stay, and the constant drinking, dancing and nitrous balloons had begun a hollowing. I wanted to be asleep as dawn broke, rather than in the park doing exercise classes or Tai Chi with the early-rising old people, as a sinister voice crackled commands from an old hifi. I’d had an excellent time, indulging hedonism with the vigour and restraint of a pirate fight in a whore house, while meeting some great, gentle humans, but my bipolar soul craved shelter from tiredness, respite for my lost voice and exploration beyond the same two hundred meters of iniquity.
I swallowed up the dregs and left a few thousand Dong on the table as Jon pulled up. I had my wheels, bags packed and an aching to be out on the highways. Pulling the chinstraps apart I languidly docked my head into my helmet, my old friend, who would protect me from temptation while the road would scrub me clean.
At least until we found the next bar.