Wow, what a couple of days. I left for Pondicherry, the former French colony, speeding away on my motorbike full of excitement and verve only to run out of petrol within about 15 minutes. I wasn’t told and I didn’t check to notice that the petrol tank was on ‘reserve’. Feeling slightly despondent I ground to a halt on the side of the highway baking in the sweltering heat, not looking or feeling quite so cool anymore. As I pushed my hunk of metal along the road, I started thinking about what I could learn from the experience; surely we can learn from all experiences…. A smile came across my face, even a smirk – prepare before setting off on any journey; take full responsibility, and make sure I have the necessary resources to reach my destination!
Luckily a friendly little Tamil chap who spoke absolutely no English signaled me to come with him to one of his friend’s shops – he did understand when I pointed at the petrol tank. Having had a good giggle about what I am not sure, and shared many smiles and even some of my biscuits, I set off once more having filled my tank with just enough petrol to make it a few miles.
The second time I ran out of petrol, another friendly not so little chap on the side of the road helped me to fill up with slightly more petrol, again from a plastic bottle. Only this time, just as I was departing another cheeky chap who spoke no English planted himself on the back of my bike for the ride. He was not my only passenger – I had another 2 people I gave lifts to, including a school kid who did actually speak English – a charming little fellow and cheeky enough to ask me for 1 rupee for having had the privilege of his company. It took me back to the days when I used to hitchhike around the South of England, only I didn’t ask for money! Lesson learned – if you don’t ask you don’t get. Actually he didn’t get either, but full marks for effort!
I did find it funny driving past a sign that said “Accident Zone” – I mean talk about embedded commands. As it happens, there were no signs of any accidents but on my journey – a cheeky monkey, a herd of goats, numerous cows and the odd dog pretty much threw themselves in front of my bike which was made all the more interesting because the breaks did not work very well, certainly not by English standards. Add to that, the fact that whoever made the bike decided to swap the sides where the break and gear-change pedals normally are. So every time I attempted an emergency stop I changed gear instead and every time I wanted to chance gear I’d slow down momentarily as I hit the break!
By day two of travelling on the bike I just about got the hang of it but a lifetime’s habit can be hard to change in a day. Having said that, never underestimate your ability to adapt and learn quickly, especially when its life or death. I think they call that leverage! As Darwin said, it’s survival of the most adaptable, not fittest, that counts. Luckily I was feeling pretty adaptable and so survived the numerous tests I was to face in the next day or so.
I mentioned the other day about some people out here not having hope, namely those who sleep under the stars. But that is not necessarily true. I believe that people here have more hope and faith than many people in England, but those that sleep rough and have nothing; I do wonder how much hope they have. I can’t answer that but I do wonder.
Having not eaten all day and feeling quite sunburnt I eventually arrived at the international community of Auroville – a project in ‘human unity’ – late in the afternoon having left the chaos of Pondicherry. Auroville was a somewhat surreal place… 80 rural settlements spread over 20k, about 1800 residents from 38 different nationalities of which two thirds are foreign. Each settlement has its own area of interest and expertise but I didn’t stay long, just long enough to have a portion of chips. I felt more at home in Pondy.
As I left Auroville to head back into the commotion of Pondicherry for the evening my horn failed. I counted how many horns I could hear within a 30 second period in Chennai and got to 67 before it became overwhelming and impossible to keep count – they love their horns out here! And I had lost mine, which actually put me at a serious disadvantage and also in peril. Without a horn you can’t make people aware of impending disaster or potential accidents that are around every corner. I resorted to revving my single cylinder engine as much as I could to get noticed, and not run over. It worked. And people also thought I was a madman so gave me an extra wide birth!
I passed a cow in the middle of the road which very nearly relieved herself all over me… luckily I evaded that with a big swerve into oncoming traffic. I’m sure I probably missed some sacred experience and would have been blessed for many lifetimes had I succumbed to the offering but instinct got the better of me.
I spent the first part of the evening alone on the sea front occasionally staring up at the stars and thinking of all the endless possibilities that lay ahead for me, and all of us on this journey.
“Buddhists believe that we live our ever day lives as if inside an eggshell. Just as an unhatched chick has few clues as to what life is truly like, most of us are only vaguely aware of the greater world that surrounds us. Excitement and depression, fortune and misfortune, pleasure and pain,” wrote Dhammapada scholar Eknath Easwaran, “are storms in a tiny, private, shell-bound realm – which we take to be the whole of existence. Yet we can break out of this shell and enter a new world”.
Having spent the evening with a very kind Tamil whose name I can’t remember and a couple of young Russian girls, one of which didn’t speak any English I took a rickshaw home at about midnight. I had a monkey attack me as I walked to find a rickshaw – I had to fend him off with my water bottle. It did occur to me that maybe I should have got my rabies jab!
The rickshaw driver, or rather rider, like most people I have met recently in Tamil Nadu spoke no English and was towing me, a cart, bicycle frame and himself along, all the time pedaling with bare feet! Judging by the look of him and the rickshaw, I suspect he was going to be sleeping on the side of the road. He forced his way for what seemed like miles across town. He had no idea where he was going so I eventually ended up getting out and taking a motorized auto. Despite haggling a good price with the barefoot rider and him taking me in completely the wrong direction, I felt pity on him and gave him the original price he quoted and a pack of biscuits. He didn’t say thank you, but then he didn’t speak English.
I had a large buffet lunch the following day having had a fairly lazy morning interspersed with exploring the craziness that is Pondicherry and the market rich with magical colours; fruits and vegetables; smells, spices and inquisitive smiles. After lunch I fell asleep in the park shaded by palm trees. On waking from my slumber I set off on my return journey to Mamallaparum.
About 35ks from home the clutch on the bike went. I was once again stranded, but still smiling. Eventually the chap from the motorbike shop turned up and we swapped bikes. Unbelievably I ran out of petrol again, on his bike this time! Someone stopped to help again. To be honest I was laughing, chuckling to myself at what an ordeal the whole bike saga had been. Even trying to start the Enfield on occasion took in excess of five minutes, and the bottom of my right foot is testament to that with the bruising and punishment it took in trying to kick start the forsaken machine.
It was dusk, the graveyard shift, although I didn’t yet know that. I decided that I had to make it home before it got dark so that I could keep wearing my sunglasses and protect my eyes from getting bugs in them as I rode home. But as the darkness closed in I found myself in something of a horror film, but this time I was the vicious maniacal murderer. I must have killed hundreds if not thousands of bugs with my bare face, arms and chest in that twenty minute ride home. Minute after minute the onslaught continued and even now I can feel my face wincing at the thought. It was pretty painful too. Bugs flying into your cheeks, forehead and arms at 40-50 miles an hour can pack a pretty good punch, especially the big ones!
And yet it was a fight against time, to get home quickly while there was still some light, so I could wear my sunglasses to protect me from the bugs. So I had to go faster and kill more. Oh, the graveyard that is my body…
Until next time….