December’s Contender

‘Twas the month of December when it suddenly dawned,

That insidious notion: another year gone.

And thus to the interweb we scurried all a bumble,

To post many pics (have a bit of a mumble).

And yet, as years go, it treated us well.

Consider: only in balmiest beauty did we dwell.

We met lots of people, too many to remember,

And that was just in the month of December.

So here are the photos, in time-honoured dollop;

Proof that life is too short to be lived as polyp.

The Quality Curse

I seem to just want to write new stuff. It’s an extension of ‘do’, and in my world, ‘do’ has always been better than ‘not-do’. I guess I just like the unbridled possibility of the next sentence far more than the harsh constraints of the last one.   This bodes well for volume, but not brilliantly for quality. And, unfortunately for me, it is this last which everyone is seeking. It’s rare stuff, after all; like some sort of elixir for eternal youth. Perhaps, that is why everyone is chasing it. Eternal youth speaks to you of timelessness, durability. Rarity.

I’m aware that I tread close to the same quality ruminations that Robert Pirsig gave voice to in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. At least that’s what I can still recall from my last reading, circa 1993. I suspect that there were good reasons for his quality fixation — especially if you take into account the poor man’s diagnosis for schizophrenia and subsequent shock therapy treatment.   

But quality can a worthwhile obsession, since it is a concept which cuts to the quick of humanity. We always carry with us a notion of how good something is in relation to something else, and that something else is usually aligned with an abstract ideal which has the capacity to say more about us as people than a signature or a fingerprint.

Take India for example. Like me, it has little trouble with volume, but quality continues to be elusive.   I’m currently on my second set of bicycle tyres, fifth pair of inner tubes (and those are patched to within an inch of their lives) and second rear axel. The handlebar tape has gone, and the headset is already notched. That’s after a thousand kilometers. The cycle of purchase, fix, fix again, and replace is so short here it makes your head spin.

A mania for quality in the practical world means you have to be obsessed with two things: measurement and cost. In measurement I include objective-setting, testing and planning. In cost, I mean: you had better understand how much an improvement of X in quality is going to cost you in cash (and its close friend, Time). Then double it.

So, this is a roundabout way of saying I am writing (and now procrastinating over) a book that has a few quality issues. The raw materials seem good enough. Most sentences seem to stand up to stress testing, the characters have a third dimension – at least enough to be able to stand, in most cases, without the aid of strings – the premise is sound, but I guess it’s the joining that presents a problem. And this, to return to the bicycle metaphor, is a pretty crucial bit. The ratio of the tubing, and the quality of the brazing (if you’re talking steel frames – moulding if you’ve got carbon) completely sets your five thousand pound Serotta apart from your Halford’s Special (rather charmingly termed a Bike Shaped Object by my good friends at South Coast Bikes).

So, I guess there’s nothing for it but to extend the timeline, sharpen the pencil, and get ready to murder a few darlings.   The alternative — let fly with something shoddy and half-baked, or worse still, overwrought and ornamented — is only likely to frustrate and annoy those who have invested anything of themselves in following you this far. Maybe there won’t be many of those left by the time it’s all over. Wish me luck.

Day 7 – Toast on the Coast

Thursday, 9th December

BikeShuffle: Desmonk Dekker – 007 (Shanty Town)

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Trasi – 08:35

Actually, I’m not quite sure where I am. Been pegging it north on the NH17 since seven this morning, passing through towns and crossing rivers like stages in a video game. I make it another 240k’s to Chaudi from here, by all accounts a sizable day. So it’s going to be less about places and more about endurance. That, and where to take a shit. Although I’m loathe to dwell on these things, it’s a simple fact. And the prospects aren’t brilliant.

At least back on the coast, I’m seen as less of a freak show. The truckers that are sat in this humble hotel paid me barely a second glance. And for once, there is no crowd of guys standing around my bike, gazing at it or asking ‘how much you pay?’

It’s always the guys who take an interest in ‘the tourist’. Never the women. Why is that? Even in the road, where the gender imbalance is a little more redressed (as compared with places you might stop to eat – where women are always accompanied and would never initiate a conversation). But in the road, with people walking, carrying loads, goading oxen or generally going about their business, it’s always the men who look up at the sound of a different engine, or if they catch sight of the gangly freak and make eye contact, then you can be assured of a full head pivot at the very least, if not the shout or the jaw-drop that tends to happen in more remote areas.   But the ladies, even if they do make eye contact, will quickly look away, either from a sense of propriety or a complete disinterest in whatever foreign thing has passed through their space.

Ok, so I can test the theory now. A lady has just entered the shop with her young son. It looks as though they are on their way to school. He gives me a fairly involved once-over, gliding around behind me to have a look at what’s happening on the laptop. This is something that every gent here in the hotel has done at least once. But the boy’s mum carries on chatting away oblivious.

Don’t get me wrong. This is cool. I’ve nearly had my fill of being a one man geek show. But I’m pretty interested in what causes such a profound difference between genders here. Is it modesty, propriety, or is it the fact that so much of the daily work falls to the women here that they don’t have time for such frivolities?

Bhaktal – 10:25

Man. This bites the big milegas. Someone has taken the NH17 – that most reliable of highways – and swapped it for one big fucking pothole, causing my spare brake shoes and my beloved lungi, of many years service, to bounce out into the road somewhere in the last ten k’s (oh why couldn’t it have been my foot-fraying sandals?).Those are two sorry losses. And still 180ks to go.

Bhaktal Part II: 10:57

Just met someone on the road riding a chopped 500cc Enfield. Andrés from Argentina is the first person of a western persuasion that i’ve seen since leaving Hampi. He’s currently blasting up the coast looking, if anything, even dirtier than I do. Can this be solely down a difference of 150ccs? We swapped bikes for a bit, and I can certainly attest to the additional grunt of the 500. Add to that the minimalist seat, draper bars and a rear tyre that could have come off a truck, and it becomes a pretty fearsome proposition. (note plastic container of oil jammed in above the gearbox for easy access. This beast is thirsty).

I should note: each word I type is being read aloud by a gentleman approximately three cm’s from my left ear. He is looking over. He is smiling, and….yes! He has finally twigged to what’s happening. Although he is still continuing to read. What is your good name, sir?….

Honavar 13:55

Break down!
After a particularly brisk stage trying to keep up with Andrés and his pig-assed 500, I heard the characteristic squelch of a defeated electrical system and knew that I was in for at least an hour of mechanical faffery once we stopped for lunch. As estimates go, this proved to be pretty much bang on. Although I did learn a trick or two about electrical troubleshooting. It goes something like this: replace the battery with a known good one (stick old one on charger for as long as is required), unhook wire from battery to points, see if it sparks on any bit of grounded metal (dental work is inadvisable), if not, try the wire to the condenser….actually, this was as far as we got, then we both looked at the tiny box on the battery cable itself and discovered that it contained a fuse. Which had blown. Job done.

Gokarna – 10:25 pm

I found Andrés watching the sunset over Om Beach and nursing a beer. With a long shared history of bike breakdowns and, it turns out, Ibizian and London diversions, we had no trouble talking the sun down. And then some. Although the guilt gland did twinge a little over the course of the evening, since technically I should be at home right now. However, the hour of mechanical jiggery pokery left me with three hours more driving and only one of daylight. Tash bravely quelled the disappointment in her voice and handed me over to speak to the boys. Egg wanted to know how many kilometres I had driven today and how many more I had left tomorrow. Dumpie only asked if I could stay away a little longer so he could have some more Mama time.

Day 1: The Excursion Diversion

December 3rd, 2010

BikeShuffle:  The Police – Walking in Your Footsteps

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Following a new high in kiddie antics yesterday, I think the missus may have spotted a look of pain which got stuck on my face and didn’t come off.  She asked if perhaps the 20×7 childcare might be getting to me, just a little (i’m discounting Dumpie’s four hours of school).  From there, it was an amazingly quick and congenial discussion that, unbelievably, saw us decide that  I would drive up to Hampi this morning in order to scratch (and hopefully eradicate) the bike itch which has been plaguing me ever since we got back to Goa. Result!

So,  we’re looking at a rather involved scoot — about 370 km’s each way — not likely to be something that can be done in a single day.  This gives us a little bit of flexibility on routing, and rather than take the standard Highway 17 and 63 route, I think i’m going to go by way of the Anshi National Park.  Will be travelling minimal,  and with no spares or tools beyond my LeatherGirl it does mean that even small mechanical problems in the boondocks could prove to be a major headache (although I just know that cocktail fork is going to come in handy!).

Anshi National Park

Snake! Stretched out and sunning itself on a sharp turn.  Nearly spanning the road.  I thought it was a tree branch at first and lazily steered to the left to avoid it.  As I got closer I could make out the head, watching me, and then it gave the smallest slither to allow a small gap at the side for me for me to ride through.  Must have been over two metres, since there was very little road left, and he wasn’t even fully stretched out.

I found myself wondering whether they could strike fast enough to bite you if you drive over them.


“The Road has Fallen Apart….”

About 100k’s in, and still in the depths of the National Park.  The road has been varied to say the least, offering up some buttery surfaces that allow for fantastic glides through beautifully secluded stretches, and then, literally with a single turn, it goes completely rat shit for several kilometers.

After one particularly jagged section, I had to stop and to screw the two seat bolts in with pliers, where one had given away, and the other was loose to the point of falling off.  For twenty minuts i was sat in the middle of the road, with screaming jungle on all sides, and no one passed me.

I can’t help but think how similar, and yet different, this experience is to the schlep that Tash and I made across the entire country back in 1994.  For one, it would have been impossible to keep up a semi-ironic sms conversation with Johno in Sydney – he at a Citrix conference and me tooling around out the back of bejesus.  But today it seems almost normal.

I would also have felt stupid leaving anywhere to make this kind of journey with three pairs of skivvies, some bug spray and a lungi stuffed into a messenger bag.  But today, that is also the reality.  And if in 1994 I were to haul out my laptop to start tapping away….well, that could never have been a reality, actually, not on my budget.   The most portable word processor back then would have cost a bomb and probably wouldn’t have stood the jouncing too well .  Plus it would have started a riot.  Now, the local guys are standing quite casually behind me, looking over my shoulder pretending they can read what I’m writing.  ‘No biggie’ is the message intended by their careless demeanor.  ‘We’ve seen plenty of laptops.’  Still, I suspect it’s likely to be a scene that is repeated if I’m going to insist on typing in public.  The good news is that, thanks to PhotoBooth, everything that happens over your shoulder is open season.   Except – woops – they’ve already tired of me. Here’s a photo nonetheless.

the first of the laptop shots

Still looking a little shellshocked, I see.   A hundred Indian kilometers are rarely trivial.

And, here’s one the other way round.  A typical hotel scene that is  likely to be underway in a hundred thousand different places across the country.

Hubli –   The Mayuram Hotel

Happiness is making the effort to look at four different hotels at the end of a long day, only to find that they keep getting better and more affordably priced.  Have washed up at a place with a large television and cold showers, but conveniently placed beside all of the automotive shops and the stadium, which seems to be undergoing some sort of overhaul through the night.

I can’t believe how much more developed the town seems compared with the last time i was through here.  The streets are full of western-style shops and  nice cars and everyone i’ve spoken with seems to be sporting a large watch (no doubt of Chinese origin).  I have drawn a few protracted stares in the street (the kind of stop-what-you’re-doing-allow-your-mouth-to-fall-open kind that you only get in India) but this has been balanced by people i’ve talked to who are almost at pains to keep interest levels on the mild side. “Country name?” or one of its many variants is the preferred question to start the bidding.  Most people take a second to mull over ‘Canada’ (it can be a confusing answer since Kanada is also the name of the language here) but the guy selling hardware had distant relatives there (although he knew not where).  Hubli is one of the best examples i’ve encountered on the new Indian middle class.  Now, what the hell might they want to buy from me?

Otherwise, have spent a couple of happy hours buying tools (spanners, allen key, spare points) and making shims for my handlebars out of empty beer cans.

I had to empty the beer cans in order to get the metal to make the shims, which makes me  think I should probably head to bed before i dream up a repair that requires a bottle of whisky.

Intro: ¡Ay, Karnataka!

By the missus’ extremely good graces, i was allowed to gallivant across a fair old stretch of south India last week, notching up about 1,000 kilometers of bone-jarring goodness on a bike that is, miraculously, still intact (apart from four snapped spokes, some minor welding and much tightening of nuts).  Being of a fairly nerdy persuasion, i took the laptop and diddled away whenever anything struck me as odd, amusing or noteworthy. This turned out to be fairly often, and if nothing else, it fostered some fairly ridiculous scenes where whole crowds were jostling behind me to catch a glimpse over my shoulder of this wondrous device.

So, if you will indulge this experiment in serial posting, i’m going to try chucking that material up here at a rate of one day’s driving for each day of reality. I am a lazy sod after all, and this beats having to think up something new to say about it.

Those of you with only lukewarm enthusiasm for this plan need not worry, i am going to turn off the email notifications for this batch, which means you can enjoy the run up to Christmas without getting spammed into 2011.

So saddle up, y’all. Tomorrow we ride!

South India Road Epic in a larger map