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 8 – Outro

If nothing else, this exercise has taught me not to leave my computer open with a button that says ‘Publish’ hovering tantalisingly on the screen under an empty post. What self-respecting and curious six year-old is going to pass up the opportunity to click on it? The empty email you may have just received should go some way towards answering that question.

It was strange that the final leg – Gokarna to Goa – was almost an afterthought, when once (only two months ago) it was an epic journey all its own. I climbed on the bike just as the first rays of sun hit Om Beach, only getting off to put on my rain poncho just after crossing the border into Goa. Rain poncho? I was also incredulous. It’s not supposed to rain until April. But I was actually happy to do the last twenty kilometres under a gentle drizzle, if for no other reason than to rinse the last layer of grime off of me and the bike. It also gave me an excuse to drive slowly on the few spokes remaining in my rear wheel.

From a trip that was supposed to carve a new perspective, I’m a little pressed to put my finger on the earth-shattering revelations. The usual paradoxes arise whenever we compare one thing in our life with another: I have/haven’t learned a lot since we first made the trip in 1994, India is vastly different/very much the same, a thousand kilometres on Indian roads is substantial / I would happily do the whole thing over again. Tomorrow. Perhaps the search for wisdom is a journey without an obvious ending. Either that, or true wisdom only descends when your mind opens wide enough to contain both ends of the paradox. I guess I’m still a few rounds of mental yoga away from being that flexible.

I’m incredibly grateful to Tash, who suffered genuine tribulations to allow this fanciful roadtrip. I’m only too aware that the favour ledger is now massively stacked, and i’m going to have to dig pretty deep to repay her kindness. Watch this space.

Finally, for the sequentially minded, here’s a link that shows all posts from the trip in chronological order.

Thanks for reading.

A note on BikeShuffle

When I listened to music while riding, it was always randomly across twenty thousand-odd songs on my ipod. There’s a fairly wide selection of music on there, with genres like electro, dance, indie and (especially) reggae, generously represented. When listening in this mode, I have developed the bad habit of bumping play to the next song if I’m not immediately taken with what’s on. In this way you retain some means of exercising choice without having to look at anything, or free up more than a thumb.

Interesting that, through this mode of listening, many of the songs which stuck with me on this trip came from the eighties. It may be that they are just more memorable songs than a lot of the repetitive stuff that lives on my ipod. Or, being from the era of my youth, perhaps they were capable of evoking a more powerful nostalgia on a trip that was very much about connecting with the past. Whatever the case, I hope you got something out of the songs I posted (if nothing more than a new appreciation for the Payola$). Would love to hear of any other epic tunes that have transformed your journey.

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 6 – Extreme Yoga

Wednesday, December 8th

BikeShuffle: The Clash – Train in Vain

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Shivamoga – 06:22

I was deliberating whether to turn the television on when it became apparent that the cock outside wasn’t about to stop crowing. I’m glad I did.   For the past ten minutes I’ve been riveted by some sort of mass yoga show that seems more like a cross between a Hitler youth rally and a gathering of the Branch Davidians.

The guy leading it is a young bearded yogi in a tiny red dhoti, doing the moves so quickly it actually looks like he’s on fast forward. Then the camera cuts to a hall of at least a thousand poor, confused people, all dressed in white, hopelessly flapping about trying to follow him. The slow pan reveals that not a single person has a clue about what to do, or how to do it, and most people end up stopping to make adjustments to their clothing or look just around embarrassed. Some people save their energy for when the camera falls on them, and then start up with some half hearted routine based on how much of them is in shot. As most of the ‘class’ are elderly, and a little on the corpulent side, they’ve got about as much chance of doing some of these moves as I have of being clean after today’s drive.

Our energetic yogi has just done a roundhouse kick move that I’ve never seen attempted except in martial arts movies and break dancing videos. His class of a thousand grannies has started applauding! The next generation of aerobics has arrived, everyone. Its Yoga Fu.

A quick survey of remaining channels reveals: four featuring various cricket matches, three Hindi dance routines, and three religious channels with shots of various idols having liquids poured over them. Lastly, there seems to be some sort of religious sermon in hindi from a greasy-haired Brahmin who is rocking around back and forth, pulling voices and spooky smiley faces.

Through all of this I haven’t understood a word that’s been said (except for the occasional buried word of Hinglish that pops up), but it’s easily trumped an evening in front of British telly for pure comedy value.

Malur – 11:03

I take back all of the curses and grudges I have been harbouring against the NH13 since it nearly rattled my bones loose at Hospet. Although it did take a while for us to find each other this morning. After leaving the hotel at a reasonable hour, I followed the universal Indian hand gesture for straight ahead (imagine weaving your arm, snakelike, towards the skies. Waggle head and repeat), but found myself ten kilometers outside of Shimoga, traveling in the wrong direction.

Backtracking through town (subsequent directional gestures were identical, but this time I knew better), I found the highway 13 and headed south. Since then — and I know this is tantamount to asking for the road to turn to shit — it has been buttery smooth tarmac the likes of which you would find in some of the more insistent and better organized talukas of Goa. The scenery makes such a marked change from yesterday: gentle hills, forests, leafy glens. It’s been lovely to drive through it. The sun is shining and I have yet to get a single eyeful of dust or be past by a single honking Tata. Inasmuch as highways can hear you, I’m going to put in a plea for number 13 to keep up the good work.

Udupi – Hotel Usha – 19:38

Fuck am I dirty.

What’s more, there is something just a little obscene about having the telly turned on by the room boy and both of us gawping at a parade of runway models in freaky makeup strutting their stuff on Fashion Television. He looked at me like I was supposed to understand what was going on. I’m about as dirty as you can get without rolling around in pigshit, so I just shrugged. I haven’t got anything smaller than 500 rupees, so sadly he’s not getting a tip for throwing two white sheets on to the mattress. I decide to wait it out until he tires of FTV before taking a shower. It’s taking a little while.

Earlier today, I was putting in a serious bid for the planet’s most out of place laptop-toting motorcyclist. The word on (what passed for) the street was that there were some decent waterfalls at Agumbe (I’m disbelieving for the time being, the wikipedia assertion that the highest waterfalls in India are in the neighbourhood because no one seemed to have heard of them), but after lunch I decided to check out some that were supposed to be nearby. The exact directions were, ‘go down the road one kilometer, take a right and go another four kilometers, park your bike and you can walk to the falls there.’

What actually happened was: I found the first right ok, drove about seven or eight kilometers, and then stopped when I encountered a couple of shepherd types in the middle of the middle of nowhere. I asked about the nearby waterfalls, and one of the two guys dropped his sack and jumped straight on the back of my bike, motioning for me to go back the way I had come. We drove back about three kilometers, and turned up a tiny lay-by that I had noticed on the way down, but hadn’t considered as any sort of waterfall access. No respectable waterfall would have settled for such a humble approach.

But motion me down there he did, so I drove up the track and stopped beside a large pond. Except that my new friend was talking loudly at me in Kannada and gesturing for me to keep going. Through the pond.

I tried to ask him if it was much further, but he was just yelling and waving his hands, so I thought ‘what the heck, it must be impressive’.

The first time we had to drive up a boulder-strewn river bed, my friend wanted to stay on the bike.   I obliged by nearly dropping him on his head. The second time we had to drive up a river bed he got off. Which is a good thing, because I nearly got bounced off myself. It was bad enough that there were two of us, but I was also driving with my laptop wedged between my legs, making maneuvering a tad difficult, and tight turns impossible.

We drove through thickets, meadows and even a river at one point, the submerged exhaust making a rather comical burble as it disappeared beneath the surface. I was totally paranoid that we would get a flat or have some other breakdown, which would have meant spending the night up in the mountains and a horrible afternoon trying to find help and then coerce them into following me to this godforsaken place.

Several times I tried to call it off, but my friend kept shouting at me and gesticulating wildly. Finally we came to a fallen log across the path that even he admitted was impassible. I thought that was it. I could turn around and save face. However, he was off the bike and heading down the path before I could get a word in. When he saw me try to turn the bike around, he came back and was nearly jumping up and down with excitement. I assumed we must be close, and since we had got this far, why not walk a little further?

I was wrong about being close. Another twenty minutes of walking and scrambling before we emerged at a sheer drop that gave us a view west over the valley. And there, about four hundred meters away, a cascade of water plunging straight down the cliff, a ribbon of hissing silver which cast a fine mist over the rolling treetops. It felt like the only people who could have ever made it this far. Then I spotted the inevitable cluster discarded plastic and realized that we were just the latest.

Day 5 – Doing the Shimoga Shuffle

Tuesday, December 7th

BikeShuffle: The Dandy Warhols – Boys Better

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Just waiting for it to get light, before trying to take as big a bite as possible out of this one. The most salient question seems to be: how long to stay on the NH13? I think I’ve resolved to hit the back roads where I can, and I guess I will have two cracks at it, heading for Kotturu either from the nameless crossroads about 10k south of Hospet, or a further fifteen or south at Kudigli. Then it becomes similar to day 1: driving by brail. I expect the laptop to be out and marked with greasy thumbprints by the end of the day.

Still, the back roads have to be superior to the Tata dueling and massive potholes you seem to find on the National Highways (outside of my beloved 17, of course).

I think Shimoga is a best case outcome. Not really sure how far that is. 200 and some. Getting eaten by mosquitoes and have decided not to have a shower. Too fucking cold.

Happy Birthday to Stewart Macmillan and the King twins, by the way. Strange the ones you remember when you’re a million miles from Facebook. And then there was Pearl Harbour. We’ll see if I manage to get on line at all in the next few days to bestow those felicitations.


Hagaribommanahalli 09:24

This really is nowhere. Except that tons of people live here. Perhaps it’s the cold weather and cloudy skies, and the copious amount of dust in the air, but it feels so forlorn.

I was saved from the hell in road form that is the NH13 by, first a nice policeman near Munirabad who told me I was going the wrong way, and then, after forty-five minutes of bone jarring, bikebreaking potholes, I was able to make a most welcome right on to National Hightway 25, which, by comparison, is like the sweet tickle of an angle’s eyelashes.

Riding through a smaller town earlier, I was struck by two images of children. One, a tiny little girl of about four, with her hair bobbed, in a school uniform that included a rucksack nearly half her size. Even in passing I was struck by the sheer glow and excitement that seemed to radiate from her face while she watched some of the big kids do something very ordinary. I thought how new and exciting everything is when you’re that small, and how the feeling only leaves you when you have started to get properly pummeled by life’s monotonies.

The next girl I passed, literally seconds later, was crouched in the dust only inches from the road, her hands held over her face as she made a neat pile of shit beneath her.

Harihar – 12:15

Surreal scenes are everywhere.

Stopped now, just passed NH4, to have some idli and wipe the grit from out the corner of my eyes. And I just have to keep taking photographs, which I suspect, will not convey the feeling I get from some of these scenes.

Here at the chai stand, they are building an additional wall. The window is already in, and the proprietor is slinging the concrete bricks to the mason in between serving people with idli and sambal. His mouth is working convulsively on a massive pan, and his teeth are the red stumps of the betel addict.

The usual scrum have formed around me and my laptop:

Prasad, the sticker salesman, has spotted the camera on my mac and is busy explaining it to the rest of the crew. You can’t help but wonder how much natural intelligence is buried out here, with no hope of an education or application.

Have just smoked my first bidi in what feels like a lifetime. Tobacco is an occasional weakness, but I’m rationalizing it as a way to recreate the sensations of our road trip from sixteen years ago. With an accompanying cup of hot chai (more like a thimbleful, but thankfully so, given the sugar content), I can almost conjure it up. The picture would be complete if I wasn’t so crap at accents, and could produce a reasonable version of Dan’s welsh lilt. Unfortunately, as Tash will attest, any accent i try to impersonate becomes a strange mix of Indian and Mexican by the second sentence.

A group of men are lifting a heard of goats bodily into a Tata truck that is already carrying a full load of corrugated tin.   The goats have fluorescent ribbons tied to each of their horns, and seem to be quite happy to become part of such an undignified cargo, climbing over each other in their eagerness to get on the truck. The men are sparing small consideration, and the herd has been loaded up like so many sacks.

Now I’m being offered some latex stickers affixed to the rims of my front wheel for IR400. WTF! A novelty that I might tolerate for 50 rupees, but the guy is outrageous in assuming I want such a thing for (now) 300 rupees.

Meanwhile, the chai man’s wall grows ever higher. I suspect this is how days tend to get filled: small projects undertaken with little thought of what went before or what comes after, a perpetual and thoughtless adding-on that maybe explains the hundreds of half-finished and abandoned buildings I’ve passed this morning alone.

Strange that such an ancient place should persist in being so short-term.

Holalur – 14:10

I’ve been let down by the State Highway 25 in a big way. Here I was thinking that, if I had any more children, then SH25 would be in with a shout as far as names go, but now, forty km’s short of Shimoga, all is rubble and despair. I’m surprised the bike continues to function. I guess I’ll have to abandon plans to give it a name as well, since anything capable of carrying a name would have told me to go fuck myself by now.

Up until the disappearance of anything recognisable as a road, it has been a brilliant drive. I suspect I’m getting addicted to the ‘astonished look.’ I’ve had at least a thousand of them today. It’s my main diversion while riding through some of these obscure places. Pick a face, observe the point at which they clock you, then count how long before either a) the jaw drops b) the eyes go wide c) they begin to gesticulate madly for their friends to check out the motorcycle-born freakshow d) they shout something incoherent, or e) all of the above.

There are something like 26 combination of those options. Damn. I feel a scattergraph coming on.

Oops, more visitors:

Here’s another question: do I go 90kms out of the way to see Jog Falls, the 313th highest waterfall in the world, but the one that everyone seems to want to talk about (i.e. the highest ‘plunge waterfall’ in India), or to keep relatively on track and go see the hitherto unknown, but much more higher Kunchikal Falls, which is near Agumbe, on the the NH13 (I can only hope it has cleaned up its act by this point). One for whatever hospitable hotelier I encounter in Shimoga.And another!

Samarat Ahsoka Lodge – Shivamoga 16:27

Wikipedia asserts that Shivamoga is the cultural capital of Karnataka. Cultural capital? It’s a fucking shithole! Everything resembling a main street has been ripped up, and there’s no indication that anyone is doing anything to put it back together again.

I drove through the car district (broken engines in the street), the mobile phone district (masses of derelict bikes, more broken engines) and the BH Road, which is supposed to be the main shopping district (impassible dust pit, torn asunder with no one working on it).

Amazingly, this is the third lodge I’ve enquired at, the other two being full.

At 16:35 I have but three objectives. 1) Get Clean. This could take longer than you might initially suspect. The dust in my eyes is now complaining of being dusty. 2) Get Fed. There’s a hotel (i.e. ‘restaurant’) downstairs. We know that routine well enough by now: Thali, soda, chai. that will be 70 of your english pence. 3) Establish where to go tomorrow – Jog falls and round to Udupi, or keep it to a more direct route and head for Kunchikal falls.

That’s not a lot of stuff to do with sixteen hours to kill.

Under cover of the Night: 19:07

Unlike the times where I’m sat on top of a shiny purple racket, tonight I was able to walk the streets of Shivamoga, for the most part, undetected. So long as I didn’t hold anyone’s eye, I was able to slip through the crowd in the sinking dusk just like a local. After a day of being the main attraction wherever I stopped, it was a welcome relief.

True, I was caught a few times taking photos, but, for the most part, it was a lengthy stint of welcome anonymity, followed by oblivion.