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An epic BMW ride through southern India


I was now back where I started three months ago. Sitting in the very swish Anthuriam lounge of Colombo airport, I had time and cigarettes enough, to ponder on the land of Taprobane. Still bloodied and wounded from the canine induced crash, my toes and elbows were in a terrible state with forming tropical ulcers which defied antibiotics and any attempt at dressing. My feet smelt almost gangrenous and lurid puss seeped through my white muslin shirt sleeves. The air conditioning was a welcome respite and perhaps the drier climate of India would see me better sooner rather than later.

As I watched the Europeans stock up with Johnny Walker Black Label, new Nikons, perfume and bling, I scanned the young Sri Lankan girls, bagless, looking sheepish, confused, almost numb, probably going for maids in some hell hole like Kuwait or Saudi, dreaming of a better life for their families and a better marriage prospect to come on their distant return. They were headed from the frying pan to the fire in all respects. My time in Al Khobar had given me some insight into the plight of those poor deluded creatures. Thank goodness the families I had met, and who had given me so much warmth and hospitality,had not, despite their poverty, been drawn into this venus fly trap, by unscrupulous village agents who promise bounty and take the first years wages.

Sri Lanka had been the perfect proving ground for our long journey ahead. Stunningly beautiful, with a driving ethic to die for, I had learnt some Asian ways, good, bad, and theatrical. I had never experienced such a sense of family and kindness, and neither had I ever had an attempt on my neck with a broken bottle, courtesy of a drunken suitor after Paula! I had also never been asked to convert from my faithless stance to Islam for a meaningful some of money and preparedness for that annular snip!

Paula and I were on reasonable terms and each in our way had enjoyed the experience. Although I was settling into my element, she did find it hard work but took on all with a resolve and cheerfulness which was her admirable quality, considering lust was lost and I was a platonic chauffeur! She trusted my driving and was the perfect pillion. I could hope and want for no more on what was before us. The lull and solitude of Wispers was after all several continents away and I did not know that I had met a lady who one day in the future would become my new life partner.

It’s a triangular flight to Trivandrum in Kerala, South India. The track is direct and no sooner have you climbed to altitude with your coffee and sandwich trying to slide off the back-seat table, you are descending whilst the stewardesses are racing to clear everything up before the approach. We had left the lush palm garden and paddy fields surrounding Katurunayake and a trinity of Buddha, Dhamma and Sanga, to which I was curiously rather drawn, for new trinities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and that rapacious crowd which follow Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

The long, seemingly low approach to Kerala’s international airport tracks just inboard of the coast and affords a great view of the terrain. It was the dry season and somehow the palm cover looked thinner or at least less lush. Craters which were granite mines pockmarked the canopy like a moth eaten blanket. Touching down, the grass around the runway was parched with barren red earth. Tatty perimeter buildings had vegetation growing from parapet walls, green and black with past monsoon mould, and the terminal looked derelict and unkempt. We were met by two buses which I think even my local scrapyard would have turned away as the rust content was greater than the salvageable metal, and pot bellied security, wielding ancient Lee Enfield rifles made in India under licence after partition of forty seven.

It was depressing after the glitz of Colombo airport and its manicured surrounds. Memories of drinking my father’s health in the Galle Face Hotel and playing badminton with ample Sarojina, were now past history and our joint feelings were to get on the road fast and see what better this country might offer.

An indifferent staff and slow serpentine baggage reclaim had us out of the terminal into the hot mid morning sun. The bike panniers were in one piece and intact, a tribute to Krauser who make good locks. The tank bag was always with me as that housed the really important stuff and was heavier than usual as I had stowed the bike’s battery within. There had been some concern when we wished the bike on our flight that acid might escape. Next time I would blind them with science, declare it as a sealed nickel cadmium one, and save the hassle of its exposure under the seat and subsequent removal.

A swarm of taxi drivers and rickshaw wallahs descended on us but the first need was tea. We brazenly struggled through those workers and drones, Paula with the helmets and tank bag, myself with the panniers. It was only a hot hundred yard stretch out of the mele to a typical hotel which in India or Sri Lanka means eatery. Rooms if they had had them you certainly would not want. We had snacked at departure and had had small eats on the plane and so we could forgo an experience of fly blown pakoras and bhajees until later.

Tea in India, throughout, is chai. The creative process must be unique to street life and is worth noting. Cheap low grade dust tea from foothill estates which gives more tannin and a bit of a hit, is put into a tea strainer made from coarse cotton cloth resembling too closely part of an old sock. Boiling water from a charcoal fired samovar is poured into a large tin mug holding a bit more than half a pint. The tea strainer is dangled in this and occasionally squeezed to produce a strong elixir. On the request for chai from bystanders some of this is poured into each cup or glass. Hot diluted milk from a separate brazier is spooned into the cups or glasses with sugar, in diabetic doses, to make up the level.

It is now that the chai wallah’s art comes into play and really would go down a storm if done with different ingredients in a cocktail bar. The tea, the milk and the sugar, need to be mixed and a little cooling effect imparted. The chai wallah takes an empty glass and pours from yours to his, back and forth repeatedly, with such flourish, confidence and elevation, your glass at eye level, his at dhoti level, and with a thin brown stream between. Not one drop is spilled. The piece de resistance if using a glass is that the final flourish is the deft wiping of any drips on the glass with a swift twist of his left hand and the gracious presentation to you by the right, delivered down on the counter with a bit of a bash.

In Asia left hands are used in the process of calls to nature. This lapse of hygiene is arguably acceptable. Dehydration is far more dangerous than a sprint to the loo and this mix is probably the safest imbued liquid in India. Soft drinks of spurious and duplicate origin, even alcohol with its occasional killer blend of battery acid for warming effect and either ethanol or methanol for inebriation, are best left to the locals. Curiously, some took their chai with cup and saucer, and proceeded to pour a little in the saucer and blow it for cooling. Whether this is the origin of need for same, I have never discovered.

At any rate it was exceedingly good stuff and I took three in quick succession, a trinity of tea!

The heat was building and the first priority was the bike and extracting it from the freight terminal and sorting paperwork. The freight godown was a short rickshaw ride away at the far end of the airport complex and we arrived to find that senior officers had slid off for an early and extended lunch. We waited and waited. I spotted the bike and the tyres were flat! In Colombo I had taken out the fork springs to drop its height so that it could pass through the low freight door on our particular aircraft, a 737 I think. It looked like a defeated bull down on its forks with the tyres splayed, and compounded my current mood. I knew there was no petrol in it and I spied the pump was missing. Portly officers returned and were friendly but bureaucratic. They had not witnessed such a long haired and bearded foreigner before or ever had a motorcycle flown in from ‘abroad’ on a document, Le Carnet De Passage, issued by the A.A. in England, and written impractically in French. The purpose of this document is to allow free and efficient transit through any foreign border without recourse to customs duty. With my newly acquired and out of character skills of patience and soft voice, two hours later we were sorted.

Great! The bike was ours again but with no petrol and no air in the tyres. It transpired that ground crew on their initiative had let the air out once on the aircraft because they believed the tyres would explode at altitude. It may have rolled down out of the aircraft but it was impossible to push any distance in the heat.

I am convinced the old B.M.W. was designed by somebody who had foreseen this. In less time than the call to prayer I had the fork springs back in and both wheels out. Paula guarded the gear and I took off out of the freight terminal in search of a guy with air and petrol. In India as Sri Lanka they are everywhere and always seem to be in close proximity to any puncture. I often wonder if they generate business by ‘seeding’ the road!

Back to the airport at a sensible rate in the auto rickshaw and I am accosted by security and refused entry. Trying to explain that these wheels were for my motorcycle and that the petrol was not for an oversize Molotov took some doing and a telephone call to within, to get in. Wheels on, battery in, she fired up on the button. Around us stood incredulous porters and those portly officers who had never seen a thousand c.c motorcycle with cylinders in a strange configuration. ‘Is it a double engine?’. ‘Where is the chain?’. Oh the miracle of electric start! The pinnacle of Indian motorcycling to date was the Royal Enfield Bullet, a three fifty, of bone shaking qualities and an engine with lack lustre performance never particularly rated in the nineteen fifties when it came about. The B.M.W. R100/7 which had its origins in an even earlier period was clearly good and eclipsed all the indigenous competition.

We were finally off on our adventure. It started immediately with our first puncture pretty much outside where I had got the air. The front was flat, and to be fair to the wallah, on inspection the tube had probably been pinched when rolling across Trivandrum airport apron with its tyres flat. I was concerned for the rear. He was efficient but brutal with his makeshift levers and my aluminium rims would only know a life of abuse until we hit Europe.

We were at last really off. We had about two and a half hours of light left and decided to make for Quilon, which sounded like an interesting place with an old Raj Residency, now a Government Guest House, and which did the occasional ‘room’.It was nearly an uneventful ride. The main highway was not too busy and what was on the road was much slower than Sri Lanka. No Japanese engines. Tata lorries lumbered along, and the Ambassadors and Padminis lurched, whilst we whizzed, happy to have an evaporative breeze cool us down. The Beemer again proved to be just the ticket, taking potholes in its stride, it could out brake or out accelerate anything on the road. We were king and queen of the road, king and queen of the most populous continent on the planet. There’s a thought!

Even royalty has its downfall and we met ours coming in to Quilon. I had noticed ever increasing play in my clutch cable and we were doing a lot of gear changes slowing down for ox carts, buffalo in the road, wavering cyclists and blinkered pedestrians. By the time we entered Quilon city the clutch was defunct. We stopped for chai and got good directions for the guest house. I had to start the bike in gear, which can be done if you remove the neutral indicator wire from the gearbox, thank you Herr? and we crashed through the box and limped in in third, to be greeted by a most amazing building bathed in fiery orange light from the setting sun. If you had to have a break down then this was not such a bad place at all.

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