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An epic BMW ride through southern India


Quilon Guest House was in glorious decay. I had never seen such a grand old lady of a building. A huge bay frontage supported on palladian pillars, deeply verandahed on two floors, with symmetrical single storied wings to the north and south. It was designed to be naturally air conditioned and rooms or rather as we were to discover, apartments, occupied the depth of the building east west. Principal rooms had ceilings easily twenty feet high with twelve foot louvred doors varnished and their mechanisms seized with years of neglect and the lack of need, for electricity, fans and air conditioning had come. The place appeared empty, but after some time, seemingly out of the woodwork, which was eaten and holed by huge but harmless wood wasps, came Balu the under manager. He was a very chirpy chap and I instantly warmed to him. Could we have a room? Difficult as the manager had not come and he was unable to make any decision. We took chai and a simple meal waiting for his superior. He came, Paula used her charm and a room was agreed. It was seven o’clock and the power went off; fans stopped and mosquitoes descended. Load shedding, the nightly signature of Kerala.

A candlelit procession led us along a colonnaded walkway to the south wing and by flickering candlelight we were enthralled to find ourselves in a huge apartment with two bedrooms and capacious bathroom with western closet and original claw footed cast iron bath. In the dim light we could not make out the condition of all except the fact that furniture was numbered in white paint including the single beds which sported ancient and holed mosquito nets. We were very tired from the hassle of a very extended day and I was only too happy to rest my feet which had suffered again on the ride up.

I could not wear desert boots because of my putrescent toes and had to make do with sandals. On the BMW your feet are right next to the cylinders and gear changes had to be made with the rise of my foot not my toes. Thus they were in even closer proximity to a deal of heat. On removing my muslin shirt I found it welded to my elbows. The scabs had oozed again and I was in a sorry state….and so was the bike.

My glum musing was brought short by a scream from the bathroom. Paula shuffled in with her jeans around her ankles in double quick time like a geisha on a mission. ‘Something, or things, are tickling my bum!’ With a candle which seemed to be burning down at alarming rate, we found the culprit and his extended family accomplices. All around the closet seat, between seat and porcelain, were dozens of cockroaches whose antennae had found Paula’s nether region most interesting. They had witnessed her charms and I had been cuckolded by a cockroach. I lightened up a bit and we turned into our singular beds before our meagre light expired.

It was a fitful night with intrusive mosquitoes who seemed to know the failings of my net from perhaps the previous occupant. They were quite a commando crowd and we both woke to find tell tale blood stains on the sheets and pillowcases. We also woke to discover that India, the land of known extreme, was quite libran. The downside of our nocturnal perforation was eclipsed by the ethereal chanting of Hare Krishna, beautifully sung, from a very nearby temple, and the mewing of black kites soaring high above the guest house.

We were now able to take in the Raj flamboyance and quirkiness of our quarters and surrounds. Again our rooms were separated by tall louvred doors of jack or mahogany and the windows, unglassed, were secured by panelled and fielded shutters in the Georgian style. The vaulted ceilings, for this was really a bungalow, were boarded with broad beaded teak planks and structural beams showed their Victorian origins with king posts, gibs, and cotters. I knew of these things from my old carpentry books at home, but had never seen such skill and precision in the flesh. The other amazement for any first visitor to the colonial tropics is the wiring. Although a later addition, it is done with care and art befitting the building. All the cables are surface mounted and they are grouped in swathes as required and neatly clipped to the timbers or battens if necessary. The clips are not random. With foresight the electrician of old created diamond patterns with his clips. This past order is in stark contrast to the haphazard construction of now. It made me proud to be an Englishman; after all we stand for order and beauty don’t we?

The bathroom was original, intact but defunct. We flushed and washed with buckets of water kneeling in the old cast iron bath which had only one seized tap and no bath plug. Of course hot water systems had never existed but this was provided for by a secondary door out of the bathroom leading in the general direction of the kitchen and fire. Your bearer would have come by this way, ply you with hot water and scrub your back. Were ladies to figure in any of this, then that door could be firmly bolted from within!

Strolling back along our ‘arcade’ for breakfast we could see a jungley over grown garden with collapsed terraces leading down to the river’s edge, and sprawling bougainvillea, pink, purple and red, in the fullest of bloom kissing the western walls. It was all rather dry and sadly unmaintained, but complemented the now autumn years of this Faversham bastion of past British rule. Kites wheeled and mewed, crows cawed, and we had a good breakfast of chappatti, fried eggs and tea, courtesy of a beaming Balu.

We were in a dilemma. The bike was bust and so nearly was the rider. On the premise that I would eventually heal, and I was popping two thousand milligrams of antibiotics a day, the bike was the priority. I had tinkered with old bikes quite a bit and mastered the fettling of my Vincent which I had attempted to race. Armed with tea, cigarettes and a handbook, the B.M.W was not a daunting prospect in itself, but there was the serious concern that there were no spares in India. We carried plugs and points, a few bulbs and the spare rear tube had been stolen in Sri Lanka when the top box was raided at the port on entry.

In the shade of the eastern verandah, out of the mid day sun, I set to work. I assumed, something that my prep school headmaster had always reprimanded me on, that our problem lay with the clutch and that some pressure plate had failed. There was nothing for it but to remove the gearbox and expose the clutch. Again I have to thank Herr? for designing such a sensible machine which is accessible and clean to work on. There are no oily gritty chains or sprockets to deal with, and no messy primary chain case or overly tightened bolts. A brilliant exercise in minimalist Teutonic order. Within the hour the gearbox was out and not a drop of oil spilled. The clutch appeared o.k but despite that and its very tight allen screws, that was off for inspection in ten minutes. Nothing was amiss. For the clutch cable to have had increasing play, something somewhere must have been getting shorter, Pooh logic I mused, and there was a leverage element in all this. I turned now to the gearbox and inspected the clutch push rod. It looked a little overheated and blue but not foreshortened or damaged. Looking now far more closely at the handbook, I studied the actuating mechanism and chose to look for failure there.

Tapping it out, the cause was evident, the cause was tiny, but the cause was very problematic and had hassle written all over it. It, was a ‘radial needle roller’ thrust bearing, the diameter of a halfpenny piece (old money) and the thickness of two. This was a high tech bearing and certainly not in use in any vehicle or machine in India. This tiny component had brought two hundred kilos of fine German steel and alloy to a resounding stop like curare to a jungle hog.

Government Guest house now resembled a street mechanics shop with my bits of gearbox and tools scattered on its main stepped entry, and Balu had noticed my change of demeanour. ‘Mr. Mark Sahib…like whiskey ?’ A small bottle was exposed from under the folds of his dhoti. I could not help but smile at this endearing gesture and we slipped into his office for two pegs out of a teacup; hardly sundown, but an innocent baptism into the ways of India where rules are broken and condonement is there. He told me that V.I.P’s and M.L.A’s would be coming in the evening to drink secretly in the air conditioned suites. They had a penchant for imported whiskey and I just happened to have Chivas Regal in my pannier. I dragged the bike into a corner and squared it up against the wall where it would now stand sentinel for an unknown period. We needed to make a call home.

Balu rang for an auto and we buzzed into Quilon about a mile away. It was an interesting old port town with bustling bazaars of bearers and hand carts shifting all manner of goods. The narrow streets of Roman tiled shops and godowns were in a cloud of spice dust and the smell of ox urine and hessian sacking pervaded all. The chilli dust bit the back of your throat and made your eyes water. Despite all this, everyone, including the odd pigs waffling along a gutter, black, hairy and shining with a raw sewage conditioner, was busy and in jovial mood. It seemed a very happy chaos. We exited to find modernity and an international phone booth. It was morning in England. We were ahead in time by five hours but a century back in reality.

I called my very dear father whom I had not spoken to since last toasting his health. He had passed through the Galle Face in 1929 en route for Calcutta and had not travelled p.o.s.h in the true sense. ‘Port outward’, ‘Starboard home’ was always reserved for the memsahibs and gentry who could not bare the tropical sun on their cabin windows. My father was of sterner, poorer stuff, and had been a farm boy in the fields of Cressingham. Apprenticed in haberdashery at fourteen, he had later falsified his age for an early passport and prospect of employment in a far off land. He had recounted bi-planes crashing into the fields during the first war and for me his age was indeterminable. I suppose he was about eighty, drove a large three litre Austin and still played nine holes of golf. He was never my mentor but always had unquestionable faith in me and was my true friend throughout all my aberrations of youth.

It was good to hear his voice and I followed up the call with a telegram ‘Pls dispatch by airfreight one BMW R100 clutch friction plate, one clutch mechanism needle roller thrust bearing and one rear tube 4.50 x 18. BMW . Bracknell will have them.

Consign to self via Trivandrum c/o Government Guest House, Quilon, Kerala, India. Pls advise by gram. Luv to you and mum, Mark.’

Without a thought for my old head master, I assumed that was all rather efficient and we would kill the time by going up the back waters to Allepey and maybe do Cochin as well. It was also an opportunity to rest my feet a little.

That evening indeed the V.I.P’s rolled in with their gleaming white and chrome bumpered Ambassadors. One had a blue light atop its roof. We were finishing our packing when Babu knocked. ‘Mr. Mark Sahib and Miss Paula, a gentleman would like to meet you! Please come.’ We were ushered into one of the a.c’d apartments which had been ‘off limits’ to us. The shutters were permanently closed and ventilators bricked up. It was carpeted, with sofas and arm chairs covered with clean white cotton slips. The light was quite dim, and there at a small coffee table sat a rotund and balding man, possibly fortyish, and with a well clipped moustache, the symbol of all Keralan manhood. It was very cold.

He rose to greet us and put out a rather limp hand. ‘I am Manuharan, Superintendent of Police, Quilon. I have seen your motorcycle…tell me?’ We made our introductions and whiskey was offered, even to Paula. My experience of English police had never been so warming. I liked this man who had not questioned the legality of my machine which was distinctly lacking in the insurance, tax, and indeed Indian driving licence departments.

We talked into the evening about our journey, Sri Lanka, and our current lack of motive power. I excused myself for a moment and came back with the Chivas. In the contrasting chill of that room, it and the small eats he had mustered, all went down rather well. We had made a very influential and useful friend.

Babu had been kind enough to let us stow some of our gear in his office. We could travel light up to Cochin, and certainly did not need the bulk of sleeping bags for this hot and humid climate. The tank bag alone would suffice.

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