Ten Principles to keep you (kind of) Sane and Safe on the Road
- Patience will set you free
The first principle is also the most important. India is a frustrating world if you come from a place where things work, where things seem logical. Getting your knickers in a twist will only lead to a bad day. So when you pull up to the nice hotel you’ve booked and the security guard informs you that you cannot enter the compound because you’re on a ‘two-wheeler’, take a breath, a shot of whiskey, a valium..whatever it takes to roll with it. Eventually you’ll get the hang of it.
- Everyone is not trying to kill you (although it will seem they are)
A person on a two-wheeler is automatically relegated to the lower castes. You will understand this the first time you ride on a highway and are forced to the shoulder by a bus driver hanging inches from your taillight. To illustrate this, a passage I wrote on an earlier trip:
“To fully understand, it is best to paint a picture of Highway 2. Yes, it is one of the few ‘real’ highways in India. It is similar to a state highway in the US by virtue of having dual lanes in each direction, but that is where all similarities end. For a start, there seem to be no restrictions on the type of vehicles permitted on the road. The same 40 feet wide path of tarmac is shared by 20 ton trucks, 800cc Suzuki microcars, small motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, ox and mule carts and, yesterday for the first time, carts drawn by camel. Secondly, being on the northbound lanes does not necessarily mean that all traffic must move to the north. For some reason, the inner shoulder of the fast lane is also used as a southbound lane for smaller vehicles like bikes, oxcarts and trishaws. The first time this rule became apparent to me, I was moving at about 40mph and almost collided head on into an errant ox. Thirdly, riding on anything with two wheels seems to immediately relegate you to the lowest caste and gives permission to those of the higher social classes to ram you, squeeze you and spit betel nut juice on you. While moving with the slow flow of traffic at about 30, one SOB in a Suzuki car with an engine half the size of my bike’s harangued me like a dogfighter with horn ablaze and looked to employ his front bumper as a battering ram if I didn’t obey. But when I moved over, flipped up my visor to show my ‘mean’ face and waved my fist at him, the 4 young gents smiled and gave me the ‘cool bike’ thumbs up.
- Horn and be horned
Horning is a national pastime in India. It is essentially an affirmation that ‘I am here’ so please don’t kill me. During one of my longest rides, the horn on my BMW packed up. You will never feel more exposed to danger on the road in India as a motorbike rider without a horn. Without one, you simply do not exist. Horn, and horn often.
- The Law of 3’s
As part of your daily ritual of waking up, eating dal and chapatis, packing your shit and setting off to where you will sleep that night, you will inevitably pass through 2 or 3 towns. These towns will resemble the textbook definition of chaos. In some you will be posed with a decision. Do I go left, do I go right, or do I go straight? There will not be any signs. Or at least any signs you can read. Maybe your GPS will work. Maybe it won’t. So you will have to ask for directions. Chances are, the directions will be wrong. The trick is to ask 3 times. Pull over, seek out the most educated looking person you can find (many lower caste people have not strayed far from their home so asking directions to a place 100km away is like asking them how to get to Mars – so don’t ask a guy driving an ox cart), and ask them if this is the road to your next destination. (An Indian ‘yes’ nod looks a lot like a Western ‘no’ shake so make sure you get this right.) Set off a 100 ft and look for the next educated looking person. Ask the same question. Now you get it. Do this one more time. The reason for the Law of 3’s is that you can double verify the initial instruction. After setting off 40km in the wrong direction one day, making the difference between a night time versus daylight arrival, I became an avid fan of the Law of 3’s.
- The Law of 100’s
No matter how hard you try, averaging over 100 miles (160 km) per day seems to be impenetrable. Traffic, getting lost (see rule 11), animal/mineral/vegetable based obstacles will all conspire to constrain you to the Law of 100. Plan accordingly.
- Never, ever get comfortable
Invariably you will find yourself on a stretch of road devoid of cows and tractors and feel inclined to settle back, relax and roll the throttle. It is then that an unmarked speed bump will send you (or your ex) lofting out of your seat. Oncoming vehicles in your lane, camels, dogs, unmanned police barricades, crater-sized potholes…the list is endless. All will send you into a ditch. Stay alert!
- Enfield, mighty Enfield
Four months after meeting my girlfriend, (now fiancé) I asked her to join me on a business trip to Bangalore and Delhi, her first ever trip to India. Also a rider, our plan was for both of us to rent Enfields in Delhi and spend a week or so riding through Rajasthan. On the return leg back to Delhi in a sparsely populated area, my bike’s clutch seemed to start spinning: the engine revved but the rear wheel stopped moving forward. On closer examination it became evident that the sprocket teeth had worn to the nubs and the chain just slid over them. My bike would go no further. Some locals pointed to a village 10km down the road where there was a guy who could fix anything. Getting my bike there posed a challenge: not a AAA truck in sight. Then one of the locals pointed to a garbage dump and suggested we look there for a solution. The ‘solution’ came in the form of a half dozen rotted fan belts that we knotted together to form a rope of sorts. We tied one end to the luggage rack of my girl’s bike and I held the other end, water ski style. India teaches improvisation. After about 30 min of a dubious balancing act, we arrived at the village of the guy who fixes anything. In about 5 minutes, the rear wheel was off, the sprocket removed and I was on the back of his bike en route to the parts shop in the next town over. $7 and 60 minutes later, we were on our way. The moral of the story is that Enfields are made for India. They are tough, cheap, fairly reliable and can be fixed by anyone, anywhere. And for a rental cost of roughly $15/day, a bloody good bargain.
- Beware the night
This one is a no brainer. Your chances of being in a nighttime accident are three times higher than when the sun is up. This risk is exponentially higher in India where streetlights are rare, trucks regularly run without tails lights and muddy cows grazing burning garbage on the side of the road are almost invisible. Get to your next waypoint before sundown.
- Get Lost
Although it may stand in contradiction to the Law of 3’s, getting lost often leads to adventure as long as it doesn’t violate Principle #8. A small miscalculation en route back to Delhi from Jaisalmer led us through Shekhwati, a beautiful and oddly untouristed region of some of the most inspiring havelis (traditional, courtyard endowed mansions usually artfully adorned with hand-painted frescos) I have seen anywhere. Let the adventure unfold!
- Laugh. A lot.
I have never laughed so hard as the time we were delayed at a railway crossing. With both barricades down and warning lights flashing, both sides of the track amassed a directly opposed swarm of every conceivable form of transport: from 20 ton trucks to camel-drawn carts. When the bells ceased and the barriers were raised, the ensuing carnage was like a scene out of Braveheart. The two sides clashed over the tracks in a gargantuan carambolage, horns blaring, paint scraping. Scenes like this repeat themselves over and over again. Enjoy it, for this is why you came.