Enfield

Buying the Bike in Delhi that evening in  October

 I remember how, that first night in Delhi, I lay awake in my tiny hotel room, my damp body pressed into the damp sheets, wondering what lay ahead of me and thinking it would just about be time in London for my colleagues to be leaving the office.  Or rather my ex-colleagues. And I remember listening to my stomach churning while I watched the flickering neon light reflect off the wet walls of this windowless room. Instead of windows, my hotel room had brick sized holes over the door.  If they were meant to provide some ventilation in the room, they weren’t succeeding. Not a very good choice of hotel on my part but my guidebook did describe it as middle of the range.  I’d have to find something better soon. Still, the cab ride from the airport to my hotel had been quite enjoyable and the roads were in reasonable condition.  But then so they should be: it is the main road between the airport and the capital, after all. The taxi was an old white Morris Oxford-like car, an Ambassador, and the driver, who looked like he was barely of an age to drive, didn’t speak much English and had no idea how to get to my hotel.  Neither did he carry a plan of the city and I ended up directing him using the map in my guidebook. As I sat on the sticky plastic of the back seat of the car, I looked out the window, searching for my first sight of an Enfield; but apart from scooters, the biggest two-wheeler I spotted was a Kawasaki 100.  Most riders wore helmets, although some only had yellow plastic construction site hats and many scooters carried two passengers, almost always helmet-less. Before leaving England, an Indian friend explained to me that although driving in India would seem chaotic at the beginning, there were rules to it.  The only problem was that they weren’t in any highway code and my safety would depend on learning them as soon as possible. Keeping that in mind, on my first evening I identified the following traffic rules:  rn rn rn

  • If you want to save your batteries (or is it your lightbulbs?) you turn off your car headlights wherever there are street lamps.  rn rn rn rn
  • You can go through red lights as long as you’ve checked that the lights on the other side have not yet changed to green. rn rn rn rn
  • If a tractor in front of you is moving very slowly and you can’t overtake it on the outside, then you can go onto the hard shoulder and overtake it on the inside. rn rn rn rn
  • You should press on your horn at least four times a minute in moving traffic, and significantly more in stationary jam.

When we reached my hotel around eleven in the evening, I thought rather disappointingly we were in the suburbs: it was so quiet and there were apparently no shop fronts.  But the next morning, the street came to life. Shutters opened up, and shops spilled over onto the pavement.  A large parking lot for motorcycles had materialised right outside the hotel entrance, the road was packed with vehicles and traffic was at a standstill.  Hundreds of pedestrians walked on the street, weaving themselves between the cars, the buses, the trucks, the auto-rickshaws, the scooters, the bicycles and the odd cow. I could taste the dust and the diesel that hung above us in a dense haze, dimming the sun’s rays. I checked out of my hotel and switched to the nearby YMCA where I had to sign a commitment not to have men or alcoholic drinks in my room.  Next, I set out looking for a hairdresser to cut my hair. Although I already had shortish hair I decided that because of the heat and the humidity, I needed to go shorter still. It’s hot enough in a helmet as it is.After an hour of wandering around the streets asking for direction, I was led into a tailor’s shop.  It seemed my haircut gesture had been mistaken for made-to-measure.  I turned around to leave but the tailor stopped me. ‘Can I help you madam?’ he asked. ‘Actually, no. I’m sorry, I was looking for a hairdresser.’ ‘Yes, yes.  Come in, madam.’ I followed him into the back of the shop to a tiny cubicle where a young barber was beating up one of his clients.  Or so it seemed. Noticing my puzzled expression, the tailor/barber explained.  ‘The slaps on the scalp and face are to stimulate circulation.’ I’m not quite ready for this yet, I thought. Promising to come back later, I made my excuses.  Still this was not a wasted detour because I found a hand-written sign advertising an office with e-mail access.  The building was in a back street made out of beaten earth, with open sewers on both sides, and cows meandering among the pedestrians and parked cars.  Inside, a young woman dressed in a royal blue sari showed me how to log on the computer.  I looked down on her hands at the keyboard and noticed she had a sixth lifeless finger dangling from the side of her palm.  I tried to act nonchalant but my eyes kept on returning to the limp digit with its carefully manicured and varnished crimson nail.  A nurse later told me this probably meant her mother suffered from syphilis during pregnancy. The computer terminals rested on narrow desks with the keyboards precariously balanced on the open drawers; and on the floor, two brown mice played hide-and-seek behind the hard disk drives.  Still, there was air-conditioning and the connection to the internet only broke down twice.  And so on my first day I managed to send emails home: ‘Hot and humid in Delhi.  Traffic is mad.  Place is teeming with Indian men with moustaches.  They’re kind of short, dark and wear white pyjamas.’ In the afternoon I decided to go to the Enfield dealer.  Although, part of me wanted to wait a bit longer and get used to being here first, I also feared that the longer I waited to buy the motorbike, the more likely I was to give up on the whole idea. I called the Enfield dealer from my hotel.   ‘Mr. Singh?  Hello, it’s Michele Harrison, here.  I called you from England the day before yesterday, about an Enfield 500.  I’m here now in Delhi and was wondering if it would be convenient for me to come over now.’ Pause.   ‘Mr Singh?’ A deep voice answered.  ‘Yes…this afternoon is fine.  You know how to get here?’ I pulled out my map of Delhi.  ‘I just know it’s in Karol Bagh.  If I show your address to an auto-rickshaw driver, will he know it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, just ask for Jhandi Walan Extension.’ I hung up and walked over to the YMCA’s reception counter. ‘Can you tell me where I can find a rickshaw?’ I asked the receptionist, a young woman dressed in a bright pink sari and wearing a crucifix around her neck. She answered.  ‘There are a number of rickshaw drivers waiting outside the hotel but they are not honest people.  They will not use their meters and will overcharge you. You should try to hail a rickshaw in the street instead.’ ‘How much will it cost me if I use one of the rickshaws outside the YMCA?’ I asked. ‘They will probably ask you for 50 rupees, but the correct price should be 30 rupees’. I decided to go for the dishonest option, it was only $1.50 after all.  Outside the YMCA, I found a row of auto-rickshaws.  Half a dozen drivers were sitting on a low wall, chatting together and chewing red betel nuts, a mild intoxicant.  As soon as I came out of the hotel, they stood up. The tallest man, good-looking in a rather decadent way with fleshy features and full lips glistening with the red juices, walked up to me. ‘Where would you like to go, young madam?’  He asked with a slight leer, while placing his right hand protectively over his balls, as if he feared they might roll onto the road. ‘Karol Bagh.  Do you know it?’ ‘Ah! Karol Bagh is specialising in two-wheelers.’  His hand was now gently stroking the seam at his crotch.  ‘You will be looking for a scooter, madam?’  ‘No, not a scooter, an Enfield motorcycle.’ I replied, trying not to show him I’d noticed he even had balls.  I then added, indicating to the first vehicle in the line, ‘Is this your auto-rickshaw?’  ‘No,’ he pointed with his chin the other way.  ‘This one here is my rickshaw.’ ‘Well, sorry, I’ll be taking the first rickshaw in the queue.  Where’s the driver of this one?’ ‘He’s not here, madam.’ I approached the vehicle and found the driver asleep in the back seat with a newspaper over his face to keep the flies away. ‘Excuse me, can you take me to Karol Bagh?’ Startled, he jumped up and fixed his blood-shot gaze on me. ‘Karol Bagh?’ I repeated. ‘No problem,’ he replied as he leaped over into the driver’s seat.  ‘How much?’ I asked. He smiled, showing me his betel stained gums.  ‘No problem.’ ‘The hotel told me 50 rupees.  Is that okay?’ ‘No problem.’ He started his engine and sharply pulled out into the traffic, tossing me against the canvas wall of his rickshaw.   Holding on tightly to the single bar standing in lieu of a door, I shouted a question to him over the noise of the engine and the constant blowing of horn. ‘Do you know Mandi Motors?’  No answer.   ‘It’s in Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ I cried out. He turned his head around but kept the full weight of his foot on the accelerator pedal and his finger firmly pressed on the horn button.  ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension?’  ‘Yes.’ ‘No problem.’ Obviously very few things were a problem to this man: red lights were no problem – he went through them; cows in the middle of the road were no problem – he swerved around them; tourist groups were no problem – he ploughed through them, generating squeaks of terror. Suddenly he came to a screeching halt and pointed to the other side of a very busy road.  I know they’re all very busy roads, but this was a very busy road.  ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ he announced. ‘Can you bring me right up to Mandi Motors?  I don’t know where it is.’ ‘No English,” he replied. ‘Mandi Motors.’ I handed him a piece of paper.  ‘Look, here’s the address.’ ‘No English,’ he repeated. ‘Well I’m not leaving till you bring me to Mandi Motors.’   I feared I’d never survive crossing the road, let alone find the shop once I got to the other side. He snatched the piece of paper out of my hand and walked over to a man sitting on the pavement offering his services as a zip repairer.  They spoke and the driver climbed back into the auto-rickshaw and did the tightest U-turn in history, knocking my head against a bar in the process.  Twice more he stopped abruptly to ask directions and eventually delivered me to Mandi Motors, the official Enfield dealer in the Indian capital.   It was a small shop on a corner, with a dozen used motorbikes parked in front on the road.  An oil-covered mechanic in his teens was crouching outside the shop front and was looking mournfully at the skeleton of a motorbike and its disembowelled guts lying on the ground.  I walked into the shop and saw a brand-new Enfield against the back wall.  It glistened against the shabbiness of the store with its metallic grey/green paint-work, its chrome finish, its elegant teardrop shaped tank and its old fashioned looking engine.  It was as if it had just come out of a Second World War film set; the only thing missing was a side-car for the radio operator. ‘Yes?’ a man interrupted my reverie.  ‘You are wanting?’ ‘Is Mr. Singh here?’ I asked. He pointed to a large man with a big red turban talking to a Western man in the corner. I approached them. ‘Mr. Singh?’  He nodded.   ‘I called you earlier about buying an Enfield 500.’ ‘Ah, yes.  Could you sit down for a moment and wait a little bit?  Would you like some tea?’ Before I could answer he shouted ‘Chai!’ to the mechanic outside who very soon after brought me a cup of sweet, strong and very milky tea.  Although I’ve never liked milk in my tea, I thanked him and drank it as fast as I could to get rid of the taste. Unfortunately, the young man interpreted this as a desire to have a refill and I wasn’t quick enough to prevent him from pouring me another.  As I sat in the shop I could hear the Westerner, a Belgian man, according to the mechanic, argue with Mr. Singh.  ‘You told me I could ‘ave an Enfield 500cc this week.  I ‘ave bin waitin’ three weeks, you know?  Now you say non!?  Mais, c’est pas possible, ça!’ ‘I understand you are having a problem but you see this lady ordered this bike from England for delivery today.’ ‘So why didn’t you tell me this before, hein?’ ‘Well I didn’t know if she was really going to come.  I am so very sorry.  I can get you a 350cc immediately if you want.’ ‘No, I don’t want a stupid 350!’ he shouted as he stormed out of the shop. Mr. Singh turned to me and said with a gentle smile, ‘I am thinking this man is not very happy.’ He continued.  ‘I have your bike here. Will you be wishing to register the vehicle in your name?’ ‘Well, yes.’ He rummaged through a pile of papers on a table and pulled one out. ‘In that case you must get a letter from your embassy confirming you are a permanent resident in India registered at this address,’ he said as he handed me the address. ‘Oh really? Why?’ I asked. ‘If you break the law, the police must be able to locate you.’ ‘And what address is this?’  ‘It does not exist,’ he answered smiling.  ‘Come back tomorrow when you have the letter.’

That evening I had dinner in the YMCA’s restaurant and the bill came to 107 rupees. I offered 200 rupees to the waiter but he asked for the exact money.  By emptying all my pockets I was able to come up with 106 rupees, just one rupee short; one rupee is worth one third of a US cent.   ‘Will you take 106 rupees?’ I asked. ‘No, I will go look for your change,’ he replied. After ten minutes, he returned with a disappointed look on his face. ‘Can you check again for one more rupee?’ he asked.  ‘We are not having change.’ ‘I’ve checked already,’ I smiled apologetically.  ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have one.’ A middle aged Indian man eating at the table next to mine, leaned over and said, ‘Please allow me to give you the missing rupee.  As you can see there is a big shortage of change in India.’

As instructed by the Enfield dealer, in the morning I went to the British embassy and was surprised at how easy it was to get the letter.  All I had to do was tell them I wanted to buy a motorcycle and lived at that fictitious address.  No questions asked. Another good thing I got out of the embassy was the address of the hairdresser used by the woman behind the counter.  She directed me to a salon in the diplomatic area of Delhi where I spent three hours being pampered: haircut, manicure, pedicure and a facial.  And it all cost less than $15.  The facial was amazing: the woman massaged my face, neck and shoulder for probably half an hour. The young girl who did my hands also massaged my arms.  I felt so relaxed and clean when I got out of there. I also came out with a crewcut. But the clean feeling didn’t last.  The auto-rickshaw back to the town centre got stuck behind a diesel fuel spewing truck.  Even my driver was coughing.  Then we slowly passed a gruesome sight: a blanket-covered body in the inside lane.  It wasn’t covered very well because I could see a pool of blood just by the edge and what looked like a piece of a jaw with teeth attached to it.  When I returned to the dealer that afternoon with the letter from the embassy, I also brought 60,000 rupees ($1,600) in cash, the price of a brand new Enfield 500 including comprehensive insurance, road tax, panniers, leg frames and mirrors. Although the largest bills in India are 500 rupee bills ($15), they are very hard to find.  Even 100 bills are often scarce.  When I went to the bank to change my dollars, the teller only had 50 and 100 rupee bills and so, it was with eight huge stacks of the equivalent one and three dollar bills that I arrived at the dealer.   It’s so easy for a Westerner to feel obscenely rich in India. After handing over the money, I expected to receive the keys to the bike. ‘No, madam.  It is not finished.  We need to get the road tax, the registration papers and the comprehensive insurance.  I will send one of my boys to do it for you.’ ‘So the bike is not mine, yet?  But I just paid you all the money.’ ‘You are worried I am trying to cheat you?’ Well yes, I thought.   My guidebook warns bike buyers not to hand over the money till they get the keys. ‘Er…can I go with the boy to get the proper documentation?’ I asked. ‘Of course, but there are many offices to visit and they will ask more questions about your residency if you are there,’ he warned. ‘Okay, never mind.’ I answered and added, as much to reassure myself as to warn him,  ‘I do have a receipt from you after all.’ ‘Do no worry.  Come tomorrow afternoon, around four o’clock and everything will be ready.’

He was right.  That day I became the proud owner of a gorgeous gleaming Enfield Bullet.  I was now officially a real biker. With much excitement I approached my bike parked on the road and inserted the keys in the ignition.  The adventure was about to begin.
I kicked the start lever to start the engine.  Nothing.  I checked that the key was properly turned, the petrol lever on the ON position, and the choke out.  I kicked again.  Nothing again.  And again, and again, and again.  Not even a cough out of the engine. I felt so hot in the afternoon sun and the presence of a group of curious young Indian men on the pavement was not helping.  Eventually I gave up and walked back into the shop. Mr Singh offered to start the bike.  My bike fired at his first attempt, he dismounted and invited me to take over.  My terror must have shown on my face because he seemed to change his mind.  ‘Would you like my mechanic to ride it back to your hotel?’ I nodded. And so I suffered the indignity of riding pillion on my own motorcycle behind a child mechanic too young to have a licence.  Once back at the YMCA’s parking lot and away from people watching me, it only took about a dozen attempts and a few floodings of the engine before it started. I rode slowly around the car park and thought, ‘Hey! There’s nothing to this.’  Having said that, on the advice of Mr. Singh, I decided to stay in Delhi for a few days to practise riding the bike in the early hours of the morning when the traffic was lighter.  I also went to a tailor to have an outfit made for me since I had only brought two sets of clothes.  It was an Indian design called a punjabi that consisted of a pair of narrow yellow trousers and a navy blue tunic.  I chose an Indian style because I’d heard that in the countryside, Western women in Western clothes often got a lot of hassle.  I found the measurement taking rather embarrassing, as at 5’10” and rather broad built, I’m not exactly small even by Western standards.  Quite a contrast to the Indian saleswoman who, if she had been in the West, would have had to buy her clothes in the children’s department. The next day, at six o’clock in the morning, I went out to practise my riding in the quiet streets of Delhi.  Actually that was a lie, I only rode it around and around Connaught Place, a large roundabout, because I was afraid of getting lost.  By seven-thirty the traffic was already too heavy for me and I returned to my hotel. My first attempt at riding on Indian roads was not very impressive.  The engine stalled a lot and each time I pulled over to try to kick-start the bike, I felt intimated by an audience of ten or twenty people that materialised around me.  Another problem was that I constantly confused my foot brake with the gears – they’re the other way around on an Enfield – and it meant that every time I wanted to stop I’d end up changing gears instead (without the clutch), and of course stalling. When I came back for breakfast at the YMCA, I met another resident: a British man of Indian origins who used to be a bike courier in London.  He was in his late twenties, wore a black baseball cap, a tight black t-shirt, baggy jeans  and a pair of brilliant white Nike sports shoes. We went out for a ride on my Enfield with him sitting behind me. We’d barely set off when he ordered me to stop.  He laughed.  ‘Hey!…You don’t know about he gears on the Enfield, do you?’ ‘What do you mean?’ I responded defensively.  ‘I know that they’re under the right foot instead of the left one.’ ‘Yeah, that’s true.  But they’re also one up and three down, not one down and three up.’ ‘I don’t understand.’ ‘Here, let me show you.’ I dismounted and he took my place. ‘See, the Enfield is different from modern bikes.  To get into first gear you need to bring up the foot lever with your toes but to get into second gear you press down on the pedal.  You also press down for third and fourth.  That’s why your riding is so jerky.  You’ve been changing from neutral into second gear and then accelerating into first!’     I didn’t dare ask him what kind of damage this must have caused the engine.   Another useful thing my ex-courier friend showed me was how to get onto the highway that goes to the city of Amritsar, my next destination.  I was really itching to get out of Delhi and start this journey through the Indian sub-continent.  Furthermore, the longer I stayed in Delhi, the more scared I was getting about the whole idea.

The next day, I practised putting the bike on the centre stand in the hotel’s parking lot.  Supposedly this requires more technique than strength but at that stage I had no technique and so relied totally on muscle power.  First and second attempts were successful but at the third attempt I was so tired, I dropped the bike.  Fortunately a young man who had just parked his car, rushed to help me. While we were picking it up he asked me, ‘You want to sell your bike?  I give you good price.’ ‘No, I just bought it,’ I laughed. ‘How much did you pay for it?’ he asked me. ‘I bought it new,’ I said, ‘for 60,000 rupees.’ ‘60,000 rupees!  That is very expensive.  I think maybe they cheated you because you are a foreigner.’ I later learned not to give the true price of the bike because people seldom believed it was really new, especially once it started looking a bit rough, and this just confirmed their view that I was a stupid foreigner with too much money. I inspected the damage on the bike, and the leg frame was now a little bent on the right.  I was not even out of Delhi and already my beautiful bike had some bruises. Apart from this bad start to the day, my riding had improved from the previous day.  Now that I knew where my gears were, the ride was a lot smoother. Feeling brave and bored with going around Connaught Place, I turned off to explore a bit more of Delhi where I got completely lost in an area full of identical roundabouts. Finally, I stopped an auto-rickshaw and hired him to lead me back to my hotel.  While riding around the roundabouts I discovered a particularity of Indian driving: vehicles coming onto a roundabout do not yield to those already on it.  It makes for situations where the roundabout comes to a standstill as people trying to leave it are blocked by those coming unto it.
I decided to set off the next day towards Amritsar.

Mon Feb 09, 2009 Comments

 Buying the Bike in Delhi rn

October

 I remember how, that first night in Delhi, I lay awake in my tiny hotel room, my damp body pressed into the damp sheets, wondering what lay ahead of me and thinking it would just about be time in London for my colleagues to be leaving the office.  Or rather my ex-colleagues.And I remember listening to my stomach churning while I watched the flickering neon light reflect off the wet walls of this windowless room. Instead of windows, my hotel room had brick sized holes over the door.  If they were meant to provide some ventilation in the room, they weren’t succeeding. Not a very good choice of hotel on my part but my guidebook did describe it as middle of the range.  I’d have to find something better soon.Still, the cab ride from the airport to my hotel had been quite enjoyable and the roads were in reasonable condition.  But then so they should be: it is the main road between the airport and the capital, after all.The taxi was an old white Morris Oxford-like car, an Ambassador, and the driver, who looked like he was barely of an age to drive, didn’t speak much English and had no idea how to get to my hotel.  Neither did he carry a plan of the city and I ended up directing him using the map in my guidebook.As I sat on the sticky plastic of the back seat of the car, I looked out the window, searching for my first sight of an Enfield; but apart from scooters, the biggest two-wheeler I spotted was a Kawasaki 100.  Most riders wore helmets, although some only had yellow plastic construction site hats and many scooters carried two passengers, almost always helmet-less.Before leaving England, an Indian friend explained to me that although driving in India would seem chaotic at the beginning, there were rules to it.  The only problem was that they weren’t in any highway code and my safety would depend on learning them as soon as possible.Keeping that in mind, on my first evening I identified the following traffic rules:

  • If you want to save your batteries (or is it your lightbulbs?) you turn off your car headlights wherever there are street lamps.  rn
  • You can go through red lights as long as you’ve checked that the lights on the other side have not yet changed to green. rn
  • If a tractor in front of you is moving very slowly and you can’t overtake it on the outside, then you can go onto the hard shoulder and overtake it on the inside. rn
  • You should press on your horn at least four times a minute in moving traffic, and significantly more in stationary jam.

When we reached my hotel around eleven in the evening, I thought rather disappointingly we were in the suburbs: it was so quiet and there were apparently no shop fronts.  But the next morning, the street came to life. Shutters opened up, and shops spilled over onto the pavement.  A large parking lot for motorcycles had materialised right outside the hotel entrance, the road was packed with vehicles and traffic was at a standstill.  Hundreds of pedestrians walked on the street, weaving themselves between the cars, the buses, the trucks, the auto-rickshaws, the scooters, the bicycles and the odd cow.I could taste the dust and the diesel that hung above us in a dense haze, dimming the sun’s rays.I checked out of my hotel and switched to the nearby YMCA where I had to sign a commitment not to have men or alcoholic drinks in my room.  Next, I set out looking for a hairdresser to cut my hair. Although I already had shortish hair I decided that because of the heat and the humidity, I needed to go shorter still. It’s hot enough in a helmet as it is.After an hour of wandering around the streets asking for direction, I was led into a tailor’s shop.  It seemed my haircut gesture had been mistaken for made-to-measure.  I turned around to leave but the tailor stopped me.‘Can I help you madam?’ he asked.‘Actually, no. I’m sorry, I was looking for a hairdresser.’‘Yes, yes.  Come in, madam.’I followed him into the back of the shop to a tiny cubicle where a young barber was beating up one of his clients.  Or so it seemed.Noticing my puzzled expression, the tailor/barber explained.  ‘The slaps on the scalp and face are to stimulate circulation.’I’m not quite ready for this yet, I thought.Promising to come back later, I made my excuses.  Still this was not a wasted detour because I found a hand-written sign advertising an office with e-mail access. The building was in a back street made out of beaten earth, with open sewers on both sides, and cows meandering among the pedestrians and parked cars.  Inside, a young woman dressed in a royal blue sari showed me how to log on the computer.  I looked down on her hands at the keyboard and noticed she had a sixth lifeless finger dangling from the side of her palm.  I tried to act nonchalant but my eyes kept on returning to the limp digit with its carefully manicured and varnished crimson nail.  A nurse later told me this probably meant her mother suffered from syphilis during pregnancy.The computer terminals rested on narrow desks with the keyboards precariously balanced on the open drawers; and on the floor, two brown mice played hide-and-seek behind the hard disk drives.  Still, there was air-conditioning and the connection to the internet only broke down twice.  And so on my first day I managed to send emails home: ‘Hot and humid in Delhi.  Traffic is mad.  Place is teeming with Indian men with moustaches.  They’re kind of short, dark and wear white pyjamas.’In the afternoon I decided to go to the Enfield dealer.  Although, part of me wanted to wait a bit longer and get used to being here first, I also feared that the longer I waited to buy the motorbike, the more likely I was to give up on the whole idea.I called the Enfield dealer from my hotel.  ‘Mr. Singh?  Hello, it’s Michele Harrison, here.  I called you from England the day before yesterday, about an Enfield 500.  I’m here now in Delhi and was wondering if it would be convenient for me to come over now.’Pause.  ‘Mr Singh?’A deep voice answered.  ‘Yes…this afternoon is fine.  You know how to get here?’I pulled out my map of Delhi.  ‘I just know it’s in Karol Bagh.  If I show your address to an auto-rickshaw driver, will he know it?’ I asked.‘Yes, just ask for Jhandi Walan Extension.’I hung up and walked over to the YMCA’s reception counter.‘Can you tell me where I can find a rickshaw?’ I asked the receptionist, a young woman dressed in a bright pink sari and wearing a crucifix around her neck.She answered.  ‘There are a number of rickshaw drivers waiting outside the hotel but they are not honest people.  They will not use their meters and will overcharge you. You should try to hail a rickshaw in the street instead.’‘How much will it cost me if I use one of the rickshaws outside the YMCA?’ I asked.‘They will probably ask you for 50 rupees, but the correct price should be 30 rupees’.I decided to go for the dishonest option, it was only $1.50 after all. Outside the YMCA, I found a row of auto-rickshaws.  Half a dozen drivers were sitting on a low wall, chatting together and chewing red betel nuts, a mild intoxicant.  As soon as I came out of the hotel, they stood up. The tallest man, good-looking in a rather decadent way with fleshy features and full lips glistening with the red juices, walked up to me.‘Where would you like to go, young madam?’  He asked with a slight leer, while placing his right hand protectively over his balls, as if he feared they might roll onto the road.‘Karol Bagh.  Do you know it?’‘Ah! Karol Bagh is specialising in two-wheelers.’  His hand was now gently stroking the seam at his crotch.  ‘You will be looking for a scooter, madam?’ ‘No, not a scooter, an Enfield motorcycle.’ I replied, trying not to show him I’d noticed he even had balls.  I then added, indicating to the first vehicle in the line, ‘Is this your auto-rickshaw?’ ‘No,’ he pointed with his chin the other way.  ‘This one here is my rickshaw.’‘Well, sorry, I’ll be taking the first rickshaw in the queue.  Where’s the driver of this one?’‘He’s not here, madam.’I approached the vehicle and found the driver asleep in the back seat with a newspaper over his face to keep the flies away.‘Excuse me, can you take me to Karol Bagh?’Startled, he jumped up and fixed his blood-shot gaze on me.‘Karol Bagh?’ I repeated.‘No problem,’ he replied as he leaped over into the driver’s seat. ‘How much?’ I asked.He smiled, showing me his betel stained gums.  ‘No problem.’‘The hotel told me 50 rupees.  Is that okay?’‘No problem.’He started his engine and sharply pulled out into the traffic, tossing me against the canvas wall of his rickshaw.  Holding on tightly to the single bar standing in lieu of a door, I shouted a question to him over the noise of the engine and the constant blowing of horn.‘Do you know Mandi Motors?’ No answer.  ‘It’s in Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ I cried out.He turned his head around but kept the full weight of his foot on the accelerator pedal and his finger firmly pressed on the horn button. ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension?’ ‘Yes.’‘No problem.’Obviously very few things were a problem to this man: red lights were no problem – he went through them; cows in the middle of the road were no problem – he swerved around them; tourist groups were no problem – he ploughed through them, generating squeaks of terror.Suddenly he came to a screeching halt and pointed to the other side of a very busy road.  I know they’re all very busy roads, but this was a very busy road.  ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ he announced.‘Can you bring me right up to Mandi Motors?  I don’t know where it is.’‘No English,” he replied.‘Mandi Motors.’ I handed him a piece of paper.  ‘Look, here’s the address.’‘No English,’ he repeated.‘Well I’m not leaving till you bring me to Mandi Motors.’  I feared I’d never survive crossing the road, let alone find the shop once I got to the other side.He snatched the piece of paper out of my hand and walked over to a man sitting on the pavement offering his services as a zip repairer.  They spoke and the driver climbed back into the auto-rickshaw and did the tightest U-turn in history, knocking my head against a bar in the process.  Twice more he stopped abruptly to ask directions and eventually delivered me to Mandi Motors, the official Enfield dealer in the Indian capital.  It was a small shop on a corner, with a dozen used motorbikes parked in front on the road.  An oil-covered mechanic in his teens was crouching outside the shop front and was looking mournfully at the skeleton of a motorbike and its disembowelled guts lying on the ground. I walked into the shop and saw a brand-new Enfield against the back wall.  It glistened against the shabbiness of the store with its metallic grey/green paint-work, its chrome finish, its elegant teardrop shaped tank and its old fashioned looking engine.  It was as if it had just come out of a Second World War film set; the only thing missing was a side-car for the radio operator.‘Yes?’ a man interrupted my reverie.  ‘You are wanting?’‘Is Mr. Singh here?’ I asked.He pointed to a large man with a big red turban talking to a Western man in the corner.I approached them.‘Mr. Singh?’ He nodded.  ‘I called you earlier about buying an Enfield 500.’‘Ah, yes.  Could you sit down for a moment and wait a little bit?  Would you like some tea?’Before I could answer he shouted ‘Chai!’ to the mechanic outside who very soon after brought me a cup of sweet, strong and very milky tea.  Although I’ve never liked milk in my tea, I thanked him and drank it as fast as I could to get rid of the taste. Unfortunately, the young man interpreted this as a desire to have a refill and I wasn’t quick enough to prevent him from pouring me another. As I sat in the shop I could hear the Westerner, a Belgian man, according to the mechanic, argue with Mr. Singh. ‘You told me I could ‘ave an Enfield 500cc this week.  I ‘ave bin waitin’ three weeks, you know?  Now you say non!?  Mais, c’est pas possible, ça!’‘I understand you are having a problem but you see this lady ordered this bike from England for delivery today.’‘So why didn’t you tell me this before, hein?’‘Well I didn’t know if she was really going to come.  I am so very sorry.  I can get you a 350cc immediately if you want.’‘No, I don’t want a stupid 350!’ he shouted as he stormed out of the shop.Mr. Singh turned to me and said with a gentle smile, ‘I am thinking this man is not very happy.’He continued.  ‘I have your bike here. Will you be wishing to register the vehicle in your name?’‘Well, yes.’He rummaged through a pile of papers on a table and pulled one out.‘In that case you must get a letter from your embassy confirming you are a permanent resident in India registered at this address,’ he said as he handed me the address.‘Oh really? Why?’ I asked.‘If you break the law, the police must be able to locate you.’‘And what address is this?’ ‘It does not exist,’ he answered smiling.  ‘Come back tomorrow when you have the letter.’

That evening I had dinner in the YMCA’s restaurant and the bill came to 107 rupees. I offered 200 rupees to the waiter but he asked for the exact money.  By emptying all my pockets I was able to come up with 106 rupees, just one rupee short; one rupee is worth one third of a US cent.  ‘Will you take 106 rupees?’ I asked.‘No, I will go look for your change,’ he replied.After ten minutes, he returned with a disappointed look on his face.‘Can you check again for one more rupee?’ he asked.  ‘We are not having change.’‘I’ve checked already,’ I smiled apologetically.  ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have one.’A middle aged Indian man eating at the table next to mine, leaned over and said, ‘Please allow me to give you the missing rupee.  As you can see there is a big shortage of change in India.’

As instructed by the Enfield dealer, in the morning I went to the British embassy and was surprised at how easy it was to get the letter.  All I had to do was tell them I wanted to buy a motorcycle and lived at that fictitious address.  No questions asked.Another good thing I got out of the embassy was the address of the hairdresser used by the woman behind the counter.  She directed me to a salon in the diplomatic area of Delhi where I spent three hours being pampered: haircut, manicure, pedicure and a facial.  And it all cost less than $15.  The facial was amazing: the woman massaged my face, neck and shoulder for probably half an hour. The young girl who did my hands also massaged my arms.  I felt so relaxed and clean when I got out of there. I also came out with a crewcut.But the clean feeling didn’t last.  The auto-rickshaw back to the town centre got stuck behind a diesel fuel spewing truck.  Even my driver was coughing. Then we slowly passed a gruesome sight: a blanket-covered body in the inside lane.  It wasn’t covered very well because I could see a pool of blood just by the edge and what looked like a piece of a jaw with teeth attached to it. When I returned to the dealer that afternoon with the letter from the embassy, I also brought 60,000 rupees ($1,600) in cash, the price of a brand new Enfield 500 including comprehensive insurance, road tax, panniers, leg frames and mirrors.Although the largest bills in India are 500 rupee bills ($15), they are very hard to find.  Even 100 bills are often scarce.  When I went to the bank to change my dollars, the teller only had 50 and 100 rupee bills and so, it was with eight huge stacks of the equivalent one and three dollar bills that I arrived at the dealer.   It’s so easy for a Westerner to feel obscenely rich in India.After handing over the money, I expected to receive the keys to the bike.‘No, madam.  It is not finished.  We need to get the road tax, the registration papers and the comprehensive insurance.  I will send one of my boys to do it for you.’‘So the bike is not mine, yet?  But I just paid you all the money.’‘You are worried I am trying to cheat you?’Well yes, I thought.   My guidebook warns bike buyers not to hand over the money till they get the keys.‘Er…can I go with the boy to get the proper documentation?’ I asked.‘Of course, but there are many offices to visit and they will ask more questions about your residency if you are there,’ he warned.‘Okay, never mind.’ I answered and added, as much to reassure myself as to warn him,  ‘I do have a receipt from you after all.’‘Do no worry.  Come tomorrow afternoon, around four o’clock and everything will be ready.’

He was right. That day I became the proud owner of a gorgeous gleaming Enfield Bullet.  I was now officially a real biker.With much excitement I approached my bike parked on the road and inserted the keys in the ignition.  The adventure was about to begin.
I kicked the start lever to start the engine.  Nothing.  I checked that the key was properly turned, the petrol lever on the ON position, and the choke out.  I kicked again.  Nothing again.  And again, and again, and again.  Not even a cough out of the engine.I felt so hot in the afternoon sun and the presence of a group of curious young Indian men on the pavement was not helping.  Eventually I gave up and walked back into the shop. Mr Singh offered to start the bike.  My bike fired at his first attempt, he dismounted and invited me to take over.  My terror must have shown on my face because he seemed to change his mind.  ‘Would you like my mechanic to ride it back to your hotel?’I nodded.And so I suffered the indignity of riding pillion on my own motorcycle behind a child mechanic too young to have a licence.  Once back at the YMCA’s parking lot and away from people watching me, it only took about a dozen attempts and a few floodings of the engine before it started. I rode slowly around the car park and thought, ‘Hey! There’s nothing to this.’  Having said that, on the advice of Mr. Singh, I decided to stay in Delhi for a few days to practise riding the bike in the early hours of the morning when the traffic was lighter. I also went to a tailor to have an outfit made for me since I had only brought two sets of clothes.  It was an Indian design called a punjabi that consisted of a pair of narrow yellow trousers and a navy blue tunic.  I chose an Indian style because I’d heard that in the countryside, Western women in Western clothes often got a lot of hassle.  I found the measurement taking rather embarrassing, as at 5’10” and rather broad built, I’m not exactly small even by Western standards.  Quite a contrast to the Indian saleswoman who, if she had been in the West, would have had to buy her clothes in the children’s department.The next day, at six o’clock in the morning, I went out to practise my riding in the quiet streets of Delhi.  Actually that was a lie, I only rode it around and around Connaught Place, a large roundabout, because I was afraid of getting lost.  By seven-thirty the traffic was already too heavy for me and I returned to my hotel.My first attempt at riding on Indian roads was not very impressive.  The engine stalled a lot and each time I pulled over to try to kick-start the bike, I felt intimated by an audience of ten or twenty people that materialised around me.  Another problem was that I constantly confused my foot brake with the gears – they’re the other way around on an Enfield – and it meant that every time I wanted to stop I’d end up changing gears instead (without the clutch), and of course stalling.When I came back for breakfast at the YMCA, I met another resident: a British man of Indian origins who used to be a bike courier in London.  He was in his late twenties, wore a black baseball cap, a tight black t-shirt, baggy jeans  and a pair of brilliant white Nike sports shoes.We went out for a ride on my Enfield with him sitting behind me.We’d barely set off when he ordered me to stop. He laughed.  ‘Hey!…You don’t know about he gears on the Enfield, do you?’‘What do you mean?’ I responded defensively.  ‘I know that they’re under the right foot instead of the left one.’‘Yeah, that’s true.  But they’re also one up and three down, not one down and three up.’‘I don’t understand.’‘Here, let me show you.’I dismounted and he took my place.‘See, the Enfield is different from modern bikes.  To get into first gear you need to bring up the foot lever with your toes but to get into second gear you press down on the pedal.  You also press down for third and fourth.  That’s why your riding is so jerky.  You’ve been changing from neutral into second gear and then accelerating into first!’    I didn’t dare ask him what kind of damage this must have caused the engine.  Another useful thing my ex-courier friend showed me was how to get onto the highway that goes to the city of Amritsar, my next destination.  I was really itching to get out of Delhi and start this journey through the Indian sub-continent.  Furthermore, the longer I stayed in Delhi, the more scared I was getting about the whole idea.

The next day, I practised putting the bike on the centre stand in the hotel’s parking lot.  Supposedly this requires more technique than strength but at that stage I had no technique and so relied totally on muscle power.  First and second attempts were successful but at the third attempt I was so tired, I dropped the bike.  Fortunately a young man who had just parked his car, rushed to help me.While we were picking it up he asked me, ‘You want to sell your bike?  I give you good price.’‘No, I just bought it,’ I laughed.‘How much did you pay for it?’ he asked me.‘I bought it new,’ I said, ‘for 60,000 rupees.’‘60,000 rupees!  That is very expensive.  I think maybe they cheated you because you are a foreigner.’I later learned not to give the true price of the bike because people seldom believed it was really new, especially once it started looking a bit rough, and this just confirmed their view that I was a stupid foreigner with too much money.I inspected the damage on the bike, and the leg frame was now a little bent on the right.  I was not even out of Delhi and already my beautiful bike had some bruises.Apart from this bad start to the day, my riding had improved from the previous day.  Now that I knew where my gears were, the ride was a lot smoother. Feeling brave and bored with going around Connaught Place, I turned off to explore a bit more of Delhi where I got completely lost in an area full of identical roundabouts. Finally, I stopped an auto-rickshaw and hired him to lead me back to my hotel. While riding around the roundabouts I discovered a particularity of Indian driving: vehicles coming onto a roundabout do not yield to those already on it.  It makes for situations where the roundabout comes to a standstill as people trying to leave it are blocked by those coming unto it.
I decided to set off the next day towards Amritsar.

Mon Feb 09, 2009 Comments

 Buying the Bike in Delhi rn

October

 I remember how, that first night in Delhi, I lay awake in my tiny hotel room, my damp body pressed into the damp sheets, wondering what lay ahead of me and thinking it would just about be time in London for my colleagues to be leaving the office.  Or rather my ex-colleagues.And I remember listening to my stomach churning while I watched the flickering neon light reflect off the wet walls of this windowless room. Instead of windows, my hotel room had brick sized holes over the door.  If they were meant to provide some ventilation in the room, they weren’t succeeding. Not a very good choice of hotel on my part but my guidebook did describe it as middle of the range.  I’d have to find something better soon.Still, the cab ride from the airport to my hotel had been quite enjoyable and the roads were in reasonable condition.  But then so they should be: it is the main road between the airport and the capital, after all.The taxi was an old white Morris Oxford-like car, an Ambassador, and the driver, who looked like he was barely of an age to drive, didn’t speak much English and had no idea how to get to my hotel.  Neither did he carry a plan of the city and I ended up directing him using the map in my guidebook.As I sat on the sticky plastic of the back seat of the car, I looked out the window, searching for my first sight of an Enfield; but apart from scooters, the biggest two-wheeler I spotted was a Kawasaki 100.  Most riders wore helmets, although some only had yellow plastic construction site hats and many scooters carried two passengers, almost always helmet-less.Before leaving England, an Indian friend explained to me that although driving in India would seem chaotic at the beginning, there were rules to it.  The only problem was that they weren’t in any highway code and my safety would depend on learning them as soon as possible.Keeping that in mind, on my first evening I identified the following traffic rules:

  • If you want to save your batteries (or is it your lightbulbs?) you turn off your car headlights wherever there are street lamps.  rn
  • You can go through red lights as long as you’ve checked that the lights on the other side have not yet changed to green. rn
  • If a tractor in front of you is moving very slowly and you can’t overtake it on the outside, then you can go onto the hard shoulder and overtake it on the inside. rn
  • You should press on your horn at least four times a minute in moving traffic, and significantly more in stationary jam.

When we reached my hotel around eleven in the evening, I thought rather disappointingly we were in the suburbs: it was so quiet and there were apparently no shop fronts.  But the next morning, the street came to life. Shutters opened up, and shops spilled over onto the pavement.  A large parking lot for motorcycles had materialised right outside the hotel entrance, the road was packed with vehicles and traffic was at a standstill.  Hundreds of pedestrians walked on the street, weaving themselves between the cars, the buses, the trucks, the auto-rickshaws, the scooters, the bicycles and the odd cow.I could taste the dust and the diesel that hung above us in a dense haze, dimming the sun’s rays.I checked out of my hotel and switched to the nearby YMCA where I had to sign a commitment not to have men or alcoholic drinks in my room.  Next, I set out looking for a hairdresser to cut my hair. Although I already had shortish hair I decided that because of the heat and the humidity, I needed to go shorter still. It’s hot enough in a helmet as it is.After an hour of wandering around the streets asking for direction, I was led into a tailor’s shop.  It seemed my haircut gesture had been mistaken for made-to-measure.  I turned around to leave but the tailor stopped me.‘Can I help you madam?’ he asked.‘Actually, no. I’m sorry, I was looking for a hairdresser.’‘Yes, yes.  Come in, madam.’I followed him into the back of the shop to a tiny cubicle where a young barber was beating up one of his clients.  Or so it seemed.Noticing my puzzled expression, the tailor/barber explained.  ‘The slaps on the scalp and face are to stimulate circulation.’I’m not quite ready for this yet, I thought.Promising to come back later, I made my excuses.  Still this was not a wasted detour because I found a hand-written sign advertising an office with e-mail access. The building was in a back street made out of beaten earth, with open sewers on both sides, and cows meandering among the pedestrians and parked cars.  Inside, a young woman dressed in a royal blue sari showed me how to log on the computer.  I looked down on her hands at the keyboard and noticed she had a sixth lifeless finger dangling from the side of her palm.  I tried to act nonchalant but my eyes kept on returning to the limp digit with its carefully manicured and varnished crimson nail.  A nurse later told me this probably meant her mother suffered from syphilis during pregnancy.The computer terminals rested on narrow desks with the keyboards precariously balanced on the open drawers; and on the floor, two brown mice played hide-and-seek behind the hard disk drives.  Still, there was air-conditioning and the connection to the internet only broke down twice.  And so on my first day I managed to send emails home: ‘Hot and humid in Delhi.  Traffic is mad.  Place is teeming with Indian men with moustaches.  They’re kind of short, dark and wear white pyjamas.’In the afternoon I decided to go to the Enfield dealer.  Although, part of me wanted to wait a bit longer and get used to being here first, I also feared that the longer I waited to buy the motorbike, the more likely I was to give up on the whole idea.I called the Enfield dealer from my hotel.  ‘Mr. Singh?  Hello, it’s Michele Harrison, here.  I called you from England the day before yesterday, about an Enfield 500.  I’m here now in Delhi and was wondering if it would be convenient for me to come over now.’Pause.  ‘Mr Singh?’A deep voice answered.  ‘Yes…this afternoon is fine.  You know how to get here?’I pulled out my map of Delhi.  ‘I just know it’s in Karol Bagh.  If I show your address to an auto-rickshaw driver, will he know it?’ I asked.‘Yes, just ask for Jhandi Walan Extension.’I hung up and walked over to the YMCA’s reception counter.‘Can you tell me where I can find a rickshaw?’ I asked the receptionist, a young woman dressed in a bright pink sari and wearing a crucifix around her neck.She answered.  ‘There are a number of rickshaw drivers waiting outside the hotel but they are not honest people.  They will not use their meters and will overcharge you. You should try to hail a rickshaw in the street instead.’‘How much will it cost me if I use one of the rickshaws outside the YMCA?’ I asked.‘They will probably ask you for 50 rupees, but the correct price should be 30 rupees’.I decided to go for the dishonest option, it was only $1.50 after all. Outside the YMCA, I found a row of auto-rickshaws.  Half a dozen drivers were sitting on a low wall, chatting together and chewing red betel nuts, a mild intoxicant.  As soon as I came out of the hotel, they stood up. The tallest man, good-looking in a rather decadent way with fleshy features and full lips glistening with the red juices, walked up to me.‘Where would you like to go, young madam?’  He asked with a slight leer, while placing his right hand protectively over his balls, as if he feared they might roll onto the road.‘Karol Bagh.  Do you know it?’‘Ah! Karol Bagh is specialising in two-wheelers.’  His hand was now gently stroking the seam at his crotch.  ‘You will be looking for a scooter, madam?’ ‘No, not a scooter, an Enfield motorcycle.’ I replied, trying not to show him I’d noticed he even had balls.  I then added, indicating to the first vehicle in the line, ‘Is this your auto-rickshaw?’ ‘No,’ he pointed with his chin the other way.  ‘This one here is my rickshaw.’‘Well, sorry, I’ll be taking the first rickshaw in the queue.  Where’s the driver of this one?’‘He’s not here, madam.’I approached the vehicle and found the driver asleep in the back seat with a newspaper over his face to keep the flies away.‘Excuse me, can you take me to Karol Bagh?’Startled, he jumped up and fixed his blood-shot gaze on me.‘Karol Bagh?’ I repeated.‘No problem,’ he replied as he leaped over into the driver’s seat. ‘How much?’ I asked.He smiled, showing me his betel stained gums.  ‘No problem.’‘The hotel told me 50 rupees.  Is that okay?’‘No problem.’He started his engine and sharply pulled out into the traffic, tossing me against the canvas wall of his rickshaw.  Holding on tightly to the single bar standing in lieu of a door, I shouted a question to him over the noise of the engine and the constant blowing of horn.‘Do you know Mandi Motors?’ No answer.  ‘It’s in Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ I cried out.He turned his head around but kept the full weight of his foot on the accelerator pedal and his finger firmly pressed on the horn button. ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension?’ ‘Yes.’‘No problem.’Obviously very few things were a problem to this man: red lights were no problem – he went through them; cows in the middle of the road were no problem – he swerved around them; tourist groups were no problem – he ploughed through them, generating squeaks of terror.Suddenly he came to a screeching halt and pointed to the other side of a very busy road.  I know they’re all very busy roads, but this was a very busy road.  ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ he announced.‘Can you bring me right up to Mandi Motors?  I don’t know where it is.’‘No English,” he replied.‘Mandi Motors.’ I handed him a piece of paper.  ‘Look, here’s the address.’‘No English,’ he repeated.‘Well I’m not leaving till you bring me to Mandi Motors.’  I feared I’d never survive crossing the road, let alone find the shop once I got to the other side.He snatched the piece of paper out of my hand and walked over to a man sitting on the pavement offering his services as a zip repairer.  They spoke and the driver climbed back into the auto-rickshaw and did the tightest U-turn in history, knocking my head against a bar in the process.  Twice more he stopped abruptly to ask directions and eventually delivered me to Mandi Motors, the official Enfield dealer in the Indian capital.  It was a small shop on a corner, with a dozen used motorbikes parked in front on the road.  An oil-covered mechanic in his teens was crouching outside the shop front and was looking mournfully at the skeleton of a motorbike and its disembowelled guts lying on the ground. I walked into the shop and saw a brand-new Enfield against the back wall.  It glistened against the shabbiness of the store with its metallic grey/green paint-work, its chrome finish, its elegant teardrop shaped tank and its old fashioned looking engine.  It was as if it had just come out of a Second World War film set; the only thing missing was a side-car for the radio operator.‘Yes?’ a man interrupted my reverie.  ‘You are wanting?’‘Is Mr. Singh here?’ I asked.He pointed to a large man with a big red turban talking to a Western man in the corner.I approached them.‘Mr. Singh?’ He nodded.  ‘I called you earlier about buying an Enfield 500.’‘Ah, yes.  Could you sit down for a moment and wait a little bit?  Would you like some tea?’Before I could answer he shouted ‘Chai!’ to the mechanic outside who very soon after brought me a cup of sweet, strong and very milky tea.  Although I’ve never liked milk in my tea, I thanked him and drank it as fast as I could to get rid of the taste. Unfortunately, the young man interpreted this as a desire to have a refill and I wasn’t quick enough to prevent him from pouring me another. As I sat in the shop I could hear the Westerner, a Belgian man, according to the mechanic, argue with Mr. Singh. ‘You told me I could ‘ave an Enfield 500cc this week.  I ‘ave bin waitin’ three weeks, you know?  Now you say non!?  Mais, c’est pas possible, ça!’‘I understand you are having a problem but you see this lady ordered this bike from England for delivery today.’‘So why didn’t you tell me this before, hein?’‘Well I didn’t know if she was really going to come.  I am so very sorry.  I can get you a 350cc immediately if you want.’‘No, I don’t want a stupid 350!’ he shouted as he stormed out of the shop.Mr. Singh turned to me and said with a gentle smile, ‘I am thinking this man is not very happy.’He continued.  ‘I have your bike here. Will you be wishing to register the vehicle in your name?’‘Well, yes.’He rummaged through a pile of papers on a table and pulled one out.‘In that case you must get a letter from your embassy confirming you are a permanent resident in India registered at this address,’ he said as he handed me the address.‘Oh really? Why?’ I asked.‘If you break the law, the police must be able to locate you.’‘And what address is this?’ ‘It does not exist,’ he answered smiling.  ‘Come back tomorrow when you have the letter.’

That evening I had dinner in the YMCA’s restaurant and the bill came to 107 rupees. I offered 200 rupees to the waiter but he asked for the exact money.  By emptying all my pockets I was able to come up with 106 rupees, just one rupee short; one rupee is worth one third of a US cent.  ‘Will you take 106 rupees?’ I asked.‘No, I will go look for your change,’ he replied.After ten minutes, he returned with a disappointed look on his face.‘Can you check again for one more rupee?’ he asked.  ‘We are not having change.’‘I’ve checked already,’ I smiled apologetically.  ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have one.’A middle aged Indian man eating at the table next to mine, leaned over and said, ‘Please allow me to give you the missing rupee.  As you can see there is a big shortage of change in India.’

As instructed by the Enfield dealer, in the morning I went to the British embassy and was surprised at how easy it was to get the letter.  All I had to do was tell them I wanted to buy a motorcycle and lived at that fictitious address.  No questions asked.Another good thing I got out of the embassy was the address of the hairdresser used by the woman behind the counter.  She directed me to a salon in the diplomatic area of Delhi where I spent three hours being pampered: haircut, manicure, pedicure and a facial.  And it all cost less than $15.  The facial was amazing: the woman massaged my face, neck and shoulder for probably half an hour. The young girl who did my hands also massaged my arms.  I felt so relaxed and clean when I got out of there. I also came out with a crewcut.But the clean feeling didn’t last.  The auto-rickshaw back to the town centre got stuck behind a diesel fuel spewing truck.  Even my driver was coughing. Then we slowly passed a gruesome sight: a blanket-covered body in the inside lane.  It wasn’t covered very well because I could see a pool of blood just by the edge and what looked like a piece of a jaw with teeth attached to it. When I returned to the dealer that afternoon with the letter from the embassy, I also brought 60,000 rupees ($1,600) in cash, the price of a brand new Enfield 500 including comprehensive insurance, road tax, panniers, leg frames and mirrors.Although the largest bills in India are 500 rupee bills ($15), they are very hard to find.  Even 100 bills are often scarce.  When I went to the bank to change my dollars, the teller only had 50 and 100 rupee bills and so, it was with eight huge stacks of the equivalent one and three dollar bills that I arrived at the dealer.   It’s so easy for a Westerner to feel obscenely rich in India.After handing over the money, I expected to receive the keys to the bike.‘No, madam.  It is not finished.  We need to get the road tax, the registration papers and the comprehensive insurance.  I will send one of my boys to do it for you.’‘So the bike is not mine, yet?  But I just paid you all the money.’‘You are worried I am trying to cheat you?’Well yes, I thought.   My guidebook warns bike buyers not to hand over the money till they get the keys.‘Er…can I go with the boy to get the proper documentation?’ I asked.‘Of course, but there are many offices to visit and they will ask more questions about your residency if you are there,’ he warned.‘Okay, never mind.’ I answered and added, as much to reassure myself as to warn him,  ‘I do have a receipt from you after all.’‘Do no worry.  Come tomorrow afternoon, around four o’clock and everything will be ready.’

He was right. That day I became the proud owner of a gorgeous gleaming Enfield Bullet.  I was now officially a real biker.With much excitement I approached my bike parked on the road and inserted the keys in the ignition.  The adventure was about to begin.
I kicked the start lever to start the engine.  Nothing.  I checked that the key was properly turned, the petrol lever on the ON position, and the choke out.  I kicked again.  Nothing again.  And again, and again, and again.  Not even a cough out of the engine.I felt so hot in the afternoon sun and the presence of a group of curious young Indian men on the pavement was not helping.  Eventually I gave up and walked back into the shop. Mr Singh offered to start the bike.  My bike fired at his first attempt, he dismounted and invited me to take over.  My terror must have shown on my face because he seemed to change his mind.  ‘Would you like my mechanic to ride it back to your hotel?’I nodded.And so I suffered the indignity of riding pillion on my own motorcycle behind a child mechanic too young to have a licence.  Once back at the YMCA’s parking lot and away from people watching me, it only took about a dozen attempts and a few floodings of the engine before it started. I rode slowly around the car park and thought, ‘Hey! There’s nothing to this.’  Having said that, on the advice of Mr. Singh, I decided to stay in Delhi for a few days to practise riding the bike in the early hours of the morning when the traffic was lighter. I also went to a tailor to have an outfit made for me since I had only brought two sets of clothes.  It was an Indian design called a punjabi that consisted of a pair of narrow yellow trousers and a navy blue tunic.  I chose an Indian style because I’d heard that in the countryside, Western women in Western clothes often got a lot of hassle.  I found the measurement taking rather embarrassing, as at 5’10” and rather broad built, I’m not exactly small even by Western standards.  Quite a contrast to the Indian saleswoman who, if she had been in the West, would have had to buy her clothes in the children’s department.The next day, at six o’clock in the morning, I went out to practise my riding in the quiet streets of Delhi.  Actually that was a lie, I only rode it around and around Connaught Place, a large roundabout, because I was afraid of getting lost.  By seven-thirty the traffic was already too heavy for me and I returned to my hotel.My first attempt at riding on Indian roads was not very impressive.  The engine stalled a lot and each time I pulled over to try to kick-start the bike, I felt intimated by an audience of ten or twenty people that materialised around me.  Another problem was that I constantly confused my foot brake with the gears – they’re the other way around on an Enfield – and it meant that every time I wanted to stop I’d end up changing gears instead (without the clutch), and of course stalling.When I came back for breakfast at the YMCA, I met another resident: a British man of Indian origins who used to be a bike courier in London.  He was in his late twenties, wore a black baseball cap, a tight black t-shirt, baggy jeans  and a pair of brilliant white Nike sports shoes.We went out for a ride on my Enfield with him sitting behind me.We’d barely set off when he ordered me to stop. He laughed.  ‘Hey!…You don’t know about he gears on the Enfield, do you?’‘What do you mean?’ I responded defensively.  ‘I know that they’re under the right foot instead of the left one.’‘Yeah, that’s true.  But they’re also one up and three down, not one down and three up.’‘I don’t understand.’‘Here, let me show you.’I dismounted and he took my place.‘See, the Enfield is different from modern bikes.  To get into first gear you need to bring up the foot lever with your toes but to get into second gear you press down on the pedal.  You also press down for third and fourth.  That’s why your riding is so jerky.  You’ve been changing from neutral into second gear and then accelerating into first!’    I didn’t dare ask him what kind of damage this must have caused the engine.  Another useful thing my ex-courier friend showed me was how to get onto the highway that goes to the city of Amritsar, my next destination.  I was really itching to get out of Delhi and start this journey through the Indian sub-continent.  Furthermore, the longer I stayed in Delhi, the more scared I was getting about the whole idea.

The next day, I practised putting the bike on the centre stand in the hotel’s parking lot.  Supposedly this requires more technique than strength but at that stage I had no technique and so relied totally on muscle power.  First and second attempts were successful but at the third attempt I was so tired, I dropped the bike.  Fortunately a young man who had just parked his car, rushed to help me.While we were picking it up he asked me, ‘You want to sell your bike?  I give you good price.’‘No, I just bought it,’ I laughed.‘How much did you pay for it?’ he asked me.‘I bought it new,’ I said, ‘for 60,000 rupees.’‘60,000 rupees!  That is very expensive.  I think maybe they cheated you because you are a foreigner.’I later learned not to give the true price of the bike because people seldom believed it was really new, especially once it started looking a bit rough, and this just confirmed their view that I was a stupid foreigner with too much money.I inspected the damage on the bike, and the leg frame was now a little bent on the right.  I was not even out of Delhi and already my beautiful bike had some bruises.Apart from this bad start to the day, my riding had improved from the previous day.  Now that I knew where my gears were, the ride was a lot smoother. Feeling brave and bored with going around Connaught Place, I turned off to explore a bit more of Delhi where I got completely lost in an area full of identical roundabouts. Finally, I stopped an auto-rickshaw and hired him to lead me back to my hotel. While riding around the roundabouts I discovered a particularity of Indian driving: vehicles coming onto a roundabout do not yield to those already on it.  It makes for situations where the roundabout comes to a standstill as people trying to leave it are blocked by those coming unto it.
I decided to set off the next day towards Amritsar.

Mon Feb 09, 2009 Comments

 Buying the Bike in Delhi rn

October

 I remember how, that first night in Delhi, I lay awake in my tiny hotel room, my damp body pressed into the damp sheets, wondering what lay ahead of me and thinking it would just about be time in London for my colleagues to be leaving the office.  Or rather my ex-colleagues.

And I remember listening to my stomach churning while I watched the flickering neon light reflect off the wet walls of this windowless room. Instead of windows, my hotel room had brick sized holes over the door.  If they were meant to provide some ventilation in the room, they weren’t succeeding. Not a very good choice of hotel on my part but my guidebook did describe it as middle of the range.  I’d have to find something better soon.

Still, the cab ride from the airport to my hotel had been quite enjoyable and the roads were in reasonable condition.  But then so they should be: it is the main road between the airport and the capital, after all.

The taxi was an old white Morris Oxford-like car, an Ambassador, and the driver, who looked like he was barely of an age to drive, didn’t speak much English and had no idea how to get to my hotel.  Neither did he carry a plan of the city and I ended up directing him using the map in my guidebook.

As I sat on the sticky plastic of the back seat of the car, I looked out the window, searching for my first sight of an Enfield; but apart from scooters, the biggest two-wheeler I spotted was a Kawasaki 100.  Most riders wore helmets, although some only had yellow plastic construction site hats and many scooters carried two passengers, almost always helmet-less.

Before leaving England, an Indian friend explained to me that although driving in India would seem chaotic at the beginning, there were rules to it.  The only problem was that they weren’t in any highway code and my safety would depend on learning them as soon as possible.

Keeping that in mind, on my first evening I identified the following traffic rules:

  • If you want to save your batteries (or is it your lightbulbs?) you turn off your car headlights wherever there are street lamps.  rn
  • You can go through red lights as long as you’ve checked that the lights on the other side have not yet changed to green. rn
  • If a tractor in front of you is moving very slowly and you can’t overtake it on the outside, then you can go onto the hard shoulder and overtake it on the inside. rn
  • You should press on your horn at least four times a minute in moving traffic, and significantly more in stationary jam.

When we reached my hotel around eleven in the evening, I thought rather disappointingly we were in the suburbs: it was so quiet and there were apparently no shop fronts.  But the next morning, the street came to life. Shutters opened up, and shops spilled over onto the pavement.  A large parking lot for motorcycles had materialised right outside the hotel entrance, the road was packed with vehicles and traffic was at a standstill.  Hundreds of pedestrians walked on the street, weaving themselves between the cars, the buses, the trucks, the auto-rickshaws, the scooters, the bicycles and the odd cow.

I could taste the dust and the diesel that hung above us in a dense haze, dimming the sun’s rays.

I checked out of my hotel and switched to the nearby YMCA where I had to sign a commitment not to have men or alcoholic drinks in my room.  Next, I set out looking for a hairdresser to cut my hair. Although I already had shortish hair I decided that because of the heat and the humidity, I needed to go shorter still. It’s hot enough in a helmet as it is.After an hour of wandering around the streets asking for direction, I was led into a tailor’s shop.  It seemed my haircut gesture had been mistaken for made-to-measure.  I turned around to leave but the tailor stopped me.

‘Can I help you madam?’ he asked.

‘Actually, no. I’m sorry, I was looking for a hairdresser.’

‘Yes, yes.  Come in, madam.’

I followed him into the back of the shop to a tiny cubicle where a young barber was beating up one of his clients.  Or so it seemed.

Noticing my puzzled expression, the tailor/barber explained.  ‘The slaps on the scalp and face are to stimulate circulation.’

I’m not quite ready for this yet, I thought.

Promising to come back later, I made my excuses.  Still this was not a wasted detour because I found a hand-written sign advertising an office with e-mail access.

The building was in a back street made out of beaten earth, with open sewers on both sides, and cows meandering among the pedestrians and parked cars.  Inside, a young woman dressed in a royal blue sari showed me how to log on the computer.  I looked down on her hands at the keyboard and noticed she had a sixth lifeless finger dangling from the side of her palm.  I tried to act nonchalant but my eyes kept on returning to the limp digit with its carefully manicured and varnished crimson nail.  A nurse later told me this probably meant her mother suffered from syphilis during pregnancy.

The computer terminals rested on narrow desks with the keyboards precariously balanced on the open drawers; and on the floor, two brown mice played hide-and-seek behind the hard disk drives.  Still, there was air-conditioning and the connection to the internet only broke down twice.  And so on my first day I managed to send emails home: ‘Hot and humid in Delhi.  Traffic is mad.  Place is teeming with Indian men with moustaches.  They’re kind of short, dark and wear white pyjamas.’

In the afternoon I decided to go to the Enfield dealer.  Although, part of me wanted to wait a bit longer and get used to being here first, I also feared that the longer I waited to buy the motorbike, the more likely I was to give up on the whole idea.

I called the Enfield dealer from my hotel.

‘Mr. Singh?  Hello, it’s Michele Harrison, here.  I called you from England the day before yesterday, about an Enfield 500.  I’m here now in Delhi and was wondering if it would be convenient for me to come over now.’

Pause.

‘Mr Singh?’

A deep voice answered.  ‘Yes…this afternoon is fine.  You know how to get here?’

I pulled out my map of Delhi.  ‘I just know it’s in Karol Bagh.  If I show your address to an auto-rickshaw driver, will he know it?’ I asked.

‘Yes, just ask for Jhandi Walan Extension.’

I hung up and walked over to the YMCA’s reception counter.

‘Can you tell me where I can find a rickshaw?’ I asked the receptionist, a young woman dressed in a bright pink sari and wearing a crucifix around her neck.

She answered.  ‘There are a number of rickshaw drivers waiting outside the hotel but they are not honest people.  They will not use their meters and will overcharge you. You should try to hail a rickshaw in the street instead.’

‘How much will it cost me if I use one of the rickshaws outside the YMCA?’ I asked.

‘They will probably ask you for 50 rupees, but the correct price should be 30 rupees’.

I decided to go for the dishonest option, it was only $1.50 after all.

Outside the YMCA, I found a row of auto-rickshaws.  Half a dozen drivers were sitting on a low wall, chatting together and chewing red betel nuts, a mild intoxicant.  As soon as I came out of the hotel, they stood up. The tallest man, good-looking in a rather decadent way with fleshy features and full lips glistening with the red juices, walked up to me.

‘Where would you like to go, young madam?’  He asked with a slight leer, while placing his right hand protectively over his balls, as if he feared they might roll onto the road.

‘Karol Bagh.  Do you know it?’

‘Ah! Karol Bagh is specialising in two-wheelers.’  His hand was now gently stroking the seam at his crotch.  ‘You will be looking for a scooter, madam?’

‘No, not a scooter, an Enfield motorcycle.’ I replied, trying not to show him I’d noticed he even had balls.  I then added, indicating to the first vehicle in the line, ‘Is this your auto-rickshaw?’

‘No,’ he pointed with his chin the other way.  ‘This one here is my rickshaw.’

‘Well, sorry, I’ll be taking the first rickshaw in the queue.  Where’s the driver of this one?’

‘He’s not here, madam.’

I approached the vehicle and found the driver asleep in the back seat with a newspaper over his face to keep the flies away.

‘Excuse me, can you take me to Karol Bagh?’

Startled, he jumped up and fixed his blood-shot gaze on me.

‘Karol Bagh?’ I repeated.

‘No problem,’ he replied as he leaped over into the driver’s seat.

‘How much?’ I asked.

He smiled, showing me his betel stained gums.  ‘No problem.’

‘The hotel told me 50 rupees.  Is that okay?’

‘No problem.’

He started his engine and sharply pulled out into the traffic, tossing me against the canvas wall of his rickshaw.

Holding on tightly to the single bar standing in lieu of a door, I shouted a question to him over the noise of the engine and the constant blowing of horn.

‘Do you know Mandi Motors?’

No answer.

‘It’s in Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ I cried out.

He turned his head around but kept the full weight of his foot on the accelerator pedal and his finger firmly pressed on the horn button.

‘Jhandi Wallah Extension?’

‘Yes.’

‘No problem.’

Obviously very few things were a problem to this man: red lights were no problem – he went through them; cows in the middle of the road were no problem – he swerved around them; tourist groups were no problem – he ploughed through them, generating squeaks of terror.

Suddenly he came to a screeching halt and pointed to the other side of a very busy road.  I know they’re all very busy roads, but this was a very busy road.  ‘Jhandi Wallah Extension,’ he announced.

‘Can you bring me right up to Mandi Motors?  I don’t know where it is.’

‘No English,” he replied.

‘Mandi Motors.’ I handed him a piece of paper.  ‘Look, here’s the address.’

‘No English,’ he repeated.

‘Well I’m not leaving till you bring me to Mandi Motors.’

I feared I’d never survive crossing the road, let alone find the shop once I got to the other side.

He snatched the piece of paper out of my hand and walked over to a man sitting on the pavement offering his services as a zip repairer.  They spoke and the driver climbed back into the auto-rickshaw and did the tightest U-turn in history, knocking my head against a bar in the process.  Twice more he stopped abruptly to ask directions and eventually delivered me to Mandi Motors, the official Enfield dealer in the Indian capital.

It was a small shop on a corner, with a dozen used motorbikes parked in front on the road.  An oil-covered mechanic in his teens was crouching outside the shop front and was looking mournfully at the skeleton of a motorbike and its disembowelled guts lying on the ground.

I walked into the shop and saw a brand-new Enfield against the back wall.  It glistened against the shabbiness of the store with its metallic grey/green paint-work, its chrome finish, its elegant teardrop shaped tank and its old fashioned looking engine.  It was as if it had just come out of a Second World War film set; the only thing missing was a side-car for the radio operator.

‘Yes?’ a man interrupted my reverie.  ‘You are wanting?’

‘Is Mr. Singh here?’ I asked.

He pointed to a large man with a big red turban talking to a Western man in the corner.

I approached them.

‘Mr. Singh?’

He nodded.

‘I called you earlier about buying an Enfield 500.’

‘Ah, yes.  Could you sit down for a moment and wait a little bit?  Would you like some tea?’

Before I could answer he shouted ‘Chai!’ to the mechanic outside who very soon after brought me a cup of sweet, strong and very milky tea.  Although I’ve never liked milk in my tea, I thanked him and drank it as fast as I could to get rid of the taste. Unfortunately, the young man interpreted this as a desire to have a refill and I wasn’t quick enough to prevent him from pouring me another.

As I sat in the shop I could hear the Westerner, a Belgian man, according to the mechanic, argue with Mr. Singh.

‘You told me I could ‘ave an Enfield 500cc this week.  I ‘ave bin waitin’ three weeks, you know?  Now you say non!?  Mais, c’est pas possible, ça!’

‘I understand you are having a problem but you see this lady ordered this bike from England for delivery today.’

‘So why didn’t you tell me this before, hein?’

‘Well I didn’t know if she was really going to come.  I am so very sorry.  I can get you a 350cc immediately if you want.’

‘No, I don’t want a stupid 350!’ he shouted as he stormed out of the shop.

Mr. Singh turned to me and said with a gentle smile, ‘I am thinking this man is not very happy.’

He continued.  ‘I have your bike here. Will you be wishing to register the vehicle in your name?’

‘Well, yes.’

He rummaged through a pile of papers on a table and pulled one out.

‘In that case you must get a letter from your embassy confirming you are a permanent resident in India registered at this address,’ he said as he handed me the address.

‘Oh really? Why?’ I asked.

‘If you break the law, the police must be able to locate you.’

‘And what address is this?’

‘It does not exist,’ he answered smiling.  ‘Come back tomorrow when you have the letter.’

That evening I had dinner in the YMCA’s restaurant and the bill came to 107 rupees. I offered 200 rupees to the waiter but he asked for the exact money.  By emptying all my pockets I was able to come up with 106 rupees, just one rupee short; one rupee is worth one third of a US cent.

‘Will you take 106 rupees?’ I asked.

‘No, I will go look for your change,’ he replied.

After ten minutes, he returned with a disappointed look on his face.

‘Can you check again for one more rupee?’ he asked.  ‘We are not having change.’

‘I’ve checked already,’ I smiled apologetically.  ‘I’m sorry but I don’t have one.’

A middle aged Indian man eating at the table next to mine, leaned over and said, ‘Please allow me to give you the missing rupee.  As you can see there is a big shortage of change in India.’

As instructed by the Enfield dealer, in the morning I went to the British embassy and was surprised at how easy it was to get the letter.  All I had to do was tell them I wanted to buy a motorcycle and lived at that fictitious address.  No questions asked.

Another good thing I got out of the embassy was the address of the hairdresser used by the woman behind the counter.  She directed me to a salon in the diplomatic area of Delhi where I spent three hours being pampered: haircut, manicure, pedicure and a facial.  And it all cost less than $15.  The facial was amazing: the woman massaged my face, neck and shoulder for probably half an hour. The young girl who did my hands also massaged my arms.  I felt so relaxed and clean when I got out of there. I also came out with a crewcut.

But the clean feeling didn’t last.  The auto-rickshaw back to the town centre got stuck behind a diesel fuel spewing truck.  Even my driver was coughing.

Then we slowly passed a gruesome sight: a blanket-covered body in the inside lane.  It wasn’t covered very well because I could see a pool of blood just by the edge and what looked like a piece of a jaw with teeth attached to it.

When I returned to the dealer that afternoon with the letter from the embassy, I also brought 60,000 rupees ($1,600) in cash, the price of a brand new Enfield 500 including comprehensive insurance, road tax, panniers, leg frames and mirrors.

Although the largest bills in India are 500 rupee bills ($15), they are very hard to find.  Even 100 bills are often scarce.  When I went to the bank to change my dollars, the teller only had 50 and 100 rupee bills and so, it was with eight huge stacks of the equivalent one and three dollar bills that I arrived at the dealer.   It’s so easy for a Westerner to feel obscenely rich in India.

After handing over the money, I expected to receive the keys to the bike.

‘No, madam.  It is not finished.  We need to get the road tax, the registration papers and the comprehensive insurance.  I will send one of my boys to do it for you.’

‘So the bike is not mine, yet?  But I just paid you all the money.’

‘You are worried I am trying to cheat you?’

Well yes, I thought.   My guidebook warns bike buyers not to hand over the money till they get the keys.

‘Er…can I go with the boy to get the proper documentation?’ I asked.

‘Of course, but there are many offices to visit and they will ask more questions about your residency if you are there,’ he warned.

‘Okay, never mind.’ I answered and added, as much to reassure myself as to warn him,  ‘I do have a receipt from you after all.’

‘Do no worry.  Come tomorrow afternoon, around four o’clock and everything will be ready.’

He was right.

That day I became the proud owner of a gorgeous gleaming Enfield Bullet.  I was now officially a real biker.

With much excitement I approached my bike parked on the road and inserted the keys in the ignition.  The adventure was about to begin.
I kicked the start lever to start the engine.  Nothing.  I checked that the key was properly turned, the petrol lever on the ON position, and the choke out.  I kicked again.  Nothing again.  And again, and again, and again.  Not even a cough out of the engine.

I felt so hot in the afternoon sun and the presence of a group of curious young Indian men on the pavement was not helping.  Eventually I gave up and walked back into the shop. Mr Singh offered to start the bike.  My bike fired at his first attempt, he dismounted and invited me to take over.  My terror must have shown on my face because he seemed to change his mind.  ‘Would you like my mechanic to ride it back to your hotel?’

I nodded.

And so I suffered the indignity of riding pillion on my own motorcycle behind a child mechanic too young to have a licence.  Once back at the YMCA’s parking lot and away from people watching me, it only took about a dozen attempts and a few floodings of the engine before it started. I rode slowly around the car park and thought, ‘Hey! There’s nothing to this.’  Having said that, on the advice of Mr. Singh, I decided to stay in Delhi for a few days to practise riding the bike in the early hours of the morning when the traffic was lighter.

I also went to a tailor to have an outfit made for me since I had only brought two sets of clothes.  It was an Indian design called a punjabi that consisted of a pair of narrow yellow trousers and a navy blue tunic.  I chose an Indian style because I’d heard that in the countryside, Western women in Western clothes often got a lot of hassle.  I found the measurement taking rather embarrassing, as at 5’10” and rather broad built, I’m not exactly small even by Western standards.  Quite a contrast to the Indian saleswoman who, if she had been in the West, would have had to buy her clothes in the children’s department.

The next day, at six o’clock in the morning, I went out to practise my riding in the quiet streets of Delhi.  Actually that was a lie, I only rode it around and around Connaught Place, a large roundabout, because I was afraid of getting lost.  By seven-thirty the traffic was already too heavy for me and I returned to my hotel.

My first attempt at riding on Indian roads was not very impressive.  The engine stalled a lot and each time I pulled over to try to kick-start the bike, I felt intimated by an audience of ten or twenty people that materialised around me.  Another problem was that I constantly confused my foot brake with the gears – they’re the other way around on an Enfield – and it meant that every time I wanted to stop I’d end up changing gears instead (without the clutch), and of course stalling.

When I came back for breakfast at the YMCA, I met another resident: a British man of Indian origins who used to be a bike courier in London.  He was in his late twenties, wore a black baseball cap, a tight black t-shirt, baggy jeans  and a pair of brilliant white Nike sports shoes.

We went out for a ride on my Enfield with him sitting behind me.

We’d barely set off when he ordered me to stop.

He laughed.  ‘Hey!…You don’t know about he gears on the Enfield, do you?’

‘What do you mean?’ I responded defensively.  ‘I know that they’re under the right foot instead of the left one.’

‘Yeah, that’s true.  But they’re also one up and three down, not one down and three up.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Here, let me show you.’

I dismounted and he took my place.

‘See, the Enfield is different from modern bikes.  To get into first gear you need to bring up the foot lever with your toes but to get into second gear you press down on the pedal.  You also press down for third and fourth.  That’s why your riding is so jerky.  You’ve been changing from neutral into second gear and then accelerating into first!’

I didn’t dare ask him what kind of damage this must have caused the engine.

Another useful thing my ex-courier friend showed me was how to get onto the highway that goes to the city of Amritsar, my next destination.  I was really itching to get out of Delhi and start this journey through the Indian sub-continent.  Furthermore, the longer I stayed in Delhi, the more scared I was getting about the whole idea.

The next day, I practised putting the bike on the centre stand in the hotel’s parking lot.  Supposedly this requires more technique than strength but at that stage I had no technique and so relied totally on muscle power.  First and second attempts were successful but at the third attempt I was so tired, I dropped the bike.  Fortunately a young man who had just parked his car, rushed to help me.

While we were picking it up he asked me, ‘You want to sell your bike?  I give you good price.’

‘No, I just bought it,’ I laughed.

‘How much did you pay for it?’ he asked me.

‘I bought it new,’ I said, ‘for 60,000 rupees.’

‘60,000 rupees!  That is very expensive.  I think maybe they cheated you because you are a foreigner.’

I later learned not to give the true price of the bike because people seldom believed it was really new, especially once it started looking a bit rough, and this just confirmed their view that I was a stupid foreigner with too much money.

I inspected the damage on the bike, and the leg frame was now a little bent on the right.  I was not even out of Delhi and already my beautiful bike had some bruises.

Apart from this bad start to the day, my riding had improved from the previous day.  Now that I knew where my gears were, the ride was a lot smoother. Feeling brave and bored with going around Connaught Place, I turned off to explore a bit more of Delhi where I got completely lost in an area full of identical roundabouts. Finally, I stopped an auto-rickshaw and hired him to lead me back to my hotel.

While riding around the roundabouts I discovered a particularity of Indian driving: vehicles coming onto a roundabout do not yield to those already on it.  It makes for situations where the roundabout comes to a standstill as people trying to leave it are blocked by those coming unto it.
I decided to set off the next day towards Amritsar.

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