Terence Gross | “No Insurance Required”
Mad half-hour in Kerala on a Royal Enfield
Well, I have to admit I have always had rather romantic notions about Enfields. They conjure up visions of the Raj, Indian Regiments, Hill stations, that fusion of British and Indian cultures, that lasted for hundreds of years and then collapsed leaving a few relics of architecture, the railways and those iconic bikes.
So when Michele, my wife, decided to bring 15 students to Kerala for a yoga retreat just after New Year, I decided to rent a Royal Enfield and find out what they were actually like to ride.
Couldn’t find anything online so I asked Sarah, the lady who ran the retreat centre if she knew of anyone renting bikes and the next day a bloke she knows called Anil shows up with three mates and the bike – which had been described as a nine month old model with electric start. They are lovely lads. I tower over them, looking incongruous and over-‐dressed in my old hiking boots and off-‐road gloves – no one that I ever encountered in India wears gloves when riding.
We are all standing on this dusty main road near the Kovalam Light House when I first see it. It doesn’t look 9 months old. It looks about forty-‐five years old. There is no sign of the electric start either. Still on the bright side maybe Gandhi or Nehru had once ridden it. It has that feel. Oh, and there is no paperwork to worry about, no license check and no insurance. As long as I give Anil 450 Rupees a day (about 5 pounds) it is mine forever or as long as it lasts.
Okay, so it’s a 350 Bullet. Bottom of the range, and ancient. I want to ride it regardless. I’d ridden 350’s with kick-‐starts before. Shouldn’t be too hard. Anil’s mates, Michele and Sarah all watch silently as I climb on, check the run button is on, turn the key in the ignition , slap it into Neutral and kick it – hard.
A thin compression sigh and nothing. I kick it again. Nothing. Again. It kicks back – with the force of a small puppy. Another sigh. Several more kicks. Silence. An old man in a Dhoti walks past us incuriously.
Dizzy, a friend of Anil’s, helpfully kicks it a couple of times. It fires up. British biker looks stupid in front of small crowd. I keep it revving as this specimen will only idle if it is being revved. Otherwise it dies every time – and that also means the lights die at night – no worse than that, the lights dim when I slow down – but that comes later.
We head off to the retreat centre. I discover that the front and rear drum brakes are not merely old and inefficient – they are practically gone. I imagine a few shreds of asbestos grazing against the drum when I yank the front brake or stamp on the rear. Or maybe they stopped making those calipers and just use a bit of melon rind instead – that’s how they feel. I soon learn that any kind of emergency braking is out of the question. By hauling with all my strength on both brakes at once I can slow down at something approaching a gentle brake on a more familiar bike, but that’s it. On the bright side it isn’t going to lock up on me too often.
Driving in India is a hallucinatory experience. It defies rationality completely. I thought I could handle riding on roads pretty much anywhere – but this is India. In the three weeks that we are here I find one bit of dual carriageway in Tamil Nadu. It lasts for about two minutes and there is some kind of toll taken by a nine year old boy and a bloke that might be police or not. Everywhere else it’s either a two lane black-‐top or dirt.
The tarmac roads are pretty good actually, not too pot-‐holed and with some lane-‐ markings. It’s not the surface that’s the problem, it’s what drives around on top of the roads. Under completely ordinary circumstances it is normal for every vehicle, from a scooter carrying a family of four – with tiny baby – up to huge ancient trucks, to overtake on blind corners – always. On any given corner at all times someone is overtaking. Sometimes two vehicles are simultaneously overtaking from opposite directions on a road that can barely accommodate three vehicles. More rarely a third vehicle overtakes the overtaking vehicle on the blind corner. I did not see this happen in both directions at once, but I am sure it happens.
There are no traffic lights at all, but randomly and for no apparent reason, there are these quadruple road bumps that have a remarkable effect on all riders and drivers – It doesn’t matter how lethal the overtaking maneuver in progress, everyone slows to an agonizing crawl for these bumps – even while overtaking. It’s like everything just goes into hyper-‐slow motion for a few seconds and then off we go again. Everyone seems to be terrified of these bumps – their suspension is obviously far more important to them than their lives and the lives of their children. Very odd.
So riding on my little piece of history with atrocious brakes in daylight – with Michele on the back, who does not like riding pillion, I can enjoy these endless overtaking dramas almost every minute. Add to this the other quirk the drivers have here of going as fast as they possibly can – usually 40 miles per hour is as fast as the traffic will allow – but not very consoling when every single car sits on my tail honking because I am there – unable to overtake the two or three overtaking cars in front of me or pull in enough to let the two overtaking cars behind me have a go themselves.
There are lovely stretches of back road away from the main coast road where I am able to ride through jungle, over rivers, past herds of goats and sacred cows, in blissful peace for a few minutes – but as there is a village every few miles and traffic is heavy in all the villages – I never relax for long.
Instead of indicators or hand signals everyone just hoots – a lot – and in all situations. The horn does not mean we are about to crash or you are being stupid, it just means get out the way, I am here. I am here!! Move aside. Twenty times a minute. It does not matter if you have no way of moving aside, you get honked – over and over again. There is no road rage. Just this good-‐hearted endless honking. After a few days of angry resistance I am doing it too. If I didn’t it would be even more insane trying to overtake or make a turn.
This chaos continues throughout the day, relentlessly, seven days a week. Adding to the stress are the massive sound-‐systems blaring out Bangra music at impossible volumes as you pass through pretty much every village. Why these exist I never found out.
Then the sun sets and things get much, much worse. In the magic mad half hour as the streetlights start to come on, everyone seems to go completely crazy. Families weave and wobble around on scooters, cars and bikes shoot across main roads without looking. Pedestrians wander around in the road for no apparent reason. As they also work and often sleep on the street, this is no great surprise. There is no such thing as a kerb.
It is the end of the day and all these happy, fearless, exhausted people are heading home as fast as they can in every direction. Death seems inevitable from minute to minute, but I never see an accident. India does however have the highest road death rate in the world, so somewhere in this huge sub-‐continent people are definitely dying – just not in my field of view.
Then night falls and the inadequate and patchy street-‐lights prove almost useless. As soon as I have the bike we get an unseasonal monsoon and my first night ride – a ten kilometer commute from the centre to our hotel turns into a thirty kilometer hell-‐ride on wet reflective roads, trying to find a narrow side turning in pitch darkness against endless oncoming trucks and cars all with full beams – no one even imagines that it is dangerous or rude to drive towards another vehicle with full beams – everybody always does it and that is that.
My own full beams seem to cancel out the dipped headlights, replacing their dim view of the road ahead with a dim view of the treetops. The haze in the air reflects light in interesting ways, creating halo and flare effects, which further reduce visibility. I have these red-‐tinted night riding goggles which I carry everywhere but they are proving to be a liability in India. I opt for the clear half-‐ visor in my helmet after some days of riding around like a human mole in a pea-‐ soup fog.
As the Enfield’s lights dim and basically go out whenever I reduce revs, I find myself having to brake and rev at night just to see where I’m going – This has the effect of compromising my less than ideal brakes. Oh well.
Oh, did I mention that the kick-‐start doesn’t? Dizzy had a fluke success with it that first day. My Enfield is the little bike that just won’t start. After days of endless kicking in 32 degrees of heat and massive humidity, I pretty much give up with the kick-‐start and develop a brilliant new strategy – always park on a hill! The Enfield bump starts easily as long as it’s in neutral when I start the descent, then slap it into second and ease in the clutch. Works like a dream.
So I start looking for hills wherever I go, even if I don’t particularly want to go up the hill for any real reason, still – it’s a good hill, I think I’ll have some Chai up there. Good idea. The Chai is fantastic and addictive here, nothing like the
horrible crap the girls (it is always the girls, sorry) order in Starbucks. This is really spicy, intense, sweet stuff that comes in tiny little paper cups like espresso cups. I can’t get enough of it.
And wherever I leave the Enfield a crowd of lads tends to gather – they love the bike and want to know all about me, for no immediately obvious reason. “That is a good bike. My brother has one. A very strong bike. Very good” I agree. It would seem churlish to mention the brakes etc. They always assume I live in India, never that I am a tourist. I slowly realize that no one within at least 100 kilometres of here rents these bikes. A few tourists rent scooters. I think they are insane. Everyone else takes tuk-‐tuks and cabs.
I also attract attention because I wear a helmet – although the law says everyone has to, very few people do. Also Michele does not ride side-‐saddle like almost all the women here do. So we are an oddity.
The only downside to my excellent hill strategy is that the retreat centre is in a flat valley floor. So after the token five minutes of trying to kick-‐start the un-‐kick-‐ startable, I usually require Michele to give me a push, something she looks forward to all day, enjoys immensely, and never complains about even once.
The accident comes on the fourth day of riding. It is morning. I am ridng through a busy village at about twenty miles an hour when a bald middle-‐aged man on a grey plastic scooter of some sort decides to simply drive right across me without a glance. I am on the main road. He is crossing two lanes very slowly without looking – on a blind corner of course. I roar at him to get out of the way as I brake or should I say “brake”. He takes no notice. He may have hearing problems as well as no road sense at all.
You know how in an accident everything seems to happen very slowly. It’s just like that – except everything is actually happening very slowly.
The Enfield slows gracefully – at about the speed the Titanic slowed as it approached the iceberg. Now I am doing ten mph. Now five. He is doing about two. Still yelling with murderous outrage I tap him with my front wheel. A bit of the grey plastic cracks off his scooter. He seems not to notice. I lean over him and treat him to a minute of my own brand of London style testosterone-‐fuelled rage.
I tell him he is a bloody idiot and many other things. He stares fixedly ahead, seemingly unaware that a very angry man that outweighs him by about a hundred pounds is screaming into his face. He slowly continues towards the kerb
– I mean where the kerb would be if kerbs existed here. He is not bothered about
the damage to his bike. I learn a lesson. India is not concerned with the righteous objections of one angry Brit. Never was and never will be. We continue on as though nothing has happened.
At some point in our time in Kerala, I realize I really like this bike. It’s absurd, prehistoric and incredibly difficult in so many ways, but it really is a good bike. It deals with dirt roads easily – the soft suspension eats up ruts, sand and mud with
no problem. A few times I have to really push it to get out of soft, slushy places and it is a piece of cake. The 350 pulls up hills nicely even with 350 pounds of us on the back – most of that weight is me, by the way. Going down really steep tracks with bad traction is also fine, as long as I lean hard over the bars and let the engine braking do the work instead of the brakes.
And there is that feeling – I’m riding through that exotic jungle landscape on a Royal Enfield, with the sound track blaring out from those village speakers – it is a timeless, romantic experience. It is just exactly what I imagined it would be. If you can do this and love it, against all sane reasoning and discomfort, you can ride anywhere – at least on a road. I think every mile ridden here is equivalent to about fifty in Europe or the States. Hard to explain why. It’s like the tea – intense.
Funny -‐ the same thing happened to me in Kenya a couple of years ago. Resistance. Refusal to accept things as they are. And then you either just want to escape or you fall in love with the place. It’s not logical It just happens. Maybe there is one reason that is so obvious you don’t notice it straight away. Amidst all the poverty and the difficulty and the suffering, there is so much happiness and plain friendliness. It is irresistible.
The last day I have the Enfield I am sitting on a wall – on a hill of course – chatting with a bloke called Ravi, whose brother has one of those 500 Electras with the military paint job. We agree that it is a very nice bike indeed. Ravi says he would like to own one sometime. I agree again. They creep up on you those Enfields and the next thing you know . . .
Terence Gross is a director and screenwriter. He can be contacted through his production company, The Wild Night Company . His life partner, Michele Pernetta, has developed a new, extremely effective form of hatha yoga called “Fierce Grace”