Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Delhi traffic and a series of very-near-death-experiences

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Joshua John, easily the coolest Indian guy I’ve ever met and pastor of Capital City Church, was the right person to speak to about riding a bike in India. He rode a Bullet from Delhi right down to the very south of India (about 7000km) with 2 of his friends once and made a documentary about it called ‘Highway Head Rush’. The first time I spoke to him about riding a bike but being terrified of Delhi traffic he told me that most foreigners he knew took a long time before they worked up the nerve to drive, sometimes, he added, only after a few years! I didn’t have a few years, I had a few days. In my mind I gave up on the idea and started researching train schedules and ticket prices. Then I met Jafar (photo) and his son Joseph.

Jafar and his beautiful Iranian family became my bike-and–everything-related godsends and helped me on my bike sourcing expedition. Within 2 days I found and fell in love with a beautiful Yamaha RX 135 and bought it (after Jafar bargained the price down a little).

Purchasing a motorbike was the easy part, I still needed to learn how to ride it and from the mad traffic I’d seen in Delhi, the idea made me go uncomfortably numb.

Jafar had a gentle nature but was merciless as he instructed me, later that day, on how to ride it. It wasn’t how to ride the bike that made me sweat (I’m not a biker but it can’t be that hard) it was the crazy sea of traffic that I would have to maneuver through that had me panicking. It was just after 17h00 (peak hour traffic) when Jafar told me to follow him through the traffic for a test drive and then promptly told his son Joseph and his daughter Mary * to get on the back with me. Panic turned into fear as I tried to kick start, balance the bike and my 2 passengers while trying not to lose sight of Jafar as he raced off on their family scooter. I had no helmet. In the delirium of becoming the owner of a motorcycle I had neglected to buy one. Helmets are compulsory only for men though but even then, most locals ride like rabied bats out of Hell without one.

So there I was, in the middle of the busiest intersection I’d ever seen, on a bike with two Iranian teenagers on the back trying to keep my mind and my hands steady. After 20 minutes of uneasy riding and the occasional stalling I managed to catch up with Jafar and asked if perhaps it would be better if I attempted this madness on my own first. He disagreed.

‘You need to learn control, sister’ he said. ‘If you got control, you take 4 people, 5 people, no problem!’

In that moment I cursed myself for choosing this madman to show me the ropes and as if on cue my heart started beating from a wild and unfamiliar place. Somehow, lost in the madness of a thousand hooting rickshaws, bikes and cars something took over and I steadied myself (albeit out of sheer terror). I saw an order slowly forming in the madness and I learnt an important traffic lesson, don’t be afraid to use your hooter. In South Africa, hooting at someone is an expression of severe disapproval at someone’s driving; here it is simply saying ‘I’m here’. ‘In India’ I would later here a local say ‘you have to make a lot of noise so people know you’re coming’

Jafar’s merciless method turned out to be the best baptism into India that I could have hoped for and I continued onward, a little less terrified, steady and with a helmet, of course.

Travelling by bike, I soon discovered, was not as easy as one-two-three-go and every day my list of things to organize became longer and more complicated. I had to travel light and in my backpack I had one pair of jeans, a few t-shirts, clean underwear, a travel towel, toothbrush, a sweater, riding jacket, a pair of sneakers and my Havaianas. In a smaller bag that I carried with me at all times I had my passport, money, camera, MP3 player and a pair of nylon riding gloves.

In an empty 10kg basmati rice-bag I had the following:

A few extra tubes, spark plugs, clutch and brake cables, spanners, screwdrivers and a bag of candles. The tool bag added another 7kg to my luggage and I soon discovered that I would rarely find the opportunity to use any of it (except for unnecessarily changing the occasional spark plug). India is far more bike-aware than South Africa and I could always find a bike mechanic without too much trouble.

1 comment:

  1. You are so brave! God honours the brave. I am so proud of you! You are a great inspiration to follow your dream no matter what. Don't let fear stand in your way. I really enjoyed riding sideways on the backseat of the Bangkok motorcycle taxis, the only way to conquer the traffic. I always feared for my legs but the kept safe distance at all times even when they made their way through the cars.I so enjoy your blog! Reading it over and over again.