Across the Hindi Belt


SHIVPURI, MADHYA PRADESH, INDIA — The night before leaving Delhi, I found myself stuck in yet another staggering traffic jam on one of the east-west arteries crossing the south side of town. As I gingerly split the lanes in 1st gear, the driver of a car I squeezed past rolled down his window. “Are you the man from the Hindustan Times?” he asked.

“Why yes,” I said, surprised at my first-ever taste of celebrity. “Yes I am.”

“You’re crazy!” he said, and gave me the thumbs-up, with a head bobble thrown in for good measure. I continued on my merry way at 3km/h, sitting a little more upright on my increasingly sagging saddle. I spent the rest of the ride admiring myself in my mirrors, pondering whether or not I should put on my sunglasses so as to look even cooler. My fifteen minutes weren’t up just then, either. Later on in the evening, while waiting by the side of a highway for a friend to show up, another stranger — this time on a motorbike — recognized me, pulled over, and asked if I was that guy from the paper. He had to get a picture, and so did I.

The second recruit to the Vespa360 Project Army

I didn’t have enough time to let my head swell too much, though, because I was off to Agra the next morning, and it’s hard to conceive of anything more devastating to the ego than a long two-wheeled ride on a North Indian highway. I very, very quickly learned that there’s a clear pecking order on those roads, with trucks and buses at the very top, and motorcycles and scooters way, way down at the bottom, below even pedestrians and cattle. Buses and trucks and minivans and cars swerve and lurch all over the roads as though you don’t even exist. It’s shocking at first, this wilful blindness of Indian drivers to the existence of the people on bikes — actual human beings whose lives, in theory, have some value — sharing the road with them. The carelessness with which they drive seems to be in inverse proportion to the mass of other objects in their way, which could lead a person to think their primary concern is the paint and bodywork of their own vehicles, and not much else besides.

Heading out of the Delhi proper, I made my way south to a tangle of 6-lane suburban highways, but not before rounding a bend and nearly going head-first into the rear end of an elephant that was loping along surprisingly quickly in the left lane. I laid off the throttle and cruised along sections of brand-new elevated highway, which was fascinating if only for the fact that pedestrians and cattle had somehow made their way up there. They wandered along these soaring concrete ribbons, fifty feet above the chaos of the city, and I made a mental note that for the rest of my time in India I should never, ever assume that the road ahead of me would be clear of obstacles.

There’s no clear line indicating where India’s capital ends. After an hour of two of riding, the Delhi cityscape petered out into a less-intense stretch of human settlement lining National Highway 3. Some farmland was visible here and there, but the 4-lane road seemed to extend through what was, essentially, one endless village. I stopped to fill up, noting with pleasure that Indian gas stations feature specialized pumps where owners of two-stroke bikes can specify, using a digital touchscreen, 1%, 2%, and even 3% pre-mix of two-stroke motor oil with their fuel. I got a real kick out of the marriage of the modern sophistication of the iPhone-like interface, and the filthy, greasy primitivism of two-stroke combustion engines. Sunny back at Vespabretta had strongly recommended I add a bit of oil to my tank for the first thousand kilometres of my rebuilt engine, to go with the 2% mix automatically generated by my PX200’s luxurious on-board oil pump, and, fearing a piston seizure, I did as I was told and filled up with 1%. (Likewise, Joern over at the Vespa360 Project’s remote command centre in Hamburg had long ago advised me to “always keep an eye on temperature and lubrication. Just like in real life.” Those Germans can be pretty forthright sometimes.)

I crossed into the state of Uttar Pradesh, a slice of real estate smaller than Great Britain but with three times the population. This heartland of the so-called Hindi Belt is notable for being the world’s most populous sub-national entity.

The rest of the road to Agra was more or less tolerable. The scenery was nicely weird, too: I must’ve passed a hundred camels that afternoon, some of them hauling wagons at a fair clip, but most of them just hanging out on the side of the road.

I’d been told that Agra, apart from its defining feature of the Taj Mahal, wasn’t the most pleasant of destinations in India, and that there was some seriously bad juju about the place. Rolling into the dust-choked city at dusk, I regret to say that that was absolutely correct. Traffic wasn’t just manic but also somehow menacing, and I marvelled at how a town less than a tenth the size of Delhi managed to make navigating it every bit as stressful. I made a few wrong turns near the centre, and found myself again and again stuck in the jostling crowds of rickshaws, trucks, motorcycles, and pedestrians while sweat dripped down my back and my wrist ached from constant working of the clutch. I also started hearing male voices hollering above the din of my bike’s engine. They sounded like dogs barking. I’d never heard it before, and it sounded something like this:


In more crowded areas, the voices grew in number and volume and it sounded like this:




It took me some time to realize they were yelling at me. My hopes of somehow blending in (and being ignored) in India with my bike were dashed; my Vespa was nearly identical to the millions of Bajaj or Chetak or LML scooters plying the Indian roads, and very little of my skin could be seen by pedestrians, yet something about my appearance was definitely off and screamed ‘tourist.’ The “HEY!” treatment persisted everywhere I went in Agra. Did they just want to provoke a reaction from the white guy, like a person tapping on the glass at an aquarium? At any rate, it became incredibly annoying, and as I rode along I lost myself in elaborate fantasies in which I’d park my bike, march up to the worst offenders, and holler “HEY!” in their faces like a drill sergeant until I provoked a physical confrontation. In these fantasies, I’d always win the ensuing fight, and the whole town would know to not yell at the crazy white man any more. It was the first time I noticed the uncanny ease with which this part of India could send me over to the dark side; there was something about the place, the on-edge feel of its cities, the ever-present sensation that things could go horribly, horribly wrong at any moment and with no good reason, and it started wearing off on me.

With my mood swiftly darkening, I’d occasionally I’d glance down at the CRM-114 mounted on the dash to see where I was. Invariably, my eyes would fall upon this:

Engineers at the Garmin Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri wisely developed software that doesn’t only plot your location but also monitors patterns in your movements, and if you’re moving slowly and erratically enough, it guesses that you’re no longer riding but walking. Pretty clever stuff. Their motorcyclists’ version then asks if you’d like to switch to something called Walking Mode, as seen above. If you select that, your little motorcycle avatar is replaced by some clown shoes, and the unit stops taking into consideration one-way streets and that sort of thing. This is all well and good, but there’s something… cold about their approach. The prompt is somehow too technical, too robotic. I went ahead and mocked up a UI that offers the rider a more personal touch:

In all seriousness, Garmin’s designers built into the device a modal dialogue box that, if you’re not in fact walking, obscures the entire map right at the moment when you’re heavily stressed and need to see it most, and demands that you risk an accident by taking a hand off the controls just to press Yes or No and resume normal use. And the feature can’t be turned off.

Now, Garmin, I really do love your product. Apart from the very ’90s look of the UI, it’s reliable as all get out and it’s gotten me out of a lot of sticky situations. I’m only peeved here because I emailed your tech support to see if there was some way I could dig into the device’s registry and switch off that prompt, and got no reply. And then I tried emailing your dev team to submit a feature request, and they were silent there too. For the love of all that is good and holy, please issue a firmware update that lets users switch this feature off; during my two months in India, I was saying “no” to Walking Mode at least ten times a day, which makes me wonder how this release even made it past the first round of beta testing. Your promotional material says the Zumo was designed and tested by bikers, but I strongly suspect that they did all their testing in smooth-flowing traffic in Western Europe or North America. Incorporating that switch is four man-hours of development, tops, and will undoubtedly prevent distracted bikers from Rio to Delhi to Jakarta from hurting themselves — and others.

I FOUND A CHEAP GUESTHOUSE in Agra recommended by Lonely Planet, and it was fine, if not a little too predictably backpacker-oriented, with banana pancakes for sale and a crowd of pushy rickshaw-wallahs hanging around the entrance and hassling every tourist coming in and out of the joint. From chatting with the other tourists there, I got the impression that they were in town to see the Taj Mahal and then get the heck out of there, to Jaipur or Goa or some other more civilized place. I was there, yes, to see the Taj Mahal, but also to fix some niggling problem with my clutch. (After Vespabretta’s full rebuild and installation of so many replacement parts, something was bound to go wrong.) And so, I set off to find somebody who knew more about Vespa clutches than I did.

I found him about 100 metres down the road. He operated one of the many roadside repair operations you see everywhere in India, and despite his having the bad sense to set up shop next to a very busy open latrine and a building whose entire facade was under renovation and rained hunks of brick down on his workspace all day long, he seemed to know his stuff. When he replaced my clutch cover, he even insisted on installing a new 10-cent rubber O-ring. I found his approach to things wonderfully thorough.

His employees were children, mostly, which was a bit startling to this outsider at first. But then I could see the upside to child labour: they’ve got those little fingers that are great for getting into the nooks and crannies of complicated machinery!

By God, they're cheap

After a couple days of trial-and-error, we finally deduced that the problem wasn’t with the clutch plates or the bushings inside or the gears or any of that complicated stuff. No, the problem was a misshapen clutch basket. Before long, the clutch that was reassembled in my bike was 100% the original clutch that I’d set off with 13,000km ago in Serbia. Which leads me to repeat another of Joern’s very wise aphorisms: don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken.

Having solved that problem, I hopped on the Hamburglar and headed out to take a gander at the Taj Mahal. This Mughal-era testament to romantic love dominates a bend of the Yamuna river, about 5km east of downtown, and getting there is half the fun. I set off east, along the south side of the river, and ran into traffic jam after traffic jam. One market area in particular was as crowded as I’d ever seen traffic, anywhere.

While idling in that motionless pool of vehicles, I heard male voices hollering off to my right, and they weren’t saying “Hey!” for a change. I craned my neck and got a good eyeful of what was going down: it was Indian road rage, in action, in the middle of the traffic! Two red-faced men squared off with one another, shoves were exchanged, and the scrap kicked off. Only it didn’t kick off. The larger of the two combatants simply reached out and got his hands around the littler guy’s neck and squeezed, like that early-era Simpsons gag where Homer throttles Bart and Bart’s eyes comically bulge out. Traffic started moving again, though, and I didn’t get to see how it played out. Strangely, it was a relief to see that. It meant I wasn’t the only guy in that town with frayed nerves.

I chose to approach the Taj Majal from the east, and found myself in a tangle of tiny streets leading up to the entrance. The maze grew steadily more touristy, with rickshaw-wallahs jumping out at me to offer their services. (In case you didn’t notice, I brought my own wheels, fools!) Eventually I was stopped at an ornamental gate of the Taj Mahal, by yet another policeman carrying a wooden Lee-Enfield rifle. There was no way I was going any further, not even for a minute just to grab a picture. I parked the bike, took a picture of some kids, and contemplated my options.

The queue to get in to the Taj was long, like something you’d see at Disneyland, and I resigned myself to just trying to find a nice view of the complex. That was on the other side of the river, it turned out, and I rode back through Agra up to the north end and the only bridge in town for motorized vehicles. Once across, I followed a shortcut recommended by the CRM-114. It took me off a main road and onto a dirt track that wound through a stretch of unpopulated wasteland, a 50-acre expanse of scrub, garbage, abandoned bathroom appliances, animal carcasses in varying states of decay, and naked, defecating children. The smell was powerful, sticking in my mouth as I avoided breathing through my nose.

And a few hundred metres further on, there was a spectacular view of one of the finest architectural gems of the entire Indian subcontinent:

As the sun set, it cast the famous pink light across the white marble surfaces. Coming all that way was worth it.

HEADING SOUTH ON HIGHWAY 3 early the next morning, the Hamburglar and I crossed through a tiny slice of northeastern Rajasthan before entering Madhya Pradesh. Not long after that, Highway 3 started showing its many faces. Much of it was under construction, or left in a state of half-construction, or, by all appearances, was simply cobbled together from a loosely convenient network of narrow, back-40 dirt roads that twisted and turned through countless villages and had NH3 occasionally signposted on it. After the relative speed and sweet ride of the multi-lane highway to Agra, it was not unlike when Wile E. Coyote chases the Roadrunner into a series of tubes that progressively shrink until he’s squeezing out of something the size of a drinking straw.

But I started to get the hang of it. There’s a sort of rhythm you achieve after a few days of difficult riding, a methodical, machine-like mental state where the usual problems of fatigue and too much thinking and easy discouragement simply wither away. That wretched National Highway 3 forced me into that state. Essentially, the formula behind it is this: 1) go as fast as the road surface reasonably allows, and that means having enough time to see cows wandering into your path, or the road ahead suddenly and inexplicably turning to rubble, forcing you to quickly slow to a crawl; and 2) and don’t get creamed by oncoming traffic — much of which is coming at you in the form of two trucks side-by-side, one of which is passing the other. Truckers in India making overtaking manoeuvres don’t make any adjustments for oncoming bikes to squeeze past; when you see a two-lane wall of fancifully-decorated TATA road hauler coming at you, you have to make a quick decision whether or not there’s enough room on the left side of the road to not get hit, and if there isn’t, you have to brake hard and pull off onto the shoulder (if there is one.) This becomes instinctive after a while, and before long you’re maintaining speed with your wheels planted on the leftmost edge of the pavement while ten tons of steel and chickens and semiconductors roars past, mere inches from your brake handle, at a relative 120km/h. It’s pants-shittingly terrifying at first, but after a while you get used to it.

Being on a Vespa, I had the benefit of being only two feet wide, which certainly helped in those tight situations. Trucks in India are considerably wider, and they pay the price. Somewhere past the town of Gwalior, I saw this:

A little further on down the line, maybe ten kilometres, there was this:

There was no sign of the drivers in either case, nor were there any emergency vehicles on hand. It looked as though the drivers of those wrecks just shrugged and wandered off down the road to get some lunch.

Trucks in India don’t take any chances with the cows, though. They give our milky friends extra-wide berth.

As the sun started to set, it also started to rain, and I pulled off the main road towards the centre of Shivpuri, the only sizeable dot on my map for a hundred kilometres. Surely there’d be a decent hotel around there somewhere. Rolling into that town, I enjoyed one of those occasional moments this trip throws at me, moments that are best described as ‘magical’: a light rain was falling, everything was a baleful blue-grey in the dim light of dusk, and some sort of festival, religious or otherwise, was kicking off on the main drag. I still have no idea what that was all about. A flatbed truck loaded with a massive speaker system trundled along, blasting some sort of traditional yet impossibly funky Hindu tune with a thumping 4/4 beat and a deep male voice half-singing and half-speaking, and pedestrians, male and female, bopped along with the mobile party as it rolled by. Nobody yelled “HEY!” at me. Across the way, a frowning man on a colourfully-decorated white horse, himself festooned with flowers and a bright red turban of sorts, locked his eyes with mine and held them there as I slowly rode past. I relished the colourful weirdness of it all, and headed downtown to find a place to stay.


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