By now I am used to the routine. First, it is a look of utter disbelief mixed with suspicion, then awe before breaking out into an all-out grin and a flurry of questions. As much as I would be tempted to cut my interrogators short by stating my own requirements--a meal or board for the night, maybe a shower, I have learned to practice restraint.
I can't blame them for their curiosity, really. A dust coated and shaky legged rider on an only slightly grimier and overladen motorcycle, who by his own admission has no other reason for undertaking the journey but to see India by road, is hardly the regular visitor of an Indian hotel or restaurant.
No other transport allows for a greater interaction with the surroundings, especially in India where every corner seems to manifest an astonishing new aspect of the unpredictable kaleidoscopic wonder that is this country: an unannounced religious procession in full color with elephants and costumed gods; a thunderous waterfall; or just a traffic gridlock 14,000 ft above sea level.But, why a motorcycle ? Isn't it dangerous? Where do you stop at night? How does your family react, and are you married?
Of the myriad questions, explaining why I prefer a motorcycle over a bus or a train is the easiest.
Besides, how else can a sore butt, bloodshot eyes and shaky arms be borne with a sense of accomplishment? What else would make people stare with jealousy or admiration as you pass? Not to mention how else would you stumble across the opportunity to stay in a parachute tent in the middle of the Himalayan desert or relax with a chai at a wayside dhaba--the ubiquitous truck stops lining the Indian highways--or spook out the receptionist of the hotel when you rode in for the night.
Every year, several hundred wheel-crazed travelers arrive in India with plans to explore the subcontinent on a motorcycle--riding over the frozen Himalayas or through the sweltering heat of the Rajasthan desert to the humid greenery of the south. Some sign up for an all-inclusive guided motorcycle safari, others just rent or purchase a machine and find their own directions. But all come here with the intent of riding; few find themselves on a saddle by a fluke.
Though by no means a rider's paradise with pockmarked roads, chaotic traffic and the ever-present wandering holy cows, motorcycling in India has limitations, but a distinctive appeal as well. The majority of which belongs to the thrill of riding a Royal Enfield Bullet.
The sole remnant of the once glorious British Motorcycling Industry, Enfields are still manufactured in India and are available in 350cc and 500cc models, differing little from the 1958 UK models (Enfields re-badged as Indians were also sold in the U.S. during the Fifties). Terribly outdated, but of robust construction with an easy availability of spares, the 4strk singles are the clear favorite among the motorcycling travelers in the country (although an occasional tourist might be spied puttering along on a Vespa or a Japanese bike).
The roads might not be silky nor the machines without glitches, yet motorcycling in India gives very powerful insights into life in this vast and diverse country. More importantly, traveling by motorbike provides adventurous travelers with the opportunity to learn how we face the various extremities thrown at us. It gives us the chance to see ourselves when one maniacal truck driver almost pushes you off the road while another offers shelter during a flash blizzard atop the Baralacha La. Similarly, whether trying to connect with a bunch of villagers praying at Lake Pushkar or celebrating Bob Dylan's birthday in Shillong, the motorcycle is only a one part of what is involved while touring India. A mode of transportation, yes, but a potent tool of self-development as well.