Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Zen and the Art of Not Dying Young


There is something romantic, stereotypically so, about motorcycles. When you drop the clutch, growl into fourth gear, open up the throttle, and feel the quarter-ton machine purr beneath you, it’s hard not to smile. Hell, it’s sometimes hard not to hoot and holler.

Now, there are probably better places than India’s free-for-all roadways for a beginner to learn how to ride a bike. But, hey, we only live once…I think. Most of the Hindus here would probably disagree.

A month ago, with the assistance of Kett Singh’s bargaining superpowers I rented a motorcycle for three months for $200 US. I know that I said that climbing to the roof of the speeding Tata truck on the way home from the wedding was the best decision ever. So, I lied. Sue me.
My acquisition of a bike has been glorious for a number of reasons.
When I ride around, or walk around helmet in hand, its as if people say to themselves, “well, the guy drives on our streets. Maybe he’s not just another wacky Rajasthan-in-a-week tourist.” The helmet is the conversation ice breaker; people seem to assume that I am here for an extended stay and, judging by the increased frequency with which I am now approached, feel compelled to talk to me regardless of, in many cases, their lacking English fluency. I say, “Meera nama Benjamin hai,” after which some assume that I speak their language. “Ney Hindi,” I tell them, no doubt sounding like a thick-browed Neanderthal in the process. In the markets also, the helmet has greatly increased the credibility of my haggling. I no longer get ripped off nearly as bad as before.

The motorcycle in many ways has been liberating. It has vastly expanded the explorability of my surroundings. Sometimes I drive around after work, cruising parts of the city that I haven’t seen, or neighborhoods that merit repetitive visitation – there are many. Occasionally I get so hopelessly lost, delightfully lost, that when I kill the engine and step off to take a few pictures, I am quickly surrounded by a friendly mob of curious people, no less surprised to see me than I would be to chance upon them playing their cricket game on some obscure spring-blossomed Portland street.
Now I can leave Jodhpur, venture beyond the city limits without the hassle and unpleasantry of choking on petrol fumes in the back of one of those annoyingly slow rickshaws.

A few weeks ago, and a number of times since, I rode to Mandor, a town ten kilometers from Jodhpur that is famous for its primate infested public garden.


I parked my bike next to the garden’s stone wall. An entrepreneurial teenager skipped over and offered to watch my helmet while I was inside. Sans helmet, I strolled through the park, weaving through many picnicking families. It was a Sunday, India’s only workless day. I’m not sure of the species of monkey that resides in Mandore. They vaguely resemble capuchin, but are much larger I think. In any case they were big enough to cause the ground to quake when, seeing something (someone) interesting, they would eject themselves from the overhead banyan trees like rocket-powered escape pods and come crashing down, howling and screeching, provoking pandemonium among the picnickers.


The monkeys live in the half dozen ninth century cenotaphs that jut out from the center of the garden. Vaguely resembling Gaudi’s Barcelona Basilica, the redstone monuments melt from their pointed apexes like beach sand drip-castles. Visitors, and monkeys, are free to enter, even climb all over them. Exploring the ornate, ancient buildings, surrounded by grunting primates, it was easy to imagine where Rudyard Kipling drew his inspiration for “The Jungle Book.” I half expected King Louie, the talking orangutan, to pass by swinging himself on his knuckles.


Passing through the exit gates, I was a bit surprised to see my helmet guardian standing next to my untouched bike; it hadn’t been stripped and sold for parts after all. I gave the kid ten rupees – double what I had promised – and drove back to Jodhpur.


I joined a gym about a month ago. Never again will I grumble about my Portland gym’s (The Circuit Bouldering Gym) lack of free weights and useable equipment. At least the use of the Circuit’s equipment does not present a legitimate risk of limb amputation. Once, at the gym in Jodhpur, my foot slipped while doing seated leg-presses. Loaded with 150 kg, the sharp, un-rounded, rusted metal footplate came swinging down towards me, finally crashing to a halt only centimeters from my shins. I suppose you get what you pay for when a monthly membership is $4.00 US.
I am always filthy after leaving, having done pushups or crunches on the sweat greased floor. Sometimes my workouts are so abrasive that I think a shot of penicillin or a tetanus booster would not be an unnecessary precaution.

The gym, Fitness Planet, is not far, so I usually take the scenic route, tearing up the winding road that leads to Umaid Bhawan Palace, the stately hilltop residence of the Maharaja. The downhill road that leaves the compound passes through an army base. Beyond the barbed wire fences and signs warning of random identity checks, dozens of battle tanks sit in formidable formation, ready under camouflaged awnings. Downshifting and veering onto the main road I motor past the encampments of two tank battalions: the Black Mace Squadron whose sign posted motto reads, “Cut Hard, Cut Deep,” and the presumably more docile, Mighty Mediums, whose sign reads, “Each One, Teach One, Plant One.”

Sometimes a fellow rider will pull up next to me and strike up conversation as we weave, screaming through thick afternoon traffic.
“WHERE FROM?” some of them ask.
“AH-MEI-RRI-KAH,” I yell back over the burp of the engines, in my unperfected Indian-English accent.
“WHY NO GIRLFRIEND?” they ask, staring at me instead of at the road ahead.

I find it very interesting, and telling, that most English speaking Indians have a hard time understanding my metropolitan-Texas accent. I say “metropolitan” because, while I do not have the small town drawl that typifies the Texan’s accent, I speak gutturally, from the back of my mouth rather than my tongue. I shun proper pronunciation of even simple words and tend to roll most of my consonants. I never have problems being understood in the States, but here in India my speech engenders puzzlement.
Wandering into a shop here, I ask, “cigarette lighter hai?”
The shopkeeper stares at me blankly.
“Do you have a see-gahrr-ett li-torr?”
“Seegahrrett litorr! Ha, ha, acha.”

A few weeks ago Kett Singh and I were talking about movies. “Have you seen The Dark Knight?” I asked him.
“Vah kya hai?”
“You know…Batman,” I said.
“What is that, Batman?”
I couldn’t believe that he had never heard of Batman. “You know… Batman! He fights criminals and wears a flying bird costume. C’mon Kett Singh… Bhatt – Mahn.”
“Ah, Bhattmahn! Ha, ha, acha.” Of course he knew who Bhattmahn was.

Early on, I was nervous and too self-conscious to use an Indian-English accent. I felt that my efforts to be understood sounded patronizing. I find now, having been here for two months, that most people are appreciative of my effort to speak in an accent they are familiar with.



I try not to think about crashing. It's not that I'm unaware of or unprepared for the possibility of a wreck... it's just that I don't like the mental images. I improve my odds by trying to stay off the road after dark; very few of the cars, bicycles, pedestrians, bullock carts, pavement dwellers, camels, dhaba carts, pani-puri pushers, or water buffalo have working headlights.
Sometimes, when rocked by an unexpected, unseen pothole, I question the sense of my chosen method of transportation.
Was it the wisest of my decisions? Probably not. Are there more suitable places for a beginner to learn how to ride a motorcycle? Absolutely.
But we only live… a few times (?).
And man am I having fun.


  1. hey ben! it's been years since i've talked to you but i came across the link to your blog through facebook and i've been following your adventures. it all sounds pretty incredible. keep posting!
    -robyn lindenberg

  2. Ah, Hero Honda....mine is driving arond in Delhi somewhere...