Monday

I've created a new website at http://www.clstambush.com. The story of this journey that I started writing about here years ago is now a book titled Naked on the Edge: a Motorcycle, a Goddess, and a Journey Around India. Details of its publication can be found at http://www.clstambush.com. 

At the new website, I blog about the craft of constructing an adventure story by examining the problems I’ve encountered while writing mine plus the solutions discovered. I also write slice-of-life stories about what it is like as a lone woman living in India. The backstory to my memoir of Naked on the Edge: a Motorcycle, a Goddess, and a Journey Around India

You can now read the Prologue and Chapter 1 of Naked on the Edge at my site  http://www.clstambush.com.

If you've enjoyed reading this adventure story and would like to be a part in helping it become a a book you can hold in your hands, then please join me. Become a follower and help me generate readers that will in turn help make this story a book. 

Thanks to all of you who have read this blog in the past and written such encouraging thoughts.


Best, 
cls

P.S. Tell your friends!

Thursday

July 2009

Hey, just wanted to let you know that in a few days I'm going to change the look of this blog. It may go to a new address or I might just freshen up this site. Not sure just yet. In the mean time I'm thinking of ways to make this a bit more interactive for readers and fun.

I was recently interviewed by an inspirational website called the Mt. Everest Mind Camp (www.mteverestmindcamp.com). Check it out. Stephanie's got a cool site that many of you will find inspriational.

Best,
cls

Saturday

March 2009 Update

Hello,

I wanted to let you all know that I'm still here although, as you know, I've not been posting anything new. I have been locked away in a cabin on the coast of Maine for the winter, and boy has it been an wild winter. I can tell you that the work on the book is coming along. The book, while the story is the same, is very different than the postings in this blog. I think, hope, if you buy and read the book, when, if ever, it comes out, you will be pleased with the finished work.

Since I have my eye on publishing this work, it will be important for me, in this computer age, to have contact information for readers who want to be kept informed of publication, readings, signings, and any other author stuff involved with publishing a book––which is not at all certain in today's economic situation. Still, it can't stay down for ever.

With that in mind, I you read this blog and want to be added to the list, let me know and one day, when I have a Twitter account, you will hear from me.

Thanks so much for all the loyalty and encouragement you have given me. Without you I am but a solitary writer.

Best,
C.L. Stambush

Tuesday

just a note

Hello, readers --

I wanted to let you all know that I'm still working on the writing of the book. I've been back in India for the past 2 months and now it is time to get back to the page. I thank you all for reading the past postings and hope you will still be interested in the story when it is published as a book.

I'll be in touch with more news on that front as I have it. Keep your fingers crossed...

cls

Thursday

Stolen addresses

It seems someone has infiltrated my address book for this blog and is sending junk mail to readers. I profusely apologize for this and have taken steps to report the theft to Google. If you are still receiving these junk mailings, please let me hear from you. I'm doing everything I can to stop this.

Again, I'm very sorry for the intrusions.

cls

Saturday

Welcome



Dear Readers,

Welcome to the story of my solo motorcycle journey around India on a Royal Enfield Bullet in 1997. This blog reads from beginning to end, in chronilogical order like all stories. So... scroll to the end for the most current postings. There are dates by the title to help you know when that chapter was posted.

New chapters will be posted the first of each month. This is slower than most blogs but I do not want this site to outpace the publication of my book.

Enjoy.... And let your friends know about the blog.

C.L. Stambush

The Beginning (Sept. 26, 2005)

I should start by telling you that I was not a motorcyclist when I decided to ride solo around India -- a journey that would last five months and carry me over roads stretching nearly 4,500 miles; a journey that would take me across scorching desert tracks, monsoon washed-out roads, and up mountains via switchback lanes. Before any of this happened, I had a good job and considered myself the girl-next-door type because my life had followed a predictable path; but there is one thing I need to clarify, I was not a girl. I was a woman, and in some countries I would have been considered a middle-aged woman. I was also someone who had been handed the opportunity of a lifetime and took it, even though I didn't know at the time what I was getting into.

I was 32 years old when the company I worked for announced it was downsizing and relocating from the Midwest to the East Coast. At first it seemed a dream come true (I loved the life working in corporate America afforded me), but after a hard look at what my new life would be like after the move, I decided to give up my 14 years of employment with the company, sell my car/suits/furniture, and buy a backpack and an one-way ticket to Germany. (Germany won because of a coin toss: heads was a cheap ticket to Frankfurt and tails was where I really wanted to go -- Ireland. Cheap won.)

At the time I decided to take off, I was a person who liked fancy living. I earned a good salary editing and I liked spending that money. In the 16 years I'd been driving, I owned seven cars -- three of them were brand new. I liked fine hotels when I traveled (once, I refused to stay in a major chain hotel because I found it dirty) and fine food -- nothing served on Styrofoam -- when I ate out. I want you to have this little snapshot of my previous life so you'll have some perspective when you see where I end up. But before I can end up anywhere, you need to know how it all began.

Remember, I told you I was not a motorcyclist. My only riding experience was the weeklong ABATE motorcycle training course I took in an empty parking lot in Evansville, Indiana, two months before buying the Bullet. I'd been living and working in New Delhi for a couple of years after wandering through Europe for two years. While that is another story, it was in Turkey I was first struck with the idea of riding a motorcycle. I'd been confined to public transportation and was frustrated with constantly traveling on someone else's timetable. One day while riding a bus, I spied a little road out the window. In a flash I saw myself riding free and unfettered on a motorcycle. It was one of those mini daydreams that I have but never expect to act on, and even if I did I would never choose India to ride a motorcycle in. In my daydream, I was the only vehicle on the road; this is not the case on India's roads. India has the highest rate of accidents and fatalities of any road system in the world. (This might be disputed by other nations, although why any nation would want to claim such a dubious honor is beyond me.) In a country like India where population figures are sketchy and accidents go unreported, the fact that the government can account for so many crashes to claim the number one spot was frightening enough when I read the reports, but beyond comprehension once I was mixing it up on the roads with trucks, Ambassador cars, three-wheel auto rickshaws, two-wheelers (both with and without motors) and pedestrians. But let's get back to why I was there.

In India, I freelanced first for national papers both in the United States and abroad before taking a job as an editor for the Women's Feature Service, an international wire service based in New Delhi. At WFS, I edited stories written by women living in Third World countries so they could be published in mainstream media, so their voices could be heard around the world. The more I read and edited, the more I learned about conditions in India, the more I wanted to see for myself how the people lived. That is when the motorcycle daydream I’d had on that bus in Turkey resurfaced. What better way to see a country and meet its people than on two wheels? When my one-year contract ended, I bought Kali -- my 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle and developed a plan: to ride along the coast of India, meeting as many people as I could in hopes of understanding where I fit in this world.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

The Bike (Sept. 27, 2005)


In India, there is only one choice of bike to ride. She (as motorcycles are known) is called a "thumper" because of the beating sound her single-cylinder and exhaust system make. It is the sound of a giant's heart beating that cuts through the cacophony of India's every-day noise.

The Townsend Cycle Company of Great Britain built the first Royal Enfield Bullet in the late 1880s. But since 1963, the four-stroke, single cylinder thumper has been produced by Enfield India Limited in Madras. Every Indian male dreams of owning a Bullet, its classic cruiser style unchanged since 1955.

Its torque is 3.5 kgm at 3000 rpm; its front brake, a twin-lead seven-inch drum, the rear a six-inch drum -- pedal operated on the left; and, an electrical system with a 12-volt battery and coil. The gears, one down and three up, lever with the right foot. The tank holds 3.8 gallons of fuel, with .33 gallons in reserve. The speedometer claims a maximum speed of 78 miles per hour, but the optimum is 25 to 50.

The Royal Enfield Bullet, when dry, is a 370-pound handmade machine. No plastic parts. It’s simple enough to be assembled with a wrench and a screwdriver. The gold pin striping on the tank is a final touch by man’s hand.

It is a naked bike. Stripped down to expose a simple kick-start engine. One you can put your hands on. It’s a workhorse built for India’s god-awful roads. The simplest of the three Bullet models cost over $1,000; a royal two-wheeled chariot for those who could afford it in a country where a family man earns an average of $1,500 annually.

The company touted it as a “man’s machine.” But I disagreed.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Buying the Bullet (Sept. 30, 2005)

I talked my neighbor, Thomas, into going with me to shop for a bike. He had owned many motorcycles in his life (including a Bullet) and knew where to go and what to ask. The day was clear and bright when we climbed into the back of an auto rickshaw and headed for a dealer in Old Delhi. The twisted streets of Old Delhi were jammed with the ever-present round Ambassador cars (both private and taxis), auto rickshaws, motorcycles, bicycles, bull-ox carts, and pedestrians. Our drive came to a jerky stop in front of what looked like and abandoned store. The windows were coated in thick dust and all was dark inside, but Thomas seemed to know what he was doing so I followed him inside.

Thomas approached slight Indian salesman, whose hair smelled of coconut oil, and explained that I wanted to buy a Bullet.

"Yes, sir. Which one would you like to buy? We have two Standard 350s and one Deluxe model. Please, come this way," he said ignoring me while motioning for Thomas to follow him.

Seeing that I was going to be ignored no matter what Thomas said, I walked over to one of three Bullets that occupied the so-called showroom and climbed onto it. The motorcycle did not feel up to its reputation of being solid, sturdy, uncrushable. It wiggled under me, feeling delicate, fragile, collapsible.

I heard Thomas saying, "Don't talk to me about motorcycles, she is the one buying," but even his loud insistence did not deter the salesman who continued to encourage him to "take a look, sir."

Thomas was walking away from the perplexed-looking salesman when I decided to approach him. His brown eyes snapped my way, seeing me for the first time, then glanced at the retreating Thomas. I opened my mouth to speak, but he turned without a word and disappeared through a shabby curtain-covered doorway, never to be seen again.

Back on the street the sun seared into us. Not yet noon and already the temperature was 106 degrees. It was hard not to take the salesman's treatment personally, but I reminded myself things were different in India. Here it was disrespectful to the man to speak directly to a woman if she was with him. On the surface, it appeared men made the decisions; men bought motorcycles. And, if advertising told me anything, then is was the only role women had with motorcycles was to drape their half-naked bodies across them in hopes of boosting sales. But I would not be a naked rider. I would layer my body in so much protective gear it would be hard for people to know what sex I was. But that is a story still to come.

At the next motorcycle shop small boys in greasy t-shirts and tatty trousers rushed about as I stared at the immense variety of bikes: red, blue, grey, black, 350cc, 500cc, standard, deluxe, import. Thomas eased comfortably past it all toward a desk where an authoritative man in his thirties sat behind a nameplate.

Ajeet Singh smiled, showing a neat row of tiny teeth and nodded his indigo-turbaned head. He, too, tried to sell Thomas a motorcycle at first, but he was savvy in the ways of farangs and knew female foreigners could be dealt with directly. We sat; chai was served in cracked china cups the size of a child's tea party set, and Sahib Singh listened, sipping the spicy sweet tea as I detailed the kind of motorcycle I wanted.

"Of course, madam. As you like, madam," he said perfunctorily, as if he sold motorcycles to women everyday. He listed the prices of various bikes then added, "Excluding optional upgrades, of course."

He told me what he wanted me to know, letting me feel as if I'd cleverly extracted all I needed to know from him. Thomas sat silent.

Singh and I shook hands, agreeing that in two weeks I could claim my motorcycle: a 350cc Deluxe fitted with the tank and the superior front-disc brakes of the 500cc. Singh's workers would paint the tank black (it came in grey) and replace the knob-handled tool boxes with twin locking ones. These were "optional upgrades, of course," and I was charged extra. Singh would keep the original parts, squirreling them away in his stock room for resale, without mentioning a word of this to me, of course. I promised to return in three days with 25,000 rupees cash as a down payment, the balance due upon delivery. I was smug, thinking I'd finagled a great deal. Later, I figured out I'd paid $1,400 for a motorcycle worth $1,200, not to mention all the extra parts I'd let Sahib Singh keep.

Of course, this was relatively painless compared to what would come.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Virgin Voyage (Oct. 1, 2005)

To get the bike home, I haggled Thomas into helping me fetch her. I hated the idea of riding on the back, but I wanted to arrive in one piece. I knew if I rode alone in rush hour, I stood a good chance of wrecking.

When we got to my neighborhood (known as colonies in India) the sun had nearly set but I was determined to ride in an area I considered safe. In Nizamuddin East the streets were quiet and traffic-free. As I slipped into my jacket, Thomas had some advice for me.

"Practice braking. It's the single most important skill you'll need in India. Drivers stop anywhere and everywhere for any reason, and you had better be ready for it," he said, running a hand through his closely cropped hair. He knew what it was like on the roads and I wondered if I knew what I was in for.

Thomas, a tall blond German, liked things done right, but I was nervous and excited, and more than a little afraid I had forgotten what my ABATE instructors in Indiana had taught me. So in my eager anticipation to ride, I stopped listening to what Thomas was saying. I focused on the bike. My motorcycle. There she stood (or rather leaned), waiting for me. My Kali. I had named the bike after the goddess of destruction and rebirth. She is the fiercest goddess in the Hindu pantheon, and I figured a good friend to have along. I figured I was going to need a friend.

"Okay, Thomas, I'll focus on braking," I said pulling my helmet over my head. I would practice all the skills I knew: straight-line riding, shifting, turning, and braking. In the months to come, would hear Kerry and Bill, my Indiana instructors, shouting in my head: "Brake!" or "Look where you are going" for most of the journey. But for now, I wanted to feel her rolling under me. I wanted to feel the vibration between my legs. I wanted to experience the power, control, freedom of owning and riding a motorcyccle.

I mounted, kicked Kali to life, eased out the clutch and rolled on the throttle. The bike lugged then smoothed out, steady and straight. As I rounded the corner out of Thomas's sight, she sputtered and died.

"Great," I thought, "I got a lemon."

When I did not return, Thomas came looking for me.

"What happened? I thought you crashed," he said.

I shrugged and continued thrusting the kick-start lever down over and over again. My weak leg quivered but I had many kicks to go before developing a kick-start leg.

"Let me try," Thomas said.

I got off without protest; I'm ashamed to admit. He swung his leg over the saddle and pumped the lever with several swift strokes. Nothing happened.

"I think you're out of petrol," he said.

Generous Ajeet Singh had sent me home with an empty tank. Thomas wanted me to go get the gas, but I did not want to since it meant crossing Matura Road. At that time of day, every truck, bus, car, three-wheeler, two-wheeler, ox cart, whatever, would be crowded onto the road. I pulled a hundred-rupee bill from my pocket and handed it to Thomas. He looked exasperated, but agreed.

By the time he returned, it was too dark to ride anymore. My virgin voyage had lasted less then 500 feet, and it seemed to me and inauspicious beginning.

In the weeks to come, I practiced every night after work. I donned my denim jacket, lugged-sole boots, helmet, sun goggles, and full-fingered gloves. I stayed within the boundaries of my colony, becoming an amusing sight for my neighbors (who lived behind walls studded with shards of glass) and their domestic help. I would ride a few feet then come to a quick stop. The dhobi wallha smiled and nodded at me as he delivered freshly pressed shirts and salwar kameezes to his customers. The men in the park who clipped the grass with ordinary scissors would stop snipping when I rounded the corner, their jaws slack, scissors suspended over slender blades of grass. Schoolgirls with long black braids clutched each other and giggled when they saw me coming.

I admit to looking freakish, but there would come a day on the journey when wearing layer upon layer of gear would pay off. That, however, was the future, and before I could get anywhere I needed a license to ride a motorcycle in India.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Legal in India (Nov. 1, 2005)

The auto rickshaw driver stopped in front of a towering office building. Around it, men loitered under scraggly neem trees, spitting paan juice onto the stone steps that lead to the bureau of motor vehicle’s office. This was not my first visit to the bureau. I had come a week earlier to pick up a driving manual. I had climbed four flights of stairs and been directed by many men in the over-crowded hallways until I found the office of Mr. Gupta. He sat behind a large desk, hands clasped in front of his chest as I entered the office. He cast a skeptical glance at me when I explained why I'd come before opening a draw and pulling out a driver’s manual.

“Study this book. It contains all the information you will need to know about driving on India’s roads safely,” he said, teetering his head from side to side.

The phrase “drive on India’s roads safely” is an oxymoron. I had had a taste of driving on the roads, and there was nothing safe about it. I took the booklet anyway, fingered the thin pages and hoped it contained some magic. As I turned to leave Mr. Gupta’s office, he called out, “Good luck, madam.”

* * * * * *

Over the next week, I studied the book Mr. Gupta gave me and was now back to see if I could prove I knew about India’s road rules and pass the knowledge test required by the Indian government.

The halls were just as congested with men as they had been the week before. I squeezed between them. Most were there to get either their licenses to drive auto rickshaws and taxis, or were in line doing the legwork for the men who couldn’t be bothered to do it themselves. The building was dark due to one of Delhi’s frequent brownouts and smelled of body odor, cigarettes and urine, knitted together in 120° heat. It was an overwhelming sensation but not an unfamiliar one.

Mr. Gupta smiled, greeting me like an old friend when I entered his office. “Hello, hello,” he began, before launching into a series of pleasantries about my well being. I had dressed in my best salwar kameez for the test. I’d lived in India long enough to know dressing up for the meeting could be beneficial. I declined his offer of tea; I was nervous and wanted to get the test over with.

“Very well,” he said, leaning back into his chair. “Have you studied the book?” He eyed me with such directness, I wondered what he knew that I didn't. But I assured him I had and he began the test. He pointed to one of many road symbols printed on a form trapped under the glasstop covering his desk.

“What is this?” he said, stabbing a thick finger at the symbol for "hair-pin turn."

I explained the symbol’s meaning and what action I was to take as a driver when I encountered this symbol but Mr. Gupta shook his head and pointed to another image. Again I explained it and again he shook his head. He pointed to a third symbol and I described its meaning. Mr. Gupta shook his head a third long shake indicating to me something was wrong.

“Now you have failed,” he said, interlocking his fingers and resting them on his belly while leaning his chair back on two legs. “Why you did not study the book I gave you?”

“I did,” I said. I couldn’t understand what the problem was; why had I failed? I knew the symbols – narrow lane with bridge, hairpin turn ahead, do not pass.

Mr. Gupta picked up the driver’s manual and began reading the meaning of each symbol he had pointed to while testing me. I heard subtle differences in the words he read and those I had chosen to describe the signs’ meanings.

I had used my own words to describe the meanings and not regurgitated the precise language of the driver’s manual. Mr. Gupta had wanted me to repeat the booklet verbatim, anything other than that was unacceptable. I was at a loss, unable to find words to explain myself now after failing to communicate my knowledge moments before? So I smiled at him instead and asked, “What happens now?”

For a moment, nothing happened. It was as if Mr. Gupta and I were frozen in time and space. Then he rocked forward and reached for my paperwork and said, “I will pass you anyway.”

I had been wise to wear the startling blue salwar kameez because even if Mr. Gupta’s ears didn’t work so well at least his eyesight hadn’t failed him. Besides, I knew the road symbols and had been practicing on quiet streets for weeks. I was ready for real traffic.

Mr. Gupta informed me I still had to pass the driving test. For that, I would have to return on Saturday.

“You will need to bring your bike,” he said.

I nodded, knowing that a fancy suit would not help me pass the riding test. This time I would have to demonstrate my skills to the tester's satisfaction.

On Saturday, I arrived at 9 am to find a crowd of young men bunched under the only tree giving any significant shade. They were gathered on the side of a street with a boulevard full of shirts drying on a fence and a juice wallha selling exotic cocktails. I parked Kali next to the many 100cc Kawasakis that the men had arrived on, dismounted, shrugged out of my denim jacket, pulled my helmet off and walked to the end of the line to wait my turn. There must have been 50 men waiting, and every one of them turned to look at me. The smell of oil and gasoline was strong and I was dreading the long wait when I saw a man at the front of the crowd waiving a clipboard and shouting. One by one, the men turned to look first at him then back at me, then repeated the words of the man with the clipboard. The words piled up in a rumble that rolled toward me like a wave and I couldn’t understand any of it until someone nearby helped me out.

“Madam. Madam,” said a boy wearing louse polyester pants and a cotton shirt too big and buttoned wrong. “He wants you to go to the front.”

It was not unusual for a woman to be escorted out of a crowd of men. At train stations women have their own ticket-buying lines, waiting rooms and coaches on the trains. If a woman walks into the post office, she either goes to a line for women only or is ushered to the front of the men’s line. In India’s segregated society it is a common practice. So, I should not have been surprised that I was being given that same courtesy now. But I was. Since swinging my leg over Kali for the first time, I had not felt feminine. I hadn’t felt manly, just not womanly. In any other line I wouldn’t have minded one bit going to the front, but now it somehow seemed wrong. If I was going to ride a man’s machine shouldn’t I also do as men do? Shouldn’t I wait my turn like all the men were? I looked at them, waving me forward, saying, “Go, madam.” I may have felt bad bumping all those men but they seemed okay with it and to refuse would have caused more of a ruckus than I was up to.

I pushed Kali out of the line, rolling her past the Kawasakis and Vespas to the man with the clipboard. I had no idea of what to expect, and looked around for the testing area. But there was no designated testing place like there would be in the States. I handed the man with the clipboard the papers Mr. Gupta had given me. He glanced at them briefly then instructed me on what to do.

“Ride to the end of the boulevard, turn right and come back to me,” he said.

I looked at the traffic. It was light and the street was broad. I geared up, mounted and kicked Kali to life. The man testing me nodded and spit a thin red line of paan onto the pavement. I checked the traffic behind me before pulling out. As I rode I wondered what other skills I would be required to demonstrate before becoming legal to ride in India. I glanced in my rear view mirror to see what the man testing me was doing. I thought I would see him jotting notes on the clipboard, but instead I saw the back of his head. The moment I pulled way from the curb and into traffic, he had stopped watching me. He wasn’t judging my riding skills at all. When I rode back to him, he handed me my paperwork and told me to go inside for the license.

As I walked inside, it dawned on me that in India a license and skill were not the most important things to have. The most important thing was to make it back in one piece. And to make it back in one piece I would need luck. Good Luck*. There is only one way to get that kind of divine intervention. Drivers all over India know it takes the blessings of the gods and goddesses to survive the roads of India. That is why they drap garlands of marigolds over their trucks review mirrors and place burning sticks of incense on their vehicles' dashes. I had made a good start by naming the bike Kali – one of India’s most powerful goddess, but to ensure my safety, I was going to have to do more. I needed to choose a path that would take me to the holiest places so I could pay homage to Kali all along the way. And I was about to find out there were 51 such places scattered across all of India.


(*The words “Good Luck” are painted on the bumper of every taxi, auto rickshaw and transport truck in India.)

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Nuts and Bolts (Dec. 1, 2005)

Bullets break down frequently (or so I was told) and I had no intention of being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a crapped-out bike. I figured I didn't need to know everything about Bullet repair but I needed to know the basics: tire changing, tappet adjustment, carburetor cleaning, chain tightening. I would have to add oil to Kali daily and for that I would carry a 3-gallon jug of 10w/30 lashed to the crash guards. I would have to clean her plugs regularly by scrapping off the carbon buildup with the blade of my knife. And I would have to pray that nothing shook loose and fell off during the trip.

To learn about the Bullet and how to keep her running smooth, I turned to Nanna, my mechanic. He was sitting in his usual seat -- a half broken, cane-bottomed executive’s chair that he had rolled into the only shade available at his workshop -- when I arrived for my first motorcycle maintenance lesson.

“Hello, hello. Sooo... you came at last,” he said, nodding his gray head of hair. The remnants henna still fringed the tips of his hair, giving him an angelic look as the sun splashed through the neem tree rooted at his workshop's fence line.

I could tell by the tone of his voice he had doubted I would show up for the lesson and said so. 'Hmmm' was all he said, a smile teasing at the corners of his mouth.

I’d met Nanna through Thomas shortly after buying Kali. Thomas had been taking his Bullet to Nanna, a Muslim man of few words, since being introduced to him by a group of foreign diplomats who fancied themselves bad boys of the East. Nanna had a posse of foreigners -- men -- who claimed Nanna could pinpoint a bike's problem by cocking his head and listening to the engine. It seemed rather superstitious to me, but if he could teach me anything about keeping my Kali running, I was going to learn it.

Nothing happens in India without first taking chai, that sweet, spicy tea brewed over an open coal fire and carried to customers by chai wallahs and little boys working for the chai wallahs. As I dismounted and joined Nanna in the shade he sent one of his workers to get chai, and I could hardly wait. I loved taking chai, it was such a civilized thing to do in surrounding that were often anything but civilized.

I didn't know what Nanna had planned for me, but I knew it would do no good to ask him. When he was ready for me to know, he would tell me. In the meantime, I took in his place of business which was not one large building where the work was done, but a series of disconnected buildings: one for painting, one for dismantling bikes, one for storage, and a large, weedy lot in the middle of it all that any one but Nanna would call a motorcycle grave yard. In it were a jumble of bikes, some broken down others with weeds growing out of every orifice of the bike. Nanna swore they all worked. "They just need a little repair is all," he would say.

When the chai arrived I began to relax. I was more nervous about the lesson and journey head of me than I wanted to admit.

“That belongs to an old friend of mine,” Nanna said when he caught me staring at an old Norton leaning against the fence near where one of his mechanics was tugging a tube out of a tire. I asked Nanna how long the bike had been there and he casually replied, "fifteen years."

For fifteen years that bike had sat waiting for the owner to return and rescue it. Spiders had taken over the tank and the rubber in the tires had begun to break down. To leave behind your bike was unforgivable to me. The owner had relied on that bike as his sole companion I imagined, just as I would be relying on Kali to get me through the coming months. I could never, would never, leave her behind in India while I went on with my life elsewhere. How could he? How could he? I must have shouted it out because Nanna gazed at me and calmly said, “He had to leave India suddenly, but he will return." I looked at the Norton leaning against the fence, no longer the great steed, no longer able to hold itself up. It was forgotten, a long ago memory in the mind of the man who'd once rode. It was the saddest thing, and I had seen many sad things in India.

* * * * * *

Anis and Poppy poke and probe their screwdrivers into the bikes they were working on, tightening cables and overhauling engines. Sprinkled between their thonged feet were nuts and bolts and shallow pans of gasoline to clean the oily things. Nanna swiveled his chair pretending not to watch their every move while watching them like a hawk. If Poppy tried to skip a step in his repairs or tighten a screw too much and cause damage, Nanna caught him and corrected him.

Poppy, never that serious about mechanics, liked to bide his time in front of a mirror waiting for a director or modeling agent to discover him. He loved to look run his slim fingers through his swooping black hair. His dewy, dog eyes bulging heavy under his lids as a smile played across his lips in a do-you-like-what-you-see look sort of way. I found him fascinating to watch but not necessarily attractive. Too skinny for my taste.

"Well.... Are you ready to work?" Nanna said putting his empty chai cup on the ground.

I nod and go to move Kali into the work area. Anis quickly tries to do it for me and is slightly distressed when I lift her off the side stand and begin rolling her in. If Nanna notices, he makes no comment as he begins listing the things he plans to teach me. First, he will demonstrate, then I’ll do it. Poppy and Anis go to lunch, leaving the workspace to me.

I scribble elaborate notes, drawing -- with a skill that has not improved since first grade -- crude diagrams illustrating engine parts. Nanna’s method is holistic and comprehensive, explaining each interconnected part and its relationship to the others. He explains the basic principals of how the four-stroke engine works, its pistons and valves gliding up and down. With the intake valve open and the exhaust valve closed, a mixture of fuel and air is sucked into the carburetor. While this is going on, the piston (once down) is on its way back up, squeezing and trapping the mixture in a small space between the top of the piston and the cylinder head causing compression. As the piston nears top dead center, the ignition system is timed to ignite a spark when the kick-start lever is pumped, causing a fiery nymph to leap across the gap between the electrode points of the spark plug. With this synergy, fuel begins burning and the gases that form quickly expand in the inferno. Pressure mounts and pushes outward on the cylinder walls, the cylinder head, and the top of the piston. The piston is the only part free to move so it pushes down in the cylinder, turning the crankshaft. The enormity of the power keeps the piston moving through the other three strokes, while a heavy flywheel helps smooth out the surging forces and keeps the crankshaft in motion. As the piston moves downward at the end of the power stroke, the exhaust valve begins to open. When it’s fully opened at bottom dead center, the piston traveling upward on the exhaust stroke pushes the burned gases past the exhaust valve and out the muffler.

Nanna’s talking and talking, and after a while I'm not taking any of his words in. The workings-of-an-engine overview beginnings to sound like the foot bone connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone connected to the shin bone, the shin bone..., and I feel woozy trying to grasp the interconnectedness of it all, but I force myself to pay close attention. I might need to know some of this one day.

He’s teaches me to set the timing. I stop drawing my pictographs and fix my eyes instead on how his blunt fingers loosen the mounting screws and ease the cam in place, positioning the plunger to top dead center. He points to a gap between the breaker points.

“This is what you adjust,” he says, stabbing at the slot. “It is the width of this opening that is important.” Then he looks around and points to a discarded cigarette box in the dust and asks me to hand it to him. "You can't carry every tool, so you need to know how to use what is available," he says as he tears off a flap. “This is your gap measure since you won't have a feeler gauge but you will be able to find plenty of cigarette boxes on the road."

I like his way of teaching me to use what is handy, to use what the India provides me with, and I feel a subtle shift in my lifestyle beginning. A life based on availability and not possessions; things to be used and left, not owned.

I’ve got my hands in Kali's guts when Poppy and Anis round the fence, returning from lunch. Witnessing my stained fingers, they shoot horrified looks at me first, then at Nanna. I’m proud of my “can-do” accomplishments. But I come from a different world. In theirs, everyone has a position and to attend matters beneath your status is a dishonor, and a woman should never take on the role of mechanic. That is there world. In my world, if you want something done right, you do it yourself.



In India, every male with a hammer fancies himself a fixer. Some are good, others brutal manglers. This scares me as I’m already attached to Kali and perceiving her as, well... a “her,” not an “it.” I need to be able to do the simple stuff myself, the rest I need to know how to do so I can supervise it's being done right. Nanna builds my skills around emergency breakdowns and daily adjustments: flat tires, broken cables, a slack chain, soft brakes, loose bolts, leaking oil. Kali, as I mentioned, will need her oil topped off each day.

* * * * * *

I spend fifteen days at Nanna’s workshop, often working beside Anis who does not speak to me, but keeps an eye on my struggles and rushes to help at the slightest indication I might need him. I try speaking Hindi to him and am rewarded with a bob of his wavy black hair and a bashful smile before tucking his head down again to work. Silently we share and pass between us the few tools needed to make most repairs and adjustments. My tool kit for the road will contain: a spark-plug socket; three screwdrivers -- small, medium, and large; needle-nose pliers; three wrenches graduating in size; one mammoth crescent wrench; sandpaper; spare clutch, throttle and brake cables; a foot air-pump; a spare tire tube.

On my last day, Nanna rolls out a vintage tire full of rusty spokes and nesting insects.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“It is for you. You must change the tube,” he says, tossing a new one at my boots.

I sound girly when I tell him it's dirty and he replies "dirt won't hurt me."

First, he pries the tire easily from its rim, working twin levers in a mechanical symphony. The tire pops with the sound of cymbals and he drags the old tube from its tomb. Then he reassembles it and grins at me.

“Your turn,” he says. I can tell from the twinkle in his eye that he has patiently waited weeks for this moment.

In my hands, the levers screech and twist uncooperatively like a pair of cats trying to get away from me. Over and over again I attempt to stab them between the rusted rim and petrified rubber of this ancient relic Nanna has provided me with. But each time, they slip, flip, and clatter to the concrete.

“Did you do something to it?” I joked, but only half a joke because I'm pretty sure he has done something to make it harder for me to get the tube out than it was for him.

Rocking in his throne, Nanna folds his hands neatly across his rounded stomach and smiles. “I have done nothing."

I continue wrestling with the wretched iron as a small audience gathers, watching me sweat and groan. Word spreads pretty fast in India, especially when there is a chance to see a white girl doing hard labor. Everyone from the boy who delivers chai to two women on their way to the market stops to stare, heads tilt, eyes wide, mouths pucker in silent, holy Oms. Poppy abandons his mirror, and Anis covertly steals glances from around the engine he is dutifully dismantling. Nanna enjoys my struggles. I am just about to give up when the tire pops off the rim with such force that I am tossed back on my butt.

“We are done,” Nanna says, an expression of serene pleasure enriching his brown sugar face.
“Now you are ready for the road.”

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Monday

Kali's Emergence (Jan. 1, 2006)

Sooner or later, the day had to come that I would leave New Delhi for the road. I think, in some ways, I had been stalling; afraid to take the very leap I had planned for in so many ways for so long. I had taken the riding course and had received my Indian driver’s license. For weeks I had worked with Nanna learning to repair Kali if – and when – she broke down in the middle of nowhere. My final measure was to protect myself from the dangerous people on the road.

India has a history of dacoits, highwaymen who rob wayward strangers, and I had been reading accounts of robberies everyday I’d lived in Indian in every newspaper and magazine I picked up. So, it seemed, had everyone else I knew. Whenever I mentioned my plans to ride solo around the subcontinent, I was cautioned to carry protection. For a long time I wondered what kind of protection would be appropriate for a woman riding a motorcycle. I mean, I was a woman on a man’s machine after all, wouldn’t that be deterrent enough to someone looking for an easy target. One glimpse of me dressed in black and wearing boots that could really hurt you would tell troublemakers I was not “easy.” Still, I could not ignore the years of conditioning my culture had imparted on my psyche, that the world is a dangerous place for a woman on her own.

The words of well-meaning friends telling me I had better arm myself echoed in my subconscious. I knew I would not carry a gun, that would be ludicrous, and a knife would be useless. Besides, I was not capable of plunging a blade into someone or killing him with a bullet. But there was one weapon common to India I thought I could carry: a lathi, also known as a nightstick.

The police carried them and they were easy to buy. I found one and purchased it, then had to figure out how I would carry it. It would do no good packed away in my panniers, so I decided to have a cobbler fashion it a holster that I could strap to my leg. I know, it sounds ridiculous, but at the time I was not thinking about anything beyond satisfying the niggling urge to carry protection. My self-identity had begun to morph in the days as I prepared for departure. The fear of being alone on the road was working on me in mysterious ways. I did not stop to think about what I thought was right, but let myself get caught up in the thinking of others.

With the lathi lashed to my leg, I figured I could draw it like a sword or lance if I got into trouble. I did not know what kind of trouble might find me, but if it did I would be ready to bash it with my stick. In my mind, my enemies would be cars and busses crowding me onto my side of the road, pushing me to the edge. But did I ever imagine hitting a human?

As much as it embarrasses me to write these words now, I find my actions funny and enlightening at the same time. To confess that I had lost my mind to the thinking of others, to confess that I had begun to see myself as some powerful warrior willing to do damage is to confess that I began to see myself differently. And I had. I would need to, to survive on the road for months. Strapping the stick to my leg is the first moment I can identify where the Goddess Kali made an appearance in my persona.


Kali, the goddess of destruction and rebirth, is far more than a naked black woman with four arms, fangish teeth and a lolling red tongue. Although she wears a garland of skulls and a skirt made from the arms of her enemies while she dances in cemeteries tossing her wild hair, her purpose is not to scare but through worship shed light on ones life. Through her, believers can witness the truth of their ways and thinking, understand how they must change and do something about it.

I was not, am not, a follower of Kali, but I did name my motorcycle after her because I believed she was the most powerful goddess in the Indian pantheon of gods; the one most likely to help me through such a challenging journey. What I did not know was what she would show me about myself as I made my way around the edge of the mighty Indian empire. If it is the small things that make a person, I had taken a big step by strapping the lathi to my leg. I had set myself on a course without contemplating the outcome of my actions. And, as I would learn, actions have outcomes.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Sunday

An Inauspicious Beginning (Feb. 1, 2006)

When the alarm sounded at 4:30 am, I slapped it quiet and rolled over for a few more hours of shuteye. But when the sun woke me hours later, I was mad at myself for oversleeping. My plan to leave before the morning traffic grew to gridlock fizzled as I looked at the clock – 9 am. I glanced around the room wondering what to do first. My saddlebags rested in the corner, packed and ready to go while Kali leaned on her kickstand two floors down.
Thomas and Luise were up, making coffee by the time I dressed. I’d been staying at their home since giving up my own apartment and while they were in Germany; then for a few more weeks preparing for my departure. They were kind people but I’d overstayed my time and needed to go.

Luise made me a cappuccino and Thomas helped me carry my saddlebags downstairs. Once Kali was loaded and I was fortified with a jolt of caffeine I took off. The roads were packed, as I knew they would be at this time of the day and I was nervous. I’d not been riding all that long and was not very proficient at it. As I maneuvered between Ambassadors and Tata buses, I found it difficult to stay seated in the saddle. The day before I’d washed and waxed Kali, rubbing silicon into her saddle, which now made it slippery. When I went to stop at a red light, my inner thighs rode up the tank as I felt the front wheel bump into the auto rickshaw in front of me. The driver and his policeman passenger poked their heads out. I smiled apologetically, but they couldn’t see because of the dupata, helmet, and sunglasses I wore over my face. I wasn’t trying to disguise my femaleness with the scarf; I was just trying to keep out the dust. They muttered something in Hindi, and then laughed. I felt like an imposter. Could they see this woman had no place in their world?

It took an hour to fight through city traffic and onto National Highway 8. A stream of overloaded trucks lumbered along like brightly painted dinosaur. Some struggled to stay on course as their bent axles charted other directions. Life along the road was busy. Trucks lay crippled and crumpled on the side with henchmen huddled, guarding the goods and waiting for help to arrive. Men in polyester slacks and button-down shirts strode along the shoulder, carrying small leather pouches or briefcases. Women, a more rare sight, waited to cross the highway, massive bundles of cut grass piled on top their heads. How they sensed an opening in traffic mystified me.

It didn’t take long for my body to tire. It refused to settle into the vibrations of Kali’s engine, but I pushed on for few more hours, unwilling to allow myself to be so weak so early into my journey, but when it began to sprinkle, I took it as a sign to rest. The landscape had been flat out of Delhi, but since crossing into Rajasthan, hills swelled around me. A red and green sign advertised “Turist restarant. 15 kms head.” The spelling was off, but I got the meaning, thinking a cup chai would help sooth my nerves.

The road presented more dangerous than I’d anticipated. It was nothing like riding in an empty parking lot in Southern Indian. No one prepared me for this. I was run off it six times within the first fifty miles by trucks and cars passing each other, leaving me no where to go but the shoulder. Each time, vitriolic curses spewed from my mouth.

The monsoon’s sweeping, southwest journey across India started six weeks ago, and I was catching the tail end of it…a time of steady rains. On a motorcycle, rain pelts you like tiny cannon balls, stinging any exposed flesh. By the time I reached the restaurants entrance, the rain had turned into a deluge, flooding the drive and soaking me. I couldn’t judge the depth of water pooled before me, and looked around for someplace else to escape into.

A gas station on my left offered hope, but not much. It had no awning over the pumps, or a garage -- just a slim strip of cement jutting from the roof. I edged Kali as close to the wall as possible and dismounted. I covered the bicycle panniers I’d had a tailor fashion into saddlebags, the black and white hand-woven bag by women in Orissa (now strapped to the rack where my pillion – uh, lady’s seat -- used to be) and my sleeping bag with a rain poncho before looking for a dry place for me.

A phone booth attached to the building seemed the most promising, and I stepped into it. Time passed and the rain grew stronger. Water began to rise in the booth, creeping over the toe of my boots, so I stood on a narrow baseboard until water covered that, too. The rain didn’t look as if it was going to let up and I needed a better place to stay dry. That’s when I noticed the booth had a sliding window leading to the inside of the gas station. And, rather than walk around to the front door in the rain, I slid the window open and climbed into the warm, dry office of the gas station.

A thick-set man sat behind a wooden desk, reading a newspaper while two thin men in rolled up pant legs, tried to push the water rushing in the front door back out with squeegees attached to long poles. My climb through the window didn’t raise an eyebrow as I dropped my soggy body into a plastic chair along the wall. My chattering teeth didn’t elicit an offer of chai either as I’d hoped. My failure to understand my position in society as a woman must have unnerved them. With nothing left to do but wait, I fell asleep. When I woke an hour had passed and the rain had relented to a fine drizzle. Six miles down the road I found it bone dry. In another twenty, I too, would be dry.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Saturday

Beginning of a New Me (Mar. 1, 2006)

By the time I reached Jaipur – India’s famed Pink City – I was exhausted. A quick calculation of my first day’s progress told me I’d traveled only 170 miles in six hours of riding, making my average speed 28 miles per hour. The roads’ condition caused the slow ride, and while it didn’t make for record-breaking time it did give me a sore behind. I was not used to the saddle and vaguely wondered if I ever would be. At the moment, however, I did not care. All I wanted to do was find the hotel I had pre-selected from my guidebook, but I did not know how I was going to do that. Every direction I looked, looked the same. Every road I rode down led me back to the same place: a bustling precious gems market in the center of the throbbing city. Jewelry hawkers jangled silver and gold necklaces at me as I cruised by them over and over again. I passed the same necklace sellers so many times I felt as if I’d entered a Twilight Zone episode.

Eventually, I did find the hotel – a two-storey mud colored building crouching at the edge of town. It looked lonely way out there, and the wall encircling it imparted a penitentiary-like atmosphere to the place. The dower expression of the chowkidar who was posted to guard the grounds did not add any friendliness to the place either, but his presence – that of a guard – was exactly why I had selected that hotel. I knew from experience that Indian men loved to fiddle with the controls of unattended motorcycles. Especially Bullets. They couldn’t keep their hands off them, and I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen on this trip, if possible. On more that one occasion I’d come out of a shop in New Delhi to find a man twisting the throttle and flicking the light switch on and off. Sometimes he would be sitting on Kali. But when caught, he never looked ashamed; often he did not even smile acknowledging. He simple ambled away dreaming of the next motorcycle he could molest.

I parked Kali near the chowkidar – an old man trussed up in military greens. He nodded at me, acknowledging he understood his duty to protect Kali. Two bellboys scurried to their feet as I entered the lobby with my helmet tucked under my arm, but stopped short after a couple of feet and stared at my disheveled appearance. I smiled and moved past them to the front desk and asked for a single room. The desk clerk said he did not have one and offered me a double instead.

“I can let you have it for a very good price, madam,” he said smoothing his mustache with two fingers while trying to maintain a professional countenance and not show alarm at my appearance. My feet felt like soggy rags in my boots and I could only imagine what I looked like. I wanted to take the boots off, along with the rest of my clothes. I wanted to do it now.

“Does it have a desert cooler?” I asked.

A desert cooler is like the Neanderthal of air-conditioning. It is a big metal box that sits in the corner of the room or in a window (if there are strong poles to hold it up on the outside) and water is poured into its basin-bottom. The sides are fitted with grass filters and a small pump draws water out of the basin and through tubes that run along to top of the filters. The tubes are perforated with tiny holes that allow the water to trickle out and soak the filters. A fan built into the front of the cooler turns and pulls air across the water, creating the cool air that is then blown into the room. It isn’t pretty but its effective.

“Of course, madam.” He paused then tilted his head and pointedly added, “And, a private bath. With hot water.”

That sold me, that and the fact that the room cost $6. I was on a budget and had a long way to go before I got back home again.

The bellboys wrestled over who would carry my bags to my room, each hoping to be the recipient of the fat tip they were sure I’d proffer. One boy won and he followed me outside. I stooped to untie the saddlebag and satchel then lifted them off Kali’s rack. Together they were heavy and the boy did not look as if he could handle them, but he assured me he could.

My Hindi was not great (although I had lived in India for four years and took a four-week intensive language course just prior to setting out on this journey) but I understood his nodding and “thik hahns” to mean, “yes.” In fact, he probably was not speaking Hindi at all but rather Rajasthani since I’d crossed the boarder earlier that day and was now in the state of Rajasthan. India consists of twenty-eight states stitched together with sand and dust and rivers. Hindi is but one of twenty-two major languages recognized by the Indian government. (Hindi and English are the languages of official communication for the national government.) There are also thousands (some say as much as 22,000) dialects spoken across the hills and deserts of India’s 1.25 million square miles – roughly one-third the size of the United States.

The bellboy broke into a run-walk toward my room, his body buckling under the weight of my bags. His awkward gait made him look like a chicken trying to run with its legs tied together, but he was still faster than me. By the time I reached the room he had nestled my bags into the corner and was switching on the desert cooler.

It roared to life, squeezing the silence out of the room in a way that shut out the world and the day’ events so completely that I felt a cocoon-like comfort come over me, and I was grateful. I needed some time to consider how the first day had gone, and I wasn’t ready to do that yet. I tipped the boy and turned to inspect the bathroom. As long as there was water – hot or cold – I would be happy. I creaked open the door and peeked in. The room’s low-voltage watt bulb eked out enough light that I to see a shower spigot jutting from the wall.

Most Indians don’t shower but bathe by dipping a large plastic cup into a bucketful of water. Water is precious in the subcontinent and Indians are acutely aware of its worth. In India, only 92.6 percent of urban homes have indoor plumbing and only 72.3 percent of rural homes have “reasonable access” to piped or hand pumped water. Like most countries that experience a resource scarcity, the poor pay a greater price. Village women and girls may have to walk miles to collect the day’s water ration; one bucketful provides the family with drinking and cooking water for the day. In cities, poor women and girls line up at public pumps to catch their daily allotment of water. In American, we stand under our showers until the water runs cold without giving it a moment’s thought. I’ve never been a person who took long showers, but I would need to wash my clothes daily. I carried a limited amount of clothes for the journey, which meant washing my t-shirt and underwear at the end of each day’s ride. It seemed a minor price to pay for traveling light but a major luxury in a country were water was in short supply.

I stripped, went into the bathroom, and looked into the mirror. That is when I caught sight of Kali, or rather me looking like Kali with my bug-splattered face, wind-whipped hair, and a crazy gleam in my eyes. The ride had caused that look. It had been a harrowing day as I was run off the road over and over again by truck and busses. I had known going into this adventure that life on the road would be dangerous, that the road itself was dangerous. But it is one thing to know something intellectually and another to experience it emotionally and physically.


I knew a lot about India’s roads, their condition, and the likelihood of a crash before embarking on the trip by reading the New Delhi newspapers. But one headline in particular caught my attention, “India Tops World in Road Accidents.” I investigated the statement by reading a report published by The Central Road Research Institute of New Delhi’s (a think-tank charged with amassing the statistics of injuries and fatalities occurring on India while dedicating itself to solving the complex highway and transportation engineering problems). But even after reading the report I still didn’t comprehend how bad things would be once on the road. The report told me there were 1,860,000 miles of road in India (only the USA has more), yet 36 percent amount to little more than unpaved tracks; 73 percent of drivers did not understand or adhere to traffic laws and safety; and, 90 percent of commercial truckers are untrained and unlicensed. As if this were not bad enough, the report claimed 27 percent of all truck drivers drove intoxicated at night. By the time I got to the section that read 91 percent of ALL drivers needed glasses but did not wear them, I should have been rethinking the rationality of my journey. But at the time the numbers were just that, numbers in a book I was reading in the safety of my quiet living room in Nizammuddin East.

My first day on the road gave a taste of road reality and it didn’t stack up to any of my city-driving experiences. All day truck, busses, cars whizzed by me narrowly missing my kneecaps. I screamed and shouted profanities, sometimes slipping my lahti from its sheath to brandish it at the driver. I thought it empowered me, as if the blood of Kali herself coursed through my veins. But it was waste of time and energy because if the Institute’s report was accurate, they were all too intoxicated, untrained, and blind to see or care about my safety or rules of the road. They drove under a different code, one that evolved out of Darwin’s survival of the fittest law where trucks and busses bullied taxis, taxis trumped cars, cars ruled over auto rickshaws, and they all retained the right to run motorcycles off the road.

People traveling by motorcycle, the report said, are five times more likely to be killed in a road accident than someone riding in a car or bus. This was no surprise since people on two-wheeler don’t have the stability four wheels afford, nor do they have the protection the steel body of a car provides. I was forced into the soft sandy shoulder of the road no less than six times that day. Kali’s front tire grappled to grip the loose dirt and I fought for control and cursed.

Yes, it had been a harrowing day, I thought as I shampooed my hair and hoped that in the months to come things would get better. When I emerged from the shower, I looked like a different person. I wandered the halls of the hotel in search of a restaurant and food. I passed the same desk clerk and bellboys who were on duty when I checked in but they took no notice of the new me. This made me smile secretly to myself, thinking the shower had changed me into someone unrecognizable. What I did not know was that the journey would turn me into someone I would not recognize at times.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Friday

Everything Is Lost (Apr. 1, 2006)

Kya hai?” asked the attendant as I pulled off my helmet at the gas station. I looked over at him – a thin young man in loose clothing – and saw five more men hanging around the pump leaning on each other and eyeing me, and what was strapped to my leg. Okay, I thought, here we go again. Since leaving New Delhi I had been surprised to discover the amount of attention the lathi I’d strapped to my leg caused every time I stopped for gas. I would have thought the sight of a woman alone on a motorcycle would stir things up, but it was a small piece of wood that got the men’s attention.

As I unlocked the gas cap the attendant tugged at the hose, stretching it to capacity. All eyes were upon me as the men waited for my reply to the question of what was I carrying. They knew good and well what it was. Every policeman carried one. What they wanted to know was why was I carrying it.

“It’s for protection against dacoits,” I said.

The men shifted from their comfortable positions of dangling on one another, looking from me to the lathi to each other. Smirks flitted across their brown faces and I heard a giggle bubble up from the group. Yes, that was the response I expected; the one I’d gotten every time I stopped for gas. But what came next was not expected. Two men broke off from the group and danced around each other in a mock robbery, one cracking the other over the head with an invisible lathi. It looked ridiculous, which was exactly their point.

Still, it was early in my trip – just two days on the road – and I was not ready to cut the thin thread of what I believed was part of my safety arsenal and store the lathi away. So I watched the men mock me and smiled good naturedly, considering I was feeling anything but. I told myself they were living out in the middle of nothing and deserved a good laugh. Besides, my grandmother and mother had always told me that if someone is making fun of me, it means they are leaving someone else alone. “And you,” my grandmother would say, piercing me with her blue eyes as she looked down her long thin nose at me, “can take it.”

While the men played out their comic routine, I took off the small backpack I wore to give my back a rest. The roads where jarring my bones pretty good and decided to strap it to Kali’s rack before hitting the road again. The pack contained my Nikon camera and several lenses, my journal of thoughts and information about the trip since I put my plan into action, a compass, a Swiss Army knife, and several other small odds and ends. I considered each thing in the pack essential to the journey, which was why keep them in the pack and wore it and wore it on my back. But my back really ached from the weight of the equipment in it, and I told myself there was no harm in lashing the bag to the bike.

I took my time securing it to the bike before paying the attendant his rupees for the gas and leaving the laughing men behind. If I had any concerns about the safety of the bag and its contents, I shoved them out of my mind.

Back on the road the traffic was light. In the distance, the smoky-blue Aravalli Range lay lumpy like a child’s blanket left on the floor. The temperature spiked to one 120 degrees. Overhead, scavenger birds wheeled in crisscross patterns searching the desolate land for food. I rode slow and steady, passing through a few villages before reaching the city limits of Ajmer, a bustling desert town balanced at mouth of the road leading to Pushkar – my destination for the day.

I had reached back several times since leaving the gas station to be sure the backpack was still there. And even though everything felt fine each time, I had a niggling feeling something was not right. I wanted to check it out at Ajmer so I pulled to the side of the road and twisted myself around for a look. I didn’t have far to go before reaching Pushkar, less than five miles across the sloping range of Nag Pahar, which means Snake Mountain. I really did not want to get off the bike because I was tired and getting off Kali with her load was a chore. So I told myself it was not necessary to dismount, that I could confirm the bag would remain in place until reaching Pushkar without swinging a leg off.

The pack had slipped some and I pulled at the straps, cinching the teeth of the buckles deep into the nylon straps. All would be fine, I told myself. It’s normal for packs to shift, especially on roads as rough as what I’d been riding on. Besides, I will surely know if the bag falls off. It is heavy and loosing it would cause a shift in the bike’s weight, telling me something had fallen off. So I pushed on.

Pushkar is a mecca for both backpackers and Hindus on spiritual quests. The town’s shops, hotels, and restaurants are sprinkled around a small lake anointed with bathing ghats and temples. Pushkar is the home of the only Brahma temple in India and became a holy site when Lord Brahma dropped a lotus from heaven.

The gate to the city is an archway were hordes of young men lie in wait for foreigners and Hindus to pass so they can press rosebuds into their hands which is a sign meant to indicate that the passerby should hire the young man to perform a puja at the lake’s edge on his behalf. A puja is an offering of prayer, flowers, and food to the gods and goddesses in exchange for them smiling favorably on the worshiper. As a highly spiritual and religious site, Pushkar is strictly vegetarian, meaning meat and alcohols are forbidden. It does not, however, mean that drugs are forbidden. Marijuana and hashish flow freely, and bhang lassies (marijuana milkshakes) are refreshing drinks on hot afternoons – to some.

During Pushkar’s annual Camel Fair in the fall, the town’s population swells from 11,000 inhabitants to 220,000. Filmmakers and thrill seekers from around the world push their way through throngs of people to see naked acetic sadhus (holy men) with ten-pound stones tied to and dangling from their testicles. But even when the Camel Fair is not going on, the town flourishes with an active moneymaking industries selling fried veggie foods, tie-dyed clothes, and handicrafts created by women working in far-flung villages. Despite the crass commercialism that fuels the town’s economy, Pushkar remained a peaceful place.

Just inside town I stopped and studied the town map in my guidebook. The Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow was on the town’s cusp, far enough out to avoid the noise of revelers (should there be any) and yet only a few hundred yards to the center of things. The book told me the hotel was cheap, yet expensive enough to discourage foreigners with drug-taking inclinations from staying there. They didn’t spend their money on comfortable hotels but rather gravitated toward those without doors and where the local rat population gnawed at walls.

I rode on toward my hotel and as I did Kali’s tires left a wake in the dirt of the unpaved road. An old and wild bougainvillea spilled scarlet petals at my feet as I parked Kali out front under an overhang and swung my leg off. I was glad to be done for the day, and it wasn’t until I turned to gather my bags that I noticed the backpack was gone.

“Shit, shit, shit. When will I learn to listen to my instincts?”

The sky was turning the color of a festive tropical drink as the sun sank into the thin black line of the horizon. I looked up and down the street but the purple bag was nowhere in sight. I didn’t feel optimistic about finding the bag but I had to look for it none-the-less because it contained my world. I shoved Kali off her center-stand and headed out to retrace my path along the curvy road of Nag Pahar.

I wanted to find some people who might have seen a bag at the side of the road but the first group I encountered were a band of men sprawled sleepily on a stone pavilion. I saw their bare, leathery feet and knobby knees as they lay prone on the cool stone and felt apprehensive about approaching them. I wanted to talk to them but I didn’t want to walk up to them and ask about my bag, so I tried to attract their attention by walking back and forth near them. This was about as effective as me trying to attract the attention of my neighbor by prancing around in my basement. No one stirred. No one noticed me. It figures, the one time I wanted an audience none appeared.

As I paced around dragging my feet in the dust several women ambled by on their way home after a long day working in the field and a sense of hope swelled up in me. Women were helpful no matter what the country. I rushed at them jabbering in English about my missing purple bag. The women pulled their pallus closer to their faces, shielding themselves from my firang eyes, and blinked at me. Their wafer-thin bodies swayed in saris wilted from working sixteen hours in the sun and heat. A ripple of incomprehensible words rumbled among them before a small woman with bangles on her wrists and ankles stepped forward to speak for the group. Unfortunately she spoke in one of India’s 20,000 dialects and I could not understand a word she said.

Their faces were weary and their eyes spoke of umpteen chores they still had to do once they reached their homes: wood and water to fetch, cooking and washing to do, and who knows what else their worlds required of them before they were allowed to fall asleep on mattresses made of straw. Although I was beginning to panic about finding the bag and its contents, the women’s lives seemed more tragic then mine so I continued on toward Ajmer. It was in the curve of one bend in the road that I saw him.

Coming toward me on a scooter was a hulking policeman with pock-scared cheeks and a handlebar mustache. I flagged him down and tried to explain my loss but a wave of hysterics threatened to engulf me. He listened, not understanding and looked around nervously for support but at that moment we were alone on that switchback road. Tears brimmed in my eyes and he looked like he wanted to run away. Unsure of what to do, he thrust both arms into the air and spoke the only English words he knew, “Be strong.”

Those words had some magical effect on me because once he saw my emotions were under control and I would not cry on him, he got on with police matters by stopping every vehicle to interrogate the drivers and passengers about the whereabouts of my belongings.

Nahin, nahin,” each befuddled and worried-looking person said while shaking their heads, “Hum nay kuchnahin dekha hai.” No, no. They had not seen anything.

Through this method of police work the cop discovered three boys on a scooter who spoke English. He pulled the three toward me and pointed at me while speaking to the boys in their own language. What the policeman said to them caused them to fill with a great deal of sorrow that would be passed on to me, for they turned to me and shook their shiny black heads in unison saying, “Sorry, madam. Your bag is gone forever.”

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Thursday

Killing Time (May 1, 2006)

The Captain fixed his eyes on me, steepled his fingers together and asked, “Are you sure you were not robbed?”

Sure? Yes, I was sure. That camera bag with my journal fell off the bike while it was in motion. No robber is so smooth as to be able to pluck a bag from a bike at forty miles an hour. Still, Captain Dutt looked dubious as he extracted several sheets of blank paper from the bottom drawer of his desk and layered them with well-worn carbon sheets. Once he had the necessary number required from me to file my FIR (first incident report) in triplicate, he pinned the pages together with a straight pin and pushed the packed toward me.

“Simply write in English your account of what happened, listing the items in the bag, madam.”

He looked bored as he said this and I wondered if I had disappointed him by not being robbed. Perhaps he was hoping to track down the dirty scoundrel. Unfortunately the only scoundrel in this case was sitting across from him filing the FIR. When I was finished he called to an officer lurking near the doorway. The thin man in a crisp uniform stepped in to the office while Captain Dutt instructed him to translate my version of the loss into Hindi. When the officer stepped out of the office Captain Dutt turned to me and said, “These things take time, madam. How long do you plan to stay in Pushkar?”

I didn’t like the tone his words carried or their implication, I thought as reached for the sweet cup of chai the young Sergeant had delivered as I filled out the FIR. By the time I left the police compound I had no doubts about the meaning behind Captain Dutt saying “These things take time” meant, “You will never see your belongings again, so give it up and go on with your life.”

* * * * * *

I parked Kali near an old and wild bougainvillea that rambled up the side of the Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow and climbed the faded red steps to the lobby as if I hadn’t a thing in the world to live for. The attachment and meaning I’d attributed to the items in the lost bag weighed heavy on my heart and mind. I did not like the way this trip was starting out.

A man with dark circles under his eyes pushed the registration tomb toward me. He looked worse than I felt.

“Everything okay, madam,” he said, pulling back his thin lips in a gesture of concern that revealed worn, yellow teeth.

I was sick over my loss and the word “NO!” bobbed in my throat like a stone in an oily pond. But I said nothing and gave him my own weary smile as I took the room key he proffered and hoped things would look better in the light of a new day.

* * * * * *

I don’t know how you are but when something bad happens to me I can’t stop talking about it until it’s out of my system. That’s how I felt the next morning when I headed to the hotel’s diner for breakfast and unloaded my grief on the waiter, Sanjay.

“You must place an advertisement in the newspaper’s lost section,” he said. “It is the only way.”

It seemed like a ridiculous idea but I agreed to appease his insistence and because I had nothing to lose by doing so. I finished my scrambled eggs, toast, and coffee then asked Sanjay for directions to the newspaper’s office. The day was hot and miserable by 9:30 a.m. and it took some doing to find the paper’s office in Ajmer. Inside it smelled of dust and heat. Men in tan polyester safari suits and a woman in a cotton sari moved about the cavernous room oblivious to me in my dusty clothes and faded expression. A man finally asked to help me and I inquired about the price of placing an ad.

“That would be nine hundred rupees, madam. It will run three day and you can put no more than three line in your ad,” he said.

Nine hundred rupees is $30 USD. I could buy a 300-page book for 200 rupees. No way was I going to pay 900 for an ad that would do no good anyway. I decided Sanjay didn’t know best. I confess to trying to appeal to some sort of journalistic camaraderie but the ad man wasn’t buying it. He didn’t care if I owned a chain of newspaper, if I wanted to run an ad in the Dainik Bhaskar I would have to fork over the money. I turned and headed back to Pushkar.

* * * * * *

Depressed and bored I wandered among the young men working the ghats at Pushkar Lake. When I say working the ghats I really mean working the people who walk by or near the ghats. The men have one thing in mind and that is to induce foreigners and Indians alike into paying them to perform a puja on the lake’s banks. They roamed in packs like coyotes lying in wait for someone to walk by so they could slip up behind or beside him and press rose petals into his palm. If you accepted the rose petals then half the battle was won and all that remained was the negotiation of price for their priestly prayers. Only trouble was they weren’t priests. But their kurtas were crisp and bright from drying under a blazing sun on tin roofs and their tilaks – smears of vermilion sindoor symbolizing their devotion – were freshly applied with their own thumbs between their black eyebrows. Some even clicked mala beads with their delicate fingers.

“Madam, madam, come here,” beckoned a young man from the shadows of a shop selling retro clothes.

I was intrigued by his baiting voice and longed for conversation beyond that of ordering food or asking for a room. And although I’d only been on the road for two days the loneliness of my solitary ride had begun to settle into my bones like dust in a grave.

“I’m Raju,” he said, curtly nodding his head in a manner that mocked an emperor.

He had folded his body onto a stool that was nestled into racks of clothing. At first I could barely make him out so I followed his voice. When I neared he eased off the stool and stepped forward. The cut of his black hair fell around his long face in a way that accentuated sad eyes set into a gentle face. I introduced myself and let my gaze tumble over the racks of sun-scarred clothes. The tie-dye tee shirt, moo-moos, and drawstring pants were old and rotten but I knew it wouldn’t matter to the passing foreigners. They would see the threads as golden garments that simply needed dusting off and take them home to wear as a reminder of their exotic travels, and there-by make a statement in their homelands that they too were exotic.

I commented on the quantity of goods and asked if business was booming.

“No,” his lips said while the corners of his mouth curled in a way that suggested he had a secret he wanted to reveal.

“If you don’t make a living selling clothes, then what?”

“Hashish. Change money. Maybe... something else?” One eye opened wider then the other as he giggled long and shrill, sounding like a horse that had sucked helium.

I didn’t want to contemplate the chilly meaning behind “Maybe...something else.” If I were a man would he offer me a village girl to have sex with? Since I was a woman, would he offer me himself? I didn’t want to find out but the idea of a thriving black market in Pushkar got me to thinking. Maybe my Nikon would show up for sale in one of the tiny shops that dotted the dusty road. I was trying to think of a way to introduce the topic when Raju reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet.

“She loves me,” he said pointing to a faded Polaroid of a skinny girl with pale skin and dull hair. “We will be married when she returns.”

“Pretty,” I said, not meaning it and knowing the girl would never return to him, and tried to steer the conversation to my missing camera. Girls go to India, Thailand, Mexico, Egypt to lose their old self and invent a new one in a place where no one knows them and no one will pass judgment on their actions. It’s a vacation, a holiday, a time to … well, not go wild but have some fun. Raju’s girl had fun no doubt and would remember her time with him long into her twilight years, but Raju would wait, believing his love would return until a new love came along.

“Do you know where I can buy a Nikon FE2 camera?” I asked abruptly. Okay, not exactly a smooth segue but I was feeling desperate.

“I know of no cameras,” he said.

So simple, plan, and matter-of-fact were his words that I believed him. We sat silently for some time as the young holy men rounded up travelers and attempted to corral them toward the lake.

“Are all the young men priest?” I asked.

“They are not holy men,” he hissed, “They are thieves. That one working the Gau Ghat,” he said pointing out a stout young man in his twenties, “was selling shoes on Janpath in Delhi last year. Today, he claims to be a Brahman priest!”

His disdain for this breed of capitalist was vehement and I was sorry to have started him on the subject. This is what is known as opening up a can of worms.

“Do you know what they really do? They prey on tourist. They take tourists to the holy lake to make puja. They claim to recite the Holy Scriptures but they talk bullshit. They do not even know how to read Sanskrit. The foreigners do not know what is being said. They think they are being blessed but instead they are being insulted. Yes, insults,” he said, the pitch of his voice cracking on the edge of excitable rage. “To the woman they say filthy, obscene things while she sits smiling, thinking how beautiful the blessing is. After they have had their fun they demand hundreds of rupees. Sometimes a thousand! They give Pushkar a bad name. It is bad business for all of us,” he said.

If I had any hope of recovering my belongings it was gone now. Raju’s assertions about the moral character of Pushkar’s residents left me with no doubt that I would never see my camera or journal again. There was no sense hanging around. I decided to go to the police station the next day and tell Captain Dutt I would not stay on any longer waiting for something that was never going to happen.

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Wednesday

Just One Question (June 1, 2006)

His shadow crossed over me while I sat teetering on the edge of a cinder block feeling miserable. I knew he was there, waiting to talk to me but I did not want to talk to him. I had spent the morning attempts to see Captain Dutt to tell him I was leaving Pushkar, but he had not found time for me and I had given up and walked over to the bus stop in search of a cool drink.

I walked along the row of kiosks passing merchants lazily lounging fat in their hot little 4x4 stalls, not caring if a customer bought cookies or cokes or anything from them. The 125-degree heat had zapped their energy and none called to me, “Come look.” They did not care. No one cared about anything in this weather. I cared about one thing only but it was lost to me forever.

I rousted a roly-poly man swatting flies with a soiled red cloth and asked him for a cola. He reached into an ice chest and extracted a warm Pepsi, wiped the dust off the bottle and popped the top before handing it to me. I paid him and looked around for some place to sit while I decided what to do about Dutt. That is when I felt his shadow shade me, and I knew without turning around or looking up who would be there.

As a woman traveling alone I had been here before, if not this place and time. While I would not recognize the face, it was not uncommon to be approached by a lone male in search of striking up a conversation with a foreign woman all the while hoping to strike it lucky.

“Madam?” he said.

I did not look up or turn around but rather continued to sip my hot soda and hope he would go away.

He did not.

I felt him linger above me, saw his shadow sway, and heard the sun sizzling on my bare skin.

He hovered, unsure of what to do next.

I knew what I wanted; I wanted to be left alone. I had spent the morning climbing a stony hill to a reach a shakti peeth temple in search of discovering a piece of Kali. I was attacked by a small dog with needle-like teeth and pulled into an awkward conversation with the resident priest. Kamal was a twenty-something young man whose father was the temple priest. The father was no longer able to climb the three-quarter mile, stony hill to the temple so he sent his son in his place.

Once a week, Kamal descended the hill for food and water, returning with all his supplies on his back. He had a fifth-grade education that armed him with a smattering of English and the rest he picked up from travelers who climbed the hill. He also spoke German, French, and Spanish to name a few.

“Come,” he said after I asked him if the temple was a shakti peeth temple. He rose from the cool stone floor and laid the book he was reading—Tolkien’s The Hobbit—to rest in the doorway. The hem of his lungi tumbled to the floor like a cascade of milk and skimmed the marble surface as he walked weightlessly away.

I followed him to a small room at the rear of the temple—his bedroom. That was where the dog, a yapping white dog, attacked me. It scuttled out from under the charpoy with its little teeth clacking and snapping. I am not sure if my hesitation to enter was due to the dog or that of entering a priest’s bedroom. But enter I did after Kamal threw shoes at the shoebox-sized dog forcing it to retreat. It scooted back under the charpoy where it continued to threaten me with punctures. Every time it inched closer to the edge of the charpoy Kamal would through another shoe at it. He must have tossed seven pairs of shoes at the dog in all.

Kamal told me Kali’s wrists had fallen from the Heaven’s to that spot when I asked which of her 51 pieces (body parts) made the site a holy one. As soon as I asked the question I was ready to leave, but Kamal had an agenda of his own. He wanted to discuss the power India men held over women and was it the same in America. This simple question drained me of the little energy I had left because it carried so much complexity with it. I felt ill equipped to discuss the role of men and women with a man from my own culture let alone do the subject any justice with a man from a vastly different culture. My response—a simple shrug—left Kamal looking disappointed, and I left his company wondering why a man who spent his life barefoot would need to possess so many shoes?

It was because of my morning climb and the dog and the unanswerable question that I just wanted to be left alone, but the young man behind me did not seem to be going away. I continued to sip my hot cola as his shadow weighed on me, without providing the least bit of cool respite, I might add.

“Madam? Can I as you one question?” he said.

This time I relented, thinking to myself, “Just answer his question so you both can get on with your lives.” There were only a few questions young men had for foreign women: Are you married? What country are you from? And, the most irresistible question of all, Are you alone?

He did not ask any of the usual questions, but simple said in a quiet voice, “Madam, did you loose a bag?”

© 1997-2006. C.L. Stambush, All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Tuesday

The Search Continues (July 1, 2006)

I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. But did Captain Dutt listen to me? No. No. No.
Now here was this young man, Murugan, telling me he and a bus driver saw my bag fall off Kali as their bus and my bike passed each other on the dusty road out of Pushkar.

I had tried to get Captain Dutt to question the people at the bus stand; the one directly across from the police station, but he had informed me that he knew what he was doing and that to question bus passengers would be a waste of time. But I had always had the feeling a bus was involved. I guess my subconscious had picked up on its presence, lodging the information in my gut.

“I have been reading the ‘lost ads’ every day in hopes of finding the bag’s owner,” Murugan said when I asked him how he found me, “but there was no ad.”

Ah, the ad in the lost and found section of the paper. The waiter in the restaurant at the Rajasthan Tourist Bungalow advised me repeatedly (it seemed to be his mission in life at one point) to place an ad in the local paper, but when I rode to Ajmer to do just that I was told the price would be Rs.1200 ($40). In a developed country the price might seem reasonable but in India Rs.1200 was what a policeman makes in a month. It, however, was more than just the price; I simply did not think placing an ad would do one bit of good. I was wrong. So, the lesson in this is: listen to the local people when they tell you how to do something; they know what they are talking about. When Murugan failed to find an ad telling him who had lost a lost camera, he said he began conducting his own search.

“I knew I was looking for a foreign man on a simple Bullet, but most foreigners have fancy bikes, so I was not having luck finding your Bullet. Just now I saw this simple bike in front of the police station and you in the courtyard. But still I wait for the man you must be with. Then I think, maybe SHE is the man and decide to ask you,” Murugan said.

I wanted to grab and hug him for being brave enough to ask me a second time if I had lost a bag after I rudely tried to get rid of him when he approached the first time. How foolish I had been to try and blow him off because I wanted to be left alone in my misery. What an opportunity I had nearly missed because my mind was closed to anything but myself. I would beat myself up later over this, for now I wanted to know where the bag was and how I could get it back.

“The driver has taken it home. I told him to because I did not feel it would be safe to leave such valuables in the bus terminal’s lost and found,” Murugan said as he began to tell the tale of my bag’s whereabouts in the flat, mocking, tone not at all like the singsong sway Indian’s usually speak in.

Murugan’s way was soft and shy, and while I could barely contain myself from shaking him to speed his story along (perhaps I harbored some delusional hope that by shaking him my bag would fall from his body like the pieces of Kali fell to Earth), I managed to control myself enough to ask the civil questions one is bound to in any society. Meaning, I asked him about himself.

He was a hotel tout. His job was to round up foreigners as they stepped off the bus when it arrived in Pushkar and convince them to check-in at the hotel he hustled for. Since he worked on commission, he would say anything to boost the hotel’s glory in an attempt to rock firangs into plunking their rupees down on the hotel’s counter and scrawling their names in the registration book. His skin was dark and tough like that of a beetle’s back and his eyes looked runny behind thick fluttering lashes. His face was round and innocent. His posture that of a boy’s.

Murugan said he had not reported finding the bag to the police.

“I had some trouble with them last year,” he said looking at the ground and the fine layer of dust covering his feet like mesh.

I tried to get him to elaborate on “trouble,” but he only shook his head and said it did not matter. I suppose it really did not matter. All that mattered to me at the moment was getting my bag back.

“I will ride with you,” Murugan said, “but you must bring the motorcycle over here.”

We were standing at the end of a row of snack shops and Kali was parked across the way in front of the police station. Whatever trouble Murugan had had with the police had left a deep fear of them in him.

I tried to convince him we should take an auto rickshaw to the driver’s home, telling him riding on the back of Kali would be painful for him since I had removed the passengers’ seat and replaced it with an iron rack. But he said no, that the Bullet would be fine. I suspected Murugan was looking forward to a ride through town on the back of a Bullet driven by a Western woman. Especially since I was opting to not wearing a helmet at the moment.

Kali idled beside Murugan and he stepped next to her and swung his leg over her rear. He sat tall and ridged, his hands plastered to his thighs like flies stuck to flypaper. Between us I could feel the gulf of physical distance and the gulf of cultural difference. In India it was okay for a wife or sister or daughter or any other female relative could ride behind a male relative on a motorcycle or scooter, but what did I mean for a man to ride behind a woman from a far off land? What did it mean to Murugan? What did it mean to the people who saw Murugan and me?

Our physical disconnectedness made handling Kali difficult as she lurched left and right on the road lined by cornfields. I had learned in my motorcycle training course in the States that the rider had to “become one with the bike,” and that passengers had to become one with the rider. That was not happening now as Murugan leaned away from me providing a respectful distance between us.

The sun was into its afternoon decline as Murugan and I set off. I assumed Murugan knew where the bus driver lived. I assumed Murugan and the bus driver were friends. I assumed we were on our way to the bus driver’s house.

“Turn here,” Murugan shouted in my ear as we neared a crossroad.

I asked Murugan where we were going and he replied, “I will tell you as we go.”

I did not mind the secrecy because it did not feel like secrecy. I had lived in India long enough to know that things were done differently here. Besides, Murugan could not give me a street name, address, or even a location because I did not know where I was.

The bike bumped along the crooked road and the few people who walked in the road quickened their paces to get out of our way when they heard Kali’s thumping engine behind them. Our destination turned out to be the central bus station, where we learned that Mr. Amar Chand Bhadana—the bus driver—had called in sick that day.

“Now what?” I asked. “Should we go to his house?”

“I do not know where he lives,” Murugan said. “But you go wait for me by the motorcycle and I will have a chat with these bus wallahs. I think they do not trust you.”

I was not going to argue my honesty, but I did begin to wonder about Murugan’s. As I walked toward were Kali was parked I began to wonder if there was some secrecy going on that I needed to concern myself with.

“Let us go,” Murugan said, hoisting his thick leg over Kali’s rear and settling upon the rack that had once been the “lady’s seat.”

“You have his address?” I said, turning my head slightly so he could catch my words in the wind as I rolled on the throttle.

“Follow my directions,” he shouted. “Take this road.”

We are out of Ajmer within minutes, leaving behind the choking black fumes produced by the busses and cars, and into the country where the air smelled of grass and damp earth. But just as quickly as we had left Ajmer, we entered a small village’s noisy market. Children squealed and chased each other between rickety carts piled high with vegetables as women meandered in clusters of three or four, examining the tomatoes and green beans as if they were judging them for a county fair.

I rode through the twisted lane and as I did I felt Murugan’s hands creep from his thighs to my hips, and felt the brush of his lips near my ear as he leaned closer to give me directions over the din of the market’s noise. Murugan was becoming familiar with me and in the process losing his respectful distance.

I was wondering if I should do something about his new attitude when I looked over and saw a cow with horns painted pink charging in our direction. Her mouth was stuffed with stolen greens she had snatched off the cart of a sabzi wallah as he sold bundles of cilantro to a woman. The man selling the vegetables and herbs grabbed a tomato and winding his arm up like a pitcher, hurled it at the bandit cow. That started her running wild-eyed in our direction. The market was too narrow and crowded for me to get out of her way and all I could do was steady myself for a blow.

“Watch out!” Murugan said.

The cow’s hard, flat head slammed into my clutch hand, smashing my pinky finger and ripping a chunk out of Kali’s soft handle-grip. She wobbled—Kali, not the cow—and I over-compensated, shifting too much weight left and nearly butt-ended an old man. Murugan hands slid up further on my body, tightened around my waist.

“You must be careful,” he said loudly, once I had regained control.

I felt a little grumbling in my throat but bit back any comment I might have for him at that time. After all, he knew where my camera and stuff was and how to get there.

“Stop here,” Murugan said when the market ended abruptly at a block of houses.

Relieved to find the driver’s house so easily, I relaxed as Murugan trotted toward a cement house with a welcoming blue porch. A woman in a cotton sari stepped out from behind a screen door and she and Murugan spoke for a few minutes, then he returned to me and boosted himself back onto Kali.

“The driver’s not home?” I said.

“This is not his home. I was merely getting more directions.”

Of, course. How could I have imagined it would be so easy to find the driver’s home? Had I not lived in India long enough to know that there was indeed an intricate and mysterious way of doing things here? India was, is, a land of mystery. Things are not as they seem. Things are not as you think they are. One of the first things I learned upon moving to India was that the Indians have a way of communicating that was invisible to outsiders. They have a way of knowing things that seem to come to them on the wings of air.

When I first moved to India I lived in the barsati apartment of Mr. and Mrs. Gupta in Gulmohar Park. They had a “houseboy” (a servant) named Shankar and it was through him that I first learned of this mystic communication. In India servants do not have rooms of their own and usually sleep on rooftops or hallway or back porches. They do not have private phone lines or even much time to themselves. But they did have the rooftops, and late at night when the families they worked for had gone to bed and the moments were theirs alone, Shankar told me the houseboys gathered on their rooftops and call out to one another in their village languages, passing secretes and household information back and forth like spies smuggling diamonds.

But knowing something and having it a part of your life are two different things. I knew of India’s secrets and still I could not comprehend them. Murugan knew what he was doing, and he steered me through lanes, neighborhoods, and markets gathering more and more information as to the location of the bus driver’s home. It was as if everyone had a small piece to our puzzle and without the cooperation of all we would be lost. Such a joint effort by a group of strangers is what makes life magic, I thought as I skirted around water puddles.

“There is a bus driver living in Diggi Bazaar,” a bent, old man said, as he leaned against a fence, “but I do not know his name.”

In Diggi Bazaar another man told us a Mr. Bhadana lived across from the Mahabodhi Mission, but he was unsure if the Mr. Bhadana he knew drove a bus.

On and on we followed leads until two hours and eight stops later as the sky turned from the vibrant colors of a Kincaid painting to the watery hues of a faded cloth, we found the home of Mr. Amar Chand Bhadana.