“Make friends with pain, and you will never be alone” – I once read somewhere. My butt was sore and my fingers felt numb, but I barely felt it. The sound of the wind rushing past my helmet and the feeling that, if I really let her rip, my ride would leave me behind and make the trip on her own was exhilarating. The feeling was almost like meditation on two wheels.
The sweat was dripping off my forehead, into my eyes before I even got onto my ride that morning. Barely sunrise and already hot and sticky. I slipped on my gloves, adjusted my helmet, checked the balance of everything on the back seat and kicked – the engine turning over with that sweet rumble that was nectar to my ears. I was wondering about the lunacy of riding out to Gujarat – in the sweltering heat, in the middle of the second summer in October – but the steady thump of my ride calmed my misgivings. I was off to my first big group ride.
“Indian Standard Time should be a registered phrase in the Oxford dictionary”, I thought as I reached the Fountain Hotel – our meeting point that morning – and only saw a handful of riders there. Either that or the rest of the crew had decided that a comfy bed in a cool air-conditioned bedroom was the place to be that weekend, instead of out in the sun with a rocket strapped to their behind. I suddenly felt a twinge of apprehension about the whole trip. “Will this even work? Will the whole group ride thing work for me?” It took another half an hour, but the rest of the gang showed up – one at a time, each one greeted with hoots, shouts and blaring of horns. 16 riders in all, I counted – fewer than expected, but a good sized group nonetheless. I did not notice the time, but when we finally rode out of there, the sun was up and the heat – not surprisingly – with it. “But hey, we are off and that’s always good”, I thought.
“Stay behind the leader, stay ahead of the ‘tail’ and ride sensibly”, we were told – all good words of advice – as long as everyone followed them. The ride started slow, and but we picked up speed. The first leg barely lasted an hour before we pulled to the side of the road to let the stragglers catch up. We took off again shortly only to stop again in about an hour for breakfast.
“Now I get it”, I figured – all my previous rides were just that – rides. We rode long and hard and enjoyed it for what it was – time with our machines. This, however, was an experience. The good natured ribbing, yelling and boisterous welcomes were all part of the deal and I was loving it.
Ahura for breakfast was nothing short of a mid day meal. I felt like we ordered everything from the menu – in fact the restaurant ran out of bread and had to call out for more. Everyone eating from everyone’s plate is so uniquely Indian – I cannot imagine a road trip without that happening – that and the shared smokes. By the end of the trip, we had smoked “everything “. The Akoori, Egg Masala and the Kheema with pav – lip smacking way to start the day. I think that at some point, the hassled waiter just decided to stop and take a break from the madness that was our group and disappeared for a while – or at least until our appetites subsided.
We set off again and with a few minor pauses along the way, arrived at Valsad – for one more snack (I figured lunch) break. The air felt like the inside of a sauna, but it was cooler under the shade of the trees. A little platform just outside the dhaba under a sparsely foliated tree provided just the right amount of shade to catch a little nap. The chicken was decent I heard – but the paneer not so much – however, in an hour everyone was full to the brim with food and chaas and raring to go.
The ride to Vansda was through smaller villages and tree lined roads. Though we enjoyed the play of light and shade on the road which gave us a chance to cool off, it played havoc with the visibility of grooves and potholes on the road. Many a time, split second braking and quick reflexes saved us from gaping holes in the tar.
A smoke break in Vansda turned into a fruit snack – with lemon sized pineapples (how do they even grow those???) – and then into a chai stop. Again, all in good spirit.
The final leg took us directly into the Dangs forest reserve through cool misty roads and shaded paths with village kids scrambling to get out of the way, across small, almost run down bridges crossing little streams and rivulets. It was almost a different world – cows stared and chicken scattered as we rumbled across little hamlets and groups of shacks. It just smelled so different – it smelt, but not the stench of rotting garbage or people relieving themselves on the side of the road as in the city, but of fresh cut grass, animals in sheds and food cooking on wood fires.
The ride abruptly ended at a little shack by the side of the road, almost hidden around a little turn and under the trees. A few lukewarm but mouthwatering bhajiyas and some chai later, we headed towards the camp. The sun had almost sunk below the tree line by the time we reached the camp.
In near darkness by the light of torches and the occasional LED lamps hung from posts, we unhooked all our gear and parked ourselves in a large patio. Though some of us had brought along tents, we agreed that sleeping in the large communal hall in the centre of the camp was probably simplest. Besides I doubt anyone had the time, energy or inclination to work through and setup any of the tents.
Everyone was already hungrily eyeing the kebabs hooked through grilling rods, ready to go on the fire. We had to quickly get out of our clothes covered in the grime and sweat of a whole day of riding, that were drawing mosquitoes by the hundreds – they would have a feast before we could get to ours.
The bonfire was lit and all of us adjusted ourselves around it in a large somewhat tattered circle. The warmth of the fire, the smell of fire roasted chicken and paneer and the hum of chatter and laughter everywhere was just what was needed to end the day with. Peals of laughter at one end of the circle and a serious discussion on bikes, their philosophy and the mechanics of riding and riding gear at the other – everyone was in the zone.
The night was fairly uneventful if you discounted the beams of torches flashed into everyone’s eyes, the yelling of names and the attempts to wake up already asleep riders – but it was all taken in stride by everyone – with amusement and feigned surprise. The dormitory was soon inundated with the sounds of what seemed like wild animals who had lost their way and wandered into the camp. Each person wrapped in blankets or sleeping bags on semi comfortable mattresses mimicking the roar of their rides from the day. A cacophony of snoring that almost sounded like a symphony of bulls – snorting and stomping through the fields at night.
The morning was cool and the walk by the river invigorating. The child in everyone was awakened by the sight of the tree house machans and soon everyone was over each other trying to get up there and posing for pictures on the rickety steps that led to the top. A quick breakfast of poha, and we were ready to head back.
The sight and sound of 20 motorcycles, riding single file with blaring horns was awesome. I was dreading going back to the city and the route back, through the same tree lined roads was just beginning to work out the kinks in my shoulders.
The two riders ahead of me abruptly screeched to a halt. I slammed on the brakes narrowly missing the bike in front of me, veering off to the side wondering what had happened. To my left, I then saw a slender rope like object writhing on the road. It took me a second to realize what it was and then it turned around, rising almost 3 feet off the ground, heading straight for my bike. Blood pumping in my ears, I had almost stopped and pulled over, but now, I twisted the throttle and zipped forward as fast as I could before the snake found a target to vent its anger and agony on. Turning around in my seat, I saw it slithering away into the bushes on the side of the road. That was a close call. There was no doubt in my mind that a few seconds slower and it would have either got me or the rider right in front of me. Heaving a sign of relief, we turned back to the road and rode on.
The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful. One stop at the Parsi Dhaba where we gorged on at least 10 litres of chaas and fairly average dhansak, and then we set off towards home.
Besides a few niggling issues with the lights on one bike and electrical issues on another, we made it back to Fountain Hotel just as the sun dipped below the horizon. We rode the last section of the highway like bats out of hell – till we hit city traffic and realized that it was the end of the weekend and life as usual would being the next morning.
My apprehensions from the beginning of the ride the previous day had vanished. The ride had been great, relaxing and repeatable. I had met a great bunch of guys, had good times, had ridden hard and in the end, felt ready for more – much more.
As I rode into my garage and parked my ride, I remembered a quote from the Tarahumara – the greatest ultra-runners of all time – twisted around for the benefit of riders everywhere:
“When you ride on the earth and ride with the earth, you can ride forever”.