Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bad News First

We will not be leaving Delhi today. The truck bringing the bikes got delayed by floods, fire, locusts, an old friend coming in from out of town, traffic, landslides, or a flat tire. Whatever the case, they won't have time to give the bikes a once over until mid-afternoon. It doesn't make much sense to start packing bikes at three or four because the sun sets about seven and this isn't a place to ride in the dark if it can be avoided.

But the good news is that we will have an opportunity to take the bikes on a test ride today without loads. If something is amiss, Soni and his minions can fix it and they will meet us tomorrow morning right bright and early.

Speaking of bright and early, the city has quite the alarm clock with an automatic snooze feature built right in. The call for morning prayer goes off at five a.m. sharp. Roll over and slap the nightstand if you like. Twelve minutes later(a perfect length-it gives you enough time to get back to sleep and into the dream about the tuk tuk race) you'll hear bark-a-bark-a-roo. That's the dogs being driven quite mad by cows strolling up and down the streets. Not as pleasant as a rooster but very effective.

Yesterday morning was spent banking or walking from bank to bank and then giving up and using the cash machine rather then changing money because contrary to what the last bank said and the fact that there was a electronic currency exchange rate board on the wall, "I am sorry sir, but we do not change money here.

Phil arranged for five of the finest tuk tuk drivers in all of India(not just Delhi mind you, the patriarch of the group was quite clear) to meet us at 1300 hours outside our hotel. When the conversation began Phil tried to be vague about where we were staying but one of the drivers knew we were at the C Park Inn. I guess we don't blend in very well which really suprises me.
Our goal was Conault Place, a big open air market. Armed with head cams, video cams, and a mess of stickers we peeled out. My driver did a Bollywood Roll at the first stop and we jumped to an early lead. It didn't last long. Triple lane changes, no look turns, and wrong way on one ways were the name of the game.

The drivers really seemed to dig all of it. Not only did they put stickers on their rides, they stickered other vehicles while we were zipping past. They didn't take us to Conault Place however, insisting it was closed. Besides they knew a better place, best place, very fine goods.
Welcome to India and its kickback society. The market was upscale and packed with pressing salespeople. No definitely means, 'please show me three more of each color here.' We walked around looking, feeling, and pricing while being hounded. No matter the excuse you throw at them, they volley back a counter.

We escaped souvenir free and spilled onto the hot sidewalk. Our tuk tuk drivers were waiting. I asked one of them if he knew where to find a good map. He said he did and led me to a store three doors down. The map was a postcard. When I didn't want that one, I was offered a calendar. I was pretty happy when Mariska suggested that if they were going to take us to places just to get their kickback, then they should take us to a place that sells beer.

After a leisurely lunch, we asked them to return us to the hotel. They insisted on taking us to one more market. The patriarch leveled with us and we thought, 'why not, these guys will benefit, we have nothing better to do, and the place will have ac.'

I'm glad we let them cuz it was far and away the best of the emporiums we've visited. If we can't find what we are looking for on the trip, that's the store we will return to. Ideally, we buy our Kasmir in Kasmir from the villagers that made it so they get all the money and therefore the benefit but who knows.

Josh and I got shaves and haircuts with the locals a couple of blocks from the hotel. The shop had enough space for two chairs so they put in six. It was pretty funny to watch them push each other for position until I realized that doing that with scissors is dangerous. But if yer gonna let a man at yer neck with a straight razor you gotsta relax.

In the morning, Matt and I went to acquire a few more maps before the paperwork/test ride. Tuk tuks are pretty mellow.

The paperwork and payments took place over chai teas. The office fan blew things around the room and it was still too hot. We signed our lives away and walked to a nice quiet spot and the bikes.

Four mechanics worked furiously on the side of the road. The mechanics worked on clutch handles, bent pegs, blown exhaust pipes, and cracked tanks. We stood in the sun and sweated while they gave our bikes an Indian once over.

After about 45 minutes all the bikes were running somewhat smoothly. We went up and down a quiet alley once. Two of the bikes needed help but after fifteen minutes we were up and running.

We took a right and the madness began. Soni ripped away and it was all I could do to keep up. The bikes don't have mirrors. You wouldn't want them anyway. There's no reason to know what's right beside you and you don't have time to check.

We bobbed, weaved, and juked our way through the traffic. Soni blew red lights, did u-turns, and passed buses on the shoulder. He pulled over a couple of times and we were always with him. He'd smile, tear out, and step it up a notch.

Halfway through the check out ride Soni pulled over and took off his helmet. We stripped our jackets. Soni said it was time to talk about the bikes. He showed us how to start the bikes, work the lights, hit the kill switch, and lock the steering column. Seems to me it would be better to do that before we made an eight bike wedge to split tuk tuks.

Tomorrow we will get an early start to miss as much of that as possible.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Let's go shopping

Just returned from a morning stroll with Phil. We went down a side street full of parked of bicycle rickshaws. Each rickshaw held its operator, so doubled as the apartment. Something has struck me each day and this day it's the sheer magnitude of homeless folks. They are everywhere. The sidewalks are full of them until work begins for the day.
These aren't homeless in the sense I am used to. They have jobs, families, and normal daily routines. There just aren't enough roofs to go around.

Now it's a tuk tuk race to the busiest market in the city. Might get a machete and a haircut.

Where motorcycles go to live

Woke at 4 a.m. got sick of staring at the ceiling by five and hit the pavement with my camera. I only got a few pics before my battery ran out(rookie) and I could concentrate on watching the city wake up.

It didn't take long after the 5 a.m. morning prayer call for the hustle to catch up with the bustle. I took a leisurely stroll across intersections to get to the middle of a roundabout so I could set up a tripod and get some shots of the 108 foot high statue of Lord Hanuman. Ten minutes later I was out of battery and decided to move on with the morning. My easy walk had turned into Frogger Level Five.

I made it splat free and got to watch three dogs chase a cow through the streets of Delhi. As forecasted, vehicles gave the cow a wider berth than they had given me.
Now we're chilling in the room waiting for shops to open so we can buy some pigstickers and get a haircut or the Brits that arrived at 3 am to get up so we can go to a Triumph restoration shop, which ever comes first.

The Brits got up so it was off to the motorcycle rescue farm. The van driver told us that it would take two hours to get to that neighborhood. We drove for at least two hours in the same direction and the city looked the same, packed dirty neighborhoods over and over and over. The drive gave the city a sense of scale.

Finally it was time to take a left but each intersection was barricaded and sandbagged and guarded by army soldiers with the world's most popular firearm, the AK-47,because of yesterday's bomb blast. Our driver asked soldiers at one roadblock how in the wide world of sports we could get into the neighborhood.

It took a couple hundred rupees and some time but they sent us to a side gate and as soon as we were on the other side it became apparent that we were in a nice neighborhood. It was all one lane, twisty, and gated homes.

We found the place and asked our driver to wait while we got the tour and Jason did the interview. Turns out it wasn't really a restoration place but a manufacturing shop for classic bike geeks all over the world.

For example: Johnny Gumchewer has a 1968 Norton that he's rebuilding in his garage so he doesn't have to spend evenings with his wife and he needs a gas tank. He calls Rocky in Delhi. Rocky goes out to his motorcycle graveyard, finds the tank, takes it to the shop, makes a jig, and manufactures 1000 of them. Then he calls Johnny and asks him what color he would like and if he needs the cap or not. If Johnny needs the cap, he'll build a thousand of them too.

Pick a bike, pick a part, and the Mad Bull Motor Works division of Eversure Auto Agency has it or will make exact to spec. We walked past mountains of tanks, piles of sprockets, buckets of bolts, rooms and rooms full of bike geek drool.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Get in the van, man

I've been on organized tours in Amsterdam, New York, London, and Paris. Compared to today one word comes to mind- mothergrabbinboring. We started our day by checking in with Soni at Soni Motors. They sent a boy to bring us right from our hotel to the shop. Turns out it was roughly 350m from our door. Funny how they have so many people that there truly is a person for every job. Open your room door and you hear, "Good morning, sir. You like breakfast?" One person is assigned to every hallway and is immediately relieved when he gets a mission.

Soni had all his ducks in a row so we hired an air-conditioned van to take us around the city. First stop, temple, check. Off with the shoes, leave your water bottle, iphone(Phil), and camera at the door. No shorts, sir.

I liked the contrast between the temple and all the cathederals I've visited. Bright colors and open, active prayer. The masonry was incredible, tight and beautiful. I missed a turn and spotted a group adding a sidewalk for a rear entrance.

Two young men smashed old bricks into inch or so rounds to form a base. Another man spread sand while a man, clearly the master mason spread grout in already placed stones. When he finished he signaled to a man that yelled to the back and a young man brought another 3 foot square stone(I know from experience that it was about 75 lbs.) perched on top of his head. Two others took it off his head and placed it under the master's direction. Each person did one thing and one thing only. It's understandable when you realize that this hamlet has 17 million people and it was 33 degrees celcius(double it and add 30, kids.)

After the temple we had lunch in a pretty nice place. We decided to have Indian food and these people do it pretty well. Watched a man make a cobra dance after lunch, then it was off to a State-run emporium. It's good to hit these first because there is no haggling, the staff is knowledgeable, and the atmosphere relaxed.

They sat us down and tried to sell us Kashmir rugs. Poor bastards had no idea that all we could think about was what our dogs would do to those beautiful pieces of art. Upstairs to the fabrics and all that visual noise, amazing what skilled people will do for 70 or so dollars a year.

We headed back to the van and our driver said, "Bomb go 3:30, we go now." We spent the next hour and a half or so trying to get out of the Muslim district. Police had roadblocks set up and search a vehicle or two but their main response seemed to be to create the traffic jam from hell so people would be too frustrated to blow things up in the future.

We are chilling in our rooms for the evening and waiting for the Brits and the Canuck to show.

You can only plan a plan

Ride from New Dehli due north to Leh. Then backtrack a little bit and swing west before heading south to the Taj Mahal and back to New Dehli. Cross through disputed lands and wave to Pakistan(or India depending on one's point of view) while avoiding folks with Karishnakovs. The route takes one over the highest driveable pass on the planet and past one of the seven wonders of the modern world. Sounds simple, right?

We need to complete the first leg of the trip before the fifteenth of October or before snows close the road for the season, which ever comes first. And we have to do it while avoiding altitude sickness and the other dangers(avalanches, mudslides, yetis, etc.) that come with riding a motorcycle through the Himalayas.If we happen to get into Leh and the road closes while we are there, that's where we will spend the winter. Should be easy to find work if we get caught on the wrong side of the pass. I'm sure there's great need for arborists, patrollers, rec department managers, fish guides, and BBC cameramen.

Some reports indicate that a fifty-year flood complete with landslides may have closed parts of the road prematurely and we won't even get the opportunity to be snowed in for the winter. If that turns out to be true, ah well none of us has been to India before so it'll all be new and cool.

The disputed lands will offer their own set of challenges, both social and environmental. Some folks don't look favorably on peoples passing through their territory and fun words like hostage and kidnap come to mind. The most popular rifle ever made keeps an uneasy peace while men in opulent buildings thousands of miles away debate lines on a map. Water and petrol are hard to find.

We landed in New Delhi and after a quick trip through customs, went to find our transport. Oodles and oodles of Indians offered to help us with our bags. By help I mean take the carts from our hands and push them out to the van for us. I declined to let someone who's help I did not solicit push my gear to Shiva knows where when we already had transport arranged.

Once at the van, the crowd of twenty or so demanded gratuitys for work they not only did not perform but were specifically told not to do. We tossed most of our gear up on to the top of the van where it was secured with one piece of frayed cord about twice the diameter of a spaghetti noodle while they tried to figure out why we weren't tipping them.

One piece of cord for twelve bags. "Back up your back up" probably isn't heard much round here. Seven Americans didn't fit so well in the little van so our driver acquired another taxt to follow us to the hotel. A horn honked at us incessantly and I could see the angered driver. After two or so minutes waiting for our driver to return, the "dollar waiting on a dime" driver hopped into our vehicle, fumbled around for the parking brake, engaged the transmission and backed our load the hell out of his way without some much as a word or nod to our presence.

We had the typical scare the shit out of you ride from the airport. Pretty excited to drive a motorcycle round Delhi. The rest of the guys want to get out of town ASAP but I think I may stick around and cruise the strip just for the hell of it. There's plenty to see and wonder about right around town. Why do the commercial vehicles paint "stop" below the left brake light? How does he steer with a child on the handlebars? Is everyone pushing the horn with wild abandon or does it actually mean something?

Our rooms are clean and well-kept and there seem to be three Indians for each of us. Water? Right away sir. You want to eat even though the restaurant is closed? No problem. You would like to enjoy a beer on the lurker deck and watch the street folk cook over the trash fire and wonder if that rat is going to wake up the old dude in the striped shorts sleeping on the sidewalk while you wait for your dinner? I will send a runner to hire a tuk-tuk and return with seven beers immediately.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What happens in Bangkok

Forty hours and counting and still a plane ride away from New Dehli and our motorcycles. We had to overnight in Bangkok. Our hotel shuttled us and our bags all the way to the fourth floor for the equivalent of five U.S. dollars each. The Thai boys refused our help until they picked up a few of the bags. Once they realized that our bags held heavier items than flower shirts and flip-flops, the eighty-pound men were happy to let us carry some of the bags.

We bought a bag of week-old bread and some beers from the hotel lobby and took a seat on the river. Each hunk of bread made the water roll and churn with catfish of some sort. The smallest fish were thirty inches long and five to six pounds.

A taxi dropped us off in the city center. The ride was a good warm-up for what we face once we try to leave Dehli on bikes. Lane lines and traffic lights are merely suggestions.

Phil led us on a sweet shortcut to a restaurant he knew on the river. It quickly turned into quite the detour down alleys that don't see many tourists. Giant vats full of curry, meat on a stick, and other taste delights fought with human waste and wet dog for entry into our nostrils.

The restaurant was nice though I didn't eat because the heat stole my appetite. After dinner, a river taxi gave us a little tour. The three-twenty-seven small block really made the boat move. I kept my sunglasses on even though it was dark to keep the river water and whatever little creatures live there from getting into my eyes.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Funding the fun

I leave tomorrow morning for my second ten-day stint in Aialik Bay. Alaska Wildland Adventures plans to open a remote lodge on the site. There is plenty to do before guests show up beginning on the first of June, 2009.

This is the second remote job I've worked. I love the challenges these projects offer. Logistics and supply chains are a big part of it, "Sweet, a boat-load of 2x8's. What can we build with 2x8's?" or "I guess the plane isn't coming. Anybody up for another pancake, no butter or  syrup?"

Broken things need to be mended on site or done without. Spare parts and mechanical know-how are what you have around you. If you can't fix it more drastic measures need to be taken. "We're gonna set the tail of the plane in the wheel barrow. It only has to roll a little ways till I get the tail up." "But what if it doesn't work?" "It'll work, it has to." And it did, what a beautiful thing to see the wheel barrow rolling into the fireweed halfway down the runway and the Citabria turning to the south toward Yakatat. I remember wondering how the hell Jim was gonna land and then shrugging my shoulders, out of my control. I had other stuff to do.

The power of the Now grows in the wilderness. Being present is easy because the distractions of modern day are far away. A paper comes with the boat and is devoured by the crew, than largely forgotten or at least put aside. Brittiany and Sara take a back seat to masturbation jokes and whether you have enough bracing in place to stop for lunch.

Meals consist of great-smelling piles of high calorie foods, all you care to eat and then some. The kitchen keeps the groups of boys from slipping all the way back to the cave.  From defending the food against cross-contamination issues to keeping the eff-bomb "out of the kitchen," the cook is key to a successful project. Working men need to eat and eat a lot. Tasty and nourishing foods keep boys happy and focused on the task regardless of the weather, the bugs, the distance to the nearest single woman.