The film Easy rider (1969) brilliantly explored the hippy dream of freedom and how it challenged the old defining myth of “The American Dream”. The hippies just wanted a way to escape the rat race and live in harmony with drugs and free love. In one camp fire scene Dennis Hopper’s character (Billy) asks, “What the hell’s wrong with freedom, man? That’s what it’s all about.” And indeed in the movie that’s what we see Billy and Captain America (Peter Fonda) set out to achieve. After smuggling drugs from Mexico to Los Angles they sell it all to a rich dude and stash the profits in the petrol tanks of their choppers and head off to Florida via New Orleans and Madi Gras to live a free and hedonistic life. Sadly, their alternative escapades are brought to a premature conclusion. First the wacky southern lawyer, George (Jack Nicholson) who claims Venusians live amongst us is clubbed to death by red necks in his sleeping bag. And then a few days and one bad trip in a cemetery later, Wyatt and Billy are victims of a red neck drive-by. The film ends with a shot of a bike in flames and an elegiac song about rivers and freedom. And so the dream of freedom goes literally up in smoke. My tale of a motorbike journey in India bears only a passing resemblance to Easy Rider (I didn’t die for a start) but shares some of the same elements of the hippy myth. And furthermore, stands as an exemplary warning to those who venture into the vast spaces between metropolitan areas on their own.
It was 1993. I had spent the previous year on the dole saving cash, so I could head off to live freely not in Florida but in hippy central, India. I hadn’t managed anything as glamorous as the one killer deal. Instead I had built up my freedom bucks in small increments through defrauding the housing benefit, using a friend’s NI number to work while claiming dole, by buying ounces of poxy resin and pushing eighths and teenths, by doing medical drug tests (obviously not ingesting the medicine, just filling out a bogus diary) and mostly by living cheaply – hitching, being a veggie and stealing pints, plundering the skips of supermarkets and stealing clothes left outside of charity shops. Never working too hard and never taking the piss too much: just little bits of piss taking, which probably, in fairness, added up to a big piss take.
I wanted to go to India for it was a place which held mythical status back then as a place of mega-cheapness; where weird and wonderful civilization was made serenely brilliant by the legendary charis, the ganja of the gods. In short, India was my Madi Gras and Florida rolled into one; a place to enjoy the fruits of ill gotten gains.
Within a month of arriving in India, I never wanted to go back to miserable Thatcherite blighty. I had found a whole counter culture of people who had taken the piss in truly heroic ways; or else they were Scandinavian and thus never had to work. The oddest collection of scruffy westerners all with their own Captain America notions of abandoning the bullshit back home and leading the shanti life of cannabis and curry. Some sold their traveller’s cheques on the black market and then claimed they were stolen. Some worked the tulip season in Holland and lived in squats. Some had made a bundle from the nascent party scene back home. One chap was a croupier who made big bucks for a few months a year. Some bought and sold jewellery and other oddities and rarities. Some were just plain thieves. Many were dealers. But all believing in the dream.
After months of temples and mountains and beaches and haggling and long journeys and new friendships and many chess lessons, I was faced with the bleak prospect of having to say goodbye to the dream. It seemed a tragedy that all good and indulgent things had to come to an end. The end wasn’t because of waning cash but the irritating reality of visas. My six month visa was coming up to its expiration date alarmingly quickly. After having done a big loop from Delhi to Nepal to Calcutta to Tamil Nadu, I was heading up the West coast and had made it to the amazing town of Hampi, still half a continent away from my flight home. Hampi was a perfect place. It felt like a village that had been built on the ruins of an ancient city. It is India’s Angkor Wat. I place of innumerable deserted temples made of stone and designed with the baroque beauty of mathematical genius. However, just like the library in HG Well’s Time Machine story, the locals seemed to have lost any use for these masterpieces of culture and preferred a more agrarian and unexamined life, letting the temples form quaint back drops to grazing cows. I spent some of the finest moments of my then 20 something years in various temples with two French men and a mangy flea-bitten dog who managed to find us every night in a different temple. We would go to a temple as the sun went down and smoke chillums, eat snacks and make our own music. Occasionally a local would pass by and join the party for an hour or so, but generally we were left to feel the freedom of having ancient and beautifully hewn stone to provide the perfect setting for getting stoned. Add to that bongos, guitars and Pink Floyd and you have hippy heaven. I wanted to become a cow herder like Krishna and frolic for an eternity in this idyll.
But the damned visa issue wouldn’t go away. I considered just trying to change the zeros to sixes with a biro and not worry about the consequences, but the British awe of bureaucracy (one of our most enduring contributions to India) held back my tobacco stained hands from tampering with dates. As I pondered what to do, chance or some many armed god threw an unlikely solution into my lap. A Polish Australian (“Z”) who had a hundred acid trips on him (to fund his journey) had an old Enfield motorbike and was heading off the next day for Bangalore, a big city a few hours by bus away. Known as the garden city, Bangalore was surely a place where I could attempt to get a visa extension and so extend my blissful and bizarre Indian existence.
The Enfield is a classic bike dating back to the days of the British Raj that had continued to be manufactured in India long after the colonials had packed up their pith helmets and gone home. It is a bike with beautiful lines and sluggish performance, a romantic living relic that caught my imagination. I jumped at the prospect of feeling the wind in my dreads and experiencing the freedom of the open road. Not subjected to interminable hours on crowded, hot public transport. We could proceed at our own leisure and truly take in the countryside. We could experience being in and moving through the wild. In short an adventure beckoned and the excuse of having to get to an administrative capital provided the impetus to fall in with Z. We studied the map in the Lonely Planet and consulted a local and ascertained that Bangalore was about 226 miles from Hampi and could be done comfortably in 2 days.
So the following day, we packed up, said goodbye to the revolting dog, scored some charis for the road and headed out of Hampi. In the time honoured fashion of youth we threw caution to the wind: no helmets, no proper map, no sun block, and no sunglasses just a full tank and a couple of litres of water to see us through. I wore my pack and Z’s was strapped onto a rack behind me.
We soon made it to nowhere; a bone dry road with the occasional pothole that disappeared on the horizon. The landscape was flat, sun bleached scrub land dotted with a few trees and the skeletons of burnt out buses and cars. There were few vehicles on the road. It was in strong contrast to the usual overcrowded chaos of India.
At our first rest break Z split a tab with me and we washed it down with a bottle of water and a chillum.
By mid-afternoon we were blazing along, our interior journeys projecting an incandescent clarity upon the drifting scenery. The wide open expanse of scrub became infused with momentous and wordless meaning. I looked up and saw eagles circling before the portal to the upper cloudless sky. Going with the mighty flow, I ceased worrying about the wisdom of letting a tripped out Pole with a ton of narcotics taped to his body drive me through the barren innards of India.
And thus all proceeded swimmingly until Z attempted to overtake a truck by leaving the road and subjecting the bike to a barrage of bumps. Three quarters of the way through the maneuver there was a hard cracking noise and the back wheel locked. Z fought to keep the bike upright as we skidded to a standstill. The extreme and unexpected nature of it all abruptly turned off the inner projector and the brightness faded to the grey chill of fear. I stood by the bike trembling. Z seemed unfazed. He inspected the bike. The rear rail that had held his pack was cracked and the chain was jammed. The Enfield like Che’s Ponderosa had lost it’s might and took on the aspect of metal junk, destined to join it’s burnt out roadside compadres.
After a chillum and a litre of water to calm down, we formed a plan. Z would hitch off to get assistance and I would wait with the bike. We dragged the thing to a nearby shadeless tree and then Z assumed his position road side as I sprawled out on the dirt with the packs. Thirty minutes later a small truck stopped and Z was off.
I wasn’t alone for long: soon, a man who seemed to be at least 100 years old, materialized out of nowhere and smiled benignly at me. He had no English and I had no Hindi so we sat together under the shadeless tree and smoked my cigarettes.
An hour or so passed before Z returned on another Enfield with a 12 year old boy on the back. On getting off the bike I saw the kid with dirty shorts and grease smeared shirt wielded a hammer and a single spanner. The three of us gathered around the bike sharing some water Z had bought back, and watched in fascination as the kid set out banging and spannering the injured Enfield. In just under 40 minutes our mighty beast was making odd growling noises and was ready for disembarkation. We solemnly pressed our palms together in respect to the little ancient man, gave him a few fags and were off again. The kid rode our bike and Z and I took the other beat up Enfield.
We cautiously proceeded for 20 odd miles until we arrived at a small one road town and came to a halt next to a garage with a bit of tarp for a roof. The predictable argument over repair costs ensued. Figures started at 100s of dollars and ended in at a couple of thousand rupees. The deal being done, we went in search of lodging and food. We found a double room above a restaurant. It was a typical Indian room with crumbling bare concrete walls, wonky ceiling fan and a hole for a latrine and a bucket for a shower. However to me it was luxury of the highest order to be alive and unscathed. And though I had reservations about being so reckless the next day I was feeling another level of free. And that’s what it was all about about.