You may wonder why anyone would want to motorcycle over 2000kms across India, let alone a five-foot tall woman. Back in 2010, I wondered the same thing. I mean, I didn’t particularly like motorbikes; I never owned one, I’d only really rode one a few times before and I certainly didn’t have any grand plans to make this two wheeled heap of junk a partner in my daily commute. But it did happen and this story starts like any other travel story: the search for love.
I’d studied yoga for many years and more strongly in the leading months before my departure. I knew that I wanted to dig deeper into the untapped world of Ashtanga and thought this opportunity would give me access to knowledge and wisdom from elder gurus. It all seemed so enchanting and exotic. You must remember I was a country girl from NSW, living in Melbourne and this country India sounded so far away and so removed from anything I’d ever known – it had to hold the secrets to my burning questions. Questions like: What even is love? How do I find it? Where and who cultivates it and what on earth am I doing wrong that I can’t find it.
So in June, 2010 I embark on a journey to India to seek the answers to my questions and to have as they say an adventure of a lifetime. I mean I was 23 years old how could it not be?
Not to drag myself down in too much detail, I didn’t do quite as much research as I possibly could have. For starters, India in June is the height of summer and just maybe the ashrams wouldn’t be open at this time of year (they weren’t) and maybe it was just a little too hot to be down south in Pune (it was).
On arrival I did what any sane person would do, I flocked from Delhi, flocked from Agra and Rajasthan and kept on flocking until the temperature was bearable enough to sit on a chair without sweating helplessly. I landed in Manali, a small town located in Himachal Pradesh where I stayed put.
You may be wondering where the motorcycle part in this story fits in, I am getting there believe me. I stayed in Manali for a month and enjoyed nature at it’s most daring; it was overgrown, luscious and the towering peaks of the Himalayas would watch our every move. It was magnificent. But there was an itch that wouldn’t resolve with a simple scratch. The itch became larger and larger and before I knew it, I’d met an Australian boy in the mountains who was crazy enough to join me in the motorcycle ride from Manali in the north all the way down to Kerala in the south. As it turned out, he was also from a small town in NSW, and he also had some pretty big questions he was hoping to have answered by India. We purchased our own motorbikes in Chandigah and started out almost immediately. I still can’t believe I was the owner of a 2000 Yamaha 135CC RX motorbike for just $350 and unfortunately I still haven’t successfully learned what that all means. My list of necessities for a bike back then constituted: Was it a nice colour and did it have a horn?
I couldn’t tell you what drove me to want to take on the challenge, and I certainly can’t tell you about any emotional affair I have with motorcycles either. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ridden on one since.
We rode to Delhi before deciding our next steps: the idea was to get to Kerala within two months and yes we would need the Indian train system to help us get there on time. Our bikes were packed and loaded onto an overnight train to Mumbai before our real adventure began and by that I mean, the problems and joys that later evolved. Our first 100km day (which should technically only take an hour, but took us six) involved millions of beady eyes watching as I, yes a women, navigated her way through town after town. How I revealed my shoulders after my sarong had slipped the twelfth and final time before I gave up on it. How every time I rode past a small child in these tiny provinces one would drop their jaw and mouth the word WOW!
Eventually the problems we had with the bikes took their toll on us emotionally, mentally and physically. We drove past freight trucks, tuk tuks, motorbikes and cars daily; people would take photos of us and laugh at us. I had issues with my clutch, my headlamp and we both encountered frequent tire punctures. Every time we’d fix one thing, another would hopelessly fall apart. We experienced sore tummies, vicious mosquito bites and a few fevers here and there. There was dust up my nose, under my nails and in my pores in a mere moment on the road.
But it wasn’t all bad, and just as quickly as I felt defeated, I quickly felt on top of the world. I overheard a man say “a girl riding a gear bike, cool” I felt like the talk of the town. The assistance from strangers we received and the countless chai tea’s they would offer us was poignant. A world of extremes, in a place of chaos, there was always someone to help us, using their phone to call for assistance, giving directions or maybe just an education on culture. How every time my clutch would fail my companion would shout: “you’ve got this, just skip to second gear” whatever that meant.
But just as I was enjoying myself I’d feel low again. How women on the streets, in hotels and sometimes in restaurants would shake their head at me hoping I was at least married. How every time I would ask someone a question, they would provide an answer to my companion instead of me.
I guess this stirred something bigger in me than I ever could have anticipated. I was educated, I had a degree (my companion didn’t), I had a job (my companion didn’t) I could drive and speak eloquently when spoken to by an adult. Why could I not be spoken to? ‘Don’t worry about it’ my companion would say, just ignore them. I guess another question about love I should have asked was whether you could hate someone and love them at the exact same time?
I guess this was one of the reasons I wanted to give up on the adventure. I was tired, my bike kept failing, too many eyes would watch me and try to take my photograph.
I had to draw from the only life experiences I knew: I had to finish this. For me and for all women alike. All I knew from my past life experiences was to at least try. Whether it was completing an essay at University, or running a race at gym or maybe just having the last word. I had to do it. I had to keep going.
My goal was to be lying on a beach in Kerala with a week to spare cocktail in hand, that I would feel enlightenment at the end from enduring such an emotional thunderstorm.
But mostly I guess I wanted to learn more about love, and by doing that I did fall in love. I fell in love with India; it’s crazy and confronting conditions. It’s power cuts, rock infused and graveled roads and many, many potholes. But also it’s beauty, it’s traditions and it’s ever-curious residents. This was the real gift because I learned that opposites are just as important in travel than they are in life and in love. You must have the good and the bad: the hot and the cold, the poor and the rich, the generous and the selfish. All of the contrasts are what makes it so beautiful, so enriching and so thrilling.
There is a lot of love here I mean have you ever heard about the Taj Mahal and it’s purpose? I loved it all, the comfort of a friendly smile from another woman, a hug or a wave. I came here to learn about love and for a spiritual enlightenment. Instead I’m enlightened by a contrast of Punjabi, Tibetan, Nepalese, Kashmiri and south Indian people, each with their unique set of cultural regimes, and opinions. I came to learn about yoga moves. Instead I learned about compassion, patience, to be open-minded and to let go and to be proud to be a woman. I got to see the real India, the cruel, rude, staring, loving, smiling and waving India. My love for these people, this country and myself and everything that comes with that has changed me.
We travelled from Mumbai to Goa, onto Karnataka and Kerala and eventually found Fort Cochin. This was our final place with just a few days to spare before flying out. I didn’t get to lie on the beach for a week, but I did lie by a pool for a day and that was enough. I did go to an ashram, just not for yoga. I learned about meditation and what a hug could mean for some people.
And at the end of the day, if there is one little girl, one tiny little woman in India or maybe, just maybe here in Australia who felt inspired by me taking on the adventure as a woman, then I’d done a pretty damn good job.
Happy International Women’s Day!