After my five days fixing Donkey I’d gotten to know the guys who ran the guesthouse. There was four of them rotating on shifts 24 hours a day. They all knew the trip and the progress of the breakdown. When I first rocked up at their place I did not have high hopes, it looked dire, the beds, the bogs and the building. And it still was, but I’d got used to it and the guys really helped make it more of a home. We said our goodbyes and took a million selfies and I headed off south feeling much better than when I had arrived.
I hugged the coast for a few hours, until I suddenly found myself as far south as it’s possible to go in India, at Kanyakumari. An unimpressive place, best seen at sunrise or sunset from it’s east or west facing beaches. I was here at midday, with thousands of Indians who had apparently never seen a foreigner before, judging by the level of staring I was getting. It was incredible to finally be there though. If you’d have asked me four years ago if I wanted a trip to India I’d have told you to sod off. When I’d first entered India I’d decided to push myself a bit and see more of it than I was comfortable with. Now I was stood at the south tip having covered a whole lot more than I’d expected, and I’d enjoyed it, even if I hadn’t been inside my comfort zone for months. It felt like an achievement to reach India’s North most and South most limits after all my worrying about it.
From there I could only go North, so I spent the night in Madurai, surprised to find a few British travellers in one of the only hostels in town. We chatted away the night, fixing the worlds problems, getting on with each other instantly as travellers do. It was another two days riding before I reached Bangalore and, by now, I was done with Indian drivers. After my first month in India I’d got used to them, after two months I’d figured them and their crazy ways out, now after three months I was just sick of them and their idiotic driving that threatened my life multiple times a day.
Bangalore though was the best stop I had in India. Abijith, who had given me all the route advice for the Western Ghats had been in touch with two of his close friends who could put me up for a few days, Aditya and Huda. I arrived in Bangalore in a sweaty tired mess, Huda was waiting for me outside their apartment and within 20 minutes I was showered, changed and eating a great Biryani chatting about the trip. Bliss. I spent 5 nights there and felt completely at home from the start. On the first night I mentioned maybe I’d go to the cinema at some point in Bangalore, within 5 minutes they’d booked tickets for us all to go to a show that night and we were off. It was the first time since I left the UK I actually felt at home anywhere, and with really good friends no less. I’ll forever be grateful for their generosity to a sweaty travelling stranger.
My payment for staying with them was to give a talk to their biker group. They are part of the lead organising team for a huge community of bikers in Bangalore and around India called MTM Grid. They’d hosted a few travellers and had them give presentations about their journeys and stories. They had some big names on their books and I was feeling the pressure. I didn’t think I had many stories, sure some things had happened along the way to me, but compared to some of these legends of motorbike travel I was a pansy, carefully winding my way through the easier parts of the world. I decided to focus more on how a pansy like me decides to travel by motorbike, then any of my daring adventures.
The morning of the talk I was feeling pretty awful and close to calling it off. I thought it might just be nerves and pushed on. By the afternoon though I was properly ill, wondering again if it’s too late to call it off. After the prep in the venue though it was wearing off a bit and I had no excuse. To add to the pressure we were hosting in a super posh venue they’d managed to secure at the last minute, my late change of plans from the breakdown not helping with the planning. It all went great though and the post talk meet and greet was the best part, people were more free with their questions than in front of a crowd and I met some awesome folks. Though Bacon seemed to get more attention than I did.
That night and the next day the illness was back and getting worse though, it wasn’t nerves, I had some sort of fever. My elbow was swelled and infected for some reason and I felt awful come morning. I had to ride though, I was shipping the bike out from Chennai and had to start the paperwork the next day if I wanted to make the ship this week. I jumped on the bike and just zombied my way on the highway, thankfully it was 5 hours of basically straight roads into the centre of Chennai. By the time I arrived at the hostel I fell asleep in the lounge waiting for them to sort my bed, I woke up, surprised two hours later feeling a little better.
I had cold sweats all that night and by morning had basically broken the fever and felt a ton better; ready to get the paperwork started for shipping. It turned out there’d been no reason to rush to Chennai at all. I spent the next 4 days chasing the completely useless agent to get the process started. He managed to miss all the deadlines for getting on the ship and we missed the weeks shipping. I was fuming come Friday when it was hopeless to make the ship the next day. It would mean waiting for next weeks ship and cutting it to the wire on my visa and the bike documents. There had been no reason for the delays, no changes, no disasters, just pure incompetence.
I’m very good at killing time, but by the time Tuesday rolled around to start the shipping even I was getting bored. It had been eight days in the same hostel and there’s bugger all to do in Chennai. There was a couple of other people in the hostel long term though and we’d gotten on well killing time together (Hi Awatef and Parti), and a good rolling gang of travellers, there’s not many hostels in Chennai so everyday someone was leaving and one or two new faces would arrive.
I was in the agents office at 11am when they all arrived. I was ready are raring to go with the paperwork. There was less enthusiasm from their side but me being there pushed them along a bit and we got everything registered and started. We still didn’t head to the port till around 4pm, then had issues with getting me through the gates, all their foreigner spy and saboteur alarms went off and they wanted reams of paperwork to fix it . I was feeling good until we’d been sat around for 4 hours and nothing at all had happened. At 9pm they called it quits and said we’d head back in the taxi, the poor driver had been sat there the whole time too. The port is about an hours drive out of town with nothing at all around it so there’s nothing to do but sit and wait for the nothing to happen.
I got back to the hostel at about 11pm to cheers from everyone, I’d set off in the morning expecting to be gone only a few hours. They had just assumed me dead. Then they all laughed when I said I’d spent 12 hours there and achieved nothing except abandoning Donkey at the port. The next day was no better. A customs agent inspected the bike early in the morning to give me some hope but then decided there was a problem with the carnet. They’d never shipped a personal vehicle from this port and couldn’t understand why Pakistan was the first stamp in my Carnet (Vehicle Passport), I tried explaining that no country before Pakistan accepts the carnet but they were just blanking me. “We need paperwork for Russia” “It doesn’t exist” “We need it” “It doesn’t exist” “We need it” Ad infinitum. The agent wasn’t communicating either and nobody seemed to no what was going on or what we needed to do, other than that there was a problem. It was so incredibly Indian I could have screamed.
When I found out who was declaring there was a problem but wasn’t being helpful in solving it, I parked myself outside his office. This made a lot of people very unhappy but getting on his nerves was the plan, he wasn’t going to help until it was his problem. I got in his way a few times during the afternoon and just before he left for the day he huffed and shouted at the agent to get me out, I shouldn’t be here. Now with his attention the agent managed to extract a tiny bit of information about what we needed. Success.
Another 2 days of this bullshit followed. The agent went to the customs commissioner of Chennai, the problem guy’s bosses boss, and got special permission to ship the bike even with the “errors” in the documents. He still caused issue and wouldn’t sign off on anything. Not a clear no, just beating it around and delaying. Generally being as Indian as possible about it all. I tried my getting in the way trick again and nearly got thrown out the port (according to the agent who was bricking himself about me making a scene). But it worked again and he basically shouted “I don’t believe you” even though we had a signed document. The agent called his bullshit and challenged him to meet the Commissioner with him the next day. Somehow that worked. Our problem guy got a roasting for being an idiot and we got even more special permission, to ship the bike, allow me in the port, and allow me to the loading area for the customs inspection (to open the locked bags) and to help load the bike into the container. Score!
It was still touch and go then, it was Easter and Chennai has a lot of Christians. Good Friday meant most things were closed and that included the customs offices. On Thursday afternoon there were rumours that they would be open after all because it coincided with the end of financial year rush. How this came as a surprise to anyone is beyond me. We can predict the date of Easter for the next million years, and yet it came as a shock to them. With the port open we got down there and got the final stamps and signatures for shipping. Waited for the container to be brought over and got Donkey through the magical gate that divided India and the international soil of the port. I even got a special florescent vest stolen from an agent to protect me from certain death.
I’m glad I pushed so hard to be allowed to help with the loading. I watched the port lads start putting straps in and putting Donkey up onto the stand. It got too much and I told them to stop. Every bump and bounce would put stress of the frame, instead of using the suspension for exactly what it was designed for, absorbing bumps. Then they tried to just use one strap over the seat, so any bump where he got lower would just loosen the strap and he’d fall over, rendering the wheel chocks they’d put in useless too. I’m pretty sure they’d never shipped a bike. Neither have I but at least I was thinking. With their help and me directing with sign language we strapped him up at four points on the frame until he was squashed down on his suspension and wouldn’t move an inch. We shut and sealed the doors and I nearly cried in relief. Done. It was done, he was stamped out, in the container and in time for the boat. At 9pm the day before the boat left, he was finally ready.
I jumped back on the back of the tiny bike of one of the agents and we laughed and joked all the way back. No helmet, no gear and on bouncy roads and Indian traffic but it didn’t really bother me anymore I’d got used to it the last few days going and back and forth to the port. They were as relieved as I was, it had been a challenge for them too, though a bit more stressful for me if it failed. The agents were super nice people, especially the ones I was dealing with mostly, but the guy in charge was just so useless I couldn’t grasp it, how he ever got anything shipped was beyond me.
I had to wait over the weekend, but it was easier now, with Donkey on the way at least I knew what I was waiting for. I managed to meet up with a friend of Adi and Huda in Chennai. Bala was a big biker and traveller too, he and his wife took me out to a few really nice places around Chennai, we had some great chats and a lot of beer. Like Bangalore I was just taken care of like an old friend. I even went to his house to meet his family and his mother instantly tried to give me a gift to take with me, a delicate copper candle holder, I’m sure it was something she didn’t want but the gesture and thought was there, not that I could really keep it in the bags travelling around.
I flew out on Tuesday, not without one last run in with the Agent. He wanted to do the final paperwork in a couple of days and post it to me in Malaysia. Errrrrr no. I have zero faith in you being able to mail even yourself a letter, I’m not leaving you with my most important paperwork for you to just lose it. I’ll pay you now, you’ll do it now, and I’ll leave you alone. He did it, with my guidance because he wan’t sure how.
I tried to fight one of the payments on the invoice but all the fight had left me by then. £150 for “taxi” charges. Which was ridiculous, I’d never asked for a taxi and was going to make my own way to the port but they invited me in their taxi, plus a few days sitting on the back of the tiny bike. I was not paying for bloody taxi’s. When I bought it up he resisted for a while before just revealing it was for “other” payments for the customs guys. “Under the table” he said in a very conspiratorial way. Bribes. All that hassle even with bribes? I thought bribes were supposed to make things go faster!? Screw it, here’s your money, give me my papers, I’m leaving you and India.
I jumped on my midnight flight that night and said my goodbyes to India. I would miss it, a lot. Just not right now. I need a long break first. It was way more time than I was expecting to spend there. I’d almost forced myself to do it, and am glad I did. It is an incredible place, but not to be entered in to lightly. Not for an introverted unsociable nerd like me. I’m certain I’ll return at some point but for now I’m glad to be heading somewhere new, and Malaysia especially. The start of the South East Asia adventure.
11/03/2018 – 03/04/2018