Sunday, October 24, 2010

MOUNTAIN COW


I have been Time Travelling while sitting on the bench outside the Mountain Cow cafe. The owner comes out to check my health. I photograph him. What are his feelings toward Pine Plains? He prefers the mountains and given a free choice would live in his home State of Colorado. However his wife has deep roots in Pine Plains...

Saturday, October 23, 2010

PINE PLAINS AND COLWALL

Pine Plains in Dutchess County, New York, is much the same size as Colwall in Herefordhsire, though houses are more widely spread and on big lots. Trees shade the streets. Architecture is white clapboard with porches to rock on in summer twilight. A few small buildings rub shoulders on Main Street each side of the sole intersection regulated by traffic lights. The Stissing Bank occupies one corner, the pharmacy another and The Stissing House Tavern and Restaurant a third. The Stissing House is the biggest building in town; it has an upper floor though no rooms to let; the owner/chef is French. The Colwall Park has a French waiter and does have rooms. Both Colwall and Pine Plains are set in a gentle country of small valleys, wooded hills and grass paddocks. In my youth this was dairy country. No longer. Farms are too small to survive in today’s market place.

CHEFS AND PARAGLIDERS - OWLS AND BUZZARDS


My home is a three hundred year old cottage facing across two cricket fields to the orchards and hills of my beloved Herefordshire. The fields are home to Colwall Cricket Club. In summer I walk to the far boundary to sit on an oak-shaded bench and watch paragliders ride the up-draughts above the Malvern Hills. A pair of buzzards often circle amongst the paragliders and a white owl lives in one of the oaks. Colwall is much the same size as Pine Plains in Dutchess County, New York, where the midday Autumn sun warms the bench outside the Mountain Cow CafĂ© on Main Street This is a good place to sit. Drivers pull into Peck’s Market car park round on my left. Clients visit the law office and the realtors across the street or drop by the book store - used books, or is that pre-read? A yellow school bus passes followed by a John Deere farm tractor pulling a trailer. A new restaurant opened this weekend, Agriturismo. The chef/owner, Mark Strausman, is a name in New York. The owner’s son (14) hurries by, red-haired and a slight limp.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

MEN!

ROAD SIGN IN LYON, FRANCE
I had to put this up!

ONE MORE MAGNIFICENT MORNING

A loosebox door grinds open and steel shod hooves tap concrete. My room is above the stables. I am in bed at my son-in-law’s horse farm in Dutchess County, New York. I have bronchitis. The medic in Pine Plains has prescribed antibiotics for ten days, two pills a day to be taken with meals. I took a pill yesterday with dinner at 7.15. Now I get up and make breakfast so I can take the next. I dress and pad silently down the corridor passed my grandson’s bedroom. He will be three in January and is of uncertain temper when woken unnecessarily. I step over the black cat that sleeps on the stairs. In the kitchen I turn on the coffee machine before going to the bathroom, pee, wash hands, face and the important bits, brush teeth, glue in the dentures. The coffee machine commands me to rinse it, empty the coffee grinds and fill the water tank. The toaster requires six minutes to heat. I slice five mushrooms into an omelette pan and whizz a couple of eggs with chilli flakes, black pepper, garlic powder and a pinch of low salt salt. The toast is almost ready, coffee machine set to STRONG. Pour the eggs into the pan, stir once, fold over and slip onto a plate: low fat fake butter on the toast, low fat milk in the coffee. I tuck yesterday’s New York Times under my arm, follow the dog outdoors and set my breakfast on the table by the barbecue. Four cats weave between my legs. Pigeons bask in early morning sunshine on the barn roof. Mares race each other up the hill paddock towards the woods. Maples are in full Fall splendour of lipstick pink through to scarlet. Oaks and hickory prefer gold. Tea Party Candidates for Senate prefer gibberish. Old Brits run on cardiac medication...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

POLO AT MASHOMACK, NY

9 OCTOBER
PINE PLAINS, NY

I intended writing a travel article on New York's horse country. I meet two Argentinians in the Mountain Cafe, Pine Plains. Polo players, they compete in tournaments at Mashomack Polo Club through the Summer season. The season is over. They have shipped the ponies south. The older of the two, Juan Olivera, will fly to Palm Beach on Sunday. He is a small, compact man with a firm handshake, sun and wind tanned and beginning to grey. His younger companion is tall and younger and strikes me as somewhat languid and less the professional horseman - perhaps because he is returning to Buenos Aires. Though that could be to visit his fiance or a sick parent. What do polo players do as they grow older? Is there a downward spiral, less important tournaments? Do they date older, wealthier women? How many professional polo players are there? Surely not that many. Though what do I know...?
And my son-in-law advises that the August sales and race meeting in Saratatoga are the heart of New York's horse year. I am a little late!

FIVE SMALL PIGS

My grandson, Shane, will have his third birthday in January. He says Good morning to me this morning and only then yells to his mother (my daughter) that there is a monster in the house. I comb my hair at the bathroom mirror above the hand basin. Shane decides that I look less of a monster and demands that I play piggy with his toes:
This big piggy went to market.
This little piggy stayed at home.
This little piggy ate pastrami.
This poor little piggy had none.
And this little piggy cries wee wee wee wee as it runs all the way home.
Shane prefers to play piggy on the carpet. Grandpa finds getting down onto the carpet comparatively easy. Getting up is tough. Shane pulls, I groan...

SPOILED

This is my last day on antibiotics. I take one pill in the morning and one in the evening. Having to take the pills with meals is an excuse for a cooked breakfast - this morning a mushroom omelet with two slices of toast. I feel comfortably full and totally spoiled...

LATE WITH PICS

I uploaded a few pics today onto the Baja Run Blogs

Friday, October 08, 2010

CATS, CATS, CATS




8 OCTOBER
DUTCHESS COUNTY, NY

A stallion snorts close by in a paddock to the rear of the house. Horses are messy eaters. Rats and mice would thrive but for the cats. A striped grey cat sits on a small grey plastic children's slide. A black cat preens itself beneath a bigger yellow slide. A marmalade cat washes its self on a chair. A fourth cat eats at the feeder on the table. I sip excellent coffee made in a wondrous machine that grinds fresh beans for each cup.

PIGEONS ON THE ROOF


8 OCTOBER
DUTCHESS COUNTY, NY

Friday and a crisp clear Autumn morning on the horse farm in Dutchess County, New York. I count seventeen pigeons sunning themselves on the barn roof. Why count? Why not?

Thursday, October 07, 2010

END OF JOURNEY

17/18 SEPTEMBER
LA VERNE

A stiff head wind along the coast slows us. Turn inland and we ride through a splendid hill country of vast commercial vineyards and acre upon acre of plastic tunnel. Big John is expert in navigating the border with the US. Joe and I follow as he weaves and squeezes between long lines of waiting cars and trucks. The US immigration officer examines my passport. Mexico doesn't register as having left the US. “You entered in New York?” he says and waves me through. We load the bikes onto a California Scooter Company truck and the journey is done.
A night in a La Verne motel, a late brunch with Joe and his wife, then off to Ontario airport in joe's Corvette – Wow!

FIT FOR PURPOSE



j indiana jonesing


17 SEPTEMBER
TO TIJUANA

Here are a few musings from the road. J's modern Power Wagon is a powerful and effective off-road vehicle and delightfully comfortable. My opinion, it is not a vehicle for what I think of as an expedition. It is too complicated.
The rule for an expedition vehicle: Something breaks, can you fix it?
In my early twenties, I spent three months at a time in the Ogaden desert of Ethiopia, Northern Frontier District of Kenya and what is now northern Somalia. There were no roads, not even dirt roads. Transport was an early model Landrover and the original bright yellow Dodge Powerwagon – by today's standards, primitive vehicles. Crew were a Somali driver for the Dodge, a Somali interpreter and an elderly Ethiopian cook. A ten-ton Thornycroft truck brought supplies every fortnight (if it could get through). I carried spare leaf-springs, plugs, petrol pump, points, rotary arm and a distributor cap, a dozen or so inner tubes and boxes of hot patches (ten punctures a day in thorn country was common until a genius invented the gaiter). Communication was by radio early mornings. The radio was a heavy 19 Set used in Centurion tanks. Rig up a long aerial between two trees and I could usually get through to base. The radio was too heavy to carry in the Landrover when I was away from my camp – often for two or three days when exploring the territory - and I would leave the Powerwagon; it used too much gas.
My Landrover beat the hell out of me. I cursed it often, cursed the designer. However it was fit for purpose. It got me in, enabled me to do my work and got me back – and when it broke I could fix it. Same went for the Powerwagon.

JUMP START

17 SEPTEMBER
TO TIJUANA

6 a.m. and we breakfast at a restaurant next door to the hotel. A half day will bring us to the border. We pile our gear into the PowerWagon. Luxury creates its own problems: the PowerWagon's battery is dead. Someone must have forgotten to switch off the microwave or the espresso machine or the ice maker or the water heater in the 2nd bathroom. The kindly restaurateur jump-starts the PowerWagon from his beat-up pickup...

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

MAMA ESPERANSA

SEPTEMBER 16
ONWARD NORTH

Visiting Mama Esperansa's restaurant in El Rosario is a right of passage for California's bikers. Biker memorabilia cover the walls and ceiling - cards, group photographs, insignia caps, sweatshirts. Joe calculates that the present owner is third generation. She is an ample woman in her fifties. We have had a great ride. In adolescent mood, I tease the waitresses and have them giggling. What's good in sea food? Crab soup, fresher than fresh...
A large crab chopped in quarters swims in a big bowl of broth. Delicious.
I finish and the owner comes by. How was it, grandfather?
Perfection.
There is more broth in the pot, she says and has the waitress serve me a refill.
Such is the reward for speaking Spanish!
Onward a further sixty miles to San Quentin and a modern hotel on Main Street. We have been on the road twelve hours and traveled 325 miles – good going for a mini motorcycle. This old man heads for a hot shower and bed. Big John, as ever kind, brings me ice cream and a choice of sticky cakes!

Saturday, October 02, 2010

APOLOGIES

Apologies to readers: I have been struggling with bronchitis for the past ten days, dosed with antibiotics, depressed and writing slowly. I am on the mend and will write more and faster....

LANCHERO



beautiful

16 SEPTEMBER
NORTH

Lanchero is border Mexican-Spanish for a diner. We pass one every forty or fifty miles. Normally the lanchero is a lone building beside the highway. There is no apparent reason why the builder chose this site. Why not a hundred yards south or north – or 500 yards in either direction?
We pull in at a lanchero on the left. Intricately worked saddles and splendid chaps hang from the ceiling. Smaller pieces of harness fill a glass-fronted display cabinet. Probably thirty miles or more to the next house in either direction, a hundred miles to the nearest town – quite a drive for horsemen in want of spare stirrup leather.

VULTURES

16 SEPTEMBER
NORTH

I am a follower on this journey and must concentrate on the riders ahead. Riding alone, my mind is free. I chase the same thought day after day, worrying at it as a terrier does a hard rubber bone - and small details of the countryside, of fauna and flora awaken memories. Today has been better - perhaps because I have become more accustomed to the group. Temperature exceeds 100 – a 60 degree rise since we left the hotel this morning. We have ridden north beyond the boulders and cross a seemingly endless plane circled by mountains. Small, pale yellow butterflies zigzag on the breeze. Flowers on two small roadside shrines to the dead are the gifts of love. The flowers are already desiccated. A dead cow rots in front of the shrines. Gorged vultures perch on the candelabra cacti. I recall, from my early twenties, vultures as signals of suffering in a desert where nomads, trekking from dry well to dry well, abandoned their children and the aged so that the breeding stock of the tribe could survive...And where I could do nothing other than extend the suffering of a chosen few with a few cups of water.
There was a further guilt: that, for me, the desert was an immense playground, a marvelous land alive with great herds of gazelle, where majestic oryx and kudu grazed, where lions sprawled in the sun, giraffe nibbled the treetops, elephants were king. To be shot at on occasion was part of the adventure in those glory days of tribesmen armed with single shot rifles, relics of the First and Second World Wars and often loaded with the wrong gauge ammunition.
Now every teenager in that desert wields a Kalashnikov or an M16 – such was the strategy of the Cold War: arm your enemies' friends' enemies with no thought for the future.
The future is now. Animals are gone, vicious chaos rules, refugee camps line the frontier.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

ROADSIDE SHRINES

16 SEPTEMBER
ONWARD NORTH

Finally the sun melts the cover and paints small curls of pale red gold on the underside of small puffs of white cloud high above. Never in my travels have I seen mountains so blue. We pass three small shrines to the dead on a straight stretch of highway. A hundred yards or so separates the shrines. Surely not casualties of three separate accidents? Yet, if the same accident, why the separation? Anger between the families of the dead? The blame game? Three kids racing down the straight on Saturday night? A drunk driver? Or high on dope? Or was he driving one-handed while hugging his girl and lost control? Was there a quarrel between the three? Did one of the passengers strike the driver?
Were I alone i would stop a moment, read the names, presuming the dead were Catholic, murmur a Catholic prayer. A local driver, curious, might stop. We would talk a while. Such is traveling...

BREAKFAST

16 SEPTEMBER
NORTH FROM CONSTITUTION

Dawn approaches as we ride out of the Hotel Oasis courtyard. Sea fog rises from the ocean and spreads across the desert. We ride for two hours in chill air beneath the low grey canopy to breakfast at the Desert Inn, San Ingnacio.

Monday, September 27, 2010

HORSES FOR COURSES



main highway
sikkim,india

15 SEPTEMBER
COSTITUTION


J is keen to organise joint off-road and bike trips on the Baja peninsular using California Scooter Company bikes. Joe and Big John are enthusiastic. I am an outsider and keep my thoughts to myself. However, the main highway is about the only tar road in Baja. Surely dirt bikes would be more suitable?
Coco Chanel is very different from the pre-production bike I rode south – not in looks but in feel. Coco purrs and the vibration from the unitary chassis seems less. The seats on both bikes are mounted on coil springs. They are wide seats for wide butts. I love them. They are the type of seat I dream of on my travels. And the riding position is ideal for my build. Sit upright and my hands rest as comfortably on the controls as they did on the Brazilian Honda Cargo I rode round the Americas – as they should on a work bike or a touring bike, bikes on which the rider will spend hours each day. The Indian manufactured Honda Stunner was more a cafe racer for teenage posers. The rider's weight was on his hands and on his crotch. Longer than half an hour in the seat was cruel punishment.
Mechanically, both Hondas were perfect: 40,000 miles on the Cargo without a mechanical fault; 10,000 miles round India, not even a puncture. The Cargo averaged over 120 miles to the gallon while the Stunner maintained a remarkable 160. The Stunner was stable on mud and gravel and on river beds marked as roads on India's road atlas.
Coco isn't a dirt bike. For transport I would chose Honda. Coco wins on charm. It is a bike to love. It is the bike I would chose to ride to the Malvern spa of a Sunday morning where it will attract a crowd of admirers. Even my youngest son, Jed (20), would be proud to show it off to his friends and he doesn't like bikes. As to reliability, the few faults we have found on this journey will be cured. Future complaints will a rarity.
So there you have my judgement – as always, Horses For Courses...

GRILLED CACTUS

15 SEPTEMBER
CONSTITUTION

We are back at the Hotel Oasis, a modern building devoid of charm but with air-conditioning, comfortable beds and a small square of water advertised in the hotel brochures as a swimming pool. Swim two strokes and you would break your wrists or concuss yourself at the far end. We stand in the pool and talk of our journey and the beauty of the ride down to the sea and of the heat and of where to have dinner. A taco stand on main street wins the food stakes. We sit in white plastic chairs on the sidewalk, eat tacos with parboiled, grilled cactus and roast shallots. Party night in Constitution and quad-bikers parade on Main Street.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

BIKER HEAVEN

15 SEPTEMBER
CABO SAN LUCAS NORTH

The road swoops down from the plateau to the Sea of Cortez through narrow gorges of rose red stone. The descent is biker heaven. A shared joy draws us together as we lean into perfect curve after perfect curve, shed years, shed worries, become children in a playground. Then comes the sea, a shimmering sheet of lapis. Not to bathe in such beauty insults its creator. Yet on we ride, on and on and on...
And, rather than cool ourselves in the sea, stop for lunch at an air-conditioned Chinese restaurant.

GOODBYE TO HOLLYWOOD MANSIONS



below the pool

15 SEPTEMBER
CABO SAN LUCAS NORTH

7 a.m and we are on the road again. Goodbye Hollywood Mansion, goodbye glorious beach that we didn't visit. Goodbye Cabo San Lucas, town that remains unknown. Arlene flies home this morning - business. Wonder woman, she has leant me her bike. The bike is a production model with a custom paint job. The bike's name? Coco Chanel, naturally.
We race north two hours to Todos Santos for breakfast and find the bypass round La Paz. The road cuts inland beyond La Paz and climbs 1500 feet to a wide plateau encircled by mountains. The sun bleaches and paralyses the desert. The dark grey road is an interloper. It runs straight as a steel yardstick between fluffy borders of dew fed emerald. Two glow-yellow bugs speed down the road - Joe and Big John in their biker jackets. The temperature at noon tops 103 degrees.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TERRIFYING LAUGH



big john

14 SEPTEMBER
CABO SAN LUCAS

I have followed Big John for four days. John on a California Scooter Company bike is kin to a father riding his five year-old's tricycle. That the bike holds up is a fine advertisement for the bike. Big John and I in the Hollywood mansion's infinity pool is a sight for nature lovers sufficiently short sighted to mistake us for a pair of captive white whales. John wisely keeps to the shade. I am in the sun and thus the more gruesome.
However not the more terrifying.
Terrifying is John's laugh. The laugh is deeper than the deepest coal mine. Even his gentlest chuckle would make old ladies limp for shelter. Sell it to a Movie Company and John's fortune is made.
However John possesses something deeper than his laugh – his heart. Four days of his company and here is my one-word summation of his character, kindness. Extraordinary kindness...

NAKED, SHAVEN-HEADED GIANT


joe not seeing big john in the pool

14 SEPTEMBER
CABO SAN LUCAS

The pool is small and tiled in the obligatory blue Italian mosaic. Look down across (gated) roof tops to a wide golden beach on which Pacific rollers break in obedience to the tourist brochures. J and I are in desultory conversation. Four seagulls sit on the roof. Two pink bougainvillea blossoms drift across the surface. Such tranquility...
Big John's swim suit is locked in J's truck. Imagine a naked, shaven-headed giant. Elegant is not a description that comes immediately to mind. The four seagulls screech and take flight.

MILE-WIDE TV

14 SEPTEMBER
CABO SAN LUCAS

The Hollywood mansion is a rental property. It could sleep a dozen with ease which would make for a moderately priced holiday if you knew twelve people with whom holidaying would be a pleasure. The twelve need to be adults. This is not a house for kids. The floors are polished marble. Fall off the outer edge of the infinity pool and the servants would scrape the scraps off the rocks. The scraping wouldn't be an extra as the house is staffed with two housemen and a major domo. A mile-wide TV dominates the open-plan living room. A wall to wall mirror above the TV doubles the size of the room from big to mega and roller-blades would be convenient for exploring the kitchen/dinning area.

HOLLYWOOD MANSION


j

14 SEPTEMBER
TODOS SANTOS TO CABO SAN LUCAS

A year or two and the four-lane highway south from Todos Santos to the tip of the Peninsular will be complete. Stretches remain under construction. Dirt deviations are tough riding on a small bike with a unitary frame. The bikes buck and vibrate and shake the hell out of you and the afternoon temperature exceeds 100 degrees.
Cabo San Lucas exists for tourism. J has arranged for us to stay in a Hollywood mansion in a gated community on a steep hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The mansion is near the top of the hill. The roads up through the gated community are granite pave. Cobbles would be marginally tougher on our already tender rear ends.

ISLAMIC-HISPANIC ARCHITECTURE

14th SEPTEMBER
TO TODOS SANTOS

La Paz is on the Sea of Cortez. An excellent four lane highway crosses the Peninsular to Todos Santos. Todos Santos is a neat clean town on a rise above the Pacific. Truck traffic is banned - as are high rises blocking the sea breeze. The town has charm. It is attractive to tourists without being touristy or over-run. Townsfolk are courteous. We take lunch under a palm frond roof. A triple deck fountain cools the breeze - natural air-conditioning typical of Islamic-Hispanic architecture.

LA PAZ

14th SEPTEMBER
LA PAZ

La Paz is a hot sweaty city on the Sea of Cortez. We are hot and sweaty (other than J who travels in air-conditioned splendour). We miss the bypass and are lost. I ask a lady for directions. She begins describing the route. I understand individual words, even entire sentences. The whole becomes a jumble. My eyes betray a fatalistic acceptance of inadequacy. The woman halts her instructions. Her smile is familiar. It is the generous female's smile of understanding when faced by male incompetence. Men are men. They have their uses. However rational thought is not the male's strong point (expect even vaguely mature thought and you will be disappointed). Humour them. Lead them by the hand. Such is the Latin way...
In brief, she stops giving directions and says, “It will be best if you follow me...”

FULL OF COLOUR

14th SEPTEMBER
SOUTH VIA LA PAZ

The desert is full of colour at dawn and dusk. Midday and it is sun-bleached. The sky to the East over the Sea of Cortez is a dark lapis fading to pale turquoise over the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific sleeps under a thick blanket of sea fog or low cloud. At altitude, the fog condenses on the tar and trickles to the verge. The road is a black strip between narrow ribbons of emerald green.

SENIOR MOMENTS

SENIOR MOMENTS/PERIODS
Senior moments are becoming the commonplace of my life. And they extend in length. Whilst writing during the past two days I have been attempting to place our journey into the calendar. We departed Los Angeles on the 10th, sleeping in San Vicente. The night of the 11th was the Desert Inn, Catavina. The Desert Inn,San Ignacio would have been the night of the 12th. We stayed overnight at the Oasis Hotel in Constitution on the 13th and reached CaboSan Lucas on the 14th.
I have checked this itinerary on paper, drawn diagrams, calculated mileage and hours on the road. It is correct.
Much of my journey south was filled with worry. The preproduction bikes developed electrical faults. The welds failed on the muffler supports. Would the production bikes hold up? I have flown from London to make this ride. Failure would be a major disappointment, not only to me, but to two editors waiting for me to file. Joe has more pressing concerns. This ride was conceived by him as proof of the bikes' reliability. Potential customers follow his Blog. And his leg hurts (“No it doesn't,” I hear him say). Ouch...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

SOUTH
My bike died yesterday. Died as in dead. Death occurred at the entrance to a dirt bike competition. An electric fault. Probably minor. We could find the fault in five minutes or waste two hours. Temperature is above 100 degrees. Messing with the bike when we can load it on J's truck would be stupid. I ride in the truck a while, then ride Joe's bike while Joe rides in the truck. I wish Joe would stay in the truck. Hours of the bike vibrating over bad bits of road engenders pain in his leg. Joe will deny this. Suggest he rests and he claims to be fine. He isn't fine. The pain shows in his face. So does the determination. He is a good man, both serious and a magnificent recounter of immensely long jokes - those we Brits call shaggy dog stories.
SOUTH
I am having a great time. My four comapanions are fascinatingly disparate. Arlene is warm, humorous, brave and instant energy with a lightening mind and a PHd. She is also Gay and a great hug. Add talent as a designer and you have a tiny fraction of the whole. She sits very upright on the bike and wears a red hacking jacket – you know, slit at the back for riding a horse, except that this jacket is for bikers and part of Arlene's range. I compliment her on the jacket and on having a great tail (true). She seems pleased.
LORETTA
Loretta is a tourist town on on the sea of Cortez. The cops in Loretta are running a fund-raiser. First Big John is pulled over for doing a wheelie on main street – or was it for running a red light? The lights hang high above the road and are easy to miss against the sun. J's turn next, his crime, failing to stop at a stop sign. We gather at the police station, statements signed, fines only $20. Legitimate fines. receipts given. The cops are good natured, much humour. However we will give Loretta a miss when riding north.

WRITING

SOUTH
Wrtiting is a solitary profession. I am accustomed to traveling alone and at my own speed. I stop where I will, chat endlessly with strangers, hope to discover a little of their lives, eat where local inhabitants eat (in Mexico, a plastic table at a sidewalk taco stand), discover a bed in my price range (under $20 and no bugs). This trip is different. We ride across Mexico without touching it. This apartness is born of the language barrier. Even Big John, married to a Peruvian and owning a house in Mexico, speaks no Spanish. And time is a factor. For people in the US, holidays are few and brief. A long weekend is Big John's standard ride. Mount that saddle and open the throttle wide...
SOUTH
Noon and Joe's thermometer registers 103 degrees.
A fractured weld on an exhaust pipe attachment adds to Joe's worries. For me a welder's shop is happiness. I act as Joe's translator while chatting happily with whomever drops by to admire the bikes. The bikes draw a crowd where ever we stop. So they should. Simply looking at them makes people happy. As to problems, we've had batteries go flat on both preproduction bikes. Joe calculates that the batteries are two to three years old. Age, heat and vibrations probably killed them.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

SEA OF CORTEZ

13 SEPTEMBER
SEA OF CORTEZ

Midday and the sun is a killer. The road dives down from the plateau to the Sea of Cortez. We pose for silly pics above water the blue of dark turqoise. The sky is a pure blue marginally paler than the sea. Islands of stripped rock and quartz glint pale in the fierce light. The road climbs above the coast. A fish rises, rings spreading across still water. An enclave of foreigners' houses and a hotel stand at the head of a bay. The golf course is obligatory, grass green as our lawn back home. From where comes the fresh water and at what cost?

SOUTH ACROSS THE DESERT

13 SEPTEMBER
SOUTH FROM SAN IGNACIO

Dawn and we ride the Baja California plateau in desert chill. The road is a straight line across a flat desert of scrub and candelabra cacti. Mountains in the distance come in two colours. The sun brings a soft rose glow to those to the west while the shadowed faces to the east remain a hazy blue.

OASIS

12 SEPTEMBER
OASIS

San Ignacio is a miraculous lagoon in the middle of the desert. Date palms shade the streets. Imagine yourself a traveler in ancient time, exchausted and kneeling at the water's edge. Tears of relief and of gratitude for life mingle with the green water where now a man paddles a kayak. J an I eat quesadillos at a taco shack across the square from the church. The church is 18th century. The interior beauty is created by perfect proportions rather than decoration. I imagine a time of monastic discipline, of date palms pruned of their dead fronds. Today the oasis is unkempt. Tourism is the earner.

SUFFERING

12 SEPTEMBER
TO SAN IGNACIO

Though beautiful, the desert is a place of suffering. We are imune to the fear that acompanied past travelers. The heat, for us, is a momentary discomfort. One more hour and we will swim in the pool at the Desert Inn, San Ignacio.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

BIKER HEAVEN


12 SEPTEMBER
DAY THREE SOUTH FROM CATAVINA.

The desert here is a vast up-and-down jumble of immense grey boulders, candelabra cactus, Judus trees and skinny scrub. To the south and west lie mountains scrubbed to their stone core by a few million years of wind and ocasional rain. To the east a long roll of cloud or fog lies low over the ocean. The dawn light washes the mountains a pale chalky blue. The cloud bank is touched with pink.
I have ridden on ahead. I haven't met another car or truck in twenty minutes. Cut the engine and the silence is total. Two buzzard glide overhead. Nothing else moves. I am absorbed into the stillness and the quiet and the beauty and find myself shivering, not with cold, but with that exultation that comes sometimes when, tired yet wonderfully content, you get into a bed spread with Egyption cotton sheets stiff from the laundery and wriggle in minor ecstacy as you clutch yourself in your own arms. Never done that? Never slept between Egyptian cotton sheets? How sad...
And if you have never visited Baja California, start planning. Right now this is about as close as you can get to heaven without a one-way ticket.

A MOVING MICRODOT

12 SEPTEMBER
Joe and Arlene ride production bikes. John and I ride pre-production bikes. These are small bikes, pretty babies to treasure. The average owner will ride down to the store of a Sunday or drop by a neighbour's – say twenty minutes max. Steve wants the bikes tested to destruction. John is massive and I'm no light-weight. Steve wants destruction, we're his men.
Day one south from Tijuana is horrific coastal-strip development on the cheap side of cheap. Pass Ensenada and I begin to understand Baja's magic: clarity of light, range upon range of mountains, immense spaces across which merely to travel is an adventure. Even Big John becomes little more than a moving microdot.

MEET THE POSSE


12 SEPTEMBER
We are five on this adventure – the length of the Baja California peninsular and back – 2000 miles.
Four riders and J in support. J is Nevada based, aids businesses in the Adventure Tourism field market their products and drives a double-cab (leather seats) three million horse-power Dodge PowerWagon laden with everything bar rockets and a cappuccino machine.
Joe and I are given. John is a 50s-something jet engine engineer, six-six and weighing in at a few tons. Arlene is slim, classy, Gay and designs, manufactures and markets biker clothes for style-concious biker ladies (and for Real Men). Check out her sight:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

PRETTY BIKE

















12 SEPTEMBER
CATAVINA, BAJA CALIFORNIA

Joe Berk is mostly metal. He was in a coma for a few days last November. He was riding a Triumph Speed Triple when a lady on four wheels back ended him. He limps now. Maybe he will always limp. The limp and the metal slow him down somewhat but haven't damped any of his enthusiasms – particularly bikes. He sold a second Triumph the day he picked me up from LA Lax – changing Brits. A KLR 650 shares the garage with a Corvette and his wife's 5 series BMW. Joe's souped-up Subarau has to sleep outdoors. His California Scooter Company 149 stays at the plant. The Company is Steve Seidner's baby. Steve both owns the company and designed the bikes. The bikes are small and pretty, surely an unusual description of a bike. Best of all they make people smile, not with scorn but with pleasure - as does watching your children play out in the yard.

GODBYE MATURITY

12 SEPTEMBER
CATAVINA, BAJA CALIFORNIA

Back in the 1990s Katrina Larkin gave a party for like minded friends in a deconsecrated London chapel. The party is now an annual event and is grown into The Big Chill Festival. Until this year the Festival was as it began: a party for like-minded people. Katrina remains a shareholder and the artistic director. This year she invited the North American installation artist, Spencer Tunick, to create one of his mass nude photographs. My number three son called Bernadette with words to sap the firmest of good intentions: “Mum, tell Dad, absolutely not...”
So of course I joined the parade, one of four hundred nude people on the grass at Eastnor Castle Deer Park and painted all over in lipstick pink.
A few days later came an Email from Joe Berk of The California Scooter Company: How about a ride down Baja California as a proving run for the Company's new bikes.
Which explains why the lawnmower is back in the shed and I am in the Desert Inn, Catavina and goodbye maturity.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

GODBYE TO WISDOM

SEPTEMBER 12
BAJA CALIFORNIA

I've been lying in bed the past hour wondering what time it is. My watch died yesterday after taking a fall off a table to a stone floor and I haven't changed the time on my mobile nor on this notebook. Where am I? The Desert Inn, Catavina, Baja California.
I am aware that I haven't blogged since March. Bernadette has been pushing at me over the intervening months. “Write, Simon, that's what you do. Readers expect it.”
So here is an apology to those readers – and an explanation. The Sela Pass in Arunachal Pradesh did for me. The road was suitable for a young, sure-footed mule. It was unsuitable for a septaugenarian with a fear of heights. I reached the top of the pass and I was old. Really old. Five days of rain in Tawang without electricity was time in which to face facts, time to call a halt to exploring continents by bike. Get home, invest in a ride-on lawn mower; should I crave adventure, drive eight miles over the Malvern Hills of an evening; paddle in the warm waters of the outdoor pool at the Malvern Spa; for a change of climate sample the spa sauna or the steam room. In short, act my age.
So what happened to such sensible intentions?
First came The Big Chill music festival.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

EXCITEMENT IN TAWANG

MAY 15: TAWANG
Two young drunks loll against the counter at the telephone central. One drunk drops the chip from his mobile. Both drunks bend to pick it up. Their heads collide and they shout at each other. The Angel solves what ever problem they have.
I remark to Angel that drunkenness is common in Tawang.
"They fight when they get drunk," says Angel. "They go home and hit their wives."
"Always?"
"Always."
Will she marry?
Not in Tawang. An elder brother emigrated to Canada. Angel is waiting for a visa.

NOT A YOUNG MAN

MAY 15: TAWANG
I call Baby Baruah from the telephone central, tell her that I will truck the bike back to Assam.
"I didn't want to tell you with all these experienced travelers giving you advice," says Baby Baruah. "In the back of my mind I was thinking that you should stay here. So many things to see. The farm and my cousin's house on the hill."
"Watch cricket in comfort on a big screen TV," I say.
"That's what I'm telling you," says Baby. "Look where all this adventuring has got you to. You are not a young man."
True...

Saturday, June 19, 2010

CALLING BABY

MAY 15: TAWANG
What to do in Tawang on an electricity-deprived raining afternoon under low dark clouds? Not a lot. Daylight is insufficient in my room for reading. I take my book to the smoke-free Chinese restaurant. Two of the six tables are occupied by inebriated chain smokers. University students sit at a third. I ask why there is no electricity.
The transformer is damaged.
I repeat the question.
They repeat the answer.
I say, "Wrong answer. "There is no electricity because there is no spare transformer and there is no spare transformer because you don't shout. Do any of you vote?"
None of them. There's no point. Nothing changes.
To which I say, "Nothing will change if you don't vote. Or, at least, shout. Go shout outside the Electricity Company's office."
I have made them uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable. Tawang is too wet and too dark and too cold for an instant revolution. Better go sit in the corner at the telephone central, talk with the Angel and call Baby Baruah.

Monday, June 07, 2010

TWO CZECHS

MAY 15: TAWANG
A decision has been taken. We will load the bike early tomorrow and drive straight through to Assam. I accost a blond foreign couple mooching up Main Street in the rain.
Are they Czechs?
How did I guess?
Because two Czechs are on my Permit for Arunachal; other than me, these two are the only Europeans in town.
They paid 8000 Ruppes for the Permit.
I paid 5000 Ruppes.
A total of 13000.
A Mister Wanga arranged the Permit. He initially demanded 9000 from the Czechs. He claimed to be an influential politician and would obtain the permit within forty-eight hours once they had transferred the fee.
They waited six days.
The male Czech is tall with dreadlocks and loathes India. All Indians are on the make. Everyone has tried to rip him off.
I have enjoyed extraordinary hospitality - though telling him is wasted effort. His English is too limited. He speaks neither French nor Spanish - nor Russian. Surely Russian was obligatory at school? He dislikes Russians (understandable in a Czech) and never learned.
She is better educated and marginally less negative.
We shelter in a mini-restaurant on the High Street. The owner, a woman, is seated behind a cash box. She ignores us. Perhaps she is related to the mobile-phone addict at the bakery. Or suffers from poor eyesight. Or dislikes foreigners...
Half and hour of difficult conversation passes before a girl appears from the kitchen. I order soup. The Czechs drink water.
MAY 15: TAWANG
I have met with much kindness and generosity on this journey. Passang Tsering is my latest benefactor. I watch from inside the cafe as he talks with the truck owner and the driver. The driver is young, perhaps foolhardy. Angel told me yesterday that two couples in a saloon car went over the edge on the Sela Pass the day I crossed. They were killed.
And the Army commander asked me at breakfast in his camp whether I had ever seen an Indian truck driver wearing spectacles. Not that I noticed. The implication is obvious. So, yes, I am nervous.
Does Tawang have an oculist? Should I ask Passang Tsering to have the young driver's eyesight tested? Or should I close my own eyes as we cross the Sela Pass? If we cross the Sela Pass...A jeep that left Tawang early this morning has returned - a land-slide has closed the road. The road may reopen by mid-afternoon, meanwhile rain is falling steadily from black clouds and Passang Tsering warns that the chance of leaving today are slim.
The Army commander expects me for dinner tomorrow.
I am booked on the train from Guwati to Delhi on the 18th.
Or am I condemned to a life sentence in Tawang?
Is Tawang Purgatory?
Or Hell?
Or would sunshine transform the town?
Even electricity would help, light, hot water.
However yesterday's thunder storm destroyed the transformer and there is no spare.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

MOMPA

MAY 15: TAWANG
Tawang is a study in genetic diversity. The angel of the telephone central is Tawang Mompa. Typical of her community, she is slight of build, fine featured. Mountain Mompa are squatter and speak a different language unintelligible to the city folk. Vally Mompa speak a third language, equally foreign to mountain and city folk. Cross the pass to the next valley and you find a fourth language and a fifth and a sixth. Division by language enfeebles Arunachal as a political unit. Buddhism is the sole unifier.
Passang Tsering's great grandparents were immigrants from Lasha and the family's home language remains Tibetan. At six foot, he is taller than the Mompa, powerfully built, his features what we Europeans think of as Oriental. His mountaineer's stride is scornful of the slope up from the High Street. He wears a puffa jacket over a tartan shirt, jeans and work boot. He shakes and folds a khaki green umbrella before entering the cafe.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

PURIS or POORIS


MAY 15: TAWANG
I wrote in the previous Blog that I was eating Puris. Perhaps not all of my readers have eaten Puris or know what they are. For those interested, here is a recipe:

2.5 cups chappati flour
2/3 cup water at room temperature
ghee for brushing the bread while rolling out the dough
Oil for deep frying

Method to roll out the dough
Make stiff but pliable dough.
Cover the dough with damp cloth and set aside for 30 minutes.
Knead dough a little again. Dough should be stiff enough to roll without extra flour.
Make small balls of the dough and cover them with damp cloth.
Take one ball of dough and dip a corner of ball in melted ghee or oil and roll it out into 4 to 5 inches round.
Repeat the same process to roll out all puris.

Frying the Puris
Heat plenty of oil in a kadhai until very hot.
Put in a puri and immediately start flickering hot oil over the top of it with a spatula so that it will swell up like a ball.
This should take only a few seconds. Flip the puri over and cook the other side until golden brown.
Serve hot with curries or vegetables.

Friday, June 04, 2010

SATURDAY TAWANG


MAY 15: TAWANG
6 a.m. no power and a light drizzle. I hobble up a side street armed with my splendid new umbrella (red on red). I am due to meet Passang Tsering outside a one-burner open-front cafe. The loaded vegetable truck is parked across the street. A couple of landslides blocked the road yesterday for a few hours and the driver reached Tawang late. The cafe's cook is my informant.
How is the road now?
The cook shrugs. Heavy rain fell most of the night.
And the power supply?
A second shrug.
I sit at the only table and order tea and puris. The cafe is a good spot from which to watch Tawang awake. Brushing teeth out in the street is a common habit. Women with their hair uncombed scurry to the baker or collect puris from the cafe. The drizzle is heavier now. Bare feet in sandals slosh through puddles - so much for the Old Maid's warning against wet feet: You'll catch your death of cold. Two indolent bullocks sniff at rain-melting cardboard cartons of vegetables in the back of the truck.
I ought to be worried and miserable. I am content. The upright wooden chair is comfortable. Tea is hot and sweet. Puffed-up puris are fresh from the pan, dipping sauces laced with hot chili. I can't control the weather or fix the road. Passang Tsering will negotiate the truck rate. What ever will be will be...
Meanwhile I am doing what I enjoy most (other than eating prawns): watching people.

MAY 15: TAWANG
Thank the Lord for my Leatherman flashlight. What else works in Tawang - other than my bladder? I light my way to the bathroom, no power, limp back to bed, huddle under duvet and two blankets, listen to the rain, hope for more sleep.
4.30 and faint daylight seeps round the curtains. I peek down at the wet street. Nothing moves. Why would anything move? A gap in the clouds shows fresh snow on the peaks. Tawang is not my favourite place.

BACK TO BED

MAY 14: TAWANG
Thunder and the beat of heavy rain wakes me at 6.15. Still no power. A single candle on the counter dimly lights the telephone central. The angel assures me that power will be restored at 7 p.m.
I call the Colonel in Kolkata. Where are you? Tawang. You are enjoying yourself. Not exactly.
Power returns as the storm intensifies. Thunder echoes continually from mountain to mountain. Lightning lights the underneath of almost black clouds. A massive thunder clap and the light fails. Steel shutters rattle shut. Tawang is closing down for Friday night. I make am umbrella-protected run for the bar-night club and order chicken kebabs. Not even a Tawang cook can produce chicken-free chicken kebabs. So where to go next? Back to bed, listen to the storm, worry that the road will fall down the mountain...

NO WELCOME AT THE BAKERY

MAY 14: TAWANG
The glass-fronted bakery counter protects trays of multicoloured cakes and bread rolls of various shapes. The woman behind the counter is seated on a fold-up chair and in earnest conversation on a mobile. She talks. And talks. And talks...
Various customers enter the bakery, wait a while while the woman talks, leave without being served.
Early afternoon and daylight is minimal with cloud tails trailing between rooftops. I sit in the window and scribble a while in my notebook. A jeep pulls up to the curb. A middle-aged man and a late teenage girl scurry in out of the rain. The man goes directly behind the counter and stuffs rolls into brown paper bags, twenty of this, twenty of that. The teenage girl fills a plastic container with pastries before studying a tray of cup-cake chemical creams. The two she finally chooses seem to me identical to the others. What would I know?
I choose a pastry and a chocolate cake before the woman can get back on her mobile. The cake is for the angel at the telephone central.
A man, probably the mobile-addicted woman's husband, enters with a small child. He shouts at the woman. The woman shouts back. The man leaves without the child. The woman returns to her mobile. I take the cake to the angel, then return to my bedroom and climb into bed. Where else to keep warm? Maybe the power will come on in a while. Maybe not.

HAIL

MAY 14: TAWANG
Back at the telephone central with rain falling, call Baby, tell her that I'm returning to Assam by truck. "The Sela Pass was too much."
"That road was making me nervous for you," says Baby. "In the back of my mind I was thinking that you should stay here. So many interesting places and people you can talk to."
But no challenge, no chance to prove to myself that I can still hack it.
Hack it aged 77? Who am I kidding?
The power cuts out. I glance out of the window. The road is two inches deep in hail. Bloody Hell!
I scuttle to the neighbouring store and buy an umbrella, then to the Chinese restaurant for a bowl of soup. Three kids enter, smoking.
Apparently the NO SMOKING notice is merely for show.
I cancel the soup and take my custom to the bakery.

MAY 14: TAWANG
Fish smells. Passang Tsering favours the vegetable truck. He will talk with the owner. Clouds close in as I walk back up the hill to the Tawang hotel. Walking up hill at 10000 feet is moderately exhausting. I sit on a wall a while in company with a nanny goat and kid. The nanny goat is demoniacally possessed - or a close ancestor posed for medieval paintings of the devil. Wicked eyes accompany horns and a beard. Perhaps I should visit the monastery to pray for protection. A thin drizzle falls. Stupid not to have bought an umbrella...

Thursday, June 03, 2010

DEEP THOUGHTS ON FISH TRUCKS


MAY 14: TAWANG
Passang Tsering runs a small store the left side of the road. A son home from college in Delhi speaks reasonable English. A younger son wears rubber gloves to hand print Buddhist prayer flags. The father is the strong silent type. Ask him a question and he ponders deeply. Waiting for an answer, you wonder whether he has lost the thread - or succumbed to boredom. My question is the cost of a truck to Assam. Son inks wooden prayer blocks. He has printed sufficient prayer flags for a summer solstice celebration in London's Hyde Park before Dad replies: a truck fetches fish every day from Tezpur. Another fetches vegetables. Trucks travel empty of cargo south to Assam. Passenger passage is 500 Ruppees. Say a further 1500 Rupees for the bike.

TOURISM IS DISRESPECTFUL


MAY 14: TAWANG
I have the telephone number of a friend of a friend, Passang Tsering. An angel runs the telephone central below the Tawang Hotel. I tried calling my wife last night. The land line refused to cooperate. The angel lent me her mobile. Now she telephones Passang Tsering and gives me directions to his store a kilometer down hill in New Market. Sunshine improves Tawang - not much but enough to make the walk enjoyable. Wild yellow Primulas grow on the grass bank above the road. Tin cans planted with garden Primulas splash balconies with rainbow colour. Tawang monastery up on the right dominates the route. Second largest Buddhist monastery after Lasha, it is home to 450 lamas. Have I visited? No. Will I visit? No. Monasteries and churches and temples are for prayer. Tourism strikes me as disrespectful.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

LAST HURRAH

MAY 14: TAWANG
4:30 a.m. and the concrete bumps in the mattress win. I take a hot bucket bath, return to bed and face reality. I am beat. Definitely beat. Totally beat. My back hurts. My ankle hurts. My hands hurt. Everything hurts. The Last Hurrah was the Last Hurrah.
6 a.m. and I search for breakfast. A newish lodging house up a side street advertises Chinese. The door is open. I order Nescafe and a plain omelet as probably safe and ask the kids running the place the cost of trucking my bike back to Assam. These are bright kids. They can spot a score. They quote seven thousand rupees as the norm - though a friend of theirs might do it for six.
I respond with one of those patronising smiles with which Oldies of what ever century infuriate young whippersnappers.

HOT NIGHT SPOT

MAY 13: TAWANG
I have discovered Tawang's hot night spot. Or may have. To be certain, I need more light than a lone candle. And maybe a few people. Fortunately I came armed with a Leatherman torch. Flash it round and I discover an untended bar, a couple of plastic-covered sofas and a dozen square tables each with four chairs. Decor is Western pop star posters. My sons might recognise the music. I share the table with the candle - not much of a conversationalist and I'm too tired to talk to myself. Voices come from behind a door. I tap. Then tap more firmly. Then bang. A head appears above a fake leather bomber jacket, middle-aged with glasses.
Does he serve food?
He thinks a while before answering in the affirmative. He even switches on a light above the bar and turns a dimmer switch controlling ceiling lights from zero to .5 on a scale of zero to ten.
I order a bottle of strong Fosters (he doesn't stock normal). The beer alone is warm in Tawang and the chicken chowmein would please a vegan.

Monday, May 24, 2010

DINNER IN TAWANG

MAY 13: TAWANG
Power returns. I take a bucket bath and dress in everything that's dry in my rucksack. I need an umbrella. Maybe tomorrow, if the rain continues. I make a run for an Chinese restaurant three buildings down on the same street. A notice on the wall forbids smoking and alcohol. Two tables of inebriated chain-smokers provide local colour. I cross the street to a second choice. The choice is up an exterior circular steel staircase. My ascent is watched from the balcony by the owner. I reach the top. He says, "Restaurant closed."
Yes, Tawang is fun.
The last option is an archway lighted with multi-colour bulbs. Can't be the local whore house. Whore houses don't advertise. Possibly a night club?

INDIAN MATTRESSES

MAY 13: TAWANG
I am wet and cold. There is a promise that Power will return to Tawang at 7 p.m. One hour to wait and a further half hour for the geyser to heat sufficient water for a bucket bath. The Tawang hotel has mattresses that Indians believe to be orthopedic and a nail-bed Fakir might find comfortable. Normal mortals prefer something with more give than a concrete roadway - roadways liberally spread with bumps. I drag one mattress on to the other, spread the padded cotton duvet off the spare bed on top, change underwear for dry and cover myself with the second duvet and two blankets. How is it?
Cold and damp.

SPECIALISTS IN CELLAR AMBIANCE


MAY 13: TAWANG
Tawang in the rain does not impress immediately as a party town, wrong vibes.
A few open umbrellas scurry up Main Street. Very few. A bright tartan number covers two soldiers holding hands. A good friend from Assam recommended two hotels. I choose the Tawang as the cheaper of the two. It is a modern building and should be waterproof. Two young women show me a single room at the back on the first floor designed by a specialist in B movie cellar ambiance. The women apologise for that old Indian faithful, Load Shedding. I point out that a window might help. They show me a double room with twin beds and a hot water geyser in the bathroom that will heat water once the Power provider stops shedding load. The room opens off a covered walkway and on a fine day would have a fine mountain view. For now the view is black cloud, rain, parked eight-seater jeeps and even fewer umbrellas.

WATERPROOF KEEPS OUT WATER

MAY 13: TAWANG
$7 WallMart waterproof trousers give adequate protection against a light drizzle when strolling slowly round a municipal golf course on a warm summer's evening. I am riding a motorbike (all be it a small one) up a cold mountain in a downpour. Maybe I should be grateful that the pants act as a sieve and break some of the force of the storm - or learn to buy upmarket, say $10, or even $15. The final kilometer into Tawang is a mud slide. Tawang would look less depressing in sunshine - though not much. Tasteless concrete construction is tasteless concrete construction. Cheap paint is cheap paint. My wet WallMart pants should feel right at home.

KICKED IN THE CROTCH



MAY 13: UP TO TAWANG
The ride down from Sela has been too joyous. Punishment is inevitable. Look across the valley and a faint mist smokes the road up to Tawang, a climb of 5000 feet in 34 kilometers through steep fields and villages. The town is shrouded in dark grey cloud. So, now, is the Sela Pass. Down in the valley an iron girder and steel-plate bridge spans true white water. The road up is mostly rock, mud and potholes. The tires slither and bounce. The seat kicks me in the crotch. I got my second wind riding down. Second winds are temporary. Tired? Very...
Rain falls. The road has collapsed in a couple of places. Women road workers carry baskets of aggregate on their heads. Others squat beside the road chipping boulders in the rain. Female liberation to do a man's work – or a machine's work. Children too (why aren't they at school?), armed with a heavy hammer. Their homes, shacks built of rust-decayed tin made waterproof with road tar. Hill people, they grin as I pass, answer my greetings with a lifted hand and a Hi. My anger on their behalf won't improve their lives...

TRIBALS?


MAY 13: SELA PASS
Lunch is rice with vegetables midway down the Pass. Passengers from two eight-seater jeeps crowd the three tables in a tin-shack cafe. Two girls serve and wash plates outside at a hand pump. The girls are joyful and pretty – surely qualifications for Tribal status? I pose for cameras while waiting my turn for a seat. Look, guys, this is me with that bearded foreign Oldie and this is so-and-so sitting on the seat of his bike. The photographing happens everywhere – and more often now than in the first weeks. People recognise me from TV and newspaper coverage. Fame? I don't believe so. More a freak status. That's OK...

GOOD-NATURED YAKS






MAY 13: SELA PASS

The mountain has got bored with being kind. No more gentle slopes, more a sheer drop and an end to the good road (good as in reasonable rather than good as in actually good), mostly dirt with 350° hairpins ripped to bits. Yaks grumble good-naturedly at being requested to move aside. Brave enough to peek over the edge and there's a village within spitting distance. Getting there takes half an hour as the road zigs and zags a half K one way, half a K the other and so on and so on. The first few fields are bare reddish earth. Drop further and a few green shoots grab for sunlight and white rhododendrons are in flower. Down another thousand feet and the fields are carpeted with emerald green while harvest is approaching near the valley bottom, the fall approximately 8000 feet in 38 kilometers - the climb to the Pass from Dirang was steeper by 8 Ks.

DOWN IS EASIER THAN UP





MAY 13: SELA PASS
The ride down begins in sunshine with an easy stretch of reasonable tar down a glorious upland valley, two lakes on the left, a few stunted high-altitude pines, a proper mountain burn with short, white-water runs over smooth boulders into crystal pools where a worm dangled might tempt a trout. Drop a little and the road begins to zigzag, at first only a few small rhododendrons all in bud, then a couple of deep reds in bloom. Minute almost white, wild flowers speckle the turf, moss on rocks, a few tiny ferns.
Drop further and I am in yellow rhododendron territory, small and bright by the road, tree-size and pale pink through the scattered pines above sheets of drum-stick cowslip primulas the far side of the burn.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

SELA PASS


MAY 13: SELA PASS
I've been on the road two and a half hours, uphill all the way. And I've been scared much of the time. Now I've made it. I am at the top, the Sela Pass.
The pass is the narrows between two mountain peaks.
My legs threaten to crumble when I dismount. A cafe on the left advertises tea and food. A woman serves at a small shop counter inside. A corridor leads to a circular space with seats and tables and with windows all the way round. I sit there a while. Nothing happens, no tea. I don't have sufficient energy to go find someone. I sit a while longer, then go back out to the bike. My legs are steadier. I lean against the cafe wall to steady my arms and photograph the sign board as proof that I made it. Then I mount, press the start button and ride on down the mountain towards Tawang.

UP AND UP


MAY 13: SELA PASS
I rode through deciduous forest early this morning in joyful sunshine, then tall conifers. The sun continues to shine. The trees are stunted high altitude pine. The white peaks that were way up there have become close neighbors. I stop on each corner to photograph them. Why? Mostly because photographing mountain peaks is what travelers do. I remain astride the bike while photographing. Dismounting would require trust in my legs. I stopped at an army-run cafe a while back. The cafe was a hundred yards uphill from an army camp. A sentry at the gates of the camp waved me to park on round the next corner. No cup of tea is worth walking back down to the cafe and then back up from the cafe to the bike – not at this altitude. Truth is that I am beat. The pain in my right side may be a stitch caused by holding my breath when under stress – and I am stressed. The Sela Pass is stressful.

NOT FUN - SCARY


MAY 13: SELA PASS
The Sela Pass is not fun. Some stretches of the road are being widened. A few short stretches have been widened. The new stretches, freshly tarred, already have deep craters. Not surprising given that the tar is less than an inch thick. Someone is making money. Lots of money.
Most corners are loose rock and dirt with rain-gouged ravines on the inside of the bend. Truckers keep to the outside which is OK if that is the driver's side of the road. Tough if it is my side. Do I go over the edge or dump myself into the ravine? At least the ravine is safe.
Parapet? Yes, in some short stretches and the mountain is near vertical. Look down and I feel sick. Worst is the wind. Come round a corner and it blasts you in the face, cold as a cold beer but minus the welcome factor. The wind comes off those snow peaks that were distant this morning and way up there. Now I am way up there with no sign of the expected gap.

THE TWO Hs - HEIGHTS AND HOSPITALS


MAY 13: SELA PASS
I expected to follow the river. The river becomes a trickle. A near vertical mountain bars the route. Water streaks mountains left and right, thousand foot falls plunging through pine forest - or two thousand foot falls. It should be beautiful. It is beautiful. However that mountain face ahead scares me. There is no gap. A faint white line zigzags up through the pines. The many gaps in the zigs and zags must mark an absence of safety parapet. Did I write before that I don't like heights? Or, truthfully, that heights scare the shit out of me? The two Hs, Heights and Hospitals...
Even in movies, I close my eyes and shrink down in the seat.

WHITE PEAKS


MAY 13: SELA PASS
Dawn and I open the curtains to the Dirang valley, forested mountains on each side, in the far distance white peaks tinted by sunrise with a faint pink wash. Somewhere up there lies the Sela Pass. I am out of the hotel and on the road by 7 a.m. Lower Dirang has charm with balconied houses along the main street decorated with pots of primulas. Stone walls coral neat, freshly-tilled fields the far side of the river. India's roads in and through and out of towns are always rough. The Sela road continues rough for a few kilometers, loose stone surface and narrowed by piles of boulder each side. Road workers squat on the boulders. Most are women, ages ranging from fresh faced teenager to crinkle faced grannies. Female Liberation to do a man's work? Or India's standard use of women as beasts of burden?
Yes, it angers me pretty much every day of this journey.
The one plus is that the women here respond to my Hi and Good morning.
Wave and smile down on the plains and they cover their faces against the evil eye. Or against the evil Fat Old Blimp.

Friday, May 21, 2010

BOLIPARA PASS

MAY 12: TO DIRANG
Heading down hill now into a fierce bitter wind that tares small rents in the cloud. The cloud thins and lightens. Sunshine blotches the tar. The last cloud clears. A winding drop leads to a river then the next climb first following the river then up through thin broad leaf to pines and rock to the Bolipara Pass at 10000 feet with higher peaks spiking the blue, cascades on naked cliff flashing sunlight. Bolipara is one of those charmless concrete hill towns India excelles at. The many Army camps come of a different culture, clean, properly planned, respect for trees, lots of white paint, no garbage. See what staying ten days with a retired Colonel does to a Liberal!
Cross the pass and plummet down through sparse pines to Dirang and the Hotel Pemaling where I negotiate a 50% discount with the owner for a room with a superb view down the river valley. A patchwork of small fields covers the right bank and lower slopes of mountains already dark in late afternoon, peaks hidden in cloud. A kindly maid brings a Tata Sky box for the TV and the dinner menu – orders must be in by 7 p.m. Hot shower and I watch BBC World News. The receptionist brings dinner on a tray, chicken soup and vegetable momos.
“You look too tired,” he says.
Too tired to go down stairs to the dinning room for dinner and I intend climbing Sela Pass in the morning.
“Will it be fine?”
“Maybe...”

AHHHH...

MAY 12: TO DIRANG
I crawl for a further half hour through mostly minimal visibility. The road is narrow tar with potholes only seen at the last second. Bits of the road have fallen down the mountain. Other places boulders have fallen on the road. One light in the murk could be a bike but is more probably a truck with a faulty head lamp. Trucks keep to the center. Fear weakens bladder control. Gloves off, dig under waterproof pants, trousers, slinky black Alpinestar Long Johns, underpants. Hurry. Hurry. Where is the damn thing? Ahhhhh...

KISSES FOR TWO COPS

MAY 12: ROAD TO DIRANG
The kitchen stove is truck drivers' privilege. The cafe is smaller than a double bed. I sit at a wooden table. A small window in the entrance door lets in a smidgen of light. My age and nationality are common knowledge. Two young cops dressed in combat camouflage approach. “Grandfather,” one calls me and leans across the table. Face close to mine, he mimes drinking. He is already drunk and armed with an automatic rifle.
“Drink,” he says.
“Tea,” I say.
His companion, also drunk, leans even closer. “Kiss me.”
Never resist a drunk cop carrying a large gun.
I kiss both cops on the cheeks.
A large-breasted woman elbows the cops aside and sets my tea on the table. One of the cops fetches a pack of sweet biscuits from the tiny shop counter. The biscuits are a present.
Tea with two cops at the kissing stage of inebriation differs from my memories of tea with my grandmother – Georgian silver and bone china on a white lace tablecloth.
This is not a good day.

Friday, May 14, 2010

VERY OLD, TOO OLD

MAY 12: TO DIRANG
Nechipu Pass is 5000 feet above sea level. The road climbs towards thick grey cloud. Creepers cascade from the swaying giants of the forest, clumps of orchid on a bough, bromiads. Great leaves drip and droop from beneath the trees. Bananas compete with tree ferns, black rip of a land slide. The road is mostly tar with potholes, rough dirt on some hairpins, but OK, manageable – and the thick rich warm scent of the cloud forest welcomes. I feel good. Continuing was the right decision. A small notice on the right side of the road advertises tea with a cup and arrow. I am traveling at less than ten KPH. And I am tired. No excuse for grabbing the hand brake. The front wheel stops dead. Over I fall. I have only the one bag and can lift the bike. Freewheel down hill to restart and punish myself with no tea. Clouds close in. Visibility 30 feet. The road is narrow two-lane. No safety parapet. Trucks loom out of the fog. I crawl for an hour, stop for tea at a shack with a jeep and two trucks parked outside. The drivers crouch over a stove in the kitchen. One driver speaks a little English. “No good,” he says of the visibility.
“No good,” I agree.
“Road no good,” he continues.
“Road no good,” I agree.
“Road bad,” he says.
“Road bad,” I repeat.
“Road very bad.”
“Very bad, yes...”
“Where you come?”
“England.”
“How old?”
“Seventy seven.”
“Seventy seven...” In surprise, “Very old.” Then, “Too old,” he says.
Not encouraging...

SEPTUAGENARIAN TEENAGER


MAY 12: THE ROAD TO DIRANG
A Hornbill sounds reveille at the Eco Camp. Hornbills whistle sweetly. The whistle ends with a deep and very loud honk. Think rubber valve water-pump. A Woodpecker is next to wake and goes on and on. The only Indian cookoo is surprisingly gentle in his call. Perhaps he has a hangover. I feel fine.
Noel and I have been invited to early breakfast by the Sikh Commander at the tented army camp. The Commander has been operational all night and hasn't had time to change. I depart with a warning that the road is bad. Bad is a ludicrous understatement. Two hours to cover the first ten Ks is good progress through a mess of slush, mud and boulders. Two locals ahead of me take falls – mud from head to foot. My survival is luck – and following outriders. I know through most of those two hours that I should turn back. Turning back makes for a poor last Hurrah. So on I go. Yes, I am aware that I am repeating the idiocy that earned me a smashed ankle in Tierra del Fuego. However I remain what I was then: the only septuagenarian teenager.

RED NECK BIKERDOM

MAY 11: ECO CAMP
Four chilled Fosters and what did Noel and I discuss? Most of it is private or sensitive. The source requires camouflage – a lesson learned on my trip North through Central America. Be wary of what you put on the Web. I had insulted the outer reaches of Red Neck Bikerdom in reporting the beliefs and opinions of Hispanic Americans viz a v the US. Spot him, went out the message, smash him off the road. Ouch...!

DRINKING CHILLED FOSTERS

MAY 11: ECO CAMP
Drinking chilled Fosters in Noel's one-bed thatch-roof bungalow is immensely pleasurable. Noel was one of a gang of bright kids from St Edmunds who made it to Delhi, India's premier University. Now he reads omnivorously. A friend from Delhi days, a leading literary critic, passes on books sent to him for review. Books pack shelves, form piles on every table, overflow into unlikely corners. Add sculpture, paintings, even a David Bailey portrait of Noel's sister, and the sitting room should feel overcrowded. It doesn't. It feels comfortable. And it is a reminder of my early 20s in Kenya and visiting British District Commissioners in the Northern Frontier District or the hills, men who are routinely mocked today as buffoons or twits but ruled over vast areas not by force but through wisdom and a desire to benefit the people. They were cultured men with First Class Honours degrees from good Universities in a day when a First was hard to come by and demanded original thought. Above all, they were incorruptible and believed a career of service was more rewarding than accruing wealth. So there I am, revealed in my true colours: an old fashioned Brit Blimp! The Colonel in Rajen Bali would be proud of me. So would the writer...

ONE OF THE GOOD ONES


MAY 11: ECO CAMP

Noel sits on a bamboo bench on the central lawn in company with an Sikh army officer dressed in shorts, sandals and a T-shirt. The Indian Army in the North East States is in two parts. The main Army guards India's frontiers against possible Chinese incursions. Other units specialise in counter-insurgency. Of the latter, the good ones do much of the crime-fighting that the police can't or won't do. Illegal logging, brigandage, etc. This Sikh from the Punjab is one of the good ones. He is a big burly bruiser of a man, soft spoken, newly married, angered by Civil Administration's incompetency in law enforcement.

MAY 11: ECO CAMP

Noel sits on a bamboo bench on the central lawn in company with an Sikh army officer dressed in shorts, sandels and a T-shirt. The Indian Army in the North East States is in two parts. The main Army guards India's frontiers against possible Chinese incursions. Other units specialise in counter-insurgency. Of the latter, the good ones do much of the crime-fighting that the police can't or won't do. Illegal logging, brigandage, etc. This Sikh from the Punjab is one of the good ones. He is a big burly bruiser of a man, soft spoken, newly married, angered by Civil Administration's incompetency in law enforcement.

TEA GARDEN ENGLISH

MAY 11: ECO CAMP
The camp lies a few Ks down a dirt track through forest. I don't see animals. I do pass elephant dung. The camp is a circle of large tents under thatch. Each tent has a bathroom at the rear. The bathrooms are tile and have geysers. The manager is Noel to his family and school friends, Ronnie to everyone else. He is tall, slim, grey haired, was educated (along with most every other male I meet in the North East States) by Irish Christian Brothers at St. Edmunds, Shillong, and speaks Tea Garden English. Tea Garden English is English Public School with a 1940s vocabulary and a slight Indian accent. Tea Garden society was hard work and the Club (tennis, billiards, dances, decorous flirtations). Terrorism did for the Club - Assamese Nationalists building personal fortunes from kidnapping. Noel opted out. He remains out. Way out – though with contacts world wide.

DUMB DOLT

MAY 11: GUWAHATI
I admit to Baby at breakfast that I am a dossa addict. So is Baby. A restaurant on the next street serves great dossas – though not for breakfast. We will lunch there on my return from Arunachal. Baby also promises pork with bamboo shoots and Naga chilies. Naga chilies are rated the hottest in the world. Yum...
I am traveling light, one back pack. The rest stays under the bed. Having a base makes life so much easier.
“Remember the turn at Balipara,” warns Baby of my route to the Eco Camp.
I miss it. Yes, I check with locals for Nameri. Locals have little interest in Game Sanctuaries. They do know of the Nameri Tea Plantation which is why I find myself 35 kilometers down the wrong road. Dumb? Yes, of course.
Worse is to return to Balipara and stop at the cross roads to consult the road atlas. “You are going to Eco Camp?” asks a young man – where he works and will report my stupidity. This, in turn, will reach Baby's ears. I imagine the conversation. “How you can be so silly? And after I was warning you.”
Ah, well...

DUMB DOLT

MAY 11: GUWAHATI
I admit to Baby at breakfast that I am a dossa addict. So is Baby. A restaurant on the next street serves great dossas – though not for breakfast. We will lunch there on my return from Arunachal. Baby also promises pork with bamboo shoots and Naga chilies. Naga chilies are rated the hottest in the world. Yum...
I am traveling light, one back pack. The rest stays under the bed. Having a base makes life so much easier.
“Remember the turn at Balipara,” warns Baby of my route to the Eco Camp.
I miss it. Yes, I check with locals for Nameri. Locals have little interest in Game Sanctuaries. They do know of the Nameri Tea Plantation which is why I find myself 35 kilometers down the wrong road. Dumb? Yes, of course.
Worse is to return to Balipara and stop at the cross roads to consult the road atlas. “You are going to Eco Camp?” asks a young man – where he works and will report my stupidity. This, in turn, will reach Baby's ears. I imagine the conversation. “How you can be so silly? And after I was warning you.”
Ah, well...

PERMITS, PERMITS, PERMITS

PERMITS, PERMITS, PERMITS
The Permit for Arunachal was promised for Monday. I get it mid-afternoon Tuesday, too late to leave. The Permit is for 21 days and lists where I may visit. Today is the 10th. I must return to Guwahati on the evening of the 17th. Six days. My aim is to climb the Sela Pass to Tawang as a last Hurah. Sella is 13,700 feet. The itinary:
11th. Eco Camp in the Nameri Game Sanctuary
12th. Dirang
13th. Sella Pass and Tawang
14th. Recover
15tth. Return over the pass to Bomdila
16th. Eco Camp
17th. Guwahati

PERMITS, PERMITS, PERMITS

PERMITS, PERMITS, PERMITS
The Permit for Arunachal was promised for Monday. I get it mid-afternoon Tuesday, too late to leave. The Permit is for 21 days and lists where I may visit. Today is the 10th. I must return to Guwahati on the evening of the 17th. Six days. My aim is to climb the Sela Pass to Tawang as a last Hurah. Sella is 13,700 feet. The itinary:
11th. Eco Camp in the Nameri Game Sanctuary
12th. Dirang
13th. Sella Pass and Tawang
14th. Recover
15tth. Return over the pass to Bomdila
16th. Eco Camp
17th. Guwahati

A LAST HURAH

TO ARUNACHAL PRADESH.
Baby Baruah is the Wild Grass owner's younger sister, hence being named Baby by her parents – a fun name when a child but embarassing for a school teacher in her fifties. Baby is widowed. Her home is a bungalow in the Baruah family compound in Guwahati. I stayed there between Wild Grass and Shillong and am back there for two nights while waiting for my permit to visit Arunachal Pradesh. Baby tutors primary school children after school. I fight India's Internet. The problems are standard. Either the server is down or, when it works, a power cut hits mid-way through up-loading. Sending pics for a piece to go in a MCN travel issue took two days of frustration. A piece I sent BA got lost in the ether. Add that cyber cafe cubicles are cramped and sweaty and a hunting ground for mosquitoes, yes...
When not in a cyber cafe, I watch BBC election news and, in the late evening, 20/20 cricket. In cricket England is performing brilliantly. I am a Liberal Democrat. My Party increased its vote. Baby spoils me. All in all, I am a fortunate old sod – apart from the Internet.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

SURVIVAL OF THE UNFIT

We did it. Not me, but Ashok, President of Shillong's Vintage Car Association. We drove out yesterday to a picnic spot in the hills above Shillong. We is Ashock, his wife Rula, and me in Ashok's classic WW 11 jeep accompanied by more than a dozen member's of Shillong's Royal Enfield Riders Club. A dozen Bullets produce an impressive rumble.
What did we do? What such people do in Iran or Texas or Argentina, Pakistan, France or Russia - or back home at the Horizons Unlimited June meet. We drank cold beer and whiskey (not mixed), ate what was easy to cook over an open fire, told tall tales of rides done and planned and sang to a guitar. The quality of the singing varies. Not much else!
Thanks guys for a great day.
And my thanks to Ashok and Rula for warm wonderful hospitality. A good many years have passed since I last danced with a billiard cue to Frank Sinatra and the Andrews Sisters.
I am back in Guwahati today and ride north tomorrow into the mountains. A final week in the saddle...

Thursday, May 06, 2010

WILD DAYS, WILD NIGHTS, WILD GRASS

THIS IS AN EXPLANATION.
The owner of Wild Grass at Kaziranga Wild Life Sanctuary refused to let me leave. He claimed that I looked exhausted and needed to keep off the bike for a week. This is not a complaint and I required little persuasion. Wild Grass is glorious. So are the animals - and great fellow guests. From Wild Grass I rode back to Guwahati and stayed with the owner's widowed sister for three days, dined with friends, partied with the young (in their sixties), struggled with the Internet (2 days to up load pics for the latest piece for MCN). Now I am in Shilling and being wickedly entertained by the President of the Vintage Car Club of the North East. He owns a WW 11 US army jeep, a 1930s Morris 8 open tourer, a 1950s Studebaker and is rebuilding a 1940s BSA 500 (bike, for the ignorant). Got to bed at 3 a.m. this morning and the Shillong Enfield riders are coming to the house this evening. Help! If they leave me in a state to move we will play a few holes of golf tomorrow early then ride (bikes not horses)-