Sometimes a tiny deviation from the standard operating procedures can cause a drastic failure later on.
Once ensconced in our flash hotel near the Indian border, we spent the night preparing for our first full day in India. I needed to charge Nickiy’s watch via USB, as well as use the computer and charge the camera (also USB). The satellite TV box had a USB port on it, so I plugged the watch into that and it began merrily recharging. Here was the tiny deviation.
The watch was our primary navigation tool. It contained digital maps and, whilst it couldn’t perform turn-by-turn navigation, waypoints could be placed at critical intersections to give guidance. Waypoints could also be loaded for start and end points, so rough direction and distance could be used if we got off track. Before each journey, Nickiy would painstakingly load these points from the computer. During the journey she would sit on the back of the bike, counting me down and guiding me through each turn. Assuming we stuck to the route, we usually ended up where we wanted to be.
Our secondary navigation tool was the Garmin bicycle computer. This could not do any mapping, nor do waypoints. It could, however, do turn-by-turn navigation. This was sometimes hard to read whilst dodging traffic, but was an excellent cross-check of the primary navigation. Loading this routing was not trivial however, as Garmin’s own software did not format the routing correctly; a third-party website had to be used.
Our tertiary navigation system was barely worth mentioning. Whilst there was nothing wrong with the compass, the maps had proved to be utterly useless. In Myanmar the map seemed to be quite fictitious, so we gave that away. In India, we would learn that our 1 : 2.1 million scale was more suitable to jet aircraft navigation than road navigation.
When I unplugged the watch from the TV box, it began to reboot as normal. Then froze. I fumbled through all the key combinations trying to find the soft reset. Eventually I got it to reboot and it froze again. I plugged it into the computer. Didn’t show up. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just look up the reset procedure on the internet. But though much vaunted, there was no internet in the hotel. Shiiiiit!
Of the many things we’d planned for, re-installing the watch was not one of them. In fact, we only decided to bring the watch at the last minute. By chance I had an untested method for a newer version of the watch, which seemed risky. But we now had no watch and had no internet, so we were cornered. I followed the recovery flowchart someone had kindly written and wiped the watch. This looked promising. Then I got the dreadful warning “incompatible OS”. This had not made things better. I still had no watch and this time it seemed pretty terminal. Could I load our route onto the Garmin cycling computer instead? No, that also needed the internet. Fuuuuck!
So we had to photograph the maps on the computer screen and write directions the old-fashioned way. We knew where some of the hotels were, thanks to the Lonely Planet and our digital maps. We just didn’t know where we were during our journey.
We set off early to give us plenty of time for our navigational variances to play out. This didn’t turn out to be our biggest problem, at the start at least. The road was a winding, potholed mountain road, but it was also strewn with rocks, chippings and collapsed edges….it was easily the worst “tarmac” road we had been on anywhere in Asia. To add to this challenge, the driving of other traffic had instantly become worse too. I had occasionally taken the “police road position” during SE Asia when traffic seemed a little disciplined. Here this ‘safer’ position was certain death. Vehicles would come round corners towards you using whichever lane they felt gave them a faster path. So a right-hand bend for them would mean using the right-hand lane to obtain the racing line. My lane. They might toot their horn but they didn’t tend to deviate from their line once they had picked it. This meant only one thing; evasive action was often required by us. I tried defending my line against some of the smaller vehicles, but as I found out later, this wasn’t a valid technique either. You just had to be ready for it, and then dart for the gap. I wasn’t impressed. These things together with the steepness of the patchwork road made it very hard work. Constant horn-clutch-brake kept my hands very busy. And then there were the animals. Suddenly, as if animals had just been invented in India and released nationwide, there were cows, goats and horses hiding everywhere. If you can call sleeping in the middle of the road, hiding.
So our progress over the highest point in Manipur state was a slow one. We also had to contend with a number of road blocks. Many implied they were police road checkpoints, but were unmanned or the police just looked up from their seats and waved us on. Some of them appeared to be military, including one next to a huge Assam Rifles barracks on the top of a mountain with spectacular views. As we began to descend we were stopped by a company of the Assam Rifles. This was a large checkpoint with many men with many guns. The front man stopped us and spoke to us in Manipuri or something we couldn’t understand. Then someone came over and we pulled in and switched off the bike. Some high-ranking guy came up and started shouting at us.
“Why hadn’t we stopped at the checkpoint?”
– What checkpoint? We have stopped.
“You didn’t stop. They had to radio us to tell us to stop you.”
– What? Who?
Nickiy and I looked at each other with a quizzical ‘did you see a checkpoint?’ shrug. I considered joking that if I’d stopped for every ‘checkpoint’ I’d seen, then I wouldn’t be in the city before dark. But they didn’t seem in a joking mood. Then the chief got bored, as we’d been bawled at and that was all that was required. Except I had to go into a little tent and have my passports photographed and detailed in another pointless ledger. Suddenly, formalities and telling-off finished, everyone was actually interested in us and our journey. The men were no longer soldiers, but Indians who rarely saw foreigners and wanted to chat. Manipur is obviously a tense region, only recently opening up enough to let foreigners pass through. It was difficult for us to understand such heavy military presence, but for India it must be normal.
We continued our descent to the flat lands on approach to the city, where, if anything, the driving became more dangerous and chaotic. Rules of the piste almost apply. The drivers here don’t believe in ‘right of way’. So on overtaking, larger vehicles force their way into queued traffic as if it isn’t there. It is the overtakee that becomes responsible for creating safety and the space for the overtaker. I read the road rules, and this isn’t one of them. It is extremely selfish, but also dangerous for many vulnerable people on scooters and motorbikes. As the driving got hairier and more congested, one particularly pushy individual nosed in next to us with his immaculate white Audi. This was the first foreign car I had seen in the eastern states. No one could afford an Audi. He continued to squeeze us inches from the gutter, which was rough enough to probably have dismounted us. Thinking he didn’t understand the danger he was putting us in, I reached across the bike with my left hand and rapped on his passenger window. On a motorbike with cylinders sticking out of the side, it is not hard to imagine how close he was for me to do this. We were probably doing about 50 km/h. Surprisingly he pulled back. Then he really tried to kill us.
He came blaring behind us whilst I was overtaking then properly ran us off the road into a driveway. He stopped inches from the bike so we were trapped and got out for a fight. Livid, I was ready to split this dangerous asshole’s head open with his own car door in front of his overdressed wife. But something told me that to own an Audi in these parts made you, either a high-ranking official, or someone very well connected. Spending the next few months in an Indian prison without charge flashed before my eyes so I wiggled the bike past his car and shot away. Overweight in his bursting striped business shirt he shouted at me as I passed. I raced along the road, knowing he would take chase and, with a quick check behind to gauge his distance, found a service station to swerve in to. As far from the road as possible, we ducked behind the pumps to the surprise of the onlookers and waited for the white car to pass. Shaking with adrenaline we eventually carried on our journey.
In retrospect, he probably thought we had collided with and damaged his car when I bashed on the window. He was clearly going to make that be my fault whatever and extract the cost of damage from me. Damage to his car was obviously more important than damage to our bodies. His selfish wrecklessness and rich-entitlement really was disgusting, not to mention his disregard for human life. It is a theme that has become more obvious as we have spent time here on the roads.
Trying to forget our double near-death experiences, we got closer and closer to Imphal and began to look for landmarks that corresponded to our photos of the map. It was troublesome and for at least an hour we drove around one part of town, mistaking it for the part of town we wanted. Eventually we found the right part of town but then couldn’t find the hotels. Back and forth we went, through the bazaar, through dusty, pock-marked roads. Riding the clutch and overheating the bike. We asked people, many gave us a direction opposite to the previous direction. It was a real pain. Eventually we found a few hotels and Nickiy chose one. They said they had internet so we checked in.
We were shattered. We had only been in India for 24 hours. We’d fried our navigational equipment, been stopped at gunpoint, evaded traffic death many times, been involved in a road rage incident and become hugely lost in the state capital. This was not fun.
Luckily we were rescued the next day. A young man who worked at the hotel got talking to me whilst I was checking the bike and he gave us some pointers on places to visit during the day. He used to ride Royal Enfields, but had to give up when someone rear ended him and broke his spine. Using his local knowledge, we went to the museum and the mother’s market, which is the only market in India to be run entirely by women. Here we relaxed and nibbled on freshly made deep-fried things whilst enjoying the colours, laughter and bustle of the shops. Our saviour at the hotel, Monish, also gave me a taste of the betel nut/tobacco/lime concoction that everyone chews on. He correctly identified that if I didn’t spit it out regularly it would numb my throat. I was working on the bike in the basement so didn’t think spitting out the red juice was acceptable. So I got a numb throat and not long after that it made me feel dizzy, so I had to lie down!
A little while later when he had finished his working day, Monish took us out around the town. This was especially fortuitous as we’d discovered Manipur was a dry state and beer was pretty much impossible to get. After our first 24 hours in the country, we would have been happy to drink jet fuel to calm our nerves, but Monish saved us the liver damage by taking us to a little establishment that served snacks with local rice wine and beer. Because the wine and beer was a traditional state drink and export, it was entirely legal and extremely tasty.
Eventually the internet did work intermittently. I found it was vastly improved if I went and rebooted the router myself, seeing as the front desk didn’t seem to get the criticality of my needs. I sat down and spent a whole evening recovering, reverting, rebuilding and reprogramming Nickiy’s watch. To my (and her) amazement, it came back to life, ready for another 5 years of human guiding. We loaded our next destination and, after sliding Stein down the ramp at the front of the hotel, headed out of Imphal to enjoy India’s roads once more.