I pulled the motorbike up to a stop at the T-junction. As soon as I stopped, I could feel the heat and the humidity. It was already too hot and it was only 7am. I checked my map and the GPS on my iPhone and decided to take the right-hand turn. Opposite me a few dogs dragged themselves lazily to their feet and stretched. As a motored by they sprang into action; barking and chasing me down the road.
After a great ordeal I rented a motorbike the previous afternoon. Lonely Planet mentioned that the famous Royal Enfield Bullet motorbike was rentable in Goa. Famous as it might be, I had never heard of them. Still, after bumping around dirt roads on tiny-framed scooters, the thought of a real bike was appealing.
Appealing too was the thought of independent transport. One of the most tiring parts of backpacking in India is the travel. Buses and trains make for tiring long journeys. Shorter distances are covered by motorised rickshaw. This isn’t an unpleasant way to travel, but does involve negotiating the price at the start and, inevitably, renegotiating the price again at the end. If you stop for 2 minutes to take a photo, he – and they are all male – will want more money. If you succumb to the sales pitch and look at his cousin’s hotel, he will want an extra payment if you decide for your original choice. If your driver doesn’t know where your hotel is and gets lost, he will want extra money. It’s exhausting.
My train from Hampi took me to Margao in Goa. I spent an hour unsuccessfully trying to rent a motorbike there. I initially disbelieved the local taxi’s claims that rental was not possible; it’s best not to ask an Indian businessman about the competitor’s options – they tend to lie. After confirmation from a local bookstore, I relented and travelled an hour up the road to rent a bike in Panaji. After a bit more searching – the first dealer assured me there were no Enfields to be had, (because he didn’t rent them) – I laid my eyes on one. It was beautiful.
The rental agent was surprisingly cautious about renting to me. I was stunned that I had to show my motorcycle license and they even took my passport and a cash deposit. Rental in India is usually a bit more relaxed with scooters being handed out to first-time drivers. Its also common to see the scraps and scrapes that result from the accidents that inevitably.
Also surprising was the state of the motorbike. Most scooters I’ve rented have usually resulted in me insisting on some repairs before I take the machine out. Call me crazy, but working lights and brakes I consider a necessity. The only mechanical fault was the engine backfired. This was perhaps a feature as the sputtering bangs made great sound effects.
Next surprise was the roads. They were all paved and in good condition with few potholes. There were speed bumps! Normally, the road conditions are more than adequate to keep speeds down. There were even signposts! Lonely Planet warned of treacherous conditions, but dogs and cows and buffalo are all part of the fun of Indian traffic.
I finally hit the road around 5pm, just in time for peak hour traffic. Fortunately, the Bullet is an easy bike to drive and I quickly reacquainted myself with the brakes and gears of a real bike.
The traffic was the typical Asian madness. Despite appearances, drivers are quite good in Asia. Western driving depends on strict rules and everyone following those rules. Breaking the rules will often result in receiving a rude and angry honk from another driver. Asia works on a different model. The rules are more seen as guidelines. If you want to overtake the motorcycle that is overtaking a truck, go for it: the oncoming bus will probably try to avoid you. You just need to be courteous about it this is what the incessant horn honking in Asia is; it’s to let other drivers know where you are. This is especially important as most drivers don’t check behind them or use their mirrors. They expect other drivers to be aware of what everyone is doing and honk appropriately. Overall it works rather well and despite the noise and apparent chaos, it’s all quite polite and peaceful.
In the end, the Enfield was a great choice. I could comfortably negotiate my way between the cars, trucks, buses and cows in the traffic. I was able to weave my way between the heavier vehicles and whiz past the small scooters. When I accelerated, the engine gave a satisfying growl. Above all the cooling breeze made the oppresive heat and humidity bearable.