Day 104: Palolem
I wake up in my blue tinted room, the one with the fluorescent light that doubles as the most populated flea graveyard in India, and meander out to a chaise lounge on the balcony. The guesthouse looks out over a flat, gold ribbon–Palolem Beach. The ocean is calm, lapping at the shore like a cat languidly grooming itself. It’s early; people jog up the beach, some stroll through the sand, making crab ditches with their dragging feet.
I set up my keyboard and begin clacking away.
Aviel, a fellow bike gang member, walks out onto the porch, his blue eyes bright, a stray brunette coil bouncing about his forehead.
“Hey,” he says. A fat tome is gripped in his hand. “I’m going for breakfast. Wanna join?”
I grab my bag (or, as Avi calls it, my muchilla) and follow him to his scooter rental.
Bumbling over to the ATM a few minutes away, I chat with him over his shoulder. He tells me about his brother-in-law who wrote a film that won some award at the Cannes Film Festival, about La Jolla, San Diego–the last place he lived and where he ran a business repairing phones, how he has lived in the United States for eight years, which accounts for his excellent English speaking skills (he’s Israeli; Hebrew is his mother tongue).
Last night him and Shay (another 25% of our haphazardly formed motorcycle crew) looked at a bike for sale. Back in Arambol, they had only recently met, and when I found out they were planning on taking their bikes in the same direction as me, I asked to latch on. The next day–yesterday–was the first leg of our trip, from Arambol to Palolem Beach. Our gang comprised of Aviel, a first time rider, on his giant Royal Enfield, carrying Nofar the Israeli girl and three people’s luggage, then a zippy Shay on his rental scooter, carrying nothing, and myself on a leaky bike taking up the rear. Shay’s rental has gotta go back, leaving him in the market for a motorcycle. The one they looked at is for sale by another Israeli guy and his brother–a beautiful, red Royal Enfield. They weren’t keen on negotiations.
“They’re party animals,” Aviel says of the brothers. “They do a lot of coke. They told us they spend 20,000 rupees on drugs a week.”
After hitting the ATM, we bump back to Palolem’s main drag, return the scooter to the rental place and walk up the road. I follow Avi into a bamboo thatched cafe, a quaint restaurant with long, colourful couches and a breeze flowing through the open upper walls. We pick a table near the front, in the middle. The menu has hardly any spelling mistakes and is quite aesthetically pleasing, even. Everything sounds delicious. A young, nice looking Indian man takes our order, and Avi and I continue talking, mostly about India.
I pick up the big book he’s has been lugging around. It’s all backwards; the front cover is where the back should be and the words are indistinguishable symbols. Hebrew, duh. I look hard at the cover illustration. It looks like a river, and . . .
“Well done,” Aviel grins. “You’ve read it?”
“Of course. Isn’t it required reading for traveling India?”
Shantaram is written by a man who lived in Mumbai during the eighties. He was an escaped convict from New Zealand who hid out in India for many years and got involved in a plethora of adventurous criminal activities. Aviel says he went to a handful of places the book mentioned, like Leopold’s, the bar the author and his Mumbai posse would hang out in, and the mosque where he waited on the steps for his lover. Aviel even looked for the secret place with the standing babas, but he never found it.
Almost as soon as our eggs have vanished, Shay strolls into the restaurant with a pretty, dark haired girl in tow. Her name is Something Unpronounceable. She’s also from Israel. Israeli’s, I will soon discover, find each other in any setting as though the other had been waiting there for them all along. Like they all have some sort of GPS, or an app on their phone that locates any nearby Israelites. They always seem to have this built-in, mobile community.
Aviel and I say goodbye and walk back to the guesthouse. Nofar is there, and the three of us head to the beach. Aviel and I swim far out into the water, racing each other until we’re gasping for air, kicking our feet vainly–there is nothing but two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen.
On the beach we roast in the sun, then play a game of “madcock”, which is basically ping-pong without a table. You just hit this little white, weighted ball with your feet and arms.
Unlike my coffee-skinned friends, I have to submerge myself in the water often to cool my radish-toned epidermis, a failing compromise between not wanting to leave the beach and not being able to withstand another second of sun.
The sun, of course, plays it’s trump card. I bow down, retreat from my circle of sun-worshipping buddies and find a shady corner in a beachside cafe to drink beer and write. My mind wanders to my motorcycle, the one I rented in Arambol. The one that I shared, nay, endured the longest 100 kilometres in history to get here last night. It took our quirky little convoy five hours to ride the treacherous road to Palolem, half in the dark. Images of oil puddles collecting beneath my rental hover around me, nagging my conscience like a dull ache. I have 1700km of road ahead of me. Oil leaks must be tended to.
Back at the guesthouse, I tell Aviel, Shay, and Nofar I will see them later–got a leaky bike to see about. In shorts, a tank top, and flip-flops, I plop my butt on the saddle of my beat-up Royal Enfield Bullet and rev it up. Expectedly, a little black pool is stained in the dirt beneath the motor. The bike teeters through a row of palm trees and it’s nose peeks out onto the main road. I hang a Randy and steer up the street, around the bend and to a spot just before the “highway”. The mechanic is closed. It’s a public holiday. A kid, sitting around nearby, notices me.
“Mechanic?” He yells.
“Yes,” I answer. “Do you know if one is open around here?”
He nods and jumps on his own bike. I follow him to another street, but that mechanic is closed, too.
“Wait,” he says, and rips off again.
A couple minutes later, the kid pulls into a lot with an old building, where a bunch of guys are sitting around out front. A mechanic, and it’s open.
The kid turns off the engine.
I explain my bike issues to the mechanic, who takes a close look. An oil seal is missing, he tells me. But they don’t have that part. He checks the clutch and the gears and the engine. Tightens a few things. Screws something here, loosens something there. Takes it for a test drive. I’ve got big plans for this bike, I tell him. 1800 kilometres worth. Definitely don’t need mechanical issues after one day of driving.
“You are going to Ooty?” He asks. I nod. “The road to Ooty is very steep. This bike has no power. You will have trouble with it on your way up the mountain.”
He has a motorcycle he can rent me, he says, that is brand new. Electric start. Safe. Only 200 rupees more per day to rent.
I squint at him, mainly to appear suspicious whilst mulling it over. It’s easy to be swindled as a foreigner, and it’s important to go about this issue by never taking anything at face value. The “suspicious look” is a tactic I’ve adopted on account of this sort-of-general rule in hopes it will make him think that I know he’s trying to take advantage of me, and it’s not gonna fly this time, buddy. It probably just makes me look confused.
He thinks I should take this bike back to Arambol, where I rented it from, and rent this new one from him. Hm. It would ease my mind to take a more predictable bike on an unpredictable trip, especially as a relatively inexperienced rider, and especially if I spend any portion of this trip motorcycling alone, which is what I’ve planned. I’m not in any condition to be tinkering with a 500cc engine on a deserted Indian road, no matter how brave I think I am. The mechanic doesn’t charge me for his time. I thank him for the advice.
“I’ll think about it,” I say, replacing Suspicion Level One with a Smile.
On my drive back to the guesthouse, I spot Aviel on his bike, riding the opposite direction. He stops. He’s just taking ‘er for a spin, making sure everything is running smoothly before we head out again tomorrow. He was having some trouble with the gas.
Then, from down the street, a flaring red Bullet; a massive, shiny hog; coasts up alongside us. Shay! On his new Royal Enfield! He bought it from those party animal Israeli brothers, and is looking rather proud. We agree to meet later, and they veer off to the mechanic. I park at the guesthouse, go for a quick dip in the ocean and then put on some clothes for dinner.
The guys are back already. The mechanic was closed.
“You guys hungry?”
I’m starving. We look at the sunset, it’s oranges and yellows and pinks and purples staining the azure-up-high. We decide to have dinner on the beach. It’s Valentines day, somehow. I eat tandoori chicken. We drink beer. Nofar, who we haven’t seen for hours, shows up, dark as a copper penny. They all are, actually, and I glow like a tacky Christmas ornament in comparison.
Aviel jumps up suddenly, saying he has to go.
“I have a date,” he tries to conceal a grin.
“Oooooooooooh!” We tease. “Good luck, stud!”
Nofar, Shay and I return to the guesthouse, where we drape ourselves over the hammocks outside.
“I want icecream.”
“So do I!”
Shay still has to pay the Israeli guys the money for the motorcycle and pick up a helmet. Nofar and I agree to join him.
Nofar jumps on the back of Shay’s new ride and I follow on mine. The kickstart is being awfully finicky. Discouragingly so.
Five minutes later we pull up to a little neighbourhood on the beach built of bamboo huts on stilts. We perch ourselves at a table in the sand in front of the restaurant next door, order Here Comes The Queen (that’s our icecream dish) and one of the Israeli brothers comes to join us at the table. He’s a young guy, with that charming, handsome quality that many Israelites seem to possess. He produces a helmet for Shay, in exchange for a wad of rupees, but doesn’t stick around. Shay has a green laser pointer that we entertain ourselves with for far too long.
Back at the bikes, my steed continues to self-sabotage it’s gallantry. The kickstart just won’t do it’s job. Thankfully, Shay speaks motorcycle better than I do. After a few tries, it rumbles and vibrates like a good bike should. Fifty feet from home, it goes out again. Just stops. After paying attention at the mechanic and watching Shay tinker, I look at some of the screws near the front. I try twisting one tighter, then looser, feeling the way the vibrations of the motor slow and quicken with the twisting. After setting it to a medium rumble, I rev the gas, and alas! It works again! I try not to feel too proud of myself. It doesn’t work. I feel like I just built that baby from the ground up. Maybe I can handle a rickety motorbike, I think. We just need to understand each other. Should I really give up on this one? I take it for another spin around the block, just to make sure she’s still alive. She is.
It’s a long road ahead, however, and I don’t know how moody she’s gonna be. Earlier, I told Shay and Aviel I was thinking of returning this bike to Arambol, then catching a moto taxi back to Palolem and renting a new bike from the mechanic.
“We’ll wait for you,” they’d said without hesitation. This would be the second time I’ve held them up. I don’t understand such patience.
It feels like the right thing to do, though. As I walk through the sand toward the guesthouse, I think how early I will have to wake up tomorrow to be on the road to drive the 100 kilometres back to Arambol. By myself.
Shay waves to me. He’s walking my direction in the sand.
“Where did you go?” He asks. “I was going to go looking for you. I thought your bike broke again.”
“Sorry!” I say.
Shay, Nofar and I sit in the hammocks outside our rooms again, while the Israeli couple in the room over chat with us and share their cashews. Then five obnoxiously loud Polish people spill from a room next door. They are half way to very drunk, starting heated conversations about World War II. They keep asking if I’m Australian.
“NO!” I tell them for the fifth time. “Goodnight guys. I have to be up very early tomorrow.”