Hard Core Karnataka: part 1

Trip Start Feb 19, 2006
Trip End Oct 01, 2006

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Rocinante ran well the whole time, a worthy machine for the chaos of Indian "highways."
I set out going north until I found the road that would lead me to the 4A highway, and make my meandering route to (I had hoped) Hubli, and then on to Hampi, site of the ancient Buddhist capital, and home to incredible ruins and temples.
Hubli seemed just about halfway there, about 250 km from Palolem. There was another reason for my decision to go into Hampi as well, and that is that at the Goa border with Karnataka to the south, there is a big border station. This station is supposed to be used for checking the weight of trucks, but it serves a secondary purpose as well, and that is as baksheesh and hassle station for westerners travelling solo. I was told by many that this is the only place they had been hassled, and the lowest amount I had heard of anyone paying to proceed was 200 rupees. As my money is tight anyway, I would rather go to a recommended place like Hampi to see incredible sights than just shoot down the coast to another beach town, another place to become comfortable and perhaps stuck.

Indian roads are not for ameteurs. Without so much motorcycling experience, I do not know what I would have done, would probably be in hospital instead of here in Hampi writing of this journey's leg.
I ran up the NH 17, veering right at Bally, to pick up the 4A some 40 km up. The road was somewhat narrow, but in the heat of the day there was not much in the way of traffic, a couple of trucks, and a jeep or two as well as the ever-present motorcycles, mostly two-stroke small machines driven by Indians sometimes with a Rani riding passenger side-saddle, and often carrying cargo.
The winding road I took led me into the hills, sometimes so steep that they had switchbacks all up the side of the slope, so the going was somewhat slow, but with the power of Rocinante under me I was able to make decent time. After about an hour and a half of not being sure I was even on the right road, sometimes pavement, sometimes dirt, I came to a T junction and pulled over into the shade of a banyan tree. Two young men were waiting for the bus there, and I called out in question: "Hubli?" pointing towards the right. They gave me the characteristic head-shake that Indians are so fond of. I suspected that this time it meant yes, though it really can mean just about anything.

Let me take a side note on this gesture (which, incidentally I find myself doing all the time now). It is a greeting, an expression of yes, no, maybe, "so it is" and "all is well" all at once. Typically it is used as a greeting and to agree or show that one is listening. Take your hand and act as if you are waving to someone, or trying to flag someone down. Wave the hand as a child would wave "bye-bye" to a grandmother or some such relative or friend. Now, try doing the same motion with your head instead of your hand, and you might just have some approximation of what this gesture looks like. It is just that--waving, though with the face and not the hand. Western culture has narrowed head expressions down to yes, no, and the occasional quick nod of acknoledgement. Combine both yes and no, and, well, you get the idea.

Riding an Enfield through small towns in India gets you waves and hollers from the people you pass. You are some kind of celebrity, a big white man on a big black motorcycle. They think this very glamourous and people wave everywhere, honk horns, yell "hello!" if they know the word. Waving to them is a foreign expression, I think it is done for the benefit of Westerners. I tried a few times on the first day to give them the Indian head wave, and most of them gave it right back, and always with a smile, as if amused that I was "in the know" and at least trying to keep tradition.

So on and on I went, through the heat of the day, averaging perhaps 50 km/hr, and eventually after many hill-climbing switchbacks and chunks of road missing, I passed the Goa border station. The little old man in the green uniform just let me pass and did not even move toward lowering the gate. When I gave him the "wave" he smiled broadly and waved me on in turn with his hand.
The border station of Goa is actually about 20 km from the actual border or more, in the between area is a wildlife refuge. Quite a nice drive, actually, winding roads up the mountain, and semi-lush vegetation mixed with semi-arid hot zones. About all the wildlife I came into sight of there though were some monkeys, running across a bridge on all fours and looking at me on my Enfield as if I were some kind of oddity, which of course I guess I am. I tried the head wave at them, just for kicks, and I think I may just have noticed the slightest nod in return. The cows certainly know this gesture as well, if not better than the humans. Elephants too, so why not monkeys?

After another hour or so I came to a big archway over the road with the words in Hindi(presumably) and in English: Welcome To Karnataka!." there was another little "gate," really just a long pole tied to a short post with rope and a counterweight, also with a little man in a green uniform tending it. My heart beat just slightly faster, with my western paranoia and all that I had heard about the baksheesh grabbing techniques of the corrupt police, but all of that came to no end, as the little man waved me through again, not even bothering to get up from his seat, and smiling all the while.

Through another little town, and about a km past that, the road suddenly turned to dirt, a nightmare of potholes and rocks, some two feet deep, and not a smooth spot in all of it. There was a little shack at the side, so I stopped for some pani (water) and a cigarette or two, also to ask directions from the man tending the shop by pointing to my map and repeating the name of the next city. "Belgaum?" and, pointing in the direction of the road/nightmare ahead. He patiently studied the map, pointed out where we were at the moment, (which, by the way was precisely where I thought I was), and said "Bad road, fifteen kilometers, [then, after that] Good road. . .Belgaum!" I knew then that this was the "national highway" 4A and that I had to put up with 15 kilometers of this amazingly, unbelievably, inconcievably "bad road." "Well, I guess I'm not in Goa anymore," I thought to myself. .
So after chugging a liter of pani, smoking a cigarette, and "talking" with the man and his three sons, who had appeared to look at the rare Westerner, I bit the bullet and got on Rocinante.
I have been on some dirt roads in my time, and quite a few of them I considered "bad," but nothing can prepare one for a "road" such as this. The ruts and potholes were two feet deep and more, the fine dust of red clay and sooty exhaust from the trucks (which had, by this time seemed to exponentially multiply) filled the air so much that I was glad I had thought ahead enough to put my bandanna over my nose and mouth as a filter. Sharp rocks jutted up from all sides and at all angles, threatening a puncture at any time. Add to this incredible heat, both from the engine of Rocinante and the blazing hot ball of sun not far past it's zenith, and you have 15 kilometers of hell. Of course, not being a Christian man, I do not believe in Hell, so the only thing to do was accept and drive. Mostly in first gear, at blinding speeds of up to 15 kilometers an hour in the rare "smooth" spots. I can understand, perhaps a bit, of the need some people have to believe in such a creature as the devil--perhaps it brings some of them comfort to have the idea that things like bad roads in India could not be the work of a benevolent God. .

A motorcycle has a distinct advantage in such a situation, in certain parts (not very many, mind you) there would be a smooth stretch, but only about half a foot wide, often at the side of the road, and sometimes in the middle. Trucks vied for position, trying to overtake (pass) one another, slamming metal gates, and bouncing furiously. Rocinante behaved like a trooper, and I was able finally to overtake the 25 or so trucks and buses in front of me so as to get a welcome, if temporary respite from the blinding and suffocating dust. To overtake anywhere on an Indian road is to see one's chance and take it, often playing it within inches, but to do such on this "bad" road was sheer insanity. Hard core Karnataka.

After an hour or so, patches of pavement began to appear like islands in a turbulent sea. Trucks, cars, and cycles veered all over the road, trying to take advantage of the few seconds of 25 kph these little spots would bring. Left hand, right hand, all of the rules, as skimpy as they are anyway were out the window. The road became a chaos of madly veering vehicles, some even trying to overtake before the next pothole or rut forced them to brake again. I was a bit like a small dog running between elephants then, the aforementioned advantages coming in handy for Rocinante and I as the pavement increased to take the majority.
As it turned out, this was not the first I would see of India's "bad" roads, in fact, like speed bumps, every "highway" would turn to dirt after about a mile or two of smooth road, "diversions" are plentiful, and as with so many other things in this country the roads are done half-assed and never seem to get finished. Perhaps the road builders are easily distracted.
Reaching Belgaum, I passed through quite a number of roundabouts, whose sole purpose seems to be just to confuse those clueless Westerners, who actually look at maps and did not grow up here. I was looking still for what presumably was a larger highway (though with the experience of the 4A behind me, I wondered what that really meant).
After asking many people the way to this highway, I was instructed by pointing finger to go left under a bridge at what looked like a major highway. As I was to find out soon enough, it was under construction, and was an anarchic mess of dirt and dust, also with a traffic jam that would put Los Angeles to shame. Following a turbaned Sikh who seemed to have a knack at passing and overtaking for field position in the twisted game of India Driving, finally there was a sign--Hubli, 95 km.

Navigation in India is done completely by the seat of the pants. The atlas I had was just an approximation of where the roads are and what they are called, and it seems as if no-one from the International Roadmap Publishing Company has actually done a lick of legwork to even check on the accuracy of their "atlas." So one just kind of knows a general direction in which to go, and my compass, clipped to my belt loop and so handy in London, became invaluable in the shitstorm of these routes.
Following the direction of the arrow to Hubli, I thought once again that I was lucky and managed to find my way through mostly intuition and outright guesswork. Once again, if I was a God-fearing man, which I am most certainly not, I would have thought there must have been some divine intervention. .
Forging ahead through more and more dingy neighborhoods (this is no joke, they put the poorest people at the outskirts of town and the rich neighborhoods make Roxbury look like the Taj Mahal), finally the buildings began to peter out.
There was, at the edge of the city, a "traffic police" checkpoint, and once again my heart skipped. Was I to act like I didn't see them, as I was so often instructed to do, or try to be a law-abiding citizen and stop if they waved or whistled at me? . . I do not know whether they waved or whistled, opting for the former, and the truck and bus horns being so loud that I could not have heard a whistle over that ruckus anyway.
As I passed the checkpoint I realized another little dangerous idiosyncracy of Indian Road Management: The wetting down of roads to keep the dust down. The soil in the south is all red clay, and super fine, so when one adds water, it becomes like riding a two-wheeler on ice. With vegetable oil on it. With banana peels over that. .
With Rocinante's front wheel slipping and wobbling all over the road and with nightmare visions of falling under the wheel of one of the trucks to be buried by my seemingly indifferent fellow "drivers" under a muddy layer of wet clay to be found in a thousand years by some young archaeology student, I made my way through the kilometer or so of soaked down track to some pavement. There were some signs with place names, distances, and arrows pointing the way. Of course they were in Hindi, so I sould not make sense of any of them. .
I took the most likely direction, and began to see signs for an airport. I was tired, and thought that maybe, just maybe, there would be a hotel near the airport. If there was, I would check in, drink some water, eat, and sleep.
I had come, at that point, about 160 km, or 100 miles. It was then getting on 5 pm.
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