get your motor running

My search came to an end last week and materialized in all its glory yesterday.

The month of September dragged on forever. I completed and passed the M1 exit course on the long weekend, qualifying me for the M2. Under the provincial rules, I wasn’t eligible to pick up the upgraded licence until September 27, sixty days after securing the M1. In the meantime, I thought to investigate the purchase of my first motorcycle.

The AutoTrader and Kijiji apps have been on my smart phone for some time, providing a welcome tangent on a regular basis while waiting in line, drinking numerous coffees in the morning, or perusing in the evening when my eyes were too tired to read a book. The saved searches narrowed the options to used vehicles, below $5,000, within 100 km of home, Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki. I began to “park” several in the “garage”, revisiting constantly to assure the bikes were still on the market, and what else had become available.

The lesson from the training grounded my expectations for size and sent me on internet searches for beginner motorcycles. There were no shortage of opinions and humorous You Tube reviews (among my favourites included the reviewer who began each ride with a biblical passage) and advice on how to purchase.

Time and research lead me to decide to buy from a dealer instead of from a private seller. The place of choice would take care of all the licensing needs and there would be a semblance of assurance in the relevant condition of any bought machine. Perhaps most importantly, however, the two targeted dealerships offered delivery anywhere in Canada. I could not imagine how I would ride the newly acquired moto the 200 km. to our cottage, major portions which would have been on a 400 series highway or would have been a 3 1/2 hour trip along the back roads with constant stops and starts. I figured the price premium of a dealership and the extra cost for the transport will be money well spent.

By the first weekend of October I still had not visited a showroom nor had I picked up the M2 certification. The delay was mostly a function of an extra busy September, but also partly a hesitation to take that next step, still feeling those pangs of self-doubt.

Finally, on Monday, October 5, Olga accompanied me to AM sales in Concord. I had spotted a couple bikes within my price range, one of which was 2004 Honda Shadow Aero 750. The reviews were positive and most importantly, it was considered an excellent beginner’s bike and apparently, good on insurance.

The Honda Shadow 750

Greg greeted us through our Covid masks and I presented myself as a first time rider, apprehensive because of my age, yet wanting to enjoy the country side surrounding our cottage. He was empathetic, relating the story of his own father, all the while being confidently reassuring. Greg did not try to up sell, instead identifying a couple bikes to suit my situation including that Honda Shadow.

I sat on it, rocked it back and forth, sat on another, then another smaller, another bigger, back to the Shadow, stepping back to assess the size and weight, marvelling at the look, constantly asking myself if I I can handle this machine and if I should buy it. Heck, I had not even taken anything for a test drive or finalized insurance or picked up the M2.

We arrive at 10:30 and by noon I had put down a deposit. The wheels were in motion.

I immediately got on the phone with my insurance company to get the paperwork necessary to secure ownership. Then, I popped by the local Drive Test centre for that illusive M2 before a confirmation survey of You Tube reviews. Arrangements for payment through e-transfer the next morning and the deal was done in less than 24 hours. There was no turning back.

My own wishful thinking imagined receiving the bike before the long weekend. Realistically it would be the following week. By Friday I had given up hope on an early arrival when Greg called me that morning – everything was ready to go. An afternoon call from the transport service asking if they could deliver on Monday, Thanksgiving. Of course, I agreed, enthusiastically.

I had trouble sleeping that night, not so much for the excitement but in anticipation of the pitfalls. How was I going to get to the municipal road let alone drive on the winding and hilly thoroughfare? The single lane, gravel road to the cottage has a steep incline with blind bends, left and right, at the top and bottom. Our driveway is narrow and the turnaround space seemingly confined for a bike so big and a driver so inexperienced. What am I going to do?

As promised, Jason arrived at 9:00 am, Thanksgiving morning. He admired the view of the lake from our vantage point then proceeded to unload the bike, extolling it’s virtues over the gentle rumble of the exhaust, providing confirmation of all the reviews I had read and seen.

The goal had been achieved. I am the proud owner of a motorcycle.

Me and my machine

Numerous stalls trying to become accustomed to the clutch and some very shaky rolls up and down the driveway on that first day both confirmed my apprehension and added to the excitement of the possibilities.

I will need plenty of practice before I head out on the highway to look for adventure and whatever comes my way.

421

My bike for the entirety of the training weekend was numbered 421.

Not to be mistaken for Will Ferguson’s Giller award winning 419, which refers to “the section in the Nigerian Criminal Code that deals with obtaining money or goods under false pretences.” The only way I was going to obtain my M2 would be to earn it, learning to ride a motorcycle for the first time and passing the minimum skills test at the end of 2 1/2 days of training.

The first part was a COVID meeting, online using Zoom, while a thunderstorm rolled through cottage country knocking out my internet and others , everyone scrambling to reconnect (I hotspotted to my phone, feeling like a tech wizard) to watch videos extolling the virtues of bike riding but mostly focusing on safety measures and defensive driving. Instructors reviewed and emphasized the key points, sharing anecdotes and tips and sage guidance. The theory made sense which was largely a visual representation of the MTO motorcycle guide accompanied by little animated scenarios designed to help you make good decisions and avoid accidents. I understood everything.

Saturday was the big day when we would begin learning to ride. I spent Friday night making sure the preparations were in order: all the required protective outer wear was laid out, extra clothes for any rain, plenty of water, lunch and snacks, finally setting the alarm to wake-up with enough time to embark on the 50 minute trek south to Peterborough.

Upon my arrival, I strode across the college parking lot, black leather jacket on, zipper half open; blue jeans covering the top of ankle high boots; a snugly fit ball cap of the Detroit Tigers over dark sunglasses; and a helmet hanging from my right arm swinging in rhythm to each step. Baby, we were born to run.

The first order of business, however, was to sign waivers against any liability, injuries and COVID, acknowledging the risk, absolving the company of any responsibility, and declaring all accidents are on me. Comforting. Especially since I had never driven a motorcycle before. No worries say the three instructors, as they sent the fifteen of us to select our bike; we love newbies and will have you riding by the end of the weekend.

421
421 – a number forever imprinted in my memory

You have to walk before you can run. And in the case of our training, we did alot of walking. We had to conduct a three point turn without dropping the chariot, push the bike into position so the next person in line can shove you towards the funnel of cones placed in two 90 degree angles, first to the right then to left, before you drag it back for more practice. No roar of an engine, just heavy breathing and heart thumping from all that exertion.

The exercise represented the first, crucial baby steps because success requires balance, yes, but more importantly, trust. Trust that when you turn your head to look in direction of where you want to go, rather than where you are at the moment, your bike will follow. The principle is critical to navigating any curve in the road. Follow this practice and you will be successful, building increased confidence along the way.

I could not avoid rolling over the pylons in the first few times; or putting down my foot to keep from falling. The voices of doubt were calling out in the back of my mind; all the talk of crashing, of injuries, of the danger, of being too old. Turn your head completely to the right, don’t look down, keep your knees together, and let the momentum move you through. Eventually I accomplished the task, still imperfect, with the nagging questions continuing to resonate as we progressed to starting up our motorized wheels.

Mastering the clutch became the next challenge, rolling slowly, in balance, stopping before putting your foot down, back and forth across the parking lot, followed by an instructor leading us in a snake line, never getting out of first. The warm day, made hotter by our gear, had me sweaty and tired and hungry by lunch. We shifted gears after the break, but only into second, with more exercises.

By five o’clock we were all tired. I was frustrated with my perceived lack of significant progress. I had higher expectations of myself. The experience was proving to be very humbling.

Motorcycling is supposed to be fun, gawddamnit.

Sunday morning brought some of the promised fun into our training. It started with some early conversations with fellow classmates. A couple of us older participants laughed how one beer knocked us out for the night; a conversation about equipment with a young rider decked out in new gladiator wear; and some reassuring extra practice to smooth out earlier difficulties from one of the four women in the group. Our first order of business was to play follow the leader, weaving through cones and around circles at a speed faster than that of a school zone. The driving was thrilling and I felt more confident with each turn.

At times on Sunday, I felt like this image.

The odometer on 421 was disengaged, and I had no idea how fast we were travelling during the entire weekend. I don’t know if the speedometer worked because I never looked at it. Even though we were only riding “dirt bikes” in a parking lot, I began to experience the joy of motorcycling by lunch.

The afternoon brought me back to earth as our group, now only fourteen, began a series of exercises which would prepare us specifically for the M2 test. The first was simple enough, swerving left or right of an object to avoid hitting it. My eyes popped out of my head when the instructor tripped me up by signalling to stop instead, which I managed to do, successfully, thank goodness. Then came stopping in a narrow curve, which I accomplished on just the second try.

An exercise simulating entering a rode from your driveway shook my confidence again. The task involved riding the clutch, slowly, around a sharp turn, then accelerating through a curve. Success was not deviating out of the lines and reaching the end in a specified time. I popped the clutch more than once, put my foot down to keep balance, fumbled into second gear and missed the box where we were to bring the bike to a stop. There were several failed attempts and additional runs before I finally met the minimum requirements; but trust in my own abilities were waning which worsened when the class was informed these exercises were the components of the MTO required test.

I was number 13 in line as we inched toward the start of the exiting driveway test, the first of five. Each time I moved up, my bike would stall or I would lose a little balance, till finally it was my turn. I managed to start very slowly and navigate the turn but a clumsy gear shift and I knew my time was too long. Disappointed, I moved to the “slingshot” test where you had to accelerate through a curve. I did not turn my head enough, jerked the machine a little although the speed was probably there. Two down and I already thought I had failed. I managed to complete the sudden stop exercise and to come to a halt in a curve but clipped the cone on the avoidance swerve procedure. The day was over. I was done.

No one was more surprised than me when the instructors congratulated everyone for achieving their M2 as we received our scores and feedback. Yes, I had missed on a couple items, exactly as I had identified. My demerits were average however. Most importantly, I was aware of the mistakes and those related to speed will come with increased confidence, which only grows with more riding. The real test comes on the road.

Proof. I can now pick up my M2 from the MTO.

The training got me able to operate a bike, and most importantly, it increased a healthy awareness of my limitations. I have considerably more admiration for motorcycle driving abilities now, which easily exceed those necessary to drive a car.

My next step is to check into insurance and purchase that first motorcycle. The original vision of a cruiser remains, except now it will be smaller, something I can more easily handle. We were advised, in the training, to be very comfortable with riding before taking on a passenger.

Olga’s first ride is still a long way down the road.

bicycle race

I have been riding my bike for the past two weeks, trying to get ready.

Until then, it was hanging in the garage, not yet rescued from its winter home until we returned from the cottage. I purchased the antique, used, several years ago as part of an increased exercise regime. It has fenders, which was my minimum requirement, a carrier on the back, only five gears, electrical tape on the handles, rust on the rim; clearly very old school. No real need for a lock since who else would want such a beast.

Do you think Queen would have approved?

When I talked about my desire to learn to drive a motorcycle with an experienced enthusiast, he suggested I was three quarters of the way there because I rode a bicycle, making me aware of balance and leaning into curves; and because I used to drive a stick shift, shortening the learning curve when I begin the training. Those lessons begin tomorrow with a three hour video introduction and theory meeting over Zoom before two day long riding sessions on Saturday and Sunday. Riding my bicycle again after a year layoff is my unofficial first step.

That colleague’s response, naturally, was among the encouraging remarks and there have been others. My interest has sparked at least one other to consider while some have spoken out loud about a long-standing desire, thinking however, they are past that point in their lives. “Imagine yourself on a bike going down the highway with all those bugs splattering against your face. It is something you do when you are twenty and don’t know any better. But sixty?”

Some of the reaction was akin to an eye doctor test: have you seen the condition of people who end up in the hospitable (from my friends in the medical professions); have you seen the statistics on motorcycle accidents (from those in the policing profession); have you seen the crazies on the road (from those who drive in Toronto); and did you see the news yesterday (from everyone when a fatality is reported on the news). The shaking of heads in disbelief; a smirk thinking he’ll never go through with it. Age is not necessarily a factor in the reaction, positive or negative.

Image preview

In the meantime, I go for my longish rides on pathways and roads where I have to turn and swerve around corners and in between objects. Parts of the local creek path is divided by a dotted line, providing me an opportunity to practice weaving in and out at varying speeds and lengths. Another point of my route allows me to circle the concrete median in a tight circle, in both directions, at such an angle my pedal scrapes the pavement. The steeper portions have me gliding rapidly down the hill, wind in my hair, in full concentration to maintain balance, and gauge speed alongside the faster moving cars. Coordinating the clutch and the accelerator, shifting gears up and down will have to wait until Saturday’s class.

I am excited, perhaps a little apprehensive but up for the challenge. Does it fit all the stereotypes of a man my age, as declared by a neighbour upon the news of my goal?

Probably. And I’m okay with that.

the itch

I don’t know exactly when I first had the itch to learn to ride a motorcycle.

Many years ago, when our son was playing baseball, another father owned one and I recall his waxing poetic about cruising the Don Valley on a late, warm summer evening, when traffic was light. I could imagine winding up the road, bridges overhead, beside the river and through the valley of fall colours. It is easily my favourite city highway for driving when the conditions are right.

I remember the small thrill of riding on the passenger half of a motorcycle, sans helmet, heading back to our compound from a restaraunt in Tanzania during a visit in 2018. The service is known as border-border (my increasingly fuzzy recollection) which is an inexpensive source of transportation for the local population. The vehicles were on every corner, waiting to be called into action. I had been hoping for an opportunity to purchase a little adventure.

That experience may have been the spark as I began to talk out loud about the idea.

The turning point was a spontaneous ride around the neighbourhood in May 2019. The fiance of a person attending a baby shower hosted at our house, arrived on his newly acquired motorcycle. An invitation to sit on the bike, an animated conversation about the excitement and away we went for a short ride, without a helmet, again. Despite how it sounds, my chauffeur was very safety consciousness, taking extra care around any curves, avoiding any chance of traffic.

A calm drive around the neighbourhood and I am hooked.

I now had a goal to acquire a licence and a motorcycle by the time I hit my 60th birthday, my own planned mid-life crises (even though I am way past the halfway point). People were gently amused, family members smiled at the perceived fantasy, others were horrified while citing an endless array of fatality statistics; I persisted nevertheless without any real knowledge of what was involved.

For my 59th birthday, I got my wish…in miniature. Olga thought it would be funny to purchase a small, motorized toy “to practice”, serve as a pacifier until the urge passed and be forgotten. I laughed. The gift was cute. The motivation increased. I subsequently purchased the official motorcycle handbook at the same time as I renewed my driver’s licence and began reading during our vacation at the cottage just to illustrate my seriousness.

My “motorcycle” gift on my 59th birthday.

The urgency waned, summer passed, fall proceeded and we were into winter where visions of driving involve shovelling knee deep snow before traversing in a heated vehicle. I downloaded the Autotrader and Kijiji apps to investigate the variety and cost of used motorcycles, settling, in my mind, on a Japanese made cruiser as the most desirable option.

The idea persisted and so did a regular goal declaration in the new year especially now that I was heading into retirement. The more I repeated it, the more likely I would have to follow through, if only to save face. My persistence had an effect because for my 60th birthday I was the surprised recipient of a helmet and a set of motorcycle gloves!

Helmet and gloves….tacit approval!

My goal was blessed, albeit reluctantly, and still with the hope the fantasy would fade as each step brought me closer to reality. I proudly displayed this photograph to friends and family, proclaiming repeatedly my desire, to the continued horror of most but also to the admiration and disbelief of others. I think, secretly, everyone, males at least, like to imagine themselves aboard a motorcycle cruising down the road. In selling the idea to Olga, I have described a romantic drive along the country roads around the cottage, her on the back, arms wrapped around my waist as we stop for a scenic view or an ice cream at the Kawartha dairy. She laughs: that is not happening, you are on your own.

With the gradual re-opening from COVID restrictions, the MTO offices could accommodate the writing of an M1 test, first stage of the licensing process. In order to avoid the inevitable backlog, my plan was to complete the test at a facility near the cottage. Bancroft, 45 km. north of our location was available on a first come, first served basis. Scouting ahead, we were going north near the end of July; d-day would soon arrive for test. Time to study.

I reopened the book, skimming through parts, thinking the rules of the road specific to motorcycles would be my focus. I discovered a web page with practice tests. I completed all six of them, three times each, never getting one perfect, up until the very last minute, repeating the answers to mistaken questions, chanting the key concepts. I was ready; I hope.

On July 29, we made the trek. A short line, a stressed attendant, alone, trying to maintain strict occupancy rules, wiping everything in sight after even nominal usage directed me to tiny computer room where the questions would pop onto the screen. Begin. After half an hour, answering 61 of 64 questions correctly, I emerged victorious.

Passed the first time! We are on our way.

A celebratory ice cream while reading the teasing comments from family posted on the WhatsApp group site, I began to plot the next stage. Securing a spot for the M2 training in Toronto is tantamount to winning the lottery; so, like the test, I looked north and am now scheduled for the labour day long weekend, at Sir Sanford Fleming College in Peterborough.

In the meantime, Olga appears to be warming up to the idea. As I am perusing Autotrader for the latest bikes, she has begun to express preferences. For one, the bike cannot be red. No specific reason given, just not red. And the seat has to be big enough for two people where the passenger is comfortable, not only the driver. Plus, there has to be a back rest so as not to fall backwards, and she does not want to be crowded out by saddle bags.

There will be no turning back when Olga purchases the helmet.

Epilogue

“The destination we find ourselves drawn to reflects an underlying sense of what is currently missing or under-supported in our lives. We are seeking, through our travels, not just to see new places but also to become fuller, more complete beings”, so says the chapter, How to Choose a Destination, found in the book, How to Travel, published by The School of Life.

India was presented as one option for Olga to complete the two workshop portion of her yoga teacher training program. We assumed one had to be international. While the other locations promised sun or novelty or European culture, the Esther Myer Studio was going to make just one more jaunt to India, so what better place to fulfill that requirement. For myself, India represented another part of the world where my knowledge and understanding was very limited. I was ready to jump at a chance when it presented itself, professionally or personally. As our lives and the world have evolved since, another opportunity probably will not happen again. This trip had to be India.

In some respects, India chose us.

We were fortunate to have experienced various aspects of the country, realizing full well our journey merely touched a tiny portion of the vast land and the people. We returned more enlightened about the world, their world, and ours.

People have asked whether or not we would visit again. We would not hesitate to recommend India given the sights and insights of our small incursion. Any return would be to another part of the diverse country we did not experience. The world is even bigger with places yet to be explored to help us continue to grow and understand and appreciate the people within their culture. We have many more places yet to travel.

“Travel accedes to its true nobility when we ensure that the physical journey can support a well-defined inner journey towards maturity and emotional health.”

’til the next journey of discovery,

Henry

around the world in 24 days

From Toronto to Delhi over the Atlantic; Delhi to Vancouver by way of the Arctic, then across Canada back to Toronto. Oh yeah, we stopped in India for 22 days in between.

For those following along, the journey is chronicled in daily posts up until our night in Mcleod Ganj. The subsequent days were the most hectic of the journey with plane delays, hotel changes, long car rides, packed itineraries, head colds, long flights and recovery time.

We flew back to Delhi, where we were escorted through the new and the old, taking in some of the sites making up this historic city. Our excursions ranged from the wide boulevards of the new, designed by the British, now holding the embassies of the world in a lush, prosperous environment, to the narrow, cramped charm of the old with its alleys of small shops jammed with traffic amongst its sometimes-decrepit buildings.

a tranche of our rickshaw ride in Old Delhi

A rickshaw ride personified all the images of India; pedaled by a skinny, grizzled driver strenuously pumping the pedals, yelling out warnings of impending collisions, pushing against the stream of traffic and into passages teeming with shoppers and other intrepid travelers.  We were jostled by the conditions of the roads, swaying with each dip and bump, pushed by bystanders to help steer the impasse, smiled at by fellow riders who our driver out maneuvered. The tuktuk experience was a wild motorized ride; the rickshaw was an even closer encounter with the elements of the Indian city.

The ride was bookended by a trip to the Humayun Tomb where school children greeted Olga like a celebrity, and a pilgrimage to the Bahai Temple with it’s lotus flower shape; the day was capped with a dinner of fellow yoga retreat travelers at a distinctly middle class restaurant, giving us yet another view of the diversity of India.

No time to luxuriate in our five star, security controlled hotel as we were on the road by 8:30 the next day getting out of Delhi in order to be in Agar for the afternoon to visit the most famous site in India and perhaps one of the most universally recognized buildings in the world: the Taj Mahal.

the picture needs no descrption

In preparation for our trip, at least one person suggested the Taj Mahal would be a disappointment because of the crowds and the ill kept city. I will say here, unequivocally, the Taj Mahal is truly a wonder of architecture with details not likely to ever be matched again. This standard photo masks the beauty of each marble stone with inlay precious jewels and the attention to detail unimaginable for a building of this size. Every aspect of the structure is planned with precision, every layout symmetrical, every element with a purpose. The four towers around the main building lean outwards to ensure they fall away should an earthquake hit the area. The 22 steps to the main entrance reflect the number of years to construct this homage to the Moghuls wife by 20,000 people, among whom the families of the artistic craftsmen continue to be financed by the Indian government to reproduce and maintain the intricate stone.

The crowds were there, but wading with them throughout the gardens and into the building was part of being in India. If you have issues with the number of people, you don’t come to India at all.

During our day long visit, which included an earlier visit to another fascinating historical accounting of the Agra Fort by our clever and informative guide, I had picked up a bad head cold. By the time we crashed into our Agha Khan award winning hotel, my day was done….I needed the comfort of the bed. We were off early again the next morning, heading for Jaipur with a stop at another fort along the way built  by yet another Moghul. By the time we arrived in Jaipur, the cold was passed to Olga and we were both under the weather till the end of the trip.

Our hotel in Jaipur was formerly the home of a minor prince, who could not continue the upkeep in its form after independence so it was converted into a luxury hotel, the rooms and courtyards an historical site of its own merit including a small step pool. Jaipur itself is known as the Pink City and by a cursory, external look appears a little more affluent than Agar. We started the day with an elephant ride to the top of the Red Fort and then toured with our third guide through the well preserved palace and a visit to a sacred Hindu temple. A subsequent visit to the observatory and the museum was rounded with perhaps the most surreal scene I have ever witnessed.

the hallowed monkey temple

The monkey temple is situated on the outskirts of Jaipur, a relatively short ride in the hillier sections, through villages where our driver steered through crowds of cattle, along deteriorating roads past wild peacocks. We pulled into what looked like an abandoned parking lot and started walking towards the eerie gate straight out of an opening segment of a horror movie. Before you enter there is on old man sitting cross-legged, draped in ragged clothing, engulfed in flies, selling peanuts. For 50 rupees he digs two scoops into your newspaper funnel and you take them through the creaking turnstile into a street lined with empty, decaying buildings from a bygone era of splendor sitting in the valley of mountains.

As you meander further the number of monkeys increase, not shy, looking for handouts, craving peanuts. They climb around, follow you, chase each other, sometimes fight among themselves, but people are not an issue to them. You (or at least us) tread somewhat cautiously, looking all around, seeing what  appear to be a small number of residents, wondering how their existence is possible or even why. Olga and the guide dutifully feed the monkeys while I continuously snap photos, one time getting too close as it snarled and grabbed at my camera…. Lesson learned.

the wrath of the monkey

We finally reached the pool, built between blasted rock, filled by mountain streams. Here young boys were playing in the designated watering hole, the remainder fenced with barbed wire festooned with scraps of old clothing. The guide tells us this is the most sacred part of the temple and sincere prayers to the monkey god can be made with an expectation to be granted. Try it… you have nothing to lose.

No more wishes or more peanuts, we head back to our hotel, crash again because of our worsening colds. The next two days would be travel; six hour drive back to Delhi; the next day a 2:30 am wake up call for a ride to the airport and a 5:45 flight back home, a full 24 hours of travel.

The Basunti Lodge included a book entitled, How to Travel. I discovered it on our second evening and read a portion of it aloud to the whole group. In a future blog, I will expound more on the section describing how to choose a destination. In the meantime, I will leave you with this quote: “The place we go to should, ideally, help to teach us certain lessons that we know we need to hear.”

We loved our time in India, excited we had made the trip, and were exhausted by the end traveling the circumference of the globe; but, and this conclusion has been the lesson of all our travels, there is no place like home.

little shops of Mcleod Ganj

To the top of the hill we go again.

We have walked up and down this road from our guest house to the centre of the commerce district an innumerable amount of times. We have grown accustomed to sharing the streets with the sellers, the buyers, motorcycles (with whom you stand shoulder to shoulder in a jam), cars (keep your elbows in or they could get clipped by the mirror), oxen, yaks, the occasional donkey, monkeys (although they are climbing above only appearing at street level to steal something), and dogs.

One of the animals you can meet on the street

Dogs are everywhere, roaming the streets freer than the two legged population. Dogs walk into shops, sit on stalls and benches, sleep on the doorsteps and the stairs, wander at night barking and howling in the very early hours. You see a variety of man’s best friend, largely mutts I assume, collar-less, tag-less, ownerless, limping, scarred, mangy, old and youthful. It is a phenomenon I do not understand.

Almost equally curious is the construction of the streets. They are all lined with trenches from 5 to 25 inches deep, allowing filthy water to run down to some ignominious ending. Avoiding vehicles means balancing around these gaps, or in at least one spot, keeping from falling down a precipitous drop of two hundred feet of a trash infested hill. There are no rails in Mcleod Ganj.

Don’t step in the wrong direction

One of the shops along the way sold handmade, uniquely designed children’s clothing, although it is beginning to expand the repertoire to women’s attire. The owner is one of five siblings, the four others being girls. He recalls their treatment and with three girls of his own, wants to give back. He hires village women, many of whom would have no other means of income, teaches them the trade of sewing, and produces the wares for his shop. The prices are non-negotiable and not inexpensive relative to what is available throughout Mcleod Ganj; the style is not Tibetan or particularly Indian, appealing to other clientele looking for very reasonable, by North American standards, attractive clothing.

Every shop keeper will have a story and would be happy to explain if their English was better. Most speak in single, staccato sentences of fact; work all day, very good quality, morning price just for you, you buy more I give special price. In the initial stage of a first visit you are attracted to the Tibetan merchandise, and are enthralled by the items thinking you found something different or special. A couple days of wandering in and out of shops, being welcomed and encouraged to just have a look, the stuff all starts looking the same and you cannot recall the price of a similar item three shops ago.

So you start looking for the shop which is selling items different from the rest, such as the woman knitting, on the stool, with here finished socks hanging in her tarpaulin stall; or another woman still sewing at 9:00 pm, making the clothes right in front of you; or the carpet weaver shaving the excess wool off the carpet in the co-operative.

And then there is Prakash.

Prakash

He introduced himself on one of the many times we walked past his spot traversing back and forth into the centre of town. I was accosted by every other shoe shiner, all pointing to my dirty shoes, suggesting a quick brush-up, no obligation. Each shiner has their area, Prakash’s happened to be close to our guest house. Every time I passed, he invited me; and each time I declined. He asked “maybe later?” to which I naturally said, maybe. When I inquired about the price, he answered, anything I would like. Finally, I made an appointment with him for the following morning because it would be my last day in Mcleod Ganj.

So on our way back from yet another round of perusing the shops, and making another purchase, I entered his makeshift location on the street. With a big welcoming smile, Prakash set me down on a towel covered pad, and provided a pair of flip flops so I wouldn’t put my stocking feet on the concrete. He then proceeded to clean my shoes with some mysterious liquid and a toothbrush, followed by a wipe, and then a vigorous brushing regiment. All the while, he asked questions about my country of origin, my age, family, wife (Olga was watching from across the street) and sharing details of his life, including the number of kids, his home in the province of Rajashtan, and his time in this job.

The shine in Prakash’s spot on the side of the street

The shoes were finished after about twenty minutes, shiny and clean, considerably better. Then came the negotiation for price (probably should have done from the beginning….but live and learn). His suggested price was 2000 rupees which is the equivalent of 40 dollars. No, no, no, that is waaay too much. For some context, we hired a driver to a historic site, back and forth, taking a total of four hours, for 2000 rupees with a tip. You can get a one hour massage for 1000; so you can see why his starting price was exorbitant. I countered with 500, roughly 10 dollars.

He argued, of course, talking about his family and the lack of business, yadayadayada, to which I replied, “I am paying for the shoeshine, not your family.” He continued to plead but I finally got up, handed him the 500, a very generous amount, but I was feeling charitable given it was my last day. And the shoes did look really nice.

No matter, we parted on good terms rather than ending horror-ably.

the bells of buddhism

Everyone meet in the lobby of the hotel at 7:30 am.

On the first morning we would participate in a meditative walk through the park and the grounds surrounding the major Buddhist temple in Mcleod Ganj. The park itself is among evergreens on side of the mountain, winding upwards and around, with spectacular sights through the trees into the valley below and the town of Dharamshala christened by the warming sun.

Prayer flags hung throughout

Prayer flags were strewn among the trees and rocks, the number and density intensifying around each bend, closing in on the temple. Prayer wheels lined the path itself, at least a couple hundred, wide and thin, brass and painted tin, twelve inches and twelve feet, with bells and without; we spun each and every one clockwise by the wooden handles at the bottom when found at a standstill or by our placing our palms in the middle to help continue the rotation. Our layers of clothes were being shed one piece at a time as we climbed further along the concrete path.

One set of the hundreds of prayer bells in the park

The path itself, although not narrow, meant you were walking on the edge of a precipice. No guard rails, and only trees to stop you, a step too far to the left and you could disappear down the side. It was also not immune from beggars. A man, possibly Hindi, was on his haunches whisking the concrete with a straw thatch, clearing our pathway while his wife begged from a squat position and the children looked up at you with their pleading eyes and mucus dripping noses. More beggars, most with some physical deformity, awaited the people at the end before entering back into the city streets.

Eventually we wound our way to the top where the complex appeared and as we continued along the path, the sound of chanting could be heard from above. The group decided to enter the complex which contained the home of the Dalai Lama and a temple of worship, separated by a court yard for gathering and contemplation.

The chanting drew us to the upper level where two rows of monks were facing two more rows across an aisle in the temple, reading 3 by 18 inch stack of musical cards in their laps, chanting in baritone voices, largely in unison, bells at the ready, ringing at specified times, led by two more senior monks with their headsets sitting at an elevated level. You could observe from the open end or enter the temple itself, without your shoes and sit quietly on the floor.

People moved about and the chanting continued unabated. Suddenly as if the tape player became tangled and slowed to a stop, the sound of a deep moooooooooo ended the piece. The musical cards were flipped, a loud hummmmmm and chanting began in earnest again. I left the temple at this point, making room for others, sat in the courtyard collecting thoughts and notes when a louder than usual ringing burst into music. The chanting was now accompanied by the banging of a gong, the pounding of a drum, the blast of temple horns, and the call of ceremonial shell conches. I began to watch from the open end as the monks continued their two, maybe three, note chant, a ringing of bells and the chorus of instruments. The pattern went on for several minutes, then the moooooooooo end. It was over.

Monks leaving the temple

Wrap up the musical cards, a pretend washing of hands, and the monks get up to leave. The whole scene was mystical and mysterious and very human. Most were engaged but some of the young were yawning, another was rubbing his eyes and head, there were smiles of inward laughter at an apparent miscue. And when it finished, many jumped up and left like the recess bell went off. It brought a smile to my face.

Oh those monks can ring those bells. Hail, hail, hail.

searching for the dalai lama

They said he wasn’t in town.

Our destination was a hotel in Mcleod-Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala, further up the mountain. Mcleod-Ganj has been the home of the Dalai Lama since 1959 and is headquarters to the Government of Tibet in exile. It is possible to get a meeting with the Dalai Lama provided you make the arrangement several months in advance. I don’t believe anyone in our group attempted; besides, he was not expected to be at his home. Apparently the Dalai Lama had business abroad.

The growth in the Tibetan population from an influx of refugees and the establishment of several Buddhist monasteries has created a town dominated by Tibetan arts and culture. Mcleod-Ganj has become almost a pilgrimage for the believers and his presence has increased the tourist industry. The many Tibetan craft shops are certainly trying to cash in on the increase of Westerners to the city.

Before getting to Dharamshala, our group stopped at a village where a special program is set up to preserve the crafts of Tibet. You can watch as artists paint, weave, screen print, and punch metal to create traditional Tibetan pieces. There is a temple at the end of the beautiful gardens, and of course, a shop to purchase many unique works. Further up the road, we visited a nunnery for female monks and were permitted to enter the temple.

And there he was, a life-size photo replica, from the waste up of the Dalai Lama, situated at the front. The picture cut-out was of high quality and appeared very real. The group was mesmerized and thought the presence a little creepy. A few pictures and we headed to our vehicle to make the last, long climb to Mcleod-Ganj.

Here he appears at the nunnery

When we arrived at the hotel, there he was in lobby again, a picture hanging high above anything else. Indeed, you will find a photo of the Dalai Lama in many of the establishments. He was in the restaurant for our supper; in a number of shops in town; at one store, we received a 4 X 5 black and white glossy picture of him in a relaxed pose, smiling, just for making a purchase. He seems to be everywhere in this town, just not in the flesh.

This morning the group planned a walk around the temple through the prayer park. It is a short distance around the bend, downhill from the hotel. As we were just about to head up to the entrance of the path, an officious gentleman, with excellent English, asked us to wait by the side, the Dalai Lama was going to be driving by soon.

Really? The man himself? Coming down this road?

Off to side, cameras in hand, our mini paparazzi waited. A hard topped jeep could be seen with lights flashing. Is that him? No. The vehicle moved past. Hmmph.

Then a series of black cars appeared at the top of hill. One of them must have the Dalai Lama in the passenger seat. (He doesn’t drive himself? Does he?) Cameras ready and as the caravan approaches, I am pointing my DSLR directly at the advancing parade, looking through the scope, dial set on athletic exposure, and then snapping madly….click,click,click,click,click,click,click,click.  

And then he was gone.

Or at least I think it was him. I could not actually see through my lens, I was so obsessed with pointing it in the right direction and clicking away hoping one would capture him. Others in the group who seemed to be a little closer confirmed yes, that was an official sighting of the Dali Lama. The trip is now complete.

Where was he going? Will we able to see him again?

Behind glass, at his own temple…but only a picture

Well, his pictorial presence continued to dominate the rest of our day; at the temple, behind glass; at the meditation centre, a huge face right next to the speaker; at the restaurant, watching us eat our dinner. And he occupied our minds as we continued to talk about our unbelievable luck. I checked my camera later to see if my efforts were fruitless. I found one possible. If I keep focusing, pump it up on the computer, sharpen the image, a decent portrait might emerge.

We have one more day here. I will keep searching for another opportunity at a sighting of the Dalai Lama.

nine billboards outside dharamshala, india

We said goodbye this morning to our wonderful hosts and staff at the Basunti Lodge to make a trek to Dharamshala. The entire day was one of traveling up and down and around, left and right, a swerve here, a quick move there, with a stop at a Tibetan arts centre and a nunnery for female monks.

The sites are breathtaking as we moved closer and eventually climbed the mountains; sightings of another kind also provide some amusement or curiosity. In no particular order, these are the exact wording of signs (not exactly billboards; just a little poetic license) recalled from our journey.

Obey Traffic Rules

These words of advice from the local police would seem to be obvious but to think so means you have never driven in India. There appears, in fact, to be no rules. We drove through dozens of villages, and the occasional one had a stop sign at a juncture. No one stopped. Vehicles do stop randomly to shop from a roadside vendor, marginally pulling over and blocking traffic from behind, who then honk, veer into oncoming traffic who also honks and steers away, around the motorcycle passing in between. Difficult to obey something which does not appear to exist.

No Helmet. No Petrol.

One of our rest stops was adjacent to an Indian Oil gas station which hung this sign. Motorcycle drivers are required to wear a helmet according to Indian law, although you would never know based on a random sample of drivers in the street. If anything, you would think donning a helmet was a voluntary or prudent option which many decide otherwise. Even more bizarre, is that passengers do not require a helmet. I don’t understand the logic. I watched five motorcycle’s enter the station, four of them had a helmet and the fifth was served even with out one. Obeying your own rules also appears to be optional.

Plz do’nt touch!!!

Shops line the streets and everyone appears to be either selling or shopping. The closer we got to Dharamshala, the number of signs in English increased as did the number of people who were obvious tourists. The town caters to the visiting crowds and the relative wealth of the area reflects the increased activity.

We serve Indian, Chines, South Indian, Israeli, Italian

Food choices also begin to cater to the Western palate, adding some variety although I am not sure who are the  Chines or their style of food. This evening we ate Nick’s Italian Eatery. Tomorrow we could add some variety and eat at Jimmy’s Italian Eatery just a few doors down.

Be it women or men, all become literate

The inclusiveness is important and certainly, the goal is desirable if not easily attainable. It sounds more like a motto and to be fair, I saw this only in passing so I cannot provide the context.

Come to Learn. Go to serve.

This motto was part of a school displayed in big letters on the gate leading into the grounds. I expect it does not matter who is served but it struck me as counter to our expectation for education to provide the basis for leadership. I would agree, however, more attention to service would make the world a better place.

Save our leopards

Some of that learning hopefully involves an understanding on the interdependency of our world. We learned about the decline of the leopards from our hosts of the Basunti Lodge. As a result the monkey population has fewer natural enemies and has grown to threaten the livelihood of fruit farms. I saw only one of these signs and it appeared randomly buried amongst numerous others.

Brain and Spine Clinic

Storefront clinics are common, situated along the street beside grocers, dress shops, jewellery stores, and sewing machine repair garages. X-rays, cancer examinations, other procedures are all available. I thought medicine related to the brain might be a little more specialized and be run out of a hospital but perhaps convenience is more important.

Stick no Bills

I save this one for last as it exists, perhaps, as a plea to keep signs to a minimum.

“Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs. Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind. Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the signs.”

So says the Five Man Electrical Band from outside Ottawa, Canada.

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