Riding the Black Diamond

"Too much comfort, you go to sleep." -the guru Mooji

It's a slightly-sick feeling, a tense wavering in the pit of my gut. No, it's not "Delhi belly," not that kind of sick.  This feeling comes after I dream up an idea, the moment I realize that I could actually do it.  It's fear mixed with anticipation, because this feeling tells me that I have to push myself forward. Years of practicing yoga have taught me that I can do more than I expect from myself, and that the victory in pushing myself is sweet.  I'll call this sensation the "black diamond feeling" because I often feel it on the ski slopes when I--a mediocre skier, at best--attempt the advanced run marked with a black diamond.  (Though the situation generally is a result not of my courage but my folly in having followed my boyfriend onto the wrong trail with no choice but to go down.) 

The black diamond feeling pushed me to India, not once, but twice, and now that I'm here, it pushed me again.  Staying in a lovely resort with many comforts, I needed something more.  No, I didn't attempt some advanced yoga pose or sitting for hours in meditation.  Instead, I drove out of my comfort zone. On a real Indian road.  By myself.  

 Oh yes I did!

Oh yes I did!

In Goa, there isn't much public transport, so many foreigners rent scooters, which are what most locals drive.  In my time there, I learned that there are two types of foreigners: ones who rent scooters and ones who are too afraid because of the other scooters and cars driving too fast on narrow roads, the heat-dazed pedestrians weaving drunkenly, the stray dogs, the stray cattle, and the occasional stray Goan pig.  These foreigners tell stories about other foreigners who have crashed and broken limbs and ruined their vacation.  No one tells stories about the foreigner who rented a scooter, drove around for awhile, and came home safely. 

Until now.  Spoiler alert: I broke nothing.  On the day I dared myself to ride, I sat on the bike, put the key in the ignition, held the brake, and pressed the starter.  The motor began putting.  As I twisted the right handlebar, the putting increased to a growl, and then I was free.  I was zooming forward, breeze kissing my face and lifting the tips of my hair. 

Driving was easier than I expected.  Goan roads are smoothly-paved and mostly empty in the heat of the day, when I made my first voyage.  At first, I hung left to let other scooters pass me, and then I started passing people--a guy bicycling with plastic saddlebags of bread, a sari-clad woman going slower than me. And I cannot overestimate the joys of speed and independence as I rode past verdant rice fields and vine-tangled banana trees.  My only regret is not having a camera helmet to record it all. 

However, just as I would not attempt to do a difficult yoga pose without warming up, I should note that I didn't get on my own bike until I had mastered my new mantra: Left side, left side.*  For my first 10 days in Goa, every time I rode in a taxi or on the back of someone else's bike, I repeated: left side, left side. Now on the road by myself, I chanted it to myself before every turn--left side, left side. Instead of shifting gears (my scooter had none), I shifted mantras: slow, slow as I approached the numerous speed bumps, left brake, left brake when I went around a curve.  In keeping with the spirit of India, where the sound of honking punctuates every mantra (I have heard honking through yoga classes and spiritual discussions), I honked through my mantras.  I honked to announce my presence before a curve or going up a hill or whenever I saw another vehicle.  Being on the bike, I had to stay totally present during this moving meditation on when to honk, when to brake, and when to slow.  

Driving was Zen enough; but finding my way was less so.  I saw exactly zero street signs during my entire time in Goa.  Occasionally, I saw a sign indicating which way to go for various towns, but that was it.  And I had a destination: the railway station in Pernem, so I could buy a train ticket.  Fortunately, I had a map and directions from Placida, the shopkeeper of the store where I bought petrol** in a reused liter water bottle.  (Which solved the mystery for me of the golden liquid in the bottles set out along the roadsides: petrol!  Not home-stilled liquor or exotic massage oil as I'd speculated.)  When I asked how to get to Pernem, Placida and one of her customers argued about the best way to send me, speaking the local language of Konkani (though it could have been Martian for all I knew).  The conversation had paid off, as I made it to Pernem, where Placida and the customer had agreed that anyone could point me to the train station.

Ha!  In Pernem, I slowed the bike to ask two local women sitting on the sidewalk behind a small display of papaya and coconut for sale. "Train station?" 

One woman pointed forward.  The other pointed to the right.  When I went right, I found myself going the wrong way down a one-way street.  I motored on to a two-way road, where before long I had to slow down so I could straddle-walk the bike over the bumpy gravel of red earth exposed by workers hacking the street apart.  A stream of sweaty, rust-stained men and women carted away piles of red rocks in plastic bowls balanced on their heads.  (Oh, for the camera helmet!) I passed a sign which seemed to indicate that I was leaving Pernem, so I turned around by stopping the bike and walking it in a half-circle (as I was still terrified of flipping) and then passed the construction/destruction crew again.  I rode back into town and tried going in the "straight" direction.  I ended up on a highway and stopped at a signpost where none of the towns listed appeared on my map.  Had I driven all the way to Maharashtra, the next state to the north?  I still don't know for sure.  

I asked another scooter driver about the train station, but I don't think he spoke English.  He pointed straight ahead, a gesture I saw many times that day and have decided must either mean "I don't know" or "Screw off!"  Straight ahead didn't seem right, now that my intuition picked up where the map left off, and so I stopped to ask the sugar-cane drink man who had a cart on the side of the road.  He sent me back the way I came. 

 Not the same guy, but you get the idea. 

Not the same guy, but you get the idea. 

After several more turns like this, I somehow got to the train station.  I even managed to buy a ticket.  In all my driving around, I'd burned through most of my petrol, so I stopped at a real Indian gas station for another liter.  When I asked the girl at the pump how much a liter cost, she said 60 rupees.  

"But it says 55," I said, pointing to the numbers on the pump.  

"Oh, you have 5 rupees change?" she said snottily, as if this were an impossibility.  

Getting change is always an issue in India.  I have no idea why.  But no one ever seems to have change. Except that I did this time.  "I do," I said, and paid for my petrol with a fifty note and a five-rupee coin, feeling partially offended and partially victorious.  But I am getting used to this feeling. 

Fortified by a snack from a roadside shack selling deep-fried peppers, which I ate along with a ten-rupee bottle of 7up for which the storekeeper tried to charge me 12 (two rupees for electricity! he explained), I was back on the bike.  And even though going inland meant that I had to watch my rupees carefully, I sped through a land that I love.  I love stopping the bike for a small, random parade of a dozen people, including two snare drummers and an old holy man dressed in various shades of orange and walking with a staff.  I love seeing a man dressed as the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, hiking on the roadside in a monkey mask, grass skirt, and a tail that stuck straight out behind him.  I love motoring through a small herd of cattle, the slow beasts much easier to negotiate around than the bands of boys playing Holi, a spring holiday which involves throwing colored powder onto both friends and strangers.  The boys screamed at my approach, colored powder at the ready.  But I, owning the power of petrol, could gun through them, and all they could do was leap out of my way.  I motored through, unscathed.

 However, on foot, I did not escape the colors of Holi

However, on foot, I did not escape the colors of Holi

I passed the color-throwing boys again on the way back from the train station, and this time, the degree of difficulty increased thanks to a scooter stopped in the middle of the road, its driver and his wife talking with the boys.  Trying to navigate between the scooter and the colored-powder-armed boys, I might have grazed the scooter's rearview mirror with my handlebar.  But I didn't look back, having made it through them.  Relieved, I laughed out loud. 

Need I state the lesson of this blog?  If I can ride a scooter in India without crashing--making sure to stop at a temple during every trip to thank the mysterious force keeping me alive--you can follow your own black diamond feeling. You already know what is calling you; just know that you can do so much more than you thought possible.  Get on your bike and ride!  

 A new friend from my road travels. Her pronunciation of "Hi!" and "Bye bye!" were spot-on! 

A new friend from my road travels. Her pronunciation of "Hi!" and "Bye bye!" were spot-on! 

*Unlike our rebellious colony, India kept the British habit of driving on the left, or what we Americans would call "the wrong side of the road." 

**Again, India joins with the Brits in using this term.  The only "gas" here is of the digestive variety. [Insert your own joke about Indian food.]