Tuesday, September 23, 2014

#lehdiaries: before the start

a lot of stuff goes into planning a trip, especially to a place like leh. unlike last year, there was so much planning involved, that i actually had a checklist of checklists. the entire process took over three months, but the pace picked up towards the end, until finally i was so exhausted that the start of the trip was actually a relief from the planning!

i do realize that it could have been done very differently, but i guess my systematic approach was because i realized the number of variables involved last time, and also i wanted to avoid the pitfalls of the previous trip.

here's a rather long-winded summary of what went into it:

the itinerary

for some reason, this is the first thing everyone who i mentioned the trip to, asked me about. dates, places we will cover, travel time between places, where we will stay, etc. the itinerary was also the hardest thing to fix, and as it eventually turned out, we barely stuck to it at all. still, it had to be done, and i did a rough draft at the start. what went into planning the itinerary:
  • duration: two weeks is best. any less makes the trip pointless, and any more becomes problematic to get leaves for. we did two weeks and a extra day (17 days). we planned to leave on friday morning and be back home on sunday night.
  • the direction and start/end points of the trip: we decided to do jammu - leh - chandigarh. the other seriously considered option was chandigarh - leh - jammu. last year, we did jammu - leh - jammu, and in 2009, we did delhi (and chandigarh en route) - leh - delhi.
  • places to cover: we had to cover all the regular spots as it was everyone's (other than my) first time in leh
  • amount of possible travel that could be done in a day: i estimated 200-250 km per day. in reality, we barely managed 200 km in a day, and only exceeded that toward the end of the trip, and that too on days we pushed ourselves.
  • stay at cheap places that also allow some sort of diversions post sunset, since we always had our evenings free. rule of thumb, anywhere in ladakh is cheap, if you're not picky and are ready to scout around. this is the main reason we didn't pre-book anything other than our stay at leh (and we finally didn't even go with the place we pre-booked, much to their chagrin). finally, we never actually ended up sticking to our planned itinerary, and yet we weren't disappointed - so in retrospect, this point may have been irrelevant.
  • ask around: there are a lot of names of places people will throw around when you ask. make sure you find out how to get there, and check a road map, as well as ask people about their experiences. biker forums are useful, but trusted friends are the best.

train tickets, transportation

we booked our train tickets the day booking was opened (2 months before the date of travel), literally the hour booking opened online (8am).

transportation for the bikes was left for later, because no prebooking was required. i did speak to the guy who arranged it for my bike last year, and he reassured me that all i had to do was turn up with the bike the day before the train left.

it turned out to be a more complicated affair: last year, i could get my bike on easily as it was just one, but this year he said three bikes on one train was impossible as the railway had sublet three of the four luggage compartments to a private cargo operator. we ended up paying extra to get our bikes on the private coach, and we weren't given an official receipt for the transportation either. he also told us to "turn up at 10", when he meant 10am. this was the source of a lot of last minute panic, as i assumed it would be 10pm, like it was last year. i had to rush off from office, travel two hours and spend two hours parceling the bike in the middle of an already packed work day. lucky for me, my manager was cooperative, and i actually managed to finish my work in time to get home at 10pm. quite a crazy day, that!

lessons learned: transport the bike a day or two in advance, so that any hiccups can be ironed out without stress (that's what i did last year, btw)

money spent: 14k for 3 bikes from bandra to jammu (up from 3k for one bike, last year). we also had to pay 200 at jammu to unload this year, which wasn't the case last year. asking around for a better deal may or may not help, as these guys operate closer to touts than an organized operation, and there appears to be a cartel of sorts. we didn't have the time to ask around, so i still don't know.

we supplied our own packing materials, which they used in addition to the regular gunny sack cover/cardboard. the did the packing, but we had to stand and watch and make sure they did a good job.

the packing list

this was another big item that had to be tackled well in advance. blame it on inertia or ignorance, but we actually started shopping only after the list was drawn up. i didn't need to shop as i had my stuff from last year, but everybody else had a ton of stuff to buy. i split the list into personal stuff (which everybody had to carry for themselves), stuff required per bike (basically, emergency spares) and shared stuff, which only one person in the group would be assigned to buy and carry. the packing list was drawn up keeping in mind that everything would have to be loaded on bikes, and two out of the three bikes would have a pillion as well, leaving just the third bike free for carrying shared items.

mental and physical preparation

  • everyone was advised to get a check up done, speak to their family doctor, etc. parents had to be taken into confidence about the risks involved (although i have a feeling most of us skipped the details ;))
  • i attended a bike repair workshop, specially geared for people who are planning leh. quite a useful one, and came handy when we had to fix a puncture ourselves and later when we had to replace a blown fuse. mechanics are generally clueless about what you'd need in an emergency, so it's best to check with a friend. i learned how to:
    • take off and reattach the wheel
    • clean/replace brake pads
    • adjust chain tension
    • inspect/clean spark plugs, air filters
    • replace fuses
    • replace clutch and accelerator cables
    • assemble a toolkit for my bike (ie what sort of tools i would need on the trip)
  • one dry run with the pillions to ensure they could handle such long rides. we rode around 1100 km in a weekend, to devgad and back from mumbai.
  • a weekend before our trip began, we packed, assembled all the luggage at a common location (since the pillion and rider had to pack into the same set of saddle bags), loaded up the bikes, and then did a dry run (about 300 km) in full gear, and all luggage. after the dry run, we stowed our baggage as is, ready for the trip.
...and, off we went!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

needs

I visited grandma after ages. i think I've waited far longer than I should have. so much has changed. i'm not used to seeing her in bed, not used to her forgetting who i am, even after I told her my name, and my dad's name. her short term memory seems to be a slate that's being wiped clean as she struggles to complete each sentence she's begun. she doesn't even seem to be aware of what she's saying.

grandma is fascinated by her hands, because that's almost all that she can see. she makes me hold them, asks me how they feel. I tell her they're the most loving hands I've ever held, but she insists they're just oily. she holds them up to the light, against the wall next to her bed, the armrest of my chair, and then asks me to hold them again. aren't they oily? she insists. this time, i'm forced to agree.

grandma insists she's lived in this house only three years. when i tell her it's actually been almost fifty years, she can't believe me. she's quite sure she can't be that old. but when I asked her how old she thinks she is, she says she's hundred. my aunt and I laugh, and she takes her statement back. she admits she has absolutely no idea.

grandma now remembers me. she asks me about my brother. has he finished school? yes, he's been working for years now. she says that's good. we all need to work. except her. she can't work. her hands are too oily to work. she wonders why she's here. i'm of no use any more, she insists. i want to explain to her why she's here. that she still touches our lives with her childlike innocence. but i don't know how to make her understand that. instead, I simply hold her hands again. she says, almost ominously, that "it's time". my aunt immediately interrupts and asks, time for what? grandma is silent for a moment, and then says "changes". it's time for changes. the weather is going to change. everything is going to change. it's that time of the year. it's a difficult time. but we can't complain. we have to be thankful. we have to pray. my aunt agrees, we have to pray and be thankful.

grandma says she prays for everyone. that's all she can do. I nod. she knows why she's here. she prays for people she can't recognize, people she can't remember, maybe even for people that only exist in her mind. but she prays.

it's time for dinner. grandma eats a Nutella sandwich, soaked in milk. she asks me if I want some too. she's sorry that she can't give me anything else to eat. i reassure her that i'm not hungry, and that if I was, I'd definitely help myself to her fridge.

the clock chimes nine. grandma asks me the time. she says it's time to sleep. my aunt agrees. but i don't want to let go of her hands. i promise myself that I'll be back soon. she doesn't protest when i kiss her cheeks, like she used to years ago. i make the sign of the cross on her forehead and say a silent prayer for her. but i can't think of what to ask God. all I can do is thank him. and then i remind myself that this is why we all need god. how else do you explain the purpose of someone who only lives to pray for us?

I thank God for my grandma. she gave me exactly what i needed, today.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

public transport karma

today, I missed my office bus by a minute, and had to take a drop to jvlr instead. chased a bus that said bandra. missed it by literally 10 seconds, and gave up chasing it because I was flat out of breath. thought I'd just take the next bus headed that way, as I didn't fancy my chances of another bandra bus anytime soon.

and then three buses to borivali passed by. on the day I wasn't headed home.

the very next bus was headed to bandra. got in and got a seat immediately (at 6pm, rush hour!). was relieved to find that it was headed to bandra West and not East. after about half an hour, i looked up from my book to see the bus was on sv road. and just when I was gonna get off and walk from santacruz sv road to linking road, the bus took a turn and headed right where I was going to walk to.

today's the day my public transport karma finally evened itself out.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

spite

I'd like to believe the average human is not spiteful without reason, but I then can't explain why a BEST bus driver would squeeze me and my bike against the divider on a road with plenty of room, if he didn't want to badly injure, or maybe kill me.

I can't even blame it on him not seeing me, as I flashed my headlight repeatedly for atleast 5 seconds before attempting to overtake (bus drivers do have a reputation, after all), and he waited till i was more than halfway past the bus before edging rightwards. when i realized he wasn't going to let up, I honked, a long blast that you'd probably never hear from my bike under normal circumstances. he continued to squeeze, until I had less than an inch between me and the bus, and about the same distance between my wheels and the divider. i'm sure he heard my tires screech too, as I did a hard stop to avoid what looked like a nasty scrape or worse, maybe even involving the bus' rear wheel.

i survived that one, physically unhurt. but i can't say the same for my trust in the general goodness of humanity.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

#lehDiaries: the beginning

it's probably every Indian biker's dream, and it has been mine too. the first time I went to leh in 2009, i was so taken aback by everything that I knew I had to go back, but i wasn't sure if I would ever have the skills or mettle to actually succeed in the endeavour. the dream endured, until one fine day last year, when my friend Abhishek (who, incidentally, i had only met once before that day, and that too, by accident) excitedly called and told me that he was riding to leh, and that i absolutely had to come.

it was a long shot, since we were barely a month and a half from the proposed dates, my manager was on a two week vacation, and i had absolutely no idea how i would prepare for such a trip.

I did realize though, that a lot had changed since 2009, and if there was a time to attempt leh on bike, this was it. and so, preparations began. starting with booking train tickets, then getting my leaves approved, getting my biking gear in order, and finally, upping my off-roading skills a bit.

my train tickets didn't quite go through (i was waitlisted until literally the night before my journey), i borrowed most of my biking gear, and my attempt to ride up rajmachi to prepare failed quite terribly (it was my third failed attempt, at that!). the only thing I had going for me was the fact that i had 17 days' leave, and that Abhishek passed on this never-say-die attitude that saw me through.

when i think about it now, we were rather cowboy-ish in our preparations, and a lot was left to luck... but our luck held. the ride was a success. and everything was out of the world.

those 17 days were out of the world. those 17 days were probably my best days of 2013. those 17 days were heaven. and much as I didn't want to return, i knew I had to. and i knew I would have to go there again and again. and i did. and i will.