Two years ago, I travelled to small towns and villages across Punjab to understand how electoral politics operates at this level and blogged daily from the field. For this four-week and 2000 kilometre voyage, I chose to ride a motorbike.
Most of my friends thought I was trying to emulate Che Guevera, the Latin American revolutionary famous for riding a bike across that vast continent and writing his Motorcycle Dairies.
Though I enjoyed the comparison with the world renowned ‘T-shirt icon’, I had my own reasons.
My experience of working in villages told me that villagers have their own subtle ways of judging a stranger and the vehicle that he/she rides has profound impact on their responses and reactions. They have pretty good idea about how to receive a saeen in a cavalcade or greet a sahib on a four-wheeler or play host to a mediaperson in a branded van.
Like a reflex action, the presence of a particular stranger makes them tailor their behaviour in specific manner. The worse is when they decide to please you by first assessing what you want to hear and then tell you the same.
Travellers to far-flung villages will acknowledge that even animals can recognise an alien by his dress and vehicle. But let me assure you, not a single dog barked nor did a cow mooed at me during during that journey. My unassuming two-wheeler set off no status alarms and I could whiz past unnoticed.
Being an idealist, I wanted to experience things as they are. I needed a camouflage — and the bike proved to be a perfect one.
My well-wishers were worried about my safety. I, too, had concerns and wanted to take as much precautions as possible. I googled and then searched the market for a ‘real’ helmet. The plastic cap that bikers generally wear is alright but it can hardly pass any substantial crash test. Helmet that withstands such a test may cost as much as the bike. Yet, I decided to go with the best in the popular varieties. That meant I would not only have to secure my bike from theft but guard the helmet as well.
I had planned to travel 80 to 100 kilometres a day with three or more stopovers. That sounds quite tiresome but it really wasn’t, because I avoided highways and instead used small village roads. There was very little traffic on these roads, and if you count out all the donkeys and camel carts, you are left only with fellow bikers with an occasional car zooming past.
Also read: Motorcycle or menace
I can assure you that plying on these roads for 100 kilometre in one go causes less fatigue than a 10km trip on Lahore roads. More importantly, on congested city roads you have to strictly focus on ‘driving’ while on those lonely tracks, you can imagine yourself riding a plane on auto-pilot, and enjoy the surroundings — the colourful sky at sunrise, green fields and farmers working in the fields, and butterflies fluttering by.
My worst nightmare was when my bike broke down in the middle of nowhere. I was on the long, bumpy track on the west of river Chenab, passing through Thal desert, from Khushab to Jhang, when probably too consumed by the scenes of vast channay ke khait I ran into a dune and overturned. I hurt my knee and broke the handle bar so badly that it was difficult to drag it for even a few metres.
I thought that my voyage was over. I stopped a biker to inquire about any nearby workshop. He assured me he would send back a mechanic. Within minutes, my saviour arrived, and that too with a tool kit. He towed my bike to his workshop that was bigger and better equipped than any I had visited in Lahore. He even had a lathe machine.
After he had repaired the broken parts, I was off again — to Atthara Hazari, near Jhang — just two hours later than I had expected.
That’s when I thought motorcycles should be declared our national automobiles!