Thursday, March 12, 2015

Gwen Shirkey's Himalayan Motorcycle Adventure diary.

Day 87: The moto journey of a lifetime... getting there

Day 87:  "Why do you do things like this?"

Did I have butterflies in my stomach?  No, not yet.  Was I worried?  No.  Did it feel right?  Yes.   Hell yes, with my whole being!  An opportunity came to me and I took it with no regrets.  I had been admiring some motorcycles (cafĂ© racers) on Instagram, and saw a post: "If you would like to spend two weeks discovering the Himalayas on Royal Enfield Motorcycles in 2014, you have come to the right place. 16 of us did it in 2013 and a few of us are going again."  Posted by Rex Havoc. I had recently cancelled on a moto trip to South America.  It had not "felt right."

I thought to myself, "Oh my god, this is it.  This is it!!"  I always wanted to travel in the Himalayas, especially if I could experience Buddhist monasteries. I am a budding motorcycle adventurer.  I wanted to do this and it felt right in my bones, in my soul.  Did I have a rational explanation?  No.  Am I forever grateful that I took this chance - ABSOLUTELY.  I messaged Rex, peppering him with questions and my own self-doubts.  He asked me some key questions.  My tolerance for getting out of my comfort zone (check), my sense of being okay with new adventure (check), my experience in mountain riding (slight check).  He assured me after some conversations, I was welcomed to join the adventure.

I had made some big decisions in the past year, and one was made for me that I did not  plan or want.  I accepted it as a natural part of life and moved on.  I was re-discovering my relationship with my life partner. I was back in my career at TNC full-time and had committed to being a part of a leadership program that put simply, scared me more than taking on an adventure in the Himalayas. 

I received the typical inputs from people who assume I'm insane:  "Why are you doing this?  How can you go alone?  Are you crazy?  Why do you do things like this?"  This time, I gave no answers.  I quietly began planning for what would be one of the best trips I have ever taken in my lifetime and I would not look back.  Until now.  Since the expedition, the life-changing experience taking place over a  2-week period in August, my head and heart have been full.  It has been difficult for me to figure out how to write about it.  So, excuse the free-flowing style that is my amateur writing way... this will all come from the heart:

Regarding "going alone" - I listened to my love, Brian.  I was not including him on this adventure and while I felt his hurt, I also knew I had to take on this challenge and adventure on my own, to remember why it is completely okay to be in the midst of "strangers" in this world.  No reliance on a love partner to watch out for me.  Remote.  Mostly out of touch.  Testing how strong I am on my own - relying on my instincts, my intelligence, my awkward ways and my heart.  I needed to know that I could do this without someone I know well who would "watch my back."  Trust and freedom.  Something I get to experience both with Brian, and without him.  He helped me prepare and unselfishly let my dream become realized.  There's a "keeper!"

As the time moved forward, and the more I mentally and physically prepared for being a part of the Himalayan Heroes 2014 adventure, the less I was concerned about what anyone thought about me or my decision to do this.  I relied on several people here in Kansas to help me.  I prepared with their advice and I asked specifically for guidance and support I needed.  I received those things, gratefully.  The doubters continued to question me, so there were parts to this that were difficult.  I did my best to not let the doubts I heard sway me.  There were days I almost quit and agreed that maybe I was being stupid and insane to go on this adventure.  Those times were, thankfully, few and far-between.  I stayed away from the doubters and kept listening to my gut instinct. 

My preparation, coupled with helpful advice I received was critical:  guidance on being a well-prepared motorcycle rider -  I put in my miles and I practiced taking myself out of my comfort zone a few times during my solo rides on dirt/gravel and rocks. In next post, I'll try to explain how this helped when I was riding "moguls" down the mountains. 

In hindsight, I needed much  more mountain riding and pavement experience... more on that later.  So, here I was, taking approximately one year to get myself ready. I listened, I watched, I practiced. I crashed and I dusted myself off a couple of times.  I took my advanced motorcycle course and rode as much pavement as a prairie dweller can manage on a KRL250.  Side note:  KLR250s are not made for going up against truck traffic, going 80 MPH on Highway 50.  I made it happen and I kept going.  I found a used street bike and put some miles on pavement, in rain and in dusty, city traffic.  Yes, I knew I was not anywhere near close to the skilled riders taking this trip, and I hoped I would not hold them back.  A neighbor in Kansas City who raced motocross asked me, "So, do you think you have enough experience?"  I replied, "No."  He then said, "Well, you better not hold them back by going too slow - that would be my biggest worry."  I began to worry a little bit. 

Next was a talisman.  I had to have something that is local to remind me of roots and grounding myself.  I received a raw, silver sunflower that Wendy, my friend, made for me to wear on the trip. I placed it around my neck and one rub for good luck and I was ready, in my head and in my heart.  I know it sounds funny to wear a talisman of sorts, but it really helped me when I was sick to my stomach (story in future post) or when I thought I was bleeding out (again, story in future post.) 

Reality sidebar:  I was on one of my solo gravel/dirt rides in the Flint HIlls. Speeding along - and had put in four hours of non-stop riding.  I took one of my favorite roads down south and then headed east.  I was in Bazaar, Kansas and decided to head home.  As I was heading west, I noticed my visibility was kind of bad b/c of dusty faceshield.  I was also facing the sun directly in my line of sight.  And, I was going too fast.  I saw a road to the right and  I hesitated, once... twice.  I wasn't decided if I should take the turn or not.  I was going kind of fast for a gravel road and crap, I decided at too late to take the turn --- way too fast and way too late past the point of reasonable decision point.  I threw myself into my first "high-side" crash.  Fuck.  It's a big tumble and my bike goes one way and I go the other (thank goodness.)  I think I may have gone over the handlebars, but I am not postive.  

I recall advice from motorcycle friends, "One moment you'll just be on the ground, wondering what the hell happened.  Then, you know you're a motorcycle rider.  We all make those kind of mistakes.  It's not a matter of if, it's when."  I got up, dusted myself off, thanking the universe again for lonely, dusty Kansas roads without big traffic.  This wasn't a simple, "I just put the bike down" moment.  It was a "I really fucked that one up" moment in riding. My knee hurt and my wrist was bruised.  Nothing broken except my ego.  I was really fortunate that a couple of guys came by in a pick-up, to, well... help me pick up myself!   The boys helped me right my bike and I waited for my overflooded engine to recover.  I broke my tail lights and had a bent mirror, giving me the opportunity to learn some basic moto repair.  That day, I had some doubts about taking the adventure trip in the Himalayas.  The "I am having a blast riding in the dirt" head-talk turned into, "Holy crap, if I do THAT in the Himalayas??!"  I did not tell the doubters about this crash. 

Zoom ahead 4 months.  After all the questions answered, visa received, payments paid, packing list scoured and followed 3 times, I'm boarding a 777 from Newark, NY to New Dehli, India.  Flight attendant asks, "What do you ride?"  I look at her and she says... "I always recognize a fellow rider when I see a helmet bag heading down the jetway."  We get to talk for the first couple of hours about rides she has taken and rides we both dream about in the world. 

New Delhi:  "Holy shit, it is HOT here!"  Rex had advised me, "It's not the kind of place you want to hang around for more than a few days... really hot, hyper-crowded, kind of rough if you're not used to it."  I made my first mistake.  No cell coverage at airport and if you leave the terminal, you are NOT permitted back in to the main terminal.  I was supposed to look for the Motorcycle Expeditions sign for Himalayan Heroes.  I walked outside.  No signs.  I tried to get back in the terminal.  No go sister.  The Royal Indian Army guy looked kind of stern as he shook his head no at me and patted his gun.  I plead.  "Sir, I have to find my guide - I'm part of a motorcycle group and I think he may be looking for me inside."  His head shaking no, his curled, perfectly coifed, oiled moustache, turned up a bit in a half-grin, half- "youarenotgettingpastmesister" look made me wonder again why I am impatient.  India is not a good place for impatience.   I stood in front of the doors to let as much of the cool air-conditioned air hit me in the face, and waited with my bags loaded on me.  I thought, "I packed too much." 

It was 95 degrees outside in the night air, 90% humidity and I'm standing there, thinking, "Hmmmm... I wonder if Buddhi's number is listed on the itinerary?"  I dig it out, and nope, no number.  I considered alternatives.  I begin to think about how my lack of being more prepared puts me in awkward situations much of my life existence.  I waited for an hour.  No driver.  I asked for help from airport guy near the door.  He goes to look for sign for me inside.  No driver.  I was tired from the flight, hot and impatient.  My Achilles' heel - impatience.  I went to the taxi stand.  I mean, how many hotels named "Ashok" are there in a small town like New Delhi, right?  I manage to get in a "cab" with 2 guys and I ask if they know where "Ashok" hotel is located.  They gave me the Indian "half-nod," that I learn over time means " yes/no/maybe/I don't know," or any combo of those responses.  I realize halfway out of the airport area I'm not sure if I was in a cab or not, if these guys knew where they were going, and how much this was going to cost.  I gave them the name "Ashok" --- sure, they know where the hotel is, half-nodding and promising to show me the beautiful city night of Delhi. 

Holy crap.  I keep looking for a number for Buddhi, our motorcycle expeditions guide.  I laughed at myself, thinking, "and this... this is how you do NOT do things."  The guys are arguing about the location of the hotel in the front seat.  Passenger seat guy jumps out of car and I'm left with the 14-year-old-looking driver.  He says he's picking up another friend and we'll be on our way.  He kept saying to me, "It is my responsibility to get you to Ashok - do not worry!  Welcome to our country!"  I arrive, having payed way too many rupees ($15 v. the usual $2 fare) and I enter the palatial hotel next to the Prime Minister's residence.  "Hmmmm... these guys  from moto expeditions travel in style", I thought to myself.  I went to the desk to find there is no "Motorcycle Expedition" group staying at the hotel and they had no idea who Buddhi Singh Chand is, nor did they have Rex and friends on the guest list.  "Okay, I think... I'm kind of fucked now.   Am I going to spend 15 days in Delhi, touring the country by myself?  Hell no!" 

I sat down, re-grouped and asked to get online.  The front desk gave me access to internet and some cold water.  The bellman, who looks like a super-ninja-majarajah smiled at me and said, "Welcome to our beautiful country."  I smiled back and thanked  him -- offering "Namaste" and found Buddhi's number in my online resources.  It worked!!!  My introduction to Buddhi, our most gracious, fun-loving, patient, sweet guide is "Hey, I'm at the wrong hotel!  Sorry!  See you soon at the right place!"  Buddhi talks to the bellman and drivers - real cab drivers this time, and, I head back to the Ashok Country Inn (about 1/4 mile from the airport.)  I'm smiling as I take the long ride through the streets of Delhi and get a full tour of the landmarks of the city at night.  Deep breath...I'm sure Buddhi is not impressed with my independent, uh, I mean impatient ways at this point and I haven't met him in person yet...

I arrive and meet up with most of the crew.  Australian brothers except for Felix from Berlin and Buddhi from India, welcome me.  The whole group is super. Viv is already in Manali and I'm looking forward to meeting her as well - the only other female rider in our group of 17.  Our other female is Sharne, and she taking her first trip as a pillion. I am more than impressed by the group - I'm thrilled to be with them as a "first-time" adventure moto-rider.  I meet "Rex Havoc" (not his real name... yeah, I join groups with guys who use pseudonyms on Facebook.)  He greets me and Manus (not his real name) brings me a gift - a great Aussie-flag neck wrap for the trip that ends up being one of the most useful accessories I have on the trip!  I was happy, peaceful.  I was also freaking out that I was really going to do this.  Rex comes up to me as hotel room keys are being handed out to us:  "Um, we have sort of a problem. We only have doubles and you see, you are the only female in our group tonight and well...   

I shrug it off politely.  "So, you are my roommate for this trip?  Cool.  As long as you stay on your side of the room/tent/whatever, don't fart, snore or make gross sounds that keep me up at night?  I'm good with this."  His comment back to me?  "Okay, mate... well, what about you being obnoxious as a roommate?"  I had no idea at that point, I would be rooming with a Yeti for the duration of the trip.  It was at that moment, I silently thanked my stars that I had slept in presence of friends/men/boys during camping trips, burn crew events, at hostels when traveling,  and during a bison round-up as part of my conservation and adventure-life reality.  I am happy that no matter who you meet in this world, there are always good mates who will treat you well and without total awkwardness, as roomies when necessary.  More later about Rex and me wreaking my own havoc during our tent camping.  First night in hotel room with Rex?  Calm.  Quiet.  Respectful.  And, I notice he reads good books!  I called Brian to let him know I'm safe and sound, saving the fact that I have a male roommate until I get back to the US (some things are just better told in person.) 

We take off in the morning on a flight to Chandigargh.  On the way, Steve, who I sense is hysterically funny (could be the bleached hair mohawk and crazy helmet),  asks me on the transit to the airplane, "Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, Gwen.  How much experience do you have?  Why are you doing this trip?  Why are you alone?  Are you ready?"  I start getting just a tad nervous.  I think Steve knows this.  He gives me that look of "are you for fucking real?"  I tell him I have a couple years of riding, literally -  and mostly on dirt/rocks.  I found out about trip from a guy with a false name on Instagram and Facebook and I'm doing the ride because I want to challenge myself and see the Himalayas.  He says in his Aussie accent, "Very well then, it's an adventure... we all crave this in our lives, right?  We have to do this."  I agree and we board the plane.  From Chandigargh, we get ready for the next leg of our trip to Manali, at the foothills of the Himalayas. 

I ride in a Toyota minibus with Bob Gabka (not his real name) and Gavin - REAL NAME!!!  I learn about their work in the world.  We share stories and we begin immersing ourselves into the culture of India, the people, the food, the stunning landscape and magic of a place that is ancient and new to be discovered at the same time.   Our first stop:  Traditional Indian cuisine and chai.  The place looks stunningly beautiful and we make our way inside.  We are served by costumed men, who are proud of their amazing food and serve us with care and smiles.  We eat Indian food - dahl, cauliflower, palak and saag paneer.  I try Chapati for the first time ever - a yummy, crispy unleavened bread.  I was happy and soaking all the culture in and then Buddhi asks me, "have you gone through some personal trauma?"  I respond too quickly with a "no, well, not recently" kind of answer.  In hindsight, I realize we all go through traumas - emotionally, physically, spiritually.  So, as I load back into the van to head to toward the Himalayas, I start thinking hard about my traumas I have experienced - those places I don't like to visit often.  Makes for an interesting start to an adventure trip.  I'm taking in the spicy smells of India and the mountain roads on bus.  Seems kind of treacherous and we were nowhere near the high mountains yet...
Farewell US - I'm heading to my first moto adventure - the Himalayas of Northern India!
We need coffee.  Arrive in Delhi, meet the guys.  Hang at airport on way to Chandigargh.
Seriously, we need some coffee.  Oh, and did everyone remember to pack anti-diarrheal?
Take us to the Himalayas please! 
The "look" from a wise guide.  Wise guy?  Seriously, Buddhi, I promise not to be "too" high-maintenance!