Nothing is more magical than a long motorcycle ride along a quiet village road on a warm Indian night. No one honking, no one trying to commit vehicular manslaughter, no one blinding us with their brights – just graceful swooping under arches of ancient trees, past stone temples and giant rocks that have carved the same sillhouettes out of the same full moon sky for thousands and thousands of years.
Since we got the Enfield a few months back, our Sundays have been spent getting lost on the outskirts of Bangalore. Phil drives and I navigate, very badly, from the back. Now, in ancient Hampi with Phil and his son Sam, the bike I’m on is mine. I go as fast as I want, turn when I want, and nearly plow straight into a rack of Rajasthani dresses when I want.
I speed along in the darkness, finally getting my body to move as fast as my mind, and it feels right and real. The rocks remind me of Joshua Tree, and I think about our wedding nine months ago, and what a good idea that was. I wonder what my friends will be doing on the other side of the world when this full moon reaches them in twelve and a half hours. These jagged silhouettes remind me of the ruins of Furness Abbey, in Barrow-in-Furness, England, where my my daughter is with her great great aunties and uncles, and where the moon doesn’t rise until 10 pm. It occurs to me that I’m missing my brother’s 50th birthday party tonight in Santa Cruz, and I know that I’m being missed.
I want to pin a prayer to the moon and send it to one of the people I love most, who is battling brain cancer. Being so far away from him and his family has been the most difficult thing for me in this most difficult country. It breaks my heart when I talk to him, and it breaks my heart when I don’t.
My heart is smeared from one end of the earth to the other tonight, but hearing Phil and Sam buzzing along behind me, shouting to each other and laughing, I know I am right where I’m supposed to be. My time with the two of them always feels like a gift, like I’ve been granted honorary membership in a secret club for a day, or a month.
Outside of the cities, almost anywhere in India, this country makes perfect sense. All the half-baked confusions from bygone eras trying to find a place in this one start to smooth out, and the people are comfortable in their own skin: comfortable carrying water jugs on their head and bundles of sticks and woven palm fronds on bullock carts, tending their meticulous farms. These people are strong and patient and hardworking. They understand the rhythms of nature, something that was bred out of most Westerners several generations back. I wonder if it might be easier for me to live in an adobe house without running water and sleep on a cot on the roof and cook over a fire, than it is to navigate our fake modern house where nothing works as it should, in Bangalore.
If there is an apocalypse, I’m relocating my friends and family to an Indian village immediately.
The wind cools my dusty sunburned arms. My legs and my feet are bruised from several parking and turning mishaps – riding is new to me. I turn 48 in a few days, and it amazes me that I haven’t discovered the thrill of motorcycles before now. I know it’s dangerous, but right now I feel invincible. Maybe its all the temples we’ve been in and out of these past few days, or the multitude of blessings we’ve received from half-naked priests, or the fact that my forehead looks like someone took an axe to it due to all the kum-kum daubed across it by holy men. I imagine all these blessings creating a magical force-field around the three of us, doing what the helmets on our guest room floor cannot.
These cycle rides get me the closest to feeling like myself, or at least the person I was before coming here: always moving, usually overbooked, reaching in all directions for everything at the same time, working all day and staying up half the night. Playing music for my radio listeners and tossing around an inappropriate brand of humor over the San Francisco airwaves. Watching sunrises when I should have been sleeping. Now I go to bed early, dress in formless cotton outfits and bad footwear, and speak to the help in an Indian patois. I am careful not to look men in the eye for fear of sending the wrong message. For the first time since I was a reckless teen, my speech isn’t speckled with foul expletives. India has tamed me in ways that parents, boyfriends, husbands and children have never been able to, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.
I am fished out of my thoughts by two headlights staring me down. A truck, occupying the full width of the road, is barrelling straight towards us. We all pull gracefully to the edge of the road and slow our bikes. The truck rolls past, we turn our heads, and in the moonlight we see a giant elephant riding in the truck bed; the same elephant we’ve been unsuccessfully looking for all day. Phil shouts and spins his bike around; Sam and I follow, smiling and laughing, shouting:
“Oh my God, there’s an elephant in that truck!”
Never in a million years did Sam, Phil or I imagine we’d be right here, right now: in India, in hot pursuit of an elephant on a truck, so close we can see the wrinkles on her legs change shape as she shifts her weight from one side to the other.
“Yep, we’re in India,” Phil shouts, accelerating, “INDIA !”
We follow the truck down the swerving road, retracing the Hampi ruins in the moonlight. Normally the elephant spends her days at the temple, blessing pilgrims with her agile proboscis. We’d heard about her, and had been sad she hadn’t been at her post during our visit. She towers above the wooden sides of the truck bed that are painted with flowers and swastikas, and instructions to “Honk Please.” The truck rolls through the bazaar and others join our pursuit. The three of us stay close to the truck until it stops at the imposing temple gate. We park our bikes and climb off to watch the beast gracefully unfold herself from the truck bed. Kneeling with her back legs, then stepping down with her front. First one and then the other. Then searching around with her trunk while her back legs step from the truck to the stone.
We ride back to our guest house; the striped moonlight reflects off of the rice paddies flanking the sides of the road, and I think it might have been a fair trade: everything I am and everything I know, for one year in India.