A Royal (Enfield) Adventure

November 10, 2009

After getting situated in our hotel room, the first order of business was to get a couple of motorcycles so we might regain a modicum of control over our adventure. Dad had an aesthetic interest in the Royal Enfield. So we asked our host if he could arrange such a thing. After a little back and forth on the details he went off to see what he could do.  A few minutes later he came back with the details and within 30 minutes we were staring at two of the most beaten up bikes left in India. The first Royal Enfield bikes were built in India in 1955, and I suspect that ours were from the first batch.

We spent a good half an hour with the 5 delivery guys trying to learn the kickstart and recalibrate for all of the controls being on the opposite side. Once we thought we had it all under control we raced off (in first gear) towards town to fill up the almost empty tanks.

Just past the top of the first hill, I had discovered that my bike had no hand brakes. I didn’t fully appreciate the gravity of this until I stalled out on a hill and was forced to brace the bike’s peg against my shin in order to keep it from rolling away from me while I kickstarted it. I wasn’t going to let a little thing like brakes stop me, so I waved my dad on, and we headed off in a thoroughly futile search for fuel.

We were retracing a stretch of road for what felt like the 3rd time when my dad’s bike stalled out on him. Try as he might he could not get the engine to start. After ten or so minutes someone from the crowd (who had been watching with unmasked glee) stepped forward to reteach us how to kickstart the bikes. This was the first indication I had that everyone in Karala seems to know how to fix and ride a Royal Enfield.

Disappointed, we decided to head back to the hotel and demand a Hero Honda. We almost made it too when (wait for it) … dad ran out of gas. We talked for a moment or two and decided to ditch his bike and head back to the hotel on my bike. At that moment an onlooker (Bali Ali) came bounding over to our rescue.

“What’s wrong”, he asked

“No gas”, we said

“Why not just take some from one tank and put it in the other”, he rejoined.

Dad and I looked blankly.

“Here, park it on my side and I’ll help you”

Bali headed into his work in progress shop (he and his buddies were building it when we arrived) and came out with some Chai. “Want some tea?”, he offered. I accepted only to find out that he had just offered me the tea that he was about to drink. “I’ll share with my friend, you share with your dad”. The tea was awesome, and it was sweetened with the wholehearted generosity that Bali exuded. He grabbed an empty water bottle, and while I drank tea, proceeded to pop off the fuel line and drain about a half liter of gas into it. We poured that into our tank, finished the tea, chatted for a few more minutes and then as we were preparing to say goodbye, the guys who rented us the bikes showed up. Was this cosmic syncronicity or did they get tipped off? We’ll never know. After we went down our laundry list of problems and they tightened the brakes up, we headed off to the petrol station in their wake.

After we filled up we headed over to the air pump. That’s when we realized that Dad’s headlights weren’t working either. We hailed over the two guys that we thought had led us over and pressed them to fix the headlights before we left.

They tapped and tinkered and couldn’t make it work, but invited us to follow them back to their shop. Once we arrived, about 10 other guys encircled us and started working on the problem. Within a few minutes we had the prognosis. “About 1 hr, come back.” We pushed back a little, “That’s going to be hard, can we just take the other bike, perhaps the one you were riding” (theirs looked brand new).  “Not possible”, he replied.

Someone distracted us and the rest of them got right to work. Before I knew what had happened the whole back of the motorcycle was on the ground and they were re-wiring the taillights, headlights, and blinkers. In not more than 30 minutes the job was done. We thanked them heartily for their quick work and then the talk started to come around to money. We were a little put off. “We rented them from you, shouldn’t you pay for th repairs?” “No sir, these aren’t our bikes!” “Oh lord, now we’ve done it”, I thought. Dad and I had a quick conference and decided to just get a receipt for the work and we would duke it out with the rental guys later. “Receipt, no no we don’t have a receipt” said the head mechanic. “How about a slip of paper with the cost and your name”, we asked hopefully.  This seemed acceptable and he ran off to accommodate these strange westerners. A  moment went by and we were discussing the cost again. “Rs 40, offered one guy, tentatively”, “Deal” my dad said without flinching and we both realized suddenly how utterly insane we must look to these guys.   We offered the money, plus a little more and did our best to show our gratitude. We shook every hand 2 or 3 times and then headed off into the sunset (literally).

Both dad and I are in complete awe at the generosity of spirit and the warmth of the people of Varkala.


  1. Comment by Barfoolian

    Barfoolian November 11, 2009 at 9:42 am

    It is amazing to me how in life I know the least about what I am closest to. I never guessed what an excellent journalist you are. Both Laurie and I are following your exploits with more anticipation for the next installment than we have for “Waking the Dead” (which, in our case – or at least mine, is a very big compliment).
    Thank you for taking my brain on a journey! And say hi to Dad.

  2. Comment by RobinThailand

    RobinThailand November 12, 2009 at 2:25 am

    GREAT post man. Loved the narrative.
    Hope you might have snapped a few photos to go with this epic tale.


  3. Comment by David Blasco

    David Blasco February 19, 2010 at 6:25 am

    Hello, wanted to let you know that I wrote about your Royal Enfield blog item and included links to it on my blog. I very much enjoyed your story and especially the way you told it. I gather you are Canadian? You know Royal Enfields are going on sale there soon! Here’s a link to my blog item and I hope you will let me know if there are any additions or corrections I should make. All best. David in Fort Lauderdale

    • Comment by Tucker Bradford

      Tucker Bradford February 19, 2010 at 6:50 am

      So glad you liked the post. It was fun to reread it and relive a moment of that wonderful adventure.

      As for nationality, I’m an American, currently living in the San Fransisco Bay area. My father lives in the Boston area. I hold the Canadians I know in high regard and am pleased to be mistaken for one 🙂

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