When it rains in India, it really pours. Quite literally we found out as we abruptly landed in Chennai on the most terrifying touchdown of my life, right in the middle of a cyclone. Judgement impaired from the on-flight refreshments, we took the first taxi we were offered. It had no wipers, no lights, no seatbelts, no brakes, and a driver more intent on sparking up his cigarette than watching where he was going. To be fair we couldn’t see anything anyway as the rain was coming down in sheets. Without warning we ended up smashing into the back of a bus (also without lights).
Dizzy and bruised I had to untangle my head from all the beads hanging from the driver’s rear view mirror (which contained no mirror). Chris was okay as he’d cushioned himself against the back of the driver who was frantically blaming us for his smash whilst bleeding from a head wound. We managed to limp to our digs having handed over a load of new bank notes to an aggressive, bloody taxi guy, we hadn’t worked out the value of the currency yet so had no idea what we handed over. Why we paid at all I will never fully understand but I was concussed, intoxicated and very, very tired.
For the next four days we caught up on sleep, ate heartily and dealt with the paperwork, so when our bikes arrived we could offload and go. It was an eye opener, there weren’t any computers anywhere we could see. This in an airport supporting a city of 8.5 million people that produced 35% of India’s GDP and 60% of its automotive exports. All the paperwork was duplicated, logged, and stamped several times over, then passed to several waiting runners who would dart off behind closed doors or submerge into the human traffic of the bustling corridors to another part of the airport. At this point large areas of Chennai were under six feet of water. No flights were coming in and our bikes were now stranded in Sri Lanka after the ‘bigger plane’ got diverted. So what did we have to lose by doing a little bit of sight seeing…
The Royal Enfield Factory was the first visit; unfortunately because of the epic flooding we couldn’t take any out and test ride them. We were shown around the plant by a guy who reminded me of my school French teacher; Mr Bosworth. The most unenthusiastic and monotonous guide in the world, so I missed much of what I was there to learn.
Having departed from Mr Dull I found that all the pin-striping and logos on the Enfields’ tanks are done by hand. I got a very talented chap to paint the famous golden Royal Enfield logo and surround onto the back of my camera.
I caught up with Chris at the end of the tour and he was in fits of laughter; pointing to the rolling road I saw the sauce of his mirth. At the end of the production line the bikes were cranked up and tested, taken through all the gears and the back wheel was spinning at about 60mph. However the bike wasn’t tied down in any way, the tester simply sat on the bike and balanced it. Beneath him the rolling road was only about six inches wide. With nothing to secure the bike to the rollers, any false move would launch bike and pilot out of the first story window a few meters in front of him!
The clouds parted and our bikes arrived. We quickly rebuilt them, stamped and re-stamped the remaining papers, showed our carnets to several officials and off we sped, straight into rush hour traffic, which lasts from 5am to Midnight every day. Heading out of the city was a relief and to get rolling again a joy. Some of the biggest river crossings of the trip were made in the outskirts of the city, the floodwater was chest high in a lot of areas. Fortunately we were able to head off-road and pick our way through the carnage.
At one surreal point on escaping the city I found myself on the pavement cutting down a back ally, back onto a busy flooded main street full of people. I was blocked by a woman, who whilst standing upright had hitched her skirt up as a golden arch of pee blocked off my plotted route I was trying to navigate my bike through. With a toothless smile she waved me on whilst with her free hand caught the ongoing jet and moved the stream to a lesser angle allowing a sprinkle free passage. I awkwardly thanked her but declined to shake hands…
The poverty was on such a huge scale in the shantytowns we passed through. This was the underbelly of India that up until this point I had only heard about. At one junction there were several child beggars, not an uncommon sight but they were all disabled or disfigured in some horrendous way. What makes it worse is that children like these are often organised by gangs who will disfigure an able-bodied child so they will receive more pity and more rupees from passers by.