Spend some time with sailor turned biker Kawal and you might describe him as intimidating or refreshingly blunt. Don’t be thrown off by the Chinese tribe tattoos fronting his chest or his waist length jet-black mane that makes him look either part villain or part hero.
This sailor’s navigational compass is as advanced on sea as it is on land and he has a supreme understanding of road routes through India; whether it’s riding from Mumbai to Chennai or from Pune to Hampi. “Picking routes through the country is chill” he says in a rather blase tone. It’s like asking Jeremy Clarkson about changing gears. It’s what he does.
“Nepal wasn't the plan at all, it just happened..Crystal and I were riding around Sikkim mapping out a tour for our friends. Crystal’s friend Sangmo lives in Gangtok: She owns a property there and one evening while relaxing over a few beers with her crew, Sangmo told us that she's going to Nepal for a 4 day music festival called Universal Religion and invited us to come along.” he explains while pulling out some tobacco from a Golden Virginia bag to get himself a rollie.
Routine map check in the mountains of Sikkim, Crystal loves maps.
“My first impulse was, NO. We are in Sikkim to do something and not go festival hopping. But by the fourth time she mentioned it I couldn't say no anymore, and Crystal came up with the brilliant idea of riding into Nepal from Sikkim on our beloved Enfields."
“Who’s Crystal?” I ask him.
“He’s a close friend of mine – he is also the reason I’m part of these bike tours.” He pauses to light his rollie. “I met him one rainy afternoon in Pune when he was putting together this supercool pan India bike tour. We connected instantly; nothing connects people like a shared passion. One thing led to another and very quickly we were calling the tour “Enfield is Prayer.” (Enfield is Prayer Facebook page : http://tinyurl.com/o6bk4xg)
“This bike tour, is not just a tour, it's an ever expanding experience for everyone involved. We’ve done it twice so far. Crystal hand picks the participants himself; many of them are people who are coming to India for the first time. We put them on Enfields, and take them along with us from Pune to Hampi to Goa and then back to Pune in just over 3 weeks. The energy of the group and the day to day tone is carefully managed by Crystal. We don't want to get loud and bikey, instead it's an exploration of offbeat India, and our own inner selves.”
Buddhist monastery at Kechuperi, tiny village homestay on top on a mountain in sikkim. Kawal (L) & Crystal (R)
“So how was the ride into Nepal?"
“We met at night in Siliguri, all set for 4 days of hard partying somewhere in the Himalayan valleys of Nepal. That same night we found out that the festival was cancelled by Nepali authorities for some reason. But since we were on our way, we decided to go anyway, festival or not. It took us 2 days of riding to reach Kathmandu.”
Friendly locals at Pelling, Sikkim. Kawal (L), Crystal (R)
Sangmo speaks Nepali, so when the sun was setting on the first day of riding we stopped at a farm on the side of the highway and she spoke to the ladies of the farm about us pitching our tent there and spending the night on their farm. The family not only let us stay there, they also cooked for us and then later on we all shared our stash of local booze and stories sitting on a pile of hay under the stars, all of us smelling like Odomos.”
Camping for the night on highway side, Nepal
That night’s peace was soon shattered: On the morning of 25th April, just before noon, in the district of Lamjung, Nepal, one of the most devastating earthquakes in the history of Nepal struck, with a magnitude of 8.1 - the highest recorded since 1934 : The earthquake triggered an avalanche in Mt Everest, villages were flattened, hundreds of thousands of people made homeless and century old heritage buildings destroyed.
Kawal and Crystal were sitting in their 3rd floor apartment waiting for Sangmo to return with breakfast when the quake struck with full force.
“Now, I've felt tremors before and been in some menacing storms out in the ocean, but this was something else. For half a minute the world just crashed: Everything shook violently. A minute felt like forever. My body wanted to bolt, senses screaming, instinct confused.” His animated face conveys every bit of fear he felt in that moment.
“I kept thinking the roof would cave in or the floor would give way. There was a sense of impending catastrophe, an urgency to escape – to run like a wild animal - but where? We heard a deep rumbling sound mixed with screams and breaking glass. After a few stunned seconds I made for the door but just as I ran, Crystal said “Kawal don’t go outside. He was sitting calmly on his bed. Crystal grew up in Seoul and then moved to California ; both earthquake prone regions. So, he spoke out of experience. His calmness helped me and although it took a lot of self-control, which I don't usually have, I managed not to panic.”
Building close by fallen apart
"It was a force beyond us." Kawal says looking at me plainly.
When Kawal finally went down to the streets, he found himself a spot far from anything that looked like it could come crashing down - since all the buildings are stuck together. The first thing he did was light his bidi. “People were crying, they were in shock and confused. There were cracks in the ground, poles over crushed cars, floors had collapsed and roof tiles scattered like scrambled dominos. There was silence now and everyone seemed confused, absorbing everything, hoping that the worst was over.”
Streets in Kathmandu post the first tremors
A few hours later Kawal, Crystal and Sangmo, entered the only café still operational. There was nervous chatter about the intensity of the disaster.
“Tiny tremors continued and in the middle of it all an old man still had the spirit to flirt with Sangmo. Lucky for us, our bikes were on an open plot of land. Overnight, from a shady plot, a place where people parked and pissed, it had turned into a place of refuge, because there were no buildings or roofs to crush you.”
“What were the authorities’ doing?”
“The authorities had responded quickly. Hospitals were over flowing and camps for shelter were being set up in any open space available. All this was being done with quiet efficiency.”
“Where did you go after this?”
“We just felt so blessed to be alive ; the best we could do was to stay out of the way and not add to the chaos of those truly affected. The kind of gratitude I felt was overwhelming.
Sangmo and me decided to head to the rumoured festival spot, while Crystal wanteed to stay on for a while and join us later. We found our way to The Hattiban resort, on top of a hill with a panoramic view of the whole of Kathmandu. Fallen pine needles made a soft carpet everywhere. A nice man from Switzerland saw me shivering and offered me his blanket. I used it as a shawl and thanked him. As soon as we got to the resort we could still see the preparations for the music festival. We were still flushed with such relief and wanted to embrace being alive.”
“These were all part of those who had already come there for the festival?”
“Most of them yes. People from all over the world had colourful tents all around us. Psychedelia in dress, mode and mind. I heard my name being called and turned to find a friend from Mumbai waving at me. After happy hugs, he passed me some chai and local whiskey to keep warm. The night fell and I realised my stupidity of not having any communication channel with Crystal."
“Did you guys have any communication means?”
“We had cell phones but there was no network, anywhere. It was too dark and too late to go back, so I decided to stay and enjoy this place. The festival was cancelled out of solidarity. Someone started playing some music; it was a life affirming sound ; soon more music started, and more; people gravitated to the nearest sound that pleased them. The small village of tents and fires came alive with didgeridoos, djembe, colours and lights ; a joyous series of small celebrations or thanksgivings. The resort provided us food. But all the while, if you sat on the ground, you could still feel tremors from time to time. We watched the sun rise that morning thankful to see another day.”
Fellow Survivors on the hill
“Where did you wake up?”
“I woke up in the tent of some friends I had met the previous night. Soon after the earth shook again and this time it was no little aftershock! We ran to the clearing where we could see all of Kathmandu, which was a breathtaking sight ordinarily, but that day we could see stray plumes of dust ominously rising where buildings fell. I asked someone which way Thamel was and spotted a plume in that direction as well. Suddenly I felt very heavy as I thought of Crystal. I decided to go find him.”
Kawal describes zooming off on his bike and then midway seeing a gleaming red bike and a familiar hat coming towards him. “It was Crystal - I nearly fell off my own bike out of sheer delight! What a relief! He was alive."
“Surviving a major Earthquake must have changed your world view?”
“It sounds cliched but I realised how little we actually need to survive from day to day, how we take so many things for granted in our lives in packed cities. And I learned simple survival tactics. If you didn't think of collecting wood and kept it out of the rain, you'd be cold that night with no fire. If you didn't think of food and make a trip to buy some stuff you'll be a burden to your brethren. Anything that was passed into your hands, you took a bit and passed it on.
But more than anything I remember the people I met there and their spirit : People from all over the world : The Spanish bread maker who also made jewellery, the Korean travelling barber, the Austrian with a sharp knife, the Japanese Buddhist who wanted to learn Sanskrit, and last but not the least - two stranded bikers who were sabotaged by rain and fog every time they tried to leave! The Australian consulate was the most active and efficient, sending emissaries to find stranded Aussies and offering them free flights to Bangkok! We all secretly wanted to be Aussies so hard at that time.”
The spot where fires were lit
“What was the trip back like?”
“We decided to leave Nepal from the southern border linking Uttar Pradesh. The ride back to India was quiet and contemplative with both Crystal and me, dealing with our emotions, allowing it all to sink in. Deep connections had been made. To love and to learn, that's why we are all here.”
I ask him if he’d have it any other way.
“For the people it took from, yes I would, but for the people it gave something to, which I feel blessed to call my unique experience, I wouldn’t. I will go back to that hill someday to reassure myself that in great adversity arises the true human spirit.”
Words by Roshmin Mehandru