Riding India On a Borrowed Bonneville

Braving the synchronized chaos on the roads of Rajasthan.

Family, friends, even strangers regularly remind me that adventure travel is dangerous business, especially on a motorcycle. A more vocal contingent of naysayers, even some within the motorcycling community, emerges after they find out I prefer traveling alone. Did I mention I'm a woman? I didn't think that was an especially interesting fact either.

Those who dissent the loudest are usually those who have traveled the least. They think I'm crazy? Let that crazy flag fly, then, in India, on a borrowed Triumph Bonneville, by myself. Armed only with my instincts, a self-deprecating sense of humor, and a smile so big it could break my face, I departed from New Delhi with only the slightest butterflies.

The unique combination of accessibility and vulnerability makes any two-wheeled adventure unforgettable. Especially in a land like India.©Motorcyclist

Some might have worried about the stifling desert heat, above 100 degrees every day. Others might have worried about India’s well-publicized problems with violence against women. My worries were more practical and mostly about traffic. Everything you have heard about India’s traffic is true. Motorcycles, rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, cargo trucks, and more all fight for the same real estate at the same time. And honking. So much honking! Such synchronized chaos is an impromptu riding school with advanced coursework in lane-splitting, peripheral acuity, emergency braking, and situational awareness. Survive and you will leave an expert at adapting to any riding situation.

My daily destinations—Jaipur, Pushkar, Udaipur, Bundi, Mahansar—were mostly along National Highway 8. Even on the smoothly paved, six-lane stretch approaching Jaipur, achieving the posted maximum speed of 50 mph was practically impossible. Cattle have the run of the roads, alongside unneutered dogs, musk ox, camels, elephants, wild pigs, and the occasional unpredictable goat.

All the gear, all the time.©Motorcyclist

Navigation was another constant challenge. Highway signs are often only in Hindi, street signage in cities is nonexistent, and hit-or-miss satellite connectivity makes iPhone GPS spotty at best. Sometimes I got lucky, like in Pushkar, when GPS routed me straight into a busy shopping bazaar. Before I could reverse course, the owner of the hotel I was looking for, walking back from lunch, spotted me and told me just where to go.

Lost became my normal state. When in doubt, I used the “best of three” strategy: Ask three different people for directions, and follow the most commonly cited route. Oral directions were oddly precise: “Right at the cobbler. Up a steep hill. Left at the James Bond sign.” But I still got lost. Other times, like when I was looking for India’s largest fort, Chittorgarh, following a taxi full of British tourists was the best idea.

The author and her borrowed Bonnie.©Motorcyclist

A hotel clerk drafted hand-written directions to Bundi, complete with photo ops, setting the hotel hospitality bar impossibly high. This is what makes traveling in a place like India—especially alone and especially on motorcycle—such an unforgettable experience. Waking up to Hindu chants echoing through narrow city corridors. Chasing sambar deer down Rajasthan’s loneliest road. Climbing the turret of an ancient fort-turned-hotel where the proprietor’s family lived for more than 300 years.

You won’t find these experiences in a guidebook, which is why I tossed mine out and made a conscious effort to avoid over planning my adventure. The most organized people can be the worst travelers. The danger in listening to everything you hear is that you will never take risks, you will never trust, and you will never explore.

That, to me, is to miss everything that makes travel by motorcycle so great.

Waking up to Hindu chants echoing through narrow city corridors.©Motorcyclist
Lost became my normal state. When in doubt, I used the “best of three” strategy: Ask three different people for directions, and follow the most commonly cited route.©Motorcyclist
All the gear, all the time.©Motorcyclist
The unique combination of accessibility and vulnerability makes any two-wheeled adventure unforgettable. Especially in a land like India.©Motorcyclist
Waking up to Hindu chants echoing through narrow city corridors.©Motorcyclist
The author and her borrowed Bonnie.©Motorcyclist