In 2011 I was a successful and well regarded teacher at an outstanding secondary school on the South Coast of England. However, years of unending pressure bought me to the brink of burnout, and so I quit my job, flat and life of relative material contentment. Not sure quite what I should do next, I fulfilled a childhood dream of riding a royal enfield motorbike around the mountains and deserts of India.
Despite reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I knew virtually nothing about how to look after a bike. The first few weeks were therefore a very steep learning curve as I struggled to get to terms with cleaning spark plugs, tightening chains and changing the different engine oils. Luckily I had some very good teachers along the way; wherever I stopped there seemed to be a friendly mechanic who was more than happy to let me watch and help as they serviced my bike.
I also had to learn how to ride a royal enfield, which is significantly different to the sleek machines of the modern age. The basic design has barely changed in sixty years and although it is an absolute classic, it is also a clunky chunky heavy beast, with all sorts of flaws and quirks that you have to learn how to manage and eventually love.
There is a huge variety of Indian roads, from narrow and traffic clogged city lanes, to pot holed tracks through desert sands and crumbling roads winding round blind bends in the high mountains with thousand metre drops only a few inches away. I had to learn how to master each different terrain and each different condition quickly.
As well as mastering the bike and the different conditions that I rode through, I also had to get used to riding in Indian traffic. This was every bit as dangerous and unpredictable I imagined it would be but the consequences of not mastering it were literally fatal. On several occasions for me it almost was.
But the biggest lessons I learned were not just the merely mechanical knowledge and physical skills of long distance bike touring. Drifting around the snowy peaks of Himachel Pradesh and the dusty plains of Rajasthan gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own journey through life. As the miles I had ridden grew behind me, I started to understand some of the deeper and more subtle lessons that the four month trip had taught me.
Here are some of the lessons that my bikes, Carmen and Ambliss, taught me.
Make Good Speed Whilst You Can....
... because you never what is up ahead. Many times I thought that I could cover the last fifty or sixty kilometres to my destination in an hour only to find that traffic had choked the road, or the tarmac had turned into a series of crater fields. Suddenly a journey I thought would take just hour turned into three.
Just when you think life is plain sailing, that it is a simple journey home or that you will reach your objective in just a short while, then you fall down some kind of pothole. So make hay whilst the sun shines, because tomorrow it turns dark.
Take your Turns Early...
... because you turn with a lot more control. It is easier to react to a tuktuk overtaking a car overtaking a lorry on a hairpin bend at three thousand metres if you have an extra ten yards room. You can adjust your speed, move out of the way or even stop completely if you don't fancy your chances.
Roads, whether beneath your feet or part of your life are full of turns, that is their nature. You cannot avoid them so why not embrace them. You just have to give yourself enough space and time to deal with what is around the corner.
Go out Wide and Come in Tight...
... to give yourself the maximum amount of vision. So you can see what's coming at you. So you can be ready to accelerate through the gap between a lorry and bus, or slow down so you don't startle a herd of goats.
Life is full of opportunities. If you don't give yourself the best chance to see them, you will never have the best chance to take them.
Adjust your Speed before you hit Bad Ground...
... because slowing down on treacherous surfaces is dangerous. You skid on sand, on oil, on gravel and on moisture on tarmac. You will fall into potholes and rear up too fast and out of control. Your bike can jump out of gear, your brakes can lock and your handlebar can turn into a bucking bronco. Before you know it, both you and the bike are broken in a ditch at the side of the road.
There is no shame in slowing down. Caution is as much a virtue as courage and skill. Sometimes you don't know what is ahead until you are already in it. When you know the ground and the terrain ahead, when it is sure underfoot, by all means then gun your throttle and hit top speed, but if you don't, lay off the gas. It could save your life.
Accelerating out of tricky situations, mind you, is a different matter.
The second part of this post will appear on the Huffington Post shortly.