Learning to Ride a Motorcycle — From an Instructor With Whom I Shared No Common Language

Nepal countryside. One of those snowy peaks is Everest, but I don’t recall which one except that it’s not the one that looks tallest, a result of its being closer than the others to my vantage point on a road outside Kathmandu. (All photos: ©Howard E. Daniel, 1971-2018)

Speaking with a motorcycle-loving friend recently, I was reminded of my own experiences with the two-wheeled beasts. The first one took place in Nepal, the first of the 14 countries I visited in 1971 on my way home from India after serving in the Peace Corps.

I spent about a week in Kathmandu, the capital, and although there was a great deal to see and do for someone getting around on foot, I wanted to visit a few places that were a little farther afield. I soon learned of a place that rented motorcycles for about a dollar a day. The problem was that I’d never ridden one before, so I’d first have to learn how.

The person I met at the rental location spoke neither English nor Hindi (the language I’d used every day in India). He was limited to Nepali, his mother tongue. Fortunately, Nepali is related to Hindi and all the other North Indian languages. From the experience I’m about to describe, I’d say, in hindsight, that Nepali and Hindi appear to be somewhat similar but not too close. The difference is perhaps like that between Spanish and Italian, but not as distant as between Spanish and French.

Although it became clear that communicating would be a little challenging, I managed, in Hindi, to let the agent know that I wanted to rent a cycle for the day and that I’d need him to explain how to ride it. Specifically, I needed to learn how to accelerate, brake and shift gears – functions, as I recall, that are controlled either from the handlebar grips or by a lever that’s kicked.

As I sat on the bike, the rental agent patiently began explaining everything to me in Nepali. After each sentence, I’d stop him and ask, in Hindi, if he’d just said what I thought he did. Sometimes, we understood each other right away; at other times we’d go back and forth between Nepali and Hindi trying to make certain I’d understood him correctly. Eventually, with a little hands-on practice, we both felt comfortable that I’d figured out what I needed to know … and off I went.

Local folks using their heads to carry heavy loads. That’s my rented motorcycle in the background. It was actually a Soviet-built bike — something that added to the interest in the day’s adventure in light of my long-standing interest in Russia.

Interestingly, while the experience was exhilarating — even though I was rarely traveling very fast on Nepal’s one-lane roads, which had to accommodate traffic of all kinds, from pedestrians and ox carts to motor-powered vehicles of all sizes — I found that riding the bike was quite easy. In fact, it felt just like a faster, less physically demanding version of riding a bicycle, which I had done almost every day in India.

Boudhanath, Bhadgaon and the Highway to Lhasa

Boudhanath stupa

One of my first stops was the breathtaking Buddhist stupa at Boudhanath, on the outskirts of Kathmandu. As can be seen from the photo, it is a striking structure — a stark, white half dome topped by a golden pagoda with pairs of “eyes” looking out in all four directions. Its base is circled by a walkway where pilgrims can reach out and, at every step, spin a “prayer wheel.”

Prayer flags

It struck me at the time how inventive the Tibetan Buddhists are, since I was told that every time you spin one of these wheels, it counts as a prayer (written on a piece of paper inside the wheel) on your behalf. And that’s only the half of it, since the many small banners, suspended from lines radiating in all directions from the pinnacle of the stupa, are also imprinted with prayers, so that when the breeze makes them flutter, they too count as prayers on a pilgrim’s behalf.

I then headed for the town of Bhadgaon, about eight miles east of Kathmandu, where I took the photos below.

Nyatapola Temple in Bhadgaon

Making thread, or perhaps yarn, outside Bhadgaon

Finally, I went farther down the road, heading for the junction with what was then the new highway to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, about 500 meandering miles (800 km) distant. I stopped at the intersection and did not continue north toward the border with Tibet, i.e., China. What I found most interesting was the condition of the road, built by the Chinese as a gift to Nepal. It was a broad, smooth strip of asphalt that contrasted with the narrow, one-lane roads I’d just been riding on. In that era, just a few years after the war that India and China had fought in 1962 over their Himalayan border, it struck me that this road, called the Friendship Highway, was the perfect path that well-equipped Chinese soldiers could take in any future invasion of the subcontinent.

Sign erected by the Chinese builders at the Nepali end of the “Friendship Highway” to Lhasa, Tibet. Unfortunately, I didn’t think to take a photo of the actual new highway (i.e., potential invasion route) that China had so thoughtfully provided.

In Nepal, beauty is as widespread in its people as in its natural scenery.

Handsome fellow

Beautiful children

After leaving Nepal, I continued heading home through Burma, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia and Indonesia (and, after Indonesia, through East Timor [then still Portuguese Timor], Australia, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Japan). The best part of my stay in Indonesia was the island of Bali, where I also spent a week or so. As in Nepal, I wanted to see more than just the places I could walk to and, now able to ride a motorcycle, I again found a place to rent one. Once more, it cost only about a dollar a day.

Bali is a place of spectacular beauty — and also an anomaly in that its people are largely Hindu rather than Muslim, as in the rest of Indonesia — and I spent some time admiring its lush countryside and taking photos, some of which are shown here.

Gunung Agung

Mother Temple beneath Gunung Agung

Among the things that most impressed me on Bali were the island’s “Mother Temple” (Hindu) at the foot of a very active volcano, Gunung Agung (whose latest eruption, still ongoing, began in 2017); terraced rice paddies; a pagoda whose seven progressively smaller roofs were made of thatch, something I’d never seen or imagined before, although thatch is certainly a logical building material for that tropical island; farmers herding flocks of ducks; and a cockfight — a great gambling opportunity for the avid local fans of this fowl competition, which brought home to me why cockfighting is illegal in many places.

Terraced rice paddies

Thatch-roofed pagoda

Herding ducks


Bali’s people are beautiful too

I never would have seen all this without the mobility provided by motorcycles.

I’ve never again been on a motorcycle since that memorable trip, and I know that many people regard these machines as unwarrantedly dangerous, but these were two terrific experiences, and I’m sure glad I did it.

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