Married to a Dirt Bike

Dec 4, 2021 · 8 min read
Up on Oman’s Grand Canyon, with my friend the fruit seller. Photographed by Herbert Fernandes

“I have the perfect thing for you,” said Partho, who I knew from my work reviewing cars. He pointed at it: a grasshopper-like construction that sat somewhere between the family sedans and superbikes. What was it? I had absolutely no idea. I was 24 and I’d never sat on a motorcycle in my life. I never did get what guys saw in bikes. I liked cars. But the office would throw a LandCruiser at me every time I needed to get out of the city on my exploration of Oman. Spending a lot of money on a car just to get across the wadi to where I worked didn’t make a lot of sense.

Partho was a bike salesman, a small man who whipped long strands of the bits of hair he still had across his mostly-bald head. He was also an artist. My definition of an artist, at least. He was someone who lived life well. He lived big, and he and I loved talking about the idea of things. He had passion, for bikes and life. He once started explaining what a motorbike was. He started drawing it on a napkin, in a café which we’d visit once we became riding buddies much later. It was a diagram from someone who understood the idea behind what a bike was, or, more importantly, what it wanted to be, not the technical rendering of a mechanic.

My trip up Oman’s Grand Canyon with Partho, in 2005

This, said Partho, was a dual-sport motorbike, one that I could ride around the city and also take off-road. And for everything else there was also that unlimited stream of white Europcar LandCruisers that I battered through the badlands of Oman, and sometimes destroyed. Like the one I drove into a camel. The one I lost in a flood. The one I abandoned between Oman and Saudi Arabia, before I tried to walk out of the desert. The ones whose tires I blew up in the sand and on the highway.

There was only one problem: the only two-wheeled things I’d ever ridden were bicycles in my school days. So I bought the bike. And then Partho took me to the little alleyways behind the showroom and taught me how to ride it over a few minutes. On the other side of the guardrail was the highway that I’d have to get on to get home. Oman was the land of highways (and roundabouts, which I still flow through like water today). I was sure I’d be roadkill in minutes.

I somehow survived that first evening, more by luck than skill. In the weeks and months after, I was mostly terrified of being flattened by a population with little else to preoccupy itself with except driving like crazy and aiming for stray dogs. Oman was not only the land of open roads, it was the land of petrol that was cheaper than water, massive SUVs, supercars, souped up Honda CRXs from the inner-city Baluchi neighborhoods, repressed sexuality and destroyed dreams. There really weren’t many good options in-between.

Photographed by Reinhard Siegl, who introduced me to mountaineering. September 2, 2005

My friend Reinhard, an Austrian mountain climber, once saw me on the road. Reinhard had probably driven, ridden and sailed anything that could move and some things that shouldn’t ever have been allowed to, and he could probably have taken all those contraptions apart and put them back together again. I’m not sure if he ever was successful at making money in some previous life, but by that time he was leaving a trail of secondhand auto parts and debts all over the highway. He was brilliant, also an artist like Partho, and he had a particular talent for staying alive. But only by the skin of his teeth. He singlehandedly introduced the European alpine system of hiking paths to the country, not just mapping them out, but actually jackhammering them out of rock, painting their strips and beating his head against an Omani bureaucracy of cardboard figures stuffed into dishdashas and doused with sweet perfume. He is also the man who took me under his wing, gave me an ancient Austrian backpack, and introduced me to hiking, which I did with a guide he supplied and in my oil-company shoes. I didn’t even know what a hiking boot was.

Reinhard understood the world in ways most people didn’t, just like Partho. He saw I was scared, and I was riding slow to be safe. But that made me a sitting duck waiting to be obliterated. His idea was that if I was the fastest one on the road no one else could flatten me. I could flatten myself, of course, but that was up to me. And so that’s how I started riding the bike. I’d be the one making the decisions from now on. And I did. I’d roar through the city like hell, knobby tires squealing. Everyone stared. I had a blazing red helmet and dirt-bike clothes. I’d ride through the summer heat while the plastic bottles in cars melted, through the torrential rain in the handful of days when it flooded.

Slowly, that bike became my life. Partho removed a part of the exhaust and the thing roared like a monster. I developed this technique where I’d flick the accelerator just as I’d switch the bike on, and everyone would jump as it exploded.

With Jim in Wadi Naam; up at Majlis al Jinn; Partho on the Grand Canyon

Those could have been the loneliest days too, before I knew anyone. At least anyone I wanted to know. Muscat was the city of loneliness. Of lonely, single men, third-class citizens stained by their nationality and color and wages and servility, wandering aimlessly around in circles, like flies in the heat. Saving as much money as they could for the future wife and kids and home in a faraway land. And me? Just a kid without a past or future, who could blow up his money on a suit or a watch or a bike or a daydream that was going nowhere and everywhere. I was past those first evenings spent with the office crowd, evenings of cheap alcohol and dead-end conversations, designed to kill entire weekends. The goal was to stay awake as long as we could, drink as much as was needed to knock one out till the next day.. you’d wake up in time for lunch and voilà: you had almost survived the weekend. There weren’t many other options. The only single women that side of town were prostitutes, and that was money subtracted from what everyone was saving. But I had nothing and no one to save for.

I remember the bar with the dim lights where the Omani sat, drooping lower and lower into his beer as the lights flickered, while my flatmate took me out on my first night in Muscat. These were the backroads of Ruwi, where you could get a Keralite thaali by day and a five-rial Chinese girl by night.

But I was far, far away. On a Friday morning (our Sunday) while my colleagues were still in an alcohol-induced coma, I’d roar through the empty streets, and when I was tired of burning petrol I’d get a biryani, put it into the second backpack Reinhard had gifted me, and ride home to gorge and forget.

It was on one such Friday that Partho and I set out on a ride. The backroads of Muscat were deserted, as usual. An entire city killing time, trying to forget. Waiting, pretending. We got to a red light, and waited. We waited and waited, and nothing happened. It wasn’t working. It never turned green. We looked around at the deserted concrete and rock, without a hint of a living soul. We rode through, and stopped at a petrol pump just after. It was when we were filling up there that a policeman on a bike stopped in front. I thought he was filling up too. He got off his bike and walked up to me, and shook my hand. All good so far. Until he asked for our licenses and told us to follow him on our bikes. A few minutes later we were at the police station.

If you go through a red light in Oman you get put into the lockup for 24 hours. Not really a jail, but pretty much. There’s no fine, just time spent behind bars. And that’s where we were headed. It was rumored that you also get biryani for lunch, and I thought that might be the silver lining in the experience.

All the cells opened onto an inner courtyard. We sat there, under a sky crisscrossed by barbed wire. There was a Sikh who sat beside us. He had been there some time. He used to work in a bank and someone gave him a cheque which had bounced or something and it was he who landed in jail. I remember some half-surreal half-philosophical conversation between us three. The hours went by, and I’d soon see if we got biryani or not.

We never made it that far. We were let out just before lunchtime. It turned out that the policeman at the desk had bought his motorbike from Partho.

At Wadi Tayyin, photographed by Herbert Fernandes


photographic literature