o more motorcycles. Suddenly, I was back to taking the bus or train when travelling to Kandy. Or, when going with my family, I was just another frustrated driver steering a car, often stuck in a queue behind a lumbering container truck. It just didn’t feel right.
Until a few years ago, motorcycles were my main mode of transport out of Colombo. They were faster in heavy traffic, economical and much more fun for someone who prefered the cleaner air of hills and the rolling countryside to sitting inside an air-conditioned cocoon, whether mobile or stationary.
But the ‘bike hikes’ (as they were called back then) grew less and less, and then ceased altogether for a number of reasons. Petrol prices went up by 150%, and food too, in proportionately high amounts, and the politics of the time did not exactly leave me with the peace of mind needed to see travelling as a means of entertainment. Things got so bad that, when I got rid of my last motorcycle three years ago, I thought I’d never buy one again.
But old habits die hard. After regime change, the worst seemed to be over at least for now, and the urge to travel on two wheels returned. Instead of a motorcycle, though, this time I opted for a scooter.
The truth is that, while riding motorcycles for more than two decades, I always fancied a scooter. But I never bought one because the lure of motorbikes was too strong and the scooter already looked doomed back then. The days of Indian scooters were already numbered, with Bajaj tooling up to mass produce motorcycles. Japanese scooters looked like toys, and Italian Vespas seemed to be a thing of the past.
"The old Vespa hadn’t let me down, and here I was, Michael’s cat purring next to me and listening to the only saxophonist around for many miles, maybe in the entire district. Life is full of uncertainties, but I could be pretty certain of that at least."
Looking at what was available last year, it looked dismal. I’m not prejudiced against Indian motorcycles – some of the new models are exciting, and quite reliable, but they all look alike. My heart is still with ageing Japanese bikes. What others dismiss as old and junk looks classic to me. This road naturally leads to a 1980s or 90s Japanese machine.
The trouble is that almost every such bike still running today needs overhauling, and spare parts are scarce. Incompetent, lazy and drunken mechanics make this equation unworkable. As for reconditioned machines, the new registration tax for Japanese motorcycles looks like highway robbery and puts them out of one’s reach.
Well, why not a scooter? Not one of the flashy new Indian scooters because – well, everyone has one of those. Ego is involved here. Besides, they look like toys. India stopped making ‘serious’ scooters inspired by the classic Vespas long ago, but I began to eye the occasional Bajaj or LML Vespa puttering along clogged Colombo streets with increased longing. Somehow, that seemed the only way out to someone unwilling to accept the use-and-discard consumer realities of the modern world.
Scooters were a new world, though. Technically, I knew little about them, and the smaller tyres caused some concern. But I was by now hooked. Even as I tried during day time to talk my way out of getting into a mess, someone kept urging me in my sleep to buy a scooter.
After searching the internet, it was a question of deciding between Bajaj and Vespa. Locations ranged from Matara to Jaffna. One 8 Sri Bajaj advertised from Matara was attractive, but the body needed work and it was a long way to go. Finally, I settled on a Vespa advertised from Minuwangoda because it looked the best out of the lot. The roads to motoring hell may often be glossed over with a nice coat of paint, but this time I was lucky. The price was right, and I got my ‘second wind’ as a rider thanks to this 1978 Vespa P150X.
Spare parts are available because the early Bajajs were based on this model, and that makes all the difference. Having dealt with all the minor problems, and gotten used to the peculiarities of scooter riding and starting, I was finally ready for a trip out of Colombo.
The road which turns to Kurunegala at Ambepussa and goes to Dambulla via Kurunegala is one of the most beautiful in the island. After widening, with many of the shady trees and old buildings gone, it has lost some of its character, but it still is a memorable ride. Leaving on Saturday just after 5 am, traffic was light as the Vespa rode through signs of urban expansion and chaos with imperturbable calm like the veteran that it was.
First stop was for a glass of ‘kola kenda’ (herbal drink) soon after Pasyala. The roadside ‘café’ is run by a retired Irrigation Department employee and his wife. His cheerful, charming manner as much as the quality of his drinks seem to attract brisk business, as several vehicles stopped during the ten minutes I spent there, and they were all his known customers.
My destination was close to Melsiripura, halfway between Kurunegala and Dambulla. Traffic was steady and neither painful nor menacing all along, perhaps because I had started early enough, though plenty of people in a hurry flew past me as I chug-chugged along at a steady pace. Even the road-widening stretches after Alawwa were not too bad. Alawwa town with its old bridge crowded with a languid, loitering pedestrian humanity seems immune to the development road roller, though the old cinema has got a face lift.
"I’m not prejudiced against Indian motorcycles – some of the new models are exciting, and quite reliable, but they all look alike. My heart is still with ageing Japanese bikes. What others dismiss as old and junk looks classic to me."
I was going to see Michael, an old friend who had returned home after twenty years abroad. He had learned to play the saxophone and was now managing a coconut estate there.
Development has caught up with Melsiripura town, no longer the sleepy backwater I remembered from twenty years ago. There is a supermarket, road widening, insurance companies and broad-fronted shops selling refrigerators and flat screen TVs. But it’s one-track development. There is neither a theatre, library or cinema nor a single square foot devoted to culture. I was glad to leave the town behind.
Night came swiftly and sweetly. The road in front of the house was dark and quiet. Crickets chirped steadily. After dinner, Michael played his two saxophones in turn. One is an antique, 1910 American-made tenor sax which sounds gruff. The other is a new, Japanese alto sax, lighter and mellower in tone. As he played Sinhala and Hindi tunes, I could almost see a smiling genii floating out of the open saxophone mouth, waving a conductor’s baton.
It is an unfortunate fact that we need to sleep. As the night progressed with coffee and music, though, life didn’t seem so bad after all. The old Vespa hadn’t let me down, and here I was, Michael’s cat purring next to me and listening to the only saxophonist around for many miles, maybe in the entire district. Life is full of uncertainties, but I could be pretty certain of that at least. And I knew the Scooter would get me safely home the day after. Viva scooters and scooter wallahs. Look forward to more adventures with the Vespa.