Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Fixed and Working Again


"You're a mechanic!" said the guy in the street.

I suppose I am. As a kid, I was always quite cack-handed and mechanically inept. Toys would break when I played with them, and in Technology class the bookshelf I tried to build became more of a book cubby, as the saw tended to go north, south, east and west in my grip.

But I love bikes, and the simplicity of their mechanics. After an incident where a bike shop sold me a rear wheel as a front wheel, then charged me again to put it right, I decided that I should know more than just how to repair a puncture. I took apart and re-built an old bike in the back yard, and since then I've built all my own bikes, serviced them, cared for them, and set them up myself.

The bike I have on this trip, I know from top to bottom. I could probably recite its components from memory, and I had a Masterplan that it would be simple, reliable, easily repairable. At least this has given me one point of stability when I'm otherwise moving from place to place, staying day or two before moving on. The bike is my home, the trusty workhorse which I can get on and pedal all day.

India has changed that. Two shredded tyres and punctures on a daily basis has given me a snese of dread when I check the tyres, expecting to find a flat. Suddenly the solid foundations are shifting and I don't feel that I can rely on the bike to function. That guy on the motorbike snapped off my rear pannier and I've periodically had to re-attach it. And yesterday my rear skewer snapped. This is such a small part, but it's fundamental to the functioning of the bike; without it, the bike's unridable. And a bike which can't be ridden isn't anything except a millstone, dead weight.

I spent yesterday trying to find a replacement or some sort of bodge, but it's not a part that's widely available in India. I was told that I could only get one in Delhi (800 km away) or Kolkata/Calcutta (700 km).

I knew I could replace the rear axle with one of the solid axles which are standard in India. I bought an axle for 20 rupees, and a spanner for 25 rupees. Arriving back at the guest house, I tried to take out the old one, but the spanner was too wide. I simply couldn't do the job with the tools available.

I was in limbo - I knew I could fix the problem with the right tools or the right parts, but neither of those could be had in Varanasi. Not to mention that this was sucking away my time to see Varanasi and enjoy the Holi festival.

I slept on the problem, somewhat. My neighbour's snoring kept me awake - it was so violent that I thought he might be in trouble. I only fell asleep to the sound of bells as people walked down to the holy Ganga to bathe at dawn.

This morning, I went back to the bike shops to see what I could get, and this time I took the wheel so I could demonstrate the problem. I didn't expect to find a replacement skewer, but I hoped that one of the bike shops would have a suitable tool, or at worst I'd be able to buy a new wheel, even if I had to strap my old wheel onto the back of my bike for the ride back to Delhi. I hoped it was a matter of saying the right words to the right person, but I couldn't find that person, or those words.

The first bike shop didn't have a thin enough spanner, or a spare wheel. There are, it turns out, no spare wheels to be had in Varanasi. They suggested I try the hardware shop around the corner.

At the hardware shop, they didn't have a thin enough spanner, or any tools to thin down the spanner I had, but they did sell angle grinders. I asked about them, thinking that I could use one on my spanner, as there's a guy next to the guest house with a little workshop and a big vice I could use, but 2000 rupees was too expensive for a one-time job.

I bounced from bike shops to machine shops and even a scale shop, where the proprietor was helpfulness itself, until he produced an allen key and tried to turn it in the hollow where the skewer goes. No, I told him with a patient smile, it doesn't work like that.

I met disinterest, incomprehension and brute force. Places which looked like they had the right tools couldn't understand what I wanted, and a mechanic at a bike shop hammered the wrong tool onto my hub before I could stop him. One bike shop owner waved me off with an incense stick, and another told me that I wouldn't be able to get what I needed in Varanasi, which was probably the most helpful thing anyone told me. I was going to have to do this myself.

I went back to the hardware shop and bought a hand file. I hoped that the metal of the spanner was soft enough that I'd be able to file off the couple of millimetres I needed to fit it onto my hub.

The little workshop with the big vice was closed when I arrived back, and I did the job in the street. After ten minutes' furious filing, it was done, the spanner was thin enough, and I could swap the axles. It was a perfect moment. From there, everything could flow. I knew I could fix it, and that was when my observer uttered the admiring words "You're a mechanic!"

The job took fifteen minutes, including patching the very small holes in my innertubes which I only found when I checked them in a bucket of water. The bike is a bike again, and I'd fixed it myself with parts available locally, rather than having to wait for parts to be couriered from Delhi, or even having to hop on a train.

I occasionally manage to kid myself that I'm a rugged individualist, self-reliant and thrusting myself into the unknown with no ties to the world outside my bubble of independence, but in reality I'm at the end of a very long chain of people who supply cake and other less-vital supplies by post from England, I accept hospitality and support and companionship wherever I meet it (which is everywhere, except Austria), and with the availability of the internet, I'm in touch with friends and family every couple of days.

However, there are still times when I have to fall back on my own knowledge, and skills, and ingenuity. I was faced with a problem which people repeatedly told me could not be fixed here, and I fixed it. I rescued myself from frustration and near-despondency. The relief when I pumped the tyre and slotted the wheel back into place was delicious.

So yeah, alright, I'm a mechanic now, as I needed to be a mechanic. I wonder what skills I'll have to rely upon next time something goes wrong.


  1. This is another grandkids story: "The time Grandad used a file to make a tool to fix his bike when he was trapped in India".

  2. The story could only be improved if the file had been baked inside a cake and posted from Yorkshire.