Story by Lisa Jacob
Translation by Claire Alleaume
12 girls of 9 different nationalities (Indian, Nepalese, Israeli, Australian, American, French, Danish, Belgian, German) in 1 bus for 2 weeks on the roads of India with 4 destinations: Kovalam, Bangalore, Goa and Hampi.
That’s the numerical and geographical description of this rather improbable tour which saw the light of day thanks to the efforts and determination of an Indian skater, Atita Verghese, who at the grand old age of 22 decided that she wanted to organise the first ever girls skate tour in India and, to this effect, get girls to come over from across the globe.
Well, when I say “get girls to come over", of course everyone paid for their own plane ticket, food, accommodation, their share of the bus, of the concrete, etc… (Don’t worry, the buying power is a little different over there.) And because this tour also had the particularity of being entirely DIY, as much in its logistical and financial aspects: no multinational or energy drink corporation were involved in the making of this tour. Indeed, if you want cool things to happen, you can’t rely on it coming from anyone else.
A skate tour with an entirely female team, including filmer and photographer, in a country that doesn’t yet even have a skateshop, is already rather unusual. But that’s not all, as the aim of the tour was not only to skate and bring home some great images. For Atita, it was important to change mentalities, and show people that you can be a girl and skateboard. It might (or not) seem obvious to you, but in India it really isn’t. This is a country whose social mores are quite anachronistic and where the freedom of women, in certain states, remains a vague and futuristic ideal.
Atita is a very interesting person; firstly since she is the first Indian girl skater, which is significant, but also because she has a strong character and stands up for herself. From the outside, it’s quite funny to see her rebuke guys in the street, but in reality I wouldn’t want to be in her shoes – having to fight against the daily ambient machismo requires a lot of patience and energy. Either way, it requires courage to skate in a country where you aren’t taken seriously if you’re a woman.
Bizarrely, out of the hundreds of girls invited via Facebook to join this tour (just about every girl skater in the world was involved in that Messenger conversation), only a dozen made it on the trip after the Christmas holidays, to come and spend New Year’s Eve knee deep in concrete. I can tell you that I’ll always remember that NYE, getting kicked out from a DIY at 3am by the police as I’m desperately trying to scrape off by hand, in a bucket of water, the multiple layers of concrete incrusted on the trowels.
Ati had big plans for this first tour – we had a busy schedule with beginners skate workshop for little girls, mixing cement to build a new quarter in the Cave Skatepark in Bangalore, sessions on practically all of the country’s DIY spots, nights spent in the bus or piled into a room and waking up at indecent hours.
We certainly weren’t there to peel coconuts and I’d go so far as to say that we even worked like little slaves. I’d pictured myself catching a tan on Goa’s beaches while all my friends in Paris were freezing and wet… but it wasn’t quite like that: sleeping on the floor for three hours then getting up at dawn to lift rocks whilst hoping not to encounter a snake, or having to run back and forth all day whilst pushing kids on skateboards without as much as a moment to catch your breath. Thankfully our Israeli colleague, Roni, helped us to survive with big sessions of skate yoga.
The truth is, it was crazy! Definitely the most incredible skate trip I’ve ever been on. And all of that thanks to this skater from Bangalore I’d met 2 years before during my first trip to India. Well even back then I’d been fooled, as I’d changed all my plans to chill out on heavenly beaches to go and work with her on a building site in a school in Kovalam for two weeks.
And that’s exactly where our tour started, in this SISP school which has now had a skate club for 2 years (back when the first skatepark was built, on top of the classrooms!), in the State of Kerala where skateboarding didn’t previously exist. The school uses skateboarding as a motivational tool to incite kids to attend lessons more often: no school, no skate, that’s their credo. You dreamed about it, they did it!
Since then, the school developed a new concrete games area in the playground and more and more kids are getting addicted to skateboarding. I even found Mini, a little girl I had seen two years previously; I was delighted to see she was still skating and that she was even doing really well in her yellow sari. One morning, we were due to meet at the school for a workshop for a class of children; we were late and when we arrived, we saw twenty-odd kids in uniform, sat on a row of chairs under the covered section of the courtyard with their teachers, silently waiting. It was super intimidating, this whole group waiting for us and who carefully listened to Atita’s “speech" on this marvellous thing that is skateboarding. Then theory gave way to practice and Chloé took it upon herself to scare the teachers by executing tricks on the coping right under their noses, each rock fakie nearly causing a heart attack. Then it was the kids’ turn to try skating for the first time which wasn’t an easy ride as they didn’t understand a word of English, but body language spoke for us and our boards had the final say.
After Kovalam, the small village on the edge of the ocean, it’s in the large city of Bangalore that our bus next came to a halt. It’s the heart of the Indian skate scene, with its three skateparks (the Holystoked park, Play arena and Cave skatepark) as well as its Holystoked collective (thanks for the tools), who are very active in the community. Our visit meant a new after-school workshop for the kids, which took place in the street this time, on the forecourt of a metro station with a few kickers for obstacles. After the kids in their uniforms, this crowd was more diverse, made up of everyone and anyone who happened to be lurking there. They all seemed possessed by these new sensations they were discovering. Unfortunately, since they didn’t have their own boards, drama struck when we tried to get ours back at the end of the day. It was enough to break your heart. One of them tried to persuade Chloé, pleading with his eyes, but when he understood that it wasn’t going to happen, that we were really going to leave, he leant against her and started stroking the board, grip-side up, as if it were a kitten, gazing away wistfully, already feeling nostalgic of these few hours spent together cruising the tarmac.
The next day, New Year’s Eve, we woke up completely hung over at five in the morning to go and mix concrete at the Cave skatepark. I thought that by getting up so early we’d have plenty of time but I hadn’t taken Indian constraints into account: when it was time to go and plug in the saw to cut the transition into the plank of wood, there was no power. And it took two hours to come back… Not ideal in this sort of situation, but the lack of electricity, as well as having to take a shower with a bucket of cold water, is part of their daily life. Clearly you will have understood that our delay was due only to material contingencies – our dedication was of course irreproachable and faultless. As the day drew to a close, my dreams of cocktail bars withered away and I started to understand that it was in fact outside, with no dinner, head stuck in concrete, at this very place where we’d been rolling ourselves in dust since dawn, that we were all going to wish each other a happy new year. The beers arrived with other skaters as the night fell; we were stuck at the DIY spot but all the locals had come to support us and party with us. And with each layer of concrete which dried came the time to share our best wishes, and drink under the stars to the fact that there probably wasn’t a better way to start the year.
We were meant to build something in Goa too, but after this extended day at the Cave and the 15 hours of bus ride to bring us to the coast, we all agreed: “fuck the plan", we need a rest. Yes they like building spots in India, in fact practically every little skater knows how to work concrete, all little Covos! (Romain Covolan, known for his ‘creting skills! Ed.) Their scene is impregnated with the DIY culture since streets are so rough you often can’t skate them and you can’t count on the local politicians to build skateparks – if they want something to skate they’ve got to build it themselves.
If you thought Goa was just a vast rave party on heavenly beaches full of Russian tourists, you weren’t entirely wrong. We were staying in Anjuna, in a guesthouse named Cirrus run by hippies and typical of Goa, where you can sleep in a treehouse and all sorts of other huts. Sadly Monica, Chloé, Virginia and I had, stupidly, shot-gunned the camper van before realising, too late, that it was situated in front of the so-called DJ’s “stage", and since the “party" never stops in Goa we were treated to horrific techno every night, including Sunday, until the rooster’s call (not even joking…), even when the dancefloor was deserted and everyone was asleep. Upon arrival, I hadn’t understood the “Fuck EDM" inscription on our lodgings… Apart from that, it was a pretty cool hostel, there was even a concrete DIY spot, which Chloé decided to paint one morning. She jumped out of bed mumbling something about “going to buy some paint" and spent all day on her own painting her mural, our Michelangelo of skateparks.
Interesting anecdote, the first ever skatepark in India, the jungle bowl, is in Goa, left abandoned on the property of some guy who hates skateboarders and who, thank God, goes to church every Sunday. We therefore got out of bed on the Day of the Lord to sneak into this defunct paradise and discovered with horror that the jungle bowl lives up to its name as indeed nature has overpowered it. A swamp now lies at the bottom of the large section. We cleaned up the small section to be able to carve around the frogs and incredibly, apparently, were able to leave under our own accord. We even covered up the small section with leaves to hide our tracks.
Another night in the bus brought us to our ultimate destination: Hampi. You wake up with the impression that you’ve travelled through centuries during the night and landed in the middle of an antique civilisation in a faraway land of rocks, palm trees and rice fields with temples and palaces aplenty, vestiges of one of the greatest Hindu empires. On the horizon, piles of stones assembled in what resembles a perilous Tetris, which looks like it would tumble over were you to simply blow on it. But no. Everything remains frozen like the front of a postcard in Hampi, a sample of nature in its purest form, an architectural treasure perfectly preserved throughout the ages.
Like in Goa, we stayed in a guesthouse with a mini ramp and a bowl, but the most memorable session was the one when we took to the roads with mopeds up to the river – like the Hell’s Angels of India, at least in my imagination. We crossed a desert of rocks to reach a ditch with rough ground, where we spent the afternoon skating next to herds of goats drinking and onlookers who were floating down the river lying on tyres, just real life. To get back on the road at sunset was magical: the silhouettes of six scooters drifting between the palm trees on a red sky background.
In India, driving a scooter is a bit ghetto style, anyone can rent one for a handful of Euros, but don’t expect to have a helmet or wing mirrors on each side. In Hampi there were rocks everywhere, even on the tracks, when we drove along with all our luggage, in flip-flops, with no helmet, it was a bit of a nightmare. But in the night, a little tipsy, with each surprise rock making you jump out of your seat, it’s the rodeo of your lifetime, and guaranteed laughter.
A road trip in a bus seems pretty standard, but in India it does take on a whole other dimension when it comes to the state of the roads and the absence of a highway code. Farewell to order, hello to chaos. No road signs, only continuous honking to signal the presence of multiple vehicles: rickshaws, crowded cards, loaded bikes, scooters with extended passenger seats. No traffic lights, no rules, priority to the most reckless. Two lanes, two directions of traffic and on each side everyone crosses the middle line, border between life and death, for a few seconds to attempt to overtake, to gain a few places in speed’s hierarchy. A real-life GTA, a Formula 1 track where being alive places you in pole position. At first it’s scary, but afterwards it’s like everything, you don’t have a choice so you shrug your shoulders and just say “fuck it". The “fuck it" concept is very important in this type of situation where you have no control – no need to stress. For example, Niku, Ati’s sister, threw up on my shoes in the bus… Fuck it. It therefore comes in very handy to solve a multitude of problems; as soon as anyone notices something’s gone wrong, you just need to say “fuck it", have a chuckle about it and all is forgotten, in the marvellous world of skate tours.