Catriona Child tells the story of Ronald Shalo who rides on his red 1991 Bajaj Chetak scooter across the country with a mission to spread smiles. Covering 14 Indian states and one country, Ronaldo continues to be an inspiration.
Twenty-five year-old Ronald Shalo, from Coimbatore, is a man with a mission. In these days of strife and tension at home and abroad, he wants to spread smiles. To this end, he is riding a battered red 1991 Bajaj Chetak scooter through India’s 29 states and four Union Territories, as well as Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar, supported only by meagre savings and the kindness of strangers.
I met Ronald, in December 2017, in a smoky traditional bamboo house at Nagaland’s Hornbill Festival, an event that attracts adventurers from all over the world. He’d been befriended by a biker friend of mine and had just returned from riding the state’s rough roads along with a mass of muscular machines on the Hornbill Bike Rally.
Over plates of spicy food and mugs of rice beer, he told me his story. Working in a logistics company, with good prospects, he nevertheless dreamt of travelling; and, in August 2017, quit his job to go on the road, carrying salt, masalas, a tent, a mobile and a minimum of cash. Four months into his journey, the trip had cost him no more than the price of an i-phone.
When I caught up with Ronald, he’d already covered 14 states and one country: Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Goa, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Nepal, West Bengal, Sikkim, Assam, and Nagaland, in that order. There’s no plan – he goes where the mood takes him. And he likes getting lost. “It’s then I find the most kindness.”
The scooter nomad
Why a scooter, not a rugged bike, for such a journey? “I’ve been a scooterist now for seven years and I know the ins and outs and how to repair it”, Ronald explained. And this is no ordinary scooter. Purchased for INR 3,000, it’s been re-engineered to make it robust and fit-for-purpose. A truck headlight illuminates his night-rides and there’s a USB port to charge his gadgets, as well as other modifications, such as additional luggage space. “People with big bikes, like Harleys, can’t believe what I have done,” he says with a smile.
What about scary moments? Given the duration of the trip and Ronald’s lack of protective cover there have been few unpleasant incidents. He lost INR 3000 in Uttar Pradesh when his wallet was stolen at a tea stall; an accident that was not his fault might have earned him a beating if a village elder hadn’t come to his rescue; and, although his beloved scooter was unexpectedly trashed in Sikkim, the locals did their best to help him out. “I have met far more kindness than bad stuff,” he says, although he does admit to encountering a degree of racism because of being South Indian, and having problems because he doesn’t speak Hindi.
As to physical challenges on the road – his trusty vehicle has overcome them all, even the 11,575 Zoji La pass in Jammu and Kashmir and the rutted, potholed road from Dimapur to Kohima. “I have good tyres,” he says, simply.
But, for Ronald it’s not about the physical challenges, it’s about the journey and encounters along the way, a pilgrimage without a destination. “It’s not about ego, or a sense of achievement. Travel, especially slow travel, teaches you so many things like humility and patience. And it’s so good to experience all the different people and cultures along the way. I’m happy that in this materialistic age, it’s possible to do this kind of thing.”
Ronald’s nights are spent in his one-man tent in picturesque spots, or at petrol stations, with friends he makes on the way or occasionally at homestays. The next day he gets up to spread more smiles with his trusty ‘scoot’ and his own brand of diffident charm.
Some weeks passed before I came to write this up, so I called Ronald to see what had happened since we’d met. After Hornbill he’d been to Bhutan, visited the Monpas of Arunachal, taught in a school belonging to the Mising community, and worked on an organic farm with the Bodos of Assam. He then took a break to visit his sick grandma in Coimbatore, but at the time of writing she’s better and Ronald will soon be on the road again. Watch out for him in your locality or follow him on Instagram. Online, or in person – he’s an inspiration!