Pakistan: Yet another flat tire

Version française quand j’aurai plus d’internet

After we leave Phunder, the road is « somewhat paved » and we are riding at a good clip when very abruptly the road ends. I think back of the familiar forest sign « County road ends » and laugh. No such sign here. Just holes, rocks and sand. From the corner of my eye, I can tell that the landscape is out of this world but the road is so back that I can’t look. The valley opens up onto high plateau with glacier covered mountains on all sides. It is stupendous. I stop to fully appreciate the view and that’s when I realize there is nobody in my rear view mirror.

I ride back to find Moin and Mike looking at Mike’s rear tire. It’s flat. Very flat.

The mechanic shop ten minutes away is closed: we prepare to repair it ourselves. It’s exciting to get to use all the tools we’ve brought along in our bags. Apparently we don’t know Pakistan yet: « ourselves » encompasses the masses!  First a bike drives by, two guys smile, wave, stop, get off and light cigarettes. Many donkeys go by. Both directions. Laden with huge loads. Followed by herders. Another bike arrives, comes to a screeching halt, both guys jump off, rally the other two and all four men tackle the tire repair at once. With Moin, Mike and me, that’s seven! Oh and there is another dude too. No idea where he came from. It’s going well —- a bit too many cooks in the kitchen maybe but it’s fun. There is a problem with a corroded valve stem nut and it takes all of us to come up with a variety of solutions. Finally the tire and tube are off. The second set of two guys ask if we can manage from here on? We can certainly stay if you need but we have a long way to go ourselves until we reach Gilgit. We wave them on and the four of us finish the job. Great team work. And as is often the case, the silver lining was well worth the inconvenience.

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In Little Karim’s foot steps

Version française suivra tres bientôt (avec meilleur internet) 

Roads end abruptly in Pakistan. And with a good reason: mountain ranges over 26000ft high block their way. This one we are on now ends in Hushe, a village of 165 families at the foot of the Karakoram where people live in tiny stone huts. 200-400sf. Everybody who is not a porter or a guide and who hasn’t left for the city, works in the terrassed fields.

Moin can’t wait for us to meet Little Karim, a man who started as a porter, graduated to high altitude porter and became a guide. 32 successful ascents of K2. He has been flown all over the world to tell his story especially after he saved an entire Spanish team of climbers. When a climber failed to choose him as a porter, Little Karim threw him on his back and started walking. He was in! He got his nickname from being the smallest Karim around. He’s been in a Hollywood movie, in documentaries and was offered Spanish citizenship. He declined and asked to go back to Hushe. Too many buttons in Spain, he says. Buttons for everything. My life is in Hushe. The Spanish collected money and built a guest house, the only place to stay in Hushe. The money it generates goes to improve the living conditions of the villagers.

WIth the amount of fame he has known in his life, it is stunning to feel as though meeting us is the greatest pleasure he’s ever had. When he offers to take us on a « little walk » Mike, Cathy, Nairi and I jump up and follow him towards Masherbrum unsuspecting. At the last indication of a semblance of a path, Little Karim doesn’t stop. We cross the glacial moraine. Little Karim gracefully skips from one rock to the next. He stopped two hours later at the edge of a precipice: a perfect viewpoint to observe Masherbrum at 25660ft.

On the way down, I tell him about my Seattle neighbor Steve who has traveled to Pakistan 33 times to climb. I can’t remember his last name but Little Karim interrupts: Steve ... Swenson? ah yes, Steve — with a big smile. Out of nowhere another man appears and starts talking to me, he too has worked as a guide, and when he hears Seattle, he says « do you know Steve? »

I am at the end of a trail in the middle of the mountains of Pakistan. Minutes ago, Seattle seemed so far away!

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On the way to Hushe, Masherbrum at the back

 Traffic jam in the middle of nowhere ... AND ... there was a car behind us! 

Traffic jam in the middle of nowhere ... AND ... there was a car behind us! 

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Hushe valley

 Hushe

Hushe

 Karim, Sunny, Moin, Ali Khan and An

Karim, Sunny, Moin, Ali Khan and An

 All I could think was “I’m in Little Karim’s foot steps!” It was exhilarating. (Impossible to have the image not distorted — I’ll try later when i have good internet!)

All I could think was “I’m in Little Karim’s foot steps!” It was exhilarating. (Impossible to have the image not distorted — I’ll try later when i have good internet!)

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 Next: Masherbrum without any gear (or for that matter, training!!)

Next: Masherbrum without any gear (or for that matter, training!!)

Pakistan: Moin kept his promise (no surprise!)

Version française vient dès que j’ai un bon internet! 

Matriarchal society. Somewhere very remote. Hard to get to. Moin’s words. I want to go.

I’m looking for the interaction that will bring me to paint someone and give my artwork away: an indication that we shared a meaningful moment together. I have been told to look for Zaina.

The road we are on ends in the village of Kharkal. Things are different here. The architecture: houses are made of intricate designs of wood and stones. Women’s clothing: wide black dresses down to the ground, embroidered in large colorful patterns. Women’s presence: they are in the fields, on the streets, they are active. I want to say — their presence is bold.

I go greet three women who are coming from the river. All giggle. One answers. I am burning to talk with them. I’ve been waiting for this for months. I point to her dress and sophisticated beadwork and question her in words and gestures. She answers as best as she can. We walk together a little way. Judging from the laughter and smiles, I feel confident that they are just as happy as I am to connect and from then on, I engage with every woman I see on my path.

The next day we find ourselves in front of Zaina’s door. She comes out with a warm smile as though she had been expecting us. I have soooo many questions, I can hardly pace myself.

She works in the fields as does everybody in the village who is not a shop owner. She enjoys talking with foreigners, especially because there is not that much to do here, she adds. But there are very few foreigners: only five or six this summer. It will snow soon but they don’t move down to lower altitudes. She doesn’t have children. She is not married. Yes she has internet in her house. She will give me her email address. And yes we can continue our conversation. Life is very different for Kelashi women. We go out and do what we want. Of course if we want to travel to the city, we go with brothers or cousins. Yes women embroider their own clothing and do their own beadwork. We have our own religion. We are not Muslims. There are many Muslims here and we live peacefully together.

While we are talking, an elder comes by and grabs my hand in hers. The contact with Bibi’s rough skin, completely black because of handling walnuts all day, takes me deeper into the moment. Whatever we are discussing, she wants to be a part of it. When the time is right, I ask if they would like to have their photograph included in my World Peace art project. I’m so thrilled at their yes that I let out a little shriek and jump up. Surprised by my reaction, Bibi explodes in a torrent of laughter, takes me into her arms and holds me tight.

There is so much more I want to learn about the Kelashi culture, about their lives, the history, their beliefs but I have learned that confidences come with friendship and that friendships take time. I have time ... and Zaina’s email address.

 After an impromptu lesson of geography, history and politics in a Kharkal classroom

After an impromptu lesson of geography, history and politics in a Kharkal classroom

 In the workshop at the school

In the workshop at the school

 The school and museum under one roof. Built by Greek money. (More on that later!)

The school and museum under one roof. Built by Greek money. (More on that later!)

 La Reine de Kharkal. She sold us wine and ‘Kelash water’ that she produces. There was no room for negotiations!

La Reine de Kharkal. She sold us wine and ‘Kelash water’ that she produces. There was no room for negotiations!

 Besides featuring Moin as a model, I took the photo to show the intricate wood/stone work that the Kelashis use for their constructions.

Besides featuring Moin as a model, I took the photo to show the intricate wood/stone work that the Kelashis use for their constructions.

 Meeting Bibi and Zaina. Mike is showing them his pictures.

Meeting Bibi and Zaina. Mike is showing them his pictures.

 The culmination of a special moment spent together 

The culmination of a special moment spent together 

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Pakistan: My one regret about my trip to Pakistan

Version française après les photos

I missed a great opportunity when we pulled into the village of Mastuj. I’m still kicking myself. Of course there are reasons — it was almost dusk; we were expected at the hotel; the road was insanely bad . Unsafe — not to be tackled in the dark. And of course there was the barrier of language because in this instance I wanted to ask a million questions. Still, I stay inconsolable. My mind keeps saying « I should have done this or that . »

I’m riding a couple of minutes behind Moin and when I come upon him, I find him surrounded by several men. He yells to me “I told those men about your project and they really want to meet you.” Here are five imams traveling from the South of Pakistan, focused on educating people, answering questions, and discussing the Peace and Love that are in the Koran. Their faces radiate with openness and kindness. I ask what motivated them to get on their journey. Nowadays people do their prayers and go to the mosque but they have no true understanding of Islam and have nobody to ask, they say wearily. Even imams don’t always  the Koran. They simply expect people not to wonder, not to search. To just do as they are told. We know that religion can be used to manipulate minds, we know that Islam is misunderstood, and that sometimes it is used for other purposes. But in the Koran is Peace. In the Koran is Love. So we decided to get on the road, go meet people, listen to their questions, talk about Islam. Tell them about the Peace and the Love. Help them practice the true Islam.

They invited us to have dinner with them at the mosque later.

If only I could go back to that instant. I should just have listened to what my heart was screaming: YES! We could have figured out the details later.

 That was a particularly delicious apple. I think it was full of wisdom

That was a particularly delicious apple. I think it was full of wisdom

J’ai raté une belle occasion lorsque nous sommes arrivés dans le village de Mastuj. Je me donne encore des coups de pied. Bien sûr, il y a des raisons - c'était le crépuscule; nous étions attendus à l'hôtel; la route était incroyablement mauvaise. On aurait pas pu conduire de nuit. Et bien sûr, il y avait la barrière de la langue car dans ce cas, je voulais poser un million de questions. Pourtant, je reste inconsolable. Mon esprit n'arrête pas de dire «J'aurais dû faire ceci ou cela. »

Je suis derrière Moin et lorsque je l’atteins, il est entouré de plusieurs hommes. Il me crie: «J'ai parlé de ton projet à ces hommes et ils veulent vraiment te rencontrer.» Voici cinq imams qui viennent du sud du Pakistan et qui se consacrent à l'éducation, à donner des réponses aux questions et au débat sur la paix et l'amour dans le Coran. Leurs visages rayonnent d'ouverture et de gentillesse. Je leur demande ce qui les a motivés à faire ce voyage. De nos jours, les gens font leurs prières et vont à la mosquée, mais ils ne comprennent pas vraiment l'Islam et n'ont personne à qui demander, disent-ils avec tristesse. Même les imams ne comprennent pas toujours le Coran. Ils s'attendent simplement à ce que les gens ne questionnent pas, ne cherchent pas. Faire juste comme on leur dit. Nous savons que la religion peut être utilisée pour manipuler les esprits, nous savons que l'islam est mal compris et qu'il est parfois utilisé à d'autres fins. Mais dans le Coran se trouve la Paix. Dans le Coran, il y a l'Amour. Nous avons donc décidé de nous mettre en route, rencontrer des gens, leur donner des réponses à leurs éventuelles questions, parler de l'islam. Parlez-leur de la Paix et de l’Amour. On veut les aider à pratiquer le véritable islam.

Ils nous ont invités à dîner avec eux à la mosquée plus tard.

Si seulement je pouvais revenir à cet instant. J'aurais juste dû dire ce que mon cœur voulait: OUI et trouver comment revenir.

Pakistan: Shop at Bashir’s — he’s got it all!

Version française après les photos et vidéos 

One of my greatest pleasures in Pakistan is to visit shops and talk to the owner. I simply can’t get used to the amount of goods one can find in such tiny spaces. It is phenomenal. When I ask if I can make a video, their reaction goes from perplexity to pride. I must admit, there have been a couple of times when I failed to realize in time that the owner was just politely obliging me. Then it’s easier to proceed, thank, and walk out. But that’s rather rare.

The news that two foreign bikers are walking around Bumburait, the next to last village on the Kelash valley road, spreads quickly. Not a big surprise since there have been only six foreigners in the region this year. Moin convinced the man who gave us our Kelash permits that morning to leave us unescorted because of my World Peace project and the importance of being able to engage with the locals. We are very close to the Afghan border and security is increased accordingly.

I stop at the fuel station and play with the vase-like containers and the large plastic tank, showing the owner that he should hire me. As we walk into his shop. Mike is immediately taken by the amount of automotive and motorcycle parts: both department get a 30” wide shelving unit from floor to ceiling. Brake shoes, brake lines, pistons, rings, gaskets of all sorts, brake and throttle cables, spark plugs, condensers, chains, bulbs, lights and turn signal assemblies, tubes, to name just a few.

But this is not a garage: although Bashir happens to be a mechanic and works on all vehicles in need of repair, his shop also covers everything else villagers need: food — staple and delicacies, beverages, sundries, games boards, electronics, stationery, house cleaning products, hair coloring shampoos, make-up and even Viagra, amongst other items.

Bashir’s shop becomes our usual hangout and we keep learning more about him. Feeling blessed to be doing so well, in part because the schools are buying their foods and kids’ uniforms from him, he wants to give back to his community. He has a three-vehicle taxi service and whenever a villager needs to go to the hospital in the big city, he takes them for free. In addition he holds the notes on all the older or destitute villagers in the valley and once a year, when their children come visit, they pay their parents’ debt back. At any one point, he is owed up to $30,000.

On our last evening, Bashir waves us in to sit with him, behind the counter. Moin arrives a few minutes later and gives us a surprised look: the greatest honor is to let someone sit behind your counter. He may have worried that we sat without being invited! After a while, the employee gets a Parchisi game board out and we start playing with some of the patrons who, like ourselves, use Bashir’s shop as a community center.

He will never know it but Bashir couldn’t have made me happier: I grew up playing parchisi with my family, I love that game. What I find deeply touching right now is the fact that a happy childhood memory gets connected to a new experience that is taking place some 40 years later at the other end of the earth. Life is full of surprises.

 A man offered to accompany us to the next village Kharkal, a mere 25 Minutes walk. He said. After he realized that we had to talk to everybody and that one hour and a half had passed with almost no progress being made, he stopped this pickup and told the driver “they are old, they can’t walk, please take us to Kharkal” as he winked at Moin to ensure that he wouldn’t get in the way of his négociations   Un homme a offert de nous accompagner jusqu’au prochain village, une promenade de 25 minutes. Quand il a réalisé qu’on devait parler avec tout le monde et qu’une heure et demie s’etait écoulée sans progrès réel, il a stoppé cette voiture et a dit au conducteur “ils sont vieux, ils ne peuvent pas bien marcher, stp emmène nous jusqu’a Kharkal” et il a vite fait un clin d’œil à Moin pour qu’il se taise

A man offered to accompany us to the next village Kharkal, a mere 25 Minutes walk. He said. After he realized that we had to talk to everybody and that one hour and a half had passed with almost no progress being made, he stopped this pickup and told the driver “they are old, they can’t walk, please take us to Kharkal” as he winked at Moin to ensure that he wouldn’t get in the way of his négociations 

Un homme a offert de nous accompagner jusqu’au prochain village, une promenade de 25 minutes. Quand il a réalisé qu’on devait parler avec tout le monde et qu’une heure et demie s’etait écoulée sans progrès réel, il a stoppé cette voiture et a dit au conducteur “ils sont vieux, ils ne peuvent pas bien marcher, stp emmène nous jusqu’a Kharkal” et il a vite fait un clin d’œil à Moin pour qu’il se taise

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Parchisi

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Ca c’est pas un jeu de parchisi!

That’s not parchisi! 

C’est toujours rassurant de savoir que quelque part dans le monde, je peux être engagée

It’s always reassuring to know that somewhere in the world I can get a job

 —-

Un de mes plus grands plaisirs au Pakistan est de visiter des magasins et de parler au propriétaire. Je ne peux tout simplement pas m'habituer à la quantité de marchandises que l'on peut trouver dans de si petits espacés. C'est phénoménal. Quand je demande si je peux faire une vidéo, leur réaction passe de la perplexité à la fierté. Je dois avouer que plusieurs fois, j’ai manqué de réaliser à temps que le propriétaire m’obligeait poliment. Dans ce cas, il est plus facile de continuer tout tranquillement, remercier et de sortir. Mais c’est plutôt rare.

La nouvelle que deux motards étrangers se promènent dans Bumburait, l'avant-dernier village sur la route de la vallée de Kelash, se répand rapidement. Pas une grosse surprise puisqu'il n'y a eu que six étrangers dans la région cette année. Moin a convaincu l'homme qui nous a donné notre permis pour Kelash ce matin-là de nous laisser nous promener sans escorte en raison de mon projet et de l'importance de rentrer en contact avec les habitants. Nous sommes très proches de la frontière afghane et la sécurité est renforcée en conséquence.

Je m'arrête à la station-service et joue avec les sortes de vases et le grand réservoir en plastique, en montrant au propriétaire qu'il devrait m'engager. Comme nous entrons dans son magasin. Mike est immédiatement pris par le nombre de pièces de rechange pour autos et motos: les deux départements disposent d’une étagère chacun de 80cm de large, du sol au plafond. Mâchoires de frein, pistons, bagues, joints d'étanchéité, câbles divers, bougies, chaînes, ampoules, feux et clignotants, chambres à air, pour n'en nommer que quelques-uns.

Mais ce n’est pas un garage: bien que Bashir soit mécanicien et travaille sur tous les véhicules du coin, son magasin offre également tout ce dont les villageois ont besoin: nourriture - aliments de base et délicatesses, boissons, articles divers, jeux de société, appareils électroniques, papeterie, produits de nettoyage pour la maison, couleurs pour les cheveux, maquillage et même Viagra, entre autres.

La boutique de Bashir devient notre lieu de rencontre habituel et nous en apprenons davantage sur lui. Se considérant avoir de la chance de réussir si bien, en partie parce que les écoles lui achètent leur nourriture et leurs uniformes, il souhaite redonner à sa communauté. Il dispose d'un service de taxi à trois véhicules et chaque villageois qui doit se rendre à l'hôpital dans la grande ville ont droit au transport gratuit. En outre, il fait crédit à tous les villageois âgés ou démunis de la vallée et, une fois par an, lorsque leurs enfants viennent leur rendre visite, ils remboursent la dette de leurs parents. À tout moment, on lui doit jusqu'à $30000.

Lors de notre dernière soirée, Bashir nous fait signe de nous asseoir avec lui, derrière le comptoir. Moin arrive quelques minutes plus tard et nous lance un regard surpris: le plus grand honneur est de laisser quelqu'un s'asseoir derrière le comptoir. Il a peut-être craint que nous ne nous soyons assis sans y être invités! Après un moment, l’employé sort un jeu de Parchisi et nous commençons à jouer avec certains clients qui, comme nous, utilisent le magasin de Bashir tel un centre communautaire.

Il ne le saura jamais, mais Bashir n'aurait pas pu me rendre plus heureuse: j'ai grandi en jouant au parchisi avec ma famille, j'adore ce jeu. Ce qui me touche profondément en ce moment, c’est le fait qu’un heureux souvenir d’enfance soir relié à une nouvelle expérience qui se déroule quelque 40 ans plus tard, à l’autre bout du monde. La vie est pleine de surprises.

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Pakistan: Polo anybody?

Version française après les photos

As we leave Gilgit, we are traveling west towards Afghanistan. It is getting increasingly remote. Few villages. Yet when Mike gets a flat, within ten minutes, five men appear out of nowhere and jump in to help. And when my headlight threatens to fall off my bike, kids congregate around us out of nowhere. Cars and lorries have been replaced with donkeys that are disappearing under gigantic loads. For a couple of days we are following the Gilgit river, the greenest river I have ever seen. 

The landscape has changed a lot now that we’ve left the Karakoram HIghway. We are at the bottom of a very wide valley, its dryness peppered with lush oasis hosting villages. Behind the closest layer of mountains we see peek-a-boo views of gigantic snow covered masses, one after the other. We gain altitude and eventually arrive onto a high plateau at 12500 ft and there it is, finally: Shandur Lake and the highest Polo Festival ground in the world. I have heard so much about this place: every July since 1936, thousands of people gather here to watch the teams of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan districts play in a free-style game. It gets crazy. Only one rule: no rule! Injuries are not unusual.

Today it is completely quiet. A few soldiers are posted here and after we show our passports, we take our photo together. A little entertainment. The bus with which we’ve been playing hide and seek for the past two hours arrives: everybody is checking us out, some smile and wave: they finally get to see the faces of the mysterious bikers who honk as they fly by in the dirt outside the patches of pavement on which the bus insists on staying. If there is a foot of sand or rock on the side of the pavement, it’s enough for the bikers. 

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Along the Gilgit river

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Deeper in the valley, towards Chitral

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I also saw “Educate your children” but it was in a place where it was too dangerous to stop!

J’ai aussi vu ”Éduquez vos enfants” mais c’etait dans un contour trop dangereux pour s’arrêter! 

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Lunch break in a small village along the way

Un petit dîner sympa dans un village  

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Look carefully: you CAN see the donkeys under the load! 

Si si .. regardez bien: on les voit, les ânes!

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Team ”SOS Flat tire Repair”

Équipe “Secours Pneu Plat”

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Behind us: the Shandur Polo Festival ground

My luck is that my whole headlight assembly started falling off my bike again. I had to pull over to zip tie it to the frame and although we had seen nobody for miles, those kids appeared out of nowhere. A great opportunity for an impromptu English lesson!

Ma chance c’est que tout mon système de lumière avant était en train de tomber. J’ai donc du m’arrêter  au bord de la route (on avait pas vu âme qui vive depuis un bon moment) et voila que ces trois gamins sortent d’on ne sait où! Une opportunité rêvée pour une leçon d’anglais! 

 ——-

En quittant Gilgit, nous nous dirigeons vers l'ouest en direction de l'Afghanistan. Ca devient de plus en plus désert. Peu de villages. Pourtant, lorsque Mike a un pneu plat, dans les dix minutes qui suivent, cinq hommes sortent de nulle part et se joignent à nous pour aider. Et quand mon phare menace de tomber de ma moto, des enfants apparaissent d’on ne sait où et se rassemblent autour de nous, apparemment tout heureux de cette distraction. Les voitures et les camions ont été remplacés par des ânes qui disparaissent sous des charges gigantesques. Pendant quelques jours, nous suivons la rivière Gilgit, la rivière la plus verte que j'ai jamais vue.


Le paysage a beaucoup changé maintenant que nous avons quitté le Karakoram HIghway. Nous sommes au fond d'une très large vallée, sa sécheresse parsemée d'oasis luxuriantes abritant des villages. Derrière les montagnes les plus proches, nous apercevons des gigantesques masses recouvertes de neige, les unes après les autres. Nous prenons de l’altitude et arrivons finalement sur un haut plateau à 3810 mètres. Nous y sommes enfin: le lac de Shandur et le terrain de polo le plus haut du monde. J'ai tellement entendu parler de cet endroit: chaque mois de juillet depuis 1936, des milliers de personnes s'y rassemblent pour regarder les équipes des districts de Chitral et de Gilgit-Baltistan jouer dans un jeu libre. Ça peut être complètement fou. Une seule règle: pas de règle! Les blessures ne sont pas inhabituelles.


Aujourd'hui, c'est complètement silencieux. Quelques soldats sont postés ici et après avoir montré nos passeports, nous prenons notre photo ensemble. Un peu d'excitation dans le calme de la nature. Le bus avec lequel nous jouons à cache-cache depuis deux heures arrive: tout le monde nous regarde, certains sourient et nous font signe: ils ont enfin la chance de voir les visages des motards mystérieux qui klaxonnent alors qu'ils dépassent comme des bombes dans le gravier et le sable, en dehors des bouts goudronnés sur lesquels l'autobus insiste de rester. S'il y a 20 cm de sable ou de cailloux sur le côté du goudron, c'est suffisant pour les motards d’après eux!