And now for something completely different

This year’s EOTY (end of the year) bike ride started at Guwahati, Assam, and ended at Miao, Arunachal Pradesh. The route (Guwahati, Mangaldoi, Dekhiajuli, Pabhoi, Majuli, Sibasagar, the coaltown of Margarita, Miao, followed by a visit to Namdapha Tiger Reserve) stretched along the north bank of the Brahmaputra till the river island of Majuli and then crossed over to the south bank before entering Arunachal. Moving from west to east, Assam seemed to change from day to day. The profile of the local population gradually changed (from Bengali influences to Muslim dominated to Axomiya hindus to a greater tribal composition as one neared the Arunachal border). As did the houses, diets and local markets.

Some pictures. That snap you see on top left is the endangered Pygmy Hog. The beneficiary of what is described by my biologist friends as India’s only successful wildlife reintroduction programme. The two snaps below it were taken as we (three friends and me) pedalled towards Majuli. The snap of haystacks in the middle was taken on the second day — en route to Orang National Park. The snap on the top right? That is the sort of house we saw in the initial days — houses with attached fishponds.

The snap of a bridge, mustard fields and the setting sun? That was taken en route to the ferry for Majuli (which stars in the next snap). The two misty snaps were taken the next morning in Majuli as we cycled to catch a ferry from Majuli’s eastern bank. That was a morning to remember — us cycling on the fine sand of the Brahmaputra’s riverbed, with the mist swallowing up everything beyond 20 or so metres. The next snap, of my sand encrusted cycle, was taken after this ride.

That shack you see was a place where we breakfasted shortly after getting off the ferry. The gent wearing the adidas sweatshirt was running that eatery along with his wife. The two people below him? We met them, at another tea-stall, on the way out of Sibasagar. Ditto for the young man from Bihar selling cakes, puffs and pastries from his cart. Around here, the houses had changed. We saw fewer houses with ponds. Most houses had a canal running out in front with these cane bridges over them.

Then came Margarita. And that is where the next set of snaps — like that of the vegetable sellers, including the one with the coal mine in the background — were taken. Around here, the houses (and the profile of the local population) had changed yet again. And then, we entered Miao. The vertical snap you see was taken inside Namdapha Tiger Reserve. The rest were taken in local markets in this part of Arunachal — the first set of women are selling, among other things, local turmeric. Rs 10 for each page’s worth. In the snap to the right, you will see what looks like white cookies in plastic bags. That is yeast, using for making local rice beer called Loh-Paani.

In the final snap, the woman holding up that newspaper belongs to the Apatani tribe — look at the facial tattoos. She was eating jalebis when I took that snap. This, of course, is little more than a random sampling of snaps. That week of cycling left us with more impressions than what a quickly-written blogpost can handle.

PS: It was a good break. No email. The phone on DND. The brain caught a break from its usual ADD, spending hours at a stretch cycling or reading. Two notable books from this trip: Jon Prochnau on the adversarial reportage by David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Mal Browne and others during the early days of the American quagmire in Vietnam. And another on Aristotle’s staggeringly accurate (and sweeping) effort to make sense of life’s diversity on Earth.

PS: You will have to forgive me the multiple snaps of my cycle — my Surly Cross-Check is tough and beautiful. And I keep photographing it.

PS: And here is a blogpost on the trip by my fellow cyclist Vidya Athreya.

and now for something completely different

For a few years now, I have sneaked off every December for a relatively long bike ride. The brain gathers all manner of stresses and tensions as each year vends along, and it has seemed like a good idea to leave email, twitter and other horsemen of the ‘constant connectedness’ apocalypse behind and hare off somewhere on the cycle by the end of the year.

This year, two friends and I pedalled from Pune to Goa. Nine days of cycling, clean air, no email, simple food, kokum juice/soda, coconut water, sugarcane juice, homestays, heat, ferry crossings and old tar roads that rose and fell along the hills, plateaus and valleys of the Sahyadris.

A most delightful time was had. Especially up on the plateaus with their gently undulating roads, the occassional glimpse of distant ocean, and acres of golden wild grass growing amidst black basaltic rock. Cycling through these plateaus, with the heat in constant attendance, made for some meditative moments.

Am appending some pictures. Have to get some of these framed. Just so that I remember this ride. Especially those hours up on the plateaus. Those were almost transcendental.

Here is wishing you a restful end to 2015 and a great 2016.

revisiting the overloaded archipelago

at the mayabunder jetty. (the photo sums up my life with almost literal exactness. a beautiful planet, anthropogenic activity, dead biodiversity – that is a dead sea krait at the bottom of the photo – and me watching biodiversity haemmorrage away)

for a while now, i have been trying to go on a cycle ride at the end of every year — have succeeded three out of four years. in 2014, biologist vidya athreya and i went to the andamans. and i came back and wrote this story about cycling up the islands.

The friend is a biologist curious to see what the forests in this archipelago are like — the Andaman & Nicobar Islands were connected to what is now Indonesia before rising sea levels cut them off. As such, not only are life forms on the isles closer in origin to Indonesian than Indian ones, their geographic isolation has resulted in the creation of several species unique to them. As for me, I am looking to get into shape. This is also my second trip to the islands — the first was a reporting assignment in 2004 just before the tsunami. The ride is a chance to see how the patterns I spotted then – water shortages, over-population, and decimation of the indigenous people – have unfolded since.

on the whole, not much has changed on how we manage the islands. see this 2004 story. also see this article, by biologist tr shankar raman, about travelling along the ATR.
ps: the link is to a pdf of the page. my colleagues at et — anirban, manoj, kamal, sunil and amrit — have consistently designed stunning pages for my full page stories. this is just the latest in a long chain. if you want the online version of the article, go here.

and now for something completely differe

in the middle of october, i took two weeks off and went travelling. i flew my cycle to panjim. pedalled from there to palolem, a beach in south goa. then cabbed it to dandeli, the wildlife sanctuary in north karnataka. a day of birdwatching and trekking followed. and then, i cycled to anshi tiger reserve. and then, after a day of traipsing about in the rainforest/semi-evergreen forest, i pedalled down to karwar. rested for a day there. and then pedalled to gokarna.

shortly after getting back, i wrote this timepass little column for et. classic marketing con, this one. para one sells the dream of a cycling vacation. para two says you do not even need to be fit to cycle. para three sells the dream some more. and then, the sucker punch — para four. which talks about the gear you MUST have.

i told you. a classic marketing con. 🙂

that said, the trip was great. my first cycling holiday. and it went like a dream. will have to do more of these. and soon. and i should take a shot at writing about the experience itself. the experience of cycling, i mean. not about the places i went to and the stuff i did. but an article in the mould of tim krabbe’s the rider. or matt seaton’s the escape artist. or robin harvie’s the lure of long distances. or ted bishop’s riding with rilke. or melissa holbrook pearson’s the perfect vehicle.

the last two books are about motorcycling. something i used to be passionate about till a couple of years ago. in both, it is the experience of being on the motorbike which gets scrutinised.

take something as simple as downshifting as the bike enters a turn and then accelerating out as the turn ends. you ease up on the throttle as the turn draws near. your left hand draws in the clutch. the left foot taps the gearshift. the bike downshifts, starts to slow as you enter the turn. next, even as the heel reverts to its earlier position, the left hand gently releases the clutch. by now, you can see the end of the turn and so, the right hand gently squeezes the throttle open and the bike, given that it is in a lower gear, slingshots — there is no other word for it — out of the turn.

and here is the thing. for downshifting, that is five actions executed in a tightly defined sequence by two hands and one foot in less than a second. what is this if not choreography. a dance between me and my buce (which is what i call my bullet).

it is strange that this spirit, this experience, gets described so rarely. strange that it gets written about so rarely even though it is the experience — of running, cycling, motorbiking or whatever — which draws us to them.

while on that, here is something i had written ages ago to some friends. “nothing sticks in my mind as much as that bike ride to ladakh. i can close my eyes and summon up entire reels of images. and then, there are fragments. downshifting, leaning and then accelerating out of the gentle curves that comprise the highway that connects the hill stations of almora and nainital. or, another road, i forget which one, where, for a magical moment, the bike passed underneath the shadow of an eagle circling in the sky. it was geometrically perfect. i saw the eagle’s shadow move on the road towards my bike. and then, the shadow covered the bike’s tank for a fraction. and then passed by. what are the odds of something like that? that a bike moving since morning from delhi and the shadow of an eagle circling since whenever would actually meet on a road?”

some day, i will have to take a stab at writing about this cycle ride. it will be good to try and write something evocative. to try and describe cycling as the body and the soul experience it. as opposed to my usual cut and dried analytic stuff.

some day. hmmm.