ON A BICYCLE / MUMBAI-GOA

Photo: Shyam G Menon

Cycling from Mumbai to Goa is a popular endeavor undertaken by many. The journey is approximately 550km long and is usually done via roads hugging the Konkan coast although some seeking faster passage are known to take the highway. Each rider has his / her set of reflections. These are mine:

Summary

Mumbai-Goa: the pairing is old.

I didn’t know of people cycling between the two places, till into my thirties, working in Mumbai and more importantly – member of the outdoor club, Girivihar. In 2002, Rajneesh Gore, a club member, cycled to Goa with a friend and wrote a book on it called Goa on a Cycle. That was my introduction to the Mumbai-Goa cycling bug, later packaged into group-trips by commercial service providers and done by many every year. In December 2019, Prashant Venugopal, friend and fellow club member at Girivihar, decided to avail his annual leave from work. As residents of the same suburb in Navi Mumbai, we had done a couple of single day bicycle trips of 100km and more. We decided to attempt Mumbai-Goa via the coastal route, unsupported or as some call it, self-supported. However, we weren’t going to carry tent and stove. Those two needs – stay and food – we decided to pay and obtain on the way. Much of the rest – and there is a bit therein ranging from hydration to snacks, clothes, first aid kit, pump, locks and bike repair tools – we decided to carry ourselves.

Goa on a Cycle; the book by Rajneesh Gore

There was a reason for the above mentioned self-supported approach. As freelance journalist surviving frugally, I cannot afford commercial service providers although I would love to be client having support vehicle, hired mechanic, prearranged places to stay and no luggage carried on bicycle. Who wouldn’t? At the same time, as a once active hiker-climber, I am used to trading speed and achievement for the slower world of progress with all that you need lugged alongside. Not to mention – a major challenge in contemporary life (if challenge also be what you want) is not making things faster but slowing them down. Can the competitive mind with voracious appetite for distinctions, take it easy, be patient? Can it feast on life’s innocuous details, life’s ordinaries instead of the brag-worthy conquests? Over the years, little by little, we had accumulated some of the gear required for bicycle touring. All we needed to do was, load up the pannier bags and cast off.

Prashant (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

To get us started, we needed a route map. That was easily found on the Internet. In our case, we picked the route available on the website of Add-Venture India, a commercial enterprise in Navi Mumbai started by a couple of Girivihar members, which among its activities, offers an annual cycle trip to Goa. It provided an overview of the route they followed; the rest we filled in ourselves or decided to figure out as we went along. Early morning, December 16, we pushed off. Less than seven days later, on the afternoon of December 22, we reached Panjim in Goa. Like most other denizens of the urban universe, we too ended up slaves of haste working our schedule back from limited number of days to spare. We kept a disciplined grind of cycling from 6AM every morning to about 6PM with a break of little over an hour for lunch, which isn’t recommended pattern, for the right way is to avoid wasting yourself in the warmest hours of the day. Our indestructibility wilted slowly. By around midway through the trip we were very mortal and most accepting of the laws deciding human limits. At Panjim, we loaded self and bicycle into one of those Volvo buses headed to Mumbai; suffered a vehicle breakdown near Kolhapur, changed bus to Pune, changed bus again at Pune and eventually reached Mumbai happy to sink our sore butts into the comfort of cushions and mattresses.

The poster we saw on a ferry boat (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

The route

Most commercial operators commence their cycling from Alibag after taking the ferry from South Mumbai’s Gateway of India. Given Prashant and I live in Navi Mumbai, we cycled through Uran to Karanja, took the ferry there to Rewas and then pedaled on to Alibag. That first day, ended in Murud.  Day 2: Murud – Agardanda – Dighi – Borli Panchatan – Harihareshwar – Bagmandla – Veswi – Kelshi. Day 3: Kelshi – Anjarle – Karde – Dapoli – Dabhol – Dabhol ferry – Dhopave – Guhagar. Day 4: Guhagar – Palshet – Velneshwar – Tawsal ferry – Jaigad – Ganpatipule – Ratnagiri – Pawas. Day 5: Pawas – Purnagad – Jaitapur – Padel – Devgad – Kunkeshwar. Day 6: Kunkeshwar – Achara – Malvan – Parule – Vengurla. Day 7: Vengurla – Aramabol – Panjim. This route likely includes some creative connections we opted for, making it marginally different from the original route map we had. For instance, both of us like ferries and didn’t waste a single ferry that presented itself as potential onward link. This was thanks in the main to a poster we spotted – we saw it first on the Agardanda-Dighi ferry – which listed the ferries along the Konkan coast. It also ensured that we remained close to the coast and never very far from the sea. When hard at work, I have a tendency to hunker down and slog in tunnel vision. I miss noticing the world. I am also not digital savvy; I prefer to ask people for directions. So credit for whatever adoption of navigation’s modern avatar we did, should go to Prashant, who is comparatively more comfortable with apps and Google.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

An easy way to visualize route

Keep your palm face down on the table. Now imagine climbing up each finger, then down into the cleft in between and up again over the next finger. That’s how our route was – it was relentless uphill, downhill. Every time you descend to sea level and find a bridge, ferry or beach, you know there is an ascent waiting, not far away.  Each segment of elevation gain is not significant compared to the height and size of hills elsewhere in India. What plays with your mind is the relentlessness of the up-down mix, which serves as idiom for the trip. It should also be mentioned that there are some sharp, stiff inclines served without notice and sometimes, served with notice, which the urban ego then shapes into a competitive tussle. It reminded me of lessons learnt in hiking. It took many hikes to abandon the competitive streak, discover one’s steady, sustainable pace and then gradually improve efficiencies therein. On the Mumbai-Goa coastal route, there were also a few combinations of sharp, stiff incline followed by longer uphill and bad road. Very memorable for me was one such combination of all three attributes or two, following which I emerged on to a flat, smooth road atop a plateau where a posse of policemen sat. They beheld my panting self on bicycle married to easiest climbing gear. They smiled and waved. Then the inspector shouted: o kaakaaa….kahan jaa rahen hain? Goa?  Strangely, unlike those instances from my early forties, when being called kaka (uncle) alarmed and reminded of fading youth, now it didn’t. Maybe there’s nothing left to defend and the mind knows it. Kaka waved back at the policemen, showed a thumbs-up and carried on.

Road on plateau; a typical specimen from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Eventually you embrace the uphill-downhill idiom of the Konkan coast. There are also portions of road that are utterly straight (like the one where I met those policemen) but they stretch like runways atop plateaus with no tree cover. It is solitary cyclist and miles of open space. We called it spaghetti westerns with a twist: Ennio Morricone’s background score plays as Clint Eastwood becomes visible on the horizon, not on a horse but a bicycle. Talking of plateaus with no shade; if there was one complaint we heard consistently from residents all through the route, it was this: this is not how December should be. It should be cool. But it just isn’t.  Welcome to climate change. And yet we ridicule Greta Thunberg. I am not a geologist. But the incessant ups and downs and the palm-on-table analogy it inspired, made me recall that era from India’s northward drift millions of years ago, when the volcanic explosions forming the Deccan, occurred. Were the fingers of land we kept ascending and descending, the remnants of ancient lava flows that cooled off into the sea? Is that how you got this beautiful weave of hills, estuaries, coves and inlets? Who knows? But I remembered well what Mumbai based cyclist Sumit Patil had recalled from his childhood. One of his earliest memorable experiences in cycling was a school trip. Led by their teacher, the class pedaled out to get an idea of the lay of their tehsil. On day one of our Goa trip, as I cycled through Alibag noticing the place with my eyes and feeling it under my wheels, I remembered Sumit. He grew up there. Cycling through, Alibag came alive as geography lesson. You want to learn? Then, you should walk, run, cycle, swim, sail or float in the air; anything else is a compromise. And by the way, there is no compulsion, no rush. Let it unfold at your pace.

Beach at Kelshi; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Some good people

Located in Raigad district’s Srivardhan taluka, Borli Panchatan is roughly 65 km south of Alibag. By the time we reached Borli Panchatan, we had become very aware of both the up-down nature of our route and another challenge – stretches of terrible road; some almost wholly gravel and dust, others, erstwhile tarred surface ruined by large potholes and craters. It was humbling to the mind (to realize that people lived so) and numbing to butt perched on bicycle saddle. In my assessment, a well finished asphalt / bitumen road is surface friendliest to cyclist. There’s something firm and yet soft about it. Unfortunately, there’s another category – concrete – increasingly popular with the ascent of infrastructure projects. That’s like a truck ramming bicycle frame, human bones and joints above it. The hardness is so much and so acutely felt that everything vibrates. Not far from Dighi we had run into a terrible stretch of potholed road. Then that gave way to a stretch of concrete. It felt weird. If you want to know how good a road is, you should run or cycle on it. Which government official overseeing roads does that? Unfortunately the surface quality of roads is decided by motorized vehicles engineered to soak vibration, not bicycle or human knee which sense vibration. The roadside tea stall we found at Borli Panchatan appeared a small, makeshift arrangement. We had no expectations when we sat down for tea. But a bunch of men there took great interest in our trip and proceeded to not merely inform us of the best route options ahead but also present it in terms of ascents, descents, road conditions and availability of shops for tea and snacks. That was amazing; most helpful. At Guhagar in Ratnagiri, the next district; the home-stay we chose referred us to their next door neighbor for dinner. According to the manager of our home-stay, Jog Kaku was in her seventies. She had a few tables and chairs for people to sit and eat at the back of her house. The dinner she served was the finest on the trip and among the best specimens of home cooked food I have had anywhere. Bless her. Food was without doubt, one of the highlights of this trip. There wasn’t a day without good, simple food for breakfast, lunch and dinner; all of it local cuisine, made with what was available. The less digital savvy of the two and often cycling alone to sense personal ecosystem, I was happy to periodically see pointers and markings drawn on the road, courtesy two names well known in the domestic cycling circuit. The first was `YHA’ – Youth Hostels Association; the other was `DC,’ which I assume is – Deccan Cliffhanger. As helpful as the lot at Borli Panchatan, was a juice shop owner on the outskirts of Malvan. An avid talker, he first informed that all groups of riders halted at his shop. Then as we sipped glasses of sugarcane juice and kokum sharbat, he provided a detailed overview of the way ahead, recommending lunch at Parule. We did as he said.

Murud beach; sunset (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Whoooosh

“ Hello, happy journey?’’ the man on the scooter said, bit inquiringly, trying to figure out if cyclist was Indian or foreigner.  “ Thank you,’’ I replied, continuing to pedal. Encouraged, he drew alongside and said, “ your friend? He got puncture. But not normal puncture; it was like a small blast: whoooosh.’’ I stopped, thanked him for the information and turned back. Whoooosh didn’t sound good. All trips have some point when things go wrong. For us, that point occurred less than 10 kilometers past Ratnagiri, at Pansope, when one of our cycles suffered a burst tyre. It was a warm afternoon. What we had was a rip through both tyre and tube. We had carried spare tubes but not spare tyre. A new tyre had to be purchased. Given the cycle in question also seemed to have a few issues with gear-shifting, we figured the best option may be to take it to Ratnagiri, get it checked by a mechanic and if required, stay in town and carry on the next day. We parked the cycles in front of a small restaurant and using our phones, located a bicycle shop to go to in Ratnagiri. The husband and wife team running the restaurant served us tea. Then we flagged down a three wheeled-cargo carrier and asked if the driver would take rider and cycle to Ratnagiri. “ Are you the guys who called me on the phone?’’ he asked. Apparently, somebody in the neighborhood had called him for assistance in taking a damaged motorbike to the city. He was responding to that call. As it turned out, that caller was from a shop right across the road and the destination of the motorbike (its place of repair), pretty close to where the bicycle shop was. The motorbike owner agreed to take the bicycle too into town and suggested that if we paid the return fare, the same three-wheeler would bring the cycle back after repair. Prashant went along. I waited at Pansope.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

In that while, the husband and wife team at the restaurant served me some more tea, gave me a bottle of water, shut the place and left briefly to get supplies and on return, told me about their business – how long they had been running the restaurant, where they had started it first before shifting to Ratnagiri. It was a business model we saw in other places too – the woman ran the kitchen; the man got the supplies, served customers and maintained the front desk. Truth be told – the woman’s share of work, wherever we saw this model in action, seemed more. On day one, there had been a hotel we got into for lunch at Kashid. The man promised food without delay, barked a few orders loudly, the kitchen came alive like machine switched on, a woman in saree could be seen working furiously and chatting happily at once in there. Fifteen minutes later, as I tucked into the delicious fare she had cooked, I noticed that the kitchen was back to quiet and the woman was now busy cleaning the guest house adjacent to the restaurant. She was hanging sheets and towels out to dry. After lunch, as we asked for tea, one of the men around scratched his head, stared at the kitchen now bereft of its engine and said, “ sorry.’’ But the couple in Ratnagiri appeared quite happy. I felt envious seeing their happiness and wondered to myself – what monsters was I trying to slay in my head cycling daily from morning till evening when happiness is not a case of because of or due to, but simply, is? The bicycle repair-episode took some time. It was dark by the time we reached Pawas.

A scene from the trip (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Me, mid-life and my baggage

As we age, we become several people in one till at some point, fed up of all that we are defending as accrued baggage, habit and conditioning, we strip away the layers and genuinely simplify. At 51, I am still far from that simplicity; ego rules. That’s what makes expeditions by humans tricky. It isn’t only about enduring nature; it is also about enduring one’s self and that of others as complicated, defensive and hauling baggage like you. Week-long outings as a team are a bit like that TV show: Big Boss; it can become too much of each other. Not to mention, all that plus the stress accumulating from pushing one’s limit daily. There are good days and bad days. Days when we speak a lot to each other; days when one or both clamp up briefly, often to preserve the peace. You can’t do anything about it. Staying aware of these possibilities is the best solution. Joke about situations; joke about your tortured butt. Give each other space. Visit a beach at day’s end. Clean your cycles. Have some good food. We did all that. Not every reflection in the mirror will be pretty. But hey, you knew this possibility from start. That’s why you are here – to know what all may happen.  Speaking of what all may happen, our first aid kit mercifully stayed untouched. The one time it begged being opened it had nothing to do with either of us; it was someone else in trouble. At the guesthouse we stayed at in Kelshi, the manager’s friend was delicately poised on a chair atop a table, repairing a ceiling fan, when both chair and table gave away like a pack of cards. The man fell awkwardly, hurt his hand; he was in considerable pain. For some time, that is. An hour later, he started his motorcycle and drove away.

Beach at Guhagar (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Kabaddi country

Kelshi in Ratnagiri district had a quiet beach. There were all of seven people there, the evening we visited. The absence of crowds and the soothing quietness seemed to come with an unspoken footnote for the visitor: you homo sapiens, you are the disturbance, so tread carefully and the less you are here, the better it is for aesthetics by nature. Hopefully someday, our species gets it. A couple of youngsters wearing identical T-shirts jogged barefoot on the beach.  On the approach to the beach, next to the village path; was a small playground with carefully nurtured mud floor. Two youngsters in identical T-shirts did exercises there. A few more, dressed the same way and on their way to the play field, told us that they weren’t the local running team as I thought, but recruits for kabaddi. The jogging on the beach was part of daily training. Kabaddi competitions existed in the region and on day six as we found our way to Vengurla, we met a youngster who was on his way to Sagareshwar beach for training. He said he occasionally played for Sindhudurg. There were kabaddi players running barefoot on Guhagar’s beach too. Possessing strong legs, they bounced along smoothly on the beach sand. Each lap would have been a kilometer, easily. It was the time of sunset. A woman sat meditating some distance away. As we prepared to leave, a different type of runner arrived. He wore black shorts and black vest and on his feet, were a pair of Vibram Five Fingers.

Fishing boats at Vengurla (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Operation Thali

On day four, I was so hungry on the approach to Tawsal that I mistook the police station perched on the edge of a plateau just before long descent to ferry, to be a hotel. Most of these roads on plateaus have few restaurants and tea shops; so perhaps, it was a case of plateau-mirage, my mind replacing reality with that which I wished to see. Less than a kilometer before the ferry, we found a nice restaurant bathed in the aroma of cooking and ordered two thalis. The women in the kitchen promised to deliver it promptly. That was when a team of three or four policemen arrived. They seemed to have a feast unfolding at their office; maybe some senior officer visiting. For the next half hour they hung around, gazing expectantly into the kitchen, as the women fried several slices of fish, made chappathi, rice, curry and salad. Then they packed it all up along with steel plates and spoons, loaded a small pick-up with the precious cargo and proceeded to wherever the meal was due for staging. It was an operation effected with efficiency and enthusiastic team work; much like a crackdown on crime except, the target here was a dozen or more thalis laden with curry, fish and meat.“ I am sorry. We had to give them priority,’’ the elderly lady who served us, said apologetically. Understandable – that was a big order. By the way the thali we had – it was yet another case of delicious Konkan food.

Ravinder and his bicycle (Photo: Prashant Venugopal)

Time and touring

Sometime on day four, on a road atop a plateau – to be precise, after enduring that treeless road for long – I was happy to find a shop and check into its shade for a couple of cold drinks. I had by now abandoned caution and was experimenting with brands I was seeing for the first time; names like Fizzingaa or something similar. Five minutes later, Prashant too pulled in. We were at the shop for a while and when we left, true to my tunnel vision-self, I locked on to next major destination and pedaled off. Prashant on the other hand, noticed another cyclist – out touring like us – tucked into the shade of a nearby shop. Ravinder from Chandigarh was on a long journey through India. According to Prashant, he had been on the road for five months already. At the next halt, as we discussed Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder, it was opportunity to reflect on how differently time was perceived by people. Unlike us, this cyclist appeared comfortably settled into a patient experience of existence. I remembered some cyclists I know, who don’t hesitate to spend longer time than originally planned at places they like or pedal at leisurely pace making sure they don’t needlessly stretch themselves. We had limited number of days at our disposal; we just kept pedaling, chasing a goal each day. We might as well have been in the city. But more than that, it was mental; conditioning. We simply didn’t know how to cope with a slower flow of time, flow of course being a human sensation for time is whatever it is. Do less and you sense existence and time. Do more, you seem to own time, which (the ownership) is an illusion. Prashant’s meeting with Ravinder was brief. But the unhurried cyclist left us with much to think about.

Karanja; early morning (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Two low points: the beginning and the end

The coastal route to Goa is by and large an escape from the urban, competitive paradigm of life. However the route we were on started in city and ended in city. Both these ends are steeped in all that has gone wrong with the urban model; its best ambassador being ugly exploded traffic. Thanks to infrastructure projects, a major sea port and real estate business, the once pleasant road from Navi Mumbai to Uran has been usurped by vehicular traffic. Cycling here is not a pleasure anymore. You are at the mercy of a mindset that gives no damn for bicycles or thoughts in the slow lane; it’s called development. But you still cycle through the traffic laden road to Uran because there is something charming in the contrasting quietness of Rewas just a ferry hop away from Karanja. It is a contrast (like so many other such contrasts) that should inspire people to introspect: what are Indians doing to their daily existence? Does a tonne of money made, justify the ruining of life as we know it? A week after we set foot in Rewas, Navi Mumbai returned as Goa. It was Sunday and yet, the road from Mapusa to Panjim was filled with traffic. Life had come full circle. We were back in the embrace of development. Someone with a talent for the blues should compose a song: Development Blues; sing it like John Lee Hooker belting out Boogie Chillen.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)           

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