MAY THEN, MAY NOW

Haseeb Ahsan, Dona Ann Jacob and Clifin Francis (Photo: courtesy Clifin)

It was to be an enjoyable journey on bicycle across a few countries. But the virus decided otherwise.

May 2018, Clifin Francis was on a bridge connecting Azerbaijan and Georgia. The cyclist had officially exited Azerbaijan at one end when Georgia on the other side, denied him entry. Trapped on the bridge in no man’s land, he was saved by a small, unexpected gesture. A German cyclist who crossed the border just ahead of him left him a local SIM. With that installed in his phone, he first contacted the Georgian embassy in Baku for help and when nothing came of that, he applied for an e-visa to return to Azerbaijan. It was night by the time he was admitted back into the country he had left. “ The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin would tell this blog some six months later in Kochi. The bridge episode had been part of his journey, cycling from Bandar Abbas in Iran, to Moscow in Russia, for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

May 2020. This time there isn’t any no man’s land to worry of. Clifin is well within the boundaries of India, albeit a long way off from his home state, Kerala. Along with two other cyclists – Dona Ann Jacob and Haseeb Ahsan – the freelance mathematics teacher is at Asha Holy Cross in Agartala, an organization engaged in social work. The trio had started out from Kochi on December 15, 2019; their plan was to cycle from India to Japan and be there in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  A report in the New Indian Express dated November 30, 2019, said that Haseeb, who is based in Bengaluru, had met Clifin in 2018 at the FIFA World Cup in Moscow while Dona, who is based in Mumbai and worked in Mexico, had backpacked in Mexico and Guatemala and cycled 1000 kilometers around Cuba. Their route (as per the New Indian Express report) was to take them from India to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and China before catching a ferry from Shanghai to Japan. “ We should have been in China now,’’ Clifin said, May 27 from Agartala in Tripura, where the trio had reached after cycling through Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal and Bangladesh. With India under lockdown, they have been stuck in Agartala since mid-March.

Roughly a fortnight after the trio commenced their journey from Kochi, China reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause, in Wuhan. That date of reporting to the WHO – December 31, 2019 – is generally treated as official start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which then proceeded to paralyze normal life in many countries (it has since been reported that the earliest cases in China likely go back to November 2019). In the initial stage, the difficulty for everyone was with regard to properly gauging the disease outbreak – what is it; will it be contained and extinguished, will it spread? Nobody really knew. The world celebrated the intervening New Year with usual enthusiasm. By January, 2020 the three cyclists were aware of the situation evolving in China. They had a long stint of cycling to do there in order to reach Shanghai. So it was a concern. “ But we pushed on nevertheless because we thought things would improve,’’ Clifin said. Further, the immediate world around them was still normal although on January 30, India reported its first case of COVID-19 (a student in Kerala, who had returned from Wuhan). The trio planned to enter Myanmar from Northeast India. To save time and distance, they crossed from West Bengal to Bangladesh for further passage to Tripura. When they were in Dhaka, the first reports emerged of COVID-19 in the city.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

By now, there was uncertainty over the Olympic Games as well. Japan was among countries affected by COVID-19 and in a mass gathering like the Olympics, visitors come from many countries, several of those already impacted by virus. Further on March 11, the WHO declared COVID-19, a pandemic. The number of cases was also slowly picking up in India and the disease claimed its first victim in the country on March 12. Question marks were now weighing down the bicycle journey. Proceeding on from Dhaka, the trio reached Akhaura, the border crossing between Bangladesh and the Indian state of Tripura. It is less than ten kilometers from Agartala, the state capital. They crossed into Northeast India on March 17. From the border crossing, they were taken in an ambulance to the government quarantine facility in Agartala. Seven days later, on March 24, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games to a date beyond 2020 but no later than the summer of 2021 (it has been rescheduled to July 23-August 8, 2021). Same day, midnight onward, India entered the first phase of a nationwide lockdown that has since been extended and was in its fourth phase at the time of writing.

Its website says that the Association for Social and Human Advancement (ASHA) was registered as a social service society in 1999. It is the official development wing of the Society of the Fathers of Holy Cross, Northeast India. After completing their quarantine at the government facility, the three cyclists shifted to Asha Holy Cross. They have been helping the organization with some of its charity work; they assist in making masks and packaging food for distribution. The organization has taken care of their food and stay. Asha Holy Cross also became shelter for a Spanish lady cyclist who met the trio at the government quarantine facility; on May 25 Hindustan Times reported that Yesenia Herrera Febles had left for Delhi by train to catch a relief flight back to Spain. “ I am hoping things ease up some more from June first week,’’ Clifin said. Flying home to Kerala with bicycles for baggage will be expensive. “ You have to first fly to Kolkata and then from there to either Hyderabad or Bengaluru before catching a flight to Kochi. Train will be cheaper but about as complicated in terms of connections. I don’t think there are any direct trains from the Northeast to South India at this point in time. Hopefully we find more options in June,’’ Clifin said. An IT engineer who once worked with Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), Clifin had resigned his job and become a freelance mathematics teacher after the travel bug got to him. Given COVID-19, the institute he taught at in Kochi has closed down. He is looking for online teaching assignments.

Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Aside from figuring out a way to get back to Kerala, what bothers is the altered reality cyclists now confront. Riders like him, who travel long distances on their bicycle, count on the hospitality of people along the way. Theirs is not a race (competition is what most people live to court) but a way of seeing and knowing the world. The bicycle keeps you mobile but unlike motorized vehicle, it proceeds at an unhurried pace and keeps you in communion with the surrounding environment. You carry your own camping gear and live independently or you find cheap lodgings or you stay at the houses of those who take you in. You halt and hang around if a place engages your interest. “ People are a part of the journey,’’ Clifin said. It is possible that such human equation has been altered by the virus. Wary of catching infection, the old goodwill and warmth people had for travelers, may have ebbed, adversely impacting models of cycling like the one Clifin loves. It will be some time before the world is back to being as relaxed and welcoming of people as before. “ I think it will take time,’’ Clifin said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Please click on this link for an account of Clifin’s 2018 bicycle trip to Moscow:  https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/30/football-with-a-difference-the-fan-who-cycled-to-moscow-for-fifa-world-cup/ Please click on this link: https://www.instagram.com/snails.on.wheels for the cyclists’ Instagram handle.)        

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