VEDANGI’S QUEST / INDIA STAGE COMMENCES

Vedangi Kulkarni / India stage (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Into the last few thousand kilometers of her journey cycling around the planet, 19 year-old Vedangi Kulkarni has reached India. The Indian chapter of the circumnavigation project is currently underway.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet solo and unsupported on a bicycle, began the Indian leg of her trip today (December 2, 2018) from Bareja near Ahmedabad in Gujarat.

“ She started cycling at 10 AM,’’ her father, Vivek Kulkarni said.

According to him, the likely route ahead for the young cyclist will be Ahmedabad – Vapi – Pune – Kolhapur – Panaji – Mangalore – Kozhikode – Thiruvananthapuram – Kanyakumari – Tirunelveli – Madurai – Tiruchirapalli – Chennai – Bhubaneshwar – Kolkata. The Indian leg of the circumnavigation trip follows several days spent cycling in Russia.

India stage underway (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi commenced her journey in Perth, Australia on July 17. She has since cycled in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Europe and Russia. The original plan was to move to Mongolia from Russia. That has been replaced with kilometers to be logged in India. Besides conforming to certain other parameters, full circumnavigation entails cycling approximately 29,000 kilometers. Last reported on this blog (on November 25, when she was cycling in Russia) Vedangi was estimated to have covered around 23,500 kilometers. A Google search for the distance from Ahmedabad to Kanyakumari showed it as 2163 kilometers while that from Kanyakumari to Kolkata was shown as 2365 kilometers. Taken together, it is more than 4500 kilometers. December 2 marked 138 days since Vedangi started out from Perth. For circumnavigation to be complete, she has to end her journey at the place where she commenced it.

For further information on Vedangi’s journey please visit this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2018/11/25/vedangis-quest-russian-leg-nears-completion-india-next/. More related articles – from the time she commenced her journey – are available in the blog’s story list. They can also be accessed by scrolling down.

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

FOOTBALL WITH A DIFFERENCE / THE FAN WHO CYCLED TO MOSCOW FOR FIFA WORLD CUP

Clifin Francis (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mid-2018, a young man hailing from Thuravoor near Kochi, was in the news for cycling to Russia to see the FIFA World Cup. This is the story of Clifin Francis; what he did and plans to do next.

Azerbaijan is a small country in the South Caucasus region of Eurasia.

It has borders with Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Russia.

On the east it is bounded by the Caspian Sea.

In May 2018, a young cyclist from Kochi in South India made his way to the border of Azerbaijan and Georgia. The specific border crossing he chose was the one linking the city of Balakan in northwestern Azerbaijan to Lagodekhi, a town in Georgia, at the foot of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. It is a location visible on videos posted on the Internet. On the Azerbaijan side, the approach to the border is heralded by a big gateway. The cyclist, who had pedaled in from Baku, faced no problem leaving Azerbaijan. Officials put the exit stamp on his visa. Beyond Azerbaijan’s last check post is a bridge over a dry river bed, at the end of which is the entry to Georgia. With countries at both ends, you could ask: what nation are you on, on the bridge? At the Georgia end of the bridge, trouble awaited cyclist. Although his papers were in order the Georgians denied him entry. He pleaded. They stood firm. No, there was no entering the country. He retraced his steps to Azerbaijan. But with exit stamp already on his visa, he couldn’t return to the country he had just left. Clifin Francis sat there, stuck on the bridge. “ I was in no man’s land,’’ he said.

All you need in a backpack and a whole world to explore (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Kochi, October 2018. It is nearly six months since that incident on the bridge. As the time of appointment approached, I left my hotel room and reached MG Road to meet Clifin. Born April 1990 in Thurvaoor, some 25 kilometers south of Kochi, Clifin attended school in Pattanakkad and later joined Kochi’s Model Engineering College (MEC) to study electronics and communication. “ I had no particular interest in sports in school. MEC changed my life. Unlike those brought up in Kochi and other cities, I came from a comparatively rural background. MEC taught me to dream,’’ he said. Passing out from MEC in 2011, Clifin joined Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in Kochi, working with them for three years. While at TCS he took leave and traveled to Bangkok and Bali. At both these places, he met backpackers and was fascinated by their way of life and the stories they told. “ They were free and surviving with the basic amenities of life,’’ he said. This trip and lessons from it wasn’t the only undercurrent shaping his thoughts.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Back in 1999, when Clifin was nine years old, living in Thuravoor and attending school in nearby Pattanakkad, a 21 year old-computer programmer in the US called Casey Fenton conceived the core idea of the nonprofit organization he would set up in 2003 – Couchsurfing. According to Wikipedia, Fenton once took a cheap flight from Boston to Iceland. He did not have lodging. So he hacked into the database of the University of Iceland and randomly emailed some 1500 students, seeking homestay. He got 50-100 offers and wound up staying with an Icelandic rhythm and blues singer. Today, Couchsurfing is a hospitality and social networking service accessed via website and mobile. Members can use the service to arrange homestay, offer lodging and hospitality. While at TCS, Clifin joined Couchsurfing. He hosted two travelers at his house in Kochi. One of them specialized in traveling overland. He inspired the young man from Thuravoor to contemplate border-crossing, wherein instead of flying in to destinations, you travel overland and cross borders as people did in era preceding commercial aviation. By then, the French sports goods chain, Decathlon, had opened outlets in Kochi. Fired up by thoughts of travel, Clifin visited Decathlon and bought tent, sleeping bag and a few other items.

Dreams don’t die. They hibernate, nudging you gently, unconsciously to the true nature of your wiring. The typical Malayali life follows a pattern. Through school and college, academics dominate. Once done with that, career dominates. Vindication of time spent minting success, is well settled life replete with family, handsome bank balance, house (or houses), car et al; with of course address overseas prized above all else. Clifin wrote the Common Admission Test (CAT) to pursue a course in Master of Business Administration (MBA); according to him, his scores were good enough for admission to the country’s elite business schools. Friends recommended that Clifin go for MBA. However, he decided that he should take a break. So he resigned his job and spent six months backpacking through India. The trip took him to Hampi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, Varanasi and India’s North East. Then taking a leaf out of what the overland traveler had told him back at his house in Kochi, he crossed from Manipur in North East India to Myanmar and traveled on through that country to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

From a train compartment in Myanmar (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

On this trip he met a new type of traveler – those touring on bicycles. The cyclists he met included a person from Kerala, who worked in Bengaluru and was cycling in Laos. “ I felt I must try that lifestyle,’’ Clifin said. Thanks to traveling and the way he was doing it, his views about life changed. “ I realized the value of time. Money is not that important. You can tackle time in a cost efficient manner. You just have to choose the correct options,’’ he said. On his return from South East Asia, the erstwhile TCS employee decided that he will be a freelance teacher. It seemed better suited for the kind of life he sought. “ It is not like if you are an engineer you have to be one for life,’’ he said, taking a sip from the drink he had ordered. The café was a compact one, on the first floor of a building overlooking MG Road. Outside, Kochi had changed considerably. Through the glass windows one saw the pillars of the city’s new elevated metro. Across the road, the iconic cinema theater, Shenoy’s – by which name the locality was known and continues to be known – was under renovation to become a multiplex; the plot it stood on was shielded from public view by aluminum sheets.

For many youngsters in India, their education progresses towards a set of life defining tests. Thousands of students pass out from college / intermediate college every year and then confront a series of competitive exams to study professional courses like engineering, medicine, MBA, accountancy; even a shot at becoming bureaucrat in government or joining the armed forces. Not to mention, tests to qualify for studying abroad. Preparing students for the plethora of tests that abound is a big industry in India. According to their website, as of September 2017, Career Launcher had 200 test-prep schools in 100 cities in India. The brand was over two decades old by then. Post TCS and backpacking stint, Clifin joined Career Launcher as a freelance teacher teaching mathematics and logical reasoning to students wishing to appear for CAT. His daily work straddled two coaching centers in Kochi – he taught at the center in Kakkanad in the morning and the one at Ravipuram by evening. Alongside, an idea had been brewing in his head. It started sometime in 2015-16, before Career Launcher; on the flight from Bangkok to Kochi.

From the backpacking trip in South East Asia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Football is a much loved game in Kerala. Local teams, football leagues and tournaments abound. Teams like Travancore Titanium, Kerala Police and FACT are remembered by old timers while the new crop includes Kerala Blasters and Gokulam Kerala FC. Once every four years, the FIFA World Cup becomes a craze across Kerala. People identify strongly with their favorite teams, some paint their houses in team colors, put up large billboards featuring football stars; you will even find colorful portraits of leading players drawn on the side of transport buses. Like most Malayalis, Clifin liked football. He used to watch important matches telecast on TV. Indeed, at his house in Thuravoor, the 1998 FIFA World Cup (held in France and won by the home team defeating Brazil 3-0 in the final) had seen his father buy a new TV. But TV was no more pinnacle of watching sport. With economic development and rising affluence, Indians have been traveling to major events like the football World Cup and the Olympics. The 2018 FIFA World Cup was due in Russia. Inspired by backpacking, the stories he had heard and the cyclists he met, Clifin wondered: how about cycling to Russia and watching the World Cup there? That would combine travel, cycling and his affection for football. He decided to take the plunge. He shared the idea with his friends. But they were skeptical. “ They said, I will reach Russia but not on a bicycle,’’ Clifin said. One of his friends, Namsheer Koraliyadan, thought differently. Hailing from Malappuram, Namsheer liked football. He met Clifin at MEC, where both did their BTech. The two bought bicycles; Clifin bought a Cosmic hybrid while Namsheer bought a Btwin MTB. They cycled on and off around Kochi and to nearby places. On one occasion, they rode all the way from Kochi to Kanyakumari, the southern tip of mainland India. In course of time, Clifin upgraded – he bought a Merida Crossway hybrid.

At Kanyakumari; Namsheer in red T-shirt (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

However there was a problem – it was tough getting the right size of bike; something that matters, when dreaming of riding long. On incorrectly sized bike, cycling long hours for several days can reduce cyclist to picture of suffering. Kochi’s drawback was that it didn’t have a facility to properly measure cyclist and match him / her to appropriate bike. “ My arms are short. That made me sensitive to size of bicycle,’’ Clifin said. He trusted Paul Mathew of The Bike Store to help him find the correct bike but beyond telling him the truth about the mismatch between his body size and bike frames available in town, there wasn’t much Paul could do. Meanwhile there was no shortage of audacity in planning the Russia trip. In October 2017, the FIFA U-17 World Cup was held in India (the Indian edition went on to see the highest ever attendance in the event’s history with 1,347,133 fans turning up to watch). According to Namsheer, Clifin and he planned on cycling to some of the U-17 venues and then, cycling on to catch the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. They even contemplated cycling through Pakistan. “ We understood soon, that’s impossible for Indians,’’ Clifin told me at the cafe. Meanwhile, Namsheer got married and dropped out from proposed trip. Clifin looked at accessing Russia from Mongolia. He scrapped that idea because the distance – including China – was too daunting for rookie cyclist. He may end up taking longer than what a visa usually permits. Further, if instead of tackling China from its south eastern provinces up, he elected to cut across from Nepal, the cost would likely escalate because of Himalaya and Tibet in between. “ My budget was $ 1000 apart from cost of bicycle and I didn’t want to hurry while cycling. It is not a race, it is a slow, relaxed journey doing what I feel like,’’ he said.

Bandar Abbas, Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The alternative was to start cycling from Iran and reach Russia through Azerbaijan and Georgia. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia give Indians visa on arrival. End-February 2018, two of his friends dropped Clifin off at Kochi’s Nedumbassery airport. The long planned expedition was finally commencing although he still had no bicycle for the long ride. Namsheer recalled the sight. “ He had just a backpack,’’ he said. Aside from what he had packed for the expedition, Clifin carried with him a parcel his aunt had sent along for his cousin in Dubai. Clifin spent two weeks in Dubai. He visited as many bike shops as he could. Eventually, he bought a Trek DS-1 hybrid with 24 gears, front suspension and no lockout. In general, the Internet speaks of it favorably as a dual sport model, one that commutes well and also handles trails to an extent, provided you tackle uneven surfaces keeping in mind that it is not a MTB, but a hybrid. The shop did the bike fitting and Clifin dispatched pictures of him on the bike to Paul in Kochi for his approval. “ He replied – that’s a good one. That’s when I decided to buy it,’’ Clifin said. His friends then dispatched bicycle panniers and camping gear to him, from Kochi. Early March, Clifin and Trek, took the ship from Sharjah to Bandar Abbas, the port city in southern Iran. He had about 20 kilos on the bike – two paniers of 15 liters capacity each and a large backpack. Officials at the Iranian port were used to cyclists coming through. They welcomed him in. That day, the first day of his expedition, he got his first puncture. It is a window to Clifin’s nature.

With fellow cyclists in Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Shuttling between his teaching assignments in Kochi, Clifin hadn’t found the time to train systematically for the long ride from Bandar Abbas to Moscow. He hadn’t learnt bicycle maintenance. When they got punctures on the trip to Kanyakumari from Kochi, Clifin and Namsheer had visited roadside mechanics to get things fixed. Strangely, none of that seems to have bothered Clifin. It is as though he views everything that unfolds – in whatever way it does – as life. “ I have no ego. I used to hitchhike. I think everyone should try hitchhiking. It takes away the ego. You try, try, try….people don’t stop to give you a lift. Who do you get angry at? What’s the point?’’ Clifin asked. So he rolled up his sleeves, got down to work and learnt how to fix a puncture that first day in Iran. It was good he did so for Iranian roads weren’t smooth everywhere and he had a day with five punctures to fix, all on the rear wheel.

From Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Other cyclists on the ship to Bandar Abbas had advised Clifin to take it easy on the road initially. They had a reason. The route Clifin was on could easily end up being deceptive for newcomer to cycling. Iran is one of the world’s most mountainous countries. The bulk of the mountains are in the west and Azerbaijan, the country Clifin had to be in next, lay to the northwest. A rookie cyclist starting from sea level at Bandar Abbas, may race off from start and overlook saving oneself for the rugged terrain to follow. It is wiser to treat distance and terrain with respect. Heeding the advice, in the initial phase of his tour, Clifin covered 50-60 kilometers every day. Then he slowly ramped it up, till on some days, he was touching 140 kilometers. “ People were really nice in Iran. They love football. They were happy to see somebody cycling to Russia for the World Cup. They asked me to support Iran’s football team at the event. The only problem in Iran was that it was dry country. I couldn’t get chilled beer!’’ Clifin said. Of the 45 days he spent crossing Iran, he stayed in hostels on only two occasions. All other days, he slept in his tent, at people’s houses or at mosques.

Rasht, Iran; the family he stayed with (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Meanwhile back home in Kochi, Clifin’s expedition was becoming real to his friends. “ Not everyone thought he would do it. As the journey progressed, people started believing,’’ Namsheer said. By the time Clifin reached the Azerbaijan border, he had lost weight; he had also become sunburnt from days on the road. The officials at the Iran-Azerbaijan border took some time to approve his entry. Nobody was rude; they just took time. Landscape and culture was different in Azerbaijan. High point for Clifin was running into Siraj from north Kerala who runs a restaurant in Baku. “ Baku is a beautiful city,’’ Clifin said. He stayed with Siraj for a week enjoying the place and devouring Indian food. Azerbaijan is located in the South Caucasus region. Over one half of it is made of mountain ridges, crests and plateaus; the rest consists of plains and lowlands. Clifin covered Azerbaijan in a month’s time, including the time he spent in Baku. When he reached the Balakan-Lagodekhi border gate some 390 kilometers away from Baku, he was in the company of a German cyclist. “ They let the German cyclist through to Georgia. But I was denied permission by the Georgian authorities. I had the required visa and documents. They didn’t give me any reason for denying entry,’’ Clifin said. He was left stranded on that bridge.

With other cyclists en route to Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

What saved him was a small but crucial gesture by the German cyclist. As they pass from one country to the next, it is normal for cyclists to buy a local SIM card for their cellphone. Clifin had bought one in Azerbaijan. Anticipating exit to Georgia (and new SIM thereafter), some 15 kilometers ahead of the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing, he gave his SIM to another cyclist for use in Azerbaijan. At the Georgia end of the bridge, as refusal of permission for him to cross unfolded, Clifin was without a local SIM in his phone. Luckily, before he entered Georgia, the German cyclist handed Clifin his Azerbaijan SIM card. Using that, Clifin was able to call up people at the Georgian embassy in Baku. But there was nothing they could do – they represented external affairs while the border crossing was handled by internal affairs. With no other option at hand, Clifin worked the cellphone and applied for an e-visa for entry back into Azerbaijan. All this time and for more that day, he sat parked on the bridge; neither in Georgia nor in Azerbaijan. People passing by asked him where he was headed and what happened. They gave him food and water. It was night by the time e-visa was received and he could return to Azerbaijan, stone’s throw away.

In Iran (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

“ It was an experience, waiting on that bridge. But not as bad as what happened to me in the desert in Iran. On the bridge, I knew I would get food and water. They won’t let me starve. So it was okay. The experience taught me patience,’’ Clifin said. Earlier in Iran, in a place he described as desert, he had got lost. There was no road. His GPS had stopped working. He cycled on looking for footprints or tracks. There was none for close to seven hours; there wasn’t a soul around. He started to panic. “ I realized, it was fear,’’ Clifin said. After those seven hours, a man showed up. Conversation was tough for the man spoke only Farsi. In utterly basic Farsi with some gestures thrown in for good measure, Clifin managed to indicate Bandar Abbas way behind, two weeks through Iran spent on the saddle and Russia ahead for destination. That was enough to find him roof for the night. He stayed in that man’s house.

From Azerbaijan (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

From the bridge at the Azerbaijan-Georgia border, Clifin cycled back to Baku. He would now have to undertake another route to Russia; one that he had tried to avoid by opting for the Balakan-Lagodekhi crossing instead. It was temporary setback in a journey otherwise lit up by the humanity and good people he met on the way (his Facebook posts reflect the sentiment). Georgia’s denial of permission would stay imprinted in his mind. In a June 2018 article in Khaleej Times on alleged mistreatment of UAE citizens and residents at Georgia’s airports, Clifin’s experience at overland crossing also found mention. “ I heard several stories of issues that people faced trying to get into Georgia. So I went to the Georgian embassy in Baku first with all my paperwork, holiday insurance, hotel bookings, spending money etc and they told me it would be fine,’’ he is quoted as saying. As for what happened at the border, he told the paper, “ they just looked at my passport. They had no interest in seeing the paperwork I had. They were shouting at me in their language and they were very aggressive. I felt like I was targeted because of my nationality. They gave no reasons as to why I was turned away. I felt discriminated against. Why bother issuing e-visas for certain nationalities or asking for documented evidence if they are just going to refuse you entry?’’

Camped in Tambov Oblast, Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Dagestan, officially called the Republic of Dagestan, is a federal subject of Russia located in the north Caucasus region. According to Wikipedia, Russia has 22 republics, 46 oblasts, nine krais, four autonomous okrugs, three federal cities and one autonomous oblast. A republic in Russia is nominally autonomous with its own constitution and legislature but is represented by the federal government in international affairs. Each republic is meant to be home to a specific ethnic minority. With an area of 50,300 square kilometers, Dagestan is a small republic. It is also the most heterogeneous of Russia’s republics, with the largest ethnicity constituting no more than 30 per cent of the population. Since the 1990s, Dagestan has witnessed Islamic insurgency and occasional outbreaks of separatism and ethnic tensions. The province is also close to Chechnya, a known trouble spot. On the map, Azerbaijan; Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan – they are all located on a strip of land sandwiched between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The strip connects Russia to Iran. You can cross from Azerbaijan into Dagestan and thereby be directly in Russia. But Clifin wasn’t sure how safe it would be. That’s why he had elected to reach Russia via Georgia. Now with the Balakan-Lagodekhi border crossing shut to him, Dagestan remained sole possibility.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

The new border crossing was 200 kilometers away from Baku. It took him three days to reach. “ I was scared in the beginning,’’ he said. After all, he had been turned back at the border with Georgia. Dagestan also had political and ethnic tensions within for visitor to think about. But once the guards saw his football fan ID (part of FIFA’s ticketing paraphernalia) and realized he was from India, they began asking him about Indian film stars, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty. Clifin breathed a sigh of relief. He was thrilled when the electronically operated gates at the border parted and Russia loomed before cyclist. “ I felt really happy crossing the border here,’’ he said. Dagestan was also where he – Indian football fan cycling in from Bandar Abbas and on his way to Moscow for FIFA World Cup – got interviewed by a local TV channel. Result – here and there on the road, he was recognized.

In Russia (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

It is over 2000 kilometers from Dagestan to Moscow. He covered it in a little over a month, securing details of best routes possible from local members of the Warmshowers community (founded in the US in 1993 as a hospitality exchange for bicycle tourists, Warmshowers had some 85,000 members worldwide by early 2018). “ This last stretch – the route from Dagestan to Moscow – was comparatively easy for me. The only problem was that the road wasn’t consistently good and at places, there was no cycle path. The people were nice and very relaxed. They were welcoming of stranger cycling through their land,’’ Clifin said. As per original plans, two World Cup tickets had been procured – one for him; one for Namsheer. But with the latter dropping out, his ticket was passed on to another friend from Kochi, Anand V.K. He was Clifin’s senior at MEC. But following a brief stint as software engineer in Bengaluru, Anand first attempted to join the civil services and later, shifted to coaching others for civil service exams. Eventually he joined Customs & Central Excise as an officer. Anand was originally part of Cliffin’s Russia plans but had withdrawn when he learnt that the idea was to cycle. Cliffin had stayed in touch with him during sections of the journey; especially after the incident at the Georgia border. Anand had batch mates in the civil service and friends of theirs stationed in Moscow helped verify how safe the Dagestan route would be.

Clifin with Anand, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Anand V.K)

Anand reached Moscow on June 11 for the FIFA World Cup. He had booked accommodation at an Air BNB close to Red Square. From that day on, Clifin spoke to him almost daily apprising him of his progress. “ On June 24, all the others who were staying with me – four people in fact – left for Kazan to watch the Germany-South Korea match. It was around 6-7 PM and they were just leaving, when Clifin arrived on his bicycle,’’ Anand said. By now Clifin’s story had become well known. Somewhere during his ride through Russia, a friend who saw his periodic posts on Facebook had linked him up with a journalist. The story appeared on Manorama Online, a popular media website. The day after Clifin reached Moscow, there were interactions with the media in Moscow’s Red Square, following which he and Anand were invited for lunch at a leading Indian restaurant. On June 26, ticket in hand and carrying a printed poster expressing Clifin’s wish to meet Lionel Messi (which they hoped TV cameras would pick up), Clifin and Anand went to the stadium to see the qualifying match played between France and Denmark. It ended in a goalless draw. Clifin stayed in Moscow for the entire duration of the FIFA World Cup. He saw the remaining matches in the Fan Zone outside the stadium, where big TV screens had been installed. France won the World Cup beating Croatia 4-2 in the final. It was a disastrous World Cup for Argentina; they were knocked out by France early in the tournament. Clifin didn’t meet Messi.

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin’s Trek DS-1 held up fairly well through the whole journey. Besides his personal supplies and camping gear, he had carried along for the trip, 3-4 spare tubes, a puncture kit, a spare tyre, bicycle tools and a full sized pump. He had his share of punctures, which he learnt to fix on the go. Luckily most cities in the world have a cycling club. “ They helped in locating service centers for the bike,’’ Clifin said. For the return trip to India, a bike shop in Moscow dismantled the bike and packed it for him. “ I told them that I had cycled from Bandar Abbas to Moscow but did not know how to pack my bicycle,’’ he said, a mixture of embarrassment and laughter playing on his face. The flight from Moscow to Delhi took six hours. From Delhi, he flew to Kochi, where his friends – four of them, this time – came to the airport to receive him. “ He had informed us that given bicycle and luggage only two people should come,’’ Namsheer said. Clifin had been away for five months. He returned to work at Career Launcher.

Journey’s end; June 26, 2018, France versus Denmark, at the stadium in Moscow (Photo: courtesy Clifin Francis / Facebook)

Clifin hopes to write a book on his journey. He also has plans, at a very nascent stage, for his next journey – cycle from Kochi to Japan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “ I can cycle to Shanghai and take a ferry from there to Japan or cycle to Vladivostok via Mongolia and take a ferry from there. This time he wants to cycle for a cause. “ I want to give back for the love I got from people,’’ he said. Also planned, is documenting the trip. He has begun learning photography and videography. As he spoke, the `also’ list slowly grew – he must buy a new camera, he must find sponsors and yes, he would like a new bicycle; a proper touring bike. We had chatted for a long time and it was getting late. For a city of its size, Kochi seemed to retire early. Or maybe, as an autorickshaw driver would tell me: MG Road is no more where the action is; life has shifted to the suburbs. “ It is time for the last bus to where I live,’’ Clifin said as we shook hands and parted ways on a MG Road, rain swept and bereft of activity at that hour, except at its eateries.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Clifin Francis.)                       

VEDANGI’S QUEST / RUSSIAN LEG NEARS COMPLETION, INDIA NEXT

Vedangi Kulkarni (This photo was downloaded from Vedangi’s Facebook page)

By November 24, fourteen days remained to match the existing record for fastest solo unsupported circumnavigation by a woman on a bicycle. Having been slowed down by an unfortunate mugging incident in Spain, matching the record is not a priority at this stage of the ride; successfully completing solo circumnavigation is. At the time of writing, the young cyclist was riding through the world’s biggest nation by land area; that too as the fabled Russian winter sets in. Record or none, Vedangi – she had cycled roughly 23,500 kilometers as of November 24 – has done a fantastic job.

Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, reached Samara on November 24. Samara is in the southeastern part of European Russia. It is at the confluence of two rivers – Volga and Samara. According to her father Vivek Kulkarni, the 19 year old-cyclist has now pedaled approximately 23,500 kilometers across the planet since her solo unsupported circumnavigation attempt commenced in Perth, Australia on July 17.

A warm welcome in Samara, Russia; the hotel Vedangi elected to stay at baked a cake for her (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

Vedangi reached Finland in early November but given her visa for entry into Russia had expired she had to wait till a fresh visa was issued. The new visa was received on November 17. By the evening of November 21, she was in Moscow, having cycled the distance of 1100 kilometers from Helsinki to the Russian capital in that while. Given winter, she was cycling in pretty cold conditions, Vivek said. From Moscow, Vedangi cycled to St Peterburg and onward to Tver and Samara. From Samara, she is expected to cycle to Ufa, the capital of Russia’s Bashkortostan province. It has an airport. By the time she reaches Ufa, Vedangi would have covered about 3000 kilometers in Russia, leaving approximately 4000 kilometers left overall to qualify for circumnavigation. Signifying change of plan, Vivek said that Vedangi won’t be heading to Mongolia and would instead cover most of the last few thousand kilometers in India. Besides factors related to visa, one reason for the change in plan was that she would have had to cycle through Siberia to reach Mongolia and temperatures would be quite cold at this time of the year. Since she began her circumnavigation from Perth in an easterly direction, the same direction would have to be generally followed for the route she chooses to be on in India as well. At the time of writing, the exact route was yet to be finalized. Given her circumnavigation would be complete only at Perth, there would be a small distance left for finish in Australia.

Attending to her bicycle (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

According to Vedangi’s website, November 24 marked 130 days since she began her circumnavigation trip. When she started out, the trip was a quest to become the fastest woman cyclist to accomplish solo, unsupported circumnavigation. For that she would have to better the record held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 Paola cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days. As per Vedangi’s website, the circumnavigation trip entails cycling 18,000 miles (roughly 29,000 kilometers). Vivek said that completing full circumnavigation in the remaining 14 days is not a priority because unexpected hiccups along the way had upset some of the earlier cast plans.  Focus now is on getting the job done. When she completes her circumnavigation, Vedangi would be the youngest to do it solo and unsupported and the first Indian woman accomplishing it, Vivek said.

Vedangi’s journey has not been entirely smooth. There were unexpected challenges. The last reported one was a mugging incident in Spain that left the young cyclist injured and quite rattled. She described her experience on her Facebook page (you can also read about it in previous articles about Vedangi on this blog; please scroll down to access the relevant piece). At the time of that post, Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain (before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell of cycling in Iceland) was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’

This photo was downloaded from the Facebook page of Vedangi Kulkarni.

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell,’’ Vivek had said then. Several days later, as he spoke of Vedangi’s arrival in Samara, Vivek said that Russia had so far been a happy, enjoyable experience for cyclist passing through. She got water and tea from the police and people traveling in cars stopped to quiz her about her world tour. The hotel she went to in Samara baked a cake for her; gestures that mean much for lone cyclist and parents tracking her progress from far. Language is not a barrier to find love from people, Vivek texted.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There is a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

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

A LONG WALK / TRAVERSING THE WESTERN HIMALAYA

The team members; from left – Pranav, Bharat and Shekhar (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Over end-August to mid-October 2018, a team of three completed a long traverse of the Indian Himalaya from Ladakh to the border of Nepal. The trio covered 950 kilometers and crossed 27 passes. One of the participants, Bharat Bhushan – he is a seasoned mountaineer and hiker and an instructor with NOLS – mailed in a report on the expedition. Presented below, as an article by invitation, is an edited version of the report:     

The summit is for the ego while the journey is for the soulthis oft heard adage from the mountains, in a way, encapsulated the driving force behind the Western Himalayan Traverse. The idea was to travel in the most self-sufficient manner possible, have least ecological impact on the places walked through and keep Leave No Trace (LNT) principles in mind. Ultra-light backpacking forces you to be more efficient in the use of resources while enabling you to cover distance faster.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

India lacked a long hiking trail. The US has the Pacific Crest Trail among others and Nepal has the Great Himalaya Trail. We wanted to correct the anomaly. In recent years, the idea of the Western Himalayan Traverse seemed to have finally come of age. Establishing such routes enables and encourages the culture of self-sufficient, low-impact environment friendly backpacking.

The planning process took over a year. Three members for this traverse seemed an ideal number. Each member picked was physically well trained and equipped with sound technical mountain skills and knowledge. This would help minimize risk in case something went wrong during the traverse. Having the ability for one teammate to go down and call for help and bring aid to the others in case of an emergency, increased safety margins during those patches of the route where communication devices would be of limited use and mountain hazards faced would be the highest. Team members make or break an expedition. Pranav Rawat, Shekhar Singh and I, Bharat Bhushan, complemented each other’s strengths and weaknesses. We made for a strong cohesive team.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

The planning process was divided equally between the three of us to get things done faster. I poured over contour maps at the library of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF). The initial plan of starting out from Siachen Glacier had to be dropped due to the additional number of days it would have added to the expedition. In the end, Markha Valley in Ladakh was zeroed in on as the ideal place to start from. The trek was flagged off from Chilling Bridge. Dharchula at the Nepal border was our end point. With the start and end points fixed, now it was time to fine tune the middle portion of the traverse. We had two considerations – keeping it a simple, direct and straight route which would take less time. And avoiding as much of challenging and technical terrain en route, as that would require greater effort, technical gear and resources. Eventually, the Kalindi Khal pass was the only technical terrain we had no option of bypassing due to the nature of the route. We kept it in.

We got down to collecting as much information as possible from the internet and having conversations and meeting up with people who had done sections of the traverse before or had ground level knowledge. Ravi Kumar, Director of NOLS India, gave us maps and shared what he knew of the areas we would pass through. In Delhi, Punit Mehta, who is an independent explorer and NOLS instructor, filled us in about the Ladakh and Garhwal areas in detail. Chetan Pandey, my climbing partner from Almora, gave me details of the Garhwal Himalaya and helped me plot the way points on Google Earth map. Over conversations in the IMF dormitory, my friend Kaushal Desai along with Bhagwan Singh from Manali helped fill in the remaining gaps. Dhruv Joshi and Vijay Singh Rautela my climbing partners connected us to a lot of people who could help us when tackling officialdom – paperwork to be filled and permits to be issued.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Following this process, Pranav and I, sitting in Manali, were able to compile the information by plotting all the way points and making a rough Google Earth map of the traverse. It felt like the second concrete step towards our expedition. Step three entailed selection of lightweight technical gear and apparel. Keeping in mind the time of the year, possible weather faced and climate zones we’d be crossing we finally got down to making our required list. We also devised contingency plans. We only had cell phones as devices of communication. That made us vulnerable because connectivity is not available everywhere. Our plan was, should anything happen to any one of us, we would send one member as a runner to reach out and contact the team from 4Play, who were waiting with ration parcels at each predetermined ration re-stocking point. We also made sure to note the closest road head in every valley that we crossed.

It took us 47 days to do the entire Western Himalayan Traverse route. We started on August 27, 2018 and completed the expedition on October 12. During this entire journey we put in four rest days. We took full day stops at Kaza, Chitkul, Auli and Himni. Else, we walked every day. Some days we did up to 44 km. It was only by such a disciplined and relentless push that we managed to cover the traverse within our scheduled time frame.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

While covering the entire route we had to cross varying terrain, and different ecosystems and climate zones. We had four passes to cross that constituted glaciated terrain – Bhabha Pass, Parangla Pass and Lamkhaga Pass were comparatively small. Kalindi Khal proved to be the most formidable, being a huge glacier with open and hidden crevasses. We needed proper glacier travel equipment here. A major obstacle we faced was unexpected bad weather while crossing Kalindi Khal. We had limited fuel and were running out of rations. We had to adapt to the situation by cutting down to having just one meal a day and trying to collect water through ingenious unconventional means. We collected water by wiping the top of our tents with bandannas and squeezing it into containers to collect it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

River crossings during the traverse too turned out to be technical challenges. There were many big raging rivers that we had to cross. The biggest of them was the river in Norboo Sumdo on the way to Parangla Pass from Tsomoriri Lake. Scouting these rivers, choosing from where to cross them and the time of the day chosen for it were important factors we had to keep in mind. Steep trails on the way to Kumaon and Garhwal were a challenge. This year the monsoon was still on in full swing while we were negotiating our way through the trails. Many times we had to forgo the main trail and search for safer alternative route.

Of the 27 passes that were crossed, 10 of them were above 5000 mts in height. We covered a total distance of 950 km with cumulative ascent of 123,432 feet. The following passes were crossed during the traverse:

  1. South east pass parallel to Dhat La (5610 mts)
  2. Kyamar La (5100 mts)
  3. Mandalchan La (5210 mts)
  4. Shibuk La (5270 mts)
  5. Kolakongma La (4940 mts)
  6. Kai Yeru La (5420 mts)
  7. Koste La (5380 mts)
  8. Yalung Nyau La (5470 mts)
  9. Parangla Pass (5560 mts)
  10. Thaltak ( 4710 mts)
  11. Bhaba Pass (4910 mts)
  12. Lamkhaga Pass (5270 mts)
  13. Kalindi Khal (5950 mts)
  14. Kuwari Pass (3670 mts)
  15. Vinayak (3170 mts)
  16. Kukin Khal (3120 mts)
  17. Ali Khal (3470 mts)
  18. Pass between Garwal and Kumaon (3350 mts)
  19. Above Garkuti (2770 mts)
  20. Khati Khal ( 2920 mts)
  21. Bainsa Kharak (3040 mts)
  22. Dhara Pani ( 3150 mts)
  23. Rur Khan (3440 mts)
  24. Unnamed pass, East of Puniya Peak (2860 mts)
  25. Dharti khal (3430 mts)
  26. Chongmo (3810 mts)
  27. Balsi Khal (3900 mts)

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Among rewards, we spotted the elusive snow leopard near Tsokar Lake. It is a memory that will be etched in my mind forever. There was also blue sheep, monal, marmots, wild pheasants and many more; enough to fill an entire journal. All through the hike we came across bridges built by shepherds. We always examined its strength first, to see if it would bear our weight or not. There were occasions when we found the bridge weak or collapsing. We always had to keep a Plan B in mind in case we had to find a way other than using those bridges. We were a group with mixed levels of experience in this terrain. Shekhar was new to most of the passes we faced. Pranav had seen a good bit of the trail before. I too was fortunate to have covered most parts of this trail in bits and pieces on previous forays. In spite of that, route finding remained a major challenge. Not having a good reliable map and the tricky terrain of the Kumaon and Garhwal Himalaya always kept us on our toes. Now that we have mapped the correct position anyone will be able to follow our trail by downloading the file (editor’s note: at the time of writing, such a file with updated map was in the process of being made, Bharat said) and using it.

From the traverse (Photo: courtesy Bharat Bhushan)

Since this was a new route, planning accurately in terms of rations and logistics was based on approximation. We set up seven predetermined re-ration stations at various places of the traverse. These were places where we had previously sent boxes of ration well ahead of time, in order to be able to collect them as we passed those places during our journey. We also ate at village homes and food shacks along the way. This helped us not to carry extra ration and instead, move faster with light backpacks.

4Play – it is an Indian outdoor adventure content and media company; Pranav Rawat is their sponsored athlete – tried securing sponsorship for the Western Himalayan Traverse. They pitched our idea to several companies here and abroad and upon not finding much of a response to it advised us to try and see if crowdfunding would help. Pranav and Shekhar campaigned for the Western Himalayan Traverse project and raised funds individually. In spite of that we still had to invest our own funds to buy the required gear. Raising the funds for this expedition was almost as challenging as completing the traverse itself.

(The author, Bharat Bhushan, is a seasoned mountaineer. He works as an instructor with NOLS.)

THE 6+6 FORMULA OF HAPPINESS

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

On my visit to Kerala, 6+6 was often reason for happiness. Will it stay so? I don’t know. I hope it does for it reminded of common sense in fashionably expensive times. 

From the highway as we turned into the road leading to the South Kerala tourist attraction, the ambiance changed; distinctly.

The surroundings were shaded, temperate and green.

The road we were on was unlike any other I had seen in these parts. It was well maintained with a proper footpath guarded by steel railing. Refined as it seemed, the atmosphere was also synthetic. Not that the mess of everyday Kerala is inspiring; just that you know an island of deliberately developed property when you see one.

For some reason the first thing I thought of as we beheld this place was Jurassic Park. The impression was strengthened when a posse of muscular men, clad in tight T-shirt and cargo pants, walkie-talkie in hand, waved down our autorickshaw at a junction ahead. “ Do you have tickets? It is booked online,’’ one of them said. Behind the guards and the access they regulated were the lower slopes of a hill with a huge rock on top. To be honest, the welcome had felt tad aggressive. But then gated properties are valued exactly for that. If you take away the barricades to entry, the exclusivity craved by those frequenting it, is lost. Degradation also happens faster when whole world goes in. There is an alternative. You can start at school level and teach every generation to tread light on nature, preserve beauty and appreciate solitude. That is however longer haul. Who has patience for it? Certainly not, when schools and colleges are factories in service of successful career. Given we hadn’t booked tickets online, we were politely guided to ticket booths nearby. A young man offered assistance. It seemed a junction waiting for business. All eyes were on us.

Now both my cousin Rajeev and I like to walk. Our idea of coming to this large rock, which everyone praised for a big bird sculpture recently installed there, was to walk around, eventually reach its top and enjoy the view. Although growing up in Thiruvananthapuram, we had never visited this rock earlier. In our fifties, we wished to catch up on what we had missed. At the ticket booth we sought price. Ticket price nudging Rs 500 and a strict no to going up the rock along old paths or newly created ones (you had to compulsorily take a short cable car ride) ended our original mission. Something about the whole affair – perhaps the ticket rate, the guards and the packaging of outdoors and adventure as spectacle – put us off. We decided instead to walk along the road, see where it takes us. Hopefully it went all around the rock’s perimeter offering us a glimpse of structures on top and lets us enjoy the idea of being free, devoid of boundaries and guards.

At some point on that winding road, we met a local resident parking his scooter before his house. Behind the building set in plantation like-ambiance, the rock loomed large. We chatted for some time about the rock that had now become a tourism project. We asked him if he had been on top and if so how it felt. “ Long time back it used to be our backyard and we would go there. The rock’s top is vast. The view from there is really nice. Now we also have to buy tickets,’’ he said laughing. According to him, all the planned services and attractions were yet to be in place. When they are, there will of course be a cost to experience them. “ What they are planning is supposed to be really good,’’ he said. We left it there. Staged stuff wasn’t our cup of tea.

The walk around the rock was relaxing. We imagined early morning hours and decided it was a promising place to run. About half of the distance to walk was on the well maintained road with paved footpath. It connected to a bigger road leading to the local bus depot some kilometers away. Here the traffic rose. From a curve on this road, we saw a temple like-structure on top of the big rock. If I was reminded earlier of Jurassic Park, now I was reminded of the movie, Bahubali. I liked Jurassic Park for bringing dinosaurs to life convincingly. But like the Jaws franchise and its dilemma of how much shark it takes to scare audience progressively losing their fear, it tired pretty soon. As for Bahubali, neither of the two films interested me; I saw them on night buses plying the Mumbai-Bengaluru route, breathing a sigh of relief when kings, queens and heirs concluded their fantasy and Volvo returned to being quiet. Somehow, in these years of decadence by human numbers, excess and vanity, larger than life isn’t an engaging paradigm for me anymore. On the other hand, smaller than life, quieter than life – they attract.

An hour – maybe hour and a half – later, we walked into Chadayamangalam’s bus depot, bought a glass of tea each along with dal vada from a nearby tea shop and sat down to savor it. We looked up from our glass and there, clear and free for all to see, was the bird atop the rock. It was without doubt an impressive sight. I don’t know if its destiny will be the same as Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs but this I know – for centuries that rock, just as it is, had existed brewing fascination. The question is therefore legitimate – what counts more, nature as it is or what we do to it? After the walk, the hot tea and vada felt good. Where we sat probably added to the feeling – we were seated on a large concrete block; tea shop counter behind us, bus depot in front, busy road to the side, people around, all of that open to sky and rock in the distance. It was the abject opposite of being larger than life. You were nobody.

That was when I discovered a wonderful formula in the neighborhood.  The glass of tea we were having – a full big glass, not the cutting measure of North India – cost six rupees, significantly less than Mumbai’s cutting chai. The vada cost six rupees too. In fact, according to the tea shop owner, there were other snacks to choose from as well and any of that had with tea, sold for six rupees a piece. Yet again, not the tiny portions sold for double the cost in northern cities; these were decently sized specimens. Chai and kadi (something to munch) – the combination sold for Rs 12. It satisfied my soul. Two days later in Thiruvananthapuram, I was treated to same formula at a small hotel near Vellayambalam; 6+6, no matter what snack from the designated lot you had full glass of tea with. The formula repeated again at the city’s East Fort bus stand.

It was nice to see small tea shops defying market trends even as big projects succumbed.

I sincerely hope some aspects of Malayali sensibility don’t change.

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

A MODEL FOR KAYAKING

Manik Taneja (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

A school to train aspirants, a shop to buy good quality gear, a festival that brings the best in the sport to India – this is a model to grow kayaking imagined from landlocked Bengaluru. It appears to have worked well.

“ In India, Bengaluru has the highest number of recreational kayakers,’’ Manik Taneja said.

Traditionally Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and other places along the Himalaya, have dominated river rafting and kayaking in the country. Kayakers are more in these parts. They do kayaking for livelihood. Bengaluru in contrast, has a growing number of recreational kayakers pursuing the sport as hobby. Landlocked and located at the southern end of the Deccan plateau, some 2300 kilometers away from the Himalaya, the city is an unlikely magnet for the sport. The sea is a few hundred kilometers away and while rivers for kayaking take anywhere from four to six hours to access; none of them strike imagery in the head as grand as those from the north do. It was late August, 2018. We were at Manik’s house in Bengaluru. Aside from sporadic showers there was little in the city for sign of what monsoon had unleashed further to the south west. The floods of Kerala were just over 10 days old.

Anvesh and Sanjay of Expeditions India; from a multi-day trip on the Mahakali River (Photo: Dileep Marar)

Manik is among names you turn to for kayaking. Born in Dehradun, he grew up in Pune. During his school days, he was into sports and athletics; later he played hockey all the way up to league level. He graduated in computer science and took his masters abroad, in Amsterdam. Following his masters course, Manik went on a small bicycle tour in Ladakh. Soon after this, he did a three day rafting trip in Uttarakhand’s Alaknanda River. The latter, he did with the well-known adventure travel company, Aquaterra. The rafting trip was led by Anvesh Singh Thapa, an experienced river guide. The two became good friends. The trip was Manik’s first exposure to kayaking. Upon securing a job back in Pune, Manik drifted into work. Sports receded to being strictly recreational. However as disposable income rose, he got back to the outdoors. When Anvesh commenced his own river rafting company (Expeditions India), he asked Manik if he would like to sign up for a rafting trip. Instead, Manik asked him to teach him how to kayak. Anvesh put together a training program. Five people registered. Only Manik showed up. “ That’s how my journey in kayaking started,’’ he said. It wasn’t easy.

Kayakers compete at the 2014 Ganga Kayak Festival (Photo: Manik Taneja)

To the lay observer, kayaking seems simple. You sit in a boat and paddle. According to Manik, learning to kayak requires patience. For instance, the type of balancing kayaking demands is different from the regular type of balancing people are used to. For most people, the popular image of balancing is riding a bicycle. That is typically done on a flat, stable surface, at worst on surface where unevenness can be anticipated in advance. Unlike land, water is dynamic. A turbulent river – on which whitewater kayaking is done – is even more so. The closest a cyclist can come to whitewater kayaker’s predicament is in downhill biking, where the pace is fast and the going, constantly dynamic. If you wish to be a good kayaker you have to be mentally ready for dynamic medium. Then, there are the details – the techniques of the sport. “ For newcomer to kayaking, the scariest part is getting flipped upside down,’’ Manik said. Legs placed well into kayak and the chamber sealed, instinct is to use one’s free torso to get back up. It takes a while to understand that the roll is done applying momentum to the lower half of one’s body. Executing the roll properly is merely beginning. It takes longer to keep ones cool and be good at doing the roll in all circumstances – rapids included. “ You have to keep your wits about you. Women tend to do better at kayaking. Men try to power through everything. You have to contain panic, slow down your mind, remember the techniques you learnt and execute them,’’ Manik said. Within the world of water sports, Manik believes kayaking is more individualist than say, river rafting, which showcases team work. He finished the introductory program Anvesh designed but on return to Bengaluru found himself as high and dry in kayaking as the city itself was in South India’s geography. Every time Manik wanted to kayak in white water, he had to haul himself to Rishikesh via Delhi. It wasn’t an efficient situation to be in.

Manik, Jacopo and Sid at the 2017 Adidas Sickline, Oetz, Austria (Photo: Manik Taneja)

The mountains and rivers of North India are bigger than those of the south. Despite this, river rafting and kayaking had presence in pockets of South India. It was of modest scale. Naveen Shetty now runs a company in the adventure travel space. Originally a software engineer, he got hooked to kayaking after a couple of commercial river rafting trips in Karnataka. The connection he felt with this new experience was so strong that Naveen and his friends did not hesitate to buy inflatable kayaks, which they had to import. “ We invested in four or five kayaks, for ourselves and to also take anyone else interested, along,’’ Naveen said. Problem was – the potential for kayaking hadn’t been properly explored in South India. There were paddlers in Bengaluru; most of them frequented lakes in the vicinity of the city. Around this time – early 2008 – Sohan Pavuluri, having spent eight years in the US, picked up whitewater kayaking over there and since shifted to Bengaluru, was looking for a local community of kayakers. That put Naveen and him in the same boat. “ I came across this website called Dreamroutes. While mostly dealing with activities like trekking, it had a section meant for paddlers,’’ Naveen said. The forum on kayaking at the website was started by Sohan and administered by him for a few months. The two – and interested others – agreed to meet up at one of Bengaluru’s lakes. Thus was sown the seed for a group that sought to take Bengaluru’s kayaking beyond its lakes. “ There were five to six of us. Sohan had a proper whitewater kayak; the rest had duckies – inflatable kayaks,’’ Manik said. According to Sohan, over a period of time and after experimenting with a few names, the group came to be known as Southern River Runners (SRR). Paddling was largely seasonal; during the monsoon. In the rains, the rivers of the south swelled with water and for a few months as the water rushed from hills to the sea, select rivers became amenable for kayaking. Bengaluru’s kayakers traveled to Coorg and Chikmagalur in search of rapids. But there was a major problem. It was one that adventure sports earlier into India – like rock climbing – had faced. Pioneers have to navigate the rapids of social perception and judgement. When society is unfamiliar with any risky sport, it clamps down. Climbers saw this happen many times at various places in India before a degree of accommodation for their sport set in. It was the same for whitewater kayaking in South India. Unable to comprehend what the kayakers were up to in the fast flowing, upstream section of rivers, forest officials and sometimes local people, objected, Manik said. And when such objection was overcome, permission became next challenge. In most instances such permission in India has to be obtained from officials unfamiliar with adventure sports and the human instinct driving it. Eventually as accessing water bodies became difficult, Bengaluru’s fledgling community of kayakers realized that the only way out was to grow their community further and enlarge the overall kayaking ecosystem.

Goodwave kayaking classes on the Cauvery River (Photo: Manik Taneja)

At the time of writing Jacopo Nordera ran a vineyard in Italy. Back in the time Bengaluru’s kayakers discovered that they needed to grow their community to get the sport going, Jacopo was part of the group of paddlers Manik belonged to. Jacopo lived in Chennai and every time there was a kayak session planned out of Bengaluru, traveled in from Chennai to join. “ He was the most committed member of the group,’’ Manik said. The two kayakers joined hands and formed a business composed of two distinct halves – a kayak school (called GoodWave Adventures) to teach the sport and a kayak shop (called Madras Fun Tools [MFT]), from where local kayakers can buy good quality equipment. A good kayak can cost over a lakh (100,000) of rupees. Manik said that prices at MFT are better than overseas despite import duty for kayaks beings high and General Sales Tax (GST) pegged to highest bracket. “ We have to grow the market and so keep our margins thin,’’ he said. In tune with the overall niche market kayaking is in India, MFT is a small but profitable operation. “ It took us two years to sell the first container-load of boats. The second container, we sold all the boats in a year. Now we take 6-12 months to sell a container of boats,’’ Manik said. According to him, at least half of the total number of recreational kayakers in Bengaluru, own kayaks. Over time, the community around SRR grew. Those who had previously gone kayaking or formally learnt the sport joined the group. Resident expertise improved. “ Initially, everyone went to the same river. Now the group is mature enough to have different groups going to different rivers,’’ Manik said. In 2013, Manik and Jacopo did their instructor course in kayaking from Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) in the US. As SRR, GoodWave and MFT slowly grew, a new project started taking shape in the mind. Bengaluru’s kayakers had seen the Ganga Kayak Festival in Uttarakhand. How about one in South India; and if so, where?  – That was the question.

The start of an enterprise; items from the first container load of kayak gear Madras Fun Tools imported (Photo: courtesy Manik Taneja)

Besides equipment cost, one of the major components of overall cost in kayaking is transport. You have to take boat and paddler to river and within that, to specific section of river. Since rapids are a product of water volume, gradient, nature of terrain inside a river and surrounding geography (how it channelizes flow of water), the home of rapids are not always close to urban centers typically located in the plains. You have to travel to meet rapids. An element of research to make sure the destination one is heading to is apt to kayak, is appreciated before spending on transport and access. Google Earth was a great resource for kayakers to get a fix on rivers suitable for whitewater kayaking along with the best sections of river therein. “ Among us, Jacopo was the one who was most active on Google Earth, scouting for engaging sections of rivers,’’ Naveen said. For two to three years, SRR confined its activities to the rivers of Karnataka. Then it started to explore Kerala. “ We were skeptical. But Jacopo pushed for it,’’ Naveen said. On India’s map, Kerala is long and thin. At its widest it is probably less than 150 kilometers but within such distance and less, offers landscape changing from seacoast to backwaters, rivers and hills. In terms of elevation this can range from sea level to 6000 feet plus (the highest point in Kerala’s hills is 8840 feet). It has 600 kilometers of seacoast and an equally long spine of high hills. The state is environmentally sensitive and if you take a bird’s eye view, short of space for the consumerist excess, which characterizes contemporary notion of success. Yet Kerala lived oblivious of its geography and environmental fragility.

Bird’s eyeview of Kerala; hills and rivers. This photo is an overview of the terrain around Kuttiyadi River in north Kerala (Photo: Goodwave Adventures)

The floods of August 2018 changed popular imagination of life and Kerala, at least temporarily. A remittance economy measuring human existence by capacity to afford and lost to the deep end of settled life, the monsoons of that year combined with the deluge caused by multiple dams opening their shutters at once, flattened rich and poor alike. Suddenly people noticed geography and nature, both of which had been pushed to the backdrop for long and were now returned to center-stage. Across the state, the aftermath of flood was time to reflect and as many feared – reflect briefly – for Kerala’s deep rooted affection for wealth and consumerism is a bigger flood that can be kept at bay only for so long. By late September 2018, aside from their banks still adorned with the debris they bore when flooded, neither Chalippuzha nor Iruvanjippuzha betrayed any sign of monsoon’s fury. “ The water level has dropped,’’ the driver of our autorickshaw said looking down from the bridge over the rocky Chalippuzha. A rather tame river flowed below. The only trace of white water kayaking around and an annual kayaking festival claimed to be among Asia’s best, was a house in Pulikayam rented by kayakers, where preparations were on to ship kayaks back to Uttarakhand, Bengaluru and wherever else they came from. This was GoodWave’s outpost in north Kerala, from where they ran a season of kayaking. The boats lay stacked in the courtyard of the house and inside the garage. Kayak season had ended in Pulikayam. It will return with the next rains; as would – hopefully – Sagar Gurung and Amit Thapa, river guides from the north. In the same room and chatting with Sagar and Amit, was Vishwas Radh from Balussery, a town roughly 30 kilometers away. Having kayaked regularly in the rivers near Pulikayam, he on the other hand, aspired for a taste of kayaking on the Ganga.

2015; kayakers training on the Chalippuzha River (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

The gateway to whitewater kayaking in north Kerala is the small town of Kodenchery, some 40 kilometers away from Kozhikode. It is agricultural country; not in the paddy field sort-of-way but in the manner of plantations and densely vegetated, green land holdings typical of the hills. Three bank branches situated close by in town would normally hint wealth by remittance. But the drivers of the autorickshaws we hired as well as Joby who ran that home of delicious Kerala food called Janata Hotel, assured, wealth in these parts is mostly agrarian. Hailing from Wayanad, he had been in Kodenchery for the past 17 years, initially toiling as a farm worker, then driving an autorickshaw and eventually running the hotel. Janata Hotel was classic Kerala; affordable and serving portions big enough to satiate one’s hunger. It was practical, functional ambiance. Style and glamor had no place in it. “ The restaurant has just begun stabilizing,’’ Joby said of the business. Kodenchery is not far from the ascent to the hill district of Wayanad. The hills on the edge of Wayanad and Kozhikode were visible from town. The most prominent landmark around was a large hotel – Tushara International. You wondered how something that big ended up here. Yet securing a room over the weekend was difficult. They had none to spare (it is usually not so; a special occasion like a wedding can take up rooms, kayakers familiar with Kodenchery said).

James Smith from UK practising at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

Not far from Kodenchery’s main junction, at Pulikayam, is Chalippuzha. Further away is Iruvanjippuzha. The former is a tributary of the latter, which in turn feeds into the bigger Chaliyar River. The Chaliyar, close to where it met the Arabian Sea near Kozhikode, was host to Jellyfish Watersports, an enjoyable destination for paddlers into gentler, expansive waters. The first people to do whitewater kayaking near Kodenchery were Jacopo, Manik, Naveen and a few others from Bengaluru. Some aspects about the two Kerala rivers and Kodenchery attracted them. Between the two rivers and the sections on them selected for kayaking, they found a healthy balance of technical kayaking and voluminous water flow. The rivers of the Western Ghats maybe small compared to those of the north. But they have good gradient and as in the case of Chalippuzha, is rocky, requiring a degree of technical expertise to negotiate its stretches. With rapids ranging from Class 3 and below to Class 5, both amateur runs and pro runs could be hosted. Above all, after encountering suspicion and hostility in some of their previous river exploration trips, the group from Bengaluru was happy to see none of that attitude in Kodenchery. Naveen recalled the kayakers’ first visit to Kodenchery and the nearby rivers. “ Jacopo had done all the required scouting on Google Earth. The section of river we kayaked on wasn’t inside the forest. It ran through villages and as the kayaks navigated their way downstream, word quickly spread of what was going on. By the time we reached the bridge at Pulikayam there was a crowd of enthusiastic people gathered to witness the proceedings. We stayed at Tushara International. On the last day of our trip, a local journalist appeared and said someone wished to talk to us on the phone. It was the District Collector! He welcomed us to the state and offered support. That was a big difference compared to what we had encountered previously, elsewhere,’’ Naveen said.

Intermediate category race at the 2016 MRF (Photo: Neil D’souza)

Nistul, who hailed from Kodenchery, attributed the local support for kayaking to Kodenchery’s innate affection for sports. According to him, the region has produced district level swimmers and a clutch of physical education teachers. “ We were swimming in these rivers before kayaking reached Kodenchery. When we saw whitewater kayaking, more than anything else we became curious to learn it,’’ he said. Further, within Kerala, north Kerala has always been close to sports. The famous track athlete, P.T. Usha, hails from this part of the state (she is from the adjacent Kannur district). India’s first cricket club was founded in Thalassery and while cricket never really fascinated Malayalis, football has stayed much loved madness. There are many national level football players from north Kerala and during the FIFA World Cup, international football stars are portrayed on posters, wall paintings and the sides of transport buses. This is sport loving-country. Once they got a feel of the rivers, mapped out its stretches suited for kayaking and sensed the local community’s empathy for sport, Manik and others from Bengaluru knew they had found the venue for the kayak festival they sought. In otherwise quiet Kodenchery, the annual Malabar River Festival (MRF) seemed appreciated as a valuable revenue generator for the local economy. It brought international caliber kayakers, lovers of the sport and tourists to town. Several people we spoke to found it an engaging fixture. Tushara International serves as base camp for the festival. The house at Pulikayam rented by kayakers was known locally as Kayak House. Say so and autorickshaw drivers knew where to drop you off.

UK kayaker and film maker Joe Rea Dickens competes at the 2015 MRF (Photo: Sharad Chandra)

MRF, which is now supported by local authorities and the state government, has carved a niche for itself. The event is well known in the global kayaking community; the sections of river it is based on are deemed world class for whitewater kayaking. Diligent and smart marketing aside, the event has merits founded within the sport. “ In India, this is probably one of the hardest courses. In the north, volume of water and its temperature make a difference. But in the Western Ghats, rivers are typically steep making for narrow passages and tighter maneuvers. Less water volume in these rivers also means that they are less forgiving; chances of physical injury are high,’’ Manik said. The event attracts some of the world’s best kayakers. Of greater interest is how over multiple editions of the festival, kayaking has sprouted roots in Kodenchery. There is now a small team of kayakers from the region, regularly paddling in the two rivers, competing in MRF (with podium positions earned in amateur category) and hoping to earn a name in India’s kayaking scene. Nistul and Kevin were among them. Other names included Nitin, Vishwas and Reshmi. About 18 people from the locality had initially trained in the sport, Kevin said. Ten of them continue to be active. Those this blog spoke to recognized Jacopo and Manik as their main teachers (Manik’s approach of holding down a regular job even as he pursued his passion of kayaking and managing a business, seemed preferred pattern for the trainees too; of the three we spoke to, at least two weren’t targeting full time kayaking). Training sessions with expert kayakers arriving to participate in MRF were bonus. Visiting kayakers and the group from Bengaluru have provided a few kayaks to these enthusiasts. But they had two constraints.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

First, the transport component in kayaking – the need to carry self and kayak to where the chosen section of river can be accessed – makes every outing expensive. You need a vehicle. You need money. There was talk of sponsors. But if they are not adequately self-aware and self-critical, sponsorship can be delusional sense of accomplishment for young athletes. Real sport is a long journey and the right ecosystem is one that keeps it so. How do you support athlete and yet keep the journey long and continuing? Second, given kayaking is seasonal experience in Kodenchery and the water level in the two rivers drops once rains recede, year-round training is not possible. When water level falls, paddling and practising of skills reduce to what is possible within the stretch afforded by a check dam at Pulikayam. Those committed to the sport, wished to spend time in the rivers of North India. Moving to northern rivers like the Ganga, when water levels fall in Chalippuzha and Iruvanjippuzha, appeared the right thing to do. It made sense from another angle too – a paddler’s repertoire of experience is based on the variety of waters he has tackled. You can’t be well rounded in the sport if all you know for experience are two rivers. Kodenchery’s kayakers have a long way to go.

Looking ahead, Manik hoped that more considerate import duty and tax structure would grace kayaking. He also wanted the sport to find greater acceptance and merit more towns hospitable to kayaking like Kodenchery. As yet even within Kerala, Kodenchery has proved an exception for some later river exploration trips in the state didn’t find the same popular support as extended at this settlement near the border of Kozhikode and Wayanad. But a model to spread kayaking, commenced from Bengaluru, has worked – training school, gear shop and community of those practicing the sport. The results encourage.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. He visited Kodenchery during the fading portion of the 2018 kayak season and after the year’s MRF was over. He is yet to witness MRF and the region during the festival.)  

VEDANGI’S QUEST / AN INCIDENT IN SPAIN; RECOVERY AND RETURN TO JOURNEY

Vedangi Kulkarni (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

An incident in Spain unsettles the young Indian cyclist. Recovered from it and resolved to complete what she began, she is back on her project, circumnavigating the world on a bicycle.

Nineteen year-old Vedangi Kulkarni, currently on a quest to circumnavigate the planet on a bicycle, suffered an incident of mugging in Spain early October.

Recovering from the setback, she has since reached France and at the time of writing this report, was cycling there.

Her father Vivek Kulkarni, shared Vedangi’s description of what happened, with this blog.

According to it, on October 6, around 21.30-22.00 hours, somewhere around Guarena in Spain she was stopped by a couple of people on motorcycles. They had knives and while one of them took her hydration pack and started examining its contents, the other held her at knife-point. They took the money she had in her bag. Then they pushed her and her bike into “ what seemed like a ditch at the side of the road.’’ Vedangi went down head first and suffered a concussion.

She informed the police of the matter, including her recollection of how one of the assailants looked like. A few kind strangers, upon realizing what happened, later took her to a medical center; that’s how the concussion was discovered.  Vedangi has had to take it easy for a few days thereafter. But she has persisted with her solo circumnavigation project. “ Frankly, the incident had terrified me and I was inches away from giving up on the entire ride. But something in me didn’t just want to let go of everything I’ve built up so far and somewhere inside me I know that giving up and going home without finishing what I’ve started is never an option,’’ she wrote in the account, shared with India’s Ministry of External Affairs as well. Officials are aware of it.

At the time of scripting the description of the incident (she was in Spain then),  Vedangi was more than 17,500 kilometers into her circumnavigation trip and had already cycled across Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Portugal. In the process, she crossed both the antipodal points advised under circumnavigation rules – the first was Auckland in New Zealand and the second, Madrid in Spain. Cycling in Spain was to be followed by passage through France, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Russia and Mongolia. “ I had reached the halfway point at 14,432 kilometers in 55 days,’’ she wrote, adding that her experience with people worldwide had been mostly “ extraordinary.’’ Before reaching Spain she also had a brief spell, cycling in Iceland. That didn’t go well. There were storms; there appears to have been a minor mishap on the road as well.

On the road, in France; foggy conditions (Photo: courtesy Vivek Kulkarni)

“ Given the incident (in Spain) and the concussion she suffered, she had to take it easy for some days. In that period her daily mileage fell. It is only now that she has managed to ramp it up again,’’ Vivek said.

Vedangi, 19, is currently a student at Bournemouth University, UK. She spent some part of her early childhood in Panvel (not far from Mumbai); later she attended Jnan Prabodhini school at Nigdi near Pune. Her family now resides in Kolhapur. The circumnavigation plan assumed shape sometime in September-October 2017. Vedangi’s circumnavigation attempt will take her across 14-15 countries, the final number depending on how the route is affected by visa availability. A film is being made on her journey. There will be a film crew meeting her at various points on the way.

The record Vedangi originally wished to improve upon is the one held by Italy’s Paola Gianotti. In 2014 she cycled the distance – although not in consecutive stages – in 144 days.

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