26 wheels and little more

200 km by cycle with few supplies and no money.

Wanderlust had been boiling within me for the last three years. Eventually, it became so intense that I quit my stable job in Delhi. With this newfound freedom, however, my days were suddenly reduced to incessantly checking my e-mail. I had to make a move, and it was while at the computer terminal one day in January, that I saw the note about the Udaipur Cycle Yatra: a 200-km cycle journey to be completed in seven days. And there was a twist: the entire trip was to be done without any money or access to electronic equipment. I signed up for the trip and, on 22 February, found myself at the office of the trip organiser, Shikshantar, an organisation that seeks to promote alternative methods of learning.

Upon arrival at the Udaipur Bus Terminal I hop onto an auto-rickshaw to Kharol Colony, where the Shikshantar office is located. Inside, the first person to greet me is Ramavtar Singh, a tall man in khadi. A strict Gandhian, he walks barefoot. Born in Ajmer, he knows the villages of Rajasthan intimately; he is the 'front man' of the group, though he is adamant that there is no leader of the Yatra. In the Shikshantar sitting room are some fellow travellers: Vishwen, a solar-equipment maker from Gujarat; Ankit, an accounting student, also from Gujarat; Katerine, a medical science and Ayurveda researcher from Belgium; Biswas, an NGO employee and amateur poet from Madhya Pradesh; Daksh, a journalist from Indore with a penchant for cracking jokes; and Prince, Daksh's co-worker and constant companion, who always wears a cap. There are altogether 13 participants, many old friends of Shikshantar and a few first-timers, like myself. Our destination is Kumbhalgarh, about 85 km from Udaipur, from where we will take another route back to our starting point.

andOn the following day's sunny morning, our yatra gets underway amidst much excitement, singing and sloganeering. The merriment abates as soon as the terrain of the Aravalli hills, which surround us, begins to demand increasingly hard work on the pedals. Though the landscape is mostly arid, Ramavtar is good at spotting trees that provide edibles: mostly neem, babul and cactuses, as well as the occasional imly, amla and sugarcane. After cycling for about four hours, covering around 25 km, we reach the village of Kumaoto ka Guda, our resting place for the night – and where we hope to find food and shelter, as well as a bit of work to 'pay' for these. But the reality here is stark. There is no work in the village. An extended drought in the area has destroyed cultivation, the main form of employment; most of the men have migrated to the cities in search of work, or are absorbed in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. After a half-hour of fruitless search, we reconvene at the village square to consider the options. It is already late afternoon, and only six of us have found work and food.

Considering the dismal prospect, the group decides that it is best to try our luck at the village of Kedia Gaon, about three km ahead. About an hour after arriving in Kedia Gaon, we divide into groups of three. As it is too late to find work, the priority becomes to find food and shelter for the night, and look for work in the morning. And in this mission, we have no difficulty. Nobody in the village is ready to employ us, but they all offer food at no charge. By eight in the evening, we have more than enough for all of us.

After the restful sleep of full bellies and tired legs, we awake at dawn, clean our teeth with neem twigs, and go in search of work. My first assignment is to clean cowsheds and goatsheds. The animals tend to feast during the night, so the dung-covered floor requires cleaning every morning. Reasoning that it is little more than digested grass, I pick up the dung with my bare hands. The task is done in under an hour. Next up is milking the goats, which the lady of the house kindly agrees to teach this city boy. However, she refuses to have my urban hands near the cows, the milking of which is much harder. Around noon, the group meets at the village square and, after thanking everyone for food, rest and work, we continue on our way.

Cityfolk procession
The next stop is Lakhmaoto ka Guda, about 35 km away.The inclines are much steeper than those of the previous day, and we eventually reach a beautiful gorge with a sparkling river at the bottom. We dive in for a swim – what a great relief after three hours of hard pedalling in the burning sun! Back on the road, we reach Lakhmaoto ka Guda by late afternoon, after a steep climb to the top of a hill. There are immediate rewards upon reaching our destination, as we are quickly invited to rest on the shady veranda of a friendly family and to taste some homemade gur, or jaggery. After resting, we go out with the man of the house to a field where the gur is made, where we are also able to quench our thirst with fresh sugarcane juice. A pair of oxen turns a wheel, which then turns a roller that squeezes the juice out of the sugarcane stalks. The juice is then poured into two large containers with a fire underneath. After all the water evaporates, it is only solid brown gur that remains.

It has grown dark as we have feasted on gur and juice, and it is time again to think about shelter. On the advice on our guide, we decide to use an old deserted school building on the outskirts of the village. While we are resting on the floor of the school building, wondering where our meal that evening would come from, a man comes in and introduces himself as Hiralal. Short and thin, with oil-soaked hair and clad in tight-fitting bellbottom pants, he seems like someone out of a 1960s Bollywood film. On hearing of our Cycle Yatra, he announces that the entire group is to dine at his house. After much protestation, we reach a compromise: everybody would have dinner at Hiralal's house, on the condition that he would give work to whoever he could employ the following morning.

We are served a simple but delicious meal of daal bati (baked balls of wheat flour and daal) and chas, fermented buttermilk. As we help to prepare the meal, there is a commotion in the village square. And we, it turns out, are the cause of it. The local schoolteacher and some government officials in the village have just heard that some cityfolk are staying at Hiralal's house, and are furious that we had not reported to them immediately upon coming into the village. Evidently, their main concern is that we will kidnap the village children to sell their organs. They insist on seeing out identity cards or passports and, once things get sorted out, our dampened spirits are revived by Hiralal's renewed hospitality. We spend the night on the roof of the school building under a moonless starlit night.

In the morning, as promised, Hiralal finds work for some of the group while the rest are able to find temporary employment with other villagers. Till noon, we cut firewood in one of the villager's field and carry it to his house, about a kilometre away. After a lunch of makki ki roti, (maize flour rotis), curry, dahi and chas, we set out again. This time, we are heading for Kumbhalgarh, 30 km away. It is an easy, flat road and we whistle all the way. We reach our destination a little after 5 pm, and immediately find shelter in an ashram. We eat at a nearby dhaba, the cost of which is paid for from the ashram's trust. In return, we clean the ashram and a nearby temple.

Tireless steeds
After yet another good night's sleep, we begin our return journey the next morning, taking the road toward the village of Molela, 55 km away. Although this is a bit more than we have been averaging during the previous days, the route is mostly downhill, and we zip past trees and milestones for much of the next 35 km. Just as hunger is beginning to set in, we reach the foot of a hill, which has a huge Banyan tree right at its peak, a most beautiful sight. Between the 13 of us we have three rotis, five samosas, one chilli pakoda and a whole lot of gur – all gifts from the people of Kumbhalgarh. We divide this into equal parts and dig in. Back on the road, we have to pay for the free ride that we had gotten before lunch; we face the steepest climb of the journey, slope after slope after slope. Unable to pedal on many of those climbs, we walk with our bikes for the next hour. I repeatedly think of my comfortable bed in Delhi, and how much easier it would be to read about this climb in a book. Suddenly, we are confronted with a steep downhill, and we clamber back onto our cycles.

A rough day behind us, we reach Molela around 3 pm. This is a village of kumhars, or potters, a great opportunity to see firsthand the spectrum of traditional shapes sculpted out of clay. Watching a potter carefully moulding the figure of a goddess, some of us take the opportunity to try our hand at the craft. I try to make a human face, but in the end it more resembles that of a cow. So, I switch gears and try to make the face purposefully bovine, but then it takes on the shape of the face of an unknown creature. Conceding failure, I make a perfect ball of the manhandled clay and leave it on the table. That night, we stay at the home of Manna Lal, a longtime friend of Shri Ramavtar's. Lal is a potter as well as a teacher of pottery in an Udaipur school.

The next day, after a puja lunch at a local temple with the whole village, we finally turn back for the long ride home to Udaipur. On the way, we pass the historic Haldighati, the battlefield where the Mughals defeated the army of Maharana Pratap, the 16th-century ruler of Mewar. Like all children, the legend of Maharana Pratap's brave horse, Chetak, who saved his master's life while fleeing the Mughal army, was familiar to me. After making a heroic leap, Chetak is said to have died on the spot; his master, however, survived. Today, there is a memorial to the horse called Chetak Smarak.

We stop at the Smarak to reminisce about the violent stories of the past. By the time we resume cycling, I am overtaken by gloom. The prospect of an end to the journey is not inviting. But less than a half-hour down the road, there is a pleasant surprise: the Haldighati Rose Production Garden, producing such items as gulab jal (rose water) and rose sherbet, all coming from rows upon rows of roses, gleaming in the sun. After a refreshing drink of sherbet we are back on the road. The Cycle Yatra finally ends on 1 March, as we arrive back at the office at sundown. As we dismount, our cycle tribe together sings songs, beats drums and shouts Cycle yatra zindabad! Zindabad!

~ Dhruba J Dutta is a freelance photojournalist based in Delhi.

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