Thursday, 13 February 2020

Cycling trivialities - Part IV: In the Ghats

There are some neat bike-cleaning videos out there on the internet and this particular one impressed me so much that I cleaned mine right after watching it! Just one important thing to keep in mind while washing a bike: do not jet-spray water directly onto the headset near the handlebar, the wheelhubs at the wheel-centres and the bottom bracket where the crank arm with the pedals is attached, to prevent any water from seeping in. Elrika had not watched this video, yet she intuitively bought a perfect set of brushes for the bike wash: a new toilet cleaning brush to reach the tough corners, clothes cleaning scrub for the tyres, a thin long bottle brush to reach the gaps between the spokes and the wheel, a toothbrush to clean the crank and gear-cassette, and a soft scrub to clean the frame. We also bought a bottle each of degreaser and lubricant fluid, all put together these cost upto 2000 bucks. Still, this investment was worth our bikes and the ride we were on from Hubli to Goa over the lovely Western Ghats. The evening before the trip to Castlerock from Kulgi we had cleaned the drivetrain systems of our bikes and the ride was smooth and silent.

The day had started with a sudden upslope that almost put us off our three-day cycling rhythm. But within the first 3 km, we had climbed 60 m which led us to a beautiful vista of the hills and valley that brought our enthusiasm back.

We caught our breath and the view for a while and continued the only-slightly-more-forgiving ascent for almost another dozen km. Between the 12th and 15th km, we dropped a 100 m and that must have been the fastest I’ve ever ridden my bike, 66.6 km per hour! Earlier on in our rides, whenever we reached a downhill we were glad but we soon figured it meant that uphills follow! As I zoomed on downhill, I side-glanced at a person lying on the side of the road with his head towards the road, but I carried on, given my momentum. Matty, however, had more empathy and paused to move the person over to the side of the road. I mentally posted a note to myself to be more kind in future to help out others, good one, Matty!

At Ganeshgudi, we passed by the beautiful Kali river where we decided to break for lunch. During lunch, we pondered if Matty should put his bike on to a car and take it ahead to Castlerock since the ride was getting a bit tiring with all the ups and downs and his ‘non-broken-in’ leather seat.  


We negotiated with a local who drove a Tata Indica car wondering if Matty’s supermodel Surly Ogre would fit in it. Dismantled, the large Surly frame and the wheels just fit in right enough and off Matty went! With more than a half of the ride for the day left, we continued for another 20 km and had a quick rest below a tree where a Great hornbill and a Giant squirrel were having a quick tête-à-tête with the massive Supa reservoir in the background. These are the moments that make the ride totally worth it. The Supa reservoir was sprawled across enough for us to wonder if we had already reached the sea even if the Goan sea was more than a hundred km away. 

Picture this with a foreground of a tree with a great hornbill and a giant squirrel helloing each other!

At Jagalabeta, the ride got even better; tall canopy on both sides alive with some bird activity and streams crisscrossing once in a while with little-to-no traffic. The only sad part was the number of dead snakes we saw on the road. Over a stretch of about 20 km we saw an almost equal number of dead ones. Elrika paused to move a live vine snake aside hoping it would not cross the road again. We felt that something needs to be done about this, perhaps at least a speed limit was due for that road.

We finally reached Castlerock at about 6 pm, after an elevation climb of over 1500 m and a ride of 70 odd km, and this camp too was wonderful
We had a quick shower, ordered our meals and off I went for my evening beer-forage for which I climbed another 100 m, passed through a dark tunnel without a good torch and bought beer from a home that kept alcohol unofficially since booze is not sold openly in Castlerock. Still, like other days, a lovely evening full of conversation followed which drifted on to a well-deserved deep slumber. Another wonderful day of our bike ride had passed.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Cycling trivialities – Part III: The climb begins!

There is a certain simplicity about cycling that I enjoy: a physical push applied to the pedals or a pull if one is wearing cleats causes the crank to move. Through the chain rings attached to the crank, this energy is transferred by a chain to the rear cassette and then on to the backwheel hub. This hub is attached to the wheel through ball bearings causing the wheel to move, leading to motion. There is also the issue of how much force one needs to apply to move ahead, of how more revolutions with less pressure can take you as ahead as more pressure with fewer revolutions: the gears on the cassette take on this job. Then, there is the reverse action; the simplicity of braking: the brake pads attached to the calipers on both sides of the wheels rub against the rim as you pull the brake lever, or the disc attached to the wheel rubs against rubber to slow down or stop the cycle. All so simple and so many tiny parts coming together smoothly like a Mozart’s symphony! All this was happening as I was riding my bike on the first long day of the ride from Tadas Cross to Kulgi Nature camp in Dandeli.

The roadside eatery that came highly recommended!
The morning had begun early; we were well-rested and ready for a big ride ahead. Since I had booked the Forest Department accommodation at Dandeli, we had to be prepared to ride about 90 km to reach the camp by the evening. 90 km is considered very doable by bikers, but here there was the small issue of the Western Ghats and how undulating the terrain can be! As we reached our first stop of the ride, 20 odd km away, for breakfast at Kalghatgi, we asked around a random person for directions to Kulgi. Patil loved to ask people for directions, and well it leads to better accuracy than Google maps at least! While he gave us directions he also nudged us to visit a roadside hotel for breakfast and praised the food enough for us to try it out. Turns out, it was his brother’s hotel and he was just building its reputation and business! Anyway we had a quick breakfast there to oblige him and moved on to another small hotel with tables and chairs for us to sit and chart out the plan ahead.

The 'unbroken' seat of the Surly!
The issue we had to discuss was this: from Kalghatgi to Kulgi there were two routes: one a scenic one that was 70 odd km but up-and-down and another 55 km on a relatively plain State highway. Matty who brought his supermodel Surly had an issue with its seat. The seat was a brand new leather one and had not ‘broken in’, read ‘ridden on enough to make it comfortable for long rides’. Here, they mention longer definitions of ‘breaking in’, but in general, leather saddles take hundreds of miles to soften up and confirm to your anatomy. We decided that the seat had not yet confirmed to Matty’s anatomy and its best if he takes the straight 55 km highwayish road and the rest of us will take the undulating route. 

The stream where we got pedicure & Patil a power nap
The initial part of the ride was a contrasting one: it was the national highway 52 with good forest on both sides. While we did enjoy it, the sound of a truck, a bus a taxi would bring us zooming back to the mundane sounds of a city. Till we reached the deviation to state highway 93, where things took a steep turn, literally, into even more beautiful forests with hardly any traffic. This was when the trip actually began; verdant forests, an occasional bird call, intermittent rural landscapes, tiny shacks to eat; one in a dozen km, streams criss-crossing once in a while and big trees waving with the wind with bigger shadows on the road, we were finally home! At the 70th km, we decided to take a nap by a stream and took our bikes down and rested our feet in the water. A few, perhaps Barilius, fish came to nip on our feet and it calmed and relaxed us more. We were back on the road in less than 30 minutes because we had to get to the Kulgi Nature camp where Matty may have reached earlier than us. 

The trail Matty was on led to a pond!
About that: we reached Bhagavati where his route will overlap ours, so I gave him a call there just to check if Matty reached Kulgi, he was still here and had a bit of a mishap. Someone on the way suggested a shorter route and he had walked several km with his bike on a route that led him to a pond! He was completely exhausted when we met him, but at least we were glad to be reunited again and continued the last 20 km together.
These were the first of the ups-and-downs of the Western Ghats and we were famished by the time we reached the Nature Camp and we had covered over a 100 km in the day. Having lived in a range of Forest Department Guest houses as a wildlife biologist, I was expecting basically a camping tent to stay. But the Kulgi Nature camp was incredible; it was a permanently setup tent, almost like the ones they would call ‘glamping’ now, there was a clean bathroom, running water and electricity and beds with mattresses! 
First, we got our bike cleaning kits out and degreased, cleaned and lubricated our bike’s drive-train systems. Then we cleaned ourselves and clothes and then of course, it was time for a beer. The logistics here were a bit more complicated. It had already got dark, so setting out for another 20 km ride on the bike to Dandeli town was not practical, we paid the local staff to pay someone else to get it for us. It took way longer than the bike ride and by the time the beer was here, we gulped it down and had a sumptuous meal made by two Gujarati women who had settled in this part of Karnataka decades ago and had a language that was a mix of Kannada, Marathi and Gujarati; a creole in itself, since I usually tend to understand these separately and could not figure anything they were chatting about! 

After that we slept like we 'sold our horses'! Next day was a ride to Castlerock, a place I was very excited to go since I had only seen the station from the train on the Goa-Bangalore route close to Doodhsagar and the forests around, full-of-cane, are a treat for the eyes; also, something very curious about the name of the place too! It was going to be a ride of only 60 odd km but very undulating; the cleats on my shoe-soles are going to help me pull up the pedals on the upslopes!

Monday, 20 January 2020

Cycling trivialities - Part II: A ride in the plains

Cycling often brings back childhood memories; growing up three decades or so ago, I used to take money from parents and rent bicycles for 5 bucks an hour or even less and ride all day; fell so many times but the wheels kept spinning. Then one day my parents succumbed to my demand and bought me a Hero Ranger bike, life changed after that. I often went to school on it and even remember a day when a traffic cop deflated my tyre because I skipped a light! He had a wicked sense of humour too, he asked me to return the next day to get the air back! The next bike my folks bought for me was a BSA SLR, what a wonderful bike it was, it felt way more mature than the Hero Ranger. I once took apart everything from the bike except the brakes and it used to fly! In the year 2010, I bought the first bike with my own money on my 30th birthday: a white Btwin Rockrider 5.2; it was love at first ride – the bike I was planning to ride to Goa. And I had forgotten to carry the meticulously-packed two 15 litre panniers outside my home in Bangalore while packing the rest of the stuff into Matty’s car!

Panniers that I forgot!
I realise now that I haven't introduced Matty earlier. I knew Matty from the time when I worked in Greenpeace, way back in 2002. In the last two decades, we’ve had some wonderful times trekking, travelling and conversing about almost everything under the sun. Since then, Matty has worked in quite a few fields and presently works at Decathlon. In his own words, he is an ‘occasional cyclist but a full time cycling evangelist!’, in mine, a perfect partner in ride. Leaving from the Coffee day in Davengere, Elrika and Matty could not help laughing at me every couple minutes and I was laughing myself too, although I ought to have been more shocked at my stupidity! But my mind was buzzing with solutions for this problem and so was Elrika’s. Quickly, Elrika and I made a basic list of things to buy from Hubli-Decathlon, things that will come in handy after this trip too and are also affordable. And this turned out to be the real list that one needs for a long ride: 4 ₹100 T-shirts, 4 inner wear, 2 cycling shorts, 2 sleeping shorts, 3 socks, 1 towel ('never leave home without a towel', a great man said once!), 1 big bag or two small pannier bags or one dry bag, battery bank (to charge the phone since the app Strava that records the trip drains the phone battery) & Balaclava (the single most useful thing when its cold, dusty, sunny or smoky on the way). 

Our own Mohammad, the long-distance cyclist!
We reached Hubli only by lunch time – the plan was to cycle from Hubli to the Tibetan colony at Mundgod the first day and stay there; a distance of about 50 km which would take us 3 hours at least. Going to the Tibetan colony would be like a prayer of sorts before the long ride, we thought. As we drove into the Decathlon store, we met our own Mohammad; the fourth member, Narendra Patil (who we affectionately call Patil) accompanying us for this ride. He has cycled over 3000 km in the last three years and has already cycled 500 km this year. The first time I met Patil was in the beautiful Tadoba-Andhari Tiger Reserve almost two decades back when I volunteered with the Centre for Wildlife Studies for a week.
Mathew getting his super-model Surly ready!
Next, I met him next in 2014 in Bomdo, my PhD field site in Arunachal Pradesh and we had some spirited good times exchanging stories by the fireplace in my field station and doing field work for a couple of weeks. Keeping up with the tradition of meeting only during good times, this time I was meeting him ahead of a five-day cycling trip to Goa. He had brought his bike from Bagalkot to Hubli in a train which wasn’t a great experience since he had to wait for most of the journey along with the bike near the entrance so people could enter and exit. But anyway, he was here now and it was time to quickly assemble the bikes together, get them checked by the trusty Decathlon bike experts and buy the items listed earlier.

Panniers that I carried!
Elrika and I picked up all the stuff I needed in just about thirty minutes and one of the Decathlon folks mentioned to us that there were panniers of the old model they were trying to sell off at a big discount and for just 800 bucks I got my other pair of panniers, which Elrika can use for the next ride. They are just the perfect size to go to work in a city too. All the bikes checked, all the luggage packed, we thanked the Decathlon folks who helped us a lot and we took off into the bustling city of Hubli, trying to get out of it as soon as possible. The ride was on a road on rolling hills which was perfect to prep us up for the big hills coming up the next day. By the time we reached Tadas Cross though, it turned dark and Mundgod was still 26 km away. We took a quick decision to stay put and booked a room there to get a good meal and a rest and do the extra 26 km in the morning to reach Kulgi Nature camp, 90 odd km away, where I had make the booking for the first night. As we settled in, we realised how good the decision was. They allowed us to keep our bikes beside our beds, there was hot water for a bath and Patil and I made a quick trip to a bar 4 km away in the dark to get a can of beer each. We felt quite relaxed after the beer, we made a short trip to the neighbouring dhaba and had some nice rotis and curry and were off to bed early. The real trip is yet to begin!

A big thanks to Suraj and others at Decathlon- Hubli!

Friday, 17 January 2020

Cycling trivialities - Part I: Before the ride

Life moves slow as you cycle. You get to know every dent on the tarmac and the trail that you are on; every bit of ascent and descent, every stone and every small little pothole. You can also feel the muscles working in your body straining to put in the effort to move on ahead. But, more importantly you can feel life move in front of you ever so slowly and you get the time and the urge and the patience to look at everything. This is the part of cycling that I love; that things move slow and you get the opportunity to take it in all in and enjoy the fullness of the picture its all making. And as I write this, I listen to the beautiful song ‘cycling trivialities’ by José González, its almost got nothing to do with cycling but it lent itself nicely to the title of the post!

A few years ago, Elrika and I decided that we would cycle one day to Goa but couldn’t believe it ourselves. For its quite a long ride and we had done a maximum of 70 km per day during an occasional weekend. The thought was revisited when I purchased a bicycle rack and panniers for my trusty 9 year old rockrider bicycle. Back in 2010, spending twice the amount I earn in a month on a bike itself was a daring move! But I am so glad I did not settle for any less, the bike has since done about three thousand km and still rides well. Anyway, back to the thought of a Goa cycling trip. Given our fitness levels, and the fact that I once tried to cycle from Bangalore to the neighbouring city Mysore that was 140 km away and fell 20 km short, I doubted we will go. Couple of sureshot mistakes I made: I carried my 8 kg backpack which got my back sore and I left at 10 am, so the sun got the better of me! Yet, the trip to Goa just remained a pleasant imagination to indulge in for a long while.

Last month, my friend Mathew (Matty) messaged a bunch of us that he intends to cycle to Goa and one of us has to come along since otherwise his family would shelve the plan! I thought it over a few minutes, chatted with Elrika, and in just a few moments we were in! It was a 550 km ride that had to be planned meticulously. As the day approached, Matty suggested an even better idea that we drive up on the highway till the Decathlon store in Hubli and then bike it from there to Goa. Using google maps, I planned a route of about 300 km that passes over the Western Ghats through four wildlife sanctuaries and a swathe of reserve and unprotected forests in between. One good hack that Matty knew was that selecting walking directions to a place on google maps gives good bike route options, given that we wanted to avoid most highways which are not safe for bike riding. I also made calls to book places to stay for the four nights during the journey, we were all set.

I had to then plan the load I would carry for this journey. Since I had made the mistake of carrying an overload on my bike the last time, this time I planned everything well. My list included: Two 1.5 l bottles, 3 sets of clothes + socks, slippers, running shoes(wishful thinking that I would run in the evenings!), binoculars, bluetooth speaker and charger, towel, Ipad & keyboard (wishful thinking that I would work!), medical kit, bike repair and cleaning kit, 2 extra tubes, matchbox and lighter and a bedsheet. All this went on one handlebar bag, a small shoulder bag and two pannier bags of 15 litres each. All of it together weighed in at about 8 kg, quite a load! Still, I was happy with my packing.

On the day of the drive to Hubli and the ride on ahead, Matty arrived at about 5 am and we packed the frames of our three bicycles on the car rack meticulously and put all the tyres in the boot and backseat which took us thirty minutes and we took off for the five day journey planned ahead. Was a pleasant ride full of conversations and excitement about the bike ride coming up. By 12 we felt a bit sleepy and stopped over a Coffee Day for a coffee and quick lunch. There we met Mohammad who has been cycling tens of thousands of km around India in his Hercules cycle he nicely rigged up for long trips. Here he is telling us about his logistics and we were awed by his endurance, strength and perseverance. 
As I was chatting with Mohammad, I received a call from my mother. I figured she must be worried since we were driving and she was calling in to check on us. To my bewilderment, she told me that my well-packed pannier bags were left by the gate of our home. In all the packing of bicycles, I had forgotten to put the panniers in! In my mind, a levee broke and the ideas to fix this came gushing through. A mental list was being also made simultaeneously about which of the stuff was crucial; I was throwing away the ipad & keyboard, bluetooth speaker and some other items from the ‘required items’ list and thinking of alternatives that can be purchased in Decathlon, Hubli. In a couple minutes, we all started laughing at how stupid I was! More about the next five days of the trip and experiences coming up soon!

Sunday, 10 June 2018

A village gets connected to the world

Its just another Sunday morning, things are easy and slow; a bit laid-back, a bit purposeful and a bit hungry. So, I got my bike out, eat a heavy breakfast, ride up to the lab I work in (almost never on Sunday, but there were things to accomplish!) and since its a Sunday with a slow start, I open Facebook. And something that I have been noticing for a while seemed more real.

During my field days in Upper Siang Arunachal, where I spent the best part of the year for four years consecutively, we never had phone network and only sometimes had electricity. There was a satellite phone in Bomdo village, which as expected, never worked too. In the initial years of my phd, 2010 - 2012 the BSNL tower could be accessed for sending messages or a rare phone call at certain angles. The signal from the tower bounced off at least a couple mountains, took a dip into the valleys between, perhaps even took a swim and reached Bomdo, very reluctantly. I remember speaking to my girlfriend while my friend Army held the phone for me on the speaker mode (that's the only mode that worked!), and everything we spoke got out a nice reaction from Army and there would be huge laughter at the end of the conversation from all three of us! There were even other times I climbed up a raintree near the helipad and reached out my hand to dial my mom's number and it would ring twenty times and she wouldn't pick since she didn't hear it. That is worse since she cannot call me back and there is no guarantee that I would be able to connect to her again.

Then, another time, I had a lux meter with me that looks very similar to a mobile satellite phone. My field assistant asked me what it was and I told him that I will demonstrate to him what it was. I dialed a number on the lux meter and held the light sensor up and pretended to speak to my mom for a minute. And then I told mom to speak to Agar bhai and passed the phone to him. He was so happy that we had network and took the light sensor from me and said 'Hello, Maa!'. This was funny due to two reasons: 1. Agarbhai himself is about ten years elder to me, so him calling my mom 'Maa' was really funny and then of course, he started roaring into a laughter too once he realised, 2. It wasn't a phone.

Once every two weeks, I would ride up to the nearest town Yingkiong, 50 km and 2 hours away to speak to my family and friends. Sometimes, that was tough too, due to heavy rain and landslides or the bridge over the Siang river from the right to left bank was being repaired. And then again, sometimes the network was down in Yinkgiong! Desperate times! Well, but that was back then.

These days Upper Siang is a different story. There are two networks available in the village I worked in and my friends from there even 'video' call me! I even get sent pictures when Solung and Aran, their festivals, are celebrated. Its really good to be in touch with them. I even completed some of my interviews speaking to folks there to complete my article. Besides, having a phone, half the village is also now on Facebook! So this Sunday, when I turned up my laptop am looking at some of the posts from them, mostly selfies and wondering if it would have been nice if I had network in those days, I quite swiftly concluded, 'definitely not'! Its amazing that things are changing so quickly over a duration of a PhD. Wonder what else is up in that landscape, I would like to remember that landscape in the way I've posted photos and stories from there. I'm glad I wrote up my experiences on this blog!

Friday, 3 February 2017

The ghost of my genes

... the landscape had hills, not hills of the kind I was familiar with. Rocky hillocks with shrubbery sprinkled on them with a background of a grey sky. It was not clear to me where the village ended and where the forest began. The fields were fallow since they were rain-fed and it was not yet the season of the rain. All in all it was a landscape I had not been in for at least two decades. Two decades because I've traveled as a kid around Kurnool where my grandfather used to stay and I vaguely remember the landscape being like this.

Yet, this landscape seemed familiar, with even a dash of nostalgia. I was wondering if my memory as a child was responsible. Or was it the ghost of my genes, since my ancestry is from Cudappah district, not very far from where I was...

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Micro stories 2

The following was written during my stay in the Bomdo village in Arunachal Pradesh in May 2015. While writing loosely-connected short anecdotes, I drift a lot between stories but try and return each time. You may notice the influence of Brian Doyle's book Mink river here. Given that there was no electricity, phone network or internet, I wrote quite a bit! So I post it in parts. The first part was here and here follows the second part.

23rd May 2015

Solung, mana and the pig

Two days later, we had the Solung festival yesterday and today and tomorrow are Mana (holidays) days. The Mana days need a special mention. For a third or more field work days in Bomdo village, there has been Mana, which basically means that no one is allowed to work; compulsory holidays, what a lovely practical concept! These are the days reserved for merry, rest and spirited conversations. There have been many occasions when Roy and I have loads of field work but it can't be done because of Mana. In the Adi language, it is called Gena. Coupled with unpredictable rain spattered across nine of the twelve months of a year, Mana has been a crucial factor dictating how much work can be done in a field season (usually from October to May).

Solung festival. Three Mithuns (Bos frontalis) and several pigs were sacrificed during the festival. A couple of years back, I had spent time in a few households during the festival and by the end of it, I had had enough millet beer to have donated my slippers to someone and only later realised I walked around the village barefeet all day! this year, I decided to spend my time with my friend Takkar, he was cutting a pig himself, not bothered much with what else was going on in the village, he was celebrating personal Solung, he said.

A male pig from the Egin, the toilet. Takkar had already killed the pig by strangling it with two bamboo boles buried into the ground and tied up together tight about a meter above the ground with the pigs neck in between. The pig stays alive a while, refusing to give up; few minutes in between when it tries to take a world of air but manages a little and slowly dies of asphyxiation. The pig was reared for this day, this moment...four years of living in a dingy toilet for a day to see the sun and die. The world is an unfair place, but perceptions concord with only a fraction of the larger scheme of things, I let the thought fade.

I help Takkar burn off the skin hair on a small dried-palm-leaf fire. We turn the pig around and round and scrape the burnt hair off  with a palm tree branch till its ready for the 'operation' as Takkar calls it. Takkar turns the pig around over its back and cuts open a portion around the belly. The small reverse-curved knife, the chigdo cuts it as smooth as a knife would a pastry and belly fat floats up. When you look at it, it seems improbable that an animal stores that much fat, but that was the reason it was kept in a 3 x 3 m enclosure; so it does not expend energy moving around. So the fat stored can be transferred up the trophic state to another being to sustain the energy required to be an Adi; to farm, to hunt, to walk miles and miles in the mountains and valleys around the village, not just a culinary detail.

Beyond the belly fat, the Yakdin, considered medicinal and stored for long periods, lie the visceral organs. Takkar pulls them out one by one, the intestines first, next the lungs, then the kidneys, then the heart and some other organs that Takkar throws away before explaining what they are to dogs eagerly waiting by the house. All this pulled out, the blood lies in a small pool, Takkar collects the blood for a dish called Mumney, blood, belly fat and rice boiled together into a paste. Mumney is a thing of legend among the Adi, but I don't much prefer it.

Its not often that Mumney is cooked in the village. Whenever it does, its often during the festivals in the Naamghar and the entire village comes to eat. The old men sit by the fire and the person incharge of the Mumney stirs it round and round, once in a while checking to ensure that its cooking well. I am not too fond of this Mumney, but sometimes when I'm hungry enough can take a bowl full but not a morsel more. the Adi love it and find it irresistible, some even it to the point till it causes indigestion!

While cooking a meal following the 'operation', Takkar asked me which was my favorite part of the pig, to which I replied that I do like the ribs. And for having helped him burn the skin hair and for helping him the little I could with the 'operation', he offered me the choicest portion of the ribs, which I cooked a day later to perfection. Will leave you with that thought. More to follow!

Cycling trivialities - Part IV: In the Ghats

There are some neat bike-cleaning videos out there on the internet and this particular one impressed me so much that I cleaned mine righ...