The beginnings — 26th Jan 2020

My Cycle Yatra Story — 7 days of romance with nature and life

This is a long due story which I have been meaning to write about one of the most romantic weeks of my life. Romance means a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love. And I find no better word than it to describe the 7 days we spent on our cycles, roaming around serene villages of Kerala with just shirt on our backs and no penny in our hands.

Cycle Yatra was a 7-day journey taken up with the idea to understand our relationship with the money. Some 8 months back I got introduced to the idea of abundance, gift economy, an ideology that believes that there is enough in the world for everyone. The idea that poorest of the people open their doors and hearts for anyone in need. Cycle Yatra presented an opportunity to test these ideas. A group of 16 people, assembled from different parts of India at a beautiful space called Farmers Share in small village Shoranur in Kerala. What brought us together was the shared spirit of adventure and the goal of understanding our relationship with money. The idea was to travel on our rented rickety cycles for 7 days with two pair of clothes and simple bedding. No money and No phones.

When we sat together before the trip began, and dear friend Rahul who co-founded Travellers University and who was organising this Yatra shared that we will not carry phones for 7 days, I was ready to abandon Cycle Yatra and go back to Bangalore. After a lot of conversations, I finally gave up and thought to myself to give it a shot. In my head, I was clear, if it doesn’t work out, I will put my cycle in a truck, and come back to Shoranur, and find a bus back to Bangalore. We finally started our trip with my mind excited as well as full of doubts. I was wondering whether this will turn out to be another stupid decision taken in the spur of the moment. At the same time my curiosity to see the generosity, I have heard people talking about was keeping me upbeat.

Who will give us food? Where will we sleep? Probably on the roads was what I was thinking.

Though my curiosity was soon answered. People in the villages were gazing in awe at this trail of 16 cyclers which consisted of Adwait who was 12 years old to Suresh who was 54 and we had all the diversity possible in the middle. I was cycling after 12 years, struggling to push my old, heavy cycle ahead on the topsy turvy roads of the beautiful terrain of Kerala. Everyone came out of their houses, curious to know what are we doing. With no common language to communicate, I would use hands, gestures to talk to realise that so much can be said without words. Though we had Ashik, Alwin and Sharat, three bright and shiny Malayalam speaking boys for our rescue for complex conversations. My first experience with the generosity of people was when two women came out of there house, stopped us and offered us lunch when we told them that we are travelling without money and phone.

From then, all my doubts were shed, and I knew that we will be fine. I finally surrendered.

We moved little further and a lady on the way stopped her scooter to check on us. She pointed us towards a temple where Annadanam, a practice of giving food to everyone who comes to the temple, was going on. We cycled around 7 km in scorching summer of January to find the temple in hope of food. It was typical Kerala meals being served which I ate as much as I could. Being a North Indian, and little fussy with food, it was a little bit of a challenge. But we didn’t have options and I respected what was offered.

How one thing leads to another, someone on our way to the temple told us about a school nearby where we can possibly spend the night. The school authorities were gracious enough to let us spend a night in their premise. Not only this, then pooled in money for our dinner. As a token of thank you, we cleaned their campus. After cleaning, we all bathed one after the other in an almost open bathroom in the dark. Someone would hold a torch from the distance to show light as it was dark. And still, I felt no apprehension or the need for a better bathroom. I felt almost like a new person after bathing in that cold water. The food that night was accepted with so much grace, I felt a different peace in my heart. That was our first night. We all slept together in a big classroom where probably children will never learn what I did. Thought that environment is the teacher passed my head. I was still getting myself acquainted to the rest of the group. I slept off feeling deep gratitude in my heart and realisation that how adaptable the human body is. If the mind is prepared human body can bear a lot.

And still, I felt no apprehension or the need for a better bathroom.

The next day started with we tying our luggage on our cycles and waiting for children to come. They were eager to know who does the colourful cycles parked in their playground belong to. They treated us like celebrities and in return, we treated them the same. We told them everything about our worlds, our work, and foremost what are we doing and why.

With young women from Vaileerikaavu Government Higher Secondary School

Following days were even more generous. Once again we started our day, cycling through rough roads of Kerala. There were moments when I was so tired that didn’t care to move. But then Adwait, my 12-year-old friend, would come by my side, encouraging me, pushing my cycle a bit and making fun of how old I am. And I will find back my strength to move. The second day we again spent the night in a small primary school. We went to a check dam nearby to soak ourselves in waters of River Thootha Puzha, a tributary of River Nila. I felt that water took away all the tiredness of the entire day with its flow. There were more rivers to awaiting us in the coming few days.

My twelve-year-old bestie — Adwait and me

The days passed, sometimes a community will keep us at others some villagers will take care of us. I was so overwhelmed by the generosity of people in Kerala, that I lost any fear I had in the beginning. One evening we were staying in a clubhouse in a small village called Karumanamkurissi. I wanted to take a bath, but the only bathroom we had was occupied. I went to the adjacent house, now expert in gestures, I asked the lady who came out if I can take a bath. She pointed me towards the washroom, made me a tea and let me dry my clothes without the slightest hesitance. Next morning when I went again to take a bath, she fed me tea and dosas. I asked her age. She was 27, same as me. But she already had two daughters, 8 and 5 years old and a loving house to take care off. I fell in love with her simplicity and grace which the entire family showed to a stranger. We then visited village centres on the request of our hosts. There was weaving going on, where a most jovial looking friend, taught me how to weave with utter patience, laughing all the time at my mistakes, but never giving up on me.

Craft centre at Karumanamkurissi where I learnt weaving from the most jovial guy in the village, Adwait waiting his turn in the background.

Kerala for sure is Gods own land

Another heart touching instance was one noon when the sun was killing us. I was thirsty and craving for something to quench my thirst when I saw a watermelon. I have never wanted watermelon that much in my life ever. I asked a Malayalam speaking friend to check with a loading vehicle guy if we can get a watermelon from somewhere. To my amazement, the man ran to a godown, bought the sweetest watermelon I have ever tasted, cut them into pieces and offered us. I loved my share of it. I can never forget the contentment I felt at that moment. The people who helped us were the people who we think are poor, has nothing to give. It was they who were giving us freely, knowing well that we have nothing to give them back.

I think my world view began to shift at that moment.

Kerala is heaven on earth. The tall trees, the endless straight, narrow roads covered by trees on both the sides, its abundant rivers and tamarind trees took my breath away. I would sit beside the river and look at the sunset, trying to capture that beauty in my eyes, remembering all those loved once who I would like to witness what my eyes were seeing. I felt myself losing some restlessness. I was there, at that moment, in the entirety of my being, which is such a rare occurrence in my life. Most of my life I have felt the need to move, to leave the place I am at to reach somewhere else, only to leave again. But things were changing. This journey was offering treasures with every rising sun.

Tamarind tree and paths similar to one we traversed

I made friends for life on the way. Mayank would come and fix my cycle every time it gave up. Srishti and I will sing songs on the way, Vatsala will introduce me to different smells and flowers and make me eat petals of flowers I have never seen. Aishwarya will ensure that we all get our share of food, a natural leader who will ensure that we all are well. We will pluck tamarinds from the trees and relish them for hours. We harvested paddy for a farm. It’s back-breaking work and still, everyone was happy doing it, at least for a while. At night, Vatsala, Geetika and I would share our mats and complaint in the morning that we didn’t get enough space. I spent one night under the sky listening to the stories of Ayappam Swami and the legend of Kulupuliappam. Another night I spoke with Shruti for hours, hearing each other’s stories, finding a sisterhood which I always look for. In all these small moments, I did not realise that I made friends for life. People who I could hold on to, the friends who I can open my heart to.

Me going crazy capturing everyone after getting my phone after 7 days. Phone lending credits goes to Sharat :)

As beautiful as it was, there were times when we all were frustrated. The sociocratic decision making which was the norm meant we have to sit in a circle and make all the decisions together. We would discuss the smallest things for hours and I was left frustrated. There were times when we were hungry, and tired and angry with someone for reasons of our own. But the Cycle Yatra or any Yatra has a fundamental character of bringing people together.

Adversity is the best glue

One night while looking for a stranger who invited us to his wedding eve, we cycled on the unknown roads in the night for the first time. And as if it was universe scheming, the road was particularly bad, full of holes big and small. With few torches we started, moving exactly one after the other. As there were no lights on the road, we will instruct the person behind us about the road ahead. I fell once on that road while coming back but by now I was pretty used to it and knew that I would be fine. If someone would have looked at us that night, they would have marvelled at the disciplined way we self-managed ourselves. People who would otherwise go ahead were taking care of each other, all moving at the same pace. I learnt that collaboration comes when we feel the need of help from deep inside our heart.

Adversity also sheds off unnecessary ego. The stranger who invited us to the wedding was a guy Suresh ji met on the road that afternoon. He wanted to arrange lunch for us but didn’t find a restaurant near the spot we met. He was also in a hurry as it was his wedding the next day and had some arrangements to make. He out of his generosity just casually invited us to his house in the evening. Sureshji also didn’t take it that seriously then. He did not ask his address. When he told us about this invitation later, we all accepted it instantaneously. We searched for his house in the entire town, we barely knew his name properly. But we still decided to search. And we did succeed in our search. When this guy saw 16 of us at his door, he and his entire family were shocked. I guess he was amazed that we were actually there. The whole family received us graciously. We clicked pictures with the couple, and got a glimpse of how a wedding ceremony takes place in Kerala. I ate Ghee rice, only vegetarian dish on the menu, to my heart's content.

The journey went on. Another morning brought new adventures, different people found different treasures. I learnt how important action is to me. I learnt how I shy away from appreciation and that there is so much about me that I am yet to find. On the outside, the journey ended at one point, but it started a journey inside which will continue.

Among so many different things I experienced, some of the most valuable lessons I learnt were:

  1. The world is generous. There is abundance and beauty in the world. Nature has more than enough for everyone. But we stuck in our minds fail to see that. The education and urban lifestyles blind us and we fail to see the generosity and treasures of each individual on the earth. We engage ourselves in constant hoarding which has no end. The people who had the least offered us the most. All the people who offered us food on the way were auto wallas, small shopkeeper, young boys on their scooters, small roadside vendors. No Mercedes ever stopped to bother.
  2. All that money gives is a choice. Basics are taken care of anyways with or without money. I can always offer some physical work to get my food. Though what money allows for is choice on what I eat and when. That’s where the purpose of money ends and that’s the only thing money can enable to some extent. It’s not the money that is evil, it’s the ego that we get when we hold money is the root of all evil.
  3. All people in this world are beautiful. It’s just it takes some time to know them. Outer appearances can be deceiving. The people who I found weird on day 1 became my best friends in a week.
  4. Communication is not dependent on words completely. It’s the energy that travels. If you feel love and appreciation for someone in your heart, another person will know. The opposite is also true.
  5. Time is not limited. Also, time is stretchable. It’s beyond what we understand about it. And we have plenty of time. There is no need to run like crazy which we do every day.
  6. Technology steals away real moments. There is a world beyond the screen full of beauty and learnings.

Lastly and most importantly, I learnt that we loot this earth every day. We loot our farmers and poor every day.

I felt frustrated that we are taking so much from the community which so generously gave us food and shelter. I felt that it’s undeserved, almost equal to looting. All of us felt similar emotions, overwhelmed and guilty witnessing the generosity of the people. In humdrum of life, in the race to reach an unknown destination, we put blinkers on our eyes and fail to see these very people who took care of us. After the yatra, I was sharing these feelings with a friend who then helped me understand the real evil in the world. He made me see that in our case, we were at least thanking the person who offered us something and we were accepting that it’s his generosity and not our right. No phones and no money made all of us quite vulnerable but also awake. With not much to fall back on, we were able to recognise the offerings and undeserved gifts showered at us. But in our everyday lives, where we earn lakhs of rupees from this exploitative economy, we don’t even look at our victims in the face. We feel that we worked hard for it, studied first like crazy, burning our childhoods and then slog again every day at work, losing our passion and joy. We feel that we deserve it. But do we?

When there are farmers who are working 18 hours a day in the sun and still going to bed hungry or on one meal a day. Is my compensation justified? Isn’t it just a function of where we were born? Not that we are not the victim of this system, but there are a lot more people who are suffering more, who we unknowingly or knowingly exploit.

Where is the salary that your employer pays you coming from? How did the investor accumulate his wealth?

We think that money is our hard-earned labour when it is nothing but a privilege, a result of you born in a certain place, the result of undue advantage which we got over others.

It was a hard truth to accept but it was even harder to turn a blind eye towards it. Took me some time, but it filled my heart with deep gratitude for the privilege I have received. This experience was the last straw that finally gave me the courage to take the plunge I was meaning to take for a year. I decided to remove myself from this exploitative economy and do the work which I intended to. Now with each day, I am trying to lose my sense of entitlement and scarcity mindset. I am hopeful that this Goddess of Abundance and Generosity that I met, would lead my path in life. Hoping that she will help me devote my energies to design a more equitable society, I sign off…

Prachi is co-creator at Pitaara and is a propagator of the idea of Self-designed learning!