Cycling to light up homes

Power of pedals

Cycling to light up homes

Arunachal Pradesh is situated at the most northeastern part of India bordering China and Tibet. It’s not a place most people visit, much less, cycle through. In this vast and unique land, you find the Himalayas and tropical forests with tens of tribes and sub-tribes whose lifestyles retain a traditional character despite influences.

Through these special hills is a charity cycling trip organised by The Batti Project, an organisation working towards providing basic lighting to remote homes in Arunachal.

The challenge: cycling 300 km in six days over rough terrain and steep climbs, in cold weather, all while camping outdoors.

I had never ridden a geared cycle before. A month before leaving for Arunachal, I borrowed a geared cycle. I had to think about gears, the height of my seat to maximise leg extension, and try to keep up a cadence while cycling.

Cycling allows me a window to the world that’s special. On a motorbike, you zoom by most places. But on a cycle, you are exposed — in a good way — for people to really see you, and for you to see what is unfolding around you.

The first day of the ride kicked off from the town of Tezu. The state government recognises the ride, so we started with a welcome and a good-luck wish from the local minister. It was quite an experience to ride through a stadium where people cheered you on.

We rode 70 km that day. The ride was mostly on flat roads, and I got to know my fellow riders as we rode together. The sheer joy of riding came in a two-km downhill stretch where I was flying. The sun fell on my face, and on both sides of me were farmers’ fields and traditional homes.

In all practice, we moved together as a small village — a village that was built every day. There were 14 cyclists and a support team that came with us. The team not only built us toilets and baths, but also cooked meals and made sure our cycles were ready every morning. Our tents were pitched for us, and campfires built. In essence, their support allowed us to focus on cycling.

The second day was the toughest — a 43-km climb uphill. We were riding by 7.30 am. The first 15 km was rough gravel roads, but not impossible. When I arrived at the lunch point, I was exhausted, out of breath, and tight in all my muscles. Of the 14 riders, only seven attempted the last 18 km, and I was the only woman among them. But we stayed as a team, and I became aware of the wonder of low gear. We went up 1,000 m in elevation. Pedal by pedal, push by push, without thinking about how long the journey seemed, we made it up.

Each day provided a challenge. Like a good relationship, we started with the honeymoon period of easy roads, falling in love with the scenery. The second day was the test of commitment — would we last? There were ups and downs, but you knew you had to stay together. The toughest part of riding was getting back on the cycle every morning, in the cold, though the body hurt.

While our breakfasts and dinners were at camp, we had lunches in the villages along the way, so we experienced a bit of the Idu Mishmi lifestyle, and shared a bit of ours. Usually, a women’s self-help group would host us at someone’s home, where we would get fresh, delicious food.

The third day was about riding mostly downhill. We started by cycling through Mayodia Pass, in the snow. Most of the other riders flew down the hill, but I crawled along. We were literally on the edge of a mountain and one small slip meant going over the ridge. By the fifth day though, I became more confident in my abilities to speed downhill, until my fall. My cycle stumbled on a rock and I flew off, most of the fall’s impact absorbed by my palms, knees and arms. I felt like a real cyclist. Luckily, the cycling support team wasn’t far behind. Ultimately, I became a better cyclist.

Thus far, this has been the biggest physical accomplishment of my life. After we completed cycling, we participated in the festival of Reh, where many Idu clans come together in joy and celebration. Not only were we able to raise enough money to light up 80 homes, but we were able to do it together, as a community.

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