Pedalling Uphill

 Manasi Nene

Much like the rest of the world in recent years, the Japanese in 1995 had good reason to believe they had seen it all. The Great Hanshin Earthquake and an economic slowdown (that led to the “Lost Generation”) were bad enough; but there was even a  toxic gas attack on the Tokyo subway, rattling the faith of the people in a system that was otherwise known to be safe, efficient and reliable.  

One of the outcomes of this string of tragedies, however, was the rise of iyashikei, or healing narratives. In manga, anime and in literature one began to see more clear skies and sunny days, with characters focussing on food, friendships and cats among other things. I found all this out during the Year of The Plague. 

The lockdowns during The Year of the Plague gave me a lot of time to sit at my computer and explore obscure corners of the internet — in a parallel universe I could have spent my time doing online courses on data analytics, or getting really into calisthenics, or coffee-frothing or home-brewing or cultivating a kitchen garden; but in this one I spent most of my time watching cute people serenade each other in  Korean dramas, watching toddlers fall over each other in the iyashikei anime School  Babysitter, and drifting off to documentaries about mountain goats on the Andes.

There’s something to be said about holding yourself together, when the world starts falling apart. Not being an authority on holding oneself together, I don’t know what this “something” is, but I know it’s Big And Important. In the meanwhile, I found myself drawn to the way iyashikei kept bringing my attention to the smaller things in life — the shhhh of the sky on a breezy morning, the way garlic and lemon linger on one’s fingertips, the slight differences when someone smiles with their face, their eyes and their full soul. 

The way the world started cracking at the seams brought in a hundred different existential questions, but one haunted me more than others. What does one do? 

What does one do when the Plague is taking your friends, your family, your city, your country, your world, and everyone is losing hope, health and money; what does one do when farmers are forced to take to the streets because the System doesn’t seem to respect those who nourish us; what does one do when people are targeted because of their skin colour or their God; what does one do when there are wildfires and roving locusts and murder hornets and recessions and earthquakes and landslides and extinctions and all sorts of batshit whatnots? And what does one do when accosted with all of these together? 

Mary Oliver, whose work started popping up more and more on Instagram as poetry pages tried to cover this systemic rot with lavender-scented band-aids, once asked,  what is it you plan to do with your wild and precious life? My life didn’t feel particularly wild or precious in that year, nobody’s was; which then begs the question what do you do with your drab, dusty and boring life? This life of standstills and tragedy, this life where hustle and grind are weaponised to see who can destroy Mother Earth fastest,  and yet this life with butterflies landing lightly on leaftips on my windowsill? 

Is there no choice but to keep pedalling, even as the hills become steeper and steeper? 

The bicycle-touring corner of YouTube is made of strange and wonderful characters,  who love the notion of packing up 3 sets of clothes, 2 days of food, a tent and a sleeping bag, and setting out to explore this wild and beautiful planet we call home.  

There’s Jin (Youtube channel: Cycling Around The World) who set off across Canada on a budget she had earned over a semester abroad — and 10 years, 76 countries and  87,000 kilometres later, she’s still going. As of this writing, she’s cycling through  Vanuatu, an island country between Fiji and Australia. It’s her dream to come back to  South Korea through North Korea, in the unlikely event that it opens its borders.  

There are also people who have tried to cycle across Asia, like Adam Hugill (Youtube channel: Adam Hugill), who attempted Singapore to the UK, whose marriage fell apart somewhere in Phnom Penh, who kept going anyway. 

There’s Iohan Guorgiev (Youtube channel: Iohan Guorgiev), who worked in a lumber yard in British Columbia to fund his way from Alaska to Argentina. He lost his battle with sleep apnea and depression, but leaves an international community that honours his spirit of freedom and soft gratitude, from all over the world.  

There’s Dr Raj Phanden (YouTube channel: Cycle Baba) and his cycle Dhanno (most likely named after Hema Malini’s horse in the Bollywood classic Sholay); he made his way from Haryana to London before the pandemic, and now is making his way through Africa, planting trees at all the embassies he visits. 

There’s even a dog, Mira La Perra, who sits in her little basket as her owner John makes his way across continents (Youtube channel: Omni Tierra_Dogpacking World  Tour). 

In the Year of The Plague, when all we had for company was our own four walls, these  YouTubers became my friends. Most of these journeys came to some sort of halt because of border closures, but these channels (among others) had material built up over years — plenty to keep me company. Years of open sky, and empty road; years of  Warmshowers hosts and friends made at campsites, years of local delicacies and roadside hospitality that no 5-star restaurant can hold a candle to. Iyashikei is great,  but it exists only in fiction. This is real life, primal and distilled.

And it was a reminder that life, to paraphrase Whitman, is vast, it contains multitudes. It can be equally true that people are dying up and down your street —  but rushing down the same street on two wheels could give a sense of joy that we forget past about the age of 8 or 9. It’s true that poverty is real, deadly, and an embarrassment upon our collective moral conscience — it’s also true that these people, relying on tents and grocery stores and the kindness of strangers — had a  sense of happiness that I, to put it mildly, didn’t. It captured my attention like nothing before and nothing since, the idea that it’s possible to see large swathes of the world on your own two wheels, on your own two legs. And you might be alone, but you’ll always have the wide open sky. 

Of course, this was only the honeymoon phase. 

The wartime reporter Martha Gellhorn (famous for being Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife, but also for pretending to be a nurse and sneaking onto a ship to report from the beaches of Normandy at the end of World War II), has a book of travel writing called  Travels With Myself And Another. It’s a remarkable book, not only for being a rare collection of travel writing by a woman in the 20th century, but also for its central philosophy — stories about disaster and chaos are infinitely more interesting than their sanitised, Instagram-filter counterparts. To wit: 

 “ The only aspect of our travels that is guaranteed to hold an audience is disaster. “The camel  threw you at the Great Pyramid and you broke your leg?” “Chased the pickpocket through  the Galeria and across Naples and lost all your travellers’ cheques and your passport?”  “Locked and forgotten in a sauna in Viipuri?” “Ptomaine from eating sheep’s eyes at a  Druze feast?” That’s what they like. They can hardly wait for us to finish before they launch into stories of their own suffering in foreign lands. The fact is, we cherish our disasters and  here we are one up on the great travellers who have every impressive qualification for the  job but lack jokes.” 

And she has a good point. The border closures in The Year Of The Plague had a  unique effect on travel content — everyone wanted more, but very few could actually produce it. And even the ones who could produce it couldn’t tell the same stories of sparkles and sunset filters. It’s one thing to crave escapism, but nobody really wants to know about holiday packages in the Maldives or Seychelles when the stuff of real life was grimier and harsher, full of bedsite visits and oxygen shortages and the unending gchgchgchgch inside your head trying to tell you that everything was going to hell. 

Under such circumstances, it’s easier to relate to stories like that of Erika  Warmbrunn, who cycled down Mongolia, China and Vietnam not knowing the languages, not knowing the geography, and not even knowing how to patch a tire. It’s all there in her book Where The Pavement Ends. This was also the era before Google Maps; her paper maps could fly away or get wet and then there would be no way to figure out anything except through vigorous pointing and shaking of one’s head.

One gets a bigger kick out of Riaan Manser’s book Around Africa On My Bicycle,  where he dutifully details being attacked by tsetse flies, being robbed (twice), being arrested by armed, drunken teenagers; having diarrhea in countries with meagre plumbing; being close to broke (pretty much the entire second half of the trip) but pushing, pushing, pushing anyway, for the world is a wild and precious place and there really was nothing else for him to do.  

It’s a little less easy to relate to Dervla Murphy’s book Full Tilt, where she details her solo cycle ride from Ireland to India in 1963 — one needs to find common ground with characters in order to relate to them, and I don’t know anyone today with that level of testicular fortitude. She writes of the majestic mountains of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it was impossible for her to know how nuclear tensions, oil and climate change would make it difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to retrace her path today. She laments the rise of modernity in these places, providing a mighty  (and, at times, indigestible) shift in perspective for children of the millenium. 

And yet, none of this is fiction. Half of the otherworldly nature of these stories is that they’re all true.  

Every single one of these stories, and all the other cycle-touring vlogs and memoirs and documentaries I have come across, are narratives of hardship, in some way —  even for an able-bodied person with a fat bank account, it’s not easy to undertake long journeys on a bicycle (simply being able to balance on two wheels is hard enough). But all of them have something else in common too — gratitude for the kindness of strangers, no matter where in the world they find themselves. All of them have lifelong friends all over the world, even if they met only for a few hours. All of them are hungry for something that other lives, other countries, other cultures, other roads and highways and backroads nourish them with. These are all stories with once-in-a-lifetime amounts of chaos, smoothed over by the kindness of strangers, who very often didn’t speak the same language as the traveller. 

Every cycle journey comes, quite literally, with some ups and downs. One tends to remember the uphills much more.  

Take, for example, my first overnight tour. My cousin sister (engaged, 29, surgeon)  and I (serial ghoster, 24, between jobs) signed up for a ride organised by a local company. We were to ride 70 kilometres out of our hometown of Pune, camp out overnight by Pavna lake and ride back the next day, accompanied by a guide and a  support vehicle. By December 2020, both of us wanted nothing more than to spend two days exploring under the wide open skies, camping out under the stars, drifting off to the wish-wish-wish of a water body. And it helped that as Indian women, who need to be accompanied by a chaperone at all times, we could pay someone to guide us and carry our bags.

So imagine our surprise when the organiser cancelled the trip on the last possible day,  since we were the only people who had signed up. We went anyway, but not without kicking up some nuclear drama in our families. I don’t know if losing 2 litres of sweat in the Indian sun up a hill and then calling your parents to pick you up the next day counts as a successful trip, but it’s certainly made for some great stories. 

Then there’s the story of my second bicycle-tour, a multi-day guided adventure through the Western Ghats, and the beaches of Goa. The first day ended with our bus breaking down in the middle of the night, in the middle of the forest, on our way to a  resort called Off The Grid — which was not only off the electricity grid, it was off the cell-phone grid, too. On the second day, we saw a woman get saved from a potentially fatal white-water rafting accident.  

The third day we cycled through a national park, with trees gifting me the serenity I  had been craving for a year. On the fourth, we rode downhill for fourteen kilometres and crossed over into Goa through a goat-trail in the forest; on the fifth we drank cocktails and swam under palm trees; on the sixth we welcomed the new year. Being on a bicycle, and being that vulnerable to the whims of nature seems to invite chaos  — but it also invites the most glorious gratitude, and makes you feel alive in a way nothing else can. 


Somewhere in the forests of Dandeli. Photograph by Manasi Nene. December 2021.

I can’t promise that cycle-touring will give you the meaning of life, or release from suffering. But if you do get into it, some of the unexpected benefits you can expect are:

  • friendships with people who think nothing of sweating long days in the sun
  • a flood of happy-chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline, and endorphins
  • legs for days, and an ass to match
  • a big, big, big heart and not just in the cardiovascular sense
  • holidays with the best wallet:happiness ratio
  • a long list of stories to pick from when things get awkward and boring at dinner parties

Being on a bike all day gives you a lot of time to ponder The Big Questions of Life.  What is the purpose of all this? Do I have enough water? Is the cruelty in our world inherent or man-made? How much longer will the pandemic last? I have none of the answers; only a vague sense that the view is always sweeter once you’ve pedalled uphill to get there.  

And the uphills will always be there. So will the cramps in your legs. So will the views. So will the sunlight, and the breeze, and butterflies in the trees.

Manasi Nene is a writer, filmmaker and musician from Pune, India. She is interested in themes of healing, modernity vs nature, and linking similarities across languages and cultures.