Updated: Jul 6
Written by Prachi Mittal | Yatri, Swapathgami Cycle Yatra 2020
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 the serene villages of Kerala with no penny in our hands.
Swapathgami Cycle Yatra was a seven days journey taken up with the idea to understand our relationship with Money. About eight months ago, I got introduced to the idea of abundance and gift economy, an ideology that believes that there is enough in the world for everyone. The idea that there exists a space of trust wherein even 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 Farmer’s Share in Shoranur, 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 borrowed bicycles - many of which were old and unused for long - for 7 days with two pair of clothes and simple bedding. No money and no phones.
When we sat together before the yatra began, and dear friend Rahul who is the Co-creator of Travellers’ University who organised the yatra shared that we will not be carrying our phones with us for seven days, I was ready to abandon the Cycle Yatra and go back to Bangalore. After a lot of conversations, I finally gave up and thought to myself to give it a try. It was clear in my head that if it doesn’t work out, I would put my cycle in a truck and come back to Shoranur and find a bus or train back to Bangalore. I finally started my yatra with my mind excited and full of doubts. I wondered whether this would turn out to be another stupid decision taken in the spur of the moment. At the same time my curiosity to experience the generosity I have heard people talking about was kept me upbeat.
Who will give us food? Where will we sleep? Probably on the roads was what I was thinking.
My curiosity was answered soon. People in the villages gazed in awe at the trail of 16 yatris on cycles of diverse age group. The youngest with us was 12 years old Adwait and the oldest his father Suresh who was 54. I was cycling after 12 years, struggling to pedal my old and heavy cycle ahead through the topsy turvy roads amidst the beautiful terrain of Kerala. People came out of their houses, curious to know what are we up to. With no common language to communicate, I would use hands and gestures to talk to realise that so much can be spoken without words. We did have four Malayalam speakers with us; Ashik, Alwin, Sarath and Shruti who carried out complex conversations. My first experience with generosity of people was when two women came out of their 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 again with a similar curiosity. It was noon and knowing that we hadn’t had lunch, she directed us to a temple where an Annadanam - a practice of offering food to the villagers as a part of the temple festival - was going on. We cycled around 7 km in scorching summer of January to find the temple. It was a typical Kerala meal that was served which I ate as much as I could. Being a North Indian, and little fussy when it comes to food, it was little bit of a challenge. But since there weren’t other options I respected what I received.
Someone on our way to the temple told us about a school nearby where we could possibly spend the night. The school authorities were gracious enough to let us spend a night in their premise. They as well pooled in money for our dinner. As a token of gratitude, we cleaned the school campus that evening. 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 since 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 that evening. I accepted the food I received in the night with so much grace. And I felt a different kind of peace in my heart. We all slept together in a big classroom that night. A thought that environment is the best teacher passed through my head. I was still getting myself acquainted to the rest of the group. I fell asleep, feeling a sense of deep gratitude in my heart and a realisation that how adaptable the human body is. If the mind is prepared human body can bear a lot.
The next day started with us tying our luggage on the carriers of our cycles and waiting for the children to come. The teachers wanted us to interact with the students, share our stories with them. They were eager to know whom the colourful cycles parked in their playground belonged to. We told them everything about our worlds, our work, and what we were doing and why. They treated us like celebrities and in return we treated them the same.
I experienced even more generosity in the following days. There were moments when I was so tired that I 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 would find back my strength to journey ahead. We again spent the night on the second day in a small primary school. We went to a check dam nearby to soak ourselves in waters of River Thootha popularly called Thoothapuzha, a tributary of River Nila. The cool waters of Thootha took away with its flow, all the tiredness I had felt the entire day. There were more rivers awaiting us in the coming days.
The days passed, sometimes a community would provide us food and shelter while at other times some villagers would 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 the building of an arts and sports club in a village called Karumanamkurissi. I wanted to take a bath, but the only bathroom in the building was occupied. I went to the adjacent house and expert in gestures by now, I asked the lady who came out if I could take bath at their place. She pointed me towards the washroom, made me 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 of. I fell in love with her simplicity and grace which the entire family showed to a stranger. We then visited village centres upon 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.
Kerala for sure is Gods own land.
Another heart touching instance was when on one noon the hot sun was killing us. I was thirsty and craving for something to quench my thirst, I felt like having a watermelon. I had never wanted to have a watermelon so badly ever in my life. I asked a Malayalam speaking friend to check with someone whom we saw on the road - who was loading different things in vehicle at that time - if we could 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 can never forget the contentment I felt at that moment. The people who helped us were the people whom I thought were poor, has nothing to give. It was they who were offering us freely, knowing well that we have nothing to give in return.
My world view began to shift at that moment.
Kerala is heaven on earth. The tall trees, the endless straight, narrow roads surrounded by trees on either sides, the 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, thinking of all my loved ones whom I wanted to witness what my eyes were witnessing. I felt myself slowly losing the restlessness I carried with me. I was there, at that moment, in the entirety of my being, which is such a rare occurrence in my life. I had felt the need to move most of my life, to leave the place I am at to go to somewhere else, only to leave again. But things were changing. This journey was offering treasures with every rising sun.
I made friends for life on the way. Mayank would come and fix my cycle every time it gave up. Srishti and I would sing songs on the way, Vatsala would introduce me to different smells and flowers and make me eat petals of the flowers I had never even seen. Aishwarya would ensure that we all get our share of food, a natural leader who ensured that all of us were well. We would pluck tamarinds from the trees and relish them for hours. We harvested paddy at a farm. It was back-breaking work and still, everyone was happy being involved in it, at least for a while. Vatsala, Geetika and I would share our mats in the night and complaint in the morning that we didn’t get enough space. I spent one night under the sky listening to the stories of Ayappa Swami and the Legend of Kulappulli Appan from Ashik. Another night I spoke with Shruti for hours, sharing and listening to 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 whom I could hold on to, friends whom I can open my heart to.
As beautiful as it was, there were times when I got frustrated as well. The sociocratic decision making which was the norm meant we would sit in a circle and make all the decisions together. We would discuss the smallest things for long and I was left frustrated. There were times when we were hungry and tired and angry at someone for reasons of our own. But the Cycle Yatra or any Yatra for that matter 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 for dinner, we cycled through the unknown roads in the night for the first time. We would otherwise cycle only during the day. And it felt to me as if the was universe scheming, the roads were particularly bad, full of holes big and small. Some of us carried torches with us and we cycled exactly one after the other. As there were no lights on the road, we instructed the person behind us about the terrain 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 had the chance to observe us that night, they would have marvelled at the disciplined way we self-managed ourselves. People who would otherwise go ahead took care of each other and all moved at the same pace. I learnt that the sense of collaboration arises and comes into picture when we feel the need for support from deep inside our heart.
Adversity also sheds off unnecessary ego. The stranger who invited us to the wedding eve was someone Suresh ji met on the road that afternoon. He had offered 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. Out of his generosity, he invited us to his house in the evening for dinner. He shared the directions to his house with Suresh ji. And when Suresh ji shared with the whole group about the invitation later, we all accepted it instantaneously. We set out to go to his house in the evening, but Suresh ji had forgotten the name of the location he had mentioned. But somehow we figured it out and went ahead in the direction we had been told. But we did find his house after a while, after asking different people whom we met on the road. And when he saw the sixteen of us at his door, he and his entire family seemed a little surprised. I guess he was amazed that we were actually there. The whole family received us graciously. We clicked pictures with the family, and got a glimpse of how a wedding eve looks like in Kerala. I ate ghee rice, the only vegetarian dish on the menu to my heart's content.
The journey went on. Every morning brought with it new adventures and different people found different treasures. I learned how important action is to me. I learnt how I usually 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 off a journey inside, a journey within, which will continue.
Among so many different things I experienced, some of the most valuable lessons I learnt were:
The world is generous. There is abundance and beauty in the world. Nature has more than enough for everyone. But one often fails 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. Most of the people who offered us food on the way were autorickshaw drivers, shopkeepers, young boys on their scooters and roadside vendors. No Mercedes ever stopped to bother.
All that money gives is a choice. Basics can be taken cared of with or without money. I can always offer some physical work to get my food. Though what money allows is a 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 money that is evil, it is the ego that we carry when we hold money the root of all evil.
All people in this world are beautiful. It is only that it takes some time to know them. Outer appearances can be deceiving. The people whom I found strange on day one became my best friends in a week.
Communication is not completely dependent on words. It is the energy that travels. If you feel love and appreciation for someone in your heart, the other person will know. The opposite is also true.
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.
Technology steals away real moments. There is a world beyond the digital screens, full of beauty and learnings.
Lastly and most importantly, I learnt that we loot this earth every day. We loot our farmers and the poor every day.
I felt disturbed about the fact that we received so much from the communities that generously provided us with food and shelter. I felt that it was undeserved, almost equal to looting. Some 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 the very people who takes care of us. After the yatra, I was 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 was their generosity and not our right.
Not carrying any phones or money made all of us quite vulnerable but also awake. With not much to fall back on, I was able to recognise the offerings and the gifts showered at me. But in our everyday lives, where one earns lakhs of rupees from this exploitative economy, one doesn’t even look at their victims in the face. We studied to top the class like crazy, feeling that we worked hard for it, 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 and still going to bed hungry having only one meal a day, is my compensation justified? Isn’t it just a function of where I was born? Not that we are not the victim of this system, but there are a lot more people who are suffering more, whom 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. 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 an avid reader and learner. Chemical Engineer by training, she spent 4 years working with ed-tech startup and took up a full time teaching role for a year. She is passionate and deeply driven to proliferate the idea of self-designed learning. She started an initiative called Project Cheshtha which helps organisations transition to self design learning, supports unschoolers in their journey. She is also a maker at heart and loves travelling, meeting new people and learn something new each day.