During my cycling trips through Tamil Nadu, the often asked question is, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு” – Thambikku entha ooru. It cannot be expressed in English so easily. The literal translation would be – “Where are you from?” or “Which place do you belong to?” or in a more contemporary style, ‘which place bro?’ The translation does do justice to the attempt by the inquisitor to unlock a wide range of information in such a simple question. The purpose of the question is not just to find out where I started the trip or where I live presently, but more about my origins, my ancestors, my ethnicity or possibly who am I?
As a fourth generation migrant (no idea about my ancestors beyond that!), this is certainly not a question that I enjoy answering to. I would invariably come up with some absurd response to make the questioner repent asking such questions. On some occasions, I would rattle out the lines from the Tamil movie ‘Parasakhti’, written by Karunanidhi and expressed by Shivaji Ganesan.
“பிறக்க ஒரு நாடு பிழைக்க ஒரு நாடு, தமிழ்நாட்டின் தலையெழுத்துக்கு நான் என்ன விதிவிலக்கா?”
Translation – Born in one country, surviving in another; When this is the fate of most Tamilians, how can I be an exception
On other times, I quote ancient poem of Kaniyan Poongunranar, “யாதும் ஊரே யாவரும் கேளிர்” (Translation by APJ Abdul Kalam – I am a world citizen. Every Citizen is my own kith and kin). On one instance, I was embarassed by a homeless person standing nearby, ‘I should be saying that.’
An exercise to find one’s origins usually makes stories filled with passion, emotion, pride, as is normally seen in most movies or television soaps. I consider it as a futile exercise for me to discover my ancestry or native place. Even if I have to claim a certain place as my origins, I would be invariably told by others that I don’t resemble or behave like someone from that place. Given that real estate is expensive across all places, it is highly unlikely that I am ever going to get the ‘காணி நிலம்‘ (Translation: a piece of land measured in Tamil metric) anywhere to claim it as my place. Having lived across different towns of Tamil Nadu, my Tamil accent is a mix of various regions which will leave many confused about my antecedents.
For celebrities, it is a matter of pride for many to seek credence by arbitrarily tracing their antecedents all the way to Gods and Goddesses, a custom that is common to Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. At times, the town or village will automatically start owning them even if they have a very tenuous connection. Very recently, a nondescript Thulasendrapuram found its identity by claiming Kamala Harris as one of their own. Of course, it was obvious that her mom would have been estranged as soon as she married a Jamaican or even before, for crossing the sea.
My search was limited to my dad’s choice – Vishnampettai in Thanjavur district. The only reason for his choice was his inheritance of small fragment of land. The land was disposed off long before I was born and there has been no contact with the village since. For a large part of my life, I was more confident of discovering Malgudi rather than Vishnampettai and its existence sounded only less fictional than Attipatti! Later, Google maps confirmed the physical existence of the place.
On October 16, 2021, I set out from Kumbakonam to ride all the way back to Coimbatore over a day or two. I wanted to ride along the river Kaveri till Musiri before taking the highway towards Karur and then to Coimbatore. The map suggested that Vishnampettai is not far away from the road and I decided to take a detour. At about 17 Kms from Thiruvaiyaru, the road takes a detour towards Vishnampettai. As I rode towards the village, the first person I encountered asked me, “தம்பிக்கு எந்த ஊரு?” I refrained from answering the usual way and instead sought the way to the Agraharam – the ghetto of Brahmins. There was no one in particular whom I could look up to. I rode through the Agraharam which seems to be a rundown version of a prosperous locality of yesteryear. There was a well in the middle of the road that was built in 1938!
As I reached the end of the road, I spotted a temple with few uncles standing outside of it. I requested their permission to take a picture of the temple and soon, conversation began.
It started with routine questions on my current residence, job, marriage, which unfortunately did not elicit adequate response for them to probe further. After claiming that I ‘supposedly’ hail from this village, they conducted elaborate inquiries about my father, grand father and the gothra! Since I looked clueless for most questions, they decided that it was best to let me off. They were kind enough to offer me a lunch. It was a festival day and the final set of rituals were to be performed at the Temple. I offered the maximum amount possible (in fact, the highest I have ever offered to a temple!), with the hope that my dad would be impressed by my gesture and reimburse them. I soon realised that the presiding deity belongs to the rival sect and later, my dad didn’t show any eagerness to reimburse. After declining lunch with the excuse that I have long way to go, they offered me with sumptuous amount of chakkra pongal to binge on.
The route from Kumbakonam to Vishnampettai was filled with places associated with Carnatic Music. From the holy Thiruvaiyaru to Umayalpuram (Sivaraman), Maharajapuram (Santhanam), and Papanasam (Sivan). I wasn’t sure if Vishnampettai had any musician to their credit. When I asked a little boy on the significance of Thiruvaiyaru, he promptly answered, ‘Asoka Halwa’! I rode around to see if there are any other temples that can be remotely associated with my ancestors. Karumbeshwarar temple, located on the north of village, close to the Kollidam river, was an option for me to claim as a ‘family deity’, but there is no way to corroborate those claims.
When triangulated with other data points, the claims of this village being my ancestral or native village somehow doesn’t add up. For instance, I have been long told that the family deity is Vaitheeswaran Koil (you can read about my visit by foot as well as cycle!) which is located about 100 Kms away form the village. It is unlikely that my ancestors would have performed their ‘duties’ in a temple so far away (not that any of us do now!). Considering that I have no financial stakes in discovering my nativity, it is easy to ignore the village. However, it is also true that the village doesn’t need me either.
“I want to leave, to go somewhere where I should be really in my place, where I would fit in . . . but my place is nowhere; I am unwanted.”
Before you start reading the blog, please check if you have at least 10-15 minutes with high tolerance levels. An easier way is to to scroll all the way down, check the final part of the blog, and contribute to Asha. It would be more meaningful than the entire blog!
It was in the year 2009 that I was introduced, inadvertently, to two activities in my life – Self-supported cycling tours and Asha for Education. It would be impossible to gauge the impact of these two activities in my life over the next decade and possibly, much more into the future. In March 2009, I undertook the tour of Malabar – an eighteen day cycling tour on the west coast of India; an unique experience that brought me in touch with many ground realities of the world. In June 2009, I visited Thulir – a project supported by Asha, during a cycling tour in Dharmapuri district. Over the last decade, it is certainly not an understatment to say that Thulir has been my another home.
I was keen to combine both and find out if I can do a cycling tour covering the projects supported by Asha for Education. I looked up to the list of projects supported by Asha in Tamil Nadu and chose five of them (Thulir was an automatic choice!) for site visits.Padmanava a.k.a Paddy, projects co-ordinator at Asha, helped me with an introduction to each of the projects. Thanks to Sulu and Anand at Cycology, my bike was fitted with a pannier and I was ready for the tour.
Asha for Education was started in 1991 by Late VJP Srivatsavoy, Prof. Deepak Gupta, and Prof. Sandeep Pandey, during their student days at the University of California, Berkeley. Their belief was that education is a critical requisite and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Over the next 3 decades, Asha has grown in manifold across USA and India, raising funds for numerous supporting grass-root level institutions, and managed in a decentralised manner through various chapters. For details, please visit the website http://www.ashanet.org
I was introduced to the Bangalore chapter of Asha through their running program, anchored by Santosh, a volunteer with Asha, before he moved to start Runners High. From Santhosh to Anita and Sanjeeev, I started getting interested in the projects supported by Asha. Since 2013, I have been a project steward for Thulir and you can read my site visit reports here.
The Tour Plan
Day 1 – February 24, 2020 – Ride upto Mettur
My first destination was Puvidham school, located in Dharmapuri district, about 200 Kms from Coimbatore. Riding all the way on the very first day didn’t look like an option to be contemplated. Also, reaching a remote place like Puvidham in late evenings could be challenging; and I detest riding in the dark. I split the ride into two days with a halt at either Mettur or Erode on the first day, depending on my energy levels. The ride from Coimbatore to Bhavani was on the National Highway with very little to report. The soreness in my legs, following the half-marathon at Annur, was bothering me and I preferred to ride it with ease. I reached Bhavani at about 11:30, before it started getting too hot. The ride from Bhavani to Mettur was a reminiscent from the Tour of Tamil Nadu (ToT) 2018, when we rode from Erode to Hogenekkal on day 1. The Tamarind trees on either side of the road offered much wanted protection from heat. One of the sad outcomes of the road expansion projects in India is the axing of these trees from the road. They were planted decades earlier and had myriad benefits for a host of people. I was reminded of this excellent piece in The Hindu few years back, where the author poignantly concludes,
Widening roads at any cost represents a one-dimensional view of progress that compromises other human values, capabilities, and needs, which are all not really fungible. Our increasing disconnect with these values and capabilities only erodes the deep wells of tolerance and breeds alienation between people and nature, land and culture. There are better roads, so to speak, to take, and there is time yet to take them.
I reached Mettur at about 3:00 PM after a lunch enroute. I was able to find a budget hotel to crash for the night and keep my bike securely. The entry to the Dam closes at 5:30 PM, and my afternoon nap delayed my visit.
Day 2 – February 25, 2020 – Ride from Mettur to Puvidham
The start on the second day was delayed in fixing a puncture and then, a bizarre incident of dropping a glass of tea! The owner was kind enough to let me go for Rs. 10 towards damages and offered another cup of tea too. The ride had plenty of climbs starting from the ghat section near Mettur dam. The view from the top of the hill was breathtaking.
The route until Mecheri was chaotic with lorries and school buses. The number of school buses has increased in Tamil Nadu exponentially over the past decade; largely because, it offers an excellent scope for the owners of the school to make big bucks. In the process, the distance travelled by children has increased taking much of their percious daily time, which could have been used for better purposes. After some breakfast at Mecheri, the ride to Puvidham was through some scenic village roads. It was a pleasure to ride in these roads – well paved and superior to many city roads in India.
Before reaching Puvidham, the route took me to Nagavathi Dam, which was nothing more than a vast tract of empty land. Dharmapuri is one of the most drought prone districts of Tamil Nadu. Despite the fact that the river Cauvery flows through it, the region is economically backward and relies on rain-fed agriculture. I reached Puvidham in time to have lunch with Meenakshi, the founder of the institution.
Day 3 – February 26, 2020 – Stay at Puvidham
The origins of Puvidham goes back to 1992, when Meenakshi, an architect, and Umesh, an engineer turned agriculturist, decided to settle down in the driest region of Tamil Nadu and engage in conservation efforts. Early 2000, Meenakshi started the school, which offered an alternative to conventional education. Starting with her own children, she wanted the school to be a place of self-learning through nature and physical activities. The school also has a hostel attached to it and it caters to both local children as well as outstation children. Children study here upto class 8 and then proceed to the the high school nearby or at Dharmapuri, located about 20 kms from Puvidham.
I spent the day at Puvidham talking to the teachers and students, and attending some of their classes. My favourite class was learning to spin the cotton by using a takli or drop spindle. It was here where I learned that my hands don’t listen to my eyes and I ended up struggling to spin the takli. I promised Meenakshi that I will learn before I visit Puvidham next time. The challenge now is in getting a takli, which seems to be unfamiliar even in Khadi shops.
You can read my site visit report at the project page. The school is supported by Asha – London and Seattle chapters – since 2004. To know more about Puvidham, you can visit their website or visit the project page in Asha website.
Day 4 – February 27, 2020 – Puvidham to Thulir
I started from Puvidham after an excellent coffee from/with Meenakshi. My first destination was Dharmapuri, where I planned to have my breakfast. Dharmapuri, a nondescript town, is known only for being the district headquarters and that, it is on NH7. Finding a decent breakfast place was a challenge. From Dharmapuri to Harur, the ride was through one of the finest roads – it was unbelievable to see a well maintained broad road with reasonable tree cover. I was likely to be late for lunch and requested Anu to keep lunch for me, as I always relish Thulir’s wonderful lunch. After Harur, the route took me to Theerthamalai with plenty of short and steep climbs. This was my third visit to Thulir in bicycle. The first one was in 2009, when I reached Jolarpet by train and rode from Jolarpet to Thulir, after riding up Yelagiri. The second time was in 2015, when I rode from Pondicherry to Thulir via Thiruvannamalai. I rode different bikes in each of the above occasions, and this time, it was a chance for my third bike to pay a visit to Thulir. I reached the school at about 3:30 PM, an hour before the school closes. With the senior students out for a tour, the school was filled with the tiny tots. Some kids were curious on what I would do if my tyre was punctured!
Day 5 – February 28, 2020 – Stay at Thulir
Thulir was started by Anu and Krishna in 2003 when they moved to the Sittlingi village. The objective of Thulir is to cater to the educational needs of the Sittlingi Valley, located amidst the Kalrayan hills in Dharmapuri district. Thulir started out as an after-school learning centre for school going children during evening hours and holidays. Later, they introduced a Basic Technology Program for school drop-outs. After a few iterations, it has now evolved into a primary school. Personally, it has been a great learning for me in associating with Thulir for over a decade and witnessing the change in educational needs in the village. The day was spent well at the school interacting with teachers and lunch with the children. In the evening, the senior students (age 8-10) returned back from their trip and it was a pleasure meeting them. Some of them travelled for the first time without their parents.
It was the additional day of the year and I certainly wanted to make it count. After some lovely coffee from Archana, I set out on the ride well after the sunrise.
The first 20 kms was through the Thumbal forests and I hoped to encounter a bison or two; alas, none were around. The road was unexpectedly good for long stretches and I was thrilled to ride on it! Unfortunately, good things don’t last longer, and I encountered a rough patch for about 5 Kms, where I missed my MTB the most! I crossed Thumbal and reached the Salem-Villupuram highway for some hot breakfast. I had to find the route to take me to Malliyakarai, where I join the Attur-Thuraiyur road towards Thuraiyur – familiar from the ToT 2015 edition, when we rode from Thuraiyur to Kallakuruchi. The day was getting tough and my struggle to ride further found me under a pipal tree for relief from the heat. These unplanned rest breaks offer some time for additional contemplation on whether the trip is worth anything before reassuring myself to hang on there. At Thammampatti, I found a ‘new’ restaurant to get charged up for rest of the ride. My riding speed certainly improved after the lunch.
Thuraiyur brought back memories of ToT 2015 and the difficulty of finding a place to have our dinner and breakfast as most restaurants were very small back then. Padmas cafe, where we had our breakfast, has since been upgraded and the capacity has been expanded. I stopped for a coffee and some pleasant conversations with the owner, before riding to Payir. It was a slow day and I reached Payir at about 4:30 PM. I was warmly welcomed by Senthil and Preethi and had my dinner with them, listening to their stories of starting Payir.
Day 7 – March 1, 2020 – Stay at Payir
It was obvious that getting time with Senthil seemed practically impossible as he is engaged with various facets of Payir round the clock. On Saturday, there were students seeking his help in academics after his dinner time. He was still kind enough to allot some time for me on Sunday. Senthil is a engineer by graduate and worked in corporate for a decade. He quit his high flying career to relocate himself to Thenur and start Payir. His TEDx talk would give an excellent overview of his work at Thenur and the surroundings.
You can read more about Payir in their website. Asha has been supporting the educational program at Payir since or visit the project page in Asha here.
Senthil is also an Asha Fellow since 2017 and I was keen on knowing about his work and plans. I had a freewheel chat with him about the various challenges in the region and his work with them over the decade and half. Later that evening, I also attended a meeting of farmers in that region over watershed management in that region. You can read more about his fellowship and my observations in the Fellowship page here.
Day 8 – March 2, 2020 – Payir to Madurai
I was keen to find out routes that would keep me away from the highway for that day but couldn’t find any. My first pitstop was Manachanallur. I wanted to stop for a coffee but the cozy hotel tempted me to have some hot idlis and vadai before washing it down with a cup of coffee – the breakfast was cheaper than a coffee at some of the city restaurants! I wanted to bye-pass the Trichy town to avoid the morning traffic. In the process, I could catch a glimpse of the Rockfort while crossing the river Cauvery.
After crossing Trichy, the barren highway had very little to describe. At times, you feel that you are riding towards the end of the world. This is exactly where the podcasts came handy. On this tour, I rekindled my love for podcasts. Apart from the usual favourites from The Guardian, there were few others that got me interested like We Crashed by Wondery. On that day, I was listening to a two and half hour conversation between TM Krishna and Amit Verma in a lovely series called The Seen and the Unseen. It was a thought provoking conversation on caste, carnatic music, gender, privilege, and social structures, as viewed through his own life. I am sure a reference to his name can get people polarised to extremes; but this was one conversation where I find him being honest with himself. He was willing to accept that his rise in music was not just a symbol of meritocracy but also linked to his antecedents, caste, and the society he grew up in. More so, on that day, it helped me to cover 50 Kms in an otherwise boring ride. I reached the outskirts of Melur for my lunch at about 1:00 PM and stayed put there till 3:00 PM. I reached the “Temple City” at 4:30 PM after surviving an ‘attack’ by a two-wheeler, which seems to be an integral part of riding in Madurai. Although a long day of 10 hours and 30 minutes, my riding time was only about 7:21 – tail wind helps!
In Madurai, Asha supports the Madurai SEED project at Karumbalai. It is an after school learning centre for school going children aimed at education beyond the school curriculum. The objective is to help children continue going to school and also, to find out the true potential of the children. The assistance extends beyond their education in helping them achieve their aspirations. To know more about Madurai SEED, you can visit their website or view the project page here. In addition, the founder of the project, A. S. Karthik Bharati is also a Asha Fellow. I had planned to visit the centres during the evening (as it functions only in evenings and weekends) and meet Karthik for a chat the following day. The evening was well spent going around the four centres of Madurai SEED in Karumbalai.
Day 9 – March 3, 2020 – Visit to Gandhi Museum, Meeting Karthi Bharati and ride to Vathalakkundu
I started the day by visiting the Gandhi Museum, purely out of my inquisitiveness. This was the first time I have even heard about it as people rarely associate Madurai with this museum. Housed in the erstwhile palace of Rani Mangammal, it was inaugurated in 1959 and contained some interesting collections of memorabilia from the life of Mahathma Gandhi. It also had an extensive photo exhibition on freedom struggle.
The photographs from the Gandhiji’s trips to Tamil Nadu were treasure troves. I was particulary impressed by the collection of letters that Gandhiji had written to various people. One of the letter was addressed to the Principal of Gujarat College requesting him to re–admit the students who had participated in the civil disobedience movement. At a time when people are debating the relevance of students’ participating in political movements, this was interesting.
The next two hours were spent conversing with Karthik and he was kind to take me for lunch too. Karthik has been a Asha Fellow since 2013, supported by Asha Boston. He grew up in the Karumbalai area and was the first graduate in his family. He was keen on giving back to the society as he was supported by others. This prompted him to start the Madurai SEED and has since worked extensively with the children and youth in that locality. You can read more about his fellowship in Asha Project page here.
The ride from Madurai to Kodaikanal was about 120 Km. I preferred to split into two rides – from Madurai to Vathalakkundu (or is it Batalgundu or Batlagundu?) that evening and climb the ghats, the following day. I was hoping that the hotel where we stayed during ToT 2010, enroute to Kodai, would be still around. I reached Vathalakkundu and realised that the hotel has been shutdown sometime back! I had to ride back to the town to find Hotel O2 Residency, who were kind enough to allow me to carry my bike to the room. It was good to finish this section of the ride earlier to allow the following day only for the climbs.
Day 10 – March 4, 2020 – Vathalakkundu to Kodaikanal
My first conquest of Kodaikanal was back in 2010 when we rode from Vathalakundu via Pattiveeranpatti and Pannaikkadu. This time, I chose to ride through the highway. I find riding uphill as a very ‘spiritual’ experience – I struggle, I curse it during the ride, but the satisfaction of accomplishing it surpasses it all. Riding slowly with high cadence is like a poetry in motion; it is just between you and your bike. My first attempt to climb hills was in 2008 when I rode uphill to Coonoor and yet, every ride still makes me feel that it is the first time I am trying it. It has been a learning experience, shuffling my ride strategy between cadence and power. Often, the breathtaking views after few hundred metres of climb will reaffirm the confidence and push towards further climbs.
There were some additional challenges – The newly laid road caused a few problems with the stones sticking on to my tires. A temple festival in one of the villages that held the traffic for a while. After reaching Kodai, I was surprised to see rooms unavailable in TTDC on a weekday during off-season! I finally checked in at Hill Top Towers, who also provided me with a safe place for my bike. I believe many hotels and homestays have been shut down in the recent past due to violations of building rules, among others.
I spent the evening going for a walk around the Kodai lake. The ambience around the lake tempted me to go for a run, which I did on the following two days. The one awkward moment was when someone asked me if I want to rent a bicycle! A statue of Jawaharlal Nehru was an interesting find, when you observe the names of dignitaries in the inauguration plaque.
Day 11 – March 5, 2020 – Morning run, Betsy Creche, and the phone!
The day started with a pleasant morning run around the Kodai lake. It was a scenic location and a 5K run was possibly the best thing that one can do in Kodai. The road was largely free from traffic and there were a few fellow walkers and runners enjoying their morning there. It was a reminiscent of my days in Pondicherry doing my morning runs at the promenade. I feel that every city must allot some roads for the exclusive use of early morning walkers and runners.
I was scheduled to meet Ms. Hilda at the Betsy Elizabeth Creche that morning. The creche was located a little away from the hotel and it was best to ride the bike all the way. The Creche has been supported by Asha Seattle since 2007. You can read more about the funding and support by Asha on the project page.
The afternoon was spent visiting Sai Sruthi and a walk around the lake again. Somehow, I didn’t seem to get tired of the lake even if I visit it again and agin. I was also glad that I was there when there aren’t many visitors, if I visualise how chaotic it would be during the ‘tourist season.’ There was garden inside the lake which caught my attention, not for its maintenance but for the person after whom it has been named. It was named after Maharaja Ripudaman Singh of Nabha, who died in Kodaikanal as a political prisoner – some historical facts that I was not familiar with.
On the way back to the hotel, I found these interesting lines from The Bible in a Church.
After taking this picture, my phone fell flat and the screen broke! Yeah, the weary and burdened phone was given some rest!
Day 12 – March 6, 2020 – Morning run at the lake and Ride back home
It was impossible to resist another chance to run around the lake. I started the day with an energetic run on Kodai lake and bade farewell to its beauty. Little did I know that the following weeks will be deserted for worse!
I started the ride after a sumptuous breakfast at Hilltop, watching children being dropped at the Kodai International School by the parents during the ‘rush hour’ – One would think that settling down in Kodai is to have a laid back life; not for these parents though. A long downhill ride was awaiting me with a 5K climb in the middle. The ride was a repeat of the last day of ToT 2010, when we rode from Kodai to Pollachi. On that day, the road from Perumalmalai to Palani was ‘exclusively’ for us, as there was a landslide in-between and heavy vehicles couldn’t come through it. Even otherwise, there wasn’t much traffic and it was an absolute beauty to ride overlooking deep valleys and through tall trees. Memories of riding with Manjula and ‘Singham’ Magesh flashed by as I rode towards Palani. I am posting the pictures from that ride. The picture by Ryan on that day was outstanding (left one)!
After Palani, I had no choice but to take the route via Pollachi, as my phone was not available for navigation. The road from Palani to Pollachi was turning out to be a nightmare to ride. Thanks to the good-old ways of finding routes – Oral enquiries – I found some alternate route to avoid Pollachi. The route was tough with rolling hills but was largely free from traffic making it a pleasant ride. After crossing Chettipalayam, while riding towards Pothanur, I spotted my fellow cyclist, Manju returning from work. He went ahead and warmly welcomed me back to Coimbatore with sugarcane juice! Since Cycology was on the way, my first priority was to go and thank Sulu and Anand for their support before heading home.
These are journeys without destinations; There are only temporary halts. This was the longest tour since my tour on the west coast, a decade back. Every cycle tour teaches me plenty of things – from cycling perspective and society, in general. This time around, it was more to do with Asha, the projects supported by Asha, my own association with Asha and the projects, and importantly, how I can contribute more through Asha. The best part of volunteering for Asha has been that it is mutually beneficial for everyone involved. For me, as a project steward, it was a great experience to engage in the development of Thulir over the past decade and see the transformation during this time. It also helped me to step outside the bubble that I was living in and understand the bigger challenges that people face in their daily life.
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During the first Tour of Tamil Nadu in 2010, I offered myself to be a blogger but never fulfilled that promise. Most of my writings remained in draft mode and on many days, I did not write anything other than the title. I redeemed some of the promise when I wrote this piece for The Hindu during the last Tour of Tamil Nadu – 2018, largely helped by pictures from Ganesh and Srini. Over the 8 days of this year’s Tour of Tamil Nadu, I managed to provide daily updates on my Facebook page – little did I realise that I had ended up typing a whooping ~2500 words in my smartphone! This blog is an edited version of those posts with few detailed explanations and pictures by Srini Swaminathan
Day 1 – December 22nd – Thanjavur to Chidambaram
The tour started with the customary photo shoot, the image usually finds it way to our certificate. Some exchange of old memories on how it all began in Coimbatore in 2010 – just to show off I have been riding for so long (and yet quite rubbish as it was revealed end of the day). We exited Thanjavur listening to the incessant honking which was mistaken for cheering from the public – not true for sure. We reached Ayyampettai, Ammapettai, and shouted together ‘pettai rap‘. Our first pit stop was at the Dharasuram temple.
We had a choice to visit the temple and I was carrying the dhoti in my hydration pack. I unveiled the fashion disaster of the tour when I wrapped around a dhoti, a towel, hydration pack and not to miss out my goggles!
The next major landmark was the Lower Anaicut – the terminal barrage across Kollidam before the river joins the sea. The dam, built in 1902, still allows only one-way traffic for cars and heavy vehicles. The second pit-stop was at Gangai Konda Cholapuram – my hunger made the hotel outside of it look more attractive and lunch was excellent. We viewed the temple from outside as it was too hot to step our foot inside.
The last phase of afternoon ride took us to the banks of Veeranam lake. The road seems to be never ending and the only solace was seeing the lake filled with water. I kept myself engaged thinking how many thermacols are required to cover the lake. Srini gave an excellent company on the ride and clicked some lovely pictures!
The heat and the headwinds certainly humbled me and the ride finished in Chidambaram at 5:40 PM.
Day 2 – December 23rd – Chidambaram to Velankanni
The start was delayed to make sure we are on time for lunch at Aryapuram, the highlight of the day’s ride. The first town on route was Kollidam, just after the river with the same name. Memories of buying my cane rocking chair in 2005 flashed in my minds – a piece of furniture that has been integral to my life since. The next town was Vaitheeswaran Koil – a nondescript temple town that shot into fame in the early 2000s due to ‘Nadi’ astrology. Looks like the hay days are over now. Personally, the place is significant as the presiding deity in the temple happens to be my ‘family deity‘.
Devotion levels rose instantaneously and I thought of making a quick stop. The challenge was to find someone who will take care of my cycle during the visit. Few of them rejected to do so despite my emotional appeals about the significance of the place in my life – getting tonsured here on completion of my first year on earth, piercing of my ears etc., Finally, one kind lady agreed for it and I was able to make a quick visit to the temple. Returning back from temple, I offered her some money which she refused stating that she is happy to see me visit the temple. Who said God lives inside the temple alone! The star attraction of the day was the pit-stop was Aryapuram, where TOT veteran Ganesh Ram had arranged for a traditional ‘sappad’ in his ancestral place. Delicious meal served exquisitely with tons of love made the meal unforgettable. The reclainer chair in the pyol tempted me to take a long siesta. It was certainly a challenge to motivate ourselves to ride again!
Post-lunch ride was through densely populated villages leading to Velankanni. There was not a patch of land where we were devoid of the noise from loud speakers. Election announcements, Temple songs, Churches, Mosques – at times, I wished that villages need DJs more than elected leaders. They can mix and match all these through a single speaker in periodic intervals! Srini kept me occupied through this stretch with some random discussions. His portable speaker ran out of battery and was certainly not missed with the noise around. Our second pit-stop was outside the Nagore Dargah. Time constraints forced me to abandon the visit and proceed to Velankanni instead.
The day ended with a visit to the Vailankanni Church, which certainly looked well maintained than the temples we visited.
Day 3 – December 24th – Velakanni to Karaikudi
Being a long ride of about 157 Km, we started the ride by 7:45 AM at Velankanni. And then, it happened!
R A I N… You made me a, you made a, believer, believer!
We were welcomed by a downpour that pushed us the nearest covered place available. I took refuge at a house where an old man proudly told me about his achievement of riding his bicycle all the way to Poompuhar in his younger days. Good old times when he doesn’t need to show his Strava reading to anyone! Left the house only to be welcomed by another downpour. The next place of refuge was a bus stop where I gave an impassionate speech on the “true worth” of my cycle, when asked for its price. Quite a few gave an impression that it would have been lot better to get drenched in the rain than listen to me.
There was an option to use the pickup truck and take float to the next pit stop, from where we can start riding again. Rain is a pretty strange thing – at first, we do our best to avoid getting wet; once fully drenched, we don’t wish to escape it anymore. While running in the rain is real fun, like the Berlin Marathon early this year, riding in the rain has a painful side to it – the task of cleaning the bike after ride. Today was a long ride and there was ample time to think about it.
Meanwhile, Abhijit, who got on to the pick up truck captured the ride in this beautiful video.
I reached the first pit stop at 45k mark and the rains had subsided then. Soon after that, I faced the only incident of puncture in the entire tour. Cometh the hour, cometh the man – ace mechanic Rajashekar fixed the issue in less than 5 minutes.
The route was through places that I was hearing for the first time. One exception was Aranthangi, synonymous with S. Thirunavukkasar, a politician whom I always felt never got the due from different parties he belonged to. The final stretch of the route from Puduvayal to Karaikudi was filled with beautiful Chettinad houses (most looks haunted though!) and the Kandanur temple.
The day ended at Karaikudi and the hotel was next to Pandian Cinemas – memories of watching, rather suffering, ‘Vettaiyadu Vilaiyadu‘ with Rajan, when we were in the town for the wedding of Thenappan!
Day 4 – December 25th – Karaikudi to Rameswaram
For some, it was a 145 Km ride; for Coach Srinath, it was a ride in a pace line in steady 160W. Those terminologies certainly got few of the heads spinning. Never mind, waiting for a train at level crossing ensured that we are well seperated from the ‘pace line’!
The first stop was at a Chettinad House in Devakottai. One of our riders had arranged for us to visit the house and have a look around it. We were warmly received and the residents took us through the house. Sometimes, I wonder where we lost our sense of aesthetics in the process of building concrete jungles.
After Devakottai, there weren’t any major towns till Ramanathapuram. We had to ride through vast open spaces of barren land with few patches of greenery. The ride was a pleasure though, thanks to pleasant weather conditions, less traffic, and assistance from tail wind. Our route bye-passed Ramanathapuram and we found a decent place for lunch on the road leading to Rameswaram. It was 1 PM, we were looking for lunch after covering about 90 Kms. Some adventured in their choice of food whereas, I stayed safe with my staple diet of curd rice. The sky rocketing of onion prices meant that I cannot get onion pakodas to relish. It was a fairly easy post lunch ride and the next destination was the iconic Pamban Bridge. It was bizarre to see a bridge on a highway looking like a tourist spot with vehicles parked on either side. Breathtaking views of the sea and the Rail Bridge got me captivated for few minutes. I was later told that the bridge rarely opens these days.
As we moved towards Rameswaram, our pit stop was located at the memorial of APJ Abdul Kalam. I felt that the memorial serves the purpose of tourists than for anyone seriously wanting to know about him. The paintings gave an impression of a mythological legend than someone who really lived!
One surprise element was the lack of Christmas fervour on the route. Some got lost in the election campaign but there weren’t many churches either.
Day 5 – December 26th – Rameswaram to Rameswaram
The day when the Solar Eclipse eclipsed our ride. Our tour was fortunate to have an enthusiast like Prasad, who had personally bought eclipse glasses for safe viewing for all of us. Further, he found an ideal location, about 3 Km from our hotel for best viewing of the Eclipse. Laziness made me choose the balcony of my room as the location. Should I tell you that the moon came in the view between me and the Sun!
Our ride started at 10:30 AM towards the farthest point in Dhanushkodi. Getting out of Rameswaram town was an experience in itself. A 20 km ride with sea on either side was a beauty in itself with less to be described. Looks like some of the old remains of place have disappeared from my only visit in 2006. The final point – Arichalmunai – was crowded with crazy traffic, and I preferred to turn around few metres before. The ridesboth ways had plenty of cross winds giving us some hints on what is store for the next day.
A mandatory temple visit for the evening. While I had an option for a “guided” visit which usually involved getting sprayed with water, I preferred a simple option to take a walk in the beautiful corridors (1212 pillars) of the temple. I could not fathom what kind of spiritual progression can be expected in a place that is nothing short of filthy and filled with noisy and unruly crowds. The sanctum sanctorum was crowded and there was no chance of visiting it. I was suggesting to my fellow riders that one day, we should ride through the four corridors to make the tour special!
The rest of evening was spent listening to Coach Srinath about various facets of cycling and fitness, in general. If I look back to find out that moment where it that started my cycling journey, it has to be the chance meeting him at RK Salai Saravana Bhavan (although he wishes he met someone in Muniyandi Vilas instead!). This was back in 2007; Twelve years later, his enthusiasm in learning and sharing about cycling has not diminished a bit. While it is tough for me to ride to his expectation, I can sincerely hope to retain my current enthusiasm though.
Day 6 – December 27th – Rameswaram to Madurai
The first of two days, when it is more about riding than touring. The longest ride of the tour at 176 Km, if not the toughest of the tour, certainly ensured that we focus on riding and nothing else. Yet again, getting out of Rameswaram was a challenge due to traffic issues. I may be generalising here, but the chaos caused by Sabarimalai devotees was certainly obnoxious. So much that I was hesitant to visit Madurai temple due to their presence in temples all over south.
The route was through the highway and we did not enter any of the towns enroute like Ramanathapuram, Paramakudi, or Manamadurai. The architect of the Tour, Vasanth used to call these rides as “Junk miles” in the past; but he too was riding today! The crosswinds and the heat did pose challenges. Such long rides require substantial food and water intake and we stopped for a royal ‘full’ meals. Post lunch ride was supported by listening to some random podcasts on Astrology (that too by The Guardian), crisis in North Carolina, and some issues with a youth club. If there was one podcast that I enjoyed the most, it has to be Athletes Unfiltered by Strava. I did miss my good old iPod classic, which helped me manage podcasts a lot better.
It is very easy to know that you are entering Madurai as soon as you see the unruly traffic situation. Where else would you see in the middle of the road, someone park their car or stop their two wheeler to take a phone call!
Day 7 – December 28th – Madurai to Madurai
This was an easy ride day before the one final big day of the tour. I wanted to ease my legs by going for a short run, which did not turn out to be noteworthy. This made me wonder how participants of Ironman run a marathon as soon as they finish cycling for 180 Kms!
Our ride to Azhagarmalai started at 10:30 AM through the heat and dust of Madurai. We rode on the road to Natham, where a bridge to nowhere seems to be perenially under construction. We finally had the real ‘climb’ of the tour – a missing ingredient in the Tour. We climbed about 300m on a narrow road constantly obstructed by the monkeys – not only the four legged ones. It is yet another bizarre case of a road that is permitted for two and four wheeled motor vehicles but not cycles. The organised assured the officials of safety and managed to get exemption.
Crowded temples did not interest me anymore and quickly rode downhill.
The Tour is never the same without the photos and selfies with Suresh. After missing the tour on the 6 days, he duly announced his arrival on the tour with his exciting photography.
The felicitation ceremony of the Tour, where all participants get honoured regardless of the distance or speed they rode, was held in the evening. Vasanth unveiled the theme of the next season of the tour. It is amazing to see the completion of 10 editions of the tour when we think that the first edition was in jeopardy due to certain issues. Eventually, some of the organisers personally funded the see through the first edition of the tour in 2010. It goes without saying that the Tour has always been about the organisers and spirited volunteers – replace them with anyone else, the tour wouldn’t be the same. We also took time to appreciate the wonderful support crew and the spirited volunteers who made the tour.
Day 8 – December 29th – Madurai to Thanjavur
The day started with a surprise visit of Kumaravel from Chennai Runners at the Hotel. It was nice of him to break his Sunday long run and wish us at the Hotel. Being the last day, some of them opted out of ride due to various reasons. I was surprised that I still had the mettle to start. Not sure of finish, I decided to take it one pitstop at a time.
The first two hours of the ride was under a pleasant weather and I rode past the first stop. The weather continued to be kind until the second pit stop. The headwind was posing a challenge and I maintained a steady rhythm. Some emotional moments when Sachin Krishna announced that this is the last pit stop manned by him for 2019 (fairly obvious, still..!). Srini, who had taken a day off delighted us with some photography!
The highlight of the day was the third pit stop. We were hosted by the members of erstwhile Pudukottai Royal Family. Although called as High Tea, we ate enough to make it a perfect lunch! The arrangements and warmth shown by the host was certainly overwhelming. It is definitely not an easy task to invite a bunch of sun burnt cyclists wearing sweat laden multi-coloured clothes that would potentially damage anyone’s sensory organs! I quickly checked if the tour was over there. It was only 2:00 PM and with only 50 Kms left, it was too early to call it a day.
I wanted to finish my tour at the Big Temple. The crowds outside the temple didn’t permit me to have a spectacular finish. Hence, I finished with a picture outside the temple!
It was simply impossible for me to do a tour of this magnitude without the support of some wonderful people who helped me do it.
Firstly, the core of Tamil Nadu Cycling Club, Vaz, Venky, Rajaram and others for the conceptualisation and perfect execution for 10 editions!
The team from Pro-Bikers, Bala Sir, Suresh, Vissu and their dedicated staff for the support on the tour.
Pit stops will never be the same without Sachin! His presence and enthusiastic cheering gets you going. Not to miss out the stern faced strict officer Rajaram, currently in Swamiji avatar, and his clear directions!
Abhita, Chitra, and other volunteers who quietly worked behind the scenes to ensure everything works perfectly!
My roommate Srini Swaminathan, for putting up with me in yet another tour. His photographs were priceless!
The support crew of drivers, mechanics, Loknath and others who worked tirelessly for eight days to make the tour memorable.
My friends in Coimbatore Cycling who are my ride partners round the year; Sulu Bhai for getting my cycle in perfect condition for the tour.
Last, but not the least, heartfelt thanks to all my fellow riders on the tour! I would also like to move from riding to volunteering in the next season. I would certainly continue touring and would prefer them to be unorganised henceforth.
A marathon in a city like Berlin cannot be anything but “legendary” – Yes, that’s the theme of the event and the organisers did some brilliant promotions to reinforce. Check this promotional video,
The event holds a special place among runners for being the ‘fastest course.’ Suresh Seshadri, a participant in this year’s edition, wrote an excellent piece for the The Hindu ahead of last year’s event.
“the combination of a flat, fast course, a pack of top-flight pacers and ideal autumn weather has ensured that the event is now regarded as the undisputed WR marathon race. Its claim to fame cemented by the fact that the last six successive world records for the distance, for men, have been set on the course”
Last year, Eluid Kipchoge set the fastest time ever by clocking 2:01:39 and certainly, the expectations were higher this year. I must have watched his finish a zillion times over the past one year and through him, I tried to visualise my own finish!
Kipchoge had to pull out of the event this year due to his committments with the potentially record-breaking attempt to run a marathon under 2 hours (which he did so). His absence this year was filled by the presence of Kenenisa Bekele, the world record holder for 5,000m and 10,000m events. He justified his presence by clocking an impressive 2:01:41, the second fastest timing and he was followed by Birhanu Legese who clocked 2:02:48, the fourth fastest timing of all times.
My entry to Berlin marathon was through lottery and I was over the moon when I found that I have managed to secure entry to the event, as I have failed in every other lottery to the world marathon majors. Having secured entry to the event, it was up to me to make it special. The preparations for the event started much earlier. My first priority was to do ‘something different’ to my routine and ventured to add Yoga to my routine since January. Ably guided by Prashanth, Yoga helped me to improve my breathing. The training routine was disrupted in June due to freak cycling accident and did not have the mental grit to bounce back quickly. I started my long runs in August and after finishing Hyderabad Marathon (for the 8th time) in 4:31:26, I decided that my realistic target for the event would be 4:15.
I reached Dresden, Germany a week before the marathon and my good friend Padmanava was there at the station to receive me. I hired a bike the following day at Dresden and set out to ride towards Prague. I reached Sezemice, near Teplice on Monday, stayed overnight in a quiet hotel, and rode from there to Prague on Tuesday. After going around in Prague on Wednesday, I returned back to Dresden by train. The route was scenic with some challenging climbs and the highlight was crossing the border into Czech Republic with no checks.
After staying another day at Dresden to enjoy the exemplary hospitality and tour of Dresden by Paddy, I proceeded to Berlin on the Friday, September 27. The city was warming up for the marathon weekend. The pre-marathon event expo was held at the now-defunct Tempelhof airport, one of the oldest airports in the world. The vast airport suddenly looked small when filled with runners waiting to collect their race numbers. The added attraction in shopping, largely related to running, from fancy clothing to accessories and nutritional products, represented a running festival.
On Saturday, there was a ‘Breakfast Run’ organised from the Charlottenburg Palace to the Olympic Stadium — two iconic monuments with plenty of history. Running into the Olympic stadium, stories of 1936 Olympics and memories of the 2006 World Cup final flashed in my mind. It was in this stadium that Jesse Owens won the gold medal for the long jump in the 1936 Olympics beating Luz Long — a story that is a great example of sportsmanship. It was also the same stadium where the legend Zinedine Zidane bowed out in an unceremonious manner. So, when I met someone by name ‘Marco’ from Italy, I couldn’t resist enacting the sequence from 2006 World Cup!
It was also fun to bump into Chennai Runner, Vilva on the run, whom I was meeting after ages.
Getting 44,000 runners to run through the streets was no easy task. Runners were grouped in four categories and the start times ranged from 9:10 am for the elites to 10:10 am for the back-of-the-pack, where I duly took my place. Before the race, I decided not to wear my watch to track timing/distance. I started using tracking device from December 2016 and it has helped me in focusing my training runs well. This was a race where I had mentally prepared to give my best and I certainly don’t need a watch to tell me that I am running at my best. I had prepared for this event for the preceding 9 months, and decided that it would be best for me to run my heart out. From the gun shot, I made sure that I ran every minute of the race.
After running about 10 Km, largely jostling for space, it started raining and there was some challenge in an otherwise “fast marathon”. It must be noted that by then, Bekele and other lead runners had finished their respective races. The rain was certainly not a deterrent for runners as most were busy living their long cherished dreams.
What was surprising though, was the unflinching support from the volunteers who didn’t move from their positions, until the last one went past them. The equally admirable crowd didn’t relent either and cheerfully supported the runners through the route. Lively music bands were stationed across the route playing vibrant music.
Timing mats were placed at every 5K point and at the half-marathon. I could vaguely guess my timing for the intermediate split based on the time displayed. For instance, I knew that I completed my half-marathon at around 2 hours and was slowing down after that. The rains weren’t giving up and neither did my spirit. I continued pushing towards my best to see how far I can stretch myself. Naturally exhausted after the 30th KM, I was looking for some external motivation to see through the remaining distance. Before the event, Ashok, from Pillar Pacers informed me that he would be waiting at the 39th KM point. His presence at the 39th KM provided me with huge respite, when I saw him waiting in the rain and cheering for me. He also clicked a picture, which was certainly priceless!
The marathon route goes through some of the landmarks of Berlin including the Victory Column, German Chancellery, The Friedrichstadt-Palast, prominent art galleries and museums, Bundestrat, and finally, the Brandenburg Gate appearing between 41 and 42 Km points. Running through the Gate (Built in the 18th century to commemorate peace, it was closed for 28 years following the division of Germany), was something that I have been dreaming about ever since I won the lottery to participate, and the last kilometre was certainly my fastest!
Did I mention that the current marathon route passes through the landmarks of the erstwhile East and West Berlin signifying a unified spirit. In the first Marathon after the Wall came down, it was Uta Pippig, from East Germany, who won the race in the women’s category. Listen to her recollecting those wonderful moments,
A euphoric finish was rewarded by a wonderfully designed medal — one side featuring the important landmarks of Berlin and the other side the a relatively unknown Lutz Derkow. Lutz Derkow was one of the earliest employees of the organisation and worked for the event for over 30 years before passing away earlier this year. It was a tribute to him.
That evening, as I departed from Berlin, there were the finishers in the airport proudly sporting their finisher tees and medals all the way to their flights — the Berlin legends! I knew my finish timing only when I got my medal engraved. More than calling it a ‘Personal Best’ for being the fastest time that I have clocked for that distance, I would call it a ‘Personal Best’ purely for my efforts. Although, my 32nd marathon, this was one event that I would consider best in terms of planning and execution. The hype around the event was certainly worth every bit of it and I am proud to say “Ich bin ein Berliner“
Do check out the highlights of the event in this official video,
“If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon.”
Andrew Johnston, a business faculty member, explains in a popular TEDx talk on how he taught his students the fundamentals of Business by making them train and run a marathon. The course titled ‘Change through Challenge’ has since become very popular in community colleges in USA. Most runners would vouch that the lessons learned during training and running a marathon can easily be applied in facing many other challenges.
While experience for runners may vary from person to person, one can be certain everyone will have something to learn in the process. Unlike other challenges in life, this is one where you alone would be the judge to measure the success or failure. Here are a few steps to get started:
Choose the Race – The first step is to choose an event that you wish to run. If you are in Coimbatore, the choice is made easier with the annual Coimbatore Marathon held on the first Sunday of October. Some runners plan their marathons along with their business or personal travels by finding events closer to their destinations. Personally, the choice was made easier for me as I was lucky to win a lottery at the Berlin Marathon to be held in September.
Training Plan – While there are plethora of plans of available on the Internet, the best one would be the one you make, for yourself. Prepare a plan that balances your personal and professional commitments along with the running schedules. The first step would be to block the dates on which you are needed the most for other activities. The next step would be to line up your long runs – the maximum being 80% of the race distance three weeks ahead of the event. Then, spot the gaps and fill-in the mid-week runs which includes a variety of sprints and slow runs. Finally, top it with adequate rests, stretches and strengthening workouts. You can view my training plan for Berlin here..
Travel Plan – If you run is outside your home town, it is best to plan for travel and stay well in advance. Find your hotel rooms close to the event venue to get the best out of the run. If travelling outside India, it is important to get your visas well in advance.
Spread your ideas – It is best to speak out to your friends about the run, training plans, and your periodic progress. Seeking opinions from diverse audience enhances your planning and reinforces your conviction to accomplish your goal. Through social media, one can expect motivation and help from unknown quarters too. If you intend to run for a cause, it gives a wonderful opportunity to speak about it too.
The Group – Even if your run is going to be all about you, it is important to have a group in which you find the strength to see through the distance. Coimbatore Runners actively supports runners planning to run the Coimbatore Marathon with their training needs, encouragement and motivation from their experience. Each runner undergoes his or her own experience and it is important to learn not only from your experience, but also others. The support from running groups often extend to assistance in planning the trip as well as stay arrangements. Of course, they are the best to celebrate with, once the race is accomplished.
Intermittent Targets – As a part of your training plan, assign a few intermittent milestones to measure your progress as well as reward yourself. If you are planning to run a marathon, the 30K runs or the fastest 10K during the training phase can be a milestone that deserves to be celebrated.
Live the Journey – To ensure that the event counts for, the best way to live through it. It is important not to see running events as an examination or a mundane ritual. This is a challenge that you have set for yourself and start looking to make changes in your routines to help you accomplish it. Every training run is an experience by itself and a step towards the finish.
Visualise the finish – Visualising the finish, either by watching videos of the past editions of the event or through a picture of the finish line. I have the picture of Brandenburg Gate, through which one finish the Berlin Marathon, on my work desktop.
It is a powerful tool to help us keep focused on what we wish to accomplish and relish when we actually accomplish. At times, the thought of seeing yourself at the finish line with the medal and celebrating with your near and dear will take you through the tough phases of training.
When you reach the start line, remember that you have run most of the journey and race is only an icing on the cake. As Albert Salazar, winner of the New York Marathon in 1982, said,
“When you cross the finish line, no matter how slow or how fast, it will change your life forever.”
An edited version of this article appeared in The Hindu – Metroplus on May 27, 2019 under the title “Run the marathon of your life”
After riding in the 2010 (first edition of the tour), 2015 and 2017 editions of the tour, I registered for the 2018 edition of the Tour themed “Waterfalls”. My personal experience can be summed up the image below!
In addition to riding in the tour, I also ventured to write about the tour for The Hindu – Metro Plus. I was supported immensely by Ganesh Ram whose picture got deservingly featured in the News paper
It is a paradox that in an age of access to bullet trains, expressways, and long haul flights, choosing a bicycle as a means of touring still presents a challenge. There has been many stories of people touring all over the world in a bicycle ever since the first bicycle was invented and yet, many find it difficult to navigate even familiar cities due to issues like safety, weather, road conditions, traffic, on-road support and so on. Despite the advancements in technology and communication, the psychological barriers amongst riders today are more than ever before. In 2010, Tamil Nadu Cycling Club (TCC), a Chennai based not-for-profit organisation started out to organise an annual cycling tour in partnership with The Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation. Vasanth Ramaswamy, Secretary TCC and curator of the tour, outlines the objective of the tour as
to promote eco tourism in the state of Tamil Nadu and provide a platform for touring on cycles.
Given the vastness and diversity that the state presents, TCC came up with innovative themes every year to explore different facets of the state. In the first edition, the tour started in Coimbatore with the theme of ‘Mountains’ where the tour offered the riders a chance to explore the three magnificent mountains, Ooty, Yercaud, and Kodaikanal, in their bicycles. The subsequent editions explored themes like heritage sites, cuisines, eastern ghats, forests, western ghats, Nilgiris and wildlife focusing on places that are intricately linked to these themes. This year, the tour was themed ‘Waterfalls’ and covered four of the waterfalls in North-west Tamil Nadu – Hogenekkal, Kiliyur falls in Yercaud, Periyar falls in Kalrayan Hils and Agaiya Gangai in Kolli Hiils. The tours typically start and end at one of the major towns in Tamil Nadu and this time, it was Erode. The intermediate halts over the next seven days were at Hogenekkal, Yercaud, Kallakuruchi and Kolli Hills.
The route for different days are designed to provide a variety in ride experience – flat sections, uphill rides that tests one’s determination, downhill rides that requires good control, headwinds to frustrate and tailwinds to provide much wanted relief. “We avoid National Highways as much as possible as they offer very limited scenic beauty; and most of them are all about speed” says Venkat Venkatadri, one of the key organisers. The first day of this year’s tour was from Erode to Hogenekkal through some of the beautiful roads that posed stiff headwinds, the second day had steep inclines, the third day was a relaxed ride at Yercaud that was all about scenery, the fourth and fifth day posed gentle climbs in Kalrayan Hills, and the toughest one was reserved for the sixth day when riders ascended the Kolli hills. The last day was a ceremonial easy ride back to Erode.
It is inevitable that any cycling tour would instantly evokes comparison to the prestigious Tour de France. Rajaram Pattabiraman, the tour director, quickly dismisses any such comparisons, “This is not a race; it is a tour. It is immaterial whether someone rides fast or slow, entire distance or partially, all days or some days in the tour. We want each participant to enjoy the tour and will offer support and recognition to all riders in the best possible manner.” The participants for the event were from all came from all over the country including few international participants. The riders were from all walks of life, diverse professional backgrounds and all ages. For many, especially those fromother parts of India, it was a new experience to ride through Tamil Nadu in places that they have rarely heard about.
The tour would not be certainly possible but for hours of volunteering work and the extravagant on-road support by the members of TCC. When questions were raised about the sustainability of these tours, Vasanth explains, “We wanted explore the possibility of such tours and break a few inhibitions in the process. Participation in the tours have been largely through word of mouth and thus every rider helps in motivating few others. Over the past 9 years, we have made a repository of route maps, information on hotels that are cycling-friendly, availability of support and others. We have also followed it with feedback from participants. We plan to create a portal and then, make it available for general public. It will then help people design tours as per their convenience and choices.”
It is not always the destination that counts but also the journey. One may not find a small town like Kallakuruchi any romantic but when reached through the Kalrayan hills and breathtaking views of Gomukhi dam, it will be a place to visit. Riding up to hill stations helps one to enjoy every bit of the view from the top and enjoy a sense of accomplishment. Modern day highways bye-passes most of the small towns and links only the major cities. Cycling through small towns helps us in connecting with many wonderful people and institutions. The friendly cheers from the children that accompanies one during the ride makes each of the rider feels like a celebrity. It also offers us a chance to try local cuisine and get a closer look at local customs and traditions. As Eddie Cantor once said, ““Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”
Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.
A week back, my good friend, Srini was looking for someone to replace him in the Tour of Tamil Nadu as he is keeping himself busy with the ‘clean-up’ work in Chennai. The following day, as I was riding to my office, it suddenly stuck me ‘Why not me?’ Within the next 24 hours, most of the formalities were ironed out and I see myself participating in the Tour of Tamil Nadu.
My first experience in the Tour of Tamil Nadu was during the inaugural edition in 2010. The enthusiastic organising team of ‘Vaz’ Vasanth, Rajaram, Venky, Suresh, Magesh, and many others ensured that the tour was memorable and set the tone for the next 4 editions. The Tour was also getting popular forcing them to introduce “process” to select riders. Personally, it was difficult to join them in subsequent years due to participation on ‘Shahid’s Ultra‘ every year.
The present edition of the Tour, starting tomorrow, goes through the northern part of Tamil Nadu and covers some interesting places. Even if there are places I have visited before, there are some routes that I haven’t explored. A quick snapshot of the places is given below:
Vellore – I have fond memories of living there between 1987 and 1992 and claim to have witnessed the River Palar in full flow. I revisited the place in 2009 and could recollect some of the places where I grew up. Often referred to as the city of 7 wonders – River without water (Palar, which may have water now due to the recent rains; Temple without God; Fort without King; Hospital without Doctors (reference to CMC); Women without beauty (apologies in advance!); Hill without trees and police without power (reference to Police training college). Of course, there are multiple variants of the above theory.
Yelagiri – My first visit to Yelagiri was in 1992 as a part of the school trip and gave my earliest memory of being on a boat. I had cycled up the hill once in 2009 during my first visit to Sittlingi (more about it later).
Yercaud – In the first edition of ToT, I had to give up the ascend of Yercaud. Later, in 2102, I managed to ride up to the top during one of the TCC weekend rides. The loop road in Yercaud is one of my all time favourite routes for running and we even managed to make an event out of it as the Servarayan Ultra.
Kolli Hills – Krishnakumar Rangachari a.k.a. KRESIDENT conducts his annual ‘Val Vil Ori’ ultramarathon on these beautiful hills. I was there for the inaugural edition in April 2014.
Thuraiyur – This trip must take me to the town for the first time.
Karumandurai – Karumandurai is located very close to Sittlingi, a village that I frequent as a part of my volunteering work with ASHA for education. It is the home of Thulir, an educational resource centre for students from underprivileged backgrounds and well known for Tribal Health Initiative, a renowned hospital. You can read more about my visits to Thulir here – http://www.ashanet.org/projects/project-view.php?p=967 While Sittlingi is located in the valley, Karumandurai is located on the top of the hill and there are no direct roads connecting them. In April 2015, I had cycled all the way to Sittlingi from my home and on second day, I rode up to Karumandurai on the dirt road (actually a stream that has gone dry). Should the Tour organisers permit, I may chalk my route through Sittlingi.
Polur – I will be visiting Polur for the first time even if I have heard about it many times.
Srini had originally planned to use the tour as a part of his fund raising efforts for Haji Public School, a village school up in the Kashmir mountains. Taking his mantle on the tour, I would like to dedicate this ride for his efforts and seek the assistance of readers to help him. You can read more about it here – https://milaap.org/campaigns/forHPSkids
I will try to update on the tour and post a detailed blog after the tour.
Not everyone who likes to be an Indian would prefer to hold an Indian passport. Apart from the hassles that one gets involved in procuring it, the real reason has been in the poor consular relations established by Ministry of External Affairs all over the world. Many countries improved their diplomatic relations to secure on-arrival tourist visas for their citizens. The Indian passport holder rarely gets such benefits in most countries. Until recently, Sri Lanka was one of the few countries to offer on-arrival visas for Indian tourists but has stopped since, as it was not reciprocated. Getting a visa involves more hassles with the agency that handles them than the consulate or embassy as such. My personal experience in getting visas (luckily not many though) has never been a pleasant one. From the specifications for the photograph to the supporting documentation (like a letter of employment for a 4-day visit), it has often been a pointless test of resilence, largely harassing ordinary individuals. Sadly, most anti-socials by-pass these requirements easily as we see in many instances.
The South African visa process wasn’t any different. It was managed by an agency working out of Mumbai and Delhi, and is normally supposed to take five business days to process a tourist visa. I had booked my tickets to leave Chennai on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 by the early morning flight. I sent my visa application on May 14 to a travel agent in Chennai who would be helping me with filing the application in Delhi. I was expecting it to be filed the following day but it got delayed due some glitches relating to the support documentation. It looked to me that the reason for visa was fairly straightforward. I had provided adequate proofs in form of my ticket, confirmation of my entry (which carried my passport details too), and bank statements for a year. Also, my ticket was clear that I am not likely to be spending much time in South Africa except for the event.
Ideally, it would have been best for me to receive my passport (with visa stamped) at the Delhi office of my travel agent by Friday, May 25 so that I can collect them at Chennai on the following Monday before departing on Tuesday. The events leading to my actual departure were as exciting as the Comrades Marathon itself. It would be best for me to narrate the flow of events chronologically.
Friday, May 25, 2012
The visa was not processed and no intimation at the Delhi Office. The visa processing agency refused any other assistance and it was impossible to contact anyone else for any kind of help.
Saturday, May 26, 2012
Decided to throw a final dice by changing by ticket from May 29 to May 30 giving me an extra day of comfort.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
Nothing much can happen on a Sunday and hence focused on my morning run. It was my final practice run and was glad to do it well. There were plenty of good wishes from my friends keeping my hopes alive.
Monday, May 28, 2012
The passports are usually dispatched at the noon time to the agents and it was another day of disappointment. My ticket was scheduled for Wednesday morning and I wasn’t sure if I can fly, should my passport get released the following day. The travel agent assured me that they can make the arrangements for me to receive my passport in Chennai if they receive it in Delhi the following day.
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
Ram called me in the morning to check about my visa status. I informed him that if I don’t receive my passport that day, I am going to cancel my entire trip as I did not see any point in waiting further. He suggested that I postpone the ticket to May 31 and travel along with him. I felt that there was no point in doing that as I am only delaying the inevitable. Also, after all these excitement, if I stuff it up on the run, it would be even more embarrassing. Ram insisted that I do this one final change for him and reluctantly, I agreed to do the same. He further suggested that I can stay with him until his family arrives, which was scheduled on June 2. I had originally planned to stay with Bala, brother of another Chennai Runner Ranga in Durban. But for that call, I wouldn’t have made that trip. The ticket was postponed again to May 31 and it turned out to be another day of disappointment on the Visa front!
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
The day started with me not knowing where I would be the following day. An easy run that morning cleared my head a bit and prepared myself for any possible outcomes. At 1:00 PM, I find that my passport has been released and ready for pick-up at the Delhi office. I contacted the agent and asked them about the next steps to be taken. They instructed their Delhi office to collect the passport and immediately dispatch the same by Air Cargo. The passport was scheduled to reach the Air Cargo Office at Meenambakkam at 1:00 AM, the following morning and my flight was at 4:15 AM. I left Pondicherry late evening and reached the Old Airport at 12:30 AM to collect my passport, and yeah, the stamping was there! Proceeded towards the International Terminal to take the flight along with Ram.
Shahid enquired about my trip that evening and I informed him that I am on the way to cargo office to collect my passport. He send a text message back ‘Cutting it too close.’ Little did I know that would be case about my Comrades Marathon too a few days later!