On the road, for cause and effect

Apr 08, 2012, 00:22 IST | Kareena N Gianani and Dhvani Solani

Even as you're adding tourist sightings to your next trip itinerary, a solo traveller is sweating it out on the streets of Odisha, asking locals to bank seeds. Another is planning his next trip to help a third world country, while a duo is surveying Unesco World Heritage Sites to submit a report to the body. Kareena N Gianani and Dhvani Solani meet people who travel to make the world a better place

His India is green
At a restaurant on a cacophonic street in Thane, the waiter impatiently clicks his tongue, glaring at 25 year-old Vaibhav Desai, who has not touched his coffee. Desai, barely aware of the waiter’s restlessness to have him vacate the table, speaks softly about his mammoth 20,000 km-long cycling trip across India and its connection with environmental issues.

In July 2010, Viswajit Dilip, a maritime engineer, travelled to Togo island in West Africa to work on a ship which modelled itself into a hospital, and further travelled to Ghana and Ethiopia

In December 2010, the computer engineer left his job to cycle across India and is on an ongoing mission to spread three simple messages on the way — the importance of banking and planting seeds, supporting cowsheds in rural areas and encouraging the use of natural, chemical-free cattle products. His project, called Green Cycle Green Earth, is self-funded and Desai blogs about it and spreads the message through social media.

“Travel isn’t just about gaping at the sights. I travel to understand people’s connections with the place and learn something about myself on the way, the way Buddha and Swami Vivekananda did, perhaps,” he says, a tad sheepishly. “To people, it seems like I am spreading a message, but it is as much a personal quest.”

Since 2010, Desai has cycled deep into the west and south of India, and spoken to NGOs, civic authorities, panchayats and schools wherever he has gone. “I am not an environmentalist, so I try to gather as much information as I can, and request authorities if I may give lectures, for free.” He has barely been rejected. In fact, his bicycle and t-shirt (which carries the message of the project and website details) often has locals calling out to him and asking him about his mission.

After being on the road for more than a year, Desai is still rendered speechless by incidents — like when schoolgirls from a remote village in Kerala where he delivered a lecture, called and told him about how they trek for several kilometres to work at an environmental NGO to do their bit.

Mallikarjun Singh (extreme right), Ranjul Goswami (centre) and Bertram Fonseca, along with Anil Uchil, rode 1,940 kilometres across four states over 21 days to raise Rs 10 lakh for two charities as part of the event, Cycling4Change. They kickstarted their project at the Gateway Of India last month

“Thanks to my travels, I have seen a side to India I would’ve never believed existed,” he says. Last year, while travelling from Nagpur, Desai swore to make the Rs 30 in his pocket last for at least a day. But the cash was untouched till he reached Odisha, because every few kilometres, locals would offer food and shelter without him asking for it.

“Once, I stopped to pay respects at a Gurudwara, and the attendant not only gave me food, but also ‘donated’ Rs 50. I don’t think he even understood my project fully, because he kept smiling into space!” he laughs.

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On the road, for cause and effect...

Heritage heroes
Aniketh MJ and Sulesh Kumar were climbing the corporate ladder with well-paid jobs at a global investment banking firm in Bengaluru till they left their jobs in June 2010 and June 2011 respectively.

But even as you read this, the two 24 year-olds will be en route to the Mahabodhi Temple at Body Gaya, Patna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.

Vaibhav Desai began cycling across India in December 2010 as part of his project, Green Cycle Green Earth and has covered almost 20,000 kms till date

The boys will probably be discussing their recent adventures on the road: from having scouted for the one-horned rhino at the Kaziranga National Park in Assam to wandering around the seaside wonder of Mahabalipuram in Chennai.

MJ and Kumar are currently tripping around the country’s length and breadth while they are on a sabbatical from work and studies, to spread awareness about our tourist places listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

“These 28 heritage sites are what put India on the global map,” MJ tells us over the phone. “At each site, we fill out a form that details how well it is maintained.” Subjects of study include security, toilet facilities, accommodation facilities, the availability of a knowledgeable guide and his/her credentials, and defacement of the walls, among other things.

The pair chats up visitors to get their perspective too. Says MJ, “At the end of our travels, we are going to compile a report based on our surveys, and hand it over to the UNESCO.” On its part, UNESCO has been encouraging their efforts by publicising the cause on their website.

The enthusiastic pair, which has so far covered 10 sites, is sticking to a tight budget and moving around mostly in local transport. They have been constantly blogging, tweeting and “Facebook-ing” about their travels in a bid to generate more interest in heritage and conservation. Mumbai figures in their scheme of things, though only in the first week of May, which happens to be among their last days on the road.

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Working on vacation
If you go strictly by stereotypes, according to 25 year-old Viswajeet Dilip, most fellow maritime engineers work hard during the four months at sea, and party even harder when they return home for their two-month-long paid leave.

But while his peers are busy checking out the latest luxury cars and watches, you can safely assume that Dilip is either rubbing shoulders with locals at a sweaty, crowded local bus en route to Hampi, or planning another stint as an engineer at an ocean vessel that provides healthcare to third world countries like Togo in west Africa.

Dilip has travelled extensively since 2008 — Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Zanzibar, Karnataka, and so on. But in 2010, he signed up with Mercy Ships, which planned to work in Togo for nine months.

During his month-long stint on the island, Dilip woke up at 5 am to spend time with patients because his work with the engines hardly gave him a chance to see the result of his labour. “The world has enough misconceptions about India, and, in turn, we have the same about, say, Africa. Yes, Togo is poor, but it isn’t full of disease and squalor, like I assumed. The locals are just as smart, even sly when they want their way,” he smiles.

He says he was surprised that he was the only Indian among the 400 volunteers on the ship. “It was a different world, hilarious at times — a dating pool for some, and a break for others who were sick of their empty corporate lives. For me, it is the best way to see my world,” says Dilip, who funded his air travel and further travelled to Ghana and Ethiopia, too.

“I understand my destinations, now, instead of just whizzing past them. Regular, leisure-centric travel doesn’t do this to you,” he says.

Pedal pushers
Four city folks — Anil Uchil, 41, Mallikarjun Singh, 28, Ranjul Goswami, 43, and Bertram Fonseca, 31, — came together with their trusty bicycles for a journey that took them from one iconic landmark to another — the Gateway of India in Mumbai to the India Gate in Delhi, last month.

They rode 1,940 kilometres across four states over 21days to raise Rs 10 lakh for two charities.

The event, Cycling4Change, saw the four push the pedal through Surat, Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Udaipur, Ajmer, Jaipur and Bharatpur to raise awareness about childhood cancer and raise money for CanKids (an organisation working for kids suffering from cancer) and Magic Bus (a sports-for-development NGO that works with children from marginalised communities).

“Something changed in each of us when we met kids suffering from cancer in a hospital in Ahmedabad, which was one of our stops,” Uchil tells us over the phone. “That changed our perspective towards both, the trip and our lives.”

The four constantly updated their Facebook page while on the road, making note of the terrain, the villages, the breaks they would take, the locals and passers-by, along with a constant reminder for their followers to get into action and donate for the cause.

“When on a cycle, you notice a lot of that you would’ve missed in a vehicle,” says Singh. “You can easily blend in and connect with people without harming the environment. We are now planning to make this an annual event. We might even take it to different cities and have people joining in for parts of the trip if not all of it.”

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