Cycling 20,000 km to End Polio

Rotaractors Bhagyashree and M J Pavan on a cycle expedition.

I  have climbed 8,000 metres but missed the Mount Everest Summit by a mere 800 metres, twice. I have not given up. I can try again. But when it comes to polio eradication, any second chance of letting the virus into our country will prove very expensive, ” says Rtr ­Bhagyashree (26), who is on a cycle expedition along with Rtr MJ Pavan (25). They are Rotaractors of RAC Bangalore Orchards, D 3190, and attempting a Guinness record even while spreading awareness on Rotary’s End Polio and TEACH initiatives. They have completed cycling over 18,800 km of the planned 20,000 km in 200 days across India. The expedition was flagged off in September by DG Asha Prasanna Kumar and Nobel Peace laureate ­Kailash Satyarthi.

Day 1 was the toughest so far for them. Training post acclimatisation was the plan but “we reached Leh, and our cargo carrying the gear and cycle was delayed,” says Bhagyashree. So, they had to start off without practice and “the terrain was tough. I kept the pedals turning, focused on the ride and watched the scenic mountains. That element of enjoyment didn’t let me think too hard about what is ahead. This also turned out to be a great learning experience for me,” she says.

Rtr Bhagyashree greets school students.

At this point they had no support vehicle to plan logistics or carry their load. Pavan, who has already cycled from Delhi to Khardung La top, cycling 1,400 km in 40 days in a previous expedition says, “however exhausting the moments of cycling uphill are, there is always something better coming your way. The way Rotarians greet us at each pitstop makes us feel so special.”

On receiving feedback and updates from the two, the parent club RC Bangalore Orchards, in association with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, arranged the support vehicle — a Jeep. DG Asha coordinated with all the 38 Rotary districts to provide support to the Rotaractors who are expected to complete the expedition by Mar 15. Past president Kirit Morzaria drafted the route map. The club’s Youth Service Director Jay Pillai has provided space in his office to set up a control room and is coordinating with a team of Rotaractors to monitor the day-to-day developments of the expedition.

Children touch and feel the bicycles of the Rotaractors.

The cycling duo is completely cashless, “Our pockets are completely empty. Our meals are hosted by Rotary clubs and everything else is taken care of. All of this is possible only because its Rotary,” says Bhagyashree. “The networking is just amazing. But the one thing we wish we could tell the dear Rotarians, was to greet us sans garlands and maybe give us some fruits instead,” she quips. To which Pavan adds “Most of the days there is so much food and at other times we go hungry, but that’s just part of the journey.” Bhagyashree then reminded Pavan of the day he went “completely crazy because of his ­hunger. But he picked himself back again,” she laughs.

India is a vast country and the route map is zigzag and it was like a kaleidoscope of environments along the way for the two. “Except for going through different time zones, we have been through different cultures, landscapes and extreme climate,” she says. While Pavan isn’t a photo enthusiast, Bhagyahree has been “clicking too many pictures. I want one with the mountains, the fields, the crops, the children and of course the Rotarians.”

Rotaractors Bhagyashree and Pavan interact with students in a class.

So how is the body feeling after 18,800 km on the saddle? “­Honestly, it has taken a lot of hurt. The track is often tough and we have to ensure that the cycles and we stay in shape,” he says. But beyond the physical challenge, poor nutrition and hydration, the psychological challenge is crucial. “It’s not easy. We lose more than 4,000 calories a day and we aren’t eating enough.” By the time they reached Gujarat the breakfast was reduced to jalebi and phafada and “we could hardly find any protein (egg and chicken) in our meals.”

The tan on her face is obvious and a few spots too, but Bhagyashree doesn’t care. She points out that the tan is lighter now after their stop over in Mumbai, her hometown. “My mom made sure that I get a de-tanning session.” When some of her friends and relatives pointed out the spots, the dog lover cyclist replied, “I am a ­Dalmatian and I love my spots.” Ask her how she manages her periods: “I have felt strongest on the days I have had my periods; There is no running away from that. Acceptance is the key. You can choose to cry or stand up and face things.” So far for her the only incident that made her very uncomfortable was when “two men on a motorbike chased me when they realised I was a girl. They even made a few phone calls but when they saw that I had company and that the support vehicle was keeping an eye they went away.”

According to the two Rotaractors, visiting government schools instead of a club meeting is more meaningful. “We try as much to visit these schools and talk to the children because they are our target audience. But in most of the metros we attend only club meets.” Meeting children has become the best part of their journey. She recalls a funny incident. The head master of a government school in Bhangot, asked the children to sing a prayer song. A boy comes to the mike and sings, Ganpati Bappa Morya Pareshan kare mujhe choriyan “We couldn’t laugh out loud because it was the prayer. The boy in his defence said ‘So what if it’s a film song. Sir, Ganpati bappa tho hai na.’”

School children await to welcome the Rotaractors.

Their message End Polio does fall on deaf years sometimes. In ­Gulmarg, Kashmir, “we encountered a man who wasn’t even interested in listening to us because we were talking about Polio. He shooed us away. That’s when we decided to talk to the children in schools.” Starting from primary to high schools they are spending enough time with the children and Pavan says, “All we want is to leave an impact on these kids and help them understand Rotary’s work in ending Polio and keeping it from striking again.”

Families of the two Rotaractors have been a constant support. “My Nani sold her gold jewellery when I had to climb the Everest the first time. My mom was the only earning member in the house and she gave all that she could too. They are proud that I have embarked on this journey,” says Bhagyashree. What are they looking forward to after the expedition ends? “All the things we take for granted, ghar ka khana, spending time with family — all those incredibly simple but beautiful things are what I am looking forward to,” says  Pavan.

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