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Feature - Peddling for peace

A short journey on a long road

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My first ten-speed bike was a forest green BRC, a British Road Cycle. When I was about 10 years old my older brother Ross and I spent that summer cutting lawns and washing cars to save money to buy bicycles. Thankfully that following winter there was plenty of snow in the Lower Mainland and we also made a few dollars shovelling driveways.

I’ll never forget the day our dad drove us to the bike shop in our family’s big, blue, 1967 Galaxy 500. Ross and I clutched onto our four jars of money and struggled to lift them up to the counter beside the cash register. When we arrived home, my dad taught me how to ride my new shiny bike.

Today I live in India and cycling here is tough. My first lesson was to stay on the left side of the road.

When I arrived in Kodai I met Roland Schmidt-Bellach a teacher from Vulcan, Alberta, Steve Thicke our school doctor from Tofino, B.C., and Ron Acker from Pennsylvania. For the past two years the three of them had been exploring, and getting lost, in the Palani Hills. They all had an intimate knowledge of the area and were familiar with the local dangers: monkeys and bison. Sadly for me, all three of them left this past May, so my cycling buddies were absent when I returned in July.

Then, this past August, a 27-year-old alumnus showed up in town on a bike. Tad Beckweth, an Oregonian, is spending four years cycling around the world for peace. He founded "Peacebike" in 2000, and in September of the same year he left his parents’ home in Dayton, Oregon. Since then he has cycled through 20 countries in Central and South America, the South Pacific and Asia.

"Peacebike is a non-profit organization co-ordinating the first online, 100 per cent educational odyssey around the world by bike," Beckweth said. "I’m attempting to connect students around the world and promote cultural understanding."

Beckwith has spoken to more than 8,000 children in 20 countries. He was inspired by the travels of his eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Pleasance. In the early 1980s Pleasance took his family on a bike trip around the world. Through Pleasance’s vivid accounts of their three and half year bike trip he compelled Beckweth to someday do the same.

I took Tad on a couple of local rides and when he was making his plans to leave, I suggested that I join him for a short part of his journey. Our school was having a long weekend so the timing was perfect.

Our departure date was set for Saturday, Sept. 15, four days after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Some of my Indian friends advised me not to leave. Their main concern was the fact that I’m blonde, white, and would be travelling back up to Kodai alone. Tad and I discussed our choices and we opted to stick to our plan. If anything, we felt that our departure couldn’t be more timely. I left promising to telephone my friends en route.

We left Kodai early in the afternoon and headed down the Gaht Road. Our destination was Palani, a small town at the bottom of the hills. We were going to descend 1,500 metres, cycling 65 km around 45 hairpin curves.

Cycling on Indian highways is challenging. I knew that not only would I need the physical endurance to cope with the heat, but the mental ability to cope with the lunatic drivers and the sheer numbers of people competing for space on the tarmac.

But the road down to Palani was quiet and the scenery was magic. The hues in the late afternoon sun that reflected off the hills was breathtaking. We cycled through coffee plantations, banana groves, villages, and past tea stalls.

"Nala suga ma?" ("How are you?" in Tamil) I asked the tea stall vendor.

She answered: "Nala sugum." (Fine.)

I ordered, "Reendi chai." (Two tea please.)

My Tamil isn’t the least bit impressive, but it’s always fun to see the reaction of the locals when they hear a white girl attempting to speak Tamil.

We arrived in Palani just as the heavens opened up and the rains came down. Our timing was remarkable. When the rain comes down in this part of the world there’s no point in even attempting to stay dry – Gore-tex may last 30 seconds.

We rose at 5:30 a.m. to see Palani’s hill temple, Malaikovil, dedicated to Murugan, son of Shiva, creator of the universe. Along with several hundred pilgrims we hiked up 650 steps to the temple. An old sadhu smeared ash on my forehead and blessed me. When we reached the top I chose not to walk into the inner sanctum where the image of the deity is believed to have miraculous powers. I’m not a Hindu and I didn’t want to be intrusive on their sacred ground.

After our visit to the temple we went for breakfast in a small restaurant. I ordered a dosa, its like a paper-thin pancake made from lentil and rice flour. It’s served with curried vegetables, and chutneys. After a couple of dosas, coffee, and bananas, we were fuelled and ready to hit the highway.

Our plan was to cycle to Kannivadi and spend the night at Bethania Orphanage. I had called Joshua Inbaraj, the Director of Bethania (financed by Kodai alumni) to let him know we were on our way. I hadn’t visited the orphanage since last October and I was looking forward to seeing the children again.

However; first we had to cycle the 28 km along the highway to Oddanchattram. If someone would have told me that one day I would be cycling on one of India’s national highways, I would have thought they were nuts. Theoretically drivers are supposed to keep to the left; however, most drivers stay in the middle of the highway because there’s fewer potholes. The rule of the road is when a smaller sized vehicle meets a larger one, the lesser sized vehicle cowers to the side.

Overtaking is interesting too. Overtaking takes place on blind corners, steep hills, and in the face of oncoming traffic. And then there’s the horn. Vehicles may be driven with bald tires, without breaks – but it’s guaranteed their horns will always work.

We reached Oddanchattram safely and we needed water. I had already drank two litres and I knew I would need a couple more before reaching Bethania. From the road I spied a coke machine and I indicated to Tad that was where we were stopping. Power outages are quite common in India and I’ve learned to be grateful when I do find a cold coke.

We had approximately 20 km left to cycle and we hoped to arrive at Bethania before noon. Five kilometres outside of the city we found our turnoff and headed southeast, towards Kannivadi. This was a secondary road with much less traffic. At one point we met an old pilgrim dressed in a green lungi. We stopped and attempted some communication, but after my few words of Tamil we didn’t have too much left to say to each other. He allowed me to take his photograph, he blessed us, and we said farewell.

We reached Kannivadi around 11:30 a.m. The heat had drained me. We bought some biscuits for the children and headed down the last kilometre to the orphanage. It was a relief to reach the cool compound. Priscilla Mohl, founder of Bethania, met us with a pitcher of fresh lemon-aid. After three glasses, I excused myself to pour a bucket of cold water over my head.

It was wonderful to see the smiling faces of Bethania again. Today there are 14 orphans who call Bethania home. Six have now moved to the cities and post-secondary education, therefore the association can’t afford to accept any younger children.

Mohl explained: "We feel that it’s best to provide quality care to a few, and fund their education, rather than to overload ourselves with too many children. We have the facilities for 10 more children, but we just don’t have the funding."

Some readers may remember my story in Pique last December about Prabakaran and Barathany, a brother and sister at the orphanage. Their mother had doused herself in kerosene and committed suicide. I was particularly anxious to see how these two children had adjusted.

On my last visit I think I piggy backed Prabakaran around the entire time. He saw me and he flashed a radiant smile. Looking into his eyes I noticed a profound difference. His fearful look was gone, it was replaced with a sparkle. I fought the tears when he ran up to give me a hug.

Following the advice of friends I had ordered a Kodai taxi to pick me up at Bethania to take me back home. I wasn’t ready to leave the children and I wasn’t ready to stop peddling, but I did have to get back to work.

Tad’s parting words were: "My legs are itching to go and I know this world is full of fantastic people yet to meet. Peace."

The mind can go in a thousand directions

But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace

— Thich Nhat Hanh