I always dreamt of travelling across the villages of India on a bicycle or in a way that would put me in touch with the lives of the ordinary people.
Unni Karunakara, the Worldwide President of Medicins Sans Frontiers, who was just about to finish his 3 year term in September last year and make a 5600 km bicycle tour of India starting on Oct 12 from Kashmir in the north to Kanya Kumari in the south, asked me to join him for the last 850 km leg of his trip.
But I had a problem, I still had three severe slip discs in my lower back, I had never cycled more than 10–15 km recreationally with my children & I barely knew how to change gears in a bicycle. In short I was not a cyclist.
So now it was just a question of what I thought and what I wanted to do in my life. Ratan Tata, the Indian Industrialist defined FEAR as two choices –Forget Everything And Run or Face Everything And Rise.
In my heart I knew I could do this but everyone I spoke to (including my doctor) thought I was crazy. Then I raised the stakes and also decided to raise $ 100.000 for Medicins Sans Frontiers by begging my friends to contribute to health care for those who need it most but can’t afford it & then by matching their contributions and doubling them. And so I was in India on my 54th birthday Jan 22 to start this new adventure. :-)
Day 1 – Jan 23 – 76 km – On the first day with rather flat roads (thank God) along the coast from Puducherry to Chidambaram – 34 km before breakfast and then I stopped for a miracle. Probably the best breakfast I ever enjoyed in a roadside restaurant – idlis (south Indian rice dumplings) served on banana leaves with sambar (spicy len-tils) and coconut chutney and costing under ten crowns. We were 5 biking today – Unni, Jo, Alain, Priya and myself.
Then came the humbling experience of taking the wrong road and being lost in the middle of no-where without a cell phone, without a wallet, without identity and without water in the scorching 35 degree sun. It just opened my eyes & my mind to a completely new world where I was just an-other human being without the infrastructure & the resources behind me and I had to beg on the street for someone to allow me to make a call to Prague because the only number I could remember from memory and without a phone was that of my colleague Dana. I was fortunate to find the other cyclists three hours later.
Day 2 – Jan 24 – 81 km – Chidambaram to Karaikal and I had a unique problem – my right tri-ceps were totally immobilized & very painful and I could not hold the handle bars anymore so I was riding with one hand behind my back but that day I experienced and saw the hospitality of people who had practically nothing but were willing to invite us into their house & share whatever little they had without knowing or worrying about where their next meal would come from. I realized that being rich was not about how much we had but about how much we could give – so now to me rich or poor are just a state of the mind. It is in the thinking, not in the things.
Later this day, Unni crossed the 5000 km mark from his start on Oct 12 in Kashmir. :-)
Day 3 – Jan 25 – 153km – I saw Hiromu San who has travelled 55 countries in the past 5 years on his bicycle – 21 in Europe, 33 in Africa and now India and he would continue thru central Asia and Africa for the next 5 years so literally living on his bicycle for 10 years and he was so passionate about his travels and excited about going further. Wow!!! How Inspiring!!!
The memories, few of them caught on camera, are innumerable and the experience so precious – I dare say 8 days of my life where I learnt more about people, about the country of my birth but most importantly about myself and the absence of limitation except for the ones created by our own thinking. I could see children along the way having nothing at all except dreams, hopes, lot of happiness and smiles as big as the Suez canal.
This day, we meet with an unfortunate accident. One of our co-cyclists Rob did not see a speed bump probably due to a combination of exhaustion & appreciating nature and fell straight down head first and needed to be taken to a hospital intensive care. As Rob was unconscious nearly till the following morning we decided to take a day’s break on Sunday Jan 26, also India’s 64th Republic day.
Day 4 – Jan 27 – 110 km – Thalivialagam to Thondi – I realized that learning and education are best achieved thru discovery & sometimes I noticed every single drop of morning dew on every single leaf, every single flower, every single bird singing and at other times I was just singing old hindi songs and riding for an hour or two without noticing anything as if in a meditative state – totally exhausted but full of energy and very, very happy.
Day 5 – Jan 28 – 116 km – I received huge support from friends and family with emails, text messages and facebook messages but then something amazing happened – I started to get support emails and money from people I have never met. A student and a pregnant single mother sending 500 czk when they really need it themselves and the list was quite long..……… it was so heart warmimg to see that we live in a world very different from what our televisions and newspapers would make us believe.
Day 6 – Jan 29 – 56 km – A shorter day but the support and cheers continued and were incredible. I was getting tens of messages every day encouraging me, but I needed no thanking, no encourage-ment, I was just charged with energy & happiness. It was here that I realized again and again that the real joy of life was in giving and sharing…
Day 7 – Jan 30 – 126 km – the roughest, toughest, hilliest, windiest day & here I realized the value of sweet deep sleep on a thin mat on the floor when I was physically completely exhausted but did not feel tired at all because I was so Happy and excited like a small child and up and ready 15-20 min before the sunrise starts every single morning. This day I hit the mat after a couple of Kingfisher beer and a visit to Kanya Kumari – the southernmost tip of India.
Day 8 – Jan 31 – 124 km – Kanya Kumari to Trivandrum – Day 7 was nothing compared to this final day. It was like riding in the Alps with huge potholes and heavy Indian traffic. I learnt to appreciate the first sip of coconut water in the sun, the shade of a tree when you have not seen one for a couple of hours in the scorching sun or the pleasure of lying on hay in the middle of a side road and nearly falling asleep with exhaustion but then waking up with excitement to see what is around the next turn on this last day.
Now I wake up every single morning & am grateful for this opportunity & wish that I could live the rest of my life as excited, as innocent, as exhausted and as in the flow as I was in those eight days. It was a transformation and a realization once again of the difference between making a living and making & enjoying a life – every single moment of it. A life so pricelessly precious and happy in giving and serving and planting trees in the shade of which I never intend to sit. A life so exciting, a life I have always dreamt of and this was a dream come true. :-)
At the end of the day, I made it through 842 km in 8 days – I have learnt to bicycle properly, my back is absolutely fine & we raised more than $ 120.000 through the generosity of many friends (who were all very generous) and some new friends, but more importantly I have learnt so many new lessons & it all happened because I believed I could do it although everyone told me I could not, so my conclusion is “Whether you believe you can or you believe you cannot – You are Right“. It is just a mind game. :-)
Why does Sanjiv Suri get up at four o’clock in the morning and want to give away everything ?
I just got back from an expedition to the seventh continent - Antarctica. Not only was it the farthest I have been from home but probably the most amazing journey I have ever made in 57 years.
One day a couple of years ago, I was alone with my eldest daughter and we were having dinner together.