17.02.2011: Ride a bike around rural India? A bike would be a good start!
“Do you want to join the next LEPRA bike ride to India?” asked my wife Jenny, just returned from her 12th successive trip. “We cycle about 50km a day around Orissa, the poorest state in India, usually on rough roads, visiting tribal villages to see LEPRA’s work in action. We often stay in basic hotels with limited facilities and eat most of our meals at the roadside”.
“Err…no thanks” I replied after thinking for almost a second. I was in my sixties, not particularly fit, wasn’t even a cyclist and enjoy the creature comforts which appeared notably lacking in Jenny’s succinct description. In fact nothing in her comments appealed at all…. or so I thought.
India had fascinated me since I visited the tourist spots of Goa, Kerala, Agra and Rajasthan but I had long been intrigued to see life in “real Indian” villages.
I was also keen to see for myself the widespread work undertaken by LEPRA having heard it praised by Jenny. Plus this might be an incentive to get myself fitter and trimmer.
To Jenny’s delight, in a moment of madness one sunny spring day I decided that I would go through with it come what may - even if it killed me, which it probably would…
I needed a plan -- a bike seemed a good start!
I bought a mid-range hybrid bike and a few extras – most importantly a milometer for the psychological reason of ticking off each completed mile -- and cycled the 3 miles home.
I spent the rest of the day recovering, evidence enough that I needed to take this more seriously. I joined the local Cycle Touring Club and spent hours on the static bicycle at the local gym, gradually increasing the resistance over the weeks.
I even signed up to the local Slimming World where every Tuesday morning thirty ladies and I met! However I enjoyed the experience and lost 1½ stones over 9 months. By January I was fitter, leaner and a fairly competent cyclist. But would it be enough to keep up with the other riders?
Our group of 13 women and 6 men met for the first time at Heathrow airport. We ranged in age from 20 to 70 and in ability from those who had only recently started cycling to those who could cycle 50km in their sleep.
Around half were bike ride veterans who already knew each other, the rest first timers to India. But I can honestly say that this very mixed bunch gelled together right up to the last day. The flight to Hyderabad took 12 hours followed by a few hours to relax in a local hotel before catching the overnight sleeper train to the city of Visag on the Bay of Bengal - quite an experience in itself! One more day preparing our bikes, then we were off.
Our main objective was to raise funds for LEPRA. Every cyclist pays their own costs, air fare and accommodation as well as raising sponsorship. Our second aim was to raise local awareness of leprosy, TB, HIV/AIDS etc.
Orissa rarely sees any Europeans so our arrival created quite a stir and attracted crowds of people, local newspapers and even television.
Firstly a forward jeep would distribute leaflets in local dialects, followed by our support team van emblazoned with LEPRA logos, then a straggling line of 19 glaringly different, pale white cyclists and finally the sweep van to scoop up anyone in need of respite.
A typical day began early with coffee and fruit and then 10 miles cycling in the cool morning air. A stop for breakfast and then another few miles cycling with typically beautiful views.
We would stop for an hour to visit a project, which we did perhaps three times a day. In between, a stop for a drink and 15 minute rest every 8 or so miles. We would arrive at our night stop just before dark. Maybe visit another project before dinner was prepared for 8.30pm and then to bed, falling asleep easily after a long day.
We were always accompanied by our Indian crew who were absolutely marvellous and attended to our every whim. Problems with a bike were immediately investigated and repaired. Our two chefs drove ahead, stopping at pre-determined sites to lay out large rugs for us whilst they prepared the food. And truly scrumptious it was too.
For breakfast: boiled eggs, toast and jams, fruit and biscuits, tea or coffee. For lunch different spiced dishes, rice and vegetables (or an omelette for those with a delicate stomach) with fruit and delicious rice pudding for dessert.
A visit might be to a leprosy colony, medical clinic, research centre, orphanage or hospital – a range of institutions where LEPRA had a direct interest. Always we found medical staff, scientists, teachers, doctors etc extremely enthusiastic about their work. Meeting with patients was surprisingly uplifting and heartening.
Far from feeling depressed, they recognised that without LEPRA they would be languishing at home with limited or no medical support. Here they were receiving the best possible treatment and those with leprosy and TB were likely to be completely cured.
As a result they invariably turned out to be a very cheerful bunch, delighted to have our company. One of the greatest difficulties these patients suffer is stigma – rejection by friends and family. A medical cure and retraining to enable them to return as useful members of their society, reverses this stigma.
However treatment is only part of what is necessary to combat these diseases. Disease awareness and recognition of symptoms at an early stage are vitally important if leprosy is to be cured with no lasting effects. Techniques were needed to teach such skills to often illiterate tribal groups.
These included puppet shows or actors putting on an amusing play in a village and amongst the humour came the serious message that a magic potion from the local quack would not solve the problem, but visiting a recognised medical practitioner and completing the treatment would result in a cure. We saw both a play and a puppet show and they appeared to get the message across in a very simple, effective way whilst being sufficiently entertaining to retain the interest of most of the audience.
But even with early diagnosis we were advised of potential problems. Sometimes alcohol abuse prevented people from completing their course of medication.
Also poor nutrition was an issue as empty stomachs struggle to cope with the strong drugs – hence a short hospital stay was often needed, not simply for medical observation but also to ensure that patients received balanced, healthy food whilst under treatment.
LEPRA has trained some villagers to monitor the progress of patients in their community. In this area of widespread poverty a patient in hospital is often regarded as “one more body not working to earn their keep” and they can be pressurised to stop treatment and go back to work.
To combat this rewards had been introduced with small cash payments made to patients who successfully completed their treatment and similar payments to village supervisors to encourage “their” patients to do precisely that. These are situations not seen in western society where health is a major priority and we were given a fascinating insight into how these unique problems affect very poor and illiterate areas of India.
LEPRA India’s director of operations went to the trouble of asking us individually our views on how the ride could be improved. I already knew how much planning went into these trips from Jenny’s previous involvement, so the general consensus that nothing major need be altered came as no surprise.
LEPRA UK’s newly appointed Chief Executive Sarah Nancollas, also on a visit to India, took time out of her busy schedule to meet us and even did a little cycling.
The fitter you are, the easier you will find the cycling. Distances can range from 30 to 60 miles a day, often over hilly terrain and rough roads. You are well looked after by the crew with plenty of stops for drinks or food and can ride in the vehicle if any section proves too much. If you can cycle 30 miles at home on two consecutive days then you’ll be fine.
With the exception of the first and last hotels, most of the accommodation is very basic indeed. You will certainly experience the REAL India and makes you appreicate your home comforts and the glamorous 5* hotels in Goa!
The memorable things such as brilliant camaraderie and meeting new friends, mutual help and a lot of fun cycling along, beautiful scenery, and wonderful food will stay with me. Best of all meeting local people who are enthusiastic, happy, cheerful and friendl; be they doctors, patients or simply the large number of children keen to chat with us along the way.
This trip gave me a great sense of achievement and a unique opportunity to see a completely different life style which, despite the obvious poverty, contains lessons that we could learn from. All-in-all it was amazing, uplifting and thought provoking. If you believe that life is for sampling as many different experiences as possible -- then this is an experience not to miss. My only regret is that I didn’t do it sooner.
David Brayshaw - February 2011
If you are a novice biker and considering coming on the next trip, please contact Karen Page or Lizzie Dearling on (01206) 216799 or email Events@leprahealthinaction.org. They would be delighted to give you more details including tips on how to prepare, what to bring, what not to bring etc. The bike ride lasts two weeks (with 9 consecutive cycling days) and is arranged for late January/early February each year to coincide with annual leprosy day in India
Posted by admin 15:45 17.02.2011
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