[Monday Motivation] This journalist quit his job to cycle 20,000 km without money across India; built a self-sustainable farm
Cycling is not only an environmentally-friendly way to travel but is also good for health.
For 32-year-old Ankit Arora, cycling has also become a means to explore India and experience the lives of different communities. A former journalist, Ankit used to pursue cycling for fitness purposes and participated in endurance events like such as long-distance cycling – covering 200 km in 13 hours, and cycling on routes like Jaipur-Jaisalmer, Jaipur-Nainital, and India Gate (Delhi) - Wagah Border.
He also entered the Limca Book of Records and India Book of Records for covering the Golden Triangle – a tourist circuit connecting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur – in 69 hours without a break.
In 2017, he decided to tour India on his cycle and had planned to return to his life after a few months. But little did he know that the journey he embarked on August 27, 2017 would lead him to discover different cultures across the length and breadth of the country, and enlighten him with the knowledge people possessed in small villages and tribal communities.
Four years or 1,500 days later, Ankit has covered half of the country – cycling across 15 states in North, West, South, and Central India, and eight Union Territories.
“People would often offer me help and that made me realise that there was so much to learn from people and rural communities which I’ll not be able to learn anywhere. That’s when I decided to make this journey longer,” he tells SocialStory.
Going off the road from time to time, he has connected with different communities in meaningful ways. He worked on a dairy farm in Puducherry; made wooden sculptures in Maharashtra and Bengaluru; built mud houses for villagers near Nagpur; made coconut shell cutlery and jewellery in Tamil Nadu; learned Thanjavur, Madhubani, and tribal Gond arts; and learned the art of making musical instruments in Andhra Pradesh.
Image: Ankit Arora
Travelling without a rupee
However, being on the road for four years is not an easy feat to achieve – with basic concerns of food and shelter always looming large. But Ankit has learned to rely on the kindness of others and has been travelling without any money.
“I always stay with local communities and many families offer to host me. In some community villages, it’s normal for people to stay together, work for the locals, and teach others – as a form of a barter system. This is how I survived,” he narrates.
Hailing from Rajasthan, Ankit has been slow pedalling across India to “find forgotten stories” of people and exchange knowledge from different communities. But the journey hasn’t been a smooth one.
Just six months after he began his journey, Ankit was diagnosed with kidney stones when he was near Bengaluru. He also has to deal with minor spondylitis and backaches but he had pedalled his way through all.
Travelling solo through places where it isn’t common to a cyclist with a backpack can invite suspicion, and Ankit had to deal with a fair share of that.
In 2017, he was travelling through Shopian, near Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir, and the word on the street was that a man had been chopping the hair of women, with locals scared by over 200 such incidents. Mistaking Ankit for a local criminal, people chased him on autos and bikes, but he was eventually able to allay their fears.
When he was cycling across a village near Jaisalmer, he was mistaken for an opium smuggler.
“Some people illegally supply opium to the villages, and if you go to their houses, they offer you opium in lieu of sweets to welcome you,” he explains.
Image: Ankit Arora
Organic farming and sustainable living
Having grown up in cities, Ankit wasn’t aware of what a village lifestyle looked like. But the journey changed his perception.
“I realised I liked working with farmers. During my short stays, I loved talking to them and collecting knowledge, working on the soil, and harvesting produce,” he says.
He also met traditional artisans who were masters of mud art and woodwork.
“In Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, I saw how tribals lived and built their mud houses using different kinds of muds to strengthen their houses. Such traditional houses were also present in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu,” he adds.
Ankit Arora building a mud house using plastic bottles as eco-bricks
He learned many techniques of mud house-making like cob wall, rammed earth and archback. He realised that people in villages don’t mix different kinds of muds and that’s why their mud houses don’t last more than two years. But he learned from tribal communities how using organic substances – such as using herbal water as termite repellent, or applying natural binding agents like jaggery, honey, sugarcane fibre, and egg yolk instead of cement – can enable mud houses to last 10-15 years.
Armed with all this knowledge, he dreamt of building a community village where anyone can live, grow their own food organically, and pursue arts and crafts. He wanted the people in the community to mix with local villagers and pursue a local lifestyle.
This is when his friend Sridevi's family hosted him in Bengaluru and gave wings to his dream. He built a self-sustaining village in Krishnagiri near Bengaluru, and named it Innisfree Farm – taking a leaf out of William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.
“We started growing vegetables in a natural way. The villagers were initially hesitant and doubted that we would be able to grow vegetables without using any chemicals. When we actually started growing tomatoes, okra, bitter gourd, drumsticks, chillies, and marigold flower, the whole village was surprised and came to see how it was possible to grow organically,” he narrates.
Innisfree Farm reuses 100 percent of its waste to power eco-toilets, kitchens, electricity and even fodder for the local animals.
He also introduced the rural community to the idea of integrated farming, explaining that just growing one type of crops such as rice, wheat or soybean would only keep them employed for six to eight months. He helped them diversify their crops, and also added cash crops to the mix.
While the endeavour isn’t profitable yet, whatever income is generated by selling off the produce is used to pay the salaries of labour and is reinvested in the next season of cropping.
Along with Sridevi’s family, he also collected used glass bottles and plastic waste thrown in water bodies in Tamil Nadu and used them as eco-bricks to build mud houses.
Other half of the journey
Having spent three out of the four years on the road in South India, Ankit’s focus remains on introducing organic farming to villagers and uplifting the lives of others.
“In Belgaum, there is a community of single mothers and divorcees. We taught them woodwork so that they can make chopping boards, which they sold at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bengaluru to earn a living and live an independent life,” he explains.
However, he still has plans to cover the rest of Central India, as well as cycle across East and Northeast India.
“But I stay away from the rural communities forever. Whenever they need me, I will come back to build more mud houses and practice organic farming. The plan is to also work with people in other regions to make such self-sustainable communities,” he signs off.