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Road to Mekong, Four Women, SIX countries, 17000 kilometres – An adventure of a lifetime. The title of Piya Bahadur’s new book says it all. Here’s following the journey.
The cover of the book Road to Mekong by Piya Bahadur packs a punch – the photograph of 4 women on 400-cc motorbikes, and the opening lines of the preface take us right into the journey and into the author’s mind.
“Wresting with a 400-cc motorcycle mired in slush focuses your attention like nothing else. The back wheels of my Bajaj Dominar were skidding on the clayey road and the adrenaline was making me completely ignore the spectacular scenery of the valley below.”
A road trip by four women across countries is something new – we experience the changing geography and culture as Piya and her team ride on their bikes. The author gives us a glimpse of her thoughts and emotions throughout the journey.
The riders are Jai Bharati (JB), the leader, Shilpa, the most experienced biker among them, Piya, and Shanthi, a policewoman. They are united by their love for the road and riding motor bikes. They set out from Hyderabad and travel through Orissa, Bengal, Northeast to cross the border to Myanmar at Moreh. They then travel through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and back to India through the newly built ‘India -Myanmar – Thailand trilateral highway’. They travel along the Mekong river that has been nurturing all the south east Asian countries.
Exciting as it sounds, there are unexpected issues – Delays over visas/approvals, days when the ride is difficult, bad roads, traffic – the women brave it all.
And instead of giving you a standard review of the book, I’m going to whet your appetite by sharing a little bit of the journey.
Initially Piya is hesitant about taking the trip. She does not have much experience in long distance riding and at the age of 44, she is not sure about her fitness. It is not the right time – her daughter is studying hard for her exams. It is her daughter who pushes Piya. “Are you afraid you can’t do it?” “Go big or go home.”.
“The real journey began long before we left Hyderabad” Piya writes. “It was the day I decided to be part of this expedition and stopped making excuses for not wanting to go the whole distance. When I decided to no longer be limited by anything – be it societal norms, imagined duties, handicaps of age and fitness, circumstances of exam timings, fear of bad roads and foul weather, or more insidiously, the fear of appearing to be a selfish wife and a negligent mother.”
The camaraderie between the four women is refreshing – we see this kind of friendship among men in films like Sholay – “a certain ease of being around the others, a playfulness, and a deceptive nonchalance about their well-being,” writes Piya.
They take turns to lead the ride, watch out for others, motivate each other without getting too personal. The stop at a Dhaba for a cup of tea after a thrilling ride is a moment that the women cherish, and repeat again and again. A spontaneous stop to admire the view of mountains or a dip in the river is something that is so delightful.
Jai Bharati (JB), the leader
JB, the leader of the expedition, is the driving force. She has meticulously planned the details of the trip with Piya. Every night, in the team meeting, she lays out the plan for the next day.
The team has to be on the road by 5 am, which means getting up at 4 am every day. She makes it clear at the beginning of the expedition that it is she who will take the decisions big and small and the team agree to abide by it and make it a success. Here is an important leadership lesson for women leaders – when the team is working on something critical, the leader has to assert her authority to make decisions and give directions so that that team is on track.
JB has a softer side too. On a tough day, when Piya has many spills, JB later admits that she changed the riding order as she could not bear to see Piya falling off her bike. She is also emotionally intelligent and compassionate. On another tough day when Piya struggles to keep up with other riders, JB calls for a stop and asks Piya to lead the group. “Go at your pace and we will follow you.” Piya says that it made a lot of difference to her confidence.
And on Piya’s birthday, JB gives a surprise by playing the video messages from Piya’s friends and family. “When did she do this? How did she have the time or internet access to download all the messages, collate them into a movie?” wonders Piya.
Shilpa, the most experienced rider in the team, leads by example, riding the tough roads with grit and spirit.
On a slippery rickety road, Piya has more spills than anyone else and breaks down. They stop for a cup of tea when Piya, in tears, starts complaining about the bad roads. Shilpa, doesn’t play soft. “It is character building. It is part of the game.” Piya gets the message, asks for another cup of tea and is ready to take on the challenge.
When the women face a tough ride of covering 230 kms in three hours so as to reach the Cambodian border in time to get their papers processed, Shilpa takes up the challenge. Says Piya, “and lead she did, racing headlong into the fray of tarmac and traffic. It was an exhilarating ride with all for of us riding our best, instinctively understanding the road, staying close enough to each other to be treated as a single vehicle.” I felt the rush of adrenaline imagining the four bikers thundering across – and yes, they do make it to the border in time.
Shanthi, a constable with the Telengana police, is the most silent of the team. Yet she is the first to stop and run to help another in difficulty. When Piya has an accident with an expensive car and lies down under the weight of her bike, it is Shanti who runs to Piya. She confronts the car owner. “First let us help her out, then you can assess the damage.” Her policewoman training comes to the fore in managing traffic or handling crowds on the road.
Shanthi breaks down when the team crosses the Indian border at Moreh into Myanmar. Piya and others rush to her wondering what the problem is when they learn that she is just overwhelmed at the thought of coming this far from Hyderabad. A mother of two girls and the main bread winner for her family, Shanthi was grateful that she could be part of this trip.
In one chapter, a group of Burmese women stop to admire Piya and her companions when they take off their helmets. ““Bee-you-ful” they said, not seeing our dusty clothes and faces and scrunched up under the helmet hair.” These Burmese women saw their empowerment as beauty. Piya says that removing their helmets to the astonishment and surprise of people at Dhabas/ roadside stops was one of the favourite moments in the journey. “The men were interested in the bikes and the women were interested in touching us.” reflects Piya.
On her birthday, when Piya takes leave of her guide at Laos, she promises to come again. “If not me, my daughters.” What a powerful expression! That as a liberated woman, I would see that my daughters enjoy such moments.
The sixteen pages of photographs in the centre of the book, though not of high quality that you would see in travel magazines, give us a feel of the casual, cool camaraderie as well as the milestones and proud moments of the expedition.
Piya shares how six months of meticulous planning, pitching for resources and approvals from different government departments and relentless follow up helped her and JB make their Road to Mekong dream come true. The preparation is as engaging as the journey on the road.
The return journey is about the reflections of the riders on what it means to them and to other women across the different countries. They attend several events and celebrations at different places on the road once they enter India.
“I wish there were more women riders on the road and more women employed/running the roadside dhabas and tolls. The best way to ensure safety for women is to empower more women to be on the road.” Piya reflects.
What I find empowering about this book is that It is not the story of an extra-ordinary woman – it is the story of an ordinary woman just like us – who dared to step out of her comfort zone to pursue her dreams.
When Piya is asked often “Why did you do this?” her answer is simple. “Because I love the road, and I love the freedom of riding on a bike, the meditative quality of riding and waking up to a new scenery every morning.”
As a reader, I can relate to this because I have always felt a sense of independence when I rode my two-wheeler to work or took my child for outings. It was a wonderful feeling to be in charge of your journey and have the freedom to stop where you want.
Piya quotes, “If you want something, the whole universe conspires to help you achieve your dreams.” Originally from the book The Alchemist, this talks about the power of dreams. “Not really” says Piya. “It is your own determination, resourcefulness and relentless motivation.”
I realised that going on this expedition was the best that Piya could have done for her daughter. Better than staying with her day and night, making tea, encouraging her to study. By liberating herself Piya has set her daughter free to pursue her dreams.
Reading this story will make us women think about making our own dreams come true. To think “Why not?” instead of “How can I?” As Piya says towards the end, “I experienced it on the road what it means to be liberated.”
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