Category Archives: Sports & Adventure

cycling, running, trekking, walking and other outdoor and indoor activities

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The Noob Guide: Everything you wanted to know about cycling

A guide for those who are contemplating buying a cycle. Or wanting to get back into cycling. Or even those who’ve taken the first step, and want some tips on what to do next. There’s a lot happening behind the scenes, so welcome to the world of human powered bikes – also called cycles.

(NOTE: A very long post, so be warned. However, I’ve tried to include as much information as I can. But like I say, don’t get paralysis by analysis. Act instead!).

(ANOTHER NOTE: This is written from the viewpoint of a Bangalore cyclist, but there are equally good bike shops, trails and resources in all the major cities today including Pune, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai, Goa and Hyderabad.)

Why do people cycle?

In a nutshell:
- To keep fit
- Commute to office, it’s faster in peak traffic
- Rediscover the joys of experiencing wind in the face
- Discover the countryside
- An alternative way to travel

Long answer. The cycle of life ironically means that you stop cycling at some point of time. You start earning money, get a two wheeler, then you get a car. Wait, it doesn’t stop there – you get a fancy 4WD and increases your carbon footprint to zillion not so brownie points. (And the only place you drive this vehicle is to the airport). Anyway, it so happens that most of us, in the process, forget the sheer joy of cycling. Of feeling the wind in our face. Of the open countryside and just you and two wheels.

People have today realised that to reduce the traffic (which all of us are contributing to) there have to be longer terms solutions. It’s happening in countries like Copenhagen and Amsterdam where a large percentage of citizens cycle – come hail or sunshine. So what stops us Indians from getting onto our cycles and getting some exercise, de-congesting our roads. Well – usually it’s our status consciousness. But seriously, it’s time we get over it. Because when you have jam packed roads like ours, your expensive Landcruiser is as good as my Maruti Zen – we’re all stuck in the same traffic. Many people have started realising it’s a faster, smarter way to commute to work and you’ll notice a lot of folks zipping about on cycles these days.

All roads lead to Pearl Valley
It’s a great feeling to head out on open roads and experience new sights and sounds – the joys of cycling are definitely worth re-discovering

It’s also a way to exercise and keep fit. There are enough success stories of people who have re-discovered the joy of cycling, got on their bikes and managed to get fitter and healthier (and lose weight as a result). While you might think that cycling actually exposes you to polluted air (which it does) you’re actually pretty much breathing in the same thing in your car and frankly, it’s very relative.

Noob Guide to Cycling
And I wanted to put this at the bottom, but I secretly cycle mainly so I can eat more. Being a foodie, I love my masala dosas, idlis and fried chicken. So my thought is that if I cycle more, I can eat more. Unfortunately, the formula hasn’t quite worked in my weight’s favour, but then I’ve had a lot of fun cycling. And ummm. Eating.

So, in short – there are many reasons. Find yours and you won’t regret it.

Can I just get up one day and decide to start again?

The good news is: yes. I didn’t start cycling till very late in my life. Well, I grew up in a hill station. If I remember correctly, there were two very adventurous girls who had cycles – they were a bit of an oddity. And I never did understand why anyone would want to cycle up Shillong’s rather scary slopes. Not anymore.

Noob Guide to Cycling
I’m glad I decided to learn to pedal at a ripe old age. It’s opened so many more doors to travel for me, and added a much richer perspective to the way I see things now

From being scared of riding 10 kms, to being sent home in an auto after a 35km ride to completing a 400 km ride at a stretch, I’ve realised that anything’s possible even for a relative newbie to cycling. So yes, if you’re reasonably healthy, there’s no reason you can’t cycle, 10, 20 and then even a 100 kms. You just need to scale up with some thought and consideration and let your muscles start warming up to the fact that it’s finally getting some much needed exercise.

Noob Guide to Cycling
This is somewhere on the road, during my 400 km ride from Bangalore to Vellore and back, which I completed in around 23 hours. Yes, we all do strange things sometimes.

And a caveat: You’ll look at long stretches of good road very differently once you start riding!

Which cycle should I invest in?

I see you’re convinced now. Well, you’ve survived till here.

The way I suggest approaching it is:
a) Determine your goal – what do you want to do with the cycle. Commute? Join longer weekend rides? Get into travelling to different places on cycle?
b) Determine a comfortable budget and be prepared to stretch it.

What I advise is getting a mid-range city bike if you’re not exactly sure about what you want to do. The hybrid is a cross between a heavier MTB and a lighter road bike and is actually great for commutes, slightly bad roads we tend to encounter and quite sturdy.

Noob Guide to Cycling
I started with the Trek hybrid, which I still use. But I also added others to the stable along the way. In a cyclist’s world, ek se kuch nahi hota. But then, to balance the equation, I never upgraded my car.

Once you fix a budget, look around and do some window shopping. I personally feel that buying a cheap bike actually robs you of the pleasure of cycling. So don’t settle for something sub-standard just because it costs lesser. Remember that this is also a vehicle – it will take you places, it can potentially substitute a gym membership if used regularly and can be your commute. You buy a flat screen television for more than 25k and all it does is dish you crap and turn you into a couch potato. And we never heard you complain while shelling out all that cash then, did we?

The value will go up as soon as you see it in the right perspective. And so will your budget. You should get a decent bike starting from 20-25k onwards. Do look around and if you’re unsure, ask for advise from someone who has been biking for a while and can give you some valuable inputs.

But do I need a geared cycle?

The simple answer is that it’s not absolutely necessary, but if you’re looking at exploring cycling, using it as your commute and slowly graduate to longer weekend rides, you’ll probably start wondering why you didn’t opt for a few gears.

For most humans, gears help you put in lesser effort and get more efficient. So if you’re going on a long ride for example, a geared bike will mean that you’ll be less tired and less inclined to hurt your other muscles. Try taking a non geared bicycle over a flyover and then try it with a geared one and then you can tell the difference. Or on a long stretch with a lot of ups and down, climbs and hills, you’ll be glad for those gears.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Gears? No gears? No question – definitely the former, especially if you want to start exploring more avenues in cycling

Having said that, the man on the street today uses a cycle as a primary commute and is usually extremely fit, and rarely rides a geared cycle.

If you haven’t noticed (they are an invisible population, as I’ve written earlier), do take some time and look at cyclists on the road – they’re usually very fit, agile and tuned to survive in our horrendous traffic. And they do this quite well despite the honking trucks, tempos and other vehicles who drive like they want to mow down everyone in their way. Life is much more challenging for a cyclist, and yet he/she adapts well the challenge.

So the point I was getting to: unless you’re out to prove something, or you want to take it on as a challenge, resist temptation and just invest in a decent basic geared bicycle.

Where can I get myself a cycle?

Another question that people ask frequently. And while as part of Bangalore’s cycling community, we’ve seen the birth of several bike shops in the city, a larger percentage of citizens are quite unaware of the revolution taking place right in front of them.

Here are few bike shops run by cyclists – so you can be sure to get enough attention and correct information when you’re trying to choose a cycle.

Click on the links and you’ll be led to bike shop heaven! All run by passionate cyclists, I would recommend all of them.

Procycle
Bums on the Saddle (BOTS)
Wheelsports
Cyclists for Life

There’s also a second hand option in case you’re not sure you want to get a new bike first. But again, do make sure you’re picking up the right size:
Second hand marketplace

What should I keep in mind when I am buying a cycle?

The right size and fit is the most important aspect if you’re going to use the cycle frequently. Many people try cycling their kids bikes and then say they don’t enjoy it. Make sure you have the fit right, because on the longer rides this is going to make a difference in your comfort levels.

One important thing to remember is that the guy selling you the bike should be taking an interest in your comfort and asks about your height and suggest a frame fit accordingly. If he’s just trying to peddle the latest model without asking any questions, then you should get out of there. Quickly. And move on to the next place.

Most of these bike shops will also service your cycle. And you can always start learning some simple tips on bike maintenance yourself.

How do I start off?

Some tips:
– Bike around your neighbourhood
– Run your errands nearby on a cycle
– Find a few quieter lanes in your neighbourhood
– Get out early in the morning
– Join a community
Go Green, started by Prabhakar Rao, who is also now known as GoGreen Rao, is a great effort with over 2000 members. They conduct regular rides in the city and outside.
– Start cycling to office (fast becoming a popular option)

I usually encourage people to join a community. Bangalore has a thriving cycling community and depending on the area where you live, you will most definitely find groups which are active. Join the Bangalore Bikers Club to begin with.

Another very vocal and active community online, with members from all over India (and overseas) is Bikeszone.com – there are animated and heated discussions sometimes. But it’s also packed with useful information. In fact, if you want another good guide on how to choose a bike, read this discussion on the same forum – it goes into much more detail.

There are also groups on Facebook where you can get information about rides. Many bike shops like BOTS and ProCycle have regular city and night rides. These are a good way to start off and join the community. You will get to meet new people too who are also into cycling. Once you’re comfortable and feel you’re getting reasonably good (so now you can actually ride 10k and not complain), it’s time for a longer ride.

This article has some details on the different trails inside and outside Bangalore. This is another one from Ravi Ranjan, an avid cyclist, and though it’s an older article it still has quite a few routes listed in a lot of detail.

One option is to put your cycle in a vehicle, drive to a start point, where you park your car and then begin pedalling. Else, if you’re confident you can even begin pedalling from home.

South: Outer Ring Road to Harohalli via Kanakpura road (around a 21 km stretch one way), and there is also a stretch called Pipeline road which runs parallel for a while and is supposed to be a good road for cycling.

This road is also used for longer 100 km rides to a place called Anchetty in Tamil Nadu. I’ve also used Kanakpura road to cycle to Mysore – it’s a much more scenic route. I had to meet a friend once and decided to cycle and catch her there :-) It was fun and she was a bit surprised. But naturally.

Noob Guide to Cycling
While I’ve cycled on Mysore road, I wouldn’t recommend it for the crazy, speeding traffic. Try the quieter Kanakpura road itself. I’ve done this route a couple of times and it’s much more enjoyable.

Noob Guide to Cycling
This is during a weekend trip we did to Anchetty a few years ago. We decided to camp at a school for the night and despite the mosquitoes and the packet food, we had loads of fun. And then rode back the next day. These kind of trips don’t need much planning – just get a motley bunch together and ride off! We carried just some light sleeping bags, toothbrush (optional!) and some packet foods

South-East: Silk Board to Bagalur (falls in TN) via Sarjapura road (it’s a lot more traffic now till Sarjapur, but gets better after). It’s got a few climbs thrown in for good measure and is around 30 kms one way. Bagalur also had an awesome idli shop once upon a time where we’ve enjoyed some great breakfasts. I don’t know if it exists anymore but a few of the houses have one room turned into small eateries and will serve you hot idles.

North:
– Airport road (beyond the airport on the National Highway).
– The city (or wherever you live) to Nandi hills (this is a very long ride so try this once you’re getting better at longer distances)
Highway turn off to Nandi hills – A lot of cyclists also drive till the highway turn off, or park somewhere around Nandi and then cycle up. Nandi is a 7 km stretch – but uphill all the way so it makes for good training for those who want climbing practice. If you’re wondering why anyone would want to torture themselves on a weekend doing that, welcome to the world of cycling.

Just note that Sundays (and Saturdays to an extent) are usually particularly busy with two wheeler and four wheeler traffic so it’s better to watch out for idiots on the road if it’s the weekend. Also, ride and stay in a group – there have been unpleasant experiences here.

East (Whitefield): Old Madras road – Hoskote to Kolar is a long stretch of 44 kms (one way) and is a favourite with road cyclists. It’s got smooth tarmac so you can speed it up. And also a wide shoulder so the trucks avoid you (well, at least you can pray they do). There’s also Siva’s road – a relatively scenic road to Devanahalli, named after a now-famous cyclist of the same name. Watch out for racing airport cab drivers though. It’s much busier than what it used to be and the drivers can be maniacal. Also the inside roads in the Whitefield-Varthur area are still great for cycling.

What if I change my mind later?

There are quite a few things you can do in case you’re unable to find time to cycle. Or change your mind. Remember that change is constant and nothing is really permanent. So buying a cycle is actually not a decision that you should take forever to think about. If you change your mind, here are some options:
a) rent out the cycle so others can use it. Rates can be from 200-400 Rs per day depending on the brand and state of your cycle
b) worst case (and only if you’re surely not using it anymore), sell it on a group like BOTS Marketplace or spread the word in the community (Bangalore Bikers Club, Bangalore Cyclists), and Facebook Cyclop group, which will surely get you enough enquiries.

Is there a place I can compete in Bangalore?

Bangalore’s competitive scene has gotten definitely “hotter”. BBCh (Bangalore Bicycling Championships) began as a small affair and today has turned into a monthly event where around a 100 cyclists descend in all their spandex glory. You’ll probably wonder where they all emerged from at 630 am in the morning. Gasp.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Well-dressed and slick cyclists appear from different parts of the city, suddenly turning the road into a racing paradise. Motorists, watch out – we mean serious business!

Locations chosen for races are usually slightly on the outskirts so be prepared. But these are well attended events and racing is also quite serious business now. BAR (Bangalore Amateur Racing) is another such start-up in the racing scene but have quite well conducted races every month. Then there are one-off races held by other groups – usually once you subscribe to the community groups, you unearth many more. There is a group called SFS (Students Foundation for Sports) which organises regular events. Which means, if you get into the racing circuit, you’re going to be busy throughout the month.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Professional teams turn up at these events – and yes, we do have them in India and Bangalore. A lot has happened since you bought your fancy car! But apart from them, there are also a bunch of not so serious, but equally passionate bikers who form cycling groups to compete in these events. Some usually ride for a big breakfast, but then whatever gets you going, right?


What if I want to push myself even more (aka 100 kms is not enough)?

If cycling has gotten you hooked, and you want to push yourself, you can also try the Bangalore Brevets. This began around 2011 with a bunch of enterprising cyclists who decided to get the famous Paris-Brevet-Paris qualifier events to India. The main PBP event is held once in 4 years. To qualify for the event you need to complete a series of rides – 200, 300, 400 and 600 within stipulated times. And yes, don’t get scared looking at the zeroes. It’s not actually as difficult as it seems. Some enthusiastic folks have even completed 1000 and 1200 km rides.

For upcoming long rides, you can check out this calendar.

These are not races as there are no winners. You try and complete the distance so you can qualify. Bangalore community’s enthusiastic volunteers run these rides regularly.

Apart from that, there are also other events that keep happening in the city. A few triathlon events have also been held, by the Mysore Cycling Club.

I don’t want to race. Are there leisure rides?

This is the good news. And my favourite part. There are groups today who offer leisure cycling and this is an ideal way to see a city, experience new sights and have fun with friends.

I did my first leisure ride in Goa over 5 days and enjoyed the countryside immensely and that was my introduction to recreational cycling – and I was hooked.

Noob Guide to Cycling
My very first multi-day cycling trip in Goa. I loved every moment of it!

After that, I ventured to do the Tour of the Nilgiris, another prestigious event in the cycling world which happens every December. Around 80 cyclists descend in Bangalore (starting point) and pedal from here cover nearly 900 kms in around 8 days and there are also competitive stages to the event. I did this in 2009 and had the time of my life. In 2010, we went to the North in search of more climbs and did the torturous Manali to Leh segment – an extremely tough ride.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Some sights you’ll be witness too when you cycle to Leh – definitely a trip of a lifetime. And be prepared for the endless climbs! Nandi hills will seem like a tame mouse in front of the lion of mountains!

It’s also great fun and the the best part of being on a cycle is that you can stop anywhere you want, take pictures, chat with locals enroute and have interesting exchanges like this one:

He: Madam, kahan ja rahe ho? (where are you going)
Me: Hum Leh ja rahe hai. (I’m going to Leh!)
He: Lekin, Madam – aaj kaal jeep milte hai. Aap cycle kyon kar rahe hai. Aap ko maloom nahi kya? (But there are jeeps available nowadays, why are you cycling. Or didn’t you know?)

How could I explain? There were no words and I couldn’t have conveyed in my limited Hindi as to the beauty and sheer exhileration of seeing things at my pace. So I just smiled at him and started up the mountain again.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Resting somewhere on the way from Manali to Leh. And yes – cycling involves a lot of resting in between. Especially in the mountains.

There are also other events like the Great Malnad Challenge, the Tour of Tamil Nadu and a crop of other exciting bicycle events to choose from today. Many enthuastic cyclists have also their own cycling tours.

Here are a few:

Unventured: Started by cycling enthusiast Gurudeep Ramakrishna and then Tejaswini Gopalswamy, another extremely passionate and avid traveller, who joined as the co-founder. From their website: “From a decade of wanderings across this country of cultural diversity taking the road less taken, Unventured brings some of the best adventure acitivites to experience Incredible India! At Unventured, we are obsessed with the need to provide travelers an off the beaten path real world experience of India that will leave them amazed. We do this with the element of safety and security in mind and provide simple but essential support to discover the Unventured – natural wealth, cultural diversity and natural history of Incredible India!”

Cycling and More (CAM): One of the pioneers in this kind of travel, they do mainly weekend rides, and I’ve been with them and enjoyed the experience. From their website: “In an unbelievable short period of time, cycling has grown on to become a mainstream hobby. Cycling and More is the brain child of cycling and adventure enthusiasts Sreeharsha & Vikrant from Bangalore. When weekend treks are a yes yes, why not weekend rides ? This is the situation we are trying to change. We hope that helping people ride will aid acceptance of cycling as a fun, viable and completely eco-friendly mode of transport.”

Noob Guide to Cycling
Group cycling is a lot of fun; especially since everyone is obviously there because of one reason. No, make it two! Cycling and good food :-). This taken during a rainy CAM ride. The rains don’t get in the way of pedalling.

Red Spokes Cycling: A fairly new venture. From their FB page: “Red Spokes offers unique and exciting experiences, on a bicycle. Feel the wind on your face. Listen as the roads whisper stories to you. Take in the sights and sounds of nature. We guarantee that you will taste the excitement with our unique experiences across India, on a bicycle.”

MuddyBoots: Based in Kalpetta, this adventure company offers some great trails in the Wayanad region. The best part is that you don’t need to transport cycles as they have a stable of pretty good options. They are also operational in Madikeri, Coorg and Bekal.

Noob Guide to Cycling
Cycling with MuddyBoots in Kerala. The scenic beauty of this region is unbeatable. And add to that, it has pretty decent roads for cycling.


How safe is cycling on our city’s roads?

People ask this all the time. Before I answer the question, take some time to observe cyclists on our city roads. Do you hear or see a lot of mishaps. (and we’re sure there are quite a few in a city of our size). But it’s true – there are lakhs of cyclists on our city roads – and yet, they are as prone as someone on a two-wheeler or a car (despite the fact that you probably feel safer in a car). However, safety is very relative.

Is it safe for them? Depends on how safe we drive actually because safety of cyclists usually lies in someone else’s hand. Having said that, to answer the question, I don’t think cycling is much safer or unsafer than anything else. For example, cars have accidents, pedestrians have mishaps, two wheelers get into skirmishes. What you can do is ride as safely as you can. Take all the precautions.

So here are some I’d suggest:
– Wear a helmet
– Be noticed
– Give hand signals
– Follow traffic signals
– Watch out for erratic motorbikes, crazy tempo and call centre drivers, sudden opening of parked car doors (very important), drivers on opposite side of road, honking cabbies, holy cows, very aggressive Volvo drivers – so you get the drift right?
– Oh, and did I mention dogs? Just make some noise and hope they stop chasing you. They’re usually very friendly. You can try carrying some biscuits with you to make friends.

There are also others who believe that you should not wear a helmet or get noticed. I would rather protect my head however. Even if, for some reason you get nervous and fall at least you know your head is protected. I also like to wear bright clothes and make sure I get noticed because when I’m cycling I want that cab fellow to take care and not come too close. Doesn’t work all the time though.

But take an informed decision on this one.

What next?

Get on your bike and ride! If you’ve gotten this far, then you have no excuses not to ride.


CYCLING RESOURCES


To contribute any links or other information that might be useful, do leave a comment

CYCLING BOUTIQUE: For all your needs related to cycling including accessories, apparel, components and even bikes
PEDALS AND WHEELS – Bike shop and outdoor equipment store

RUNNERS/CYCLISTS WHO BLOG:
Bikey Venky (also called as Lord Venky in the cycling circles); an amazing cyclist who can also write about it as passionately!
Manoj Bhat who blogs about his running and cycling experiences at Visor View; an extremely inspiring athlete

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Getting physical: Things I’ve tried over the years

So here’s a post about the kind of interesting physical activities I’ve tried over the years. I’ve left out what I consider more common activities like running, cycling and walking. And I must also admit, a bit sheepishly, that I haven’t really stuck to anything in the long run. And all this seemingly hard work, hasn’t exactly resulted in a super model figure. But the fun is in the trying, I have convinced myself.

Shiamak Davar Dance Classes: So, this was a long time ago. When I decided I should learn how to dance. I do have difficulty moving my hands and feet in any organised form (which is why I’ve stayed away from aerobics!). But I decided to give it a go. It was a fun class. I was horribly out of sync all the time. But the high point was performing as a part of an annual function. In front of people. I have no idea what I did and whether my feet moved at all. But at least I can say, “I did it”. Thankfully, there are no pictures of the event. At least as far as I’m aware.

Kickboxing: Amazing for legs, hands, muscles – builds up stamina and is also good fun. I went for classes with a gentleman called Ashwin Mohan for nearly a year and enjoyed it immensely. Before class, he would make us run out, onto the roads and even make us do some jumping over walls and high obstacles – not surprising since he is also a parkour expert. If you’re relatively young and like high energy activities, give this a shot (or kick, should I say?!).
- Shootfighter

Power yoga: This had me addicted for a couple of years. I got to the stage when I was able to do 108 surya namaskars, once a week. A magic number in the world of yoga. Four days a week, religiously, I’d report for class and indulge in an hour long session where all the limbs opened up and one would have to contort to various positions. And of course, since this was the “power” version, we hoped we were burning more calories! Purists would probably frown on this form, but I enjoyed it for the few years I went for class.
Artistic yoga

Kalaripayattu: I then discovered this ancient art of defence from Kerala – quite an effective way to build physical fitness. So two hours of Kalari, two days a week was actually enough to push me to my physical limits. Because kalari is pretty intense. I also realised that doing kalari in one’s later years (which in my book is anything after 30) is not so easy. When your limbs are supple and young, it’s probably the best time to learn this art form. It’s beautiful to watch and extremely physical and demanding in practice, but after a bad knock to the knee, I realised that I had perhaps crossed the age where I could actually take it to the next level. So much as I enjoyed it, that’s where Kalari and I parted ways.
- Kalaripayattu

Pilates: After my achilles tendon injury in 2012, I took some time to get back to any physical activity. Resuming running was still not comfortable so I decided to do something indoors. Pilates turned out to be interesting form of exercise. It helps build core fitness levels, I also found it beneficial for other activities like cycling. I found my ankle also getting better as a result of some of the exercises on the reformer. Possibly something I’d like to get back to in the near future.
- Pilates at the Zone

Bikram yoga: While on my recent vacation in the US, I tried out this form of yoga, established by a much maligned gentleman of Indian origin called Bikram Choudhury. Not practiced in India (as far as I know) it’s gained a lot of popularity in the US and other parts of the world. What I surmised is that going into a hot room to exercise is quite an unattractive proposition for folks who already live in a hot country. We’re already sweating outside. Cold or ice yoga would probably be a big hit if it ever got “discovered” here! But getting back to Bikram yoga – it’s a series of 26 postures and breathing exercises in a sequence, performed in a room heated to 40-45 degrees celcius. Your limbs open up and become more supple. What I enjoyed was sweating buckets, and it sure felt like all the toxins were leaving my body. And there was weight loss (which is a big challenge for me) when I was doing it regularly. So I did find it pretty effective and I would have probably continued it, if I had the opportunity. But… that’s not to be, since we don’t have anyone who’s been brave enough to open a studio here yet.
- Bikram Yoga Centreville

So besides running, cycling and badminton (which was responsible for my injury!), these are some interesting physical activities I’ve tried.

Next on my list: Spinning, Aqua aerobics, zumba (!), belly dancing (why not?) and TRX! At least when I’m 80 and need a walking stick, I’ll look back and say I’ve tried everything. And it will possibly be true.

What interesting activities have you tried and tested over the years?

Looking for an adrenalin rush? Jumping out of a place is one option!

The day I jumped out of a plane

So one thing that didn’t figure on my wishlist was jumping out of a plane. Many, many thousand feet off the ground. Diving into the deep ocean is quite an adventure, and I’ve done it several times now, but if someone asked me if I wanted to jump out of a plane (till two weeks ago) I would probably say what most sane people say: “Are you crazy?!”

But this was something the better half wanted to do. And of course, the supportive spouse that I am, I decided he couldn’t possibly do this alone.

Let me make one thing clear though. There’s no way I was going to jump out of a plane on my own. Thankfully, they don’t allow that either. Until you log a respectable number of jumps. And yes, yes – there was a parachute involved and a very nice instructor called Ricco, who kept up the conversation and made sure I was relaxed and ready, as our little plane took off the runway.

So this is what it felt like. And it’s really difficult to put in words. But I’m going to try so you can decide whether this is one adventure you want to indulge in.

As the plane soars higher, everything gets smaller and smaller. And the realization hits you that once that plane side door opens, you have to jump. The only consolation is that it’s with another human being for security – your instructor.

The moment actually came sooner than later. There were around 6 of us on the plane. With an equal number of instructors. And as luck would have it, I was the first in queue. It took hardly 10 minutes or so to be up at the height – I think it was around 10,000 feet. The door opened. I thought I’d get some kind of a speech from my instructor, but not really. No time for dilly dallying. The instructor asked me to hang my legs out. And then said “now”.

That’s it. We’re out. Falling. Very fast.

Free fall is a scary and yet exhilarating feeling. It also feels like forever. I think I screamed. A lot. Everything whirred and we were moving at around 120 mph towards the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever moved that fast on the ground (my car doesn’t go half as fast ;-)).

After what seemed like an eternity, but was actually a few seconds, there was a tug and the instructor tapped me telling me I could relax. Phew… I saw the huge parachute opening above us. And one thing you do in these moments is say a silent “thank god” – that’s one device you don’t want failing at this juncture.

After free fall, life slows down and you get the view of the earth below. This is when I started to take it all in. Wishing it would never end. The world looks gorgeous. Green everywhere and since this was fall season, different colours dotting the landscape making it even more beautiful. I think I said “this is awesome” around ten times to Ricco. Who I guess is used to these outburst of expressions (he’s been doing it for 8 long years!).

Our sky diving experience at the DC Tandem Sky Diving Center

Our sky diving experience at the DC Tandem Sky Diving Center, Warrenton


I totally enjoyed these few moments up in the air. It’s so quiet and serene. It’s a feeling like no other. (But then I say that for everything new I try!).

If you like a heart-in-the-mouth experience, and don’t mind letting go of your fears for a few minutes, I would highly recommend jumping out of a plane. Just make sure you do it with a reputable school with experienced instructors.

And I still look back and think, “gosh, did I really do it?!”

*This is where we did our sky diveTandem Sky Diving

W&OD trail

Bicycling Diaries, Part 1: Washington & Old Dominion Trail in Virginia

So what do you do with miles of railroads from the yesteryears, which are no longer operational? Abandon them? Thankfully, someone had better sense. Today, in the US there are quite a few of these railroads, converted into running and cycling trails. These provide a great place for those who want to indulge in these sporty activities without the hindrance of vehicular traffic.

Through a tunnel

While visiting Virginia, the trail we cycled on is the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad (W&OD), now looked after by the Friends of WNOD.  This particular railroad ferried passengers between towns, from 1859 to 1968. With the increase in the number of vehicles and the improved road networks, the demand for passenger trains came down and finally they closed it down.

It is a 45 mile asphalt trail for walking, running and other activities (motorized vehicles are not allowed) and there is a parallel 30.5 mile gravel path for horseback riding and hiking. So there are portions where the two trails intersect. 

Somewhere on the W&OD Railroad trail

On weekends, these kind of dedicated trails (W&OD is one of them) becomes a hub of activity. In fact, if you want to do a fast cycle ride, it’s probably better to plan one on a weekday instead. Else, you’ll have to spend a lot of time dodging walkers, dogs, and other folks out on leisurely pursuits. And calling out “to your left” – etiquette demands you shout out to whoever’s in front of you when you’re passing.

On the W&OD Trail

We chose a weekday and it was a good idea. We got dropped at the far end of the trail very close to Purcellville at mile 42 at around 11 am. When we began our ride, we hardly encountered anyone. It turned out to be a very pleasant day and the nice part was the shade of the trees. We did a rather leisurely pace enjoying the scenery and the fact that there was simply no one around!

Map of the WOD trail

WOD trail: Image from Friends of WOD

We wind our way through open fields, empty towns (at least it seemed empty, but we were there in the afternoon), beside rivers and streams, and golf courses and a few houses dotting the countryside. We stopped a few times to enjoy the fresh air and the surroundings.

Countryside as we cycle

Back home, we don’t have the luxury of not encountering over-speeding vehicles or honking maniacs, so I thoroughly soaked in the experience. Miles and miles of tarmac and not a single vehicle to bother us. I had to keep pinching myself to tell myself this was for real!
Crossing a small town

There are quite a few water points on the trail, though I carried a hydration pack to be safe. I had to only refill once. We also had packed sandwiches and some energy bars, which we enjoyed on one of the many benches beside the trail and ate our lunch.
Taking a break

Water filling station

We cycled upto mile 14 beyond Herndon, and then headed back to mile 24, where we had instructions to stop for being picked up by our friends. Though it was relatively warm through the day, the trail passes through areas of shade giving us some relief from the sun. At the town of Herndon, we saw displayed on the roadside, one of the original coaches from one of the trains that plied on the W&OD rail line. We also found a cycling shop (Green Lizard), where we had some coffee and brownies.

A carriage from the train is preserved in Herndon

Green Lizard Cycling in Herndon

All in all, a beautiful trail. We’ve heard it gets packed on weekends, so visit on a weekday and you’ll love it!

Here’s a great website to find other trails to bike around in Virginia, and also the different states in the US.

More pictures from the W&OD are in my Flickr Album.

Olaulim Backyards

Olaulim Backyards: Where time stands still, but a lot can happen!

They had me at Richard Parker!

The one who rules

This cosy homestay, situated in a very quiet and serene part of Goa will transport you to another world all together. Away from the buzz and the humdrum, the noise and pollution of the city, it’s a relief as you step into what is literally a “backyard”! All around is just green as far as the eye can see. And a creek that lazily winds its way into the property completing the perfect picture.

And fittingly, you know why this serene place is called Olaulim Backyards. Inhabited by a motley group of permanent residents (besides the hosts and their 2 kids) – three dogs, a pony, a donkey and a cat called Richard Parker - every moment is a delight.

Gone grazing...

I was lucky to spend 3 days at Olaulim, in the peak of the monsoons and I don’t think I’ve seen Goa in a more beautiful season – bathed in rain, the countryside is a shade of green that you’ll never find in a concrete jungle. The roads are inviting, winding and wet. And the best part of the rains is that life doesn’t stop in these parts. Armed with large raincoats, people go about their business not really caring much. It does rain incessantly for days on end and the monsoon in Goa is a long one.

Olaulim is run by Savio and his wife Pirkko, who are friendly, accommodating and immediately make you feel at home. I got shown to my cosy cottage overlooking the Olauim creek, with Richard Parker meowing loudly to make sure I was settled in properly. From the cottage, is a lovely view of the fields in the horizon and the water in between. I ventured out on my first kayak adventure and spent a happy hour enjoying the peace and quiet. Just the chirping of birds, the ruffled waters as I rowed and the occasional flying fish performing acrobats for me, it seemed!

Welcome to the cosy room

There’s never a dull moment. Either you’re lounging around in the central dining area – naturally my favourite place – or diving into the pool enjoying the beautiful waters. Or you can borrow one of the cycles and go off to discover the Goan countryside. Like I did. And got caught in the pouring rain, but enjoyed it immensely. Give me these  lovely hilly country roads any day, over miles and miles of boring highway!

Some fun in the creek

And then there was all this amazing food to be eaten. Be warned – if you’re visiting, make sure you get a healthy dose of exercise during the day. Otherwise, you might just get back home a few kgs heavier. Like I did. Despite all my attempts at cycling, kayaking, swimming, I still over ate! With delicious fish fry, fresh vegetables and great company, it’s quite easy to get carried away.

During my stay, I also met a very interesting couple who had driven all the way down South with their two kids. It was heart warming to see them enjoy their time, playing with the animals and enjoying the outdoors. One of the advantages of living in homestays are the interesting people you meet and have dinner time conversations with.

I would have probably stayed on forever (or asked to be adopted by Savio and Pirkko!), but had to head back eventually.

More pictures: Goa Monsoon Diaries
Olaulim Backyards home page

(Note: If you’re looking for a place to stay in Goa, and like the sound of this one, head over to my Best Homestays India blog for the full review and contact details.)

The Cathedral

Into the deep blue

When I got a chance to travel to the Philippines recently, I couldn’t resist fitting in a dive. After all, the beautiful blue green waters in this region are known for it’s marine life and Manila is well placed in terms of access to the sea.

On a beautiful and sunny (and I should mention hot) Sunday, we set off on our road trip to Anilao, the primary diving area around a two and a half hour drive from Manila city. My colleague, who had also recently got a taste of the underwater thrill called diving agreed to take me to the dive site and also accompany me for the dive. We were also lucky to have another colleague who is a certified divemaster, leading the dives.

Diving Anilao

Enjoying the underwater life in Anilao

The highway drive was pleasant and the road was good all the way through. It actually feels a little like the US since the road signs and the construction seems to be modeled on the US. However, the countryside, the trees and the houses had a distinctly Asian flavour. In fact, another colleague had recently travelled in a few of the interior towns and said it reminded him very much of home (Kerala).

Anyway, back to our trip. We took a quick breakfast break at a MacDonald’s on the way and then we were off towards our destination. We headed to Aquaventure Reef Club, one amongst the many diving school in these parts. Anilao is dotted with all these resorts which offer diving. Just make sure you’re going some place recommended and reliable. This one recognises both SSI and PADI certifications.

The waters are relatively warm here. And on the surface, the weather is hot and muggy. We geared up and packed off on our first dive, which was just around the corner. It didn’t take us more than 15 minutes and it was very close to the shore. The marine life down under is similar to the Andamans, and this whole area is actually a reserved marine sanctuary. Saw quite a few different kinds of fish and beautiful corals. It was quite a relaxed dive, we just sauntered from point to point and didn’t really stop anywhere.

Scuba diving in the Philippines

Scuba diving in the Philippines

For the second dive, we went to another well-known point called the Cathedral. It was again very close to the shore. We encountered schools of silver jacks, which just swam past us. The fish seem to be quite friendly too around these parts and come pretty close and don’t seem intimidated by us humans trespassing into their territory. The Cathedral is so named because of a large cross which was dropped in this part of the ocean by former Philippine President Fidel Ramos in 1983 and blessed by Pope John Paul II. It rests on the floor, having gathered a lot of moss and other accumulated underwater organisms, making it quite an interesting sight.

The Cathedral

The Cathedral

The fish that you’ll probably sight are angel fish, wrasse, triggerfish, surgeonfish, damselfish, pufferfish, Moorish idols and butterfly fish. Also look out for the colourful nudibranchs and sponges.

School of silver jack

School of silver jack

We didn’t get a chance to go into the open waters as I had a flight to catch the next day and we need a respectable 24 hours between dives. But considering the reputation of the region, I was happy that I managed to pack in a dive. Having done my certification in the Andamans, this was my first experience diving in another country and it was quite memorable. Now thinking of other exotic diving locations. Bali, maybe?

Under water in Anilao

Under water in Anilao

Photos courtesy: Winston Rubio, divemaster

Dive location: Off Bagalangit Point, Anilao, Philippines
Visibility: 10 to 25 meters
Depth: 20 to 30 meters

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