Dhruv Bogra says he never thought of death as he set out for his epic journey. However, he did write his will and even shared his laptop's password with his daughter. Little did he know that a near-death experience awaited him down the road, entailing a bowlful of fried grasshoppers.
Travel has become something of a luxury for many in this day and age, especially those who find themselves thrown into the rat race. Bogra was fairly ahead in this battle, establishing himself in the corporate world in a career spanning more than two decades. However, he was not one to let the adventurous soul wither away and decided to follow his heart when he set off on an expedition to remember, a trip for which he had to quit his cushy job, that of a senior retail director at Adidas India in 2016.
Cycling from Alaska to Peru, covering multiple nations across two continents along the Pan-American Highway. That does sound like a trip worth quitting one’s job for, some might say.
Bogra’s initial plan, though, was a much shorter one. A year before setting off on the adventure, he was hiking through Alaska’s Chugach Mountains during a visit to the US, and fell in love with the pristine beauty of the valley, hoping to return someday for a biking trip — one that would take up a week’s time, or 10 days at the most.
“But as time went by, I started revisiting the blogs of bicycle touring that I had seen many years ago, and I said, ‘Why not go on a much longer journey? Why just stop at Alaska? Why not go beyond?’”Bogra said in an interaction with Firstpost.
From camping in sub-zero temperatures in Himachal Pradesh in order to get himself acclimatised, getting a bicycle built with the help of a Bengaluru-based company, to reading multiple blogs and poring various maps, there were a number of steps Bogra had to take in order to prepare for the great journey, all of which took about a year.
“You have to train your body to face hardships, struggle. Learn how to pitch a tent again and again and again in a snowstorm, or in rain with your gloves on. It’s all a matter of survival when you are out there all alone. Nobody is there to help you. There’s no porter, nothing at all,” Bogra explained.
The Delhi resident credits the outdoor activities he used to actively participate in during his days as a student at Sherwood College in Nainital for building his core strength. He was able to maintain a similar lifestyle in his twenties, before it slowly started fading away once he began working, and was unable to revive it until he was in his early forties. He had been cycling for about half a decade by the time he made up his mind for the expedition through North and South America.
On June 21, 2016, Bogra flagged off his journey from the town of Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, about 400 km from the Arctic Circle. While he was greeted with fresh snowfall on the very first day, Bogra had his Himachal experience to thank for being able to set up a tent in the bitter cold thousands of kilometres away from home.
From there on, the journey through the mountains, forests and deserts taught him more about the world and life than perhaps anything else.
Bogra overcame his fear of wild animals during the trip. At one point, he came face-to-face with a young bear near the Haines Junction in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Instead of following the standard protocol of playing dead upon sighting a bear, Bogra decided to take pictures of the animal.
It was only after he showed the photos to locals that he was told the young bear was exhibiting physical signs of getting ready to attack. In another encounter shortly after the first one, Bogra found himself talking to a mother and her cubs while clicking them. He earned the nickname ‘The Bear Whisperer’ after narrating these incidents to locals, who additionally described his actions as “loony”.
The bear encounters weren’t the only perilous experiences in the journey — he got a severe allergic reaction after consuming fried grasshoppers in a town in Mexico. Luckily for him, he was able to walk into a 24-hour pharmacy nearby which had an in-house doctor who was able to treat him rightaway. Bogra also got a bout of typhoid along the route, though he maintains it wasn’t as life-threatening as the grasshoppers in his stomach.
Loneliness was never an issue either for Bogra, for whom the stretches through the uninhabited expanses presented an opportunity to connect with the surroundings and appreciate the beauty of nature: in other words, develop a certain sensitivity towards every living thing.
“Each day was a new day. Each day I was cycling to a new destination or a new campsite or a new riverside. Every single moment that I cycled was spent either in adoring the beauty of the wildlife or the landscape around me, or struggling up a mountain. Too busy to feel lonely,” is how Bogra described one of his biggest takeaways from the trip.
Additionally, his travels through the countries south of the US changed some of his perceptions. Mexico, for instance, didn’t turn out to be as dangerous as thought of by its neighbours up north. Although one still has to be extra cautious while travelling through certain parts of the country, Bogra believes Americans have created a “fear psychosis” around Mexico in terms of crime and safety.
Everything didn’t quite go according to plan either. Bogra had hoped to end his trip at Ushuaia, an Argentinian resort town at the southernmost tip of the continent. However, financial woes and visa troubles forced him to call it a day in Peru, a country he now describes as his “spiritual home”, a country where he made a number of friends, loved the food and would happily settle down in.
He got to visit the fabled Rainbow Mountain near Cusco among other locations before ending his journey.
The challenge didn’t end for him after the experience of cycling for 15,000 km through various terrain across two continents. A new chapter in his life had only just begun.
After flying back home, it took Bogra a while to get back to his old ways, and dealing with the noxious Delhi air turned out to be a more daunting prospect than facing a bear back in Canada. For Bogra, it was almost as if he had been taken to a different planet.
There were changes to his lifestyle and habits as well. Bogra quit eating meat and has vastly cut down on milk and dairy products since his return, attributing his love for animals to embracing veganism. He rarely takes his car out these days, preferring to use the metro instead in his bid to contribute towards a greener planet.
It’s not as if the experience of cycling for thousands of kilometres did not have a physical impact on him. There were internal injuries to deal with, as Bogra developed a case of trigger finger because of which he couldn’t lift things for three months after his return. The nerves in his left hand were severely damaged because of constant pressure, and it required him to undergo physiotherapy.
Then there was the challenge of getting a job, which didn’t come his way for six months. “God knows when this guy will leave us and go cycling again,” is what Bogra assumes employers would’ve thought after hearing his reasons for quitting the Adidas job back in 2016.
Bogra, though, says he would happily encourage an employee, even “fight tooth and nail” for him or her to take a long break should such a request for an extended leave ever come his way. He believes extending such support would be beneficial both to employees in terms of their health and overall well-being, as well as to their organisations. He also says that such a culture should be encouraged in a country like India, where the workforce is said to be among the most productive in the world but not necessarily the happiest.
While he did not get work for several months, he utilised the time writing his book, Grit, Gravel and Gear, his account of the Pan-American journey, at a coffee shop in south Delhi. Bogra describes it as a “lifelong dream” and says that he wrote it from the heart and just let it flow. Getting the book published, however, was the harder part, he soon discovered.
“Whoever I sent the manuscript to was not sure about cycling journeys, saying that there is no readership for it in India. It was a struggle to get people to like the concept of a cycling book or an adventure book,” says Bogra. Fortunately for him, he managed to contact Crossword through an agent and got the publisher to like the idea and go ahead with it.
Bogra also hopes that his story helps inspire more people to take up cycling or any other outdoor activity. While he admitted that the usage of cycles in India is still quite widespread through newspaper and milk vendors and a sizeable number in the industrial workforce, the recreational cycling culture that’s quite prevalent in the West is miniscule at best here, though it is slowly picking up pace.
For now, Bogra will have to contend with the fact that his outdoor activities will be limited once again, given that he’s back in the corporate world and has committed himself to it for now. Beyond the office job, one book could lead to another, or so he believes. Bogra hopes to write an illustrated version of his travels, one that he envisions as an adventure book for children.
As far as his travel ambitions are concerned, he hopes to go beyond Peru, and do a full tour of South America someday. Or pedal through the vastness that is Siberia. The adventure junkie in him has only taken a break, and has certainly not bid goodbye.
That's true grit, born and made in India and applied across two faraway continents.
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