When a man is on a solo cycling trip for nearly a year, the comforts of modern life begin to fade and all he is left with is nature, harsh and majestic by turns. Travelling for days without meeting a soul, he becomes attuned to the rhythms of the wind and the mysterious ways of animals. Alone at the end of a long day, he learns to grapple with his demons.
Dhruv Bogra, a 49-year-old former corporate executive from Delhi, is on this remarkable journey right now. Currently in South America, he is only a few months away from accomplishing a feat unfathomable for the average person: riding through the Pan American Highway, from Alaska to Argentina, in its entirety if everything goes to plan.
A dedicated cyclist in his youth, his passion fell by the wayside once his corporate career took off. A few years ago, he met someone in Mumbai who cycled his way to work. On an impulse, he bought a mountain bike for himself. From that moment, his biking dreams were reignited.
In a conversation from Peru, Bogra reminisces about rediscovering his passion as an adult. On weekdays, he often woke up at 4.30 a.m. to cycle while weekends were meant for biking to the outskirts of either Mumbai or Delhi, wherever he was based for work. He also made friends with a group of cycling enthusiasts. The group’s weekend rides started to get longer and soon enough, they were training to cycle from Manali to Khardung La.
That journey, undertaken in 2011, was arduous and heady, and was Bogra’s introduction to touring cycling. He says, “The success and the achievement of this [tour] spurred me on to start looking at bigger biking goals for myself.”
The idea of the sport being self-sustained, with no support vehicle to fall back on and delving deeper into a territory, inspired and excited him. Touring cycling, as a sport, is not a norm in India. But that did not deter him. Bogra had found his next personal project: cross-country biking.
For any cross-country bicyclist, three routes present the ultimate challenge: the Silk Route, Siberia and the Pan-American Highway. After researching all three, he chose the Pan-American Highway mainly for its difficulty (it’s the most arduous), its varied terrain (the route traverses glaciers, deserts and tundra) and the cultural diversity (it goes through around 20 countries). As Bogra puts it, “I had this fascination for South America since I was a kid—the Mayans, the Aztecs and the Incas. This is a land I really wanted to go to.”
It took him six months to figure out the kind of cycling gear he needed, and around five months to build the bike. Most of his gear and components were imported from across the world; the gear hub alone cost over a lakh rupees. His intensive training routine did not just include cycling; it also meant sleeping in a tent in his own house to get used to sleeping on the ground, wearing the same four T-shirts to learn how to live with less, and detailed research.
After spending hours every day poring over maps and blogs, his plan was to start from Deadhorse, Alaska, and end at Ushuaia, Argentina. Bogra’s friends and family laughed off his plan as one of his more fanciful ideas, but when he finally left, everyone wished him well.
Since hitting the road, he has covered an average of 35 kilometres a day; in 400 days he has travelled 14,000 kilometres. During breaks, he pitches a tent at campsites or any resting place that looks inviting enough. Occasionally, he checks into spartan hostels or motels.
In Alaska, when riding along less travelled and smaller roads, he had a few close encounters with bears. Bogra admits that to some locals he came across as “mad” for doing this and, they started referring to him as “The Bear Whisperer”.
Twice, his health failed him when he suffered from typhoid. But instead of heading to a physician, he opted for self-diagnosis. “That’s a chance you have to take,” he says. “Medical aid is not always available. You may be in a very small town where there is no doctor, or you may not trust the doctor.” Luckily for him, there was a doctor he could trust when he consumed grasshoppers in Mexico and got a severe allergic reaction.
Notwithstanding grasshoppers, Bogra is a fan of Central and South American food like chilaquiles (fried tortillas in green or red salsa), frijoles (a dish made with black beans), guacamole and pupuseria (tortillas with savoury stuffing). Despite carrying an alcohol stove and rations (which were used mostly during his travels in the U.S. and Canada, because eating out there was expensive), he indulged in local cuisines south of the American border. In cases where that’s not possible, he relies on his personal food kit stocked with nuts, oatmeal, butter, cheese and dried meat, for use in colder temperatures.
Being on the road all by himself has made him reconsider some life choices—like his decision to eat meat. The dried meat, he carries only out of necessity, says Bogra. If anything, he wants to turn vegetarian once he’s “back to civilisation”. One of the transformational aspects of his journey has been an attitude that’s “more loving towards Mother Nature” and consumption of meat now induces guilt pangs in him.
This journey has shattered some of Bogra’s preconceived notions about places. He found that mobile connectivity atop a mountain in Guatemala is better than that in areas along America’s West Coast. And, that internet accessibility in Mexico is far better than that in Canada.
South America consistently threw up surprises. Any concerns he had about his safety in countries like Mexico and El Salvador, notorious for their crime rates, were vastly exaggerated. He says, “If I do get hit by a bullet in Mexico, it’ll be because I’m sitting in a coffee shop and a gang war has started. It would be because of my bad luck that I happened to there, and not because I’m cycling alone.”
There was never a moment when he felt threatened in Mexico; the country, according to him, has four levels of police patrolling during the night. This is not to suggest that travellers throw caution to the wind. Bogra merely urges them to exercise common sense. In Mexico, he was warned not to cycle in certain parts after 6 p.m. “The drug lords shoot first and ask questions later.”
Even El Salvador, a country known in the international media as the murder capital of the world, was a humbling experience. “It is a society imprisoned by its own fears. All houses have electric fences, stores have grills and armed security guards,” he recalls.
The world out there may often seem intimidating but Bogra is nonplussed. On the road, he has cut himself off from news feeds and breaking stories. “It didn’t change my life one bit. Not once did I feel I’m missing out on something by not reading the news,” he says.
The overarching theme of his cycling trip is transformation, a word he often uses during conversation. “People keep telling me I’ve changed,” he says, of friends and family in India. For now though, his focus is on completing the journey by September. To refuel after that, he is planning another escape. “I want to go to the mountains to recuperate once I’m home,” he reveals. Clearly, despite a year of nomadic existence, Bogra’s wanderlust is alive and well.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.