One of the ace riders in the country, Shilpa Balakrishnan has recently set another record by covering over 15,000 kms across the country in 30 days—this time, for a clean India mission in association with DCB Bank. We exclusively spoke to her to get an insight into her journey so far. By Rashima Nagpal
How were you as a child?
As a child, I was quite an introvert, timid, low self-esteemed personality. However, I was very attentive and intelligent. I loved living in my own astonishing world where everything was beautiful and hassle free.
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What are your earliest memories of travelling?
I barely explored during school or college days except going for the annual picnics. I remember, my very first trip was to Lonavala with my family and acquaintances. We weren’t, of course, mobile or media frenzy at that time. We spent some mesmerising days there, tried a lot of delicacies and enjoyed the weather.
The next trip was in Hyderabad with my cousins. It was the first time we went out of Maharashtra (one of my uncle lived there). We went for local sightseeing and also to the outskirts of Hyderabad. It was a fun-filled time and that trip evoked the travel bug in me.
Tell us about your first major bike ride.
Travelling, exploring, sightseeing, meeting different people is what awakened the enthusiasm in me. My first bike ride was in December, I visited Saputara in Gujarat. As it was nearly Christmas time, me and my friend were determined to explore some lesser-known places. Saputara wasn’t well known back then, so we decided to go there. It was a four-day trip. We went via Vapi, Silvassa to Saputara and returned via Nashik. Saputara is a hill station close to the borders of Maharashtra, near Nashik. Those days we didn’t use Google maps; we chalked out our plan using a physical map. It was worth a visit and on our way back, we visited the Saptashrungi Devi temple at Vani, which is also one of the 51 Shakti Peeths, and is situated on a mountain top on the way to Nashik.
What made you take up biking seriously?
I am unsure as to when I took it up seriously. It was probably the love to travel that made me go around the country on my bike. I started it as a daily commute and then weekend rides. Gradually, it led to week long, fortnightly and now, for months together.
What’s life like, on days when you are not travelling or riding?
Life’s tedious when I am not travelling or riding. This begins as soon as the trip comes to an end and the feel lasts till I plan another. Typically, I try to rest and rejuvenate myself, which doesn’t happen the way it should.
In your journeys so far, certain things must have come across as a surprise. Can you share a few anecdotes?
My first ride to the Himalayas (Ladakh) was a big surprise. Very less amount of information was garnered from the internet, hence I was a bit worried when I set out on the ride. All I could garner was that it was at a very high altitude; people would suffer from AMS, and had to follow what the army said. When I reached Sonamarg, I was amazed with the beauty and the view of the glaciers. I rode all the way to Leh except for the last 50 odd kilometers where I was a pillion. I shut my eyes to rest for a while, which is when I started getting illusions and felt like the world around me was spinning so fast that I would get lost. It scared the hell out of me, and I realised what an effect the mountains had on me.
I completed a Saddle Sore challenge of 1600 kms in 24 hours. It is a challenge where the rider tests his/her own endurance in riding the distance. This challenge is verified and certified by the Iron Butt Association in the USA. I had neither planned to do it nor was I prepared for it. I took it up to check if I could actually do it. I did not have any keen intention of completing it too. Not sure, what kept me going, but I endured the ride and completed it within the given time frame. Here, I would like to thank DCB Bank for its wholehearted support in helping me complete my record-breaking, cross-country ride.
India is full of surprises; another incident that comes to my mind is this. I had visited most parts of India except the Central and Northeast regions before I started my Pan-India tour. I entered Gangtok late evening. Rumor had it that people in Northeast were not very welcoming and warm. Neither did they speak Hindi! What I saw in reality was completely different to the rumors. People here cared about everyone, led a simple life and were merry. I was waiting for an acquaintance to come and take me to where I had to stay the night. A taxi driver came by, saw me for few seconds and then asked, “Are you waiting for someone? Can I help you reach your destination? You must be tired, can I get you something to eat or drink?” I politely answered that someone will be coming to pick me up shortly. He waited for the person to arrive and then after confirming that I am in good hands, he left. The next day I went to get some ILPs (Inline Permits) to visit the North and East of Sikkim. An agent approached me to help get the necessary forms and fill it up with relevant information. I expected him to charge me for it, but he just walked away after helping me without asking for even a dime. Isn’t that surprising?
A city that is dear to you, and why?
I love Mumbai, not because I was born here or have lived here ever since, but because it has a life of it’s own. It always amazes me to see how the huge population, in spite of its vast diversity, stays united under all circumstances and comes forth during any distress to help others selflessly.
Where did you find the best roads in India?
The best roads are in the south of India, especially, Tamil Nadu. The roads in Rajasthan and Gujarat are also very well maintained. The National Highways in Maharashtra are very good, but the state highways definitely need to improve a lot.
Do you think there’s a need to differentiate female riders from their male counterparts?
No. I always keep saying, the road knows no gender. We are just human beings riding to our respective destinations on our machines.
The biggest challenge you’ve faced while on the road?
The biggest challenge is to keep myself motivated when the ride gets tough, especially when riding solo. I tend to lose my energy when I have to ride through tough terrains all day long. During such bike rides, I take a break, allow myself to absorb the surroundings, and then continue with my journey till I reach the destination.
When you’re on a long-distance road trip, it is very important to obey road-safety rules in both letter and spirit. My recent bike tour was an opportunity for DCB Bank and myself to spread awareness about the need for 100 per cent road safety for both motorists and pedestrians.
How do you think times have changed (for you, as a rider), from the time you started in 2004?
There weren’t too many female riders when I started riding a motorcycle. Thus, the acceptance in the society was low. It took a lot of convincing to make them accept what I loved pursuing. However, over a period of time, this has changed and acceptance from people to see women riding motorcycles on the roads is much better now. Although the percentile is quite low as compared to men, I believe in the near future, things will change.
The most fun ride so far?
Me and my friend went on a ride to Karnataka. It was a week-long ride. We visited Bangalore, Mysore and Coorg before returning to Mumbai. We had not planned on the sites we would be visiting, so it was more of asking the locals and going around. We went to places where barely any vehicles went. We went to Tala Kaveri, which was almost a race against time and just about managed to reach before the temple closed for the day. We went to the zoo in Mysore not expecting it to be a huge one and ended spending five hours in it because it was indeed a huge one with so many species of animals to see. Amazingly, they were all in good health and well maintained too. We were returning home from Mysore and got stuck in one of many strikes that keep happening between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka for the Kauveri River. We had to take a detour through the fields of some villages to be safe before hitting the highway again. The detour was nearly 100 kms long. It was challenging as well as a lot of fun.
How do you see your passion for riding and the clean India mission coming together?
Promoting India’s tourism was my prime intention. I also spread awareness about India’s Swachh Bharat initiative wherever I go. In this, I was associated with DCB Bank’s many sustainable activities, such as clean streets and community hygiene, protecting water bodies and natural resources, reducing the use of plastic and encouraging recycling, propagating water and waste-water management, and renewable energy. Our ‘green partnership’ helped to bring these important social causes into focus.
People/tourists would love to visit places only if they are clean, hygienic, well maintained and has good infrastructure. With DCB Bank’s support, I created awareness amongst the locals on how to maintain cleanliness, it’s benefits and how easy it is to keep their areas neat and hygienic. I sometimes even end up cleaning some places to show them that it isn’t difficult to inculcate the habit of keeping their surroundings clean.
DCB Bank also pledged to plant a sappling for each kilometer covered by me and also on behalf of all those who commented on my post with #merapaudha #plantaplant. The plants planted will be looked after by the farmers. This will not only help us have a greener planet, but also enable the farmers to have a sustainable future.
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Any message on conscious travel for your fellow riders and travellers?
I would request all my fellow riders, travellers, and tourists to be responsible for their actions. Respect the locals. Littering is easy, cleaning is not. So do not litter around and then go blaming that the place is filthy, not worth a visit, not well maintained, etc. Teach your children to do the same.