These days everyone seems to be making some sort of statement for peace, but it is a message that can never heard too often.
The 11 members of the Sri Lankan Global Peace Secretariat cyclist team are on a two-year bicycling tour to spread the word of non-violence. The eight men and three women arrived in Nepal last week, and are a mix of Sinhalese and Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims. Aged 27-43, they are a microcosm of Sri Lankan society. Despite their shoe-string budget of about Rs 1,000 a day for the whole team, they hope to cover all the SAARC countries and, if possible, even Afghanistan.
It hasn't been as simple as just hopping on a bicycle and pedalling away. Yogarajah, a mechanical engineer by profession, had a secure position in the family business but decided that he had to do something worthwhile before it was too late. Forming an enthusiastic foursome with friends Upali, Rizwan and Upul, he managed to raise a little money and place advertisements in the national papers to search for more partners.
The 45 applicants were put through gruelling physical tests, as well as a psychological assessment to see if they could withstand the rigours of a low-budget and unpredictable biking tour. After narrowing the final team down to 11 members, their next hurdle was to find bicycles. After several tries, Hero cycles finally agreed to give each member a Razorback, their latest model. Finally, in January they were ready to hit the road.
They cover about 80km a day and ride in two sub-teams, keeping in touch through walkie-talkies so that no one gets lost. They carry their tents and food with them, averaging about 40kg for the men and 20kg for the women. They prefer to stay in schools or youth hostels, but on occasion they have camped out for the night in the three tents.
The team is struck by the similarities they find among south Asians and feel confident that their mission will be understood. They have printed bright yellow 'peace flyers' which they hand out as they cycle. They talk of being taken aback by the warm hospitality they have received everywhere, despite the language barrier. Rizwan is the only team member who can speak Hindi. The rest of the team is appreciative of his language skills as, with the exception of being able to use Tamil in south India, they could not make themselves understood in Sinhala anywhere, and on the B-roads they were on, not many Indians spoke English.
Rizwan is also the team's chef, not an easy task: Hindus don't eat beef and Muslims don't eat pork, so the staple has been chicken, or mutton when they can get it, with rice and dal. "The most difficult place to find anything to eat was Bihar," said Rizwan. "Everything was so unclean that we were really worried we'd get sick, so we ate only biscuits for a few days," he adds. A strict Muslim himself, Rizwan tries to get halal meat where he can, and prays five times a day.
Despite the geographic convenience that a route through Bangladesh would have offered, they decided to tackle Nepal first since it is Buddha's birthplace. So far, they say it's been great. A dangerous brush with a jeep in India left member Sarada with a wounded leg. By comparison, cycling in Nepal has been a breeze, despite the punishing climb up to the Kathmandu Valley.
Shyam Kakshapati of Nanglo Bakery Cafe saw them cycling past his Kurintar resort on their way up to Kathmandu and immediately invited them to stop and have breakfast on the house. Dr Arun Kumar Singh helped Champa Nilmini with a wheeze brought on by the Valley dust, and Sri Lankan Ambassador Grace Asirwatham hosted a dinner in their honour. The Sri Lankan community, including its resident celebrity, under-19 cricket coach Roy Dias, turned out in full force to show their support. Kathmandu's Sri Lankan community took up a hat collection to help the team through the next stage of their long journey.
What next, once this is all over? Will the team be able to get used to being in one place, or will they miss the wheels going round and round? "When our mission is complete, when we've been to all the SAARC countries, and maybe further, and then come home, we'll go all around our own island to show them what we've done," says Yogarajah.
Adds Upali, "Then they'll see if we can do so much, why can't they do something too and work together for peace. At least our children's generation will live in a better world."
To track the progress of the team, log on to http://www.angelfire.com/trek/global/peace