Interview with Belinda Mueller

Vidula, the founder of BuffyFish, went exploring the coast of the Indian Peninsula, along with 6 other wonderful women, over 28 days, across 8 states, in January 2015. She did this in a vehicle called the Mahindra Scorpio Adventure 4×4 vehicle. This vehicle was sponsored by Mahindra. She started her journey in Mumbai, which lies on the west coast of Indian Peninsula and ended it Kolkata, West Bengal, which lies on the east coast of the Indian Peninsula. Every state that she visited, she interviewed one interesting woman. She interviewed Belinda Mueller, a long distance cyclist, from Goa, India.

Vidula – Tell us a little bit about yourself from the beginning

Belinda – I am a psychiatrist by profession, a Goan, settled down here for the last 19 years or so.

Vidula – Tell us something about your early childhood

Belinda – I had a wonderful childhood in Nairobi. Born in Nairobi and I still remember lots of wildlife trips. I think that is where I developed a taste for adventure. So almost every weekend we would go for picnics and trips into wildlife reserves, camping trips. My father loved fishing. So he had a whole friend circle and they were also into fishing. At that time I just wanted to become a wildlife ranger. At some point I gave up that dream and chose medicine instead.

Vidula – How did you come to India?

Belinda – Actually, the thing is when I did the first Everest base camp trek that is when I met my husband. That was the time I was working as a lecturer in psychiatry at the St. John’s medical college, Bangalore. I had just been offered the assistant professor’s post. It was a dilemma. The heart saying follow passion, follow Richard and the head saying “No career comes first! So stay on and become an assistant professor”. Then of course, heart won. So then I went to Germany. He is from what once used to be West Germany. We lived in Germany. Both the kids were born in Germany. That’s when I couldn’t speak the language so I couldn’t work. Anyways I had always decided that if I had kids, I would be a stay-at-home mum, until the kids started school. So that is when I started writing fiction because I fell into a kind of an academic hole and that is when I started writing. And then when my daughter was 3 years old, that’s when we decided and we thought that India might be a better place to bring up children. And that is when we decided to come back to Goa, India. And anyway I am originally a Goan so we thought why not settle down in Goa. That is how we landed up in Goa.

Vidula – Was it easy for you to adjust here in India when you came here?

Belinda – When I first came to India as a child, I had difficulty adjusting, especially to the school system. But then I grew to love it. So it was an easy choice we made to come and settle here after our children were born.

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Vidula – Tell us something about your father

Belinda – My father was a truly special person – one of the gentlest men I have known, Very kind-hearted, generous, never holding any grudges against anyone, even those who had hurt him, very contented with his life. He was a very good badminton player and loved travelling. We would often go on fishing trips and to wildlife sanctuaries. He loved animals and I have learnt a lot from him.

Vidula – tell us a little bit about your mother

Belinda – I owe a lot to my mother. She was a teacher and she was the one who really taught me to love reading, writing. She took a lot of interest in me with the writing. It was actually because of my mother when we first came down to Goa, she decided to settle in Belgaum, because she had heard so much about the Belgaum schools. The Jesuit school St. Paul’s and and St. Joseph’s and that is the reason we moved from Goa to Belgaum. So as soon as we came from Africa, we moved to Belgaum, and then I did my schooling there, higher secondary schooling there and finally did my MBBS and MD in Bangalore. Right now my mum’s very involved in a home for the destitute that is run by one of her close friends. I lost my father about 10 years ago, and since then she has been very involved in helping with the home for the destitute. Very independent woman she is! And she is also very good at trekking. She joined us on treks, till about 2 years ago. She is in her 70s. And even now she walks daily for about 1 ½ hours.

Vidula – You said that your mum inspired and taught you to write. What do you mostly write about?

Belinda – I feel that in today’s world we need more optimism because everything is so pessimistic. Media just focuses on negative. This creates the whole picture that people are bad and everything is bad. And that is not true at all. If people had to focus more on the positive, people would have a much different take on life and it would increase the optimism. So I just don’t understand, there are so many different stories about people helping each other, but these just don’t make it into the newspapers and it is only the negative. We need a lot more optimism. Not a false optimism but more realistic optimism! Because even in my practice I have seen miracles happen. People, who have been depressed for years, come out of their depression. People with schizophrenia, now are able to live very honest, happy lives. It is just that I feel that realistic optimism is what is missing and that is what I try to instill in my books.

Vidula – Tell us a little bit about your work and the novels that you have written.

Belinda – Actually I would say that, my first novel was “The cry of the Kingfisher”. I would call it a psychiatric novel. It deals with 3 women and the problems that they face. It deals with psychosis. There is one woman called Donna, who is brought up in England, UK. She has a personality disorder and goes through severe panic attacks. Then there is Sukurina, who is a Goan village girl, born to superstition, the 4th daughter, who has a psychotic breakdown. And then there is Mayola, a psychiatrist, who goes through her own turmoil, after the death of her sister. Her sister commits suicide, and she is unable to help her sister. The three of them finally end up meeting and help each other to overcome their problems. People, I am hoping, understand how illness develops and that there is hope and that any illness, if you look for it, you find a solution to it.

Vidula – The other works

Belinda – The others work is a children’s book, “The golden gate and other stories”

These are 3 children stories that I have written for my own children. These are the kind of stories that I wanted them to grow up with. Maybe a little bit of moral as well. And I thought why not get them published. I spoke to my publisher, and he got me in touch with an illustrator. And then my daughter said “Mama, why are you getting someone else to do the pictures? Why don’t you do them yourself? I thought, it is my own book and I don’t have to live up to any standards, so I did the pictures, and my husband who is very critical, said they are good enough.

The 3rd other book is called “Goa Maazaa”. That deals with problems with growing up with a broken family. It deals with a boy. He has an Italian father and a French mother living in Germany. His girlfriend’s cheating on him and he finally gives up everything and comes down to Goa and actually finds happiness. It is a whole search for happiness. How he deals with the whole turmoil of growing up in a broken family. That is “Goa Maazaa”

Now I am working on another book. It is a coming-of-age story about a slum girl, who actually becomes a doctor and simultaneously the story of a rich boy. It is about the differences between the two, as they go through the same process of becoming doctors.

Also working on another book called “The line” which is about parenting!

I am also working on another children’s book. Right now I am busy doing the illustrations for this children’s book.

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Vidula – Tell us about your other interests like cycling, mountaineering. Let’s start from the beginning

Belinda – initially it was about camping, fishing. I had my first trekking experience through the NCC. This was in my 11th standard. I did a camp in Bhowali. We did some trekking over there. Then after I joined my MD in Nimhans, the national institute in Bangalore, there was one of my seniors who would take us on rock climbing trips. And that’s when I really got into rock climbing. I really enjoyed it, so much so, that in my second year I went for this course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. I enjoyed it very much. After my MD, I went back to St. John’s as a lecturer and I started organizing treks for the students and staff. We did a lot of treks around Bangalore and then organized the Everest base camp trek and that’s when I met my husband and then went to Germany. We did the Everest base camp the second time that was 2 years later. My daughter is 22 so back when she was 14, 9 years ago, and my son was 12, we did the Annapurna circuit, which was the 3rd major trek. I still remember the very first day, there was a group of Israeli soldiers and there was a guide. And they must’ve thought these 2 oldies, and 2 kids, where were they going. They asked us what we planning to do? We told them we were doing the Annapurna circuit. They were like in how many days? We said 21 days like everyone else. They said Thorang la impossible. We were very depressed but then we said, let’s go as far as we can go. The kids were fantastic. We did the Thorang la and the whole circuit in the same time, as the same time as the Israeli soldiers.

Vidula – Have you done any other treks?

Belinda – I have been up to the Pindari glacier. We also went up to Manthalai Lake around Manali.

Vidula How did you transition from trekking to cycling happen? Tell us about that.

Belinda – I took up cycling seriously about 4 years ago. My husband started cycling because of knee problems because of trekking. I wasn’t too keen on cycling but it had always been a childhood dream of mine, to cycle from Goa to Belgaum and back. So I thought if I am ever going to do it, I have to do it now. So I did that trip. We cycled from Goa to Belgaum and back. And that’s when I enjoyed it. Soon after that my husband and I, we did a trip to Munnar, Kerala.  We did about a week’s cycling trip. We started in Kochi. We went to Tathanaad, the bird sanctuary, and from there to Munnar, cycled around Munnar, and then we wanted to cycle up to Kodaikanal but then I had a fall and I injured my knee. So half way, we had to put the cycles on to a taxi and go up there. So then we came back to munnar, cycled around Munnar, and then back to Kochi. And that’s when I think I got addicted to cycling and now it is a lot of cycling.

Vidula – Have you done any long rides other than this?

Belinda – Yes. This Sunday I completed a 400kms called the roller coaster. We started from Panjim at 6 in the morning, went right up to Honavar, that is 200kms, and cycled back to Panjim. We started at 6 in the morning and I was back in Panjim by 3:09. 3 weeks ago we did the 600kms. I did the Super Randonneuring series last year. Then after that I did 1200kms in Rajasthan. Now I just have just completed the second Super Randonneuring series – 200, 300, 400 and 600kms. Now the 1200kms is coming up in another 2 weeks’ time.

What do you think of the cycling scene here in India? Do you think more Indians are cycling these days?

Belinda – Yes, I definitely see a lot more people buying cycles and riding them. The cycling scene here in Goa is expanding as more cycling clubs are born. I think as people get more health conscious, this is bound to happen. However, the road conditions are deplorable and getting worse. The roads are bad, drivers are rash and inconsiderate; there’s broken glass on the roads as well as packs of dogs. So cycling in India can be quite dangerous too.

Vidula – Challenges faced while cycling long distances

Belinda – Cycling alone is a major challenge

I am used to cycling at my own pace. I am not used to cycling with anyone because when I do my rides I do them alone. I like to look at the scenery and go at my own pace. For my husband it is about speed. I don’t like to cycle with him. For me it is like, I see something interesting, I like to stop, look at it, watch the birds, and do that kind of cycling. Sometimes on the long distance cycle rides and it is night riding time and you are alone there is a little anxiety about safety issues.

Another issue is traffic on roads – Unfortunately, Indian drivers have absolutely no consideration for cyclists. Let’s say, I am cycling, they see me, but they will just overtake. I don’t know what they expect me to do. Sometimes there is a little bit of height on the side, one can just fall. That can be very very dangerous. I have very negative experiences cycling on the highways. So that is why the long distance events are usually on highways and that is the problem really. For example, from home to Agonda it is a beautiful stretch. The road is beautiful for cycling. But the long distance cycling events are on highways, people are very inconsiderate. At night you get the headlights. You cannot see the roads. And it is easy to fall on a cycle.

Do you like competing when it comes to cycling? What do you have to say about long distance cycling competitions

Belinda – For me It’s not about the competing. It’s about the experience. I love taking on challenges. I enjoy my solo rides – enjoying the scenery and listening to the birds chirping as the sun comes up. The long distance cycling events just happened. The 300km brevet followed the 200, after which came the 400, the 600 and then the 1200km Daal Baati last year. The same thing happened this season. I finished the Goan Yoyo 1200 km (24-27 Jan 2015) and decided to go for the Daal Baati 2 (18-21Feb), which both my husband and me completed as the only ones. However, I am now retiring from these long distance events and will instead only do shorter fun rides.

I have now completed 3 1200 km events in less than 1 year and 2 1200 km events in less than 30 days. Someone is currently working on getting this into the Limca book of records.

Vidula – How do you prepare for long distance cycling?

Belinda – Lot of training. In Goa, we are lucky to have hills. So cycling up the hills is one of the best training.

Prerna – What is it about cycling when your lungs are hard, your legs are tired and giving up – what do you think about and how do you work yourself up?

Belinda – When I started off with cycling, it is the fun part of it – it’s the exploring. We are very lucky here in south Goa because the scenery is beautiful. For example, my usual ride is from home to Cabo De Rama. It is half way to Agonda. I turn off to Cabo De Rama and I go back. I never tire of the scenery. I never tire. It is so beautiful and I love early mornings. I am an early morning person. So I get up in the morning, and I take off when it is still dark. By the time I reach the hills, it is light. And there is this feeling of freedom, such a feeling of peace. It is a great feeling. These are the fun rides. But you are right – now when it comes to preparing for a long distance event, it becomes training and then it is tedious. You don’t really look forward to it. You don’t really look forward to it. But then you know if you really want to do it, you’ve got to get through this. Sometimes I think, “Why am I doing it?” I wonder. But then for example, I just completed the 400, and there is such a feeling of euphoria and that pushes you on in to the next event. understand and agree that training part is a little bit more difficult part, because when you are in the event, there is adrenaline flowing, there are others, and everything, the whole event pushes you through. I am the type, that once I start something I have to complete it. Earlier, it was like even when I started a book, I had to complete it. Even if I didn’t like the book, I had to complete it. But now I don’t do that anymore. Because, it is more about time now! I don’t like a book I give it up. But for a long time, I would continue reading it just because I started it. And in Belgaum, we lived in the military area and every time I went to college, I passed this board that read “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war”. Like my husband says, even when we go trekking, we do a lot of training with the kids as well. We go up and down the mountain nearby. We go up and down the mountain at least twice. It is very steep. So then you build up. And then of course, once you have built up the stamina, the actual event becomes a lot more fun. Then you can enjoy it.

Vidula – Why these disciplined rides?

Belinda – For me it was just the experience. We had gone for a trek. And then we met someone. You know they are doing these trips. He had seen us cycling from Belgaum and back. He got us in touch with the goa cycling group. And then they told us they are doing the 200kms and so we thought let’s take part. We did it. Then the next one was 300. We did that one too. Then since we had done the 300, we did the 400 too. And then the 600! After the 600, I said I was not going to do it anymore. But my husband said he was going to do the 1200. So I thought if ever, let me do it now. Now am planning to retire from long distance cycling. This year and then I will be sticking to fun rides. Up to 200! It is just about the fun, having the experience.

What is your husband’s name and what does he do? How long has he been cycling?

Belinda – My husband is Richard and since we came to India, he has been following his passions of fishing, boating, volleyball, football and now cycling. He took to cycling seriously here about 6 years ago, but we have been participating in the brevet events since the last 2-3 years.

Where did you go for your vacations? With husband and/or with children

Belinda – Before the children were born, we did a lot of travelling, especially in SE Asia. Then a lot of trekking holidays, even with the children. 7 years ago, when our daughter was 14 and our son 12, we did the entire Mt, Anapurna circuit in Nepal, over the Thorung.La pass which is more than 5400 mts high and then to the Anapurna Base Camp which took more than 3 weeks.

We have also done road trips through wildlife sanctuaries in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu with the children. But now we would be concentrating more on cycling holidays.

What are your favorite destinations and where would you like to go back again?

Belinda – The Himalaya, of course. I love the mountains. The South-west US was also a very pleasant surprise. The National and State Parks there are really wonderful. And then Australia too. While I worked there for a very short time, the children really loved it there.

How old are your children and what do they do? What are their names?

Belinda – My daughter Ayesha is 22 and she is now completing her internship in Architecture. My son, Rohan is 20 and studying Mechanical Engineering.

I heard you are a feminist. What do you have to say about that? Any messages for the women here in India

I feel uncomfortable being called a feminist. I would rather be called an egalitarian. It is difficult to have a single message for all women in India. For the vast majority, it is about being aware of their rights and standing up for them. We are half the population! It is mainly women who bear and rear children. So I find it difficult to understand how we raise our boys to oppress and our girls to be oppressed. However, I am now coming across a lot of cases of husband bashing too.

Is your mother also a feminist?

I don’t think my mother would like to be called a feminist either. Both she and her mother, my grandmother, were strong women, who were able to think for themselves and follow their own minds, instead of being blindly conditioned. And of course, I have benefitted greatly from their influence.

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Vidula – What do you think of us?

Belinda – I think it is great. This is something I have often dreamt of doing. But right now my idea would be to cycle from one place to another but of course I would not be able to cover the distances that you all are covering. So I think it absolutely great that you all are doing this.

Vidula – What do you think of women travelling in India?

I enjoyed the munnar trip so much and this year, the trip to the US. It was so much fun to cycle from one part to another! Right now I would like to do cycling, and then when my legs cannot do it anymore, then drive, from one place to another. I love travelling. Now it is great that Indian women are now travelling. That is so necessary in today’s world. Even now, I get people from Goa, who haven’t travelled been from their villages to Panjim. They are so locked up in their own villages. My receptionist, the previous one, always wanted to become a teacher. She had never been to Panjim. So she did her teacher’s training and now she is travelling and really enjoying herself.

Vidula – You have any tips for us to stay safe

You know, anything can happen anytime. But if you are going to let fear rule you, then you are not going to get anywhere. Follow your heart and don’t take unnecessary risks. Don’t let fear restrict you. Anything can happen. Something could happen in your own home, in your own backyard. I was always afraid. The 400 that I did, I left Karwar at 9pm and reached Panjim at 3am and the whole stretch from Karwar at 9pm to Panjim at 3am, I cycled alone, along the highway, the karmel ghat. I was quite afraid of it earlier and this trip helped me overcome my fears. Initially I thought I would wait for the others, the guys, who were behind me, so I thought no, let me see how far I can go and I can always stop somewhere and meet them there. But I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the sense of freedom. It was a full moon night and I reached Panjim.

Goa is a little better, safer, than any other states. We are fortunate here in goa. Sometimes I take off for my practice rides and I leave my house at 3am in the morning. Early mornings it is a lot safer than night. You are a lot safer. It is the night – 1130, 12, 1, 2 – that is a problem. One of my favorite rides is to the Netravali, the national park! I never realized that there were so many Gaur. And these gaurs are right next to the highways, road sides. My husband, he was cycling in pitch darkness and so he reached the place at around 545 and he was cycling and suddenly he saw this massive gaur right on the road side. He crossed it and he turned, and it had it had moved on to the road. That was a little scary. Next time I stopped and I spoke to the forest guards, and they said that here there is no problem. The gaur had never attacked anyone. And I see the kids also going to school. Nobody has ever been attacked. The fears all disappeared. But then we have stray dogs! They can be quite dangerous. Especially for the cyclists!

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