Why I Travel By Bicycle
'The sport of cycling consists of sitting on a luxurious saddle and being moved rapidly in the direction you wish to go by unseen heavenly powers'. Jerome.K Jerome
Choosing to perch my buttocks on elegant tanned-leather Brooks B17, perhaps the most luxurious of saddles on the market, I wish I could tell you that Mr Jerome was correct with the rest of his appraisal on the joys of travel by bicycle. He is not.
Coming from an era of stiff-upper-lips and Boys' Own adventures, perhaps the acclaimed author of Three Men In A Boat and Three Men on a Bummel (his humorous account of cycle touring in Germany) chose to forget the hardships involved with travel by bicycle. After days on the road my saddle becomes anything but luxurious; I rarely find myself going fast, in any direction, and what of these unseen heavenly powers?
Long-distance cycling is not easy. An essentially solitary pursuit, hours are spent laboring up never-ending hills; nights involve trying to sleep in strange places, while days are endured encased in malodorous sweat-drenched clothes. So why do I do it? What are the ‘unseen heavenly powers’ that have persuaded me to spend the last six or seven years of my life traveling all over the planet on a bicycle?
Mengla in Southern Yunnan, China, is a neglected border-town like any other in South East Asia. Her dusty roads are almost covered in asphalt and her streets of liquor stores, cheap hotels, money changers and knocking-shops would be a riot of lurid neon if it wasn’t so early in the morning. Wanting to beat the heat and stuffy air of my windowless room I have woken early. Its 5.50am and the seismic retching and spitting combination from the room next door have forced me to cycle the streets in an exhausted daze, my eyes scanning desperately for breakfast. In Laos and Cambodia noodle soup is the breakfast of choice but here in China dumplings are the only way to start your day.
Taking to the back-alleys I cross a stream littered with plastic bags that runs between a canyon of rudimentary housing. A market is slowly coming alive on the other side. Stocky butchers heave bloody cuts of meat from vans onto stained wooden tables ready for the morning trade, their heavy breath filling the air with mist. Old women hunch under laden baskets of sweet-smelling papayas hung from their shoulders, while others lay out tight clusters of dusty white noodles and bundles of fresh herbs in neat rows on the floor. Beyond the market down a wonky passage I see what I’m looking for.
The billows of thick steam rising in the cold morning are unmistakable and cycling past dozens of straightforward lock ups I pull up at the one I am after. Inside this makeshift restaurant it is lively with customers. On small plastic stools a pair of policemen hunch over deep bowls slurping loudly as they suck noodles into their faces, while next to them a student punches a text message into his mobile phone while simultaneously working his chopsticks. Two toddlers pick at immaculate white dumplings, working their chopsticks with a speed and accuracy I envy. Tentatively barging my way to a seat next to a woman, old enough to be my great grandmother, I point at the tidy towers of bamboo steamers that are filling the morning air with thick steam and in moments a steamer is places in front of me nesting a dozen perfectly made dumplings.
Having burnt my mouth on these piping hot dumplings dozens of times before I wait impatiently for them to cool before taking one in my chopsticks, dipping it in a little chili and soy sauce mixed with chopped coriander and carefully maneuver it into my mouth. The pasta is light with an exquisite damp texture and as I chew down my mouth explodes with the flavorsome warm meat juice inside – it is absolutely perfect. Peering out to my loaded touring bikes waiting in the street I am once again I reminded that it is thanks to my bicycle that I have found this perfect little meal.
As the name of my ‘alter ego’ suggests a love of food is the main reason I travel. I love to eat and when out on the road I only have three appointments. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Eating is the only to do list of my day and being on a bicycle burning stupid numbers of calories, I always arrive perfectly equipped. ‘Hunger makes the best gravy ‘ an old relative used to advise me, and from my ‘luxurious saddle’ food has never tasted better. I still dream about the succulent salsa soaked fish tacos I enjoyed while cycling the pacific coast of Mexico; the home-made humus served with warm pitta bread in the Arab villages of Israel was biblically good and the fresh ceviche of the Peruvian Amazon remains to this day a firm favorite. But not wanting to come across as a glutton, I need to explain that it’s not just the taste of the food that keeps me riding from meal to meal.
I am intrigued by where food comes from, where ingredients are grown and how recipes are made and perhaps most importantly by the people who make it and eat it. In my opinion food is as important to culture as music, science, politics, art and religion because it is integral in all our lives. Whether we are growing it, catching it, transporting it, selling it, buying it, preparing or eating it food is everywhere and from the saddle of mans’ greatest invention it has never been more intriguing or accessible.
Riding my bicycle along the beaches of Brazil I have witnessed the back breaking work of the local fishermen whose daily catch provides a perfect moqueca. I have been soaked-through by the monsoon rains that irrigate the paddy fields of Laos to make the sticky rice of a perfect breakfast and I have suffered under the sun that dries the coffee beans in the mountain plantations of Colombia. I have camped next to rivers of migrating wild salmon in Canada, woken to the smell of fresh tortillas in Guatemala and sipped sweet tea with Bedouins under night skies in the deserts of Egypt.
My fascination with food could easily be a passion for music, art, architecture, human biology, plants or even wine for another, but could I have had these witnessed all these encounters on a different mode of transport? I don’t think so. In recent years the travel industry has changed as fast as the airplanes that jet millions around the world. No longer a luxury pursuit for a lucky few, today millions can travel creating a global industry worth tens of billions of dollars annually. Economics is making it harder to get off the beaten path to see what you want to see as ‘the industry’ becomes more and more determined to keep you on the most profitable track. But on a bicycle you choose your own way
‘The world is getting smaller’ is a phrase often touted as new generations embrace developments in communication and transport across a planet occupied by a truly global population. But from a ‘luxurious saddle’ the world is still as big as it ever was. A mile is still a mile. An hour is still an hour. The hills are still as steep and hard to get up, and just as much fun to come down. The rain is as wet as it ever was and the sun just as energy sapping. The world is no less fascinating today than it was yesterday, but as life moves faster and the devil is in the detail and I am yet to find a mode of transport that exposes me to these details so successfully as the bicycle and until I do I will stay in my saddle cycling and eating the world. Reading Jerome’s quote again, perhaps these little details, that make our world so fascinating are ‘the unseen heavenly powers’ he talks of. Start to travel by bicycle and I am in no doubt you will feel them too.
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This entry was posted on Monday, March 29th, 2010 at 05:32 and is filed under Cycle Touring, Cycle Trips, Motivation, Photography, Travel Writing, World Cycling, World Food. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed or trackback from your own site. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.