Archive for February, 2013

Coming Home — a winter walk / 25.02.13

Sunday, February 17, 2013

It was still mostly dark when I stepped outside into the new snow. My outer shell slid and crackled in the cold, and my nostrils freshened. This was no Thailand… and that was fine with me. Kallie and I were looking forward to some winter, since on our six-month bike trip we managed to avoid the snow and cold with our route and our timing.

We had started at the end of August up in Germany, where the days were partly sunny and 70’s—perfect for biking. We included myself and Kallie and two other couples. Our route took us south into Switzerland’s mountains, through Geneva into the rolling hills of southern France, along her coastal cliffs into Italy, and across the slow-rising elevations of northern Greece to Istanbul. A few nights along the way we woke up with frost on the tent, but when the sun rose we had warm and sunny fall days in which to enjoy the outdoors. This is how we spent the months from August to December. Since then we’d been in tropical heat, cycling under India’s coconut and banana trees, and enjoying some time on Thai beaches.

Now, back in west Michigan, it feels like a novelty to see the snow mounding over the parked cars outside. I walk down the street, each step a whining crunch, each step a mark of my passing. The whiteness in the early dawn makes the terrain indistinct, and before I know it I’m climbing a hill of snow. One, two, three, fou—suddenly my foot drops sharply three feet and I stagger to land back on the plowed road. The quick shock turns into amusement, and a little wisdom for the road ahead. It will be funny for someone else to follow my tracks in the daylight, and imagine the person walking blindly off a small cliff of snow pushed up by the plow. I will watch for these cliffs and step a little more cautiously.

A little way up the road I stop to listen and look around. The woods are heavy and silent, pine boughs weighed with a blanket of snow. When I turn, my jacket scrapes loudly and startles me—as though the noise came from something else nearby. I listen. There is a ringing that is growing in my ears, a high steady alarm that seems deafening until I breathe, or shift my weight and make “real” noise. Silence is loud too. I wonder what damage makes my ears ring like this. Is it road noise? Loud honks and engines in India? Perhaps the occasional blast of truck horn in Greece or Turkey that took a couple decibels off my capacity to hear what people speak in low tones.

I remember times on the tandem when I was filled with rage at the indiscriminant loudness of drivers who thought they must announce themselves above the din and roar of the Indian city by laying on the horn just a few feet from our heads. Kallie and I took to wearing earplugs for awhile, at least on the traffic side, and that helped considerably. I could turn over my other shoulder to speak to her, and she could speak toward my open ear. This way we only had to repeat ourselves once or twice.

How much noise do we live with without realizing it’s even there? Sometimes it requires standing in the silence of the woods to give us perspective.

I haven’t seen any drivers yet, and that’s fine by me. I enjoy the solitude of morning. No, I crave the solitude of morning, and find myself overly protective of it. If someone else appears I gauge whether I’ve arrived on the scene first, and offer a polite greeting, nervous until I am again alone. This time is my time with the world, and I want to let go of human-awareness. I want to be alone with this recreation.

It’s not that I dislike people, but I much prefer not finding their footprints in the new snow where I am walking. I like the feeling of exploration, and discovery. If someone has been there before I’m disappointed. Even on our cycle trip I was hesitant to look up information on a city or region, afraid that someone else’s suggestions would be too strong a frame for my own experience of wonder.

On one occasion we biked into the next town on our French map—Chateau Neuf du Pape. To us it was a bit of an annoying city to be as elevated as it was, since we had to cycle uphill to arrive, but we were looking for the next concentration of civilization and this was it. These towns offered food and water, two of our four concerns (the others being bathing and sleeping). As we biked in we remarked on the grape harvest that was happening in this town–there were trailers piled with grapes, grape pickers, and farming machinery everywhere. Occasionally we’d ride over a cluster of grapes that had bounced off the truck. Once in town, we also noticed that there were quite a few tourists about. One interested American approached us to ask about our trip, and in the course of our conversation we found out that we were in one of the premier wine villages in the world. While we were just biking into the next French town, other travelers were making this town their destination and fixing to buy some really good wine.

I enjoy that. I enjoy discovering cool stuff and happening on happening places. Or getting myself isolated in a woods somewhere, where the cool stuff is untouched snow hanging heavy on evergreen boughs, and the happening places are marked by the tracks of deer, fox, rabbits, squirrels, mice, and birds.

The road I was on brought me out to the main highway, and I followed this for a time, but found the walk uninspiring. I soon took a side road I hoped would connect through. Within 5 minutes I was facing a dead end… to cars. When you’re on foot you have more options. It didn’t take me too long to decide to go down the path. And, it didn’t take too long before the path ran out, and I was walking through the woods.

At first it makes you a bit anxious, when you contemplate leaving the path. You don’t know if you will find your way, you don’t know what challenges will present themselves, and you don’t know if you will put yourself or others into a state of worry. You might accidentally wander onto someone else’s property, and find them inhospitable. Or maybe there will be dogs…

But once you make the decision, it seems as thought the path opens before you. Yes, there are deadfalls to maneuver around, slopes to climb or descend, branches to duck–but there always seems to be a way pulling you forward, through the trees, and if you listen to your gut and weigh it with as much logic as you can afford, it will keep you heading in the right direction. At least that’s what I’ve found before, and that’s what I find today.

As I crunch human footprints in the snow, through the woods, I feel the exhileration of discovery, the pending satisfaction of overcoming challenges and finding my way. I cross deer trails and rabbit tracks, hear woodpeckers drumming their rapid beat, and stop to check the morning sun through the trees for my direction. At the top of a steep hill, I discover a dune meadow–a long open space tilting slightly down, surrounded by trees and untouched by tracks. I pause a moment, grateful for this secret place that I share with the wild world on this new day. Soon I come upon a beaten path and experience the relief of finding a way toward civilization again; a way that will bring me back to hot breakfast and waking family members.

Leaving the road and going into the woods is kind of like taking a large scale bicycle tour. The decision to do it is the hardest part. You wonder about the challenges, the balance of risks and rewards, and if it’s even possible. But once you leave the path of convention, put your job on hold (or quit), and go for it, the way opens before you. You discover beautiful people, unexpected provision and grace, and the world feels like it somehow is given also to you. Over the 4000 miles we covered by bike, we had plenty of opportunities to feel worried or uncertain (and occasion to make our parents feel the same!). We had to rely on our sense of direction and timing to choose the roads we would travel. We had to adjust to dead-ends, broken equipment, illnesses and injuries that changed our cycling patterns, and the different hopes and whims of six individuals trying to make a decision together. But mostly we were discovering the world for what it was to us, as we overcame the challenges of weather, landscape, culture, and language to find our own way across the continents.

Coming home is comfortable, and difficult. There are family members, friends, and good food waiting for us–as well as the unspeakable comforts of a hot shower and soft couch. But at the same time there is no way to really explain what you felt and experienced on the trip to those you love who lived at home during these months. Having left the noise of ‘normal’ life for awhile, it’s difficult to explain the re-entering. It’s a sort of solitude that rings with loneliness in its silence. That’s okay, because something about it also nurtures the soul. It’s a good perspective, a bit like listening in the woods on a still Sunday morning.

Soon the beaten path that I discovered comes out onto a neighborhood street, and that connects to another, and then I’m back to what I recognize. Once I’m on the familiar road again, I feel comfortable. I can relax into the last mile of my walk, knowing that I’ve done this before and I know the way.

India: Sharing the road / 06.02.13

We’re on the road at first light. 6:30am is a good time to bike because you beat the heat and the traffic. Mornings are even better because they’re quiet- a scarcity in India. There’s minimal honking and the only people you see are off in the distance taking a dump in a field. 

We finish the day by pulling into a town and looking for lunch and a hotel. Sometimes we see other white people and it’s weird, because it’s been a while. We’re in a strange place here because we’re not Indian, but we don’t fit into the typical “tourist” category either. 

When we tell other foreigners that we’re biking in India, their face converts from a smile to an expression of pure horror. “Biking?! On THESE ROADS?! How has it been?!?!” They seem a little tentative for our response.

“Actually, it’s been pretty good!” I respond. “The great thing about India is that they share the road with everyone: people, bicycles, motorcycles, rickshaws, cars, buses, trucks, cows- you just have to know you place on the food chain! I actually feel safer biking here than I do in America.”

While training for the trip last summer in the US, it was a normal occurrence to receive angry honks or middle fingers. Occasionally someone would stick their head of their window and yell “GET OFF THE ROAD!” or “GET ON THE SIDEWALK! IT’S NOT SAFE!”

In America, or at least Michigan, the mentality is that “roads are for cars.” Bikes should be on a bike path or the sidewalk. Sidewalks are great if you’re seven years old and learning how to ride a bike. Otherwise, it’s pretty dangerous to pedestrians. Bike paths are an ok solution, but I’ve by far had more close calls with cars pulling out of driveways on bike paths than I have riding on the road. 

Over the past 5,000 kilometers we’ve experienced bike paths, bike lanes, bicycle tunnels, small roads, big roads, and some that didn’t seem like roads at all. If you drive by a cyclist biking in the road, please be respectful and slow down, give plenty of space, and you will be rewarded someday for your bicycle karma :)

The Biker Beatitudes / 04.02.13


When you are biking for four to five hours a day, you create space to think. Thoughts tend to bounce around in your head and they get amplified when you start to pedal uphill. On a couple occasions, I thought about the Beatitudes  and how they might adapt to a bicycle tourist. Andrew and I tried to do just that.

Blessed are those who are sore in the arse,
for they shall know the shape of the land.

Blessed are those who are pedaling uphill,
for they shall soon coast down.

Blessed are those who are dirty and sweaty,
for they shall relish a simple shower.

Blessed are those who are hungry from a day of biking,
for they shall truly enjoy their meal.

Blessed are those who toss and turn on the hard ground,
for they shall sink deep in a soft bed.

Blessed are the frugal,
for they shall find free treasures everywhere.

Blessed are the homesick,
for they shall value ordinary life.

Blessed are those who travel by their own strength,
for at the end of the day they will be satisfied.

Reflections from the sea: what it means to travel / 02.02.13

“For me the sea has always been a confidant, a friend absorbing all it’s told and never revealing those secret; always giving the best advice – its meaningful noises can be interpreted any way”
– Che

It’s no secret that I’m exulted by being near the ocean. Biking along the Mediterranean coast was a highlight of the trip for me. During our first encounter with the Mediterranean Sea in the south of France, I can still remember the feel of my fingers skimming the glistening water in Port Grimaud, France and the water was so clear that I could see the bottom even as I waded into deeper and deeper water. I looked at all the shades of blue, widening my eyes behind my sunglassses as though that would let me take in more. My happiness in that moment was multiplied by the knowledge that the physical world could bring on this kind of pleasure. It made me content to know that I could be moved by nature, independent of human relations. It was a one-way relationship, but beautifully simple.

Even as I was being dazzled by the prettiness of the Sea, I couldn’t help but think of the perversity of the fact that my airbrushed fantasy had actually come to life. Often times in life, things are not what you hoped for. But most good travel stories are about discovering the unexpected. The traveler goes abroad with an illusion, the illusion is shattered, but then she learns something new, and after assorted challenges and humiliations, she achieves a satisfying epiphany. As I reflect back on the bike trip from an albeit short distance, I believe that I have cycled through all the above phases except the last, which I am still working on and refining. I’m still trying to absorb and reflect on everything that has happened in the past five months while trying to keep in mind that memories have a funny way of filtering out the negative and crystallizing the positive. I’ve had numerous epiphanies scattered throughout the trip, both internal epiphanies about myself as well as external about society, the world, the meaning of life, etc. One such internal epiphany that I disgrudgingly accepted over the course of the trip was that perhaps I wasn’t quite as flexible as I had thought and hoped to be. When you bicycle travel with a group of individuals, the group dynamics can be even intense than living in a group house. Every decision you make on a daily basis somehow affects the other individuals in your group. Group decision-making becomes akin to sailing a boat through a tropical rainstorm on the Indian Ocean. Sometimes it feels like you have very little control over your own life and you have to learn to balance being flexible and open to decisions that aren’t necessarily in line with your own values and preferences with maintaining open and comfortable communication about your opinions in a nonviolent manner. As an only child faced with this reality, the bike trip was an excellent lesson in being flexible, learning to let go when you don’t get your way, and showing compassion and empathy for others when making decisions. In fact, I could say that the best kind of travel involves a particular state of mind, in which you are not merely open to the occurrence of the unexpected, but to deep involvement in the unexpected, and even open to the possibility of having your life changed forever by a chance encounter. I started the bike trip in Germany with certain hopes and dreams and expectations. Some were fulfilled, some were not, but everything that I experienced was life-changing, even if I’m not fully aware of it at the present moment. That’s what travel is and does to a person. Although everyone has their own reasons for traveling, it’s impossible not to be changed by the things you see on the road, the people you meet, and the experiences that leave an indelible mark on your heart and spirit. You go out into the world a sponge, and everything blows you away- the first public bathing experience in a stream, the first night sleeping in a tent at the foothills of Mt. Olympus, even the first palm tree. Then as you absorb more and more of the nuggets of truth and beauty from the road, you become heavier and more capable of standing steadily on your own two feet without being rocked by the tempestuous winds of life.

Many times as we biked along the coast in Italy and Greece, I found it hard to believe that the beachside towns we passed through were once a bustling haven of adventurous energy from vacationers eager for seaside relaxation or a summer romance. Most of the stores lining the streets were closed down, the tables and chairs were stacked outside the outdoor cafes, and a few stray dogs straggled down the street looking for any scraps of food around. It felt as if a zombie apocalypse had engulfed the town, leaving only a few vestiges of the town’s former life or it was just winter: the off-season. Although these towns often appeared lifeless and depressing at first glance, the more I thought about it, the more I became aware of the value in seeing and experiencing this un-commercialized and un-advertised facet of these towns. And I realized that that is what bicycle touring is all about. We take the small roads that weave through small no-name towns that most tourists miss when they jump from city to city on a bus or train or plane. But really those back country roads and the country-side are often times what make up the majority of a country, geographically at least. A fair share of our most valuable interpersonal experiences involved spontaneous encounters with inhabitants of smaller towns who were not accustomed to having tourists flocking around. In such an environment, you, the tourist, are not merely a walking bag of money. People are genuinely interested in who you are, where you are coming from, what you’re doing in their home, and it is in this setting that the true essence of the kindness of strangers emerges.

Although we often valued and prioritized taking the smaller roads that went through the smaller, non-touristy areas, the first town we arrived in India was called Kovalam in the southern Indian state of Kerala. It’s the kind of place that’s billed as “tourist haven” in India. The beaches are clean and there are trash cans, there’s a boardwalk lined with merchants selling “India” in the form of punjabis, jewelery, and paneer butter masala. We rented a hotel room right on the boardwalk with a balcony overlooking the beach. Although it was not FBR’s typical sought-out destination, tt was a comfortable introduction to India, to say the least. One day as I was sitting on the beach, absorbing the salty air and listening to the push and pull of the waves, a street beach dog wandered into my sphere of awareness, lazily swinging his canine tail before coming to a complete halt at the base of my feet and slouching on the boardwalk with all fours stretched out. He seemed to calmly consider the landscape, completely at ease in his habitat. I wondered how and if people could ever get that comfortable with themselves. Some people talk about “finding themselves” in their travels, but maybe you had to get lost first. When you are continually exposed to more than one culture as is often the case in travel and certainly true for us as we made our way across Western Europe into Eastern Europe and India, sooner or later the anthropological question arises: How much of who I am is defined by the world around me, and how much is something more innate? Is it ten to one? Fifty-fifty? The obvious way to find out is to move from one context to another. That is essentially what we did throughout the bike trip as we biked from Western Europe to Eastern Europe to India. Putting ourselves in new situations acts as a purifying fire, charring away all the dross and leaving some essential self. Travel facilitates the peeling away of layers of yourself to reveal your inner essence.

We started our Indian adventures in a tourist vacuum, and we also ended our time in India in a similar tourist town, Mamallapuram, about 50 km from Chennai. I recall one day Peter and I were walking down the beach in Mamallapuram, enjoying the quiet solitude of just us and the beach, the rolling surf, the footprints we left behind in the sand, a rare occasion amidst the chaos of India. Just as we were reflecting on our experiences in India and the bike trip as a whole, my eye fell upon one of the great beasts herself, prehistoric and guileless, five feet wide under a hard, shiny shell. She had probably lumbered up to the beach to lay her eggs in the sand, programmed to reproduce against all odds. I suddenly felt unalloyed pleasure at the sand, the surf, the sunlight, and the turtle, even beautiful in its lifelessness. Beauty is so uncomplicated to love, I thought. I couldn’t say the same for my feelings towards India, which I would describe as more of a mixture of love and hate at the same time. Throughout our trip in Western and Eastern Europe, I was looking forward to going to India, to finally experiencing something “new and more interesting” culturally. Europe was too comfortable, too familiar, too cushy. India was the opposite: chaotic, hot, and exhausting. In India, I think we all experienced certain levels of culture shock, most of it welcomed, some of it stressful, but all of it embraced. Usually, the slow travel of bicycle touring gives us time to adjust to a new culture. But, when we flew directly from Istanbul to Thiruvananthapuram, we jumped across the world in eight hours. The brain takes time to catch up. Jet lag is over in a few days, but culture shock lasts much longer and comes in waves. There’s the initial shock of suddenly finding yourself setting up your tent in an Indian Temple in a random small town in rural India. Then there’s the long, slow shock of staying in a new place, spending months or years discovering a new difference every day. In a new culture you stand on something more like water than land, and it goes on shifting under your feet. India was a lesson in learning to stand up right in one place, even as the tides are shifting every which way beneath you.

I say this now and I said this repeatedly throughout the trip: the last five months have really flown by at lightening speed. Although so much has happened, perhaps more so than during any other five-month chunk of my life, it all happened so quickly, too quickly. As I reflect on my experiences and reminisce about all the good times we had, I can’t help but feel sadness and loss that the trip is over. Even if I could have stopped time, I knew it wouldn’t have the desired effect, because something essential would be missing, some sharpness of focus made possible only by the fact that life is fleeting and that time is continuously ticking. All you have is gratefulness towards the present and making the most of each day, every day. Some may still say that I wasted five months of my life wandering across Europe and India, that I lost five months of my medical education and my duties towards “real life” responsibilities. But I disagree. I know that now I’ll never wonder what it would be like to travel across Europe and India on two wheels, powered only by the strength of my own two legs or what the view is like from a monastery perched on top of a rock mountain in northern Greece. I’ll never doubt myself in a strange land where I don’t understand the language and I’ll never be afraid to try soppy vegetable mush with my hands served on a banana leaf. I won’t be cynical about human nature because strangers have helped us so many times. I can see that my ripped suitcase and bike box, as they tumble onto the carousel, are bursting with life.

Andrew and Kallie Honeymoon Phase / 01.02.13

Hey all,

Kallie and I are well into our final phase of this 6 month journey, the Honeymoon Phase in Thailand. We’ve spent a slow and relaxing week on the beach here about 3 hours south of Bangkok, near a town called Pran Buri. Our first few days we splurged for a 5-star hotel (check out the pics on Flickr), and after that have found something quite nice by our standards, and reasonably priced as well.

Most days we spend sleeping in, grabbing a coffee and some breakfast, and heading down to our new friend Colin’s kite boarding shack (Airstylers–highly recommended!). He’s given us a couple lessons, when the wind has been favorable. We spend the day reading, relaxing, and waiting for wind typically. Besides that we are free to wander around the beach, go swimming, explore the area on our rented moped, and sample some of the fruits and fares of Thailand. (We’ve found where they keep the Magnum ice cream bars at the local shop, and nearly bought them out…).

Even though we have left our bike in storage at the airport, and are therefore no longer cycling, we still hope to be able to post a few experiences and pictures from this phase of our adventure. We ask the readers’ patience in sorting out who of FBR is where and for what purpose at this point.

Here’s a cheat sheet:

Devin and Tori: back in USA since December
Lindsey: Uganda for Med school studies
Peter and Steve: Myanmar (Burma), still cycling
+ friend Patrick…
Andrew and Kallie: Thai beaches for another week or so