Monday, May 31, 2010
The Globe says it better than I did, perhaps.
Saturday, May 27, 2006
It has taken me a while to write this final entry. It’s a little intimidating to try to sum up 4 months in which a nutty dream became an intense reality. That reality hit extremes of hopelessness and euphoria, and just about every stop in between.
We rolled into South Africa and then Cape Town in good spirits. I had thought through the finish line ceremonies and goodbyes, and despite (and due to) warnings that it would get emotional, I was nonchalantly videotaping all the way in. I stood at the line filming riders meeting their families and loved ones when someone tapped me on the shoulder. Was it someone asking for change? It seemed unlikely but not impossible. Maybe press? Probably. Interviewers and video cameras were swarming the riders. I turned to face my girlfriend Melanie.
But she was in Toronto. Or at least I had been looking forward, since the trip began, to flying to Toronto to see her at the end of the trip. But she was here. And so not in Toronto. It took me about 4 hours to get over the shock, confusion, and excitement. Mel had spent two weeks touring Cape Town and Namibia, hitting a few of the same spots as the tour only days before or afterwards, but had waited until the finish to surprise me. Once I became conscious of reality again we traveled South Africa together. I have never been more surprised in my life than I was at the finish and I have never been happier in my life than in the past two weeks. How’s that for a nice ending?
And so it’s over. The riders return to their homes all over the world sure that no one else will understand what it was like riding through the sand and corrugation in Sudan, the hills in Ethiopia, or the desert in northern Kenya. No friends or family will relate entirely when you tell them about camping for four months in ten countries with 50 strangers-become-siblings of all ages. The hard-core racers have their results, and to me these befit the people who earned them. A few of us have special pride and a bond of suffering in having ridden every f’n inch of the way. We covered 11,900km in 96 riding days, also climbing more meters on the bicycle in elevation than I will on my four connecting flights home.
And so what was it all about? What did I learn? Well, for starters, the nice thing about taking chances is that the outcomes are unknown (redundant, I know but I’m going somewhere with this). I came to Africa very uncertain about the tour, the countries I was crossing, my riding ability, and my odds of finishing. Although I thought it would be rewarding to do the trip I had no idea why or how. In the end, the lessons I learned are the last things I expected.
1. Making a decision to do something is the hardest part. Once you have made a decision and thrown out all your excuses, other options, and insecurities, you find a way. In the end, no matter how hard it was, you will say “that wasn’t so hard afterall” and will be ready for new challenges, with more opportunities for growth, in the future.
2. Seeing life from a fatalist perspective it is depressing. If you think you “have to” deal with things you don’t want to (e.g. riding a bike through mud for a week) you will not be very pleasant to be around. If you instead see life as a series of decisions in which you can either challenge yourself to grow or back down and stagnate, things that used to be “have to’s” become “get to’s”. You become thankful for whatever you are facing, no matter how tough, because it is your chance to grow.
3. Conquering something alone is satisfying, but does not compare to sharing something with someone you care about. We are hardwired, as a social species, to be happiest when we are loved, loving, and sharing, rather than when we are accomplishing things for ourselves. It took me a long, long time to learn this and it is the lesson from this trip that I am most grateful for. Best of all, I know who to thank.
This is the end. Thank you so much for reading. I have learned that I have more readers than I anticipated (this was supposed to be a time-saving device). Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share a part of my life with you and I genuinely hope that you will be so kind as to tell me about yours.
Winhoek is a distant memory. Once we left, the road got slightly hillier and people started talking about the finish. The eight riders who joined us in the last month, and were just starting their own adventure, bit their tongues to put up with 50 cyclists who spoke of little other than the end. We were putting in long days of riding when mentally we were already there. With a set routine and the end in sight (so to speak, we still had a couple thousand km’s), we became antsy for distractions from the agony of waiting for the finish line. We came up with a few. The evenings were now peppered with events. Prophet-run blindfolded tent-erection contests, tire-changing races, trivia, and singing and playing music about the trip entertained our big family. Throw in a naked kilometer in Namibia (that was extended to 15km to the amusement/utter confusion of the locals), some funky riding tricks (see Superman pic), a great crash (riding 50km/h downhill into a dam with unseen knee-deep water while blaring rock’n’roll on the headphones), and preparations for the finish, and I had enough to keep me laughing all the way to Cape Town. On that note I’ll add a little story about my friend Tom Baxter.
Tom joined us at Victoria Falls, and despite being a ‘new fish’ he integrated into the group quite comfortably, to the point of being one of the few to participate in the much-anticipated naked kilometer. This is a legacy performed on many bike tours, not just a perverted gag, so on a sunny day in Namibia five of us decided our tour deserved the honor as well and stripped down. With our biking clothes in our packs and tied around our handlebars, and lots of giggling, we began our bold trek. Having been in biking gear for 14 weeks the change was actually quite comfortable and welcome, to the point of out-weighing any shyness, so we decided to keep going. Plus there wasn’t much traffic. After six or seven kilometers we noticed Tom was missing. He was having fun when we last saw him, and standing around naked is much more awkward than riding naked (I don’t know exactly why, but can tell you it is), so we kept going. We would later learn that Tom, in his eagerness or anxiety, had left his clothes on the side of the road. This meant doubling back naked to get them, which would not be a big deal except that there was a significant contingent of 30 or so slower (and generally older/more mature) riders behind us that he would have to pass, naked, on his way back to look for his shorts in the desert. Our plan, when we discovered this eventuality, was to deny the existence of any ‘naked kilometer’ event to the rest of the group, singling Tom out as a rogue unaccompanied backwards-riding nudist. Tom, however, revealed his plight to another rider who happened to have been wearing two pairs of biking shorts (to alleviate saddle-sores) and got away with the blunder to everyone else’s chagrin.
At this point I must honor Lyle, a fellow Canadian and good friend throughout the trip, who heard about the naked kilometer while passing other riders on the road. Not wanting to be left out, Lyle stripped bare and rode, otherwise as usual, with his (clothed) wife Krista, to the bewilderment of riders passed and passing, not to mention traffic, who knew nothing about the naked kilometer.
We are fast approaching Cape Town. Just a matter of carrying out the routine and keeping the legs moving for another couple weeks.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
Believe it or not, riders are getting bored. Even though we’re in a new country nearly every week these days, the routine stays the same: up at 5, oatmeal, on the bike for 7 hours, sit around at camp, mass dinner, bed. We joke about it as just another day at the office. And the office, for the last 2 countries, has been flat flat flat. Entertainment of late has consisted of watching Tom change continuously popping tires, ordering full legs of strange animals at restaurants for dinner (Oryx, Springbok, Zebra), and hoisting a sleeping frenchman’s bike up a flagpole. I also raced a few days lately and managed to get my stage win, so with that monkey off my shoulder I’m going to take it pretty easy from here to Cape Town.
The stage I managed to win (actually tied for 1st with 3 other riders) was made interesting by a rider notorious for his ‘race tactics’. In bike racing, drafting behind other bikes is incredibly important to conserve energy, but if the whole pack always tries to draft each other they don’t get anywhere. Instead, each rider ‘pulls’ (leads) the pack for a few minutes at a time and then switches to the back to draft. This racer, a.k.a. everyone’s nemesis, tried to drop me by taking the pack on a sprint after the first three times I pulled (which is generally when your legs are the most tired and therefore a sprint might leave you behind). When that didn’t work, he told me I wasn’t pulling fast enough and that our mutual friend was going to lose the stage if I didn’t put my head down and give it all I had on my next pull (which would make me really tired and easy to drop). I told him to eat crap, which was phrased more politely as: “If I’m not going fast enough you should try to drop me”. We rolled in together with the two others in the pack in an agreed-upon tie, we do have to live together after all.
After the race, of course, we’re all friends, or at least bitter enemies pretending to be friends for the sake of peace. As I haven’t been racing much and am generally easy going you can take this example x 1000 to characterize the relationships between some of the other racers. We occasionally catch them sneaking around at night with daggers. This trip could really be made into a TV show, something like: “Tour de France meets Survivor meets Lost meets Desperate Housewives…”.
In other news, we sighted some wild dogs, which are an endangered species, last week. Given their rarity, one of our leisure riders in his 60’s, Jimmy, stopped to snap a few pictures. The dogs decided to make it interesting for him by attacking so Jim swung his bike at them to fend them off and took off in the direction he had come, to roll with the wind. Other riders behind him wondered why he was going twice his normal speed in the wrong direction, but strange things happen in Africa.
While these events break the routine and give us something to talk about, many of us (original riders) are finding, to our surprise, that we have used up all of the ‘awe’ that we had stored for use over the next 10 years. We have seen so much in such a short span that now when we see an elephant, a fist-sized cricket, a family of baboons, or a spectacular vista, we just smile, shrug, and roll on. It’s a little sad perhaps but it’s also a sign that things are wrapping up on time. We’re still having a blast but we reminisce about the start and talk about the end much more often. Two weeks to go in the trip of a lifetime. A measly 2,000km and it’s all over – it’s the same bittersweet feeling as a graduation or a friend moving away. All we can do is make the most of it.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
You can feel that we are moving toward more a more ‘westernized’ culture as we travel west across Zambia and Botswana, toward the Kalahari desert. Although the distances have been long (generally 150-200km/day) we have been on paved roads in our crossing and have been stopping for fast food and ice cream at gas stations. We feel like we have reached the promised land, but even so, we continuously emphasize to the ‘new fish’ (new riders) how hard we had it prior to this.
A new group of riders joined us in Livingston for the ‘Khoisan Challenge’, known to the rest of us simply as the last quarter of the trip. Among these is Tom Baxter (tomcatbaxter.blogspot.com), an old friend of mine. Having lived with the tour group for the past 3 months, 24/7, I feel like I have 50 siblings whose ways I am accustomed to, for better and for worse, so seeing the group and the tour through his ‘fresh’ eyes has been an interesting experience.
Livingston is also the home of Victoria Falls, one of the world’s ‘natural wonders’, and the ‘adventure capital’ of Africa. I whitewater rafted the Zambezi river, which leads to the falls, got to spend a little time in a play kayak on the river, and visited the falls like a true tourist. Well, sort of like a true tourist. When you are a very conspicuous white guy on a bicycle in Africa, people are continuously yelling at you to say hello, for attention, to impress their friends, and to sell you things. You sort of learn to block them out. Anyways, I was in a rush to see the falls before sundown and rode through the somewhat disorganized ticket booth and security gate. After I was done riding along the paths along the falls, which included an awesome bridge paralleling the cliff where the water runs off and crossing over the boiling point of the falls (on which you get completely drenched) a security guard caught up to me and informed me that I had ‘run’ the gate and that bicycles were not allowed inside the park area. Satiated, and with the sun going down, I happily conceded to leave.
Since Livingston we have ridden about 710km, 620 of them in the past 4 days, and all in a head or cross-wind. As if this wasn’t enough, the lads decided we should do a team time trial just for a laugh. And a great laugh it was. I found myself on a 4-man team known as the ‘Cookie Monsters’ with current race leader Matt Caretti, ‘prophet doom’ Cory Heitz, and our chef Miles ‘cookie’ (we were the monsters), who actually used to be a world champion time trial cyclist, but took up smoking and drinking instead ten years ago. We came in 2nd, beaten by a bunch of South Africans, but beating Tom’s team by 15 seconds, which was infinitely more important to me as I had a couple drinks on the line. Tom’s team had the fastest 19 year-old cyclist in Canada and our time-trial champ (and a good buddy of mine) Sam Bail, my friend Monty ‘prophet love’, and our hungover mechanic Todd, so they were definitely a threat. The finish time is the third man on your team so the key is to keep your third strongest man strong while the two strongest pull and the fouth generally shells (exhausts) himself early by ‘pulling’ (breaking the wind) for the team until he can’t keep pace any more. Toward the end, on our team, Cory was tiring (being 6’7” he has a harder time drafting, or staying out of the wind, behind another rider) and reverted to his US AirForce Special Ops former self. He began yelling at himself and then told Matt and I to yell at him and berate him to keep him moving. Matt and I basically said ‘uh, OK’ and spent the last 10 minutes yelling everything we could think of at him as we flew toward the finish, neck and neck with the South Africans. This was great entertainment afterwards as we really didn’t know what to yell and were completely exhasted so not erveything that came out made any sense. In fact, none of it did.
On the same leg, another rider was attacked by a pack of wild dogs (endangered species, see pic) and swung his bicycle at them and then rode away, in the wrong direction, but didn't care at the time. He didn't turn around to go back past the wild dogs until he met up with another rider coming the other direction who was slower than he is.
From here we roll to Windhoek. Sand dunes, desert winds (hopefully from the back), and even longer days are ahead, but we are counting down now. We move on a little sadly as we have lost one rider, who has been with us from the start, to a broken arm from a pothole crash. But she’s got spirit. She’s planning to be at the party at the end.
Monday, April 17, 2006
I just got my hands on a bunch pictures from a friend and thought I'd share a story. One thing that was fairly well-documented in the pics is George (a friend from South Africa and the 2nd place racer)having roadside surgery on a fall wound. George is a real character and an EFI rider. He was awfully displeased with himself for the fall ("well, this is really going to slow down my afternoon"). He had to walk back to the lunch truck for 22 stitches that put a dent of 2-3 hours into his race time. He didn't even consider riding the truck. A few laughs were had at his expense as nurse John and doctor Toby put him back together, while in their cycling gear, with him laid out in the dirt on camp stools covered in flies. These guys are good and you would never know what a wound it was, the way it has healed. The same goes for 7 or 8 other riders who have had stitches thus far. It's amazing what can be done when you have no other options and also the resilience of the riders who have had the misfotune of accidents (not to mention illness and bike problems). I recorded the surgery with some unease and am keeping my fingers crossed not to be added to the patient list anytime soon.
Thursday, April 06, 2006
We recently had an interesting rest day in Chitumba beach on lake Malawi. We had a beautiful beach, swimming, and a little competition culminating 'Mustache March'. One of our riders, Cory Heitz (fittingly, he is 6"7') organized a morale booster wherein we had the month of March to grow mustaches that were judged on the last day, with some rules attached. The ruling committee was a group known as 'the prophets', who have been growing their beards since day 1 and we simply had to name and model our mustaches for the crowd, who voted by applause. I reluctantly grew my first attempt at facial hair for a month. The mustache came in completely blonde so I darkened it with a friend's eyeliner and won 2nd prize (a humor vote, but that was the idea). My good kiwi friend Duncan took 1st place with a 'Black Sabbath' mustache and runners up included riders sporting mustaches named 'The 17-year-old Mexican' and 'The Uncle You're Not Supposed to Hug'. The following morning Cory's dad, 'Big Mike' Heitz (7"0', I kid you not) organized a big breakfast, fresh-cooked by his committee of riders, that was a welcome treat given the limited food available at the beach 'restaurant' (A prime example of how things work in Africa: mostly they don't). This 'restaurant', which regularly hosts large overland groups, consisted of a guy with a pan who cooked only fries one day and only nachos the next, one order at a time, for 50 hungry riders. Given our complete dissatisfaction with the food they offered to do a pig roast and buffet the evening of our rest day with a vegetarian option. This sounded splendid. What we got was a pig we had to cut ourselves, some potatoes, rice, noodles, and a can of beans for the vegetarians. To complicate matters, we were just given a knife and no fork to cut the pig, so everyone lined angrily up and hacked at the little fatty thing competitively with lots of swearing. If I wasn't so hungry I would have been highly entertained.
Wednesday, April 05, 2006
I have officially switched from a ‘racer’ to a ‘leisure rider’. I raced the first 3 or 4 countries quite intently, slacked off a bit in the last 2, and have now seen the light, along with many others who shared my approach. I came here to experience Africa and to think. While the competitiveness of racing is entertaining, the problem is that bicycle racing always involves riding in a pelaton, or tight group of riders, wherein you are inches off other riders’ tires and have to watch your speed and your competitors intently and continuously. This makes it very hard to check out the scenery, talk to the locals, or think during the 7 hours of daily riding. Now, riding mostly on my own, I take everything in, stop when I see something interesting, and often enough stop for an additional snack along the road with other (former racer) leisure riders and generally take a little longer to get to camp. This does nothing to change my EFI status (having ridden Every F’n Inch – which is becoming more and more exclusive), it just means my times aren’t ranked. I will stay EFI, this is just a recent act of straightening out my priorities that I am happy with and thought I would share.
It has rained every day and every night since Arusha, which is almost 2 weeks now, and it will likely continue to do so for another week. It’s not continuous, like Noah’s flood or anything, but being the rainy season, the skies break open every few hours in between sun and clouds. Now that I’m not racing I can actually stop to put my rain jacket on (although I have a system to do it while riding as of yesterday). Malawi has been great riding, probably my favorite thus far (paved roads and great scenery). The people are pretty much on par with previous unremarkable country cultures (they stare, say hello, beg, and will sell you things if you ask).
One thing about the people has gotten me down of late, actually (this is where this episode turns to social commentary - just warning you now). I made an earlier comment about how women do all the work (perhaps) due to the evolution of the culture from slavery as the stronger people (men in rural culture) idealize the slave-driver and make the weaker (women in rural culture) do the work. Another historical difference between Africa and Western culture is that Western culture evolved from tribes in slow steps – tribes to communities, communities to fiefdoms, to kingdoms, to countries. Africa was forced from tribes to countries in one fell swoop by outside interference. The result is that equitable leadership and organization of a large and diverse group isn’t understood. When someone is put in power in Africa, they use whatever benefits they have to benefit their tribe - their family and friends - everyone else be damned. We’ve seen this endlessly in government, but it also seems to happen in charity.
A couple on out trip are sponsoring a child through a help organization that works with 27,000 kids in Malawi. They wanted to see where their money was going. Three representatives from the organization showed up in a brand new land cruiser to collect the money, but when it came to meeting the family it was more difficult. They did, in the end, arrange to meet the child and the family they had a heart-warming experience, particularly to do with the kids and the women who take care of them. The father, who does nothing all day while his three wives work the fields, asked for more money to fix the roof of the hut so that the child wouldn’t get wet. While the experience was unique and genuine, the donating couple wasn’t convinced that the money does any good in the end. The organization (whose representatives rock up to tiny villages in fully loaded brand new land cruisers) was unable to show any tangible improvements that the sponsored children experience, to do with life expectancy, time spent in school, or anything else. They claim that the problems the children face are complicated, which they certainly are. 75% of the population of Malawi is under 15. Life expectancy is 27 years. The men do not do any work. Children are raped and infected because it is believed that you can get rid of aids by having sex with a virgin. Money that is brought in to help is siphoned off by people helping themselves and their friends, but not the people who are supposed to be helped.
While this might sound like a call to action to do something for Malawi, it may be true that the exact opposite approach would be better. I have been learning that after 50 years of foreign aid in Africa the situation is no better. Ethiopia is the country that received the most food and aid money and now citizens seem to do nothing but beg and hang around food distribution centers. Kenya and Tanzania had millions of trees planted by NGOs that grew twice as fast and reaped better lumber, but these killed all the local foliage and animals and caused forest fires previously unheard of. If the harvest is really bad one year in Malawi, rather than the men having to work the fields too, foreign aid steps in with an answer. It may be that I am disgruntled by the thousand or so people I pass on the road every day wanting something from me, but I’m not convinced that giving it to them is the answer anymore. The problems are, well, complicated.
But the trip has been enjoyable lately when that’s not on my mind. We’re going to try to have more and more fun events and the more leisurely approach to riding is much healthier and allows for much more reflection and enjoyment. I am looking forward to being joined by my friend Tom 'Danger' Baxter in Victoria falls for the last quarter and we have now completed over 2/3 of the riding days. We will fly across flat desert in Zambia and Botswana and as we get further south the culture allegedly gets more and more South African (mmm… chocolate milk at rest stops), which comes with interesting social and cultural issues. I’m pretty well ready for a change and looking forward to getting home, so on we go.