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Photo by Adam Coppola
At first glance, Cambodia doesn't have the elements most travelers are looking for in a bike trip — there are few paved roads and lots of dust. The country is relatively flat, so no epic mountain passes to climb. And yet, this small country is one of our favorites.
Kat and I first encountered Bangkok traffic from the perspective of the backseat of a taxi. The chaos of any big city can be daunting. Though neither of us spoke the words, I know we were both thinking, "Not going to bike here." But over years of travel, both of us have learned that first impressions are often wrong.
I enjoy the luscious sense of freedom and speed of a long, well earned, downhill. But more often, the most memorable travel moments come when I am forced to slow down.
I look into the frightened eyes of this lovely, friendly little animal that I adore, and am reminded that conquering fear is almost always an incremental process.
The back roads of Laos can be a challenge, even when they are dry. But add water and you have a road surface that can be both slick as glass and sticky as tar. The rains come often to the Bolaven Plateau, where some of the most expensive coffee in the world is grown.
Cargo bikes are all the rage these days. Each year more amazing models hit the marketplace. For someone who hasn't owned a car for eight years, a bike with a lot of carrying capacity is high on my list of desires. Hauling a couple of bags of compost, and/or large ceder boards for a garden project is not an easy task with your average bike.
There are two items that represent the joy of childhood to me: bikes and kites. Riding a bike was easy for me. Flying a kite ... not so much.If I crashed my bike as often as I crashed my kites as a kid, I wouldn't be alive today. Watching the kids in Myanmar fly their kites with an ease I've never known, I suppose my mistake was always going for the largest kite at the store--bigger was better. Except that no matter how fast I ran, my kite would get about 50 feet off the ground, start doing pinwheels, suddenly nose dive, and crash with a fatal thud.
Instead of cycling the main highway in Southern Laos, we opted to pedal the tracks and foot paths along the Mekong. It was slow going, but the ability to be so close to people's daily lives was worth the effort. One early morning we came upon a man who was busy mending a fishing net. I asked if could take a photo and positioned myself so I could capture his silhouette. He was such a master at his craft that his movements, rather than being abrupt, were balletic. Kat was on the opposite side and snapped a photo of the fisherman in the glorious morning light.
Just how many times did I say "hello" today? I asked myself that question recently in Cambodia (where we are currently cycling). We have been greeting warmly everywhere in this country, but while cycling the tiny roads and paths along The Mekong, the greeting got intense.
The smell of wood smoke is in the air along with the squeals of little pigs darting across the road. The roads had wound up and down for days (500-foot to 2,000-foot climbs all day long) as we crossed from one river drainage to the next. There were no restaurants or stores to be found, so we asked a local if she would cook us breakfast. She held a newborn in one arm as she fried up spicy eggs with greens and sticky rice over a wood fire. We kept glancing up to see dozens of kids peeking in to see the foreigners. We emerged out into the brilliant blue sky of the highlands of northern Laos.
It is 2:00 am in the little town of Remedios. The Las Parrandas festival has been raging since early evening. The contest pits the two main barrios in town (San Salvador and Carmen) against each other in a show of pageantry, music, lights, and fireworks. Thousands of people have crammed into the town square for the festivities, and Kat is somewhere on the other side of the square with my recorder and microphone collecting sounds.
I call this photo Candy Break. I’m at a small roadside store (a shack dangerously perched on the side of the narrow winding road) high up in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh. It is early morning and I’m in search of chocolate. Most of the desserts in India are insanely sweet even for a sweet tooth like mine, and I’m losing too much weight. I discover a chocolate bar that most merchants carry, and I eat at least five a day.
We are lying down on the cool tile floor of the kitchen. The smell of fresh tortillas mingles with perfume. A conversation on the side of the road while cycling down the Baja Peninsula led to an invitation to Adriano’s place in La Paz.
I have thousands and thousands of images from my bicycle travels throughout the world -- boxes and binders filled with color slides and folders of digital images of street scenes, flowers, sunsets, roads, and landscapes. Each photo represents a moment in time and travel that I deemed worthy of capturing. Yet, if you randomly selected an image and asked for my reaction, it just might be, “I took that?”
I'm not a big organized bike ride guy. Most of my riding has been solo or very small group travel (like two people). But when I heard the concept behind "The Passport to Pain," I couldn't resist signing up. The ride had at least three things going for it. It was close (Vashon Island is a ferry ride away from my home in Seattle). It was one day (pain is best in limited doses). And it was creative (the concept is brilliant).
If you were speeding along in a car on the road from Haines to Haines Junction in Alaska, the above scene might seem normal -- a young kid on a bike pedaling up the driveway, the American and Alaska state flags flying. You might wonder why the family had a phone both out by the road.
Every bicycle journey has a theme song. At least all of mine do. A tune that fits the mood of the journey ... or describes the place you are pedaling through ... or sometimes it's just the tune that is incessantly playing on every radio.
Kat and I got out of the city (Seattle) last weekend. We took the Amtrak (reserved two spots on the luggage car bike rack) up to Bellingham with plans to bike out to Birch Bay. Not far out of Bellingham our map indicated a bike trail that ran along the Nooksack River. We always enjoy the opportunity to get off the road, so we pulled into an empty gravel parking lot.
Sometimes our super-saturated, media-driven world can get me down. The sheer amount of bad news one can ingest in a single day via the internet, radio and television can be overwhelming. That's when I want to get on my bike and ride.
Campfires. I have always loved them. Loved the heat they provide. The crackle that fills the otherwise stillness of night. The hypnotic dancing of flames that can hold my attention longer than most feature films. I even love the pungent smell that lingers on your clothes long after the last embers fade.
Time is money. Which is a good thing, because I have a whole lot more time than the green stuff. Carrying a tent has always been the great bicycle journey budget stretcher. The cost of hotels can be pricey. On a three month trip, that cost can be devastating. Especially if you are traveling in a part of the world where lodging is expensive.
I know that nutritionists will cringe, but as a touring cyclist I consider ice cream as the Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner of Champions. It should have its own food group category. Ice cream companies should set aside a day each year to celebrate and thank touring cyclists. We are a ravenous revenue source!
Kids on Bikes! They make me smile. They give me hope for the future.
In the 2011 Oct/Nov issue of Adventure Cyclist I wrote a column titled The Decision. It got a lot of responses. I recently read the column on Weekday, a show on public radio station KUOW in Seattle.
Sometimes I look back over my trip photos and wonder, "Did I take that?"
The above image fits in that category. It's India. It's in my trip folder. Then it dawns on me that even though I was on a solo trip, I didn't take the photo ... because I'm IN it.