Daily Archives: January 6, 2009

Randy-Author on bicycle touring in Southeast Asia

      It was impossible to know where we would end up each evening unless we planned to stay where we were.   This had been the way it was from the day we bought bicycles in Malacca and took off on them with all we could carry.   The unknown kept me going.   But I’m not sure how much Peg liked it; if she even liked it at all.   Regardless it didn’t mean less work.   This brings up the point that it was always more work for Peg than me: too often I rode ahead and rested while she caught up, and then I would take off again.   So, never getting a chance to really rest, at the end of the day she just wanted to collapse, when I would be ready to explore some more, illustrating again how out of touch I was.

      Our loads on our bicycles had to be balanced.   Without that they would rear out of control and then, before we could do anything, topple over.   It was unforgiving, as we quickly found out.

       This was before the days of panniers and bikes with gears, or we didn’t know about them.   Certainly, in a biking world, with more people riding bikes and scooters than in cars (to be more specific bicycles, buses, scooters and trucks crowded the roadways), all you would see was the same kind of bike, used commercially for hauling and personally for shopping.   Sometimes we got stuck in bicycle traffic jams, where people rode their bikes to the mosque and school, where with the big baskets on the back of our bikes people sometimes mistook us for missionaries and asked us for medicine.   Sometimes because of the lack of gears and our heavy loads we had to push.   We also sat up behind our sit-up-and-beg handlebars, and people would ring their bells at us.   (We didn’t proceed without mishap: I jammed my thumb into my bell, cutting it severely.   Peg ran her front wheel into my back wheel and skinned herself up pretty badly.)   In Malaysia, they also called out, “Black!” because they had mostly seen brown gibbons: while an Indonesian would yell, “White!” That matched our faces, the gibbon’s and ours.   Siamangs (a kind of gibbon) from Indonesia are totally black.   Sometimes children would run after us and out of excitement jabber something unintelligible.

      People asked us why we went the way we did (by bicycle).   They would say they had never seen people go that way.   Then we would be summoned to the headman’s place.   They would have to see our passports.   And would pass them around.   The final question of the day generally was almost the same: “many children?”   “No,” we’d answer to their universal disappointment.   In that way we quickly learned how to carry on short conversations, and often fooled them into thinking we knew more Malay or Indonesian than we actually did.   (Tonality kept us from attempting other languages, except for ordering our favorite foods.)

      We rarely felt in danger.   Here we were going through foreign lands, at times near a war zone, in and out of Laos nine times.   Wasn’t Laos in a war?   Wasn’t East Pakistan at war with West Pakistan?   What brave people we were.   No, we were being taken care of.

      And the further away we were from civilization the safer we felt.   The more isolated the village, the more helpful people were.   There were always people around who went out of their way to help us.   As an example, in Afghanistan (my computer won’t allow me to type the name of the town; it thinks I’m trying to write “Heart”), a crowd became unruly and a merchant took us in.   He gave us sanctuary.   That’s right: he called us into his shop and closed it up to protect us from a crowd that was growing and throwing pebbles.   We were thankful but not surprised by his actions.

Randy Ford

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