Taking a breather from bike travel

(FYI, this post tips more into the feminist side of the blog than the fitness).

I just finished a 10 day bike trip in Cambodia and Thailand, which I wrote about here and here. ended that second post with the realization that I am going to take a bit of a breather from organized bike trips for a while – for reasons both petty and metaphysical.

First, the petty.  I’ve already written about how I don’t always mesh well with the rhythms of someone else’s organization, or the impulses of a group. Some of it is just my own fierce independence – I travel alone because I enjoy being alone, which puzzles people who prefer to hang out after dinner, usually drinking, while I go to bed early and read or listen to podcasts.

But there is also the more petty, judgy stuff.  I can get miffed about someone eating all the bananas, or vigilant about politics, or judgemental about the homesick American working as an expat in Mongolia who bitterly complains about the weird bones in the meat, or the lonely Slovenian who is just drifting from country to country and who steals the good hotel rooms every night.  I am judgy about people who want to be entertained all the time, or who think “Sri Lankan” is a language, or whose primary stories about cycling in Myanmar all involve drunken escapades.  Or who correct my paddling five times in a short kayak paddle. I can be kind of a (silently) judgy bitch when I’m put into close proximity with strangers.  And fighting this tendency isn’t super relaxing.

But it’s more than that, of course.  It’s about what it means to see a country when you’re traveling in a pack. Even as you’re seeing a land from the tactile place of a bike seat, you’re encased in the shell of a group, riding past things you want to explore because it’s not on the itinerary.  It becomes about the group dynamics, the group’s feelings about the guide, group members’ digestive issues, typical holiday-type complaints about weak wifi or “bad service.”  On my own, meat with weird bones in it becomes part of the adventure; in a group, it’s a disappointment.

This encasement means that you are always seeing a country through a whole range of filters – the pace, the guide’s choices, the rest of the group’s experience, the fatigue that comes from following someone else’s rhythm.  It’s a great experience – you’re still toiling up hills and whizzing down them, you still see the rock shaped like an elephant or the kid waving at you – but it’s always mediated by things outside of your control.

To really feel the pull of a country, I have to have space for serendipity.  When I step back, I realize that my most powerful memories of traveling in Asia are the ones where I wasn’t on a bike, where I wandered and then found myself alone with local people.  Spending a day with a monk I met at a temple at sunset in Mandalay, hiring a guide to take me on an 18 mile hike through the mountains of central Myanmar, climbing a temple in Bagan at sunrise with a 13 year old boy on a bicycle, meeting two young couples and a baby at a restaurant in Xian, China, on New Year’s Eve, and hearing their yearning for a more free life, watching Harry and Meghan’s wedding with an 85 year old Bhutanese woman at a homestay in the mountains.  She peeled me a mango and we oohed together at the dress.

Sometimes these random encounters are with other travelers – usually solo women.  Fiona, the American expat teacher working in Asia who became my companion in Hoi An, Vietnam a couple of years ago.  On this trip, Aisha, the young woman from England I met in Phnom Penh, and Ivanna, the Polish woman from Berlin in my hotel in Singapore who took my photo while I did 108 sun salutations by the pool on New Year’s morning, and who later tried to tell me, in miniscule English, what this trip meant to her.  Her halting words were full of emotion:  “I end 10 man, no 10 year with man, I travel.  I must learn English!”  I squeezed her hand and told her I understood.  She kissed me on both cheeks and gave me a huge hug, seeing each other beyond words.

I experience the world differently when I’m not with a group, and it’s the way I need to experience it, to find myself.

On this trip, I had a throughline of another voice as I rode, listening to Trevor Noah’s memoir of growing up in South Africa.  It’s riveting and powerful and heart-filling and provocative  – listen to it if you haven’t, go, now, shoo – and it also inspired my own critical gaze on myself.  What IS it I’m seeking from riding in so many places?  What have I learned from seeing so many developing countries close up, from working for more than 12 years in intimate relationship with a group of youth in Uganda?

Before I went to Uganda for the first time, an African American woman who’d also lived in east Africa said to me, in a slightly dry voice, “you know, you’re always just going to be a white woman in Africa.”  At the time, I was a bit offended – my relationship with the kids in the project I worked on was special!  I could belong! But of course, she was right – though my understanding of what that means has evolved every year, with every visit to east Africa and to different Asian countries.  And by that, I think I mean that my understanding of what it means to have western privilege gets deeper with every visit.

Western, white, cis privilege means that even when I feel anxious and watchful about the homophobic comments of my Cambodian guide, I know that I’m not actually going to be hurt.  I’m not going to be the ostracized nephew, the correctively raped wife.  Western, white privilege means that I can toil up a hill in the blazing heat for fun, passing the scowling man corralling his skinny cows, waving merrily at the children who don’t have shoes.  I can complain about being tired or hungry without ever having experienced hunger or the exhaustion of poverty in my life.  Western white privilege means I can ride in a jeep, protected by UN peacekeepers every 100 m or so, because I’ve decided on a whim to go see the Congolese gorillas, and to be surprised when a young girl who has never had a truly peaceful day in her life spits at me.

Western, white, cis privilege means that I can always leave a situation that feels uncomfortable or hard.  It means that my voice will matter if things go wrong.  I have money, I have insurance, I have the protection of my consulate, I have the container of a group.  So I can be cavalier with heat, with physical labour, and with the impact of where I spend my money.  And, I realized, I have been cavalier about my carbon footprint.

When I arrived back in the land of TVs in every restaurant, I was surrounded by the gutting images of Australia burning.  Right where I rode last winter.  And overwhelmed with outrage about climate change denial.  And then I realized I can’t avoid looking at my own travel and what it means from an environmental perspective anymore.  Intersectional feminism 101:  a critical gaze on my own privilege, at my own footprint.

Traveling is part of my identity.  Traveling on my bike is an even bigger part.  But at the end of this excellent trip, I feel a tipping point – I have to look at the impact of exercising my privilege.  I have to live into my own ethics.  And that means that instead of accumulating more and more experiences, I have to figure out what to make of the unique, rare, privileged knowledge I’ve gained from those experiences.  I have to determine how to channel that energy into fighting climate change, fighting harder for equity, fighting harder as an ally.  I don’t know exactly what that means yet, but I owe it to that young girl who spit at me to figure it out.



Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who lives in Toronto and is rethinking her identity.


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