In my opinion, having traveled extensively by public transport as well, the journey on a bicycle is even more deep. Because it is slow, it let me experience the world on a very different level, one which is impossible to retrieve while transported by a vehicle, any vehicle that is. And because my moving is done by my very own efforts, I feel superior, but is that really reason to feel so, a not so beautiful characteristic, arrogantly?
Is moving by bicycle a deeper experience of taking in life or just a different mode of living? Like one lives in a concrete mansion, another in a hut made from trash. Am I who feel the world on a bicycle taking in the world different from someone who soaks it in by public transport? Let me ask Rita, who travels the world extensively by bus and get anywhere she wants.
We met in Myanmar 14 years ago. I was having a conversation English and you were an English teacher, overhearing my clear Dutch accent. From that day we spend time together, went to temples and traveled to dodgy guesthouses. After many years and back in the Netherlands you were my first goal to find out whether I liked cycling.
You always have been an example for me, as you live by heart, without fear but with common sense. You are one of the few friends who truly know how to extract the juices of the fruit called world. You travel by bus and I by bicycle and I want to talk with you about the differences in mode of travel and how this affects the experience.
When I traveled Yemen intensively you were inspired to follow in my footsteps, which did not surprise me as you have lived in Saudi Arabia. Yemen captured you as much as it did with me and you even wrote a book about your two long visits.
Rita’s book ‘ARABIA FELIX’ can be ordered here http://arabiafelix.weebly.com (Dutch only).
Rita, age 73, from Belgium. Countries been to: Europe; all countries. South East Asia; all countries except for Bhutan. All countries in South America except for Venezuela, Guyana and Suriname. Central America; Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, Costa Rico, Panama. USA. Africa; Ethiopia, Tanzania, Madagascar, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa. The Far East; India, Indonesia, Malaysia. The Middle East; Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia (she lived there for 3 years), Abu Dhabi, Qatar, Oman, Dubai and Yemen as her favorite!
1) Whenever I see big coaches on the highway I image it are old aged, retired people who have the luxury to travel but want none of the hassle and trouble with local style buses or with self-made itineraries and all the difficulties it brings with traveling. Having done exactly this with my dad I can tell it is way more tiresome than traveling on bicycle. I am over exhausted from bus travel, from arriving late at night, from trying to sleep in a bus, from finding places to stay after arriving way past my bed time, where, finally arrived, I can’t sleep of the noisy surrounding. It is a hassle!
You are not quite a retiree who likes easiness. I know you are making complicated itineraries yourself and how much detailed and complicated they are. You need to find out about visa, about boats, about time tables, about local markets to meet authentic people, about local contact persons. In fact, about a whole lot more than I do. I make no plans and hardly do any research. How effective are those plans in combination with public transport which might not always be reliable? How do you enjoy public transport?
Rita: First let me put something straight. Public transport is not only restricted to buses! It’s everything people use to get from one place to another. It can as well be shared taxis, my favorites actually. It’s so easy to get in contact with local people, and that’s the purpose of my traveling. Sometimes I enjoy a bus ride, sometimes I don’t, it all depends on the company (and my mood). I usually try to use all kinds of transport in a country.
Besides, most buses I used in the past were local buses, we call them “chicken buses” not the luxury coaches you think of. I remember one trip in the north of Laos in a small overcrowded bus where I sat for 6 hours with a baby in my arms because the mother had 2 more small children on her lap. And not to mention buses that break down! In Tanzania the same bus broke down twice but then it was final. All passengers (about 30) had to wait for hours in the heat along the roadside for another bus that passed by. In Europe it wouldn’t have been possible, but we all were pushed into that (also crowded) bus!
There are some boat trips I won’t forget either! Three days in canoe in Madagascar (on the Tsiribihina river), were very uncomfortable but so interesting! And the one in Laos where the engine broke down after half a day. We had to climb a steep slope to get ashore. Fortunately I got help from one of the passengers, I wouldn’t have made it with the luggage. And if you think train journeys are boring, you’re wrong! In Myanmar I nearly got arrested for taking a picture of a bridge… And the adventurous train ride from Fianarantsoa to Manakara in Madagascar? It usually takes about 7 hours but this time it turned out to be 16 hours!!! And “comfortable” is a word that doesn’t apply to Malgache trains, not even in first class! At 6 o’clock it’s dark and there’s no light in the train and of course no water supply nor food.
2) I have noticed that from the viewpoint of a bus nature feels bigger and more dangerous than when cycling through. When on a bicycle it makes me part of the surrounding, it makes you one with it. Maybe it has to do with the perspective, a bus is higher and thus everything looks smaller, wider, more open. It even seems often impossible to cycle through, let alone to enjoy it. When on a bicycle the frog perspective let one sense nature as higher and grander, but being on ground level also makes you feel one with it all, thus a natural relation takes over.
How do you feel in such seemingly inhospitable natural surroundings? You are in a bus, driving through, do you feel curiosity how it is out there? I cycled a large part of the Atacama desert where a few weeks later I passed by bus and I noticed how I was thinking: how could you cycle here and stay hydrated? How is it possible to just venture of into the wash (dry riverbed) and seek a place to sleep? It all looks so dangerous. Do you feel like that from a bus perspective?
Rita: You won’t believe this, but sometimes I think of you when I’m traveling by bus through a desert. The road looks so endlessly long and there’s not much variation. I know deserts and love them but I wonder if you’re never bored, knowing you have to go on cycling for days in the same surroundings in sometimes harsh conditions?
I could not do it, not only because of my age, I just don’t have the urge to see the world from a bicycle. It takes too long to get somewhere. Remember, I usually am on the road for 2 or 3 months (except one time for 5 months in South America) not for 1 or 2 years! We both like traveling but we look at it from a different angle. For me transport is taking me from A to B and it doesn’t matter much which kind it is, for you the experience of cycling is the most important (I think).
Do you take unexpected events into account? Do you change plans and go with the flow? Will you stick to your itineraries? I know you are attending Yemeni wedding ceremonials when unexpectedly invited over, like I stayed a week at a military camp. None of this is part of the plan. What is the highest priority for you?
Rita: Of course I change my plans if something interesting comes up! Yes, I do make plans before leaving on a trip. I work out an itinerary and read about the places where I want to stop. But an itinerary is not a bible, it is open to change at any moment! That’s one reason not to make sleeping reservations. I’m not traveling with a tent but if I were younger, I definitely would! And every time I see an opportunity to camp I do it, because I love camping in the wild. About dependency: are you really so independent? Or are you better off with, for example, a broken leg and a bicycle to drag along?
4) I was on several buses lately. One to cross a high pass with a stretch of road without water nor food and I highly enjoyed the ride in an old rickety bus. The other buses covered a distance of 3500 kilometer in 4 days to reach in time to meet a friend, a ride I truly disliked. Later I was with my dad on buses traveling through the Atacama desert and on to the high Andes in Peru. Needless to say I did not like it, more remarkable was that the Atacama desert wasn’t even appealing anymore. And the high Andes became solely annoying because of the altitude sickness and arriving in ugly busy towns.
I either felt I missed everything out there. The route we rode was so beautiful, the inhospitable desert nature surrounding the route was truly inviting to camp. The bus was a luxury coach where I felt totally disconnected with all I stand for. On the other had, the old ramshackle bus who took me over the pass and through truly desolate landscape was a highly adventurous ride. Do you think it is all in the mind? That we make up our own adventure and form of lonesomeness?
Rita: I’m afraid it is “all in the mind”. Your mind is set on your bicycle and the adventure that comes with it, your happiness is depending on this. You felt unhappy in a luxury coach because you were only thinking of what you “missed out” and maybe your experience would have been different if you hadn’t covered 3500 km in 4 days? Of course that’s boring! I wouldn’t dream of doing this!
5) For me cycling feels as truly living/experiencing where the bus feels as if I am a limp body. When I met with a friend in Lima to travel for some time his preferred mode of transport, a bus, I couldn’t bear it. I felt disconnected from Earth. I couldn’t even look outside the window, it truly hurt me. I felt sad and was on the verge of crying. The bus is fast, unnatural and sitting in a metal cocoon has you literally divided from the outside. This is exactly what I meant in my previous answer!
Of course, this derives from a choice. The choice I want to cycle. When you haven’t made that choice, the bus or a jeep, a car or a motorbike is perfectly fine (sometimes I wish for a motorbike myself). I had deep insights and a tremendously rich experience in Pakistan where I lived a year: no need for a bicycle at all. Do you ever feel you are missing out on where you want to be; right there in the desert where the bus passes through for example. The most beautiful places are in fact in between departure and arrival of public transport. I do remember however that in Yemen you had the bus stop where you wanted to be, a lonesome beach in the middle of the desert.
Rita: I agree, sometimes you cannot reach the most beautiful places by bus but… there are other means! Because I’m staying longer in one place, I usually meet people who take me to these hidden gems, or at least tell me how to get there. The only thing I sometimes regret, is the fact I cannot stay there and set up camp like you do! Of course, I could hire a car or a van but as I don’t like driving all the time, that’s not an option. Sometimes I take a taxi if nothing else is available. I think pictures prove that I don’t miss out on nature specials.
6) I loved traveling by public transport before I start cycling. For me it’s not so much about cycling as it is more about the adventurous level, especially the challenge is an inviting factor. The ingredients stealth camping, simplicity and own force makes it my preferred way of exploring the world. The fact that I can be away from the touristy towns, the busy hubs and the people who deal with tourists, is a must for me.
However, some countries are better of done by public transport. Like India. Or Yemen, which I couldn’t cycle a few years back, a country I highly enjoyed as public transport was quite an undertaking. It involved a lot of persistence, patience, skills and determination, especially because women on their own don’t travel. You and I traveled there when suicide-attacks on tourist groups happened, with many deadly ends. We were both accompanied by armed guards and forbidden to enter some states, there where kidnappings find place. Yet, we went. You even made it so far as to go sunbathing on a beach. What do you seek, what is adventure for you? What is your preferred way of exploring? Can you get it all by stepping in and out of a bus?
Do you want to get to know local people? Do you want to visit cities, historical sites? Do you want to relax on a lonely beach or go hiking? All is possible!
Dear Cindy, life is not a contest in having the deepest experiences! It’s about feeling happy with what you’re doing. I think people who go on luxury organized travels (not my cup of tea!) are as happy as you are when you conquered the Andes or as me, when I, at last, after days of frustration, find a solution for my transport problem. There is no reason to feel superior. It has all to do with “perception”.