Friday, 22 April 2016

Four wheels good, two wheels better


Biking the Americas – with engine, and without. Two great travel books 

There’s something seductive about travelling on two wheels. You are smaller, more mobile, more maneuverable – somehow more free.  I have always loved bicycles. Today, I rarely get further than the six-mile ride round Central Park. But I remember beautiful day rides through Norfolk when I lived there 10 years or so ago. I also remember, with wonder, snaking 4,000ft down a Himalayan pass at dusk on an Indian racing bike with part-time brakes. And going right back, at 15, I rode with a friend from the English Midlands across into Wales and up into Snowdonia. One part of that journey stands out, 44 years later – a very long day ride from Cleobury Mortimer across the Marches towards the Welsh border, through Shropshire, covering mile after mile of single-track road between high hedges, into steep valleys and over high hills, past isolated farmhouses with collies that lazed in the road and woke and chased you as you passed, barking madly; all with grey sky and green country, the typical soft summer English morning.

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But I’ve never done what David Kroodsma did. One day in late 2005 the young Californian climate researcher got on his bike in the morning, as usual. But instead of turning right to go to work, he turned left to ride to Tierra del Fuego. He had a double motive. He was going to have one hell of a ride. And he planned to spread awareness of climate change as he went. The resulting book, The Bicycle Diaries: My 21,000-Mile Ride for the Climate, is one of my reads of the year so far.

I found it hard to get into this book at first. It seemed to take Kroodsma a long time to get going; there was too much about his motivations. The book should have started when he crossed the border. The backstory could have been dealt with in a paragraph or two, or worked into the story later. For God’s sake, Dave, get on your bike already. I was also irritated (unreasonably, perhaps) at the amount of hi-tech kit he acquired for the journey. “I also had a small suite of electronics: a laptop (which I would mail to a friend once I reached Mexico), a PalmPilot with tiny folding keyboard (to replace the laptop south of the border), an iPod for music and to back up photos, extra memory cards, a host of chargers and cables, and a small tripod for my camera. I also brought a small electric razor powered by rechargeable AA batteries...” Forget it, Dave. It’ll all get nicked.

But then Kroodsma crosses the border into Mexico, and the story takes off. As he works his way down Baja California, the landscape unfolds, and he meets the people. As the journey gets interesting, so does Kroodsma. He’s a resourceful traveller, and a good guest. By the time he gets to Mexico City, The Bicycle Diaries has become an engaging read.  

The point at which I decided this was not just a good book, but a very good one, came when Kroodsma passed through a town called Caucasia in Colombia. There’s nothing remarkable about the place; he just somehow brings it very much alive. This feeling of riding with Kroodsma gets stronger as he pedals over the northern Andes and into Venezuela, and southward into Brazil. Along the way there are fishermen, oil people, teachers, drunks and more. Then he makes a remarkable voyage with his bike up the Amazon to Peru, and has an even more extraordinary trip across the high cordillera to the Pacific coast. The man is a true adventurer. Woven into the narrative are Kroodsma’s thoughts on the climate. This could indeed have been earnest and preachy, but Kroodsma has a light touch, and ties his remarks to the ecosystem he is passing through – coastal wetlands, agriculture, the high glaciers that provide water for Peru’s cities. It isn’t heavy; it’s very interesting, and is also well-referenced.

Kroodsma doesn’t quite have the magic touch of someone like Ted Simon or Eric Newby. But he is a good solid writer, and there is a lot to enjoy. There are also some great photos, all presented at the point in the narrative when they were taken (he stays with a family; their picture’s on the same page). Moreover I felt a growing sympathy for Kroodsma himself. Besides being culturally sensitive, he’s also very thoughtful. The climate evangelism ebbs away as he feels more and more that the people he is meeting are threatened by pollution that his country, not theirs, is causing. Meeting a Brazilian researcher in Manaus, he is told:
“It’s like, when you are in an elevator with a bunch of people, and one person just keeps on farting. That person needs to change what he eats.” I laughed, at first not sure how to respond. “You guys are farting too,” I said. “Yeah, but not nearly as much!” Kroodsma admits that since the USA pollutes more than all Latin America put together, he should perhaps continue his project there. He has since done just that, becoming a leading figure behind the Climate Ride movement.

I liked this book. It’s a good travelogue, but also a vivid description of what may happen to a lot of places, and people, as the climate warms. Combining the two in this way might not have worked, but it does. It took a few pages to get into this book – but I am very glad I stuck with it.

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Kroodsma pedalled. But motorbikes can be great for this sort of journey too, as Lois Pryce shows in her book Lois on the Loose: One Woman, One Motorcycle, 20,000 Miles Across the Americas. She begins with a quote from Robert M. Pirsig’s famous 1970s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, in which he says that travelling by car is like watching a movie, but riding a motorbike is like being in one. It was a round-the-world ride on a Triumph Tiger, again in the 1970s, that gave rise to one of the greatest travel books of all time, Ted Simon’s Jupiter’s Travels.

Near Wanka, 1994
I gave up riding a motorbike after an accident in London in 1980, but can still see the attraction. I still like to sit on the pillion and in 1994 I rode across Bhutan with a friend on his little trail bike; I am still not sure how we got over 12,000ft passes on that thing, often with hangovers (we called on many friends along the way). But we only dropped the bike once, on a dirt road at twilight, when my friend took a tight hairpin bend too slowly after 12 hours on the road. We were sent sprawling, happily unhurt, near a village that rejoiced in the name of Wanka.

I remembered this while reading Lois on the Loose;  I think Lois Pryce would have been splendid company. In 2003, in her late 20s, she was working for the BBC in London (but in telemarketing, not a glamorous TV job). Bored nearly to tears, she found solace in motorbikes. Sloping slothfully back to work after a holiday in the saddle, she decides she has had enough of her cubicle, her dull job, and her management-speak boss. Things reach a climax when she hears him moaning on the phone that his new toilet seat hasn’t been delivered.  So she decides to quit and ride from Anchorage to Ushaia. As you do.

It’s not the safest journey, especially on your own, but Pryce reassures herself by looking at the State Department’s advice for US travellers to the UK. This assures her that she should by now have been robbed by a bogus taxi driver, mugged, date-raped, blown up by the IRA or all of the above. “I ...wondered if there really was any need to motorcycle across Colombia or the Congo when there was clearly so much action that I was missing out on here, on my very own doorstep,” she writes. In the late winter of 2003 she ends up in Anchorage. In Alaska she finds there are far more men than women – but as a local woman warns her, one must choose carefully (“the odds are good,” she explains, “but the goods are odd”). Still, she doesn’t plan to stick around. Meanwhile it’s snowing, she speaks no Spanish and she has 20,000 miles to go.

Pryce presents herself as a bit naive, and sometimes she does seem that way (she knows no Spanish; in Canada she is booked for having no insurance). Yet in other ways she’s well-prepared. She knows her big old Brit bike isn’t right for the journey and gets a secondhand single-cylinder 223cc Yamaha trail bike. It’s chosen carefully; she needs to pick it up on her own if she drops it. She clearly knows her way around the bike and does most of her own maintenance and repairs (of which there are plenty) on the trip. She’s also tough, camping out in the Yukon, where it is still snowing. There are bears. In Vancouver her bike winds up in the pound. In Los Angeles she winds up in a weird strip club. She keeps going. Unlike Kroodsma, who is likeable but a little serious, Pryce keeps laughing and keeps you laughing with her. By the time she crosses the Mexican border, I liked her a lot, and I wanted her to reach the bottom of the world.

To find out whether she does, you’ll have to read the book. It does have its darker moments. In Bolivia a fellow-rider crashes very badly; Pryce is appalled, and does everything she can to help. In Guatemala and Nicaragua she is the target of attempted scams. In Colombia she’s driven back into her hotel by predatory males. On two occasions she suffers sudden, violent stomach upsets that are graphically described; it’s funny, but it clearly wasn’t at the time. But there are also some very high points – the mountains of Canada and Ecuador, especially; the desert of Baja California; and warm encounters with other bikers along the way. In Quito she gets roped in to the Ecuadorian celebration for the 100th anniversary of Harley-Davidson, is mildly depressed by an encounter with Western backpackers and then gobsmacked by the Andes. In Peru the frontier guards give her water-melon, which she accidentally drops down her cleavage.

Lois on the Loose isn’t really a classic travel book as such. If you’re looking for shrewd observations on the countries, deep, meaningful cultural encounters, etc., you won’t find them here. In many places, she doesn’t even seem to have met the locals much. If you are expecting Colin Thubron or Paul Theroux, you may be disappointed. But I wasn’t. This is just a good yarn by a young woman having fun on the road. Pryce isn’t the solemn, committed type, and she’s making her trip, not a travel writer’s. In fact I wonder if she had a book in mind at all when she went.  

Pryce has been on the road since, riding from London to Cape Town – a journey she’s recounted in another book, Red Tape & White Knuckles. More recently she’s been riding in Iran. So far as I know she hasn’t made it to Wanka yet. But, you know, I rather think she will.

David Kroodsma’s latest adventures can be followed at http://rideforclimate.com/blog/ and Lois Pryce’s at http://www.loisontheloose.com/

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads
Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.





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