Friday, January 24, 2014

Enjoying the ride

We are now on the Island of Pangkor, a tropical paradise about 10 kms in length, dotted with white sandy beaches and a handful of settlements with large exclusive gated resorts and the usual modest chalets and small guest houses, where we are staying and endless stalls offering quick foods, blow up beach toys and a gamut of rides and snorkeling opportunities to nearby islets with even more remote beaches and coves.

Our journey to date has been about 750 kms in about 12 riding days, and thankfully, after a near absence of riding for two years, each day has been progressively easier as we get fitter as we steam along. The first few days were the hardest, as I suffered from the “princess and the pea syndrome” with each white stripe on the road feeling like a ride over a washboard; the slightest increase in elevations and/or headwind, akin to the steepest part of Rogers Pass; in the heat of the afternoon, with temperatures approaching 40 C, the passing of a bus or a large truck, provided a welcome breeze and momentary cooling shade; cell towers in the distance, usually on a height of land, were like a mirage, looming large, seemingly never to be reached. And of course, there never seemed to be enough reasons to stop for a momentary rest, whether to take photographs or consume drinks from pristine air-conditioned service stations, where we would down 1.5 liter bottles of water and/or sparkling energy drinks, as if sipping the last mouthful of an ordinary beverage. I think of patenting "Hot spinning" a la hot yoga, who aspire to do four or five consecutive spinning classes on the road each day. Early on, eating was not a culinary choice, but forced feeding to fuel the leg engines as they seemed always running on near empty. The mental strain showed, as I struggled to calculate the distance remaining by subtracting the distance traveled, as indicated on my cycling computer and the highway mileage signs, signalling the kilometers left to our destination.

Each day has become progressively easier, so much so that two days ago, having already covered 60kms, we opted to go onto to the next town, where a hotel with more creature comforts awaited. There is of course nothing more pleasurable, then a cold shower, a good meal and a solid nights sleep after a long days ride. And each day is more memorable for the heightened awareness of the landscape changing from palm oil plantations to rice fields to coconut palms, the variations in size and colours of mosques, and Chinese and Hindu temples, and the people on the road around us who offer friendly honks or thumbs up. Still, the meal stops are the most enjoyable not only for the respite and nourishment, which is always tasty and very inexpensive but rarely predictable, but for the curious looks and questions we elicit as we explain to an amazed audience, that we are cycling from Singapore to Bangkok, a statement that each day, with each reiteration becomes less incredulous and more real and pleasurable to us.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

On the road again: from Singapore to Bangkok

It was two years ago, almost to the day that we were cycling on a remote road, in the north-eastern part of Bali, moving at about 5 kms per hour, when a combination of a bump on the road and momentary inattention, sent me falling sideways, landing on my left wrist, which after some dramatic rescue, an X-ray in a local hospital, sent me to a specialist clinic in Denpasar to set a fractured wrist. We continued our journey, sans cycles, only to discover on our return in April to Toronto, that I needed corrective surgery, which occurred later in the summer and as I recovered in the fall, there was no time to ride a bike. Last winter we spent pleasurable months backpacking in central and south America but in my heart I wondered if we would ever cycle again.

Last summer, there were some opportunities to ride in the countryside but somehow it had no great appeal. Either the weather was not cooperative or I found some other activity. In the city, for distances of up to 10 kms I got into the habit of walking, rationalizing that it had more exercise value than getting on a bike for a half hour or so. Clearly, I was resisting riding as a form of exercise.

We spent the last month in Sydney, Australia, where the weather was ideal, but the traffic and poor road conditions once again dissuaded me from getting in the saddle. The rising number of cyclists killed did not help, nor did the fact that there are designated cycling paths on sidewalks, the logic of which I cannot understand.

All this time, I also was reflecting on my various aches and pains, thinking of my body as a used car, with limited mileage left and wanting to preserve it for the open road and the grand cycling adventure. Not that I felt ready for personal challenges of biblical proportions, as in ‘we struggled, we won, lets celebrate’, but I was prepared to give it the good old fashioned second effort, and planned this trip accordingly.

About 14 years ago, we did the trip from Bangkok to Singapore, a distance of some 2,000 kms along the east coast of Malaysia. This year we are doing it in reverse, along the west coast. The choice of the destination had some forethought: both countries are blessed with creature comforts for cyclists: excellent roads, warm and mostly sunny climates, reasonable and good quality accommodations and superb food. Alas, unlike in some of the other less developed south-east Asian countries, there are only first class buses which are most reluctant to transport bicycles, and the train is inland and has few stops, hence there is no plan B or plan C.

This note is coming from Malacca, Malaysia, overlooking the the Strait to Sumatra, with its great strategic value, as evidenced by the ruins left by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. In five days of riding, we have covered nearly 300kms getting here, and, while tired, and still not totally confident, feeling elated being on the bike again. The heat, headwinds and humidity notwithstanding, the exhilaration of steaming along using only one’s power feels sublime: its about the journey and not the destination.