I have been posting on the Adventure Cycling Association’s blog since 2009 under the category of Sights & Sounds. That was over 240 posts ago. It has been a chance for me to revisit many of my/our bicycle journeys and grab bits and pieces of beauty, humor, and inspiration from around the world. You can read them all at the link above. Below you will find ten of my personal favorites.
Here’s to life as seen and experienced from the seat of a bicycle!
During my week-long exploration of Minneapolis by bike, I was hosted by a different Warm Showers host each night. I arrived at Natalie’s place late in the evening after a flight from Seattle. Natalie and her housemates are all bicycle enthusiasts, so they immediately took out a map and gave me suggestions of places to see in Minneapolis: restaurants, diners, trails, murals, and interesting neighborhoods. I think I managed to visit them all within the week.
One of the joys of staying with Warm Showers hosts, is the chance to hear stories from fellow bike travelers.
I asked if I could interview Natalie and Leah about a bike trip they took with two other female friends. The four not only had bikes in common, but music as well. They are part of a female folk band called Knots on a String. I highly recommend taking the time to listen to the excerpts from that interview below. The song you’ll hear, Traveller’s Lullaby, is from their band’s album, Not So Far From Your Porch Swing.
If you know someone who is interested in bike travel, but reluctant to take the plunge, send them this interview. Natalie and Leah capture the essence of why bicycle travel has such an impact on all who choose to pedal the open road.
They’re cheap. They’re easy to pack. They don’t need batteries. And they’ll allow you to entertain people you meet around the globe on your bike journey.
I’m speaking of juggling balls. They don’t entertain by themselves. You will need to learn the basics. But you don’t need skills worthy of Barnum and Bailey in order to bring squeals of delight from kids and adults alike.
I learned to juggle in high school. I was on the tennis team. I wasn’t very good, so I was on the “B” squad. So I was on the sidelines, in case someone from the “A” squad got injured. Tennis is not the most injury prone of sports, so I had a lot of time on my hands. Tennis balls come conveniently packed in cans of three. So rather than become a tennis star, I became a juggler.
I bought my first set of traveling juggling balls on the road in Mexico. They were hand woven and filled with corn. They worked well, until the weevils hatched. The next set were filled with rice, and lasted slightly longer until they got wet, the rice expanded, and they exploded. The next set I bought in New Zealand in 1993. They were made of leather and filled with little plastic beads. I still have them, and they have accompanied me on every trip since.
I’m a much better juggler than a linguist, so this skill allows me to entertain people around the world, even if I don’t know their language.
But what if you can’t juggle, and have no desire to learn. Well. What can you offer the world? Do you play an instrument? Travel with a ukelele or a flute (of a tube if you have a trailer). I met one cyclist who did card tricks. I met a woman cycling in Central America who could draw a sketch of anything or anyone in two minutes. I traveled briefly with a 7 foot 2 German who pedaled with a basketball bungee-corded to his back rack. He was a rock star!
Whatever talent it is that you can share with the world, find a way to pack that talent with you.
Traveling cyclists are loaded with stories of people giving to them — find the simplest, most packable way to give back. It will make the people you meet smile, and fill you with joy at the same time.
Kat and I first encountered Bangkok traffic from the perspective of the backseat of a taxi. The chaos of any big city can be daunting. Though neither of us spoke the words, I know we were both thinking, “Not going to bike here.” But over years of travel, both of us have learned that first impressions are often wrong. …
She stares out from underneath the gap in the backyard fence. It’s a scary world out there. We recently adopted a rescue puppy—a Formosan Mountain Dog/Lab mix from Taiwan. We named her Tiva. Her name has a bittersweet history.
My wife Kat was the excited instigator. I was the skeptic. I wasn’t sure how a dog was going to fit into our travel lifestyle.
Kat dreamed of long walks with her trusty dog on city streets and mountain paths. I hoped for a dog who saw a bike trailer as her second home.
Life doesn’t always work out the way you plan it.
Tiva is horrified of traffic. The revving of an engine sends her into a panic. Garbage trucks are enormous monsters in her eyes (or ears). She can hear their rumblings a mile away, and she retreats to the safety of her crate.
She is a reluctant traveler. Our dreams of cross city walks and long bike rides with her in the bike trailer are indefinitely postponed. We have to take a step-by-step approach.
Our goal this month is a fear-free walk around the block. Tiva’s bike trailer sits in the living room and we are slowly introducing her to it as a safe place. Hopefully, not too long from now, I will be that crazy neighbor who walks the streets, towing his dog in a bike trailer. Then I hope to actually attach the trailer to a bike. Then, and this I understand might be years away, we’ll take Tiva on a bicycle camping trip.
I look into the frightened eyes of this lovely, friendly little animal that I adore, and am reminded that conquering fear is almost always an incremental process.
I’ve talked with cyclists who dream of a long distance bicycle journey, but have a companion or spouse who is afraid of the venture. Maybe you find yourself in the same situation.
A cross country trip can be daunting, even for an experienced cyclist. So why not start with a bike overnight? Take a grand adventure on a much smaller scale. An overnight trip could lead to a weekend, and then a week-long tour, which could lead to the possibility of a cross country trip. Step-by-positive-step.
Who knows? Maybe your reluctant traveler will transform to one who longs for the open road. I’ll keep you posted on ours.
Nigella Sativa. It’s the botanical name of a beautiful little wildflower growing in our garden, the cultivated seeds of which are tasty, jet-black, slightly onion-flavored addition to flat bread we first encountered in Turkey. It’s also the pair of names given to two very important additions to my life.
For years I flirted with the idea of having a dog once again. I grew up loving all my family pets and while I had cats as an adult, I knew my heart could also include a dog. While we traveled in SE Asia last winter, I looked with amazement and a twinge of longing at the smart, savvy street dogs who could be mine with the right welcoming look and slightest offer of a bite to eat. As always, my heart saddened at their life on the streets, but I knew I couldn’t do anything about it.
At home, the final decision was made to give a puppy a good home. After reading 3 puppy books and researching characteristics of breeds to consider in a mixed-breed pup, I finally looked up the Formosan Mountain Dog rescued from Taiwan by the local group, Salty Dog Rescue. I saw photos of the FMD and read their characteristics and for the first time I felt I knew my breed! There was a litter coming to Seattle that was mixed with black Lab, so I sent in my application and readied our home.
On a Wednesday night, a flight touched down at SeaTac airport and multiple dog crates wheeled out to baggage claim. Beautiful, hungry, travel-weary pups filled those crates and quickly where whisked into the waiting arms of eager adopters. A precious bundle was placed in my arms and I felt unimaginable joy as she licked my face and snuggled close to me for comfort. There were several pure black girls in the litter and I was warned that the bundle I carried might not be the dog “Kenya” I had requested. The microchip reader, inadvertently left at home, would let me know later. What did I care? I had selected a dog based on a photograph of a cute girl-puppy, and they were all cute girl-puppies. As it was, I had adopted “Rosalind”.
That night I named her Nigella, my Love-in-a-Mist, and threw my heart into welcoming her to her new home. Willie was out of town, so I flew it solo, slept little, and sent Nigella reassurance that we were resilient, adaptable, loving beings, and she would be too. The bond was immediate. So much so that when Willie returned home three days later, he had to work hard to gain her trust.
Nigella and Kat fireside
We took walks, learned fast, played joyfully and took great care to socialize Nigella to her new world. Every person we met, from kids in strollers, to ladies with walkers, homeless guys at the bus stop, to bearded hipsters, smiled and welcomed her. Late one night on a walk the Spanish-speaking guy in white coveralls coming from a dry-walling job understood my request that he offer her a bite of kibble. This was all in the name of making her not afraid of the community she lived. We took her on the bus for a cup of coffee downtown, on an elevator, over metal grates that moved, by construction sites, and along the woods. We covered lots of ground with the joy of discovering something new. Our dog was a traveler in our city!
Playing at home with feet swirling on a thick wool carpet, Nigella was the picture of a happy pup. After a playtime, Willie began teaching her the next important skill: Leave it. She was quite prone to leaving nothing behind and we were constantly plucking stones and wood chips from her mouth on those walks. After a few treats, she stopped eating, gave a whine, went out to pee and couldn’t. Inside she vomited, then again, and again. A quick message to the rescue group confirmed I should contact their vet immediately. I did and soon we were in a neighbor’s car and at the vet’s office.
By the time she was at the vet, Nigella could barely stand. Her head drooped and she longed to hide, often burrowing in my arms. Clearly she was in distress and we soon learned her temperature was critically low. After a quick test, Parvo was ruled out and the vet had us leave her for further blood test and x-rays. We left the office with heavy hearts that something was causing our little pup such hardship, but I had confidence they would find the cause and treat her. Soon she would be romping like the little puppy we adored.
That evening the phone rang and my heart raced when I saw it was the vet’s office. Immediately I thought they must be calling to tell me she was fine and I could come and get her. But sadly no. She had not made it.
Stunned. Disbelief. Grief. Self-doubt. A hole was ripped in my heart. Nigella with the floppy ears, questioning eyes, furrowed brow, wagging tail would no longer follow me to the ends of the earth.
Nigella explores her city
That night I cried myself to sleep and bolted awake with fears that I had killed her. My watchful eye and had not seen this coming, and I didn’t protect her as promised.
Some 18 hours later, a call from the vet let me know that she had not swallowed something lethal. She had a twisted bowel. A rare thing in a pup, but possibly a little playtime tumble was all it took. And yes, she had tumbled after a ball as puppies do. But she had jumped right back up seemingly unscathed. Such a simple, unavoidable act … or it just happened because it was going to happen.
Many kind and compassionate words from family and friends tried to easy my mind. Many also encouraged me to open my heart and home to love another puppy. I had it all in place and yes, there are always more pups that need a loving home.
A few days later I connected with Amy at the Salty Dog Rescue group again. I wanted to get Nigella’s ashes and I wanted to consider adopting the original “Kenya” if she was still available. She was. She was fostered with a family, the second since arriving in the United States some two weeks ago.
Tiva with her friend Chaka
While I waited to make contact with the foster-family, I set about to examine my heart to see if I could do this again. There are many times in life that things happen that make no sense. There is no fault or blame. At times like these, I indulge in magical-thinking. I make my own sense of the world so I can move forward, find the magic, and embrace what happened and what is to come. I came to think that “Kenya” was waiting for me. She waited while her sister-pup had nine glorious, love-filled, magical days with me. She waited for me through an adoption-event and two foster homes.
Together Willie and I brought “Kenya” home with us one week after Nigella’s death. We call her Tiva, short for Sativa. Nigella Sativa is the botanical name for Love-in-a-Mist, and our two beautiful dogs.
Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are the final four clips.
Never seen this before. I’m used to hearing the tinkle and clank of metal bells on sheep, goats and cows. But this water buffalo had a large carved wooden bell around its neck with wooden clappers. Saw several water buffalo with these bells as we pedaled along the Mekong.
This is a series of vehicles passing me on a small road along the Mekong south of Kratie, Cambodia. First you hear the jingling of sleigh bells. This is a horse passing. The bells are on the horn of the saddle. This is the only region we saw these bells. But all the horses had them. A small car passes and toots its horn. Then there is a looped recording. That is the “egg man”. He is selling hard-boiled eggs to villagers along his route. Rather than having to shout this out a thousand times a day, he has a recording. Heard other “egg men” using this same recording.
When I first heard this sound, I thought it was a recording to keep birds out of buildings. Then I found out the real story. Bird nest soup is an incredibly expensive delicacy in China. It is made from the nest of a couple of species of swifts that nest in caves and cliffs. They make their nests from their saliva. The nest is used in the base of the soup. Since the birds normally nest high on cliffs, these nests are hard to come by. So much so that they can go for up to $1500 a kilogram!
But some folks discovered that these swifts can also be enticed to nest in old buildings. This was so lucrative, that buildings are now specifically being built just for the swifts in coastal towns throughout SE Asia. Sometimes you’ll see a building with four floors for human occupants, and then three or four upper floors for swifts (see photo). The recordings are played throughout the day and much of the night. If you get up early, you’ll see swifts pouring out of the buildings to go out and feed, and at night swooping back in.
Some towns have so many buildings converted to swift homes, that the noise can be overwhelming. And, as with so many lucrative investments, the chances of a bubble and then a crash are high. But as long as the profit margins are high, this sound will be heard in more and more coastal towns.
We have pedaled past many a wedding party this past month in Cambodia. Tents are set up, speakers are raised on poles, and music blasted throughout the community. A live band often plays during the ceremony, and this recording is of live musicians. The wedding party was out on the side of the road waiting to enter the big tent. Many had gifts for the bride and groom–baskets of fruit, a case of beer, two live ducks in a basket … no cheese domes, or fondue pots … but maybe we missed those.
Since 1994 I’ve had the pleasure of contributing to KUOW’s Weekday while on the road via commentaries and interviews. For our latest trip, I sent in 24 sound clips that aired on the shows “sound of the day” segment. Here are clips 17-20.
What kind of music do people listen to in Myanmar? Coming down from the mountains, on our way back to Mandalay, I recorded some of the music we heard playing from radios, stereos, and TVs (a lot of music comes in the form of music DVD’s). Here is a short compilation of what we heard.
OK. Not the easiest song to perform when English is your second language. But this guy gave it his all. Billy Joel. Eagles. Paul Simon. Sting. They would all follow as he played for the backpacker crowd (or is that “flashbacker”) at a bar on Khao San Road in Bangkok.
The night market in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand was buzzing with activity on Saturday night. Dozens of food stalls offering up everything from fruit drinks to sweets to curries, noodle soup, green papaya salad, and barbecue, were packed into a vacant lot near the city park. Above the din of the people and a loud broadcast advertising campaign from a local business, I heard a single voice. A blind man, singing a folk tune, as he accompanied himself on a three stringed instrument a little bigger than a ukulele, was wandering through the dining area with a tip cup attached to his instrument. It was obvious from the crowd’s reaction that he was a local favorite. Later in the clip, you’ll hear the sound of a plastic chair being scooted, as one of the diners, alerted that the musician might trip over it, came darting across to take it out of harm’s way.
This is the sound of the coolest school bike commute ever. Kat and I were cycling along the west bank of the Mekong River, south of Champasak, Laos. The road became a path, then ended. There was a tributary to the Mekong with no bridge. There was, however, a small boat, used as a ferry, to get across. Kat and I (and our bikes) shared a ride with a guy on a scooter. A woman pulled us across, as the boat was tethered with a cable that ran across the span.
We wondered just how many people you could get on to this little boat? We had our answer minutes later, as school got out and a flow of kids with their bikes arrived at our side of the river. The answer is 18 school kids and their bikes. The crossing itself took 90 seconds, with the landing and deboarding process taking up a full five minutes. From a distance, the kids with their bikes looked like ants exiting a big leaf and working their way up the hill.