Sunday, July 9, 2017

From ‘A Bike Ride. 12,000 miles around the world’ by Anne Mustoe

…listen, there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
-          (e.e.cummings)

I travel light; as light
That is, as a man can travel who will
Still carry his body around because
Of its sentimental value
-          (Christopher Fry)

France is a country most blessed in its waterways. The major rivers never run dry; they are free of ice all the year round; and the watershed between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean is neither particularly high nor very steep. From earliest times, the ancient Gauls took advantage of this splendid network of navigable rivers, linked together by convenient portages …They also had a good natural road system along river valleys and over intermediate uplands with gentle gradients, where their wheeled transport could bowl along without difficulty. When Caeser arrived, he found ideal conditions for the army. The prodigious marching feats in which he took such pride would have been impossible without the well-worn Gallic tracks …..his various campaigns….the contestants were usually rushing to gain control of a river.
Gaul was a rich prize for the Romans. There was iron ore, gold, tin and potter’s clay in abundance; and as the Romans improved the agriculture, there was an almost embarrassing surplus of grain and wine from the fertile soil…Once Gaul was occupied, the Romans had the perfect corridor through to Britain from the Alps or the Mediterranean. Heavy goods could be transported by river and all they needed to do was to metal existing main roads and portages.

….Italy….The elegance of the shops, even in the smallest towns, was a constant amazement to me …..Italians love the noise and vitality of cities. Unlike the English, they rarely choose to live in the country unless they have to and the dilapilated cottages and farm buildings along the Via Emilia were silent witnesses to this preference …. I missed the English cottages with their lovingly tended gardens….In one small, undistinguished town with a row of eight mean shops, I was astounded to see the most elegant boutique imaginable……

As I was to find throughout the world, it was the people who had the least who were the most willing to share what little they had. Earthquake victims, who have survived for months without a home, are the first to appreciate the value of a night’s shelter and will never turn a traveler away.

…..Epirus, a wild, craggy, unexplored strip of land, cut off from the rest of Greece by the Pindos Mountains on the east and further isolated by the sea to the west and Albania to the north. …..this region had been renowned since antiquity for its beauty, its hospitality and its fierce independence of spirit. It was a country dear to Byron, who considered it the most spectacular part of Greece, far surpassing Athens, Delphi and Parnassus in grandeur.

….traditional Macedonian virtues: pride and fierce war-like spirit tempered with gentleness, kindness and loyalty to friends. ……such delicious peaches. There were acres, too, of apricots, plums, grapes, apples and pears. I realized then why fruit salad is called ‘Macedoine de fruits’.
I liked Macedonia and the Macedonians. Even alone in the desolate central mountains I had never once doubted my safety. I had felt welcome and protected.

If I had a prize to award to the nicest, kindest people in the world, it would go to the Turks ….the Greeks had, of course, expressed horror at the idea of my cycling alone across Turkey: ‘The Turks are terrible people! They’ll attack you.’ …..the Turkish Customs were amazed that ….I had made it unscathed across Greece to the safety of the Turkish frontier.

….hot, strong tea which has been the national drink since Turkey lost its Arabian empire and its coffee. It was given to me, free of charge – the first of countless glasses of free tea all the way across Turkey. Children in the fields shouted ‘Ello’ ….and drivers tooted their horns in greeting. It was like Italy, only more so. I was back among the extroverts.
Turkish men look very fierce. They have dark, flashing eyes and large bristling moustaches and their smile, on meeting a stranger, is not automatic. Yet beneath this alarming exterior they are real softies at heart. It was not long before two of them pulled up in a van and tried to give me a lift, an offer which would be repeated every day by scores of drivers. My suspicions, born of our more violent Western society, soon melted and I learned to take these persistent offers at face value: they were kindly meant by drivers who simply could not understand that a woman might choose to cycle alone over mountains and plains when motorized transport was available. I always refused their lifts…And they always stood in the road, watching me go, a mixture of bewilderment and pity on their faces. …..I was getting used to hotel staff who showed me to my room, then perched on the bed for a good long chat, or just to stare with unashamed curiosity. ….Trade in Turkey is so specialized that a tea-house will rarely have soft drinks….There was not a woman to be seen in the streets; presumably they were all at home, busily knotting the carpets for which Kula is famous. Yet, despite appearances, it was generally the women who were the domestic tyrants. … black cotton cycling trousers…..My new pair ….had a subtle, Turkish touch; ….a Paisley pattern ….looked almost like black brocade. Plain fabrics are not to the Turks’ taste…..Turkey has more pharmacies than any country in the world and they all do a brisk trade. …..Although Turkish women are little seen in village streets, they rule their homes with authority …..As a woman traveler, I had an enormous advantage in Muslim countries. I met the women and saw the domestic side of the men. Male travelers are generally excluded from ordinary homes: they are entertained outside, or they eat and sleep in special guest quarters, right away from the women. …..Despite the poor surroundings, we were entertained with customary Turkish generosity ……my relationship with Turkish traffic police…….I knew that they had kept a paternal eye on me from the moment I had crossed into Turkey and I had appreciated their care. The officers in the first squad car over the border…..had ….spoken into their car radio. After that, I was obviously passed on from district to district. ….Turks are engagingly and unashamedly nosey

Arrian states that Alexander crossed into Asia Minor with 30,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. Included in the cavalry were the Companions, his crack force of 1,800 troopers and the 300 members of ….Alexander’s personal bodyguard…..It was a modest army for such a major undertaking …..He took philosophers, men of letters, historians, geographers and botanists, as well as the engineers, surveyors, interpreters …..for his campaigns and the subsequent administration of conquered lands. ….his first pitched battle against the Persians…..a crazy young man’s battle….against all military odds. The Persians had 30,000 cavalry to Alexander’s 5,000.

….You will not meet
The Laestrygonians, the Cyclops or fierce Poseidon
Unless you carry them in your soul,
Unless your soul sets them in your path.
-          (C.P. Cavafy)

Pakistan …..What I found in the airport was efficiency, kindness, and above all, people who spoke English. …..the Pakistanis smiled and laughed much more readily than the Turks …..The first thing that struck me about Pakistan was the colour. The buses, lorries and scooter taxis looked like rides from a Victorian fairground ….they were painted all over …..Not a centimeter was left undecorated. …..I was ….given useful advice about my food en route. I must always go where the trucks were parked, as most long-distance drivers were Pathans, who were very particular people. If a stall-holder served bad food, or tried to overcharge, he was likely to wake up in hospital, riddled with bullets. A picturesque exaggeration, but I found it contained a kernel of truth. … first encounter with a police roadblock. I was flagged down by a stern, well-armed figure in immaculate khaki – only to be invited into the hut and entertained to tea. This turned out to be the pleasant custom all the way across Pakistan ….in Sukkur ….the hotel staff …..They refused a tip. ‘You are our mother and we want to help you.’ I was moving in a totally male world where men had no concept of a woman friend and could express respect or liking only in family terms. I was always their mother, daughter or sister. ….The Muslim duty of hospitality to strangers was as scrupulously observed in Pakistan as it had been in Turkey and it made me ashamed of our ‘Christian’ indifference. …..The Punjab …..was more prosperous than Sind, but the colour had gone. The men were dressed in brown, beige or white; there were no more road-menders in glittering magenta caps and embroidered turquoise slippers. There were brown minah birds and hoopoes, pretty in their way but less spectacular than parrots and kingfishers. Even the sheep were brown. ……Perhaps the main weakness of Islam in the modern world is that its strict codes of practice make life in non-Muslim countries extremely difficult.…..Peshawar meant ‘the city of flowers’ in Sanskrit and …the valley’s fertility had been legendary from antiquity….Boys in Pakistan could sometimes be quite objectionable, though their aggression usually amounted to nothing more than jeers and catcalls.

….the way to Agra …..lorries and motorcycle rickshaws bore …instructions …..They were less colourful than those in Pakistan but their slogans were more varied. ….Agra was an unkind city. …The unfriendliness of Agra’s people, possibly spoilt by the crowds of tourists, was in marked contrast to the kindness and ready assistance I had received in other countries and I hoped that India would improve as I got further away from the capital. …………..What traffic there was seemed to move much more slowly than in Pakistan and it was a few days before the reason dawned. I had lost the neat little donkeys which had trotted so briskly beside me all the way from southern Italy to Lahore. The donkey is unclean to the Hindus and market-day traffic moves at the pace of the bullock-cart.
But worse than the lumbering carts and the ruined asphalt were the gangs of cycling youths, who darted round me, poking me, grabbing my luggage, laughing, jeering ……….they mocked me…….I had the misfortune to cycle past a high school just as the boys were all pouring out ….They …started to grab at my handlebars ….my arms, the back of my shirt and even my hair. They were not malevolent, but they were certainly not intending to attack me, but Indian crowds are very excitable and I sensed that their near-hysteria could easily tip over into violence…..Beyond Kanpur, I had fewer difficulties. The people were so poor that they simply sat by the roadside and stared. Poverty had eaten into their souls and they lacked the energy to mock…… A quarter of the world’s cattle live in India. The herds I saw were so grievously emaciated that their sharp bones seemed to be poking through their hides ………Lucknow, a very Italianate city with cream, terracotta and pink plasterwork, Classical shopping arcades, palm trees and broad avenues. ……….We discussed the apathy of the Indians, which the brigadier attributed to the negative nature of the Freedom Movement. Passive resistance, fasting, strikes, sit-ins, days of silence, had been the weapons of the Congress Party, so that when their leaders came to power in 1947 they had had no experience of positive action or forward planning. I felt the apathy went deeper, that it was the result of the Hindu’s acceptance of his fate and his station in life. If the welfare of his soul was the only thing that really mattered, there was no point in striving to improve his own or his neighbours’ circumstances and he had no responsibilities towards others. Virtue lay in being good, not in doing good, and would lead in the next incarnation to promotion within the caste system. …… Allahabad ….As I pushed my bicycle wearily towards my hotel, I was pursued by three street-vendors, one with clockwork peacocks, one with men’s underpants and the third with dancing plastic dogs – the last things I should have wanted to buy even in the best of circumstances…….the waiters in the restaurant would feel no more responsibility for the mice than they would for the cleanliness of the lavatories. Indians had a remarkable capacity for failing to notice.
Yet their lack of social mobility had its brighter side. Their narrow responsibilities left them carefree and made them tolerant of others. ………..From Allahabad it was two days ride to Varanasi …..His school was a dusty yard, shaded by a tree, where his class of little boys sat cross-legged or knelt over their slates with a look of desperate eagerness. There were no resources whatsoever, nothing but a passion for teaching and learning so intense as to be almost palpable. In England, we have buildings, books and hardware, yet teaching is a struggle. I wondered where we had gone wrong. ….The warmth and generosity of that poor family is one of my most abiding memories of India…….Sasaram, a largish town at the junction with the Patna Road …….I made my way to the railway station to enquire about retiring rooms, but it was a small station with only one retiring room and that was already taken. I stood in the station master’s office looking so weary…..he eventually took pity on me and offered me the exclusive use of the First Class Ladies’ Waiting Room. The floor was alive with mice, cockroaches and other unidentifiable beetles, but I laid out my mat and sleeping-bag on the solid Victorian mahogany table and left them all to scamper merrily below. ……..Despite its discomforts Sasaram provided one of the highlights of my journey – the tomb of Sher Shah Suri, the Afghan Emperor of India who laid the Grand Trunk Road, standing in barbaric pride on the island in the middle of its lake. …..It was not elegant but it was an overwhelming statement of power, one off the most surprising and exciting buildings I had ever seem.

Bengal was noticeably different. Bengalis were smaller and darker, with bright eyes, quick wits and a good command of English. The intellectuals of India, they had their own language and a highly developed, sophisticated literary tradition…the hotel restaurant was obviously the smart place in town and I there noticed another way in which Bengal was different – there were as many women dining out as men and they were participating actively in the conversation ….the ghastliness of Durgapur outweighed the comforts of its best hotel. ….I had covered the 1,100 miles of rough road between Delhi and Calcutta in four weeks, two days. ….Calcutta ….it had lost at Partition the hinterland which had grown the jute for its factories and port. Separation from Bangladesh had brought industrial decline as well as hordes of refugees to swell the already teeming slums. But its wit and vitality were unsinkable. Volatile Bengalis still protested about everything, marching up and down with banners, staging sit-ins and lock-outs ….Politics was their lifeblood….The city was culturally alive, too…..exhibitions of paintings and scores of excellent bookshops. Even the street vendors sold books, magazines and pictures. It was one of the world’s most lively, exciting cities. ………Cycling across India had been an experience I would not have missed for the world, but all the same I was enormously relieved when my flight was called ………I had had enough for the time being.

In Bangkok International Airport my spirits rose: I had forgotten that public buildings could be so clean and well organized… Chinese dinner was packed with all the delicious fresh vegetables I had so missed in India. After months of struggling to find life’s bare necessities, I had reached a country where certain standards of comfort and efficiency were taken for granted ……..Bangkok was an exhausting city. March was the start of the hot season and the air was already humid. It was also suffocatingly polluted …….most of the local hotels in Thailand and Malaysia were owned by Chinese. My room ….had …. Effective mosquito-netting (not full of holes, as in India) ……..Everywhere in Thailand, buying and selling were the main occupations…. even the poorest people were reasonably clean and well fed. The poverty of Thailand was in a different league from that of the Indian subcontinent….The Pakistanis and Indians had eaten curry at every meal. The Thais ate rice and noodles – rice and noodles for breakfast, rice and noodles for snacks, rice and noodles with everything. Even an omelette would appear on a bed of shrimp-fried rice; it was inconceivable that anyone would wish to eat eggs on their own…..The head is sacred to the Thais and should never be touched; even a pat on a child’s head is regarded as sacrilege…..the early morning hours …..monks were out with their alms bowls. At first I was amazed at the number and age-range of these saffron-clad figures. Then I learned that all Thai men become monks for a period in their lives, normally between education and work, but sometimes in the months of mourning after the death of a close relative or at times of uncertainty. It seemed a very civilized system and I had no doubt that it contributed to the tranquility and spiritual wholeness of the Thais. The Buddhist Eightfold Path was for everyone, not just for a group of professional clerics….Children the world over wave and shout to a passing cyclist, but in Thailand all the adults joined in, shouting, waving, blowing kisses, so that cycling through a village became a royal progress. Even the monks waved. One junior monk was so overcome with excitement that he quite forgot his dignity and rushed down the road with me …… But Buddhism is a kindly faith and his superiors smiled indulgently….I began to see village mosques [in the south]. Many of the women now had their heads covered, like good Muslims, but they rode motorcycles and sat in the cafes drinking coffee and chatting in much greater freedom than their Muslim sisters elsewhere. ………The south of Thailand was much less tidy than the north.
Women enjoyed considerable respect in Thai society. They were outgoing and well dressed. They drove their own cars and motorcycles and were commercially active ……Little girls were loved and cosseted. All this made an agreeable change after India and the wholly Muslim countries, where the position of women ranged from low to abject. But the oddity in Thailand was the shortage of female animals. I passed bullocks, but no cows; backyards were full of cockerels, but few hens; dogs were invariably male; and on the outskirts of Songkla I saw a huge, glossy, pampered boar reclining on the family porch. ……….Thais have no need to sunbathe and take their swimming as serious exercise……. I felt a stranger in Thailand. The Thais always smiled at me and showed unfailing courtesy, yet they somehow kept themselves carefully hidden away. I moved among them, I watched them, I exchanged greetings and smiles with them, but I never seemed to make any real contact. The traditions were alien and I had no point of reference from which to judge or appreciate their culture. I was always on the outside, looking in. The greatest barrier was undoubtedly their difficult language. …… Thai is a tonal language and the same syllable can have as many as five different meanings, depending on the pitch. Thais in their turn found English pronunciation quite beyond them and I often had the embarrassment of failing to understand them ……

Malaysia was a delight from start to finish – a tropical paradise, vibrant and exciting in the diversity of its peoples and cultures. ……the Malaysians were every bit as friendly as the Thais, but they were friendly in idiomatic English ………people in Malaysia usually asked me if I was cycling round the world; everywhere else, they had assumed that I was simply cycling across their own country. The Malaysians saw themselves in an international framework. ……..Bahasa Malaysia was written in the Roman alphabet, so I could read road signs without difficulty ……I found the Malaysians much more congenial and always happy to talk …..the rattan furniture for which Malaysia is famous…….Money-changers and book-sellers were usually Indian, their little enclaves in the city immediately recognizable by the pavements stained with red betel-juice, the smell of spices in their corner shops and the frenetic, high-pitched squeal of their popular singers, sounding like hysterical ten-year-old girls. ……..I was often taken aside by Indians and Chinese to listen to their grievances…..promotion was blocked by positive discrimination in favour of the Malay bumiputra. Charles told me that 70 per cent of university places were reserved for Malays, so that the children of other racial groups had to be brilliant to qualify for one of the remaining 30 per cent. Families often pooled their resources and ruined themselves financially in order to send their young people abroad to study, out of the system. ……..The Chinese and Indians still ran a good 80 per cent of the country’s businesses, but they were bitter about the discrimination against them……..Malays form the majority of the population, but only just. It was a relief to them when Singapore left the Federation in 1965, two years after Independence, as the island’s 75 per cent Chinese majority was in danger of tipping the balance for Malaysia as a whole. Country people in origin, the Malays are still the agricultural workers, and their interests clearly have to be safeguarded against the shrewd, industrious Chinese city-dwellers, with their centuries of commercial experience. Malaysians of Chinese and Indian origin complain, yet at heart they know they have a very good life. I met two Indian cousins …….they told me that their grandfathers had come over from southern India as indentured labourers to work on the rubber plantations……The previous year they had taken a trip to India in search of their roots and had been appalled at the poverty and the rural squalor of their native village. ‘Thank goodness our grandfathers showed a bit of initiative and got out,’ they said. ‘Imagine living in a dump like that!’ ……..I booked my ……flight with the help of two young Indian travel agents, who called me ‘Auntie’. ……….Mosque-watching had become my favourite pastime in Malaysia. The Turks had been so spellbound by Sinan that all their mosques were pale imitations of the Suleymaniye, while the Pakistani style had been firmly rooted in the Moghul. The Malaysians had no such constraints and their rich cultural mix provided free flight for fantasy. Their minarets ranged from Romanesque towers through pagodas to Cape Canaveral rockets. …..No two were ever alike. 
………a jolly Chinese funeral….I heard the sound of drums and strings. ….casually dressed Chinese families were sitting around café tables, chatting, eating nuts and crisps….. while their children rushed round playing ……. ‘Come in, Auntie! Come and join us!’ The Chinese love to have visitors at their ceremonies …….Everyone was smiling and feet were tapping……At nine o’clock, when the percussion band reached its deafening climax, everyone queued up to file past the paper house to wish the dead man happiness and all good things in his new life. It was a cheerful, friendly occasion, full of hope.

The New Straits Times carried an article on a national drive to improve the status of women of Indian origin in Malaysia….. Malay and Chinese couples were walking along the street together, deep in conversation, husbands helping to carry the children and the shopping; young Chinese couples were even holding hands. The Indian women were plodding behind their husbands, just as they had in the villages of Uttar Pradesh, and they were doing all the carrying.
I had enjoyed Malaysia and reflected that it would be the ideal country for Westerners to get their first taste of the East. The peninsula was non-malarial, tap water in the cities was safe to drink, there was food to suit every palate and pocket, hotels were clean, there was no tipping to worry about, roads were excellent and the beaches and scenery were stunning. Life for the visitor was relaxed and problem-free. Above all, the people were friendly, kind and full of initiative.

…..Salt Lake City …..what must be the friendliest, cleanest and safest city in the United States.

I cycled out of Kearney, reflecting that no nation is quite so confiding as the Americans. They have to discuss their problems and any ear will do. ……..Kansas made up for its weather by the warmth of its wonderful people.

Missouri ….was my low point in the States. Drivers were unused to cyclist and were aggressive on the road ……..the landscape was a close succession of stunted sugarloaf hills, difficult to cycle. ……I had more trouble with guard dogs in these parts than anywhere else in the world. Dogs dislike bicycles …..a Turkish cyclist…..had given me extremely useful advice [on sheepdogs], based on experience. ‘Never try to escape, because they’re much faster than you are. They’ll grab you by the ankle and pull you down. The only thing to do is face up to them. Get off your bike and put it between yourself and the dog. He won’t attack you through the bike, because it’s the bike he’s afraid of. Speak to him gently. As soon as he sees your two legs, smells you and hears your voice, he’ll realize that you’re a human being – and he isn’t trained to attack humans, unless they’re actually interfering with his flock. He has his work to do and he’ll soon turn round and go back to his sheep. If he doesn’t calm down, it will be only a matter of moments before the shepherd arrives……….’ ……..It was in the Mid-western States that I was attacked. Alsatians, Dobermans…….all came tearing out of their farmyards…….

Illinois and Indiana were much like Missouri and Iowa. Though they had been settled earlier, their people came of the same Teutonic and Nordic stock. Tall, blond and well-built, they had grown positively huge on America’s plenty. You need to visit the Midwest to know what real obesity is…… Their thighs were so fat they could no longer walk with legs parallel……… I knew I had finally left the West behind when I crossed into Ohio and Eastern Time. Men no longer wore their hats indoors.

The policeman I asked was sour and unhelpful. Cindy was right; she had warned me that New Yorkers were abrasive, if not downright rude…….. New York was noisy, brash, cheerful, dirty, casual, multi-racial and eccentric. ……..It had taken me exactly ten weeks to the day to cross the 3,539.3 miles of the United States of America.

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