The College Dream Realized - Across America The wide brim of the Wyoming State Trooper’s hat shaded his face already half hidden by his dark sunglasses, and his Midwestern drawl elongated his words. This gave me a few more seconds to formulate how I was going to try and wriggle out of this sticky situation. I took advantage of the moment to strip out of my rain gear. “How fast do you think you were going son?” “Uh well, at a guess about fifty or fifty five miles per hour?” I answered feebly. “Actually sixty three, do you know what the speed limit on this here road is?” “Um, uh, fifty?” again trying to sound apologetic and clueless at the same time. The fact of the matter was I had no idea what the speed limit was, forty seemed to ring some sort of bell. It was a tiny ribbon of road heading out of the Black Hills of South Dakota. The morning had started in our campsite with a light drizzle so we had donned our wet weather gear for the first time since Ohio, and headed out. As we left the Black Hills behind us, the snaking of the road gave way to a more open vista and the straighter roads just pleaded to be accelerated into. The sun had broken through in a cloudburst and the rays brightened the day as a sign welcomed us into Wyoming. I was lost in the moment and found myself speeding west. Gary, who had seen the speed limit sign, faded in the rear view mirror and the next time I glanced into it my heart had sunk as I saw the blue flashing lights of the State Trooper who stood in front of me now. He took off his sunglasses to reveal his steely blue eyes, flashed a broad smile and replied, “Twenty five miles per hour.” He let the words linger in the air between us as the realization sank in. The expression on my face was honest as I did the quick math and thought to myself, man, I’m screwed. “Twenty five?” I said, this time more astonishment in my voice. “I had no idea, wow, I really had no idea.” I was lost for words, and honestly shocked at how low the speed limit was, to be honest, I had assumed I was a bit over the limit. I then went on to explain. “Actually officer, we started out in rain this morning, the sun came out as we entered Wyoming, and it was very exciting to be heading west. This road is so beautiful it was a bit difficult to go slowly. My friend and I are heading to California.” Nearly on cue Gary pulled up, a few minutes behind me, which wasn’t great for my argument, as he was on the same road, and it would seem he had been obeying the speed limit. “You know, that’s going to cost you about one hundred and fifty dollars”, the state trooper added. I gulped, and again spoke the truth. “Wow, that’s going to really kill our budget, we have been camping out at night, we just graduated college, and were hoping to make it to California.” Was that sympathy that flashed across his face? I wasn’t sure. He adjusted the brim of his hat, put his shades back on. “Good to see two young boys doing something interesting, you take care now. Watch this road, the speed goes up and down for the next thirty or so miles, have a good trip.”
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The Disappearing Rainforest.
The sunrise was brilliant, and you could see land and tiny islands dotted in the Flores Sea, the day passed calmly, the crew fished for our lunch which was cooked up by them. We all ate together, and the crew told us of some of their other exploits around the Indonesian archipelago. They were a rugged bunch, and from the sounds of it, this boat was their home. They were all married, but that was all we found out. Spending time with their family never worked into any of their stories, we didn’t even find out exactly which part of Indonesia they called home on land. They were interested in our travels too, but our conversation was limited to Bahasa, the few words they knew in English were the typical “Hello, what is your name?” Quite amusingly when one of the crew heard I was from New York, he said, “Mike Tyson” and punched the air with a few jabs, I smiled and thought it funny that here on this cargo boat in the Flores Sea, Mike Tyson is an ambassador for my hometown. We drifted on the sea all day, the engines went off, and we had a good wind so the sail went up, I assumed this was to save money. Quite honestly, the wind seemed to be doing just as good a job as the smelly engines, we were glad to lose the noise, and now we really felt the calmness and heat of the day encapsulate us. By nightfall we were pushing our bikes up the docks on yet another exotic sounding island in the small chain of islands in this tiny country far away from New York City and home. This short twenty four hour crossing was to be a precursor to our next boat ride, but didn’t quite prepare us for it.
When he saw us his eyes lit up. Let’s go he said to us. He seemed to be as excited or even more so than us. We walked around the outskirts of town. Nineteen and twenty thousand foot peeks towered above our heads. The evening light making these majestic shadow forms against the pale blue sky. We arrived at a door which almost seemed to be into the side of a mountain. The Raj told us to just sit quietly, and try not to disturb anything. We opened the door and entered. The smell of human bodies, mixed with a staleness of smoke and damp, assaulted our nostrils. To our accustomed senses it was a beautiful. It was the real smell of life. It wasn’t chemical deodorants or aftershaves, it was pherimones, human smells, the smoke of a fire to keep warm, candle light. It brought me back to a primal state of mind. I looked around, and we were surrounded by saddhus. The dim candle light flickering off their matted beards. Some of the whites of their eyes were a yellow that would be considered sickly in the western world. It was not the yellow of hepatitis, it was a slight jaundice from malnutrition I suspect, but it added to their mystique, like their robes, calloused bare feet, and their tridents, it was part of the saddhus uniform. It seemed like the room had its own life. The walls were misshapen and seemed to be sweating. The space looked as if it were hollowed by chisel and hammer, and smoothed over by thousands of hands feeling their way in the dimness to find a place to sit in lotus and convene with a higher consciousness. The walls and ceiling had the smoke stains of uncounted burning candles giving out just enough light but never too much. There was not a hint of the twentieth century to be found. No electricity, no gas ovens, radios, or televisions. We could have stepped through a corridor in time when the big wooden door groaned open, and we stepped inside this precious space. Now we were here, time didn’t matter it was just the moment. Be it 1990 or 1090 outside the door was of no consequence except for the thoughts swirling in my head. The only sound was of slight light breathing. All were perfectly still, their postures erect, even the Raj was in this perfect position eyes closed and off into their world. I felt out of place, I felt like a hunched back foreigner. I was uneasy at first and tried to make eye contact with Rob, but he too was in his own world. He was dealing with this his way. I would have to get comfortable. How I wish I had a mantra. I was so new to this. I couldn’t even figure out a way to calm myself down. All of my celibacy, cycling and reading could not help. I was out of my depth. I just closed my eyes, and was all too conscious of the curve of my spine from years of badly positioned motorcycle riding, and cycling. I slowly began to relax. I was relaxing into my body. My eyes felt closed, but not tightly. The buzzing in my head never went away, but subsided. Till this day I can not say how long we all sat there. The darkness was pure, the smell was real and the energy was beautiful. All of these men ten years ago might have been working in big cities for large firms, or some may have worked the land. Now they were all here, the possessions of the material world cast off, sitting in Lotus position halfway to the top of the planet. All focusing on a peaceful world. Here I was, with the absolute privilege to be there. My life’s path slowly changing forever.
There were people holding up signs and your usual hussle and bussle of an international airport. I fell in with her group heading to Moscow, and at a bit past six A.M. with my plane to Frankfurt Germany leaving at ten A.M., there I was stepping into a limo with them. I thought it was going to take us to the mandatory white room, or a customs line, immigration maybe, but after a few minutes it didn’t take much to realize we were heading out of the airport. I looked to my American friend and said, “Are we out of the airport? What about customs?” I of course whispered so not to bring any further attention to the fact that I was stunned. We were dropped off in front of the expensive Intourist hotel where she was booked. I stood as discretely as I could until the check-in process was done, having realized the possibility of what I could do now actually being in Moscow I asked if I could have a wash in her room she said no problem. The room was pure communist no nonsense. Small, dingy, efficient, and not quite windowless, but it somehow had a windowless feel to it. I took a nap on her floor for an hour or so, got up , had a wash, and thanked her and headed out into the streets. Here I was walking the streets of Moscow. I had one and a half hours before my flight left, then I had a brilliant idea.
I flagged down a taxi, and for the price of a Marlboro pack he took me to the Aeroflot office which of course was open on a Sunday morning. I tried my luck. I walked in, while my taxi driver waited for me. I asked if I could change my ticket for the following week, she said yes in her no nonsense English. She then asked if I had a visa, I calmly lied and said yes, she asked if I was booked in a hotel, I said yes, “Which one” she asked, and I told her the name of the lovely establishment I had just come from. She asked a room number, and I made up a non existent room so not to get anyone else in trouble. I thought as I said it that she might have figured it out then. Because the hotel room numbers went according to floor. I had been on the top floor, so I invented a room number two non existent flights up. For a split second I saw her in my mind turn to me and say, “There are no sixteen story hotels in Moscow, you are lying” and then push the special red button for the secret police to come. A few too many movies for my overactive brain, anyway she did not flinch, never asked to see my passport or visa, stamped and stickered my ticket in all the right places, and off I walked into the streets. My taxi driver eagerly awaited the outcome. I explained to him earlier if I was able to change my flight I would change some money with him. I left the ticket office, and a certain sense of calm engulfed me, I had entered the Moscow underworld, visaless in the land of endless paperwork, an American illegally walking the streets of The Capital.
A Walk Across Tunisia
I walked on always conscious of how much water was in my water bottle. I drank sparingly, and after a few hours I came upon a tiny village. The men looked at me with a slight interest as they sat around drinking tea, I plopped myself next to them and said hello in my best French, but now I think I was in deep. Berber, or possibly Arabic was the spoken word. I pulled out a “Salaam Alaaikum” from the old computer known as my brain, from my excursion through Indonesia a couple of years back, and it worked a treat. Toothless smiles hands brought together in greeting and a cup of tea was on offer. One of them spoke some French and we entered into what seemed like a conversation. He asked where I was sleeping, and I pointed to a corner of the courtyard, and a flat rooftop, and gestured to my sleeping bag hanging from under my small pack, they wouldn’t have it, and I thought he said something about waiting a little while. What else could I do? We sipped tea, made small talk, and mostly sat around waiting. To my astonishment, someone did appear. Somehow or another he knew my sleeping plans, and spoke very good English. “They will not allow you to sleep out in the night it would not be correct, you will sleep at my house and eat with me and my family”. It was the sort of invitation that seemed impossible to not accept, and it was much nicer than my greeting a few hours back by the hotelier in town. As it transpired, he was the English teacher in the local school, and was originally from Tunis. He would only be here a few years, then hopefully back to “Civilization” as he put it. I pumped him for as much information as I could about the road ahead, but it seemed he did not really go too much further west than his tiny village on the edge of the desert. At that moment a big car zoomed through the village, it came from the direction I was heading, it nearly killed a chicken crossing the road, and I wondered what that was all about. The English teacher looked at me almost in apology, it was a local who worked in the tourist trade. He drove foreigners to the desert, but he didn’t seem to care too much for the local populace. Or their chickens! He said they are not all like that, but the taste of tourist money sometimes tainted people, especially if they were from the city and moved down here to exploit the local scenery and nomadic population. They thought them as barbarians, and really did not respect them. He seemed a bit embarrassed, and I was not sure if it was because of his comment about getting back to “Civilization” as he said a few minutes before, or was he truly embarrassed about such behaviour? As I got to know Mustafa better, I knew although he was out of his element, he had a true connection with his students and his temporary adopted home. He finished off with saying, “Not a true Muslim”. My mind quickly drifted to the hotel owner, I would not have been surprised if it was him driving. Dinner that night was very interesting. The women and children did not seem to eat with the men. There was the communal bowl of food where we ate from, and the food was served by his wife. The kids were quiet shadows peering glimpses of me when they could, but not a word was uttered from them. I ate with the teacher and his friend, I found out about his job, and what he missed about Tunis. It was funny to be talking to this person from the country’s capital city, it reminded me of the way I felt about New York City. He just spoke of the country people and their funny ways, and how backwards it all seemed to be here. At the same time he really liked it, but he was a city boy at heart, he also thought I was a bit crazy to want to walk alone across the south of Tunisia, but he didn’t try to deter me, admitting that he had no idea what lie ahead. It was good to talk to someone from Tunis, it is all too easy to lump countries into one big category, here I was in Tunisia, I had been in Tunis, and now here I was in a small village on the edge of the desert, but to me it was all lumped under the blanket of Tunisia, but this young guy from Tunis shed a lot of light on that subject, Tunisia might be a small moderate Muslim country in the north part of the African continent, but Tunis and this tiny village, according to my host, had very little in common. Even after my dinner and dialogue with the two men, I still was lumping the two into the one mixing bowl, it was all Tunisia to me, and now I was being helped to notice the differences. I wound up staying the next day as well, and we walked around the area. Fortunately he was off rom school, or took off to show me around. We met some of his students on the street, and they were very respectful of him and his American guest. It reminded me of the respect you would have had for your teachers if you met them on the street back in my Catholic School upbringing in the Bronx. It was nice to see similarities in cultures we are taught represent the enemy. The only real enemy is fear of the unknown. Emboldened by my success, I now decided to keep on heading west and make it across Tunisia if possible. I shared a small simple meal again with Mustafa and his almost invisible family, I slept in my own small room on a modest bed, and the next morning shared breakfast of bread and coffee with Mustafa, and his wife actually joined us. I was given some food and water to continue on with my journey. I was certain that I would at least make it to another small village. The crunching of the small stones and the sand under my boots were the only sound I heard for most of the morning. The early start was chilly, but the weather was pretty dependable this time of year, cold nights, followed by lovely sunrises, and the gradual warming up to a nice comfortable walking temperature. The sun was strong but not too hot, the days were just about an even mix of nighttime to daytime, not as exact as equatorial countries, but nowhere as extreme as the more northern European countries. I could fairly judge how much daylight I had left, and when the sun started to set, it basically fell like a stone. Night would come as quickly as though someone just threw a blanket over the sky.
Northern Mexican Angels.
“John, is that smoke coming from a fire, or a house?” I asked. “Looks like a chimney actually.” So we headed up the road, and to our bewilderment, there was a small house with smoke coming out of its chimney. The day had gone on now, and it was well past midday, we called and called, but no answer. The road was rideable now, we had turned off the riverbed, so we cycled on a bit, and saw another small house, this one looking deserted. It was a freaky small cluster of houses which looked more like small holdings, but no one seemed to be around. We made mental notes of all of the houses, and since the road we were on seemed to be navigable, we knew we could always go back later to the first house we saw with the smoke coming out. Just as we were about to make that decision, we saw another house with smoke coming out of its chimney. We headed for it, and when we arrived there were two men, sitting around the fire. It was like something out of a film. Quite surreal. They almost looked as though they were expecting us to show up. They just nodded their heads and we said, “Buenas tardes.” They were men of few words, and I am sure where they were living, and how they were living, ensured that that was what they liked. John and I walked back to the bikes, and John seemed to know what it was called. He said, “This is a Milpa.” The term was lost on me, he was a native Californian, and knew more about the Mexican culture. Anyhow I asked him what a Milpa was, and he explained that it was a farm out in the middle of no where, that much I figured out! He went on to explain that the farmers either drove in or walked in and would stay for months at a time and work the family small holding, or the owner’s small holding mostly growing corn etc…
Finding Lost Relatives.
I did not understand much of what he said, but I did recognize the first place we stopped was a bar, a quick drink to get the day going. Great I thought, here I am following the town drunk on my journey into the past. I tried not to focus on that, and it seemed to be the norm anyhow. There were a few others doing the same, and it all seemed harmless enough in this enclosed city nearing the ankle in the boot of Italy. I followed Giusseppe through the higgledy piggledy streets of Melfi as he went on explaining something indecipherable to me. I nodded a bit, and thought oh well, it’ll be a good story anyhow. I started thinking of my bike and how nice it was going to be to start traveling once again on my trusty steed awaiting me on the other side of these mountains. We then stopped all of a sudden at this very small house on a street which looked very much like all the others. He knocked on the door and a small grey-haired woman came out dressed in black. She had something vaguely familiar about her face, but hey, she might have shared something with my blood, after all we were in a small part of the world. Giusseppe explained to this woman something in dialect, then they both switched to Italian for my benefit. I explained who I was, and the whole story of my grandfather and his name etc…. She looked vaguely interested, and then disappeared into the bowels of the house, which sort of reminded me of an antique dealers house with furniture in every nook and cranny, wall space had photos in all different manner of frames, and she resembled a small elf going into her magic cave. Giusseppe and I uncomfortably sort of smiled at each other, then she returned a few minutes later with a black and white wedding photo taken to what at first glance seemed to be in the fifties sometime. She handed me the photo, complete with the cracked glass which seemed like it was for effect. At closer inspection I realized I was correct, it was taken in about the fifties. I even recognized the photo. It was the wedding photo of my mom’s sister, Jenny. There was my whole family right there. So I started pointing to people and saying in Italian, “My mother, my father, my Aunt……” when I pointed at my grandfather I said, “My Grandfather (Mi Nono) she looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said’ Mio Fratello!” (“my brother!”) My knees slightly buckled, and I needed to sit down. A smile came over my face, and I could not believe my luck. Little Giusseppe had led me right to the very place I was looking for! I still could not believe it. We had a cold drink, I declined alcohol and opted for water, Giusseppe had his second drink of the day, bid us farewell, and left me with my grandfather’s half sister, the product of my great-grandmother’s second marriage!
Excerpt from the epilogue:
At times, my travels enabled me to disconnect from anything familiar, I was allowed to find deeper meaning in the mundane, enjoy the many people and places of the world and remove myself from the everyday pressures too many of us face, be it in the richest or poorest countries of the world. My travels have meant so much to me, and writing this book has been a catharsis. In writing, reading and re-reading these stories my wife and I have realized what a gift our life is, and the marvel of our children and every phase of their development is wonderful but also ordinary. It is shared by billions of others, and all anyone wants is to see their children grow and become adults. Our choices as human beings are much more powerful than our choices as Americans, British, Italians, Mexicans, Christians, Muslims or whatever other label we can use to define our diverse race scurrying around on the face of planet earth. Our world is constantly showing us we are all one interconnected unit. I read books about men like Greg Mortenson who wrote Three Cups of Tea. He turned his mountaineering endeavors and travel experiences into a lifelong pledge to better the world by building schools for the poorest of the poor. I can’t help but be inspired in the power that one person really does have to make a change. I hope that my stories – saved from dozens of journals – ties a thread through each and every one of us and that by sharing them with a wider audience, I helped to put a human face on problems we see as existing elsewhere. There is no elsewhere, we are all here. I discovered that the gray areas make life complicated, but to draw everything in black or white makes it too simple. How could this small planet spinning around at a thousand miles per hour one hundred million miles away from the life-giving sun be that simple? The gray areas, I’m only beginning to realize, are not gray at all, they’re all the colors of the rainbow. The difference in our religious beliefs, the way we dress, the music we listen to, the love we share, childbirth, thunderstorms, vibrant sunsets, the oceans crashing onto the shores, fruit growing on trees is all just ordinary, but even the most ordinary daily occurrence is quite magical. That is the wonder of life on earth!
Pedaling Behind the Rising Curtain.
After a few days on the road and staying in the Black Sea coastal town of Burgas, we made it to a town called Bellene. It was on the Danube River which separated Bulgaria from Romania. We had tried to get over into Romania, but we missed the first bridge crossing, we would have to be cycling along the river to the next crossing which we heard was a ferry. We were trying to avoid having to cycle into Serbia, that part of Yugoslavia which was in the middle of a bloody civil war. It looked like fate was heading us that way though. In Bellene we met a real character called Ivan Ivanovitch, he reminded me of the Bulgarian version of Andre who I had met in Moscow. We were trying to find a place to sleep, and a phone, John had to call this newspaper in Manchester that was keeping track of his world tour, and he was also doing something for a local newspaper. We couldn’t find either in Bellene, just about when we were going to give up and pedal out of town and camp under the cover of dusk, Ivan walked into our lives with his jacket draped over his shoulders, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. He looked like something out of a bad spy movie, but he was quite real. He bought us a coffee, and in his best English asked us what we were doing in Bellene. We thought he was some sort of official, but like Andre, he was a Black marketeer, and before he invited us back to his house, he wanted to be sure of who we were. After he was satisfied we were just two guys riding our bikes towards western Europe, he invited us to stay in his apartment. We walked back with him, and when we got to his place, we put our bikes in the storage place in the basement, and walked into Ivan’s world.
An Unlikely Encounter.
I pulled out of town and passed a gas station but about a mile later something said to me, “Go get some gas.” My bike didn’t have a huge tank, and I could not remember when I last put gas in, so it wouldn’t hurt to top up, so I dipped into a u-turn and went back to the station. I filled up and paid, threw my leg over the bike, kick started it, and was just about to pull out when I heard what I took to be a motorcycle engine, no, actually two. So I waited for them to appear, and from the sound of the engines they sounded like fast bikes, maybe just some locals out for a ride. As the sound drew nearer, it was obvious by the downshifting and groans of their slowing engines they were pulling in for gas. They pulled into the station and I was interested to see two loaded bikes. I thought ah, some travelers. I then looked at the bikes as I always did, one was a Kawasaki GPS and the other was a BSA, could it be a huge coincidence? I remember Frank’s grandmother saying they were heading to British Colombia. This was Oregon, not too far to make it impossible. I nodded at them, and they both smiled at me. They noticed my bike as well. I casually walked around to the back of their bikes to see their number plates. Ontario! No way, I was thinking, it couldn’t be. So I waited until they filled up went over to the guy on the Kawasaki and said “John?” he looked at me quizzically. “John Westerlaken?” He really looked confused now and looked at his jacket for a clue to how I had known his name, “Do I know you?” he asked. “Well actually no” I said, “but I had dinner with your grandparents and brother a few weeks ago!”
Baptism By Fire.
What little I had heard of Guatemala by that point in my life didn’t prepare me for the reality. Although my time in Mexico had started the process, the country and region of the world I was about to enter would change how I saw myself, my country, my life, my friends, family and even my existence for ever. The crazy thing was, I had come down mostly by bus. A road to “El Norte” existed, no airplanes, if you wanted you could walk, years later, I would ride my bicycle to the same crossing, but that future was unknown to me then, and when Gary, Richard and I, stepped out of the back of that pick up truck Gary said to this naïve twenty four year old, “Get ready for your life to change as you now enter the third world!” He was so right, and on that little crossing into Guatemala my head was spinning, the people in colorful traditional dress, big smiles on their faces, dark skinned and open, their facial features obviously more akin to Native Americans than my European features, I was thrown into a funky world where I felt like an intruder, was I an American? What was an American? Were these descendants of the ancient Mayan culture more American than I would ever be? Guatemala taught me so much about myself, and the part of the world I thought I knew so well. I couldn’t stop myself from wanting more. I met more European travelers, Australians, Americans, I learned things about my country’s jaded past, assassinations, military coup d’etats, puppet leaders replacing democratically elected presidents, civil war, all in the name of democracy, or dare I say freedom? In reality, all for the almighty protection of American interests, I was learning all too quickly that I was raised in a bubble, I was only taught from one perspective, people in other countries only ever seemed like something different from me, that I blamed on myself. These smiling faces, traditional clothing, and simple lives were all humanity, and I was just a small part of it. It all threw me for a loop, but put me on a path to discover more, more about cultures, about countries, about politics, about everything. I had really found something here just a few hundred miles south of the American border, that I had been zooming across America on my motorcycle to find.
In Guatemala I visited some Mayan ruins, but it was in the little known places in the highlands, the village of Nebah where I saw sights that still stick in my mind. Nebah, was basically a place of widows and children after atrocities and assassinations of all the men of thevillage were carried out by the government troops, to stamp out communist sympathisers, another word I would learn here and in other parts of the world, could sometimes actually be replaced by the phrase, people not willing to support corporate take over by the world’s capitalists. I was still greeted with smiles, and lovely scenery at every turn. I was too distracted by it all to stay put and start volunteering or do something on a more altruistic level, I had been meeting people here and in Mexico who were living interesting lives, some opening small businesses, others trying to make a difference in other small ways. For me I was still on this crash course in life, my funds were running very low, my health was suffering a bit, but I was confronted with so much that I actually felt almost cheated. I can’t explain it, but it was the same feelings I had learning about the Vatican’s art collection, or the crusades, I felt like I wasn’t told the whole story, I wasn’t allowed to make up my own mind. Did I want to be part of the system that chewed up and spit out people under the guise of organized religion, or National Interests? I wasn’t given a choice, I was automatically joined at birth, and then shown only one side of the story, again I blame myself for not digging deeper sooner, but now I had my spade.
Our First Date.
About a mile from the top the lightning started. The steepest part of the climb lie ahead, four switchbacks at about a quarter of a mile each stretch in between. It was going to be hard, but now it was going to be harder. The hail started at about one switchback from the top. We pedaled on. Off on the side of the road we could hear the flapping and see the colorful Tibetan Prayer flags which usually marked the top of a pass. We made it! The hail turned into snow, and the lightning was beginning to scare us. The air was charged. We knew we had only a few miles to go, and some of it was still up. The hair on my arms stood on end when the lightning flashed. The snow was starting to accumulate, and Angie turned to me and asked, “Are we going to die?” I never really thought about it like that. I guess I was so used to traveling alone or with others who were accustomed to the big risks involved in situations like these, when in similar situations the question would never be verbalized, and somehow or another we would survive. Angie was new to this. She didn’t realize that you shouldn’t ask scary realistic questions to this guy who put your life in danger. So I looked into her lovely green eyes and said, “I don’t know.” I guess it wasn’t the answer she was looking for, but they were the very first words that came to my lips. The only way out now was down either way, so we kept in our direction toward the unknown. Such was our first date taking shape.
Scroll down for excerpts from the book. Enjoy the journey!
Cycle One; Motorcycle Days
-Awakening the Passion-
1. The College Dream Realized
2. An Unlikely Encounter
3. P.S. 106- Teacher becomes
4. Pushing the Limits
5. A Lucky Break
6. Baptism by Fire - Finding
7. The Road to Japan - Not
exactly as Planned
12. Tasmanian Devils to Kiwi
13. An Unexpected Respite in Oz
14. Healing Old Wounds,
Creating New Ones
15. The Camera
16. The Disappearing Rainforest
17. Tour of Duty
18. The Mantra
19. Entering Moscow
Cycle Three; Land of my Ancestors
- Rediscovering My Roots-
20. Returning to the Familiar
21. Hitting the Ground Running
22. A Walk Across Tunisia
23. Scared in Morocco
24. Back on Track in Europe
25. Finding Lost Relatives
26. Illiterate in Greece
27. A Turkish Experience
28. Pedaling Behind the Rising
29. From Prague to a Plan
30. Ian, Olives and Retsina
31. Different Wavelengths
Cycle Four; A Collision Course
- America and Australasia Revisited-
32. Crossing Spokes, Crossing
33. A Route Altering Root Canal
34. Northern Mexican Angels
35. The Letter
36. A Subtle Shift in Gears
37. China's Destinies
38. Our First Date
39. The Rutted Road to the Invisible
40. Saying Goodbye in Chengdu
41. The Three River's Gorge
42. Slow Trains, a Fast Plane and a
Teacher Becomes Student
~~ I was walking down the hallway with the papers in my hands, behind a few other guys from the neighborhood whom I’d never met before, and with whom I didn’t have much in common. Our footsteps echoed on the shiny tiled floor like another part of my own brain trying to get through to me. I started to hear the voices of Stan, my mom, my brother and other friends questioning this as a good move. I thought of John and realized that maybe we were on different paths after all. We probably wouldn’t even have that much to do with each other after joining up as he was joining as an officer and I was starting from the very bottom. I was starting to seriously doubt what I was doing walking down the halls of some dreary military institution in Brooklyn. I was last on line – all the other guys signed the dotted line, and were heading down to swear in. The navy didn’t waste any time. I got to the counter with my recruiter to my left, and an officer in front of me handing me a pen. I looked at these two and thought of my cross-country trips, my college days, and all my experiences in life. These men were not the type of people I would ever choose to hang out with. Now I was about to sign up to four years of their company. I looked up at the officer, “Have I joined the navy yet?” “Just sign here son, go downstairs, swear in,” was his curt reply. Something about the “Son”, reminded me of a certain State Trooper, “Yes, I know that, but as of this moment, am I in the navy? Have I made any commitment to join the navy?” I repeated. A look came over his face, and it wasn’t pretty, “No son, you haven’t. You just need to sign these papers, go downstairs, and swear in.” I looked at both of them and repeated myself once more, “So I haven’t joined the navy.” A cold stare was his answer. I then slid the sheets of paper back across the table, put down the pen, and said, “I’m going to think about it.”
The officer behind the desk had gone a certain shade of purple and was looking quite agitated, “Son, the navy has given you a physical, you have a seat on a plane, and you are headed for medic candidacy school.” I now was feeling relieved and even a bit cocky that me and these two didn’t have a future together, “Thanks for the physical, but I’m going to think about it first.” Now my recruiter chimed in, “If you aren’t signing up, I’d normally give you a token and let you catch the train home.” He’d given me a ride down to Brooklyn and was due to be dropping me back after we’d all done the tests and signed the forms. There was no way he was going to change my mind back to joining up for four years in the navy by threatening me to find my own way home and I think he knew it. I just looked at him. “I’m still gonna think about it, I’ll wait here for the others.” The officer nodded at him to get the others going, and I sat in a waiting area. While I waited for the other three to swear in for the next four years in the military, I wanted to scream for joy. I could not believe I’d come so close to joining the navy. I was called in to three different officers’ cubicles in that time to tell me what the navy was offering me, and how civilian life didn’t offer me half those options. Every small encounter just made me surer than ever of the choice I just made. I couldn’t wait to get home, have a beer with Stan, and tell my mom who was probably praying at the moment.
~~ The car journey back was silent and the atmosphere was not particularly friendly. It was a long drive from Brooklyn, and I had never felt so lucky in my life. My mom was overjoyed, and Stan and I got very drunk – we made a date to have a party on January 24th as well – the date I would have been boarding a plane to start my four-year stint in the navy.
Pushing The Limits
~~ We did not camp at night, but shared cheap road-side hotel rooms. That was fine with me. The knowledge we were sharing was incredible and the comradeship between the three of us was something truly special. The black skies pierced with a galaxy full of twinkling stars were becoming harder to catch sight of the further north we traveled. They would undoubtedly come out, but only for the briefest of times between dusk and sunrise, usually too late for any of us to stay up to see. If I was awoken by a call of nature I would go outside to steal a glance up at the night sky and be nearly moved to tears by the overwhelming feelings of awe, satisfaction, accomplishment, and mere beauty of it all. I was on the road with two men old enough to be my grandfather and full of interesting anecdotes from lives well-lived. We would sit out in front of the hotel room till late in the evening and watch nature’s version of The Late Show – an almost unending sunset. We were from three diverse parts of the States; Charlie from rural Illinois, Ed from Pennsylvania, and me the youngster from New York City and we all had stories to tell. We rode, enjoyed the scenery, and learned about each other. I remember it almost as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were on a beautiful stretch of road in The Yukon territories as a big wooden sign approached reading ‘ALASKA’, with a map of the immense state drawn beneath that one big name. It was a great feeling and a wave of emotion swept over me. What a privilege to be with these two veteran motorcyclists fulfilling their dream. I was a twenty-three-year-old New Yorker on the border of Alaska, all the doubts, fears, and anxieties gone. I was re-entering America thousands of miles from home, I had traversed the continent, and was at The Last Frontier! The otherworldliness of the Alcan all behind me, the strange towns which felt like they stood still in the 1800’s lost in time at mile 41 or mile 242 was a strange world, but here I was. I had pushed the limits, both mine and my bike’s, and we made it. We still had far to go to get to Anchorage, but the longest leg of the journey was over. I’d accomplished it without abandoning my original plan and had motorcycled over 5,000 miles to a place in my head that I’d never been to before. The latest frontier was to be the beginning of many others I would cross in my life; physical, mental and spiritual ones. We all shook hands, took snapshots, mounted our steeds and headed down the road to Anchorage scraping our pegs, letting the sparks fly, and feeling the cold breeze coming off the Mendenhall Glacier to our left.
Tour of Duty
~~We asked the woman if there was anywhere we could find some food and were led to what looked like a house, but turned out to be a small eatery. Inside I notice a man slumped drunkenly at a table. The deep-set lines of his face and down-turned lips told stories of a tough past. We ordered our food while he just sat there glaring at us. As we ate our meal I felt his stares cut into me like laser-beams. His belligerence could be felt throughout the room, and the lady who ran the place seemed to be embarrassed about it. Finally the man broke the mounting tension with the words, “You American. Me V.C. I kill Americans,” and he made a gesture of slitting a throat. I don’t think I was ever so uncomfortable in my life. He said it again, half-rising from his chair, his eyes fixed on me, and as he did, I realized that not only were there Americans suffering alcoholism and emptiness after the war, the conflict had left its ravages on men here too, and here was one victim facing me now. He fixed his steely glaze on me, as if no one else was in the room. I knew that if he wanted, he could have killed me in one quick motion, but there was almost sadness in his eyes, not hatred. Maybe he was apologizing in some way. I don’t know. The woman serving us then escorted him outside. The ex-soldier threw me a hard look as he rose and exited. The woman, looking horrified, was waving her hand behind him, as if to say, “Never mind him, he’s drunk.” Julie then said, “Man, he gave me the creeps, and I’m not sure why, but he had it in for you, Joe.” “Great,” I said, “let’s just hope he’s sleeping it off somewhere.” I forced a smile. Laura added, “He was one tough looking guy, did you see his face? So taut, even though he was drunk, those eyes, man, they were like vacant holes, scary!” The owner returned and once again tried to pass it off lightly, making the motion of him being drunk to all of us. Needless to say, none of us felt like sleeping out under the stars that night. The afternoon had spooked us all. It was incredible, though, to have finally experienced that fear I had looked for on the plane, and now I could perhaps empathize more with the young men and boys who had lost their youth and innocence as those wheels touched down. We pedaled on, and with the heat of the day fading, and plenty of daylight ahead, we made it to a big town where we could get a place to sleep. We had an early night, and sleep came easily.
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An Unexpected Respite in Oz.
~~I had not given up motorcycles or my love of them and still fondly remembered Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I knew these machines were just tools, and the real movement was on deeper levels, but the bicycle complemented the type of travel I was drawn to. It was caught in that in-between world of road vehicle and kid’s toy. No insurance, registration, hassles at borders, but as I was learning, it could take you quite far, and could also let you enjoy other modes of transport too. It was a fluid way to travel, and basic maintenance could easily be done on the roadside; anything short of breaking your frame, or seriously buckling your wheels could usually be repaired without the need of a mechanic or a bike shop. Another added bonus was freedom from gas stations, and instead of spending the money on gas, you could spend it on a different form of fuel; food. Big bonus! The funny memory of being tethered to a Harley in the Nevada desert with my bone-dry gas tank was also just that, a funny, distant memory. Plus it just plain slowed you down; it allowed you to hear the rush of a river, the call of a bird, or the truck lumbering up behind you. 300 or 400 mile days were things of the past, now I started seeing the places I traveled in small chunks of fifty to a hundred miles, and as I slowed down even more and started smelling the roses, I even chalked up days with as little as four miles. It was good to see Alan again but there was a strange shift in our relationship. Where a few years back we’d met while I was still finding my feet and he was the seasoned traveler, I had now been on the road for quite a while, and he was back living with his mom after things had gone bad with Sue, and seemed to have lost his edge a bit. He was a personable guy, and a great traveler. He had had fantastic experiences that had made him interesting to talk with, but living at home with his mom was not easy after all those years traveling. It felt as though he had left a part of himself out on the road. I planned to stay a couple of weeks – enough time to explore the city, try to see who I could, and get a flight to Indonesia, the country where Noemi had gone to after New Zealand, and from a letter I received it sounded like she was having some coincidences of her own. Now without her bike, she was taking buses and hitching on trucks. From the back of one of those trucks she spotted a westerner on a bicycle. A few days later she was walking back to her guest house when she noticed that same cyclist pull into the village. Since Noemi had been swept up into the world of cycling while in Japan she happened to notice the guy had drop handlebars on a mountain bike. When she mentioned this as an icebreaker in conversation, the cyclist was surprised she had noticed such a detail. As she was explaining how she knew, Craig stopped her and said, “Hi Noemi, I cycled with Joe in Australia.” Noemi’s reply was, “Nice meeting you Craig, I hiked with your girlfriend in New Zealand!” The letter made Alan and I laugh, and reminisce about all the chance meetings we had shared over the years on our separate journeys. It brought the spark back into his voice he had when I first met him. It was good to see he was still there, just derailed at the moment.
~~We left our bikes in San Miguel and opted to bus it into Mexico City; cycling there held no appeal at all, even with my love of cycling in big cities. John wholeheartedly agreed. We both knew we wanted to go to North America’s largest city, plus we hopefully had mail awaiting us. John and I both availed of the poste restante system often on our worldly wanderings. In the capital we received mail and as always it was a welcoming stack of letters. We’d both told friends and family that Mexico City was a definite stop well in advance. It was worthwhile doing this because we both walked out with big grins and a small pile of letters each. We headed off to a café to have a hot drink and revel in our new treasures. The hot drinks came as we looked at the letters before opening them. Some had familiar American postmarks, but others were more exotic; Japan, Namibia, France, England and Australia. My excitement quickly turned to confusion, then a sense of foreboding; in my pile on one of the letters postmarked England was a familiar surname – Edwards – that of Chris, our mutual friend from Japan. As I sat with the letter in my hand I had a bad feeling because it wasn’t Chris’s handwriting, which was a distinctive neat and tidy hand. The return address was in his sister’s name, Clare. Why would Clare be writing to me? Even John was concerned at the peculiarity of a letter from Chris’s sister. Why would she bother to write to Mexico unless there was something wrong? We drank our coffee and ripped through some of the other letters. We’d save Rob’s from Namibia for later; it was thick, which meant long and entertaining. My friends from New York surprised me every so often, and mom was pretty much my most solid correspondent. We left Clare’s letter – with its weird energy – to the side. “John, I really don’t want to open this, why the hell is Clare writing to me? What d’ya think, bad news?” “Well Joey, I think I agree, but maybe it’s not, maybe she’s forwarding a letter from Chris,” he threw in hopefully. “Johnny boy, we’ve been getting mail all over the world for years now, look at this thin letter, we both know that this envelope doesn’t have a forwarded letter in it.” He nodded in agreement. There was a pause, then I said, “Oh screw it, I’m gonna open it.” I slid my Swiss Army knife gently across the fold as it separated. If we could see auras, I’m sure many colors poured out of the slit envelope. For some reason I turned it over and read the closing paragraph aloud: I’m sorry to have to give you this news in a letter, but Chris would have wanted me to tell you. He considered you a good friend. An involuntary shiver ran down my spine. John just spontaneously said, “Oh shit!” My response was much the same. “Damn it, what the hell…” Then I turned over the letter and read it from the beginning. It told us that Chris had been killed.
A Turkish Experience
~~The friendliness of the people was immediately appealing. In the tourist town of Cesme it was still easy to find real true Turkish hospitality. All the kids I met on the street were friendly and very inquisitive, eager to try out a few English words on me if given the chance. I was pushing my fully laden bike through the narrow streets of the sprawling market place when someone addressed me in English. “Do you want to buy a carpet?” I laughed, looked at my bike, and made a face as if to say, “Does it look like I have room for a carpet?” He didn’t miss a beat in inviting me in for a cup of tea. One of those wonderful cups of tea which would delay my cycling in Turkey many a half an hour or hour before I realized I had to learn to say no or never make it very far. This was my first day – my first half hour even – and here I was sipping a delicious ‘apple chai’ in the middle of a carpet shop. How perfect! After I declined the offer of buying any of their beautifully made, intricately woven carpets, it had transpired that, lo and behold, one of their cousins owned a pension. I tried to explain that I’d just arrived and wasn’t ready to book any accommodation yet. I had my tent and would probably camp out. I wound up going to see their cousin’s pension out of politeness, which was clean, airy and reasonably priced as well. I went on to explain further that I thought the pension was great but I wanted to spend a few months cycling the whole length of their wonderful country. I thought the price was very fair, explaining that I had unlimited time but limited funds and would rather not sleep in too many pensions, but put my tent up where possible. They were intrigued with the idea, and then looked at me differently. “You want to do all this so you can explore my country?” one of them asked. “Yes,” I replied. The man looked almost overcome, his eyes glistening. “You come and stay in my house,” he said with sudden and unexpected force. “No, no, no. Really, thank you, but no.” He was already opening the door to his humble dwelling to show me inside, my protestations falling on deaf ears. We passed through what looked like the entrance way to a long corridor with doors off to all sides. “Put your bike here.” Then he pointed to a bed that looked like it had been slept in the night before, “and you sleep here. If you are willing to cycle through my country at least I can be the first to offer you hospitality.” Now it was my turn to feel overwhelmed. My gut feeling was that this man and his friends were sincere but I had only been off the boat from Greece – where the warning of how terrible the Turks are had been ringing in my ears for days – for a little less than an hour. I was adjusting to a whole new part of the world and being given a bed in a stranger’s house out of the blue was all a bit much. It must have shown on my face. My new friend put his hand on my arm. “Don’t worry, everything is safe, you have my word. I may be a carpet seller and a businessman, but I am Turkish, and my words are spoken from my heart.” Feeling mollified, I thanked him profusely and went to my pannier for a bag that I would need for buying some food. “Go,” said my host, “enjoy our village, we will eat lunch together at midday. See you then.” I walked away a little dazed, thinking, ‘Well, I guess this is Turkish hospitality.’ I wandered through the town looking for food and must have been invited in for ten cups of chai. The gossip highway had been busy that morning and everyone already knew that I was the cyclist staying with Abdullah.