Friday, May 20, 2011

Bikers, Do-Gooders, and a Punk Rocker’s Secret

Sometimes I think I’m kind of cool traveling all over the world the way I do.  Until, that is, I meet people who dwarf me in terms of travel coolness.  This happened several times along the way, and I want to mention a few of those people, honorably, here on Travelarity.

The Bikers

I’m talking bicycles, not motorcycles.  The kind where you have to use your own two legs to motor.  Over the past months, I shared hostels with, and got to know, several people in the midst of long, arduous bike rides across Europe.

The first was a mid-twenties, French elementary school teacher—math, I think he said.  His name is Tibo, and when we met in Kotor, he was taking a break from teaching to ride his bicycle from Kazakhstan to France.  Yes, you read that right, that's Kazakhstan, as in, Kazakhstan.  He blogs about it along the way, so his schoolchildren can follow along and learn.  And this:  he was totally friendly to me—an American—and was extraordinarily humble despite this incredible adventure and good looks to boot.  See for yourself.  

In Albania I met an Australian couple—Greg and Marika—riding their bicycles from Greece to Portugal. We shared dinner in Tirana one night at a great restaurant called Era.  The authentic Albanian food was excellent and a great value.  Most important, the laughter was priceless.  This week they emailed from Croatia; they're continuing to push on.  If anyone is going to make it, it's these two.  They are my age, and my new inspiration.  Can you imagine?

The other bicyclists I met were from northern California; they’re currently riding the other way, from Portugal to China.  I really liked them at first, but then my feelings turned sour over a barbeque one night.  It was an international crowd with representatives from Australia, Canada, Mexico, Italy, Britain, The Netherlands, and, of course, America.   The topic turned, once again, to how dumb and insular Americans are, particularly with respect to the world and geography.  These two young American clowns were yammering the loudest. 

Not cool, I thought.  I don’t know, but I just think it breaks a certain code when you bash your own country in front of a mixed international crowd, especially one that contains a Canadian.  The horror I felt.  Not to mention, in some respects it was me they were talking about.  (Or was it I?)  Just the week before I learned there’s a place in the world called Guernsey that I’d never heard of.  And I’ll be the first to admit:  I’ve traveled all over the world and still probably couldn’t pinpoint Bhutan on a map.  

We started to argue some and I tried to defend my fellow citizens from the dissing.  I met with no success.  The anti-American fire grew bigger and bigger, and these guys kept stoking the flames with more and more anecdotal evidence of American stupidity.

In one case, they said, they told an American of their plan to ride their bikes form Portugal to China.   The American reportedly asked in response:  “How are you going to get your bikes across the ocean?”  This so-called dumb (I say geographically-challenged) American apparently thought Portugal was in South America.

Even with all my lawyer training, it was hard to come up with a straight-faced defense to that one.  But I tried nonetheless.  I said, “Well that’s not so far off.  They do speak Portuguese in Brazil.”  After which the affable British guy turned to me and said:  “Did you just say that?” 

The Brit knew I was kidding, and we had a good laugh.  Still I was annoyed with these two hippie-elitists.  So you know where Djibouti is?  Good for f@*#ing you.  Tell me, what have you done to alleviate human suffering?

I did peek on their blog later, after figuring out its name from internet history on the hostel’s public computer.  (Psycho, I know.)  I had to eat a little crow as a result.  Their blog said that they plan to raise and donate money to a yet-to-be-determined charity somehow in connection with their journey.  So they do, in fact, intend to make an attempt at alleviating something. 

And to be fair, they did make coherent arguments concerning Americans who remain willfully ignorant of the world around them.  But do we have to discuss that in front of others?  What happens in America should stay in America, I think.  Or is that me being too insular?

And just a side note on that Guernsey thing.  I shared a room in Kotor with a sweet, 22-year-old named Josh.  When he said, with a British accent, that he was from Guernsey, near Jersey, I asked him to repeat the whole thing, slowly.  Apart from New Jersey, I had never heard of Jersey, or Guernsey.  Certainly I’d never met anyone from either of those places.

Apparently, the Bailiwick of Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy.  (That’s in France.)  As of 2008, Guernsey’s population was 65,726.  And now one of those 65,000-plus people is my friend.  And, no, I don’t know what a Bailiwick is.  I got that straight from Wikipedia.

The Do-Gooders

Picture this:  two post-high school teenagers from England on a gap year before heading off to college.  You’d think they be going wild in Amsterdam or living it up on some Greek island.  But what have they chosen to do instead?  They’re driving from London to Tajikistan, in an older-BMW that they purchased, in order to donate it to charity once there. 

Doesn’t sound real, right? 

It’s true.  I passed an evening in Macedonia getting to know them a bit.  They had posh British accents and seemed well-heeled.  They were movie-star good looking too, so I just assumed they’d be arrogant snot-noses.  But, no.  They were genuinely polite, thoughtful, and completely down-to-earth.  When I heard they were on a mission for charity, I almost laughed in their faces.  That’s how ridiculously-extraordinary these two kids were.  I gave them my email, and have been waiting for them to tell me they made it safely.  Gosh, I hope they did.

A Punk Rocker’s Secret

Also in Macedonia, I stayed in the room next to a punk rocker from New Zealand.  I didn’t know he was a punk rocker at first, because when he walked in, he looked like an average Joe.  I didn’t see, at the time, that some of his hair was green.

I can’t tell you much about the middle part of the story, because he made me swear not to.  So—yada, yada, yada—some time later my hostel-mate emerged from his room with a green mohawk that stood about nine inches high all around his head.  He allowed me to ask him a lot of questions, not least of which was:  what’s it like traveling like we do with a mohawk such as that?  He then posed patiently while I took 360 degrees worth of pictures.

Apparently punk rockers have their little secrets as to how they get their hair to stand up like that.  I now know how it’s done, at least in this case.  And I’m going to keep my promise to my friend.  Barring any kind of torture situation, his secret is completely safe with me.