Main Index     Pre-Tour      Post-Tour       Articles        Previous         Next       

The Street Guys

Don't listen to the fears of
the mainstream

R eading guidebooks, an activity that I have not really done as much of as one might expect, one inevitably reaches a section that speaks to traveler's safety. A similar situation arises, often to a greater degree, when watching television travel shows, an activity I have done even less frequently. In both cases, potential travelers to exotic locales will be fed a litany of tales regarding unfortunate souls who encountered some sort of dire misfortune in previous years. The advice proffered almost always falls into two categories; "Never go into the Wickedville neighborhood alone, instead stay near the tourist-class facilities built by the friendly MegaTravelCorp chain of hotels and guide services, which will provide you with a safe, sanitized, and wholly artificial view of the country," or "Travelers should only carry their money and passport in a Kevlar-lined pouch, which should be surgically implanted beneath the skin of their backs." I suppose that for mainstream tourists, who may not be very interested in actually seeing how people really live in other parts of the World, guidelines like those won't do much harm, at least. For a bicycle tourist, however, such policies are close to useless, as the very nature of that type of travel means that both recommendations will be violated on a regular basis. My thoughts on this topic can best be initiated by relating the following story, which takes place in the highland town of Mount Hagen, Papua New Guinea.

Smiles in PNG

Everyone smiles in Simbu, Papua New Guinea

Without Concern

Mount Hagen has a reputation for being a den of villainy, a town filled with evildoers and ne'er-do-wells. As I rode into the place, however, it seemed like a typical Papuan town to me. That is to say, there was not much of it. Towns in that country are a rather recent phenomenon, in general, and especially in the highlands. Most are a simple collection of unattractive cinderblock buildings scattered around a wide spot in the road. In spite of that, Hagen is still one of the largest towns in the New Guinea Highlands, and so it was a place that I was counting on to provide a filling meal and the ability to restock my supplies. As I rolled into town, after a tiring climb up to its 2,800-meter elevation, those were the only things on my mind. I noticed the Rainbow Market right away, thanks to its location on the edge of the highway. But, as befitting the town's status as a major regional hub, there was the unusual case of a second street running parallel to the highway for a couple of blocks, which appeared to be lined with various sorts of shops. Investigating, I cruised around the block to see if there were any better food options in the rest of the "downtown" area. Not seeing anything that appealed to me, I returned to the main road and went in to the Rainbow, to stock up.

The market had a covered cement porch, and so, as I often did, I wheeled the bike up onto it and leaned it against the blue masonry wall. As they are such a common sight in the country, I didn't pay much attention to the armed security guard who was standing near the entrance, accompanied by a rather impressive looking German shepherd dog. Inside, I soon realized that, like other grocery stores in PNG, the Rainbow Market was a little less than well stocked. There were plenty of cans of cooking oil, as well as the locally popular, but decidedly unappealing fish product, Besta , also in cans, but precious little that would quickly feed a hungry cyclist, and even less that would be easily portable and could be consumed the following day. However, there was one facility there that attracted my attention right away. Specifically, the little ice cream cone stand at the back of the store. There are a surprising number of such places around that country, which is not that surprising overall, given the tropical environment of the island, but which was a little unexpected for Hagen and its chilly mountain climate. Nevertheless, I jumped at the opportunity, and though it wasn't the richest cream in the World, I enjoyed licking my cone as I walked about the store.

At that point a man came up to me, who was dressed as if he might be the store manager, and asked if I was the man who just rode up on a bicycle. Though it seemed a rather obvious question to me, as there are very few bikes in PNG, and even fewer indigenous cyclists, I politely replied that indeed it was me. He then furrowed his brow with concern and, speaking in English, as opposed to Tok Pidgin or one of the 900, or so, local languages, informed me that; "Some Street Guys are after you!" The first thought that crossed my mind was; I wonder how he knew that? Did they come inside and tell him? For a brief instant, I thought about my unattended bike outside, and the rest of my gear, but then I recalled the security guard and his dog standing nearby, and realized that the bike would be fine. So, I shrugged my shoulders, thanked the man for informing me of that situation, and continued shopping.

Smiles in Bolivia

Young delinquents? No, friendly students in La Lava, Bolivia

Odd Places

Where issues of safety are concerned, there are a few unusual places in the World. Papua New Guinea is one of those. Having only been exposed to the industrial World, in any significant degree, for less than a hundred years, many of its residents are not long removed from the life of a traditional society, which may have included various forms of physical conflict. That is evident in the practice of "tribal fights" whereby political disputes are settled by local combat. Apparently, despite efforts to eliminate the practice, such events still occur from time to time. Another situation I observed there, one that I also saw in other parts of the World, was an exaggeration of the perception of local dangers based solely on unfamiliarity with the rest of the World. In effect, people hear about some sort of crime or other destructive activity, and assume that the place they live must be the most dangerous in the whole World. However, what most living there don't realize is that such problems occur everywhere, and people around the World have come to accept a certain amount of unpleasant behavior in their societies, and generally just try to get on with their lives. In PNG, however, people know little about other countries, and what goes on there. For example, I spoke to one man who insisted that watermelons are endemic to New Guinea, and that I should make an effort to try that exotic delicacy. While such cultural isolation may lead to patriotic support of the local fruits, it often seems that where violence and safety are concerned isolated peoples assume that the rest of the World is some kind of blissful paradise. Indeed, they may be surprised to be told that that is not really the case at all.

To be sure, Papua New Guinea has its problems. While I was there, I read a newspaper account describing a recent event in the capital, Port Moresby. Apparently, the local police department had stormed into a university dormitory and proceeded to beat up the school's boxing team. Why this was done was not made clear, but it could only have been an attempt to demonstrate once and for all who was the toughest bunch in town. My experiences were diametrically opposed to that, in fact I found PNG to be a completely safe and pleasant place in which to tour. Even more, the biggest problems I faced were more closely related to the population's myopic views on the danger of their country, and their corresponding Mother Hen behavior directed towards keeping the crazy "White Man" cyclist safe. Two examples illustrate that point.

Smiles in Bangladesh

Crowds are always cheery in Bangaldesh

In one case, I was just leaving the typically disheveled town of Kainatu after a less than satisfying lunch break. The area just past that town has had frequent trouble with Raskols. That Pidgin word refers to the local variety of highwayman, robber, or general miscreant. The raskols in the area live deep in the bush, and from time to time, have attacked what few busses and commercial trucks pass by on the Highlands Highway. When I was just about out of town, two men came up behind me in a bright red Coca-Cola truck. They were the local distributors for the fizzy beverage, and were adamant that if I tried to continue on, sometime over the next 20 kilometers the raskols would get me for sure. I really did want to get farther along that day, but I was unable to shake those two. Instead, I gave in and was invited to the man's home, where I was given a tasty dinner, listened to him, his wife, and two adorable kids sing spirituals, and provided with basic place to sleep for the night. In the morning we were to get a police escort to take me through the raskol zone. As it turned out, the police were too busy, which seemed odd, as I gathered that there had not been a raskol attack in many months. Instead, my new friend shuttled me through in his Coca-Cola truck, and, as I suspected, not a raskol was to be seen anywhere.

Later on, as I neared the very isolated highland town of Wabag, I learned that a Tribal Fight had just recently taken place in the area. It seemed to be over, and so I was not worried about continuing on. However, before long a small truck packed with local men came along, and they insisted that for my protection, they would have to be my "escort." I couldn’t really convey to them my lack of interest in trying to follow along behind a truck on a winding mountain road, and so I had to try and keep up. When we finally reached the end of what they considered to be the battle zone, they cheered and zoomed off ahead, clearly pleased with the good deed they had just done for me.

In both of these cases I made no effort to try and explain the poor logic behind these helpful gestures. I'm sure if there had been any raskols in the vicinity of Kainatu that morning, they would have been much more motivated to attack the brand new Coca-Cola truck as opposed to a quietly passing, scruffy-looking cyclist. Likewise, had there been any participants of the Tribal Fight lurking in the bushes near Wabag, they certainly would have been more interested in shooting my escorts, instead of the foreign cyclist without a dog in their fight. I suppose if I had to chose between a truly dangerous place and a merely overprotective one, I would take the latter, however.

Smiles in Tibet

Warm faces on the chilly Tibeatan Plateau

Another country that had a somewhat similar feel was South Africa. When I visited during Stage 3, in 02006, it had been a dozen years since the change of government that ended Apartheid, an event that one wealthy family I met referred to as The Takeover. To me, the origins of the views concerning safety held by many traced back to decades earlier, when the country was well known as a rather strict police state. In those years, I believe it was assumed by the minority ruling class that if ever political power was devolved to the majority, a vengeful, violent crime spree would surely result. That, of course, did not happen, for the most part, though that idea has still persisted in the country as a whole. That is evidenced by the increasing number of "secure" gated communities being built, and the fact that one of the nation's growth industries is private security services. To be sure, there is plenty of crime to be found, especially in the roughest areas of cities like Johannesburg, but I saw no indication that it was any worse there than in most other countries, including the country of my birth, the United States. That did not stop me form having to address the topic frequently, such as the time a couple of chatty local men asked me, "Aren't you worried that someone will sneak into your tent at night and kill you?" In such situations I made a point to laugh sardonically as I refuted that idea, so as to convey the pointlessness I found such levels of fear to hold.

Smiles in Timor Leste

Friendship and music in Viqueque, Timor Leste

Unreasonable Worries

If there was one thing I probably should have worried about during the Tour, it would have been the safety of the bike. After all, that was certainly the one thing on which the success of the Tour depended the most. I did carry a modest cable lock with me over all of those kilometers, but used it relatively rarely. The two conditions that caused me to do so the most were if I was staying indoors, and was not permitted to bring the bike into my room, or if it was simply in danger of falling over when left outside a shop, or similar location. If there was any place that should have caused me more than a minimal level of concern it was India. There, an unusual bike, like mine, never failed to draw a crowd of curious onlookers. The staring mob, almost always men, would often jiggle my shifters, squeeze my tires, or otherwise try to satisfy their mechanical curiosity, but never did any real harm. In fact, I soon became rather cavalier about walking off to a place where I could not see the bike, often for fairly extended periods of time. For I realized that among the crowd gathered around the bike there was always at least one man who was well respected by the others, and would sternly reprimand anyone who became a little too curious about the temporarily abandoned bike. I suppose I shouldn’t have gambled in such situations, but I must admit it felt rather nice and I really came to appreciate the ability to do so.

Smiles in India

Chance meetings bring smiles in Chardasi, India

Safety Through Camaraderie

In addition to the realization that people around the World are a lot friendlier than some would have you believe, there are some simple ways to reduce the chance of having any problems when on a long tour. These are mentioned in more detail in the sidebar, but they all boil down to one general principle: don't set yourself apart form the people you meet along the way. By implication, that includes the attitude of not setting yourself above the people you meet. It may seem obvious, but one frequently sees other travelers who seem to be oblivious to such a basic concept. For you are far less likely to encounter malice from a stranger in a faraway land if you treat them as one of your peers.

As an example, I return to Papua New Guinea, and my tour in its highlands. Specifically, in the town of Kundiawa, where, with a stroke of luck I located a place serving take-out pieces of roast chicken, just when I needed it the most. Unable to find a shady tree under which to sit to have a little picnic, I simply sat down on the sidewalk outside of the food stand, and began relieving my hunger. I was decidedly fixated on that task when a man sitting nearby made a slightly unwelcome attempt to start up a conversation. While I didn't have much desire to chat, I obliged anyway, out of politeness. Actually, he turned out to be a nice and interesting man, a teacher, in fact. People passing by seemed to be giggling and staring at me and my companion, and I was a little taken aback when he said to me; "They are surprised to see you. We have tourists pass through here sometimes, but you are the first one who has ever sat here on the sidewalk, eating with the rest of us." What better way could there be to avoid any unpleasant occurrences when far from home?

Waving in Madagascar

A colorful greeting at Andringitra, Madagascar

Ideas Die Hard

Nevertheless, the memes of peril seem to persist despite any real reason for them to do so. A big cause of that is the inertia that prevents old ideas from vanishing once they have been included in the popular guidebooks. A case in point from my Tour was Cambodia. Thirty years of civil war ended there in 01998, and tourists began to trickle back in shortly thereafter. The books that were written in the early '00s were replete with cautions about gang violence in the cities, robberies and other potential pitfalls. However, by the time I arrived in December of 02005, the situation had improved dramatically. In fact, I felt completely comfortable walking around alone on the dark streets of Phnom Phen one night, after midnight, when the residents were busy tossing the garbage out in the streets to be swept up by the army of nighttime street sweepers. The biggest risk I faced, as it seemed to me, was stepping in something unpleasant, or tripping over someone's broom.

However, after I had left the country, I overheard other tourists, on more than one occasion, discussing their plans for visiting the city. They invariably mentioned worries based on out of date published information similar to what I had read several years earlier. Another aspect of this phenomenon is the general over-cautious warnings given in books, and especially television travel programs, when it comes to visiting uncommon destinations. The reason for that is almost certainly a reluctance to expose the creators of the content to pointless litigation, should some clueless reader stumble into trouble. Surely, no one wants to be the one to say "No worries, go and visit Baghdad, the weather's great and the food is superb!" I can understand that to a degree, given our over-litigious society, but common sense has to prevail at some point.

Smiles in Ethiopia

Curious smiles in Dabat, Ethiopia

I Meet the Guys

Back in Mount Hagen, I soon exhausted whatever time I could spend wandering around the Rainbow Market looking for food. Gathering up my meager haul, I paid my bill and went out to try and spend at least a few moments of relaxation while I filled up on generally flavorless food. The first thing I noticed was that a second security guard, accompanied by a second German shepherd, had joined the original sentinel. Also very apparent was the fairly large crowd of townsfolk who were mingling around the storefront. Never one to feel comfortable as the center of attention, I rolled the bike a little farther down the store's porch, towards the enclosed corner of the building, which I hoped would make me a little more inconspicuous, and sat down on the cool cement.

Smiles in Madagascar

Bright smiles in Madagascar

It was not long before the crowd of people had formed a semicircle ten meters away from my position. I understood then that their purpose for being in the vicinity in the first place was to be able to participate in the always-enjoyable activity of watching the messy-looking White Man eating crackers. Periodically, one of the two guard dogs would decide that the people were getting just a little too close, and would jump up and bark a few times, causing the crowd to instinctively back up a few steps. That gave me just enough peace that I could finish an abbreviated lunch, but the continuous gawking, well meaning and smile-filled though it was, had me feeling a little uncomfortable. At that point I also noticed, standing at the back of the crowd, a group of three or four men, who were attired in the universal wardrobe of Tough Guys. Were they the Street Guys of whom I had been warned? Possibly. But if they were, they were there for the same reason as everyone else, and they passed the time pointing at me, and joking with one another. They may have been "after me" for no other reason then to satisfy the typical curiosity shown by many people from places infrequently visited by outsiders. By then, however, I had decided that it might be better to ride off into the countryside for a while, and perhaps finish my snack in a more secluded location. That turned out to be for the best, as I still had a long way to go that day in order to reach Wabag, and despite the escort I would later receive, I had just enough time to make it there.

Smiles in PNG

The smiles never end at Enga Border, Papua New Guinea

I can say with complete honesty that, apart from one or two pre-adolescent boys, who tried, but failed, to run off with a piece or two of my equipment, I did not meet one person, out of literally many thousands, who wished me any harm during the Tour. Not one. In fact, the true Street Guys are the people in the image above, all the others shown on this page, and hundreds more not pictured, which I had the good fortune to meet while on the Tour of Gondwana. Their friendliness and welcoming nature was one of the highlights of the Tour for me, and meeting such people, while cycling along a quiet road, in some remote location, in an overlooked country, far away from the over-developed World, is why I now enjoy touring in such places more than any others. Despite what the guidebooks have to say about them.

Tips For Trouble-Free Travel

It is not really very hard to adopt an attitude, and to follow tactics, that will enhance one's safety when traveling in remote parts of the World. Most of what is required is simple common sense, though that seems to be a quality that many other travelers I have met have yet to cultivate in themselves. Fortunately, a long bicycle tour leads to most of these behaviors by default, for those who travel that way.

Here are some ideas that seem obvious to me, but which I would encourage others to follow to make the most out of their travels:

~ Smile all the time. It sounds silly, but you would be surprised how well this works;

~ Treat strangers as friends, and with the same respect you would show anyone else;

~ Take a genuine interest in the culture, history, and customs of the area you are visiting. If you aren't interested in those things, what are you doing there in the first place?

~ Learn at least a few words in the local language of the area in which you are traveling. "Hello," "Good Morning," "Thanks," and "Goodbye," are usually sufficient. Say one of these to any stranger you meet before they say anything to you. The effect is astounding;

~ Don't let a lack of a common language become an issue when interacting with local people. Do the best you can, use gestures, smile a lot, and when all else fails shrug your shoulders and move on. Never employ the useless technique of speaking English more slowly and loudly to people who have no chance of understanding;

~ Avoid any attempt to show off your status by dressing in the most stylish attire. Basic clothes are much more appropriate. For cyclists, if one must wear an official cycling jersey, go with a plain color instead of a corporate-billboard-type;

~ A corollary to the above; follow local codes of dress as much as possible when visiting temples, museums, etc. That usually only requires carrying one pair of convertible pants and a decent shirt;

~ Of course, leave your gold jewelry, watches, and so forth at home. No one will be impressed by seeing them;

~ Carry yourself the way the locals do and avoid luxurious means of transport and services, such as the black-glass-windowed tour buses. Cyclists have a built-in advantage here. Nothing instills camaraderie with the local population more than riding together along the local highway;

~ Never get carried away with haggling for prices, no matter the situation. Arguing endlessly about the cost of a one-dollar diner plate will do nothing but create animosity towards you;

~ Never complain about the costs of things, even if you are not getting the windfall you were expecting;

~ Never flash around the big wads of cash that you are carrying. No one will be impressed;

~ Remember, even if you do not consider yourself to be a "Rich Person"– You are;

~ Try to patronize local shops and businesses as much as possible instead of the invading "First World" juggernauts;

~ When staying indoors, don't automatically seek out the absolute least-costly place available. A peaceful night's sleep is often a bonus created by following this policy;

~ Bypass the temptation to partake in late night clubbing; boozefests, or other typical "nightlife" activities. You can do those things anytime at home, after all;

~ Controlled substances, or other mind-altering things? Really, that's just asking for trouble;

~ If you should encounter a threatening-looking political demonstration or other protest, nonchalantly observe for a moment or two from the edges, just to figure out what's going on. Then, zip on through, or, preferably, head off in the other direction;

~ Traffic is always an issue, in most places (with a few blissful exceptions), don't be intimidated, keep you wits about you, and accept that you won't be able to complain loudly enough to change the most abhorrent driving behaviors;

~ And, finally, act as an ambassador from your own culture. Demonstrate to those that you meet that the part of the World that you come from is full of kind, intelligent, and thoughtful people, just as the place that you as visiting surely is.

Women's Safety

I have often been asked for my opinion concerning safety concerns for women traveling in some of the countries of the Tour, especially for those who are traveling alone. My instincts are to reply that there should be no unusual problems, especially if they follow the guidelines given above. However, I am not a member of that gender, and as such, I really have no idea what additional concerns women might have, or how the people in various parts of the World might treat them differently. Consequently, while my advice above still applies, it might be prudent for the ladies out there to seek out input from other women travelers as well.