Cultural Triangles, Circles, and Conundrums

Yesterday, we departed the “Cultural Triangle“ region of Sri Lanka that we had been working our way through.”

Similar to Grant and my Icelandic bicycling adventures along last summer’s “Golden Circle” (an area where bus loads of tourists get ferried around to see the various waterfalls, geysers, glaciers, volcanos, and other natural attractions) before we got to the more desolate interior of Iceland, Sri Lanka’ cultural triangle has a number of natural and man-made wonders through which tour operators make their living bringing busloads of tourists to archaeological sites, ancient rock fortresses, the ruins of ancient temples, giant Buddhist temples perched on top of giant rock hills covered with monkeys and filled with sleeping giant Buddha statues, and spice garden tours that show off the wonders of healing plants found in the jungles (complete with a doctor’s assessment of whats going on inside your body, and a strong recommendation for what natural medicines might cure it once and for all).

In the past two days, we’ve also glided past giant game parks (think Jurassic Park for elephants) complete with safari jeep tours. Being on a tight budget, we’ve opted to just wait for a random elephant to come crashing out of the undergrowth as we pedal down the highway, instead of signing up for a tour. It’s more exciting, dangerous, and most importantly, it’s free. We’ve done our best to weave our way past the touristy stuff, opting for free views when we can get them.  There’s plenty you can see from a bicycle thats free.

However, we did stop to see a couple temples, (although the entry fee is pretty steep, and quite higher, for foreign tourists). These stops have been informative, interesting, and have shown a side of Sri Lanka that you would see if you picked up any travel brochure or looked up any YouTube video on this beautiful country. But they don’t seem to explain a lot of other things I have been seeing and seeing along the roads here, things that you won’t find in any tourism video.

Yesterday, we left all that stimulus behind; the Tuk-Tuk pools with drivers awaiting to negotiate their price to bring a tourist to the next destination (“why would you want to walk through the dust and dodging traffic to the temple?”), the “guides” who seize upon you the moment you step out of a Tuk-Tuk, authorities on what you are about to see, etc. I couldn’t even stop my bicycle for a one minute rest a few days ago, without a spice-garden proprietor gliding up to me out of nowhere to offer me a tour (always insisting, not taking no for an answer). “But I’m not a tourist,” I kept thinking to myself, “I’m on a bicycle, here to just observe this world from my seat and share it back with my friends back home, not to consume a tour package or go whale watching.” Yes, that’s how I may see myself. But that’s not what others see, looking at me and my Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang bicycle.

Some realizations have begun to come to me because of this journey. I’m happy for these moments, and expect them, because it means my view of the world is deepening.

Michael and I have not encountered one single long-distance bicyclist since we hit the road 10 days ago. Not one. Not only do we seem to be the only ones (at least in this part of the country, at this point in time), but we are most definitely the only ones on fat bikes. I look at my SURLY as a pack mule, a way to carry a limited amount of needs (a small pack of clothing, tools for repairs, ability to haul a few gallons of water, toiletry kit, etc) and to do it with dependability. A regular road bike, with packs, just wouldn’t be able to do it easily, the way a 29″ hardtail with 3’s can. These large thick tires have been the perfect choice for over here, as road debris is considerable. Truthfully, there’s garbage everywhere here, piled along the roads, around homes, filling the ditches. I’ve never seen anything like it, except in very economically depressed parts of inner cities in the US. I feel a little more comfortable having this pack mule to help negotiate the hazards. But I’m also much more exposed to them, being on the outside and moving much more slowly. There’s no way to ignore it. The hazards are many; zooming huge lunging buses that sometimes barrel up from behind you on the shoulder, dogs to be constantly on the alert for, motorcycles, and objects that might puncture a tire. Riding a bike through Sri Lanka requires a lot of physical and mental effort, thats for sure. And a certain level of insanity.

No wonder we create a constant whiplash effect on folks as we go by. Kids, seeing us from a distance, go running down to the end of their driveways to wave and yell “Bye-bye!!”, workers in the fields stop their work and yell out to each other and point, Tuk-Tuks zoom up and passengers pop their heads out and hail us, and even the police and military personnel, posted at various points along our ride, appear startled as we pass by, and some acknowledge with a quiet, careful smile.

All of that has started to get to me.

What helped put it into some sort of perspective was seeing a young kid pass by me on a bicycle as we sat at an outdoor food stand in a small Sri Lankan village, taking in some sustenance after 50km of riding in the brutal heat through a pretty desolate part of the country. We were rehydrating from big 2-liter bottles of cooled water we had just bought, watching a woman cook small pancakes made out of dough and coconut. As I watched her through the haze of her cook fire, I noticed a small boy on a bicycle glide past in the background, carrying a large plastic jug at his side. Some minutes later, he reappeared heading in the other direction, the water jug full and carefully balanced behind him as he made his way back up the road. My conversation with Michael continued. Minutes later, the boy reappeared again, the jug by his side, empty again, on his way back down to his water source. These trips by the boy repeated themselves several times throughout the course of our small meal, and I had a realization that here I was, drinking cold water casually and very conveniently out of a giant bottle that I had paid $.65 for, and that I could buy very easily pretty much anywhere along this journey, but here was a kid that spent a good part of his morning having to transport, via bicycle, water likely not as pure and clean nor as expensive, for the purpose of his family’s daily use and survival. This little guy’s determined journeys up and down the road via bicycle this were the only way his family could enjoy what only took me opening my wallet to achieve, and done in far less time.

Back in the US, my annual income as a free-lance artist places me at the lowest end of the middle class. Compared to many here, though, my position of class would be considered incredibly wealthy.  I am being reminded of this with every revolution of my wheels.  I’ve never been keen on wanting to switch places for a life at a more frenetic pace. I’ve enjoyed working hard for myself, deciding on how to utilize my time and limited resources, performing around the world because of my talents, and all in all, its been a good way to make my way through life, being creative.  But because of recent civil war, and its long after effects, its my sense that perhaps many Sri Lankan people would prefer to switch places for a life devoid of fewer challenges.  I am reminded of the need to never take what I have for granted.

These bike journeys are an extension of my creative life, connected to a cause to draw attention to the need for cancer research and done in memory of my friend Carolyn who changed her life because of what she learned about herself riding her bicycle long distances for good causes. I enjoy being able to somehow manage to take a month off from my piano (with the help of friends and supporters who follow these journeys), to take in the world of another country via bicycle, and to then reflect back to others the importance of slowing life down and learning how to reflect on worlds much further out from our own. Sometimes those reflections lead to inner changes I might not otherwise consider in my life.

I kinda wish I could glide, cloaked, silently, along these roads, observing, learning, working on my ride for a cure. Right now, at least at this juncture of self-realization, I’m feeling pretty opulent. A bit overdone. Like the Sri Lankan hyper-touristy advertising that I was going out of my way to avoid back in the Cultural Triangle, I now sense that I myself appear as some sort of giant fat-tired gliding giant billboard, advertising Western lifestyles. The one solace I have against all this is the fact that I’m not wearing head-to-toe blaze orange Lycra like my Siberian-Russian co-rider. That’s been helping take a serious amount of attention off of my presence on the road.  Almost like being invisible.

It’s likely to be causing a serious bus accident pretty darn soon.

I’m George Maurer, I’m a jazz pianist and long-distance bicyclist, riding for a cure across Sri Lanka this summer, in memory of my friend Carolyn Held who died of cancer. Please help me meet my fundraising goal of $8,000 raised for cancer research at Mayo Clinic.  Here’s how you can give: