We all promote cycling every time we ride -- but some people go further; and put all their energies towards raising the profile of cycling. [This example] show how the Internet can help campaigners bring cycling to a worldwide audience.
Let your message go far
Their job is to tour the countries around the Mediterranean Sea, using the bicycle, their computers and the Internet to create links across cultures. Corinne Whitney tells the story of the Bikeabout Project. As we go to press they're somewhere in Slovenia.
Biking for nine months and writing historical, cultural, linguistic, artistic, and autobiographical reports about each place we stop -- that's our work! Our job involves giving and taking. Each day we despatch a report on the Internet, accompanied by digital pictures and sound. This is offered to learning establishments worldwide: multi-media learning to the maximum. In parallel with this we visit schools and colleges en route, meeting with students aged from 8 to 24. The teachers like the idea of cross-cultural exchange, and the kids enjoy any break in the monotony of a school week. We in turn collect and process material for the website, our only home-base, which our WebMistress in the USA comtinually updates.
A typical visit goes like this. The kids look us up and down as we walk in. Usually they're more interested in the Wheeler mountain bikes and our helmets than in us. As standard-fare Americans we don't match up to the US movie and sports stars they see on TV. But once we explain that Bikeabout-the Mediterranean has come to visit them all the way from Morocco, and by bike, they perk up a little. Then they get downright suspicious. What are we, crazy?
Their attention snaps into place when we open up our laptops. They're ready to touch, play, learn, use. First we talk about the Internet, explaining that it's a "new way to communicate, with anywhere in the world". Many of the kids know that both computers and the Internet are great for games, but our aim is to see the Net used for 'higher purposes'. This was, and is, the Bikeabout mission, and we are all biking enthusiasts who contend that the Internet can and should be used for education and communication.
We list for the students where we have been or will be cycling -- Morocco, Tunisia, Malta, Egypt, Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Turkey, Greece, the Balkans, Italy, France and Spain. This is fine, but these kids want to see pictures. They want proof of all this in big-screen, surround-sound format, and luckily,we can offer it. It is not easy for each of us to carry a laptop in a trailer or pannier, but the technology earns us points with the kids. Some of us have traditional teaching backgrounds -- others don't. So we all use our own methods to make the kids feel comfortable with us. That we are five very different personalities helps give the kids a choice of someone to relate to.
Showing them the website on our computers, we explain how we Bikeabouters spend each day. Sometimes biking through mountains, deserts, and politically sensitive frontiers, or boarding all sorts of mass transportation with our bikes, scraping together every ounce of useful information from our current location to use in the reports. The trick is to be sure that kids on the road and on the 'Net actually find it useful in their own lives. We want to show young people how to use the Internet best in the future, while helping provide quality content for kids already on line. To combine this with cycling is a constant challenge.
We ask questions. What countries do they want to see? What did they already know about kids their age who live in some of these countries? Could they imagine what it might be like to ride a bike in these different places? We use the laptops and the stored versions of the website to show them the digital photos of us above the clouds, or posing by the sea, and some of our friends their own age who we'd met along the way.
Before leaving we ask, as visitors to their country, for a little insight from them. Can they recommend foods for us to try, and teach us a little about their language and customs? They clamoured to make sure we tried the local specialties, and laughed as we mispronounced every word they taught us. We hope the light-hearted nature of our exchanges with young people comes across in the photos, so that students following, then and now, the journey on the Internt see these kids as their equals, and as an important part of the whole event. Then it's the kids' turn to ask questions, and we answer as much as possible before going. They are always surprised to hear that none of us owns a car back home.
These aren't the only cultural surprises we encounter, or initiate. Very often people on the road are all smiles upon seeing us. "Just grin and nod," they seem to think, "until these lunatics have passed." In some of the poorer areas of the Mahgreb the people actually looked at us with pity, as is to say: "We at least have a donkey to carry our things." Others assume we're just wealthy Westerners, and treat us like idiot tourists. Basically, it's anyone's guess what people make of our little caravan, but we have encountered every sort of response -- from hurled rocks to fully prepared meals!
For every unpleasant glance there are ten broad smiles, just as every glimpse of breathtaking scenery means a butt-busting climb at one point or another. Our bikes take a beating, although it's nothing compared to the things which we saw local people do with their own poor old bicycles, carrying loads and people. Since women don't ride bikes at all in the Mahgreb, the two female BikeAbouters have come as a shock to the public more than once, making the question the same in every country, in every language. "Hm," the border guard, restaurateur, school director, or hotel owner would start, "all that biking must give you...", and their eyes sort of haze over, "...strong legs, no?"
If there is anything more shocking to the public than us using bicycles as a means of long distance transport, it is the fact that we are not on holiday -- but actually working, with our 'virtual offices' on our bikes. We often shut ourselves in hotel rooms for a whole day, hunched over a computer, when there is so much to see and do outside, so much sunshine to enjoy. Typical tourists we are not! Equally amazing for onlookers is the fact that we carry great quantities of stuff in our heavy panniers and trailer sacks, yet none of it is camping gear or sleeping bags.
Hotel and guesthouse owners often need to be coaxed into letting us take the bikes indoors or onto back patios for overnight storage, but once people clap eyes on the odd little devices we have, like digital cameras and GPS (Global Positioning System -- a satellite navigation device --Ed), they just don't know what we're up to! When we try to explain the goals of the trip people often just nod blankly, perhaps wondering how long this peculiar group will be staying -- or how soon they'll be on their way!
For a year-round trip such as this, we have to rely on our friends and families to ship supplies to us wherever possible. This has obliged them to get better acquainted with the Internet than they ever were before. But staying in touch isn't nearly as tough as we thought it would be. To our surprise, Internet cafés are to be found in almost all big cities. Trying to use phone lines has proven more difficult, because people think we're calling the USA, not realising that Internet calls are charged at local rates. Or they have seen too many spy movies and fear government reaction to using computers on their lines! Technopobia, we find, has no geographical, political, or ethnic boundaries. But neither does friendliness, curiosity, or goodwill.
The people who have taken part in the BikeAbout project have had nothing but positive things to say. Those we have engaged with during our journey,as well as those following the 'virtual odyssey' online, have, we believe, been inspired in one way or another by our aims and the way we have carried them out. In Tunisia, BikeAbout 'brought the Internet to the youth of the country' by convincing a number of companies to assist the start of Internet Clubs at youth sports centres. In the USA, classes following the journey have altered their curriculum to include learning more about people in Mediterranean countries -- countries that might have otherwise remained obscure to the teachers themselvses.
We don't think it's too presumptuous to say that our journey is leaving in its wake people and places that will never be the same. It is not impossible that, inspired by the BikeAbout females, some women in restrictive cultures have been inspired to cut their hair, embark on solo cross-country journeys, and learn to ride a bike. Whatever changes we bring about, knowingly or not, the experience has already had a great impact on our own lives. We all see the world differently now.
We can only guess at what kind of afterlife Bikeabout-the Mediterranean will have on the Internet, and how it might keep people communicating. The entire nine-month journey, documented and detailed with historical and cultural information, can be found free of charge, at http://www.bikeabout.org/medit.htm.
Carrying notebook computers, digital cameras and other expensive gear on a bike was worrying at first, but our fears of their fragility have proved unfounded. For the first few months we took turns pulling two BOB YAK trailers, each of which held big sacks from Ortlieb, and contained a hard-shell, waterproof, padded Pelican case. Each case protected two computers, and put the entire weight of the trailer at about 25kg, complete with cables, tools, and spare parts. After completing North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey, however, we decided to give up on the whole trailer business. While all the products worked fine, it was all too heavy, too dangerous in congested traffic, and just too conspicuous! Beginning in Greece, we simply put the computers in water-tight ziplock bags, and put them straight in our panniers wrapped in clothing or padded with paper materials. So far, they're holding up fine.
Bikeabout is partly financed by sponsorship from several companies, and it is only right to list them. Computers are provided by Compaq, bikes by Wheeler, and saddles from Selle Royale. In addition, many 'partner' organisations work with Bikeabout, including educational software suppliers Computer Curriculum Corporation and website experts Daedalus Design Group. Further support comes from a variety of humanitarian organisations and, of course, from many people and companies along the way.
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