Slow-cycle.com caught up with Susan via Zoom at her home in Leicester. We were supposed to be meeting up in person, along with some other female cycle tourists, for her 50th Birthday Tour in Scotland last month. Sadly, that was cancelled due to the pandemic.
After two and a half years of travelling, Susan returned to the UK in early February. You can link directly to Susan’s own blog at pfaffingandcycling.wordpress.com/ for details of her adventures organised by country or location. Many thanks for letting me have an interview 🙂 Ruth McIntosh @Slow-cycle.com
My dad cycled everywhere when we were kids because we didn’t have a car. Me and my brother starting riding our bikes when we were quite young. I remember breaking my thumb when I was five. It was just around the corner and I lost 5p. I went looking for that 5p for years afterwards but I never found it!
Bike Maintenance Skills
Before I went touring in 2017, I hung around with a chap called Billy the owner of Billy’s Bespokes Bike Company in Leicester. Billy’s website can be found at billys-bespoke-bike.co.uk. On Saturdays he kindly let me spend time with him. He taught me how to change brake cables, gear cables, the chain and how to index my gears.
Billy also showed me how to change the cassette but it wasn’t something I’d have the equipment for. I was basically prepared for emergencies or breakdowns and a little bit of maintenance. If I could change the chain every so often, I wouldn’t have to change the cassette, so really it was all about maintenance. If something major happened, there was only so much kit I could carry, I’d have to take my bike to a repair shop.
My bike is called Simaima, which is Tongan for Jemima. I think it’s a nice name and it reminded me of the rag-doll in Playschool which I’d watched as a kid in the 1970’s.
My Gentle Start to Bike Touring
My first cycle tours were with Explore and Exodus who carry your bags. They’re quite expensive but there’s safety in numbers. My first tour was in Finland and I was a Personal Trainer at the time. I didn’t want to go on a holiday where I’d lose my fitness and come back not able to fit in to my clothes. The Finland trip was self-guided, so everyone had a map. At 35, I was the youngest on the tour and we were supposed to self-navigate. My map stayed pristine because I’d just follow the others!
I guess I like communing with people more than nature! I ride my bike with a blue tooth speaker so there’s not going to be any birdsong! Favourite artists to cycle to are Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder so I share a little bit of Luther and Stevie everywhere I go!
Saving, De-cluttering and Faffing
The preparation for my World Trip took two years. One of the biggest things was getting my cat re-homed. I gave that cat the best years of my life (only joking)! I was working full time at that point so I could save some money. Afterwards, I realised that I could have gone earlier if I’d not spent so much time worrying about the cat, saving and de-cluttering the things I didn’t necessarily need. I remember when I was 18 and got a gold crown. The dentist said, “maybe you might want a plaster cast of your teeth?” so I carried the impression of that around with me for years from house to house.
A lot of the planning was making sure that I had the right Visas and I would also carry extra stuff proving that I had a house in the UK, copies of vaccination certificates. I flew to Vancouver first. The biggest worry with my whole journey was that I’d get to embark on a journey and have to prove that I was a bona-fide traveller.
Places and Mileage
From Vancouver I did the west coast of Canada and the west coast of America. Then Hawaii, New Zealand, Tonga, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea then back to the US to re-visit friends, Portugal and Spain. I know it sounds like a lot. I was away for two and half years in total. Some people visit more countries and visit the whole of the country but for me it wasn’t ticking off destinations on a list, it was the whole experience. I never did more than sixty miles, ideally thirty a day. I think in my first year I did less mileage than I’d been doing at home in the UK. The whole beauty of cycle touring is that it takes you off the beaten track. Some places draw you in. People are surprised when you go back to have breakfast in the same place for two days in a row.
Websites like Warmshowers and Couch-surfing make it easier to find somewhere to stay. I prefer Warmshowers because it tends to be run by and for cyclists. On the Couchsurfing website there are boxes you can tick to choose your preferences. There’s all these tick-boxes: male or female? They also give information about where you’ll sleep: shared surfaces being one of the options! I did get a marriage proposal in Thailand but that was just a marriage of convenience. I met some guy in Cambodia who was really friendly and I didn’t realise that he maybe wanted more until he had to spell it out. A lot of people would feed me and pay the bill because they’re curious. They’d often ask: Where do you come from? How old are you? Where’s your husband? I remember being asked that last one by a five-year old.
Families, Customs and Cultures
I spent a lot of time in Indonesia where I met a woman who was studying towards her PhD. After a week or two of knowing her she invited me back to her family home in Sumatra. She was a Lecturer in a government University. In Indonesia, if you want a senior position in government, you need to get your qualification from a government University. The ratio was always 70% male 30% female. She accepted that it made sense in her culture, where men are the head of the house. Then again, there are different customs in Islamic countries.
When comparing Indonesia with Malaysia, even though Indonesia has a higher Muslim population, in Malaysia a Muslim woman always had wear a headscarf and this was policed by special officials who went around checking.
In Malaysia I spent a weekend with a Malay family. The brother of the family had friends visiting in the garden and his sister needed to speak to him so she couldn’t step out of the living room, she had to poke her head out. In Indonesia, the scarf was the woman’s choice.
Interestingly in Tonga, I was there 25 years ago when you wouldn’t see a Tongan woman out in the street on her own, she had to be chaperoned. The chaperones could be quite brutal. If a girl went to a disco, she would have to be chaperoned. If a boy asked a girl to dance and was too persistent, you’d see the chaperones hitting the boys and telling them to go away. It isn’t like that anymore, and so many more women were driving and out and about on their own.
I met a young woman in America called Clara who cycled across America from East to West. I met her in Oregon. She’d got some interesting stories about her experiences in Middle America. She stayed at people’s houses and asked if she could put her tent in their garden and they’d invite her in to stay in a bed. They reasoned that if they had a daughter, they would want her to be looked after. She started her journey with a Hispanic lad but they parted ways. I remember her saying that she thought he would struggle to get the same kind of reception.
In Malaysia and Vietnam young people want to travel but their parents won’t let them. I met this lad in Vietnam, he was a Warmshowers host, and he started doing it to introduce his parents to people: it was his way of getting permission. It’s hard for them, especially if they work in the family business, there’s no choice. This is particularly the case for the Chinese-Malaysians who’ve had family businesses for generations.
Some people are easier to get to know than others. I went back to Thailand twice and stayed for six months. Part of the reason was to get to know the people and try to get them to share their stories. I was working as I teacher would ask loads of questions. I saw a marquee tent outside somebody’s house, it was open so it had no sides, just a roof really. I was curious to get some information about what happens to bodies before they are buried, who might visit. Maybe it was a taboo subject but it was the same when I asked about weddings. They weren’t very forthcoming. In Tonga they’re constantly telling you stories about how the coconut got his eyes and one about the hook of Maui, a Polynesian god who fished the Polynesian Island out of the sea with his hook.
Surviving a Cyclone
I was overwhelmed by people’s generosity. I was in Tonga when there was a cyclone. It was pretty wild, the worst cyclone for fifty years. I was staying with a friend and she had given me the best bed in the house because I was the honoured guest. During the cyclone I was in the bedroom and the rest of the family were in the living room together. Things were being blown about. A coconut could have blasted through the window and knocked me out! By the end of the night I was in the living room with them because my bed had been under the window. Safety in numbers. There was very little damage to the house. We were very lucky because my friend’s husband was a carpenter.
Speaking English is a big advantage. Most people would talk to me in English. It is a bit embarrassing really isn’t it? South Korea was the place where I struggled most with not being able to speak my host’s language. I had taken a picture dictionary with me so I could point to that but I didn’t use it much. A lot of people are amazed that tourists like me visit their country and they’ll go out of their way to help, especially if you’re a woman.
While I was away, I trained to Teach English as a Foreign Language. It’s interesting. There’s a side to it where you feel English is being forced on people. I remembered teaching Science in Tonga. It feels horrible making people speak English in place like Tonga but you do need it to communicate. One of my ex-students explained it to me like this, she went to a conference in South America. In order for her to speak to and understand everybody else, she needed English because no one there would understand a word of Tongan.
I taught Primary in Thailand. There’s a lot of chalk and talk, repetition and learning by rote. Children are really hot-housed. I would ask them what they would be doing at the weekend and a lot of them would be doing more learning through private tuition or assessing on-line classes. They were always being entered competitions too. My class got gold medals for their Science project. They were aged 5-11 and they had to come every lunchtime for extra learning. As a teacher I realised how structured my own language had to be, even down to my handwriting. I had to practise to get it on point! It all feels very enforced, maybe it’s the legacy of the British Empire? There are so many other languages out there. English seems to dominate too much.
Passport control is always a challenge for me in all countries. My heart’s beating in my chest. I think: am I going to get stopped? I remember going to Majorca from the UK with a friend who was white. We were going through Passport Control in separate lanes and she got really angry. I said, “there’s nothing you can do”, whilst they scrutinised my passport.
I went to America twice. In 2017 people said, “We’re glad you’ve come to visit. We hope you see that American is not like it is portrayed on the TV”. I stayed on the west coast, which is far more liberal-minded. Lots of the American people who I met along the way weren’t happy with the way things were going.
When I arrived back in America for the second time, in November 2019, I was detained for 5 hours. Trump had just imposed a further travel ban on Eritrea, Krgyzstan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Sudan and Tanzania, countries where there is a Muslim population. It wasn’t nice to know the only reason I was being stopped. I had to wait in a room with 100 other people. Everybody was black or brown and the majority were from Central or South America.
The only other place I got stopped and made to wait was in a remote part of Sumatra where they didn’t get any visitors. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to go there. When I returned to passport control to leave the country, they were really friendly and asked me if I’d had a good time.
Route Planning, Safety and Flexibility
Originally, I was going south from South America and Chile but I ended up going west instead because I couldn’t resist the pull of Hawaii, Tonga and New Zealand. Listening to advice along the way, I erred on the side of caution and went to countries which were safer. When you read other people’s blogs, they’re often about hardship but that didn’t appeal to me. Although I planned for the trip, I didn’t have a fixed itinerary and made it up along the way.
I hope I’ll travel again someday. I’m in lockdown at the moment with my mum in Leicester who’s shielding. The cat is still with her new family. I went to visit her one last time before I left but she’d settled in and completely blanked me!
You can link directly to Susan’s own blog at pfaffingandcycling.wordpress.com/ for details of her adventures organised by country or location. Words taken from an interview with Ruth McIntosh. Please see goodapplecopy.com to find out more about Ruth and her writing.
Susan seems to think that she is a world-beating procrastinator, hence the title of her blog. “Faffing” implies not getting anywhere due to an endless churning process where one is constantly examining one’s bits. She can’t be that much of a faffer surely?
Actually, on reflection: perhaps faffing is an important part of the process? There are endless blogposts and Youtube videos on “what to take”. When you’ve not got very much, what you keep becomes more significant. It can take a long time to sort everything out if you think about each item carefully… particularly if you are emotionally attached (as she was to her cat!).
Another brilliant thing for me about Susan’s trip is the way that she embraced serendipity. Meeting people along the way, who can signpost you, is another way of paying attention to your surroundings and it’s got the kind of in-built flexibility that you need to make the most of experiences.
On her own but not alone
Although Susan traveled on her own, she wasn’t always alone. People were more friendly along the way because she was female and unattached. In particular, her single status gave her an opportunity to make friendships with other women, giving her unique access and insights in to life behind closed doors in many different countries. That’s all down to her winning smile.
Susan’s way of gauging the friendliness of a country was all about “the smile reciprocation rate”. It’s a pretty good way of measuring happiness if you ask me!