Thursday, January 30, 2014

If I Were a Man on The Loong Way Home……

I don’t think I’d get the same sort of treatment if I were a solo man out here on the roads as I do riding, a solo young lady. Today I spent a good portion of my ride just laughing out loud at all the funny experiences I have had, mostly because I’m a solo female rider. I’m sure guys have a lot of funny tales to share as well, but with male cyclists, there doesn’t seem to be as much of the surprise element that I experience.  Of course I’m not a guy, so I can’t compare, but I can’t tell you how many eyebrows I’ve seen raise and jaws drop as I answer again, and again,….YES! I’m riding alone, YES, just me, YES, no friend!  I’m sure solo male tour cyclists get that question, but without the facial expressions that follow.  Cyclists get honked at all over the world, I know this, but if I were really to record the statistics here in SE Asia, I’m pretty sure 9 out of every 10 trucks that passes me honks, in addition to a hand waving out the window or a thumb that goes up.  The statistics are just as high for male motor scooter drivers who pass me.  I can get a smile and a wave out of a woman, but usually I have to initiate this greeting! I’m not sexists, nor am I a feminist, but I just can’t imagine my trip would be as entertaining if I were a guy on my own.  Recently I’ve had the red carpet treatment by a lot of charming men and I can’t help but think, if I were a solo male cyclist, would a woman interact this way with a man riding?

Georgetown, Penang Town Hall

Last week when I was leaving Georgetown Penang, I wanted to do a bit of sightseeing before I crossed back over to mainland.  I found the colonial buildings, took a few pictures, then went up to the town hall to see if I could go in and visit.  The doors were all closed, but there was a guard there, who, without hesitating had me lock up my bike outside and took me in.  Heman was his name, a fun, carefree, and delightful older Indian man who was born and raised in Penang and very proud of his city.  He showed me all around the inside of the Town Hall and the gardens for about half an hour, gave me a bit of history, and his perspective on life in Penang.  He let me take pictures of the stage and backdrop for the film festival that was happening in the evening, and right before I left his colleague took a picture of us together. We posed with the film backdrop, as if we were at the Grammy’s for the first photo, and for the second photo, all of a sudden I got a nice strong squeeze around my waist, and I just had to laugh,….a bit too close for comfort, but hey, was I really surprised?!?

Here's the first shot

And the awkward squeeze!

At the time I didn’t realize I was getting a VIP tour from Heman, but when I left a young male tourist came walking up to inquire about the building.  Heman didn’t answer, so I spoke up and told him it was the colonial town hall.  He proceeded by asking if he could go in and Heman cut him off and refused his entrance in a cold voice.  When he had left, Heman looked at me and said, “Melissa, you are very special, not everyone gets a tour!”  Then he added, “Come back and visit me Melissa…..I will take you to the heavens!”  A big smile came across my face and I couldn’t help but crack up as I rode away.  No one has ever offered to take me to the heavens before! Ha!  Would Heman have squeezed a young man in that last picture on stage?!?!

Later that same evening I met Din, also an older Indian man, very humble, who I found as I rode into town.  I asked Din for a hotel in town and a supermarket.  He was dressed in all different shades of yellow and was waiting to pull out of a driveway on his small motor scooter. I thought he would just point in a direction like most people do, but he told me to follow him and escorted me to the supermarket first.  He followed me through the aisles and insisted on carrying my groceries. I didn’t feel like going out for dinner that night and bought a few quick snacks and items for breakfast the following day. He kept repeating over and over again, “don’t worry, no problem,” as his arms became more and more full.  He even held the grocery bag on his scooter as we approached the hotel.  Din took me to a little Muslim budget hotel and went upstairs to find out the price and availability and later brought all my bags upstairs.

At this point I was convinced Din was being so kind because he wanted me to pay for his services or at least tip him.  I was so tired from my ride and appreciative of his help I gave him some money.  He insisted he didn’t want money.  He was fascinated that I was riding my bike and wanted to help me.  He told me that he would come back after I showered to show me the way to the road I needed to take tomorrow.  I knew where the road was, but I could see he was delighted to have company, and so was I, so I took him up on the offer.  We snapped a quick photo (no squeezing from Din) but he had one look at the photo, saw his stomach too pouchy and made me take another!  What a funny man. 

Second shot sucking in our stomachs on Din's request
A half hour went by and Din wasn’t down stairs.  I thought I had been stood up, silly me to think he was actually going to come back, so I explored town on my own. On my way back to the hotel, I heard someone say my name. I turned around and it was Din.  He said he had been looking for me in town and was worried.  He still wanted to show me the road for tomorrow, so I got on his moto.  I had my own little tour of town, followed by Roti Canai and tea, at a local restaurant. Din had these eyes that really caught your attention.  There was something special about them, about him.  He kept telling me he was a good man, a nice guy who I could trust.  Usually that would make me feel skeptical, but in fact there was something special about Din.  When we went to leave the restaurant, I tried to pay and he wouldn’t let me, but he also didn’t pay.  He said, “You see Melissa, everyone here knows I’m a good man, they know me very well!”  But it wasn’t just in town where they knew him. He was adamant about escorting me the first 25 kilometers of my ride the following morning.  At 25 kilometers we stopped to have breakfast in another town and again, the same thing happened. I went to pay but the two men at the table next to us ended up paying for our breakfast.  I asked Din about his job, thinking, maybe I’m with a famous local politician or the town doctor, but that wasn’t the case either.  Din titled himself a “Sweeper”, he spends his days doing a little bit of this and that around here and there!  Who Din really was, I don’t know, but what a thoughtful man, the first to escort me a good 25 kilometers! 

Eating Roti Canai in good company
My next encounter was also on a moto scooter.  I was close to my town of arrival when all of a sudden a motor cyclist rides up next to me and starts with the same typical questions…..What’s your name? Where are you going? And of course my favorite, are you alone?  He gave me instruction for finding a hotel, and asked me to dinner.  He told me he would meet me at the hotel he’d just mentioned.  This conversation all happened in motion and to tell you the truth, I couldn’t even understand the name of the hotel he was telling me about, and knew I wasn’t going to be able to find it.  I just said yes to everything to be polite.  Riding into town, I started following signs to the first hotel sign I see and wouldn’t you know, the motorcyclist reappeared.  Gan was his name.  I hadn’t gone to the hotel he recommended, and so I followed him around the block to his.  He helped me bring my bags upstairs, translated for me, and told me he’d be back at 8:30 to go to dinner.  I was intending to trip plan, but hey, that could wait.  No I wasn’t interested in anything romantic with Gan, but dinner company is almost always welcomed.

Delicious dinner, nice company
Gan picked me up at 8:30.  He had changed and gotten all cleaned up, wearing some white Addidas pants and matching white shoes and a shiny black, fake leather jacket.  We walked to a park where there were several restaurants and sat outside.  Everyone was starring at us.  He kept leading the conversation towards boyfriends, marriage, my age, and wanting me to come back and visit him.  I kept asking him questions about his culture, religion, and family to show him I wasn’t interested in anything else.  By the end of the night, he had offered me a ring and his t-shirt so I wouldn’t forget him.  He told me he was going to spend his days praying to Allah so I would become Muslim and could come back and marry him.  I think I’m a pretty optimistic person, but Gan puts me to shame!

The point of me sharing these stories is because I strongly believe that if I were a guy, I would blend in more.  People here don’t see tour cyclists everyday, but I don’t think they have ever seen a female cyclist on her own.  At least that is the impression they give me with their facial expressions and the way they treat me with their hospitality.  It makes for funny memories, that is for sure, but sometime I get tired of always standing out.  In Barcelona, I had similar experiences because there were so few women cyclists, especially ones with blonde curly hair sticking out of the helmet who spoke Catalan with a funny Oregon accent.  In fact if happened quite often when I was out on a ride on my own and a guy rider comes along and he knows who I am either because of a race I was in recently or because he saw me riding with my club last weekend….The conversation usually starts something like this, “You are Melissa…..Melissa Pritchard, the girl who……”

You might think the attention is nice, but to tell you the truth, I would rather there be millions of Melissa Pritchard’s out there, more women on the road to accompany me so that there isn’t such a shock element with seeing a young lady on her bike, on her own. As my SE Asia route comes to a close and I get ready to head to New Zealand and Australia, I am excited to explore what is known as an outdoor haven.  New Zealand, a place where female cyclists are out riding the roads just as often as men! I don’t think I will see any jaws drop there or horns honking at me there, right?

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