I have never won a gold medal. I have never even won a medal. I have never stood on a big stage.
But when I am riding my bicycle through Asia (currently Sumatra) and am greeted by hundreds of people with waves, smiles, and shouts; the only way I can describe it is as a professional athlete earning a gold medal might feel standing on a stage in front of thousands of people.
Over the years I have heard travelers say, “I loved X or Y country because of the people.” “The people made it.” “The people are so friendly.” As someone who is not particularly social, I never really understood. Plus, how do you communicate with people from another culture if you do not speak their language?
I did not understand because it is more of a feeling that it produces. It is nothing particularly intellectual. There is rarely a transmission of dialogue—except incredibly remedial. It is the smiles and the enthusiastic shouting and the thumbs up that produces such joy.
Today was my second day riding my bicycle through Indonesia. I am in Sumatra. An island of about 50 million people. This is part of a longer journey around the world.
It was a really hard day. So hot. So much traffic. My mind was torturing me. “Why are we doing this?” “We should have gone somewhere else.”
But I have been doing this long enough to know two things. First, great things come out of discomfort. There is always an end to the tough times. I was right.
I have not seen a single white person since I started riding. This does not seem to be a tourist destination in any way. But that was the point of the trip for me. To myself in a situation where accommodation, resources, and communication were limited. This is a way to test myself. To learn.
It is also a great way to meet the local population. I find that when I arrive in an area in an unexpected way, people are joyfully surprised.
While I am on this journey with my partner René, we ride separately each day, usually meeting in a town between 85-120 km away. We tried to ride together. In fact at one point we had a tandem. But we both realized that we receive such freedom and joy when we ride alone. We ride the same route, and it is fun to discuss at the end how our experiences were. It is a way to share the journey but also experience it separately.
It is brutally hot and so we are not camping. I think it would be miserable. So we need to rely on hotels. Hotels seem to be limited which means that we need to stay on the highway route where the hotels seem to be.
Most countries we ride in have alternate bicycle routes— either off-road, paths, or smaller roads. Not in Sumatra. It is the highway only. The highway is a bit different than those in America. It is two lanes. One in each direction. There are a lot of very, very large trucks that are carrying oil, logs, and fruit. There are also a lot of motor bikes. A few smaller trucks and a handful of cars.
In the beginning I was very frustrated because of the traffic. The vehicles zooming by. The fumes. The possibility of not surviving the experience.
But today I warmed up to it.
The thing that really transformed the experience was all of the local people. My experience is that they are extremely friendly and outgoing.
Some of them can speak very basic English and they really want to practice. It seems that they are taught in English class how to ask certain questions. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” These are the bigs ones. Despite their eagerness, verbal communication is quite limited.
But there is another way that we communicate. It is through smiles and waving. And it is quite powerful. I estimate that there are between 30-50 people every hour that I am cycling that I wave to and yell out “hello.” I am typically riding 7-10 hours. That means I am connecting with up to 500 people in a day.
Sometimes, they initiate the contact. All along the highway are businesses and homes. There are also rural areas with people working. They often call out from these places which such enthusiasm. It is as though I am famous. I wave and call back with an equally enthusiastic hello. Often, the passenger of a these extremely large trucks leans out the window calling hello, waving, or giving a thumbs up.
There are times when I ride by and someone does not notice me. Or perhaps they are shy or do not think I will respond if they initiate a greeting. In each of these cases I wave and shout a big “hello.” Almost every time their faces go from serious to a giant smile.
I am also greeted by and greet the school children on their way home from school or little small kids playing in front of their homes. Or moms with babies. The joy and excitement is equally pervasive.
The joy that this small interaction brings is tremendous. I feel such a tremendous reward that my mere presence brings such a powerful seemingly positive reaction. Except for the greeting, it is essentially a non-verbal communication where we both “see” each other for just a moment in time. Maybe they will go home and tell their families about it. Maybe they will be inspired. Maybe they just think I am crazy.
Regardless, for a moment in time there is joy. There is connection. We are of two completely different cultures, ages, genders, religions, etc. We share a smile. We share a greeting. And something magical happens.