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A Bicycle Trip For Two

Not so much about the song, but about a book I finished today. Maybe it’s all the stress, but I’m burning through books these days.

But I ain’t complaining.

Today’s adventure was Across America by Bicycle: Alice and Bobbi’s Summer on Wheels by Alice Honeywell and Bobbi Montgomery.

This book is one of my favorite types to read; travelogues, complete with maps (hand-drawn) and mileage counts. This book details Midwestern grandmothers Alice and Bobbi’s journey across the USA on their bicycles in just 13 weeks, from Astoria, Oregon, to Bar Harbor, Maine. In about 250 pages, the two travel through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, and have lots of fun adventures along the way. They (or I should say she, since the book is written from Bobbi’s point of view) focus on the hidden gems of America, from the cinnamon rolls they ate in Montana to the many “road angels” who stopped them and helped along the way.

But the trip isn’t all just a grand old time; they face a lot of serious issues, both on the road and at home. Each state brings its challenges, from closed campgrounds to aggressive drivers to unkempt roads (they do mention how nice the roads are in Wisconsin, but then again, Alice lives here in Madison, according to the book). Their bikes and bodies get worn down, but it strengthens them in the end. Though both of them contemplate quitting at different points – Alice due to family drama and her husband’s poor health, Bobbi due to an injury and other reasons – they stay steadfast and remain best friends. A lot of the book is repetitive, describing this little boy and that group of ladies asking them the same questions, over and over, but I guess that’s part of a trip across America, especially the more rural parts where it’s just hill after hill, tree after tree. And though they compliment most of the people they meet, there’s more than a fair share of complaining, mostly about dingy old hotels and bad food, but they paint an interesting picture of America on the whole, a mix of small towns and even smaller towns.

Overall, the story flows along really nicely without dwelling too much on insignificant or uninteresting details. And aside from their references to it, you wouldn’t be able to tell that the protagonists are two older ladies crossing America from coast to coast. Plus, they don’t make any Odyssey Expedition-esque attempts at purism, accepting rides when necessary or when they just don’t want to ride with all their gear anymore.

That is, though, quite the accomplishment in and of itself. If you’re thinking “hey, I could do that,” let me tell you about the last time I rode a bike.

On my second Summer Odyssey, when I was staying with Dan in Boston, we decided to spend a day on Martha’s Vineyard, a place I’ve always wanted to see. So, we drove to Woods Hole, left the car there, and took a ferry. One we landed in Oak Bluffs, and had lunch, Dan suggested we see the rest of the island, and rather than taking a bus or hitching rides, we could…rent bikes. Now, even though Dan bikes to work every day, I haven’t ridden a bike since elementary school. I don’t feel comfortable on a bike, and I don’t know what exactly got into me that it would be a good idea to try one out, and especially in a place I’d never been before.

Martha’s Vineyard is cut in half, with Oak Bluffs at the center, so we rode west along the southern edge of the island, stopping off for ice cream or window shopping in the island’s small towns. For the first hour or so, I was terrified, and by the end of the day, I was exhausted, but…slightly less terrified. It ended up being fun and I didn’t fall or die, but I’m not in a rush to get back on a bike anytime soon.

So the fact that these two ladies spent four months crossing unknown territory on bikes means that they’re probably more hardcore than I’ll ever be.

5

A Troppo Romp Through the Mulga

In order to get my mind off my impending prelims despite the fact that I ought to be working on them more, I actually started and finished a book this weekend. It’s actually supposed to be on its way to someone in Champaign, Illinois, via PaperBackSwap, but they don’t have to know that. It’s a book that’s been sitting on my shelves for years: Tracks by Robyn Davidson.

Flag of Australia.svg

Tracks is a firsthand account of Davidson’s trek across the Australian Outback with a dog, four naughty camels, and her own wacky self. It starts in Alice Springs, a remote town in Northern Territory (where the first half of the book takes place), and continues as Davidson wends her way through South Australia and Western Australia to the Indian Ocean. It was also made into a movie in 2013 starring Mia Wasikowska, which I’ve heard is much, much better.

The book has its pluses and minuses. First, the positives. I was entertained by Davidson’s spunky “no holds barred” personality and amused by her weirdness, such as the image of her walking naked through the desert because there was no one around. She is definitely someone who marches to the beat of her own drum. She is also brutally honest and doesn’t hold back; when someone treats her poorly, she tells us the truth. She is not afraid to defend herself, whether it’s verbally, against the guy in Alice Springs under whom she apprentices to learn the ins and outs of camel maintenance, or physically, fending off men and wild animals. She’s also more hardworking than almost all other travel writers I’ve read and it seemed like an actual undertaking rather than just a pleasure trip.

However, as someone who is a huge fan of travel writing as a genre, I was kind of disappointed. The book seemed to not really know where it was focusing. The first few pages have a map, but the author doesn’t even leave Alice Springs until halfway through the book. Seriously. You could have chopped the book in half and sold the first part as a manual on the care and keeping of camels. Next, the style of writing seemed kind of sloppy. The author used a lot of jargon and dialect, and often wrote seemingly in stream-of-consciousness; I didn’t need to know her every thought. The journey part of the book seemed kind of lackluster as well. I suppose it was not the most glamorous of trips, but she seemed so irritated the whole time. There were obvious reasons why, but after a while it seemed like she was doing it because someone told her to. And though it’s not like every travel book needs to have an Eat Pray Love style moment of great spiritual meaning, it could have been a little brighter – she’s on this amazing adventure, yet she has so much to complain about. That’s the thing that bothered me the most – aside from the choppy writing, Robyn Davidson just came off as so ungrateful and pithy. She was sponsored by National Geographic and had a photographer for parts of the journey; she should have been more cooperative, or just told them all to screw off and have that be the end of it. She was upset when people wanted to learn more about her, take pictures with her, or just in general get some info on her well-being; well, as a person traveling through the Australian desert alone with a bunch of camels, do you think that’s not going to attract attention? The last few chapters of the book, while the most exciting parts of the journey, are tough to stomach because of her attitude. She is so loath to talk to the press that she deliberately misleads people, takes pleasure in throwing them off her trail, and even changes her route at the last minute to avoid some people who are waiting to talk to her at the end of her journey. It’s not like she’s a criminal on the run, and while these people might be a nuisance, what would you expect?

Aside from the word troppo, meaning “crazy,” I learned a few new words to add to my collection of…words:

  • Yalka – a type of bush onion. Comes from Arrernte, an Australian tribal language.
  • Mulga – a type of Australian tree, also a term for the Australian Outback in general, as in “going to the mulga.” Comes from Yuwaalaraay, another tribal language.
  • Quandong – a type of Australian fruit tree. Comes from Wiradjuri, another Australian tribal language.
  • Pituri (pronounced PITCH-er-ee) – another type of Australian tree, also a mild narcotic. Comes from Wiradjuri.

This book review was brought to you by the stuff stated in the first paragraph, and having no direction in life.

1

This Time for Africa

I decided that instead of “Book Review: Author, Title,” I’d adopt an actual title for all future book reviews, starting with this one. Today’s book review is Africa United by Steve Bloomfield. This copy has been traveling with me ever since I bought it at a Half-Price Books in Houston, and it’s been through about ten states and at least two plane rides, waiting for me to open it. I finished it last night just before drifting off to sleep.

In Africa United, Steve Bloomfield, a Kenya-based news correspondent, travels around Africa in search of connections between the continent of Africa and the world’s (except for the USA) favorite sport. The impetus for this book came about upon the announcement of South Africa as the host nation of the FIFA World Cup in 2010. After narrowly losing the bid for 2006, South Africa rallied to become the first African nation to host the World Cup, a feat for a continent which has yet to host a major international sporting event, such as the Olympics. This sparked a movement across South Africa and the rest of the continent as a “unified Africa,” fueling an already fervent love for the sport among Africans.

Steve Bloomfield starts from Egypt in his journey down the continent, through some of the “best and worst” teams in Africa – Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Kenya, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Cote D’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Zimbabwe – before arriving in South Africa at the beginning of the World Cup. Bloomfield notes that he couldn’t cover all the countries of Africa in his introduction, but oddly enough, his “best and worst” happened to omit three of the six African teams who qualified for the World Cup; Cameroon, Algeria, and Ghana, leaving me to question his judgment of “best and worst” – aren’t these three countries among the “best,” who qualified in the same way that Cote D’Ivoire and Nigeria did?

Despite this, Africa United takes no prisoners; as Bloomfield wends his way through the countries, he also gives us some insight into their history, geography, and politics in addition to their individual relationships with soccer. What I enjoyed the most were the chapters through nations we don’t see very often in literature, like Chad and Somalia. Somalia, in particular, poses quite the pickle regarding international team sports; its status as a failed state with no government leads to very little in the way of facilities and amenities, not to mention safety. Ergo, all their matches – even “home” matches – are played outside the country. Another factor that can lead African teams astray are due to politics and money; the chapter on DR Congo was enlightening in that respect, with prime minister vying for dominance via a bunch of guys just kicking around a ball. Local politics also play a part, establishing unification or establishment of difference. In Liberia, George Weah took his sport to the next level, running for president in his country’s first democratic election. Despite his popularity on the pitch, he lost out – but it would have been interesting to a sportsman of his caliber (who is also a college student in the USA) become the leader of an entire country. In Cote D’Ivoire, soccer filters down to the level of education, with some parents taking the money they would have spent on textbooks and school supplies for their sons and putting it towards expensive soccer clubs, thinking that their son will one day be as famous and wealthy as Didier Drogba, a footballer who made it in Europe and has become a cultural and national icon. The Zimbabwe chapter is by far the saddest, recapping a country once known as the “breadbasket of Africa” on its downfall to a dictator-led state with the world’s worst economy. Age fabrication is rampant, showing the even further lengths some countries will go to for just for the win. Some nations import players from Europe who were born or have ancestry in their countries; sometimes they arrive and change things, but more often they end up disappointing people, or not showing up at all. On the flip side, some countries’ entire teams skip town, as Bloomfield mentions in his epilogue of the Eritrean national team, who were no-shows for their return flight from a match against Kenya, opting instead to decamp in Nairobi and seek asylum there.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In the chapter on Nigeria, Bloomfield talks about how its national team and its purpose-built capital city of Abuja seemed to ease tensions and increase cooperation between the northern Muslim parts of the country and the Christians to the south. Whereas in Cote D’Ivoire, the provenance of players provided some much-needed kinship with its former enemy neighbor, Burkina Faso, where blurred geographic lines and movement resulted in some Burkina Faso players being Ivorian, and vice versa, leading both countries with someone to cheer for on either team.

Overall, I mostly enjoyed the book. Some of the transitions are a bit clunky, or as Julian Hall puts it in his review “jumpy yet urgent” of the author, imploring him to further express “a little more passion in his reportage” (Hall). Bloomfield has a habit of switching rapidly from fun sports to refugees and genocide, but I guess that’s part of the greater story of Africa, that pride comes through pain, and that sports and games have a habit of doing just what they were made to do: create distractions, rivalries, and fun.

I’m not so big on the whole sports thing, except rooting for the Orioles, the Ravens, and briefly pausing on the Olympics when flipping channels. So this book taught me something. In fact, while the World Cup was going on, all I knew was that if I tuned in, my ears would immediately be assaulted by the dreaded horn known as the vuvuzela, which has now been added to the dictionary. Oh, and the theme song for the games, which had a music video in which this happened:

Entitled “Waka Waka,” it was a good beat to dance to, but drew some criticism. First, its lyrics are kinda vapid and stupid. Second, it wasn’t even performed by an African – despite including some words in an African language, deriving from a Cameroonian tune, and backed by the South African band Freshlyground – it was non-African pop singer Shakira who got to take the lead vocals. This only contributed to “Americanized” feeling of the opening ceremony’s featured entertainment – a sentiment expressed by many South Africans who were disappointed at the lack of local performers – as she performed in a roster that included Alicia Keys and John Legend. For the record, Shakira isn’t even American; despite her success and popularity in the USA that doesn’t change the fact that she’s from Colombia. On the song’s Wikipedia page, Shakira declared the song “multinational,” using African, South American, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to create the song. Again, the lyrics and the insipid chorus leave something to be desired, owing to English not being Shakira’s first language. She probably hasn’t gained much of a fan base in Africa, but since’s she’s an otherwise beautiful, successful, fabulously awkward and delightfully Hispanic singer who gets away with doing things with her voice that would cause most other peoples’ vocal chords to explode, she’d probably give her haters something like this:

Even though Shakira does acknowledge Africa in her song, addressing some of the cultural appropriation that it utilized, she completely and woefully ignores the culture of the real coiner of the catchphrase that made her song famous:

facepalm (217) Animated Gif on Giphy

Tsamina mina zangalewa: no love for Fozzie Bear.

Works Cited:

Bloomfield, Steve. Africa United: Soccer, Passion, Politics and the First World Cup in Africa.” New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Hall, Julian. “Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, By Steve Bloomfield.” The Independent. 6 June 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/africa-united-how-football-explains-africa-by-steve-bloomfield-1989567.html