A Cycletourer’s Burden? - CycleBlaze

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A Cycletourer’s Burden?

Graham Smith

Cycle-holiday, Cycle-tour or Cycle-travel
What’s the difference?

I’m avidly following the CB journal of my friend and cycle-touring mate Ian Wallis who is doing his utmost to finish an exceptionally difficult tour. One of the many hardships he’s confronting, one which almost made him quit, is the daily scenes of roadside garbage.

Ian’s an ecologist and dedicated environmentalist, and so experiencing the overwhelming amount of dumped garbage along the roads he is riding is having an additionally depressive impact on him. He’s well aware that much of the rubbish, especially the massive volumes of plastics aren’t only an aesthetic problem. They’ll end up in rivers and then oceans to do untold, long term damage. This is what is causing him so much angst.

The thing is, the vast majority of tourists happily travelling by train, plane, coaches, ships or armchair would never be confronted by such grim scenes which never appear in glossy guide books or travel sites. Seeing the bad aspects close up is reserved for us cyclists and walkers.

We choose where to cycle, and cycling in places like Japan it can take weeks to spot a single piece of litter. Germany similarly. Most wealthy countries are reasonably clean but even they have grubby areas.

The question is how do you feel about mixing the good, pristine scenery with the grim scenery on cycle tours?

Do you totally avoid areas where you know that waste management systems are still developing? Or don’t you mind seeing the reality of modern times? Is rubbish part of real travelling as opposed to being on an enjoyable holiday? 

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9 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Graham Smith

We too have found the roadside litter/trash to be viscerally disturbing. On our first trip to the Yucatan we were appalled by the mountains of plastic bottles, junk and worst of all tons of used pampers type diapers. Many years before that, while travelling in Canada and the US we found way too much garbage, mostly bottles, cans and cigarette butts. Dodie took to carrying a small garbage bag on every hike and filling it with the trash we walked past. It was quite a daunting endeavor. Nowadays, while cycle touring, we bring all the trash with us until we find a suitable garbage or recycling container. We have noted a smaller footprint of roadside garbage in the Yucatan recently and are hopeful that this is a sign of better things to come.

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9 months ago
Graham SmithTo Steve Miller/Grampies

Good on you for doing something to actively help reduce the problem.

While cycle touring in Australia I’ve often been annoyed by the amount roadside debris and litter, but I’ve not seen the huge piles of roadside garbage my friend is seeing almost continuously in Indonesia.  Roads appear to be linear landfill sites.

My recent international cycle tours have been limited to countries eg Japan, Taiwan, NZ  where roadside rubbish is minimal by comparison to what my frustrated friend is seeing from the saddle in Indonesia. 

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9 months ago
John PescatoreTo Steve Miller/Grampies

If you've ever watched the TV series "Mad Men" you might remember an episode where Don Draper and his wife took their kids out for a drive and a roadside picnic of buckets of fried chicken and cups of soda. When they were done, they just shook all the trash off their blanket onto the side of the road.

That episode aired in 2009 or so when my daughter was 19 or so and home from college - she couldn't believe anyone would do that!  I told her that was reality in the early 1960s and went through the history of how some key public service announcements and a guy in Texas who thought up the "Adopt a Highway" program were long term efforts in changing behavior from the ground up - which was why our family had been taking care of a local road section, and each year participated in trail/stream cleanups and carried out our trash.

Our experience in keeping a road segment clean is that less litter on the road resulted in a slower rate of new litter being added and acting locally was much less depressing than thinking globally!  But we have the fortune of being above the "safety" level in Malthus's hierarchy of needs - that is not the case in all too many places.

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9 months ago
Steve Miller/GrampiesTo Graham Smith

When we travel in rural Mexico we see and think about the problems of the very poor people we see there.  If there is any cost at all for proper disposal of plastic waste, then we can understand how they just dump it. We also see how their lifestyle saddles them with plastic, such as in the takeout containers that result from not having proper kitchens or grocery supplies. But the poverty could also quickly turn the problem around, simply by offering a bounty on plastic. Then poor people could view the mountains of plastic trash as a renewable resource, and make a living cleaning it up. But that would take slightly enlightened public policy, and a bit of funding.

There is some evidence that these things can turn around. I recall as a child (so 65 years ago) our family would travel from Montreal to Plattsburg, New York for shopping. Even the 10 year old me was aware of all the trash beside that highway. But somewhere along the line it was decided to crack down on it, and signs appeared advising of heavy littering fines. After a while, the trash disappeared. On the other hand "No Tirar Basura" signs are common in Mexico, but they are totally ignored. There is at least one quirky photo in our blogs of such a sign surrounded by mountains of trash. So again, the authorities would have to do some investment, this time in meaningful enforcement, but also in providing an alternative.

To answer the central question of this Forum, in our travels we try to see and understand the daily lives, culture, and economy of the people along the way. But then when what we see is poverty, ugliness, traffic, used car lots, fast food, closed businesses and such, we rather rapidly steer for the pristine open vistas, hopefully sprinkled with thriving high quality bakeries, with non plastic packaging!

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9 months ago
Graham SmithTo John Pescatore

John they are excellent points. It’s easy to forget that countries such as our own have fairly recent histories of much worse roadside litter than we see now. We need to be cautious in criticising other countries who have not long been through colonialism, wars, dictatorships etc which have delayed environmental protection systems.

We produce vastly more waste now, especially plastic waste, but it’s usually less visible to us cycle-tourers because of hard won legislation, education and infrastructure systems.

‘Mad Men’ was a great series. Interestingly cycle tourer John Byrne’s dad was one of the real ad-men from that era. (Not a littering a littering one.)  I recall that in John’s entertaining  journal of his epic cycle tour from (Saigon to Bangkok I think) very similar roadside scenes to those currently depressing my friend. (I don’t think John has cycle toured recently nor joined CB yet.)

A slightly different but related topic is just how much emphasis in our journals should we put on the unsavoury roadside scenes versus the beauty and wonder of what we experience?

In my journals, I try not to portray too many negative observations of regions I cycle through, but nor do I want to sanitise my photos and comments into a tourist advertisement which isn’t truly representative of reality. I guess journaling is a balancing act.

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9 months ago
Graham SmithTo Steve Miller/Grampies

Steve yes indeed, it’s a fine line between wanting to experience ‘the real’, and self preservation (from grim scenery) when cycle touring.

At my age, self preservation is probably the higher priority. My pedalling into the worst aspects of human habitation isn’t going to help improve the situation. There are much more effective actions I could take to help.

Another factor is that often these areas with dreadful roadside waste accumulations, also have correspondingly foul air pollution.
My aged lungs simply aren’t up to absorbing too much more muck. I wasn’t careful enough during the apocalyptic bushfires here in 2018 when we had months of dense wild fire smoke in our usually pristine city air. I cycle-commuted throughout that period stupidly without a PS2 mask. The impact on my lungs wasn’t good.

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9 months ago
Wayne EstesTo Graham Smith

A slightly different but related topic is just how much emphasis in our journals should we put on the unsavoury roadside scenes versus the beauty and wonder of what we experience?

In my journals, I try not to portray too many negative observations of regions I cycle through, but nor do I want to sanitise my photos and comments into a tourist advertisement which isn’t truly representative of reality. I guess journaling is a balancing act.

Like most travelers, I take almost entirely "pretty pictures". Only on rare occasions am I motivated to take an "ugly picture" for documentary purposes.

I regularly think about how my journal photos aren't really an honest representation of what is typical on my route. Photos suggest that I can see the river most of the time when I actually almost never see it. Photos suggest I see mountains all the time when nearby trees and small hills obstruct the mountain views most of the time. I mostly take photos of historic buildings, giving the false impression that most buildings on my route are historic. One major exception to my bias for pretty things is photos of abandoned buildings. I think about it but the balance of pretty scenes versus ugly scenes does not concern me.

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9 months ago
John PescatoreTo Graham Smith

Graham - when I journal, I err on the side of positive experiences unless I feel there is really something to warn readers about.  I do that mainly because the journals I enjoy reading the most seem to take that slant, too! 

I went and checked: back in 2020 I did a multi-day ride in Central Florida and I titled the  less than stellar 68 mile Arcadia to Auburndale segment "28 miles of cycling with huge trucks of oranges, 20 miles of "ahhh", 20 miles of "meh"  and said:

" ...The shoulder was littered with an odd mix of oranges and road kill, with the occasional blown truck tire. Either the critters got killed by flying fruit, or they were attracted by the fruit on the shoulders and then the exploding tires killed them..."

I kinda felt that was enough of a head's up!

I always skip over journal sections complaining about  political signs and awful drivers - bike wheels have always been round and those things have always been around, too! As folks get older, we tend to focus on them more, I think.

In that journal I noticed I couldn't resist this:

"To their credit, the drivers of the largest trucks mostly moved to the left lane before they passed me - the numerous mobile home and pickup truck/trailer drivers, not so much. When someone did move left I would give them a "Thanks, brother trucker" verbal shout-out and the ones who didn't move over got a slightly modified, yet rhyming one. "

I just read a book "Traffic" by Ben Smith that has nothing to do with roads but is actually about how the "...delirious pursuit of attention at scale helped release the dark forces that would overtake the internet and American society." It explains how Facebook noticed that one negative comment to a post generated 4 times as many views as one clicking of the Like button on Facebooks posts - kinda like how no one reads an article that says "A United Airlines 747 with 263 guitar playing nuns on board landed safely"... 

The coverage of the 2020 elections was one noticeable result of Facebook's change in their algorithm to reflect that.

So, I try to click much more on Like buttons now!

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9 months ago
Andrea BrownTo Graham Smith

When you travel, sometimes you get the best, sometimes you get the worst. When we journal, we report both of those aspects because it's part of the texture of the trip. We aim to respect the dignity of every individual that we meet/photograph and show both the challenges and beauty of their environment. Beyond that, we're not going to overlook that many of the world's poor have no way to dispose of their garbage other than dumping, and that plastic rules the world. People get preventable diseases and children suffer in terrible school systems or spend their days hauling water or firewood instead of learning. There are purely fiendish governments ruling many countries. These are systemic issues and ultimately they affect us all and it feels foolish and very short-sighted to gloss over these facts, if not downright inhumane. We're not journalists, but we're reporting from the road. The world is amazing and beautiful but complex, and we want our readers to learn and to care about people they will never meet but share this planet with.

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9 months ago