IN FEBRUARY THIS YEAR, GREG HEALY LEFT SWANSEA AND EMBARKED ON A CYCLE TRIP THAT WOULD TAKE HIM AROUND THE WORLD.
LAST MONTH WE LEFT HIM AS HE WAS ABOUT TO ARRIVE IN MIAMI JUST AS TROPICAL STORM ANDREA WAS ABOUT TO HIT FLORIDA.
If you missed last month’s instalment you will find it in lifestyle and leisure on our website www.theswanseabay.co.uk
Having plummeted out of turbulent airspace and onto Fort Lauderdale’s drenched tarmac with enough force to flatten a tank, the pilot’s chipper voice crackled over the intercom “We certainly have landed in Florida!”
Peering out the rain-streaked window it seemed that the tropical storms had hit early this year, lightning punctured the darkened sky and flickered across the horizon.
“Welcome to Florida,” a voice announced over the communication system. “Currently it is 36 degrees in Fort Lauderdale and raining. Please observe that no fruit, vegetables, or cheeses are permitted into the United States.”
The words jolted me more than the pilot’s unsteady landing. Grabbing my carry-on front pannier bag from the overhead stowage compartment, I sighed remembering the pound of Quesillo, the popular fresh cheese of Andean Peru stashed inside. Although Quesillo means “small cheese” in Spanish, there was nothing small about the slab I had stashed away of Peru’s finest. It was a gift from an elderly couple who I became friendly with while sitting on the floor next to the restrooms waiting for a delayed flight departure. A congratulatory treat for having completed my cycle through South America. And now the powers that be wanted me to dispose of it?
Shuffling down the plane’s narrow aisle toward the exit, a stern flight attendant, wishing other passengers a pleasant stay in Florida, instead decided to remind me that no fruit, vegetables, or cheeses were allowed into the United States. Huh? Had she seen my cheese? “Please deposit any contraband items into the appropriate provided receptacles”, she said with a knowing wink.
My mind focused on the Quesillo. Deposit it in the appropriate provided receptacle?! Obviously flight attendants have no idea how attached cyclists are to their food. This cheese could get me half way across America. Maybe I could eat the entire curd before checking through customs?
In a corridor, other passengers streaming past, I slumped myself down. Digging into my pannier, I extracted the creamy white lump. Unwrapping it, I bit off a chunk. Mouth full, I waved an offering toward a passing businessman, he frowned and shook his head. “You’re not really going to eat all that, are you?”
Within ten minutes of intense and focussed cheese devouring I finished the last morsel, licked my fingers and feeling more than a little cheesy made my way with a smug smile on my face to the checked-in bag collection point. First success for the day.
I proceeded to collect my checked-in plastic-wrapped baggage and bike neatly packed in a cardboard bike box. This seemed like a more sensible idea following a catastrophic failure in using a plastic bike bag on my previous flight into South America, which despite prior advice resulted in more damage than if I hadn’t bothered to pack it at all! I made my way to a very long queue to be processed through customs with a conglomeration of panniers, tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, and an excessively large cardboard box labelled, “Fragile, This way up, Bicycle handle with care!”
A stacked security guard, accessorised with handgun, mace spray, bullet proof vest and intercom radio sauntered over. “Come with me” he demanded showing me towards the front of a new line and into the hands of the customs official. I was not sure if this was just sheer good luck or perhaps the fact that with my now lengthy sun-bleached beard and equipped with my one occasion for all cycling top and padded cycling shorts, which made me walk like John Wayne in high heels, gave me that fresh from the back of a dumpster appearance and at times also evoked some sympathy which nicely worked to my benefit.
“What are your intentions in wanting to visit the United States?” the stern immigration officer demanded.
“I am planning to cycle across America as part of an around the world cycle trip.”
“And where will you be staying tonight?”
Fighting the propensity to say behind Wal Mart or under the bridge about 50 miles from here, I replied “a friend is picking me up from the airport.”
“And where will you be heading in America?”
“West, yes definitely west, it’s a pretty long way so I haven’t really thought too much about it yet.”
Less than amused, he blurted “So what’s in the box?”
“Well, my bike. I am planning to cycle across America as part of…”
The officer abruptly interrupting “Yes I got that part!”, looking down as he flipped his way through my passport. “Bangladesh, Nepal, China, Pakistan. You get around. And where have you just come from?
“And are you carrying any fruit or vegetables?”
“No”, I replied, “I had a pound of Quesillo cheese, but I just ate that” feeling very smug.
“Cheese from Peru is okay” he said.
I groaned, looked down and shook my head.
The officer scanned my passports a second time. He stamped them, then pointed toward the guards. “Follow them for scanning.”
Welcome to America I thought, the next leg of my adventure had well and truly begun.
The next month and a half I would battle excruciating 120 degree heat, suffocating humidity, tornadoes, torrential rain, paralysing headwinds, vast deserts and breath-taking canyons. An incredible 4,500 mile cycle from Florida to Los Angeles, the wrong way around!
Across America I met some incredible people and saw some astonishing scenery. From the mother of five who home schooled all her children and had a zest for life and adventure which is difficult to match, to the nudist couple who invited me to stay on my penultimate night, I decided to decline their invitation to go “natural” for the day.
Looking over the Grand Canyon, stunned into a motionless awe, two billion years in the making, and an infinitely evolving maze of canyons scored by the Colorado River running deep below. Condors majestically gliding the lush valleys and sheer deep red cliffs. The Grand Canyon is an equaliser, it reverts all those who gaze upon her beauty to a childlike state of innocence, and it simplifies life for those few seconds where you become completely lost in the incomprehensible scale of what is before you.
Life and adventure for me however is also about finding serene beauty in the most unexpected of places, when you are prepared to push yourself not to simply buy your way out of difficult situations but instead to continue to expand your personal comfort zone. It is in these scenarios true beauty can also be found. Hiding under a bridge on a tiny ledge in my minimally equipped summer tent, ferocious winds whirled above; I had managed to find the spot just before what seemed like a whole ocean of rain erupted above. Amidst the deafening onslaught, the surrounding houses, trees and fences taking the full force of nature’s fury. I awoke the following morning to the most beautiful tranquil river gracefully flowing next to my perched tent, a small flock of cranes just metres away fishing the crystal waters and the first glimmer of warming sunlight piercing the still darkened morning sky. This was my moment, the real beauty of adventure.
Cycling across America had taken its toll on my body; cuts unwilling to heal, saddle sores and blisters plus the most awesome tiger tan lines from my sandals and riding gloves. Fourteen punctures, two new chains, a new rear wheel and cassette and an upgraded saddle, I was now ready to take on my next challenge. A true culture shock awaits.
Next stop Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and the start of my Asian tour.