Cycling for Compassion

With less than $25 cash and on a used bicycle I had earned by volunteering at a bicycle co-op, I hit the road. I was never an adventurous or daredevil type of person. I have always been a bookworm and can easily “lose my life” in a library. I’m one of the sensitive creatives. I admired people who travel by bicycle but never thought it would be for me, considering I had lived in Pittsburgh, PA for the past five years. The Steelers’ hometown has more bars and tattoo/ piercing shops than bike lanes/ bike trails, and the way some people drive is remarkable enough that a journalist wrote an op-ed in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Like the journalist, I lived on the South Side, and I met him in person. He wore a reflective bright green jacket, and I mistook him a cyclist or runner but he said, “No, I just walk.” Like him, I was scared of losing my life in vain way before the senseless death of a University of Pittsburgh professor last year.

My fear was reasonable. Ever since I first read Jeremy Dowsett’s What Riding My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege and a newspaper op-ed by a white old-timer (yinzer), pointing out that majority of cyclists are whites and accusing bike advocates (hipsters) of making Pittsburgh more white, I have become more aware of the ongoing war between bike people and car people, a clash of two sub-cultures. I’m not white, and I ride a bicycle because it’s an environmentally-responsible, economical and futuristic way of getting to where I need to be most of the time. White cyclists I know don’t ride bikes because they are white. My daughter is half white and half me, a citizen of the world, and I would like to live to see her race on a bike, get full scholarship to an ivy-league law school and become a bike lawyer in the United States of football lovers, perhaps the only thing all states have in common. I often feel that cyclists are the new blacks of America. A person of any color who doesn’t ride a bicycle is entitled to resent us if they feel as if we are on “their road” and “in their way.”

Mandy (left), my daughter, perhaps a future bike lawyer
Mandy (left), my daughter, perhaps a future bike lawyer

I was a personal chef in Pittsburgh, and one of my clients is a vegetarian pro cyclist who has raced internationally _ yes, he drives to his desk job. Some cyclists who have ridden cross-country don’t ride in Pittsburgh. The reality that some of the same Americans who worship football players and cheer on marathon runners lack respect for and acceptance of cyclists sharing the road with them is astonishing. I procrastinated for months before grabbing life by the handle bar. Only negative thoughts on how badly bicycle travel can go wrong came to my mind. How would I know the driver behind me is not on a cell phone? I could get struck by a car or truck from behind. I could die. If I was not wrong, would there be justice? How many people would be marching and protesting in cities and towns with signs saying,  “Cyclists’  lives matter”?

All lives matter, and these lives include people of any color, country of origin, sexual orientation and religion or no religion, animals raised for human consumption, animals kept in cages in zoos that belong in the wilderness and animals used in circuses for entertaining humans. I found a cause to ride for.

In mid June, I turned 39 years old. If I waited around for America to be as bike-friendly as Europe, I would either be 85 or dead. I have leg cramps when I run and even when I take a long walk. I limp after going up a few flights of stairs. I used to play soccer but now cycling is one thing I can do without hurting myself. Just one year before I was born, the first cyclist rode TransAmerica Bicycle Route. It would be great to celebrate the 40th anniversary of TransAm and 39 years I had been allowed to live on this planet. I didn’t want to be a self-loving American who thinks only about himself and what beautiful places he wants to visit while traveling. I wanted to ride for a greater purpose. I wanted to give back by fundraising for Compassion Over Killing, an organization working to end animal abuse to build a kinder world.

Most people would have planned far ahead to save up money or to take time off from work. Some bicycle travelers ride touring bikes that cost $3,000 or more but I did hear about a guy who had decided to go on a whim and gotten a Walmart bike. I was not sure that I was going to go. I was self-employed. The money I had saved was used to pay off my lawyer who helped me with citizenship process, for which I had paid every step of the way in ten years. My final payment to him was enough for me to buy a new Surly touring bike. I’m a minimalist; I have to be. What I don’t have, I don’t need, right? I reduced my monthly bills to two: under $90 for data plan shared between a cell phone and a tablet and under $100 for storage of my books and the things I had been using.

I packed my panniers with not one, but two books and everything else I thought I would need. The seat tube of my 22-pound, steel-frame, 1995 Specialized Crossroads Cruz is 18 inches, one inch higher than my ideal fit. The bike, just like most older bikes made to fit men, is so long from the front to the rear that it makes me think of an old Lincoln car. I don’t even want to talk about the two pink water bottle cages. The padding on my bike shorts are blue. My helmet is blue. These bottle cages, just like other accessories on my bike, came from junk bikes. I tell people color pink is for breast cancer awareness.

On July 5th, about two months after most people had started on TransAm, I headed West. On day two of my journey, in Virginia, I took a crash _ not caused by any motored vehicle. Drivers from two vehicles going opposite direction stopped and came to my rescue. One of them put my bike in the back of his truck and drove me to a clinic. He is a rabbi. I wear boys’ clothes, the only clothes that fit my slim body. The longest part of my hair is an inch and a half. I told him there was a time I met with a rabbi in black suit because I catered a Jewish wedding out of a synagogue kosher kitchen. This rabbi driving the truck was in T-shirt and jeans and said he weds same-sex couples. This nailed me right on the wound, not one from the crash, but the emotional wound caused two years ago by a young woman. It took two years and reading books such as If You Feel Too Much and Brave Enough to finally convince myself that a kiss is not a promise. Reading Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running from Madness helped me understand her anti-romance disorder, relationship phobia, eccentricity and obsessions with bicycles, adventure and competitive sports. I teared up from the bad memories. To change subject, I started to talk about politics. Now this part of our conversation is what I cherish the least. Originally from Brazil, the rabbi is Donald Trump’s supporter mainly because of terrorism and what Trump said he would do about it. I see Syrian refugee crisis and terrorism as two separate issues. There are two sides to a story regardless of what the media wants one to believe. True muslims abhor violence and actions of those who misinterpret the Koran. And having my heart broken by one white person after another gives me no right to say that I’d rather go under the knife to wake up in my rightful male body to never waste time with a white lesbian. In fact, I’m positive that there’s a woman waiting her whole life for someone just like me. Marci Shimoff once said, “When you forgive, it’s like spring cleaning for your heart.” Forgiving her sets me free, and I feel powerful.

At the clinic, I was seen and treated promptly. I had a deep abrasion on my elbow and minor bruises on a few other spots. My phone was crushed. He drove me to a mall to get a new phone, to his house to tighten and adjust my bike’s stem and then to my Warm Showers host’s about 40 miles away. The crash was meant to happen, and for me, it is a reminder that there is still so much good left in this world and that many people are kind and want to get along with others despite differences.

My bicycle travel is meant to be despite the challenging beginning. With my elbow in layers of bandage and tapes and a little more work done on my bike, I continued the next day. I had to fix a flat almost every day in the first week. I rode with a patched front tire for more than 90 miles from Ashland, VA to the Cookie Lady’s, the legendary donation-based biker hostel,  in Afton, VA. Another cyclist had left two tires for whoever could use them. One of them is 700 x 38C Specialized Crossroads! I have not had a flat since that day. On my best day so far, I rode 89 miles, 39 of which in one shot because I was riding on a highway and trucks going 65 miles an hour were passing me with one foot of space so to keep going was my only option. From a broken heart, I grew strength and courage. A quote by Millard Fuller stuck with me. “When you have a great pain in your life, you need a greater purpose.”

New front tire has been saving grace
New front tire has been saving grace

I have met many great people along the way. Stranger who have never before met me get out of their cars and hand me water. Although it’s bottled water with huge environmental impact caused by corporate greed, I take it not to offend them and I carry empty bottles to later drop them off in proper bins for recyclables. I carry travel water filtering straw and I carry two 32-oz water bottles but I have to drink a gallon a day to stay hydrated so when I see someone cutting grass in front of their house, I ask for tap water. Someone once gave me snacks along with iced water. Some let me camp on their properties. A few pay for my meals, and I sometimes don’t know who the person is because the restaurant or cafe employee informs me when I ask what I owe and the person is gone. Just last week, I met two Nepalese cyclists riding East who have cycled in 15 other countries, and they are doing their world tour on bike for the environment and nature conservation.

Many people ask me why I’m traveling by bicycle. I jokingly say to them, I ask myself why? why? why? everyday. I m pedaling the distance some people don’t even drive. The temperature felt like it was 100 degrees F when I was climbing the Appalachians and then the Ozarks. When I don’t get “cooked” under the Sun, I get rained on. I get bit by things I don’t know what. In the first week my mileage soared, I had saddle sores. I’m now in Kansas so it’s flat here but the wind blowing from the side at 26 miles an hour can push me off the road and pull me onto the middle of the road. I took time off from my business and I don’t know how this trip will effect my career as a health food chef or that I may have lost some customers. I tell these strangers although I’m generally having a great time, I sometimes cry on the inside.

Although I shipped back some of the things I had brought with me, my bike and my gear all together probably weigh close to my body weight _ I’m a 98-pound chef. To be able to avoid unhealthy road food and more importantly, meat, dairy, “enriched” wheat and refined sugar, I carry with me raw meal (protein powder made of nuts and seeds), raw apple cider vinegar, chia seeds, nutritional yeast, turmeric, cayenne, garlic, coconut oil for cooking and using as sunblock, pink Himalayan salt, bananas, tomatoes, boxed lunch of brown rice, legumes and vegetables that were prepared where I stayed the night before, dehydrated kale chips, unprocessed nut butter and plain baked potatoes for snacking. The load I carry on my bike symbolizes the weight of the world with some humans who have made a few wrong turns by turning their backs on the nature, destroying what the planet has given, creating inhumane environment for the animals and allowing bigotry in their hearts. If what I put myself through helps raise money for Compassion Over Killing and helps stop the pain and suffering of animals and other beings, this journey is well worth it.

Some other cyclists might "die" if they don't have mac n cheese or pizza. I can get ill if I don't have enough vegetables.
Some other cyclists might “die” if they don’t have mac n cheese or pizza. I can get ill if I don’t have enough vegetables.

To give what you can to support Compassion Over Killing, go to the fundraiser page at this link:

To learn about my cookbook and support my project, go to my crowd-funding page at this link:

BIO: I’m a holistic chef, budding author and lover of outdoors. I tell stories and share memories of places I went to, people I care about, food I cooked and shared with others, food I saved from going to waste, books I read, fun things I did and not-so-fun but the right things I did_ such as activism. I believe in speaking my mind against greed and ignorance that destroy the Planet Earth.