Preparing for our bicycle trip, May-June 2004

Once Sumana and I had made up our minds to spend 30 days cycling around Malaysia on RM10 (US$3) per day each, we had to prepare ourselves physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Physically, because we had no idea how our bodies would react. The most we had ever cycled was some 50km around Singapore. What would happen when we tried to cycle 80km every single day continuously? So, we just started cycling around Singapore. First,with nothing on our bikes, then with our panniers mounted and filled. When I look back at this period, the one enduring memory is of Singapore’s roads–they were far less congested back then, just a few years ago in 2004, and motorists were much more patient and aware of cyclists. After a 7-year hiatus, I started cycling seriously again last December, 2011. Oh boy. There are times now on Singapore’s roads I feel like one of those runners in Pamplona, panting, sprinting foolishly alongside raging bulls, unsure who is supposed to tag who.

Emotionally, because as cocksure as we pretended to be, we were still scared. At a larger level, what if this whole trip was just a bloody waste of time? We weren’t looking forward to failure, stumbling back to Singapore to face the chorus of told-you-so’s. At a more prosaic level, the daily uncertainties worried us. Would we really be able to live on just RM10 a day? Where were we going to sleep every night? How the heck could we get through a month without home-cooked food? Worse, a month without drinking?

And intellectually, as we dusted off our Malaysia history books and Kamus, the Malay dictionary. Sure, we had gone through 12 years of Malay as second-language in Singapore’s schools. Sure, we had passed Malay at ‘O’ and ‘AO’ Level. But in early 2004, having just spent 4 years at undergrad in California, Sumana and I spoke better Spanish than Malay. And so, painful as it was initially, we started reading Malay newspapers, talking to each other in Malay, and watching Mat YoYo.

So, in short, we passed those days in May and June 2004, after we had returned to Singapore from Year 1 of our Masters programme in the US and before the start of our bike trip, mostly cycling, worrying, and trying to memorise the Malay phrase for “hungry cyclist”. It was actually quite fun.

One of the toughest trade-offs we faced was between our bicycles’ simplicity and performance. Our intention was to travel as inconspicuously as possible. We had chosen to cycle, after all, partly because we didn’t want to be seen as the Rolex-touting Singaporean barrelling through Malaysia in a Mercedes. We certainly didn’t want a high-tech, flashy mountain bike.

However, our desire for simplicity had to be balanced with the need for a machine that could get us through thousands of kilometres of Malaysian sand, jungle, road and mountain. In the end, we erred on the side of performance.

As a result, amidst thousands of single-geared bicycles, our 24-speed Giants stuck out like sore thumbs.

We also wore ridiculous helmets—shunned even by Malaysian motorcyclists—another sure sign that we were slightly out of mind, and definitely out-of-town.

The other major dilemma revolved around our pre-trip dietary plans. I was fairly convinced by the “protein diet” craze that had swept the US, and so decided to cut down on carbohydrates. The aim was to slowly reduce my food intake and therefore shrink my stomach to prepare for our journey where we would be eating much less than normal.

Sumana, a student of the camel school of consumption, had decided that the only way to prepare for reduced consumption was to eat as much as possible and thus fatten himself up to pre-empt the effects of weight loss. We took to our diets with dogged determination, intent on proving the other wrong. The result of all this waffly nutritional science is that Sumana often felt hungry and I weak.

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