Cyclists packing light, using light

Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 10:41 p.m.

Editor’s note: Sedgwick native Levi Bridges and friend Ellery Althaus of North Truro, Mass., have embarked on a 10,000-mile cycling trip across Asia and Europe. Bridges is filing weekly updates for the BDN.

We have ridden 5,000 miles across Russia and been caught in torrential rainstorms, changed 60 flat tires, and repaired broken bicycle racks seven times. My riding partner Ellery’s ability to fix small bike problems on the road with few tools and a lot of creativity continually amazes me. But oftentimes, a keen knowledge of rudimentary bicycle mechanics cannot solve the most problematic moments we encounter here.

We travel light, carrying just four waterproof panniers — small bags which strap onto racks on the front and back of our bicycles. We have embraced nomadhood; for more than eight months, these bags will contain our only possessions. I carry just the clothes I need to survive in extremely cold or wet situations. In bad weather, I can just pull off the road, set up my tent, and crawl into my warm down sleeping bag. The feeling is liberating.

In the past months, I’ve found that self-sufficiency often does not mean being ready for anything, but having many things you rarely use and fewer things that you want. I travel with just two pairs of underwear and one pair of pants to wear when I am not cycling. But I also carry a headlamp and six rechargeable batteries. If my headlamp loses power in an emergency, I have another set of batteries to light it. Nomadic life forces you to adopt a stringent sense of absurd practicality; the battery to underwear ratio in my panniers is 3:1.

Preparing for this trip, Ellery and I continually asked ourselves, “How can we make less things more valuable?” We planned to bring several cameras to document our trip, and a small computer to upload video, photos and writing about the people and places we would encounter to a Web site. Russia is a country rich in culture, history and friendly folks who have treated us with outstanding hospitality. Few people visit Russia outside of major tourist destinations, and, consequently, the people who live here remain largely misunderstood.

Using the Internet to document our experiences here could give people in America valuable insights into another culture. The problem was how to harness its uses efficiently.

Suddenly, an idea arose. What if we could use our trip and the Internet to both foster cross-cultural understanding while showing how the very technologies which link us together can be environmentally friendly? We decided to attach lightweight solar panels on the back of our bicycles that could recharge the batteries in our cameras and computer. A company called GoGreen Solar provided us with small flexible solar panels at a discount.

Your access to sunlight makes solar power invaluable on a bicycle trip. While traveling in remote areas, we can always keep our cell phones charged in case of an emergency. Solar power ultimately allows us to travel in the least environmentally intrusive manner possible, riding bicycles instead of using transportation powered by gasoline, and designing a Web site to document our journey created by cameras powered by the sun.

I once had idyllic dreams of riding all day while charging my laptop’s battery, then sitting in my tent at night, connecting to the Internet, and updating our Web site. Unfortunately, this fantasy has been hard to implement.

One can easily get online throughout Russia with a USB modem, a small device that plugs into your computer and picks up the Internet through cell phone signals. The gadget is affordable and easy to use. But making it work on the road is nearly impossible.

Approximately every 1,000 miles, we enter a new zone where cell phone towers operate on a different signal, and we must buy a new SIM card for our USB modem to work in the new region. SIM cards are small removable chips in cell phones which allow users to easily switch their phone number from one area code, or country, to another simply by purchasing a new chip. One must present a Russian passport to buy a SIM card here and foreigners must show a passport and what is called a registration, a small piece of paper issued by a local branch of the Russian Federal Migration Service which monitors the movement of foreigners.

Hotels register foreigners, and the paperwork is easily obtained in major cities like Moscow. Most of the country, however, ignores this formality leftover from the Soviet Union, and we often cannot find a hotel which will register us. Consequently, we can never buy new SIM cards and our USB modem is useless.

Finding the Internet on this trip is more difficult than changing flat tires or making my solar panel work in limited sunlight. In cities, I must use Internet cafes, but these can be hard to find. Russia, as a country, often seems like the perfect mix of the developed and undeveloped world. In Latin American countries for instance, few people own personal computers, and Internet cafes abound even in small towns. In a country like Russia, which, until recently, experienced years of a quickly growing economy, more people have computers and certain services like Internet cafes are less in demand.

Last week, I faced a serious emergency: the Internet cafe I found closed an hour early. Suddenly, the screen went dead as I was sending an article to the Bangor Daily News. After an extensive search, I found another Internet center in a fancy hotel with an international calling center. International calling cards in European Russia are plentiful, but telephones are not. After sending my photos to the BDN, I pounced on the rare opportunity to use the hotel’s telephone to call my family in Maine.

The cheap hotels in Russian cities we often stay in are located in old Soviet apartment buildings which were built before telephone use became widespread. These buildings often have just one telephone in an office near the entrance.

After the Soviet Union fell, the efficiency of cell phones evolved quicker than land-line phones. Consequently, it is hard to find telephones today to call abroad. The one telephone in an old Soviet building is often under the charge of a babushka, an old Russian woman, who invariably works in the office. They are from another generation and cannot believe how a paper telephone card will let one call America.

“Sorry, that won’t work here,” they always respond when I ask if I can use the phone.

Leaving a city on my bicycle gives me the reassuring feeling that I am returning to a simpler way of living. On this trip, life seems more chaotic in civilization than outside it. This is hard for some people who haven’t traveled widely to understand.

“What do you do when it rains?” is the chief question many Russians ask us about our trip.

While cycling through the Ural Mountains one day, an ominously dark mass of clouds appears on the horizon and it starts to pour. I stop to put on my rain jacket, pants, and waterproof booties over my shoes before I continue. The weather’s behavior is not restricted by international border or customs. It is a natural phenomenon I can prepare for.

“Now, this is the easy part,” I think to myself.

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