Outside of Santa Cruz, our new friend Shasta showed us the scenic route as we rode into town. We exchanged bicycling stories. She spoke of her worst day on her coastal bike tour, and said, “You know how 90% of people are wonderful and 10% might be…not so much? They think you’re a vagabond, which, you kind of are…”
Most days, I encounter the world smiling and the world smiles back. I tell everyone I meet what I’m doing. Cashiers might ask where I’m riding; other cyclists might ask for directions; random strangers see my loaded touring bike and wonder what’s going on. So I tell them. They smile, call me brave, and might give me advice as to where to get good tacos and where I can camp easily. When in need, people have given me water or directions. I leave the interaction with joy, having shared my journey with someone else in a small way. It’s easy, then, to think the whole world is on my side when traveling. ‘People are so nice!’ I merrily think to myself.
Sometimes, an unpleasant interaction with a fellow human arises. On my first bike tour in Pennsylvania, Sheena and I asked a man at a gas station for directions. His response was, ‘Are you Pakistanis?’ I replied, ‘Our parents are from India and we both grew up in New Jersey.’ He decided to give us directions on the basis of not being Pakistani. Most recently, a man loudly spouted racist sentiments in my immediate presence with, what seemed to be, the hope of getting a rise out of me. I heard those remarks, ignored them, and attempted to ride out of town as quickly as possible. Instead, I found myself with a flat not five miles from that town. I was angry, frustrated, and worst of all, scared. This man reminded me that rural areas are often not welcoming to people of color. He reminded me that microaggressions are real. Blatant racism is always possibility for a person of color alone in an unfamiliar place. I remembered that many of the people I meet have never met an Indian person; the closest they have come is ‘Apu’ from The Simpsons. My thoughts went in loops but I chastised myself. ‘Don’t meet racism with classism’, I told myself. Hurt people hurt people, after all. This whole incident was in Concrete, WA, which appeared to be an economically depressed town that, maybe, used to have jobs from concrete. So there’s the possibility that this man has justified his racism with an anti-immigrant sentiment stemming from his lack of economic opportunity. Ultimately, small towns have met me with a lot of kindness and this is the first blatantly anti-immigrant or racist comment I’ve encountered. (Which is pretty good for having ridden more than 2100 miles, I think)
As I attempted to fix my flat, a kind British man came along and helped me. The type of hand pump that I have barely works–it is designed for the cyclist to pump up the tire as much as they can, and then go to a gas station to really fill it. The fact that this man came along allowed me to continue forward rather than walking my bike back to town.
When looking for a campsite, I came to an RV Park where, for $10, I found WiFi, a hot shower, friends who gave me dinner, and a safe place to camp. It’s easy to look back on this day and think, ‘Oh, that was the day that dude said some racist shit to me.’ And it was the day some dude said some racist shit to me. But it was also the day I was met with unmatched, loving kindness in the company of strangers who took me in as a friend.
It’s 90 and 10. When biking, the kindness I am shown by fellow humans is so overwhelming and wonderful that when someone is mean, rude, or unpleasant, it stands out and can overshadow the kindness. I need to remind myself that those interactions are only 10%. The 10% may sting, make me feel unsafe, and make me wonder if I chose the right route–but it’s only 10%. In my every day, non-bike touring life, I probably have a greater proportion of negative interactions than 90 and 10. It just hurts less because I’m used to the human cruelty of daily existence.
So no, being a South Asian woman of color riding my bicycle across the United States alone might not be all sunshine and puppies. But most of the time, it really is.