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The Cycle Diaries

 StreetWise (USA) 20 May 2019

(Originally published: 05/2010) As a bike messenger, George Christensen rides all over the city of Chicago delivering packages strapped to the back of his bike. As a bike tourist, he rides all over the cities of the world learning about different cultures from Sweden to Kenya. He speaks to Amanda Anderson about his journey so far. (1586 words) - By Amanda Anderson

StreetWise

Photo courtesy of StreetWise

As a bike messenger, George Christensen rides all over the city of Chicago delivering packages strapped to the back of his bike. As a bike tourist, he rides all over the cities of the world learning about different cultures; he's been to Sweden, Thailand, India, Japan, China, and, most recently, Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya.

Christensen gives slide-show presentations of his trips at the Lincoln-Belmont branch of the Chicago Public Library.

"He's here during the coldest months of the year. It's usually hard to draw a crowd during the winter, but not for him, getting up to 75 people to come. He's very popular among the biking community in Chicago," said an attendee of Christensen's most recent slide show who wishes to remain anonymous. "He's everything you've heard of and more. His trips are sheer adventure. He's an amazing, amazing man."

After discussing Christensen's travels with him in a Q & A via e-mail, I learned that his elated fan was quite right.

How long have you been a bike messenger?

I started messengering in December of 1989 at the age of 38 after a six-month, 10,000-mile ride down the length of South America. My first day on the job, my dispatcher thought I was a bit old to be a messenger and asked, "Can you remember how to ride a bike?" I didn't say anything. The next day, after I'd gotten off to a great start, he wanted to know if I'd ever been a messenger before. I had long been curious to experience what it was like to be a bicycle messenger, but I'd never had the opportunity.

 

How did you get into the business of bike messengering?

I was drawn to messengering because I like to ride my bike and discovered the job was as satisfying and as much fun as I hoped it would be, though the first week or so was an eye-opener. It was initially much harder than I anticipated, and made me glad I was doing it just out of curiosity and not to make a living. But I also realized once I learned the tricks of the trade I could make a fair amount of money at it. Within a month I had established myself and was making more money than I needed.

In a society constantly trying to "go green," have you seen an increase in people wanting things delivered by bike? Or maybe an increase in bike messengers in general?

I see more people riding bikes in Chicago, but messengering is in decline with the economic slowdown.

 

What's the weirdest thing you've delivered?

I've delivered eyes to an eye bank in a large Styrofoam container latched to the rack on the back of my bike.

In terms of funding, does being a bike messenger during the winter sufficiently support your travels?

I began saving a couple thousand dollars a year, and after 15 years had saved and invested enough that my investments were earning me enough to live on. I continued messengering for the joy of it and still travelled six months of the year. With the economic slowdown, messengering isn't quite as lucrative, so I've been on a couple-year sabbatical from the work, devoting myself even more so to travel-eight months on the road last year.

 

What do you do when the elements are undesirable-rain, snow, hard front winds?

Every trip and every day has its challenges: wind, rain, heat, rough roads, communicating with people, finding food. I accept those challenges. They make the riding all the more satisfying.

 

Have you ever had a trip you didn't enjoy?

I can't say I've had a "worst" trip. Some have just been more challenging than others. Crossing India was probably the most difficult-dealing with the hoards of curious people, the rough roads, and the honking traffic. I had considered cutting that trip short when I arrived in Calcutta, but was revived there and continued on up to Kathmandu, the ultimate destination of my trip.

What has been your biggest accomplishment?

Among my most triumphal trips was biking up the Alaskan Highway back before it was paved, reaching the Alaskan border through the Yukon and British Columbia after over 1,000 miles of gravel. I couldn't speak about that moment of reaching Alaska for months afterward without choking on my emotions. I had invested so much effort into it. It was also very triumphal to reach the tip of South America after five months and 8,000 miles. Fewer people have biked South America from top to bottom than have climbed Mount Everest.

 

Have you experienced any kind of traveller's sicknesses?

No sickness on this trip or hardly ever. The worst was coming down with hepatitis in India, though it took a while to incubate and didn't fully manifest itself until shortly after I returned to Chicago. I just felt weak and run-down my last couple of weeks in India, then I was totally wiped out when the disease fully struck, and could do nothing for a month.

Talk about your trip to China. Because there are many media restrictions and governmental censorship on media outlets, was it difficult to maintain your blog?

There was no blogging in China, something the government had halted about a year ago, not wanting free exchange of opinions among its citizens. However, the people were generally in good spirits, enjoying a prosperity they never could have imagined. People were amazingly hospitable and generous, going out of their way to be of assistance to me.

Could you elaborate about how they're experiencing this prosperity amid communism, and this idea that China is becoming a more consumerist culture?

Free enterprise is running rampant in China. It was eased into the country in the early '80s in several special economic zones. The chief one was Shenzen bordering Hong Kong-it was so successful Shenzen has grown to a city of 10 million. China now has more billionaires than any country other than the U.S. People have been inspired to work hard to have things they never imagined. More than half the population has a cell phone, and TVs are so common vendors at roadside stands have them. Not so long ago food was rationed and milk was a rarity; now there are stores bulging with all manner of goods. Walmarts are to be found in all large cities, with grocery stores as well stocked as any in the U.S. Not everyone is rich or has a job or has everything they want, but the masses are not mired in poverty, just scraping by. Larger cities have pedestrian malls full of Western stores, from Nike to Starbucks.

You were most recently in Africa, biking around Lake Victoria. How would you compare your experience in Africa to that in China?

The biggest difference between China and Africa is the industriousness and ambition of the people. People continually asked me for money [in eastern Africa], something that never happened in China and rarely anywhere else I've travelled, even in the four countries of southern Africa [South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Losotho] I biked last year. This will definitely not go down as one of my favourite trips. China was definitely sensational, a place I am eager to return to.

What is your take on this difference between people's behaviour in southern Africa and eastern Africa, based on your experience there?

Those countries [in southern Africa] were a marked contrast to the three I've visited on this trip. These countries have been corrupted by an abundance of Western aid organizations, from churches to NGOs to tourists going to the game preserves lavishing money on them, making them think we have more money than we know what to do with. People aren't bashful in asking for some.

Because of your interest in independent film, have you considered making a documentary of one of your trips?

People are always telling me I ought to write a book, and some suggest someone ought to do a documentary on me. I just prefer to concentrate my efforts on the riding, though I do write a bit. I've always done this for the joy and purity of it, not to make money from it.


Why do you think this kind of bike touring is so important and rewarding?

Travel is a greatly stimulating and broadening experience, submerging one's self into other cultures and worlds. I greatly enjoy reading about other places and watching movies about them, but it does not compare to the satisfaction and joy of living and experiencing it firsthand at such a grassroots level as the bicycle allows. I take pride in being an ambassador for the bike and for my country.

People in foreign lands aren't accustomed to meeting Americans such as me. Most people think I am German or Dutch to be travelling in such a way. Even at the Tour de France, people are astounded that an American is following the race in such a non-affluent and challenging manner. I don't carry an American flag, but I'm not hesitant at all to let people know my nationality. Most people are thrilled to meet an American, even in Cuba and Venezuela, where their governments portray America as the enemy.
I travel too as a surrogate for many who can't. I have many friends and readers who say I'm leading their dream life; I would have said the same thing before I fully embraced it. I have become someone I would have liked to have met in my younger days.

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