In 1930,Albert Einstein in a letter to his son said, "Life Is like riding a Bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving"
And this was the theme running through my mind as I pedaled my way through hills and valleys, riversides and Hakka Tulous to old villages and modern highways in rural China in Fujian and Guangdong provinces over the Easter weekend. My journey along with 30 others of ages ranging from a six year old girl to a 60 year man, was a journey in the unknown, yet on a very familiar path, Cycling. As part of the Soap Cycling charity's initiative to increase awareness on recycling and hygiene, we cycled through 4 towns and nearly 100km of cycling in four days.
Soap Cycling was established by Mr. David Bishop from the University of Hong Kong in 2012 and is largely run by student volunteers. The first organization of this kind in Asia, Soap Cycling is a nonprofit organization based in Hong Kong who work with the hospitality industry to collect, sanitize and recycle slightly used soaps and other sanitation amenities. These life-saving items are then distributed to underprivileged families and schools in disadvantaged communities around the world, particularly Asia.
Besides the wonderful work they do to improve sanitation and hygiene in underprivileged regions, Soap Cycling's team have instilled among their interns a sense of entrepreneurship and team ethos to help shape their future careers. As I pushed, heaved and sometimes dragged the bike while attempting to climb hills, there were many lessons I learnt on this trip, which reiterated to me why it is necessary for us to not only recycle our physical possessions, but the need to refresh our thinking from time to time.
Here are eight of the lessons that I take back with me to the urban life:
Communication & the Way of the Peloton: The Peloton, is the main group or pack of riders in a group who save energy by riding close near other riders. To ensure that we had no accidents or incidents, we had to follow the rules set, i.e., keeping a safe distance from the bike in front, signaling before overtaking, staying in a single file and finally, ensuring that we are constantly communicating about incoming traffic and road conditions to those behind us. This was a lesson in how communication has to flow from the front to the back at all times, and the importance of paying attention to the what those around you are saying, both for good of the group as well as your own.
The Wrong Way is the Right of Way: Coming from the commonwealth where drivers follow the left hand drive, we had to adapt to riding in the wrong way, i.e., the right hand side of the road. one of the biggest mistakes most companies and people make when going into a new market/country is to assume that things should work the way they have followed at home. This fallacy has inflicted some of the biggest firms in the world when entering China and other Asian markets to their detriment. This journey reiterated the point that one needs to constantly adapt and be open to the ways of the market we are entering, rather than force your path through.
Shifting gears and knowing when to: A critical part of cycling is knowing how and when to shift the gears. If one does it too early, the momentum is lost, while if you shift the gears late, it might not be very useful. This was a lesson in pacing yourself and being aware of how to respond to the upcoming path. By deploying the right gears at the appropriate time, one not only keeps up in pace with the group, but also saves valuable energy which is needed for the long road ahead.
Going back to what you love and know: Getting back on the bike was as familiar as they say it is, no matter how many years since. I used to ride to school from home for over 4 years, and this trip reignited the love I have for cycling and the outdoors. It reminded me that as we grow older, we often forget to revisit the fundamentals and the simple things that make us tick. Revisiting our fundamentals helps to reignite the spark we may have lost and to help get back our thoughts and focus.
Assumptions: Ass-U-Me: It is often said, assumption makes an Ass of you and me. Following up on the earlier point, many come into China with myriad assumptions on how the country is from the culture to the development. This trip was an eye opener to me on the stark differences that exist between urban China, which is highly developed in every sense, to rural China which still feels like it is trapped in a world which is decades old. From not using any cash in urban China, where everything is done digitally on the phone, to only using cash in rural China where we hardly saw too many smart phones around. Secondly, the people in the towns and village were friendly and seemed fairly content in their world. This was a clear lesson to keep a completely open mind and to explore a new place without prejudices and biases misleading us.
WolfPack and Leadership: A vital part of a Peloton is the leaders who set the pace and ensure everyone are ontrack. At times during the journey, the group was dispersed over nearly a kilometer and on hills, it could mean over 5 minutes difference between the first and last bikers. In our group, we were being ably led by Dora, while Ada, the head of the amazing organising team from Circle Adventure, was in the middle with strong man Benji taking care at the back end. The rest of us were spread out with some of the young ones right behind Dora at the front. Constant care was taken to ensure that we slowed down and stopped from time to time to ensure the others caught up. Dora and Ada would constantly check on the path ahead to ensure we were on the safest,suitable way forward for the group. This showed how leadership and the wolfpack mentality, of ensuring everyone in the pack, no matter how slow or frail, is brought forward together, is important for a team working on reaching milestones, slowly, steadily but surely..
No Shame: With a varied level of proficiency, from experienced bikers to complete novices and brave first timers, we had moments where some of the riders could not carry on biking. Some of us would get off the saddle and push up the bikes on steep inclines, while some others had to stop and get onto the bus as they could not ride anymore for the day. However, in the entire group, there was great camaraderie and no one looked down upon the ones who were not as proficient and had stopped cycling. There was a lot of encouragement when people fell back, with those in front stopping to egg and cheer the ones lagging behind when they attempted to reach the top of the hill. There was no shame in stopping, as everyone acknowledged that the person had given their best and had to stop to ensure they could carry on the next day. This was a lesson in handling failure and the importance of a support group to put you back on the bike, literally and figuratively.
Experiencing without Distraction: One of the main aims of this trip for me personally, was to be able to cut off myself from everything else and take in the experiences. China Mobile was a great help as they do not offer roaming on the plan I was on. I took this as a blessing in disguise and felt free of the social media and smart phone addiction inflicting many of us. Ada, Dora and the team from Circle Adventure had chosen a route through some very picturesque countryside cutting through some historical areas of the Guangdong-Fujian border. With the rule of single file to be observed while riding, it gave me a lot to time on the saddle to just take in the sights without distraction of others or of my cellphone. This was thoroughly refreshing and helped me clear out my head and to reflect objectively. Further reinforcing the need to take a break without distraction to refresh one mentally and to enjoy our breaks, rather than come back exhausted after a "holiday".
Having been back in the urban world for a week, I have not only found myself refreshed, but I find that I have increased focus in the things I do. Along the way, I have made some new friends and met very interesting people in the towns and villages. Most were curious to see a bunch of 30 people riding through their village and would wave to us with a 'Ni Hao', almost always with smiles. Showing us that no matter how developed a region is or not, and no matter what the country one comes from, most people like to connect with those from a different culture with that most basic of human emotions, a smile.
Besides all the riding, at the base of this journey was to spread the word about recycling and conservation. As the Earth day was observed this weekend, I hope all of us get a chance to reflect on how best we can lead our lives to not only eliminate waste and adopt recycling in our lives, but also to conserve what we have for the future generations to come. A big thank you to Circle Adventure and the Soap Cycling teams for organising this journey for us and I look forward to getting back on the saddle soon.