I am angry. I am angry because we live in a world where many children cannot reach their full potential because Polio still exists. Especially because we are so close to eradicating it, but yet so far… Many children may know how angry they can get but not how far anger can take them. Yes, you read that correctly. Anger can take you places. I learned that one day purely by chance when I was a teenager in the Colombian countryside. Once again, my bicycle is part of the story.
It’s a heart stopping, knuckle whitening drive on winding highway roads up a steep mountain path to Ubaté, the town of my ancestors. Slow diesel trucks and “flotas” (colourful buses) with Jesus or Mary painted on the back abound on this stretch of road, the main artery connecting country to the capital. My mother would pray and swear at the same time as my dad swerved past these slow hindrances at breakneck speed, narrowly missing the oncoming vehicles driving in the opposite direction. This is hardly the worst stretch of road in the country. Highways anywhere in Colombia connect major towns and cities and comprise of a narrow, winding pass snaking its way up and around mountains on top of more mountains. Throw into the mix the occasional landslide, a sprinkling of livestock or people in the road and a dollop of potholes and you have created the perfect recipe for anybody to re-examine their stance on the afterlife more than once. Along the way, stars, shrines and crosses mark where people have died. Yes, driving on the highway in Colombia can turn anyone into a philosopher.
But for a boy, who grew up there, thinking about the afterlife was usually the last thing on my mind as we swerved and dodged our way to Ubaté. I was mostly thinking about how I was going to get away to do some cycling.
Ubaté is a town built on the plains of a river basin. It is a very fertile plain, ideal grazing ground for cattle. Wispy, long green grass covers the landscape and some areas are so wet that sometimes marches form after heavy rains. Eucalyptus and pine trees grow everywhere. The black, wet soil is favourable for anything to grow if the rains come and many locals plant corn, fruit trees and vegetables on the little patches of land that they have. Chickens, dogs, goats and cattle often roam freely. In anyway, for a little boy on a bike, this world offered endless diversion and challenges. Dogs became lions, cows became elephants and Ubaté became a place where you could have endless adventures.
As a child I never ventured too far from the house but sometimes my extended family of aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces and everyone else with some connection to the family would go for a walk up the surrounding Gualá Mountains. At the top, we would all have a rest, eat lunch and enjoy the view before heading back down. This bit was always great, especially when the ground was wet and muddy. You could just slide on your bottom, something my mom was never happy about come laundry day! I always wondered what it would be like to ride down those steep mountains on my bicycle. But, as a boy, I never went with my bike. It was very steep and very far and there were many rabid dogs along the way. My dad always used to say that it could not be done.
Gualá Mountains – Yes. They do have a path to be climbed… not by many with a bicycle.
As I reached my teenage years, Ubaté ceased to be this amazing world of adventure and rather turned into a shabby patch of land in the middle of nowhere. I saw things for what (I thought) they were: Dogs were dogs and cows were cows. As far as Ubatè was concerned, it was a case of “been there, done that” for me. There were no real challenges left for me to overcome…apart from the Gualá mountains.
It was on one of those lazy Saturday mornings at the farm house that I discovered the power of Anger. I don’t even remember why I was angry. I just remember that I was very, very angry. And so, as it happens still today, without a thought or a plan in my head, I took my bicycle and went for a ride. Normally, I would pedal until I felt better and go back home. But after 30 minutes I still did not feel any better. I kept on cycling until, as if per chance, I was halfway up the Gualá mountain before I realised what I have done. My legs burned and sweat started to sting my eyes. Every time I tried to stand up to continue pedalling, the wheels would slide on the gravel. If I sat right on the back of the saddle, the front wheel would lift up. It was a challenge. I could walk and push my bike, but that would feel like losing. Not an emotion that would mix well with anger!
When I reached the top (please do not ask after how long), my throat was burning and I had no energy left in my legs. The only thing that I could find to quench my thirst were these plants with thick roots called Pepinos de Agua (water cucumbers). I ate them as I looked down onto the valley below. I could not believe that I had reached the top. My feelings of anger were replaced by feelings of accomplishment. I was now driven by the thrill to fly back down the steep pass all the way home on my bicycle as fast as I could. I could not wait to tell my parents what I did. Funnily enough, other family members later on commented on seeing me and not believing their eyes. A bicycle that high up the mountains was unheard of.
I never would have conquered those mountains on that day if it was not for Anger. Negative emotions are no fun, but I learned that they can be very useful. Use them. Take strength from them. Channel them…put them to good use. Nowadays I am not (always) angry. I used to be very angry for a very long time but cycling helped me. Feel it, let it strengthen you…use it for good and then, let it go.
I promise that I will channel all my emotions, good and bad to successfully complete my ride between Land’s End and John O’Groats. I now need you to channel your thoughts on how you should best support me in this challenge. Ride with me, contact your local newspaper, donate and do what you can. I say it yet again… I cannot do it without you. If you want some ideas on how some people are already contributing then continue reading below.
Training has been going well. Last week I cycled 289 km and climbed 620 m. I trained for a total 11 hours and 37 minutes. The longest ride was 84 km which I completed in 3 hours and 46 minutes.
If you have been reading my blogs you will know that several Rotary Clubs around the UK have pledged their support. But let me tell you about the most recent contributions:
(1) The Rotary Clubs of Carlisle Castle and Carlisle South will join efforts to make bucket collections on the day I cycle through the city. They will also attempt to contact the local press for me to be interviewed.
(2) Rotarians from the Rotary Club of St Ives will join from the beginning of the ride in Land’s End and accompany me until St Ives where the local press will also be contacted, pictures taken and funds hopefully raised.
(3) The Rotary Club of Dalkeith has offered to join me for a short distance along my ride.
There are other Rotary Clubs discussing how best to support me and thinking about how to help to eradicate polio. I will keep telling you about their ideas and progress. For now just remember: You, dear reader, with your contribution however small, can also make history today. So, channel those emotions and do something good. End Polio Now.