Freewheeling: Lynette Chiang's Two Wheel Journey From Cubicles to Cuba

by Julie Schwietert May 4, 2009

All photos courtesy of Lynette Chiang

I “met” Lynette Chiang after snagging The Handsomest Man in Cuba from a New York Public Library bookshelf.

I approach narratives about travels in Cuba with one part interest, one part dread. So many of them sound alike– careful notations of the author’s observations about old cars, rum, music, and the famed congeniality of Cubans. And somehow, almost all of them fail to capture the ineffable moments and experiences that make Cuba Cuba.

But Chiang, a self-described Chinese Australian “adventurette,” managed to do what most chroniclers of Cuban journeys don’t, and perhaps that’s because her journey around the island was not like most people’s.

Chiang, who globe trots on a folding bike, tackled Cuba on two wheels. Between punishing heat and potholed roads, she managed to keep notes about her experiences, and while rum, music, and old cars aren’t absent from her travelogue, they’re certainly not the dominant images.

Chiang and I spoke over e-mail about ditching her job, traveling the world by folding bike, and our mutual love: Cuba.

(MT): You “fled a decent job, three-bedroom house, fast car, and a nice bloke in Sydney” for some Lycra bike shorts, a folding bike, and the open road. Lots of people dream of doing something similar (well, maybe not the Lycra shorts part), but are afraid to make the break from what they perceive to be the security and safety of a steady paycheck and benefits.

Two questions: First, what was your “Aha” moment when you made the decision to exit your predictable, stable life, and second, what advice do you have for people who say, “Great for you, but I’ll be slaving away in this cubicle until I pay off my debt or die?”

Two things happened:

Someone showed me a map of Great Britain – admittedly a small one – printed off the then-fairly new “internet.” That was around 1995, when it was still a novelty…. The map had a little dotted line going from the bottom to the top. The classic Land’s End to John O’Groats journey. My first reaction was, “I’m going to do that.” It was the first time in a long time I had such a decisive thought in my life…. I guess it was the decisiveness of the thought, rather than the trip itself, that was the turning point.

Second, I was getting more and more stressed in a job where I never felt I had any control – I was at the whim of a pyramid of people above me ready to squash my work for all kinds of spurious and reasonable/unreasonable reasons. That’s not uncommon in working life, but I always thought the ideal state where you can do your best is when you are “comfortably challenged….” Maybe psychologists would disagree with me, but that’s how I feel.

And all I can say is I have managed to pay off my condo in Sydney so my mother has somewhere to live for the rest of her life without fear, yet the highest I’ve earned is probably 40K a year or so since getting on the bike. Makes me think it’s actually cheaper to be on the road. You can’t accumulate STUFF – only the stuff you really need.

(MT): When you left Sydney, you headed for Latin America. Was there a reason you felt drawn to this region and what did you anticipate you’d experience in Cuba?

Actually, I headed for Latin America only after meeting a Costa Rican woman and her English husband in Windsor Station, near where I was paused after riding from end to end Britain and round and about Ireland. The three of us missed the train when it pulled away early, and shared outrage as the driver mockingly waved to us.

She said I should visit her family in San Jose, Costa Rica, as is the natural, embracing offer of many cultures excluding our WASPish kind. So I went to a bookstore, looked for a Lonely Planet to see where Costa Rica was and got a plane fare there. It was only when I got to Costa Rica did I start looking at maps of the area and noticed Cuba. I think that’s why we are naturally geocentric to where we happen to be. Far away is, well, just too damn far away.

(MT): Your primary mode of transportation is a folding bike. What have you learned about the world from the vantage point of a bike saddle? And what have you learned about yourself?

Things look a lot more interesting, because you notice more. Anyone who has ridden a bike for any distance will tell you that. I definitely had a higher level of internal frustration when I commuted 20 minutes to work each day in a Honda Accord as a cubicle dweller.

And I gained a lot more respect for my body after it hauled the pile of inanimate tubes and rubber from one end of Britain to the other. We celebrate superficial beauty and athletic prowess, really, there’s a lot to be admired in covering distance under your own power. A folding bike has the added cache of being strange. As one of our Bike Friday customers says, “When I don’t want anyone to talk to me, I ride my regular bike.”

(MT): When did you decide to write a travel memoir of your bike trip around Cuba?

I had no real intention at first. I just made bullet points each day in a Hyatt Regency Hotel diary…. After the trip I worked up a single story called “La Casa de Lolita” which was printed in the Tico Times, a Costa Rican English newspaper. I think it’s the only story I ever submitted to a print publication– I was always far more interested in the potential of the web….

It got read by a Latinophile and former bureau chief of the NYT Argentina, Barney Collier. He flew down from NY to locate me in the mountains of Costa Rica, where I was working as a cook and manager of Avalon Reserve, loaned me his “lucky Toshiba” Satellite brick of a laptop, and said “finish the story.” It meandered its way to where it is today, published by Random House Australia, me, Globe-Pequot USA and Piper-Verlag in Germany.

(MT): Every time I return from Cuba, I’m more confused than ever by its complexity and contradictions, many of which you convey so well in The Handsomest Man in Cuba. When you recall your experiences in Cuba, what remains most difficult for you to understand?

I feel there is nothing I did not “understand,” probably because I stopped trying to do do that a while ago. For me, “it is what it is….” If I tried to make sense of everything, like I did in my naive twenties, I’d go nuts. I remember railing at strip malls and manicured lawns when I first came to America and realized it was fruitless. I’m a failed hippie, hovering between being capitalist and socialist, seeking to integrate the best of both worlds but it’s impossible, because they just don’t mesh.

(MT): Could you share a bit with us about your process of pitching the book for publication?

I guess I never really pitched. Barney wrote an eloquent letter to a then-editorial head at Random House Australia and they asked to see it. A very successful Australian author, Brad Grieve, suggested I could have just picked up the phone and gotten the same result in a small place like Australia, but I’ve always honored people who try to help me along the way.

It sold OK downunder, maybe 7K copies; a Bill Bryson I’m certainly not, although I’ve been compared to him! Perhaps Cuba isn’t as top of mind downunder as other places, like India or Europe or Asia. Cuba out of earshot, out of buckshot.

In the USA, I made some halfhearted attempts to attract publishers. [I] went to the Willamette Writers Conference and soaked up all the encouragement which was probably more well-meaning than a means to an end, and decided to publish it myself. By that, I mean I learned Adobe Indesign Book, laid it all out, sent it to a printer and got a box of books back.

Because I was working for Bike Friday, the make of my folding bicycle, I saw that I had a bit of a market there. I figured I should at least be able to offload 1500 books. Despite 20,000 customers and an email every three days from someone who said they enjoyed it, it took almost three years to do that! So you can imagine what a massive achievement it is for a Grisham or a JK Rowling to sell half a million books in a matter of hours.

I mounted my own book tour, worked 24/7 making the collateral, calls, and PR – I think I had a nervous breakdown doing all the prep but didn’t notice.

I could do every part except get a lot of press and publicity. That’s why people pay PR agencies the big bucks. I had no real connections here. It’s all connections. Or a brilliant product, say, a Benjamin Button elixir in a bottle with no contraindications.

(MT): Do you have any plans to write another book?

I have penned a few chapters about my life in Costa Rica, my two years there working at a Saatchi & Saatchi office, and then at the hotel. It’s not about cloud forests or romantic walks along the beach. It has my trademark, ever so slightly ‘jaundiced’ eye, and is of course personal, like the Cuba book. It’ll never sell. But those who enjoyed the subtext of The Handsomest Man will like it.

(MT): In addition to your traveling and writing, you also make films. Can you tell us a bit about your “handlebar documentaries”?

I use a simple digital camera in movie mode, strung around my neck using a lanyard, shooting one-handedly. It’s really no different from taking a swig from your water bottle, except you’re talking to it and turning it on yourself. I download it to my 12″ Mac Powerbook and use iMovie, Quicktime Pro, or Garageband to put it all together.

What people don’t realize is that the resolution of most cameras is 640×480, same as a standard TV screen. So they blow up great and make excellent DVD movies – especially now they have image stabilization. “16,000 Feet on a Friday”, a movie about biking the world’s highest paved road, got the Boston Bike Film Festival Audience Choice gong one year– that was pre-image stabilization. I shot that on two 256 Mb cards at 320×240 on an old Canon Digital Elph 3.2 mpix and it still came out decent enough to be appreciated.

In 2006 I shot “Route 66 by Bicycle: Pedaling the Mother Road….” In addition, I am constantly uploading to the bikefriday and galfromdownunder YouTube accounts to illustrate my blogs. I’m not ever striving to be a Scorsese– I’m just interested in capturing the entertaining nuances of fact rather than fiction – it’s happening all around us.

(MT): Where are you cycling and filming these days, and what trips do you have coming up?

I’ve just come back from Colorado and Arizona. My title, Customer Evangelist at large, puts me all over the country, homestaying with customers. Right now I am in NYC filming the interesting city biking life there.

(MT): What’s your dream trip itinerary?

I actually don’t have dreams. I’ve lived almost every reality I never dreamed of after quitting my cubicle dwelling life some 12 years ago.

The trip to the corner store can be a microadventure, if you are open to whoever might approach you, or notice something you’ve not seen before. And oh how sustainable! Plenty of bang for your buck. If you press me about it, I might say the Eastern Bloc countries intrigue me now– Romania, Lithuania– and Japan. What a fascinating culture that is.

(MT): Those of us who travel and write are often asked how we fund our travels. So pardon the bluntness, but, how do you fund your travels?

Unless you live in a kibbutz or a monastery, you need a bit of money if you want to live life fully on or off the road. I used my background to get stints in two areas of work– my formerly professional life as an advertising copywriter, and a life I had an unprofessional interest in, food,– these two things funded my travels.

I’ve earned everything from $2 to $2K a month, for a week to six months work, at a time. There’s always something that pops up. You’re not in your usual situation at home, boxed in by well-meaning friends who say “What happens if xyz happens?” You are a beacon to these offers and for the first time you can avail yourself to them.

(MT): Back to the bike: What’s the gear that’s essential for you on a bike trip of any length?

…Pump. Spare tube. My traffic cone bag to stay alive.
And lights. If you’re out and about, your best laid plans can change if you meet someone or something interesting and end up shooting the breeze over an impromptu meal. You need to get home in the dark. It makes me really angry when I see a cyclist riding in the dark sans lights. Your life isn’t worth a $20 light?

Warm clothes to cover legs and arms are also essential. A bit of food, even a bar stashed away. I put an Emergen-C in my water bottle each day and a Rooibos tea-bag.

(MT): Do you think you’ll ever go back to corporate life? Do you think travel is a sustainable lifestyle?

I have always been in corporate life to a degree. Right now I am the Customer Evangelist for Bike Friday. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve done in the past– computing, advertising, food service (I cook for my homestay hosts!), networking. I’m just doing it in a way that is organic to the job.

I think many jobs could be done more effectively if they were really designed for people when they can be their best. Stuck in an office might not be the answer for all jobs, nor doing the same thing day in, day out. I actually think the ideal thing is to have two or three very different part time jobs, that give you physical and mental variety. That’s what travel does, and why many of us crave it. But do that all the time and it too becomes tiring….

Travel is not that sustainable. It does promote “I’m here I want to be there.” I have not owned a car for 20 years and have always always combined my folding bike with available transportation modes (bus, train, car, plane, banana truck), but I am not a martyr. I fly, but when I do, it’s one-way and I stay a while. Fossil fueled transport is not evil. It’s all how appropriately and sustainably you use it – it’s to be used, not abused.

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