Thursday, 5 February 2009

Travels With Rosinante, Bernard Magnouloux (1988)

Grafton Books 0 586 20828 3 paperback 252pp £5.99

A compelling account of a five-year, minimal-budget, round-the-world cycle journey starting in 1980. The author took in: Europe; the length of Africa, travelling south; the length of south America, travelling north; the USA travelling east though the southern states and then crossing to California; China to Nepal and some major excursions in India and Pakistan

To judge from his picture on the book’s cover, Magnoloux is the sort of person who might cause your heart to drop if he joined you in a railway carriage. He is using sacks for panniers, has a filthy suitcase strapped to his rack and is dressed as though from a charity shop he visited several thousand kilometres ago. But suspend your prejudices, for he has a compelling tale to tell and a considerable gift for expression – particularly given that his first language is French.

He cycled about 48,000 miles (76,988 kilometers), lived on an average of £2 per day and did most of the trip on a bicycle for which he paid just £15. Given the scope of his experiences, this is actually a very slender book, each of the 30 chapters recounting his highlights in some of the 45 countries through which he journeyed.

What plans he had, he appears to have made from maps copied down by chance at frontier posts and in airports. He lived among the people whose countries he visited – sometimes working as a labourer to raise funds, elsewhere, giving lectures on his journey. In some respects his experiences might seem like the boilerplate expectations of such a passage – robbed at gun point, fleeced at borders, shown enormous kindness by some of the poorest people, and the opposite from a few of the richest. But he tells his tales with a compassionate authenticity that gives them all - even his few amorous encounters – the stimulating grit of quality reportage.

It would be interesting to know more about Magnoloux himself. He describes himself variously as a stonemason (at which he is clearly skilled) and an author. Throughout the book he demonstrates his ability with languages. He is able to immerse himself sufficiently to pick up some native words nearly everywhere he visits, and he provides snapshots of dialogue and their translations in half a dozen tongues. And, as no translator is mentioned, one has to assume he wrote this book in English. What he has done since then, I have been unable to discover – but would be fascinated to know, if anyone can shed some light.

He also provides only a hint at what propelled him pedalling on this lonely, frequently hungry, quest. In Tibet he found himself contemplating the motivations of the pilgrims to Lhasa.

“I wondered if, under the surface, there is such a difference between the Tibetan pilgrim who prostrates himself every three steps for 2,000 miles on his way to Lhasa and the European cyclist pushing his pedals every couple of yards for 4,000 miles around the world.

“Is religious piety the real motivation for the Tibetan? Isn’t it more general – a kind of social pressure, or the force of tradition? And isn’t it exactly the same for the European?

“To go around the world has become, for young Westerners, the social and cultural equivalent of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for medieval Christians, to Mecca for present-day Muslims and to Lhasa for Tibetans. This thirst for travel, it seems to me, is a new form of initiation, a new set of atheistic rituals...”

The resultof his initiation is a fascinating picture of the world during the time of Magnoulox’ adventuring. It would also be a useful primer for anyone contemplating a similar venture. His broad brush impressions might well help with general route planning – Muslim countries are friendly, Africa is friendly, south America unfriendly, the US friendly, but full of cars; and in India, the village crowds who mob a western cyclist make progress near impossible.

The appendices, which aim to give more practical advice to would-be travelers, clearly cannot be depended upon given that the book was published 20 years ago – but in many of the less developed countries they are probably still as useful as ever.

For those of us less adventurous, his book provides a transport far beyond the railway carriage.

PS February 09

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