Free Spirits Cycling Round the World!
Free spirits and fantastic human beings, Richard Ferge who is French, and Stani Martinkova, who is English, are on the second leg of a world bicycle tour. Having covered Europe (and most likely Russia once this article appears), they are planning to pedal through Asia, Oceania, and finally Africa. By the time they head for home, they will have covered over 60,000 km in 6 years. The first leg was across the Americas, starting from Anchorage in September 1996. When they ended the tour in Ushuaia in April 2000, they decided they wanted to see the rest of the world. After five years of toiling off saddle – Richard is a sommelier while Stani is a financial coordinator for charity groups – they saved enough to hit the road again. Stani and Richard travel with a peace flag on poles attached to their bikes and a message of peace in their hearts. Along the way they visit charity projects they are supporting on their website. On a six-day stop in Moscow before setting off for Siberia, the two sat for a chat (and a good laugh) with Passport; Richard arrived late because he had to fix his bike (“Can’t do anything when my baby’s not feeling well”)!
How did you decide to go on that first trip to the Americas?
Stani: That first trip was my idea. I’d already cycled in Colombia and Cuba. I really loved the Latin thing. As a child, I’d wanted to go to Peru. When I was in Colombia I’d met some guys who’d been traveling down. One of them was British and he just raved about Central America. And of course I’d always wanted to go to Tierra del Fuego and Alaska. All these things I wanted to do. It simply happened I was at a bookstore at Christmas in London and they had a 3D topographical map of the world, not the hologram or anything, just a relief. I looked at this and it was the first time it really sort of clicked in my mind that the Rockies, the Andes and Sierra Nevada – they are all one great moutain range. I just thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to cycle all the way down that range of mountains from top to bottom?”
How did you talk Richard into this?
Stani: [When] we had been probably dating for four or five months, I said to him, “I’m doing this Americas trip.” He thought I was cycling across the States, west-east. He was like, “I can wait for six months, its not a problem!” At this party my friends [asked him], “Don’t you know Stani’s going for two and a half years?” Richard said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, how long do you think it’s going to take me to get across the Americas?” He acted very strangely that night because he just had this thing dropped on him. [After] a couple of days thinking about it, he came to me: “Look, if I sell everything I have,can I come with you?” I didn’t [have to convince him].
How long did it take you to prepare?
Stani: I’m so disorganized, there’s no preparation with me. One thing we argue about is that Richard likes to have a plan, he likes to know where he’s going to be in three months, what he needs to get back. Me, I don’t even know what I’ll do tomorrow. When we arrived in Alaska, he said, “Where are we going?” I was like, “I don’t know. We gotta go find a map.” [laughs]
Did you meet any dangers on the way?
Stani: This is the question everybody wants to know! No, we’ve been incredibly lucky. I have friends who have been robbed, got into crossfire, had their bikes stolen, etc. And please, please touch every piece of wood that it would never happen to us! The worst thing for me was in Oregon where we got chased by a woman with a gun [after we inadvertently trespassed on her land]. We heard all sorts of stories getting closer to the Costa Rican border, that everybody kept getting robbed or mugged. But when you’re traveling through the countryside on a bike people tend to think more in a human way towards you.
Was it hard to make contact with locals in Central America?
Stani: In places like Guatemala it takes time to really develop a relationship with people because they still have a lot of stories going around of white people coming to steal their children. There’s a lot of hostility. When as a cyclist you turn up you’re always tired, you’re always hungry and the last thing you want to do is make the effort to be nice to somebody, especially when they’re not particularly nice to you. Once you break that barrier, those people, they just grab your heart. It takes a lot of effort. But you have to also remember that you’re not the first, nor even the last, person coming through and your behavior will influence the reception for the next person. That’s a great responsibility.
The Guatemalan Civil War was over at the time, but you also passed through Chiapas and FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) territory. How did you manage going through these conflict areas?
Stani: We were warned about certain areas and several times we got stopped by the police and hassled mostly. We definitely met some people from [Chiapas rebel leader Subcomandante] Marcos’ army because they were walking with guns around local farmers. But we didn’t personally see any conflict or anything like that. [In Colombia] we kept asking people, ‘Is it safe?’ People seemed to know what was going on: ‘Yes, you can pass today but you can’t pass tomorrow.’
How did the idea to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites come about?
Stani: The original idea was to try and see as many as possible. It actually made sense because supposedly these are the most beautiful, most important places on the planet. So we decided to use a [GEO map of UNESCO sites] as a vague route plan. We actually even considered raising money for UNESCO but then we decided not to. My experience is that the bigger the organization, unless you’re bringing in huge amounts of money, they don’t really appreciate it. It’s much better off helping smaller projects. I also found out that every year UNESCO meets up and adds more places. So I was like, ‘This is an endless journey!’
Richard: Stani’s finger is like, ‘Oh, we’re here, [swivels finger in the air before landing randomly at some point in the map] oh, it’s lovely there. Let’s go there!’ Forget that there are 4,000 km to get there. And it’s me who has to think of all the planning.
Has your work with charity influenced the trip in any way?
Stani: Definitely the idea to cycle was originally pure selfinterest. But the main thing Richard speaks about – and one more reason why we’d like to speak in schools – is he’s basically trying to send a message of hope around.
Richard: The way I address people, I say, I'm on a bicycle – a vehicle of peace. It's good for you, you get exercise. If you exercise, it makes you drink water. Water…is good for your body. While cycling you think. You think about all your relatives, family, and the friends you met on the road. And it's good for the environment.
Stani: It’s like Jeremy Gilley who did Peace One Day. I think it was in 1999 when he came up with the idea. He actually got the UN to pass a resolution, about two years ago, agreeing that this is a day of peace – September 21. He’s got a website called www.peaceoneday.org. There’s no one yet in Russia who’s pledged to have peace on that day! It can be huge or it can be tiny. It’s just that you have to have the concept that this day is sacred and you will have peace on that day. Even just to think about it is a great thing. It’s a step forward.
What are your first general impressions about Russia?
Richard: I was expecting more poverty. In the old times the idea was to have food for everybody. Now there’s a huge gap. So I was expecting very poor [people] like in Central America or South Africa where some almost have no clothes. Here for sure they have clothes because of winter! [laughs]
Stani: Everybody we’ve met has been much nicer than I expected. We had such horror stories about the police and the customs, and when we crossed the border [we thought] it would be a nightmare. [Instead] we had the sweetest little lady who came over. The minute she realized we didn’t speak a word of Russian she said, “Go sit here!” We were like, “Oh no, what is going to happen?” There was a queue, she held up the queue, she sat down with us, went through our cards, helped us fill it all in. She was so patient and so sweet! So that was our introduction to Russia.