Thursday, January 17, 2002

Tribune Review of India Slide Show

Chicago Tribune

January 17, 2002 Thursday

Courier takes in world sights;
2-wheel treks go beyond city limit

By Jon Anderson, Tribune staff reporter

As someone once said, every place is within walking distance if you have the time. George Christensen, a Chicago bike messenger, feels the same way about bicycles.

Recently, Christensen rode solo across India to Nepal.

"I could have just flown into New Delhi and biked the 750 miles to Katmandu," Christensen told a rapt gathering of the DePaul Geographical Society on Saturday. "But it's always more satisfying to go thousands of miles instead of hundreds. So I started in Bombay."

The adventure, Christensen reported, cost him about $2 a day. ("Well, I did spend $3 a night for a hotel in Calcutta," he noted. "But that was only four days.")

The secret, he said, is near total self-sufficiency on the road.

Using a pointer on a map, backed by 90 minutes of colorful slides, Christensen re-created a three-month journey from Bombay to the beaches of Goa, the slums of Calcutta, the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the heights of Katmandu, which he reached after surmounting 115 kilometers of what he called "the roughest road in all of Asia."

His tales brought more than a few gasps from the Geographic Society, which gathers up to 10 times a year to hear lectures ranging from the role of cinnamon in global exploration to "An Exotic Tour of the Southeast U.S.A." Speakers over the years have included Mayor Richard J. Daley (on Chicago) and Cardinal Francis George (on Rome).

"Many of these people drive in from the suburbs. Some are former students I had 20 or 30 years ago," said the society's moderator, Richard Houk, a DePaul geography professor who founded the group in 1961. It now has 275 members.

There was no shortage of interest from the crowd in the nuances of Christensen's adventures, which have taken him, in a word, everywhere. Through northern Scandinavia, where hazards include tunnels as long as five miles, often arctic-cold and slippery with ice. Through Peru, where Shining Path guerrillas prey on unwary travelers. Across Europe. Across the U.S. And, for 1,000 miles, around the perimeter of Lake Michigan.

"On trips," he reported, "I usually ride 100 miles a day, from dawn to dusk, with two hours' riding, then a break."

Now 50, Christensen used to favor odd jobs that allowed him to take off for his excursions. He has worked as a bike messenger for 13 years. "It keeps me in shape--all the time," he said.

It also keeps him alert to sudden challenges, from hitting black ice to dodging cars running red lights.

"But these are two different ventures," he went on. "When you're a bike messenger, you have to stay totally alert. You can't let your mind wander. When you're off in remote areas, your mind can go anywhere.

"You can reverie. Think of friends, the past. It's rich, a great joy."

In answer to a question, he said he has never been attacked while long-distance riding.

"Off my bicycle, I've been scammed and robbed. On my bicycle, it's peace," he said.

In Colombia, for example, a country often tough on tourists, he found that bicycling is a respected sport, like soccer.

"I was treated wonderfully," he said. "In most countries, a bicycle, for some reason, doesn't attract bad people. And God looks after fools."

Others had specific questions about biking across India.

"What did you do about bathrooms?" one woman asked.

"I went into the fields, like a lot of other people," he said.