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Italian couple bicycle round the world for five years

By: Stephen Carr

Date Posted: 2000-04-08

Verena and Luciano Lepre, an Italian couple based in Switzerland have just spent six months bicycling though Japan, part of a three and a half year odyssey that started in Geneva. They were both sales executives with high - powered jobs, Luciano in cellular phones and Verena in pharmaceuticals. They had never done any biking before, when Luciano suggested during a car drive "how about going round the world by bicycle?" They didn't talk about it again for six months. But the idea took root and one day they set off.

Both gave up their jobs. They rented out their house for five years and said goodbye to family and friends, "a sad time", remembers Verena. The couple decided not to plan their route, nor to take maps or guide books. "Local people have always been our guides" says Luciano. "They have the best information and it's much more of a trip into the unknown".

Luciano and Verena do not see their trip as an endurance challenge but rather a chance to have contact with all sorts of people they would otherwise never be able to meet. "There are a lot of people in this world, living in ways most of us can never imagine. So we decided to go and meet some of them."

The couple have given 30 slide shows in Japan, at schools, universities and associations. In Okinawa last Friday, at the Italian Culture Club, they projected 120 of the 8000 pictures they have taken on the journey. These showed them resting in tranquil whitewashed Greek villages and living in caves in Cappadoccia, Turkey. "We were well away from the tourist spots there" says Luciano "so the only places to stay were in peoples' homes. They were incredibly hospitable. But after a time it became embarrassing because they wouldn't let us pay for anything. We started to feel like parasites and had to leave after four days."

The Cappadoccian cave complex was astonishing to them, a nine storey underground structure with churches and schools. "It had space enough for 10,000 people"says Verena. "They used to hide there during the Roman persecution of Christians that took place in the second century."

Verena and Luciano experienced similar hospitality during their following travels through Jordan, Yemen and Oman. "We got to know something about the Arab way of life" says Luciano "in many ways very alien to our culture. But the hospitality shown to travellers in Moslem countries is amazing. It is based on Bedouin traditions, when camel caravans crossed the desert. Travellers were exhausted, needing rest, shelter, food and water. Because of the harsh conditions, three days was a minimum time to get back their strength. To this day householders will invite travellers in, feed and water them and ask no questions about their plans for three days. They did exactly the same for us."

The pair carry 45 kilos weight between them, including their bikes. Their basic equipment is a tent, sleeping bags, pillows and a cooking stove. They have slept out in all types of weather and in a great variety of locations. " When it's too exposed outside, a bridge is a good place to sleep under" explains Verena. "We developed a sort of sixth sense about where it was safe to sleep. Sometimes we'd get a feeling about a place that it was better not to stay there and we would move on. Also it was often better to sleep where lots of people could see the tent. So we would set up in the middle of market squares many times. An equally good strategy was to camp in a place totally hidden from view. Both types of places were safe for different reasons."

The couple have had nothing stolen throughout their trip. Their problem has been accumulating possessions rather than losing them. "People have been incredibly generous. But we haven't been able to keep all the things we've been given" says Luciano. "We have often given away our gifts further along the route. They've been a useful way of repaying hospitality."

The trip has not been easy and pleasurable all the time. "Sometimes in India after biking a long day it was wearying being surrounded by 100 people as we put up the tent" remembers Verena. "Then when we woke up the next morning there were 200." Verena also says surprisingly that she doesn't particularly enjoy bike riding. "Riding for the sake of it is pointless. It is hard work and it takes its toll on your body. The value of it is the people and situations it brings you into contact with, not the physical act of riding. I was told it would get easier as I became used to it. But if anything I find it harder now than when I started."

The pair have taken frequent rests along their route. They took an apartment for four months in Kathmandu and enjoyed normal but lately unaccustomed activities like shopping and going to the cinema.

From Geneva to Okinawa they had 120 punctures. One of the slides they showed was a group of tribesmen in Pakistan sitting in a puzzled circle round a dismantled wheel and inner tube. "They were very anxious to help" laughs Luciano "but they couldn't do much, as they hadn't seen a bicycle before".

Verena and Luciano fell foul of officialdom in China when a policeman stopped them and told them they had broken Chinese law by bicycling on its highways. "You must be punished" he told them. Luciano says he asked for a detailed explanation of which law they had broken. When this was not forthcoming he knew the man was just afer a bribe. "By letting him know that if he locked us up without good enough reason, he might get into trouble himself, his bluff was called and he let us go."

The couple also avoided the attention of bribe seeking officials between Tibet and Nepal. They met other bikers who had been forced to take along unwanted guides and four wheel drive vehicles through Tibet for "fees" of 1,800 dollars. "It's a mafia operation there" says Luciano. "We kept quiet about our plans, avoided certain places and were all right."

Japan has been the place where Luciano and Verena have encountered the least security problems. "We've felt so safe here" says Verena. In six months we haven't stayed in a hotel and nowhere we have camped has been at all threatening. We have also been overwhelmed by invitations to stay in peoples' homes."

They began the Japanese leg of the journey in Sapporo. When the local newspaper publicised their trip, they had 26 offers from people wanting to put them up and over 20 invitations to give talks to local groups and institutions. In one primary school in Sapporo they spent a whole day, spending an hour with each class and giving a slide show to the sixth form.

Their budget has been a modest Y 2000 a day for both of them throughout the trip. Because Japan is more expensive than their previous destinations, they had to find a way to supplement their income and boost the budget to Y 2500 a day. In Hong Kong they had printed 1000 sets of six of their photographs, made into postcards. These weighed 35 kilos and added considerably to their baggage. But the effort was worth it. By the end of the six months they had sold all the cards. Other income came from writing up their story in some travel magazines. They also had some donations, always unsolicited but very welcome, at the end of their slide presentations.

During questions after the slide show one of the audience was surprised they could survive on such a modest budget. "You could spend Y 2500 on a couple of coffees and a snack here".

"Yes" replied Luciano "but we wouldn't go to a cafe. We'd heat the water ourselves and get the coffee and bread from a supermarket."

They gained a lot of satisfaction from finding ways to do things without funds. "If we were rich tourists and just had to pay to get out of a difficult or uncomfortable situation, that would not have tested our resourcefulness, nor given any sense of achievement." When they were in Gujarat and Rajastan in India it was so hot that they could do little but rest during the day. Biking at night would not have been a sensible option. Continuing the trip was looking doubtful. They went to see the Minister of Youth and Sport and he gave them a letter allowing them to stay without charge in government guest houses for the rest of their time in the country. For the next six weeks they were able to rest in air conditioned comfort and gather enough stamina to finish that leg of the journey.

"We got used to asking for things, but always with the attitude that it didn't matter if we were refused and that we could find some other way to accomplish our goal" recalls Luciano. "We once asked Fuji for a donation of 100 films. They refused and two hours later we got an e-mail from Agfa, who had heard about our trip from a newspaper, offering us, would you believe it, 100 films." The Tokyo travel magazine 'Outdoors', also did a story on them, which gave them a little extra income and the magazine helped them further by developing 40 of their films.

They found themselves making requests that would never have occurred to them under normal circumstances. One such time was when they needed to fly from Dubai to Karachi in Pakistan. They went to see the KLM manager and asked if they could have a discount on the fare. "What sort of a discount ?" asked the manager. "How about a full discount ?" they replied. He looked surprised but didn't say no, instead asking them to call again the next day. When they did they were presented with a pair of free tickets.

While in Dubai they kept meeting people who suggested they contact the Sheikh, the local ruler, which they would never have thought of doing themselves. "He will have something for you" the people said, though exactly what was never specified. The bikers did telephone the Sheikh and sure enough he had a very welcome gift, seven nights free of charge, in a five star hotel.

Their other contact with a desert potentate was in Oman. They were preparing to set up camp one day in some spacious park-like grounds within sight of a palace. Some locals told them they could not camp there. They made moves to go but the locals told them to stay where they were. After a time they were ushered into the palace, shown into an enormous room and asked to wait. A while later the Sheikh appeared, a wizened old man dressed in white, with a long white beard. He announced that they should consider his house as also theirs. The next few days were spent luxuriating under crystal chandeliers, being waited on at tables groaning under exotic piles of food and taking drives into the desert with the ruler's son.

There were no hotels in the region they next bicycled through. The Sheikh told them to knock on any door when they needed shelter. They would not be turned away, he assured them and they were not.

Although the hospitality was very touching, Verena discovered a less welcome side to life in the staunchly Moslem areas they passed through. "We would go for days without seeing a woman. They were hidden away. When we did see them they were covered from head to foot. I discovered that eye contact with men was dangerous. Looking into their eyes was interpreted as a come-on, so I had to be very careful where I looked." More than once Verena was sexually grabbed, not something unknown in Italy, but more alarming in such an alien setting.

The couple also discovered, to their surprise, that the strict segregation of men and women did nothing to stop promiscuity. Luciano was intrigued as to how spontaneous dates were possible somewhere teenage marriages were arranged by parents. Women were also heavily veiled, escorted by brothers or uncles whenever away from husbands and it was in many strict Moslem countries, a punishable offence for "unauthorised" contact between the sexes. A man and a woman, if unmarried or unrelated could be arrested just for sitting side by side. How, Luciano asked his Arab hosts, could anyone flirt in such a society, let alone take things further. Eye contact was all, he was told. Once this had happened a man could usually seize an instant when a girl he liked was unguarded and slip her his phone number. She'd be sure to call back, then somehow a meeting could be arranged. These assignations almost never developed beyond one sexual encounter. When asked if their own wives spiced up their lives in this way, "the men always said "oh no, our brothers and uncles watch them all the time. They wouldn't get a chance" laughs Luciano.

Some therapy of a different sort was on offer in China. A bike weary Verena went to a traditional doctor with bad back pains from so long on the saddle. The acupressure technique she was treated with, involved heated glass bulbs being placed at various points near her spine. Air was sucked out of them by a flame and the resulting vacuum would clamp them tightly onto her skin. She says this treatment was the best she had during the trip and banished her back pain for a year.

The couple also relate that one of their best tonics has been the encouragement from people they have met along the way. "It really means a lot to us to hear people say 'thank you'. People have told us we have inspired them to overcome some difficulty in their lives and it gives us a tremendous boost, great motivation to carry on" Luciano says with feeling.

Luciano and Verena were contacted by all the mainstream media in Okinawa and left last Monday being filmed by OTB on their way to catch a ferry to Taiwan. From there they will travel to the Philippines, Indonesia and their final destination, Australia. The total length of the trip is projected at five years.

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