Rich Cromwell of Brunswick has mastered the art of meeting people as he travels by bicycle through Southeast Asia, Africa and other countries around the world.
He’s slept in the homes of Vietnamese and Lao villagers, helped Ethiopian schoolchildren practice their English and sampled burritos generously offered to him by campers and hunters while biking along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico.
Biking in a remote floating village in Cambodia, Rich stopped to say hi to a boy in a yellow T-shirt who greeted him with a big smile. The boy, named Ran, insisted that Rich tour his orphanage. He saw how the 26 children had to take turns going to school because they shared eight sets of clothes and flip-flops.
Rich stayed for a few days. He told friends and acquaintances about the orphanage, and they donated enough money to buy clothes and other supplies. A retired homebuilder, Rich returned with a friend last fall to make improvements to the facility, including a new water filtering system.
Rich, 65, describes bicycling as “the perfect speed to travel” because you can see so much. Biking has taken him from Midcoast Maine (where he rides with the Merrymeeting Wheelers) to eastern Africa. The people who he passes on his travels inevitably want to talk to him, even if they don’t share the same language.
“If you want to connect with the community,” he says, “…that’s definitely the way to go.”
Traveling from Hanoi through Laos and Cambodia, Rich often stopped at schools along the way. “They’re just aching for English speakers” to practice with, he said. Some schools invited him to stay for a full day to talk to students.
Rich has biked through many remote areas with no hotels. He makes the sign for sleep and soon families offer him a place in their homes. He pays the going rate for a moderately priced hotel and that make his hosts “extremely happy,” he said.
Last year, Rich spent a month biking across Africa’s Danakil Desert, known as the hottest place on earth, as part of an expedition sponsored by the Ethiopian government. They picked him as their “token senior,” he said.
The expedition stayed at local schools and donated soccer balls, pens and papers at each stop. “Sometimes, I’d teach an English class,” Rich said. Since returning home, he has corresponded by e-mail every month with a couple of Ethiopian children who he met along the way.
Rich’s approach to bike touring carries lessons for people who ride much shorter distances and even those touring close to home. Arriving in a town on bike naturally starts conversations – and the more you get to know the people who live in the area, the richer your experience.
Shoshana Hoose, Communications Director