FINNS ON BICYCLES: KAISA LEKA
This is the first part of my new series of posts called Finns on Bicycles, encounters on the road by other Finnish long-distance cyclists. As I’m definitely not the only one who is continuously meeting wonderful and helpful strangers on the move, I’ve decided it’s high time to share the adventures of other cyclists and strengthen my claim that the whole world is filled with amazing people. So, I’ve asked a few of my countrymen (and women) to share with you five people related stories about what I would call the good-heartedness of the human species. Please, let me introduce to you my first guest writer: Kaisa Leka!
Kaisa Leka is a 38-year old cartoonist and illustrator from Finland. She’s been doing bike trips together with her partner Christoffer since 2007. They’ve spent most of their summer vacations (and sometimes more) cycling in all the Nordic countries including Iceland, and in the Faroe Islands, Japan, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France. Their longest trip so far was in the summer of 2016 when they cycled from New York to San Francisco. In addition to cycling, Kaisa and Christoffer create and publish comic books/graphic novels about their trips, such as Tour d’Europe, Expedition no. 3 and most recently Place of Death.
Kaisa Leka: encounters with strangers
Incredible and beautiful encounters on the road as told by Kaisa. (I myself still can’t stop laughing at these happenings and the way she tells about them!)
1. Trailer adjustment and cookies in Japan
“In 2014 we were cycling in Japan. It was surprisingly easy to get used to cycling on the left side of the road, but after a few weeks we were feeling a bit homesick as we didn’t have a common language with most of the people we met. So when Christoffer’s trailer broke on an uphill near a small town we were in a pretty gloomy mood. We had probably overloaded our trustworthy Bob Yak and one of the metal tubes had just snapped.
But what the Japanese lack in English skills they make up manifold in generosity and helpfulness. Half an hour later we were sipping ice tea at a garage/cafe/car dealership/menswear store where we had gotten a ride from two friendly young office workers. The owner of the garage spoke excellent English and we soon found out she had actually visited Finland as a young girl! She had had a Finnish penpal and seemed very fond of our country.
So the trailer got fixed in no time, complete with new paint to cover up the welding marks, and we were on our way. We tried to offer money both to the garage and to the people who gave us a ride but they all refused. On the contrary, they gave us a big bag of cookies to snack on. We remembered this act of kindness for the rest of the trip, and as soon as we got home we signed up on Warmshowers.org so that we could get in touch with cyclists needing help or a place to stay at in our home town.”
2. Overnight bicycle repair in Russia
“In 2011 we cycled to Murmansk in Northern Russia. This time we had three friends traveling with us, and as some of them hadn’t really had suitable bikes for the trip we had gotten a sponsor to give us all brand new bikes. The only problem was that they were all out of cyclocross bikes, which had been our first choice, so we were bouncing on pothole-ridden back roads on Russian countryside on carbon road bikes.
I want to point out that the bikes were very cool as such, just not so well-suited for bike travel. And the accident could have happened to anyone, on any kind of a bike that has gears. But in any case we found ourselves standing in the rain on the side of a muddy road with our friend Taina’s rear derailleur hanging loose, all torn up and mangled.
We ended up in a run-down Soviet style hotel in the next town, Christoffer trying to desperately convert the bike into a single-speed. But he was being constantly bothered by a Russian man who just wouldn’t stop talking. Finally our friend Lina who speaks fluent Russian started paying more attention to the guy and realized he was the father of a local cyclist and was offering to take the bike to a mechanic to get fixed. So we waved goodbye to Lina and the bike, hoping it wouldn’t be the last we’d see of them. And lo and behold: in the morning the guy returned (did I mention he was a taxidriver who was working for a group of tourists staying at the same hotel?) with Lina and the bike which had been miraculously fixed during the night.”
3. Overload of fruits and vegetables in Ukraine
“In 2012 we cycled to Odessa together with our friend Lina and it was very, very hot, as it usually is in Ukraine in the summer. There weren’t that many places to stop at on the countryside, so we were all very excited to see a group of older ladies standing by the road, selling fruit and vegetables. We bought as many apples as we could fit in our handlebar bags and paid the requested amount, which was something like 60 cents. But as we were getting ready to move ahead there was a commotion: the other ladies were chastising the one who had sold us the apples. ”Look at these poor children! Cycling in this hot weather! How can you take their money?!”
Several of the ladies ran to us, filling our pockets and hands with cucumbers and plums. We had to eventually politely tell them to stop as there simply wasn’t any more space in our bags. But I think this is a wonderful example of how you meet people on a bike trip: not as a tourist taking photos of them through the window of an air-conditioned bus with a camera worth thousands of euros, but as equals. (Or not even as equals, but as the object of their pity!)”
4. Fluffy towels and vegetarian food in the USA
“In 2016 we were fulfilling a long-time dream of cycling across the American continent. We had left from New York, dodged fancy cars in New Jersey and painstakingly pushed our bikes over the countless hills in Pennsylvania and then finally reached Ohio, a surprisingly bike-friendly state with quiet country roads and rolling hills.
We were curious about local bike paths so I went to a bike store to ask about maps, and they were happy to give me a free brochure about a local Rails to Trails bike route, the North Coast Inland Trail. The guy at the bike store asked me where we were planning to spend the night, and when I told him we didn’t have exact plans yet he picked up a pen and paper, giving me the number of the bike store in another town along our route and told me to call them. I did and they promised to talk with a potential host and let me know.
Half an hour later my phone rang, and the person on the other end introduced themself as Gordon. He seemed very happy to host us for the night, despite the fact that it was already late afternoon so he’d only have a few hours’ notice. I timidly pointed out that we are strict vegetarians so in case he was planning to cook he didn’t need to worry about us, we could just have some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner (again).
A few hours later we arrived in Elmore and immediately spotted Gordon standing by the bike trail and waving at us. He had his running shoes on and lead us to his house by jogging by our bikes. And what a house it was! We had a whole big bedroom for ourselves, with wonderful clean sheets and fluffy towels, a ton of vegetarian food waiting for us in the kitchen, a garage to store the bikes safely for the night and a hot shower to wash off all the dirt and sweat and sunscreen lotion.
We sat for a long time in Gordon’s living room and talked about politics, travel and spirituality. Despite our different religious backgrounds, Gordon being a Lutheran and we Hindus, we felt we had so much in common.
As the sun began to set Gordon stood up and said he needed to go take his sheep in. Sheep? We hadn’t realized his house had a huge back yard, with four sheep munching on the green grass. They came running when he rang a big bell by the side of a neat little barn, knowing that they were in for a treat. We left them to enjoy their evening meal and returned to the house, still a bit baffled by the chain of events that had lead us here.”
5. A 100 dollar bill and drinks in the USA
“I have to share another story from the US, as people back home had been so worried about us getting shot or at least robbed in the promised land of cold-hearted capitalism. We were standing in front of a gas station in Wyoming, totally exhausted and quite disappointed that the town had no grocery store, no restaurants and no campground. We were told we could pitch up our tent in the park, but that sprinklers would be automatically turned on in the middle of the night and bombard us with water. Not a very attractive scenario.
Just like every single time, when we stopped to get something to drink someone immediately approached us, asking who we were and where we were going and what had happened to my feet (I’m a double amputee because I was born with a serious malformation in both of my feet). We had made postcards for this exact purpose so that we wouldn’t need to go through the same stuff all over again, so we handed out a card and I chatted a bit with the friendly couple asking all the usual questions as Christoffer went in to get us some much needed ice tea and lemonade.
What happened next was that a) the woman followed Christoffer inside the gas station and insisted that she pay for our drinks and b) went to their car afterwards and came back a moment later, handing me a crisp 100 dollar bill. ”We’re on our way home from a casino and my husband won big at poker, so we though we’d give you this. Treat yourself to a nice meal or a hotel room!” We didn’t know what else to say than a very heatfelt thank you, and headed straight to the only remaining motel in town.”
“Right now I’m in Costa Rica. I’m staying at a bhakti yoga ashram for three weeks, drawing, meditating and planning new adventures. We’re also putting the finishing touches to our new book which will be out in March 2017.”
“Our next bike trip will take us to Northern Finland, Sweden and Norway in the summer of 2017. If all goes as planned we’ll also go paddling along the southeastern coast of Greenland later in the summer. So it looks like we’ll be spending most of our time in the Nordic countries next year, but you never know!”
Follow Kaisa and Christoffer Leka’s adventures:
On their latest bike trip blog: pointlesssuffering.com
Also check out their latest (great!) comic book, the story of one night wild camping in a small village in Russia: placeofdeathbook.com
All photos courtesy of Kaisa and Christoffer Leka.