For Bangladesh cyclist and writer Mohammed Ashrafuz Zaman, travelling the world means the world to him.
"Everyone has a priority or an addiction in life. For me, that happens to be travelling,” says Mohammed Ashrafuz Zaman in an assertive tone. This wanderer from Bangladesh has explored 54 countries across six continents over 18 years, and there was little reason to doubt the seriousness of this self-professed world traveller.
A large part of his 18-year travels between 1994 and 2012 was on his preferred mode of transportation, his trusty bicycle, which he describes as cost-effective. “People will stop to talk to you when they see you cycling,” he says.
“You don’t really have to train that much for a bicycle tour. It’s more about knowing how to ride while being confident and mentally prepared for the task. When I did mine, my family and friends thought I was mad! But I would count myself to be really unlucky if I don’t get to see all the natural beauty that God has created around us,” says Zaman, a freelance journalist.
The 42-year-old flew into Kuala Lumpur recently to apply for visas from different embassies here for his forthcoming travels to Latin America. He also spoke to the media in interview sessions made possible by the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM). This is Zaman's second visit to Malaysia; his first was in 2005.
It was in 1997 that he began his first bicycle tour with just US$950 (RM3,443) in his pocket, hoping to reach as many corners of the globe as he could. Ten months later, he had already visited 19 countries. And instead of exhausting his funds, he instead defied expectations and returned home with US$1,100 (RM3,986).
“Throughout the 10 months, I only stayed three days in a hotel. The rest of the time, I stayed in different places like bus stations, phone booths, gas stations and people’s homes,” he explains.
“In Egypt, for example, where I was in eight different places in 20 days, I spent less than US$1 (RM3.62) a night. I think it’s about knowing the tricks to survive. But I’ve never complained (on the difficulties or inconveniences) because I knew early on that this was part of the deal, and I was prepared for it.”
Zaman has authored two books on travelling, edited another two, and owns a publishing and tourism business back in Bangladesh. But his experiences have reinforced his faith that money isn't the most important factor for travelling, something inspired by well-known travellers like Ramnath Biswas, a cyclist who's considered a legend in Bangladesh after he travelled around the world on an empty pocket from 1930 to 1940.
“If they could do so with almost no money, I have no reason not to believe. And throughout the trip, I’ve been blessed to receive support. Not just emotionally, but also financially, from kind people. This was how I managed to return with the additional money. Even today, I’m thankful to OCM for enabling media coverage of my upcoming journey,” says Zaman, who hails from Dhaka.
He says cycling in Bangladesh has become increasingly popular in the last few years, with an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 youths taking to it. The overall figure, he reckons, is a lot more considering that adults are also cycling to beat the city’s traffic crawl.
He will be leaving for Latin America in the first week of February, if his visa applications are approved. Documentation is aplenty, he says, to prove he is a bona fide traveller. “Latin America is one of my favourite destinations for food, people, vibrant culture and entertainment. My first time there was in 2005 but I only travelled five out of the 12 countries.”
This time, he’ll be bringing along his two young cousins Tanvir Ahmed and Ismail Prodhan, who are both with the Bangladesh Travel Writers Association, to cycle with him. “They are both only 20, and have only cycled within Bangladesh so far, so this will be a good experience for them," he says.
“We hope to cycle an average of 60km to 70km daily, starting early in the morning at 6am before calling it a day in the afternoon. Not all places in Latin America are designed for cyclists but it’s generally well-connected from one country to another,” says Zaman, adding that he hopes to refresh his Spanish language skills while there.
One challenge is to ensure that their daily food intake has sufficient (but not too much!) calories and nutritional value to maintain their fitness level.
His vast cycling experience means that he can offer insights into the different cycling cultures of each country. For instance, he describes the Middle East as non cyclist-friendly. In the US, some highways have no road shoulders, leaving no room for cyclists. Overall, however, he contends that proper bike lanes are provided, especially in the countryside.
“I was stopped by policemen once in the city of Ohio, while riding along a highway that I wasn’t supposed to. So I had to backtrack to the proper, legal lane,” he recalls.
Zaman rates Europe as the foremost destination for cycling because most countries in the continent have dedicated bicycle lanes, while the locals are very helpful to cyclists.
But his journeys have not been always trouble-free – there were some nasty encounters which he does not want to dwell upon. “The one or two bad things that happen don’t represent a country," he says.
"I realise that love is universal, that no matter what colour skin, creed or faith you are, we are all the same, of God’s creation. It saddens me when there cannot be peace. Very often, it is the religious leaders and politicians who divide people.”
He's also planning to go to Antartica come December or January next year. It’s considered summer then but temperatures still dip below -50℃. However, the estimated cost to get there is around US$15,000 (RM54,000), so everything is still being planned. “If I do make it, I would have successfully covered all seven continents in the world,” says Zaman.
He says it's important that people travel and see a country for themselves because situations that are sometimes portrayed by the media may not be accurate. “It is only when you visit that you can draw your own conclusions.”
■ Those who wish to connect with Zaman can email him at email@example.com.