Sugar Ride recounts the three-month trek by bicycle through Southeast Asia that Yvonne Blomer and her husband Rupert Gadd made to mark the end of two years living and working in Japan. The story of their adventures unfolds gradually, interspersed with reflections on meaning and memory, and always with the underlying possibility that Yvonne’s diabetes might erupt from its well-managed place in the background to a very urgent foreground, should events take one course rather than another.
by Susan Gillis
Susan Gillis: All through my reading of Sugar Ride, I never lost my sense of breathless wonder at the magnitude of what you and Rupert were doing. Had you ever imagined yourself doing a trip like this? And did you think of it as a ride or as a trip?
Yvonne Blomer: I’m not sure I had. We were influenced by being ex-pats in Japan and the other ex-pats around us who were cyclists and Japanese friends who’d gone on adventures or lived in Europe or North America. But we took our bikes, thinking transportation, and we sure used them in Japan as well. I did a short trip, of about 2 weeks, with a friend in Northeastern Thailand and that really got me hooked, that was in the spring before we did this trip. As far as ride or trip, we were very aware of the idea of tourist vs traveller and that we were riding our way toward home, we were travelling west both physically and culturally, each country from Vietnam to Laos to Thailand to Malaysia had more western imports and was more familiar. A journey, I guess. The long way home.
SG: At one point, you recount a situation that culminates in one of you saying “Where’s your sense of adventure?” and the other countering with “Where’s your sense of survival?” This pair of not-quite-opposite motivators fascinates me. In this example, they’re in conflict, but they aren’t always—at some points in your story, adventure and survival move in the same direction. How did these two impulses shape your day-to-day life and decisions during the trip?
YB: That feels like a big question. There were certain things that we both really liked – going off road, meeting new people, finding out-of-the-way places, visiting unique temples and having new experiences but there were certain challenges too – my diabetes, our bikes as they got worn down, the heat and finding food. Probably we met adventures and challenges every day and some of them we were both up for, and sometimes only one of us was or neither of us was. In Laos when we have the conversation you mention, I was tired of waiting for buses that never came, or came late or didn’t want us on them or wanted to triple or quadruple the price. Laos was different from Vietnam partly because we had no map so had no idea where towns were other than the main ones, and Rupert was worried we couldn’t get to food/accommodation in a day. In a way, we each had our own survival-adventure challenges in that one moment.
SG: Reflections on the current state of the world are intermingled with the narrative of the trip nearly two decades or earlier. When and how did you decide to write about the trip?
YB: I kept a journal during the trip and, for the most part, wrote every evening the facts of where we started, how far we cycled and where we stayed. I also included some short moment. Shortly after returning home, I wrote a few newspaper pieces for the Victoria Times Colonist, one on the anniversary of the Vietnam War and one on bicycles in Japan. I also wrote a few pieces for a journal on Juvenile diabetes. I returned to the University of Victoria about a year after coming home from Japan and Asia and studied Writing with Lynne van Luven, she and I worked together for the first, very rough, draft in a directed studies. Then I left it for years, or dipped in and out. I thought I wanted to write a traditional travel story, like Wild but then poetry crept in and time moved on. That passage of time became part of the story, how did I think about the trip so long after in a world so changed, these thoughts came to me, or explorations, while working on a series of poems about called Bicycle Brand Journey.
SG: The narrative doesn’t follow a chronological or geographical map, and this may be one of the things that contributes to that sense of wonder. How did you decide on the narrative shape?
YB: Interestingly, the chap book I mentioned above is also non-chronological because the poems are on illustrated cards that make up two cribbage hands, so you can rearrange the order. The artist I worked with, Regan Rasmussen, who designed the chapbook, reminded me of this recently. But, more than that tie-in, I wanted to focus on incidents and tie those together. I wanted to be sick and healthy at once. I wanted to fail to ride all the way and then start again. I wanted to keep returning to Vietnam because that was the country I returned to a lot in remembering because we had challenges there. The reasons for those challenges involve it being the beginning so we were still getting the hang of all of it and it was the least westernized of the four countries we travelled through. I guess I went for links that had less to do with time, or because I was reading Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being I was influenced by how time moves forward and back as does memory. We don’t remember in order.
SG: You and Rupert are never physically invisible in the places you visit, and you’re propelling yourselves using sheer muscle power. In addition, there is the lurking, ever-present threat of medical emergency, surely another factor in that sense of wonder I felt as a reader. How did the experiences you had on this trip affect your sense of the body as the vehicle that carries us through the world and our lives?
YB: This is a great question and I wonder how differently Rupert might answer. For him, the heat, above 37 degrees Celsius for much of the trip, paired with his 6’3” frame meant his body was working hard and he was hugely aware of how easily the heat and cycling were throwing off his digestion and interest in food plus the changes in food. My body became the measure for both of us, because I needed lots of little snacks and so he shifted to that as well. Every time we stopped, we ate something. My awareness of my high and low blood sugars is very good so that helped but also meant I was always attuned to its needs. I think the most fascinating part of the body as the machine, the means to get around, is that I really did want to see what mine could do. I wanted to see how that relationship between food, exercise and insulin would work under these conditions. I was, and still am, passionate about cycling and I wanted to push the body. I wanted to be in the body as machine with all its annoying quirks equal to the other machines, our bicycles and as tough and as frail. I wanted to get out of my head and into my body and I certainly did, though I was still often in my head, as you can see.
Yvonne Blomer will be appearing Saturday, September 30th at What the Journey Brings, 1:30 at Intrepid Theatre.