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Saturday, Nov. 22, 2008

Mio Yamasaki
Endings, new beginnings: Mio Yamasaki waves in triumph in 2005 at the endpoint of her bicycle tour — the Cape of Good Hope. COURTESY OF MIO YAMASAKI

A firm grip on life by the handlebars

A cyclist shares her transcontinental African adventure in the hope of inspiring others


Special to The Japan Times

"Enjoy life and laugh," says cyclist Mio Yamasaki when asked her motto for living. "No, wait," she interrupts, as she ponders the question further. "Make other people laugh. This is the happiest way to live your life."

Mio Yamasaki
Mio Yamasaki COSMO PR

The words are followed by a warm smile and gentle chuckle, cementing my initial impression — this 26-year-old cyclist has seized life by the handlebars. Her thrills come not just from her travels, but from watching how her rides can have a positive impact on others.

Through sharing her story of her 2004-2005 solo six-month bike ride from the eastern shores of Kenya to the southern tip of South Africa, the Osaka native has touched the hearts of thousands. "I wanted to inspire people to try everything they want to do and for them to be grateful for their life," says Yamasaki.

Her words once reached out to a high-school student contemplating suicide who, after listening to Yamasaki's story, chose to keep living. The young girl sent an e-mail message to Yamasaki to thank her for her moving African tale.

Despite already making a difference through over 100 lectures at schools and companies, Yamasaki still wanted to reach out to an even wider audience, one that could savor her experiences in writing. Her first book, "Mango to Marubozu — Afurika Jitensha 5,000 Kiro" (Mangoes and a Shaven Head — 5,000 km by Bicycle through Africa), was released in late 2005 and at present she's completing her second book — about her 1,000-km journey around Taiwan together with 60 local cyclists.

With cross-country rides in Cuba, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Japan notched on her belt, Yamasaki's life resume paints a picture of an adventurous, global citizen, which is, as a child, exactly what she wanted to be.

She recalls the postcards her trader father sent from overseas: "My dream was to be an international person like him."

Her passion for travel was one reason she chose to study at the Osaka University School of Foreign Studies. But she strayed from the path followed by many of her peers. "I didn't want to study English, Spanish or Chinese, so I went to discuss my options with my teacher." Swahili was mentioned as a language that would be pointless to study — "Africa is too far away and you'll never use it," Yamasaki recalls her teacher as saying. This was exactly what she needed to hear, and she soon began learning the exotic tongue.

Mio Yamasaki
Taking off: An intentionally boyish-looking Mio Yamasaki poses with two youngsters outside the barbershop just after getting her head shaved in Africa in 2004. Yamasaki then set out on a bicycle tour that would last six months and cover 5,000 km winding through the African continent. COURTESY OF MIO YAMASAKI

In September 2002, while a student, she made her first trip to the continent, traveling around Tanzania and Kenya by bus, train and car. "I wanted to be closer to the people — to feel the wind, to see Africa through my own eyes," she says. "That's when I had the idea to travel the country by bike."

After meticulously planning her route — and riding the length of Japan as a warmup — she set off to explore the real Africa in October 2004.

Yamasaki weaved her way through eight countries along her 5,000-km journey. Her warm smile eases slightly as she recalls the time and our conversation becomes more serious.

"I remember in Malawi I got an infection in one of my legs. It became swollen with pus, and when I visited a local hospital the doctor simply sliced into my leg — without anesthetic — to drain it."

The infection left her unable to cycle and confined to a hotel in a small town. "I was disappointed and didn't know what to do, so I just cried in my room," says Yamasaki.

"One day a local 15-year-old boy who worked at the hotel came to visit me, offering Fanta soda as a present. He then began to visit every morning and night bringing food — milk, doughnuts, mango and sometimes papaya — always asking questions like 'Have you eaten this? Do you have this in your country?'

"We communicated through gestures and in mixed English and Japanese. The boy earned only around ¥1,000 a month. He had also lost both his parents to AIDS and was alone, wanting a friend."

To this day Yamasaki still keeps in touch with this generous boy, who despite his circumstances, bought her gifts of food, which cost him a significant part of his monthly wage.

Mio Yamasaki
Fancy meeting you here: Yamasaki, surprised by an acquaintance who happened upon her in Dar es Salaam, poses for the camera at the start of her bicycle tour through Africa in late 2004 COURTESY OF MIO YAMASAKI

After six months, when Yamasaki reached the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa, she remembers looking out and seeing everything shining before her. "The sky, sea, sun, rocks and the people's faces before me were bright," she remembers. "At that moment I began to mentally thank everyone: my parents, friends, colleagues, teachers, all the people I met in Africa — and all the people I will meet in the future."

Her connection to the continent didn't end with her bicycle wheels making their final turns on the cape. Instead, this pivotal expedition marked the start of the work she would do to help the people of Africa and to inspire the people of Japan.

These days, in between lectures, a daily schedule of two hours cycling and one hour running, Yamasaki involves herself with charities fighting problems that she has seen firsthand.

One of her recent endeavors has been to represent a new series about global health ( www.survival.tv ) in Japan. The documentaries, which cover eight epidemics in different countries, attracted Yamasaki because they addressed two problems important to her — the spread of malaria and HIV.

"I got malaria when I was in Zimbabwe and was lucky to be cured in three days. In Africa, a quick cure is not the typical case and many people die from the disease."

The Japan Africa Network, a site dedicated to promoting the continent's culture and connecting Japanese and African people, is another project she dedicates her time to. Yamasaki helps organize public events that showcase the land's food, dance and music.

On her travels, Yamasaki witnessed extreme poverty up close. "The first time I felt very sorry for the people," she says. "But I realized that I can't be sad and that I need to live my life to the fullest. I need to make use of all the opportunities that I have." She points out too that, despite the destitution and hardships people face in Africa, she nevertheless saw a great number of happy faces, people genuinely enjoying life.

Yamasaki's commitment to embrace the gift of life remains as much a core part of who she is as her bicycle and both will continue to keep Mio Yamasaki moving forward.

"I'll keep riding my bike, seeing the world, and meeting new people," she says. And, she'll surely be using those experiences to inspire others.

Mio Yamasaki's blog (in Japanese) can be found at mantem.exblog.jp/


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