Boston — What do a hamster, the ocean, cleanliness, and David Letterman have in common? All are things sorely missed by one or more of the 48 student cyclists who have just arrived in Boston after pedaling 4,300 miles across the United States to fight world hunger.
After departing San Francisco on June 7, the ``Cyclists Fighting Hunger'' spent the next 9 weeks upshifting and downshifting across 19 states, repairing 268 flat tires, and speaking to thousands of people about both domestic and foreign hunger. In the process, they also managed to raise $100,000 in pledges. For many of the participants, it changed the way they view the world . . . and America.
The students worked with groups along the way -- serving meals in soup kitchens, speaking on the radio, chatting with farmers and out-of-work steel workers about hunger. Michael Shapiro, a recent graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, explains, ``What was really important to me was to touch a lot of people both personally and through the media, and I feel that we accomplished that. One of the things that kept me going through the ride was seeing people respond and thinking that we were doing a great thing.''
For instance, the occasion of a completely unexpected donation as they pre-pared to set off from Boulder, Colo. ``I was literally just biking along,'' one cyclist recalls. ``This gentleman stopped me on the street and said, `Are you taking donations?' And I said, `Have you heard of us? Have people approached you before?' And he said, `No, I just want people to know that someone in this world doesn't need to be solicited, doesn't need to be approached, and still cares enough about the problems of world hunger.' '' The man then gave a cash donation on the spot.
People they met along the way were ``enthusiastic because we were doing something,'' says Mary Ann Kelly of Rutgers, ``not just living the typical stereotype of what most people think college students are up to these days, which is thinking more of themselves and just getting a job and not really caring about what's going on.''
Of the 48 cyclists, only 27 had previously biked more than 50 miles in any one day. On a journey featuring several ``centuries'' (100 or more miles per day), the stamina required to keep up the pace can be hard to muster. In this respect, the group received considerable support from the people they encountered. ``To see people get up at 6 in the morning and make you eggs because they want to help out in their own way,'' Miss Kelly explains, ``that's just so inspiring -- that people were that giving and that generous. That made us keep going.''
On the leg of their journey between Pittsburgh and Uniontown, Penn., Anuj Desai of Harvard visited a fruit stand ``Oh, you must be one of the cyclists!'' the woman behind the counter said, and promptly festooned him with free fruit. ``I was one of the slower riders,'' he adds, ``so that by the time I'd come to a place, there was no need to really say anything. People generally knew.''
The ride even provided the cyclists with a study of comparative receptivity as noted in various social strata. ``What really struck me,'' recalls the group's youngest member, 16-year-old Joanna Coolidge, ``was that . . . when we were in a poor neighborhood, sometimes [the people there] would be even more friendly to us and even so much happier to see us than [the people in] some of the wealthy areas.''
With the recent flurry of altruistic projects that focus on such issues as hunger, peace, the homeless, and drug abuse, one wonders if society has reached the saturation point.
``Ours is different,'' Mr. Shapiro argues, ``because we made a 10-week commitment to do something every day to relieve the problem of world hunger. And I think by doing that, it's made a much deeper impact on us and the people we talked to and made presentations to. We reached people that maybe Live Aid wouldn't reach -- people in little towns in Iowa who don't watch rock music on TV or don't know who Dire Straits is. It's much more than paying $15 for a ticket to Live Aid. . . . You're on the bike six, eight, 10 hours a day. You have a lot of time to think and reflect.''
This is the fourth annual ``Ride for Life,'' as it is called (the first was held in 1983). Since then, ``Cyclists Fighting Hunger'' has raised more than half a million dollars. Proceeds from this year's ride will be split equally between Oxfam America and Save the Children. Oxfam America will put the money to use fighting hunger in 33 third world countries, while Save the Children has its share earmarked for its inner-city program in New York.
Oxfam America is the American branch of OXFAM International, the parent agency in England. Originally called the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, OXFAM was established in 1942 and has since grown to include seven branches. Central to its operation is its emphasis on ``long-term means of survival and not just short-term handouts,'' according to Sylvia Sukop, deputy press officer of Oxfam America.
``One thing that we've learned in going across the country,'' Shapiro explains, ``is that people aren't looking for a handout; people feel much better about supporting themselves and not relying on the government.
``One of the best things I've learned from this trip is that the American people do care,'' he adds. ``It's just a question of tapping their sensitivity and charitable impulses, and I think the ride was very good at that.''
Anyone wishing to contribute to the Ride for Life may send checks to Cyclists Fighting Hunger, Box 582, Cambridge, Mass. 02238.