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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

UC Davis alumnus brings passion for bikes to Cambodia

When going abroad, participants travel to distant countries and are introduced to new sights, foods, experiences and people. But there is more to traveling the world than personal gain and memories; there is the opportunity to make a difference in rural communities — places where one extra pair of hands and one additional set of skills have a weighty impact. Few understand this sentiment better than UC Davis graduate Aaron Salit, co-manager of Soksabike Tours, a Cambodian cycling shop and tour service with the intent of providing jobs to college-age locals as well as fostering cultural understanding with international visitors.

Salit worked at the Bike Barn throughout his undergraduate years, and upon earning his degree in food science and technology, decided to travel the world. While in India trying to figure out where to go next, he searched online for his next destination. After one Skype conversation with a future co-worker, Salit found himself heading to Battambang, Cambodia to volunteer with the Kinyei organization.

Kinyei is a social enterprise that focuses on providing work experience to local university-age students of rural Cambodia.

Battambang is a rural city, home to 250,000 and surrounded by farmland. The town receives a very small amount of tourism for the local sights, and until recently, there wasn’t a way for travelers to get to know the people and the culture of Cambodia. That all began to change with Kinyei. In addition to opening the 1½ St. Café, which serves as both a local coffee house and a center for community programs, Kinyei started Soksabike, a bike shop that offers tours of Battambang and the surrounding areas.

“We wanted to make sure that we were teaching ecotourism,” Salit said. “We want [tourists] to understand what tourism in this part of the world should be focused on — on the people, on the community. We wanted to show that [aspect of responsible tourism] through a bike tour, through having really personable guides who love what they do and want to share their history, their way of life, their families.”

Each tour is led by a local student, and the day begins with Cambodian-grown coffee and breakfast at the 1½ St. Café. Participants hop on bikes and take a roughly 25-kilometer (roughly 15 miles) ride, making stops at many homes, farms and businesses, where tourists are encouraged to get to know the locals personally and learn about their culture. An alligator farm, a traditional Krama textile, a plantation, an inside look at prahok (fish paste) production, rice-paper making, and fruit drying and preparation are all stops on the all-day tour.

But the tours aren’t all about seeing the sights and tasting the local flavors, as the focus lies on imparting a newfound respect and connection to the Cambodian culture and way of life.

“Soksabike is about person-to-person connections, rather than just showing a tourist another country. The guides love talking to people, to practice English, to share their histories and stories,” Salit said.

Forty years ago, the country went through a mass genocide in which the Khmer Rouge regime systematically killed hundreds of thousands of Cambodians.

“There is a new, resilient generation trying to pick itself up, and they are focused on making sure people understand their culture and who they are as a people. To talk to the new generation, see how they feel, how their culture is changing, and how it’s preserved … It’s the most amazing cultural exchange that I’ve ever had,” Salit said.

When Salit began volunteering, the shop was operated with a small fleet of mostly older bikes, limiting both the amount of people who could take the tour as well as the quality of the ride.

Once Salit entered the program, he headed a major overhaul. He envisioned working with and training the locals to repair, upkeep and run their own fleet.

“They never had volunteers who were bike-oriented. Nobody knew bikes as a mechanic like I did. We have a Cambodian mechanic who knows how to work on shop bikes, like, the oldest cruisers you see going around Davis — the really old bikes. So when I first jumped in … we raised some money and bought seven mountain bikes,” Salit said.

Getting new bikes, however, proved to be only the beginning of Salit’s plan to reinvigorate the bike shop. As any good Davis biking resident understands, the proper upkeep and repair of bikes are crucial to their longevity.

Salit twice travelled 10 hours on a bus to Bangkok to purchase crucial bike parts and wrenches, but soon found that obtaining any specialized equipment needed for keeping the bikes in tip-top condition was going to be much harder to do.

“It’s impossible to get anything shipped out to their location, as a lot of freight brokers and well-known companies don’t want to deal with areas that aren’t perfectly geographically defined, for liability reasons,” said Bike Barn Unit Director and fourth-year political science and economics double major Basile Senesi.

Fourth-year linguistics major and Bike Barn employee Kathryn Burris commented on the frustration of not having adequate tools to fix a bike. Burris traveled abroad to Portugal, where she worked at a bed-and-breakfast that rented out a handful of European-style bikes.

“I can definitely see that not having the right tools to work on specific types of bikes makes it tough — so many of the parts are specialized. I know what Aaron was going through,” Burris said.

With lack of local availability and an inability to purchase needed tools directly from companies, Salit reached out to his friends at the ASUCD Bike Barn. The Bike Barn began to save gently used equipment, lubricants and tools that were ordinarily given to the do-it-yourself location at the Bike Garage, and instead donated these tools to Soksabike.

“We saw that Aaron was making huge strides in giving back to the community and developing the local economy. It was an opportunity to help one of our former employees and to help a community better than cash assistance,” Senesi said.

Burris said that the Bike Barn’s choice to become involved wasn’t a difficult one.

“We have so much at our disposal, and at the end of the day, we are making a significant impact on Aaron’s program. He’s a great example of someone who is doing work that is actually making a difference,” Burris said.

The tools and equipment made an immediate difference to Soksabike, one that Salit sees with long-term implications.

“The great thing is, they weren’t parts, they were all tools, so all of [them] can be used again and again. They even sent us a truing stand, so we can straighten the wheels, which I don’t think there is anything like it in Cambodia. It’s really rad,” Salit said.

Both sides of the exchange expressed interest in working together in the future. As for Soksabike, with the arrival of their new equipment, Salit can continue to train the local staff to repair and work on the bikes. Each staff member who is trained moves Kinyei a little closer to its end goal — to get to a point where the 1½ St. Café and Soksabike sustains themselves fiscally and are handed over to the Cambodian staff entirely.

When reflecting on Soksabike and Kinyei’s impact in Battambang, Salit said that some of the cultural growth can be attributed to his and his fellow volunteers’ work.

“Tourism is a big boost; we’ve had great reviews for the bike tours online. The 1½ St. Café is the major hangout for people, and it’s the place for workshops. We have seen a lot of tourism in there, people coming out to support the little city,” Salit said.

For those who share the Bike Barn’s interest in wanting to help, there is more to the equation than monetary donations.

“We always want volunteers at the 1½ St. Café and Soskabike. And if you are traveling through Battambang, we host open workshops where you can teach a class on anything from greeting card-making to philosophy and can always find a place for you to help,” Salit said.

According to Salit, aspiring travelers, interested volunteers, bike aficionados, those interested in becoming café managers, and marketing or advertising students who are interested in volunteering either on location or remotely are all welcome to join in and share their skills by contacting Salit at aaron@soksabike.com.

HANNAH KRAMER can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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