"Dealing with my recovery is like cycling, the minute I stop, I'll fall," said Abdullah, known as Dollah, a former drug user who is now an outreach worker.
He is one of the three People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) riders representing Persatuan Pengasih Malaysia for the RfL ride. (Pengasih is a private, substance-abuse treatment and rehabilitation centre in the Klang Valley). Dollah, 47, and the other two PLWHA, Kamarudin Idris, 37, and Azmi Ibrahim, 34, are undergoing the anti-retroviral therapy.
Dollah and Azmi are recipients of MAF's drug assistance scheme.
Anti-retroviral treatment stops the HIV virus from replicating, suppresses the
virus, and improves the patient's general well-being.
"But my parents never gave up on me. In 1994, they sent me to Pengasih. Because of their faith, I had to try to quit after all these years."
Dollah's first few months at Pengasih were tough, and he wanted to throw in
the towel. Each Pengasih resident is put under a peer educator's wing during the
treatment. Dollah looked up to his role model and mentor, who is also an ex-drug
user turned Pengasih staff. Inspired, he realised he could stick it out. And he
did. In 1996, Dollah became a Pengasih peer educator, got married, started his
own family and has been drug-free ever since.
"On the first day of RfL, after the first kilometre struggling up the hills to Genting Sempah, I wanted to turn back and go home," said Dollah, smiling. "The last time I rode a bike was 30 years ago when I cycled to school."
But the support vehicle's drivers (who usually tailed the last rider) told Dollah not to give up. They asked him to hop into the van, drove him to the top of the hill and let him down again.
Over the seven days, Dollah, Azmi and Kamarudin steadfastly cranked the wheels of their clunky mountain bikes to complete each day's ride. Prior to the event, Dollah was anxious about the ride. His self-esteem had dipped to a low point because of personal problems.
"I wanted to do this ride to regain my spirit and confidence," confessed Dollah. "At the end of it, I felt so alive and energetic. It's hard to believe I finished at least 700km of the journey."
Another Pengasih outreach worker, Azmi, 34, was initially afraid of rejection from other riders who knew he was HIV-positive. "But I was so overwhelmed by everyone's friendship and encouragement, even the non-Malay riders," said Azmi, who trained for two weeks before the ride. "Though I was very tired and my knees were painful, I found the strength to continue because of these friends."
Kamarudin, 37, a Pengasih resident for the last 13 months, had always enjoyed sports in his younger days. But like Dollah and Azmi, he only hopped on the bike two weeks before the ride.
"After the first few days, my legs started to ache and I wanted to give up," said Azmi. "But people like Margaret (Wong) were an inspiration to me. I'm also lucky I had the chance to learn about myself during this ride."
Dollah, Azmi and Kamarudin are proof that anti-retroviral treatment allow HIV-infected people to live like a healthy person, said head of Kuala Lumpur Hospital's infectious disease unit, Dr Christopher Lee.
"Some 72% of HIV-positive people in this country are drug users. But if you
can get your drugs under control, you'll have a chance to access treatment,"
said Dr Lee, whose clinic looks after about 2000 regular HIV patients. Patients
on anti-retroviral treatment must not miss the daily medication intake. If
you're not consistent, the virus may develop a resistance to the treatment in
the long run, Dr Lee explained.
"Dollah's immune system has improved, his viral load is low, and his health is reasonably good," said Dr Lee. "He's at the moment the best that medical science can do for him in Malaysia. "You have an ex-addict who used to live on the streets and now he's working in the same community where he came from, and helping people."
"He carries the testament that if he can do it, you can too," added the
The cyclists tackled nerve-racking slopes, dodged manic truck drivers, braved scorching heat and endured saddle sores as they journeyed more than 950km in seven days - for a good cause. LEONG SIOK HUI joined the Riding for Life 2003 riders and learned the meaning of faith, tenacity and esprit de corps.
YOU'RE nuts! Even a car has to sputter up the steep slopes to Kuantan." came the typical retort when I mentioned the Riding for Life (RfL) event to friends and colleagues. But I wasn't the only crazy one.
A bunch of us - 18 Malaysian and 14 Singaporean riders - had embarked on a bike ride zigzagging through five towns and 17 villages in the peninsula over a week, cranking an average 120km a day.
Each rider had to raise a minimum RM2,000 in pledges and cover his or her own travelling expenses. And it was all for a good cause: to raise AIDS awareness and support for People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).
The RfL 2003 was jointly organised by the Malaysian AIDS Foundation (MAF), Malaysian AIDS Council (MAC), and Action for AIDS (AfA) Singapore.
Taking up the assignment, I was caught up with the notion of adventure, physical challenge and riding for a cause. I tried to make up for my lack of training with a better-equipped bike borrowed from a friend. Perhaps, sheer resolve would see me through. Or so I thought.
On June 1, after a grand flag-off at Taman Tasik Titiwangsa
complete with VIPs and a merry carnival, we were off on our first leg of the
journey, Kuala Lumpur to Temerloh, Pahang. Apart from my friend Dinesh Nadasan,
33, I didn't know any of the riders. The youngest was an 18-year-old student and
the oldest, a 61-year-old grandma; there were bankers, students, businessmen,
flight attendants, journalists and three PLWHA.
I imagined the organisers were smirking when they designed the route. Our "initiation" ride was the longest - a 150km route that included the daunting slopes of Genting Sempah, near Genting Highlands in Pahang. The hour of reckoning arrived when I reached the first steep gradient. Taking a deep breath, I downshifted to Granny gear, hunkered over the handlebars and grimly cranked the pedals.
Whatever it took, I vouched not to get off the bike. At times, my lungs felt like bursting and my legs were leaden. But the lush green trees with shady branches and the fresh morning air proved a welcome distraction. Time seemed to crawl agonisingly, and the peak was nowhere in sight. But eventually, I arrived at the crest. Relieved, I shifted to the highest gear and down I went. Swoosh! I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.
There were many more such moments in the following days as we barrelled across towns and villages: Kuantan, Bandar Muadzam Shah (Pahang), Kuala Pilah, Seremban, Muar, Batu Pahat and Johor Baru. We cruised along beautiful coastlines fringed by Malay kampung houses and swaying coconut trees. We passed grinning kids who waved and cheered us on, and motorists and bikers who honked to show support. We had our share of dreary times as we spun our wheels like clockwork mile after mile on straight roads that stretched endlessly.
Wincing under the blazing sun, I sometimes wondered aloud, "What am I doing here?"
But the support crew kept us going with their banana and water handouts, quick rubdowns and the much-needed rides on the vans when our legs gave in. Our bike doctor, dubbed "chief engineer", Edwin Ng, 27, was at our beck and call whenever the bikes gave problems.
Three Emergency Medical Technicians from the Red Crescent Society proved to be great company. When my knee gave way on the third day and I was bundled into the ambulance, Mohd Hanaffy Mohd Ariff, 45, regaled me with his horror rescue tales while Hazil Fazli Hassan, 25, and Mohd Faizal Maulauddin, 24, cracked me up with their side-splitting antics.
Over the nightly buffet dinners and late-night suppers, we ribbed each other, whined about body aches and yakked about everything under the sun.
Eighteen-year-old Foo Sian Jeen was one of the "F1" riders who whizzed past the rest of us and led the pack every morning. A newcomer to cycling, Foo bought his proper bike only last year. The Lower Six student at Bukit Bintang Boys School heard about RfL through the Pedalphiles Cycling Club (PCC).
"My parents encouraged me to go on the ride," said Foo, who also competes in triathlons. "Aside from learning about AIDS, I also learned to be independent. But on the first day I was really tired and I wanted to give up."
He never did, of course.
And neither did Margaret Wong, 61. The former PE teacher with two sons in their 30s joined the Singapore RfL team for training three months before the ride. "I paced myself and didn't chase after the front riders, so I wasn't totally exhausted. I was more afraid of falling because of inexperience."
Though Wong lagged behind other riders at times, the spunky grandma, who ran her first marathon when she was 46, was adamant not to get on the support vehicle.
"It was pride and a sense of accomplishment that motivated me to go on," said Wong, who has to date run 10 marathons, scaled Gunung Tahan thrice and Gunung Ledang (Mt Ophir) 10 times.
"I believe age is just a number if you keep yourself fit," said Wong, who also rock-climbs. "And yes, I'll do this ride again in a couple of years because my older son said he'd ride with me next time."
Not surprisingly, Wong inspired many riders, including Thong Thiam Seng, 48, and his spouse, Chan Yoke Foong, 45. Like Wong, Thong and Chan are seasoned runners but they had never cycled more than an hour before the RfL. After the six-hour ride to Temerloh on the first day, Chan was worried if she could keep up.
"But as days went by, we realised we had the staying power, probably due to our running," said Chan, who runs in 5km and 10km races as well as marathons regularly.
The couple's collection of RM16,000 made them the highest fundraisers for the event. With help from colleagues, they had sold cookies and cakes to raise some of the money.
"We've taken part in so many sports events but RfL is the most memorable experience we've had," said Chan. "We're happy to meet people who share the same interests and support charity. The first few days we didn't know anybody, and everyone was quite reserved. But at the end of the ride, we're like a big family"
Chin Wah Yick, our chef de mission and route planner, echoed the Thongs' sentiment.
"The greatest achievement of this ride is the tight bonding between everybody at the end," said Chin. "It's nice to see people put their differences aside and be a team."
Chin's passion for cycling and his experience in organising bike tours saw the RfL tour going smoothly with only minor hitches. He was tireless and helpful. But he credits his strong crew for the successful event.
"I'm just a conductor. If you don't have good musicians, you'll get noise instead of a lovely symphony," said Chin, an engineer.
Over seven days, we grappled with fatigue, looked out for each other, inspired one another and laughed together. When we said good-bye, we had learned so much about ourselves, our capabilities and limitations (yes, training IS essential), and forged new friendships.