Jamie Bianchini is a Burlingame guy pursuing one of those dreamy ideas that often waft through the Bay Area without getting fulfilled. But his is. The 35-year-old is riding his tandem bicycle around the world, picking up strangers along the way and filming it all - mostly by himself from a camera mounted on his handlebars.
The goal of his solo trip, which he dubbed Peace Pedalers: to promote world peace in a grassroots way, one tandem bike ride at a time. If a bike trip around the world sounds like something you come up with late one night in college, well, that's the way it happened for Bianchini, a genial man with an entrepreneurial streak and a belief that the simplest of interactions can break down cultural barriers. He is a lo-fi diplomat with a basic political agenda of sharing a simple, good time.
In the dozen years since Bianchini and college pal Garryck Hampton dreamt up their round-the-world jaunt while students at the University of Southern California, it has evolved from a road trip inspired by Hunter S. Thompson's "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" into an actual expedition, with the possibility of an accompanying television show. Discovery Channel star Les Stroud ("Survivorman") has signed on to be executive producer of the proposed show and is pitching it to networks.
Corporate sponsors, such as Panasonic, and bicycle companies are covering nearly all of Bianchini's expenses. With this help, which Bianchini has spent years soliciting, he's already traveled to 34 countries in Asia and Africa and compiled 150 hours of footage.
"Is it going to lead to world peace? Uh, I don't really think so," said James Bleakley, the owner of Black Sheep Bikes, a Colorado bike manufacturer. For Bianchini, he has custom built four single bikes that convert into tandems. He estimates his sponsorship at between roughly $10,000 and $15,000.
"There's a lot of racers who ask for sponsorships," Bleakley said. "But the thing about Peace Pedalers is that Jamie isn't doing this for himself. He's doing this to give back in some way. And after 9/11, what they're doing is dispelling a myth of what Americans are like."
"It's a very simple idea," said Terry Shorrock, director of sponsorships for Panasonic, which has donated $15,000 worth of camera equipment and cash. "But it's very sincere. And I think, one day, we could see this as a TV show somewhere."
"I'm not a world peace advocate or something," Bianchini said during a stopover in San Francisco, where he is staying with his girlfriend in her North Beach apartment before heading back to Africa. He speaks with the high-energy earnestness of a person half his age, and the driven focus of a venture capitalist his senior.
"It's a very basic thing: I have toys, let's go play. Let's share. And in doing that, what I'm hoping to do is reduce fear of other cultures, reduce fears of other countries that people don't know a lot about," he said.
Even as a boy, Bianchini was a go-getter with a restless mind, said his mother, Carol Fabian. When Pope John Paul II visited the Bay Area, a young Jamie was given a stack of free programs by his Catholic school youth director. He began selling them for $5 a pop - until the director intervened and told Fabian, "Your son is a real entrepreneur."
It's the reason that Fabian isn't upset that her 35-year-old son is riding his bike around the world, with little means of income other than residuals from a telecommunications business he ran for a few years.
"Oh, Jamie can always make money," said Fabian, 66, a retired flight attendant who lives in San Diego. Her son calls her Mamacita, and she is the hub of his operation, mailing bike parts to him around the world. She has joined him for some legs of the journey, including a ride across Africa earlier this year. She understands why he's doing this.
"As a kid, he could never get enough stimulation. But I think he always had this seed inside of him. It has just started to grow," she said.
Fabian has watched her son's dream evolve from his college years, when he and Hampton conceived of it first as buddy road trip. But for years, the time wasn't right and the money wasn't there.
While his pal Hampton worked for several years after graduation to pay off student loans, Bianchini, the business major with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, started three businesses. All of them tanked. In 1999, Bianchini declared bankruptcy.
Later that year, Bianchini and Hampton resolved to save enough over the next three years to pay off any remaining debt and have enough to live off while overseas. By April 2002, they took off for Japan. They brought a video camera, but it was mostly used to record their memories.
In 2003, while Bianchini was attending a wedding in the United States, Hampton was badly injured in a crash in Malaysia, and soon after decided not to continue traveling. He's now listed on Peacepedalers.com as a "part-time pedaler."
"It was horrible," Bianchini said. "And I took it very personally when he didn't want to go on with me. It really rocked my world to think about doing this alone. He's my best friend."
So what does a guy on a buddy road trip do when his buddy leaves? "I went looking for a girlfriend to do the trip with," Bianchini said. He found one in Australia and they traveled for a while and even pondered expanding the mission to include kayaking and surfing. But the logistics became too complicated, and eventually they broke up.
It was during one of his trips back to the United States that Bianchini took a closer look at the footage he had assembled for sponsors. He showed it to filmmakers involved in surfing films, who said that he had something there.
In the spring of 2006, he sent a demo reel to Stroud, who was intrigued. In his "Survivorman" program, Stroud plunges into a remote area for a week - no film crew, just him - and documents how he copes with little equipment or food.
Over the past year, Bianchini had become more serious about filmmaking. He now uses top-flight audio technology and lugs 210 pounds of equipment, including cameras, a laptop and other electronics, in a 4-foot-long trailer.
The footage he's shot so far has an unpretentious sweetness about it. He doesn't attempt to be a cultural expert - his main preparation for entering a country is thumbing through the Lonely Planet guide. While he's proficient in Spanish, his time in Africa has not translated into a mastery of French. "Yeah, it stinks," Bianchini said and smiled.
But his humble conversations lend a gentle, everyman quality to his interactions with the locals. He arrives in town with no itinerary and often no place to stay for the night. He asks people to go on a ride with him, cameras rolling the whole time. After a day's ride - Bianchini buys lunch - he gives his passenger a bus ticket home. He's often invited into someone's home to spend the night. The next morning, he rolls on. Several people have told him it's been the best day of their lives.
His bike has been only stolen twice - once in China, once in Tanzania - and was quickly recovered both times. Other than one rider failing to return a pair of bike gloves, he's been untouched by crime. "And that guy who kept the gloves, he was a farmer who really needed them. His hands were all blistered and calloused," Bianchini said.
He encounters sick children with malaria and extreme poverty, but he wants to show that not all of Africa is racked with disease, famine and war. His African travelogue paints an uncomplicated picture. Much of the dialogue from his time in Niger goes like this.
Bianchini, smiling: "C'est bon?"
Person on bike, smiling back: "C'est bon."
Person on bike: "Yeah."
On the most recent leg of the trip, Bianchini concentrated on recording local musicians he met along his route. He burns them a CD of their music - something they often can't afford to do - and takes their contact information, promising to pay them more if their music is reused as part of a soundtrack to any future program.
There's a moment in Niger that is illustrative of the vibe Bianchini achieves. After picking up a rider, Bianchini turns to him and says, "You from Niger. Me from America. And we are here on a bicycle." The man smiles and nods.
Simple? Yeah. For Bianchini, brokering world peace doesn't have to be complex.