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True-blue traveler

Tim Mutrie

When Christian Coste was 21, he and a friend toured northern Africa on 50cc mopeds.Just before he turned 30, the professional waiter from Sete, France, launched a two-year globe-trotting adventure with his American wife. Together, they combined plane, boat, bus and mountain bike travel to hit Hawaii, the Cook Islands, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia (for a six-month circumnavigation by van), Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma.Then, in Burma, “My wife and I separated, and I went to Nepal, India, back to Thailand, then back to Europe and back here,” says Coste, who has lived in Aspen, more or less, for four-and-a-half years since. It marks the longest period of time he’s called a single place home since he left his childhood home on the Mediterranean coast at age 16.His philosophy: “Work six months, take six months’ vacation. Work two years, take two years’ vacation.”And, furthermore, “No attachment.””That’s the thing, you know,” he says in a feisty French accent, “because when you buy a house, you don’t take six months’ vacation a year. I don’t have a house, car, TV or anything. When you get into the system, it’s very hard to get out of the system.””My wife and I lived together and traveled together for eight years, and that was awesome. But she decided to stop and I didn’t know when I’d be ready to stop. We’re still good friends, but she doesn’t travel anymore and I keep traveling.”Looking back, the 36-year-old Coste reckons he’s been traveling for 20 years; his two filled-up French passports attest to it. He has lived in Key West, Fla.; Cape Cod, Mass.; Portland, Maine; London and all over France, finding work as a waiter wherever he goes. When he’s at work, he works long hours, averaging 90 hours per week, and he dabbles as a handyman and caretaker, always to facilitate his next odyssey.Coste’s latest trip, a six-month, 2,200-mile mountain bike tour from Bangkok, Thailand, to Kunming, China, ended in mid-May. He’s been at Cache Cache restaurant in Aspen almost every night since.He speaks French, English and passable Spanish and Thai; the latter helps him get by in other Southeast Asian countries like Laos. With his detailed travel diaries, he can tell you how much it costs to travel, per day, in any of the nearly 40 countries he’s visited – with or without luxuries like beer and hotels.He has firm beliefs about cash versus credit cards, especially in certain places, and should his American citizenship and passport come through as expected this summer, well, that just might mean saying goodbye to Aspen.”I believe if you stay in the same spot, you get stuck. And I don’t want to get stuck anywhere, get attached to anything. It’s very hard, but that’s the way I learned,” he says. “I can be anywhere in the world and it doesn’t matter. No problem. Like I say, with the right attitude, you go anywhere.”Shop ’til you dropWhen Coste is traveling in Southeast Asia, he wakes up early every morning and goes to a market to shop for the day’s food.”Markets are best early in the morning and late at night – not in the middle of the day, because it’s so hot and products go bad,” he says. “We avoid the markets during the day and eat in restaurants on the road.””And in Thailand, you don’t need a license to open a restaurant, so everybody has a few chairs out in front of their house – this is a restaurant.”Coste has traveled in Thailand about a dozen times – by motorcycle, bus, taxi and, most recently, mountain bike.It’s easy to imagine him, bike loaded down with overused gadgets, the rider cursing in French and struggling under the weight mile after mile. But that’s not the case.Experience has taught him to invest in the finest bike and components (a dual-suspension Trek with Shimano XTR parts), and what to carry in his side-mounted panniers – traveler’s checks, cash and credit cards (only for emergencies), a tent, spare clothing and parts, and tool kit. But he carries little else, like surplus food and water; instead, he stops regularly on 60- to 100-mile days for those essentials.Coste and his friend Gilles Baudin, a Frenchman who teaches snowboarding in Aspen in winter and tends bar in the Hamptons in summer, set out from Bangkok for Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, in November. Reaching the country’s northern mountains by December, but finding conditions too cool for comfort, the two retreated south several hundred miles for a couple months of partying at the beach.A detour? Not exactly. While Baudin then returned to the States, Coste backtracked to Chiang Mai by bus in the spring and resumed the cycling tour himself through the northern mountains of Thailand, into Laos, then China and on to Kunming. There, he stowed his trusty bike in a hotel and, by bus, toured parts of the famous Yangtze River Valley.Relying on three different maps, none of which proved to be accurate, but rather just “helpful,” Coste stuck to back roads. Many villagers he met had never seen a mountain bike before, and most nights he slept in temples, schools, military camps or barns next to water buffaloes. “I was always welcome,” he says.”When you travel by bicycle, not only is it one of the cheapest ways to travel, but I think it puts you a little closer in touch with your surroundings. People are always friendly with me on my travels, but I think it’s even more so when I’m on my bike.”Buck bucksAt age 14, Coste dropped out of school, telling his dad, a carpenter, “I don’t want to get a diploma. It would be useless to me.”He worked for a year in construction with his dad – “I’m still a pretty good handyman, I fix everything at Cache Cache” – until his dad died. Coste was 15.He enrolled in culinary school and was trained for the finest restaurants. Then his mom died when he was 18.”And when I lost my mom, I had nobody behind me, so I moved to the French Riviera,” he says.Thus began Coste’s wandering life.He worked at luxury hotels and restaurants and twice traveled to England to learn English. He began coming to the United States in 1988 to work in Key West, returning to France for summers on the Riviera.Soon, he began the six-month-on, six-month-off regimen, living and traveling with his wife.”In the back of my diaries, I always put the place we’ve been, the nights we spend camping, the nights we spend in hotels, and the nights we spend in the wilds, you know, because the forest is different than paying for a camp spot. When you pitch your tent in a forest or on somebody’s land, it’s free camping. And I mostly free camp,” he says, laughing. “When you go to campgrounds, people want to have a barbecue and party until 1 o’clock in the morning. But when you’re traveling, you want to go to bed at 8 o’clock because the next day you have another 80 miles to bike.”I write down all these expenses to get an average of how much we spend in each country. For example, in Hawaii, it costs about 70 bucks a day, including the nights we stayed in hotels, the nights we stayed in camping and the nights we stayed in the wilds, and the food. Traveling with a camper [van] in Australia costs you 25 bucks a day, everything included; repair, gas, insurance, food, postcard, everything.”In Southeast Asia, you can live with between five bucks a day and 80 bucks a day. Last time we spent a couple months on the beach and partying in Bangkok, and I used to spend a couple hundred bucks a day. But after that, when I went back on the road, I went back on the five bucks a day.”Coste always carries traveler’s checks and credit cards, and a substantial wad of cash. “American dollars, cash, and make sure you get crispy, brand-new bills because some people can be picky,” he says.”If you have cash, you can always work out any situation in Southeast Asia,” he continues. “There is a lot of corruption, yes, and you always deal with cash.”NextCoste is planning another cross-country bicycle trip to New York in September, and he hopes to return to Thailand and Southeast Asia in October. Because Cache Cache expands onto a patio during summer months, the restaurant always needs more staff during summer. “So I always have my place here as an extra waiter,” he says.”But,” he adds, “I think it’s time to move on, to see something else.”Notably, while Coste has traveled extensively in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia, he has never been to South America, a reasonable target considering he could ride his bicycle there.Still, he’s in no hurry to book a trip.”I’ve done about 38 or 39 countries, I think, and knowing there’s 280 out there, that makes for plenty more countries to see,” he says. “You need a few more lifetimes to get to them all, though.”See, with a passport that goes everywhere – French, American, European, whatever – we have this opportunity to go wherever we want, mostly. And that is a very good freedom, actually.”Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is mutrie@aspentimes.com


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