Personal Updates Philosophy Of Travel

“Did you ever think that this would become your life?”

I received an email the other day from another long-term traveller about a project I’m currently working on. At the end of the email was the following:

“P.S. When you set out on that first trip, did you ever think that this would become your life?”

A damn good question with more scope than befits a private email exchange, I thought. (Thanks, Jamie!)

First, what is ‘this’, exactly? Well, this blog, I suppose, and all else that it directly supports, for that is all most people see. But I spend more time working on this blog and projects derived from it than anything else. So blogging is the closest thing I have to a full-time job, and it’s a fair enough representation of what occupies the majority of my time, and thus my ‘life’.

It wasn’t always so: my ‘full-time job’ used to be wandering the world’s back-roads on a bicycle, with the blog playing a distant second fiddle. If you dig back into the site archives to 2006, you’ll find articles posted when the site was known as Ride Earth, the name of a rather naive attempt to circumnavigate the world by mountain-bike, which quickly went off the rails and let to all else that has happened.

The site has been redesigned six times, moved domains twice, at one point was shared with someone else and thus had two writers, and for a long time did nothing more than serve as a trip blog on which I scribbled in internet cafes about my ongoing bike trip round the world, but it has gradually developed alongside my own changing ambitions (and route).

Now, the site brings in a steady stream of new readers, most often searching for help and advice with various aspects of bicycle travel. Although much of Ride Earth’s original readership has long since moved on, this reflects new priorities on my part, and over time it has created a solid base from which to soundboard ideas and get immediate feedback.

And, as well as providing hundreds of thousands of words of useful information, the website serves as a platform for letting people know about the paid-for projects such as Janapar that help to support the time I spend on it all. (On that note, there’s a new ebook coming very soon.)

Why a blog, exactly? Why did I not become a paid travel writer, or simply put my book out and go back to my previous line of work? Why bother continue writing long after the ‘big trip’ finished? Let’s face it: I did four days of actual cycle-touring in 2013, and only a two-month trip in 2012. Do I even still have the authority to maintain this blog?

There is sometimes — not always, but sometimes — an air of desperation around ‘post-trip’ blogs; a feeling that the writer continues to recycle the same old material, interspersed with “and for my next trip” announcements, out of an unwillingness to let go of a once-supportive readership and move on.

I don’t mean to say that every such trip blog is like this, but it does happen. It’s easy to become dependent upon the continuing affirmations of responsive readers, or to feel that by ending a blog you are doing your community a disservice or letting something valuable slide into decline. And my own blog, at times, could have gone that way.

But a large part of my motivation to stop travelling full-time was because I had more creative energy than life on the road permitted the opportunity to use. In part, that was because I didn’t travel with laptops, mobiles and the like. (Others in my shoes would have happily taken a laptop and integrated creativity into their days on the road that way. I was too stubborn and wanted no such distractions from the experience of travel.)

The point is that over several years of riding I gathered so much raw material that I am still drawing from it on a daily basis today, and the process of change I underwent during my time on the road somehow unlocked a creative vault in my head that had previously been shut. I still have an endless backlog of headlines on points of information and advice that I have not yet written into articles. Not writing something for more than a few days actually makes me feel uncomfortable.

In other words, I stopped travelling by bicycle full-time so that I could write about travelling by bicycle full-time — and in a more substantial form than blog posts alone.

There’s slightly more to it than this. Before Ride Earth I had made a brief attempt to become a professional website developer. These were skills learned partly through my Computer Science degree, partly through taking on the job of redesigning the university radio station’s website (oh, the glamour), and partly through — in typical geek fashion — spending too much time in rapport with computers because they seemed friendlier and more interesting than most of the people in the world outside. (Travelling cured that one, needless to say.)

And so it made complete sense to begin a website, because not only did I have the creative drive to publish regularly on a topic close to my heart, but I could look after the technical side of the site as well (HTML, CSS, JQuery, PHP, Apache & MySQL — you get the idea) — work that would otherwise over time have racked up thousands of pounds in professional fees. And both of these things are still true.

The motivation behind all of this is, of course, a rampant form of idealism. I believe that long, personal journeys by bicycle have a transformative effect upon the riders and their subsequent interactions, and that the effect is a net benefit to the world at large. (See this month’s earlier article on reciprocal hospitality.)

Even if only a very small nudge towards an ideal, it’s better than any number of more lucrative careers I might have chosen (there’s that idealism again). And so through storytelling (inspiration), the sharing of knowledge (information) and attempting to serve people’s needs (creating action), my aim has simply become to get more people out travelling by bike — and to have fun doing it.

(I’m getting there with this.)

So in respect to the original question, it’s a similar one to what people used to ask on the road: “What will you do when you get home?”

My answer for many years was that I had no idea, but that I hoped that whatever it was would emerge naturally out of the trip itself.

And, though the route to get here has often been unclear and with a few wrong turns along the way, this is a pretty accurate description of what’s happened.

Happy New Year!

How did you get to where you are right now? Is it where you envisaged yourself five or ten years ago? If not, how can you change things in 2014?

Personal Updates

2013: Retrospection & Prioritisation

Tenny and I saw in the New Year 12 months ago with a schoolteacher and a lawyer from London. Said professional couple are now taking a couple of days’ rest in the delightful seaside town of Batumi, Georgia, having quit their jobs and cycled the entire width of Europe and Turkey. Their story is a tangible example of how far you can come in a year if you put your mind to it. This recognisable end-of-year wind-down is a good opportunity to look back and see what we can learn before 2014 kicks in and we’re caught up in the hustle once again

I’d like to share my own process, and invite you to do the same. It’s about inviting support rather than judgement, open and honest reflection on what went well and what did not, and looking for lessons that can surely be found.

On The Road Philosophy Of Travel

The Deeply Misunderstood Nature Of On-The-Road Hospitality

During a recent post-film Q&A, someone stood up and said:

“You said you received a lot of hospitality wherever you went, and that people were always happy to give you food and shelter, even those with very little to give.”

So far so good.

“But didn’t you feel like you were just taking advantage of people the whole time?”

Oh. A loaded question. Got you. Thank you very much for asking, madam.

Guest Posts On The Road

5 Keys To Relationship Preservation As A Couple On A Cycle Tour

Today’s guest post is from Simon Thompson, who I nagged to share his experiences of travelling with a significant other. He’s generously entertained my whim and turned in an extremely useful rundown of survival tips for intrepid couples. Take it away, Simon!

Prior to our ‘big trip’, my girlfriend Ruth and I lived in different cities. And, because of my job, when we weren’t living in different cities we lived on different continents. Ours was a weekend relationship punctuated with several three or four month periods of complete separation. By the time we left for our five-month bike trip through South America, we had been going out for three years, but had never spent longer than two weeks together.

What’s more, Ruth didn’t own a touring bike until a few days before departure. She hadn’t biked much since childhood, and we’d only had a couple of short weekend tours together in preparation.

However, we survived. The trip was amazing, and we hope it’s the first of many to come.

For other couples with differing abilities, differing expectations, and differing tolerances, here are the five key lessons we learned on the road:

1. Keep it flexible
We planned nothing beyond the first couple of weeks, and tried to take a wardrobe that would allow us to become backpackers if cycle touring didn’t work out. Knowing nothing about the future let us take our time over the present and made the whole thing less imposing.

2. Accept differences
I can’t speak Spanish, and am a very lazy cook. Ruth can’t read a map without becoming a bit nauseous, and doesn’t know her bottom bracket from her elbow. It took us a while to realize it, but when we each played to our strengths and ignored the resultant guilt of not working on our weaknesses, we actually had everything covered.

3. Be open
In the early days I hoarded worries and concerns, not wanting to bring them up in case they soured the experience. Ruth always weedled them out of me, and it felt so much better for them to be out in the open. When there were inevitable interpersonal meltdowns (usually when the weather turned and we were hungry), we tried to not dwell on them and make sure we didn’t hold back and were open about everything.

4. Be realistic
Don’t expect constant romance. Before the trip we had visions of sitting outside our tent and watching the stars, and being bowled over by a wave of romance. In reality, by the time we set up camp we were usually exhausted, frequently stinky, and invariably freezing. We wolfed down our dinner and were usually asleep before 9. To keep the magic alive, we indulged on occasion with bike-free breaks in nice hotels.

5. Make it comfortable
I think my most important contribution to the trip was making a huge down quilt. This, along with a double sleeve for our sleeping mats, made our tent comfortable, cozy, and warm. With Ruth turning an otherwise mundane meal into something more savoury (usually thanks to plenty of chorizo and whiskey) we always knew that wherever we were and however tired we might be, we could set up camp and it would be a pleasant experience for us both. This gave us much more freedom than if camping had represented a last resort.

Our tour, though a relatively short and luxurious one compared to others that often appear on this blog, taught us some harsh lessons, and made each of us confront some uncomfortable truths. But we came through the experience with some amazing memories and a relationship that is stronger and better founded as a result. And these things learnt in foreign lands may well prove most useful when facing challenges a little closer to home…

Books Photography

How To Create A Gorgeous Travel Photobook That Engages & Inspires

Syria, January 2009

Step 1: Do Something Inspirational

I don’t mean inspirational for anyone else; I mean for yourself. Creative juices run swiftest when you’re truly inspired. Seek out what moves you most and allow the process to take you places you didn’t know existed, literally and figuratively.