I really should write something. It’s been weeks. Yesterday was a complete non-event. I spoke to Andy on the ‘phone and we wished each other a happy one year Ride Earth anniversary, whatever that means. That’s right – at 12:30pm one year ago on the 17th of June 2007, I was riding away from my home and into the unpredictable world, eager to sample all it could offer!
This morning, I woke up at about 10 a.m. in the flat that I now call ‘home’. I lazed about for a few minutes before mustering the energy to stand up and begin another routine day. Right now, I’m sitting in front of the computer in my boxers, switching between writing this blog entry and programming a new website for a property company. They’re going to pay an unimaginably large amount of money (in bicycle-tramp-travelling terms at least, not much more than a month’s salary for most Brits), and in exchange I have resigned myself to a few weeks of forgettable slogging, day-in-day-out, in front of the screen. In my boxers.
The gas bottle that supplies my stove seems to have decided it doesn’t want to play ball any more, so I’m eating tasteless cornflakes (you know, the ones you find in cheap hotels on the breakfast buffet) three times a day. Oh well – at least the water supply seems to be a bit less temperamental than it was a few weeks back. The neighbours are frantically drilling, cutting, sanding and sawing away next door, as they have been since I moved in nearly 3 months ago. Yesterday they painted the corridor walls in a pleasant, summery shade of yellow.
Oh my, how exciting this round-the-world bicycle journey has become!
Thinking back, it’s not surprising that the former six months of the last year’s journey seems infinitely longer than the latter. Every day brought new adventure, new people, new places, new problems, new solutions. I can run through the entire trip in my mind, remembering even the tiny insignificant details – drinking coffee with a French road worker… jumping off an old diving-board in the Danube whilst pulling a variety of comedy poses… swatting a mosquito on my left shoulder at our camping spot just east of Bratislava while trying to do a video diary… riding under a bridge in the suburbs of Budapest late at night whilst pedalling with one leg… noticing the sudden abundance of trees as we entered Georgia from Turkey… and countless more memories that still stand clear as glass in my mind.
In comparison, since I have been living here, I can’t remember more than a few notable landmark events. Of course! If you go to sleep and wake up in the same place every day, how much variety could you possibly invent in those short few waking hours, even if you really tried? I don’t want to grow old and not be able to remember what I did with my life, do you? Six months on a bicycle generated far more distinct memories than at least the previous five years put together. I’m not trying to play down my university days, nor the things I did achieve in the two years thereafter, but the travel has offered so, so much.
Now I’ve had a taste of it, I’m greedy for more. Who wouldn’t be? It’s not just the memories, either – it’s the lessons learnt through experience, the meeting of a vast cross-section of humanity and nature, the personal challenges passed and failed, the ever-broadening view of the world and what defines us as species and our interaction with the rest of life on earth.
But what good is all of this if I pass out of life and take it all with me? How self-indulgent that would be. I would have missed the most important lesson of all, which is the insignificance of my own internal desires and ideas when compared to my participation in the unimaginably vast and complex world I live in. Many people expend their life’s energies confined to a tiny sphere within a massive system that they don’t understand. Sometimes, these energies are considerable. In today’s world, our actions can and do affect the rest of the world. This is the nature of global communications, economies, trade, transport, deforestation and warfare. But if we don’t understand the rest of the world, how can we judge whether our actions are beneficial or detrimental?
This is turning into a real rant, but I might as well continue. It’s my blog – disagree if you want to, just be good enough to make it public in the comments box below!
Another problem is that many of us think we do know what the world is like! Why? Because we’re stuffed full of television, news, websites, school geography lessons, and discussions with other people who watched different TV shows and read different books and magazines. So of course we’re qualified to make sweeping generalizations on people and places we’ve never met or seen, because we’re fed these facts as if they can single-handedly represent the world, and as a race we’re easily convinced, because why would anyone in our social group lie to us or tell us half-truths?
But really, I can’t imagine thinking I know anything about the world I live in, unless I’ve experienced it for myself. I know this because since day one my concept of the world has been systematically destroyed by every new day’s lessons. I’m the product of a society consisting of millions of others just like me, so it would be fair to argue that the society consists of a great many people with similarly warped views of the world and what is important within it. Not too long ago, I used to consider myself knowledgeable and worldly. How arrogant and short-sighted that was.
That’s why it’s deadly important that I continue. I have a moral obligation to better understand how my life fits in with the other 7 billion lives out there, so I can make a more educated guess as to whether the way I’m living is appropriate, helpful, misguided, self-indulgent, responsible, sustainable – in short, whether or not it’s right. Once I think I’m in a position to decide how I, as one of millions, should best conduct my life, and if I believe it and can justify my belief, I should make sure that I don’t let that go to waste by keeping it all for myself. I should show other people the hows and whys, not least my own future family, but anyone who wants to lend an ear. Then, maybe, there will be a chain reaction in which my influence on other people causes them to change the way they operate in the world, and maybe others will see that and also start to change. And maybe that will shift things ever so slightly in a positive direction.
If that happened, it wouldn’t make me in any way special; it would just represent the part I play in human society, albeit a conscious and determined one. This knock-on effect is a fundamental part of our social life. What defines a society, anyway? A group of people with something in common might perhaps be a bottom-line definition. Why do societies – groups of people with something in common – come to exist? Societies where people speak the same language, use the same kind of greeting, eat the same type of breakfast, sit (or stand) on the same kind of toilet? Maybe because an idea that seemed to make sense was copied, and gradually became the irrefutable norm…?
So can we say the same thing about the Atlantic slave trade, the genocides of Native Americans, Aboriginal Australians, and more recently Armenians and Jews? Well, it seemed to make sense at the time, sometimes say the descendants of the perpetrators. Yes, at the time, it was normal for the Spanish to slaughter countless thousands of native South Americans, because God told them to cleanse the land of the heathens. Nobody gave it a second thought. It was normality, even something to be celebrated and to be proud of.
Maybe I’m drawing too many concepts under one umbrella here, but think about what we today consider normal. Let’s start with car culture. (Oh dear, I’m going to get lambasted for this one!) Everybody owns a car, right? It’s normal! Erm… well, that’s kind of the point. It’s normal for everyone to own a car (many families own several). You can’t see the damage that your car does to the world. Nevertheless, it’s not just your car, but the combined effect of all the cars on the planet that is the problem, and not just the cars, but the flights we take on holiday or business, and the coal-fired power stations that fuel your armada of appliances left on standby every night because it doesn’t matter whether you turn it off at the power switch or not. The Chinese alone put 16,000 – sixteen thousand – new cars on the road every single day. While this ‘normal’ use continues, there are also alarmingly-frequent get-togethers of people who celebrate ‘car culture’ by convening on a suitable piece of tarmac and loudly boasting to each other about engine size, fuel consumption, size of wheel, amount of burnt rubber generated, etc. While it may be quaint and comic to watch, it all suddenly seems incredibly short-sighted. A bit like Jeremy Clarkson, when recently interviewed by Jonathan Ross.
I’m not a fundamentalist. I don’t want to take a rocket-launcher and blow every passing automobile to smithereens (though while riding in heavy traffic I have, on occasion, felt the need). I don’t even have that much against cars per se, so let’s break the problem down. They’re a motorized means of private transport. In some situations, where you need to travel a relatively long distance in a short time and public transport is unavailable, there’s little alternative. The issue is with the problems caused by the internal combustion engines of most modern cars. This is what is contributing to our CO2 emissions, because someone invented it, it seemed to make sense, and the idea took off and became irrefutably normal.
There is a consensus, amongst those determined enough to give it a shot, about how this can all be brought under control. It revolves around making more use of public transport, walking or cycling where possible, and using cleaner cars, such as the electric and hybrid cars that are starting to reappear, after the electric car was unceremoniously executed by a consortium of oil companies a couple of decades ago in order to make sure their owners remained disgustingly rich (see the film Who Killed The Electric Car if you hadn’t heard about this). But you knew all that already.
It’s a hard concept to get hold of – the idea that you are one of millions equally responsible. I know many people who are so emotionally attached to their cars that they will come up with any rationalization available in order to continue their vested relationship. I hope some of them have the courage to drop their pride and make a positive change to the way they think and live – a fulfilling experience, but difficult to muster the initial drive, and more difficult as time goes by. I’m not going to force you to do it. As the saying goes, I can only show you the door. Some will fail, and others will succeed.
But it’s not your fault that it’s normal for you to live in a way that means your grand-children might be born into a world where Peterborough is a seaside town, is it? No, it’s been a slow and gradual movement towards lifestyles of hard work and consequence-free consumption, because that’s the Western idea of success, like wearing really uncomfortable shoes in order to experience the pleasure of taking them off. Sometimes we perversely start to enjoy wearing the uncomfortable shoes, perhaps because we’ve forgotten what a good sandal feels like. Eventually we’re going to damage our feet, visit the doctor, and end up feeling a bit stupid. Some of us will blame our parents, and some of us will blame Margaret Thatcher. But some of us will realise that sandals are a better choice before any of that happens.
I think I’ve taken the shoes/sandals metaphor as far as it can comfortably go without it becoming laughable and de-emphasizing the point I’m making with this rant!
Since Andy and I settled in T’bilisi and Yerevan respectively, it appears we’ve had a small, unconscious influence. Andy convinced his boss to buy a mountain bike yesterday. Here in Yerevan, Tenny is shortly going to receive a new bicycle and come travelling with me. My friend Arthur has also bought a mountain bike and wants to make a bike tour around the Caucasus. Another friend, Ani, is planning to travel across Georgia in the summer by bicycle with a friend. Manoog, who you may remember from one of Andy’s earlier posts, now uses his new bike to get around the city centre (mainly to the Irish pub and back). Finally, on Monday I went along to give advice at a meeting in which a small group of Armenians were planning to cycle the 2000km to Istanbul over the course of July and August. Manoog, who’s lived here for years, says that this is unprecedented in Armenia. It looks like cycling is on the up!
In the long run, the filming project continues despite a few production setbacks, and in the future I hope that the film of this journey really sets some things in motion and helps to snap us out of our complacency and realise that ordinary people are the ones who make a difference, when they do it together. The film is my focus for communicating the lessons learnt through bicycle travel, along with this blog, which will shortly be getting a massive overhaul, and maybe a book or two in the future.
Now I’ve got all that off my chest, it’s time to make an announcement about my future plans. No longer does it seem possible to obtain a visa for China, so heading East from here would involve a major detour down to India or up to Russia. The former does not really appeal to me at this time and presents a dead-end to overland travel, and the latter would be a tough ride and probably bring a cold winter with it, and I would not want to put Tenny through that at the beginning of a journey that is going to be difficult enough for her anyway. Taking a plane to an alternative part of the world is not an option, needless to say.
So we’re going to head south! Down, down, down to Cape Town. OK, so the first real landmark is going to be Egypt, as it will signify the passing into my third continent of the trip. After that, we’ll see how things pan out, but presently a trans-African ride down the East is looking feasible, challenging, exciting, and totally and utterly different. All things being well, I will have finished my work, Tenny will have her passport and visas, and we’ll be on the road by the end of July. If you want to have a sneak preview of what we might come across, watch Long Way Down, in which Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman push the boundaries of overland travel on motorbikes by riding from John O’Groats to Cape Town.
On the other hand, our experiences might be completely different…
Oh yes – today is my twenty-fifth birthday. Hooray!