I climbed the stairs to a small flat in a back alley of central Tehran and rang the doorbell. Tenny opened the door, stared at me blankly for a second, then jumped out of her skin in shock. Minutes later we were laughing happily together. The journey was over. We would spend the next few days tentatively getting used to being with each other again after six long months apart.
In the two years since I left England I have had plenty of time to think about how life on the road has affected me. I don’t remember experiencing any single life-changing epiphany, but when I watch back old videos, or read things I wrote, or think about things I said or did a couple of years ago, the experience is often amusing, and sometimes embarrassing. It’s also interesting to note how similar these feeling are to those of others who have undertaken similar journeys.
I’m far fitter than ever before. I was a below-average athlete in my formative years, unremarkable on the playing field or in the sports hall. But anyone who sets off on a fully-loaded bike is going to ride themselves fit in a few weeks. Fitness is nothing more than the natural response of the human body to the demands placed upon it by its owner. If you need to be stronger, then stronger you will become.
But I’ve found myself looking for bigger challenges as a result, more for to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else. I made someone laugh a couple of weeks ago when I said that my definition of a ‘long day’s bike ride’ was anything over 200km. Even a daily distance of half of that now seems rather casual!
It feels great to be fit. The effect on the mind is what I appreciate the most. But maintaining it might be more tricky. To stave off post-tour bloat, I’m planning to enter my first ever triathlon – just for fun – which will consist of a 40km cycle, a 1.5km swim, and finally a 10km run, in the spectacular surroundings of Lake Sevan in Armenia. It will be interesting to see if I’m up to it.
Andy and I have a number of ideas for small-scale local expeditions in the Caucasus over the next few months. I’ve realised that regularly getting out of the urban environment will be the key to staying healthy – mentally more than physically. With so much under-appreciated natural beauty on the doorstep, I’m lucky that I’ve ended up in Yerevan. The Caucasus mountains surround the city, and stunning Georgia is only a few hours away. Getting out into this rural playground was something I neglected when I was previously living in Yerevan – partly because my situation was so uncertain – and I suffered as a result.
Adventuring has been so fulfilling, so complete an experience, that I doubt I will ever stop yearning for it. It has become an intrinsic part of who I am. What about Tenny? Well, after the last six months, I don’t necessarily see adventuring and relationships as mutually exclusive. I’m happy with our commitment, and also with the need for independence within this commitment. The balance will be important and surely difficult to find. But setting off down an unknown road in an unknown country, without any guidebook, map, or knowledge of what’s in store, still sends a shiver of excitement down my spine that nothing else can match.
The commonalities of all human societies have become more and more clear – most powerfully the falsehood of the assertion that ‘other’ societies can be intrinsically ‘bad’. (I will retract this statement immediately if I ever come across such societies!) Westerners who I meet on the road often grimace at my circumstances, ask “but aren’t you scared?”, and cite any number of imagined fears as reasons why I must be really brave or really stupid to do it. But I don’t consider myself particularly brave or stupid – just a little better versed in the limitations of my preconceptions.
I remember the day when Maria, the young English woman who joined Andy and I back in 2007, opened an email from a relative in response to her idea to cycle with us to Iran, Pakistan and India. The relative in question had sat in front of a computer in a comfortable home in a prosperous city in the USA and spewed forth a hysterical monologue in which all Iranians and Pakistanis were terrorists and murderers and that poor Maria was heading for a death trap with no hope of making it out alive. How could Maria be so stupid as to even consider such an extreme form of suicide?
On a related note, it was sad but predictable to see published the results of a recent survey that showed that almost half of Americans polled believed that Islam directly promotes violence – surely one of many ‘spectacular achievements of propaganda’, to borrow a well-known book title. If you’ve followed Andy and I over the last months, you’ll know what happened when we visited the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, two countries unfairly blackened because of political differences between their leaders and ours.
The truth is that the world isn’t a dangerous place. Try going to a war-zone. Even if you manage to get anywhere near the region, you’ll be turned back with an armed convoy for company before you get within a hundred kilometres. No government wants tourists to get in trouble, knowing how damaging such news can be.
I quickly learnt to expect nothing other than casual interest or indifference from the people I encountered, regardless of the squabbles of their nations’ leaders, and ninety-nine percent of the time this is what I got. The remaining one percent was when people who dragged me off to meet their friends and family, sit down for a cup of tea and a chinwag, with a meal and a bed often thrown in for good measure, no matter how grandiose or humble their circumstances.
From Switzerland to Sudan, the kindness of strangers was my strongest impression of the world, and this seems to be a universal sentiment amongst bicycle travellers. I am convinced that there’s no better way to see the world at ground level, while still being able to make steady progress across countries and continents.
The realisation that we are all essentially the same has clashed with the importance that my social circumstances attach to individuality – the elevation of the single, inward-looking human and his or her selfish needs. The result has been that my generation seems to have grown up with a somewhat diminished sense of the importance of community and the family unit. But this is changing. There seems to be a resurgence in awareness of the importance of collective needs and collective power. Nothing has demonstrated this to me in greater clarity than seeing the depressed executive who has it all next to the happy and contented family man who can’t afford to shoe his own bare feet.
Of course there is a balance to be struck. We need a certain quality of life before we can have the education needed to see ourselves in this enlarged perspective. But comfortable living, education, and the opportunity for each individual to fulfil his or her potential does not have go hand in hand with dangerously-excessive consumption or global capitalism. Perhaps this realisation is the key to the solving of problems such as anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming. Nobody is advocating a return to the Dark Ages in the name of sustainability – though there are those who would have us live in fear of this illusion for their own benefit.
Personally, I’m excited. What an age to live in – an age when, for the first time in the history of civilisation, we have become a force of nature so powerful as to be able to decide the fate of our own species, within our lifetime! The world we live in today is the collective legacy of all humans who have ever lived. What will our legacy be?
Recently I got a bit bogged down in the quagmire of Middle Eastern international politics. This is easy to do as a Western traveller in the region. But I’ve come to understand the danger of involvement with incomplete information. “A little knowledge is dangerous”, as the saying goes. There’s a lot of truth in that, but there are still a lot of bandwagon-jumpers – especially in the virtual shouting-matches we call ‘social networks’ – who get involved in things they don’t really understand, thinking through no fault of their own that they do. Maybe I used to be one of them. Maybe, to some extent, we all are. I’m far more aware of how little I know about places I’ve never been. The media-fed world-view certainly isn’t a healthy one.
Obsessively mulling over it all during too many lonely days in the desert, and finding I was tying myself in mental knots, I realised I needed to make peace – not with the Middle East, but with myself. I resolved to stick to what I was good at and what I loved doing – adventuring; sharing the experience through writing, photography and video; cookery; putting internet technology to good use; practicing sustainable living; promoting ecological awareness and positive thinking; and lifelong learning – and to try and relegate the background noise to its rightful place. I will never be a politician, any more than I will be a painter or a physicist.
Finally, I think I’ve learnt something about the importance of moderation. There will always be those who go to the ends of the earth to prove a point, and maybe their existence is necessary to set the boundaries of human endurance and to inspire others to go the extra mile. But I’m not going to be one of them. The decision to abandon the round-the-world bike-ride idea is the result of taking an opportunity to change my attitude to life through the lessons I learnt by setting out on such an endeavour. I hope that I can inspire people in another way – to continually question, to recognise the limitations of knowledge and the benefits of continuing self-education, to avoid building unnecessary institutions around life, and to embrace positive change, even if it hurts to begin with.
It would have in many ways been easier to let my ego take the mission to its bitter end. It would have been more simple that way. It would be much easier to explain, for one thing! Travelling the world is going to play a major part in my life in the forseeable future, but for me, there are no reasons left for trying to do it all in one go.
On Monday I will return to Yerevan to live for the rest of the year and dream of the next big trip. It’s the perfect opportunity to put these concepts into practice. Here’s to the second half of 2009, and to working at the delicate balancing-act that is a happy life in a happy world.