My life is boring. My daily routine consists of getting up an hour before sunrise, going for a run, jumping into (and rapidly out of) a cold shower, having breakfast and then sitting down for an 8-to-12-hour stint in front of my computer screen. I am making websites for a living these days. It puts money in the bank for travelling, the prospect of which is starting to inch within visible range. But it bores me to tears.
It could be worse. Much worse. There’s a big, empty park on a hilltop 15 minutes walk away, which I share in the mornings with a small crew of old men who patrol the big wide promenades at night, so I’m lucky for that. I live in a country which might not exactly fit the definition of utopia, but I have all of life’s essentials, and nobody’s starving, so I’m lucky for that. I have a skill – that I can use anywhere on the planet with an internet connection – to earn a half-decent Western wage, so on a global scale I’m exceptionally lucky for that. But most of the time, I’m bored out of my mind.
That’s why I haven’t been writing enthusiastically about life in Yerevan or Armenia. The truth is that I’m completely uninspired by living here. I suppose that my sole motivation for living here was and still is Tenny, now my wife, who I happened to meet here as I was passing through all that time ago. Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy to be disillusioned with these surroundings.
Or maybe it’s the fact that I grew up in a country where words like ‘entertainment’, ‘hobbies’, ‘interests’, ‘sports’ and ‘activities’ actually have a meaning. I’ve realised that I can’t escape from the mindset that life is for making the most of, not just for making it through. Being away from the developed world for years, with no access to what we take for granted, results in a very clear concept of what defines you as a product of the society you grew up in. Nobody goes out of the way to ‘define themselves’ in Yerevan. Fitness as a commodity is unheard of unless you’re ultra-rich and want to pretend to be European. The act of wearing running shoes here is enough to turn heads in the street.
If I want to go mountain-biking – something I didn’t do until last summer – I have to build the institution from the ground up. There is nowhere to buy a mountain bike in Armenia. There are no mountain-bike trails in Armenia. There are no maps of the off-road tracks in Armenia. There are no mountain-bikers in Armenia.
I very much doubt I would have ever done any mountain-biking at all, had I not been flagged down while cycling in central Yerevan by a passing driver who turned out to be Tigran, a 30-year-old Nissan mechanic who had diligently mapped an impressive selection of Armenia’s dirt roads and shepherds’ trails. He’d spent years collecting routes – on foot – using his imported GPS unit, and he was looking for a mountain-biking partner.
I’ve been trying really hard to spend my free time in a worthwhile manner, and this is succeeding much more now than ever before. Daily training runs in the week, Saturday off and an epic bike ride somewhere new every Sunday have become the antidote to the hours spent with my eyes glazed over, churning out an endless succession of near-identical websites for a variety of British manufacturing and engineering firms (for some reason).
Actually, since I took on a new contract at the end of last year, I’ve been designing web applications for a great company in the field of sustainable tourism development, which has been much more interesting as well as offering a lot more freedom in terms of concept and design. I don’t know what I’m complaining about really, because things aren’t half as bad as they were!
I guess I’m trying to justify the last few months of rather fragmented writing. Since I paused my cycling trip last summer I’ve written a number of articles I’m really pleased with, such as the guide to filming a bike expedition and the guide to a free night’s sleep anywhere, but do they really belong in the flow of a story about life away from home?
This is something I was discussing with Andy the other day. As you might know, Andy and I originally set off together from the UK with the idea that we’d be primarily conducting a two-man bike expedition round the world. It’s now two years since we last travelled by bike together, and neither of us are interested in a linear lap of the planet any more. I’ve written about this before, and it’s still difficult to explain to newcomers to bicycle-adventuring that a worthwhile adventure doesn’t have to involve a huge target distance, a vast number of countries or continents, or a pre-planned itinerary. But reaching that conclusion is part of the process – I don’t think it can be taught. A truly independent journey into the unknown is an intensely personal experience, no matter where to, how far, or for how long.
The concept of ‘cycling round the world’ is ideal for those who are interested in feats of human-powered endurance, like Mark Beaumont and any number of record-breaking circumnavigation attempts that have been made since or are planned to begin very soon. The intrinsic value of a bicycle journey is the freedom it gives the rider to move and explore independently, with very few restrictions on speed or route – the exact antithesis of a record-attempt or circumnavigation-for-the-sake of it. (Of course, someone travelling like this might one day find that they’ve practically circled the globe as a result.)
Fearghal and Simon, at the time of writing on the last leg of their circumnavigation, were in complete agreement when I talked to them about this, themselves having ridden 20,000km in a more-or-less straight line over the last year and a bit, and having had plenty of time to think about it!
Slowing down and stopping to smell the roses seems to be at one end of a scale, the other end of which is the bite-sized, rapid-fire, quick-fix solution or action. That brings me to another point. I know very well that I have a habit of producing essay-length blog posts. Current wisdom suggests that in order to accommodate for the twenty-first century attention span I should try and whittle things down and produce frequent, bite-size articles instead. As I browse the web during occasional moments of procrastination, all I seem to find is exactly that – endless mountains of interlinked, cross-referenced, continually-updated, bite-sized articles, lists of bullet-points, lists of lists, numbered lists of things I should see or do or think about, each of which will blow my socks off, each appended with huge lists of bite-sized comments.
Well, bollocks to that. In travel writing, I want to read something substantial, something personal and provoking, something in front of which I can sit down with a cup of tea and spend half an hour reading and thinking about and agreeing with and disagreeing with. If the so-called twenty-first century attention span isn’t long enough to read, digest and consider a complete thesis, then so be it – I’ll spew writing into thin air. At least I’ll be doing what I believe in.
But I don’t think my long travelogues have turned all readers off – the largest collections of comments I’ve had here have been in response to extensive, detailed pieces. As much as the visitor numbers and pretty graphs in Google Analytics appeal to the instant-gratification part of my brain, they’re meaningless if my writing isn’t saying what I want it to say.
I’m all for simplicity and focus, but it doesn’t equate to a self-imposed word limit. The blog has evolved into a complex story which I have great difficulty getting my own head around as a writer. I think it’s going to take more than three paragraphs-per-post to continue to tell it in a simplified and focussed way.