Moment of truth: from commuter to adventurer
Young Belgian Toon Vandermeulen had dreamt for a while of traveling to a far-off destination by bike. He strongly believed he could do it, even though his only cycling experience had been commuting - no long distances. He hadn't camped a single day in his life. Toon took the plunge and set off with his newly purchased Travelmaster 2+ for an unknown destination in Asia. Did he stay afloat?
Traveling some place far away from home simply by using one’s own leg power, a set of wheels and an amenable mind set to the task: it was a captivating idea that had startled my imagination since a few years. Even in such a way that all the colorful stories and experiences from those that had actually put it in practice, made me believe that I could do it too. So, after a few years of dreaming, I packed my bags and finally set sail when covid restrictions were starting to subside. The moment of truth was now upon me: finding out whether reality would match the beauty of the idea that I had held so dear. Because even though I have always enjoyed cycling, up until this point in my life it had been little more than a means of commuting, not really something to travel long distances, let alone across continents. What’s more, I hadn't camped a single day in my life, with my only preparation being a one-off attempt at pitching the tent in my garden. And yet all those things would now become integral parts of my daily life. I dove headfirst into a grand adventure with hopes of reaching a still unknown destination in Asia, albeit surely with a distinctly exotic and ’in the back of beyond' character.
But of course everything stands or falls on the execution of such an undertaking, and my first nights cycling and wild camping had already made me doubt if this was in fact something for me. I wasn't so sure anymore that I could conquer this dream that now seemed like something insurmountable. Luckily, reality is never so bleak in the morning as it seems at night, and coupled with good advice from a friend and encouragement from a daily dose of friendly strangers, I found a way to keep me afloat for the time being. It also proved a comforting thought to remember that every great journey not only starts with a single step, but is a continuing sequence of such steps up until the destination. Cycling let's say- 70 km a day for a period of time feels a whole lot more manageable than a grand total of 10000+ kms! And since my final destination wasn't carved in stone anyway, my end point might as well be the place I reach at the end of any given day. Forgoing imagined outside expectations, and perhaps most importantly my own, was to be the biggest challenge of my journey, as well as its only limit. Especially now with the benefit of hindsight I understand that it should never be a matter of the number of countries traversed or the kms amassed: with time the number becomes so high it’s essentially meaningless, and without some gadget to remind you, you’d forget anyway.* Life’s not a race and neither is a journey, insofar as those are distinct. Yet embracing this journey, whatever the duration, as a wholesome 'search' that leaves you with more questions than answers, that's what would really make me say ”I want to do this again”!
Probably I just had way too much time to ponder during my twenty odd months of cycling, and I can assure you that the wonder only increased with the distance and hence the different cultures, customs and ideas I crossed paths with. This was also one of the things I had anticipated the most, and I certainly got more than I bargained for in every sense. On several occasions I felt lost in the Tower of Babel: frustrated by a lack of others’ understanding of my basic needs and a sometimes inexplicable desire of said ‘others’ to invade my sense of privacy. It's a common issue faced by travelers: for example, the (for us) intrusive questions about our finances and wealth, or our willingness to aid in getting someone a visa to Europe, just to name a few. With no one to vent to and with sometimes several of those undesirable interactions in a day, frustration can build up quickly to the point of the occasional anger outburst, which you often regret later on. Of course, you learn to realize that there’s cultural differences about what you can(not) talk about, and most importantly that few in this world are lucky like us to travel wherever our heart desires. Instead, many are limited to seeing glimpses from the world through screens and applications, which often results in several misconceptions and miscommunications. My counterstrategy was attempting to understand rather than to be understood, though it remained a personal struggle throughout my journey.
Luckily, this was more than made up for by the incredible validation and hospitality I received from complete strangers, pretty much on a daily basis! Indeed, many times over those strangers turned out to be friends I had yet to meet, and to this day I am still in close contact with several of them. I have countless of such heartwarming moments to share, but I will limit myself by just mentioning the friendship and hospitality I received by the Yezidi people, an ethnoreligious minority group native to Iraq that sadly has had to endure violence and persecution throughout their long history. Though one could hardly blame them for being weary of strangers, instead I was kindly invited to visit and live with them as a valued guest in their humble refugee homes, with no conditions or strings attached, but just a mutual understanding that there’s a lot to learn from one another. As so often that proved to be irrespective of having to speak the same language; rather it was founded on the willingness to communicate in whatever way, even if in the most basic sign language. These gentle people revealed to me how shared pain is half the pain, and reminded me of the great value that is humility.
I think that every person who has traveled alone for a long time, especially by bicycle, would agree that such a long journey is also always a journey within yourself. So to conclude, my advice to any person with dreams as true and high as mine, I would offer some words of John Milton:
"The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.."
*For the number crunchers: I passed through 17 countries and cycled somewhere between 16-18000 km (my bike computer gave up on me!).