Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Discovery road

September 2nd, 2010

 “Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo, American Philosopher

After a year on the road, and exactly a quarter of a century since completing a three week “Standard” course with The Outward Bound Trust, time for some reflection….

It’d been a little rash of me. Shortly before I’d embarked on this venture, I’d suggested it was not about discovering who one really was, for I already knew that. Sounds crass now. But that was a year ago. Actually, I’d always known they’d be expedition necessities that’d be strongly counter-intuitive. Private hurdles to be overcome.

Like a deeply ingrained desire to do things properly. Or not at all. Not perfectionism – that’s Fool’s Gold. But I do like to strive for the very best. Apparently, as a toddler, I never gave any real indication of aspiring to walk, or talk, then just did it as if it were something I’d always done. Haven’t stopped since.

If this strikes you as potentially problematic for a venture such as mine, then you need to understand my equally strong desire for tackling issues head on. Bold, decisive solutions. But only when I’m ready. For example, I’ve always been uncomfortable with my head under water, despite a love of swimming. So I learnt to kayak, eventually mastering the self-righting eskimo roll. Perhaps not quite as drastic as four years cycling around the world, but you get the idea.

But how does the desire to do things properly manifest itself? Just take a look at the cycle I use, the kit I carry. Well-engineered, in part a reflection of my own technical background, the best I could afford, an investment in the project. A love of what mathematicians call elegant solutions, beauty in their simplicity.

Allied to that is a resolutely logical approach to problem solving, an unwavering belief that careful analysis of the facts, as they appear at the time, will yield the answer. Just need to be calm, considered. A love of order, seeking to impose it where it does not exist. Not to control, simply to help clarify the situation. A framework. But not overly rigid, the desire for the elegant solution, to be bold and decisive, helping ensure lots of creative thought gets woven in.

Take my first Chinese visa, expiring before I was permitted to cross the border. On the face of it, seek another at the nearest friendly Consulate, continue on and hope you could get enough extensions in country to enable you to ride to Hong Kong. But a careful analysis of the facts, many of them ambiguous or largely non-existent, taken together with a desire for the bold, elegant solution, and the answer became self-evident. Jump on a plane, return to the UK, get a fresh visa – three months duration – and then return to the road.

Learning to deal with often very scant information in the field has been an education, having to quell any desire to fill in the gaps before making decisions. And whilst my life hasn’t exactly been closeted, corruption has been a new concept to get to grips with at the same time.
Then there’s my own approach to riding, in chunks, moving on only when I’m quite ready. Admittedly because this project is more about meeting people and seeing places, rather than simply grinding the miles away on the bike. And, as time has gone on, sharing those experiences with others, through the website, has become almost as important. And that takes time. Besides, I enjoy producing things, writing, filming, taking photographs. Helps a great deal with the loneliness, gives me a focus.

Why share these rather personal thoughts? Because if you think you can’t do this sort of thing, or something close to it, there’s a good chance you’d be wrong. And that is my point. Besides, put these normally private tussles into context. They’re incidentals to the expedition, not its rationale. Am I winning? Well, I’m now deep into China.

[With especial thanks to Jackie who’s quite convinced – despite my strenuous denials – that whenever I do things I mutter “Box ticked. And that’s another task off the list for today…. And to Mark who, it seems, has christened me ’The Planner’. Which I’m rather fond of, even if it’s probably not quite as true as I’d like it to be]


Loneliness of the long-distance cyclist

July 22nd, 2010

“Alone he rides, alone” Lionel Johnson 1867-1902

Language difficulties, punctures, the odd minor ailment, these are all problems you expect on the road. They’re solvable, sometimes with a bit of ingenuity, some lateral thinking. You just get on with them. But then there’s loneliness. Never far away, lurking, waiting for the moment to reappear, catching the solo traveller unaware.

You may be in the most beautiful of places, surrounded by the most kind, generous and hospitable people. And still be immensely lonely. But is it such a terrible thing? I find myself reflecting on what I’ve left behind to spend four years venturing on a bicycle around the world. Family. Friends. A green, lush land, cosy, comfortable, familiar. A reassuringly simple world. Truly beginning to appreciate what I have to return to.

But then the insidious self-doubt, sometimes destructive thoughts. Gnawing away at one’s self-confidence. The perils of an idle mind. You tell yourself this will pass, you know it will, just a squall. And yet it seems quickly entrenched, unwilling to budge, like a parasite growing stronger as it saps your own strength. Pedals seem harder to push. Colours ebb away. Sounds fade.

You learn to cope. Because you have to. Sometimes the very things you might think would exacerbate the situation help push it back into the shadows. News from home, the smallest of tidbits, mere morsels. An e-mail from friends, however brief. The anonymous ticking over of the website visiter counter, knowing that someone, somewhere is thinking about you, however fleetingly. Family photographs, of growing nieces, celebrations, simple gatherings.

And keep the grey matter occupied. On the road. In the tent. Every waking moment. Leave no room for loneliness to creep in, to gain a foothold. So hard to dislodge. Listening to music, composing the next blog post, plans for the next few days. Just doing stuff. Enough, but not excess or else you overwhelm yourself, making yourself vulnerable to another episode.

Writing about, talking about, discussing it is very cathartic. It’s not an affliction, an unspoken evil, simply a natural consequence of travelling alone through an environment where communication with others is difficult, either because there are few people or a language barrier. Not surprising. Humans are, after all, a social creature. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Being amongst other people, even if conversation is limited to just a few words, can make a good deal of difference. The merest of social interaction, a simple smile, a warm handshake, just a nod. A little kindness towards strangers. It all helps.

But most of all, interaction with native English speakers, or those who understand the real nuances of the language, of Western culture, the unspoken subtleties. A real craving, seeking out Western style cafes in the cities, the odd ex-pat bar, or simply staying with those working overseas. Australians, Americans, Brits, it doesn’t really matter. No longer alone. Just for a moment.

[Originally written and recorded for 10Radio – Community Radio for the 10 Parishes in Somerset – You can drop Ken an e-mail via the ’Contact’ page on his website – he’d love to hear from you]

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