Final Comments - July 30, 2011
It is now the end of July almost 1 year since I left Canada to start my journey to the Philippines and I would like to reflect on a year of travel.
When I started I wrote that seeing the world by bicycle offers a unique perspective because it is fast enough to make progress yet not so fast that you become an observer as the world passes by your window while you sit in the comfort of a plane, train or bus. It is sensory overload to travel by bike with the noise, smells, weather conditions and physical effort all contributing to a daily experience that is hard to compare with anything else. The sense of accomplishment you feel when you arrive under your own power is something that is difficult to duplicate if you use motorized transport. It's always the hard journeys and unplanned experiences we have that imprint on our memories. Think back in your life to the days where things did not go as planned, you had to push yourself beyond your comfort zone to arrive, you had bad weather, got lost, was lonely, frightened or felt there was no way out of the mess you were in. They are always the first things you think about in hindsight, usually with a smile and a sense of accomplishment that you stuck it out despite the conditions. The irony is however that we usually go to extremes to avoid getting into that situation. We plan trips in incredible detail to avoid getting stuck but it is exactly those times that end up being your fondest memories. Traveling by bike forces that spontaneity. You carry your bed and kitchen so can always survive but each day starts with a blank slate, not sure where you will sleep or eat, who you will meet and sometimes, which country you will end up in by the end of the day. I slept in open fields, an olive orchard, in front of a train station, hotel rooms where I had to set up my tent on my bed because of things crawling around, strangers homes, near rivers and lakes, in pine forests on the side of a highway and nice bed and breakfasts. I set up my tent in the dark not sure where I was and often slept wondering what wild animal is native to this part of the world but not once did I have a reservation. It is simple and that simplicity is what I craved. Traveling by bike is a lesson in flexibility and being able to adapt to whatever is thrown your way. It is a wonderful way to learn about other people and cultures and just importantly, about yourself.
I was often asked if I was afraid, a question that came up a lot in discussions back home but never once I left Europe. It seems that the fear of getting killed by a mysterious assailant is more prevalent in the West, maybe the result of too much television or watching news reports that thrive on finding the most sensational story while ignoring all the good that is happening. The reality for me was the complete opposite. I never felt that my life was in danger and the people everywhere were overwhelmingly friendly and quick to offer a helping hand. The country of Syria stands out as the most friendly and hospitable of my trip and if asked prior to leaving, my bet is no one would have predicted that, except me. I cheated though, since in almost every account I have read from other cyclists, Syria and Iran top their list as the safest and most hospitable country to bike through. I did not go to Iran, but Syria has my vote. Ironically, I could not cross the border into Syria today due to the unrest but it is not directed at tourists but at their own government, something long overdue. I know people will not believe me, our media has a strong influence on our belief system and they insist the Middle East is full of terrorists so those views will not be dismissed easily. I just wish that people would base their perceptions on experience and not on news reports. You can convince yourself or hear others tell you to avoid every place on earth or you can lock yourself in your home and really be safe but that's not really the point of living. If someone tells me now that a place is too dangerous I simply ask them about their experience in the country and it is inevitable that they have never actually been. Most people base their entire views about a place on what they saw on television, read in a newspaper or heard from someone else but invariably, the source they heard the report from simply repeated it from someone else. The number of experts on the dangerous places in the world far outnumber the travellers so beware of how quickly fear spreads.
I will never forget being in Croatia and getting ready to head to Albania to cross the mountains. I ended up turning back due to flat tires but I kept hearing how dangerous it was and how my life would be in danger. I was sitting by my bike and 2 young 25 year old girls biked up to say hello. These girls had just crossed Greece, Albania, Montenegro and were now in Croatia. They reported that the people were incredibly friendly and they constantly had others looking out for them and offering them food, water and a place to sleep. Two single petite women riding bicycles through the formerly war torn and poor Balkans made me realize that most people's fears are completely irrational and I refused to listen to any reports of certain doom from people who had never been to a country, particularly as I was heading towards the Middle East where I heard no one makes it out alive, or at least with their head still attached.
If there was one consistent message that I learned it is that people around the world have far more in common than differences yet we always focus on the differences. It's as if people suddenly change because they were born a hundred yards from someone on the other side of the arbitrary line that created a country a long time ago. People want to live in peace, have gainful employment, meet their physical needs, ensure their children are safe and get a good education. It's not that complicated yet we isolate each other because of different beliefs in God, physical appearances, customs and especially different social status, but the fundamentals of human behaviour are the same. I think a lot of the problem is Nationalism, a sense that our country is better than yours. The people on this side of the line are wonderful, kind and just like you and me but once you cross over everyone is out to destroy you. Governments tend to encourage Nationalism to give their people a sense of pride and there is nothing wrong with that but like most things it can go too far. People kill and torture others simply because they are from over there. Our governments who must know about these things convince us that people over there are evil and want to take away all that we have so we find ways to protect ourselves. We get guns, build armies and devise a colour coded system to make it easy for people to know that once we hit red, our fear level should be high and we need protection. If we were attacked by another country and defended ourselves we would be looked at as protecting our way of life and be fully justified but if those we attack defend themselves they are terrorists and that means we can kill them. We may not know them personally but we do know that they are not the same as us so as long as we stay here and they are there, we should be fine. It's a lot safer to stay on our side, we are much nicer.
The other consistent and disturbing observation is that of corruption. It is very widespread here in the Philippines and has been the same everywhere. In the poor countries it is more visible. The locals have to pay fines or graft for everything and so the rich and those in positions of responsibility use their position to enrich themselves. In India I met a woman who said she went to the local government office to buy a license to have an addition built on her home. She had to pay a bribe to the official to get the paper to fill out. She paid it and realized the form she was handed was in a different dialect so she asked for a version in Hindi. The official who took her money said the tax she just paid was for the Tamil version, to get one in Hindi would cost more despite the fact that Hindi was far more common in the area. In war torn Africa, much of the humanitarian assistance provided by the West in times of crisis is intercepted by the warlords. Our gestures of goodwill are feeding the armies that suppress the people and often prolong the suffering because without the aid, the warlords would give up due to their own lack of food. The top small percentage of many of the poor countries own most of the wealth. It's the same in the West but our poor are not as poor so the differences appear less obvious. They control the political and legal system and work hard to protect their status while pretending to work for the people. If I ever hear terms like "A political party for the people" or "We care about the little guy" you can almost bet they don't. In most cases they bribe or make populist promises to the poor to get their vote and then repeat those promises in the next election but do very little in between other than to enrich themselves, friends and supporters. At home we are a little more subtle in terms of corruption. It is not as visible but we have special interest groups and large Corporations controlling our governments behind closed doors. I often thought as I travelled that if governments would just get out of the way, the world would be a much better place.
The world is far poorer than I had thought, a perception resulting from a life of living in rich countries. Much is said about the economic miracle in India but 700 million people there still live on less than $2 per day so once again the wealth is concentrated in a few hands. The countries of India, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines have poverty that should just not be here in the 21st Century. The environmental degradation in these countries is alarming with the rivers and sources of water so dirty they cannot support life. The Cities of Mumbai and Chennai in India and Manila in the Philippines stand out as examples of cities that are broken and completely unprepared to handle the mass exodus from the rural areas. The young populations of the poor countries is something that will cause problems for generations. Tacloban City here in the Philippines has a "poverty rate" of 9% compared with a national average of 30% but to me it is extremely poor with most of the people in the outlying area living in shacks without running water. I work in one of 4 orphanages in a city of only 250,000 and most of the 32 kids suffered from severe malnourishment. Tacloban is in the top 10 in terms of development in the Philippines. Mumbai is the richest city in India but has a slum with 3 million, more people than live in Toronto. The gap between the rich and poor is growing everywhere. I don't think the problem in the world is a lack of resources but rather a poor distribution of what we have. The world can afford to wipe out starvation and reduce poverty but the will is just not there. The world's attention has turned away from the hungry and towards terrorism, the war on drugs, the environment and keeping people safe. How many stories are on the news about the kids dealing with severe malnutrition and how many are on terrorism, balancing budgets or which team is winning a soccer game. Drug use and trafficking has increased as have terror attacks around the world yet we continue to spend our resources on futile battles while kids don't have enough food to eat. If starving children was a matter of National Security for the West, you can bet it would be solved.
The world is also cruel beyond comprehension. I visited the war memorials of Normandy, France, the Gallipoli battlefields in Turkey, the holocaust museum of Jerusalem, the killing fields of Cambodia and each time was struck by how cruel humans can be to each other. In most cases those perpetrating atrocities claimed they were just following orders but how can people give those orders in the first place? The reasons for the abuse are usually one or more of a demand for power, money, land, revenge or a belief that everyone should believe in their God. History does repeat itself and continues to do so today. We are not very good at learning from the past.
I cannot really describe how I feel while at the orphanage but it is a combination of anger, empathy and love, very hard to put into words. The orphanage does not often adopt children because most have parents and are not technically orphans. If the kids are abandoned they can be adopted but none of them at this time are in that situation. These kids are there because their parents cannot afford to feed them or they cannot afford their healthcare, usually both. A few of the kids were so severely malnourished they looked like skeletons and were on their deathbed before age 2. Yet the parents keep having children because the Church has decided that use of contraceptives are wrong. I wonder if people making those rules have actually seen the results of their decisions. The world is not always black and white and I can understand the value of life but contraceptives stop a potential pregnancy before there is life. I feel empathy because the kids are here due to no fault of their own, they were simply born, just like the rest of us. Yet they are for the most part happy and spending time with children that get so much joy and pleasure from playing simple games is heartwarming. Most have never seen a television or computer but they laugh more than most kids I have been around. One of the girls had her 13th birthday last week so I bought a chocolate cake and added those candles that you can't blow out. When Angelina blew them out and they started up again, the kids were laughing so hard it was incredible. Then to see them with chocolate covered faces put a smile on my face that lasted hours. You don't need the latest ipad app to have fun. The fact is however that they do not attend school so their future is bleak. They are destined for a life of poverty and it is almost inconceivable that they will experience anything else for the rest of their lives.
Despite all the bad though the world is incredible and beautiful beyond words. People are friendly and inquisitive and overwhelmingly hospitable and the physical beauty in nature is indescribable. It's too bad more people don't slow down from rushing off to their next meeting or to meet a deadline and stop and watch a bird feed it's young or simply stare at a blooming flower. You don't have to travel far to see flowers, trees, birds or laughing children. If you turn off the television, unplug the computer and take a few moments each day to pause and look around at nature, it would do everyone a world of good.
I will briefly mention a few things about each country I biked through. I will never forget the shades of green in Ireland or the friendly and talkative people. I stayed 4 days with Irenee and Laurence and experienced traditional Irish music while drinking a Guinness, I didn't think life could get any better than that. France is a cyclists dream with campsites everywhere and dramatic changes in landscape. From the cows, cheese and cider of Normandy to the vineyards of Bordeaux to the sun and beaches of the south of France it is hard to think of any other place in the world with so much to offer. Italy has it's food that a cyclist cannot refuse and a visit to Pisa and a return to Florence highlighted a too short stay as I was anxious to cross into new territory.
Croatia has the magnificent Dalmatian coast and the beautiful cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Mechanical problems forced me on a train to Sarajevo, the nicest City of my trip. It was the first time I experienced a City with a Mosque, Christian Church and Jewish Synagogue all within a stone's throw of each other. A City that was under siege a few short years ago is walking a tight rope of ethnic diversity but the peace is holding for now and the people I met were exceptionally friendly. I briefly stopped in Sofia, Bulgaria before heading to Istanbul, the gateway to Asia. The magnificent Blue Mosque remains one of my fondest memories along with the incessant carpet salesman all wanting to know where I was from so that they could tell me they have a relative there and that familiarity would result in me buying a carpet, free delivery of course. Turkey was a joy to ride in with the Muslim hospitality and delicious food. The southern coast and interior City of Cappadocia were highlights while the wild dogs and high mountains increased my heart rate for different reasons. I was tentative on crossing the border into Syria without a visa in place but despite the stories of doom it remains the friendliest country of my trip. I had the most difficult day there biking in a rainstorm that was on the verge of snow until I was shaking from cold. A complete stranger pulled up beside me, rolled down his window and asked if I speak English. I said yes so he asked me to follow him. Those were the only words exchanged and I thought that with such a horrible day what is the worst that could happen if I followed so I did, to his business where he provided some hot tea and blanket and we watched a movie together. As usual, the hospitality in the Muslim world rescued the day. I crossed into Jordan on December 25th and was immediately waved down by a man in a business suit talking on his cell phone. I ended up having a full breakfast served on his living room floor, under a crystal chandelier. There were no presents but definitely a Christmas morning to remember. The wonders of Petra and Wadi Rum make Jordan unforgettable. I then crossed into Israel for a few days with the Holocaust museum being a great memory.
I then flew into a new world landing in Mumbai and wondering how on earth am I supposed to bike in India? It was chaotic, disorganized, loud and very exciting. The colours, sounds and smells are something you really see on a bicycle and each day ended in exhaustion and a desire to lock myself away to get some peace. The people were very friendly and inquisitive and a joy to be around. I then flew to my favourite country of Thailand. Bangkok is big and busy but an oasis compared with Mumbai. I felt like I stepped back into the 21st Century. Thailand has everything you could ever want. It has a combination of modern conveniences, old world charm and the best food on the planet. The cycling was easy but hot and it rejuvenated me after 7 weeks in India. I then stepped backwards again as I crossed into Laos but the children lining the roads yelling Sabadee was something I never tired of and always returned with a smile and wave. The mountains in the North were tough and remote but offered beautiful scenery in return. The Laos new year was the day with the most fun as I was constantly having water thrown on me and I made a few attempts to fight back with my limited and underwhelming weapons. Finally, I entered Cambodia and again the children waving and laughing kept me going through some hot weather and tough road conditions. The tragedy of the Killing Fields and splendour of Angkor Wat provided incredible contrasts in a country of friendly people and a long sad history.
Finally I want to talk about the decision to leave on the trip in the first place. I had a good job in Bermuda, was saving money and left at a time where the economy was hurting and job prospects were getting dim, so why did I choose that time to go and not wait until things got better? Why not work until retirement or leave when you don't have to work again?
The answer is simple, life is too short to wait. I could have worked another year or two but had no idea I would still have my health or if I would even be alive a year from then. I couldn't face another day knowing that if I waited too long there will come a day when I will not be able to turn the clock back and ask for one more chance, a mulligan or do over so that I can finally do what I really want to do. Once your health goes, you get hit by a car or develop a disease you can't go back to finally make things right. There are a lot of working years until retirement age, years you will never get back once they are gone and if things don't go as planned, and they never do, then you are too late.
Everyone knows that and hears it all the time but how many people actually do something about it? It's like the old saying of "everything in moderation." I hear it all the time. Everyone says to eat, exercise, work etc., in moderation but I have only ever known a few people that actually live that way. Most people eat too much, exercise and sleep too little but will still faithfully repeat to everyone that everything in moderation is the key. It's a truism that we all know intuitively but is repeated because everyone else repeats it. We know life is short and we have to live our dreams today but by Monday morning we go back to reality and slog through another week. Life is short and we have to live our dreams but we'll think about that again next weekend when we have time, we're too busy existing this week, no time to pause and reflect on where we are going. Those dreams are for dreamers.
I have a history of being a bit of a dreamer, getting lost in thought and thinking of what I would like my life to be like and this time I did something about it. I used to have a map of the world by my desk at work and would often daydream of the places I wanted to go. Years ago I got the idea to travel by bike and spent months going to a bookstore after work reading, looking through maps, thinking of routes and daydreaming. It was a passion and I could feel the adrenaline running through me as I pictured going to all those places. It was 12 years later that I finally left and at times I kick myself for waiting so long but life got in the way. On the other hand I finally did it before it was too late and for that I am grateful. I am blessed to be able to travel though and recognize not everyone can do it but you don't have to travel for a year to fulfill your dreams. They can fit into your existing life but you do have to take steps towards making them happen, if not they are not dreams they are wishes and they will not happen without deliberate steps.
For those that followed along this year I owe a great deal of gratitude. I will never forget the e-mails of support I received along the way. There were some hard days when I felt like packing up and going home but two things kept me going. The kids in the orphanage and the letters of support I received from people around the world. I couldn't let a mountain pass, cold rainy weather or rats running under my bed stop me when I would get e-mails from family, friends and complete strangers. I have saved every letter and will always keep them to remind me of all the good people in the world. It's a beautiful world full of beautiful people so get out there and see both. They are your neighbours, the people locked away in elderly homes, the children on the street and the co-worker down the hall. The beauty is in a sunrise or sunset, walking hand in hand with a spouse in the rain or reading to your child instead of watching another television program.
Prior to leaving my brother said something that made me chuckle. He said that "Fred has always been a bit of a dreamer, maybe that's not such a bad thing." I guess it wasn't such a bad thing after all.