What do you do when you come home after biking around the world for ... five years? Well, in about six months, I may have an answer to that question from one or both of Sylvie Massart and Florence Archimbaud, who were in Bombay most of January and stopped in for a meal twice. (Not on their bikes, they used the train). In nearly five years on their bikes, they've been north to Norway, south to Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego (where our honeymoon took us, but that's another story); east to China and Vietnam, west to ... well, what's left? They did try to stop in Easter Island, but the LAN Chile monopoly on flights there made them (the flights) too expensive for them (Sylvie and Florence), so they flew on to New Zealand and mounted their bikes again.
Go west, young ladies, then you come east. And from India, their road winds through Dubai, Iran (the Persian Gulf crossed by ferry to Bandar Abbas), Turkey, Eastern Europe and back to mustard-scented Dijon, their home in France, by June.
Though the other question has got to be, what's really home after biking around the world for five years?
"We don't think much about big things, big ideas, when we're biking," Sylvie tells me. Meaning no Bush, no Iraq, no clash of civilizations. But her soft words take my mind back to the one time in my life I did something like this; though, at three-and-a-half months, that really couldn't begin to compare with five years on the road.
Still, there were times, especially in the days I spent walking across the Masoala peninsula in Madagascar, when I could not stop the tears. The straps on my pack cut grooves in my shoulders; my knees ached steadily; my thighs screamed for relief. With each step, my socks felt more like sandpaper, soles got rawer, the next step held only the promise of greater agony.
As I trudged on, the tears would start up: of anger, frustration and pain. Without doubt, this was the hardest thing, physically, I had ever set myself to do. The tears asked me why, mocked my grand reasons, my romantic notions of what this trip would be like. And when, some indeterminate time later, we'd arrive at a tiny village, I'd fall flat and into an exhausted, dreamless sleep.
And start over again, the next day.
And yet, and yet ... when the trip was done, when I look back on it from these years later, I know for certain: given the chance to do it again, I would hesitate not for a second. I'd be there, sweating, angry, in pain, in tears -- but trudging along. Because I remember, too, the exhilaration. I remember, too, what drove me there.
I went to Madagascar after some years in which I had been fighting a vague and growing unease. Everything in life had come to me, and kept coming, just a little too easily. Through school and my university degrees, I had done enough to get by: not particularly badly, but not too well either. I had dropped in and out of five different jobs over eight years, never finding it hard to either find a new one or leave the old one. If I was recognized for something I did one year, I was asked to quit another year.
Yet it was more than just college and my work. My whole life, I began to think, was much the same. Very little really challenged me, I sailed along comfortably. Too easily. I had no reason to complain, but that itself made me uneasy. As the years rolled on, the unease got increasingly difficult to quell.
Today, I think that's why I found myself in Madagascar, struggling across that remote peninsula and through other tough times. Tough for me, of course: I imagine regular hikers would not find Masoala greatly difficult. But I knew nothing I had ever done, all my life, had come close to being as hard.
And that, I know now if I didn't then, was the point. I was there because I wanted, more than anything else, to prove to myself that it didn't always have to be easy. I wanted to find, and overcome, a challenge like I had not ever seen before. I had to exorcise, once and for all, that gnawing unease.
So I thought.
In Masoala, I was more alone than ever in my life, my loved ones all at least two oceans and several days walk to the nearest telephone away. In that always gut-wrenching loneliness, I answered a lot of questions for myself. But I never did exorcise the unease, what John Krakauer (Into the Wild) calls the "agitation of the soul." Instead I learned, through the tears, to welcome unease. To know that it must not, cannot, be quelled or exorcised. I came to understand those feelings and that they can be a driving force.
I found something, after those months by myself. Do you find more of it, or understand it better, after five years?
Finally, I was intrigued to discover that Sylvie and Florence practice Shotokan karate, my encounter with which I wrote about here. Is there a link between doing Shotokan and travelling on your own? For me, the answer is clear.