‘Land ahoy!’ At long last South America edged above the horizon and into view.
Excitement rippled among us, all craning for a better view on the starboard side of the boat.
My first thought was, ‘wow, it’s hilly!’ as I switched seamlessly back into cyclist mentality once again. I was excited to see folds of rock and vertical lines once again after weeks on a horizontal flat blue disc. After so much blue, green seemed an extraordinary, lurid colour to be the dominant colour on land. I have had the same thought when emerging from monochrome deserts. We saw white buildings in the trees and heard the sounds of traffic. We were not the only human beings left on Earth, after all.
After the anchor was dropped and after the handshakes, hugs and congratulations, we sat on deck together to savour the unusual stillness of being stationary. It was so exciting to have arrived on the other side of an ocean, under sail. I could not wait to set foot on this new world. Celebratory cigar smoke and laughter wafted in the night air. The gentle rolling motion of the anchored boat felt odd after the nuances of the movement of sailing that we had grown so used to. Amid the joviality I sat alone, perched on the boom and hugging my knees. I was nervous. We had crossed the Atlantic but now I had a new continent to ride. From southern Patagonia I planned to ride north, for about a year and a half, up to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska.
During my attempt to cycle around the planet it became apparent that, in many ways, ours is a very small world. The internet, global music and western popular culture followed me wherever I went. From the seat of a bicycle, though, the world also seemed massive. The differences in lifestyles and opportunities that people had were immense. Being still less than halfway through my journey was a daunting prospect, yet the further I rode, the more I felt at home. After years of reading glossy travel magazines and watching TV travel shows, I had begun the project with my eyes shut, dreaming of adventure and exotic locations. What I had not considered was the 5000 miles between London and the pyramids, the 7500 miles between Cairo and Cape Town or the 5000 miles from Ushuaia to Machu Picchu. I had not imagined the months of slog and the demoralisingly improbable distance, in both time and space, to the next destination. Since then, I had learned that the real travelling is all the stuff in between. The destinations merely added direction to the journey, acting as the frame upon which I could weave the colourful fabric of my experiences. Slowly the journey had come to be the reward. The thousands of miles among the ordinariness of the thousands of people I encountered, in all the villages and towns I rode through, blended into one giant, rolling memory. Extraordinary sights like the pyramids and Machu Picchu are marvellous, but these wonders do not represent the reality of the normal life of the people I wanted to learn about when travelling. This is perhaps the biggest difference between cycling and other forms of transport. For many people who travel, the destinations are what their experiences are primarily about as they move swiftly, isolated in machines, from one place to another. By bike, travel is so slow that it becomes the dominant aspect of the journey.
I had passed through deserts and mountains, mad Arabian melees, Latin fiestas and African funeral parades. I witnessed strange and extravagant sights and sounds and unfathomable animated conversations on street corners and market stalls. Yet I was always just looking into other people’s ordinary days. The reverse effect also applied. I, a normal, middle-of-the-road English guy on a bike, gradually became an exotic, extraordinary spectacle, merely by riding a long way from my own natural habitat. My journey round the world was actually a study of the magic of humankind’s normality.
Over the Andes the rutted dirt road became so awful that I chose instead to follow the route of an old railway line cross-country across the dry spiky grass, cropped short and prickly by llamas and alpacas. Barefoot, I waded through broad, shallow rivers that were phenomenally cold.
I asked one man how far it was to a town that I knew was at least 40km away. He assured me that it was only 3km. People’s lives were so localised that there was no point in telling anyone that I had ridden to Bolivia from Patagonia: mentioning the name of a town a day or two’s ride away would provoke sufficient surprise and disbelief. Anywhere much further away that that was beyond their imagination. A little girl I met was excited to hear that I had actually been in an aeroplane. She had only ever seen them, tiny and slow, high in the blue sky above her. She was struggling to visualise them. I explained to her that the planes she saw were actually about as long as five buses put end to end, and that the wings would stretch from where we were standing to those men talking by the liquor store over the street. ‘Do the animals still go arriba, on top?’ she asked, assuming, naturally, that nobody ever goes on a long journey without taking a heavy bag of irate chickens or a trussed and miserable piglet along with them.
Many months later I reached northern Canada. Smoke tickled my nostrils and haze hung in the sky. My onward progress was in jeopardy. Forest fires were raging to the north and west, utterly beyond the power of humans to extinguish. All that the fire services could do was to try to manage the blaze. They had closed the only road towards Dawson City, the very road that I had hoped to ride. But in that part of the world roads were new things, new-fangled intruders; long before any road reached the north, the rivers had been the roads. I wondered then whether perhaps it would be possible to take to the water to continue the journey. My friend David agreed that it sounded like a fine adventure. We would canoe past the fires and then get back on the bikes again.
This article first appeared in a Lonely Planet book