Monday, March 26, 2018

Thoughts From Here

I am well and truly moving on from the tour life. I signed a lease recently, I’ve had job interviews all over the place, I’ve been on a few dates… re-engaging with static life in Madison is objectively going well, though I could really use a job.

The longer I go without having everything I own on a bike, the more certain I am I’ll be doing it again in the not-too-distant future. So keep subscribed if you want to be notified when the not-too-distant future arrives (if you haven’t subscribed, but want to, you can do so in the upper-right on desktop or the very bottom on mobile).

Until the not-too-distant-future, I have so many good memories to hold onto. One of my favorites is the night I spent with Shawn and Dani in Dawlish, England: being so panicked about finding a safe place to sleep, finally being offered one, relaxing enough I could enjoy my first English pub, being guided home by a well-meaning couple on their bicycles; then, getting invited in and spending the night telling stories and waxing poetic about what’s meaningful in life… getting up in the morning to breakfast, a bag lunch, a long drive to the heart of Dartmoor, and then playing my ukulele to some sheep.

“It was one of those nights that are the reason I tour, the spontaneous encounters with strangers who bike home with you and not 12 hours later you know you want to see at your wedding. I wish I could give it a more fitting summary, but I'm coming to realize as I blog that some things cannot be summarized in a few words or even accurately depicted in a multi-page blog post. Words are an imperfect means of communication and photos help, but all too often nothing can replace or replicate the actual experience, the lightness and feeling of being on a porch at night with the moon and your friends and the intimate entwining of your lives... for however brief a time.”

There are a few things I’d like to do differently when the time for my next tour comes:
- Take pictures of everyone I stay with. My biggest regret is not having photo memories of the people I met, who were the whole reason for the trip. It’s unsatisfying recalling their faces from memory only. Doing so makes me feel a little empty.
- Bring my accordion. Maybe. The uke was a great success. But I missed my accordion, too. That being said, not having to fly with a trailer was really, really nice.
- Go slower. For most of the trip I had somewhere to be. In the US, it was my flight to Europe. In Europe, it was my WWOOF in Ukraine. After Ukraine, it was my flight to Africa. In Africa, it was hopping from water source to water source. I was always in a rush to get somewhere. I was much less rushed that I’d ever been in my life, but still… I frequently sacrificed staying somewhere longer, taking a more scenic route, visiting so-and-so, or just having time to relax and do nothing because I had somewhere to be. If I could do it again, I would schedule even less.

In Madison, for the first time in my life, I truly have nowhere to be. Thanks to that, I believe, and thanks to one relationship in particular, I’ve begun to feel I am immersed in a never-ending song. Experiences are notes in that song; relationships are movements. My time at Epic seems so small now, and so far away, compared to the grandeur of the tour and even the past week in Madison. I’m wondering if our perception of time is proportional to how vulnerable we make ourselves.* Filling your life with amazing people and seizing new experiences is how you write your song, how a week of getting to know someone can seem longer than the three years you spent doing the same job every day. I’ve finally slowed down enough to make myself truly vulnerable, and it feels like my perception of time has changed.

“Spend a minute touching a hot stove and it feels like an hour. Spend an hour in love and it feels like a minute. That’s relativity.” - Albert Einstein

I never liked that movies have endings. It was never satisfying to think of life as a happily ever after, because the truth is, it just goes on and on until... and we don’t know what happens then. I’m not sure it matters, either. Cycle Humanity taught me the most important lesson of all: fill your life with inspiring, compassionate, genuine, imperfect, non-judgemental people. If you can’t find them, seek them out. Make yourself truly vulnerable to them. Do that, and you won’t need an ending. You’ll forget about endings. You can vanish into the notes and lose the idea of a story or a life or an ever after. Put your heart on your bike and pedal it around the world, and you can just be.

End of Part 1

*Go see Arrival if you haven’t yet.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Story Time!

I’ve been meaning to write down a few things about the tour before they slip my mind, and as the tour gets farther and farther away it gets harder and harder to recall the details and get into the mindset. So, while this won’t be the last time I tell these stories in as much detail as I’d like to (book?), there are two in particular I’d like to share before they disappear into relative obscurity.

It's taken me a long time to process them, so when I wrote the blog post for the few days around their occurences, I wasn’t ready to talk about them, and then… they never really fit anywhere. But they happened. If you read this blog for the smiles, you might want to skip this post.

The first story takes place in France. And it was scary. In retrospect, it wasn’t any scarier than some of the other times I was afraid of “getting caught” stealth camping, except this time it was someone else getting caught somewhere they shouldn’t be. But as with all of the times I was scared shitless on tour, after it was over, I realized it wasn’t that big of a deal… I wasn’t so much scared as startled. I laugh about it now.

You might recall that I was lucky enough to find a host in England who offered to let me stay not only with them in England, but also in their summer home in France – both stays of which I was very grateful for. This story takes place in the cottage in France. I was staying there alone.

I was asleep in the servants’ quarters, a small room in the back of the house next to the kitchen. The room was unfinished, with a cement floor, an old cot for a bed, and no light (not that I wasn’t grateful! It was indoors, warm, and the only payment required was gratitude… just setting the scene). Staying there alone was such a gift! I spent three days getting up on my own schedule, making coffee, biking to the next town for groceries and pizza, watching movies, catching up on my blog, and just generally relaxing and having a good time not having anywhere to be. It was wonderful. Until…

On the second night (of three), after finishing a movie, I shut off all the lights, checked to make sure the door was locked, and used my phone to light my way to the bed (remember, no light in the servants' quarters). I dozed off quickly to the sounds of crickets chirping outside and moonlight coming through the small window in the back door, barely illuminating the fireplace and the old lounge chair occupying the cramped, but charming room.

At 2 AM I woke up for no perceivable reason. I was about to shut my eyes again when I noticed a light coming from underneath the door to the kitchen -- but I could have sworn I had turned that off before I went to bed. “Ah, well,” I said to myself, “must have forgotten.” I was about to get up to turn it off when a shadow passed across the light. I froze, and for what felt like hours, but was, in reality, probably no more than 30 seconds, all I could hear was my heart beating in my ears. “I must have imagined it,” I thought, and tried closing my eyes. But beneath my eyelids, I saw the light dim and brighten again… and then I opened my eyes, and waited, frozen and scared.

Was there someone in the house? My mind was racing with all the possibilities. Was it a thief who would leave soon, of their own accord? Would they burn the house down to hide all the evidence? Come into my room thirsty for blood?

I waited.

What should I do? Confront them? Call the police and risk the intruder hearing me? I couldn’t fathom describing the situation in French, nor did I have the address memorized… come to think of it, I didn’t even know the French emergency number. 111? 112?

I waited.

I mentally reviewed the self defense I knew. I tried to remember where the knives were in the kitchen, if it was likely this so-and-so would be able to reach for them in surprise or shock. Or maybe they’d just hit me in the face with the coffee pot. What was the right thing to do? Be polite? Scream and try and scare them away? Or just play it safe and get out?

I had waited now, so long, I decided it must be my imagination.

I tried to calm my heart, slow the adrenaline, try and sleep again… and then, unmistakably, I saw the shadow again.

I decided to run.

As slowly and carefully as I could, I got up and put on my pants in the relative darkness. I couldn’t find my shoes or my phone or my wallet -- I didn’t care. I crept towards the door and unlocked it -- CLICK!!! it went, and with that I rushed out and closed the door. I snuck alongside the house in my bare feet, peeking in the kitchen window as much as I dared.

Nobody was there. Was I crazy?

I didn’t want to risk it. I walked a quarter mile down the road in my bare feet to the caretaker’s house and, at 3 AM, knocked on their door. Nothing. I threw rocks at all the windows. Nothing. I tried shouting as loud as I dared. Nothing. So I curled up, jacketless, behind a potted plant, and shivered and closed my eyes and passed the time wondering what I was doing. Periodically I tried knocking or throwing rocks again, but for the most part I passed the time trying to stay warm and comfortable in the cool French morning air, behind potted plants, on the porch furniture, wherever I could.

Around 7 AM I saw one of my hosts -- let’s call him Ian -- in the kitchen making coffee. I knocked again, and he came to the door.

“Kyle?” he said. “Are you okay?”

I thought for a minute.

“You don’t look okay.” I was probably pale. And tired.

“I’m not.”

“Come in. Please, come in.”

Ian got me a blanket and coffee and led me to their living room, where wimbledon was on. I explained to him what had happened just as his wife entered, then explained it again to her. Ian left to check out the cottage, and I stared blankly at the TV – tennis was on -- and tried to remember to drink coffee.

Ian returned about 30 minutes later and reported there was nobody there, but the bathroom window was open and the bed in the master bedroom had been slept in. He posited someone had come in the bathroom after dark, taken a nap, got up to find something to eat, then heard me leave and left themselves. We thought about calling the police, but what could they do?

It was easy at the time to freak myself out, but in reality, it was just someone who wanted a place to sleep. It wasn’t my cottage, but what if I had opened the door and offered them coffee, or said it was okay for them to stay one night? I could have startled them, and probably scared them. Even if I made the offer in earnest, would they have believed I wasn’t going to call the police as soon as they were asleep? Could I have had that conversation in French?

The experience was more startling than scary. I’ve no doubt there are people who would have locked themselves in their rooms and called the police, or gone out with a shotgun they kept locked under their bed. I am in no way ashamed of having run -- having played it safe -- but I’m always going to wonder if it would have been a better story if I’d just gone out and said “hi.” Someone who just needed a place to sleep for the night probably needed a friend just as much.

- - -

The second story takes place in Africa, in Kenya, on the second or third day of biking through desert, over sand, wondering if I'd ever have internet or running water again. I'd like to preface it by saying that I regret what I did here, and if I could go back and apologize to the people involved, I would.

Jacob and I were just entering a village when we heard some music. It was clapping and singing. He looked at me and joked that I had to keep good on my ambitions for dancing – which is to say, if there is danceable music playing, I dance. If there is a dance with music I like, I'll generally join. And sometimes even when it's quiet outside, I just like to move my body to the beat of my own drum.

We pedaled slowly past the first few buildings and then caught it out of the corners of our eyes – there, just beside one of the larger buildings, behind a hut of some kind, was a circle of people dancing, chanting, and clapping. Jacob and I stopped and exchanged glances. I was uncertain – this didn't seem entirely like a public event. But isn't dancing about self-expression and sharing? After wavering for a few seconds, I finally dismounted my bike and began walking it between the large building and the hut. Jacob followed close behind.

I leaned my bike against the wall and got closer to the circle, about four feet away. A few people saw me but didn't really acknowledge me. In retrospect it should have been obvious at this point that I was intruding – most social dances aren't done in a circle. But I thought, maybe they are just mid-song, and after this song, I can ask what they're doing and if I can join. The song seemed to go on for a while – in my nervousness, what in actuality was more like 30 seconds seemed to be minutes – but I grew impatient, and started dancing a little. I looked over at Jacob, who sheepishly joined in.

Now we had the attention of a few more people. Still, they didn't acknowledge us beyond looking at us. They didn't smile, or wave. The circle seemed to shift a little to open towards us, but I didn't enter. Then I saw through the opening, on a table in the center of a circle: a book. I leaned in a little and could see it was face-down. On the back, I read the title of the book – "Brown" – and the summary, which was something like:

"Brown is the color of dirt, the earth, the things we are made of. [...] Brown is the color of your skin."

And in that instant I realized how acutely I was intruding. My stomach twisted. I immediately turned and walked for my bike, mumbling to Jacob, "let's go." We left.

I am a very priveleged person. I am white, I am male, I speak fluent English, and I am a US citizen. I have change in my pocket. Last year, I had enough change in my pocket to quit my job and live on my bicycle for nine months through the US, Europe, and Africa. So I can't say that I understand what my presence there must have meant to the people in that circle. I can't say I've ever known what it's like to be celebrating something unique about me, a uniqueness I had been oppressed over, disadvantaged because of, and during that celebration have had one of my oppressors intrude. I don't know what that's like, but there remains an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach whenever I recall this moment. That wasn't my space. I wasn't supposed to be there. Maybe, maybe with an invitation, but least of all as a tourist – a rich white person just in town to see what there is to see. That was the opposite of where I was supposed to be. At least, that remains the thought at the forefront of my conscious.

- - -

My next post will likely draw this phase of Cycle Humanity to a close. I promise the ending will be happier.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Finances and Other Statistics

If you like narratives, this post will be boring. If you like numbers, it will be interesting. I like numbers.

I finally got around to doing finances for the trip. Spoiler alert: it was more expensive than I thought it was.

While it’s hard to remember exactly what was bought before the trip for the purposes of the trip (as opposed to for use before/after, like moving expenses), with my best guesses about each line item on my statements, the tour cost $9,324. At 239 days away from home, that’s $39/day (note the cost includes things bought before the 239 days started, like when I was testing my bike).

I was hoping for more around $20/day. BUT, this total includes health insurance -- an extra $1,189 for three months in the US, and $124 per month for a month in Eastern Europe and a month in Africa.

This also includes spending a lot more on my bike than I realized -- it cost all of $100 to put together since all I did was buy a “new” frame and put the parts from my old touring bike on it. The total cost of repairs and parts throughout the tour, including two wheels, two chains, a seat, and at least 6 tires (thanks, Schwalbe…) came out to $919. To be fair: a nice, new touring bike with racks, panniers, etc. would have been at least $1400. But it’s still more than I would’ve liked.

Other ways to break down the $9,324 total:
- $1,189 on US health insurance (mentioned above).
- $919 on bicycle maintenance (mentioned above).
- $1,191 on groceries, $5/day.
- $914 on non-grocered food (ex eating out, prepared food bought at gas stations).
- $739 on flights, buses, and trains.
- $1,436 on gear and visas.
- $1,537 withdrawn from ATMs and spent as cash. The most cash (instead of credit) spent was my month in Africa: $487, almost a third of all cash spent over the nine month tour.

So... had I gone without health insurance and never eaten out, the trip would have cost about $6973, or $29/day. Additionally, subtracting the cost of bicycle maintenance puts us at $6054, or $25/day -- much closer to my original idea of $20/day.

Do I regret having health insurance? Maybe. I never needed it. The shots for the malaria I contracted in Africa cost $7. My bicycle got bit by a dog, but I never did. Maybe I’d rather have that $1437. But maybe I’d have gotten appendicitis in the middle of rural Pennsylvania and needed a $7,000 airlift to the ER for a $25,000 hospital stay. US healthcare is ridiculous.

I did sell postcards, though, and made $1684 doing so. In theory that means I wrote 168 postcards, though some people chose to donate more or less. My biggest donation was $314 for 12 postcards, or $26 each; the average donation was $20 each for 79 actual postcards. I asked for $12 each. I think people mostly appreciated that I was trying to do something to recoup the costs… and yea, if I thought someone’s idea was really cool, I might look for something like a handwritten postcard in order to donate to them (just look at Kickstarter rewards nowadays -- $5 for an auto-generated thank-you email? *ahem*).

Anyways, $9,324 spent and $1,684 recouped is a net cost of $7640, or $31/day for a 239-day trip.

On my 2012 tour across the US, the net cost was $1460, about $20/day for a 74-day trip. I did not have to pay for health insurance (I was still on my mom’s after college graduation) nor for any flights or visas. All the “gear” I got was wholesale since I worked for a bike shop, and I started with a “new” bike.

In 2016, the last full year I lived in one place, I spent $20,709. For a given 239-day period, that would have been about $13,597, 45% more than the $9,324 I spent on my 239-day tour. Note both of these figures ($9,324 for tour and $13,597 for a chunk of 2016) include everything I paid for: rent (if applicable -- not when touring!), food, plane tickets, cell service, eating out, bicycle maintenance, etc.

So yea… bicycle touring can be significantly cheaper than staying in one place. “How can you afford it,” they asked. To be fair, having $9,000 to spend isn’t easy. I saved for a while. Mostly by not owning a car.

I probably fall somewhere in the middle of touring expenses. There are tourists who eat rice and beans with the minimalist gear -- I’ve heard claims as low as $5/day -- and there are what we call “credit card” tourists who stay in hotels every night, topping $300/day.

But if you know me, you know I like to look at data. Especially data about myself. Because I know how accurate it is, and I know how much I had to stretch myself -- which in this case, was not at all. I lived comfortably on tour (noting that I am comfortable in a tent in the woods on the side of the road). $5/day seems like a stretch. I want those boulangeries.

Some other fun stuff:
- Excluding Ukraine, I took about 22 days off (where I stayed somewhere for 3 days or more with the intent of getting to know a place) and about 27 rest days (where I stayed somewhere just one or two days with the intent of doing absolutely nothing except sleeping and eating, or fixing my bike and planning ahead if necessary).
- If I spent 30 days on the farm in Ukraine, that means I spent 160 days pedaling, only 67% of the time I was gone.
- At 9700 miles, I pedaled an average of 60 miles a day on the days that I pedaled, and 40 miles a day overall.
- I stopped counting somewhere in Germany, but up until then (127 days) I had been hosted by friends (people I knew before starting the trip) at least 24 nights (18%, about once every 5 days), Warmshowers hosts (people I cold contacted via at least 22 nights (17%, about once every 5 days), and complete strangers (people I had never met before) at least 13 nights (10%, about once every 10 days).

In other news, I found that post I thought I’d lost, which means there’s probably only one post left after this. I’m headed to Madison next week to find a job, and then… who knows, I might stop trying to have a normal life again, fly to Istanbul, and keep biking. So maybe more than one post. Maybe a mental breakdown about adjusting to real life. Maybe the desire for reminiscing about encounters with strangers becoming tearful goodbyes to become real again.

Let’s wait and see.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Secret Ending of Walter Mitty

I’ve often raved about a movie I once called my favorite, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (SPOILER ALERT). But now that I’m back I’ve taken a closer look at it, and I’m not so sure it’s my favorite anymore. I never liked the “man gets the woman just for finishing his quest” narrative, though Secret Life does it more gently than most American films. But what really gets me is the impression that he goes back to his normal life. I’m sure his secret life has changed him in subtle ways, but the movie ends with him updating his resume and holding hands with Cheryl. Maybe that’s what the movie is really trying to say: “adventure and human connection are more important than capitalism --” and that narrative I agree with -- but Walter doesn’t manage to build a life for himself through his adventure. He gets back, writes “fought a shark” on his resume, asks out Cheryl, sees a picture of his old life, and then the credits roll.

But what happens then!?

We hope Walter is different. We hope his old type of job -- of staying in one place and not really connecting with people -- won’t satisfy him. We hope he’s learned that a woman you “win” by going on a quest is one who is a little shallow. We hope he’s not admiring that photo of his old life, but accepting that it’s part of the past, and knowing that he’s different now.

Here’s what I think could happen. I think Walter starts to stand up for himself and what he wants. I think he stops settling. And I think that has far-reaching impacts in all his relationships and his career prospects. I think he fights with people he once got along with. I think he makes a few mistakes and enters back into his old habits sometimes, but catches himself and confronts the people who put him there.

And I think those confrontations are some of the ugliest and most painful of his life. Because he is still trying to figure out who he is, and being vulnerable around judgemental, self-centered people when you are trying to figure out who you are can be absolutely devastating.

I think this new Walter is much more likeable than the old one. The next movie doesn’t start with Walter getting endorsements from his favorite photographer, from his sister, from his mom. The bad guy isn’t someone who threatens to fire him. We like Walter because he knows he’s fallible. We like Walter because he struggles. And the bad guy is himself. The bad guy is complacency, and anger, and his inability to summon compassion for the people who have hurt him. The bad guy is the voice that tells him to chase after the people who treat him like the old Walter. Because being treated that way is comfortable. It’s safe. And it’s unhealthy.

Walter has figured out who he is. Now he needs to figure out how that person operates in the larger context of society. He needs to figure out who his friends are, who his lover(s?) are. We don’t know what happens after Walter leaves that magazine on the stand. But I like to think he’s leaving his old life behind. I like to think he’s headed towards something better.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Status Update: Still Here!

Hello audience,

I'm still here! I've been spending my time seeing friends, applying for jobs, working on projects, and just in general not worrying about writing long essays about my life that other people may or may not read. But I'll get back on the bandwagon soon... hopefully later this week.

Happy 2018!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Minneapolis, MN: Changes


If you donated for postcards and you want your money back, just tell me and I'll make it happen, no questions asked:

However, for those of you who are on the once-every-three-months-plan, you will be getting one more from Minneapolis, and one more from Istanbul. So, don't think I'm done sending postcards just because I'm not pedaling right now. They just won't be bought from a bike, sent from a bike (unless I continue to India from Istanbul). Actually, they probably will be since I don't own a car... it just won't be a fully loaded touring bike.

For those of you on the once-a-month plan, I will be sending you a personal e-mail, since you probably don't want the rest of your postcards (minus one from Istanbul, possibly two if I visit a friend in China) to come from Minneapolis.

Keep Living Vicariously

If you're all like, “but Kyle, how will I vicariously live the life of a cycle tourist if you're not cycle touring right now?!?” then... you might check out some of these other cycle tourists, many of whom I find to be exceptional writers as well:
- Chris Poutney and Dea Jacobsen, who are circumnavigating the globe by bicycle, foot, and boat only – no planes or wheeled motor vehicles (until they make it around and then I think they plan to fly to some places they missed). They are funny, humble, and thoughtful, and their blog is exceptionally well written.
- Tegan Phillips doesn't so much blog as make cartoons about her tour, which is what makes her such a unique blogger to follow. I'm not sure if she's touring at the moment, but you can see her tour cartoons under “archive,” and her recent ones still make me laugh.

- Megan Jamer, who cycles mainly throughout Africa and Asia. Her posts are heavy – both in subject matter and lingo – and thoughtful.
- There's always Jacob Ashton, who I rode with from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Nairobi, Kenya. He's going around the world, but he's... weaving... a lot. As in, right now he's doing Africa north to south, and then he'll do it south to north. Worth reading if you want a reminder of just how much there is to see in the world.


On April 4th, 2017, before I left for this trip, I made a post documenting my goals. They were as follows:
  1. Meet people.
  2. Propagate humanity through music, dance, and storytelling.
  3. Learn and grow. Explore the unknown.
  4. Have fun.
  5. Don't die.
I'm pretty sure I did all those things. Goals accomplished? Goals accomplished.

(I could write an essay about how exactly I did all of those things, but why make it complicated? If you've been following along, you know it's true)

Things I Miss
  1. The thing I miss the most, by far, is the people. The people who approach you on a bicycle and welcome you into their lives and homes are generally exceptional people. I miss meeting new, exceptional people on a regular basis – once a week, at the least. I miss always having new people to exchange stories with and share my life with, if only for a brief moment in time. I could type I miss this one hundred times and it would not be enough. Maybe I'll expand this into an essay of its own.

  2. Perpetuity. This actually made me think about applying to my old job again. I was reminiscing about mornings: getting up early to go in or maybe sleeping in late because I can, sitting at my desk, looking at my calendar, deciding how to spend the wee hours... I miss having the sense that I have somewhere to be and yet the freedom to choose how to be there. Not all the time, of course – even at work there were weekends, the desire to just go for a walk or visit a coworker, to leisurely cycle in instead of taking the bus. But those moments were made more valuable because of their rarity.

    When cycle touring, I would sleep in sometimes if I found a good spot to stealth camp or maybe ask to stay an extra day with a generous host. But having the pressure, however slight, to always be somewhere, to always have something to do, somewhere to go... it was nice to be driven, and it made silence and stopping more valuable. Now, there's no pressure to get up in the morning. There are no due dates, no tent to take down so I don't get arrested for sleeping where I'm not supposed to. Now silence and stopping just seem like synonyms for lazy, and there's no pressure to do anything.

  3. Along with the perpetuity of responsibility has vanished a constant sense of accomplishment. Now it's like.... “what have I done today?” Even when I had a job, it was often all-too-easy to forget the day-to-day accomplishments. There were so many one-minute e-mails and quick phone calls and meetings where you were there “just in case.” If you want to know what you did each day when cycle touring, though, you just have to look at a map...

  4. Motion. If you ever ran into someone you didn't trust, if you ever got a flat tire or had a mechanical problem with your bike, if you ever ran out of food or water, you knew that it would change... soon. The beauty of cycle touring is that it's always changing: you're always seeing something new and you're always letting go of the past. You'll soon be out of reach of that person who talks too much, your tube will soon be fixed, you'll soon have a place to sleep... none of that is guaranteed, of course, but somehow it always worked out that way.

  5. Faith in the unknown. Like I said, things usually work out on tour... maybe they usually work out in real life, too, but it feels like there's a lot more resistance. When cycle touring, the only resistance is the literal resistance between you and the road. It's so much easier to let go of worrying because good things – or at the least, interesting things – are constantly happening. But in the endless, daily doldrums of “regular life” – answering pointless e-mails, watching sensationalized TV (I haven't had the TV on at all but I've seen TVs in the airport, etc.), getting ghosted all the time, dealing with naysayers and rule sticklers that you can't just bike away from – it's no wonder people think the world is getting worse (it's not, depending on your definition of “worse”). How many of the jobs I apply for will even bother with a "No?"

  6. I miss not having to worry about politics. NET NEUTRALITY IS GONE WHAT THE F *cut scene*

    Okay, Congress still has to do its thing, so hopefully, they'll make the right choice... but a lot of not-right choices were apparently made when I was gone so I'm not crossing my fingers.

  7. I miss my ukulele. An easy pick-up instrument I could sing to. You can sing with an accordion, but then you're doing three instruments instead of two (let's be real, the bass side is another instrument from the treble side). It's also hard to get a lot of air in your chest with 20 pounds strapped on.

Things I Don't Miss
  1. Exercise withdrawal. This is something I experienced at the Color Farm in Ukraine when I went from pedaling 50-80 miles a day to comparatively exercising not-at-all, and I'm experiencing it now. There's not a lot of research around it because the symptoms have only been documented in professional athletes who suddenly stop, which is usually only due to serious injury, so it's a niche market. The most potent symptoms are insomnia, fatigue, immunodeficiency, depression, and weight gain.

    For the first three nights and days in Ukraine I couldn't sleep at night and slept all through the day. When I did get up, I felt asleep. I also got sick. Being with Marina and Maxym helped nullify the depression because they are amazing people. And I have kick-ass metabolism so I didn't gain that much weight, if any at all. I got through it in about a week.

    Now, I've been taking B12 which has helped with insomnia and fatigue, though I still need a good nap in the early afternoon even if I sleep through the night. Being in an environment I'm used to with food I'm used to has probably kept me from getting sick. And the depression... more on that in a bit.

  2. People who are stuck in their ways. I didn't actually think this would be a problem but... it is. It's not the people I'm close to like my best friend or my mom, it's trying to meet other people and just seeing them go about the same routine every day, stuck in the predefined college-job-marriage-house-kids path. There's nothing wrong with that path, but it feels like the people you meet while traveling – or perhaps just when outside the US – are living so purposefully, and to suddenly be surrounded by the rule- and routine- and societal-pressure-followers is a bit of a slap in the face.

    Someone actually called me pretentious because I suggested it was possible for them to quit their job, sell their car, and travel. I didn't say it was easy – mentally or logistically – I just said it was possible...

  3. I don't miss not having time to create. On a bike, you are either pedaling or looking for food or a place to sleep or eating or sleeping. At least, that was the style of my tour. In retrospect, I could have done it differently, and if I ever do a tour not on a schedule again (Istanbul to Delhi would kind of be on a schedule since I have graduate school in August) I would definitely go slower and take more time to be creative and get to know places.

    Whatever the case though, I now have most of the day to build websites, do design work, practice accordion, read, and write... which is good because there's a lot of pent-up ideas that I didn't get out during the tour.

Things I Didn't Miss That I Actually Kind of Forgot About
  1. I forgot what it was like to wonder how to be happy. I wouldn't say I was happy all the time on tour but I was occupied enough not to wonder why I wasn't happy. And now it's like... I check my e-mail and Facebook over and over again expecting a panacea to arrive, but it doesn't. I look at my wishlist on Amazon and wonder if I'll feel better if I buy something from it. I know happiness is something that comes from within, when you least expect it, when you aren't looking for it, but I can't help but feel, suddenly, that something is missing from my life.

    I think it's regular, authentic, human connection, which the US is notoriously bad at... (exhibit A: everybody else checking e-mail and Facebook over and over again instead of actually going outside). I could write a rant here about how we self-segregate and how it's harder to truly connect with people now than it was 30 years ago, but that is an article in and of itself.

  2. Anxiety and depression. Since getting back, I haven't had any anxiety attacks but I have had brief periods of extreme anxiety (maybe you could call them mild anxiety attacks). There's all these rules people expect me to follow now which basically amount to being “normal.” It's back to the hidden expectations that nobody says but that everybody judges you for, like that wearing a fedora automatically means you're a terrible person. Everybody knows that, right? Oh, and don't express yourself because you might offend someone... suddenly I have to answer to other people all the time and other people aren't very forgiving – they expect you to live like they do, and to always make them feel good about themselves (no negative feedback!), and they outcast you if you don't.

  3. Self-expression and straightforwardness aren't exactly valued. People often tell you they are valued because they want to make you feel good about yourself, but when you actually do those things, they often get offended and become passive-aggressive. I can't be myself as confidently anymore. I forgot what that was like, and I don't miss it.

    I didn't have any symptoms of depression until a few days ago... and then it hit me in the face like a frying pan. I'm back to my old theory of it (my depression specifically – everyone's is different) having two causes:
    - Purposelessness. I've been enjoying design work I've been doing but my life hasn't impacted anyone else's. On tour, I was regularly meeting people and feeling like I made a difference in their lives, even if it was only eliciting a smile, or telling them a story, or being a good listener, or getting them to think outside the box. It was definitely fulfilling my purpose of making the world a better place. Now... let's just say I need a job, or to volunteer, or to do something besides making things that nobody uses (yet, presumably).
    - Feeling stuck in a backward society and helpless to change it. Looking around me and seeing people check social media to try and be happy, or work jobs they hate to buy stuff they don't need to impress people they don't like, or care more about money than humanity. I'm no longer barraged with compassionate people who live mindful, interesting, purposeful, challenging lives.
    Those people are around, maybe even in the same percentage as before, but I'm not meeting them regularly. I've lost my tool, my lens for finding them: my fully loaded touring bicycle. I want to – I need to – be surrounded by those people, and it's something I think I can do, but it's obviously going to take time. And until that happens, it's just like... I'm a drop of rain stuck behind a dam of thousand rocks saying “you really shouldn't be a drop of rain,” looking for my river.

This is why once you’ve traveled for the first time all you want to do is leave again. They call it the travel bug, but really it’s the effort to return to a place where you are surrounded by people who speak the same language as you. Not English or Spanish or Mandarin or Portuguese, but that language where others know what it’s like to leave, change, grow, experience, learn, then go home again and feel more lost in your hometown then you did in the most foreign place you visited.


Partway through the tour – in Ukraine, to be exact – I made a list of things I'd like to change when I got back home (the list is here, scroll down to “To Do”).

How are those things going? Let's be fair, I've only been back a week, and I'm not living any semblance of a “normal life...” but these are still on my mind. And I'm sure there's something about our psychology that means the sooner we start them the more likely they are to stick.
- Fewer video games: Haven't played any video games at all. Hooray!
- Rollerblading: It's below freezing outside and there's snow on the ground. This will have to wait until spring.
- Exercising every day until I break a sweat: No excuses here. Okay, reasons – like that it's cold and that until I finish unpacking I won't have room to set up my trainer – but in reality I know I could get over those if I was really motivated to do so.
- Eating more vegetables: Last time I went to the grocery store I came home with ten pounds of squash. Enough said.
- Writing more: More than I did before I left? Yes. About the same as when I was on tour. Which was, approximately, the goal. So, now to keep it up...
- Reading more: My local library had a book sale for $5 per bag of books. I didn't get a bag because I only wanted to get books I would read, but I have a pile of books on my dresser. I haven't picked them up yet, but I have come close... and I've been doing design work instead of video games, so that's kind of the same idea, right?
- More of the same: The idea here was that there were things I liked about my life in Madison – going to trivia, going out dancing, biking everywhere, spending time with friends. I'm not in Madison, so I'm not sure how fair it is to evaluate this one, but I have seen friends in Minneapolis and I have been biking to and from get-togethers and chores. Good enough for now, I think.
- Spending more time with people I love: This one is hard to measure, but I have been spending time with people I love.
- Finding more people I love: I've been trying this one through online dating (both for friends and potential others), but I think it's probably too soon – I'm not really settled yet. I've considered messaging people on Warmshowers to see if they want to be friends, since I imagine I'd get along well with most of them, but I haven't done this yet. Something that will happen with time, but at least I'm trying through one medium.

- - -

I have one more idea for a post and then... we'll see. I'll probably have things to say between now and Istanbul, but I don't want to promise anything. For now, I'm off to build a website...

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Nairobi, Kenya to Minneapolis, MN: Withdrawal, and then, Not

So it was that I found myself on the property of a mission in Kenya on a Sunday, sleeping in because I don't think I'd done that since leaving Addis Ababa a month ago. Life was starting to get a bit more leisurely, but I wasn't free of responsibility just yet.

On Monday, Jacob and I had to go to Immigration to get our visas. There hadn't been a border post in Todonyang, where we crossed over from Omorate, Ethiopia – just a very friendly police post that said we should get our visas when we could, and a Catholic mission I had mixed feelings about because well... that's another story. We'd tried in Eldoret a few days before, but the office there had been closed for the Presidential inauguration. And then we'd tried on Saturday in Nairobi, but Immigration had been closed because well... it was Saturday.

Much as we love our bikes, we did not want to bike 20 miles one way into Nairobi just to get a stamp in our passports. Fortunately, the mission had planned a shopping trip into town, and there was room for us on the bus. This required attending chapel at 8 in order to get on the bus at 9, which I had mixed feelings about, but I felt it would be respectful to attend since the mission was, after all, doing us a favor.

An hour bus ride into town and we were off with one of the mission leaders, Jackton, through the east side of Nairobi and to the west side. While walking, Jackton made a few jokes about how segregated the eastern and western parts of town were (“The mzungu here are so Westernized, they can't help but live on the west side of town! Get it...!?!”), and well... there was definitely a moment when everything changed. Cross a few streets, and the buildings became nicer, the sidewalks paved instead of dirt, the trash cans had sorting bins for recycling, the cars were nice, and everybody was dressed business casual instead of... just casual. People spoke on smartphones instead of satellite or dumb phones. It was night and day.

Immigration was fairly simple compared to how bad government office workings can be, I was told, but I haven't had too many horror experiences to compare to. We talked to 5 people, had to make photocopies of a form they only had one copy of, paid $50 each (actually, 5300 KSH, a little over $50. They wanted USD, but I had accidentally withdrawn $300 instead of $30 at the last ATM, so I was trying to get rid of it), and got our visas and entry stamps. All in all, it took a little less than an hour.

Then we were off for lunch – Jacob and I were craving pizza again, and there was a Domino's just a few blocks from Immigration. It was clean and spacious, the walls were plastered with finely fonted yet subtly colored advertising lingo and silhouettes of ingredients, and there was a TV telling you the status of your order (or, I suspected, counting down a timer that started when you placed your order – not telling you the actual status). Jackton was baffled: “I didn't know that places like this existed,” he said. We told him yes, most restaurants in the US were like that... but they were also just as expensive. This was a special treat. For guiding us to and from Immigration that day I gladly split my pizza with him. We also ended up passing a good looking cake place where a huge slice of cake was only $2. When we stopped at the grocery store, I bought him some chocolate. I guess I was feeling really grateful... my excitement about almost being home probably had something to do with it, and knowing I wasn't going to get pulled off the plane for not having an entry stamp was exciting, too.

On the way back to the bus we went through a part of town where “everything was made.” There seemed to be areas for every craft – a few blocks of metalworking where the sound of hammers filled your ears, workers filling every nook and cranny banging on everything from cooking pots to car frames; blocks of carpentry shops lined with half-finished couches and bed frames; then, the whirring of sewing machines and industrial sergers became almost overwhelming as the floor changed from rock and dirt and and exposed sewage to a three-inch thick coat of denim scraps, black from dirt and years of being walked on. We frequently had to stop in the narrow walkway to let by stacks of clothes, or cloth, or parts of a bed frame, or to wait to go around one of many food vendors stocking just three cobs of corn on their makeshift grill. Every now and then, a seemingly random pool or fusball table would appear. It was one of the most interesting and surreal places I'd ever walked through.

We made it back to the bus, and after being stuck in traffic and sun for an hour, made it back to the mission after another hour of driving. Jacob and I returned to the 2nd floor of the water tower we'd been offered, both wiped from walking around all day, and watched Logan. I was pleasantly surprised. Definitely worth a watch, even if you're not an X-men fan. There is some violence but the story and character development is very poignant.

Since we didn't want to cuddle under one mosquito net, I got about 15 new mosquito bites, but we were told the malaria parasite couldn't survive in mosquitoes at Nairobi's altitude so... my fingers were crossed. I still planned to take home some malaria medication, since it cost $4 there and getting hospitalized in the US would probably be upwards of $2000, or $8000 if I stayed overnight. I wondered: if I lost my meds on the plane, could I order more on Amazon? It's too bad the US cares more about making money than having affordable healthcare.

The next day – my last in Kenya, for the time being – I knocked out the entire box of cereal I'd bought the day before for breakfast, and again, we'd been asked to attend chapel to say a few words about our trip. Charles, preaching that day, also spun our trips as demonstrations of what it means to be a man – the guys at the mission were about to read the book Wild at Heart, and the girls Captivating, as models for each of their genders. I don't feel it's my place to comment on gender norms here, but I was happy to talk about the trip as a thank-you for letting us stay at the mission.

After chapel Jacob and I went to Charles and Darlene's to work on our bikes: me, to pack mine for the flight, and Jacob, to fix his flats and change his chain so as to not wear down the cogs too much. Darlene ended up cooking lunch for us, which was very welcome. I easily fit the bike into the box I'd gotten at the bike shop on Saturday, and Charles gave me a suitcase for everything else, for which I was most grateful. Afterwards, I went back to the tower to shower and finish packing, and Jacob went to one of the mission's skills buildings to get one of his bags serged – he'd been fixing it often, sometimes daily, since leaving Addis, and was grateful that I knew he needed to get it serged instead of just sewn. He'd made it himself before reaching Addis but hadn't known about serging, so the seams had been constantly fraying.

At 5 we returned to Charles and Darlene's where the cab Jackton had called me was already waiting and already had my bike in the back. Jacob and I said goodbye -- hopefully not for the last time -- I thanked Charles for everything, and then I was really on my way home. The cab driver was stellar, except that when he quoted 2500 KSH and I said “yes” he thought that's because 2500 was too low and tried to up-sell me. Can't the price just be the price? Not being on guard about prices: something I looked forward to back in the US.

I ended up paying him 2600 and a porter 200 to carry my bike to security, so the trip to the airport came out to 2800, about $28. The airline representative had never checked a bike before, so after waiting 20 minutes, calling the manager, checking the computer multiple times, and finally, calling Shanghai, where apparently the airline's headquarters was (German airline...), they checked the bike. On the phone with Shanghai, she rang a charge but never asked me for payment and I never mentioned it so... free checked bike! The website said it would be $150. Don't ask, don't tell...

Having time to kill and only my carry-on, I decided to go back out of security to the coffee shop in the next terminal. That ended up being a good choice – it was American fare at Kenyan prices, and since the tables were full, I was joined by a delightful group of people traveling back to the US as well. We had a great dinner together – I got a blue cheese burger with fries, a mocha, and a surprisingly good 6” apple pie, all for $15 – and then I stopped at the gift shop to buy postcards. They were an outrageous $3 each, so I opted not to get the 15 I was supposed to send from Nairobi – just two, for a host and a donor who I know will really appreciate them.

Still with time to kill, I went back through security, changed my remaining KSH to USD, and wandered all the stores, looking for cheap postcards or that perfect souvenir... I discovered Masai belts, which I had seen before, but not up close. The prices made me wish I'd paid more attention out in the real world: in the airport, they were anywhere from $50 to $130. Later, at home, I'd end up buying one I really liked on Etsy for about $40. But, it's truly my style – $40 for something awesome from Kenya that I'll wear often and possibly for the rest of my life is worth it to me.

My flight departed at 11 PM and they served an excellent dinner shortly after takeoff. The choices were chicken or beef, so I was skeptical, but it was actually the best beef I'd had since getting to Africa. Airline food can be good – who knew? (Thanks, Lufthansa). I stayed up as late as I could to start fighting the jetlag, including watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. I had no idea what to expect since the trailer had no hint of a plot, but I found it to be quite enjoyable, even if part of it felt like the typical guy-needs-to-win-girl that's abused in every movie ever made ever. But it does pass the Bechdel test, if only just, and the female lead has a personality, so props there. A Bailey's on the rocks, and I was out (International flights: free movies and alcohol! At least until capitalism ruins that, too).

The airport in Germany was very... German. Security personnel and all the clerks were subtly rigid – that's the best way I can describe it. We had to have a mini interview about where we were coming from and if anyone put anything in our bags – “Just see my associate. It's no big deal,” said the clerk. The flight to Chicago was a United flight, and I immediately began questioning my return to the US when the flight attendant started BS'ing someone on why they couldn't move up one seat. Apparently, it would upset the weight distribution of the plane – a huge 3-4-3 seater. The flight attendant begrudgingly got out her touchpad and informed him it would be $139 to put the change through. He declined. And the food... it wasn't Lufthansa food.

Back to the US... the land of BS: caring more about rules and profit than happy customers.

In Chicago, I visited a sushi restaurant I like to visit on my way home from international flights. It was more expensive and not as good as I remember, and the waiter was very nervous about upsetting me, even though I was wearing a t-shirt and a fleece. I told him to relax and tipped him 50%, which didn't even begin to cover the tips I didn't give overseas (they don't tip much in restaurants outside the US, they just “believe in paying a living wage,” I'd been told over and over. Yes, back in the US, where wages are low, but CEOs live in castles...). The people-watching was sub-par – interesting as patrons sat, absorbed their surroundings, and interacted with the waitstaff, but once they ordered, they became just a bunch of individuals spaced one seat apart all staring at their phones. Welcome home.

Wanting to fight the jetlag, I walked by 3 Starbucks contemplating if I wanted to spend $6 on coffee. Two hours later, my eyes drooping at the past-midnight time in Kenya, I decided I did.

A lot of Americanisms were occurring to me at this time. The US is expensive – in just three hours I'd spent more than I'd spent in three days in Kenya. We pay our employees shit and our CEOs take home the difference (on average 312x more than their employees), and then we whine about taxing the rich because “they earned it.” How someone can work 312x harder than someone else, I don't know. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Everybody's afraid of offending each other, because if there's one place you can sue someone for upsetting you, or get fired for being honest, it's America. And the people here are so... Americanized. I can't describe it beyond that. Europe is more diverse, the clothes they wear aren't so branded, the language not so singular, the mindset not so “make money buy stuff,” the demeanor not so closed off and “let me just scroll through my news feed in peace.” In Europe people actually seem like individuals, not a nondescript blob of amoeba robots all sitting one seat apart, staring at their phones, drinking $6 lattes, trying to remember to smile.

I was definitely going through withdrawal.

Anyways, after a 1.5 hour flight to Minneapolis, I finally got to see my mom again for the first time in 8 months. Tears were shed. We loaded up my bike and went to Panera for that salad I'd been craving for weeks, driving through the snow and 15 F weather to get there. And then, we went home.

The past few days have been a bit of a blur. I still haven't unpacked – not that I need to since what you need to live on a bike and in a house are drastically different. So there's a small pile of stuff sitting in the living room that's everything I've needed for the past 8 months, and then there's my desk, among other things bigger than that pile, that I'm going to get out of storage tomorrow, because apparently, it will make my static life easier.

There's my mom's dog who always wants to play Bite the Head, every golden retriever's favorite game. There's my mom, of course, and her cooking, which I missed dearly. There's my oldest, bestest friend, Nic, who has had me laughing harder than I've laughed in a long time. There's thick, creamy yogurt, and ripe berries, and drip coffee, and OJ that's not watery. And there's blueberry pancakes.


There's YouTube, and fast internet, and touchscreen phones. I've already applied for a job, signed up for health insurance (sadly, even if I stay only three months in the US, it's arguably necessary to do this – if my appendix bursts and I'm not insured it could cost $25,000 or more. Bye-bye, grad school!) and am considering buying a fat bike for riding through the snow. I've also started a few design projects for myself and some friends.

It's been three days and life is already drifting back to the way it was. On the plane from Frankfurt and during my layover in O'Hare, I was worried I'd be stuck in withdrawal forever, wanting nothing more than to go back to Turkey to bike to India. Having been home a few days, I'm not worried anymore. That's still on my to-do list, and I still can't predict how I'll feel in three months, but for now, I'm glad to be home – to feel at home. I can live without the technology and the desk and maybe even the food, but seeing my mom, and her dog, and my oldest bestest friend has been priceless. Feeling like I have meaningful things to do, besides just riding and sleeping and trying not to get pissed when people ask me for money, has been priceless. And in the next month, I'll get to see many more friends and have many more adventures. If there's one thing this trip has taught me, it's that I can live without all the conveniences we have in America. I can definitely live without America. What truly makes me happy is creating beautiful things with, creating memories with, and spending time with the people I love.