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!