It probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m such a weirdo a lot of the time, but I’m very familiar with this question. It’s proven one of the most popular responses to hearing about my travels, second only to “wow!”, “really?” and “ooh yes salt and vinegar please”. This has given me plenty of opportunity to practice my justification for going AWOL with a piece of metal that I’ve named between my legs, so here goes.
It was Fun
This one always earns agreement. As a whole, people tend to enjoy travelling of any sort, and I am no different. Seeing places, learning about culture and history, murdering foreign languages, the fun never ends. As a Briton, travelling also provides the benefit of much better weather, much happier public, and roads that are probably that little bit better suited to the set-up of a European bike (one can signal left – which in Europe is the more dangerous turn – whilst having the more powerful brake still available). Travelling is fun, and this is travelling, and provided you aren’t hurting anyone or breaking the law I don’t see how having fun can fall short as justification for anything.
Some folk will then return fire and ask me if cycling 12’500km is fun or not. Having now completed the trip I can say that cycling, though terrifyingly difficult at times, painful at others and just absolutely exhausting most of the time, was a joy. It’s the perfect speed for Europe, and as noted already you get to feel part of the world you’re travelling through. In essence, I love cycling, so I loved the trip. Some people don’t love cycling, and that is fine. Obscene in my eyes, but fine.
It was ‘Dangerous’
These were the first two words on my mother’s lips when I outlined my plans to her, and they are probably very valid words. She’s travelled far more than I have so I’ll take her word for it. There are two ways to approach this positively, however.
I was fully aware of the fact that it was slightly dangerous and in a way I saw this as a reason to do it, rather than stray away from it. Being knowledgeable of the dangers I faced and what I could do about them myself, there was little left to worry about that was worth worrying about. I didn’t go away because it was dangerous, I saw this trip as an important learning opportunity because I’d be doing it despite it being dangerous, rather than worrying too much, wussing out and living in a padded room (metaphorical) for the rest of my life. It was an adventure, and one that I was fully resolved in going on, come what may, and doing that felt good. It felt healthy.
Secondly, I made it home to mum. The trip is done now, the danger defeated. And frankly, that danger wasn’t so big a deal anyway. I don’t want to go into psychology, not least because I neither know or enjoy it, but the topic of ‘real’ vs ‘perceived’ threats comes to mind. There’s an inherent danger to everything, but we choose to think about the danger in some things and not in others, a lot of the time we pile mounts of paranoia over the unknown or the unorthodox, and the most effective way to counter the danger in these things, be they hobbies, trips, jobs, anything, is to stop looking for it before it arrives. I very rarely felt genuinely unsafe. There a few hiccups, a suggestive would-be host, a couple of lorries, some hallucinations, a knife, but these things came and passed, when needed I dealt with them in the moment, and moved on. I wasn’t out there to identify and painfully remember all the dangers of travel, I was there to travel, period, and so even after a few scary moments, 5 minutes later I’d be back on my way, enjoying life as much as before.
Bad things happen(ed), scary, angry and stupid people exist and run into you from time to time, but the real danger, in my eyes, is letting these passing moments of threat give you the impression that the whole world isn’t safe to be explored. It is.
To See You
Because you’re awesome.
The Grand Cliché
I’ve heard from my friends at uni that getting to know people at Freshers can sometimes become a case of listening to a bunch of self-involved folks all saying the same thing over each other: that they went on a gap year last year and “found themselves”. Now I’ve been through it myself I’d say it’s more that Gap Years are a lot like bicycles (ey): nigh everyone’s been on one.
While some sort-of miraculous, spiritual reinvention wasn’t a primary reason for going on my trip, I certainly considered it from time to time (I couldn’t not, it was all people banged on about beforehand). But I didn’t go to go looking for myself, and thus I’m not sure what the odds of me ‘finding myself’ were. Where did I lose myself anyway? Why was I so careless? I should keep myself somewhere safe. To confirm, sadly, despite adding three countries to the original list, I didn’t find myself.
Never-the-less I very much doubted I would return the same person as I’d been when I left. Something like this does change someone, it does teach them things about themselves and the world that they didn’t know before, and that they had no hope of learning at home or in the next sheltered environment in a long life of sheltered environments (see ‘The Middle Finger’). It might tire others to hear about it all the time but at-least a moderate amount of that is to do with envy, not boredom. And I’ve found that since returning I’ve spoken about the trip remarkably little. There are opportunities to learn everywhere and going away didn’t make me a better person per se, just a different one – but I wanted to be that different person, because it’d mean that I’d done what I wanted to. If that makes sense.
The Middle Finger
During college it became increasingly clear how ‘free’ we really were(n’t), with the messages about university and careers getting more and more pervasive as the years went by, it was made clear to us through a pitiful shroud of ‘we care about what makes you unique’ propaganda churned out by suits and ties that we, and all children in modern societies, are often seen as little more than a pair of hands, a brain (computer), and a political loyalty that is taught to coast its way through life spending decades doing things that achieve more for a company or for the country than for them, the person.
Too often, the mandatory ‘career’ hole is filled with something soulless and in no way beneficial or enjoyable to the individual, and their real lives are left to be lived outside of work. By my calculations that’ll be about 6000 days of my life wasted, anywhere up to 8000 if ‘education’ is taken into account. Too many lives become nice, simple, uniform straight lines that go from birth, through school, into a far from fulfilling career and then into a couple of decades with ‘freedom’, by which point one has no idea what they enjoyed doing back when they could actually do it. This didn’t sit very well for me.
A long-term resolution to this dilemma would probably take about a lifetime (ironically) to come up with, and so I settled for putting off the cosy educational cocoon of university for a year and doing something crazy, something that I really really really wanted to do. The most important bit was that I was doing it ‘now’. That way nothing could get in the way, and my body could actually put up with it, being at its prime now if not before it, rather than 50 years past it.
So this trip was me politely telling the “real world” (who decides what’s real or not?) to make like a colossal, heartless tree and leave for another year before it came and potentially ate away 90% of my time, energy, ambitions and dreams in the years to come (it’s trying very hard). I was going to be as close to free as I’m likely to be for the rest of my active life, and I couldn’t let that opportunity slip.
The Short Answer
Why the hell not?