Taking months out of the rat race to travel on a motorcycle taught me heaps of new things. The cultures and the amazing people I met on my route across Asia made for the bulk of my experiences for sure but it wasn’t just these that made my overland ride. There were more subtle teachings that came my way as well. Several lessons learned weren’t immediately apparent to me either but by no means were they of lesser influence in time. Here are three subtle things that overland travel brought me.
On the easier roads of my route, where there was little need for gear shifts or traffic dodging, I would try to relax and soak up more of my surroundings. Yet, rather than unwind, I found that this was when my mind, oblivious to my environment, would let itself drift in a whirl of self absorption.
Without the road to focus on, a jumble of random memories, worries even obsessions would run through my head with no rhyme nor reason. There was concern for family and friends, thoughts about work at home and even brooding over the wear on my motorbike tires. It was continuous fretting that did nothing for the pleasure of my ride nor my well being and needed to be kept in check.
“…focus on the present moment, concentrate on your breath”. These were the beginner’s steps to mindfulness as suggested on most meditation web-sites I looked at. It felt boring though and unappealing, I really needed something different to start off with.
I chose instead to focus on what I had around me, on the road and most of all on what was “alive, green, and growing”. Trees, leaves, grass, shrubs and bushes offered plenty to engage my attention and keep my thoughts from chaos. It seemed like the perfect starting point. So,…
“…think of the plants, notice the leaves, acknowledge the different shades of green”. This became my new mantra for the road, a sort of mind gym meant to bridle my wandering thoughts.
At first it was definitely a challenge to lock my attentiveness for more than a few seconds, but persistence yielded results. Ten seconds of focus turned into thirty which then lead to a whole minute. Finally, I could fix on the vegetation around me for almost two minutes at a time and not allow random thoughts to harass me. It felt soothing, calming and killed anxiety.
As a result, attention to the growing flora around me became part of my daily routine. For an hour or so every day I would zone into the greenery around me for as long as I could, without distractions.
Touring on a motorbike from one country to the next is very much a “touch and go” experience. Regrettably, wherever one stops there’s really only limited time available for new friends, scenery and culture before moving on.
Arguably, the advantage this brings is the lack of a sense of commitment, a feeling that plays big role in our every day lives at home.
At each stop of our tour nobody knows who we are or anything about us and few really care. We have a clean slate in a new environment with no personal history. This can be liberating in many ways.
As a result, there’s an awareness that our encounters and our presence as visitors anywhere are fickle and short lived, volatile. This can be exciting, stimulating and creates an urgency to make the most of our time on the road. Escape and a new chapter of our trip are just a turn of a throttle away. It’s a commitment phobic’s dream!
Returning to normality after my trip was not easy. Re-adapting to every day life after months on the road took a while. Some things never really returned to how they were before the big trip at all.
I discovered that my outlook on world affairs had changed. Several beliefs I held before my trip did survive the same. Today, my views are more centrist, I have fewer certainties about what is true or false, right or wrong. I understand that people are fundamentally the same anywhere in the world and that privilege often leads to arrogance.
I read more and don’t have a TV. I have discovered an interest in history, art, architecture, photography, religion and its effect on the modern world. None of the above had any appeal on me before my trip.
It seems that the consequences of overland travel continue to reveal themselves to me long after the end of my tour. Some of these I would never have imagined would hold a grip on me of any kind: mindfulness, history, photography most of all. In essence I think it’s fare to say that the whole ordeal of travel is probably a trip of self discovery just as much as it is a discovery of the world.
“Hey man, I’ve been following you for the past three blocks” said the lad r as he pulled up next to me in the dark on an ageing Honda 125. I was trying to figure my way around Amritsar (India), after crossing the border from Pakistan, it was getting late, I needed to find a place for the night and I felt startled. “Really?!” I replied feeling a sting of uneasiness. “Yeah, I recognise you. I know who you are” insisted the lad. “Wow, tell me” I stiffened, trying to anticipate what might be coming next. “Come on man, I’m your fan! I saw you on the Discovery Channel…. please, selfie?”
I discovered, on my route across Asia, that as a solo traveller on a motorbike I was in many ways as much of a curiosity to the people I met on my path as they were to me, often even more so. Riding an “exotic” machine with weathered riding gear also added to my alien charisma and helped boost my standing with many locals pretty much to celebrity level. There were countless times by the side of the road in which I was approached by people with smiles, hand shakes, words of appreciation and eager offers of hospitality. I was treated like someone in a position of eminence, of ranking, a star, or at least it felt as though I were.
The attention caught me off guard. It was flattering initially and I felt encouraged to engage with my new found friends and pals. People seemed authentically welcoming, kind and concerned. I was a guest in their country and a flag bearer for the world I had come from. However, it soon became apparent that dealing with the keen interest from the locals was a repetitive routine that gradually turned into a chore. I was often surrounded to the point that I had no space to manoeuvre my machine, people would start to touch and fondle with my bike and equipment and I was asked the same questions time and time again, five, six, ten times a day. It became hard to bare, a bit of an annoyance and in the long run I found it less stressful to avoid any unsolicited attention as much as possible in pretty much the same way I think real celebrities do.
It all began in Chechnya, the rebellious Russian republic just north of the Caucasus. Since the end of the clashes for independence (fifteen years ago or so), this area has seen few tourists and even fewer foreign registered motorbikes venture across it’s borders.
As I idled at a traffic light in Grozny (the capital) admiring the gleaming new town centre I noticed a little commotion reflected in my rear view mirrors. A group of lads hurried to my side from the cars behind.
“Mister, where are you from?” I explained that I had travelled from the UK. “From UK to Grozny with moto?” I nodded and acknowledged the looks of surprise on the young men’s faces. “….welcome to Chechnya, thank you for visiting…..selfie!” and before I knew it, half a dozen smartphones were at work.
In Iran things really took off. I was regularly honked at on the roads by truck drivers and given the thumbs up sign of approval. I noticed smartphones pointed at me from inside cars, either filming or taking a sneaky pic of me and at many road side stops I was regularly approached by curious passers by.
I stopped at a beach side eatery one afternoon, on the Caspian coast. As I pulled up I caught the attention of some youths lounging near by. While I sat at a table sipping at a hot drink the youngsters gathered close and one by one politely asked their questions. What was the reason for my trip? What had I seen so far? What did I think of Iran? There were some particularly telling ones as well:
“Is it true that people in Europe believe that everyone in Iran is a terrorist?” “What’s it like to travel to a foreign country?” “How many countries have you visited?” “Do you have problems with the police?” “Can I take a selfie?”
In Pakistan it continued. An overnight stop in the village of Dalbandin on my way to Quetta (Baluchistan), attracted a few locals to the guest house I was staying at. I was a foreigner and an opportunity for for them to practice some English. So, converse we did.
“Sir, are you married? Sir,why not? Do you have a job, sir? You have children, sir? Sir, will you be travelling to India after Pakistan? Please sir a selfie, yes?”
Further East, through Punjab and beyond to valleys of Gilgit and Baltistan in the Himalayas, every road side stop close to a village drew a small crowd of inquisitive folk .
“Sir, where you from?”
“Sir, you married?”
“You have children Sir?”
I was an eccentric, an oddball, a weirdo on a strange looking machine, someone that clearly needed to be checked out. Although the attention was sometimes massive with maybe thirty to forty people crowding around me I can’t say that I ever really felt under threat, far from it.
Eventually I had enough of the attention I seemed to attract everywhere I went and decided to blend in with the locals as much as possible. Camouflage seemed like a good idea so in Islamabad I procured a Salwar (trousers) and a Kameez (shirt) as is customary for a man to wear in Pakistan.
Confident that I could now mingle and not stand out too much from the crowd I put on my new outfit and walked into a small restaurant not far from my guest house. I had never been there before. The cashier spotted me immediately:
“Ohhh, Pakistani style today. Very good. Nice colour. ….You American Sir?” he asked, as he pick up his smartphone ….”Selfie?”
Discovery Channel or not, there was nowhere to hide.
(I have never knowingly been featured on the Discovery Channel either.)
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.
I doubt anyone could travel through Sumatra and not be totally taken by the beauty of the spired roof houses (the “Rumah Bagonjong”) typical of Minangkabau culture. These iconic looking long house homes have become a well known symbol of Indonesian heritage to the point that they are often mimicked in style by the architecture of Indonesian embassies around the globe.
Minang home decor is like no other. The constructions, with their prominently upswept gables, are mainly made of wood, ooze a sense of tradition and are forged by the capable hands of experienced carpenters. Some stand out more than others with brightly coloured carvings painstakingly maintained by their proud owners (the women of the household most of all).
It can be said that style of these dwellings give the impression that the buildings are somehow suspended in air, via invisible threads of some kind. It’s easy to keep gazing at them admiringly, trying to figure out exactly what’s going on with the designs almost as if there were riddle to them somehow (I certainly felt that way anyway).
Solok is close to Padang on the central western coast of Sumatra ( licensed, Creative Commons )
The village of Solok, not far from the port town of Padang (west coast of Sumatra), is well known for its abundance in Minang style structures, some of which here are over sixty years old. Big houses, small houses, shops, schools, not many buildings in Solok fail to include the traditional features of Minang design. Some are plain with little adornment and are perhaps in need of a little attention but others are definitely well maintained.
Traditionally Minang houses are intended for large extended family groups just like the Long Houses found in other parts of South East Asia (Borneo in particular). However, in more recent times, elegant spire designs also feature in smaller homes not to mention government buildings too.
Riding past these homes on my motorbike I couldn’t help feeling as though I had been plunged into some sort of a fairy tale. “Hansel and Gretel must have happened in this part of the world” I remember thinking to myself “…and no doubt the evil witch in the story lived around here, too”.
My curiosity got the better of me at one point, I simply had to find out what these homes looked like inside. I pulled over and parked in front of a larger Minang home where a lady sat on the porch just in front of the entrance. I used the politest half broken Bahasa I could come up with and asked if I might peer inside her home. To my astonishment, I was given kind nod and made welcome to take look.
Creecking floor boards, and dim lighting accompanied me through the entrance of the old home. As I lifted my gaze inside I found a beautifully kept “log cabin” style home with leather armchairs, pictures, hanging on walls, mats and rugs. A kitchen at one end of the open plan space and individual sleeping compartments behind the living area. Everything seemed meticulously taken care of and gleaming with pride.
Kids rushed towards me from the kitchen to great with smiles and surprise. Another elderly laydy at the stove also smiled and watched me as I strolled around. It felt homely, warm and cosy. It was beautiful, certainly a place I would have eagerly spent a night at.
Local society in western Sumatra is matriarchal meaning that it’s a mother’s name (blood line) that is passed to the children of a family. This has implications on inheritance laws, too. Minang houses are in fact passed from mother to daughter, from one generation to the next, almost like a dowry.
The costs involved in building a Rumah Bagonjong have increased over the years along with the price and availability of quality timber. Today a new Minang style home is no longer affordable for many locals in a rapidly developing Sumatra and Indonesian nation but there are still many old style homes to admire and perhaps even restore. Some have even been transformed into guest houses that offer lodging for the occasional tourist.
Of course I absolutely recommend a trip to Solok if you’re ever travelling through Sumatra. You will not be disappointed, it really is like being in a fairy tale.
Travellingstranger, Copyright 2018, all rights reserved.