It is such a cliché: Rich twenty-something white girl travels and has life-transforming experience. Either by wandering through churches and castles in Europe, building schools for orphans in Africa, or partying on a beach in Southeast Asia.
Been there, done that. It was awesome. I'm not one to judge. I just want to warn you that the story I'm about to tell can easily be filed away as more of the same, and that I'm aware of that.
Still, although the life lessons learned through travel might be cliché, that doesn't mean they're any less real. I also think my trip was badass, and I just want to tell you about it because I think more people, especially women, should go out and do stuff like this.
Six months, 4660 miles
It doesn't sound like a lot. It is not that far, really. Only from New York to Chicago to Houston to LA to Seattle, and then a bit further (into Canada perhaps?). Plenty of people drive distances like this on cross-country roadtrips, right?
Well, so did my partner and I, earlier this year. Except that we did it on two second-hand bicycles, camping gear strapped to the back, and it took us across eleven countries (twelve, if you count the two hours we spend in Switzerland) and over way too many mountains.
We had been living in Oman for the past year, where for the first time in years we had managed to save up some money. Despite the fact that we've been together for over three years and that we are both avid travellers, we had never actually travelled together, so we figured that now would be a good time to do so.
We also wanted to move back to Europe to be closer to our friends and families: his in Spain, mine in The Netherlands. Add in our desire for a little adventure and the fact that we were on a very limited budget, and we settled on a plan: We would cycle to Spain.
Our route took us from a bustling port in Dubai to a dusty Iranian port on the Persian Gulf. We cycled through Iran from south to north, then across most of Turkey from east to west. We crossed the Dardanelles into Europe and then just followed the road through Greece, Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy and France all the way to Spain.
Because we were on such a limited budget, we couldn't afford to stay in hotels. We bought a tent and camped wherever possible (and by "possible" I don't necessarily mean "legal"). We slept in forests, fields, orchards, abandoned buildings, construction sites, a church, in gas stations. On mountain tops, riverbeds, beaches, city parks, even in restaurants.
Neither of us had done anything like this before. My partner hadn't been riding a bicycle since his teens, and just because I'm Dutch and cycling is what we do doesn't mean that daily rides to the supermarket are any adequate preparation for 60-100km days followed by a night in a tent.
Because we were so utterly inexperienced, we learned a lot. We learned how to fix our bikes. We learned how to sleep anywhere. We learned how to cook nutrious meals on a camping stove ('rice with things' became a staple) and how much exactly you can eat when you cycle six hours (cookies all day long!). We learned that we can go six days without a shower and that toilets are overrated. Not exactly life-changing stuff, although it might come in handy one day.
The Kindness of Strangers
The biggest thing we learned though, is that it pays to trust people.
When you travel by bicyle and sleep in a tent, you are incredibly vulnerable. If people want to harm you, there is very little that will physically stop them from doing so. This vulnerability also breaks down barriers between people. Almost on a daily basis, a car would drive by and come to a screeching halt in front of us.
The first time this happened I was nervous, scared. What do they want? Are we going to be robbed? But it turned out that they just wanted to bombard us with questions ("Where are you from?", "What do you think about Iran?", "What did you think about Iran before you came here?"), give us water, fruit, nuts, a platter of cookies, treat us to tea, or insist that we follow them to stay at their house for the night.
And we accepted. Not only because it's rude to turn down food that has been offered to you, but also because cyclists are ALWAYS hungry and a night spend in a strangers house is better than a cold night in the tent.
I don't need to tell you what can happen if you accept food from a stranger, or follow them to their house, or even if you just ask them to watch over your stuff while you pop into the supermarket. But I will tell you what did happen. We tasted the most amazing homemade yoghurt in Turkey. We had lengthy discussions about politics and religion in Iran. We had spontaneous salsa-dance parties in living rooms. We got to play traditional instruments. We explained people about our culture, and learned from theirs.
Sometimes we made friends for just one evening, sometimes we made friends for life, all because we decided to trust strangers, and because they trusted us.
During our six months on the road, I only had one bad experience. We were camping in the mountains in Albania and I was walking to the river for a wash when I crossed paths with a shepherd. I said, "Good morning," and he started talking away in Albanian. My Albanian is not very good (understatement of the year) so I shrugged and wished him a good day and walked away.
This was his cue to step towards me, wrap his arms around me, and firmly grab my ass. Ugh. Luckily, he ran off when I started screaming, but I know it could have been much, much worse.
I also know that the same thing could have happened while walking around back home.
If we had stuck to the "don't trust strangers" advice, or let this one bad experience color the rest of the trip, our trip would have been so much more boring. We would have spent so many more nights in a leaky tent, missed out on so many delicious meals and so many stories.
If I still believed that most people are just waiting for a chance to hurt me, I never would have left in the first place. Believing that, I could never have done what we did: Cross mountain ranges on a bicycle, make friends for life in an evening, and sleep under the stars.
I'm pretty sure that, ten years from now, I won't remember exactly where we have been, or where exactly that particularly beautiful spot was, but I will remember all the kindness and hospitality people showed us. There is no more precious souvenir than that.