Today it’s exactly one year ago since we cycled out of Amsterdam, off on our great adventure. From here to Tokyo, as the Dutch expression goes, is indeed a very long way, but we are very close. Even though we can almost see the Tokyo bright lights from where we are it is still hard to comprehend we actually did this. We cycled from The Netherlands to Japan. In our last week of cycling before we get into to Tokyo we are enjoying the peace of the Mie peninsula, the spiritual home of the Shinto religion. It is a tranquil place with gorgeous forests, cedar shrines with thatched roofs and beautiful little roads winding up and down the mountains and the coastlines. The weather is just perfect, sunny and warm, and we are camping a lot. This is where we find some space to reflect on the past year.
Mid bike crisis
Before we left we were joking: “this is our midlife crisis project!”. But we never really thought we were actually going through a midlife crisis. We were eagerly looking forward to our big trip, but the idea was always that after one year we would come back to our old lives in Amsterdam. We genuinely liked our lives: our work, our friends, our own place here. There was a lot to come back to, and we saw plenty of interesting projects ahead to keep us excited about returning home. I would do another study, Cyril might do more with cycling.
Although every time someone asked this I consequently replied with ‘why not’? We have both traveled extensively before this trip so we never expected any profound new-agey revelations about ourselves. We always saw it as a wonderfully enriching experience, something to never regret. A chance to test our boundaries and our endurance. A chance to take a step back from our busy lives and think about the years ahead. A chance to make new wild plans together without the distractions of everyday life. I read somewhere that travel is not about finding yourself, it is about creating yourself. I really like this notion, that travel won’t make you stumble upon some sort of divine light that will reveal all about yourself but it does give you the space to actively work on the person you already are. There is little room for delusional bullshit when you are climbing a 4500m mountain pass and you haven’t been able to keep your food inside for days. Even if you are traveling together and helping each other, ultimately you have to face the hard bits on your own. I think this is one mental and physical challenge we both passed with flying colours. We loved most of our days on this trip and not for one second did we think about quitting. Although now I do exactly know where my limit is: in the house of a goat herd at around 4200m high, at -15 degrees at night, having lost 7 kilos to parasites and getting progressively worse with altitude sickness. Never, ever will I attempt to cycle the Pamir Highway again; but Cyril loved it and we made some amazing new friends who faced the same challenges.
Both of us have been ill for weeks which was quite an unsettling experience. However this brush with bad luck and the accompanying feelings of vulnerability and disorientation did make us really appreciate our good health when it eventually returned. Our health, and the comfort and priviliges of our native Western society, is something we were of course aware of but had always taken for granted. We know we are extremely lucky to be able to afford good care. This is not the case for many people we met on the road.
Team Oufti no more
One completely unexpected outcome was the effect the trip has had on our relationship. We never saw our break-up coming. But, this trip was a challenge in many ways, not just physically and mentally but also emotionally. It is confronting, to suffer and to see your partner suffering along with you, and not always knowing the right things to do. Then there is the 24/7 life in close-up, warts (farts) and all. Very sexy, I can tell you. Not!
Then there is the organization of the sometimes boring practicalities of the days ahead. Never having the opportunity to make yourself look nice for the other. Being tired, cold, sick and cranky. Not having enough time and space to truly unwind, alone or together. This sounds really bleak and in a way it was. Almost imperceptibly we grew apart, even though we remained great travel buddies who hardly squabbled. For now we still enjoy traveling together, but the real break-up will come after Tokyo, when we both go our own way and we will be truly on our own for the first time in more than a year. I will move to Kunming, a Chinese city I fell in love with. I have lots of plans for my new life there: work with an art gallery, teach English, learn as much as I can about the Chinese language and culture. Cyril will cycle back via Korea, fly to Italy and cross the Alps on the way home to Amsterdam. We are both looking forward to settling into a home after our year on the move.
What a wonderful world
Apart from the discoveries about ourselves and each other we also experienced some beautiful lessons about the world and the people that inhabit it. Rationally we already knew that people are much the same everywhere. The majority of the people want to work, they want their children to go to school, they want to be healthy and most of all they want to be left in peace. This ‘normality’ of most people is of course completely understandable. Still, this trip has brought this home in many more ways than just an intellectual understanding. To personally experience the extreme hospitality, the generosity, the kindness, the curiosity and the sheer fun of all the people we met is something that has been a deeply emotional experience and has ingrained itself into our souls.
For the rest of our lives we will cherish the memories of being handed a bag of food, of being invited in for tea, of being offered places to sleep from Utrecht to Osaka, of receiving a little gift from someone who doesn’t share a language with us, of the thousands of waves and smiles all the way from Amsterdam to Tokyo. If we ever had any kind of unconscious Eurocentric prejudice about all the different people in the rest of the world I hope we have now well and truly left it by the side of the road. Exactly this, the loveliness of people everywhere, has been the most enriching part of our trip. We hope we have been able to get this across a little bit through our blog and pictures.
A holiday from the holiday
In hindsight, would we do it again? Yes! We don’t regret this trip one bit, even despite the heavy personal cost of our break-up. It is tricky to say what exactly we should have done differently. One thing that could have made a difference would have been to take more unplanned down time. Just like at home we were carried along by the relentless flow of the days rushing by. We were almost continuously on the move, unless we were forced to stay somewhere for visum organization or hospital treatment. We felt there were deadlines to meet, such as staying ahead of the winter in Tajikistan or the limit of a three month visum for China. Even in the places where we stayed for a while we filled up our days with sight-seeing, hiking, socializing and planning ahead, because that’s what we are like.
Before we left I talked to a Turkish shoe maker in Amsterdam. His Dutch wasn’t very good but he made very clear what he thought about our trip. In his eyes we were rich, not financially rich but rich in experiences, because we took the time to do this. And today, in a small Japanese town, someone said exactly the same thing. We might be broke after one year on the road, yet we are rich.