When I look at the picture that was taken of Chris and me at the Explorer’s Club this past march, there’s a lot that I don’t recognize about that person. There are, of course a few changes in physical appearance. I am much skinnier now, and my body and clothing have never since been so clean.
But there is a much deeper change, and the moment of turning 23 is a good time to reflect on what it is, and how it was wrought.
The transition from 22 to 23 seems like an era. The challenges it brought me are so great compared to what I faced before, the emotions and visions and convictions so much more intense, that it makes everything before my departure hazy. I look behind my 22nd birthday with a sense of nostalgia, a time of less defined values and younger ideals.
I guess the real difference is that those challenges and the travel gave me a little bit of humility, or at least crushed it into me.
The face in the picture at the Explorer’s club didn’t have the slightest clue what he was getting himself into. I had, of course, been told that this journey would be “difficult,” “amazing,” or “life changing,” and had repeated that rhetoric so often in fundraising pitches that it had lost its meaning. I had imagined that we would be camping, or staying with people as guests, but never bothered to think through what living like that would really feel like. I had, in fact, barely bothered to look up the locations of any geographic barriers that might block our passage, like deserts or mountain ranges. I had no experience as a journalist. This seemed irrelevant, because, damn it, I’m gonna bike from Paris to Shanghai, and I’m going to write about entrepreneurs. There was nothing we couldn’t handle as it appeared; all I wanted to do was raise some money and put my bike on an airplane and start tackling whatever came our way. The supply of confidence was endless, and we founded this project on chutzpah and charm.
The funny thing is that I was right. We did learn what we needed to know, and there was no other way I could have learned it, but it came painfully. In the beginning the mistakes came in floods. We ate too little or too much before biking, we camped in the wrong fields and got our tent covered in ice, we got completely lost as we came into Germany. We pushed ourselves too far, and almost collapsed at the end of some days. We found that we had made mistakes in our equipment, and that my bike was much slower than Chris’, so he was constantly stopping to wait for me. In our journalism, we wrote off months of work chasing leads into brick walls, or writing stories that never got published. The first story we wrote took a month of investigation. Less than 70 people read it. It took us a few weeks to get a routine down, to figure out how to set up to plan our rides days in advance and set up couchsurfing, how to maintain our bikes properly, and just to get used to the grind of bike touring. It has taken me eight months to comfortably call myself a journalist in any respect.
There is a hot friction in travel that pushes against all one wants to accomplish; the stress of it compounds into rollercoasters of rage, depression, and the ecstasy of discovery. It has forced us into stoicism. On our last ride, Chris had a chunk of his frame break off, an eyelet that held up his rack. We grunted, then smiled, then fixed what we could and rolled our bikes up a side road to camp for the night and develop a plan. When a lead we’d been developing for ten days closed access to us, we had to laugh it off, go find a café and then go back to the drawing board. The tiniest problem derails the whole project, and we’ve learned to view any goals we’ve had with dispassion, the focus of our work and not the source of the success. The only joy we can count on is that of working itself.
But what has been most trying are challenges that I only vaguely anticipated in that photo. I didn’t understand that I would discover more than just traditions in the people I visited. I’d be exposed to entirely different value systems, and living with people who believed in very different paths to happiness than my own. I could never have anticipated the pain that is among the greatest of a traveller’s burdens: the traveler always takes more than he receives, because staying long enough to really give back is a long stay, and the road will always call first. I did not understand that I would have to forge relationships without the most powerful of my weapons, charm.
The last of these problems is the only I have really understood. Charm is fickle, and among the first things that gets lost in translation; conversations across language barriers must be simple. They tend to be either entirely true or mostly a lie. In simple communication facts and ideas cannot be dressed to be different than they are. This trip has forced me to speak more simply, and straight. More profoundly, it has forced me to shut up and really listen, because one does not always feel like telling the whole truth, and it’s more interesting to hear the other tell theirs or look for their lies. In their truths and their lies I have found worlds I never knew existed, and I have been able to listen more deeply, into peoples values and hopes. That knowledge allows a sense of connection that charm would never dare to reach for.
It is with this listening that I have been able to see paths to happiness and fulfillment other than the ones that I have chosen. In many countries we have travelled through, especially India, there has been deep sense of duty to family and tradition. They are communities where the individual is subjugated to the family. The parents make decisions about a child’s life strategically, in the interest of the honor and comfort of the family, and not the joy of the individual. What has struck to me to the core is that the people subjected to this system are no less happy than those left to face the world of decisions alone. I still believe in individualism deeply, as a personal choice. But the success of those so family oriented has made me better appreciate my own family, and my family of friends, and thirst to help and give to them.
Travel is a very selfish endeavor. Chris and I are constantly on the receiving end of hospitality; we have very little to give back besides stories and our company. On an almost daily basis, we are sheltered, assisted, and fed on the simple basis that it looks like we need it. Sources for our journalism have gone far out of their way to help us write stories, and more than once we have repaid them by publishing their difficult moments, vulnerabilities, and struggles. Sponsors have funded this entire trip (thanks!), and asked for almost nothing in return. It feels as if I am building a crushing karmic debt, because I am taking so much more than I am giving. I am anxious to come into a position—perhaps back in the States—where I can start paying it forward.
These challenges have left me with a good bit of humility, and a more clear cut sense of the paths that I can tread with skill, and those that I am likely to fail on. But the deepest lesson of humility has come from simply seeing a vast swath of the world. I have been able to watch the world move- the goods and humans flowing into the cities, the wheat being grown, milled, and then made into bread, the ideas of the west and the wealth pouring into the developing nations. I have been able to dine with the one percent, and then sleep on the floor of the huts of the poor upon whose shoulders they stand. I have seen why the lifestyle we have in America is possible, and met some of those who are suffering for it. I have been able to see the economic tides that sweep most of humanity, and it is far too powerful to swim against. It has made me feel very small and very lucky.