3 lessons from London to Sydney

November 2017. London, UK.

It’s always tempting to be more than a bit cynical about the raft quotes about the transformational nature of travel that you can find within about five seconds of scrolling through Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.

But here’s the thing. For many who decide to pack up their bags and yomp off to lands far away, there’s no denying that there’s often a strong thread of romanticism mixed with a desire to disconnect in the hope of returning to see things in a different way. 

Almost a year ago I decided to write a few blogs as I slowly digested the lessons I learnt from riding solo from London to Sydney. One of the ones I decided to write about was the lessons that the trip taught me about the world around us, particularly given that a big part of the reason I wanted to do the trip in the first place was to experience that.

40,000 miles, 26 countries and a year on the road solo is a lot to digest, I can tell you now. As in 50kg t-bone steak with a mountain of chunky chips level of digestion. 

Once home how you feel, behave and react to things changes. Things that once seemed solid, seemed surefire – you’re not so sure about anymore. Spending so much time on your own means you know yourself far better than before – and that level of awareness can be hard to handle at first when you’re thrust back into ‘normal’ life. Overall there’s a sense that your world view and sense of what you stand for has been deconstructed and that you’re going through a process of putting it back together again. 

The good news is that when you do so, it’s far more robust then it was before – the balance is well in the positive.

18 months on I reckon I can boil those lessons down to three things which seem to be the most lasting impressions I took away from the trip:

1. The depth of our diversity and it’s contradictions. If you find yourself having lunch at a bamboo shack of a school in the middle of nowhere in the Burmese countryside that’s run by a bunch of Buddhist monks for orphans from some nearby mountains, there’s a good chance that at least half of them will want a selfie with you and that within 5 minutes they will have taken advantage of the 5-bars of 3G signal (that’s infinitely better then that in Central London BTW) to befriend you on Facebook and upload said selfie.

From smartphone the wielding, selfie-obsessed teenagers of Pakistan and India to the Italian, American, Indian and even German restaurants that pepper the streets of Bishkek, and from the most smartly dressed policemen arguably being the most corrupt (thanks Thailand & Cambodia) to the simple reality that the countries that we’re told are the most dangerous are often the most welcoming, the trip gave me above anything else a real sense of the richness of the diversity of the world we live in – and the contradictions that seem to result from that.

Except they aren’t really contradictions are they? They’re only that if you judge them by the pre-conceptions you had beforehand – which says something in itself about the value of keeping a genuinely open mind.

2. Our expectations frame our experiences of people. There’s a lot of stuff out there about how if you travel then you’ll suddenly discover that everyone you ever meet is nice and fluffy and that they will not want to take advantage of you. But the reality is far more nuanced than that. Humans are complex beasts and your natural expectations shape the experiences you have.

So if your default mindset is to be negative about the motivations of others then you’ll find that when you’re on the road then on balance the majority of the time people are pretty cool, friendly and helpful. Given that, you’re more likely to be pleasantly surprised – which is nice.

However if your default mindset is to be positive about people, then you’re less likely to be surprised by that. The danger is that if you drink the cool-aid of others too much, then there’s a chance you’ll come away disappointed when, as inevitably happens, you find not everyone shares that positivity. 

Either way the world around us is pretty balanced – there are dickheads and there are nice people. But there are dickheads who can behave like nice people and there are nice people who can behave like dickheads. Sometimes you’ll get it right, sometimes you’ll get it wrong in terms of how you handle these people (I did) – but the trick of the trade is to go about the people you meet in a way that doesn’t close down the opportunity of a good thing whilst not leaving yourself open to be taken advantage of.

3. It’s not just about the size of difference in opportunity but it’s also about the nature of it. In the West we’re brought up to recognise and think about opportunity typically in economic terms (i.e. our ability to get an education to earn money and the opportunities that provides).

Obviously that’s the one of biggest parts of opportunity  but it’s only one part – culturally in more socially conservative countries the opportunity to break the mould and not focus on the responsibilities of work and family and do something different, like travel, is equally a huge thing.

Social norms can limit opportunity in the sense that not only do they not support people to do things that break the mould but they often actively discourage it. Emotion and the pressure to conform can be just as disempowering as lack of economic opportunity.

What’s more, for many people from non-Western countries getting a visa for a specific country is simply not an option – we in the West like to whinge about the bureaucracy of applications for China or Central Asia but those requirements tend to be just paperwork. We don’t have to demonstrate that we have a certain amount of money in our bank account which might be simply impossible to achieve. We don’t have to prove our ability to speak a foreign language. And if we chose to migrate to another country, we generally don’t face the same difficulties of finding some way of getting our family to join us. 

The very few people I met doing some kind of road trip themselves – at whatever scale – who had had to overcome those hurdles have far more in common with adventure travel pioneers yesteryear than people like myself, who have had a whole basket of opportunities presented to them basically through an accident (literally, if you speak to my mum) of birth .

And the one overriding thing, above all else? Luck. How much just having the chance to hit the road and experience all of the above in the first place is down to the luck of the draw and the opportunities you get from that. Not just recognising that but really appreciating is probably the most important lasting thing without a doubt.

“It was about finding something new, something outside of our comfort zone and it’s funny that a simple machine like a motorcycle can really take you away from your comfort zones and really help you focus on what’s really important.”

— “It’s Better In The Wind”, Scott Toepfer

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