Reflections on Traveling

August 28, 2017

Traveling has a long term, if not permanent, effect on your life. Your views of the world and its’ people change; your views of yourself and those around you change; your focus on what is important and what is less important change. I recently re-encountered a quote attributed to Mark Twain that brought back to mind many of my encounters along my route across four continents:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

I’ve been back in the States for just over a year now. The urge to travel is still strong, and my long-range plan is built completely around getting back on the road. And I am making strong headway in that direction.

After spending most of a year in Central America, South America, and Africa, perhaps one of the strongest images I acquired was seeing how people with virtually nothing lived happily. Many of these people lived in small, one-room huts or shacks, without running water or electricity. Their jobs were not attached to some Fortune 500 company, but rather in day-to-day living, whether farming, taking what they grew to market, finding food and water, or otherwise providing for their families. These people in general were happier than any that I met in cities. They had less stress, no imagined timetable, no made-up cultural rules or dress code. No outside media screaming stories of inflated importance at them 24/7 that had no actual impact on their immediate lives.

A simple life.

I simplified my life in many ways before leaving on my trip. I sold much of what I owned, including a house, car, and other belongings I had acquired over years that I attached false importance to. I eliminated bills, payments, unnecessary mail and emails. Six months into my ride, I had settled into a very relaxed existence, living mostly in a tent with enough bedding, clothes and cooking supplies to be comfortable, and a means of transportation that could take me to the next village or country. Even though everything I had with me fit on a motorcycle, I still had a lot more material goods than most of the people I met along the way.

It was around Central America that I began to understand that you can be happy with very little, and make more of what you have. I noticed that people who lived in a very small home with a large family made good use of outdoor space. They lived outdoors, often cooked outdoors, worked outdoors, and only slept or sometimes ate inside the house. I made a note to myself for my return: Outdoor space is cheap. Live more simply. Stay downsized. Don’t let the “stuff” take over your life again.

Africa again reminded me of this. Simple houses. Outdoor living. Hard working, yes. But happy people.

When I returned last year, I had a firm goal: build a small(er) house as a base to return to while traveling; a place to re-charge every now and then, or to plan the next stage of travel. Continue to live a simple life. Continue to spend less and save more in order to get back on the road sooner.

In the past, while living in the US, when I would stop to buy gas for my car or truck I would inevitably walk into the convenience store and buy a candy bar and a soda. For no reason. Just because it was there. I learned that in other less-developed countries, gas stations are just that. There is no store attached to it. You buy gas. Period. This was a great way to eat better, and save money. And “fix” one of my bad habits.

In the past, I would eat out many times a week, often at rather expensive restaurants, but even fast food drained my budget. I would buy concert tickets, or tickets to a play on a whim, just because it sounded interesting. Now, I stay focused on the long-term goal of traveling full time. (Note that I, like many others, used to refer to this as “my dream”. I no longer do that, because I have proven to myself that it is fully achievable.)

You might think I am living a boring life, or “wasting” the present because I’m not enjoying myself. You’d be wrong. It’s amazing how many free things there are to do if you just look around. Free concerts. Free movies. Free food events. Free sporting events. I’m still enjoying life, maybe even more, because I’m around people who don’t judge others by how much they spend.

A year into non-traveling, my house is almost finished. Soon I will be saving more money, happily working toward my return to the road. Still living a much simpler life than I had before. Still focused on what is important to me, and not the material “stuff” that weighs us down. Happier. Less stressed. Okay, more stressed than when everything you own is on a 250cc motorcycle and you’re living in a tent in Namibia. But much less stressed than I used to be.

Another quote that I’ve seen often is attributed to St. Augustine: “The world is a book, and those that don’t travel read only one page.”

I truly believe that travel can and will change a person’s view of the world and other cultures. I am living proof. And I can’t wait to get back out there and experience more of the world.

Questions From The Road

July 4, 2016

Most other travelers I’ve spoken with tell the same story. The top questions they get are always:

  1. Where did you come from?
  2. Where are you going?
  3. How long?
  4. How big is the bike?
  5. How much does it cost?
  6. How fast does it go?

These are typically questions asked to the guys riding BMW’s or other large adventure bikes. My little 250 eliminates most of the “How Big? How Much? How Fast?” questions. Although I do still get those occasionally. But they are usually geared in a different direction: the “Why a 250?” being more prevalent.

But by far, the Number One question I’ve had from all people, whether motorcyclists or not, regardless of the country, income, education, background, etc, is this:

WHAT IS THAT???

I usually just say “Tools”, “Herramientas”, “Spanners”, or the like, and they nod and walk away. Once in a while, I go into my longer speech about carrying so much weight on the rear of a small, lightweight motorcycle, and needing to transfer some weight to the front. But leave it to the French guys in Scotland on their way to the Isle of Man to have a fittingly French response: “It’s not for wine?”

I had never even given that one a thought.

The other question (and comment) that I’ve received a lot in many different countries, and which I still struggle with, is “Aren’t you afraid? You’re so brave!”

Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out the “brave” part. I understand why people would be afraid to do this, and most of that is unfounded fear based on media hype and propaganda. And I guess that leads to their thought that it takes someone “brave” to travel alone through all the places I’ve been.

I think the only “brave” thing I’ve done in the last year is to follow through with the decision to do this journey. The most difficult part of it all is deciding to walk away from everything at home: the job, the house, the lifestyle. But once you’ve done that, everything else is easy. Looking back, it’s easy for me to say it was “pan comido” (a piece of cake), but until you cross that line, it can be scary.

I haven’t met a single other traveler that has regretted the decision. And I put myself in that category as well.

Social Status Among the Homeless? Perspectives on Tent Envy

June 20, 2016

It’s funny how perspective changes with time. In the past eleven months, my perspective of what I need to live comfortably continues to change. 

When I decided to do this trip, I sold my 3,000 square foot, 3 bedroom house and my 5,000 square foot shop, along with most of my “stuff”. The remainder went into storage. I moved into a 900 square foot one bedroom apartment for the last six months. It was a serious downsizing, but it was comfortable. 

In July 2015, I left Texas. I brought along a 2-man MSR “Hubba Hubba” tent. I told people “I don’t know why they call it ‘Two Man’. There’s no way two men could fit in there.” But it was a great size for just me and a bit of my gear at night. In addition to my sleeping mat and sleeping bag, I usually keep my jacket, pants, helmet, laptop, and a few clothes in the tent with me at night; I use the jacket rolled up under the head of the mattress for a little elevation so I can sit and type or read. The rest sits to my side, comfortably. I’ve also got a small “attic” net that I can keep my camera, phone, head torch, and a few snacks in for easy access. I love my tent. It has become my home, and it’s very comfortable. But in some ways, it seems a bit excessive now, in the same way the house was before.

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed solo motorcyclists on both extreme ends of the camping spectrum: a guy on a Triumph that I met in Durness, Scotland, had a queen-size inflatable bed (one of those that is about a foot thick) in his tent, and the tent itself had a separate “living room” that he could park his motorcycle in and still sit in a chair in the same space. On the other end, Allan, my neighbor on the Isle of Man, showed up on a KTM 690 from Aberdeen, Scotland with a one-man MSR tent that was definitely less than half the size of mine, yet it had lots of room inside for him and his gear. For the first time, I began to look at Allan’s tent as a more appropriate alternative for my needs. I was considering downsizing again. 

I’ve spent the past couple of days in a campground north of London. This whole “perspective” thing came to mind again because as I sat in my nice chair next to my “house”, I looked across to a tent that two women were staying in. 

Tent McMansion?

My initial thought was “What do they do with all of that space?” It seemed as large as my apartment. In my mind, I started placing furniture in it, realizing that it was more space than I could fill, or needed. It has a fully enclosed porch, for God’s sake. Then again, it is England. Camping in the rain would be much more comfortable with a porch to sit on in the rain.

I’m sure to them, or to many people who go camping for a weekend or a long holiday, that tent is “roughing it” or at least “primitive camping in comfort”. I looked at it as if I was considering moving across town to a nicer subdivision. 

But in reality, there is no social status assigned to size of tent like there tends to be with the size of your house. People buy tents based more on personal needs, and less on a need to impress the neighbors at the campground.

When I began my travels, the tent was a means of “sleeping cheap”, and some level of discomfort was expected. Now, I look forward to my tent; it is a known quantity, unlike many of the hotels and hostels that are more expensive. I’ve learned the correct air pressure for my mattress and my pillow to allow a good night’s sleep. I can quickly set everything up, and I know where every piece of gear goes. 

I recently, after ten months, splurged and bought a cooking pan and a spatula. Up until now, my entire kitchen cooking system consisted of a titanium mug and set of utensils. I would boil pasta in the mug, drain the water, add the sauce, heat it, eat it, then wash the mug and make coffee in it. For months I had told myself that the pan would take up valuable space that I didn’t have. Then one day I realized that the pan was just slightly larger diameter than my rolled sleeping mat, so when placed in my duffel bag at the end of the mat, it only took up about a quarter inch of space (the thickness of the pan material). Now I’m cooking eggs and bacon, sausage, meatballs, chicken, you name it. 

I now have a pan, and I’m STILL making pasta!

In one year, my entire lifestyle has changed dramatically, and I think it’s for the better. I’m living with less stress. I have everything I need. I’m living cheaper than I was when I was just sitting at home — no mortgage, no utility bills, no homeowners insurance, no car payment — and I’m experiencing the world in the process. Of course, it would be nice to have an income, and to not watch my bank account shrinking every month, but with proper planning, I can slow that to a trickle as well. Or I can work for a while, and save a lot more, now that I know I can live a much more simple lifestyle and still be comfortable. 

Maybe even upgrade to a new tent. 

Nah.

Monster/No Monster

June 2, 2016

John o’ Groats is not a town. It is simply a tourist attraction. There is a signpost here, a couple of gift shops, a tourist information center and a few other buildings. Having watched “Long Way Down” a long time ago, I knew of John o’ Groats from that show, but had somehow missed the fact that there is nothing actually here.  It also turns out that it isn’t the northern-most point on the mainland UK; nearby Dunnet Head holds that claim. However, it is apparently the longest distance from Land’s End, which is the southern-most tip of the mainland UK. Seems to me they had to stretch to come up with something to draw the tourists.

View from my campsite outside Durness.

 

Further north of Durness on the way to John o’ Groats.

 

John o’ Groats.

I would have liked to go further north into the Orkney Islands, but I’m limited on time due to my booked ferry crossing to Isle of Man on June 7. 

The weather in the far North is severely overcast but not raining, and very cold. I’ve had the heated grips on 75% heat for a couple of days now, so I continue south down the east coast of Scotland to Dornoch Firth, where I make my first truly bad camping decision.

On occasion I’ve been staying in Caravan Parks rather than wild camping. Usually this is because there is hot water, showers, flush toilets, and sometimes a camp kitchen which allows me to cook without using my stove, saving gas. 

“Caravan Parks” here are typically a large lawn, with nothing else, save for possibly electrical hookups. Not a tree. Or a BBQ grill. Or a fire pit. Or anything else. Most visitors are in cars pulling travel trailers (“caravans”), or motorhomes, or VW vans. This week, there’s been a number of motorcyclists as well.

Tonight, I am introduced to a new term: “static caravan”, which is known in the U.S. as a mobile home. Thus, the “caravan park” I chose to camp at is primarily a mobile home park, with a large lawn full of electrical connections for the people who show up in trailers, motorhomes, and tents. For those of us who don’t need an electrical hookup — correction, for me, since I am the only one apparently who doesn’t want to pay for an electrical connection — there’s a separate area against the dunes with no facilities. In fact, the nearest showers and toilet are on the other side of the Great Lawn. For this I am charged fifteen pounds, a bit more than $21.  I could have driven outside of the caravan park, and camped in the dunes for free, and had a better experience.

The next morning I head towards Loch Ness, and the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre. Just before I get a good view of the lake, Dunrobin Castle comes into view.

Dunrobin Castle

Just down the road, I get my first good view of Loch Ness. I had no idea it was so huge. I had always pictured a small quiet lake in my mind. This thing is huge. The signs at the roadside park give a couple of interesting facts:

  1. There is more fresh water in Loch Ness than in all the lakes in England and Wales combined.
  2. You could fit every single living person on earth in Loch Ness fully submerged and have room left over. (Kind of a creepy statistic if you ask me.)

The lake is 23 miles long, and very deep, reaching 230 meters (755 feet) in depth. As I stand looking at the lake, I notice a single “wake”, which looks kind of like a large, long rope of water, even though there is no boat anywhere in sight. The reflection of sunlight off this single rolling wake gives it a dark, odd look. I can understand why people see things in this lake. 

A bit too long for a serpent, and kinda flat, but oddly interesting considering there was nothing around to make it.

 

 

It’s a big lake, er, Loch.

At the Loch Ness Exhibition Centre, I am surprised at the theme. The center is in a former castle/hotel. and is well done. The presentations are in a chronological order, moving room to room and showing a video presentation in each room. But it’s the “disproving” approach that surprises me. The exhibition takes the claims, photos, and other information about the lake monster, and systematically aims to disprove each one, concluding that there is no monster and everyone is mistaken in what they have seen. 

I personally don’t tend to take a stance one way or the other, and it surprises me that a place famous for its’ monster has put so much effort into proving it doesn’t exist. Still, I enjoyed the hall, and the information presented, including the WW II plane that was discovered in the lake while using sonar to search for large marine life, and the attempt at the world speed record on the water that ended badly when the then-world land speed record holder was killed after reaching 200mph on Loch Ness.