Waking up in Tehran, the sun already burning and the traffic as noisy as any other time of the day. Looking at the date made me realize that this was not just a day, but exactly half year later than the rainy grey February morning when we embarked on our first cycling day on the Dutch dikes. This hot and dry Sunday in August could not be any more different.
We just came back from 10 days travelling in the South of Iran with my brother Wessel and three of his friends. It was a small holiday within this big trip, something we have been looking forward to for very long. Apart from seeing Wessel again, also to leaving our bikes alone for a week or two and relax, recharge and enjoying the comforts of busses and hostels. The fact that Tehran is roughly halfway to India, and that our 10 day trip marked the milestone of 6 months on the road, made us, with the help of our travel companions, reflect on what has happened to us and what is still ahead. Although our experiences in the past month in Iran are enough material for a long blog post, we have been advised to wait with that until we are out of the country. So for now, we would like to take this opportunity to write about our reflections on this past half year, in the form of questions we have asked to ourselves, or that have been asked by others to us. As we have written these answers independently from each other, it also gives an insight in how different or similar we perceive the past 6 months.
What experience in the past six months was contrary to your expectations before cycling?
N: If I would have to pick one, it would be the experience of very meaningful and deep interaction with people. Of course I knew that during the cycling trip we would most likely encounter many people, and have many interesting evenings, dinners and sleep-overs with complete strangers. I imagined this, however, with a sense of temporality. These people would constitute to my experience of cycling, but it would not lead any further, was what I expected. Especially in the past weeks in Iran I have experienced the opposite. People who would be complete strangers at first, have become friends for me two days later. As friendship back home is something that you need to develop over months or years, here I experienced that the openness and warmness of people made me get close to them in such a short time. I can truly say that I made friends already, people that I want to stay in contact with and who are not just something temporary during this journey.
B: Before we left from the Netherlands, I always thought, I need to know as much as possible about the countries we are about to see. I was reading history books and blog posts of other touring cyclists, judging retrospective, too much. Underlying an idea, that time not clear to me, that one big benefit of our trip will be a stock of knowledge about anything between Tricht and Varanasi. It is the “knowledge economy”, they say, from where we would depart anyways. Soon I came to learn however that knowledge as such was neither important nor the “big benefit” of cycling. Instead, to understand became our most precious occupation. I don’t care anymore when the Revolution in Iran exactly happened but rather I am trying to understand what place it has in their relationship with each other or to contemporary matters.
Looking back at the past 6 months, what phases can you distinguish and in what stage are you now?
N: Although we picked the exact half-year milestone as a reason to write this blog post, my own perception of this journey is not so much aligned with time. The first four weeks cycling from the Netherlands to Hungary are just one month of the total six, but in my perception it was a big and intense phase of the journey. I cannot really point out distinct phases afterwards, as I can think of so many factors in distinguishing them, such as cultures, climates, personal motivation etcetera. The big two phases I can identify are therefore from the Netherlands to Hungary and from Hungary to here. In the first phase, everything was new and we were going through a lot of difficulties in finding our rhythm and creating a new lifestyle. Since Hungary, I feel that cycling has gradually become a lifestyle that feels so natural to me, that I am not so concerned with time or distance.
B: The part between the Netherlands and Budapest stands out clearly, as it was in many ways very difficult and more intense. Everything was new and we had to learn how to adopt to cycling and most importantly to each other. My narratives of myself and of Nienke were changing day by day, new experience by new experience, and I was probably overtly demanding rather than giving as I tried to find myself a place in this new life on wheels. But by the time we pedalled into Budapest, some core stones started to be laid down, forming the bedrocks for the time thereafter and a new phase began. Ever since there has been a relaxed exploration of myself, of the cultures around me; with the accumulation of experiences I have become more proactive instead of reactive; my claims towards Nienke now are coupled with responsibilities, listening and giving; and despite always having in mind a healthy limit, my ambitions have not been thrown back anymore by my physical abilities. I guess what I am describing now can be summed up as cycling made the transition into new lifestyle. Turkey and Iran only added a new colour to this as the cultural context around us changed drastically, so learning and adaptation are requiring a fresh look. Speaking of the phase I am at the moment in Teheran can be described as sobering. Six months is long enough to start feeling the time, the length of our travel behind and ahead of me alike. If nothing else, my worn out sandals, broken tent and the length of my beard remind me; it was not yesterday when we left from the Netherlands and it will not be tomorrow that we arrive to India. At the same time, this process of grasping time makes the formation of memories began. Cycling in a snowstorm close to Brilon in Germany or crossing the river Maritsa at the Greek-Turkish border is not a recent experience anymore but memories and I even feel bit nostalgic. The realisation of “what have I done” is put on hold until India nevertheless
What element of your personality is still an obstacle during cycling?
N: Lettings things go beyond my control and trusting that it will be fine, is something I am constantly working on. Although cycling so far has taught me an immense amount of improvisation and living moment by moment, it still happens to me that my worries and fears overrule the experience of where I am. An example is that climbing a high pass can occupy my mind already days before. I can have the false idea that objective measurements can tell me how tough or easy the ride will be, such as how much elevation I would have to climb in a day, how steep the road is, how many kilometers it will take etcetera. Experience has taught me by now that every pass is a subjective experience which is not framed by all these numbers and facts, but mostly by my state of mind. This tendency to want to control everything and worry about what is coming up, is something that can still be an obstacle.
B: Well, first of all is my annoyance with the ways how people express their emotions. Too often I caught myself yelling at a passing car “Why?!” at the moment they horned right next to me, only to let out my anger induced by them. By now, I understand it is not how people express their emotions about us which matters (trust me I saw a lot of very very weird ones) but the emotion itself; curiosity, excitement, playfulness, caring and so on. Though cultural difference does not make this step easier, I should always remind myself to one question: what is this person feeling right now. Then, though a noisy one, a world becomes a more peaceful place.
Another character of mine I have trouble letting it go is my sense of authority at any decision involving me. Countless times, especially in Turkey and Iran, ended up in a situation to which we were pushed rather than invited, which sometimes I cannot effectively deal with. It is not about that things go unplanned, but before they go, please ask me a simple question “would you like it?” I am ready to choose for the unexpected.
Can you recall a difficult moment during the trip so far, and what did you learn from this?
N: Very much related to the previous question: my difficult moments often happen when I wake up on a day when we have to climb a pass. One of the last days of Armenia was one of them. We had to climb one more pass of around 2400 meters before we would descend into the desert of Iran, but the fact that we would elevate more than ever before made it seem an impossible task for me. Any small steep hill felt like a mountain on its own, and I could not help to think of how many kilometers we had cycled, and how far it still would be. These worries and fears for what was coming up completely paralyzed me. Bálints optimism, stories and thoughts helped me, as well as that he took away my counter for my own good. The complete relief when we reached the peak and the realization that it was definitely not the hardest climb we had done, made me see how difficult I can make it for myself.
B: It happened on our last day in Turkey that we had to cycle through a number of tunnels during rush hour, packed with heavy trucks, when my sense of primary security completely fell apart. We were cycling on a two-lane highway towards Georgia, the only road possible, and inside the dim tunnels there were technically no shoulders resulting in us being squeezed between the wall and a constant traffic at 90 km/h speed. Long story short, mentally I broke down and felt that if I cycle into the next tunnel, I might die. This has never happened to me before, in my entire life. Needless to say, we did not cycle into any more tunnels that day. What I learn from this situation is invaluable nevertheless. To date, it teaches me to be aware of panicking at an early stage, how to intervene or at least alert Nienke to do so, and restore my mental strength. In other words, based on this experience I am learning how not to lose myself.
Can you recall a moment of accomplishment from the past half year?
N: Every new milestone makes the previous ones feel insignificant, so Tehran would be the top accomplishment by now. In my personal experience, however, reaching Bálints home in Őrbottyán felt as a much bigger accomplishment than reaching Tehran. We had cycled through the German, Czech and Austrian winter, and had been through more hardships than I could have imagined before. Despite all of this, we arrived on a sunny Spring afternoon, cycled into the street while loudly ringing our bells and being welcomed with warm hugs of loved ones. The fact that Őrbottyán is a place where I have been times before, made it even more surreal but also powerful to arrive by bicycle. Also symbolically speaking, cycling from home to home felt as a great accomplishment.
B: Of course to cycle from the Netherlands to Teheran is itself the biggest accomplishment of the past half year. I often joke on the bike, “Nienke we came from Tricht to here”, which is supposed to be a moment of reflection on the macro picture, on the 8352kms we cycled so far. Yet, 8352kms is pretty abstract to grasp and my daily satisfaction comes from much smaller things. Like how to fix our broken tent at the Armenian-Iranian border, win over an arrogant policeman, stay focused while climbing a mountain or breaking a new speed record downhill (73km/h at the moment!). These are the daily accomplishments, which keeping my ship afloat until India.
How do you complement each other during travelling, and which habits have evolved out of this?
N: Of course differences between our characters have existed before, and complementing aspects alike. Specifically during cycling, Bálint complements me by living in the moment, and pulling me out my worries. His constant flow of observations, stories and sharp questions help me to reflect on what is around me, and entice me to get more and more curious. As Bálint is best in living in the moment, I complement him by keeping track on the macro picture of the trip. Managing the money, time planning and route is what I naturally like to do, and these evolved into my tasks during the trip.
B: To begin with, there are many ways how we mutually complement each other, some of them probably unknown to me. But to name a few, I guess what I help Nienke a lot is to remind her of successes we achieved together at critical moments in the past. For example, when climbing is difficult for her, we stop and we talk, and my role is to make her remember that “we are one team climbing together”, and that last time she did not believe in herself neither, yet she nailed it! I never lie that it will be easy. Meanwhile, I can get stuck in my head too, especially when at the end of the day we must make some decisions. I am often indecisive. Then she comes on stage and with the inborn Dutch capacity of rough directness she gives me directions, knocks on doors, calls the host, does the groceries for dinner – she acts when I cannot. And I am really really happy for her to do it. Another thing, we got to know each other at the travel committee of our student organisation, SIB, almost 4 years ago where Nienke was the “penningmeester”, someone responsible for spending the money. This role has not changed as she is the one controlling money now too, something we often laugh about.
In what way does cycling impact your relationship?
N: Being 24/7 together for six months definitely impacts our relationship, as well as going through all these experiences on the road together. I got to know Bálint in so many new ways, often positive but sometimes also negative, which all deepened our relationship. The dangers of being together all the time, are first of all that you can start taking the presence of the other for granted, and his positivity and love as well. Moreover, that there is no possibility to take distance if necessary makes conflict solving a more challenging task. This is even further hindered by the lack of reference points to your relationship from others around you. All of these have caused some difficulty now and then in the past months, but we managed to overcome them. Cycling together requires constant work, as we are juggling the different identities of travel buddies, lovers, partners, and friends. Being a good team on the road but also maintaining a sense of intimacy is a fine balance to uphold.
B: That is a question that everybody would like to ask, rightfully. Being together 24/7 makes ideas of each other increasingly rigid and fixed, which I would highlight as one of the biggest enemy to any relationship, on and off the bikes. So counterbalancing this process on my part requires an active effort to re-define, re-fresh who Nienke is constantly. Otherwise, the danger I would be harbouring is to miss out on learning about her various faces, skills, emotions..etc, and it that way miss out on deepening my relationship with her, only to conserve. In this respect, touring cycling provides to any couple a unique opportunity as well as obstacle for their relationship. But this practice can be lengthy; it is easier said than done!
What trait of Iranian people would you like to bring back home?
N: Most Iranians that we have met so far have an instant willingness to help us, without any hesitation. Although we are complete strangers to them, coming from a different continent and a different culture, their curiosity and helpfulness is always the upper hand in their approach to us. It makes me very sad to realize what fear, xenophobia and distrust these people would encounter when they would walk on the streets in my own country. I wish I could bring their genuine helpfulness, trust, and curiosity back to the Netherlands.
B: Iranian people travel a lot across Iran, therefore they know their country well. In addition to this, their sense of pride and nationhood is intrinsically connected to and nurtured by their land. Partly due to this phenomenon, Iranian people we talked to have a solid, firm confidence in their past, in their cultures unknown in Central Europe and Hungary. I can only hope that one day the hysteria about our sense of pride and nationhood prevalent in Hungary will reach a level of maturity and confidence seen here in Iran.
In what way is the library project for Ashray school part of your daily cycling routine?
N: As most project work was done before we embarked on our journey, it might seem that the project has moved to the background. To some extent that is true, as we are mostly absorbed by all the things we see around us. Telling people about our project, explaining what Untouchability in India means, and answering their questions, however, regularly helps me to keep this greater goal in mind. Because India has become my passion, and the work for Ashray and the Benares School Fund Foundation a serious preoccupation, I feel extremely excited about going back to the place where all these seeds have been planted. For me personally, this is a great motivation. Daily encounters with curious people, or updates about fundraising activities back home always incite this feeling of excitement.
B: Of course we often have to explain our library project to people, which keeps me committed and motivated. Even more frequently, I talk with Nienke about Ashray because of the stark cultural differences surrounding us recently makes me think on what grounds we have founded the idea of the library. This in turn raises my commitment to an even more inclusive planning of the library, which, in few months from now, must begin with a lot of exchanges of views and opinions. I cannot wait to start!
What would you like to work on in the upcoming 6 months?
N: If I could diminish certain worries and fears, I could use this valuable mental capacity to have more meaningful contact with people around me and improve my understanding of the societies I am in. This is something I would like to work on.
B: Perhaps one of the most bothering aspects of cycling, on which I would like to reflect on (for the sake of improvement) is the way I connect with people. More than not, I have found myself in a situation when complete strangers, who came on our way, transpired to become one of the most caring persons about me and Nienke within a short time. Their exhibition of deep concern, kindness and genuine love often left me in doubt about myself, questioning how they came to commit to me so rapidly and why I am not able to share, let alone to return, their emotions as they do? While thinking about these bitter-sweet moments and dislike about myself, I came to believe that my emotional obstacle is time, or my idea about the amount of it needed to experience relationships at a deeper level. Often I hear travellers from Europe reasoning why they feel indifference towards locals they encounter because “they only meet one person like me, but I meet many like them”. I disagree. It is not the numbers, which block us from connecting on a short note but rather our pre-existing idea that this random encounter won’t last long therefore it cannot be more than a pleasant talk or a fun night. The reason why I feel unease connecting with strangers is my sense of temporariness, ingrained in me from contemporary Western culture, about the relationship I am about to have. If I would become able to forget time as precondition to meaningful relationships, I could touch and get touched by some of the most sensitive, loving strangers on the road despite of the limited time available to us.
– Nienke & Bálint