When you are travelling alone, nobody sets any rules for you. Still, some travellers decide to set rules for themselves, in particular when they are on the road for longer. One rule I encountered among cyclists is to cycle every inch of the way, for example. Others set out with the aim to only hitchhike. And really, it is totally up to you which flavor you want to give to your journey. Or maybe which challenge you want to tackle. Maybe even more so when you are travelling solo. Upon encountering other people’s rules, I started to think if I wanted to have any. The inner debate did not take long.
My main rule is: there are no rules.
And this, for me, is a lot harder than any other rule I could think of. Most of my life (and I guess this is true for other people as well), I have tried to fulfill expectations. Mostly my own, but also those of what you may call ‘the outer system’. Get good grades. Be disciplined in your sport. You name it. There was an inate desire for me to do so. I enjoy taking on challenges and getting through them – it is just part of my personality. Learning something and getting really good at it, maybe even excelling. Still, there were rules and there were goals. This part I know. This feels utterly familiar. It would have been in my second nature, an integral part of who I was before setting out for this trip, to say: ‘alright, I will cycle every single meter.’ Or maybe: ‘I will cycle to Europe in xx days.’ Set your goal, focus, discipline yourself. Easy. I recognize that this way of thinking, this attitude, is not easy for everyone – everyone functions differently (and what is easy for others can be insanely hard for me, of course). Also, those challenges would have still been challenges, also for me. Yet, it would have been the same, old way of thinking. Also, a way of thinking that embodies a thought that I am struggling to get rid of: that my life, I, as a person, only has value when I accomplish things. That it is quintessential for you to accomplish things, since that grants you the right to live, be loved and appreciated. At my core, I know that this is totally off – but it is still hard to rid myself of these thoughts.
So instead of giving myself a challenge, of setting rules, I made the decision: there are no rules.
All of a sudden, you are confronted with insecurity. Absurdly enough, the question arose in my head: ‘Am I allowed to do this? Take a time-out from life and not even try to accomplish something specific?’ And then I realized that this is really at the core of things. Facing these kinds of questions, doubts, fears. If your mind is busy following rules, also your own, it is easy to deafen yourself against the voice in your head that asks these questions. And I am glad that I do not deafen that voice anymore. I listen. And I realize how the voice in my head is slowly changing its text.
Don’t get me wrong: there is absolutely nothing wrong with setting challenges for yourself. It may be life-changing for someone to set a challenge or rule, for a journey or a certain period of life, and succeeding. This experience may actually be novel for that person, changing his or her perspective on being able to rely on oneself, on being able to carry through, even when times are rough.
It is just that for me things are the opposite. My change of perspective is to move away from concrete goals, to move away from rules of ‘how to do things right’.
So when you are facing a difficult stretch to cycle, a steep pass maybe or a road with heavy traffic, there is nobody and no rule that helps you decide. Should you skip or keep cycling? When you decide to skip a stretch, do you try to hitchhike? Do you actually pay for transport? When you wake up to the sound of rain, do you stay and wait it out? Do you get on the road? If you are really tired in the evening, but have not written your diary in a couple of days, do you stay up to write? Do you give in to the desire to sleep?
I have done these and other things both ways and other ways as well. And I realize that rules would have not made sense. Every situation is different, every situation requires a fresh perspective. I have caught myself a couple of times, saying to myself: ‘Nah, that is not the way I do things.’ For example, I had not paid for transport for almost two months. I either cycled or hitchhiked. But then, I encountered a situation (my Tajik visa expiring and next to no truck traffic on the road), where I actually made sense to pay for transport. And I realized that the challenge, for me, was to actually pay for it. Against my first intuition of ‘that is not how I do things’. The more accurate thought would have been ‘This is not how I have done things UP TO NOW.’ And then move beyond it.
I thought a bit more and realized that I do have one principle, a very basic one.
‘Stay sane, healthy and out of prison.’
That pretty much sums up my priorities. But it is more a reminder than anything else to take care of myself. Because, as I am travelling solo, nobody else will.
If I realize that I do need company, I might stay an extra night just because I have met people with whom I bonded instantly. If I feel that I need a break from the road, I will take it, even if my visa is about to expire. If my desire is to do nothing at all for an entire day, in a village where there is nothing to do or see, this is what is going to happen. I just follow my intuition what I need on any given day, to stay sane and well. I have acted against this intuition a few times, and instantly got the feedback from myself that those were not good, sustainable choices.
My original rule was ‘stay alive’, but I realized that I want more than that. I want to take care of myself such that I am actually well physically, not only alive. This may sound really easy – it really is not for me. I have absolutely no problem with pushing myself to my physical limits and beyond (I have been in high performance sports for long enough). But if you are cycling by yourself in remote mountain regions, this is really not what you want. There is nobody to catch you and take care of you if your health deteriorates because you overexerted yourself. Staying healthy, taking care of getting good, fresh food (if it is available), resting my body – definitely high priorities for me.
Staying out of prison:
An obvious one, but also one that is a bit more crucial in some parts of the world than others, simply because the rules in some regions are a bit stricter than elsewhere. It just means that I am not trying to bend any laws. I am the most friendly and obliging person when I am get to a military checkpoint. And I will tell people in uniforms a lot of nice words, even if I innerly disagree. That simple.
Beside this one, basic principle, I realized that there is another that I am trying to follow:
Don’t be a hero.
In a way, this is just another aspect of all of the above. And again, it would be easy for me to take the ‘hero lane’. Accomplish some athletic feat. Pushing yourself beyond 100km on that tough day. So I am forcing myself to go in the opposite direction. Take it easy. Slap myself on the shoulder at the end of the day, even though I only cycled 10km in the rain and then gave up (and gave in to the invitation of a Tajik grandmother to come into her house for tea). Actually, slapping myself on the shoulder BECAUSE I made that decision. Because I was tired and about to catch a cold. In a way, not being a hero also relates to my other principle, of staying sane, healthy and out of prison. Trying something heroic oftentimes leads to actions that are not particularly healthy, get you to the border of sanity and potentially close to a prison cell or at least a fine. Actually, I make it a point to congratulate myself on taking non-heroic decisions. Taking a rest day instead of pushing through. Giving myself time to mentally prepare for a tough mountain pass. Paying someone to get me closer to the border when my visa is about to run out.
And then, also tying into all the above, one could also phrase things this way:
Be pragmatic, not dogmatic.
Again, this is not as easy for me. But I am getting used to making purely pragmatic decisions. If it is early evening and I have not cycled as far as I had planned, but meet nice cyclists who are setting up their camp, I will surely join them. If I got taken in by a family and it rains the next day, I will surely use that chance and just stay, no matter my original goals for that day. Being pragmatic means, for me, that I leave judgements out of my thinking and try to only consider the facts. And some logic. ‘Rain outside’ + ‘I have a dry spot inside’ > ‘stay where I am ‘. Not that hard, it seems, but again, I sometimes catch myself diverting my thoughts into non-pragmatic ways. ‘Shouldn’t I be doing … instead?’. Life on the road is a good teacher, though. You are instantly rewarded for pragmatic decisions. Such as ‘if someone gives you food, take up that offer’. Even when it is tomatoes. Tomatoes are the only food item I utterly despise, but if tomatoes are the only fresh item to be had (as in: all the Pamirs), I will eat tomatoes.
All that being said, the main rules still holds: there are no rules. And my perspective of life has changed in mind-boggling ways since I accepted this. It still is a challenge for me, to leave old patterns of thinking and also to not let myself get into routines (‘I have always done things this way’ is, by how, reason enough for me to try things in a different way). Looking forward to what happens to me over time with this different view of thinking!