The Open Road

Entry by: Seaside Scribbler

6th October 2017
Lessons from the Open Road - A Short Memoir

There's a sum I've tried to work out many times - it's days on the road X hours spent in the saddle X distance and speed. Or something. Maths isn't my strong point but whichever way I've worked out the sum, the rough answer (give or take a few hours) is 3000.

That's 3000 hours spent riding pillion on the back of a big BMW motorbike called Bertha.

Yep, you read it right. Now, aside from all the incredible experiences we had over two and a quarter years on the road, all the amazing people we met and all the wonderful places we visited, 3000 hours was a hell of a long time to spend in your own head, which is essentially what I did. My husband and I had helmet to helmet communication so we chatted and listened to music. We played daft games, we talked - but often we didn't talk; we sat and swish-swayed our way across the world, from Malaysia, where we were living, to Scotland, where we still live now.

And during those 3000 hours, in the silences, my thoughts ran wild; looped over and through themselves; tortured me, sometimes; took me places I'd been trying to avoid and at times, it was damned hard. Most of the time, we do anything to avoid having to spend too much time in our own heads (except us writers, I suppose, but even then we stop from time to time) - we read, cook, listen to music, talk, socialise, drink, watch TV, etc etc. On the back of a bike there's not much you can do. There was always so much to see, we never retrod our own tyre tracks so every day brought new sights, so there was an element of distraction but mainly, I was stuck in my head. And this brings me to lesson one.

Lesson One

No matter where you go, what you do, what you see, you cannot escape the boundaries of your own mind. You cannot escape yourself: your thoughts, your fears, your own tangled waking nightmares and anxieties. This was a revelation. I knew it, on an intellectual level but to truly experience it was life-changing. Those who travel to escape, can't. You cannot escape yourself. And on the back of the bike, the loops of my thoughts showed me that I really really needed to talk to someone professional and do a bit of untangling. (I did, on our return, and it was great.)

Lesson Two

There is a lot of fear surrounding long-term travel. Most of that fear revolves around people. When we arrived in Texas, people were literally speechless when we told them we'd ridden a motorbike through Central America and South America. 'What, alone??' they'd ask, once they found their voices again. Of course, we did meet people who'd been held-up, some at gunpoint. But not many, and they were the ones who ignored advice (freely given) by locals not to ride in certain areas after dark, not to stop in such and such a town. A frission of danger makes it fun, however, what we learned time and time again is that most people are good. Most people are kind and most people want to help when your bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or you are hungry and haven't found a shop. There are bad people but there are bad people everywhere. I still know more people who've been mugged in London than in the rest of the world. (except me - I've been robbed a few times but each time was due to me being completely stupid and naive, usually when I first arrived somewhere new - but those are other stories). If you're sensible, you're generally safe. We met some absolutely fantastic people, rich and poor. We had dinner in shacks and dinner in mansions. Most people are good. Great lesson, and one that I've carried with me ever since. And I hope I've become a better person as a result. I try to be kind, whenever there's an opportunity.

Lesson Three

Travelling by motorbike and sleeping in a tent a lot is a great way to practise DIY marriage guidance.

Lesson Four

We met a lot of other travellers on our journey, whether travelling by bike, truck, bus or thumb. The ones who carried positivity with them were the ones who had positive experiences. The ones who were whingy, who moaned, who got angry when people behaved differently - well, you can imagine the world they saw. Ralph Waldo Emerson sums it up perfectly:

'Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we will find it not.'

Lesson Five

Tight pack, loose plan. This became our mantra. It doesn't matter how much you plan - the road ahead is completely unknowable. Those who got upset when forced to change their plans struggled. We became flexible enough to go where the road took us, with a rough destination in mind. We left Malaysia and the past eight years of our lives and jobs, with no idea where we'd end up. Somewhere along the way we decided to go home to Scotland so we pointed the bike in that direction and followed the road. If plans changed, we changed with them.

We left Malaysia in April 2006 and we crossed the border into Scotland on July 7th 2008. By that time I was four months pregnant and we were ready to stop riding - for a bit. But we've never, ever stopped adventuring - they are just smaller adventures. I struggle with the time frame - the memories are all so fresh so how is it possible that we set off on this journey 11 years ago? Sometimes, when we're bogged down with life, however, it all seems like a wonderful dream that we happened to have together. We still talk about our adventures - the children never tire of hearing Bertha the Bike stories and this year Bertha finally got herself running again, with a bit of help from my husband. We're thinking of getting a sidecar, just for Sunday days out...

The lessons I learned travelling may all sound very obvious and simple. However, what I learnt has stayed with me and helps me still. Those five lessons have made me see and experience the world differently and I hope I never forget them.

If you'd like to read more about our journey, here's the blog we co-authored. We were technology light and didn't carry any phones or computers so this was usually written in a rush, in internet cafes, with dodgy connections and ancient, slow computers, usually surrounded by noisy teenagers.

And just in case you're considering a trip, big or small, here's what to do. Pick a date. That's often the hardest thing to do and until you've done it, it will remain a dream. We picked a date two years into the future. My husband came home from work one day and said, Right! That's it! I've had enough! We figured it would take us two years to save/plan/leave a country and our jobs. That was April 2004. Two years later, we pushed the keys though the letterbox of our home of seven years, and got on our bike. Was I afraid? Oh, yes. I'll write about overcoming fear another time. But I shoved that fear into a box, climbed onto the back, plugged 'Born to be Wild' into our headphones and clung on.

Got a dream? Pick a date, and get packing...