Category Archives: India
An Twelve Minute Read
“No one has ever become poor by giving.” ~ Anne Frank, Writer
This past week I was privileged enough to attend WE Day in Toronto. It was one of those experiences that really puts the pieces of our work into perspective. As I watched other change makers and hopefuls share their story, it truly was inspiring. To see the roar of the crowd and the countless people who believe in a better future take the stage was something I will never forget. To see the messages received by the youth of tomorrow and feel that connection was fantastic. Whether it was Gord Downie or Fire Chief Darby Allen sharing their stories, it seemed like we are all working together for something greater. A better future for all. Equality, change and perspective are things I think the world needs to continue to strive towards.
I often think back to those moments on the road. The times of extreme high and low. The poverty and riches that I saw along the way. Both extremes have left a lasting impact on the way that I now see the world. From cobbled roads of Italy, to the hectic Indian byways. From the affluence that is the western world and the imaginary lines that separate similar lands. I have flashbacks to faces and places that now only seem like images of a dream I once knew. The good, the horribly difficult and the monotone moments of challenging bliss in-between.
During those days I smiled a million smiles and felt the weight of my dream on my shoulders. Sometimes, the immensity of my goal weighed a little heavy. When the mountains snaked up on tiny roads beyond my sight or roads stretched out to nameless expanses, I felt that pull forward and pull back to reality. Was I going to make it home? Would people care enough to donate to my cause? Was it all worth it? The answer to all those questions was and always will be a resounding, yes.
“It always seems impossible, until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela, Freedom Fighter
(Below you can read the five-page full update from WE Charity on all of our schools fundraising projects throughout the world. Very exciting!)
Along this journey I had the unique opportunity to help give back. With well over three-hundred sponsors we were able to raise $50,000 for Free the Children (WE Charity). I am blown away by both sides of this accomplishment. The whole experience taught me a good deal about the people I call family and friends, as well as those throughout our world who wished to make it a better place. It showed me that one idea really can make a difference. That we can change someone’s world for the better.
Throughout those two years, people from all over the globe reached out to help me achieve my goal. However, in the process, it became a collective mission. It was no longer just one crazy guy’s idea on a bike. It was a goal that is now shared by hundreds of people. There were even schools throughout Eastern Ontario that rose to the occasion and helped push the metre ever higher. Without the endless donations and goodwill, our collective goal of giving children in struggling nations access to safe and reliable education would have never been possible. Five schools in five different countries.
I will admit, when I first set out, though my hopes were high, I did not know how far or how well the charitable portion of my journey would be received. I had this dream inside my heart of five schools in five countries around the world. However, I set out with one to start. I did not want to look over ambitious or fail miserably for the whole world to see. However, by the time I reached the edge of the Chinese frontier in Xinjiang Province, the goal for the schoolhouse in GuangMing, China was achieved. As I crossed into Kyrgyzstan on a cool afternoon, I knew we could achieve great things if we worked together. It truly was a feeling like no other.
To be able to give back to a country which meant so much to me, was a sign of good things to come. The school in China’s Sichuan province has been complete for some time now and I assure you the effects of which are felt on a daily basis. For the people that live in Guang Ming it represents a chance at a better future. A future that has more than hope at the end of it. Though I was unable to visit the community due to horrible flooding of the road, I plan to make a journey there at some point soon. To see the faces of the change and hear their stories. Sichuan was one of my favourite sections of China and it is a place that will always call me to return.
As I continued to bike, the support rolled with my tires. Countless people continued to donate and some even began to donate for a second time. On the road, I would connect with my sponsors through personalized emails. I wanted to know what made these people feel the pull towards my cause and thank them for their generosity. No matter if it was $1000 or $10, I sent a message all the same. Every donor meant the world to me while I was on the road. I knew that people were giving what they could and sometimes even when they couldn’t. It gave me the energy boost I needed. Sometimes, when I was feeling down or lonely, a donation from a friendly stranger would ignite the flame inside to keep moving.
In India, I visited the community of Verdara. I was greeted by long time change maker Lloyd and his team with WE charity. Thanks to my supporters, a new schoolhouse has been added to the High School where there previously was none. Children have access to a higher education than has ever been possible in their community. They no longer have to walk far distances or move to continue their education. I saw the smiling faces of their youth and experienced a celebration like no other in their village. You can read about and see photos of my experiences in Verdara HERE.
When I reached Kenya, I was met by the warm handshake and laughter of the Masaai people. I explored the daily life of the community, along with their struggles and victories. Here I learned the value of community. I saw their thirst for education, carried water buckets and practiced how to throw a rungu. By the time I reached the bottom of Africa, the fundraising for the schoolhouse in Esinoni, Kenya was complete. I knew we would make the final goal with continued hard work and support. You can read about my days in the Masaai Mara with Me to We HERE.
In the Andean mountains of Ecuador, I pedalled on up to the community of Shuid. Here I saw the struggles of mountain life mix with natural beauty. I was met by Ryan and his generous team. The views were spectacular and the need the same. The dichotomy of all these places truly amazed me. Later that week as I pedalled into Quito, I wondered about the little community on the side of the mountain. I walked about a glimmering shopping mall in search of some peanut butter for the road, wondering about the hard divisions that separate our world. Seeing all that their city counterparts had, I knew that achieving the goal here was more important than ever. Now the two-storey building is nearing completion thanks to my countless sponsors. To read about my experiences in Shuid CLICK HERE.
On the dog days stretch of Central America, I burned into Nicaragua after a 8 day ride from Panama City. I was feeling the push for home. The end was in sight, but I knew I had unfinished business. The two years on the road had taken a toll on my mind and body. I was stronger than ever physically, but my mind was wavering. Once I met my friend Camillo from WE Charity and biked down to the community of El Trapiche with a group of boys, my resolve was stronger than ever. The $50,000 mark would be no problem at all. I returned to Canada with a mission and after a few short weeks the final goal came on a day just like any other. A feeling I can now proudly share with all of my sponsors. You can read about my time in El Trapiche HERE.
You can get involved with WE Charity or experience your own ME to WE journey by CLICKING HERE.
“He who allows his day to pass by without practicing generosity & enjoying life’s pleasures…breathes but does not live.” ~ Sanskrit Proverb
I have now returned to a life of a little more comfort. There is food in my fridge and a warm bed waiting for me each day. I have my wife, family and friends close by. All the little things that many of us take for granted, have been returned to me once again. But we always want what we can’t have. I still look at maps from time to time and have burst of nostalgia that almost hurts. When I ride my old beat-up bike to and fro I feel the pedals looking for the next hill. In some moments I wished I went a little bit slower or spent a day longer here or a week there. Sometimes, I wish I was still out there with the morning sun, evening stars, my tent and four bags. But, that was one adventure. Everything happened the exact way it should have. Had I stayed one place longer, I would have missed one person or another that directly changed the course of my journey and in turn the future of my life. I am on the next adventure and I can’t wait. No regrets. It was the ride of a lifetime.
I will never forget a feeling I had one night two weeks into my trip. While laying awake in my tent, I was looking at a map of China and the world. I had skirted a small slice of the monster that was China and put a pinprick on the world. I was going nowhere fast. I was terrified, alone and feeling down. I had left everything behind to pursue some crazy dream that looked better on paper than it was looking at this moment in real life. I took a deep breath and felt the world crashing down on me. I suddenly found that the idea of the whole world was too big. They journey was going to be too much to handle if I kept looking at it in this way. It was in this moment that I decided to live each day as it came. Forget about the long off finish line. This moment forever changed the rest of my ride and the happiness I felt in my interactions on a daily basis. Sometimes, I still need to remind myself of these moments as I pick away at my book and my goals for the future. One day at a time.
We too can all achieve great things with time, patience and a little help. I believe that with hard work and dedication, anything can be achieved in time. Without the help of all my donors, I would never have been able to get through some of the wild and difficult places that were thrown at me along the way. Without those days and the people who came at the right time, I would not be who I am today. For everyone that helped make a difference and construct the five schools in China, India, Kenya, Ecuador and Nicaragua, thank you. On behalf of all the people we have helped, a boisterous thank you. For believing in me, I humbly thank you all.
*Please see the inspiring full update from the good people at WE Charity (Free the Children) below as well as my YouTube video from around the world.
**In my following posts I will begin by highlighting some of the truly awesome people that I met on my way around the world. It is my duty now to share their stories and their world.
***To see my charity page from the journey and a rolling list of all the wonderful donors, schools and businesses, please CLICK HERE.
****You can also check out my alternate website at www.tinysbest.com.
My Cycling Journey Around the World
Gord Downie at WE Day
A Six Minute Read
(Stunning Sunsets: Kerala India)
Lesson #6- Times Will Change: So Will You
“Things change. And friends leave. Life doesn’t stop for anybody.” Stephen Chbosky, The Perk of Being a Wallflower
—-> We are not the same people we were in the past. It is important to always be working on ourselves and not look back with regret with who we used to be. People change. We have to accept the people we knew throughout our lives are always adapting, growing and changing as the pressures of the world mould their new selves. The world is a difference place than ten years ago. A good many things have changed. Being ready to say ‘yes’ to something new is key. It may sound hard, but being open to the wild and wonderfully new may change your life forever.
If we were the same person throughout our lives, I think it would be pretty boring. As our careers, interests and life expands, we become new people. In fact, every seven years we biologically become a new person as cells and blood is replaced. Over the course of that time all of our skin cells have been replaced and replenished by new ones. So if you look at it from a biological standpoint, by the time you are 35 years old, you are just beginning your 6th self. If you look at yourself as a multitude of people, and not one singular being, it is easier to let go of your past and move towards a new future.
We may look back at nostalgia at the old days and think that nothing will ever be as good as that one point in life. I think that thought is flawed. It leaves your present self at an unfair advantage. As if you will never be that fit, charming or intelligent again. The game is never over until the end. I say don’t fight for the good days, make every single one count and never idolize the past to the point where the present moment is forgotten. It is important to remember that those past ‘Glory Days’ have shaped you dramatically, but they do not need to define you wholly.
“But all he kept talking about was, Glory days, well they’ll pass you by.” ~ Bruce Springsteen, Songwriter
By working on aspects of our personality, physique and the impact we would like to have on our surroundings, we continue to grow as people. We can make ourselves into something better. Stagnation in our development is never going to help us turn into a happier person in the future. If you don’t like something about yourself, change it. Learn a new language, try something that scares you, hit the gym or take a trip to somewhere new. I know I have my flaws and I am trying to work on them. No one is perfect, but realize personal development is a never-ending journey. Stay motivated.
*Less than $320 to go to the final goal of $50,000 and the last schoolhouse in El Trapiche Nicaragua. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**Tomorrow you can expect Lesson #5 from the road. Thank you for reading! 🙂
Waking Life – The Gap/Stories of Progress
“Charity begins at home, but should not end there.” ~ Thomas Fuller, Writer/Historian
With over $30,000 raised, the schoolhouse in Esinoni, Kenya is now under construction. I cannot thank everyone enough who rose to the call and gave what they were able. Together we are making dreams come true for young learners in different parts of the world. We have now accomplished building a school in Guangming, China and the second schoolhouse in Verdara, India is now underway. I am without words. When I look back at my humble dreams of making a difference in the education of tomorrows youth, I would have never expected this. Simply getting on a bike everyday and going for a ride, has given young children the opportunity for a better future. The dream of having a memorable childhood is the gift we are giving. Seeing the smiling faces in these communities is all the thank you we can ever need.
My next hope is an additional $10,000 and a schoolhouse for the children in Shuid, Ecuador. I know working together we can achieve this. Together we are powerful. Together we are strong. We can make a difference. We have already proven that. Giving others hope and a better life is one of the best feelings in the world. We are already off to a great start thanks to wonderful donations by Eleanor Glenn and the Rutherford family. Below is a look at Shuid, Ecuador. Some of the accomplishments, needs and details about the community are listed here. I hope to visit the site in the coming months, as I make my way up South America. Together our potential is limitless. We may not change the entire world, but at least we can give hope and alter the course of someone’s life forever. This is what it is all about.
“The more credit you give away, the more will come back to you. The more you help others, the more they will want to help you.” ~ Brian Tracy, Author
To make a difference in the world is not about throwing money at a problem and looking away. It is about extending your hand when someone else is down. When they are out in the cold both figuratively and literally. It is easy to forget about people worlds over or turn the channel. Those with the smallest voices need the most help. The people that just want to live in peace. My experiences throughout my journey are amazingly positive. If you open yourself to the world, you never know who you will meet. The people that had the least always seemed to give the most. When a little is a lot. When times are tough and they were still about to help. The places you’d at least expect kindness were the most giving. This world never ceases to inspire me. Something to think about:
Feels like Home
We closed up and left our shop,
We walked away, with no more talk.
Stealing away under darkened care,
Together we walked all the way there.
The heat rose from the daytime light,
While familiar noises banged in the night.
We took what we could drag, roll or carry,
We did it together, even if it was scary.
Arriving was not a typical scene,
“You’re a refugee.” What does that mean?
A girl I met had the same story,
There were no more bells, no more glory.
We waited in that place forever it seemed,
We talked knee to knee, in small spaces I dreamed.
Reports came in, they were always bleak,
There was no place to go, no shelter to seek.
Inside the gates, caught between curled spikes,
Out of mind and out of sight.
We finally got news of something good,
We packed our few things, happily with Mom and Dad I stood.
Boarding a big plane, it rumbled up high,
Into the night we flew, below dark as the sky.
“Where are we going?” I asked my Dad,
Looking off in the distance, a little sad.
He smiled and said “Somewhere beautiful where we can live free.”
“Welcome to Canada!” The man greeted happily.
I nodded and thought, “Feels like home to me.”
Pieces of people walk,
They pass and they glow.
Open books, filled up with talk.
Hopeful we all know,
Know that there is more.
Lifestyles built on a hollow core.
We pass on open roads,
Practical and passive,
Bearing secret loads.
The gap grows, it is massive.
Plugged into lives dictated to be free,
While invisible forces of spirit divide you and me.
We trowel for diamonds in the dirt,
Searching with broken tools and sun cracked eyes.
Amid all the shroud of veiled hurt,
A child’s voice muffled, silencing all their old cries.
Goals lost to political treason,
Hate falls, halting all for no reason.
Flickers of light stain the side of turned faces,
As unwanted feelings bubble deep inside.
Complacent looks shrug away the traces,
Moods dampened, that we easily hide.
Distractions come by the many, they are plenty.
Not my problem anymore,
Call it someone else’s war.
This is dedicated to all of the heroes who have made my journey every bit possible. To all the people who have opened their homes, lives and hearts to me. I am forever grateful. For every bit of freedom you gave me and all of the hardship you saved me from. Thank you for allowing me to show that the world is a good place. Thank you for reminding a guy on a bike, wherever I go, there will be kind people. I encourage those all over the world to look inside and reach out to people in need. Please welcome those the same way you would want to be. We are all of the same world. Just like you. Just like me. Just like us.
To join the cause and help give the children of Shuid, Ecuador a safe place to learn, CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**Here is a recent article by Stacey Roy about my ride and charity from my hometown paper. A big thank you to all of my supporters back home! CLICK HERE TO READ.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” ~ Nelson Mandela, Freedom Fighter/Politician
This week I was given an update on the progress of our work with the schoolhouses in China, India and Kenya. The update (see below) highlights the recent achievements and development in the community of Verdara, India. With the new school underway, the students are now able to realize their full potential and become makers of change. I love their unfailing enthusiasm towards education and personal development. It makes me so happy to wonder at all they are becoming and hope to be.
Seeing this made me well-up and feel a extreme sense of pride with all we are achieving. After a long day in the sun and wind, I usually find myself spending my last moments of the day looking up at the night sky. I’ve looked up from quiet camping spots on many clear nights. From quiet hills of Mozambique to still nights on Kyrgyzstani steppe. When there is nothing but nature, air and sky. I see the stars and the shimmering moon. It is in these moment I contemplate the ever moving wonder that is our world. The beauty that has passed me and all the struggles our people face. I feel how small we are, as I gaze up at those distant galaxies. It is in these moments of extreme peace and solitude, I am transported to old worlds of my lifetime. They seem lifelike. I see it all in clarity. Maybe it is only exhaustion, hunger or a haze of confusion, but in my mind, I am there living the experience once again. On starry nights I think of people and faces long past and wonder if they look up all the same.
It reminds me of the extreme significance of our world and all the people in it. People I have met from worlds over with their own dreams, hopes and ambitions. We are all individuals and all apart of this thing we call humanity. As I trundle along the road through Africa my mind often wanders to far off places months behind. On long endless roads I sometimes wonder if I was really there or it was just some distant dream. When I think of Verdara I see the smiling faces of the children. I see them dancing. I see myself in that moment, completely out of place, dancing all the same. I remember the friendly conversations with the headmasters of the schools and their burly moustaches they were both so proud to showcase. The goats of hope and the shiny new bikes. The smells of the countryside and the mountain roads that wind their way up to the schools.
For me though, it is the resolve of the teachers that can never be forgotten. They continue to press their communities to new levels of development on a daily basis. They are the real change makers. I am only happy to help give them the opportunity to teach in a safe environment. It is here we can give parents, teachers and students alike the assurance that education does matter. For today and tomorrow. To the continued prosperity and hope of the people in Verdara.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.” ~ Helen Keller, Author/Political Activist
Pieces of my heart are scattered throughout the world as I ride. They are left on the cracks of the road, on golden sunset hills, quiet flowing rivers, soft camping spots and warm conversations. But, I left one of the biggest pieces in a small community somewhere among the Aravalli mountains in Rajasthani, India. From Botswana on a sunny Thursday, I cannot thank everyone enough for your unwavering support!
*To be apart of the change happening in Esinoni, Kenya. CLICK HERE TO DONATE
**New post on my travels through Tanzania to come soon. Stay tuned. Sign up and share!
An 8 minute read
After a week long ride from Istanbul, I rest in the ancient city of Thessaloniki, Greece. It is cool outside. A light drizzle in the sky. Water runs down cobblestone alleys all the way to the sea. A buzz of excitement in my head. A vibrant city with a grand history. I crossed the gateway from Asia to Europe via Istanbul. I leave the open road to do what it will. The next leg will continue to be challenging. It will test my perseverance as mountain climbs, chilling cold and empty roads shine the way. I have an intended route as I weave across Eastern Europe and then down into Africa via Sicily. But, if history has taught me anything, all planning will be nothing more than smoke and memories in a few days. Nothing is constant. The road is as static and unpredictable as our weather. An update from Europe will follow. I now reflect on my final days in India. To the open road and nameless questions ahead.
I flew to Istanbul from Delhi. It seemed like the most logical place given my original plans. Had I been able to continue my unbroken route around the world, I would have already been there by now. Problems with Iranian Visas and an impending Kazak winter, shot me down to India for a whirlwind loop tour spanning 3800km from Chennai to Delhi. Reflecting back on those days, I can safely say that they were my hardest and some of the most rewarding so far. The crushing hum of the traffic was relentless and the sights were like no other.
During my ride through India I experienced dreadfully dark days and extreme exhilaration. Some of these highs and lows were often in the same afternoon. I saw amazing architecture and landscapes. Temples, Mosques, beautiful beaches, mountains, marshes, forests and complex ancient cities. Beautiful flowers. Wildlife living in its purity and amongst humanity. From cows and monkeys to rare birds, elephants and camels. I ate like a king for next to nothing. Tasting a wide dichotomy of foods from South to North. The food changed with the road. Regional dishes are my favourite. Vegetarian dishes that would blow your mind. Experienced the best physical fitness of my life. I camped all over. Was welcomed into local homes and shared many meals. I slept on roofs and in backyards, at truck stops and in villages. I met too many kind people to count. We shared stories and laughs. I never really felt alone, because I never was. There is always something happening. I met up with my parents as they took a leap outside their comfort zone and paid an eye-opening visit. Experienced intense pride when seeing the site of the next school in Verdara. The energy that India emits is addictive. You never know what is around the next corner.
I also saw the struggles of an ever expanding India. True heart-wrenching poverty. Some days it was all I seemed to see. The real look of urban migration. Dusty villages with dying crops. Children begging in the streets for their parents or for themselves. The garbage cannot accurately be described. I dodged traffic all day sometimes. I got hit once by a man with an onion cart. Oncoming cars, trucks and bikes going the wrong way were relentless. Selfish passes that continually endangered my life and chased me off the road were the norm. Close calls that I really don’t even like to think back on. Horns of all kinds blaring at all times. Honking for honking sake. Never have I seen so much roadkill. A dog eating a cow sticks out especially. Getting food poisoning and feeling doomed in a dirty home clinic looking up at a dripping IV. Repetitive questioning and curiosity were both a blessing and a curse. I am stronger for it all.
It was more than a whirlwind. Each day I woke up ready for the challenge. I could never tell you were I would be at the end of each day. I quit guessing myself. Am I glad I came and tackled the Indian Sub-Continent? Absolutely. I learned a great deal about myself. My boundaries and my limits. How far I can push myself and when I need to stop. I took beautiful photos and experienced a world I really knew little about. I now truly appreciate an oasis of quiet. India even offered a few tranquil getaways along the way. I saw the Taj Mahal, ancient forts and intricate temples. They were all amazing. But, it was never about the sights. Cycle touring is not about the destination, but what lies in-between. Those sights are just placeholders on a map. The smiles and struggles along the way are what is important. That is what I will remember.
***Have a look at the work being done by Free the Children in our current fundraising community project of Verdara, India. The road to the second school. To see an overview of my experiences in the village CLICK HERE.
To help the community of Verdara CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
A 10 minute read
“The ‘Third World’ is a term I don’t like very much, because we’re all one world. I want people to know that the largest part of humanity is suffering.” ~ Audrey Hepburn, Actress & Humanitarian
The white SUV bounces along through the foggy rolling hills of the Rajasthani mountain scape. Talk of change, history and development dances inside the vehicle in the early morning drive. Women carry heavy loads of branches and containers of sloshing water. The road curves around dusty roads with men guiding buffalo drawn carts. The cool morning leaves a listless start to the day for some. Crouching on the ledge of compacted mud, people watch covered under blankets or sip chai at busy stalls. The goats are being taken to pasture, children rock their way to school on bikes and I sit wondering at the cyclical flow of it all. These are the remote ranges of central Rajasthan.
Upon arriving in Verdara I was escorted to a special celebration taking place at a school by my host Ambrish. A kind loving and knowledgeable man. Luck would have it that my arrival in the community was marked by the yearly celebration of Republic Day. I was worried a few days back that school would not be running during my visit; however, most events take place at the focal meeting building of the village, the school. Ambrish introduced me to Lloyd, who has been a long time and dedicated team member with Free the Children. He was very in tune with the inter-workings of village life as well as having firsthand experience across the projects that Free the Children are currently active in. We walked through the gates of the school into the courtyard where it seemed the whole surrounding community had gathered. The secondary school is a feeder for many smaller communities in the area. I greeted the headmaster with a ‘Namaste’ and took my seat at the head table as a guest of honour. There were many wonderful performances by the children in the community to celebrate their Republic Day. Showing off their skills to their peers and parents with beautiful dances. A good old fashion concert with beautiful outfits and blaring music. Afterwards, dancing. Flurries of hands and bodies move in a schoolyard frenzy of celebratory relief.
During my site tour of Verdara and the surrounding area, I gained a stronger understanding of the complexities that go into developing sustainable communities. The High School will be the location of the next school building. We have currently achieved over a quarter of our goal towards $10,000. One building has already been constructed, however, there is a huge need to replace the remaining structures. They are completely unsafe and devoid of what you would call a happy learning environment. There is little light, no ventilation, children sit on the cold floor and generally are without resources. The teachers struggle to complete lessons in these crumbling and leaky classrooms. Children come late to school after helping their parents with work at home, if they come at all. Understandably, parents are less inclined to send their children to school if the facilities simply aren’t there. Even as a teacher myself, I couldn’t begin to comprehend the struggles staff and students must face. This is dedication to education at its finest.
“If you are in the luckiest one per cent of humanity, you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99 per cent.” ~ Warren Buffett, Businessman & Philanthropist
Since Free the Children has come to the surrounding community of Verdara they have been educating people on many tiers. I believe this is one of the most valuable and priceless aspects of the organization. They are not simply giving handouts, but educating people how to develop sustainable agricultural practices, combat illnesses by boiling water and putting on healthcare education clinics. These are just a few initiatives taking place. By promoting the importance of education in the future of young learners, they are delivering more than hope. Providing an environment where parents feel comfortable to send their children has dramatically increased enrolment, but it is only a part of the battle. The new classrooms are beautiful, bright, safe and decorated in a way that is inviting for young learners. The one headmaster told me that once he opens the new classroom in the morning children enjoy poking their heads inside, wondering when it will be there turn to learn in there. If parents see that a quality system is in place in their child’s early education, then they are more likely to encourage their future studies.
In the schools which Free the Children does work, each student receives a full uniform and a bicycle. I think this is amazing. Prior to this most children had little or no personal possessions. The bicycle creates a sense of ownership and responsibility which they otherwise may have never experienced. They also learn a valuable skill, riding the bike. Rolling proudly to school in groups in their coloured uniforms, they tackle mountains of change that are larger than life. Representing a new generation of hope for their families and the quality of life they are able to bring. It was is a word, empowering. More children are going to school and staying there for longer, especially in terms of the number of girls continuing their education. This is fantastic to see. By educating a girl, they can later teach their whole family.
However, work such as this takes time in terms of convincing the local governments (Panchayats) and getting the community as a whole on board. There are currently many individuals working towards a better tomorrow here. You need dedicated individuals in the village to promote these initiatives for sustainable change to happen. From agriculture and healthcare to sanitation and alternative income programs. During my experiences speaking with the local members of the community I can see the impacts of the donations on a wider spectrum.
For instance, while I was there we visited a local farmer who was apart of the alternative income initiative. He was able to pick out two goats and his neighbours the same. These goats have given much more back to their families than can be explained. The new quality breed of goats are able to give back milk, reproduce and eventually be sold when they get older. For the first time in his life the farmer said he has some savings. This allows him to have a stronger sense of food security for his family. A bank account has also been opened as a central savings account for the women in the community. Amounts are deposited there and then discussed about by the women as a group. The project that seems so simple as giving a family goats has brought them so much closer together and given them an alternative form of income and eventual savings for a better, more secure future.
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.” ~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Writer
In the midst of the ancient Aravalli Mountain range the community of Verdara is set. A tribal population of kind and caring people dot across the landscape. Their smiles stretch as long as the rolling hills they cultivate. Shaking the hands of headmasters, farmers and countless students has brought the community to life for me. It has made me feel that lasting connection I can never forget. We are all intertwined in this chaotic magic called the spinning rotation of our Earth. The image I had of Verdara is now much more than a simple name. It has been brought to life by the colours in the clothes, smells in the country air and connection we all share to this brilliant world.
At the end of the day I was reeling on overload from all of the possibilities that are available. The surrounding community has begun to not only survive, but thrive. There is so much to be done for the eager and openminded people of this small slice of India. I was proud to be apart of such an amazing initiative. You can see it in the eyes of the people as you greet them and they return the favour. The kids smile and muse shyly as you experience their daily reality. It was a larger than life experience. After over 7 months since I began this bicycle journey around the world, it remains as one of my most memorable experiences. I will never forget that day. A new motivation and energy has been sparked. I hope to return and see the fruits of our labours. To see the new beautiful blue school standing at the centre of Verdara. To lend a hand as the bells clang, calling kids to class in a place that is inviting to learn. I will watch in pride, in awe and wonder as another child passes doors of dreams.
On behalf of the community of Verdara and myself, we would like to give a heartfelt thank you.
Be apart of the magic. Click HERE TO DONATE.
For more information on the Adopt-A-Village model in India click HERE.
See pictures of the day below then watch a quick video of DANCING IN VERDARA HERE.
An 11 minute read
“There are some parts of the world that, once visited, get into your heart and won’t go. For me, India is such a place. When I first visited, I was stunned by the richness of the land, by its lush beauty and exotic architecture, by its ability to overload the senses with the pure, concentrated intensity of its colors, smells, tastes, and sounds. It was as if all my life I had been seeing the world in black and white and, when brought face-to-face with India, experienced everything re-rendered in brilliant technicolor.” ~ Keith Bellows, Editor-in-Chief, The National Geogrpahic Society
It is 5:45 at night with slowly setting sun. The time of day when I start looking and start planning. The cows and I continue our arguably aimless wandering along the road as the humidity of the day descends upon us. Covered by a hazy film of the days struggle I press on. We are both looking for something similar. Our bellies full from a previous stop, we have one goal in mind. Rest. The art of sleep begins.
As I pedal along at this time of night I am looking for but one thing, a safe place to camp. The road is too busy and too crazy in India, so it is best to turn down a side road. In other parts of the world I could simply set up shop without a care. But, peering eyes and a disturbed sleep is never fun. In India I prefer staying in proximity to people. Not that it is dangerous elsewhere, it is simply more comforting knowing you have permission to sleep. So I continue my slow trundle until I spot a house. On a good day I look for a more affluent place to stay, as I don’t want to overburden anyone. I simply want a patch of ground to pitch my tent, sleep a good night and be off by 7:30am. I remove my sunglasses, wash my face with some water and try to look as friendly as possible. Sometimes that is hard with a growing beard and no shower in a week.
Usually I start by looking for someone already outside, so as not to startle them as much. A grandfather relaxing or women taking down drying clothes are usual suspects. I suck up all of my courage, hold my breath and say quietly, “Here we go.” I dismount from my bike and begin my walk towards the new person. This is the hardest part of all. I then greet them with a happy smile and do my best to explain myself. I say that I want nothing more than a patch of ground outside to pitch my tent and in the morning I will be gone early. Sometimes this requires lots of hand gestures and others none at all. I explain I started riding in China and now I am here. At this point I am usually met with a bit of a laugh, a curious interest and disbelief. One man asked, “Who sent you?” I replied, “No one sent me sir, I just came here.” He nodded and I set up my tent.
This is where the kindness of people is truly witnessed. To take in a very dirty man off the road with little more than a few words exchanged. I always say where I am from and ask for their names. After the tent is all set up and everyone is done laughing at my strange house, I am either left to my own devices or beckoned inside. There is usually a general concern for my dinner. I have a practice of eating early if I plan to camp and carry extra food with me. However, almost always I am offered food. Usually I politely refuse, but then it is insisted and I eat something. Even after just eating dinner, I can always eat again with all the calories I burn in a day. Being welcomed into someone’s home after showing up a few minutes earlier is amazing. I have learned so much about the countries I have travelled, because of it. The side that most people never see. The side that is never in the guidebook. The side that is still difficult to explain. Simply put, this is a new home, a generous family, humanity at it’s best and another strangely regular day in my life.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” ~ Dalai Lama, The Art of Happiness
The story picks up from Kochi, where we last left off. I hummed out of the vibrant backwaters and into thick traffic heading up the west coast towards Goa. I moved at a steady pace of over 130km a day. It was tough at times with the road becoming more hilly. Eventually taking a day off I spent the night in a passable hotel in Kunnar and celebrated Christmas by looking at a fish tank and sending messages back home. After all the festivities, I pedalled on towards Goa. I had 5 days and over 600km of very hilly roads if I was going to make it and not spend New Years alone as well. That is the only thing that kept me going as my legs burned up another winding hill track.
One night a family even welcomed me into sleep in their guest room at their house. They would not hear of me camping outside. It was a nice relief to have a shower and home cooked delicious meal. The next morning as I carried my bags out I was looking for my bike. Where had it gone? The morning dew had made the stairs quite slippery and preoccupied with the whereabouts of my bike I slipped down the staircase as the family watched in horror. Nothing was hurt but my failing pride. We all laughed about it and the grandfather wheeled out my cycle from behind a wall. He thought it would be funny idea to hide my bike and see my reaction. Well, he got a good show.
When I arrived in Goa I was shattered with exhaustion. With the busy season, the prices in Goa were high by my accounts and little vacancy available. I arranged with an amazing group of people at a place called Road House Hostels to camp in their backyard. They were super accommodating and made sure everyone there was happy as we all welcomed in 2015, hundreds of miles from home with fireworks on Anjuna Beach. If ever in Goa look up Uday and the people at Road House Hostels HERE.
Then came time for yet another hard departure. Unknown road ahead that proved certainly to be hilly from all the squiggles on my map. I explored the wild Saturday night market and was on my way the next morning towards Mumbai. I had made minor repairs while in Goa, but that quickly seemed not to have mattered. My bike creaked up hills like a coffee grinder. With no cycle shop in sight and my tools not up to the task, I put in my headphones and ignored it. By the fifth day to Mumbai my body was feeling exhausted. Dirty from the road and endless climbs, I was weak. Looking back now, I even signed my journal, October 5, 2015!! I was delirious and worn out.
I woke one morning packed up my tent and had some breakfast. It was a questionable location, but on a tight budget most days, it fit the bill. I guess the food was mixed with some dirty water and I knew it about 10KM down the road. There is clearly something wrong when it is hovering around 38 degrees celsius and you are shivering cold while riding a bike up a hill. I knew I was in trouble. I was dizzy and getting quite sick. With my last bits or energy I took the bags off my bike and waited for someone to pick me up. I needed a doctor, a hotel or anything but being on the side of a busy road. I quickly lost all energy and was just sitting there waiting for someone to stop with feeble waves. Not long after a policeman came past, rounded my things up in his car and took me to the next town. It was the most terrifyingly dangerous driving I have ever witnessed. He could sense my apprehension as my stomach did backflips. He simply said, “It’s okay Mr. Mark, I am a policeman.” That still didn’t settle my stomach or repair the smashed guard rails where other drivers had lost control.
Upon arriving at the doctors office things were not good. The doctor was in no mood to see a sick foreigner. Eventually prescribing me some pills and subduing me with an IV in the backroom of a dusty home clinic. The first time I have truly been sick on this trip. I repeatedly thanked the policeman for helping me who kept returning to check on me throughout the day. After eventually regained some strength, I set up camp in the doctors yard with no hotel in sight. A miserly night to be in a tent.
The following day I felt almost at 100% again. Running on whatever reserves I had left. I needed to make it to Mumbai. The road veered upwards through terrible conditions. I inhaled piles of dust, was completely utterly filthy and done. Entering the labrynth that is Mumbai, I was overwhelmed. People everywhere. Extreme urban poverty and extreme wealth in the same second. I dodged traffic, until collapsing into a good night sleep in a real bed.
“I almost hit a monkey with my bike the other day.” ~ Me, Things you can only say in India.
I have grown to truly love the unpredictability that is India. There is a certain quality about it that makes the rest of the world seem like a lifetime away. Like a distant memory that flashes in my dreams. India invades your internal energy and squeezes ever bit of you out. Everything is on the table. A small cricket game as I float by. Mountain views with exhilarating declines. The wandering man. Beautiful sunsets. That little head wiggle of acknowledgement. A crawling need to know. To be seen. To be heard.
Life can be pretty predictable if you want it to be. There are the elements of personal potential prodigy in all of us. We are all only guides in the eternal spider string that weaves our destiny. In the end our true path is only but a shifting painting that rotates between cloudy and bright sunsets. Depending on how you view those moments, you are entitled to set the stage for the next rolling rise. I grew up in a small beautiful place called Rideau Ferry in Eastern Ontario. I spent a long time with little knowledge of that daunting outside globe. But deep down that interest was always crawling somewhere to the surface. Now as I continue to explore, I hone my curiosity and established new boundaries on my winding stage of individual hope. In the end though, all roads lead home. Wherever you let that frilled hat and broken body lay.
On the 26th of January I will be visiting the community of Verdara in Rajasthan Province. This is the site where we are raising funds to help build the next school in India. I wholeheartedly look forward to sharing with everyone my experiences there and give a little insight to the people we are helping develop sustainable livelihoods. To date $12,717 has been raised for my charity with over 100 donors for Free the Children. How awesome is that?
About a week ago I held a small, but short-lived contest. At the time there were 99 sponsorships, so I put out a message that said the next person to donate would receive a handwritten thank you from myself sent from India. In less than an hour one kind Stephen McGlade made that milestone come true. He simple put, “Call me #100”. Close second at #101 was Patrick Love. A wonderful gesture and even better friends. Stephen and Patrick’s letters are in the mail. Who doesn’t like getting a letter? Give me more excuses to write letters. I would also like to thank St. Joseph’s School in Toledo, for their amazing donation just before Christmas. The first of many places I was able to speak about my ride. Thank you for giving me the chance and for all of your support!
To continue helping out the community of Verdara click HERE TO DONATE.
Updates are also in for the community of Guang Ming, Sichuan, China. The first site is now complete with the help of our $10,000 contribution. Over 900 students now have access to a safe school. For those interested in reading more see the bottom of this post. More pictures to come soon. Thank you to everyone who contributed. I really can’t say thank you enough!
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi
India. A full on attack of the senses. At times amazingly delightful and others a sour kick of reality. Bright colours flash with beautiful saris, delightfully surprising foods and curious smiles. School children walk in long rows down the road on their way home. A shy wave here and screaming “Hello!” there. Dusty cities open up into beautiful landscapes of marsh plains, coconut trees and rice fields. People toil with water buffalo on the land. Some carry heavy loads or guide goats to greener pastures. They all stop to wonder.
Magical temples and cows at every corner. Cows stealing bananas, eating from garbage dumpsters and always where you least expect them. They own this place. Deified creatures of wonder. Different types lumber through streets, crossing at their convenience, as the car horns blare. Amazing to stare at though.
But the horns. They blare on repeat as buses barrel like crazy through traffic and by crowds of people. Incessantly they ring. Different types of horns fire at piercing volumes and indicating patterns. The soundtrack to my insanity. I brace myself as the next wave comes. I loath the one that sounds like a circus. The bicycle puts me down at ground level for all of it. Right in the field of energy giving strength and crushing difficulty. The use of the horn here makes China look tame. There is no end and no escape.
But, why did I come to India? Because it is a place I have always wanted to see. Because it would be a challenge. Because I knew it would be crazy. Plain is boring and India is anything but. No cycling tour around the world is complete without struggling through and experiencing the wonders of the land of Kings, historic conquest, dazzling foods, religious power and the multiple faces of forgotten souls. I love it, it drives me to the edge of insanity, but I will never tire of it. Each day is a fight and each a surprise. I am learning a lot about myself in India and where I hope to be in the future. The struggles I face are only momentary and have helped me to become more in tune with reality of the world around me. For everything missed, there is something gained inside.
I arrived from Kabul, Afghanistan in Chennai, on India’s east coast. With the road blocked by being refused a Pakistan Visa and Canadian citizens only being able to tour Iran with an expensive guide, I was forced to fly out of Afghanistan. I flew to warmer weather and a new adventure. India was never on my original route, but things are always changing. With little planning I was launched into the tropical whirlwind that is South India. Welcomed into the home of an American living in Chennai, I stayed for a few days as I reassembled my bike, sent a ton of backlogged messages and prepared my route. The goal was to ride to the southern most point of India, Kanniyakumari, then head up the west coast towards New Delhi, as I explore the different regions in time with their food, people, history and customs. Along the way I will be visiting the next community with Free the Children, as we raise funds to help build a new school. For more information on Verdara, Rajasthan Province, check out the community profile as well as the video from Free the Children on their work in India HERE.
If you would like to donate to my charity and help be apart of building the new school in Verdara, India click HERE.
Riding out from Chennai I was buzzing. The streets were crazy, the traffic and air thick. There was food everywhere, fresh papaya, bananas, pineapple and street snacks. On my budget it is only local fare for me, which is full of flavour and exciting spices. The dosa and samba are go to staples. Eventually the busy city opened up into quieter country, where I could breath a bit and quit looking in 360 all at once. I pedalled to wonderful places like Mahabalipuram and then onto Auroville. I was welcomed into Auroville with open arms and allowed to camp at a place called New Creations for a few days. Auroville is an fantastic place where people come to live the simple life based upon healthy eating, mediation, yoga, peace and close community bonds. Some people live here full time, others come for half the year and some like myself are just passing through. For more information on Auroville check out their website HERE.
From Auroville I continued on riding long distances and pushing myself in the heat. I eventually reached the tip of India at the beautiful Kanniyakumari. From there I moved onwards on my journey up the west coast towards New Delhi. I now rest in the backwaters of Kochi, in a peaceful oasis on the southwest coast. It hasn’t been a race in India, but I have been able to cover long distances. With over 1000km of road already down and a top day of 162km, I feel like anything is possible. I even had time to break my third back rack on the rough roads. I hobbled along with a light heart over bumpy roads and patched the snapped metal with duct tape for a day and half until reaching a place with a spare rack. I have felt strong, motivated and energized by riding in the warm weather. Though my sunburnt nose would argue otherwise.
One thing I was very excited about on my first few days were the temples. They are everywhere. They are of all different shapes, sizes and forms. They are beautiful. They are intricate. They are individual to each region in terms of history, location and emphasis. Some of the cities date back to 1500BC. The temples of the south also boast as some of the oldest in India. Magical places to walk around barefoot in the early morning.
As I pass through different little villages, towns and heaving cities, it is apparent how important Hinduism and religion is here in India. It pervades many aspects of daily life. A lot of it I am only beginning to understand. But I am doing my best to read and ask questions in order to uncover the idiosyncrasies that make this place tick. Though many parts of the old system of India have been outlawed, such as the caste system is still very much alive in parts if you talk to the locals.
Hinduism in a nutshell is made up of a complex company of gods and deities, each with different specialization, power and purpose. I’m sure we have all heard of the trinity of Shiva, Brahma and Vishnu. The faith is heavily based upon the principles of religious harmony, unity of existence, divinity of humanity, as well as knowledge of the three Gs: Ganga (river). Gita (script), and Gayatri (mantra). Among all of the numerous animistic gods and polytheistic powers, there is the resounding faith that all can be joined within one ultimate unity. I have not even begun to understand the myriad of gods or the customs of following the faith. However, one passage I read from the Upanishads, sums things up very clearly and makes things that much more complex.
‘When a teacher was asked, “How many gods are there?” he replied, “As many as were mentioned in the formula of the hymn of praise to the Vis-va-devas: three and three hundred, three and three thousand.” “Yes, but how many gods are there really?” He was asked again. “Thirty-three,” he said. “Yes, but how many really?” “Six.” “But how many really?” “Three.” “How many really?” “Two.” “How many really?” “One and a half.” “How many really?” “One.” “But, then, what are these three and three hundred, three and three thousand?” “Oh, they are only the various powers.” ~ The Upanishads
For me though, it is all about the chai stand. That is my temple. I love it. Don’t get me wrong, my allegiance is with the pure and healing energy of Chinese teas. But, the sweet jolts of energy at 15 cents a pop can’t be beat. Getting me over the long distances. Shining holes in the wall that call me off the road for momentary breaks and recovery. The chai man is a person of skill and power. He controls the hoards tapping in waiting as he froths another pipping glass of dark sweetened tea at arms length. The mixing gives it the airy taste, cools it to drinking temperature and combines the ingredients perfectly. With a few arm movements and a splash of tea the job is done. I think of the great respect I have for these men. It is a thankless job in cramped and very hot conditions. For one day I remember thinking of opening my own chai shop with whizzing hands and an indifferent pride for my craft. Quiet dreaming and empty thoughts over long distances.
Continuing on up through the west coast, I think back on how far I have come. All the people that helped me get to where I am. The road drifts on by with the whirling grind of traffic and the rolling hills of Kerala. My bicycle ticks over 7500km since beginning this journey. Snapshots clip in my mind of days long gone months ago while riding in little Chinese towns, a funny time, a simple smile, a good meal, or nights sleeping out under the stars. I think of people back home during the holiday season. How I miss my family, girlfriend and friends. How I hope to make up for all the time I have spent away. In three years I haven’t been able to be home for Christmas. Sorry Mom&Dad. Sometimes there are too many hours to think as I spin silently through the day. But if you ever catch me laughing to myself while riding along down a backroad somewhere, I’m not crazy, just deep in thought. To the road ahead. Happy holidays!
“What is poverty like in your country? Is it the same as here in Afghanistan?.. More chai?” ~ Local Shopkeeper, Kabul
News reports flash on a grainy television in a busy cafe around noon. Everyone stops what they are doing. The daily update. The newscaster reads from a piece of paper. A man driving a motorcycle had rammed a British convoy car with an explosive device strapped to him, killing 5 people and injuring many others. The Taliban took responsibility for the attack. People in the cafe go back to their work or food shaking their heads. This is nothing new. Wondering at the news, I asked where it happened. Turns out not more than a few kilometres away. Later that night a guesthouse was the target of another attack, resulting in a gunfight. Helicopters whirled all night long in the sky. In the last ten days, eight attacks in the capital.
I went back to eating my kabuli palao, thinking to myself. Should I be worried about this? I know I am not invincible, but everyone has been so nice. This is a beautiful country, how can such horrible things be happening on a daily basis? I feel relatively safe, or maybe that is just the man in sunglasses guarding my guest house with an AK-47. The food is so good. The markets are bursting with colours and sights. Mountain peaks loom in the distance. There is more fascinating history and local customs than I can even begin to understand. The people are proud. They are strong. They all simply want peace. To not have to look blankly at TV screens giving more bad news. These people need good news. Something to hold onto. Hope for a better future.
I was only in Afghanistan for a short time. When I left the situation seemed to be declining in the capital, with the US declaring they would leave more troops in Afghanistan than expected to train police and the army on how to combat the Taliban insurgency. However, during my time there I asked more questions, had more memorable conversations and felt a stronger sense of pride for having come than anywhere else I have been. The people were passionate about their home and hopes for the future. It was inspiring, an education and a harsh reality check.
To begin to understand the present state of Afghanistan, you have to look at the events of last thirty-five years. In essence, they have been at a state of war since then. For some people, this is all they have ever known. If they were born in the seventies, they came along at the end of the heyday for tourism. It was once very popular to go to Afghanistan for travel. It was off the main road, but still safe, exciting and full of history. For those that saw it, they would remember a very different Afghanistan. That all changed with the Russian invasion and the ensuing years of civil war. This followed by the Taliban take over, along with their fundamentalist Islamic government and policies. (All men were to grow beards, no music, no education for women and compulsory burqas in public, to name a few.) Onwards to the US led ‘War on Terror’, the ousting of the Taliban and the creeping unrest that still plagues the country today with regular suicide bombings and rebel attacks.
“The Taliban are not a force to be considered invincible. They are distanced from the people now. They are weaker than in the past. There is only the assistance given by Pakistan, Osama Bin Laden and other extremist groups that keep the Taliban on their feet. With a halt to that assistance, it is extremely difficult to survive.” ~ Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan Political Leader, Assassinated September 9th, 2001
But who exactly are the Taliban? Are they Afghanis? Where do these people reside? Where do these extremist values stem from? Are suicide bombings and oppression of rights in the Koran? How do the local people feel?
The Taliban literally means, ‘students’, and that is what they are. They are typically young Afghan refugees or Pakistani boys with bleak opportunities for the future. These boys go to religious schools called Madrassas found in many parts of Pakistan, funded by Saudi Arabian money. Osama Bin Laden, was not an Afghan and neither are a lot of the leading members. The Taliban preys on the desperation of young boys to build an army groomed for extremist hatred. They give them guns, fill them with corrupt ideals and offer them money, which their families need. Usually, they have few other options. When you hear about attacks on the news it can be very confusing to understand which group is aligned with whom. Some governments and organizations playing both sides of the fence. There are two factions of Taliban, one defined group based in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. They both bear the same name, but are not always on the same side.
These are not opinions expressed and presented in the Holy Koran or the Muslim people. After reading parts of it, I can see the many commonalities between texts like the Bible and Torah. The message, the goal and ideals. In the Koran it even repeatedly mentions people like Jesus and Moses. However, it has been used by Madrassas in Pakistan as a tool to teach boys how to think, based solely on the interpretation of Taliban values. Seeing Islam practiced in Afghanistan in its purity, I can attest to that. The main teachings of the Muslim faith are based upon kindness, helping others, giving away wealth and giving thanks to the one God, Allah. These are kind people that opened up their homes, shops and lives to me, with no expectation in return. The Muslim people have been the most welcoming of anywhere I have traveled in the world. Fact!
I arrived in Kabul, the capital, after a few days of touring around Mazar-I-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan. I elected not to cycle due to safety and local advice. With my bicycle stowed, we headed over the famed Salang Pass along switchbacks of snowcapped mountains on the edge of the Hindu Kush. The road was in a word, destroyed. Built by the Soviets in the 70’s, it is in desperate need of repair. However, that would involve shutting down the main line of transportation in an already struggling country. Dust billows so thick that even in the bus I couldn’t breath. Cycling would have been a nightmare. On the descent we passed through the beautiful Panjshir Valley, where the dust settled along river and leaves are still changing colour.
I arrived in Kabul, disoriented and on the edge of town. I packed up my bike and moved towards the city centre to the cheapest guest house I could find. The cheaper the better. High-end hotels have recently been prime targets for attacks. I did my best to keep a low profile, by blending in with the new modern Afghani look, sporting a leather jacket and headscarf. Quite often I was mistaken for an Afghan while I was out walking around. One man I talked with named Fardid said, “I thought you were from Afghanistan, until I saw the way you eat rice with your hands.” Guess I need more practice.
During my time in Kabul, I was met with amazing admiration once people found out I was a tourist. If they spoke English, most people began by asking me where I worked. Once they saw I was there for my own curiosity, the people were always excited. Tourists are a thing of the past at the moment. I was also decidedly in Afghanistan during the ‘off season’, whenever that peaks I’m not quite sure. One shop owner regaled me of the glorious past on the famous Chicken Street. Over chai he discussed what things were like back in the seventies. You could see the twinkle in his eye, longing for the past. Foreigners coming from all over to collect antiques and experience a culture worlds away. There are still parts of Afghanistan where you can literally step right back into a century ago.
The following day I bought a carpet from a man who was 86 years old. Even before discussing the possibility of purchasing one of Afghanistan’s beloved handmade carpets, we drank chai sabz (green tea) and talked about our families, his journey through life and my own. He had owned a carpet store in Kabul for 65 years. He said that, “Now my time here is finished, this is your time”. What he must have seen through the years as Kabul was changed and shaped through Kings, war, prosperity and decline, is beyond me. My brief revelations and experiences are nothing. He invited me back for lunch at his shop the following day at 11:30. “Don’t break your promise,” he said. I was right on time.
I walked in the ruins of the King Amanullah Khan’s, Darul Aman Palace. I strode in the peaceful oasis of King Babur’s Gardens. I explored the ancient Ka Faroshi Bird Market, dated back over 300 years. I struggled through crowded markets. I watched quietly with wondering eyes at the hard realities of war in the faces of the people. In the most heavily mined country on the planet, people struggling along in the street missing limbs still trying to get by was a common sight. There were many people begging, mostly women and children, due to the lack of jobs and availability of education. It was too much at times, as I retreated to my little guest house, reeling on overload from the outside world.
One message I heard again and again as I traveled about talking to people was, “Our neighbours (countries) don’t want Afghanistan to be a good country, like we were before”.
Afghanistan is amazing. The things I learned there cannot be taught or understood from brief clips on the evening news. The problems plaguing this country are deeply rooted, complex and will require years of recovery, positive initiatives and a whole lot of work. But there is hope. Maybe I will even be able to help. I will return here one day. I will come back looking for that better tomorrow. To see tourists walking in rows down Chicken Street and jostling each other in the markets. To see the long lost twinkle in the shopkeepers eye. I look forward to it. But for now it is simply hidden. Don’t forget Afghanistan.
***I now fly to Chennai, India from Kabul. With the road blocked to Iran by annoying Travel Visa restrictions, denial of a Pakistan Tourist Visa and a strong desire not to cycle in Kazakhstan or Russia in the winter, I head to India. It is somewhere I have always wanted to go and where I will build the next school with Free the Children in Rajasthan Province. Though my straight line around the world is broken, I see it as a perfect opportunitiy to cycle one of the most exciting, beautiful and historic countries in the world. Better to experience this world with a positive attitude, then riding for the sake of riding, through snow covered Kazak Steppe. I will be cycling a loop from Chennai down south near the tip of India, up the west coast through Rajasthan and eventually heading inland to New Delhi. Click the link to donate to the next school in India.*** CLICK TO DONATE