[photos were taken at my winter/spring destinations: Iran, United Arab Emirates, Oman and the Canary Islands]
‘Aren’t you afraid?’ That is one question I get quite often, from friends and family back home as well as from strangers on the road. Am I? The short answer is: No, most of the time, I am not afraid. I trust. That may sound weird at first. I feel that in most of our societies, trust is a rare commodity. We are stingy with our trust. The go-to-mode is to distrust someone first and check whether (s)he is trustworthy before buying in. Better be safe than sorry. My months of cycle-touring up to now have taught me lessons that are quite different from that. And I have started to believe that the world might be a better place, that human communication might become a lot more human indeed, if we changed our perspective on trust. Here are the three lessons I have learned so far: trusting others, trusting yourself and trusting the universe. For me, these make the world shine in a new way.
(1) Trusting others
The months on the road have shown me what can happen when you move beyond that typical stinginess with trust. When you trust others and are generous with your trust, overly generous. For a female solo cyclist, this might sound like a very bad idea. Maybe stupid, at least careless. In fact, I tend to do all those things that parents teach their kids (for good reason!) not to do. Get into cars with absolute strangers. Follow people into their house, sometimes late at night. Take food from people I never met before (I take food from anyone, really). And guess what? All of this usually works out amazingly well. I have done all of that also in regions where my guidebooks clearly stated that you should not even consider this as a female solo traveller. My first experience hitchhiking a stretch in Iran? Achmed, who became a friend for life!
Trust as a peaceful weapon
I usually have a few split-seconds to make up my mind: do I trust this man? (Most often, I interact with men, as I am oftentimes mistaken for being one when I am on my bike – in Iran, I played that role very much on purpose.) Almost always, my gut feeling has been right. And that gut feeling has told me to trust almost all of the time. I get the impression that actually trusting someone is a weapon in itself: it gives you an air of confidence that seems to thwart bad intentions. The way, maybe, in which a karate genius radiates confidence, knowing that (s)he will likely win a potential fight. If this person is vulnerable, how on earth can she stay this calm and trusting? Better not get into trouble with that one. During previous journeys, this has worked as a protective shield for me, time and time again. In the past, I have accidentally done things of remarkable stupidity without being aware of it (walk into a no-go area in Tanzania at night, for instance) – and oftentimes, my ignorance and trust has been mistaken for confidence and that confidence as a sign that one should better not mess with me, presumably. During my current adventure, I have encountered many similar situations. Trust is a pieceful weapon. Use it generously.
Trust to create win-win situations
I am not advising you to take bad decisions (the no-go area surely was one, even though it was one I was not aware of). But generally, if you encounter another person in a trustful, open manner, they will oftentimes open up to you as well. Instead of sneaking around each other assuming bad intentions, I try to give another person the possibility to let his or her best self shine. In essence, this can create a win-win situation, where both sides feel pleased with themselves and with the world. It is worth giving yourself and the other that chance! You might find yourself in a much nicer world than you believed could be.
(2) Trusting yourself
Trusting yourself is, in a way, at the bottom of this all. How can you trust another being, if you distrust yourself? At the same time, trusting yourself is a skill that we do not teach children, or at least: we do not teach them enough. This depends quite a bit on your cultural background and your family, of course. But overall, I feel that we are left to learn this by ourselves.
For me personally, this journey is teaching me that if I can trust one person on this planet, it is probably me. Or, to put it in the way a friend has told me: Remember that, no matter what happens, you will never be alone – you will always have yourself. While it might just be a change of perspective, it makes a world of a difference for me. The following are the three most important questions where I learned to trust myself.
Trust your intuition
Do you follow your inuition? I have done that before when it comes to people, but it was only really in the past months, when I realized just how much I can trust my intuition. When a truck stops next to you in a snow-storm and the driver offers you a ride, you have just split-seconds to make a decision. And I have learned that I can trust my intuition to come up with the right answer, whatever the outcome. My tendency is to trust the other person, but I have a bad feeling occasionally. I follow whatever my intuition tells me. A few times, I was wrong, but overwhelmingly, the decision was a good one. Which brings me to the next point…
Trust your problem-solving skills.
Sure, I might take wrong decisions. I am human, after all, as we all are. But I trust myself that I will figure out a way to get out of this mess again. Be it that my visa extension is denied one day before my old visa expires or be it that I end up in the middle of nowhere in the mountains, at night, alone with five men who realize that no one would ever know. Sure, there might be situations where I will end up in severe trouble (the mentioned situations in Iran surely felt like that). But so far, I have always found a way to get out of the incident unharmed. No matter how bad it seems, I remind myself that everything is there already, inside of me. My mind carries the solution to anything that might happen. This calms me down enough to actually come up with a solution quickly. A self-fulfilling prophecy, sure, but sometimes that is all that is needed.
Trust whatever your body tells you
This is a lesson hard learned, one that I struggled with for most of my life. High-performance sports teaches you to push your limits. Pain is a normal part of this – get through it. That’s the nature of it, in a way, and it is necessary to improve your performance. Naturally, you start to ignore many signals that your body sends to you. There is a delicate balance you need to find between pushing yourself further, but stopping in time before getting hurt. I used to be exceptionally bad at finding this balance, always pushing a bit too far. Now, in my cycle-touring life, things have radically changed. When you are all alone, nobody will tell you when to stop, how far to go, on this particular day. I just listen to my body. Sometimes, the signal is to push on, although I have already crossed two 4000m passes in one go. Sometimes, it is to stop after 10km of pushing on terrible roads because I am exhausted. Whatever the signal is, I take it very seriously. Your body is talking to you for a reason. Whenever I ignored the message, the consequences were surely no fun.
In essence, this is what I realized at some point this winter: I woke up one day and realized that my body was longing for a break. Within a week, I had accumulated two injuries and one illness. In addition, I was exhausted after weeks of cycling through deserts where the temperature exceeded 40°C. It was obviously high time for a time-out. My body told me that I needed a break, to recover, to reflect the last months, to work through all those things that happened to me, before continuing my cycling adventure. So I sat down and worked on my book, the next visas and route options. And above all: I gave my body a break.
(3) Trust the universe
Trusting the universe is probably the single most important thing I have learned so far. I have been raised and trained too much in the academic world to be a believer in fate. Also, this should not be confused with making requests to the universe (or to the god(s) you might believe in) to do you favors. There is no point in waking up in your tent in no-man’s land and asking for an icecream cone from the universe.
Instead, it is about trusting that the right things will happen and to accept whatever happens. About making your mind fluid, allowing it to flow around obstacles instead of trying to crush them (which usually does not work anyways). In a way, this relates to the golden rule of sports psychology: Control the controllables. And only the controllables.
What not to control
The majority of things are outside of your range of influence, be it nature (the weather, the terrain, the gradient) or the realm of bureaucracy (such as the official who denies your request for a visa extension). There are different paths you can take: fight what is happening (unlikely to be sucessful when it comes to weather), avoid the obstacle by making physical changes (such as changing your route) or accept the situation (the one option that always works). One thing surely is not going to get you anywhere: being mad at the situation. Fighting also very rarely works. I have learned to either take action and get around the obstacle. Or to accept how and where I am and make the best of it.
What to focus on instead
In essence, I try to focus on what is in my control. Yes, these can be actions in the outside world, such as finding arguments to convince the official who denied your visa extension. Most promintently, however, the things in your control are those that only depend on yourself: your mindset, your attitude, your perspective. The way you handle whatever is being thrown at you, be it wonderful or terrible. You can perceive an early onset of winter as the end of the world for your cycle tour. You can also see it as a chance to consider cycling in countries you had never thought about (that is what got me to Iran and the Arabic Peninsula). Any event that happens carries a seed of something wonderful in it – it is up to you to find it, to cherish that chance and give it some water to grow and blossom.
The right things at the right time
Talking about perspective, I simply assume that the right things happen to me at the right time. That the universe (or life or the gods – you know what I mean) is confronting me with lessons to learn at the time I am ready for them. And the universe is generous: it provides me with the same lesson over and over again, until I have actually learned it. Sure, I can avoid it this time. But I am certain I will encounter that one again, at a later stage of my life. Essentially, though, I believe that I am ready for a challenge, any challenge, at the time it presents itself. Otherwise, I would not encounter it.
Hand yourself over to the universe
And then, finally, there are those situations where I just hand myself over to the universe. When I am beaten down by the circumstances, when I realize that I need some help. And here comes the part that the scientist in my really does not understand and cannot explain (but that might be my lesson in here – just to accept this): once I open up to the idea of handing myself over to the odds, wonderful things happen. People appear in the middle of nowhere to offer me some tea and takes me under their wings. I meet another cyclist who happens to carry the one spare part that I could not source anywhere else in the whole country – and win a wonderful new friend who keeps inspiring me to this day (thanks, Tara!). While fighting with a visa application for Azerbaijan, I run into people who will change my life by convincing me to cycle through Iran instead.
The bottom line: If you have no idea how on earth to solve this, just hand yourself over to the universe and it will all work out. Differently from what you expected, sure. But the result might be more beautiful than any solution you might have come up with.
I have been thinking about this post for quite a while. Why am I writing it now? Two things happened. One of the visa applications that are crucial for the next leg of my journey was not accepted. And then, the one airline that offered low-fare flights into Mongolia cancelled their service to this country altogether. This happened on the very day I wanted to book a flight. I take it as a sign. I trust myself to come up with a great idea. And I trust the universe that something beautiful will come out of it. We will see – stay tuned.