Nothing is ever really certain, surely not when you start living a life fueled by own power and depending on very few external distractions. Actions like sleeping in a forest and being alone on endless stretches may cause reason to worry, not to mention giving up your job and doing away with a house can be downright fearful.
Fear is a common subject in everyone’s life. I believe fear is mostly a mind-made thing, especially for people who haven’t been raised-up in a war or in an extreme unbalanced situation. Fear is very much on the surface when one leaves all behind: his job, his house, his belongings.
Koen. Age: 44. Ridden kilometers: He didn’t keep track in the past, but reckon it’s between 60.000 & 75.000 km. Countries: 42, of which 35 by bike
Koen and I know each other from internet only. Perhaps our roads will cross one day, but so far we know each other only from Facebook. We live nearby, that is, when we are not cycling the vastness of earth. He has a blog about his adventures www.bikeaway.com
Although our conversations on Messenger are easy-going and not into depth yet, this will change now. I want to talk with Koen about fear.
1) You gave it up all, your entire steady life. You wanted to be free, and experience the world on a bicycle. You must have had fear. Can you tell me what was (or is) your biggest fear?
I gave up a rented place long ago, and soon after that I quit my job. At age 29 I wanted to travel, not work. After 3 times 3 long travels I wanted to experience the world closer and started cycling. It’s a decision coming forth out of experiences following up each other logically. Yet, the fear I keep comes back. Not often and not strong, but it sometimes does roar it’s ugly head. The fear of becoming old without a pension, no back-up nor a big fat real estate. While cycling I sometimes see old people gathering their meals from scratch or working hard at an old age, and then I wonder: ‘Would I end up like that too?’ It’s a fear based on the regulations of our society, based on culture. Which might not be that secure and definitely not a very good guideline to live the life you dream off.
Koen: Yes, I gave up the job, sold my apartment and got rid of most of my belongings. I took this step a few years earlier as intended, which implicates I also saved less as I intended. With the years I’ve worked so far, my pension won’t be sufficient to live from either.
I’ve cycled a lot in Asia and through parts of eastern Europe. You notice people who have to work real hard for little money.
How will I end up?
What chances will I get years from now if I ever need a job again?
I worry about that. I don’t know if it’s fear.
My biggest fear in daily life on the road is traffic. Although I carefully chose my routes along small roads, or dirt roads whenever possible, I think for us cyclists, traffic still is far more dangerous than all other dangers combined.
I do fear some bigger issues as well. Some people tend to laugh at it, but I really feared the dramatic situation of the nuclear plants in my home country. Those built to last 20 years are operating for 30 years. Two of the newer ones have cracks in the reactor up to 40 cm. Living 20 km away from it, that scared me 24/7.
I also fear the consequences of climate change and over population.
2) Have you ever watched your thoughts when you were afraid?
I do notice that when I am afraid, my mind start to make up a whole exciting story. I solely get afraid when there is reason to; when I am spotted in my stealthy camp by a man in the middle of nowhere. Then automatically my mind goes into an unrealistic mode where it start to build a super story, where reality is completely lost. While I see my mind making up this nonsense, I find it hard to stop it. I try to reason with myself and get it to a halt but it’s hard. Only after quite some time my mind is stabilized by the power of logic reasoning. So yes, there are two voices in the head: one which is the watcher, and the other which is doing all the talking. Shutting up the ‘talker’ is done by the ‘watcher’, but that is hard because the talker is usual the strongest, loudest and most clearly present. However, falling asleep has it shut up too. Do you recognize this, Koen?
Koen: I’ll tell you two anecdotes:
The one time I was probably the most afraid in my life was a grizzly bear encounter just outside Fairbanks, Alaska. I cycled past a military base when I saw a grizzly bear at the side of the road. I decided to stop till he was gone, but forgot I placed new brake pads that same morning. They made a hell of a noise. I scared the bear, which jumped up from the bush and came towards me. He stopped about 10 meters away from me. I could smell him. It was spring season, so he was probably still very hungry.
I had a bear spray, but didn’t think about it for a moment (luckily, it would have been a bad idea to use it from that distance).
Instead, I started to talk to him. Calm him down. The bear was then shifting his views from me to something behind me. Switching his views a couple of times. Then he took off and when I looked behind me, I saw a truck coming in the distance. That’s what probably saved me. I have thought about my reaction a lot afterwards. Not the bear spray, not trying to get away, maybe the talking gained me the few seconds till the truck came?
Another time in Cambodia, I was walking from my bungalow to an internet shop. One of the motor bike taxi guys you see at every corner of the streets there asked me if I wanted a ride. I said no, cause I only had a 100 meter to go. He took a gun and shouted “I’m gone kill you, I’m gonna kill you!” I guess he was completely drugged. He had a gun, he had friends there. I was alone, so just walked on without further argument, and his colleagues came to take him away. A real gun or not? Was he going to do something?
We’ll never know, but it seems when there’s real fear, we still have instinct enough to have the correct reaction.
I can’t say I always react that calm though.
3) Are you ever afraid when you pitch your tent in a dark forest? Or even worse, in an open deserted space where everyone can see you, and rob you. People who don’t spend time in the outdoors see danger everywhere.
How likely is it that when you pitch your tent at a spot where no one saw you enter, a person will come and harm you? I understand that when you pitch your tent at an open environment, you are for all to see, and every one can come and check you out. I took me some time to get accustomed to wild camping. In Africa I started camping in nature with fear. In Iran and India I was discouraged by eager men to accompany me. In Oman, the UAE, the USA and Eastern Europe I really got into it and now in South America I am almost entirely camping in nature. I am not afraid anymore, not even when I am in full view. I have learned that people are not as curious as I am. They simply won’t come over. And often people who do spot me, seem to be rather surprised and walk on. How do you feel about wild camping and your fears to be seen?
Koen: I love wild camping. Camping at official camp sites is horrible to me. Slamming doors of cars and camper vans all night, drunk people, noisy children, always too much light.
Camping in forests, I always feel OK. You are out of sight, and 99.9% of the people are scared to enter a forest at night.
I won’t camp in an open field next to a road, but open spaces high in the mountains or in deserts are fine for me. Wind can be more of a problem there.
You probably experience it as well; one of the first questions or reactions of almost anybody we meet has is: “Alone??”
Me, I love to be alone, but I think most people are afraid of that. If you, on top of being alone, put them in a dark forest, or a vast, open space with nothing in sight: panic!
4) Are you afraid of things before they have happened? It’s a common occurrence to be afraid of something which is fired by the mind. A self-fueled fear by a tiny happening. Some people are afraid of becoming sick, developing a massive toothache, being bitten by a scorpion, bolts of thunder hitting them, floods or just being afraid of getting lost?
My fear is rape. I always carry pepper spray (which is probably not working anymore of its expired date), but the fear is only fueled by exceptional happenings. I am not afraid when there is no reason to. For example, I was having my camp on an enormous open mountain range. I was in view of the 5 cars that rode past, and for the shepherd that came walking by with his herd of lama’s. It was a rather aged man, chewing coca leaves while green sap trickled from the corner of his mouth. When he was sure I understood his question whether I was alone, he found it normal to ask me for sex. He tried to touch me, nothing bold or intimidating, but just trying to embrace me. I couldn’t understand he wasn’t able to see the differences between us and that I obviously was not interested! Then he went on, and so did my mind. I was afraid that he would come back in the night, and unzip my tent. He knew where I was having my place for the night, so he could easily return. Reasoning had me calmed, because how likely is it he would walk huge distances while the coca effect had stopped working? How likely is it he would walk into the cold while he is tired from herding his lama’s? Probably his mind reasoned as well, and decided to stay in his warm mud brick house.
For all the flights I’ve taken in my life, I still hate it and fear it.
People can keep arguing it’s the safest mode of transport, I can’t help but feel all control is out of my hands once I enter that machine. Weeks before the flight I’m stressed about it already. I fear whether my bike will arrive at the other end, and in what condition. The flight itself, I fear something goes wrong when we take off, I fear the turbulence during the flight, I fear landing. Even if 99.99% of the flights arrive safely, I could be on that other one.
5) Do you believe the world is bad, just a tiny bit? Or is this another example of fear laid upon by television? Why do you think we should be afraid. According media we should. But is their reason to?
I believe not, obviously. I believe that there where people live, it is sane to be. Whether that be Afghanistan at war, Yemen with blasting terrorists or Iraqi Kurdistan at a tentative peace. People’s intentions are naturally good and not intended on harming another (exceptions aside). I always use my common sense and intuition and try to reason fear when it pops up. When I do feel some sort of danger, and I can’t avoid it, I stay calm and act after I have thought the situation through. This has so far guided me well. I am not afraid of terrorists as they do not aim their attacks at me. I am not afraid of robbers as they probably have better things to steal then from a cyclist. Now, watch the big contradiction, I am not afraid of men as they are not in search for sex in the forests, bushes or wherever I pitch the tent. In fact, often men who spot me are surprised and sometimes even afraid! I have noticed that when I am on my own, generally, people are hospitable, open, even tended to protect me, feed me and care for me. As soon as I am cycling with another, this stops.
Koen: Well, obviously some people are bad. Does this make the world bad ?
I don’t think so.
If a bomb explodes in Paris or Brussels, we do everything to convince the world the situation is under control, and all political means are used to avoid other countries would issue a travel warning against us.
On the other hand, if a bomb explodes in Bali, we are the first to issue the same travel warnings and fill programs on TV with all kinds of dangers that could harm you over there.
It’s the same with accidents. If tomorrow a car drives into me while I’m cycling at home, people will say ‘Koen had an accident’.
If the same thing happens to me in Vietnam, people will say ‘he was looking for it himself’.
It’s all perception.
Governments use our fear to make people accept things. To get total control on what we do, where we go, what we read, what we watch, what we buy, even what we think if they monitor social media. Camera’s, finger prints, scans, and so on.
Apart from bicycle theft in bigger places, there’s not too much to worry about for us.
6) Is there an example of fear you have overcome since you are cycling? How did you overcome?
I was afraid of men coming to rape me while I was alone at my parents’ home. Not one man, but a few. I thought this was not a good sign right before going on a cycling journey. I practiced to overcome my fear by cycling to a camping where I would stay the night in a wooden bungalow. This bungalow was the only one occupied at the camping site at winter time. I was to be seen and found by everyone as my lamps were the only one shining. I then practiced another approach: I would start meditating in our garden at night, at the time my mind invented ill-intentioned men would enter our premises. I sat right opposite the gate they would enter in my fearful mind. I watched my thoughts, and viewed reality through the slits of my eyelids. It appeared reality and thoughts were rather quite different. It was here that I had overcome my fear.
Koen: Like almost everyone who starts camping wild, I wasn’t really comfortable with the sounds I heard at night. A rabbit hopping around your tent at night, suddenly sounds like it might be a big bear or a moose. On my trip from Alaska to Mexico, I told myself very early in the trip I better get over it, or quit.
I knew I did what I have to do (no food in the tent, I made enough noise pitching my tent so the surrounding wildlife knew I was there) and after a few days was totally at ease and loved the whole experience. I camped throughout the whole trip down the Rockies, at times bears were in sight when I was near a river or a lake. They knew I was there. We kept a distance from each other and all was fine.
Since that time, I had all sorts of wild live visiting me at night, and I am perfectly fine with that. You can overcome your (initial) fears just by really wanting to do something.
7) Many people are afraid of things they can’t see and of sounds they can’t place. It is maybe in our nature to do so? Haven’t we lost touch with our innate instinct?
Time upon time, in every country I am, people find it scary to hear one would sleep in nature. They think it is dangerous and certain routes definitely are too, according others: like the Brazilian drugs route, African back roads, Indian mayhem, Iranian Gulf, the desert of the Emirates. Sometimes when you admire the vastness of where you are, it indeed seems crazy to carry only a certain amount of water and food. Yet it’s enough to cover the distance. Do you feel you get closer to human instinct as animals live by, thus leaving petty fear behind?
Koen: Yes, I think so.
And as time goes by, I become more confident in the things I do. I know I am well prepared and where my limits and that of my gear are.
I’ve had local people in mountainous regions tell me I can’t camp up the mountain, because it would get too cold. I had villagers at the edge of the desert telling me I couldn’t cross the desert to that next village, days and days away on a bike, because it was too far, too hot and no water in between.
But the truth is, it’s out of their comfort zone, out of their imagination. They would never do it, even when these mountains or desert is in their backyard. Therefore they think it’s impossible.
That sheep shepherd you see in the mountains, that old man with a few goats you meet in the desert, they will never tell you it’s impossible.
Finding good wild camping spots, drinking from and washing in rivers, your toilet in the nature, enjoying the taste of fresh berries you pick yourself along the road. I think the whole way we are traveling is developing our instinct.
8) Would you say our Western environment is totally turned upside down and thus fear has seeped in the moment our houses became fortresses, our vehicles tankers and our perceptions imprisoned.
In many countries people live with open doors, transport themselves by foot and are approaching you openly. When I need water it happens I walk into houses unattended. In Iran, when I needed a place to sleep, a man offered me his house and went himself somewhere else. Women invite me next to them on their rooftops. Men halting me on a lonely road offering me money to spend on daily expenses. In Dubai I was hosted for over a week, by initially a total unknown family. Do you feel more at ease in countries where there is less fear for the stranger, and the unknown. Where there is no notion of the so-called dangerous world outside our save heavens; like our locked up houses?
Koen: You are right here. Cycling in the USA 10 years ago, some people literally stepped back when I approached them to ask for directions or anything.
“A strange man with a strange accent”, you know.
(But I can’t stress enough the USA is also the only country so far people spontaneously invited me in for the night ! A great country for bicycle touring.)
In Canada and the USA, people asked me constantly whether I carried a gun for my safety. Riding in a southern direction, everything on my way down would be ‘dangerous’ of course. In New-Mexico everybody, including the police warned me for Mexican immigrants. I asked them if they would really draw the attention to them, risking to get in trouble by harassing a poor lonesome cyclist.
The same thing happens now in Europe. Just last week I cycled up to some tourists in a camper van to ask for a little bit of water. You can see they are scared, on their guard. You can almost see the relieve when it’s clear the situation is OK and I won’t do any harm. It’s pretty bad in North/West Europe & the USA & Canada. In Spain where I’m now, people are a lot more relax already.
It was definitely more pleasant for me to cycle through Asia, then it is here in Europe. I hope, and I trust, it will be the same in South-America next year.