The Black Horse, Great Missenden June 19th-21st 2015 Overland Event

Humanity. It’s something I think about often. I like the word. It describes a multitude of things, all positive: compassion, kindness, generosity of spirit and more. In a single word it encapsulates all the best bits of what makes us human and reaffirms that people are inherently good. It gives me hope, in a world where it can be all too easy to lose touch with our own humanity and each other’s.

But every so often I find I do lose touch with this hope and become despondent and pessimistic on the subject of humanity. Sensationalist 24/7 media reports bombard me daily with atrocities from around the world. Whilst social media amplifies my exposure still more, turning it into a surreal circus that disconnects me from the grief I ought to feel at the sad events. And closer to home, disengaged by the mindless treadmill of daily life and unwillingly forced into contact with strangers I can become rude, self-absorbed and thoughtless and when I see the same in others it saddens me and colours my view of what mankind has to offer. One of the reasons I want to travel is to reaffirm to myself the goodness of people, to take myself off the treadmill so that I can re-engage with the world around me. At the Overland event this weekend I was privileged to discuss my thoughts and travel plans with Ted Simon, inspiring travel figure to many and founder of the Ted Simon Foundation, along with Iain Harper, the Executive Director of the foundation (jupiterstravellers.org) over a few beers.

Unsurprisingly, given the Foundation’s values, Ted’s outlook is one of positivity; that people are largely good and that independent travel and the requisite process of putting yourself at the mercy of strangers, only serve to underline the universality of that goodness. It was a stimulating and energising discussion and it reignited my hope, as well as my excitement about being an ambassador of this sort of thinking as a Jupiter’s traveller. On reflection, it became even clearer that whenever I disconnect with my more human qualities the best cure for it is to meet, and connect with, strangers. I invariably walk away with my faith in humanity at large and my connection to my own human qualities restored because of one simple truth: the vast majority of people are decent, interesting and kind, if you approach them willing to see it, and proving this to yourself from time to time can do wonders for your optimism. It also underlined to me that travel is a great way to do this but it’s a long way from being the only way…

The Overland event was a great example that you don’t need to travel far to re-engage. Humanity was very much on display throughout the week, with inspirational talks and no shortage of really wonderful people, all of whom were complete strangers to me, at least when I arrived. After a lovely ride through the Oxfordshire/Bucks countryside we arrived at the venue to be greeted by a deep gravel entrance. With several people watching our arrival, I stubbornly ploughed into it and, emerging victorious, I was already feeling slightly more qualified to be in attendance at an adventure travel event and my apprehension about rubbing shoulders with the seasoned adventure crowd receded slightly. My CBR600RR and Mickey’s gixxer stood out like sore thumbs in the hard pannier-laden, GS-heavy crowd, much to my amusement, but we soon found out we were in good company. Bruce Smart was speaking on Saturday about his 70,000+ mile adventure around the world on a GSXR1000.

Watching the video of him trying to lift his heavily laden 204 kilo sportsbike on a 1:2 slope embodied well the exhaustion and despair that I expect to feel at points on our trip and the music track he’d chosen to accompany it tugged at my heart strings more than a little (you can see this video and find out more about his charity trip on his website here). But with true adventurer spirit, he persisted and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in feeling like cheering when he finally got the bike upright and wheeled it down the hill.

Earlier that day we’d seen Peter Francon recounting the day that the earthquake struck Nepal. Originally hailing from North England, Peter now lives in Nepal with his Nepali wife and daughter. His connection to and love for the country were evident from the moment he began speaking. Perhaps it was the succinct, simple and direct way he conveyed the emotions of that day; the shock and the worry sitting in stark contrast to the mundane practicalities of the everyday life that goes on. Or perhaps it was the utter devastation written in the streets and on the faces of people in the pictures that he showed. Or possibly it was just the knowledge that real people had endured this terrible event. Probably, it was all of these things that moved me so much and when he turned to the audience and said, simply, “I’m going to rebuild Nepal” there was a quiet strength about him that made me believe him utterly and immediately want to help. I’m sure that I wasn’t the only one affected in this way and there was a long line of people wanting to speak to him for some time after his talk. Peter also spoke with obvious sadness and frustration, of the government who seem indifferent to the plight of the people and how agency aid isn’t being distributed effectively . It was a very moving talk. And if his coverage of the quake itself was moving, his solution to the problem is nothing short of imaginative and inspired. He plans to build houses using ‘bricks’ constructed from dirt-filled rice bags. These can then be skimmed, adobe-style, so that they look attractive and like normal houses and critically, can be constructed at a fraction of the price. Just as important, both rice bags and dirt can be found in abundance so his plan cleverly circumvents the need for transport of materials, which is severely hampered in the worst hit regions that are most in need of houses. He predicts these houses will last up to two decades but possibly more and he already has an architect on board who has drawn up plans.  Later, Mickey and I caught up with him and arranged to visit when we’re in Nepal next year. Mickey is currently discussing fundraising ideas with Peter to help provide funds for the houses and funnel volunteers his way. He estimates that each house would house a family comfortably and would cost around £1200. Watch this space for details on how we will be helping and how you can get involved too.

Before we began the evening’s fun there was just time for the Rev’it and Overland Magazine short story competition announcement, which I won. Apart from the timeliness of the prize (adventure motorcycle clothing) the win meant a great deal to me. At a time in my life when I’m leaving the career I’ve worked hard to excel in it came as a welcome reminder that this effort has developed skills which will continue to be of value outside the lab in the future. I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the video of the Overland Editor reading out my story but if you’d like to you can see it here. The evening descended into a happy haze of new friendships made and consolidated, discussions of a Top Gun remake (enduro-style!) and some wild ceilidh dancing before stumbling, spent, back to the tent for some much-needed shut-eye.

The next morning, as we were packing up to go, we got chatting to our neighbours for the first time, one of whom was Bernard Smith. A few years ago, Bernard had been around the world by motorbike with his wife Cathy, making Cathy the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe. As I spoke to him and he told me tales of their travels, I found myself wishing I could have met her, not only because we shared a gender in a male dominated pursuit, and his admiration of her was so evident, but because I imagined her perspective would have been truly unique. His book documenting their adventures, Touching the World, has just been promoted to top of my reading list. As I listened to his tales of their travels together and I picked his brains, I asked him, was it worth it. Stories of difficult border crossings with gun-laden guards as the light fades and you don’t speak the language still frighten me, and when he asked me to clarify my question I explained this. He looked at me, smiled softly and then giving me a big hug he simply said “don’t be frightened”. With that brief but heartfelt action two strangers had a momentary connection and the spirit of humanity was very much alive. Thank you Bernard for that very human response, I’ve a feeling it may stay with me to pick me up in future travels.