10 things I've Learnt as an Overlander
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – St. Augustine
“Not all those who wander are lost.” – J. R. R. Tolkien “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” – Lao Tzu
The internet is full of inspiring travel quotes floating wistfully over awe-inspiring landscapes. The general gist being that - travel broadens your mind. Thankfully I haven’t taken to wearing Thai fishing pants and eating with my hands, I have however garnered a whole host of insight that might fill you with wanderlust (or not)!
In this post I’ll be attempting to add my wisdom to the pantheon of travel writers by summarizing 10 things I’ve learnt as a global overlander!
1) “Nothing says death like the smell of rotting flesh”
Before we embarked on our adventure I can’t say I was very au fait with the pungent smell of death. I have however, since travelling, become very familiar with the unpleasant odour of rotting animal corpses. Typically, circling raptors give us enough advance warning to wind up the windows before the rancid smell violates our nostrils.
Quick! Hide the camera.
2) “The more flags a country flies the less you can trust its government”
Iran, Turkey, Eastern Europe and the whole of Central Asia like to fly flags. Countries full of nationalism and pride, countries with some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and countries with fairly dubious governments.
Generally, the number of flags a country likes to fly is tantamount to how untrustworthy the government is. The more flags you see, the more you should be scared.
Nothing instils nationalism and patriotism in a country than hoisting a giant flag, preferably bigger than your neighbouring country’s largest flag. For a short time Tajikistan, Central Asia’s poorest country, held the world record with their 165 metre tall pole costing a whopping $3.5 million. Incidentally, over 200+ stolen luxury cars from Germany managed to find their way to the president of Tajikistan’s inner circle and associates of his family.
In Southern India the prominence of the Hammer and Sickle is a little unnerving at first. For Westerners, the image is synonymous with the Cold War era Soviet Union and filled with negative connotations. To see this distinctive red and white flag flying so prominently is an indication that the people of southern India may have slightly opposing political values to our own.
Errrrm, eyes on the road!
3) “I went to India to find myself… I found out I was a @*$£!”
Most people go on a spiritual journey whilst in India. Certainly in Rishikesh and Haridwar we witnessed hundreds of Westerners “finding themselves”. After having spent more than 4 months in India I became “enlightened” only to discover I’d turned into an intolerant, short tempered, unreceptive and quite frankly horrible person.
My hard earned open-minded outlook was tested to the limit by people who think it is ok to spit in my general direction, open my car doors and get inside, push and shove and, worst of all, invade my personal space at every opportunity. Then there’s the rules and bureaucracy… and the Indian customs department and the filth and rubbish and…
Somehow I managed to maintain my polite English demeanour by not exploding into a tirade of abuse, but honestly, I’m not sure how! All the negativity slowly ground me down until the point I actually started to resent India and the monster it turned me into. Thankfully the duality of the situation meant we met hundreds of amazing, friendly and openhearted people who, on a daily basis, helped maintain a certain level of sanity.
Looked pretty good on the map!
4) “Never judge a road by a map.”
Forget everything you’ve ever learnt about estimating travel times. On one occasion in Greece it took us 2 days to drive 10 miles. In North Eastern India, what should have been a 3-hour drive took 15 hours. Expect potholes, corrugations, mud, landslides, collapsed bridges and surfaces so ungraded that you question whether it is actually a road and if your really expensive tyres are up to the job!
What can look like a motorway on a map can often be the worst road in the country. Kazakhstan is a massive country and most of the roads are in terrible condition, if you need to drive all the way across it, make sure you have enough time on your visa! In Armenia some of the potholes are so large you can see them on Google Earth.
The Lada they come, the Lada they fall.
The world is full of stupid people, myself included, from the poorest of the poor to the top ranks of the Indian caste system and from religious and political leaders to the average man on the street stupidity is demonstrated daily around the world. Stupidity out of necessity is endemic in poorer countries, if you have a family of five and a motorbike is your only form of transport you’re going to use it. Some might argue that you express a great deal of intelligence to solve the problem of fitting 5 people on a motorbike, but that is debatable.
In Armenia we were overtaken by a speedy Lada on an icy mountain road, 40 minutes later we caught up with the driver who’d lost control and skidded off the road. His car was on its roof about 10 metres down an embankment and was being pulled back onto the road by a tractor. Another 30 minutes passed and the same car overtook us again still travelling at 40+ mph, only now his roof was all battered.
We were also overtaken by a 6-year old driving through fast heavy traffic on the ring road around Almaty, Kazakhstan, whilst his father relaxed eating a sandwich. We managed to snap a photograph when we pulled up alongside them at the traffic lights.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Chinese are exploiting anyone and everyone in every country we visited. The respective governments are letting it happen at the expense of the environment and the people who inhabit it. The majority of the countries we visited have been ravaged by major wars, that have all happened during my lifetime. It’s tough to distinguish who is stupider; the uneducated or the “educated”; at every level greed generally outweighs common sense and, quite often, human life… Who am I to judge? I managed to loose my spare wheel and get stuck in the middle of an open field.
6) “It’s a big job but someone has to do it”
When overlanding you certainly become more aware of your bodily functions. Due to diet change, dehydration and food poisoning I am amazed on a daily basis at what my body produces, especially in the length department.
Having previously read that monitoring your bowel movements on expedition was a key indicator to your health I decided to keep a “Captain’s Log”. The ‘log’ featured the date, a descriptive title, GPooS coordinates and a record of ‘firmness’ using the Bristol Stole Scale. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about here are a few entries from the Captain’s Log…
03/07/2012 - The Vulgar Volga Turf-out - 54° 46' 22.5912'' N48° 47' 59.6256'' E – BSS 5
30/07/2012 - Secret Forest Foot-long - 53° 54' 26.694'' N109° 17' 23.1396'' E – BSS 4
08/04/2014 - The Sahara Sludge Pile - 29° 47' 12.6024'' N6° 3' 59.4468'' W – BSS 6
Having read that the largest fossilised human poo was 9 inches long my important ‘work’ may help archaeologists of the future locate specimens, which will clearly top this.
7) “Sleep with the planet”
I don’t mean a promiscuous overlanding lifestyle; getting in touch with your circadian rhythms really does make a world of difference to how great you feel. We go to bed when it goes dark and get up with the sun (well Emma does). This is occasionally problematic; in Norway it never went dark and in Georgia it was dark by 4pm. It is not unusual for us to sleep 10 hours a night – we’ve never had so much sleep.
"The red car and the blue car had a race...."
Expect to be woken up by an Indian TV crew opening your tent.
Expect to be on TV in Iran.
Expect to be chased by sheep.
Expect the road to not exist anymore.
Expect rocks bigger than your car to fall out the sky.
Expect to see LOTS of guns.
Expect to wake up covered in snow.
Expect the bridge to have collapsed.
Expect to see a Kyrgyz nomad carrying a severed horse leg on the back of his horse.
Expect to see a holy man rolling down a motorway.
Expect an Iranian truck driver to just give you 40L of fuel… For FREE.
Expect to see a bus on its side.
Expect your front wheel to collapse.
Expect to see a truck half hanging over a cliff edge.
Expect a monkey to piss on your face.
Expect a 150cm Monitor Lizard to stroll through your camp.
Expect a wild deer to come and say hello in the evening.
Expect your ice-cream to be MASSIVE….
No man is an island
9) “Less is more”
We sold nearly all our possession to fund our trip; it was a liberating experience. Living with few belongings shifts the focus of what is important. Materiality falls aside as basic survival comes to the forefront: finding water, food and fuel, keeping clean and dry and vehicle maintenance. Living this way helps ground you and brings a little perspective to life.
10) “Never get a haircut in Armenia”
Pictures speak louder than words…