How do you start a story about a boy and a man? Badlands South Dakota, USA. I am flying through the air. A game of frisbee with my brother, in the abandoned hills and forests of the north, my head racing towards the rocks. Crash! Dizziness, dazed… The world seems different after such an impact. Stillness. Ice. A snake farm. All memories of the first of the many impacts that have shocked my body and life, time after time after time, year after year.
Years later... I awake from a deep sleep, flying through the air, rolling bodily alongside the road in the deep dark of night, 90 kilometers an hour. The car I had just been in with my sister, rolling and flipping far away from the road by now, is nowhere to be seen. I can't see anything actually. In all calmness, I only tell myself, almost as if in slow motion, as I fly through the air, skidding above the ground, "I must be in an accident". Everything comes to stillness, and all I can feel is pain, everywhere, in every part of my body. I cannot even raise my head to look around.
Flashing lights. Many flashing light. This seems to be one of the themes of my youth. Again and again, emergency room after emergency room. France. America. Amazing somehow that I survive. And yet it just seems normal to me. My sister is ok, she just hung on to the steering wheel so hard that she sprained her thumb. Amazing considering our small family Toyota flipped and rolled itself 150 meters from the road as I crashed myself along side a thick irrigation pipe and a ditch during that moment which seemed to hang between heaven and earth.
How do you start a story about a boy and a man?
Badlands South Dakota, USA. I am flying through the air. A game of frisbee with my brother, in the abandoned hills and forests of the north, my head racing towards the rocks. Crash! Dizziness, dazed… The world seems different after such an impact. Stillness. Ice. A snake farm. All memories of the first of the many impacts that have shocked my body and life, time after time after time, year after year.
We are in Africa now. My hand is flying, in slow motion through the air, heading, in directed anger, towards the hood of the car which is trying to run me down. These are no longer streets of France, or of Germany or of America. These are the streets of Conackry, Guinee.
Perhaps all the times a car ever tried to hurt me, are instantly with me, as my rage towards someone trying to attack me with a car, finally finds an outlet. I am striking back.
Flash back into the streets of Saint Egreve, France. After I moved to Grenoble, my first years as an engineer after finishing University. The streets are dark, still and it is raining. My beautiful red Renault is momentarily stopped as I wait to turn left.
I hear the screeching breaks. I even see it coming through my rear-view mirror. A big truck whose driver is not paying attention, has decided to sleep a little too early. He is racing uncontrolably towards me at high speed, from behind. The impact is solid and hard. The loud crunching shock of a serious accident all too familiar to me. I can do nothing but watch and listen as I and my car, are violently thrown by this raging truck, across the street into the other lane of traffic, straight into a head on collision witth a motor cycle. It all seems to happen so slowly and yet, within a split second, a second crash. And now the motor cyclist is no longer driving his motor cycle, but flying above my car, landing somewhere far behind me.
More flashing lights. Another emergency room.
Several months I lay quietly in the home of friends, recovering from injuries. It has not been so long since I spent a year recovering from the Hepatitus I came back with, from my first adventure in Africa.
Flash back to the five times dislocating my shoulder and once injuring my knee in a game of frisbee football. The surgeries also laid me up for weeks. These were only preludes to many other accidents. Preludes to the day I was tripped at the wrong moment in a soccer match and landed with a very solid kick to my head.
The ever so familiar stillness, like being at the bottom of a swimming pool, washes over me. Dazed… Dizzy… I attempt to keep playing, but simply cannot. I attempt to keep working, my career as an engineer, but cannot. The reverse imprint of the Nike shoe remains printed on my head for weeks.
That was years ago.
Now. Perhaps my desire to make it, by bicycle, across the African continent from from Morocco to South Africa, alone with my wife, is a way to show the world, or myself, that I can accomplish something. Something with meaning.
Flash back becomes slow motion becomes an instant flash, as my hand races in anger, like a bolt of lightening, towards the hood of the car who’s driver would run me over without caring. These are the streets of Conackry, the crazy capital city of Guinee, West Africa.
CRASH! My hand, like thunder, finally strikes the car, as if fighting back against every trauma I have ever lived through and survived.
You don’t do this in the streets of Africa. Hit cars.
I could make a story from this. Chantal warning me that you just can’t be angry like that with drivers in Africa. The driver could come chasing after us. You could end up in jail. We saw a jail in Kindia. It’s not a place one wants to be. Hundreds of men reaching their arms out the jail bars, like a bad cartoon or a nightmare. Overcrowed to say the least, trying to get some air.
Crash! Like thunder my hand has slammed the car the would run me down. As if all the anger I’ve ever had against the traumas, cars, trucks, soccer players, has found a target.
She did chase after us, the driver of that car, in the streets of Conackry. There was a military man nearby,with a gun as I discovered later, a crowd, an argument. Chantal said this could happen. It did. I could have ended up in jail. I did not. Chantal diffused the situation.
We weren’t suppose to come back to Europe. Really! We were just hoping from West Africa to East Africa. The torrential rain and dangerous political situations on the horizons helped us in our painful decision to re-route. It took us four days of full time work to buy two tickets. Brussels was on the way and cheaper than a direct flight.
Instead of taking the second leg of the flight back to East Africa, we got on our bikes and headed north. Without a goal. But my goal was Africa, South Africa. And now my goal… The North. The North Cape.
Thirteen years ago I stopped working! Since then I have accomplished much but always denied, in some way or another, that I am handicaped. Handicaped in a way that no one besides myself and Chantal can see.
I suppose the moment I went running through a minefield, in the Sahara desert, could also be part of this story. It simply does not make sense to willfully go chasing after anything in a minefield. Especially so close to the place in the middle of the desert, where a camel was blown to pieces by a mine three days ago, a place where not meters away there is a bright red skull and bones sign, warning of “MINES”.
They have said that it is mild traumatic brain injury. What does that mean? Who believes that anyhow? I don’t. Do I? Or at least I have not, for years.
I have decided that I can bike to the furthest reaches of the earth. Not only that, but it is an adventure that I love. And surely, on stubborness alone, I could accomplish that goal. I would not be surprised if somehow I could make it to the North Pole if I wanted to, on willpower alone.
But the universe gave me a beautiful gift. And that gift is a friend, a partner, a wife. And she does not need to prove that she can make it there. Wherever there is. Her challenge in life is dealing with a man who fell on his head and who can be very stubborn when he wants to reach his goals. Her challenge in life is listening to her needs, instead of her head-strong husband’s.
Two thousand kilometers of sand and one semi-straight road that leads, pretty much, from one end of the Sahara desert to the other. That’s it. Pure adventure. Living and surviving on our own strength and willpower, defying temperature, desolation, sand and terrible wind. We are a team, not two stuborn people, following the goals of one, to be immersed in adventure.
There are boundaries.
Making the choice to ride towards the north, leaving behind Africa, is as painful to me as stepping off my bike in the middle of the desert, and jumping into an overcrowed small pickup full of Berbers racing across the desert to buy a camel. Choosing to skip from West Africa to East Africa on an airplane, was, in itself a very difficult step. I am on a self-powered trip. Defying logic, comfort, technology. Defying normal. Defying most things that were ever taught to me. Defying age and time. Defying the message some have given us, that life should be hard. That we should work, have weekends off, go on vacation once a year and retire when we turn 65 and then not find it fun. This is a journey of discovery.
We are now halfway to East Africa, on a european recovery layover. For Chantal’s health the European layover has become a change in direction, from South to North.
I need to pick something and go for it! Really go for it. And in that, I find a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose that I have missed since the day I was kicked in the head thirteen years ago.
But saying NO! Taking a lift in a pickup truck. Changing directiions from the South Cape to the North Cape. Changing directions from the North Cape to Russia or Estonia or perhaps Azerbijan. Somehow, this is a challenge for me. Chosing to bike in a direction, instead of with a goal. This is more difficult for me than biking any mountain or desert, along any sea or to the top of any volcano in the world.
What has strarted out as a bicycle trip around the planet has become an internal journey of discovery and change.
I would like to think that I am able to change. I would like to think that I can give up my need to achieve a goal. But deep inside, my heart says “I want to bicycle every kilometer”. I feel that stuborness that says I must climb that mountain and achieve that goal. Whether that be South Africa, the North Cape, Saint Petersburg or Moscow. Almost as if getting there were more important to me than the journey there.
Chantal and I have conversations about this. Her need is for health and enjoyment of our journey. She really does not need to race across a continent in order to get somewhere. I find myself needing to respect her boundaries and her needs. And yet, from somewhere deep inside, I am challenged, wanting to enjoy, but at the same time feeling the need to make it to some far away place, be that South or North or East or West.
I listen to the wind in the trees. I listen to the birds singing in the morning. I hear the water rushing trough the riverbeds or the waves crashing on the small stony beaches. And this is also learning that from deep inside, each breath, each moment, these are what makes our travel happy. Not arriving in some place and saying, “I made it there”. Who is going to be impressed anyhow. And should I care?