Internet cafes were one of my favourite things in my years on the road. They were a tantalising hook to the outside world and home. Those ramshackle, pay as you go, backroom enterprises were my opportunity to snatch at a few admin tasks on painfully slow dial-up connections before my time was up or the lights went out. Whilst teenagers chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, listened to loud music through tinny speakers, and slaughtered each other in violent gun battles, I would ship a bottom bracket to a postal address a few months’ ride away, confirm a school talk next month, grin at banter from a mate, and hope for a message from a girl. Nostalgically, I even cherish the screeching dial-up tone when the routers needed resetting.
As I cycled the length of Africa, I wrote updates for my website in Cairo, Aswan, Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Moshi, Dar Es Salaam, Blantyre (Malawi), Francistown (Botswana), East London (South Africa), and Cape Town. That’s it! 11 updates from a year spent cycling the length of a continent. These days I sometimes do 11 Instagram Story updates in a day.
By the time I reached Cape Town I had uploaded nine photos to my website, and had the temerity to thank Olympus at the top of the page for sponsoring me the camera! I’m not sure they got a great return on their investment! 😂 In my whole ride round the world I only took 3425 photos (No wonder I have never since managed to find sponsorship from a camera company...)
Looking back I am grateful for the total immersion that comes from being cut off from the outside world when you have no means of communication. I used to send emails along the lines of "I'm leaving Beijing in the morning. Don't worry if you don't hear from me until I reach Kazakhstan next month."
After a couple of weeks hauling my bike through the Nubian desert in Sudan, a passing pick-up stopped to chat. The driver said that he had a computer in Khartoum. I gave him my parents' email address on a scrap of paper and asked him to reassure them that I would be back online in a week or so when I emerged from the desert.
When I sailed across the Atlantic Ocean nobody had any idea where I was until I phoned home from a payphone on a humid street busy with hawkers and taxis. “I’m in Rio!” And later that night a girl gently took my head in her hands and cut off 18-months of my curly hair, scissors in one hand, Caipirinha in the other; cicadas and samba and the Southern Cross in the air. My hair fell at our feet and it was the end of Africa and it was the beginning of the Americas. And it was the beginning and the end of that girl; without WhatsApp to keep in touch we faded like smoke rings from each others’ lives.
In Patagonia I heard rumour of a remote, alternative border crossing into Chile. The crossing was not open to vehicles and did not appear on my large-scale map (half of South America on one sheet of paper). It would require cross-country travel and a boat ride. I could not find out any detailed information at all. Even a helpful police station, after much noisy telephoning and gesticulation, could only advise me that “there is no road, and there are only two boats a month, perhaps around the 5th and 20th of the month…”
At the deserted border post hut the customs official pointed out a skinny, muddy path disappearing up the forested mountain and said, “You want to get to Chile, amigo? Just follow the horse sh!t…”
When I eventually reached the grey waters of Lago O’Higgins, dotted with blue icebergs, I did not know when, or if, a boat would arrive. I had no Kindle or Instagram to kill the time. Instead the weight of time felt luxuriant, decadent and fascinating.
Compare that to the time-consuming task of creating daily stories that I did whilst cycling around Yorkshire recently. I didn't read a single book on that ride, yet on other adventures I had the time to read War and Peace in Russia, Atlas Shrugged in California, Anna Karenina in the Arctic and so on. The luxury of time: happy adventures are all alike; every unhappy adventure is unhappy in its own way.
If I was cycling round the world today to try to build a career in adventure then I would insist on full connectivity. Yet by not having the internet back then, I had such a rich experience which possibly gave me a solid platform to slowly build a career in the long run. Who knows: it’s all speculation and guessing, of course. But it does seem to fit with the slow and steady approach to longevity I prefer over any sudden explosion of social media fame.
Social media helps you grow an audience, build a reputation and a portfolio. These are the starting points for earning the cash to pay for your adventures. With all the modern tools you would be so far ahead of where I was when I used to idle away long and empty miles with ludicrous fantasies of somehow becoming a 'working adventurer' one day.
Yet now that I am a working adventurer I feel as though I have got into bed with the devil that is social media.
I have to tell my stories: it is my job. (It is also, I suspect, a habit and possibly an addiction.) Online story telling is useful for my ‘brand’. I try to make it useful or interesting for people who follow me. And I enjoy doing it. So it is all good.
And yet I also know that it comes at the cost of changing the experience itself, the experience which is supposed to be the point of the whole thing.
It changes the experience but does not necessarily make it worse. Walking across the Empty Quarter was the first trip I ever did where the story was my priority above the journey itself. And I revelled in my new-found obsession with camera angles, continuity, and charging batteries.
Did this mean that the cart was in front of the horse, or the other way round? I don't really know! I only know that it changes things.