Thank you, Congo

new years day 2019 streetside bars in dolisie congo brazzaville

To celebrate 2019’s arrival we stayed up a little later, and a day later than I’m used to. That’s because January 1st was chosen for us to celebrate in Dolisie, a town in Republic of Congo (Congo). The mood of New Year’s Eve had also been celebratory, but the next day turned out to be the real party by the standards of the town’s 80,000 or so residents.

The plastic chairs and tables set out on the sidewalks were full before dark with families nursing drinks in glass bottles, their purchase the entry fee allowing them to sit while a bouncer watched for empties.

To our left, a young couple making little eye contact and talking even less each had a cold beer sweating in front of them. Behind me sat a family whose toddler was the star of their show. She looked like a pint-sized drunk person as she stood precariously by the sitting adults, jerkily bobbing to the music. The sheen of her pink dress caught the lights, as did the sparkly threads in her braids until she tired of the wig. Off it came. Time to time she’d be lifted onto her Dad’s—Grandpa’s?—lap for him to tip a bottle of Fanta half the size of her to her lips. Then she’d be returned to the sidewalk to bob some more. She shot us droopy smiles, we smiled back and “awwww-” ed to ourselves.

Others danced in their seats. I danced in my seat. The bouncer stopped a man on foot, selling boiled eggs and chewable roots stacked on his head. To make the sale he took the heavy stack off, his neck swaying like an ostrich’s while he did it. Then, while he waited for the bouncer to give him silver CFA franc coins, he started dancing too.

I don’t remember what type of music it was, just that it spurred on this scene we hadn’t planned to be a part of, bar after bar after bar like this. It kept us happily outside after dark until we downed our warming beers, rushed by mosquitos at our ankles. We walked along the opposite sidewalk back to the Hotel Renaissance, watching the action until we turned the corner onto a dark dirt path. Night hid our drab non-cycling clothes from the celebrating families of Dolisie, all dressed in full colour, pedicures and manicures on both genders, though the men’s tended to be uncoloured.

A family takes their New Year’s photos with a streetside photographer in Dolisie

This year was starting like 2018 had been: a year full of many days living as an outsider, shown a little bit of different places through short interactions with different people. It has its drawbacks like any way of life, but overall I really like it. And because I like it, I usually want more, and feel sad when we leave a place and people I’ve felt a connection with, even a fleeting one.

Until recently, I found some consolation in my assumption that saying goodbye to one new place meant saying hello to another. This seemed better than my previous mindset.

Previously, I assumed that I could always return to any place I wanted, anytime, for the rest of my life. This stopped when I realized it made me complacent day to day, and that saying yes to anywhere is ultimately saying no to somewhere else, as I won’t live forever. So until two weeks ago I was in this groove, sad at leaving places I no longer assumed I’d be back to, but implicitly assuming there’d be more to come. Honestly, I subconsciously assumed decades more of living like this were all but guaranteed if we wanted them, because of our financial situation.

But fitting with the new year, I popped this bubble during 2019’s first days. We left Dolisie for Brazzaville, Congo’s capital on the Congo River’s northern banks. Here in Brazzaville we realized that this life that we love now, and may well continue to love, could really be over before we choose.

We came to this realization by assigning a 10% likelihood that within a given year, either one of us or a loved one would experience something catastrophic with their mind, body or both that would cause us to stop bike travelling. This includes but isn’t limited to death. We’d–or who was left–would then for some time trade a mobile life for a fixed location, based on proximity to certain people and, likely, health care access. We’d return to work.

This likelihood is analogous to what’s called a ten-year flood, a concept I still grasp from a hydrogeology course I took ten years ago. A ten-year flood, a ten-year anything, is an event that has a 10% likelihood of occurring in any given year, and which is expected to happen on average once within a ten-year period—but not every ten years like clockwork.

I’ve been doing the gratitude thing, growing it into a small daily habit. I regularly feel grateful simply to be alive, and try to keep my eyes open to the world around me, to remember that a long and healthy life isn’t a guaranteed or even likely outcome for many people. Lately we’ve taken to making wry jokes about how fragile our bodies are—calling them meatbags.

Nonetheless, it hadn’t occurred to me to complement these jokes and gratitude with numbers. And the numbers we’ve chosen are only rough ones. The probabilities of a health problem in our inner circles likely increases year on year, and we could quibble about whether 10% should be lower or higher in any year. Yet the principle remains: there’s a significant chance we’ll be forced to stop before we might want to.

To me, both the loss of travel and the loss of health whether mine or others are tragic. However, it’s possible to carry on relationships at a distance during long-term bike travel, as we’ve done with some friends and family. But it’s quite difficult to freely roam around once tied to one geographic location.

Accordingly, to frame our current lifestyle as something that will be over within ten years shocked me. Evan too.

We sat quietly in our hotel room, the only overnight guests in a place whose bread and butter were the hourlies who on occasion thumped their way to silence in 205 beside us. But I’m just adding that in for some flair, 205 was silent when we looked at each other and digested our simple and yet profound–to us–probability exercise.

“Oh.”

“So I guess it would be a good idea to prepare for that eventuality?”

A young man takes his place where the road meets the sidewalk to sell quick meals and hot drinks

It was visa applications for neighbouring Gabon and Cameroon that brought us to Brazzaville, which is hundreds of kilometres inland of the route we were cycling north through western Congo. One week after we arrived by bus, we had all the visas we needed to continue cycling north. But we immediately left because the days I was allowed in Gabon were already ticking down from thirty, not because we were tired of Brazzaville. In particular, I loved the morning routine we’d stumbled on.

If the electricity—and therefore the air conditioner—had stayed on all night, we celebrated when we woke up, grateful for an entire night without sweating. It was a few degrees warmer inside our tent, which was pitched on the bed because the room lacked a net hanging from the ceiling. So instead of knotting the net up during the day, we’d unzip ourselves, and Evan would collapse the tent and hang it by its poles on the air conditioning unit. I’d fill pots in the bathroom, either from the taps if Brazzaville’s municipal water was flowing, or from our water bags if it wasn’t. The air conditioner’s job wasn’t over as our camp stove sputtered to life on the floor to cook the caffeine, warming the room in the process.

Our first caffeine hit was to tide us over while we took to our screens, preparing for the end of bike travel in the first of three ways we’re trying to do this: learning and skill building for what might come after.

To clarify, I don’t wish to return to petroleum geology. To a significant extent, I don’t know what I’ll be doing next.

So certainly, I’ll need much more clarity about the what. And this clarity might have happy side effects: learning more about all the fascinating things I could apply myself towards may change my emotional response to the huge lifestyle change. Perhaps we’ll even stop bike travelling sooner than expected, because one or both of us feels a strong conviction to pursue something else. We often consider this scenario.

But regardless of what, I’ve started 2019 by beginning to improve some foundational skills that I hope will help me flourish generally. These include planning and confidence, motivation and habit building. I’m starting to better understand them and practice them more consistently across the different areas of my life.

Here’s a little example. On those mornings in Brazzaville, I tried to set reading and writing goals for the year and months ahead—it was the new year, after all! However, you might be surprised to know how uncertain I was about the time it takes me to write blog posts and email updates, even after years of doing both of these. I’m also largely in the dark about how that time breaks down between idea generation and draft writing, editing, research and photo captioning.

And when I have an idea or desire to write more than I do, which often happens, I’d like to better understand why I fall short. There’s several possibilities: lack of internet and electricity; lack of time and energy because we were riding every day, and camping along the way each night; falling into unhelpful mindsets of perfectionism or self-critical thoughts that become self-fulfilling prophecies; unrealistic goals.

There’s a lot of data to collect. Because it’s about me, it’s a little intimidating, especially when the goal is to use this information to change my views and actions. It’s also exciting. Travelling itself definitely involves this process of updating, and this is where I’ve recently exercised it the most.

Happily surprised to find a gourmet breakfast on the streets of Pointe-Noire, Congo

On our Brazzaville mornings, once our stomachs started rumbling we’d carry our bicycles down the staircase, chipping off more of the hotel’s aged paint in the process. I’d nudge the big metal door open with my bike and squint in the late-morning sun unless the sky sagged with steel clouds. First we’d greet the neighbourhood tailor and the salon ladies in pink smocks, then join the flow of green and white Brazzaville taxis rounding the Rond Pont Moungali, jostling like everyone else for a sliver of road.

We were heading for a specific breakfast place, but the whole journey was part of the second way we prepare for the end of bike travel. Maybe it’s the obvious way: every day, trying to engage a little bit with here, wherever that is. Anything we do for a long time requires effort to see with fresh, engaged eyes. Travelling is no different.

On our last day in Brazzaville, I rushed Evan off his screen to reach a woman named Aisa in time. I didn’t want to miss her before she’d sold all her pastries, at which point she’d get off her stool and walk away, disappearing until the next day, but forever for me. For lack of a better term, Aisa is part of a Congolese street breakfast conglomerate, the one we visited every day in Brazzaville. The stool she occupies is near Mohammad’s omelette cart, but closer to Samba’s CAFE FORT cart, because Samba has an umbrella for shade.

We got there in time. Aisa handed us four croissants wrapped in newspaper. A spot was offered to us in the shade of the steps of a drapes shop, whose electricity Samba uses to boil water for making coffee and tea. By the time our omelette sandwiches had been made by the other guy—Mohammad wasn’t there—we’d eaten all four croissants, and they weren’t small. Samba made me a second coffee, rapidly pouring it back and forth between two cups to mix the sugar and nescafe.

Her pastries gone, Aisa got up to leave. By way of goodbye, she said “demain?,” tomorrow?

“No…”

Maybe I frequently connect with new people easily because I don’t have many loved ones in front of me in flesh and blood. Or maybe it’s only a shallow connection, because we don’t yet know what about the other drives us a little bit crazy. Either way, I told Aisa goodbye forever, and felt it. I was glad I didn’t leave her expecting us tomorrow. At the same time, I knew it was entirely possible that she wouldn’t be expecting us at all, that to her we were just two tourists passing through.

Omelette baguettes come wrapped in newspaper – reading with your breakfast
Aisa, who I bought about twenty croissants during our week in Brazzaville (Evan ate half…)

I was recently told that this lifestyle seems to suit me, by a colleague from my days working as a geologist. I don’t have much imposter syndrome anymore about travelling anymore; I think it does suit me.

Last year, two friends that I admire decided to stop travelling for the sake of travelling. In contrast, I felt like I found my groove in 2018. To find it, a variety of things changed for me. I was kinder to myself. I introduced more routines. To some extent, I put more effort into all the relationships I try to maintain through WhatsApp, email and Skype. I found a better balance between taking in new information through travelling, and processing it through writing.

But there was another significant change which helped me feel like I could do this, living on a bicycle, forever: I asked myself more often what was a need in my life, and what was a want.

At various points in my recent past, I considered it a need to have a coffee shop to write, or a snack as soon as I was hungry on a hot road. I felt I needed reams of personal space, several outfits, a pleasing plan for my future, and running water to empty my menstrual cup. I’ve managed to reframe these and other preferences as wants, not needs. This process has been helped along by opening my eyes to the world around me, by expanding the circle of people whose lives feel relevant to compare to mine. By comparison, I realize how incredibly infrequent it is for me to go without having a real need met.

This is the third way I prepare for what’s after bike travel. I practice this skill, one small step at a time, for the big challenge: when I’m the familiar cliche of the miserable returned long-term traveller. When that happens, I hope I’ll be able to frame travel itself as a want instead of a need.

A want that I got more of than I could have ever hoped for, like those weeks in Republic of Congo. When we had our freedom and our health. When we were given visas and permitted safe passage to places unknown to us. When we could simply travel at our leisure and choose to fill our days with sweat on the handlebars and pedalling by trees and people and houses slow enough to really see them, to make eye contact, to stop. To have our ears perked to unknown bird calls and have our mouths involuntarily smile in response to languages we don’t understand. To shake hands. Back then in the beginning of 2019, when we celebrated the new year in Dolisie, and ate breakfast in Brazzaville, and all really was well.

When this life isn’t an option anymore, I hope I can feel that it was great, that it’s over now, and that I don’t need it to be content. As I write this, I don’t feel that. How I live now feels like a need. But I’m working on it.

— Megan

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