- JOE DIOMEDE -
- JOE DIOMEDE -
Having grown up on the culturally diverse streets of New York, I always longed to see the wider world. After university my motorcycle took me across the continent of my birth many times before fate saw me on a bicycle in Japan where my exploration beyond North America began on two wheels without a motor!
The slow pedaling throughout the world changed my outlook on life forever, as for the streets of New York, well after I took to the road I hardly made it back except for visits.
I'm a warmshowers.org host. Cycle by and camp for the night.
Pas de Carles, Rt, de Montfa, Montbrun-Bocage, Haute Garonne 31310, fr
I met Joe Diomede while cycling on the Canal du Midi in the summer of 2012. Joe was out on day ride with his son. We spent about a half hour sitting on a bench along the canal as we fixed my fourth flat tire in two days. Joe was friendly and helpful. Upon my return home I searched for his book and began reading of his multi-decade traveling adventure around the world. I was especially drawn to the chapters that I was geographically familiar and knowledgeable, the western U.S., France and Germany.
One profound surprise for me and of utmost importance to me in reading Cycles of a Traveler (love this very appropriate title) was that I found the voice to tell the story of my father, a cavalry combat medic in World War II and my solo cycling adventure to follow his guidon through France and Belgium.
It is the people we acquaint ourselves with in our foreign travels and Joe Diomede shows us as I have also learned that it through the new lasting friendships the world is smaller and my experience and thinking broader.
His story will help you to dream of your own past and future travels.
- Val Valentine - Colorado, USA
.... and more......
I enjoyed reading Cycles of a Traveler. If I didn't know better, I would have thought it was a work of fiction; that's how incredible I found the author's travels. Hearing how well received Joe was by everyday people around the world was an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the human spirit. I loved the maps and found myself continually referencing them to help visualize his movements around the globe. It is a great read with a happy ending.
- Vincent Giudice - Westchester, NY, USA
Sometimes it really is about the journey. In Cycles of a Traveler, Joe Diomede shows us how important that journey can be. His book covers his journeys on motorcycle and bicycle throughout wide swatches of the world, and the philosophical journeys that matched the physical ones. The journeys cover a good part of the known world, from the United States to Canada, from Japan to Russia, By book's end, it seems that he has covered anywhere that a road can be found.
The travels themselves take a back seat to people he meets on the road. He encounters a lot of gorgeous geography, from the Rockies to the Chinese countryside. There are maps included to show where he cycled, but it is the photographs of those he meets that accentuate the travels. It makes for an interesting travelogue through cultures rather than landscapes. This sets the book apart from most travelogues; it's the people and how they are similar that really makes the book interesting, including those he decides not to travel with.
The journey into the mystery of the mundane is what this book is about. Through his travels, Diomede is able to disconnect from the unimportant differences of people and look at the similarities. It is those similarities that are fascinating, especially when he goes to lands other than the United States and Canada. Although he encounters different levels of technology and different landscapes, he is able to find the common threads, showing us that we are not really all that different after all, and that we should focus on the commonalities. This book is a great travelogue, but an even better road map of the human soul.
- San Francisco Book Review -
This book is the story of one young man's quest for adventure, freedom and knowledge. What he acquired along the way was all of the above, plus a healthy dose of self-fulfillment, the assertion of strength and resilience of the human spirit and the awareness that positive energy generates more of the same. A series of fascinating chronicles treats the reader to witty, delightful anecdotes overflowing with the ubiquitous benevolence of all people from around the world, set amongst descriptive, ever-changing landscapes of the U.S., Central America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. This book is a must read for anyone who has ever had the urge for going and the yearning for a reaffirmation of the oneness of humankind.
- John Clemente - NJ, USA
This remarkable book is a genuinely inspirational read for any number of reasons. Firstly, of course, it should awaken in every reader - even those who are most deeply and comfortably settled in the ass grooves of their sofas - the burning desire to explore the world and experience its elemental wonders: the very notion that journeys of this magnitude are achievable by bicycle is thrilling and persuasive. Secondly, however, there is also a quietly and subtly insistent spiritual element to the book that makes this so much more than just an admittedly absorbing travelogue. This can essentially be boiled down to several distinct but interrelated strands: anything is possible, people, places, flora and fauna are precious, every experience (even adverse ones) should be savoured, mistakes are there to be learned from, and whoever or wherever we are, we're all on this ride together. Joe Diomede's wonderfully open, curious and non-judgemental attitude demonstrably makes good karma ping back to him all over the place, although his travels are by no means easy for much of the time. Nevertheless, setbacks and complications are taken on the chin with thoughtful stoicism and good humour, and the end result is that the reader enjoys the most profound sense of renewal and uplift with every page. The most extraordinary aspect of this book is the fact that the reader is not just picking up geographical and geopolitical facts, and fascinating lore about indigenous cultures: many of the issues Joe raises and ruminates upon will cause you to ask questions about yourself, making this into an ongoing voyage of discovery even when the last page has been reached. Unequivocally recommended.
- Marco Rossi - Dorset, UK
This is a beautiful book, because of the open-hearted narrating, because of the positive feeling you are left with having read it. I would encourage all young people to read it; they will learn a lot about this world and its possibilities. This recommendation comes in spite of the injuries I incurred from the book - a ganglion in my hand from holding up all 600 plus wonderful pages, and the slight dent in my nose where my loving partner accidentally dropped the book on me as I lay beside him one night. Really, its been worth it. Now that's got to be a good book!
- Michelle Lawless - Ariege, France
I was truly hooked by this book whilst travelling in France. It showed me why I've never traveled as widely as I should have but offered me a chance to experience what could have been had I the courage and open mindedness of Joe. An inspiring read, peppered with magic - sadly unfinished since arriving home and getting lost once again in the everyday. I WILL finish it and I WILL seize the day, just as soon as I can find the time.
- Kate Madden - Dorset, UK
I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Joe lives the way most of us wish we could live. In his words "I wanted, actually needed, to know the world I lived in-its people, cultures, religions and philosophies-it intrigued me on a deeper level and fueled my life force..." I loved "visiting" all the places Joe traveled and "meeting" all the people along the way. An adventure on every page, a must read!
-Fran Brown- Seattle, USA
A heart warming narrative presenting an optimistically positive story of hope, discovery and an abundance of good fortune and adventure. Author Joe Diomede, avid motorcyclist, byciclist and trekker takes us, the reader, on his twenty year voyage to explore the world and it's people.
From the Badlands of South Dakota to the snow capped mountains of Tibet and almost everywhere in between, Diomede's innocent and charming travelogue is filled with incredible stories of the kindness and humanity in man. Falling headlong into good providence at every turn, Diomede reminds the audience that even in the modern world, no borders or barriers exist to the honest and social interaction between cultures both new and old.
A brilliant read, and a must for the avid adventurer, "Cycles of a Traveler" might possibly be one of the best tomes illustrating the geography, peoples, and customs of the "one world" community to hit the shelves in many a year.
- Devin - NYC, USA
In a world where we are always connected via cell phones and computers, Joe disconnects from all of that and connects with the world in a more traditional way. It was interesting to listen to a person with views different than mine, and also different views from different parts of the world.
- Steven DeGrazio -
Cycles of a Traveler follows author Joe Diomede as he recounts his astonishing journey of physical, emotional and spiritual discovery while navigating the globe. His fascinating personal accounts convey the substantive message that although borders may separate us, pre-conceptions may bias us, we are more alike than we realize. The author's prevailing theme to the reader is to heed those synchronous moments and treasure them, for they are what connect us to each other and ourselves. Joe's story is relevant and timeless and a must-read for anyone residing on planet Earth. Sit back and enjoy traversing the planet, for we are, indeed, all on this ride together.
- Lisa LeMone - L.A. California, USA
If you're into travel, bikes, motorbikes, anthropology, spirituality, geography, politics, any or all of these, or just love a good anecdote, you'll be inspired by this book. what a great insight into how you get make the best of life and REALLY live it to the full. you'll really feel like you've spent time getting to know a great guy by the end!
- Jane Smith - Ariege, France
This book hits so many spots, it's hard to know where to start with a review. On the face of it, this is a travelogue, but it's no ordinary travelogue. It's a coming of age story and an inspirational book that demonstrates how you can live a good life by ignoring conventional wisdom and following your heart, getting "in the groove" and trusting in providence, destiny or the wisdom of the universe to lead you where you need to go. It leads Joe into some strange places and interesting situations. On the way, he encounters and ponders upon poverty, injustice, compassion, generosity, the power of a human smile, the power of human endurance, and much more.
Traveling with Joe, you see the world through his eyes, meet the people he meets along the way, face his demons with him and share his achievements. You witness the growth in his understanding as he matures from a fresh-faced 21-year-old eager to explore the world to a 30-something husband and father who's comfortable with who he is and secure in his life choices. Along the way, you learn quite a lot about life and how it should be lived, what it means to be human, how beautiful the world is, how much all humans have in common and how much injustice is patiently endured.
Given what I've just written, you might be forgiven for thinking that the book will be preachy and holier-than-thou. I can assure you it's not. The author does occasionally get on his soapbox, but he's written the book in a very matter-of-fact story-telling style. Yes, there's philosophising, but there's also humour and suspense and true grit. And the overriding theme is Joe's great spirit of adventure. The book doesn't pretend to be a model for how other people should live their lives - it's just Joe sharing his own experiences. Having said that, I think anyone would find it an inspiring read.
- Sandra Anthony - Cloughjordan, Ireland
Cycles of a Traveler is ostensibly about one man's bicycle and motorcycle travels but it is really about how the author grows in mind ,spirit and body and how his travels fostered this growth.The fun about this read is that readers get to experience his growth without having to leave the comforts of home. What I most enjoyed about the autobiography was that you could sense the author changing and formulating new ideas with each journey .The reader comes away with a deeper knowledge of what it means to be a citizen of not just a country but of the world as a whole.Finally,while many books propose a philosophy for living, in Cycles of a Traveler we get to see through Mr. Diomede's experiences that synchronicity is always there if we are prepared to see it. Read this book and you've already taken your first step in this direction!
- Billy Julian - NYC, USA
For anyone who wants to take an adventure this book is for you! Joe details his journeys inward and outward and brings the reader along with him. The details in this book are so vivid, I felt like I was visiting a different country every time I picked up the book.
It is an inspiring read for anyone who aspires to travel the world as well as for those who just want to go on a voyage of personal growth in their every day lives, I highly recommend it!
- Dana Brown - Marshall, NC, USA
Loved, loved, loved this book! It was inspirational and awesome reading about the unbelievable lands Joe visited and lived in all around the world!
- Flo Egan -
This is an amazing book to read. Not only is it vividly descriptive narrative of a man's travel around the world, but it provides insight into cultures and ways of life many a person would never experience. It also made me examine why things happen, when they happen and how a course of events can positively affect one journeys through life.
- Phil Rucci - Westchester, NY, USA
This book is AMAZING in every sense of the word & I truly believe that everyone, everywhere can get something out of it.
We read this book @ our local book club last month. I loved it so much that i bought 3 copies...one for my dad for father's day, a personal copy for me to loan out to friends & one to send on a journey of its own.
It was a little intimidating, as it has been a while since I have read any 'grown up' books (we have 4 young children :) & the book is quite thick, but man, even before the first 10 pages I was hooked!!
The story is so personal, filled with all the little quirks that we discover when we truly know a person. It is written in such a way that I felt I was sitting across the table from Joe & he was telling me of his travels. I feel as though Joe & I have been friends for years, even though I only just had the privilege of meeting him.
We, the readers, are his constant traveling companions. We are right there with Joe as he crosses the county for the first time, when he does it a second time solo & when he trades in his motorcycle in for a bicycle & takes the plunge to become a world traveler. We are right there as he meets new folks along the way, sharing their stories & delving more into his own. We are right there as he confronts his hopes, his dreams, his fears... We are right there as he learns more about other cultures, their customs & beliefs on an intimate level. And we are there as he reflects on all that he learns, weighing it against what he know, what others believe & expect of him...we are there as he discovers his own path, trusting in his own inner compass.
That all being said, this book is so much more than an adventure story, it is also a great primer for anyone dreaming of traveling. Joe really gives a behind the scenes look @ what it means to travel the world as it should be traveled & as I hope to one day travel it!
- Jessie Koontz - Marshall, N.C. USA
Diomede gives a wonder-full account of a voyage through this life : his resounding humanitas and gra for GAIA come through and reward the reader.
- Paul Leech - Ireland
Any fan of traveling or even better, cycling, will not be able to put this book down. And there's TONS of it here so you'll likely not have to put it down for months.
- Grant A Fanning - NYC, USA
Traveling for me was always about confirming my faith in humanity, and this is exactly what Joe does. A simple boy from the Bronx sets out on a voyage of discovery. Armed with an open positive attitude and an unswerving belief in the basic goodness of people he has a multitude of adventures along the way. As Joe travels around the world we go with him and share his experiences and his thoughts on the nature of people and the world. Over a 13 year period Joe has his basic premise confirmed time and time again. It leads him to wonder, and we wonder with him, why is the world in such a mess? What are the forces which shape our world, and how can the basic goodness of people be made to shine through and make it a better place? Personally I'm not a great cyclist but I adored this book. Thank you Joe, you're an inspiration.
- David Murray- Haute Garonne, France
Thank you for such an uplifting read that restored my faith in human nature. Much of what you have written ,I felt myself on my travels in the sixties and seventies.It was nice to read about someone with such a postive, joyfull outlook on life.The best book I have read in a long time.Joe's story shows us all, we don't all have to follow the line!and you can go your own way in life and what an adventure that can be.I don't read many books twice but shall read this again and again, a great "Spirit lifting" read thanks again Joe.
- Ken - Dorset, UK
Cycles of a Traveler is an inspiring. open and Honest book, It is the Timeless myth of the Heroes Journey ( see Joseph Campbell) that takes a boy to manhood, but also appeals to anyone that is seeking adventure and insight and hope in this troubled cynical world of ours, it is easy to lose sight of the goodness and kindness in human nature, this book can restore this in you- and ignite a sense of adventure ,even if it is in your dreams . Thank you for sharing your story.
- Hazel - Dorset, UK
I was turned onto this book by a friend, and it has quickly become one of my favorites. It's an inspiring tale of a real man's actual travels, and yet oftentimes it seems fictitious. One year he's home in the Bronx, and the next he's in the middle of a desert searching for his next drink of water. All the while he's on a fabulous journey through his mind and through the inner workings of humanity. Half of the book is an adventure around the globe (on a bicycle!) and the the other half is a contemplative work. Not many people are able to take the trips Joe has taken ~ for me, this book is the next best thing. Seems like he went everywhere, and was able to truly immerse himself in the vastly different, yet comfortingly familiar, cultures of our planet. Loved it, loved it, am still loving it (it's a looooooooong book!!) and it's one that you'll be thinking about whether you have it in your hands or not. Sometimes it's an easy read, & sometimes you'll find yourself looking back to get the full effect. I suggest it for people of all walks of life, whether you are a traveler or not. For the young, for the old, for the human in all of us!
- Kate Puglisi - Marshall, NC, USA
An Unlikely Encounter
I pulled out of town and passed a gas station, about a mile later something said to me, “Go get some gas.” My bike didn’t have a big tank, and I couldn’t remember when I last put gas in, so it wouldn’t hurt to top up. I dipped into a u-turn and went back to the station. I filled up, paid, threw my leg over the bike, kick-started it, and was just about to pull out when I heard what I took to be a motorcycle engine, no, actually two. I waited for them to appear, and from the sound of the engines they sounded like fast bikes, maybe just some locals out for a ride. As the sound drew nearer, it was obvious by the downshifting and groans of their slowing engines they were pulling in for gas. They pulled into the station and I was interested to see two loaded bikes. I thought ah, some travelers. One bike was a Kawasaki GPS and the other was a BSA. Could it be a huge coincidence? I remember Frank’s grandmother saying they were heading to British Colombia. This was Oregon, not too far to make it impossible. I nodded at them, and they both smiled at me. I casually walked around to the back of their bikes to see their license-plates. Ontario! No way, I was thinking, it couldn’t be. So I waited until they filled up went over to the guy on the Kawasaki and said “John?” he looked at me quizzically. Remembering Frank’s firm handshake and formal introduction I then said, “John Westerlaken?” He really looked confused now and checked his jacket as if looking for a clue to how I had known his name, “Do I know you?” he asked. “Well actually no” I said, “but I had dinner with your grandparents and brother a few weeks ago!”
Teacher Becomes Student
~~ I was walking down the hallway with the papers in my hands, behind a few other guys from the neighborhood whom I’d never met before, and with whom I didn’t have much in common. Our footsteps echoed on the shiny tiled floor like another part of my own brain trying to get through to me. I started to hear the voices of Stan, my mom, my brother and other friends questioning this as a good move. I thought of John and realized that maybe we were on different paths after all. We probably wouldn’t even have that much to do with each other after joining up as he was joining as an officer and I was starting from the very bottom. I was starting to seriously doubt what I was doing walking down the halls of some dreary military institution in Brooklyn. I was last on line – all the other guys signed the dotted line, and were heading down to swear in. The navy didn’t waste any time. I got to the counter with my recruiter to my left, and an officer in front of me handing me a pen. I looked at these two and thought of my cross-country trips, my college days, and all my experiences in life. These men were not the type of people I would ever choose to hang out with. Now I was about to sign up to four years of their company. I looked up at the officer, “Have I joined the navy yet?” “Just sign here son, go downstairs, swear in,” was his curt reply. Something about the “Son”, reminded me of a certain State Trooper, “Yes, I know that, but as of this moment, am I in the navy? Have I made any commitment to join the navy?” I repeated. A look came over his face, and it wasn’t pretty, “No son, you haven’t. You just need to sign these papers, go downstairs, and swear in.” I looked at both of them and repeated myself once more, “So I haven’t joined the navy.” A cold stare was his answer. I then slid the sheets of paper back across the table, put down the pen, and said, “I’m going to think about it.”
The officer behind the desk had gone a certain shade of purple and was looking quite agitated, “Son, the navy has given you a physical, you have a seat on a plane, and you are headed for medic candidacy school.” I now was feeling relieved and even a bit cocky that me and these two didn’t have a future together, “Thanks for the physical, but I’m going to think about it first.” Now my recruiter chimed in, “If you aren’t signing up, I’d normally give you a token and let you catch the train home.” He’d given me a ride down to Brooklyn and was due to be dropping me back after we’d all done the tests and signed the forms. There was no way he was going to change my mind back to joining up for four years in the navy by threatening me to find my own way home and I think he knew it. I just looked at him. “I’m still gonna think about it, I’ll wait here for the others.” The officer nodded at him to get the others going, and I sat in a waiting area. While I waited for the other three to swear in for the next four years in the military, I wanted to scream for joy. I could not believe I’d come so close to joining the navy. I was called in to three different officers’ cubicles in that time to tell me what the navy was offering me, and how civilian life didn’t offer me half those options. Every small encounter just made me surer than ever of the choice I just made. I couldn’t wait to get home, have a beer with Stan, and tell my mom who was probably praying at the moment.
~~ The car journey back was silent and the atmosphere was not particularly friendly. It was a long drive from Brooklyn, and I had never felt so lucky in my life. My mom was overjoyed, and Stan and I got very drunk – we made a date to have a party on January 24th as well – the date I would have been boarding a plane to start my four-year stint in the navy.
Pushing The Limits
~~ We did not camp at night, but shared cheap road-side hotel rooms. That was fine with me. The knowledge we were sharing was incredible and the comradeship between the three of us was something truly special. The black skies pierced with a galaxy full of twinkling stars were becoming harder to catch sight of the further north we traveled. They would undoubtedly come out, but only for the briefest of times between dusk and sunrise, usually too late for any of us to stay up to see. If I was awoken by a call of nature I would go outside to steal a glance up at the night sky and be nearly moved to tears by the overwhelming feelings of awe, satisfaction, accomplishment, and mere beauty of it all. I was on the road with two men old enough to be my grandfather and full of interesting anecdotes from lives well-lived. We would sit out in front of the hotel room till late in the evening and watch nature’s version of The Late Show – an almost unending sunset. We were from three diverse parts of the States; Charlie from rural Illinois, Ed from Pennsylvania, and me the youngster from New York City and we all had stories to tell. We rode, enjoyed the scenery, and learned about each other. I remember it almost as clearly as if it were yesterday. We were on a beautiful stretch of road in The Yukon territories as a big wooden sign approached reading ‘ALASKA’, with a map of the immense state drawn beneath that one big name. It was a great feeling and a wave of emotion swept over me. What a privilege to be with these two veteran motorcyclists fulfilling their dream. I was a twenty-three-year-old New Yorker on the border of Alaska, all the doubts, fears, and anxieties gone. I was re-entering America thousands of miles from home, I had traversed the continent, and was at The Last Frontier! The otherworldliness of the Alcan all behind me, the strange towns which felt like they stood still in the 1800’s lost in time at mile 41 or mile 242 was a strange world, but here I was. I had pushed the limits, both mine and my bike’s, and we made it. We still had far to go to get to Anchorage, but the longest leg of the journey was over. I’d accomplished it without abandoning my original plan and had motorcycled over 5,000 miles to a place in my head that I’d never been to before. The latest frontier was to be the beginning of many others I would cross in my life; physical, mental and spiritual ones. We all shook hands, took snapshots, mounted our steeds and headed down the road to Anchorage scraping our pegs, letting the sparks fly, and feeling the cold breeze coming off the Mendenhall Glacier to our left.
Kenji and The Watch
Kenji had grown up in a small village on the outskirts of Hiroshima where his dad was a carpenter. They lived a simple life, and Kenji was the youngest of three children. The area was rural Japan on the main island of Honshu, and although life was hard, each village was a small vibrant community. The war years were difficult for young Kenji – his dad disappeared to fight a war he did not know much about – a war which had already taken his uncle’s life and two older cousins. Many of the males were gone from the villages, and life was getting more difficult. Then he told me of the hot August day in 1945 when nine-year-old Kenji and his friends looked out across the fields towards Hiroshima to see a large, strange mushroom cloud billow up towards the heavens above that small city. Everyone looked on in amazement as it just seemed to grow higher and higher then fall back into itself. No one quite understood what had happened. There was no clue that in that small instant they had witnessed 100,000 lives being exterminated. War-ravaged Japan in 1945 was a poor country, and news traveled slowly. Kenji had no idea he had just witnessed one of humanity’s lowest points – at the time hailed as a great technological breakthrough – the atomic bomb. The next day all of the high school aged children from the surrounding areas were called in to Hiroshima to remove rubble, search for survivors and do what needed to be done in the grave aftermath of that infamous August day. What happened slowly came to light, and they heard that another similar bomb had been dropped on Nagasaki, a town on the southern island of Japan called Kyushu. He remembers huddling around a radio watching his mother and people of the village sit uncomprehending, listening to the never-before-heard voice of their emperor, Hirohito, tell of Japan’s surrender. Hirohito also explained the emperor was not a deity, just another human being. To nine-year-old Kenji this was all quite overpowering.
Tour of Duty
~~We asked the woman if there was anywhere we could find some food and were led to what looked like a house, but turned out to be a small eatery. Inside I notice a man slumped drunkenly at a table. The deep-set lines of his face and down-turned lips told stories of a tough past. We ordered our food while he just sat there glaring at us. As we ate our meal I felt his stares cut into me like laser-beams. His belligerence could be felt throughout the room, and the lady who ran the place seemed to be embarrassed about it. Finally the man broke the mounting tension with the words, “You American. Me V.C. I kill Americans,” and he made a gesture of slitting a throat. I don’t think I was ever so uncomfortable in my life. He said it again, half-rising from his chair, his eyes fixed on me, and as he did, I realized that not only were there Americans suffering alcoholism and emptiness after the war, the conflict had left its ravages on men here too, and here was one victim facing me now. He fixed his steely glaze on me, as if no one else was in the room. I knew that if he wanted, he could have killed me in one quick motion, but there was almost sadness in his eyes, not hatred. Maybe he was apologizing in some way. I don’t know. The woman serving us then escorted him outside. The ex-soldier threw me a hard look as he rose and exited. The woman, looking horrified, was waving her hand behind him, as if to say, “Never mind him, he’s drunk.” Julie then said, “Man, he gave me the creeps, and I’m not sure why, but he had it in for you, Joe.” “Great,” I said, “let’s just hope he’s sleeping it off somewhere.” I forced a smile. Laura added, “He was one tough looking guy, did you see his face? So taut, even though he was drunk, those eyes, man, they were like vacant holes, scary!” The owner returned and once again tried to pass it off lightly, making the motion of him being drunk to all of us. Needless to say, none of us felt like sleeping out under the stars that night. The afternoon had spooked us all. It was incredible, though, to have finally experienced that fear I had looked for on the plane, and now I could perhaps empathize more with the young men and boys who had lost their youth and innocence as those wheels touched down. We pedaled on, and with the heat of the day fading, and plenty of daylight ahead, we made it to a big town where we could get a place to sleep. We had an early night, and sleep came easily.
We opened the door and entered. The smell of human bodies mixed with a stale odor of smoke and damp assaulted our nostrils. To our accustomed senses it was a beautiful smell. It was the real smell of life. It wasn’t chemical deodorants or aftershaves; it was pheromones, human smells, and the smoke of a fire to keep warm. It took me back to a primal state of mind. I looked around to see that we were surrounded by saddhus, the dim candlelight flickering off their matted beards. Some of the whites of their eyes were a yellow that would be considered sickly in the western world, but it was not the yellow of hepatitis, just a slight jaundice from malnutrition. It added to their mystique. Like their robes, calloused bare feet, and their tridents, it was part of the saddhus’ uniform, quite different to the Sikhs’. It seemed like the room itself was alive. The walls were misshapen and seemed to be sweating and changing shape in the flickering candlelight. The space looked as if it had been hollowed by chisel and hammer then smoothed by thousands of hands feeling their way in the dimness to find a place to sit in lotus and convene with a higher consciousness. The walls and ceiling had the smoke stains of countless burning candles giving out just enough light but never too much. There was not a hint of the twentieth century to be found. No electricity, no gas ovens, radios, or televisions. We could have stepped through a corridor in time when the big wooden door groaned open and we stepped inside this precious space. Now we were here time didn’t matter, it was just the moment. Whether it was 1990 or 1090 outside the door was of no consequence. All I was aware of were the thoughts swirling in my head. The only sound was of slight light breathing. All were perfectly still, their postures erect – even The Raj managed this perfect position – then all eyes closed and off they went into their world. I felt out of place, like a hunched-back foreigner. I was uneasy at first and tried to make eye contact with Rob, but he too was in his own world and dealing with this in his own way. I would have to get comfortable. How I wished I had a mantra. I was so new to this. I couldn’t even figure out a way to calm myself down. All of my traveling, cycling and reading could not help me here. I was out of my depth so I just closed my eyes. I felt all too conscious of the curve of my spine from years of badly positioned motorcycle riding, but I slowly began to relax into my body. My eyes felt closed, but not tightly. The buzzing in my head never went away, but subsided. Till this day I can not say how long we all sat there. The darkness was pure, the smell was real, and the energy was beautiful. Ten years before all of these men might have been working in big cities for large firms or some may have worked the land. Now they were here, the possessions of the material world cast off, sitting in lotus position near the roof of the planet all focusing on a peaceful world. Here I was, with the absolute privilege to be there, my life’s path slowly changing forever. I opened my eyes and saw that bodies were beginning to move. My gaze met The Raj’s, his eyes twinkled and he flashed me a smile. His expression said, “Pretty cool eh?”
I flagged down a taxi, and for the price of a Marlboro pack he took me to the Aeroflot office which of course was open on a Sunday morning. I tried my luck and walked in while my taxi driver waited for me. “May I change my flight to Germany to next week please?” I asked the woman behind the desk. “Yes, if you have all the proper visas,” she replied in her clipped, brusk English. I was hoping she didn’t notice the bead of sweat that instantly formed when she mentioned the word visa, but she actually couldn’t have as she hadn’t even looked up at me yet. I chanced my luck, “Of course I do.” I tried not to move around nervously. “What is the name of your hotel?” she continued, still not glancing up from her desk. “The Intourist hotel in the center of town,” I replied trying to sound convincing. The name of the hotel was in the Cyrillic writing, so I had no idea of its name or pronunciation. I was surely getting myself in too deep. “Room number?” Oh shit, she’s buying the story, I thought to myself, and quickly said, “Sixteen Twenty-one.” I remembered Patty’s room number was fourteen twenty-one, and she was on the top floor. I didn’t want to get her into trouble, but now I thought I’d blown it. For a split-second I saw her in my mind turn to me and say, “There are no sixteen story hotels in Moscow, you are lying” and then push the special red button for the secret police to come. Maybe my mind harbored memories of too many spy movies! In reality she did not flinch and finally looked up at me. “Your ticket please!” I somehow managed to calmly give her my ticket. She never asked to see my passport or visa. She then stamped my ticket in all the right places, and turned with a bored air to her next task never knowing that she had granted me the chance of a lifetime – to be in Moscow for a week. “Thank you.” I said, as I left the ticket office. If she could have peered into my mind at that moment, she would have seen a jumble of emotions; excitement, fear, accomplishment, confusion, but mostly nervousness. I had never been so nervous, not even when Rob and I faced the possibility of heading back to Sulawesi on the Nusa Inda. I had entered the Moscow underworld, visa-less in the land of endless paperwork, an American illegally walking the streets of Russia’s Capital.
A Walk Across Tunisia
After a few miles the odd car stopped passing, and I was alone once again. It was hotter now, and the landscape was changing more quickly. Something was telling me maybe I should turn back although I didn’t want to. I looked at my water supply, and I was already below the half-way mark. Matmata was still not so far away and I could still get safely back if I needed to. The track was getting more and more difficult to see so I gave myself a turning back point. I don’t know what I was hoping to find in the middle of nowhere, but I said to myself, “If I see nothing promising by the time my water is three-quarters done, I will turn back.” Needless to say I was being very frugal with my water – something in me wanted to keep going in the direction I was heading. I took a big swig of water and then heard what I thought was music. I stopped, tilting my head so I could hear more clearly, listening hard. Yes, there was the sound of music wafting over the sand. I could see nothing before the curve of the horizon, but now I was intrigued. I knew I had not passed anywhere since leaving Matmata, and the road was definitely sandy and getting more difficult to back-track on. There was definitely music though – Arabic sounding. I briefly wondered if I was hallucinating but I felt normal, so I ruled that out. I was being drawn west, the sun was getting lower in the sky, and I knew I was really taking a chance now. Then I noticed something shimmering on the horizon. The music became clearer, and I was sure there was something out there. It had to be local desert people and my experience of Tunisian hospitality, except a certain hotel owner, had been nothing but warm welcomes so far. It felt too good a chance to pass up so I just kept heading towards the music and mirage-like shape on the horizon. I felt like I was the lead in the James Bond movie, when he lands in the middle of nowhere with a beautiful girl in the car, and says, “Hey, I know this great café in the desert.” Okay, I did not have the car or the good-looking babe, but I was most definitely walking to a café in the middle of nowhere.
Finding Lost Relatives
Giusseppe and I smiled uncomfortably at each other then she returned a few minutes later with a black and white wedding photo taken in what seemed to be the fifties sometime. She handed me the photo, complete with the cracked glass, and on closer inspection I realized I recognized the photo. It was the wedding photo of my mom’s sister, Jenny! My whole family right there staring out at me. I started pointing to people and saying in Italian, “My mother, my father, my aunt……” when I pointed at my grandfather I said, “My Grandfather” (Mi Nono) she looked up at me with tears in her wide eyes and said “Mio Fratello!” (“my brother!”). My knees buckled and I needed to sit down. I felt goosebumps up my arms and a smile came over my face. I could not believe my luck. Little Giusseppe had led me right to the very place I was looking for! I could not believe it. We had a cold drink – I declined alcohol and opted for water – Giusseppe had his second drink of the day, bid us farewell, and left me with my grandfather’s half-sister, the product of my great-grandmother’s second marriage! When my grandfather found out that his mother had had another child with her new husband, he found he could hold no grudge against what was his flesh and blood half-sister so over the years he had sent her photos of his American life and there, sitting in my hands, was the photo of him at the last wedding he would make it to before his untimely death in New York in 1957. We went through everyone in the wedding photo and – true to the passions of the Italians – when I pointed to my aunt and my dad, who Maria had never met, and told her they were dead, she broke out into loud sobs. We managed to make it through without too many emotional outbursts and I was quite thankful she already knew her brother was dead and had been for nearly thirty-five years, for even that memory of the brother she’d never met brought a tear to her eyes. Emotions were running high for both of us.
Our First Date
About a mile from the top the lightning started. The steepest part of the climb lay ahead; four switchbacks with about a quarter of a mile stretch in between each one. It was hard, but now it was going to be harder. The day had started hot and clear with us even splashing our faces in a river to cool off at one point. That all seemed far off as the hail started at about one switchback from the top. With no other option available and nothing to shelter us on the stony desolate mountaintop pass, we pedaled on with our heads down to ward off the force of the hail. Off on the side of the road we could hear the flapping of the colorful Tibetan Prayer flags which usually marked the top of a pass. The hail turned into snow, and the lightning was beginning to scare us, charging the air until the hair on our arms stood on end. We crested the top of the pass but we knew we still had a few miles to go, and some of it was still up. The snow was starting to accumulate when Angie turned to me and asked, “Are we going to die?” I’d never really thought about it like that. I guess I was so used to traveling alone or with others who were accustomed to the big risks involved in situations like these that, when in similar situations, the question would never be verbalized and somehow or another we had always survived. Angie was new to this and didn’t realize that you shouldn’t ask scary realistic questions to a guy who’d put her life in danger. I looked into her lovely green eyes, “I don’t know,” were the only words that came to my lips. I guess it wasn’t the answer she was looking for, but it was the only one she was getting right now. The only way out now was down either way, so we kept on in our direction toward the unknown. Such was our first date taking shape.
Excerpt from the epilogue.
In my travels I came face to face with environmental devastation, occupied land, destitute poverty, the after-effects of war, colonization and religious intolerance walking side by side with open friendly faces, optimism in the face of wonton destruction, idyllic small villages that were as close to paradise on earth as you could find not a day’s cycle ride from a living hell, rainforests disappearing with the saws of smiling faces working to feed their young ones, once proud nations living on reservations ripped away from their land and heritage to live in squalor, factories manufacturing junk of no use to anyone standing in fields which used to grow enough food to feed the surrounding villages. These images still burn in my mind, sometimes they make me laugh at the same time I could cry. If I thought every time I drank tea, ate chocolate, rode my bicycle, or pulled on a piece of clothing, about the unfairness behind it, I would certainly drive myself mad, and there have been times when I nearly did, but I would try to remember the saddhu who walked into the tent, “Try and get rid of expectation.” I realize that yes, because of an accident of geography I am one of the planet’s privileged, but I try to look past the harsh realities and, like so many I share the planet with, see the beauty which keeps the world hopeful. This life is tough for many, but do we have other experiences awaiting us? I like thinking so. I can look around with hope and say to myself; possibly in some unknown future we all may know something other than this. “We are here, but they are there,” never felt correct to me. How could we not all be interlinked? Do we need to know that everything in existence can be proven? For me, knowing that it all can’t be is the mystery that helps me go on. Existence, I feel, can not be merely substantiated. The lives we are all living right now may hold something different in a not too distant future. It feels more realistic to feel part of it all, trying to improve the problems from within. Live in harmony with ourselves and not let the anger take over; there already is too much of it out there. In the end it may bring about some changes, but does it do anything for the greater good? I try not to use these beliefs to hide behind. I still question authority and consciously make choices. The difference is I try not to kid myself that no matter how hard I try, I’m still involved in someway with the whole world and its problems. I have learned though, every day I walk amongst the planet’s diversity and beauty that we are all truly blessed, we just need to shout it from the mountain top and share it with all of the inhabitants of our home. When I get angry, make mistakes, feel frustrated in the face of apathy, I know I still have more to learn. I still shake my head in disbelief of how much further we all need to go so we can accept and celebrate our differences. Can some people be capable of such needless destruction of nature, and killing of his fellow human beings knowingly, and not be evil? Does evil actually exist? These answers elude me, and I know that I am not the one to judge, but the more I see, read, learn and watch our world move into the future, I am perplexed, yet remain optimistic. The world’s consciousness, I feel, is changing. At times, my travels enabled me to disconnect from anything familiar, I was allowed to find deeper meaning in the mundane, enjoy the many people and places of the world and remove myself from the every-day pressures too many of us face, be it in the richest or poorest countries of the world. My travels have meant so much to me, and writing this book has been a catharsis. In writing, reading and re-reading these stories my wife and I have realized what a gift our life is, and the marvel of our children and every phase of their development is wonderful but also ordinary. It is shared by billions of others, and all anyone wants is to see their children grow and become adults. Our choices as human beings are much more powerful than our choices as Americans, British, Italians, Mexicans or whatever other label we can use to define our diverse race scurrying around on the face of planet earth. Our world is constantly showing us we are all one interconnected unit.I hope that my stories – saved from dozens of journals – ties a thread through each and every one of us and that by sharing them with a wider audience, I helped to put a human face on problems we see as existing elsewhere. There is no elsewhere, we are all here. I discovered that the gray areas make life complicated, but to draw everything in black or white makes it too simple. How could this small planet spinning around at a thousand miles per hour one hundred million miles away from the life-giving sun be that simple? The gray areas, I’m only beginning to realize, are not gray at all, they’re all the colors of the rainbow. The difference in our religious beliefs, the way we dress, the music we listen to, the love we share, childbirth, thunderstorms, vibrant sunsets, the oceans crashing onto the shores, fruit growing on trees is all just ordinary, but even the most ordinary daily occurrence is quite magical. That is the wonder of life on earth!