Driving from London to Mongolia in a 847 cc, 42 HP car with 13-inch wheels was sure to lead to some stories, but who could have predicted what they would be? Where or where do I start?
As some of you know, I just partook in the Mongol Rally. The understatement would be to say it was a “trip of a lifetime.” (Photos here.) This post was going to be concise and thematic, but since I was the one typing it, it naturally ballooned into a motley collection of 15-some-odd lessons of varying complexity.
I was going to tell you how a Russian Colonel looked me up online and apologized for delaying us and our drone from entering Russia.
I was going to tell you about getting pulled over three separate times in a mile of tarmac and the Azerbaijani bandit who robbed us along the way.
I was going to tell you a border guard “can’t stamp phone” when you try to show him the digital copy on your phone of the visa you lost and how an Ethernet cable and Windows 97 saved 10 days of our lives.
I was going to tell you about the ~ 130 degree Fahrenheit days in the desert with no AC.
I was going to tell you about the potholes that can swallow a car.
I was going to tell you about the best soup I’ve ever had at an establishment in Uzbekistan I wasn’t sure even served food.
I was going to tell you about the cows, the camels and the yaks, about the birds we hit, the gas we couldn’t find, and the old city walls we stumbled upon.
I was going to tell you about the 19 countries and the 9,000 miles and the 32 days and the 17 pounds I lost but it was becoming too much of a bloated (eh? EH?) travel post.
Those stories and all the other, “Ok, so there we were in Mongolia at this guy’s house and he was blackout drunk…” are wonderful and I’ll remember them for the rest of my life but the only place they would do true literary justice is in a book (ok ok, yes I’m thinking about writing it) or in a face-to-face story session.
So seeing as to how this is neither of those, I figured I’d instead tell you about the unexpected lessons of this journey across ⅓ of the earth, unexpected to someone who has been lucky enough to have done a fair bit of traveling already. (NOTE: The post ended up being a bit ragtag and verbose anyway, so I clearly couldn’t get out of my own way!) I hope you enjoy.
You’re Not Out Of A Country Until You’re Out Of A Country
It doesn’t matter how many vignettes you procured, stamps you have, or fees you paid. It has no bearing how tight your paperwork was, how big of a smile you had, how many times your car was searched, or how many border employees said that you were good to go…if that last guard at the last gate doesn’t want you to leave his country, you don’t get to leave his country.
Thousands of miles behind you and three feet in front of you and you are still at the mercy of the Republic of Wherever. It’s bureaucracy personified.
The closer you get to a border, the less important your opinion becomes.
“I want…They should…How come…”
You, your assumed individual importance, and thoughts on the matter, don’t matter, not even the slightest.
Crossing borders by car in Central Asia is maybe the greatest lesson in learning to control what you can control (for the record, your breathing is about all you have dominion over at that moment.)
It’s a humbling lesson in patience. I’m a better man for it.
Mainstream News Is Crap
It tells you that the world is horrible and everyone is killing each other. After all, conflict is what makes us pay attention and attention is what pays for ads. Voila.
Of course there is horrible stuff happening in the world, but the thing that emanated from every rally team like the decibels from a megaphone was, “People are so damn nice.”
Good job, planet, for not being like the news portrays you.
For every shitty person out there, there are 999,999 kind souls, supportive spirits, and people just looking to do some honest work, have security and safety, and be loved by those they care about.
For instance, we heard from numerous teams that the Iranians were the friendliest people of all. Food, money, good cheer, gasoline, whatever the ralliers needed, the Iranians were there to give with open arms and no strings attached.
Turkmenistan, one of the hardest countries in the world to get into, treated us like celebrities on the road: smiling, waving, offering help, etc.
The outpouring of kindness from people who didn’t gain anything from caring was stupefying.
I’m still floored by the two college kids in Barnaul, Russia who took 3 hours out of their day to have lunch with us, show us a wifi spot and tour us around their city because they were proud of where they were from and they were genuinely interested in our adventure.
Would I ever give up three hours of my Saturday for complete strangers? No, and that bothers me. So one act of kindness that two kids had on the other end of the planet still has me scratching my head wondering if I’m just a horribly selfish person at my core.
Thank you, gents. Really.
Kindness costs relatively little but its impact is meteoric.
Don’t let one news story about a leader or a son of a bitch in a country paint your view about the people of that country.
If the entire world thought that America was Timothy McVeigh, Shia Labeouf, or some dude wolfing down fried sticks of butter at the county fair, that wouldn’t be very representative of the general population.
I’m Not That Important
For far too many days, I wrestled with whether or not I would still post once a week to my blog. Was finding an internet cafe worth it? Was I going to be more stressed if I couldn’t get it done?
But the underlying emotion was, “What are people going to think of me if I don’t post?” Eventually I chose not to post and to not care about it, or what you thought, and it was liberating.
And you know how many emails I got from readers over the 5 weeks I was away? Zero. Zilch.
You didn’t care about me either. Thank God. I needed that.
Our own delusion of self-importance to a group larger than our immediate local community brings me back to something I got to hear Fidel Castro say to us years ago when I was in Cuba after my friend asked him, “What happens to the revolution after you die?”
To which the comandante replied with, “There are no important people, there are only people who think they are important.”
Fidel. Castro. Said that. In Cuba.
You are not that important and neither am I.
Isn’t that a breath of fresh air?
And that leads me to…
Eat, Sleep and Move East
We had nothing else to do. We didn’t have to balance different tasks, make deadlines, launch projects, or attend networking events. It was just: eat, sleep and move east. There were no texts to answer, emails to check, or corporate asses to kiss. It was just: eat, sleep and move east. That was the only goal.
This reality left us harnessing the power of three things: uninterrupted thought, unbridled focus and collective discomfort.
What do you think about when you have nothing to think about? No outside stimulus, no news feed, no billboards? It’s just you, your compatriots, your music or your silence.
The less I was doing, the more present I was. The less I worried what other people thought, the more I was able to think about what I want. The less I had to connect with people who weren’t physically there, the more I connected with people who actually were.
Camping in the middle of nowhere with 8 other people, with no cell phones but a couple bottles of alcohol after a day moving east is one of the best memories of the trip. Pure contentment met full immersion…for hours on end.
Life isn’t your Instagram photos, Twitter updates or blog posts…it’s what happens in between them.
Make sure you don’t forget to live it with the people who matter, the people who would wish you happy birthday even if you weren’t on Facebook, and the people you physically interact with on a daily basis.
And when we were in a lull or a rut, there was something about doing it with other people that made it ok. Your suffering is far more bearable when you know other people are going through it too because complaining has lost its value. Sympathy comes from people who aren’t in your predicament, not from the people who are.
Stuck at a border for 16 hours without any food? Whoopdeedoo, so is everyone else. No sense in bitching about it.
So you don’t complain, you bond.
We Have An Abundance Of Everything
But you already knew that. What most of us call “hustling” is really “stuff I choose to do because I don’t have to fend for a meal on a daily basis.”
Unfortunately, a good portion of the world, has to hustle for their next meal.
We don’t hustle, we choose.
Fixers Make The World Go Round
Countless times we were at a literal or philological impasse until someone with more local knowledge and a grip on multiple languages came to our rescue. This is “the fixer.”
A fixer can get you from point A to point B, geographically or logistically, when you can’t do so on your own. That’s useful.
When thinking of your job, your product or your skill in life, figure out what you do for two different people that couldn’t be done without you (or someone like you). If your job isn’t to fix something that previously didn’t go together or didn’t work, then what are you doing?
When you start thinking about things in terms of the problems you are actually solving, you can stop worrying about the BS and figure out ways to solve the problem at hand.
What do you fix?
Fun, Doesn’t Have To Be “Water Park” Fun
I wrote a post on our team’s page about earning the right to launch and I think it’s fitting for this audience too. Doing something fun isn’t always about it being a shit-eating grin experience. Fun can be the thousands of dollars spent, the 17 pounds lost, the perpetual proximity to parched, the 5 hours of sleep night after night. Why? Because it’s a goddamn adventure that’s why! And it’s one of the few times in your life where what you want meets what you’re made of. It’s where you “embrace the unknown over the hill with as many knowns as you can find from your side of it.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess. What you do when it does happen will define who you are. And that’s fun. Getting away is good for you.
Be adventurous but not reckless. No one likes a premeditated idiot (except for mainstream news).
Never stop exploring. Never, ever stop.