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Issue 264
January/February 2011
Leadership

Regulars
Slow Travel

Homeward Bound
by
Taking the High Road. Photograph: Hannah Perkins

Taking the High Road. Photograph: Hannah Perkins

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Homeward Bound

It took a humble bicycle, 4,000 miles and an unfriendly peasant woman for Hannah Perkins to face her fears and find happiness.

When I first moved to Thailand in 2007, I wanted to know why it was called the ‘Land of Smiles’ so I tested it out, smiling at hotel attendants, taxi drivers, street sellers, and every time I was guaranteed a beautiful energetic response.

No wonder they were smiling: delicious food was in abundance, shopping and massages were cheap, stunning tropical ecosystems were only a short distance away and my weekends were usually spent holidaying at the beach or in neighbouring countries.

Working for various environmental campaigns provided some justification to live such an extravagant existence but, increasingly, I felt that something was not quite right. My life had become a constant cycle of consumption in order to keep that smile on my face.

I had been living this way – and feeling increasingly unsettled by it – for two years when I received an email from my friend Chris Roach that read like a breath of fresh air. It said: “I’m in Indonesia and you had better get a bike!”

Chris had left Australia to embark on a round-the-world bicycle pilgrimage and he had asked me to join him on the leg of his journey that passed through Thailand. Of course, I agreed to the 2,500km endeavour even though I had never cycled more than 25. But I knew instinctively that I had to do it.

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell once said, “The adventure that the hero is ready for is the one that he gets”. Little did I know that this adventure would lead me to a richer life than I could ever have imagined.

And so it was that on a sticky monsoon afternoon in November 2009, I wobbled a fully loaded mountain bike anxiously through peak-hour Bangkok traffic. On two previous attempts to ride in the city, I’d only got as far as the next block and had collapsed on the couch afterwards, wondering why I even left the house. Yet this was how I chose to leave the life I had made in Thailand and begin a 4,000-mile journey from Malaysia to China.

After an overnight train journey I met Chris in Penang. I was instantly struck by the fact that here was someone who had reduced his needs so much that the simple things – like food, water, shelter and a bike – were really exciting. We set off, and after eight hours of riding, we pulled into an abandoned building, set up camp and went to sleep. In the morning I woke to find that my bright blue tent had been indiscreetly on display to the entire village. Chris just shook his head.

I rode for two and a half months through Malaysia and Thailand, ate fresh seafood, washed myself in the sea, slept in Buddhist temples and learned more about Thailand than I had in the whole two years I had been living in Bangkok. With every step I took to make myself happier, I almost inadvertently reduced my carbon footprint.

I forgot about fashion, make-up and hairstyles, and opted instead for Lycra cycling gear, moisturiser and a smile. Often I would ride several miles out of the way to find a market where I could buy fresh local produce. I asked local people to share their drinking water with me. I quit buying souvenirs to remind me of the blissful moments outside my unhappy life, and created real memories that were much more powerful.

At the end of riding along with Chris, I found myself left with a new lifestyle, not much money, but a lot of time and a bicycle. I had no intention of going back to Bangkok, but what would I do instead?

I decided I was ready to ride into China, alone, so I picked up some maps and some warmer clothes and set off on a new adventure.

China seemed a world away from the one I knew and I was intrigued by the unknown. As I crossed the border from Laos I realised this country was nothing like I had imagined. It was very remote, the mountains high and the distance between towns vast.

My Mandarin was really bad, but my expectation that there would be some people who would be able to speak English had got the better of me. In Thailand and Laos I was able to speak the language, which made asking for what I wanted much easier. This was no longer the case. Using a picture phrase book, I spent half an hour trying to ask a middle-aged woman if I could pitch my tent outside her house. Looking confused, she just disappeared inside her home. When I knocked on the door, she yelled something that didn’t quite compute but sounded very uninviting, which meant it was time to face my biggest challenge yet: camping alone.

I found a spot down a bank near the road and lay down with a knife in my hand, for fear of what ‘might’ happen. That night I hardly slept, waking with the sound of every breath of wind and every car passing on the road above.

Each day, I climbed higher and higher into the mountains. After about a month the cold, exhaustion, anxiety and high-altitude terrain started to wear me down. I became sick but refused to take medicine or go to a doctor because I knew that what ailed me was rooted in my mind.

Impatient, I wanted to fight it, to overcome my fears, but as I approached a pass at 4,500 metres, I stopped. My feet and hands were numb, frozen by the snow. My mind was frozen by my emotions. Taking a deep breath, I made myself really look at my surroundings. I was gazing at some of the most serene snow-covered peaks I had ever seen. I stopped listening to my mind and started listening to Nature. I laid the bike down and admired the view. Looking at all that was laid out in front of me, I finally felt like I belonged.

It had taken me 4,000 miles and six months to realise that I can be happy anywhere when my mind is at rest.

I set off back down the mountain. The smile had returned, but this time it was a real smile. Happiness had not been waiting for me at my final destination, but was to be found in the journey itself.

Since then a series of chance events – serendipity, if you like – has led me to North Devon, where I feel very much at home. My lifestyle now combines work and leisure in an effortless way and I spend time doing things that I enjoy. I am learning to write, cook and grow vegetables. I meditate. I enjoy living with simplified needs, taking responsibility for my own impact on the environment and, most importantly, my own happiness.

Even better, I know the journey is not over yet – in fact, it has only just begun.

Hannah Perkins spent three years in Thailand working for environmental NGOs. She now leads a low-carbon lifestyle in North Devon.

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