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Thoughts after one year on the road

Posted: 2007-08-30 23:00:40, Categories: Travel, General, Work, Free software, Ecology, Cycling, 1074 words (permalink)

Posing for the camera at the Panchgani hill station, India. Having settled down in Helsinki at least for a while, I've had time to think what my long tour in Europe and Asia has given me and what I want to do next. Here are a few thoughts about travel and life in general after spending a year on the road.

Enjoy the unexpected, trust the unknown. Little by little, I learned to plan less and to enjoy uncertainty. I had traveled without a detailed schedule and hotel reservations before, but this time I went one step beyond that. I took roads not marked on the map, arriving in unknown villages just before sunset and got invited in to local homes. Even when I had made plans, I often changed them based on new encounters or feelings about a place. I certainly wasn't the craziest traveler out there and tried to avoid unnecessary risks, but also wanted to get rid of being a control freak. The balance shifted a bit towards adventure, and I enjoyed it.

Traveling alone is not lonely. It was never difficult to find people to talk with, and without a group of friends around I was spending more time with the locals. Of course, the majority of those encounters were rather superficial. To have deeper discussions, one usually needs to spend more time with the person and share experiences. That's the best part of having a travel partner: you can compare thoughts about an event or situation, or just start a topic which is completely detached from traveling. Having traveled both alone and with friends, I still cannot say which is better. I do know that a big group is not the way to go for me.

Travel gives new perspective for ecological living. Environmental protection might not be part of their everyday thoughts, but most people in developing countries live a fairly ecological life. Many environmentally unfriendly habits are also expensive so they simply cannot afford them. Traveling through poor areas shows that hot water is a luxury, air conditioning is rarely really necessary, and that it's easy to live by following the daily cycle of the sun, minimizing the need for artificial light (at least when the days and nights are approximately the same lenght). It can be a culture shock to come back home in a rich country where climate change is in the headlines but a lot of energy is being wasted everywhere. On the other hand, proliferation of plastic packaging and other non-biodegradable goods in the developing world produces another kind of shock. In the absense of proper waste management, residential areas are turning into big landfills and waterways getting polluted. People are used to throwing waste simply to the backyard — it didn't matter earlier but with the new materials it does.

Free software remains one of my passions. I didn't keep myself very well up to date with world news during my trip. To avoid spending all the time in Internet cafes, I dropped many mailing lists and web sites which I used to follow regularly. However, I continued to read the weekly editions of LWN.net during the whole year. That was the best way to keep an eye on what was happening in the free software world. I love the freedom, the community involvement without excluding commercial activities and the good match with mobile lifestyle. I can carry a virtually unlimited amount of interesting applications, information and art in digital form without possessing many material goods, and free licenses guarantee I can share what I have with my friends too.

A full-time job is not the only possible choice. A long break from work gives a good opportunity to think what kind of role should work have in one's life. Before my trip I had a well-paid full-time job, something which is respected and even envied in the society. Now I'm not so sure I want to continue the same way. I'm not alienated from work, but managing my own time as a freelancer sounds tempting. A normal full-time position is not out of the question, but if something is going to take the most of my time five days a week, eleven months a year, I'd better really like it. The standard five weeks of vacation per year may be enough to rest before getting back to work, but it's not long enough to focus on any other big project.

Changing the environment from time to time is good for me. Since I got my first job abroad in summer 1999 (in Geneva), I've never stayed very long in one place. The longest was almost three years in Finland before my bicycle tour — and it was starting to feel too long. I have a tendency to get involved with various volunteer activities and to pick up other hobbies, which are interesting but gradually fill up all my free time. Moving to another country provides a natural cut-off point to leave some of them behind and be ready for new challenges. It's already a way of life for me and it's difficult to say when, if ever, I'll settle down somewhere permanently.

A month, a year or undefined time for travel — all very different. It was obvious already when I left that traveling for a year was going to be different from the short trips I'd done before. I had time to stop for days or even weeks when I wanted, and I created the route plan on the way. What I didn't think about was that traveling for a year is still very different from traveling for an undefined period of time. I met many who were on the road for at least several months but rather few who were roaming around with no end in sight. Those who did, had often given up the notion of considering any single place in the world as their home, which made a big difference. I didn't have my return date set in stone, but it was still clearly a plan for one year. I had rented my flat out for one year, taken travel insurance for one year and, more importantly, it was a one year plan in my mind. I did consider continuing, but decided it was good time to stop for a while. Being constantly on the move is liberating but also tiresome, I need breaks from traveling too. However, it's not a given that those breaks would necessarily be in Finland.


Cycling with the Ecotopia Biketour

Posted: 2006-08-16 02:02:12, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Ecology, Cycling, 623 words (permalink)

In the evening of August 3rd I joined a group of about 30 cyclists which formed the Ecotopia Biketour. The tour is one way of traveling to the yearly Ecotopia gathering but for many participants the biketour is more important than the actual gathering. Many join only for a part of the tour, but those who do the whole of it spend about 3 months together.

Arto bikes for freedom,
Arto bikes for joy,
Arto's got a special feeling,
so let's bike with him
and sing this song
all the biketour long,
as our wheels fly
to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia.

That's how new members were welcomed into the group around the evening campfire. It was a nice and warm welcome, accompanied with a guitar. Accommodation was usually camping, occasionally staying at schools or similar, so there was normally a campfire every night. The fire was also used for cooking meals for the group. And as you might already guess from the theme, it was vegetarian food.

Some biketour cyclists dressed according to the theme flying just before arriving to EcotopiaOne surprise for me was that almost half of the tour participants came from Moldova, Armenia and Russia. One reason was that Ecotopia had been held in Moldova last year, another was an EU grant which helped them to pay for the visas and other costs. Otherwise, the costs of the tour, mainly food, were covered by passing a "magic hat" around. There was a guideline of paying a certain number of Ecos — which were converted to real money in a factor relative to the average income in your country of origin — but eventually you paid what you felt was right.

The Ecotopia gathering 2006 was held in Zajezova, a small village tucked between hills in rural Slovakian countryside. The community in Zajezova tries to live sustainably, doing a lot with hands instead of machines, recycling as much as possible, experimenting with alternative building techniques using clay and straw, and generally causing a low impact to the environment. Therefore it was a perfect place for the Ecotopia camp too.

The camp program consisted of workshops which ranged from discussions in a circle to self-defence skills and acrobatics, helping local people, helping with tasks in the camp, a very interesting tour in Zajezova and just having fun. There was music and dancing by the campfires every night — it was really the drummers and other musicians which kept me there for several days. :) On Friday Aug 11 evening there was a bigger party where participants from each country were expected to sing something. There was also one Finnish girl at the camp so we were two to perform "Pienet sammakot" to the enthusiastic audience.

The Ecotopia biketour was a nice experience and I made some friends which I'll surely meet in the future too. The best parts were singing around the evening campfire, common meals and other small surprises which can only be done in a group. The worst part were long discussions whether to continue cycling on a day previously allocated as a rest day or not. Fortunately the group did not strictly stick together during the actual cycling: there was an agreed destination where to sleep at the end of the day and people made their way there in small groups taking their time. However, it was still a large number of people with the pros and cons of being a group.

For long term travel I prefer more flexibility and freedom so now I'm again on my own way, posting this in Budapest. Next I'll make a side trip by train to Bratislava and Vienna to meet my family who are also coming there. After a week or so I plan to return to Budapest, spend a few more days in the city and then resume my bike tour from here.

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