“How on earth did you get the idea to be doing this??”
It’s not an uncommon question. I usually hear it by the second or third day of the tour, if not in the first five minutes of meeting somebody new. To be honest, sometimes, when I’m leading a group of 12 people on bicycles through remote regions of Cambodia or Iran, I often ask myself the very same question. How the bloody hell did I get here?!
It’s a long story, but I’ve said it enough times to squeeze it into an elevator pitch, and now I think I can summarise it in a post for you. So here goes…
I was in my mid 30’s when I hit my (first) mid life crisis. Working in London for a very successful late night bar/nightclub operation, I was the General Manager of Abacus (& Tiger Tiger). It was the worlds coolest job for somebody in their mid 20’s. But for me, the music had become too loud.
So, in 2010, I set myself a physical challenge. To cycle from London to Germany. I’m not fit by any stretch of the imagination. I was smoking cigarettes (at the time), lived off British pub grub and couldn’t/wouldn’t wear lycra because, well… no one needs to see that.
Without any training, but full of determination, I was amazed how easy it was. There was no rush and plenty of stops along the way for coffee, a Belgian beer and a cigarette (oh, the regret…). It only took me six days, and in that time, I cycled through England, France, Belgium, Holland and into Germany. It was almost a new country every day and gave me the illusion of a champion! So much so, that I started to wonder if I’d be able to cycle half way around the world, from London to Melbourne. Could it even be done? My imagination and excitement soared.
I had talked a friend of mine into joining me on this epic adventure and a year later to the day, we were set to leave London. However, in the lead up to this memorable, emotional day, a lot of people had started to question the motivation behind this adventure.
“Are you riding around the world for charity? Or, you know, just doing it for yourself…”
I started feeling selfish for wanting to be adventurous. I’d worked hard to save the money for the trip, even turned my back on a promotion and committed ‘career suicide’ at age 35. I didn’t care. The desire to challenge myself was too strong for me to be happy with not knowing ‘if I could have made it’. But the reality was, I had the money for my expenses, albeit a minimal existence awaited. So it didn’t make any difference to me or my ‘once in a lifetime’ adventure if money was raised for a charity or not. So then I couldn’t think of a reason not to raise money for a charity!
So, the next question is… who do you raise money for? How do you choose a charity?
I thought it made sense to choose an organisation that worked in the countries that I’d be travelling through. I suppose, so I could feel some sense of connection. I didn’t particularly want to be building toilets or ‘hands on helping’ a cause as such. There’s better (more qualified) people for that than me. But I did want to know more about where the money would be going and if I could speak to people in local areas, it might be an opportunity to learn.
So I spoke to a couple of the bigger international aid charities that work all over the world. They were so impressed with my idea and wanted to know all about it. But when it came to knowing more details about their work in specific countries, and whether I would be able to visit an office locally, they didn’t have much to say. I didn’t really know what I wanted to see. I know I didn’t want them to be tied down as to how to use the donated funds, I think I just wanted to learn more about the programs at a local level. However, this would be impossible to facilitate, unless we could guarantee a minimum donation of US$30,000. I thought this may be a little steep. In return, we would be given a letter ‘allowing’ us to raise money for them, and a t-shirt.
Now I was more determined than ever to raise money for charity and explore this whole new world. I was adamant that transparency was key, so I started my own ‘small’ charity and called it ‘The Kindness of Strangers’. And with my own money, I printed my own t-shirt. By the time we were ready to leave London, we had raised just over £12K through various events and fundraisers.
June 2011. We were all set, packed full of good intentions and no idea.
I won’t bore with you all the details of the travel stories. We started through Europe, and of course, it was pretty awesome. Plenty of wild camping along rivers, wineries, etc. But it wasn’t until we got to Kosovo that we started to think that we needed to start doing something with the money we had raised. It was as simple as asking questions to people and before we knew it, we were meeting incredible people who were doing amazing things for their community. Our first ‘project’ involved supporting a young woman from the Roma, Ashkali Egyptian community. She had begun a womens’ network program, where local mothers met and learnt skills in handicraft making. At the same time, they would learn about health, sanitation and parenting issues. It ran for a few months, but then fell away as they ran out of materials. We gave her £250 to purchase more materials and continue the program, with a view to sell the handicrafts at the local market and use the sale of the items to purchase more materials. You can read more here. The program was within our newly found ‘establish as we go’ core values- income generating, community based and sustainable.
Over the next two and a half years, 28,000+km in the saddle and 26 countries, we completed a further 12 donations to small, grass root local NGOs. This experience completely changed what the adventure was all about. No longer was cycling up and down mountains, carrying all our worldly possessions, the hardest part of this adventure. It was the insight into amazing cultures and communities, while learning how they are helping each other to basic human rights. And more often than not, with a smile on their face and an eagerness to promote their projects and strategies to the world.
Arriving in Melbourne around August of 2013, it’s fair to say that I was a completely different person to the nightclub manager of London just a few years earlier. My eyes were wide opened to not only the ‘poverty’ of other countries, but to the beauty of community, complexity of cultural values and compassion of human kindness. To truly understand the size of this earth and what’s within it, you really have to cycle across it.
Fast forward two years and I was well and truly vacant in my role as F&B Director of a five star luxury property in Melbourne. The job, people, money, work life balance were excellent, but the purpose was lacking. Having a goal of increasing profit for a faceless entity challenged all new found values from my epic adventure across the world.
It wasn’t until I found myself advising well intending travellers of the dangers of ‘voluntourism’ and why teaching English in an orphanage can actually do more harm than good, that I realised the journey wasn’t over. My travels had taught me so much, as I had the opportunity to engage with, and learn from local experts about complex, cultural issues, related to social impact.
But not everybody has the opportunity to cycle around the world for two years.
So the idea of Social Cycles was born. And now everybody can cycle across a country, meet amazing individuals doing incredible work and take their travel and understanding to new depths.
All in less than two weeks.