Confronting responsible storytelling and working out whose story we're trying to tell.
(Ruth) We set off on our year long cycling adventure with the goal of seeing the world and telling stories of kindness around the globe. However the longer we travel, the further we find ourselves weaving into a long-distance cycle touring community, both offline and online. People are interested in the stories of travelling by bike - the daily grind, if you can call it that. Whilst far from being experts, we’re happy to share stories of visa applications, kit lists, navigation tips, weather patterns and bike maintenance. We’ve been asked everything from how many kilometres we cover a day to how many carbohydrates we’re consuming. Often we can’t give an accurate answer, but we’ll give it our best shot.
Whilst we love our bikes and think it's the best way to travel, it's because moving slowly has led to countless experiences we would have otherwise missed out on. Our laden bicycles have started conversations across 17 countries, sparking unexpected plot twists, connections and friendships. They've highlighted everyday acts of kindness in places both near and far from home, magnifying people's goodwill, curiosity and hospitality. These are the stories we want to tell and luckily we have an abundance of material. I don’t think a day has passed by where we haven’t been encouraged by waves from car windows or smiles from local people, no matter what country we’re in. Neither have we ever felt at a total loss of where to sleep for the night, either we’ve been hosted by people we meet or pitched a tent somewhere we felt safe.
It’s a privilege to able to tell these stories and we feel grateful for the experiences on a daily basis, especially as we travel further east and into regions that are shrouded in misconceptions back home. We’re currently in Central Asia, having passed through Uzbekistan and into Tajikistan. Both are beautiful countries for countless reasons, but both often provoke the questions of ‘is it safe?’ and ‘aren’t you scared?’ from our largely Western friends back home. We love being able to recount the warm welcome we’ve received in the cities and villages and we can’t wait to share photos of the breathtaking scenery and delicious food we’ve tried.
So what do we do when an event happens that is so at odds with the kindness we’ve experienced? When the event is sadly likely to reinforce misconceptions about the region and distress people following our journey back home. We found ourselves pedalling across the border to Tajikistan the day after we learnt that 4 cyclists had been murdered on the road we may have taken. The attack was claimed by ISIS. The attack was the first of its kind in Tajikistan. Do we write about the fear we felt cycling through the beautiful mountainside towards the capital city? Do we describe how every car that slowed down now in front of us ceased to feel friendly and more like a potential threat? Or do we not mention any of this and focus on the line of children on the roadside waiting to high-five us, or the father and son who wrapped up a bundle of bread and sweets to pass to us from their car, or the shepherd who let us camp on his ground as he watched over his sheep.
It’s something we’re still trying to work out. In some ways I think the attack is not our story to tell, we are still here and have only experienced a warm welcome from the people of Tajikistan. But, the parallels between those whose lives were cut short and our own are startling and the thought that it could have been us does hang around in the back of my mind, as much as I wish it didn’t. Perhaps more importantly, this is not Tajikistan’s story either. In the same way that 3/5/17 isn’t the UK's story, 1/1/17 isn’t Turkey’s story, 19/12/16 isn’t Germany’s story and on and on. As a young Tajik bike mechanic said to me, terrorism has no nation.
To broadcast the attack in Tajikistan almost feels like we’re playing into the hands of the terrorists. But, to totally pass over the event without mention feels irresponsible. Like we’re denying a significant event that has shaped this journey. Like we’re glossing over tragedy in favour of spreading positive news. I want people to see the beauty and kindness we’ve experienced but I also want to honour the truth and those who have suffered.
Luckily, we find ourselves amongst others who share these feelings. Coming back to the cycle touring community we’ve slipped into, I’m so grateful to this incredibly resilient group of people. Here in Dushanbe cyclists from all over the world are gearing up to cycle the famous Pamir Mountains. I’ve never met a more supportive gang of strangers in my life. From the German pair who carried stacks of additional gear when they heard a Spanish couple had broken their equipment in a crash, to the local cyclist who distributes annotated maps of the region, to the French mechanic who happily checks over your bicycle without charge. The attack doesn’t go unmentioned but it doesn’t dominate conversation either. Everyone has stories to tell of the good in the world, of the beauty of the landscapes and the generosity of people. These are the stories we need more than ever and the ones we will continue to tell.
In memory of Lauren Geoghegan, Jay Austin, Markus Hummel and Rene Wokke. And in support of those who were cycling with them.