The end of May marks my third month back home in Lithuania, where I’ve been laying low and waiting out the COVID-19 crisis after the Hispania Rally. “Adapt or go insane”, and humans are wonderfully adaptive species, so little by little, I am trying to normalize this new abnormal, although with questionable success. Some borders in Europe are already opening, some remain shut, some entries and exits will be made more complicated by self-isolation requirements and restrictions of movement. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would be in Greece right now, camping in Nafpaktos, getting ready for the start of the Hellas Rally Raid. Hellas will still happen, albeit in October – but even then, the organizers have just released information on what safety measures will be taken during the rally. Body temperature control. Social distancing in the bivouac. No gathering in large groups at the finish line.
The Balance of Uncertainty
Of course, much bigger things are now at stake than a rally race. Having started my own little video project, the Quarantine Diaries, I’ve talked to dozens of other riders who got caught in the chaos. A few – Tim and Marissa Notier in Uganda, Nate Allen in Turkey, Michnus and Elsebie in Bolivia, Anna in Thailand – have chosen to wait it all out in a foreign country where they got stuck. The vast majority, however, made the decision to either abandon their bikes temporarily and fly home or ship their motorcycles home with them.
Most of the RTW travelers I spoke to felt that we, as adventure riders, are uniquely equipped to deal with a crisis like the COVID-19 mess. Living on the road, we’re used to the unpredictability of things: weather, road closures, civil unrest, landslides, floods, tense relations between neighboring countries, bike breakdowns, – the list of potential “force majeure” level incidents is pretty much endless when you live off your bike. But we learn to cope, to domesticate the unknown in our minds, to be zen, to have empathy, to see the bigger picture, to be patient, to change course on a moment’s notice, to seek out information, to make decisions quickly, to always adapt and zig when everybody zags. It’s the nature of round-the-world, or long-distance, overlanding. We know this. We live for this.
So why do we hurry home during a crisis?
The obvious factor is, of course, the practicality of it all. “Home”, for the vast majority of us, means the Western world where healthcare tends to be better, where our governments, at least on paper, are supposed to look after us, where we can wait the storm out in the comfort of our homes and our fully stocked supermarkets and our central heating. In terms of health care and comfort, as well as economical reasons, hurrying home during a crisis makes perfect sense.
Home is also about having a community in times of uncertainty. Even if you had to self-isolate for a couple of weeks or a month, there’s still your family, your friends, your loved ones you can be with once the isolation period is over. There’s your people. There’s your tribe, with all its imperfections, short-sightedness, and shortcomings, but you are ready to embrace it again because you know for certain you will be embraced back – despite your own shortcomings and flaws.
No life form, whether it’s a one-cell organism, a leaf, or a consciousness, ever wants to grow smaller. It only ever wants to expand, and that’s where growth and evolution happens, while regression always means deterioration. Yet, in times of danger, real or perceived, we will make ourselves as small as possible. The lizard is prepared to lose its tail, the turtle retracts into its shell. Even when it comes to countries and nations, whenever there is a paradigm shift, a threat of climate crisis, a change in international politics, very few leaders will try to look to the future and offer a new way to be; most of the time, they will point back to history, back to “better times”, back to “safer times”, regardless of whether those times were objectively better and safer or not. Equally, when threatened with the unknown, most people will not look for ways to figure the new thing out, to find a way, to navigate the new territory, but instead hurry home, burrow in, and stay still for a little while, perhaps a few weeks, a few months… a year?..
We hurry home during a crisis because we think home will be the safest place on Earth for us. While it’s not always the case objectively – for a while, Lombardy for returning Italians was much more dangerous than some remote Caribbean island, and New York is likely a lot less safe for Americans returning from Nauru – it always feels like it is, at least emotionally and psychologically. Even in adventure riding, round-the-world traveling, long-distance overlanding, uncertainty is always balanced out with a dose of certainty. You may not be able to control a landslide, but you are sure of your bike and yourself to do a long detour if need be. You may not know where you’ll be sleeping tonight, but you trust you’ll find a camping spot and pitch your tent someplace if you don’t reach a town or a village with a hotel.
An event like the current pandemic, however, knocks the uncertainty-certainty equilibrium off-balance so suddenly and violently it feels like we don’t just need to learn to navigate differently, we need a whole new navigation system. No GPS will get us out of here now, and perhaps starting at the beginning, going back to the basics, retracting into the shell, and burrowing deep is what we all need to be able to start figuring the new route now.
Or maybe we’ve all just chickened out.