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What a bike ride across Africa taught me about expectations

Published on April, 18th 2018
By Greg Wells

The impact of learning to being in the moment

When I was finishing up my doctorate at the University of Toronto, I got a call from my dad out of the blue. He was listening to an interview with a man named Henry Gold who was putting together the first group to cycle from Cairo to Cape Town, crossing the entire continent in the process. Dad knew I was really into cycling and had loved Africa ever since I visited Tanzania with my sister who worked for the UN. He said, “You have to listen to this.”

I flipped on the radio and caught the final few minutes. It sounded incredible. So I called Henry, and it turned out his office was about two kilometres away from where I worked. When I got there, he had this huge map of Africa with the route mapped out in highlighter. We talked for a while and then Henry said, “You should come with us.”

I had just the right amount of money lying around and was almost finished my degree, so I would be able to take five months off for the expedition. I defended my PhD in February in Toronto and then flew out to join the group. It was -30 degrees Celsius when I left. I was a bit late because I had to do my defense, so they had already departed. I flew into Khartoum, Sudan, in the middle of the Sahara Desert. It was 52 degrees Celsius on my first day there – an 80 degree swing in a 24-hour period.

It was an adventure beyond anything I could possibly have imagined.

Ten percent of the time, you’re having the greatest experience you will ever have in your entire life, and the rest of the time it is so challenging you aren’t sure you are going to make it!

I remember cycling through the mountains in Tanzania. We would be riding below the clouds and then ride up through them and emerge among the peaks. You could see mountains everywhere and dozens of tea plantations, all this beautiful green colour. Then, we would go over a ridge and dive back into the clouds. It was the most incredible vista I have ever seen in my life.

I also remember riding through Northern Kenya, where there is no government, so the country is totally broken down. As I was riding, I met some people on the side of the road. They didn’t speak English, and I certainly didn’t speak Samburu, but they took me back to their village. I spent the day with them by myself. People were screaming because they had never seen a white person before. There was dancing, there was guitar, there was tea. It was this crazy cultural experience – one of the most authentic, real experiences I have had.

Then there was the other 90%.

Throughout the entire trip, there were ongoing challenges like the heat, the dehydration and the ill effects of drinking the local water. There were also endless mechanical issues with the bikes.

There were also particular incidents that pushed me to the edge. Like me lying on the side of the road in Malawi after I got hit by a cow. The whole side of my body was torn up and bleeding. As the hours passed and I could feel infection spreading through my system, I had to cope with being four days from a hospital and 40 km on my bike just to get to our camp.  There was also the time we came across Ethiopians who had lost limbs to the landmines. Or the night we spent in Zimbabwe with the children at an AIDS orphanage, all of whom had lost their parents to AIDS and many of whom had AIDS.

Alternating between these blissful moments of pure life perfection and absolutely horrific circumstances was draining. And it really took a toll on me when I got back because normal life isn’t so simple or extreme. I could hardly reintegrate when I was back in Canada.

But the intensity of those experiences taught me an essential lesson: not to have expectations about what should happen.

Whenever I thought I knew how something would go, Africa trashed that thinking very, very quickly. If I expected to ride a day without having any flats or mechanical problems, inevitably it would be mechanical, mechanical, mechanical all day. Whenever I thought the day was going to be horrible, it was inevitably joyful. Eventually, I started to see that the only problem was the expectations I put on myself and my experience.

It was as if Africa had this drive to break my brain and the only way to get through it was to live fully in every instant, which is, interestingly, what Buddhism teaches is the path to enlightenment. By taking life as it came – in five minute increments – I was able to have one of the richest and most inspiring experiences of my life.

Want to learn more about the expedition? Check out www.tourdafrique.com!