Should i get pre-exposure rabies shots before traveling?

What i’ve learned about rabies prophylaxis after being attacked by a dog on a long-term cycle tour


A dog bite during long-term travel is not a problem until it becomes one. When it does become one, what to do about it might not be immediately clear, and local customs and perceptions might not necessarily be the best source of guidance. I felt like greater “rabies awareness” might be warranted, and it shouldn’t be that much of an extra effort to promote it. I hope travelers planning to be on the road for a long time and/or going to regions where rabies is present will find this article useful  —  especially those coming from places where rabies is not an issue, who might not have a good enough intuition of how big of a deal it can become.

Now, i am not a rabies or dog expert myself, and this article is for your information only  —  the following is based on my personal, anecdotal experience being attacked by a dog on a cycle tour, the conversations with doctors and Internet research in that context, and my personal travel and life philosophies. By continuing to read, you acknowledge that i am not liable under any circumstances for what you decide to do or not to do in reaction to this article. My only recommendation is that you inform yourself about the risk, and consult with your doctor and local health authorities before making any decision.

Sometimes dogs can be real bitches!

I’m currently out on a long-term cycle tour. Among other things, this means i spend much of my time on the bicycle riding secondary roads in the countryside, where farm dogs abound, or entering/leaving villages/towns/cities, which in many cases also means dealing with packs of stray dogs. So far, i hadn’t had any problems with them besides their unpleasant, persistent chasing and barking after you until you leave their imaginary territory. Having traveled by bicycle unharmed through more than 20 countries, including some notorious for their dogs such as Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey, i had already come to terms with that annoyance, and pretty much internalized the belief that, as long as i kept my cool and didn’t provoke them any further, or at least their owner was present, they would never bite  —  until one of them did bite!  —  in Lithuania, in front of their owner, while i was pulling near a house to ask for information outside the city of Alytus.

My first mistake

“Fuck  —  i don’t want to have to go to the doctor  —  it’s too much responsibility!  —  can you imagine how much time this might take!?  —  and i’m not even worried about how much money it might cost yet.” I was up to date with my tetanus shots, and the wound was seemingly superficial, there was not much blood in the picture. So, i was not particularly concerned about bacterial infections, and it definitely didn’t look like i might need stitches or whatever. The puncture was indeed a bit painful, and in a way i don’t think i’d quite experienced before. But it was nevertheless tolerable. Rabies was quickly singled out as my only potential concern, and i seemed determined to get away from having to deal with it in the most stupid possible way.

“Might i get sick from this bite?” In the cacophonous haze i was eager to get myself away from as soon as possible  —  the dogs continuing to bark at me, their hopeless owner haphazardly yelling at them, presumably trying to contain them from biting me again, while also trying to give me the attention i was asking for, and mutually unintelligible utterances in Lithuanian, Russian, English and Portuguese  —  that’s what i came up with to type into my phone and have translated into Russian, which the owner said she could understand  —  i had no access to the Internet, and had forgotten to download the Lithuanian package for use offline. Although reading cyrillic seemed to be a bit of a challenge for her, i got the sense that she understood my question, which she quickly dismissed  —  “no, no, no.” Despite the language barrier, i felt validated enough, and moved on to what i had really pulled in to ask them about  —  “alright, so, may i camp near the river for one night?”  —  “sure, do you know how to get there?”  —  “i’ll figure it out, thanks!”  —  like i said, i just wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. But, one last time  —  “do i need to go to the doctor for this?”  —  “no, you don’t need to go to the doctor, wait a minute”  —  she then came back with some hard liquor and cotton, with which she cleaned up the wound, and then applied a bandaid.

Whatever. I’ll clean it up again with my first aid kit once i find my campsite.

Folks, that’s not how you ask if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies. Here’s how you ask if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies: “has the dog been vaccinated against rabies?  —  do you have the documentation?  —  can we please exchange contact information?”

That would have made it possible to monitor the dog. But i didn’t do any of that then, nor did i think about going back there next day in the morning for it. I did remember from a previous dog bite back in Brazil when i was a teenager that one typically has about ten days to start taking the rabies shots though, and that i had already completed a post-exposure rabies vaccination program in that occasion. So, i figured instead of rushing into an emergency room close to dark, i could leisurely look up on the Internet the next day how long the vaccine is supposed to last, the risk of getting rabies from a dog bite in a place like Lithuania, and perhaps swing by a doctor on my way to Kaliningrad.

But let’s figure this out

According to the World Health Organization’s Human rabies transmitted by dogs: current status of global data, 2015, the phenomenon is currently not observed in Lithuania. So, my risk of having been exposed to the virus was slim. But as far as i understand the data, it only tells us that there have not been any recently reported deaths by human rabies transmitted by dogs in the country  —  it doesn’t say anything about potential cases where the dog was eventually found to rabid, and the victim survived because of the vaccines. I could not find anything about that on the Internet, and decided a visit to the doctor was warranted after all  —  if only for the peace of mind and what i might learn from the experience of having to seek medical care on a cycle tour  —  how much trouble would that really be? —  how much would it cost?  —  would my travel insurance be useful, would i get reimbursed?  —  would that be the kind of disruption i’d find interesting dealing with?  —  let’s just do this  —  that’s precisely why i left my previous career, hopped on a bicycle, and started riding around the world, isn’t it?

So, what have i learned about rabies?

The one thing about this disease that has always intrigued me was one of its infamous clinical symptoms  —  hydrophobia, or the “fear of water.” I find it tragically fascinating how a virus can trigger such complex behavior in its host. If you think you can handle it, this heartbraking video of a man suspected to have rabies in a hospital in Vietnam shows what that fear of water might look like. This other video shows a man in Russia confirmed to have had rabies describing his condition to the doctors throughout the development of the clinical disease.

Apart from that, i must admit i’m not terribly interested in all the details though  —  as far as the practicalities of cycle touring/long-term travel are concerned, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot one needs to know about rabies:

  1. It’s a viral disease that can be transmitted to humans through bites, licks and scratches by infected dogs, bats and other animals carrying the virus.
  2. After the onset of clinical symptoms, it is universally fatal.*
  3. This tragic outcome can be prevented with a relatively simple and inexpensive** post-exposure protocol.
  4. Keeping up with the underlying post-exposure vaccination schedule can be a challenge while on the move, especially if you’re crossing international borders along the way.
  5. Pre-exposure vaccination or a completed post-exposure prophylaxis does not confer life-long immunity, but nevertheless greatly simplifies the post-exposure protocol.

Besides the information i got from talking to doctors in Lithuania, Poland and Sweden, i’ve also consulted the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Brazilian Health Ministry (in Portuguese) websites. There’s much agreement and some discrepancy across their recommendations. For the purposes of writing this article, i decided to follow the WHO guidelines, which i briefly summarize below, and can be read in more detail here, here and here. You should, of course, consult with your own available health specialists and authorities before making a decision.

Post-exposure prophylaxis. The WHO recommends immediate washing and flushing of the wound for 15 minutes with soap and water and other virucidal substances such as alcohol or iodine. If there’s bleeding, or in the case of bites in the head, neck, hand or genitals, which have high density of nerve terminations, along which the virus travels until it reaches the central nervous system, the administration of rabies immunoglobin at the wound site is also recommended. This should be done before suturing the wound. One intramuscular dose of the vaccine should be administered on days 0, 3, 7, 14 and 28 after the suspected exposure to the virus. (Alternative vaccination schedules and delivery methods are available, but they all require three to five visits to the doctor and take three to four weeks to complete.)

Pre-exposure prophylaxis. Consists of one intramuscular dose of the vaccine on days 0, 7, 21 and 28, and is recommended to people in risk of exposure to the rabies virus, including travelers to areas where the disease is endemic. Different delivery methods are available.

Post-exposure prophylaxis for previously vaccinated individuals. Rabies vaccines to not confer long-term immunity to the disease. The wound gets otherwise the same washing and disinfecting treatment. But for those who have previously completed a pre-exposure or post-exposure vaccination schedule, fewer doses of the vaccine are required, and the administration of rabies immuglobin is not needed. One intramuscular dose of the vaccine should be administered on days 0 and 3 after exposure. An alternate, single visit, 4-site intradermal vaccination is also possible.

According to the doctor who saw me at the Pomeranian Center for Infectious Diseases and Tuberculosis in Gdańsk, Poland, where i took my second shot, most doctors will treat you as if you have not been vaccinated before unless you can produce documentation specifying the drug, dosage, delivery method and schedule.

Getting vaccinated while on the move

Now back to my personal experience. Before you read it, i want to first admit to my embarrassent for having taken so much of the time of so many people at so many hospitals  —  but i would have been even more embarrassed, if not plain guilty, had this happened somewhere in the world with already precarious health care available to their own population. So, not to be unnecessarily inflammatory here, but the question of whether or not to take pre-exposure rabies shots before long-term travel might well be an ethical one.

I could not  —  i mean, i didn’t want to consider the possibility of staying in Lithuania for four weeks until completing my series of rabies shots  —  at that point i had still not learned that, because i’d been previously vaccinated, i could potentially get away with a single visit. “Can i take the first shot with you here, and then continue my treatment in Poland?” The first doctor i spoke with, in the Emergency Room at the Marijampolė Hospital, didn’t really know what to say about that  —  he implied that my chances of catching rabies from that dog bite were minimal, and that taking the shots or not was eventually my decision  —  but his professional mandate was still to recommend the 0–3–7–14–28 WHO schedule, and that he could not guarantee that i’d be able to take the next shot elsewhere. I don’t think he ever looked at my wound, though i had told him it had been a superficial one on my left calf. He never mentioned the rabies immunoglobin.

With another nine days to decide whether or not to start taking the shots, i decided to sleep on it one more night. Next day, my last day in Lithuania, i figured that consulting with another specialist on my way to Kaliningrad wouldn’t hurt. I first went to a pharmacist in Vilkaviskis, who then referred me to the town hospital. I explained the situation to them, and it seemed like they were actually interested in whether this transnational rabies vaccination program could be successfully carried out! They finally looked at the wound, gave me the first rabies shot, as much paperwork as it made sense, including marking my international immunization card, and wished me good luck.

After crossing Kaliningrad, i reentered Schengen two days later in Poland, in time for my second shot the next day. Getting it took me almost two whole days though, and proved to be quite a hassle. First of all, not every hospital in Poland has rabies shots, and it seems like most of them don’t even know where you can really get it, or seem willing to make one or two phone calls to help you find out  —  each hospital i visited on my way through Elblag, Gdańsk and Gdynia would refer me to the next one  —  not even the University Center for Maritime and Tropical Medicine in Gdynia had the shots! (Rabies is considered a Neglected Tropical Disease.) It was not until the eighth hospital visit back in Gdánsk that i was finally able to get my second shot.

Would that be easier in Sweden? It wouldn’t have been. Dog-transmitted rabies is nonexistent in Sweden, so not many hospitals in the country have the vaccine either, as i found out after my visit to the first of them in Lenhovda  —  Sandra and Julia were very generous with their time to help me find a hospital further down my route where i’d be able to take that third shot, though i’d definitely not be able to do it on day 7, which was slowly coming to an end. Julia consulted with a specialist on the phone, who said i could wait up to another four days until Monday, which would have in fact been the date of the third shot according to the Swedish schedule. On the one hand, that was good to hear. But this discrepancy led me to take a closer look into the WHO’s recommendations  —  that’s when i found out that previously vaccinated people, no matter how long ago, need only take the two shots on days 0 and 3.

Well, that was my case  —  even though i could not quite document it, i’d been attacked by a dog when i was a teenager back in Brazil, and completed a full post-exposure vaccination program on the occasion. I decided that, if i couldn’t trust that, i might as well not trust the transnational vaccination program i was now undertaking either. But before stopping the vaccines, i still wanted to hear the opinion of a doctor, and even that was very difficult to get in Sweden. At the Medical Center in Eksjö, they were not very friendly, telling me that “it was my decision to come to Sweden with that problem, and that they could not help me there”  —  “are you telling me that it’s not possible to sign me in and put me in line to talk to a doctor?”  —  “we cannot help you here, you need to go to Jönköping, they have the vaccine there”  —  “that’s the point, i might not need the vaccine, that’s why i’d like ask a doctor about” — “we cannot help you here, it was your decision to come to Sweden with this problem, you have to go to Jönköping.” I didn’t want to go through the same hospital-hopping i’d experienced in Poland, so i asked them for that hospital’s number. They didn’t pick it up. Although i’d already tried that before, i figured i’d call 1177 again, the number in Sweden for medical non-emergencies, and express a bit more frustration. I’m really glad Renée was the one who picked it up  —  she kindly and patiently helped me settle the matter. I gave her all the information i had, and she connected me with a specialist who finally confirmed that i didn’t need to continue with the shots afther the first two i’d already taken on days 0 and 3. That was a huge relief.

So, should i take pre-exposure shots?

What are the disadvantages of taking the pre-exposure shots? It costs a lot of time, and probably a fair amount of money  —  i’ve seen figures from $100 to $1000, on the Internet, depending on where you are taking the shots.

On the other hand, not taking the shots can make adequate post-exposure prophylaxis challenging to carry out on the road  —  not to mention the potentially harmful waste of the time of the health care professionals you’re going to need attention from.

I am retrospectively very grateful for that dog bite when i was a teenager, and how it has inadvertently made my present life a lot simpler  —  i was not looking forward to finding out what getting a fourth rabies shot in Sweden and a fifth one in Norway might have looked like. Furthermore, i’m at the mere beginning of my world exploration, which will inevitably take me to areas of greater risk of exposure to rabies in the future  —  the fact that i’ve been vaccinated before gives me the same peace of mind about dealing with potential dog bites as my TBE shots have given me about dealing with ticks.

You may read accounts and thoughts from other long-term/cycle touring travelers and health care specialists here, here, and here.

What would you do?

If you’ve considered this, i’d be very glad to hear your thoughts and experience as well. Please feel especially invited to share your own dog/wild animal/human bite story in the comments below, and how you’ve dealt with it, if you have one.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to Antanas, the pharmacist i talked to in Vilkaviskis, Lithuania who connected me with their town hospital, Vitalija and Vilija, who helped me with the paperwork at the hospital, the doctor who saw me, the nurse who administered the first shot, and all other anonymous staff involved in the affair. Many thanks to Tomasz, who appeared out of thin air to offer me help as a translator in the Elblag Hospital, and to Simon, the guy who offered to guide me on his bike to four different hospitals in Gdynia, doubling as a translator at each of our stops  —  i cannot possibly imagine what it would have been like to deal with this without their help. I also appreciate the kindness of the doctor and staff at the Pomeranian Center for Infectious Diseases and Tuberculosis in Gdańsk, Poland, where i finally got my second shot. I will thank Sandra and Julia from the Medical Center in Lenhovda, Sweden once again for their time and interest, and Renée from the 1177 service, who helped me bring this to a closure.


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Footnotes

* A few non-vaccinated patients have been known to survive rabies through the Milwalkee protocol. But this expensive treatment has only worked in about 10% of the cases where it was applied, and is certainly not something to rely on — especially for a disease where adequate post-exposure prophylaxis almost never fails.

** By ‘inexpensive,’ i mean, ‘to a typical person with enough resources to be traveling abroad,’ as the $50 or so that adequate post-exposure prophylaxis costs can still be an enormous financial burden to those most in need in poor communities around the world where the disease is still endemic.

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The (rather uneventful) first 100 hours in complete solitude!

image
my friend Fuji’s family’s cottage, where they and their friends come throughout the Summer to enjoy the light, the slow and the quiet, and which i was kindly allowed to use this Summer for my retreat and other experiments!

Spending the next 100 hours in complete solitude was not quite the idea when i hugged my friends Fuji and Grete goodbye as they dropped me off at Fuji’s family’s Summer cottage on the Swedish countryside. But it quite quickly became the idea — what if i went not only offline, but completely without interacting with other human beings!!?

And so began the experiment…

The premise

The longest i’d been in complete solitude like that before, as far as i can remember, was about 24 hours. It happened last Summer, in the Faroe Islands, where the only mammals i interacted with in between the gentleman who gave me a ride to the trail head and the girl starting that same trail as i walked out of it the day after were sheep — tones of sheep — and their poop — absurd amounts of it.

I’d been longing for an extended period of solitude ever since. It doesn’t seem very easy to find the space and time to be alone in this world. There are people pretty much everywhere you go — even in the Faroe Islands! Plus, i keep finding out that we actually need them more often than i’d like to admit — and they probably need us also. But i could not let this opportunity pass — i had access to clean water and enough provisions for more than a week, my closest neighbor was about one kilometer down the road, and i couldn’t anticipate anything that might happen in the world that might require my attention in the immediate future.

So, how was it?

Before i share with you some of my raw impressions from this experience, a quick disclaimer though. You might find most of what you’ll read below rather unimpressive — at least i did to a large extent. Perhaps 100 hours is not that long. Perhaps being alone in a Summer cottage i was already familiar with and with lots of “entertainment” is very different from being alone in a remote trail in the Faroe Islands. The point is, i did not have any remarkable insights. I didn’t meet any inner demons i wasn’t already expecting. And i didn’t face any problems that didn’t turn out to either have a trivial solution, or be something that didn’t really bother me after all.

You’ve been warned 🙂

I’m also interested in hearing about what may have been your own experience doing something like that, or what might be your expectations about it! So, please feel invited to answer to some of the questions below in the comments, or by email: mail@notmadyet.com.

  • It was surprisingly easy to spend all that time alone. In fact, i feel like the real effort was to snap out of it — do i really have to!?

    For instance, on my second day, i was looking for a tree to climb in the area, and caught myself turning back as soon as i could see the neighbor’s house, so as not to risk interacting with them. If i didn’t have to touch base with my friend and his mom about arrangements for the following week, i’d likely have continued until i ran out of supplies or someone came to me.

    Have you done something like this before? How was it? If not, do you think it would be challenging?

  • I listened to obscene amounts of music, album after album, from cover to cover, doing nothing else but intently listening to it. Oh, gosh, i was so glad there was a good stereo set in the house! I dearly miss my good headset.

    In case you’re curious about what i brought to my retreat: Dream Theater: Images & Words, Falling into Infinity and Octavarium; Haken: The Mountain and Affinity; Metallica: Black Album; Mumford & Sons: Babel; Periphery: Periphery III: Select Difficulty; Porcupine Tree: Deadwing and In Absentia; Skyharbor: Guiding Lights; and TesseracT: Altered State, Polaris and Smile.

    What album would you bring to a solo retreat?

  • I noticed a lot of things i’d have likely not noticed otherwise — the birds, the butterflies, the scratches and patterns in the ceiling, the bees and wasps, some of the sounds from the nature preserve surrounding the cottage, the fire, and so on. I found the simplest events incredibly interesting at a much larger rate than usual.

    Look away from the screen. What’s the first thing around you that catches your attention? Had you noticed that before?

  • It was refreshing to be remembered that one can do reasonably well without continuous access to the Internet. I’d already made this decision before, and will likely stick to it — whenever and wherever i settle down, i won’t have Internet at home!

    I’ve met a few people without Internet at home during my travels over the years. They’ve all seemed perfectly functional, and their not having Internet may have well enriched our encounter. For instance, during this project, Borys, my host in Vanchykivtsi, and Nastia, my host in Lviv, both in Ukraine, didn’t have Internet at home. Whether or not that’s a coincidence, they have also been the only hosts so far with whom i’ve had a phone call with afterwards.

    Have you tried going without Internet at home? How was it? What do you think about this idea?

  • I’ll probably want to do a retreat like that once a year or so. Perhaps a longer one though, and perhaps a bit more remote and/or constrained.

    Have you heard about dark room retreats? Have you done one? How was it?

  • I’ll probably want to do a mini-retreat like that very often. Perhaps choosing a night every week or so in which i’ll go completely offline and out of reach.

    What kind of time and space do you regularly create for yourself? What do you gain from it?

  • I spent a disproportionate amount of that time alone just on my underwear, and that felt so great!

    Do you also like to walk around naked, or semi-naked?

  • Just like the week i spent offline in Moldova (but not in isolation), this week in solitude was one of my most productive weeks during this project so far.

    I wrote a lot, including at least two blog posts essentially from scratch!I took lots of pictures, and probably prepared more posts for my Instagram than i do on average. I sat down to read a book for the first time in a couple of months, and realized how much i actually miss it and want to prioritize that also when i’m on the move. I made tones of sketches, also a lot more than i do on average. I caught up with my bicycle’s state of disrepair. I caught up with all my pending Couchsurfing/Warmshowers references. I kept up with all essential household tasks such as doing the dishes and cutting the grass.

    What would you work on if you could create such time and space for that?

  • I really enjoyed the countryside tempo — having to fetch water from the well, having to walk all the way to the outhouse for number 2, having to heat up the water for my shower, and also to do the dishes, or wash my clothes, having to make a fire to keep the house warm — everything takes time — every task needs to be started before it’s an emergency — but nothing is really an emergency.

    Do you live or have you lived in the countryside? Am i romanticizing it a bit too much? What kind of amenities of “civilization” do you miss the most?

And i think that’s really about it

Like i said, there wasn’t anything terribly deep, intense or insightful. Oh, well — it is what it is. I’ll let you know if i do a longer solo retreat though, or at least in a different context — and if anything more intense comes up! You please do the same 😉


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But why Serbia!?

If i already got that question a lot after i had decided i was going through Serbia on my cycle tour from Copenhagen to Istanbul in Fall 2016, imagine when i decided to move to Niš after finishing that project! I’ve now crossed Serbia twice with my bicycle, and have spent another three weeks living in Niš in between those two rides. So, what’s so special about that place?

This will be the first in a series of articles on how my expectations and prejudices about each country i’ve visited along my current cycle tour (The North Cape Hypothesis) have been challenged. As such, i’m actually not sure the extent to which it will answer the question of what i find special about Serbia in particular. My goal is that, by reading about what struck me the most my second time cycle touring the country, you will feel invited to tavel to Serbia not for a specific place you must absolutely visit, or a specific person you must absolutely meet, but rather for the overwhelmingly positive experience it may award you with.

The context and notation

The North Cape Hypothesis started in Niš, Serbia, and the first 150Km or so between Niš and Velika Plana pretty much backtracked my path from there to Niš in my Copenhagen–Istanbul tour in Fall 2016. For simplicity, from now on i’ll refer to those as the NC Hypothesis, the CPH–IST tour and the VPN stretch — it seems like there’s still a mathematician living somewhere inside my head after all! But i digress…

I’ve been offered a tremendous amount of hospitality during my cycle tours — especially in the countryside — and especially in Eastern Europe, where asking someone for help with finding a safe place to pitch your tent for the night will often result in an invitation for dinner, a hot shower, and a warm bed in their home. Along the VPN stretch, during my CPH–IST tour, the latter is precisely what happened at the Stoianović’s in Markovac, where i spent one of my most energizing cycle touring evenings to date. They didn’t speak a word of English, and i didn’t speak a word of Serbian. But that was apparently not a problem. We didn’t even need much of our respective phrasebooks, which were not really used for a lot more than the outlining utterances of, “I am pleased to meet you,” or, “Zahvalan sam.”

The day after that, none of the people i asked for help on my way through the village of Ratare were as available as the Stojanović’s. But towards the end of it the gentleman at the food market suggested i try the gas station in the next village, Sikirica, a couple of kilometers down the road. That led me to my first of many gas station camping experiences, a rather insighful conversation about human nature with Nikola, the observant employee on his shift when i arrived, and another evening overcoming language barriers with Jovan, the employee on the night shift. They also made sure my tent was both under a roof and visible to their cameras, and offered me unconditional access to their toilet and kitchen.

So, how would those same people treat me a second time around? In particular, what would that look like just five short months after the first time?

The second cup of tea

To be very honest, my expectations were low. A few days before leaving Niš for the NC Hypothesis, i actually wrote to both Nikola and Nenad (Stojanović), telling them i’d be passing through Sikirica and Markovac again, and was wondering if i could stop by to say ‘hi.’ Neither of them ever replied. Is hospitality towards a traveler a one-off deal? Had their interest hinged mostly upon the novelty the first time around? Did they treat me that well simply because the prospect that i’d ever come back asking for more was so slim? Was two times already too much?

I was not fully discouraged by the lack of a reply though. Perhaps staying there for the night once again would have been a bit too much to ask. Perhaps there was another reason they didn’t reply. So, i made alternate sleeping arrangements through Warmshowers for my first couple of nights on the road just in case. But they would surely be happy to see me again and share a cup of coffee, wouldn’t they?

Well, i was wrong!!

When i pulled into the gas station in Sikirica, Jovan not only immediately recognized me, but also greeted me with a big smile on his face. I still spoke no Serbian, he still spoke no English, but it was nevertheless clear that we were both delighted to see each other. He then called Nikola, who was home the next village over, and would be joining us in about 15 minutes. We caught up with the rest of my journey to Istanbul, what they’d both been up to, and what more we’ve learned about people cycle touring and interacting with customers at a gas station or driving a truck. Because i had a place to stay in Jagodina just another 30Km later that night, i didn’t ask if i could pitch my tent with them again this time. But Nikola nevertheless told me, “You’re welcome to stay here whenever you want, or even come to my home, if you prefer, you’re my hero.” He hadn’t replied to my message a few days before simply because his smartphone was broken, and he had not checked his Instagram in a while. In hindsight, i regret not having tried to reschedule my arrival in Jagodina with my prospective host Vojislav for the day after, and taken that opportunity to spend more time with Nikola. I regret not having taken better notes of Nikola’s insightful remarks — a man in peace, no doubt — i don’t experience any cynicism or even disappointment in his speech — but someone who has surely noticed much of the complexity of what’s wrong with this world — Nikola has this look when he speaks, often not looking into your eyes, but focused half a meter or so to their side, as if there was something standing there only he could see. I want to create another opportunity to interact with this guy in this life.

And what about the Sojanović’s?

Markovac is only some 35Km or so north of Jagodina, so i arrived there quite early this time. There was nobody outside, so i clapped my hands shouting, “Dobar dan!” Shortly after, “Grandma” Snezana comes out of the house, smiling and drying up her hands in her apron, “Miko!!” I’m invited to come in and offered a cup of coffee. Half of the family was out working and at first i saw only her, Dragica, the boy Andrija, and a few rare sights of the girl Ana. They joyfully showed me the postcard i had sent them from Istanbul, and we shared some of the waffles my hosts in Niš had given me over the coffee. Because of the language barrier, the conversation was not as “deep” as with Nikola, but the energy was still certainly there — i want to see all of them again — Ivica, Nenad and “Grandpa” Dušan — and i especially don’t want to make the same mistake as the day before with Nikola. So, when they asked me where i was going to sleep tonight i asked them, shaking as if about to ask a woman out, “Well, i was actually wondering whether i could stay here tonight!?” This particular question was typed into my phone and handed over to Dragica, who took a few seconds to parse Google translate’s bad Serbian grammar while i anxiously watched — “yes, of course!” — my shoulders dropped, my handlebar bag was moved from my lap to my side on the bench, the refletive vest and ankle straps placed with the gloves inside my helmet, now hanging on the bicycle — “is the bicycle OK where it is?” — “OK!” — another cup of coffee.

The rest of the family starts slowly showing up. Ivica walks in and goes straight for a hug — “you’re staying for the night, right? good!” Uncle Jovan pulls in with a car — “come, Mika! take your notebook and your phrasebook” — we’re now on our way to pick up Nenad, and then heading over to Velika Plana, where we meet Aunt Divna and Cousins Bojan and Milica — another cup of coffee, more sweets, peanuts, and next thing i notice i’m helping them unload a truck of mushroom spores! I only internalized what that in particular meant with my hosts Dragan and Vera in Kramijevo a few days later — i’m no longer merely a guest, i’m actually slowly becoming part of the house now!! Interestingly, it all felt as natural to me as it seems to have felt to them. Back in Markovac, the process continues — Ivica takes me to meet one of this co-workers and friend, shows me a bit of the town center, and introduces me to the ladies at the groceries. Back in the house, over dinner, i understand that they expect not only another postcard from North Cape, but another visit in the future.

And that’s roughly why

The above is leaving out the tremendous amount of help i’ve gotten from Miloš and his parents Lola and Dragan, my hosts in Niš in each of the four times i was in the city — and the dutiful keepers of my touring rig while i was away in between the CPH–IST tour and the NC Hypothesis. I’m not telling you about the warm and patient welcome from Gejo, Vesna, Miso, Milica, Alex, Luka, Petar, and all the other folks at the climbing wall, who kindly allowed me to climb with them, teaching me a fair amount along the way — apologies for trying to push the whole tree-climbing deal so much into you, folks, i’m still learning to be a guest! I’m not mentioning Rajko, who besides lending me a Serbian SIM card and much of his time and pleasant company playing pool and chess, connected me with Ana and Marko, all of whom guided me through practice rides to the beautiful gorges around Niš, helped me clean and tune up my bicycle — or should i just simply say, did it for me? — rode with me for about half of the way to Jagodina on my first very first day, giving me waffles, jam, rakija, and friendship — moments before we departed, Rajko apologized once again for not being able to ride with me for the first few days, as he had originally promised, calling me his “little brother,” and telling me he “would ride with me to the end of the world” — words that took tears out of my eyes then, and once again as i write them now. I’m not telling you about how much fun i had with Jelena dancing in the sunset to Rage Against the Machine in Bubanj Park, and how touching it was to hear from her that i spread joy around the world.

And those are mere highlights pertaining to my five days in Niš before the NC Hypothesis, because just to begin giving you a better sense of what my experience in Serbia has really been like, i’d also have to tell you about …

Cycle touring diplomacy

More and more, i’ve been experiencing and humbly framing my cycle touring as the diligent work of a diplomat. I surely have a long way to go, there’s no question about that. What i mean is that this is definitely not merely a gap year of sorts, an absorbed self-discovery journey, or a metaphysically motivated pilgrimage. Of course much of that inevitably arises along the way. What i am trying to say is that i don’t want to think of any of my encounters as mere moments in my life and the lives of my counterparts, but as the seeds for long-lasting connections. Like i said, i genuinely want to meet Nikola again, and also honor my promise to the Sojanović’s that i’ll be back. I want to return to Niš as a reputable tree climber, actually having something of substance to offer the folks at the wall who might be interested. I want to ride again with Rajko, as far towards the end of the world as his family obligations would allow. I want to greet Lola with a hug and ask for her blessing getting back on the road much like i would do with my own Grandmother. Conversely, i also want to be equally available to everybody i’ve met in Niš and elsewhere in Serbia for a second or third or n-th time also — if there’s anything — i mean, anything — back in Brazil or anywhere else i’ve made connections i can help them with.

That’s why!


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The North Cape Hypothesis

On April 2nd, 2017, i reassembled my touring rig and left the lovely city and people of Niš, Serbia, with the idea of eventually reaching Nordkapp, Norway, via Eastern Europe and Russia. About 25 days and 916 km later, on April 27th, i find myself in Bucharest, Romania, where i’ve taken my longest “break” on a tour so far to apply for a visa to Moldova, do some maintenance on myself and the rig, catch up with my writing, and along the way make some friends before throwing myself back into “open water” tomorrow.

So far, i am very happy i have chosen this route, and also that i’ve been pursuing it at the leisurely pace i’ve been traveling at. As reflected on my Instagram updates, this expedition has indeed been loosely guided by this hypothetical destination. But it has actually been fueled by my encounters. Here are another few that somehow haven’t made it to Instagram yet.

I expect that to remain the case for the next five or six months i have left on the road. In coming articles i will further develop on those encounters, and how they have shattered my assumptions and prejudices about the places i’ve visited in particular, and how people behave and the world works in general.

There are a few other dimensions to this project, such as the Geocaching trackable i’m bringing with me as far north as i can, the trees i’ve been climbing along my way, my efforts to pick up some Romanian and Russian on the road, and how i’ve personally dealt with some of the challenges and practicalities of a long-term bike tour. These will also be discussed in future articles. For the remainder of this one, i will just briefly describe the process leading to this route to North Cape via Eastern Europe and Russia.

So, Belarus and Brazil have just signed a mutual visa-free travel agreement for tourists…

On November 24th, 2016, after 62 fantastic days on the road, i arrived in Istanbul by bicycle, all the way from Copenhagen. That had been my greatest adventure so far, in a series of increasingly more awesome adventures throughout the year.

It was clear what to do next — up the ante! So, i moved to Niš, Serbia, where i had planned to brave the Winter tying up the loose ends from my previous life in academia, setting up this website, and planning the next epic bike tour.

I’d wanted to ride to North Cape ever since my very first bike tour, from Copenhagen to Oslo, in Summer 2015.

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Waiting to board the ferry in Frederikshavn, what was pretty much the end of that journey for me was barely the beginning for those riding to North Cape from wherever they had started in Europe

But once i reached Istanbul, the obvious follow-up was the Silk Road. In almost every regard, it would have made perfect sense to bring my bicycle back to Istanbul, spend a few more days hanging out with my Turkish friends living in the city, then start peddling further East through Turkey, Iran, the Stans, China, hopefully my wet cycle touring dream of Mongolia, and neatly set myself up for what could eventually become an around the world tour. However that prospect has a cost that i was not willing to pay at the moment — its logistical challenges (basically, visa requirements and weather patterns) would most certainly put me on a tight schedule, and possibly end up costing more money than i would have had to successfully fund the project.

According to my travel philosophy, i actually did Copenhagen–Istanbul in quite a rush. I wanted to avoid the snow, and so had to be always on the move, declining several invitations along my way to stay and hang out longer with my hosts. No. I wanted my next tour to be as unconstrained in that regard as it could possibly be. I wanted the freedom to hang out at the same farm for five nights less than one week into the tour, like i did at Dragan and Vera’s, or to stay for ten days in the same city, like i did in Bucharest.

 

So, in what other direction could i ride starting from Istanbul? Or perhaps even Niš already?

The next most obvious route would have been finding my way to Cairo, probably on a boat across the Mediterranean, then riding down to Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in the African continent, along the East Coast of Africa. Something along the lines of what my second degree connection Zelda Tufvesson did. I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the weather, and the few visas i would need could probably be obtained much more easily, and at a much lower cost than the ones for Central Asia. But being duly scared by my prejudices to pursue that route solo, i came up with a really neat “excuse” not to do it — even if i eventually do feel ready to cross Africa alone on my bicycle, wouldn’t it be great to do that starting from the northernmost point in Europe? Yes! Thus was born “the North Cape Hypothesis.”

How the hell would i get all the way up there though? I would not have enough time to reach North Cape and come back down before my Schengen visa expired, and i’ve already talked about how i really didn’t want to be in a rush on this tour! Is it possible to reach North Cape from outside Schengen?

That’s when i remembered Russia and Norway have a border crossing i’ve wanted to cross since i noticed it a few years ago, and that Brazilian citizens don’t need a visa to visit Russia as a tourist — neither do they need one for Serbia, Romania or Bulgaria, Ukraine and, as of November last year, also Belarus! Habemus cycle tour.

You see, constrains can sometimes be blessings. Privilege is not spanned along a single dimension like much of what we read and hear about it these days seems to imply. I’m not deluded. Of course crossing those borders when i get to them might still be a challenge, or perhaps even wind up not happening at all. But these are bridges i can worry about crossing when i get to them. My point is, at least i’d be able to plan my tour without much “preemptive bureaucracy.” In fact, with my experience from the Copenhagen–Istanbul tour there was very little left to be done to prepare for this tour besides coming up with rough estimates of the distances, just to make sure i could reach North Cape some time in the middle of Summer without having to rush, then do a quick inventory check, figure out how to add my tree-climbing gear to the rig and what i might be able to remove from the kit in order to make some room for that and then, finally, the most important part of the preparation for a cycle tour — to leave! That simple.

And what can you do?

If you find value in what i share in reaction to my experience on the road and would like to support me in this endeavor, there are a variety of ways in which you could do that. You can start by signing up for my newsletter, where you’ll get travel inspiration and advice in manageable periodic bits, and which is also the best way for you to stay tuned to what is developing in the Not Mad Yet Universe!

If you find yourself in a position to contribute financially, you’re invited to become a patron! You can learn more about that and other ways in which you can help me (and the sweet rewards you’d get in return) by following that link or checking the support tab of this website. I’d also love to work and collaborate with you, and you’re invited to check out what i may have to offer in the hire me tab where, in addition to that, you will have an opportunity to propose something i might not yet have thought about.

I’m also online on YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Please share that on your social media so it may reach other people who might also be interested — if you can’t give me money or hire me right now, this will already go a long way, perhaps reaching someone else who could!

Thank you very much in advance for your support and interest, and see you on the road!!

Why i support GiveDirectly

What would you do with an extra $1,000?

I would personally take a couple of months off and ride my bicycle solo from Copenhagen to Istanbul. In fact, that’s what I just did, and $1,000, the size of a typical GiveDirectly grant, is just about how much the whole operation cost me — including travel insurance and transportation back home. Growing up in a mid-lower class family in Brazil, I had always dreamed of traveling and experiencing the world like that. But I hadn’t had the financial means and opportunity until recently, after a couple of years at a well-paying job which allowed for me to save some money and fund the trip myself.
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my arrival at the Bosphorus strait on 24/Nov/2016

Those were what I judged to be my needs at the moment. Neither cigarettes or alcohol, nor another job, nor anything else. I don’t believe anybody could have made a better decision on my behalf. In fact, few people even understand what I chose to do with that time and money. And yet this experience, which I would hardly call an extended vacation, has made me feel alive in a way I hadn’t for years, and dramatically changed the course of my life. I came back a different person, with a whole new set of values and opportunities to pursue.

That roughly summarizes why I have supported GiveDirectly, and will continue to donate 10% of my gross earnings to them, as well as promote them in social media and real life. My vision is a world where everybody has the autonomy to decide their own fate. GiveDirectly’s diligent and incredibly transparent work, repeatedly vetted for several years in a row by reputable charity evaluator GiveWell, has shown that giving cash directly to the poor and letting them judge for themselves, within their context, what to do with it to improve their own lives might be a great way to realize that vision — if not the best!

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This piece is crossposted in the GiveDirectly blog, for which it was originally written.

Featured image on the top: a GiveDirectly recipient managing their grant on a cellphone; image source: https://www.givedirectly.org/img/socialshare.jpg

The 3 kinds of articles to avoid in 2017  —  your ultimate New Year’s guide to sanity

The Internet can be exhausting. It keeps showing you stuff to read. It’s now shown you this, and you’ve just clicked on it — see how it works?

In 2017 i’ll actively steer clear of three kinds of articles in particular, whether i’m on the road or not: the news, self-improvement, and listicles. Here’s why.

#1. The news

It’s no conspiracy theory that the news are designed with one key purpose in mind: sell advertising space. Your newspaper costs a lot more to make than the $1–2 per issue or however much you pay for the online subscription. That’s not the business model. The business model is to get your eyes on that Internet provider ad right next to today’s story on the war in Syria.

I’m not saying the news are lying to you. They’re probably not outright lying to you, even if they do have an agenda on top of their ad revenue. I’m not saying the news are not interesting either. Most of the time they’re rather exotic and alluring! That’s why you read them. Damn, i hope to become impressive and engaging enough to make it to the news with my cycle touring gig at some point soon. No, that’s not the problem with the news. The problem with the news is that exposure to them severely fucks up your model of what reality looks like, through their drawing of a disproportionate amount of your attention to all that unusual stuff, like the all too sad story of the plane that crashed with the underdog football team traveling to compete in their first international finals, while neglecting to adequately inform you about all the boring proverbial 10 plane crashes worth of people statistically dying of malaria every day in the developing world. I’m not saying that the news don’t want you to know about poor people dying of malaria. They simply know you wouldn’t pay as much attention to that as you will to the plane crash, and they want to sell that advertisement space right next to it.

If you paid any attention to the news, you’d never want to go to Turkey. But i was there less than two months ago, and it felt a bit more like this:

You don’t need most of that stuff being advertised anyways. So, you won’t be missing out, don’t worry. You know what you need. Look it up. Ask around. You’ll find it. You’ll even get a good deal for it!

By the way, this piece of advice includes comedy news — stay away from them. It does, however, exclude The Onion. Please keep reading The Onion. And keep listening to Reggie Watts, and such as, a lot.

#2. Self-improvement

I’m particularly referring to the kind of article claiming in their very title to be the last thing you’ll ever need to read to become more productive, more likable, or the next Elon Musk. First of all, you probably don’t need most of that. And if you do want to level up on any aspect of your life, pick up a book by someone who actually spent a significant amount of their lives devoted to the topic of interest, or start reading the blog in which they regularly write about it, or join a meetup or Facebook group and start interacting with people pursuing the same path, or all of the above, or yet something else that actually involves taking some action.

Change is an active process. Figure out what’s the first step towards whatever it is that you want to get better at or incorporate in your life, and get started. Today. Now. Acknowledge that by reading those articles you’re simply procrastinating that first step. In fact, i’ll be far more likely to read and take the advice of an article that gives me a clear, manageable first step, so i can actually go out and do it, rather than an article with so many recommendations that they will require me to spend half an hour after reading it pretending that i can immediately redesign how i spend 10% of my time.

#3. Listicles

It’s not that i’ll avoid reading lists altogether. I actually like lists —  very much so! I just prefer the kind of list that helps me think about how they’re constructed. Besides, have you noticed how often listicles are about a topic you were not previously thinking about, but now think is the most important thing in the world to learn about? Listicles, which are designed to be consumed like cheese puffs —and also to sell advertising space— typically teach you nothing of substance about something you actually care about.

Wanna become acquainted with remote places on Earth? Play around with Google Maps. Post a question on Quora or some traveling forum, and get involved in the discussion of what being ‘remote’ even means. Is it remote in the sense that it’s super far away? Difficult to reach? Because it’s been culturally isolated for a very long time? Is it remote simply because it’s unknown? Read up the Wikipedia articles about the places you get referred to. Perhaps there’s a documentary or a book on them. Maybe some people have visited those places, taken good photographs, talked to people living there, and written engaging accounts of it in their blogs. Don’t settle for the listicle. Maybe an opportunity to go there yourself is not even such a long shot.

If you’re not interested in something, then don’t worry about it. And if you are, then don’t be shy to go all nerdy on it!

Yes, this is a listicle, and a self-improvement one at that — that’s two out of three. It’s OK. You didn’t know better 😉 But now you do. So, share it, close the tab, and move on with you life!


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This piece was edited from the article of same title originally published on Medium on January 3rd, 2017

Featured photo on the top by Saulo Mohana

Going with plan A

Yet another friend of mine has just landed a sweet programming job.

I’ve been flirting with the idea of pursuing a career in programming myself for the past several years. But for some reason i could never quite put my finger on, this has never panned out, at least not as smoothly as it seems to have been the case for dozens of my friends and acquaintances from graduate school and the effective altruism movement. I believe i may have finally understood what’s going on. Despite having taken several courses, used a fair amount of programming in my mathematical research, and occasionally enjoyed playing with an Arduino, i simply don’t think of myself as a programmer. I’m not talking fixed mindset here. On the contrary. To me a programmer is more like the person who spends a whole month of their lives figuring out how to put this together. Indeed, when i look close enough at anybody i know who’s eventually become a full-time programmer, i see a clear story arch under which programming is not merely instrumental to their interests, but rather the key interest itself.

What’s my narrative then?

Well, if coding won’t keep me up all night, planning a hiking trip in Iceland, researching visa requirements and weather patterns along the Silk Road, or checking out how to become an Uber driver and whether that’s a plausible source of travel money, will. Anything related to world travel and exploration will not only keep me up late, but also wake me up obscenely early. I’m an adventurer!

I have a public confession to make. When i left Brazil in 2008 to attend graduate school in the US, what i was mainly looking for was an opportunity to live abroad. Unlike many of my friends’ families, mine didn’t have the means to send me on an exchange program while i was in high school. So, i continued to pursue my path to financial independence by going to college study math, which i had become quite passionate about, and understood to be a scalable degree which could eventually place me anywhere between a teaching or actuary job. But as soon as i realized that many of my professors in college had gotten their PhD degrees abroad — and with a scholarship from their host institution! — i knew that that was going to be my way out!! This is not hindsight bias. Anybody who has interacted with me during graduate school can probably attest to this. I was pretty openly not there primarily for the degree. In fact, i couldn’t even relate to how seriously most of my peers seemed to take what they were doing. As much as i have enjoyed doing Mathematics, what interested me the most about attending Rutgers University, in New Jersey, was the priceless opportunity it awarded me with to meet people from all over the world, and have experiences i could have only dreamed about up until then.

Towards the end of 2013, i was about to graduate and, just like most of my peers also about to graduate, applying for academic jobs for the following year. A close friend of mine noted at the time, and i paraphrase, “Dude, i really like how chilled you are about this whole process, everybody else is so stressed out.” I felt pretty relaxed indeed. Not because i was overly confident about getting a job, but rather because i had a pretty neat plan B: if i didn’t get a job, i’d sell all my stuff, spend a year or so riding my ’96 Honda Rebel all the way back from New Jersey to Brazil, and take it from there. I ended up getting a job, selling the motorcycle, keeping much of my other stuff, and moving to Denmark for a two-year postdoc instead. But when the next job application cycle came about towards the end of 2015, i started thinking very seriously about whether a proverbial motorcycle ride across the Americas shouldn’t actually be plan A this time around. So, after my contract ended, i packed my belongings into a few boxes in my landlady’s attic, hopped on the bike-touring rig i’d been slowly putting together for the past year or so, and set off from Copenhagen to Istanbul. Along the way, i turned down an otherwise tempting offer for another two-year postdoc, and kept going. I arrived in Istanbul on November 24th, 2016, after 2 energizing and rejuvenating months on the road. I had not felt as alive and present since i was preparing to leave Brazil almost ten years ago.

Yes, i could see myself back in academia at some point in the future. Most likely not as a researcher though. I feel like i belong much more in a liberal arts setting, as an educator, particularly somewhere with a large international student population. I’d love to apply my training as a mathematician and teacher, as well as the deeper understanding of people’s needs i’ve developed through my travels, to promote and facilitate the self-actualization of others. But my global learning has barely begun and, for the moment, we go with plan A: first, i’ll go spend some quality time with my grandmother, family and friends back in Brazil; i haven’t been there for more than just a couple of weeks ever since leaving in 2008, and we all need that; but i’m then getting back on the road in the end of March, and we’ll just take it from there!


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