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?

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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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