It's been more than a year since Champaign-Urbana native Tara Alan and her partner, Tyler Kellen, embarked on a bicycling adventure across Europe and Asia. They're still cycling their way toward Malaysia while documenting their experiences on their website, http://www.goingslowly.com.
The News-Gazette caught up with Alan and Kellen via e-mail to see how their trip has been so far. The adventurers were in Serbia when they answered these questions.
Has the trip been what you expected? Better? Worse?
The trip has taken quite a while to be "as expected." We knew there would be challenges, but we didn't really anticipate how much of a lifestyle change living on the road would be, or how long it would take for us to get into the rhythm of it. But, now we have our routines down, we are in great shape and we have the experience, skills and wherewithal to cope with a multitude of discomforts that might otherwise prevent the trip from being fun. After a year on the road, our days are now generally the relaxing, exciting adventures we dreamed of having.
What's the craziest thing you've seen?
In Tunisia, sheep being slaughtered inside houses for the festival of sacrifice. The streets were filled with blood; we even saw a little girl whose job it was to squeegee it into a drain. Also in Tunisia, a cage of live birds thrashing away while the stall owner at a market pulled them out one by one and slit their throats (to sell the meat). In Athens, we attended a general strike and got tear-gassed while photographing anarchist protesters destroying buildings and hurling pieces of concrete at people/the police/anything in sight.
What have been your favorite stops or rides?
It would be impossible to pick one, or even a few, so here are some highlights from each of the countries we've traveled in thus far:
UK: Riding through the Lake District and hiking to the top of Helvellyn mountain.
France: The French Riviera's Mediterranean coastline was one long unending stretch of breathtaking beaches. A little north of that, Verdon Gorge (Europe's Grand Canyon) was one of our first proper mountain climbs (a 1,400-meter ascent in one day). The views were incredible.
Switzerland: Climbing the Swiss Alps made us feel like we could do anything. Switzerland has the most finely manicured cities and countryside we've seen anywhere, hands down.
Italy: We fell in love with Italy. The whole country is gorgeous. If we were forced to pick one location, riding along the Amalfi coast was particularly beautiful.
Tunisia: While waiting for replacement wheels, we bought a 30-year-old scooter and rode around the country. The salt lake of Chott el Jerid was surreal, as was seeing a completely intact Star Wars set in the middle of the desert.
Greece: In a word, Crete. The wilderness on the west coast was paradise. We also enjoyed the beautiful Lasithi Plateau (at 1,800 meters) on the eastern side of the island which is home to the cave where Zeus was fabled to have been born. It also boasts thousands of fabric-sailed windmills that get put to use during potato season to run an extensive irrigation system!
Macedonia: This tiny country won our hearts. It felt as though we'd been transported back through time hundreds of years. This window into a more simple existence is something we hope to reproduce when we return home to start a small farm.
Serbia: While riding through a tiny valley town, an old woman came out of her ancient home to give us a few dyed Easter eggs!
Did you intend to extend your trip and how did that happen? Did you differ from your planned route? Were you able to avoid the cold this winter?
We originally thought we could make it from Scotland to Malaysia in one year. Within a month of leaving, it became obvious that we were moving far too slowly to do this. In retrospect, we have no idea how we expected to reach Moscow to take the Trans Siberian Railway by late summer 2009 and then finish Southeast Asia by the following spring. It would have been possible, if we skipped sections of the trip, taking trains or straightening our route significantly. Ultimately we decided we'd worked too hard preparing to "cram" our trip into one year. So, we fled to Tunisia for winter! Then we slowly crept our way north through Greece to meet our Eastern European route (this) spring. We're here now, writing this from our tent in Serbia and couldn't be happier with our choice. Skipping this leg of the journey in the name of time would have been a real loss.
Have you been able to communicate easily with your family and friends back home?
For the most part, yes. Affordable cellular broadband (3G/GPRS) has been available in every country we've traveled until recently. Because Tyler supports his clients from the road, it is rare that we don't check our e-mail via some sort of connectivity at least once a day. We also have an international cellular plan through a company called GoSim which allows us to receive free calls in most countries.
Do you worry about your safety on the road?
For the most part, no. Everyone else does, though! After a year of travel we've only had two or three genuinely unpleasant encounters. Invariably, we meet at least one person in every country who warns us about grave dangers which await beyond nearby borders or towns. Everyone is afraid of their neighbor! In our experience, people the world over are friendly and caring until they get behind the wheel of car. Running into crazy drivers is a constant in every country. Tunisia was easily the worst. We're pretty conspicuous out there on the shoulder though; we haven't run into any major problems yet!
How has your gear held out?
Our sleeping mats have failed three times and the rims of our wheels twice. Outside of that, all of our equipment is holding up splendidly! Tyler spent untold hours researching every aspect of our gear before we left. His hard work paid off.
How are the finances of your trip going?
Very well, though our expenses have been considerably higher than we originally projected, mostly due to spending so much time in Euro countries. Our daily expenses (lodging, food, sightseeing) for our first year of travel came in around $12,000 (in U.S. dollars). If you include the cost of our flight to Scotland, ferries, insurance and various other odds and ends, it was something more like $15,000. We expect year two to be considerably cheaper as much of it will be spent in Russia and Southeast Asia where the exchange rate will finally be in our favor! Tyler is making enough from the road that we could conceivably continue to travel indefinitely, but we both look forward to returning home. We miss our families.
Tyler, what is it like to work (as an independent software developer) from the road?
It can be a little overwhelming at times, but we take breaks if projects really start to pile up. The "downtime" we have while I am working is often a welcome physical rest as well. I have great clients, and I've set my products up in such a way that as long as I have an Internet connection, it isn't much different than being at home. I receive requests for feature additions via e-mail, develop them offline on my laptop and upload them when we have a good connection.
My core product has been in development for nearly five years and is very stable. I haven't had to handle any major emergencies from the road yet. I've been self-employed for several years, I'm pretty good at "leaving work at work" now. I think that has been critical in being able to maintain my sanity juggling everything we do out here.
Has it been difficult to get along during the past year? Last year, you said you rarely or never fight. Is that still the case? What's your secret?
Honestly, no, it has not been difficult for us to get along at all! We're not sure if we have a secret, we just maintain a constant dialog about how we're feeling and we never take things personally. We always listen to each other's opinions earnestly and our relationship is based around a massive amount of mutual respect. We both think we're getting the better end of the deal! Mostly, we just have a lot of fun together and don't take ourselves too seriously.
What's been the best thing about it so far?
Learning about photography and keeping a daily record of our thoughts, feelings and adventures. We didn't originally intend to journal every day of our trip; we just sort of fell into doing it once we got some momentum going. It is hard work at times, but when we look back and see what we've created, we are SO glad that we decided to do it (and re-decided and re-decided and re-decided every time we want to quit doing it). So many of our memories would be lost without it.
We've also fallen in love with photography. We started as total beginners and have been slowly building our skills as we go. It has been very rewarding. Oh, and meeting so many cool people! Also, leaving camp with a sense of excitement and adventure; you never know what the day has in store!
You won an award for your photography of your travels. Can you tell me about that?
We won second place in the Adventure Cycling Association's first-annual photo contest. Here is a link to the blog entry and resulting magazine article: http://tinyurl.com/goingslowlyaward.
(The Adventure Cycling Association's nonprofit mission is to inspire people of all ages to travel by bicycle for fitness, fun, and self-discovery. It's the premier bicycle travel organization in North America with 44,500 members nationwide.)
What kind of responses and site traffic have you gotten from your website?
We are currently getting five to 10 e-mails a week from people around the world asking questions about touring, thanking us for keeping such a detailed journal, sending encouraging words and telling us that we've inspired them to start planning their own trip or something else meaningful to them. We respond to every single e-mail (but) sometimes it takes longer than our journal entries.
Our site traffic has been steadily increasing for the last year. We currently have about 30,000 page views a month.
(You can also become a fan of Going Slowly by searching for it on Facebook.)
When will you come home, and will you live in Minnesota again?
We will spend this winter in Southeast Asia and return home next spring. We will return to Minnesota, yes, but we're not sure yet where we'll finally end up.