Killian Conyngham explores why the idea of a trip around the world has captivated so many, including himself.
It was a cold summer morning in Munich when I decided I was going to travel around the world. I was curled up under three blankets, dead tired, desperately hungover, and awaiting my Leaving Cert results, having unsuccessfully attempted to sleep through them. Trying to pass the time, my mind drifted aimlessly before pointedly, and rather suddenly, coalescing into the thought, and then the solemn promise that I would one day set out to travel around the world. And although it seemed rather rash to make such a considerable commitment off the back of only a few cloudy minutes of thought, the conclusion felt inevitable and intuitive. The thought of travelling around the world had captivated me fully, and to this day it still does. And in that regard, it seems I am far from alone.
Indeed, a brief search of the term “around the world” will reveal countless blogs, vlogs, books, articles and documentaries about those who have been committed and fortunate enough to make the trip. Families, couples, friends and solo travellers who longed for a trip where one returns without going back; a continuous line of excitement and experience around the planet. And it’s not just a modern obsession either. The Magellan-Elcano expedition in 1522 was the first recorded complete circumnavigation of the earth, however variations of the idea had been around for a long time previously. Whether it is Herodotos’s story of ancient Phoenicians circumnavigating Africa or the Ming Treasure Voyages, there are a plethora of tales of those who set out, successfully or not, to tour much of their known world or endeavoured to expand its boundaries.
As humanity entered an age where the world was mapped and had been circled, new challenges were thought up. Whether it was using a new form of transport, or as in Jules Verne’s classic Around the World in 80 days setting a strict time limit, there were always new challenges for those looking. But if the world was a small place in Phileas Frogg’s time, it is even more so now. A few well-timed flights and you could probably do it in a few days. And even leaving flights out of the question, the world has now been circumnavigated in one way or another by submarine, solar plane, bicycle, hot-air balloon, 30-year old motorcycle, on foot and as of last year, even by unicycle. The options for setting a record, for making a splash are ever-shrinking, and yet many people still set off on the quest, I wonder why?
One of the Guinness Book of World Records' requirements for certifying a trip around the world is that it passes through two antipodal points. This means that at one point in your journey you must find yourself at the furthest possible point on the planet from another moment on your trip. Most world record attempts use Madrid in Spain and Auckland in New Zealand as Europe, where most such attempts begin, has few other antipodal points not in the ocean. And while this is a phenomenally handy pair if one is world-record inclined, to me it just misses the mark on what I feel it means to be on the opposite side of the world. I’ve seen Auckland and Madrid up close, and neither are places where I felt utterly alien. Of course, unfamiliarity can’t be measured, but if it could, I think Guinness should make people pass through their point of maximum unfamiliarity instead.
Nowadays, even when abroad, the sanitised and often artificial environments created for tourists can ensure that we never really have to give up the vast majority of our creature comforts or cultural hangups. But to me, it’s important to experience differences. To recognise that your experience is not the default. To find yourself in places and environments which completely contrast your comfort zone. Places that challenge your assumptions, throw off your habits and give you that sense of awe that the brain can only conjure when faced with complete unfamiliarity. And such places still exist. Although it might be hard to see from the vantage point of Dublin at the moment, the world does not consist of wall to wall hotels. There are still so many places the tourism industry has yet to conquer, still many corners where you can’t just be a tourist because such a thing doesn't really exist, and as such, if you are lucky, you get to be a visitor. And therein lies one of the chief attractions of the trip around the world. Because the route from Madrid to Auckland contains a multitude of utterly distinct places. So regardless of where one starts or ends I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t find themselves in awe at least once along their global trek. No matter what familiar looks like to you, a trip around the world is certain to push your boundaries.
The Size of the Earth
The earth is home to almost 8 billion humans, over 6,900 languages and 8.7 million living species. Those statistics are such unimaginably large numbers that it can be hard to comprehend them. But the idea that it is all contained on a rough sphere with a diameter of around 40,000km makes it all the more insane to me. Because that is a number that is just a tad bit more comprehensible. I have cycled 100km in a day on cycle tours, meaning I’m suddenly looking at a globe and seeing a 400-day cycle. Then, remembering that bikes can’t go over the water that makes up 2/3 of our planet, and Guinness requires only 30,000km, all of a sudden it could be just over a year with a few breaks. Peering back at the globe though, I feel like that can’t be right. It just simply doesn’t make sense to me that the whole world could possibly all be reachable with my own two legs. It seems, at best, like one of those things you might read about someone else doing. I think that’s a big part of the attraction of a world tour. No matter if it’s on foot, by bike, by train, boat or by car, it’s about being able to get a real intuitive sense of the size of our planet. Not one based on facts or figures, but instead based on real experience and observation.
I often look up at Two Rock, the largest of the Dublin Mountains, 382nd in Ireland, and gaze in amazement, knowing I’ve been to its summit. In the scale of things it is tiny, not even particularly tall for Ireland, but looking up from my estate and knowing that I have walked from my home to its summit and back again still fills me with the most powerful feeling. I think this quote, originally from Primo Levi says it best; “I also know how important it is in life not necessarily to be strong but to feel strong, to measure yourself at least once, to find yourself at least once in the most ancient of human conditions, facing blind, deaf stone alone, with nothing to help you but your own hands and your own head.” And if walking up a hill can make me feel alive, then I boggle at just what it would feel like to be able to look at the globe and to know you’ve been around it.
I think the idea of such a monumental undertaking appeals to something in our human nature. As the natural world has been increasingly blunted for human consumption, and the concept of adventure has been tarnished by colonialism and exploitation, it can be hard to find a worthwhile challenge that truly excites. But the idea of setting out to see the world once over, to me at least, still feels like a truly colossal and worthwhile endeavour.
It has been a consistent experience of mine, that I have always found the best reception in the places where it seemed likely I was the first tourist in a very long time. In the age of cheap flights, bus tours, top 10 lists and a more general idea that each country contains a few “must-see sights”, travel can often take the form of hoards of tourists following the same well-worn tracks and taking photos at the same sights. One of the chief advantages of a trip around the world, by bike, foot, car or any other mode of transport that makes it harder to skip places is just that, you can’t skip places. And so on many days, you will find yourself in small villages that haven’t ever been featured in a guidebook, or moving past forests and mountain ranges that we don’t often see on postcards. And it is precisely such places where, as mentioned before, you are most likely to really come to grips with what a beautiful, friendly and diverse place the world is.
It’s not only villages either, there are entire countries that for one reason or another tend to be overlooked when most people spin the globe and choose a holiday destination. Places that for whatever reason, be it lack of flights, safety concerns or just internalised preconceptions, the vast majority overlook. There’s no route across the world that never leaves Paris or Barcelona though, so any real global journey will inevitably force us to grapple with these preconceptions as we experience these places up close. This is not to say proceed without caution. There are unfortunately still countries on our planet where having certain attributes or features makes things fundamentally unsafe. Research is important, but in an awful lot of cases, we let our gut or our prejudices prevent us from visiting places no less safe than cycling across Dublin. I spend days looking at a map of the world and reading about the routes of others, trying to forge a path for myself through the mountains, deserts, passport requirements and visa limits. With each day it becomes increasingly clear that I will inevitably end up in places I had never imagined I would visit, passing through cities whose names I had never even heard of, and learning about cultures and histories I probably never would have taken the time to look up otherwise. And that to me is very much a good thing.
It’s about the Destination?
I don’t know if I’ll ever ‘properly’ make it around the world, on my bike or otherwise. I’ve never been the type of person to push through incredible adversity just to say I have, and I struggle to see myself cycling across a desert, especially alone. But I am fairly certain I will try. I think the real beauty is in the trying. If rounding the world is important to get a sense of its scale, find yourself in truly unfamiliar environments and visit places you wouldn’t normally choose along the way, then it’s hardly the end of the world if such a trip ends halfway. Contrary to the assumptions of Columbus, Magellan or even all those wonderful world record attempts, I don’t think I want to see the earth as a challenge to be conquered. The earth is a place to live, full of people, plants and animals who call it home. I think I’d just like to visit.
I’ll never know for sure what exactly prompted me to commit to a trip around the world all those years ago, lying wrapped up in those blankets in Munich. But it hardly seems a coincidence, I suppose, that the decision was made in the confines of an oversized tent with 400 beds, which formed the cheapest hostel in Munich, where I had spent my days seeing sights and playing cards with a constantly varying and varied group of individuals. As I lay there, I was looking back on three weeks of the most condensed encounters with an utterly distinct assortment of people, cultures and locations I had ever had in my entire life. I was completely hooked.
I wanted to make sure that I would spend plenty of my time on this earth meeting people, challenging myself and pushing my boundaries. And for some reason, I decided that going once around the world is the easiest way to do so.
I was wrong of course. There are definitely many much easier approaches. Ones that don’t require walking, cycling, driving or sailing 40,000 kilometres. Ones that might not even require me to leave my room. But I made a promise.
And besides, there has never been any fun in not trying.