Uncertainty lurks behind every corner, every day. No matter how well prepared we are, stuff breaks, temperatures plummet, border guards can get grumpy and people can change their attitude at the flick of a switch. And when things go wrong, there's no comfortable space to step back into and tame that feeling of vulnerability.
But that's no reason not to enjoy the trip. Because as well as arming us with funny stories for the future, unexpected events are an excellent reminder that surrendering to the moment is often the best thing we can do.
Here are a few moments from the trip that have taught us the art of surrender:
The badly behaving bike
My bike is second hand and some people warned me to expect that stuff would break. But enthusiasm fooled me into thinking that this 200 euro bike would carry me all the way to China without second thoughts.
Well, it turned out that it didn't. I've had to replace the entire back wheel twice (!) and several parts of the front wheel, as well as both brakes. On the plus side, though, I've learned heaps about bikes. We also know that whatever breaks, in whatever obscure post-Soviet country we find ourselves in, we'll find a solution. So we'll just deal with the issue when it comes up. And, last but not least, I'm extremely appreciative of the few moments my bike rolls seamlessly between the breakdowns.
Getting deported from Azerbaijan
With no visa for Turkmenistan and no interest in cycling through sub-zero Russia, our only route into Central Asia was a boat across the Caspian Sea. This, however, meant catching a cargo ship which has no timetable, leaves from a port 80km away from the ticket office in Baku, and is confirmed to be departing only a few hours before it actually leaves. But that was only a small load of uncertainty compared to what awaited us.
The day we arrived in at the port in Alat, sweating and stressing that we won't be on time, the border guards had another plan for us. Indeed, as the stamps on our passport suggest, we have been to Armenia twice on this trip, and Armenia and Azerbaijan are not exactly friends. To top it off,we didn't know we had to register upon entering the country- a big mistake in Azeri's books.
It wasn't long before we were dragged into the border guards office for what turned out to be a three hour long interview, by two menacing looking policemen, and at the end of which we missed our boat. As the sun was setting and our ship sailed to sea, we were given the choice between the two equally appealing options of being deported or paying a 300 euro fine.
After another 48hours of dealing with the immigration services (which held true to public services speed standards all over the world) and waiting for another boat, we were finally off. These few days did hold their fair amount of stress, but they would have been considerably more stressful if we didn't accept that there was very little we could do to change the situation. Surrendering to whatever happened still won't change my opinion of Azerbaijani border guards, but it has allowed us to relax and keep enjoying Baku's beauty in the midst of our administrative quagmire.
Saying Yes in Iran
Our time in Iran was a test of our flexibility. Planning the day ahead was often a pointless exercise, particularly if we wanted to camp. People would come lined up outside our tent to beg us inside their homes, until we finally said yes. Similarly, expecting to leave the next day and to escape an entire tour of their hometowns (including the bakery, the children's park and the village nearby) or to buy our own food was futile.
If at first it was a little disconcerting, we soon learnt just to go with the flow. Once again, it was way more relaxing to just say 'yes', than trying to fight a determined Iranian who insisted we absolutely had to visit the town's cemetery or mosque.
These experiences have opened the door to several brilliant encounters with amazing families who have taught us much and befriended us in a short time. One of them was a Lori family- an ethnie living in the Zagros mountain of Iran- who welcomed us into their home despite our desperate attempt to camp. We ended up spending an awesome evening, shared between a dress up party and a singing contest.
All in all, bringing an attitude of no expectations into our day to day life has only done us good. It sometimes took effort to surrender- more so when we deal with ego-swelling border guards than with kind hearted Iranian- but making that plunge into the unknown with a smile makes life a whole lot easier.