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“Being On the Road Changed Us Forever”: Around the World on Two Bikes in Two Years

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Avid travelers Jane and Stephen Mountain recently returned to North America after a two-year bicycling trip around the world. Here’s what they learned… and what they’re planning next.

Introduce yourselves!

I’m Jane, and my husband Stephen and I have fallen into a pattern of ditching all the responsibilities of a normal life. It started on our first trip together almost 20 years ago. We backpacked around Europe, fought the entire time, and finally broke up when we ran out of money and patience.

Stephen moved to Chamonix to work the ski season and I moved to Geneva to learn French (he ended up breaking his collarbone and my French is hopeless, as it turns out). We reunited in London, got back together, and got married.

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During our nine years in London, we learned not to fight while we traveled, like camping in Portugal, hiking Norway, and eating our way around Paris. The trip that really made us love travel was a three month jaunt through Morocco, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan. It opened our eyes to how amazingly diverse the world can be.

Most recently, we left behind two cars, two jobs and a hefty mortgage in Los Angeles to take off around the world on bicycles for two years. We now live on the astoundingly beautiful Vancouver Island. Stephen travels to teach yoga and Jane is a writer and web designer.

Neither of us can get enough of bicycles, photography, and drool-worthy (vegetarian) food. We’re laying the groundwork for a life of full-time travel, whatever shape that takes.

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Have you always loved to travel?

A love of travel had been passed down to both Stephen and me from our grandmothers. My grandma had grown up as a foreigner in China, moved to Canada as an adult, and travelled constantly throughout my youth. She was always bringing back tales of the people she’d met around the world.

Stephen’s grandmother was also a traveller, and an amazing photographer. She would bring him coins and flags from the countries she visited and show him her photos of far-off places.

What inspired you two to leave on your bike trip?

I had a great corporate job in LA, making ridiculous piles of money. We had a beautiful house, awesome friends, and our relationship was better than ever.

And I was absolutely miserable.

Life just felt wrong. The thought of dedicating myself to making money for a huge corporation for the next 25 years was nauseating. Almost everything I did felt pointless. Without my large income, we couldn’t pay our mortgage and I really couldn’t see any way out.

Then I got laid off, along with more than 2,000 of my coworkers. While everyone else felt like the bottom of their world had just dropped out, I was ecstatic (though I tried not to show it at work). I knew it was my opportunity to make a radical change.

It took a lot of effort to convince Stephen of this; at first he thought I was joking. It wasn’t until our friends started saying “A bike trip? That’s so cool!” that he finally came around.

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Tell us a memorable story from the road:

Here’s a story from my journal…

A man is shouting in Stephen’s face. He’s been at it for a while now. Yelling and yelling. A relentless onslaught we’d rather not have to deal with. And we don’t understand why he won’t just go away.

We are at a ferry dock just outside the middle-of-nowhere, China. This morning, we hadn’t even been sure this ferry existed, or if it was just a figment of our sometimes unreliable map’s imagination.

China has been kicking our butts for six weeks now. Everywhere we’ve been, the air is thick with clouds, smog, and mysterious chemicals being blasted from the constant factories. The roads are teeming with lumbering red trucks that kicked dust and black smoke into our faces as they pass. Our limited Mandarin is useless since the dialects change so fast; a phrase that works at breakfast is out-of-date by lunch.

But this ferry was our ticket to a different kind of China. It would take us across the Yangtze to find a yoga retreat in the countryside. It is owned by our friends in Beijing and they offered it as a haven. They would feed us vegetarian food and give us a place to sleep. There would be English spoken. It sounded perfect. All we had to do was get across the river.

As soon as we pulled up to the cluster of falling-down shacks masquerading as a ferry terminal, the man pounced on us. He dug a crumpled up piece of paper, which looked like it could have been a ferry ticket in some distant past, out of his pocket and waved it at us. He then took out a 20 RMB note and waved that at us too, saying something that we took to mean “Give me 20 RMB and I’ll give you this old piece of paper.”

He has no uniform and doesn’t look remotely official. No one else is buying tickets from him and the one man actually wearing a uniform studiously ignores the exchange.

Being savvy travelers, well aware of the dangers of giving our money to random men in exchange for random pieces of crumpled paper, we refuse. And refuse. And refuse again.

But this isn’t your ordinary scammer. Nope. This guy is curiously, crazily persistent. The more we refuse, the angrier he gets. His face gets redder, his voice louder, and the crowd around us thicker.

A little boy runs outside to see what the fuss is about. An impossibly wrinkled old man laughs behind his hand at the scene. A stylish little girl, looks at us with open incredulity. A man with a bicycle gives me a meaningful look behind the yelling man’s back, a look I take to mean “Don’t give your money to him.”

For more than half an hour, we’ve borne the brunt of this man’s anger. He’s yelled, he’s pleaded, he’s probably cursed. We, in the polite way of Canadians, refused quietly but persistently. It was far too late to back down now.

We sigh with relief when the ferry pulled in and we could finally roll our bikes on board.

A man in a brown ferry uniform showed us where to put our bikes. Stephen tried to pay him but the ferry man waves the money away, gesturing indistinctly behind us. We turn around to find the yelling man, looking at us with an unmistakable “Idiots!” expression. It was our turn to be red-faced. We hand our money over, and he gives us the ticket he had been trying to sell us all along.

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How did you pay for your round-the-world bike trip ?

Our first step was to cut all of our expenses to a minimum, biking everywhere, cooking at home, cutting our cable, and buying almost nothing. We sold our two cars, which alone paid for about a year on the road. We sold our house, too, but haven’t dipped into the profits from that, and we are doing our best not to. The settlement from my layoff helped a little, but it was only a small help. We could have done the trip without it.

While we travelled, Stephen earned a little money on the road teaching yoga and I am now building a web design and copywriting business that I can take with me as I travels. We hope to earn money from our travel blog as well, but we’re still working on that one!

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Did you train for your trip?

Actually not. Before we left home, we’d never done any cycling longer than the few miles to work. All of a sudden, we were asking our bodies to take us hundreds of miles per week. We started in the hilly towns of Tuscany and Umbria, in Italy so it was a real trial by fire.

No matter how exhausted we were each night, by morning we were ready to get up and go again. If a hill was too steep, or the day was too hot, or a problem seemed insurmountable, we found that as long as we could get our minds on board, our bodies would follow.

We were quite surprised to find out just how resilient our bodies are.

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What have you learned while on the road?

Lessons on the road have changed us forever. For example, we learned that we’ve been peeling pineapples wrong our entire lives. Also, eating unripe fruit does not give you a belly ache. A plastic bag with an elastic wrapped tightly around the top makes the perfect to-go container for any food or drink.

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The great debate: aisle or window?

Aisle.

Best travel tips…go!

Ride a bike.

If you’re in a popular tourist destination and are overwhelmed by crowds, touts, and sights, rent a bike. Ride it aimlessly until you reach the outskirts of the town, which usually only takes about 15 minutes. Suddenly, you will be surrounded by people who never see tourists and who are interested in you as a person, not as a wallet-holder.

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Explore your passion with locals.

No, we don’t mean you should sex it up on the road. But do keep doing what you love. If you’re into yoga, contact local yogis and arrange to meet them for coffee and a yoga session. If you like bridge, find a local bridge group and ask to sit in on a game.

Search social media and blogs to find people who share your passions. There’s no better way to learn about a place than to hang out with the people who would probably be your friends if you lived there.

Organize yourself.

The hardest thing about travel is getting organized and getting out your front door. If you can do that, you can handle anything the road might throw at you.

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Tell us  about another encounter from the road.

After four months cycling through China, struggling to understand the language, the culture, the food, and the crazy traffic, we came to a small town in the south, not far from the Vietnamese border. Having already tried to find dinner in the night markets, which were lined with the carcasses of Whippet-like dogs, we were scouring the grocery store for food that had never barked.

Two giggling schoolgirls approached us with unmasked excitement.

This was nothing new. For fourth months now, everywhere we went, people smiled, pointed, laughed, and exclaimed loudly over our presence. Hundreds of young girls (and lots of middle-aged men) had waved their camera phones at us, posing for picture after picture with the giant foreigners. Stephen and I had taken to calling each other Brad and Angelina because we were sure they must have mistaken us for someone far more famous.

“Hello, where are you from?” one of the girls asked. In perfect English. This was a surprise. We hadn’t heard any English beyond “haaalo” in weeks.

After talking with the girls for a few minutes, we discovered they were nearly fluent. “Who is your English teacher?” we asked, suspecting there must be some young Australian or American living in the town. But no, their teacher was Chinese.

“You are the first foreigners we meet,” one girl said.

Wait. What?

We were stunned. The realization hit us that countless people we’d shaken hands and shared smiles with during the last few months had been meeting their first foreigners, too. The sheer responsibility of that weighed on our shoulders like an overfilled backpack. We just hoped we’d acquitted ourselves well, shaping “foreigner” into a good, if slightly weird, concept in the people’s minds.

Whereto next?

After getting back to Canada, where we haven’t lived in almost 20 years, we decided we needed to explore our own country a little more.

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We’ve been on a kayaking trip with our extended family in the Broken Islands, which is supposed to be one the most beautiful place on Earth. We also headed east and spent a month in Muskoka, Canada’s answer to the Lake District, to spend time lounging by the lake and visiting Stephen’s family.

Our exotic travels aren’t over yet though: Japan, India, and Antarctica are all softly calling our names.

Stay up to date with Jane at My Five Acres or on Twitter @myfiveacres.

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