Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Qatar cycling adventures Part 1

Ive been cycling in Qatar now for the last year - mainly short trips to work and back - 15 km a day - which for a hardened London cycle commuter and a trusty steed like Grey Legs is not too much of a challenge.  No hills,  stunning views and perfect weather apart from the heat, occasional strong winds and the odd dust storm.  But until recently I hadn't attempted anything longer - largely because the crazy driving is such that I'd been nervous to venture further out on any main roads.

Then last December I heard news that some of my cycling chums at Al Jazeera were planning to join an organised 100km ride - so with only one weekend to get some training in, I decided to give it a go.  After all, it was an organised ride with support cars early on a Friday morning - the only time when traffic is limited.

I was apprehensive, having never cycled 100km in one go before - despite using my bike as my main mode of transport for quite a few years in the UK - I'd always wanted to attempt a sportive event but somehow never got the opportunity.  So this was the perfect chance to start in a safe environment, in a large group, with few hills and nice temperatures.

I didn't give myself the best chance when I happened to still be in the ladies loo when the riders set off!!!  But once I caught up to the back of the pack, I felt so good for the first few miles and I was keeping up nicely until the wind started to pick up and the flat desert surroundings offered no protection.  It seems almost everyone cycling was a seasoned distance rider and the pace soon started to tell.  It was all Grey Legs and I could do to hang on to the back of the pack.

I was breathing heavily and pushing 110% just to keep to around 25km per hour against the wind.  Eventually, we lost touch and settled into our own pace with two friends from AlJazeera for company.   There wasn't much to see along the way - the odd camel roaming about and even one "parked outside" its owners house, saddled and ready to go!!  Regret not stopping to take his pic - he was a beauty.

There were a few water stops along the way where lovely volunteers cheered us up with questions like.... "are you the last riders?" and "is anyone behind you?" ....... err quite tough questions to answer when you're cycling with your eyes facing forwards and not in the back of your head!  But at least they did save us bananas and water to top us up which was gratefully received!

After the worst section along a busy truck road with another hellish headwind, the only relief came when trucks came thundering past at close quarters and pulled us along in their draft.  Despite taking on regular fuel, I was intensely fatigued, I was getting lactic acid build up in my legs and suffering cramp in my feet and right calf.  My hands had gone so numb that I had to ride one handed while I allowed the blood to return to the other.  And don't even get me started on the subject of saddle soreness (I was riding without any padding - except the natural kind!).... guess what was top of my Christmas list!!?

But we were soon close to home and eventually were guided back to base by a Red Crescent Ambulance.... and by that point I was so tired I could barely lift my raw aching backside out of the saddle to go over speed bumps.  But after just over 4 hours, we'd made it!!

Id been expecting a finish line, a cheering crowd welcoming home the tail enders and stragglers!  We were sure we weren't the last so when we cycled into the entrance to the Education City Club House from where we'd started, we were a little deflated to see almost no one around..... people basically packing up - no finish line, no official time, no ceremony.  Instead, we went inside and found the organisers and riders in a hall eating the buffet lunch they'd provided and there we did finally receive our medals.

I felt I really deserved that medal and was so proud of myself for finishing!! In fact I was quite shell shocked to be honest. And swore I wouldn't do that again until I'd done some proper training!!......well, that was the theory............. It turned out to be the prelude to an altogether bigger challenge to come when I decided to cycle solo to Qatar's Singing Sand Dune a couple of weeks ago! ...... Ill recount that epic journey in part 2 (once Ive got over the trauma) !!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Step outside your tribe

It was Mark Twain who famously said "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness".  But does that quote stand up as well today as it did in his day?  There are few places one travels these days where we are forced to face our prejudices by integrating or otherwise suffering loneliness.  For goodness sake we don't even have to eat the local food ….. just as importing food from around the world has made us a little more adventurous in our tastes at home, this globalisation of all things has made us more comfortable overseas.  We no longer need to step out of our comfort zone when we travel - all our habits can accompany us.

There are so many of us travelling, working and living abroad these days, we can always find those who share our background, nationality, values and opinions almost anywhere we go.   In 2015, UN statistics showed that 244 million people (3.3% of the world's population) lived outside their country of origin, as compared to 36 million (2%) in 1910, the year of Twain's death.

Its a natural instinct in humans to seek the company and comfort of being with those who look and talk like themselves and share common values and interests.  Its a tribal instinct we all have.  But why do we have it?  Most of us don't live in tribes in the traditional sense of  "a distinct people, dependent on their land for their livelihood, who are largely self-sufficient, and not integrated into the national society."  (The Wikipedia description).

The Yemenis I know do come from traditional rural Bedouin tribes who live outside the formal legislative framework of a government or state.  For example, they still settle disputes and grievances between themselves, and accidents, injuries etc with blood money.  When another tribe kills a member of theirs…..justice comes in the form of 'a life for a life'.  The tribe is everything and there is no loyalty more important.

But most of us experience a slightly different tribal existence through family, community, religion, nationality, workplace, interest groups and of course sport!  As we all know,  football stadiums have been known to turn into battlegrounds between waring tribes of fanatical supporters.  But essentially, tribalism comes from a need to belong, the comfort of a shared identity, the need to reinforce our values and our opinions about life, the universe and everything.

And what a shame it is that when we find our tribe, we stop looking outside it.  When we find comfort  from one tribe, we seek division rather than commonality with others.  The less we step outside our tribe, the more entrenched, rigid and stagnant our minds become and the more suspicious of others.

It seems its all too easy to travel and even live in a country with a totally different national culture but to not experience it at all.  Expats tend to stick with their tribe, socialising and living in compounds with expats of similar backgrounds,  and continuing their habits and traditions from home rather than experience what the local culture has to offer.   The world we live in today requires that to truly experience other cultures, we must actively seek them out - travel in itself doesn't achieve this anymore.

To truly understand and get inside another culture, we must be ready to step outside our own tribe, open our hearts and minds and put aside any preconceptions.  We must also be prepared to challenge everything about ourselves - our own values, assumptions and core beliefs - and while we need to be ready to hear and see things which are counter to everything we've understood to be true, we may also be surprised at the amount we share.  I've spent the last 2 years doing just that and its been the most surprising and enlightening experience of my life.  My core beliefs have been shifting beneath my feet like the giant sand dune I climbed last weekend!!

Its hard to encapsulate quite how fascinating it is to meet someone for whom science and nature played no part in the creation of the universe, for whom eating with a knife and fork and especially chop sticks is just simply wrong,  for whom celebrating your own birthday is forbidden, for whom death is a gateway to paradise or eternal hellfire (depending on your belief and behaviour),  and for whom the letter of the Quran is still relevant….. Bedouin society in rural Yemen is definitely on the conservative side of Islam where men tend to the land while women seldom leave the home.

Knowing someone whose thought processes, cultural references and world view are so fundamentally different is a truly enlightening experience.  One must be prepared for the occasional bombshell but having said all that, there is a surprising amount of common ground.  Love and importance of family, need for safety and security, a desire to work and earn a living, a wish to help others less fortunate, the love and close relationship with a family pet dog,  horse riding, bowling, enjoying competitive games, supporting a football team (usually Real Madrid or Barcelona!), enjoying the company of friends, laughing, watching movies.

So yes, there are some big differences in terms of the cultural and religious bedrock on which our lives are based but when you get down to the day-to-day, there are so many commonalities.  The problem is, even the most open minded among us are to a greater or lesser degree a product of bias which we've all been subjected to from birth - from our family, friends, school system and especially the media.

To step outside our tribe and lay down the baggage of our cultural roots can be an incredibly liberating process and can really help to understand - not agree - but understand why people think, talk and act the way they do.  It can help to increase our tolerance levels and reduce the rush to judgement that so many of us are guilty of.

For myself, I'm far happier outside my tribe….. My heart knows where it is most at rest and it is with my Yemeni boys, sitting cross legged in a little cave-like cafe in the middle Of the Souq, eating lambs livers with our hands.

Maybe its the mystery of the exotic, maybe its the famous warmth of Arab hospitality that welcomes a stranger, Maybe I just prefer the sights, sounds and smells of the souq with its sweet mint tea and spicy aromas to the sweaty 5 star watering holes and smokey cauldrons of hell frequented by shiny suits and sideways haircuts.

Or maybe its my intense dislike of the arrogance of British colonialism that still exists among so many expats even today. (Incidentally, a very recent YouGov survey found 43% of Britons think the British Empire was a good thing).

I think one reason I dress like an Arab when I go to the souq is to disguise myself in attempt to disassociate from my region's shameful colonial past and the ignorance that some of my compatriots export around the world, preferring instead to be a bit of a misfit, preferring at least for the time being to step outside my tribe and connect wth other cultures.