Here is the full transcript of Mateusz Andrulewicz’s talk titled “Your Own Journey Through The World” at TEDxUniMannheim conference.
In his talk “Your Own Journey Through The World,” Mateusz Andrulewicz shares the captivating story of his 15-month bicycle journey from Poland to Cape Town, highlighting the extreme climates, cultural immersions, and unexpected challenges he faced. He describes the intense humidity of the Gulf Coast, the hospitality in the Middle East, and the legal and health troubles encountered in Africa, including a brush with malaria and an ear infection that cut their journey short.
Andrulewicz reflects on the deep insights gained about the Muslim religion, culture, and customs, especially during their time in Saudi Arabia. Despite not reaching their final destination due to unforeseen circumstances, including the outbreak of civil war in Sudan that likely destroyed their left-behind bicycles and luggage, Andrulewicz deems the journey a tremendous success. He emphasizes the value of embracing hardship and discomfort as a pathway to growth and learning.
Through his adventure, Andrulewicz discovered an imbalance between body and mind fostered by modern lifestyles, advocating for a more body-focused approach to daily life as a means to correct this imbalance. The talk concludes with Andrulewicz encouraging his audience to embark on their own journeys of self-discovery and adventure, emphasizing the transformative power of such experiences.
Listen to the audio version here:
All right, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to invite you to a Sudanese tea house consisting of plastic chairs scattered around summer on a sandy street corner in Khartoum. It is 45°C, and the Sudanese winter is just about to finish. The summer will soon begin as I’m sitting in my plain black tea without sugar. I’m contemplating my next step, as my 15-month long journey from Poland to Cape Town is facing its biggest crisis yet. But first, allow me perhaps to give you some background.
The Phenomenon of Storytelling
When you come back home from a trip like this, there is this really funny phenomenon that awaits you when you tell the story to the people who are listening to you. The story often seems overwhelming, even though cycling from Poland to Sudan is the most real, the most tangible thing that I have ever achieved. I mean, I had to conquer every single meter of the 14,000km with the power of my own muscle. I would feel every single slight. I would feel even the slightest change in terrain or climate. And finally, I could interact with everything and everyone that I passed by, even with all this tangibility.
When I tell the story, it seems extremely abstract to the people on the receiving end. I mean, you know, when you look at the picture of the map with my route marked there, and then you put a picture of my bicycle next to it, the usual reaction is just disbelief. Sometimes it takes me ten minutes just to explain the concept that I went by bicycle from Poland to Sudan.
When people are confronted with a story like this, a story that is so big, so unimaginable, when looked at side by side with their everyday lives, the usual reaction is that they look for justifications. They will say things like, “Ah yes, you’re young,” or “Yes, but you have money,” or “Yes, but you’re from a rich country,” so let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning. Anyone can do it as long as they really want to.
A Journey of Diverse Encounters
During my 15-month journey from Poland to Sudan, I met countless travelers and heard stories of dozens more. A guy solo traveling in a wheelchair through Turkey. A lady cyclist solo traveling across Arab countries which are supposedly unfriendly towards solo female travelers. A Russian couple fleeing their regime with a three-year-old kid in the back of their bike. Really, the examples are endless. Anyone can do it as long as they want to. You just need to make the first step.
So, you hear all the stories on the internet, you read the stories in the books, you hear the steps. You are inspired. You decide that you want to do it. So the question that naturally arises next is, how? What do I do next?
Fortunately, the answer to that question is extremely simple. And as it often is with things that are simple, largely underappreciated. Actually, Nike will provide us with one more neat quote later in this talk. So, it’s a very, very good time to say a quick thanks to Nike for spending millions of their advertising dollars to spread this very simple, yet very efficient rule for life: Just do it now.
The Adventure Begins
Rewind to August 2021, just when the pandemic was sort of starting to disappear. And this is exactly the question and answer that I am facing. My friend just called me and he told me that he wants to cycle from Poland to Istanbul. I thought that it’s a great idea and immediately asked him if I could join. I also asked him if maybe we could go to Cape Town. We are quitting our jobs so might as well make it big, right? He said yes.
And so the preparations began. So, I first quit my job as a salesman in a big technology company, Google, and then went on the internet looking for a bicycle because I didn’t even have one back then. I didn’t even remember the last time I sat on a bicycle. It was so long ago.
Fast forward one month and in September 2021, on a beautiful, sunny autumn day, we are leaving our hometown in Poland and heading east towards Ukraine. The beginning of a trip like this is really all about yourself. The first few months you need to figure out the basics. You are more interoceptive than exteroceptive. You need to figure out what your body is capable of, what are its limits, how it best recovers, which foods are healing to you, which foods just take too much space in the caloric balance while not contributing enough nutrition. So, to sum it up, the first few months you are focused on you, not on what’s around you.
The Journey Unfolds
However, once you figure out the basics, the real fun of traveling unravels because then you can begin to observe. First, the observation is best seen through the journal that you are carrying with you, so it evolves from being the “Dear Diary, it hurts today” kind of journal to more of a report style journal. You begin to notice more details. You search for patterns, and you slowly begin to understand the reality around you.
This is where the most beautiful part of any type of slow travel, whether it’s walking, horse riding, bicycle, sailing, comes together. You dive deep into the process of decoding the new cultures, and slowly, day by day, you begin to comprehend the alien realities that are ever-changing and surround you more. And this process brings tremendous satisfaction.
For me, the breakthrough moment was in Turkey. This was also the time when the spring was coming, so sleeping in the wild became much easier and much more pleasant. By then, my body had already built a strong foundation, so I didn’t have to worry that much about the physical aspect of the journey. And also, lastly, many of the fruits and vegetables were already in season in springtime in Turkey, so it was very easy to meet the body’s nutritional demands cheaply and deliciously.
We then began our journey through the Kurdistan region of Iraq. On our second day in Iraq, we met a fellow cyclist named Benjamin. Ben was from France and headed to Pakistan. We decided to join forces and formed a team of three. Together we pushed first through the Taurus Mountains.
Then we followed the Great Zab river for a while, only to climb again, but this time up the Zagros Mountains. The climbs were absolutely murderous, grueling, taking every last bit of energy from us and our legs. And whenever we would lose elevation, we would suddenly encounter extreme temperatures that we were not used to. For example, as we were descending down to the capital city of Iraqi Kurdistan, a city named Erbil, we noted air temperatures of around 40-42°C. Obviously, this was quite hot for us.
The Warmth of Kurdish Hospitality
The Kurdish people, they are basically so hospitable that you cannot cycle five kilometers in that country without being stopped for tea. Also, they don’t allow you to pitch your tent outside because it’s a shame, and you should sleep at their place. We also got to know the military menu by heart because almost at every Peshmerga checkpoint, Peshmerga is the local Kurdish military that existed for centuries and protected the Kurdish borders.
So, at every Peshmerga checkpoint, we would get stopped and invited for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even accommodation. This happened countless numbers of times. I swear some of the soldiers later called us on WhatsApp; they couldn’t speak English, and we couldn’t communicate a word. It was fun.
After Iraq came Iran. Perhaps the most memorable part of the journey because it was the hardest. With hardship, the interception comes back again. The focus on yourself, on what is going on inside your head and inside your body.
First, we thought the mountains, the Zagros Mountains that stretch through the entire western part of the country, all the way down to the Strait of Hormuz, where the Gulf waters meet the Indian Ocean. We only left the mountains for a short while when we took a short detour to a semi-desert Iranian city called Yazd, just so that we can see what the semi-desert in Iran looks like. And believe me, the picture was not pretty in summertime. As soon as we began descending to Yazd, we fought heat stroke for the first time on our trip.
You need to understand that on the bicycle, you are exposed to the elements for eight or maybe ten hours every day, and so the body needs to get used to those elements, in this case, the sun. Especially since most of those 8 to 10 hours you are doing low-intensity cardiovascular work. We also added distance to the mix. This is Ben, by the way.
We also added distance to the mix by spontaneously deciding to cover the distance between Esfahan and Yazd, which is 300km in one go, just so that we reach the US faster. So, we traveled for 26 hours non-stop through the desert at night against the wind, with beautiful clear skies, unpolluted by any lights. Since there were no villages nor any cities in the 50-kilometer radius, the journey was beautiful but demanding. And as you can imagine, it took a huge toll on us.
From Yazd, we climbed the Zagros Mountains yet again for the second time, only to reach Shiraz. And from Shiraz, we headed for the Gulf Coast. Throughout our entire journey in Iran, whenever we met locals and told them that our final destination in Iran is the port city of Bandar Lengeh, located exactly on the Gulf Coast, the locals would always say, “Garm, Garm, Garm,” which means hot in Persian. Yes. And we thought, I mean, yeah, it’s hot. It’s summer in the Middle East. Of course, it’s hot. So, you know, we just sort of ignored it.
But the moment we got to the Gulf Coast, we understood what they meant. The humidity and the temperatures were so extreme. All the water from the Gulf waters that evaporated in the extreme heat and was trapped by the Zagros Mountains on the shoreline. The humidity was so insane in summertime that it was just simply impossible to be outside. I was waiting for my falafel sandwiches, not moving after sunset, and I was wet as if I had just taken a shower. I swear this was the most tropical location I’ve ever been to.
And so, because it was impossible to camp outside, we sought shelter in mosques that were often air-conditioned or at least have fans. So essentially, we began to sleep in mosques every night after obtaining verbal permission from the local imam.
Cultural Immersion and Understanding
Here is an example. But this is in Saudi Arabia. So the weather situation pushed us to get more intimate with the Muslim religion, its cultures, its history, its customs, which not only proved to be extremely useful later on but also was very valuable because later we cycled for three months through the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and we could sort of build on that knowledge.
Now, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was perhaps the biggest question mark for us because we had no idea what to expect there. There was no information about Saudi Arabia, not to mention cycling in Saudi Arabia. I mean, no one was doing it, or at least no one was sharing information about it. And so we really didn’t have any idea what to expect there.
So we entered the kingdom with a blank sheet and left it with very basic Arabic and then were full of positive experiences with both the locals and the expats that populate the desert lands of Saudi Arabia. And we also left with a really nice tan because, as you can see in that picture, we were cycling hundreds of kilometers alongside the border of one of the biggest deserts in the world, the Rub al Khali. The Empty Quarter, as it’s called in English, traveled in the 20th century by a British adventurer, Wilfred Thesiger. And so, yeah, we got a nice tan. It was summertime, 40-50°C.
Challenges in Africa
After Saudi, we began to grapple with Africa and believe me, things were not going well for us since the very beginning. In Egypt, after basically half cycling, maybe halfway of our route, we got arrested for a while, coming and traveling off the beaten path. And so Egyptian police deported us to Sudan.
In Sudan, after a few days of cycling through perhaps the most beautiful, the wildest desert that I have ever seen, even more so than in Saudi, both of us began to show symptoms of malaria. In the middle of the desert, exactly 50km away from the town called Dongola. The first big town that you have on the map when you come from the Egyptian direction. And so, as a result of malaria, my friend got a very serious ear infection, which not only brought tremendous pain but also resulted in him losing his hearing in one ear.
We tried to solve the problem in Khartoum, first in Dongola, then in the capital city, Khartoum. But after two weeks of trying, the doctors told us that they could manage his pain, but they cannot heal the ear. And so we decided to pack our bags and head back home. We left both our bicycles and most of our luggage in Khartoum with the intention of continuing the journey once wintertime comes back again in Sudan. However, just one month after we departed, the civil war that lasts to this day erupted. And so a few weeks ago, we got notified that most likely our bikes and luggage were destroyed in a neighborhood bombing.
To finish the story, I would like to share with you two lessons that this trip has taught me. First off, I understood that there are times in your life when it is desirable to pursue hardship, to pursue discomfort. And for many of you listening in the audience, that time is now. Even though we didn’t reach South Africa, the 15 months that I spent on the bicycle were like a university of life to me.
Secondly, during my trip, I understood that in modernity, the modern lifestyles have produced this sort of imbalance between the body and the mind. Most of us rely on their minds for survival. It is the mind that brings food on the table, and this creates a situation when we get sort of detached from our bodies.
Bill Bowerman, a famous track and field athlete, a track and field coach, and Nike co-founder, famously said, “Everybody who has a body is an athlete.” This approach to my own physiology in sports was a game-changer because suddenly you are not going to the gym or for a run just to be healthy or look good. These are very good goals, but they are very vague. No. Instead, you look for specific weaknesses and limitations, and it is very easy to identify them because you rely on your body in your everyday life.
And then once you know those limitations, you can work in a very precise, goal-oriented, and time-restricted way to fix them and get better. It is exactly the same as we solve our mental limitations. So I strongly encourage everyone to try and rely on their bodies more in their everyday life and get better just so that we correct this imbalance even so slightly.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve devoted 15 months of my life to this wild idea of cycling from Poland to Cape Town. And even though we didn’t reach South Africa, I think that the trip was a tremendous success. Whenever someone asks me if it was worth it, I say that it was. The trip took me to unexpected places, like giving this TED talk or meeting a Saudi sheep. That was fun.
So whenever someone asks me if it was worth it, I say that it was, and that if they feel at least a single spark from this story, a single spark of inspiration, perhaps they should try it too. Because as you already know, they can as long as they want to. Thank you for your attention.
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