It’s funny traveling like this, ignorant and bold — not that I feel bold, but people I meet often think I am. There’s this conceit among bicycle tourists that we get to know a country better than our engine-powered brethren due to the use of our own effort to move through the terrain and by our encounters with people and things off the beaten track. Simply due to the limitations of how far one can ride in a day. I think this conceit is largely true, but if thereby we think we’ve gained any significant knowledge of a place or its people we go too far.
I had been in Kosovo for less than two days and expected to remain for only another three. I didn’t speak Albanian or Serbian or Macedonian. I assumed that people were greeting me in Albanian, but I wasn’t sure. Our interactions were limited to a few English words and gesticulations.
So I could write things like “the people are friendly here,” which was true, but it’s almost always true — it’s trite, a platitude. Then I read a bit about the history of Ferizaj, the town I was in, and found that the place had been torn apart by ethnic fighting during the war. And I started to look at people differently, like “what was this person doing 15 years ago?” And how real was that friendliness?
And then, walking down the street, past the grocery store, the bookshop, kebab restaurant, I came across a local non-profit working with people with Down’s syndrome. And I was surprised.
Despite myself, I was surprised! Not deeply shocked or amazed, but just “oh, I didn’t expect that.” And then surprised that I was surprised. Why?! Of course there would be people here with Down’s syndrome and of course the community would want to organize some way to help them. Right?! I mean, they’re people. Like me. Couldn’t they be friendly and have a difficult history of political violence and caring for the disadvantaged all at the same time? Like anyone else? Like me?
Yet I would dare cruise through the country and say “oh, I’ve got a grasp on Kosovo now?” Ridiculous. I don’t even have a grasp on myself.
And that’s what draws me back to travel. And especially slow travel by bicycle. It surprises me despite myself. It shows me interesting views of the world and interesting — and sometimes uncomfortable — views of myself. It tears away the conceit that I understand these people and places.
It says “the world is big and fascinating and beautiful and you will never understand it.”