The people we met while cycling the world
Editor’s Note: As adventurer Tim Moss was discussing possible covers for his book, and even though I have also traveled the world, I still had to ask him, “How did you travel around the world with the sun always on your right-hand side? It sounds ridiculous, but I thought maybe he rides north only in the mornings. But of course, the answer is that if you are riding a bicycle above the Tropic of Cancer, the sun always appears to be in the South. For example, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, as I do, you must plant your garden on the south side of your house, or it will always be in the shade. Anyway, below Tim, tells a candid story about his struggles with depression and how it crippled his journey for a year! He has just published a new book, but his credentials don’t stop at bicycling and books, he also runs The Next Challenge Grant an annual bursary for adventures. It was started in 2015 and has funded over 40 different adventures. The money comes from Tim and small crowdfunded donations and contributions from other adventurers.
Location: The World (Northwest Hemisphere)
About “With the Sun on our Right”
Tim and Laura Moss quit their jobs to cycle 13,000 miles around the world.
Riding across deserts, over mountains and through jungles, they braved climatic extremes from sub-zero blizzards to the sweltering tropics.
But this is not a book about cycling.
It is a book about the world and its people.
On their travels, Tim and Laura met a fascinating array of people and were repeatedly overwhelmed by the hospitality they received. From Turkey to Thailand and Oman to Japan, complete strangers invited these two grubby cyclists into their homes at the drop of a hat, offering the pair a unique and privileged insight into the lives of people from all walks of life.
Follow Tim and Laura around the world as they meet a gun toting sheriff on the Mexican border, a Taksim Square protester who makes a mean kebab and the Albanians who say yes when they really mean no. Join them as they stay with Buddhist monks, Georgian nuns, Turkish imams and Southern Baptists. And come along for the ride as they see behind the sanctions in Iran, hear about life after Hurricane Rita and experience hospitality even in the wake of violence and despair.
In a world filled with negative headlines and countries turning in on themselves, this life affirming story is a timely reminder of the common humanity that links people the world over.
Extract 1: Prologue (depression)
As part of our preparation, we decided to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats. We had done several cycle tours before but thought that we should see how it felt to go away, knowing that the experience might be extended for a year or more. On the second day, however, Laura looked over her shoulder to see me pushing my bike uphill. She was perplexed. I had never needed to get off and push before.
‘You alright, love?’ she asked.
‘I just don’t seem to have the energy.’
This was odd because I rode my bike all the time and had recently set the Guinness World Record for the longest distance cycled on a rickshaw. That had involved pedalling a huge, iron tricycle 1,000 miles from Scotland to London. As such, cycling up a hill, even a Cornish one, should have been fine.
When evening came, for some unknown reason, I could not face camping. Normally, I viewed camping as an opportunity, not a hardship. I loved nothing more than sleeping on top of a hill, beneath the stars, but that night, I could not bring myself to do it. I was almost scared of it and Laura eventually had to find us a hotel.
We started on our bikes again the following day, but when we reached a town, I told Laura that I could not cycle any further and needed to sit down. She went off to get me some food (knowing that hunger was often the source of my problems), and by the time she got back, I was sitting on the floor with my head in my hands, crying.
I prided myself on never giving up. I was constantly looking for challenges and always driving myself harder. In Oman, for example, I used to ride a loop of the local oil compound every morning before breakfast and cycled so hard that when I slumped over my bike after achieving a personal best, passers-by would stop and ask if I was OK.
But that had started to feel futile. What was the point of riding my bike in circles, just to beat my own time? And what was the point of riding a bike across Cornwall? Why bother riding a bike at all?
Those feelings had been building for several months. Years of working at home, on my own, had been taking a toll. I often had no human interaction for days at a time and I had not been making a lot of money either,
which, combined with the recent loss of a key client, ate away at my self-esteem.
These issues all came to a head in Cornwall, and the only response I could muster was to sit on the floor, crying.
‘What’s wrong, love?’ Laura asked when she came back from the shop.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied, ‘but I need to go home.’
The doctor told me that I had depression. I was expecting that but pressed him on what was physically wrong with me.
‘OK, but why am I so tired all the time? Why can’t I run or cycle anymore?’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said. ‘That’s the depression too.’
I tried to pretend that this would not affect our plan to cycle around the world.
‘I’ll be alright once we get going,’ I said.
For years, I had been looking forward to this trip. I was not willing to accept that this was an illness that would prohibit me from disappearing on my bike for a year. I just convinced myself that everything was still on track for our departure.
But the evidence was in front of me. As well as having no will to exercise, I became scared of social interactions. I would dwell on the slightest negative comments for days and, eventually, just avoided talking to people. It got to the point where I felt the need to physically hide. Laura came into our bedroom one day to find me curled up in a ball behind our bed, with my eyes clamped shut and my fingers rammed into my ears. I felt completely overwhelmed and needed to shut the world away.
This odd defence mechanism grew into a habit. It became so normal that I even hid behind the bed when my parents came to visit, and sometimes Laura would have to bring my dinner to eat on the floor, curled up in the corner of our bedroom.
As well as the hiding, I would break down during routine activities, like going to a supermarket, where the abundance of choice overwhelmed me. On one occasion, I became so stressed-out during a train journey that I buried my head into my chair and put my fingers in my ears until Laura told me we had reached our destination. A doctor prescribed me a sedative after that, which Laura then carried with us for emergencies. A year earlier, I had crossed a desert, run an ultramarathon and broken a world record. Now I was reduced to hiding under beds and crying in supermarkets.
Still, I could not let myself believe that anything would get in the way of our big trip. It was the one thing that I was holding on to and I was not yet ready to let it go. I insisted that I would be fine, and we pressed ahead with planning our ride around the world. But when Laura tried to hand in her notice at work, she was crying so much that her boss suggested she take a little longer to think about it. She knew that I was not in a fit state to go travelling and, slowly, she helped me realise that myself.
So, we shelved our plans while I got help: drugs, group therapy, self-help books, mindfulness training, counselling, more drugs and, finally, CBT. As my health improved, I started applying for jobs and was accepted onto a teacher-training programme. The routine and regular human contact helped dragged me back to my normal self again. A year after our ill-fated first attempt, we returned to Cornwall on our bikes and aimed for Scotland. There were no breakdowns this time. And, crucially, we were disappointed when the trip came to an end because we wanted to carry on. I was back on track and so were our plans.
Excerpt 2: Iranian nuclear compound
Later in the afternoon, another police car stopped us and went through a similar routine to the earlier one: some cursory checks of our passports followed by a series of questions about the Premier League.
Pedalling onwards none the wiser, some unusually shaped buildings started to appear on the horizon: tall, thin structures with large, black objects jutting out of the top. As we got closer, they slowly became recognisable from the computer games of my youth. For reasons that were yet to become clear, we were surrounded by a large bank of surface to air missiles.
A little unnerved, we stopped to look at the map to work out where we were and discovered that we were near a place called Natanz. The name rang a bell in the back of my head, which, when I saw the little picture next to its name on the map, began to ring a bit louder. The picture was the distinctive black and yellow circle of a nuclear sign.
Without realising, we were cycling past one of Iran’s largest and most controversial nuclear enrichment sites. The International Atomic Energy Agency estimates that the site contains no less than 7,000 centrifuges capable of enriching uranium for use in nuclear weapons. To keep it safe from the many world powers that would rather Iran was not developing its nuclear abilities, the facility was originally built eight metres beneath the earth. Above ground, the bunker was further protected from prying eyes and probing planes with an additional three metres of concrete wall. In 2004, however, the authorities decided that still was not quite enough to keep it safe so they buried the whole thing under another 22 metres of soil. Add to that the impressive arsenal of anti-air defences that were on ostentatious display for miles around and you should have a reasonably secure research base. Except, of course, that two hapless British cyclists appeared to have inadvertently cycled through the middle of it, posing for photos with the local police.
I would be lying if I said that I knew all of those facts at the time, but I knew enough to make me a little nervous. In many ways, until that point, we had felt safer in Iran than anywhere else in the world. Almost every person we met had treated us like long lost relatives, and we practically had to fend off invitations for tea and accommodation. Even the police were friendly. However, the nuclear signs and missile banks were starting to undermine my confidence, as was the appearance of a masked motorcyclist behind us.
Historically, Iran had always had a reputation for hospitality and kindness to travellers. Unfortunately, that message has become clouded by events such as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and its inclusion by George Bush in his ‘Axis of Evil’. As a result, we in the West now tend to associate the country more with terrorism than with hospitality. The Iranians that we met were acutely aware of this and did their utmost to demonstrate that they did not deserve the label. I lost count of the times that, after stuffing us with food and preparing a room for us, a host would ask us: ‘What did you think of Iran before you came here?’ followed by, ‘And what do you think of Iran now?’
When we gave our invariably positive responses, they would immediately say: ‘Please go home and tell your friends that Iran is a nice place.’
After a week or so in the country, we became so comfortable that we routinely left our bikes and bags unattended outside shops and cafes. We knew that if one bad apple made a grab for them, a dozen of his country folk would be so appalled at the idea of their nation’s reputation for hospitality being tarnished that they would have our stuff back in seconds.
The evidence was clear: Iran was one of the friendliest places we visited. However, when you are in the middle of a hotly debated Iranian nuclear facility being tailed by a police bike and surrounded by rows of giant missile launchers, it can be hard to remember all of that.
The motorcyclist, dressed in black with an impenetrable visor covering his face, overtook us then motioned for us to follow him. He paused at a large gate in the side of a chain-link fence we had been following for some miles. Two military personnel with rifles slung over their shoulders opened it and we were led through, followed by two police vans, which had also appeared. The gate slammed shut behind us.
We found ourselves in a military compound. There were a range of low buildings, all fenced off with barbed wire, and a selection of military vehicles parked in neat rows on the gravel floor. Several armed men in military fatigues stood behind us, holding their weapons. We stayed put, clutching our bikes, and watched the helmeted motorcyclist disappear into a building. Moments later, another man in formal military dress walked towards us. He had the gait and hat of a man in authority.
‘Your passports, please.’
We rummaged through our handlebar bags to extract from their waterproof pouches the passports that we always kept close at hand. The man nodded.
‘United Kingdom?’ he asked
‘Yes,’ we replied emphatically, as if our enthusiasm would underscore our innocence.
‘Very good,’ he said. ‘Team?’
‘Team. What football team?’
‘Manchester. I’m from Manchester,’ Laura blurted out with relief.
‘Manchester United! David Beckham! Wayne Rooney!’ he cried with enthusiasm. We should have known better than to worry. We may have been in an Iranian nuclear complex, but like so many people back home, these guys were much more interested in football than their jobs. We did our best to keep the conversation going, giving the impression that we were close personal friends of Sir Alex and ate, slept and breathed football.
The atmosphere had changed so quickly from one of tension to one of conviviality that we largely forgot we were surrounded by armed Iranians, locked inside a nuclear facility without a soul in the world who knew where we were. In fact, the interaction was going so well that we may have pushed our luck a little. It was getting dark and we were a long way from any towns so I caught Laura’s eye and made a little gesture. She nodded in reply and I thought it was worth a try.
‘Hey, nice chatting about the football and all. But it’s getting kind of dark and it’s an awfully long way into town. I don’t suppose you’d mind if we put our tent up and stopped for the night would you?’ I said, pointing at an empty patch of ground inside the compound.
The officer looked at me with complete bewilderment before replying slowly, enunciating his words as if speaking to a child: ‘Sir, this is a military base. You cannot camp here.’
Slightly disappointed that the legendary Iranian hospitality had stopped short of allowing two bumbling Britons from pitching their tent within the confines of a top-secret nuclear enrichment facility, we shook some hands, posed for some photos and made off into the sunset.