"Almost without exception when moving across cultural borders, we were warned about the dangers ahead. Almost without exception, those dangers never materialized."
by Julie Retka
I traveled in 28 countries, more than 40,000 kilometers, the equator's distance, in 2 ½ years. On July 24, 2011, I returned home to St. Paul, after having cycled the globe from North America to South America to Africa to Europe and back again, primarily on bicycles.
I didn't immediately commit to the trip, although I was certain I would go. I knew the trip was possible, but I didn't know if I could spend that much time on a bike. Before my husband and I left in the spring of 2009, I had decided that if the road became too rough, I could always take the bus.
The trip was an adventure of discovery, in my knowledge of the world, of David and our relationship, and of me. I discovered how physical activity keeps one's body oiled, loose and invigorated. I learned how a smile is truly a universal language, transforming an interaction. I experienced the wisdom of the common adage "A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step."
Traveling bit by bit across borders and continents, I saw commonality in cultures. Beauty in nature and human creations were enjoyed. People were kind and hospitable. Often they were concerned about our safety. Almost without exception when moving across cultural borders, we were warned about the dangers ahead. Almost without exception, those dangers never materialized. I began to understand how fearful people can be of "the other" when really, we are all mostly peaceful and well meaning.
That's not to say I didn't see a darker side, though rarely directed at us personally-we were petty-theft victims four times. It was in a culture's history where there were stories of its brutality. Generally the horror was perpetrated on a different culture for reasons of power and economic gain. Every culture through which we traveled earned its condemnation.
I had always believed geography was most responsible for cultural differences. I discovered it was also the stories of a country, the wars they fought, the leaders who ruled, the policies of the government that influenced culture. There were always distinct, though often subtle, differences between people on either side of a border. It helped me understand the power of a single individual or event to shape culture.
I also discovered this in myself. As a woman in her early 50s, I rode the length of the Andes, traveled the mellow roads of sub-Saharan Africa, survived the windy Sahara and escaped the mosquitoes of Northern Manitoba. I rode the bus just 250 of those 25,000 miles. I have a wealth of stories that now shape my understanding of me.