Notes From the Field – A Big Scary World

At its core, overlanding is about adventure travel. Define it all you want to. Say it is this or that, but overlanding distills down to a simple concept. It’s about a desire to travel and explore the world by vehicle, and to do it on your terms. Travel by vehicle, any vehicle, means being flexible on your itinerary, relishing in the unexpected and the unplanned and enjoying the spirit of adventure.

Overlanding brings together a diverse group of people and diverse ways to travel. There’s room for the student riding his bicycle around the world loaded down with a couple of panniers or for the retiree with a half-million dollar off-road camper complete with granite counter tops and ostrich skin leather seats. It’s hard to argue that either method of travel is more or less authentic. They both provide unique experiences off the beaten path and some people even go back and forth between them.

In late 2000, Tracy, my then fiance, and I were planning our first overland trip. We had decided to drive a new-to-us Land Rover Discovery to Belize. People that skimmed the news headlines said “Mexico is dangerous. Aren’t you afraid?” Everyone had a “friend of a friend” (the source of every urban legend) who had a run-in with smugglers, crooked cops, crime, bribes, etc. And yet crossing into Mexico, we found the nicest, most friendly people we could imagine. I fell instantly in love. In fact, the worst “bribe” we ever encountered was a checkpoint guard who simply mentioned how hot it was and how thirsty he was. One cold bottle of water out of the ARB fridge and our convoy was on our way with big smiles and waves from both sides.

And of course, there wasn’t a hint of crime during our trip through Mexico. No stolen cases off roof racks, no picked pockets, no overcharging for tacos … nothing. Ironically, the only bad bit was when a bag was stolen from an unlocked car in Belize, the country which we naively assumed was the “safe one.”

The biggest surprise to me through that trip wasn’t what I didn’t see, but rather what I did see. Our ethnocentric American view of the world had taught me to believe that Mexico was a vast desert, filled with cacti and poncho and sombrero bedecked people. What I found instead was a staggering breadth of people; large cosmopolitan cities with amazing colonial squares at their heart; breathtaking views across lush volcanic mountains and ancient ruins rising above the jungle canopies that would rival those of Egypt. Along the way, I discovered dozens of places to explore on future trips that I didn’t even know existed.  I learned that the big, scary world out there is a whole lot bigger than any of us could ever dream, but it’s also quite a bit less scary than we’ve heard.

A few years later, I traveled across Morocco on the Outback Challenge race. The post-9/11 fear mongering conventional wisdom said “It’s an Islamic country, it’s dangerous.” And yet once again, along the way I met nothing but the nicest, most friendly people you could imagine. We had a battery failure on one of our 70-Series Land Cruisers while heading across the Atlas mountains in the middle of the night. We stopped at a service station and asked the attendant if he knew where we could get a car battery. Rather than shrug us off, he drove us over to the house of the village mechanic and woke him up – at 3 in the morning. Fifteen minutes later, the truck was running again and we were racing the sunrise down the mountains to the next morning’s checkpoint. On a side note, one of the pillars of the Islamic faith is Zakat, which is essentially a decree to help travelers. I believe this institutionalized helpfulness is one of the reasons so many travelers to Northern Africa find the people to be so friendly and welcoming.

In the years since our first expedition, my travels have taken me across southern Africa, through the Sahara desert, into Baja and countless other places. The common thread that I’ve found is that, by and large, the world is filled with amazing places and good people. I’m not saying that anyone should wander the earth arrogant and oblivious. Always be smart and be aware. Follow common sense but trust a little bit too. I’ve come across the occasional person who is downright rude or wants to take advantage of the situation but my experience has been that if you smile, try to interact with people on their terms, your kindness will be returned.

So stop making excuses and start planning for that adventure-of-a-lifetime. Don’t be afraid to drive out into the wilds and discover the world for yourself. Whether it’s on your own, with a group of friends or with a commercial trip (by the end of the trip, I promise, you and the other travelers will become fast friends), just go out and explore. I could try to come up with some kind of call to action, but no matter how hard I try, I’d doubt I could put it as eloquently as American author Mark Twain did:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Discover the world,

Nathan

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