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Profession: World Explorer
Location: Boulder, CO
In 2007 you broke all sorts of records, completing the first circumnavigation of the globe using “human power”—no engines, not even sails. It took 13 years, but you covered over 46,000 miles walking, biking, kayaking, rollerblading—even peddle-boating across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans! What motivated you to undertake such a journey? When I started out I had a burning question that I wanted to answer, which was how to understand the world: How do I live my life both to be a better person and to ensure that we don’t trash the planet? I was trying to strip away the layers of who I thought I was, as someone brought up in England. That was my overarching mission, and it was the only thing that kept me going over the 13 years. If I hadn’t had that underlying reason, I probably would have given up partway through.
I remember bicycling through Tibet and visiting Shegar Monastery, just north of Nepal. The abbot invited me to have breakfast with the monks, and I was sitting there in this freezing cold monastery thinking, Wow, this is my opportunity to enter Buddhism formally; this is the time. At the beginning of the expedition I thought that the only reason I might not complete the journey would be if I got to Tibet and found an amazing Buddhist teacher I could study with. But then I thought, No, I still haven’t answered my question, this overarching question. So I continued my journey.
Did you ever answer the question? I did. When I finally got back to England in 2007, I was having a really hard time dealing with the publisher I found for my journals, who was trying to publish them in a ghostwritten series. I had a terrible breakdown. But then I had a dream about being on Tarawa, a little island in the Pacific. On the actual trip, I was halfway across the Pacific, and I’d lost all the money that was keeping the expedition going. I was walking down the beach on Tarawa, and there was a little Polynesian girl sitting underneath a tree with these beautiful frangipani blossoms. She smiled at me, and I remember thinking, Losing the money, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.
In the dream I imagined this girl on the beach again, in the middle of the Pacific, and she was laughing at me. Then she pointed out to sea, and there was the boat, Moksha [Sanskrit for “liberation”], that I had pedaled across the Atlantic and Pacific. In that moment I realized what I had been trying to understand all those years —that in every action I perform, day to day, I should be behaving as if I were on the boat at sea, being conservative with my resources, because I can’t bring more on board with me. If I emulate that all the time, then maybe my footprint on the earth will be smaller. And that kind of behavior offers a better chance for the world to become a sustainable one, and for us as a species to live within our means so that we don’t trash the planet for future generations.
How does that environmental message relate to stripping away your layers of self? I don’t think it’s possible to know how to act beneficially toward the environment until you strip away the layers of your conditioning. Depending on where you grew up in the world, you take on a lot of memes that are peculiar to that region, like a value system or a sense of entitlement or a religion. That predisposes you to behave in certain ways, to perform certain actions that aren’t conducive to sustainable life on the planet. All these layers—they’re all just delusion. I began to realize this during a samadhi experience I had on the Atlantic, when I became aware of myself as really, essentially connected to everything on the planet and everything in the universe. Seeing that was necessary before I could move on to the next stage: finding a legitimate way of acting in the world.
Do you identify yourself as a Buddhist? If there’s any religion I identify with, it’s Buddhism. I was greatly affected by Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig, when I was in my late teens. But I have never taken any formal vows, so perhaps I’m not a proper Buddhist. But deep down, since I’ve taken so many of the ideas and the philosophy to heart, I like to think of myself as an honorary Buddhist.
During your expedition you had a lot of brushes with death. Has that changed the way you relate to death? Dark Waters, the first book in my expedition trilogy, really shows what happens if you go to sea without any idea of what you’re doing. I consider myself very lucky to have survived the first third of the journey, because I was such a greenhorn. The first time I faced a near-death experience, we [Jason and Steve Smith, his initial partner in the expedition] were about to be run over by a trawler south of Portugal. That experience really shook me to my core, but as the trip went on I started to react less. When something bad happened, I just dealt with it.
Before the expedition, the idea of death frightened me. Until you realize the fundamental fact that reality is really in the moment, you’re thinking about long-term goals—“when I do this” and “when I become that”—so you think, I don’t want to die, because then I won’t be able to do all these things. But if you’re living in the present, death becomes a part of living.
As grueling as your journey was, it wasn’t just physical—it was also a journey of self-inquiry. Do you think travel is necessary for exploring the self? It takes a very special person to see through their delusions without leaving their geographical niche, where they’re surrounded by everything they’re used to: their family, their friends, their culture. But for the rest of us, I think travel is almost a prerequisite. It’s a necessary part of beginning to explore who you think you are and comparing that against other people, other value systems, other religions, other ways of thinking. You start to realize, if you haven’t already, that who you think you are is not as fixed as you thought.
—Emma Varvaloucas, Associate Editor
Photography by Tammie Stevens.