It took young Alastair Humphreys more than four years to ride his bicycle around the world, during which time he crossed through five continents and pedaled more than 46,000 miles under his own power. Thunder & Sunshine is the remarkable account of Alastair Humphreys’ bicycle touring adventures in North and South America, Asia, and Europe. It is also Alastair’s second (and final) book about his bike ride around the world.
In his first book, Moods Of Future Joys, Alastair Humphreys takes us on a fascinating and emotional journey across Europe and through the hot desert climates of Eastern Africa. Along the way, we discover that Alastair is not just a young man in search of adventure, but a humble explorer in love with both the open road and a young woman named Sarah, whom he left behind in his home country of England in order to participate in this epic cycling adventure.
When Alastair reaches the city of Cape Town, South Africa at the end of Moods Of Future Joys, you might be fooled into thinking that this is the end of the young man’s cycling expedition. But Moods Of Future Joys was really just the beginning and Thunder & Sunshine contains the true meat of Alastair’s story about his bike ride around the world.
In this second book about his two-wheeled travels, Alastair begins by boarding a sail boat in Cape Town and spends the next several weeks slowly crossing the Atlantic Ocean with a crew of strangers. Upon arrival in South America, Alastair catches a bus to the southern-most city in the world (Ushuaia) and begins pedaling north.
Cycling through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia, Alastair spends his nights in South America camped out under the stars; battles raging headwinds during the day; and is invited into the lives of countless individuals who want nothing more than to share their home with the young traveler and to help him in whatever way they can.
When Alastair makes it to Ecuador, he is forced to decide whether he wants to cycle through the reportedly dangerous Colombian nation or skip over the region entirely in order to play it safe. In the end, Alastair decides to give Columbia a try, and is so very pleased with himself after making this decision, as the country turns out to be one of his favorite places in all of South America.
After tackling this Southern-most continent, Alastair rides north through Central America and into the United States.
Apart from the novelty gawping value of being in the land of plenty, cycling through American towns and villages was actually quite boring. In most places in the world you can see people working outside, either in the fields or on the carcasses of old vehicles. People sit outside their homes to peel potatoes and watch the world. Families chat in the street. Roads are busy with farmers and their animals or children walking to school. Street vendors and windscreen-cleaning boys liven up the streets. There is always something to look at, always someone to greet, always children waving at you. But America was an insulated, insular, inside world. Nearly everybody was in a car, and those few not in cars avoided catching my eye in case I decided to blow them away with a big-ass gun. Everywhere was quiet, so finding my way through towns was difficult as there were few people to ask directions from. Drivers waiting at traffic lights were scared if I approached their vehicle to check my route. Some people refused to look at me, even when I asked a simple question like, “Is this the way to Amarillo?” Some quickly wound up their windows as I approached. One family car even gunned its engine and darted through a red light to get away from me. I sought out a mirror to check whether I had suddenly become more hideous than usual.
After cycling up the Pacific Coast of the United States, Alastair continues cycling through Canada with a friend from back home, stopping along the way to take part in a short canoeing adventure, before reaching the city of Anchorage, Alaska.
From here, Alastair crosses over the Pacific Ocean and lands in Magadan, Russia, a remote village on the eastern-most edge of the Asian continent.
In full winter apparel, Alastair and another friend from home then spend the next several weeks pedaling their heavily-loaded bicycles down the frozen “Road of Bones” in temperatures that ranged from -20 to -40 degrees Celsius.
When Alastair witnesses the death of a man inside a burning building, we begin to see the emotional toll the trip is taking on the young adventurer. Suddenly, the safety and comforts of home sound more appealing and questions begin to surface about the true purpose of riding a bicycle around the world.
I often wondered how long I should ride for. I could ride for ever and not see all that I wanted to see, but the law of diminishing returns suggested that every day on the road I learned less and experienced fewer new things than the day before. But when should I stop?
After surviving the brutally cold weather on the Road of Bones in eastern Russia, Alastair spends a good month or more cycling through Japan and then continues west across China towards his home in the United Kingdom.
By this time in Alastair’s story, the purpose of the bike ride seems to be less about discovering new things and seeing new sights, and more about appreciating the little things in life, contemplating the purpose of the trip overall (and life itself), and getting back home as quickly as possible. It was, however, the little things that Alastair experienced during this leg of the journey that fascinated me the most.
One day, I discovered that a mouse had built a nest in my pannier overnight. I felt sorry to move him and his house, but he had built his house on my house and I wasn’t planning on stopping. I carefully moved the intricate ball of woven grass over to a bush and left him in peace.
As Alastair points out, cycling around the world is both a blessing and a curse. While you have the time to sleep in late and the freedom to go wherever you so choose, these same things (which are so often desired in our busy modern lives) can become your worst enemy out on the road. Bicycle travel not only allows you to see people and places that you would likely never get to see or experience while sitting in the comfort of your own home, but the experiences you have while traveling through foreign lands often times challenge you to think differently about the way you go about yours days, the way you treat other people, and the way you interact with yourself.
While cycling across Uzbekistan in the final few chapters of the book, Alastair describes a crippled boy he saw walking down the street.
On the steepest part of the pass I overtook a crippled boy limping slowly up the hill. He was sobbing with frustrating, leaning on his stick and hoping that somebody would give him a lift towards wherever it was that he wanted to go. I wished him luck as I pedaled past with my limbs all functioning fine and enough cash in my pocket to buy myself a bus ticket if I wanted to. He smiled at my greeting and paused briefly to watch me riding up the hill away from him. Sometime later he found a lift. As the vehicle he was in drove past he gave me the thumbs-up sign through the back windscreen. I grinned and returned the gesture. Unfortunately the lift was only for a short distance, as about an hour later I overtook him again. He was limping bravely onwards and once again as I pedaled past, legs spinning easily. I wished him good luck again and he gave me an encouraged smile, but he still had a long walk ahead of him.
I thought for a long time afterward about why I had not given that boy the money to flag down a Tashkent-bound bus. Certainly if he had been a stranded Western backpacker I would not have thought twice about helping him. In fact I would actively have wanted to do so. But I had spent so much time in the last four years trying to persuade people that I was just an ordinary human being and not a millionaire redeemer miraculously arrived in their lives with cash to throw at all problems. I recoiled from the common preconception that all Westerners were rich and led effortless, hedonistic lives thanks to their nations’ thieving colonial eras and dastardly foreign policies. Instead I tended to swing too far the other way. I did not help people when I could so easily have made their day better by slipping them a banknote or two. At times it was hard to find the appropriate balance.
I experienced the unpleasantness of traveling in areas where well-meaning tourists before me had handed out pens and goodies to children or had paid too much for things thinking that they were doing a good thing. I witnessed the aggressive begging by people who saw demanding money from foreigners as an easier option than working. I wanted to interact as much as I could with all that I encountered, but I did not want to upset people’s stability for the sake of a short term fix. Instead I tried to be decent to people, to smile and to talk with people about the realities of our different lives. I wanted to be just another decent human rather than a Victorian squire doling out alms that would not really solve any problems. But as I pedaled away from the struggling crippled child who I had not helped, I wondered where I wanted to position myself on a scale that runs from interfering do-gooders determined to help the Borrioboola-Gha tribe whether or not they actually want helping along to the other extreme of a war photographer who can take a picture of a dying child, feel a thrill at snapping a prize-winning photograph, and walk away.
It is these sorts of challenges (and not just the challenges of physically mustering a loaded bicycle around the world) that Alastair continually encounters and must come to terms with as he cycles across the globe.
As Alastair quickly makes his way across Asia and through the Middle East while navigating through a complex maze of Visa applications and near criminally archaic bureaucracy, the author finally enters Europe and makes for the mad-dash home on his busted-up bicycle.
The world was getting hectic and rich and grumpy once again. I must be nearly home.
During this final leg of the trip, Alastair reflects on his journey. What exactly had he learned? What was the purpose of it all? Had he really changed as an individual? And what laid waiting for him in the future?
My biggest question, however, was not about the purpose of his journey or about what the young adventurer might have taken away from his experiences on the road. But instead, “What was to become of him and his girlfriend, Sarah, of whom he had left behind more than four years prior?”
While Sarah had been featured prominently in Alastair’s first book, Moods Of Future Joys, she played a much smaller role in Thunder & Sunshine. But was her absence from this second text due to the fact that the young author’s feelings for the girl had waned? Or was he simply holding back, his humility and desire for privacy dominating this aspect of the story that floated so obviously in the background of his mind (and my mind too – as a reader).
I’m not exactly sure what the answer is. I don’t know why Alastair failed to mention Sarah until page 94 of this second book or why he felt the need to leave so much of his story with her out of the two texts entirely.
While my questions about Sarah may forever go unanswered, I have a feeling the truth my lie in one of the lessons we learn from travel itself. For it so often seems that sometimes we need to cycle around the world into order to discover who we truly are and how we want to be, and other times a 46,000 mile journey on a two-wheeled bicycle does nothing but make us realize that the thing we want most in life was right there within our grasps from the very beginning.
My Rating: 10 out of 10
Learn more about Alastair Humphreys by visiting his website at www.alastairhumphreys.com.