Having held high-level executive roles in corporate, social and cultural organisations around the world, Australian Peter Holmes a Court now lives with his photographer wife Alissa Everett in Kenya. He travels and writes on mainly humanitarian and climate issues. His new memoir, Riding With Giants (Viking, $34.99), is out now. See penguin.com.au
It's a lesson I came to learn late, but cycling for transport, not just for fun, has changed my relationship to places and spaces. In New York, it is the sturdy but reliable Citibikes, on which the app tells me I have ridden the distance from Sydney to Melbourne. In London, a similar system is only £2 for 24 hours of bipedal joy. In Europe, you can go not just from city to city, but between entirely different nations of cheese production. The first time I crossed a national border on my bike, some gravelly track between Switzerland and France, I felt the rush of the renegade, like I had snuck in without travel documents. Which brings me to…
If you are arriving by plane, it is so, so much easier to get into countries if you remember your passport. Oh, and prepare well by checking the current visa requirements. Forgetting my passport got me turned around at the border of two countries, and deported from one I had in fact, using nothing more than a fake accent, snuck into. That event still comes up any time I enter the US or Canada, almost 30 years later. I also learned the hard way that if you are critical of a country's internal policies and your thoughts end up on Twitter, that country might stop you at the border, stick you in a dark room for a while, and then send you packing. So be prepared, and keep your thoughts private before you travel.
Contrary to my last lesson, I've learned to not over-plan. Planning is an organised act that occurs in the context of where you are coming from, using information you selectively choose. Travel is the opportunity to let the world reveal itself to you and the unexpected will only unfold if you don't define it in advance. Recently, in a restaurant in Paris, people at the next table opened a calendar on a phone and checked off the restaurant, announcing that it was the last on a list of 12 they made at home. One no longer had the chef upon whose reputation they had chosen it; others were overpriced and devoid of locals. Find experiences when you get there. Leave any pre-departure FOMO behind.
Someone once said that all those who wander are not lost. In my experience, some are. And that is OK. As a young man I stepped out of a building at the very southern end of Manhattan during a summer downpour with a mate. We discovered that the rain had washed away all the yellow taxis. So we started to walk. Half-a-day later we were near the northern tip of the island. We had got lost a few times, turned back on ourselves— even though Manhattan is mostly a simple grid. But it remains the best tour of the island I have ever taken. Each neighbourhood revealed itself at a human pace, features apparent that would be lost if we had flashed by in a car.