When the wind is on your back

13 06 23

Photos by Boru McCullagh, Finley Newmark and Jacky Kong

Last August, Boru McCullagh set off from London to bikepack around the world in search of new experiences. 

Since leaving, Boru has been on a journey of discovery so we caught up with him in Malaysia to hear what's changed after nine months on the road.

If the plan was gospel I would have been back home in London last month, that was the eight month mark I told myself I’d be able to ride around the world in. The whole world, all in 8 months. But a ride around the world has slowly developed into a meander: the motivations have changed and the metric of success is no longer the amount of borders I’m crossing but the level to which I can engage and therefore learn from a country, its community and people, its psyche. I behave, ride and plan in a completely different way to how I did when I started in Europe.

To put that mindset into the context of Malaysia where I am right now: By the time I leave I’ll have spent over 4 months here riding more than 8500km and exploring every state on both the Malaysian Peninsular and on the island of Borneo. My original plan was to take a week to ride the 850km from the border with Thailand down to Singapore…

It’s here in Borneo that Finley Newmark, my good friend, came out to join me for a few weeks of riding to film Mind Mapping Part II, a follow up to the All Roads Considered Mind Mapping film we produced in 2022. His visits have come to punctuate this journey, being there at the start, in Turkey and now here in Malaysia.

It really didn’t feel like much time had passed between us saying goodbye to each other 7 months ago, but he said something when he arrived at the airport that both amused and scared me about the scale of this journey.

“I like the new ring”, pointing to the one I wear on my left ring finger. It was a funny comment because the ring was far from new. I told him I’d been wearing it for the majority of the time I’d been away. I’d bought it 6 months ago back in Hanoi. 

We both laughed about it, but I think it dawned on Finley in that moment how he had understood but maybe not appreciated how long it had been since we saw each other and what had happened in the meantime to fill that gap. To him, the build-up to leaving, riding across Europe and joining up again in Turkey must seem like such a huge portion of my experiences away because he shared them physically and editorially with the film. That time was so full and for me the following 7 months followed suit. Extrapolating that one month out to the nine I’d been away was clearly an overwhelming thought process.

But that thought also inspired both of us, we said in Turkey we’d see each other again at the end of May and here we were on the other side of the world with two weeks to ride on an island which before coming to Malaysia I’d only ever heard David Attenborough speak of.

And I’m not out of my depth anymore like I was at the start. The bike now really is my home.

One of those changes within me since seeing Finley is I rarely feel uncomfortable or out of my depth when problems come up. I’ve pushed that boundary so many times that what I found uncomfortable at the beginning is now a headspace I'm quite at home in.

When I started this journey, the huge motivator was to prove to myself that I could put my own well-being at the forefront of my actions and care for myself, by myself. Over time however, I realised that relying on only yourself to solve every problem and deal with every issue isn’t the best way either. I started to appreciate that when I was in India and my pannier rack snapped in two, stranding me with no way to move my life across a sub-continent. I was emotionally drained and mentally exhausted from riding the dusty and polluted roads that escort you out of the megacity that is Mumbai. It was so defeating I could only muster laughing when it all went wrong, it was one of those moments.

But what turned from the worst thing that could happen turned into one of the best days of this whole ride because I made a step and put all my trust into those who were better able to help me than I was, and they helped so much. If someone was unsuccessful in fixing the problem entirely, they passed the baton onto someone else. I knew nothing about which metals could be welded with what or where to find who to ask to even begin solving that problem in a country as intense and bustling as India. I couldn’t speak any Hindi, although sign languages, the word ‘aluminium’, a broken piece of metal along with a similar look on my face is clearly a universal language.

They have a saying there: “In India, anything can happen”, and after this I believed it. I took care of myself in that situation by accepting that I couldn’t solve my problem and so I jumped into the river of organised chaos that is India with no knowledge of when I’d reach the other shore or what it even looked like. I had to put an outcome I wanted so much to have autonomy over into the hands of others. Quite literally in this case, as I saw the guys drive off with my pannier rack and bag to try and find a gas welder in a neighbouring town. 

Through not being able to solve it myself, it gave me a confidence moving forward to approach others when I was in need, which for some is easy, but is always something I’ve struggled with for fear of it being an admission of loss to myself.

Those testing situations lead to memorable interactions and solving a problem with strangers forms a very human connection between you. Whilst it was happening, I was so stressed about it all. I didn’t know if the pannier could be fixed, how long it would take and what that meant for the rest of my time in the country. It was an intense but important moment to experience and meant everything of a similar nature afterwards felt extremely manageable.

One of the more surprising things I’ve realised in that time is that riding a 40kg bike isn’t even the hardest part of this whole thing. The difficult part is constantly saying goodbye to amazing people who have helped you so much until a vague point in the future where you hope to meet again, and worrying that you’re missing the point of going to another country entirely, to learn. For someone that naively couldn’t wait for 8 months of solitude before leaving, you can see the irony. This was chipping away at my motivation so much that I decided I would press pause on life on the road for a while in Malaysia.

In Europe, the thought of stopping for two or three days at any given time was out of the question, let alone a month like I did in Kuala Lumpur. That was a time when I was new to this whole thing, out of my depth and worried if I was doing things ‘right’, not even knowing what that meant to me. I for sure wasn’t engaging with the countries I was in. What I know now is that doing things right means trusting your instinct and going where the wind is on your back. 

Malaysia holds a special place in my heart because it helped get my physical and emotional strength back after struggling through Thailand where I picked up dengue fever. In forming strong connections with new friends and eating outrageously delicious and hearty food, I was loving riding my bike more than I ever had. Ever. I have this country, my friends and the truly selfless kindness of the people here to thank for that. It was a feeling I didn’t want to lose so in order to keep it I decided it was right to stop even though when all I wanted to do was ride. I needed to be raring to go when it was time to hit the road again, not dragging my feet like I would if I stopped when I was low.

That wind on my back blew me all over Malaysia, but anchors must be dropped and my time there allowed me to learn so much more about the country I was in, form nuanced friendships there with multiple shared experiences propping them up. I could feel the energy of Ramadan, learn more Malay in anticipation of hitting the road and jump into a cycling community so strong it reminded me of home.

I could engage and that now carries a lot more meaning to me than the cycling itself.

Going where the wind is on your back doesn’t mean being aimless. It means being open, accepting. To not know exactly what it is you’re looking for. In fact, it’s not looking for anything, if you look for something too much you might fail to see that it’s directly in front of you. The aim now is not to seek, but to find. To have a rough idea but not expect or plan any of the details.

Finley said something interesting to me when he was here: I admitted to him at one point that I felt I behaved quite differently to how I was in Europe and Turkey and had ever before, that I’d grown a lot, those uncomfortable situations adding clay and moulding me slightly differently. But he turned that around and said that I actually seem way more myself than I ever have to him. Finley’s suggestion was that I’d shed these layers which surrounded me and become more me, those testing times revealing a little bit more about yourself the more of them you go through.

If I’d stuck to the plan I made sat in a living room in London this time last year I wouldn’t have found myself in a lot of those situations that have defined this journey. I wouldn’t have learnt to go with the wind and I wouldn’t be questioning if I’d grown out or in like I have done since Finley made that comment. Now, I trust in what I do instead of knowing what I think I should be doing. Where one has a shade of doubt, the other has certainty, a confidence and a lot of self-belief.