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Meet Dave and Anna, the Permacyclists.
She was a corporate lawyer from Brussels; he was a sociologist from New York. Neither of them was happy with their chosen profession, and after a great deal of soul searching, they decided to do what many dream of but few actually do: They quit their jobs, studied permaculture, bought bicycles and headed off across Africa, pedaling and working their way through 12 countries, 12,000 kilometers and 16 months from organic farm to organic farm, sharing what they’d learned along the way.
Now they’ve landed in Mexico and are launching a Phase 2 of their journey, but with a difference. This time they’re bringing a video camera and sound equipment, and documenting the stories of people working on solutions to the many environmental problems they have learned about in their travels. Their goal is to make it to the Earth Summit in Rio in June 2012. And this time they’re going by bus, instead of bike, to give them time to do reporting, writing and producing for their blog.
I was inspired by their story and by their plan, since in some ways it parallels my own – so we got together and shared stories. Here’s a little bit of theirs.
The cheery young couple quickly turn sober when they contemplate the ravaged landscape they encountered in Africa – not because of war and famine, the typical scenarios associated with Africa, but because of severe environmental degradation. Soil erosion, deforestation, desertification, invasive species taking over and killing out what’s left of the local ecosystems. “We were biking through all those problems for 16 months,” said Annabelle. “And yes, we have seen some amazing tropical forests, but you could be sure as soon as you left that little national park you would see not a single tree.”
Climate change was a big topic of conversation wherever they went: New York, Belgium, all throughout Africa, and now in Mexico. In Mozambique, they biked along a coast through miles and miles of former rice fields ruined by the saltwater that had flooded them during a tsunami. At Mount Kilimanjaro, they compared historic photos of the ice-capped mountain with its dwindling patch of white.
“How can we deny climate change is happening? People are talking about it everywhere,” said Anna. “They talk about how the rainy season hasn’t come and how its really weird because it’s too wet but not at the right time, and how things have changed.
“But people are acting on this, and that’s the good news.”
That’s how their project evolved to focus on sustainability efforts throughout the continent.
“I find myself much happier when I’m working with people who are working on solutions, rather than those who are saying we are all going to die,” said Annabelle. “To keep saying we’re going to die is not helping, it’s not moving people to action.”
Their families were not happy about their decision to take off across Africa on their bikes. Both mothers, independently of each other, notified them that when they were kidnapped – “not if, but when” – they would not be responsible for the ransom, Dave said. “They took a picture that was a profile of the ear so they could identify us when they found the corpse,” he laughs when he recalls the moment.
And then there was the reaction to Annabelle’s decision to leave her career as a successful lawyer. “It was like: You studied for six years and you have a practice and you’re going to throw it away for what? to go biking?”
There were some actual dangers – they were mock-chargd by a gorilla in Uganda and a hippo in Botswana. “Believe me, when you have that thing of 1.5 tons running toward you in the water, where it’s strongest, and you’e in a little plastic boat…. it’s quite humbling,” Anna recalls.
But the dangers were not at all what the family and friends were worried about. “The image of Africa in the West is just not fair and it’s racist in a lot of ways,” said Dave. Of course, he added, most Westerners haven’t been there, except for a handful who go on safaris, and given the conditions reported by most of the media coverage, it’s a pretty scary place. But the Permacyclists found Africa to be filled with people who were kind, caring and generous.
In Nairobi, he recalled – which has earned the moniker “Nairobbery” – the pair kept a low profile. “We were totally intimidated. We didn’t take a chance, didn’t try to meet local people.” On the last day, nervous at the prospect that they’d have to cross the scary shantytown area, they were surprised to see all the people smiling and waving as they cycled by.
“That same day we met a great guy who ran three kilometers across an open field to tell us we were going the wrong way,” he said. “People were looking out for us, and we didn’t even realize.”
Finally, after many months and many miles, the family came around.
“They saw that we were happy,” said Annabelle.
“And that we didn’t die,” said Dave.
“Let’s face it – some of it’s luck,” said Anna. “Bad things happen – I was a criminal lawyer, so I know. You can get robbed, but you can get robbed in Brussels, too, or New York. So let’s stop being scared. Let’s throw the TV out the window, and let’s get out and meet people. That’s where it’s happening.”
The pair’s second tour of duty started with a three-week natural building class in North Carolina. From there they headed to Houston, where they ran into the folks from Transition Houston, a dynamic part of the Transition Towns movement – who put them in touch with me. Their first video project was about that group and its projects. Here it is.
So far, they say, they’ve been blessed with enthusiastic support everywhere they’ve gone.
“It’s like we’ve stumbled across this underground world of people who are doing amazing things, and now here we are in Guadalajara and we have six interviews lined up and a place to sleep,” said Dave.
To Anna, that response serves to underscore a valuable lesson that their journeys have taught them.
“You know you’re nothing alone – but together, we’re something quite powerful. It’s about the power of groups, the power of community – you’re not alone in this world. Get out and do something, talk to people. It’s really magical.”