Sunday, 3 February 2008
Live Your Dream!
A month or two back there was a piece in the Bangkok Post reporting on the world’s longest journey by pedal power. Over thirteen years and 74,000 kilometres, Briton, Jason Lewis had just completed an extraordinary journey around the world from London and back by bicycle and in a tiny pedal powered boat. He had crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific and endured many hardships and dangers to return to Greenwich at exactly the same point, now aged forty and an older and wiser man.
I knew him and his boat before he left all those years ago and frankly I didn’t rate his chances of surviving a circumnavigation very highly. At the time I was chairman of the late lamented Exeter Maritime Museum, the finest collection of ethnic boats in the world and we’d given him warehouse space to build his boat.
My insight into his chances was based on the remarkable collection in the museum of early Atlantic and Pacific rowing boats. We had Ridgeway and Blyth’s… you name it, we had them all, including several whose wreckage had been found washed up, their crew long dead. These were a poignant memorial to the men who, uneasy with a conventional life, were driven to live their dream.
As I watched Jason’s wooden cockleshell slowly taking shape, I feared he might pay the same penalty for attempting this extraordinary feat. The boat looked far too fragile, less sturdy than the fibreglass boats in our collection and I was fearful for him. Designed by a marine architect, Alan Boswell, a member of the museum’s board of directors, nonetheless it survived a mid-Atlantic capsize and all that nature could throw at it.
I wasn’t too sure about Jason either. He wasn’t at all in the same heroic mould as say Robin Know-Johnson who was a great supporter of the museum or Atlantic rower, Chay Blyth. A powerful ex-marine who I’d met over the canapés at the Royal Yacht Squadron in Cowes, Blyth struck me as a man of huge resource who would survive the toughest of challenges. Jason on the other hand was of slight build, modest and quietly spoken and his steely determination was never apparent. How wrong I was and how glad I am that he lived his dream and survived to step ashore in London, his achievement a world story even in Bangkok.
If you tell a Thai that in life anything’s possible and that you’ve ‘gotta live your dream’, they’ll look at you as if you’re mad. What Jason has done would be comprehensible to few not brought up to understand the individualism and striving of western culture.
In part this reflects different aspirations; what sane person would spend so much money painfully pedaling in a circle for thirteen years? But it’s also because in less wealthy societies there’s a stark lack of opportunity. In the West everything comes to the resourceful planner and outrageous dreams can sometimes be realized. In a poorer place, it’s much more difficult, both practically and psychologically.
If making something of your life is more of a struggle here in Thailand, it’s less acceptable to expect people to support or sponsor your foolish quest. How can you justify it to yourself and others when there are more practical projects desperately needing time and money. Personal horizons therefore remain more narrow and people want to be safe and comfortable and not to take outrageous risks.
I’m not really sure where poverty begins and ends but there is in particular a poverty of opportunity here in Thailand. Many thousands of people leave the land and have to survive as best they can. With little formal employment, huge numbers have to get by, often cooking and selling food in the street. In absolute terms this is not poverty as their basic needs are met but that’s about all they can expect of life.
You see them everywhere such as the tired middle-aged woman I see squatting under the pedestrian bridge in Bangkok amidst the noise and fumes of the traffic. She’s working from two large baskets which she carries on a bamboo pole across her shoulder. In it are a ceramic mortar and a pestle, green mangoes and all the ingredients for making an Isaan dish that sells for a few baht. She walks bent over with a shambling gait as the baskets are extremely heavy.
This is her life as a street hawker and she can never ever step beyond it. She feels lucky enough to earn a hundred baht or two a day and her horizons have never been wider than this. The only dream she can live is to make enough to cover her rent and to send a little back to her children or grandchildren who are still at home in the village. Life for her will never improve; she has no opportunities.
We in the West can climb every mountain and ford every stream, but elsewhere realities are more stark. Jason Lewis ultimately found his dream in the most remarkable way and his story must fascinate Thais reading about it in the newspapers as ultimately it seems so senseless, so bizarre.
I hope that in his long quest, Jason found his own personal nirvana. Now it’s all over and he must do something equally difficult and that is to build a new life, to find a more modest dream that can sustain him over the years to come.