There is no easy way to explain how I’ve ended up living in the small former Soviet republic of Armenia.
Thankfully, I now have the luxury of running a personal blog with an unlimited word count. So let me give you the backstory.
(Not the full backstory, mind you. If you want to hear that, your best bet is to read Janapar, which is being serialised right now on my adventure cycling blog TomsBikeTrip.com. Here’s a link to the first post in the series if you’re interested.)
The more recent version of this tale began, I suppose, at the start of this year, when my wife Tenny and I cleared out our flat in Bristol, England, moved our few belongings into a phone-box-sized storage unit, and packed our bags for a year of nomadic living. The plan was not to go off on a jolly but instead to take our livelihoods on the road. Both of us earn a self-employed income by digital means, so anywhere with wifi is a potential workplace – which today, of course, is pretty much everywhere.
It was exciting. We would visit friends and relatives all over the world, staying in each place for a few weeks or months before moving on. And we would begin with Sydney, Australia, to where both Tenny’s sister and brother had emigrated several years previously.
Leaving Bristol had been a wrenching decision. I’m not a natural city-dweller – I prefer quietness and rural landscapes, having grown up in the countryside – but Bristol had simply felt like the place I could find my kind of people – not yet home, but a place that could become so. By leaving, these new connections would inevitably fade. There’s a real sadness in that.
Part of the reason for hitting the road again was that we’d served our obligtory time in the UK and were ready for a break. It is here that I must divert course slightly for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the current state of British immigration law. Our government has promised to limit immigration in order to appease a xenophobic voting public. Yet because it is impossible to restrict EU citizens from entering the UK (because of the same freedom of movement laws that allow Brits to move, work or go on holiday anywhere in the EU), blanket restrictions have simply been imposed everywhere else – including ludicrous changes to the rules by which a British citizen can bring their non-EU wife or husband to the UK.
Allow me to summarise. Under the current rules – which thankfully came into force after we moved to the UK in 2011 – I would be blocked by my own government from bringing my dear wife, an Iranian national, to live with me in my own home country. Why? Because I don’t earn the equivalent (in any currency) of £18,600 a year after tax, which the Home Office has decided means there’s an unacceptable risk she will try to claim benefits, even though she wouldn’t be allowed to do so as a temporary resident, and even though she’s a Masters-educated graphic designer. And since the new rules came into force, I wouldn’t be able to declare my own parents’ savings or earning power as evidence of financial means. This is all, by the way, simply in order for her to set foot on British soil, not to claim permanent residency or citizenship.
There are now an estimated 33,000 people unable to live in the same country as their wives and husbands, as well as around 15,000 children who know one of their parents only through Skype. In effect, this means that around 47% of working Brits do not earn enough to fall in love with a foreigner.
Whatever real issues there are surrounding immigration in general, the solution has got to be better than this.
So much for immigration law. Even though we were among the lucky ones, having moved back to the UK under the previous (still restrictive) set of rules, it still cost us thousands in application costs and lawyers’ fees, and – here’s the point – obliged us to spend three years living in the UK before Tenny could apply for citizenship. These three years we had spent in London, the Lake District, and finally Bristol.
We’d embraced this as an experimental period, particularly as life in England was completely new to Tenny. By the end of 2014 we both felt that Bristol was where we’d eventually establish a base, and that our year of nomadic living would probably result in a return there.
(There were other reasons I desperately needed to leave the UK, too, many of which echoed my original reasons for leaving back in 2007, only magnified by a political and economic climate even more oppressive towards those who would prefer to live outside the ever-more shallow and materialistic value system that mainstream society has been sucked into. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)
Suddenly we were in Australia, living with Tenny’s sister in the Dee Why suburb of Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I shipped over my bicycle, bought a 7-foot foamie, and for two months spent my mornings writing a new book in a beachfront coffee shop, and my afternoons swallowing seawater and learning how to duck-dive.
In between slurping and surfing, I took plenty of time out to wander around Sydney in my thongs, marvelling at Sydney’s taken-for-granteds – free gas-powered public barbecues, seawater-fed swimming pools, public showers and changing rooms every few hundred metres; state furnishings every bit as critical here as bus stops and asphalt roads. I knew Australians were famous for taking it easy. I hadn’t realised it was institutionalised. As the life of a digital nomad goes, there was very, very little to complain about.
And perhaps that’s why Australia, too, did not feel like a place I could remain indefinitely.
The idea of settling there had been voiced: we’d be near Tenny’s family, and it’d make a great base from which to explore parts of the world to which I’d never been.
But a life of leisure and ease, I knew, was not my goal, despite it being the distant promise all those overworked folk back in London were chasing after, and despite the fact that the Aussies seemed to revel in it from birth, with a tangible aura of contentment in the air as a result.
I need – have always needed – resistance; something to push against and work to change; and while I’m sure I would have found such resistance in Sydney if I looked hard enough, I would almost certainly be joining someone else’s fight, just for the sake of fighting. Don’t get me wrong, Sydney is an utterly fantastic place to hang out for a couple of months, but it will remain a place to visit family and to enjoy in brief snippets (which is why we’re heading back for another month in January).
Two ebooks written, and having finally succeeded in catching and riding at least one small wave from the line-up to the beach, our next stop was New Zealand. A professional adventurer would probably exclude this from their public output, for reasons discussed last week, but personally I have no problem disclosing the fact that I hired a car – yes, a car – and drove it around the North Island for a fortnight. If it sounds like a driving holiday, that’s because it was.
(If I wanted to prolong the illusion, on the other hand, I’d probably post a photo of the time I put up my hammock at a public campground, and refer to it as an ‘adventure’.)
There was a personal motive in coming here, rather than wanting to ‘do New Zealand’. Because on the outskirts of Wellington there lived a man called Mark. I had not seen Mark since the time he and I spent 10 weeks cycling together from England to Hungary. It was part of the cycling adventure that would set me off on this wonderfully random path through life, whose events and connections would lead me to Armenia, to meet Tenny, to eventually visit her siblings in Sydney, and to see an opportunity to visit New Zealand – and thus catch up with an old friend who I’d last seen cramming his bike into the boot of a taxi on the outskirts of Budapest, 7½ years previously.
So we flew to Auckland, drove to Wellington, and hung out with Mark and his wife for a few days.
Then we drove back to Auckland via Jon‘s place in New Plymouth…
…and flew back to Sydney.
It was all a lot of fun.
We even did some sightseeing. Sightseeing. I never do that.
There was nothing particularly adventurous about any of it.
But for Tenny and I, this year was about a different kind of exploration. Because as much as a huge part of me wants to remain entirely nomadic, travelling full time and living out of a bag, I’ve also been feeling that it might be best combined with some kind of ‘base camp’ – if for no other reason than that it’d be nice to have a place to keep all my bikes and outdoor gear.
There are other, more human reasons, of course. It would be slightly ridiculous to pretend that I’ve happened upon some startling new epiphany by realising that I’d quite like a place to call home. But I still surprised myself when I realised that this was true.
This year of wandering was very much about taking this time to explore these options in a conscious way. And we found we were finally getting a grasp on what the right kind of home for us might be like.
For most people, of course, there’s no question mark over what and where ‘home’ is. That hasn’t been the case for me (which is probably why I’ve turned out so weird). The village I grew up in, while I will always remember it more intimately than any other place on Earth, was always a place I would eventually leave for bigger and better things, as with many people with my kind of background. But those bigger and better things – the cities, the careers – were also not for me. The notion of home was put on the back burner while I lived on the road, waiting, I suppose, for some kind of realisation that this was where I was supposed to stop and stay.
Tenny, too is caught by circumstances, being from a minority community in her home country, Iran; yet also finding herself an outsider in the place all Armenians are indoctrinated into believing is the fatherland – Armenia – which in truth is a mere fragment of the former territory inhabited by Armenians, and a highly Russianised one at that.
But for the time being, at least, it is Yerevan I will continue to return to, not England, though I’m sure there’ll be lots of travelling back and forth. It’s a city I know well, having accumulated a couple of years’ residency and an Armenian passport over the last few years. I have many friends here; it is reinforcing old relationships as much as creating new ones that appeals to me these days.
And life in Yerevan is fun. I effortlessly meet friends in the street every day. The opportunities for outdoor adventures outside the city are second to none. And from a financial point of view, it’s a place we can actually afford to buy a property in, which is more than I can say for any viable location we’d want to live in the UK.
But more than that, it’s a place I can see opportunities to do something.
More and more, it seems that the quest for meaning so many of us face in the developed world is rather futile in societies where the tangible aspects of life have mostly been taken care of; where there is little left to do but to squabble over ideals and opinions – and even that in an increasingly virtual, digital manner.
In Armenia – and in a great many other developing-world countries – there is still a huge amount of real, actual work to be done to realise an acceptable existence for everyone. And consequently there are a lot of people who’ve come here and made it their mission to do that work. They’re not necessarily travellers or outdoorspeople. But they are working for a greater common purpose. They are, in short, like-minded.
This doesn’t mean I’m planning to pick and choose from a menu of volunteering opportunities of other peoples’ creation. I know very well where my beliefs and priorities lie. And during this summer, a very clear vision developed for what I want to do here.
It is ridiculously ambitious.
It may come to nothing.
It certainly won’t turn out how I expect. Nothing like this ever does.
But the idea has taken hold in a way that no other idea has since the moment I realised – back in the summer of 2006, sitting under a tree in Edinburgh – that I needed to try and cycle round the world.
I know it. I am sure of it. Because when the right idea comes along, something very strange happens when you open your mouth and tell people about it. The response is magic. People detect, subconsciously, that you are speaking with utter conviction, that the thoughts that drive your words are coming from your heart. And that energy bounces and crackles around you. Suddenly everyone is compelled to encourage, to suggest, to offer assistance, to make connections, or simply just to smile in appreciation. And the world conspires to help you.
So much for finding your calling. I’ll lay the idea out in an upcoming blog post. Because this, I feel, could be the start of something big.