In 2003 Wilhem and his partner Gillian set off from France to cycle around the world. Six years, countless acts of kindness, innumerable crazy drivers, one stabbing, one pregnancy and twin babies later, they ended their trip in Singapore and now live (separately) in Thailand and share custody of their little girls.
Wilhem and one of his daughters, Taïs, recently couch surfed with us in Chiang Mai, I took the chance to interview him about the bike trip.
Candice: Tell us a little about your background, where you grew up and what you were doing before your big cycle trip
Wilhem: I was born and grew up in the suburbs of Paris, firstly in the northern suburbs where there is a high population of people of immigrant heritage, then in the western suburbs which were largely white. After my parents split up I was still very influenced by my father’s ethos of hard work and always doing the best you can and, although I drifted a bit and found the challenges of school in the almost all-white environment difficult, I did finally take his advice. I buckled down, worked hard and eventually graduated from the Sorbonne with a Master’s in management in finance. I then moved to London and ran my own successful small accountancy firm.
Why choose to cycle around the world, rather than say do it by, say, walking or motorbike? Or choose to climb a mountain?
Living in London I found bicycle the best way to get around. Cars cost too much to run and I didn’t like the tube much so I bought a bike and soon found myself cycling everywhere. After I met Gillian we spent a lot of weekends away cycle touring. It was entirely natural for us to choose a cycling adventure as we were cycling so much anyway.
How much did it cost to buy your bikes and all your equipment? And how much did you spend on the road? And where did you sleep?
I can’t remember how much we spent on equipment other than my custom made bike frame which cost £900. We funded the trip from our savings but after we had crossed some of the highest roads in the world, in India, sponsors became interested in us and we managed to get some gear for free – Gortex jackets, new panniers and the like. We were very strict about our spending and we kept to a daily average of 7.50 Euros, including visas. For the first three years we kept note of every single penny of spending – I was still an accountant at heart!
We mostly slept in our tent, except in the Muslim countries we went through, where the people were very hospitable and often invited us to sleep in their homes.
As a hypnotherapist I’m fascinated by the mental side of adventures like yours, on what gets people through the tough times, can you tell us about some of the most difficult times and what you did mentally to keep pushing on?
I didn’t really find it tough mentally. I was excited and happy to be having this wonderful adventure, seeing these landscapes, meeting all these people. If I did have tough times they haven’t really stuck in my mind – except the last part of our journey through Sudan which was across desert. I was very dehydrated and my body felt awful, it was very hard to keep going but I didn’t have an option.
Towards the end of the trip, when things weren’t going well between Gillian and me, was a difficult time. I’m naturally a sharing person, I love to share experiences with people, men or women. We weren’t doing that in the same way and that was hard for me.
What was the most unusual item you carried with you? If you could have had one luxury item, regardless of weight, what would it have been?
Luxury item definitely a smart phone! You can do so much with them – GPS, internet for keeping in touch, any information you need, music, camera – but they weren’t around when we made the trip. I guess most people would say carrying a pressure cooker was quite unusual. We bought it in India and it transformed our eating, we could eat much more interesting food when we were camping. I still have it and use it now in my kitchen here in Thailand.
Tell us about the people you met along the way, did the people in any of the countries surprise you?
Ethiopia and Pakistan surprised us. Before riding through Ethiopia we had been told that people would love me because of my dreadlocks. Even though I’m not a Rastafari, people would be very welcoming, associating me with Emperor Haile Selassie. Well, it wasn’t the case at all! The people were unfriendly and often hostile. Every day we had to ride with children throwing stones at us. It wasn’t an easy country to travel through.
Pakistan was amazing for the opposite reason. Friends and family told us we were crazy to go there and were genuinely concerned for our safety. The war in Iraq was in full swing and all the news out of Pakistan was negative. But we were overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness of the people. We stayed in many people’s homes and spent one month in Lahore because we liked it so much.
Were you ever in physical danger during your trip – from drivers, people, animals?
As far as drivers are concerned, Indian truck drivers were a danger. Many times we’d be going at speed downhill and suddenly find ourselves headed straight towards two trucks coming uphill, one overtaking the other near a bend, blocking the entire road. Anyone who has spent time on India’s roads will be familiar with this scenario!
The worst, though, was one time in Ethiopia when a bunch of kids followed us for a long time throwing stones and then dropping rocks down onto us from cliffs. I eventually lost my patience and chased them through a village. I grabbed one and wouldn’t let him go, I was trying to get somebody to assure us the kids would stop harassing us and the whole village turned out to argue with us and shout at us to let this kid go. I wanted them to make sure he didn’t continue to follow us, what he was doing was dangerous, we met another cyclist whose trip was over when he got a head injury this way. Things deteriorated as people got more and more angry and started jostling us. Then I felt what I thought was a hard punch in my back but I hadn’t been punched, I’d been stabbed. All the villagers ran away when I collapsed and they saw the blood. Gillian tried to get help but the first vehicles she tried to flag down just drove past and wouldn’t stop. Somehow she managed to get a truck to stop and give us a lift to a clinic in the nearest town. After that we had to take a minibus to the capital Addis Ababa and fly back to France while I recuperated. For us, that was enough, we didn’t want to continue travelling through Ethiopia. When we flew back to Addis and collected our bikes we just got on a plane and got out of there, onwards to Yemen.
I know there must be so many but can you think of an act of kindness that sticks out in your mind from somebody you met along the way?
Due to a combination of circumstances when we left Libya and entered northern Egypt we had no money on us and had to cycle for over a week to reach a town with an ATM. Local people were scraping out a living in the desert but people shared food with us every day, usually flat bread with olive oil and honey – and sand, we got so much sand in our food. Of course we never ate till we were full as the people had so little to begin with. We were hungry the whole time but we couldn’t have made it without the hospitality shown to us. It did illustrate to us that people who are poor are very often the ones who are willing to share what they have, they know what it’s like to go without. People who are better off perhaps think they achieved something by what they have and want to keep it for themselves.
You found out in Calcutta that Gillian was pregnant, how did that affect your plans?
We carried on cycling which was hard for Gillian as she was suffering a lot from morning sickness. We went onto Cambodia and Thailand then we found out that we were expecting twins. The Thai doctors told us that twins are not very common in Asia and that we should consider returning to France for the delivery. It was very good advice because Gillian ended up spending most of the last two months of the pregnancy in bed.
After the twins, Taïs and Nalo, were born in France, you went back on the road for what turned out to be the final part of your trip, tell us about travelling with the girls?
We set off again from Bangkok when the girls were about ten months old, they travelled in a trailer pulled by my bicycle. We had real problems in Southern Thailand, nobody wanted to let us camp on their land, the fact we had babies made no difference, they were happy to leave us on the street. One time when we were getting desperate we had one American woman refuse to let us camp in the big garden of her large villa for one night. This shocked us because she worked for the Peace Corps, we thought she’d have some compassion.
In Malaysia the people were great, inviting us to their homes, giving us food and giving the babies sweets and cakes all the time – too much! The girls got sick shortly after we crossed the border and we had to spend a week in one small town. We were allowed to sleep in the dormitory of a local school as it was out of term time. Local people showed us a lot of kindness, bringing food, taking us around town. After the struggles in Southern Thailand it reminded us why we were doing the trip because we had times in the south of Thailand when we wondered why on earth we were doing this.
You are bringing the girls up in Thailand and they speak French, English and Thai, do you travel with them?
Yes, we travel around Thailand. I recently went with Nalo on the motorbike from Bangkok to the island of Koh Chang and camped on the beach. Now I’m here in Chiang Mai with Taïs, couch surfing with you, and Taïs is loving Songkran (Thai New Year) here.
Has your trip changed the way you see the world?
Yes, of course, everything has changed. My father always taught me that you have to be hospitable but now I know about it from the experience of receiving so much hospitability. On the road I learned that there is always a solution to any problem so I’m now more relaxed when I face any sort of difficulty in my life. I’m also well and truly bitten by the travel bug. I don’t like to stay in one place for too long, I like change – change of scenery, new food, people, conversation, everything. But Thailand is a trap for many travellers, it’s so convenient and comfortable, that it’s easy to forget to leave.
Did you learn anything about yourself on the trip that surprised you?
Yes, I learned that I can be patient. In general I’m quite impatient but I’m better than I used to be. I also now tend to plan less. For important things such as looking after the girls or visas or things like that I know what has to be done when. For day to day activities, I plan much less than I used to and do more things last minute.
Ideally, where would you like to go next?
South America! I’ve never been and it’s more expensive than Asia so I have to think through the financial side of it first of all.
What advice do you have for somebody thinking about setting out on an adventure/challenge for the first time?
My advice is just do it. You will always find reasons not to do it. If you sit at home thinking about it you’ll think of lots problems that you might have along the way, but you can’t possibly think of everything that could happen to you and solutions for every potential problem. But once you start you’ll find that the solutions come, there’s always a solution.
My thanks for Wilhem for taking the time to sit down and talk to me (when he could have been out having another Songkran water fight), and thanks to both he and Taïs for being great house guests.
Would you like to do a long cycle trip – or have you done one even a few days long? Or do you you dream of doing of doing another kind of adventure or challenging yourself in some other way? Let me know in the comments below.