By Edward Cavanough
In January, I left Adelaide in my ’99 Magna and drove north, selling my rust-bucket in Darwin before flying to East Timor.
From Dili, I crossed seven Indonesian islands, walked across Singapore, and travelled Malaysia, Thailand and Laos before a month in China. I hitchhiked across Mongolia, visited five of the ‘Stans, trekked the Georgia-Chechnya border, bussed Turkey east-to-west, and wild-camped in the Balkans before entering Europe proper.
I may have left Australia with a clear idea of where I was heading. But I had no idea what would come of it. In the end, I took away five lessons that will last me a lifetime.
Sydney is a gateway to every corner of the globe
Before leaving, I knew I needed to make international connections — people whose family and friends could serve as lifelines along the long and distant road I had planned.
I didn’t have to look beyond Sydney. I dined with a Kyrgyz mother, a Georgian pastry chef, a Mongolian throat-singer, a Chinese student, a refugee from Bosnia and a Vietnamese engineer and others who connected me with locals all over Eurasia.
The world can seem like it’s driving apart. But if you want proof of our connectedness, you don’t need to look beyond our backyard.
Kyrgyzstan: my dinner hosts in Bishkek who I met through a Sydney resident. (ABC News: Edward Cavanough)
You have way more in common with a Tajik villager than you appreciate
My hosts in the Tajik village of Zugvand had two kids with a passion for indoor volleyball.
One night, a competitive rally led to the inevitable: a smashed family portrait. The kids cleaned up, re-hung the frame and pretended nothing had happened.
At dinner, they smiled and giggled as if to say we got away with it.
Tajikistan: my shared bedroom and the scene of the indoor volleyball incident. (ABC News: Edward Cavanough)
That moment mirrored countless scenes from my childhood.
These simple experiences that reminded me of my own life in Australia were common, even in rural Afghanistan.
In Ishkashim, I was invited to dinner with local English speakers, including a campaigning politician.
Over smuggled wine and Russian vodka, he offered his election pledges: better education, more infrastructure, stronger economic growth.
It was a platform that would sit comfortably with most Aussie politicians.
Superficial differences look like powerful barriers, but they’re actually paper thin.
Once I realised I could easily see my own life being lived by others it helped me feel at home almost anywhere in the world.
Some of the world’s biggest problems are on our doorstep
My trip was not all positive philosophical revelations.
After a 35-minute flight from Darwin, my landing in East Timor was dramatically aborted. The evasive action was to avoid a pack of dogs that were roaming on the runway of East Timor’s only major international airport.
It was testament to just how different the lives of our closest neighbours can be. Timor Leste — like much of the South Pacific, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia — still suffers from a profound lack of infrastructure, enduring poverty, and social disharmony that rivalled anything I saw during the rest of the trip.
Our international rep could do with some work
While Australians as individuals are broadly welcome all over the world, there’s room to improve our country’s standing.
My first night in China, I had to point out our continent to a local on Google Maps. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Many others like Australians, but not our government. I met one Hazara refugee in Indonesia who, at 15 years old, was promised by Australia his claim would be processed within three years.
Just before his 18th birthday, he received notice that he’d be waiting another 15 years.
He still dreams of living in Australia, but might be in his 30s before he gets a chance.
My host in Afghanistan knew nothing about Australia beyond an ad for Operation Sovereign Borders that plays on his TV screen.
I asked what he thought the ad was trying to say. His answer was simple: “We’re not welcome in Australia.”
I was sitting in his living room, where I was offered a bed, drinking tea. The irony was stark.
Among other travellers, Australia’s refugee policy was discussed and often condemned. Irrespective of your opinion on that policy, there is a whole generation who know little else about our country, and judge us on that single issue.
Australia is an incredible country with a powerful story to tell the world.
After eight months on the road, I am convinced we should be telling that story better.
People want to help other people
As I continued moving, I was constantly surprised that no matter where I was in the world, help was always on offer.
There was the young family who drove me 10 hours into the East Timorese highlands and another who drove me hundreds of kilometres across western Mongolia, offering me a steady supply of biscuits and apples as we crossed the Steppe.
There were the Pamiris who housed me for days in Tajikistan, and the border guard who looked after me in Afghanistan.
There was Nursultan, a student who gave me a tour of his Uzbek city, Nukus, and bought me dinner, despite earning just $200 a month.
In Armenia, my British friend and I were offered fresh lamb, vodka and wild berries from locals as we hitchhiked around Lake Sevan.
There was Armin, the refugee-turned-dry cleaner who treated me like a son in Bosnia, and the German hikers who saved me from drowning in a glacial stream while trekking in Georgia.
The help came in spades. It was ceaseless but rarely solicited.
It was a satisfying validation of my belief that, in the end, most of the world is full of good people.
But for all the experiences — for all the lessons learnt — in the end my biggest take away was the simplest: The world, after all, isn’t such a scary place.
Edward Cavanough documented his trip on his blog One Road to London. He is the manager of policy at The McKell Institute. @edwardcavanough