Donald the attention stick

Last few months I experienced an incredible amount of hospitality and kindness. It seemed like the further I got, the more the kindness grew. As did the amount of attention I got. At first, it was a welcoming change from the beautiful but less populated mountains. The standard five returned as quick as I cycled away from the snow. “Where do you come from?”, “How do you like our country?”, “Are you single or married?”, “Are you traveling alone?”, “How long are you on the road?”. By now I could probably recognize those questions in a language I’ve never heard.

The people where sweet and inviting. Here and there an invitation. Çay as much as I could drink. In smaller villages I would soon have shaken hands, kissed (!), or hugged every male soul. I’m not really the touchy type of person. Nevertheless, I did my best to get over it with a smile and focus on the kindness and culture of the people. From different persons I heard that I am the first foreign person they have met. “No wonder they are so touchy”, I thought. I was now traveling in countries more or less absorbed from the rest of the world. Armenia with their remote mountain places, Iran with very difficult visa situations and Turkmenistan as one of the most restricted countries on earth. Iranian males will only get a passport after serving for 2 years in the military. With the controlled media and censored Internet, foreign people are one of the only ways to get in touch with different cultures. Understandably nearly every person wanted to talk to me. But what if the attention simply gets too much? I haven’t figured out a satisfying way to deal with it but here is the story of how I tried.

After a week packed with invitations, meeting hundreds of peoples and answering the standard 5ths a hundred times more I was looking forward to taking a break. “Today I cook and take some time for myself”, I thought. My telephone rang. Oh right, I have a local SIM card now…
“Where are you?”, a male voice asked.
“Hello. Who is this?”.
“This is (fill in a random name. I can’t remember). Where are you?”
“I am camping”.
“At the beach”.
“Where exactly?”.
I told him more or less my position, still uncertain who this was. A half an hour later I saw a flashlight in the distance searching for something. “And there goes my time for myself”, I thought. The guy turned out to be a merchant of whom I had bought some eggs earlier and after some resistance had given my number.

The next day I was stalked by an elderly person, who’s smile would have done better with a couple teeth more. He waited for hours in front of my tent, followed me to the bathroom and observed. He came closer and shook my hand. Only instead of shacking it, he put it to his mouth and did something I remember seeing in movies from the middle ages. I almost punched him in the face. I crawled into my tent and closed it. After another hour, I opened my tent. “*Curse*!”. There he was. Sitting 1m in front of the tent and staring at me. I got my lonely planet book and opened the emergency section of the language part. “Borokenar!!”, I screamed at him, hoping he understood it as get lost and pushed him away. This was the start of a near mental breakdown.

A couple days later I still didn’t find one evening for myself. Even tough I was trying. The area was too populated to find a hidden camping spot. The daily amount of phone calls grew to 3-4 from people I just met for minutes. Checking up on me and wanting to know my “exact” position. I started to refuse to give out my number and certainly didn’t give away my position. Ignoring my phone just turned out in a huge amount of spam, checking if I am alright. I decided to continue to ignore it.

Brakes of any kind were impossible. As soon as I stopped somewhere a crowd of people gathered around me. Asking questions. Touching me and my bike. Taking selfies. A couple times I was trying to find a hidden spot only to be detected by selfie-hunters. Sometimes with permission. Sometimes without. The most awkward ones were those groups who wouldn’t even talk to me. One guy holding a camera, the other ones posing, and then leave. Without looking at me or talking. “Alright then… this is starting to get ridiculous”, I thought. At least I have time on my own while riding… False! Cars regularly cut in my way, forcing me to stop and talk to them. The friendlier ones just slowed down and talked to me while driving and coming closer and closer eventually forcing me to stop anyway. And then there were those motorized stalkers. For kilometers, they would follow me either behind or beside me. Other ones showing off how fast they can drive. First at the same speed as me. Then suddenly accelerate as fast as they could and then look back. I usually covered my annoyance with a “very impressed” nod and they continued. With every encounter, I grew more annoyed. I was looking forward to spending some days in a big city. They are probably used to foreigners. False! Impossible to get rest at parks without a crowd gathering around me or random selfie-hunters. And the never ending touching! Now I got really frustrated. Where is the stop button! It’s too much! Please, just a minute for myself! I got to a point where I basically hated every living thing and the slightest unwanted touch threw me out of control. Furthermore, everything was organized for me. I was a child being watched after. Every step under watchful control. As soon as I opened my eyes, breakfast was there. Already during my last sip of tea someone moved to refill it. Escape! Away! Can’t take it anymore! After two weeks of constant company, I felt near to exploding.

The next morning I cycled as fast I could. Searching the maximum distance between me and every other human being. Fortunately, the roads led into the desert, giving me some slack. Now what? A good friend once told me: “At the end of the day you close your eyes and sleep.” Made perfect sense. So I slept. Alone in the desert.

The next morning I began to think. I am one of the only possibilities to get in touch with other cultures for these people. And meeting new cultures was one of the biggest reasons to start this journey. At the same time, I was tired of telling stories. I felt as if the stories had lost their value by having been told too much. “You made it through the mountains of Armenia in winter and now you break from too much attention?”. Guilt. I was disrespectful to a lot of people. On the edge of almost bursting. My experience of a wonderful country blurred with my tension. I needed to get rid of this. Change. I needed a solution. So I started to think again. Picked up a pen and started writing down my observations. “The problem starts at the moment when it gets too much and I can’t make it stop. Before that point, I enjoy meeting new people”. “I get more annoyed from the never ending standard 5ths than an equal conversation. Conversation requires breaking the ice. Show that your human and not alien.” “I get annoyed by being treated like a king having butlers… Again show that your human and not alien.” “I get asked a lot about this stick. Maybe I can use that?”.

So let me introduce you to Donald. A while back my bicycle rack broke from the weight and constant use. So I simply replaced it with a stick. The stick did a perfect job of keeping my bike up and scaring off the enemy. Cars pass more distant when the stick points at them. One but not yet tested use is dog protection. Sacrifice the stick, throw it away and the dogs chase the stick instead of me. In theory. But the primary reason why I am so fond of Donald is another. He breaks the ice and draws the attention. I still haven’t figured out why he draws so much attention but it helps me a lot. Due to recent events, I figured Donald is a fitting name. Donald the attention w… well, stick.

From then on whenever I found myself in a situation that got to the edge of overwhelming, the point where I couldn’t enjoy conversations and felt under pressure, I brought up Donald. Well, actually he brought himself up a lot and now is part of the new standard 6s. When shown the purpose of holding my bike people seemed fascinated which made me laugh and ease up. In return, they mostly started laughing as well. Brake the ice => Conversation more interesting. Thank you brain.When it really got to much I started making a game out of it. How far can I go?
One time Donald is a cutoff branch from the garden of the king of Switzerland. My job would be to personally deliver it to the president of China. Another time it is an emergency paddle to cross rivers and lakes. Yet another time it functions as a jumping device to jump over fences. When let down in the right moment and angle, the momentum of the bike changes from forward to upward, allowing a jump of approximately 1.5m at the speed of 25km/h. Of course, most of the time my stories are identified as jokes (But a surprising amount actually fall for it). But you should see the faces when they decide whether to believe me or not. And the act of explaining those stories with gestures usually is fun enough. Again. Ice broken => more interesting interactions.

One time as a crowd nearly crunched me I pulled up both my arms in a majestic movement and proclaimed in the best Swiss German: “I am a strong and independent young man and you shall not touch me”. I started laughing at the absurdity of the situation which then again freaked out the locals. “You really can cheer yourself up, can’t you?”, I thought amused. So that’s how I found my way to deal with too much attention. By making a game out of it.

I hope I don’t deliver a wrong picture. Most people I meet are extremely nice and pleasant. The encounters I have are among the best experiences of my trip. Most of the time I find myself laughing and chatting to locals. The stories of those experiences follow soon. However, it easily gets too much. Especially when traveling alone. Up to now it is my biggest mental challenge to deal with the non-stoppable attention.