Yerevan is the capital of Armenia, located in the Asian Caucasus region. Yerevan is clean, chic, bright, warm, colorful, and youthful. It is really a fun place to be.
I’ve arrived in places like Yerevan – that token “great city” – many times on this trip. Rio, Buenos Aires, Sucre, Lima, Medellin, Reykjavik, Stockholm, Helsinki, Tallinn, Copenhagen, Berlin, Casablanca, Dakar, Freetown, Abidjan, Tel Aviv and Istanbul would all qualify. In my backpacking days, I arrived in these places, and what did I do? I walked, I climbed, I snapped pictures, made friends, drank beers, got lost, and learned what I could. Yerevan was yet another token great city, and with a backpack, I would have done more of the same. I would have enjoyed it, but it would have ultimately faded quickly into the annals of a two-year trip around the world.
On a bike, however, Yerevan was different.
After cycling through Georgia’s Svaneti Region, and getting a proper rest in Kutaisi, I was finally Yerevan-bound. I had roughly 500km of road to cover. I spent 4 of the following 5 nights in a tent. I climbed from Kutaisi, sitting roughly 300 meters above sea level, to the Georgian-Armenian border, sitting 2,200 meters above sea level. I was pelted with rain and battered with hail. I spent a night in a brothel on the edge of town. I was met with new drivers, new rules of the road, and brand new insanity (here, in Armenia, drivers will cut into the oncoming lane, barreling directly towards me, leaving me an ever-comforting 12 inches of spaces as they pass). I thoroughly enjoyed the ride, as the traveler often does, but it was by no means a picnic. And then I got to Yerevan.
I chose to stay in a hostel in the center of town. I was immediately speaking English and French. I went for a hamburger and a beer at 3pm. I slept in a bed. I used WiFi, and spoke with friends and family. There was a kitchen in which I could cook. I went to the bars and drank late. I went for walks through the park, ate a mountain of schwarma, had crêpes from the café on the corner, and saw the crooning peak of Mt. Ararat looming over the city (a big bucket-lister). I was no longer camping on a lonely farm among horse poop and moaning cows. I was in Yerevan, and while nothing about it was necessarily earth-shattering, my appreciation ran deep. Yerevan was a beauty.
Travel is a grand opportunity, and it’s important to squeeze out all you can. Some travel for luxury and relaxation, and others travel in search of new experience. For the latter bunch, implementation ranges greatly. If hostels and pub-crawls are new for you, do it, and you will learn something. If climbing Everest naked is new for you, do it, and you will learn something. Regardless of who you are, the critical element in creating a valuable learning experience is just to do something you’ve never done before.
After a while, your style of travel will evolve. Your trip, or your travel career, will start in a novel way, and after a while, you will get comfortable. Your initial style is novel no more. Just because your friends think you’re crazy for venturing solo to the beaches of Spain, or for riding a pogo stick from Kinshasa to Mogadishu, it does not necessarily mean that the choice is crazy for you. If you are too comfortable, the learning won’t necessarily stop, but it will slow. After a while, the bunny hill gets old, and you just don’t really become a better skier until you tackle something bigger. It’s very common sense.
To those who want more from travel – more highs, more lows, more lessons and more falls – the recipe is simple. Be honest with yourself about what you are comfortable with – break it down very specifically. Take that “level,” write it down on a piece of paper, and then lower it. Lower it to something you’ve never done before. Lower it to something that fucking scares you. Lower it to something more challenging and more difficult, and because pessimism sucks and optimism doesn’t, just fucking do it. Throughout, you will see and experience more than you’d ever anticipated. You will be in more obscure situations, and be faced with more important decisions, than you’ve ever seen before. You will see just what you are really made of. More so than ever before, you’ll be traveling, man. And if and when you are successful – just like cycling up a hill for 2 days, and finally, finally, starting to roll down the other side – you will feel really fucking good on the other end.
For me, what I learned from Yerevan was just how ridiculously good the basics are. That feeling you get when drinking a beer and vaporizing a hamburger after 500km of rain, hail, sweat, canned sardines and cow shit, instead of 500km on an air-conditioned bus, well – there’s just nothing else quite like it.