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How I became the Conquistador of the Useless

Or: Why the fuck do I do this to myself?

I wrestled with this question a lot as I pedaled through the land of long white clouds. For those of you who aren't aware, read my 1600 for 1600 post.

tl;dr I went bike-packing in New Zealand.

Taken somewhere along the West Coast Wilderness Trail

I went for this trip cautiously avoiding pinning any illusions of grandeur or great purpose to it. I just wanted to go out there with just my bike and no one else. It is folly to think that a holiday can change you, even if the "holiday" in question is cycling 1600km in 19 days; I put it in quotations because so far, I haven't found anyone who agreed with me that it is in fact a holiday.

In certain ways, I am right - when you clean away the last dust off your bags and store your camping gear away, starry-eyed and lusting for an encore of the adventure you just had, you're still more or less the same person as before, just with less weight on your belly and sporting a lot darker skin. Not to mention, when you've struggling uphill with a fully loaded bicycle that weighs about 24kg for the past hour with no end in sight, you're really not thinking about anything else other than "Why the hell do I do this?". Your brain simply do not have any capacity left for any sort of epiphany.

Then I came back home and chanced upon this phrase which, in my opinion, perfectly encapsulated my preferred method of torture — "Conquistador of the Useless".

How succinct — the world did not magically become a better place just because I chose to explore New Zealand on an environmentally low-impact mode of transport. As I write this, the country is reeling from the shock of its first gun violence in more than a decade because maniacal bigots decided that killing innocent lives is a good way to further their racist cause. I did not become any wiser, at least not that I'm aware of. Although I did raise some money for Singapore Cancer Society, I certainly didn't come up with any cure for cancer.

Hell, I didn't even manage to finish the 1600km I had planned. To quote a snippet from the journal entry I wrote at Day 6:

I pondered a lot about failure today. I've had a long long day to ponder about it. Do I fail if I don't complete my planned route of 1640km? I'm not sure. I guess technically speaking, I did fail to do what I set out to do.

But as I ride through the torturous saddles (there are fucking 3 of them, in a row!!!), I realise that if I continue my pace, I would have failed to enjoy myself. For the past week I've been blazing across the island, averaging at least 110km per day. I've been a ghost through the towns, coming in just before dusk and leaving just after dawn.

As much as I like cycling and seeing the island, I haven't really enjoyed myself for the past week. The dark place I was referring to, was this: Do I fail to hit 1640km, or do I fail to enjoy myself here?

So to reiterate, Why the fuck do I do this to myself?

I did it because how empowering is it that one can simply decide to do this, and then actually do it? Or in other words, Why Not?

I got on a plane all by myself to head off to my first solo overseas trip and multi-day bike adventure. I powered through all the hills and passes, climbs that are in many ways more foreign to a cyclist from Singapore than being alone in a foreign country; we do not have many (or any) climbs here. I pushed through a storm for almost 7 hours while climbing up 3 hill passes, cursing and shivering as the rain beat down on me mercilessly. I might not have done the full 1640km but it's still 1161.9km more than I would have otherwise done.

Irrelevant photo of the misty mountains in New Zealand

To set yourself a challenge and to really try your damn hardest at it, even if you fail, is in itself empowering. I learnt how much I can push myself, learnt where my line in the sand is.

As I cycled across the beautiful country, I met a guy who cycled across the world. Literally. He cycled across Europe, Central Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North America, before going back to UK. That was in his twenties, which I surmised to be at least 20 years ago. And now he's back again, cycling across New Zealand. In front of me sat a man who you would normally only hear about in podcasts or read in adventure magazines. Clearly, he too is a Conquistador of the Useless, though of a significantly bigger magnitude. I was mildly starstruck.

I listened to the colourful tales of his travel for hours. Later that night, it made me realise that this man is probably at least fifty years old, yet he has seen so much more than some people would have in a lifetime.

It reinforced my belief that this one life we have, it's not to coddle ourselves with expensive toys and beautiful clothing. Of course, I enjoy them as much as anyone would, but it should not be all that we have. We're not here to preserve ourselves so that we can go into our coffins in the most pristine condition possible. There is no "10/10 condition, slightly used". We should never get so comfortable in our own comfort zone that we would quiver in fear at the thought of trying something new. Or worse, "too lazy" to try.

To paraphrase from this article from Guardian about traveling, to travel is to throw ourselves into the unfamiliar, such that our brain can be free, even momentarily, from its usual shackles. To dare ourselves to try new things, explore new boundaries, experience other cultures is to endow ourselves with open-mindedness, so that we "refuse to settle for our first answers and initial guesses".

In light of the tragedy that happened in Christchurch, and the countless ones in USA and other places, we need this more than ever; to maintain our open-mindedness and curiosity so that we can not just tolerate, but understand the foreign. Turns out that the useless isn't that useless after all.