|Armand in the middle with his cousins Henry to his left and Tom to his right|
In an inexplicable twist in the tale, I recently found myself by the languid lanes of Trieste in Italy, knocking at the doors of a Mediterranean Villa with a splendid view of the Adriatic Sea below and a hill full of forests above. And within this villa, I found the boy with the bike. Armand Monnoyer is Belgian and he had celebrated his 20 years of existence on our planet only two days before I met him. A nephew of my hosts, Armand could well be my son and what endeared him to me right away were his shy open smile and his current occupation of biking through Europe in search of his own true self. A yearlong project that he had started around August last year; of which he was now in his final leg of five months hoping to return by the end of 2014 summer.
I spent few days with him taking long walks by the sea, helping together in the kitchen, eating homemade breads and jams, sharing stories and laughter and dreams both old and new. He reminded me constantly of my youth, of my biking through some of the most inhospitable and non-bikable terrains in the world and I wished every moment that I could throw my worldly caution into the wind and go biking again to the end of the world, forever free and footloose and reckless as a sweeping gull in search of supper. When he left us finally I promised that one day I will tell his story and here it is; Armand this is for you wherever you may be, whether you read it or not, this is your story and your voyage and your dreams, of which I had the privilege of sharing few moments.
In a generation that is strapped to iphones and ipads and technologies that I couldn’t possibly imagine a decade ago, Armand came across as a wave of fresh breeze. Since his aunt (my hostess) had already told him about my impending arrival, Armand had done some background checks to my credentials, and had also rifled through my Everest book; perhaps he was impressed and nervous or that is the way he is, but his first handshake was bit shaky. Though soon he warmed up and we started laughing like old friends. His slight frame and boyish charm belies his age though his wiry limbs proclaim his ordeal. I asked him many questions; of his purpose and why he must know the reason for his expedition more than the expedition itself; which anyway he should allow to unfold by itself. I told him that what he did was important but what he did with what he did was even more important and relevant to make a meaning out of life, of daily drudgeries of existence. It became routine to eat together along with our hosts and to clear the plates at the end, as it became a ritual to go walking or gaze at the sea and philosophize the respective lives we lived. His youthful presence filled up the villa with a charm that would otherwise be hard to create with the rest of us pushing fifty. We all felt his contagious liveliness and also his hesitant haltering steps into the unknown. He had courage but not the foresight, so we shared that with him.
He told us of his dreams of seeing the world, of how he saved money for this trip, his travels from Belgium to France, to Germany to England and back, crossing the English Channel; how he would bike through the day and knock at a stranger’s door at night seeking permission to pitch his tent in their backyards or garden. Seldom was he refused or turned away, many times even invited in for a meal or a warm shower and bed. He encountered kindness he didn’t know existed, he gathered friends out of strangers, he found home within every human heart he touched and he grew, he soared and he fell in love with life and the idea of living and the symphony of freedom that his bike offered. He told me he biked since upon his bike with the wind caressing his face he felt like a bird, boundless and capable of infinity. The bike symbolized limitless horizons to Armand and that’s where he wanted to be. We loved his ideas, cherished his stories and his innocence since he didn’t know that not everyone would be his friend, not every human heart would open doors to his knocking nor would he find love at every corner or freedom once he got off his bike. One day he would have to return and find his way back again from the beginning to discover that all his travels had simply brought him to where he had started from. Since every end is a beginning as every beginning carries its own end within. But we didn’t tell him that since to do that would be unkind, we couldn’t kill his dreams of an ideal world before he had seen it in his heart. He must complete the cycle himself and learn in the process the lessons of hope and despair that love and hate are two sides of the same coin and that for the day to bring light there must be a night of darkness.
Finally the day arrived for his departure since he still had promises to keep and miles to bike before he could sleep. He aimed to reach Istanbul and then turn back and bike north through Bulgaria, Romania and other Balkan countries before turning west for home. Would he make it, would he find his way home, we didn’t know, and neither did Armand care. Even as his uncle and aunt stuffed his pannier with food and goodies, all he could think was of the road and the next mile and the freedom of the ride. We all wrote our thoughts in his black diary that he carried with him. It already had hundreds of messages from friends and strangers from many countries on the way. And I wrote, ‘Dear Armand, though you are free to make your choices, you are not free from the consequences of the choices you make; so choose wisely and act moderately. With time you will inspire and lead and motivate many to follow your path and all that will bestow unto you great power and always remember with power comes great responsibility therefore always act responsibly, many in this world will be looking up to you for inspiration; and you owe it to them and to your own self to empower others. Go with the wind my friend into the world that is your home.’
I have no idea where he is right now, perhaps in Croatia or already in Greece; is he resting right now at a roadside tavern or admiring a surreal sunset, is he sharing his smiles and stories with friends or gazing into the blue eyes of a pretty damsel that causes a flutter to his eager heart; I don’t know. But I hope he is well and he is happy and he is spreading his charm and happiness into every soul he touches and I hope that he is living fully in every moment, learning something new, braving the tempest as well as the calm, riding up against gravity and also with it down some hillside; and that he will meet many wise men on the road who will teach him new things and above all will show him where his passions should carry him and how he must never give up or stop the voyage even when the road ends.
I am eager to know of his journey, where the roads are taking him and I will log into his blog http://armandm.skyrock.com/ often to know how it is coming along. Perhaps I will never take a voyage like him again, and I shall never regain my youth but through Armand I will live and I hope I will meet him again one day and share a story and laughter of a secret bond that only travellers on the road can understand.