ABU DHABI // After seven years as the owner and chef of a small restaurant in Belgium, Paul Truyens was overtaken by a desire for adventure. The 43-year-old bachelor sold the restaurant, set aside 25,000 (Dh135,000) and embarked on a five-year world tour by bicycle. He arrived in Sharjah from Iran late last month, having ridden through countries including France, Italy, Greece, Turkey and Iran.
His arrival in the UAE marked only the second time he has travelled by ship since leaving Belgium; he had ridden some 12,800km on his bike by the time he reached Abu Dhabi. "I had an opportunity to sell my place and I decided to buy a bicycle and do a world tour," said Mr Truyens. "I wasn't a cyclist before. I was 17 years old the last time I owned a cycle." He averaged 100km a day on his rugged Koga-Miyata bike during his first 126 riding days.
He has been travelling since April 6 and sleeps outside wherever he can, from a beach in Abu Dhabi to a bench in a petrol station in Turkey. So far, he has braved temperatures as low as 5C and as high as 42C in Greece. He carries a load of 40kg, which includes a tent and sleeping bag but not drinking water. Carrying water would add 10kg to his load. He wanted to travel through Pakistan from Iran but was denied a visa. Instead, after leaving Abu Dhabi he is working his way across India. Eventually he plans to cross the Pacific and ride through the Americas before returning to Belgium in 2014.
This tour marks the first time Mr Truyens has visited the Middle East or an Islamic country. He was particularly impressed by the hospitality he found while touring a village in southern Iran, where a family invited him to their home. "I refused at first but in the end I couldn't say no. I went to this family's house. They had nothing. They were extremely poor." He was treated as an honoured guest. "You could feel the world of hospitality in those people and thinking about it gives me goosebumps and tears in my eyes," he said. "I was trying to give them money at the end, and they said no. We had some rice and a little fish. I am sure they would have shared their last food with me."
The family's house was a mud hut. "Western people can learn so much about that kind of hospitality, the meaning of taking care of a foreigner," he said. Other fond memories so far include being given a hugely discounted hotel room in Dubai by a sympathetic manager and being handed Dh20 by a Pakistani worker in the country shortly after eating a free dinner with other Pakistanis. He also found unexpected hospitality in Abu Dhabi when he met an electrical engineer, Jergen Kernen, who offered his spare room.
He is an avid environmentalist and does not miss a chance to talk about the advantages of cycling. And he has some advice for the capital's planning department. "They have to think seriously about cycle lanes. The traffic is terrible, and the pollution and accidents will only get worse. If they want to think about the environment, this should be a cycle-friendly city." The challenging times include being robbed in Turkey and being involved in a car accident in Georgia.
"But, overall, I feel like I have learnt a lot," he said. "The trip has taught me about humanity. There will always be people who say I have just been really lucky. There are good and bad people all over. Most of the people are just good, though." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org