Thursday, April 02, 2015

Emirates Literature Festival - Day 2

 Extreme Adventures: Ted Simon, Mark Evans, Julie Lewis & Richard Parks

It’s been exactly 7 years since I summited one of the world’s highest peaks, Mt. Kilimanjaro, 6 years since I ran a Half-Marathon and, probably, 5 years since I even went camping in the desert. My life, which once read like an adventure handbook filled with solo travels and thrilling escapades, was now a regular domestic chronicle featuring bedtime stories and play dates in between endless chores. No complaints there, but lately I’d begun to question whether I’d erred in jettisoning adventure so completely from my life.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the ‘Extreme Adventures’ session, which featured four hardy travellers, including one woman! I was hoping to vicariously enjoy their adventures, and perhaps, even be inspired again.  

The panelists included Mark Evans, who’d led expeditions in the Arctic, and had kayaked around Oman in 55 days, Julie Lewis, who’d led expeditions in 20 countries, including the Arctic and Antartica, Richard Parks, who’d done the Seven Summits and the three Poles in seven months, and finally, Ted Simon.

Ted Simon - 'Jupiter's Travels'
How do I begin to describe Ted Simon? He set off in the 1970s on a 4-year-long motorbike ride across the world. He did it again 40 years later when he was a septuagenarian. In between those years, he’d kept himself busy walking across Eastern Europe, journeying across the British Isles and pioneering organic agriculture in California! And here he was at a Lit Fest in Dubai, well into his 70s, curiosity, wanderlust and energy still intact. Even before he started speaking, I was impressed.

Simon started out by pointing out that since it was a literary festival, we should examine the words related to travel that are dreadfully misused. “What is travel?” he asked, “Can we term what business people or pilots do as travel? For me, travel is setting out into a world you don’t know.”

He continued, “Another word is adventure. Nowadays it has come to mean any kind of exploit. Whereas I feel the only real adventure is when you set out into the unknown.” He added that there had to be a mental element to adventure, something ‘illuminating’.

Each of the panelists was asked about what drove them to set out on their adventures. Parks shared that the insecurity and uncertainty he felt after an injury forced him out of a promising rugby career drove him to test his limits of his endurance. Lewis shared that as a child she received a globe as a present, and by spinning it and pointing to a place, she would transport herself there. That was what set off the wanderlust in her. “Every child should be gifted a globe,” she remarked, with a laugh. 

All of the panelists were unequivocal about the importance of adventure in life. As Lewis said, “It’s paramount to have an adventurous spirit. In today’s world, there are so many constraints, it’s important to set out. With experiences, come deeper self-understanding and with that comes growth.”

Simon added, “It’s really important to travel, otherwise we’re slaves to media information. People who are really wonderful, but you wouldn’t think so reading the newspapers.”

Speaking of the abundance of travel literature, most panelists agreed that books were a catalyst but couldn’t be considered a substitute for adventure. “The more travel literature there is, there’s less of real experience,” said Simon, adding, “You can’t get lost in the world nowadays,” complained Simon. “It’s all digital. One click of a button and you know exactly where you are.”

Lewis felt that the anxiety that people experience in modern times is because of a disconnect with nature. She urged that people disconnect from their smart devices and go outdoors to discover themselves.

For a couple of the panelists, writing about their exploits proved as equally revelatory as the adventure. As Simon shared, “I’m a writer, not a motorcyclist. I write to explain things to myself.” He also pointed out that there was a difference between exploits that are turned into books and exploits that are undertaken with the hope of them being turned into a bestselling novel.

What’s the most crucial item to have on an extreme adventure? Zips, apparently! Both Evans and Parks put this down on their must-have list, while Simon also added elastic bands.

On the importance of proper planning and preparation, there were two opposing views. Parks, the extreme adventure athlete, believed in extreme planning and manic attention to details. “In my sports career, I was constantly insecure. And at that time, I regarded it as a character flaw. But now, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s the insecurity that drives me to plan every little detail.”

Simon felt that too much preparation was unnecessary. “You have deliver yourself to the world and let it look after you,” he said. He also added that since he didn’t have to return to an office or answer to anyone, he was free to become a part of wherever he was.

Evans had a more moderate view. “The degree of planning depends on whether you’re doing a solo trip or guiding an expedition. For instance, when I led an Arctic expedition with 40 people, we had to all be prepared for the extreme conditions,” he said. The extreme conditions he shared about included four months of darkness, nocturnal visits by polar bears and battles with frostbite. He held up a finger with a blackened tip saying, “Oh, that’s a frostbitten finger, by the way.”

All the panelists were unanimous about the single most important trait to have on an adventure, “Humility,” said Simon, while Evans and Lewis nodded. “And zips,” added Parks. Parks also underlined the importance of living in the moment, saying, “You break records not by brute force, but by living in the moment.”

The hour-long session ended way too soon, and it seemed almost unfair to have four hugely interesting people share a stage, when you could listen to each of them for hours. Still, I left the hall feeling invigorated and open to the possibility of adventure. I might not be found atop a mountain anytime soon, but maybe I’ll make my way up a sand dune, with the little cub in tow.