Odysseus’ Last Stand

I can’t decide whether this is a play on Odysseus finally going home, or on the Led Zeppelin song Achilles’ Last Stand. Doesn’t matter, I guess.

Dave Stamboulis, a Greek-American, decides to travel the world. He decides to do this by bike. He ends up riding 40,000km over seven years. This is the book he wrote from his journals and notes afterwards.

It’s a truly remarkable journey, of course. 40,000km?! I read this because my love has found a few books recently dealing with cycle touring, to help get us psyched up for our jaunt this year. It did help with that in some ways, but at the same time there are certain aspects of Stamboulis’ journey that I have absolutely no interest in replicating. For one thing, he meets and marries a woman on the trip… and then separates from her, too, in quite ignominious circumstances. Hopefully seven years of marriage will help us not to face the same sort of trials in our relationship! (I’ve made him promise never to ditch me in an unknown city, though, as a consequence.)

Stamboulis is not a professional writer, so it may seem unfair to criticise his writing. Nonetheless, there are some aspects of the book that annoyed me. He’s inconsistent in whether he focuses on the riding itself, or on the country. This may well reflect his own notes and journals, of course, and maybe he figured this was the more interesting way of approaching the world. Plus, probably in some areas the riding itself was quite boring. It is fascinating to see his perspective on the world: he travels through Kashmir, and through Turkey, and through some of the ‘Stans, and gets a remarkable view of the people and culture. Plus, he finishes up riding through America, and while I’d like to think that he exaggerates the reactions and attitudes of some of his compatriots I’m quite sure he hasn’t. Which is, frankly, terrifying. Also annoying is the here-and-gone discussion of his emotions. And before any of your blokes start shaking your head at such a girly thing to say: he separates from his wife, and for chapter upon chapter she’s not mentioned! This, for me, is simply unrealistic. Perhaps he decided that he wanted to keep that part of his life out of the book, but I would have preferred a statement to that effect – or, if not, then the rest of the book should have been equally emotionless. But it’s not, so it feels inconsistent.

Overall, though, Odysseus’ Last Stand is quite well written. (Odysseus, by the way, is the bike – the same bike for the whole trip, with remarkably few mechanical issues.) It’s generally engaging and interesting, and is certainly inspiring. He’s heavily influenced by Buddhist and Zen philosophies, and this of course impacts on how he views things like materialism, ambition, etc. While I got impatient with some of his philosophising – some of it was a bit hokey, some I disagreed with – he does make some interesting points about interacting with other cultures, with being willing to take risks and chances, and more generally about not simply following the rat race simply because you’re expected to. Obviously, this is something that I do agree with.

This is not a book that will appeal to all. I went through a big travel-book phase a little while back, and am still somewhat in that zone. I would recommend it as a way of thinking about the world, and also to marvel at one man (sometimes with one woman) facing huge differences in culture and language, and making do.

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