An unreasonable decision: cycling solo across a continent

Mar 22, 2024 | Adventure Queen Grant

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man” 

George Bernard Shaw, 1903 

I can’t imagine a more unreasonable thing for someone like me – an unemployed, recently divorced, third-generation immigrant, mother-of-two in my mid-30s – to do than to cycle solo across a continent. But as of the 1st January this year, when I went to lay flowers on my grandfather’s grave on his birthday – chosen, perhaps, to symbolise his fresh start when he arrived in this country and was asked his date of birth – that’s what I decided to do. 

Blame George Bernard Shaw, whose words – displayed on my bedroom wall, cross-stitched in an act of micro-rebellion as a teenager – give me comfort that there might be some benefit to being stubborn. 

Blame Dervla Murphy, whose account of her solo cycle journey from Ireland to India in 1963 has long inspired me to undertake a similarly epic adventure of my own one day.  

Or Adventure Queens, whose generosity in awarding me one of their three grants for 2024 gave me the confidence to do this now, and will provide further support in route finding, mentoring, equipment and an injection of cash. 

But most of all, my decision begins with my grandfather, who left his wife, two young daughters and the world he knew behind in Pakistan – the year after Murphy completed her ride, but travelling in the opposite direction – to chance his luck in Britain as an economic migrant. He took a leap of faith that changed the lives of his whole family forever; exactly 60 years on from his momentous journey, at a crossroads in my own life, I am attempting to take charge of my life and seeking my own fresh start. 

At least, that’s the plan! I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that fear is creeping in the closer I get to my start date – missing the kids too much, staying safe, being attacked by stray dogs, colliding with a careless driver… BUT it also feels like if there was ever a time to do this, it is now. 

I grew up in my grandparents’ home just outside Glasgow, itself a mirror of the Pakistan they came from. Urdu is my first language; desi beats were the rhythm of my childhood. But my connection to these roots gradually frayed. I moved away for university, married outside of my culture, and am now raising children who don’t speak my mother tongue. The stripping away of my identity has accelerated in recent months as I shed the conferred respect of my former titles of Mrs Permall and Director for Scotland for a children’s charity. This has set me free to ask: who am I now and who do I want to be in the second half of my life?  

Follow me? I will record here my journey from Glasgow to Istanbul this spring in Part 1 of this epic adventure. Part 2 will take me from Istanbul to my grandfather’s ancestral village in Pakistan – but that’s for another day. 

As my legs spin and the wheels turn week after week, I want to truly feel the magnitude of the cultural distance my Grandad travelled as I retrace his steps and witness how culture shifts across a continent. I hope this reverse migration on two wheels with a microphone in hand will offer me important insights into questions that I and millions of others grapple with daily: who am I? Where do I fit in? What should I let go of and hold onto as I navigate change?  

Departing in April, I will cycle over 2,800 miles to arrive in Istanbul by the end of June, inshallah, passing through Scotland, England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Bulgaria before arriving in Turkey.

On the way, I plan to revisit all the places that I have called ‘home’ – North-East England as a Maths teacher, Cambridge as a student and Greenwich as a financial regulator – to reflect on how my cultural identity has changed over time. 

I hope to meet others along the way who are grappling with these questions and whose stories I resonate with and learn from, be they mothers of young children, Pakistani or other immigrants, or simply the restless of spirit trying to forge a way forward in their lives. If you are – or know – someone I should speak to, please get in touch! I’d love to speak to you. And thank you for reading so far.

This guest blog post was written by 2023/24 Adventure Queen grant winner Sahir Pernall, and reposted from her personal adventure blog.

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