In 2011, Tom Perkins set off to cycle from London to Cape Town. Joined by friends and taken in by strangers, his 501-day journey took him over 20,000km of road, through 26 countries and across 3 continents.
His goal, to learn about lesser-documented cultures through food, became an epic culinary adventure that culminated in his first book, Spices and Spandex.
From sleeping rough to gorging on a freshly decapitated bull, and from being run over twice to being caught up in the midst of the Arab Spring, he told us what it’s really like to spend 501 days living – and eating – on the side of the road.
In ten words how would you describe your journey?
A privileged, exposed, kaleidoscopic adventure on a hungry stomach.
That was nine but we’ll let you off. So what was the inspiration behind your trip?
I studied politics, history and film at university and I thought what am I doing to do with this knowledge? I wanted to visit these places.
We can have this armchair knowledge of places and societies but until you go and experience them, that knowledge is unfounded. Travel is education, it teaches in a way that nothing else does.
So my inspiration came from this goal of travelling from London to Cape Town, and of using food as the lens through which to get a better understanding of places. Food is this amazing facilitator, it allows you to interact with so many different people in different societies. It opens up doors like nothing else.
Is there one meal that really stands out in your memory?
Yes. It was in south Malawi, we’d been cycling for eight hours and we had forgotten to buy any provisions.
We were stuck on the side of the road with no food. But we were taken in by a school teacher named Nelson, who served us a very simple meal, which was very bland because he could not afford to buy salt. And it struck me that here was a man who couldn’t afford salt but he had provided for strangers.
It was that sense of unreserved generosity to complete strangers that I carried with me throughout the trip. It wasn’t fine dining, but it was a meal that had so much loaded intention behind it that it really stuck with me.
You travelled through 26 countries, where surprised you the most?
Ethiopia. It’s a country which defies all conventions.
Any notion of what you think might be there, just ignore that because you’re going to be overwhelmed by the realities on the ground. Everything about it is different from anywhere you’ve been before.
It has its own alphabet, its own calendar, its own time, its own food, its own religion, its own drink culture, its own dance culture. And it’s the most densely populated landlocked country in the world, so everywhere you look there are people.
Image by Tom Perkins
It’s so far from the impression that we get of Ethiopia; it’s so fertile, so green, so mountainous, so diverse and so rich in culture. You go there and you don’t know what’s happening because there’s nothing to relate it back to.
Either you get on board with it or you can become very overwhelmed by it. But that’s what the journey was about, being pushed outside of our comfort zones. Everything we set out to do Ethiopia delivered in spades.
Where was the hardest place to travel?
We had a really amazing, yet challenging, experience travelling through Egypt. The country at the time was right in the heart of the Arab Spring, so it was tough at times.
We had some incredible experiences there that I still can’t quite make sense of, such as being escorted away from Tahrir Square because we looked like Israeli spies.
Witnessing that kind of social phenomenon first hand and talking to young Egyptians that were very tied up in the revolution was amazingly exposing. Our eyes were wide open being in Egypt at the time for many good and bad reasons.
Image by Tom Perkins
What was the scariest moment of your trip?
There were some scary moments. I got run over twice – it wasn’t very much fun. I still shudder just thinking about how close that second time was. It was one of those moments where you realize just how dangerous it can be living on the side of the road for 501 days.
You wild camped the whole way, where was the weirdest place you spent the night?
Fifty-two hours hitching a lift to a safe town, on a lorry carrying kidney beans, through the precarious northern Kenyan savannah, was probably the weirdest two nights I’ve had in a long time.
You were away for 501 days did you find it hard to adjust back to normal life?
It was a tough process to adjust to normal life but you never really go back to how things were. You always take things from the road because you can’t do a journey like this and not have that affect the way that you try live your life afterwards.
What advice would you give to someone dreaming of doing a similar trip?
Know your strengths and weaknesses. The beauty of doing something like this is that you can tailor it to what suits you so find a means and a method that really motivates you. And be flexible to the idea of the unknown, accept that you can’t control everything.
Be clear in your blueprints, be clear in your ambitions and then be true to yourself. And don’t try and imitate anything else, because it’s you at the end of the day who has to constantly keep pushing. So have that flexibility, but be very clear why you’re travelling as well.
Image by Tom Perkins
Is there a particularly important lesson that you learnt?
Two things: perspective and perseverance. A journey like this will inevitably have many highs and many lows.
It’s crucial not to let the lows disproportionately affect the way that you see and make judgments about certain places and individuals. Accept that actually the lows in trips like this kind of accentuate the highs; they are all part of the journey and they add richness to it.
And then perspective. When travelling through some of the more challenging parts of the world you have to look around and realize how lucky you are. That we are in the amazingly privileged position to very readily find solutions to the problems that we might encounter.
So perspective and perseverance. Realizing that travel has these great fluctuations and so being able to relish every moment, be it high or low, is a really valuable thing.
Image by Tom Perkins
Now you’re back, what’s next for you?
Once you’ve done a trip like this you’re constantly scheming for the next one.
I am transfixed now on South America. My dream is to go from Mexico City to Buenos Aires and to discover as many lesser-documented food cultures along the way. And again to travel in a really slow, intimate way. I’d love to produce another book if I can.
That sense of documenting – to go away, to get to get people to teach you and then to relay that in some form – is what really motivates me.
Find out more about Tom’s travels and order Spices and Spandex on his website: www.thenomadickitchen.com. Header image by Tom Perkins.