Spiritual journey on a motorbike
Jeremy Kroeker is a Mennonite with a motorcycle. When his seemingly unflinching faith in a Christian worldview begins to shift, Kroeker hops on his bike to seek answers from another perspective. After shipping his ride to Europe, Kroeker discovers that the machine wobbles back and forth worse than his own opinions about spirituality. Still, he carries on, oscillating through Europe — Germany, Austria, Croatia, Albania — and into the Middle East — Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and, ultimately, Iran. The following is excerpted from Through Dust and Darkness: A Motorcycle Journey of Fear and Faith in the Middle East by Jeremy Kroeker.
The day’s second call to prayer carried on a howling wind, reaching me through the engine noise before fading as I rode out of range. I shuddered. For the moment, the cool green of the Euphrates River Valley in Syria provided shelter from the storm, but all around me it looked as if God had chosen this space and time to dump out his vacuum cleaner bag. I looked up and noticed a small patch of dull blue sky directly above me. That, too, would soon disappear.
Plastic bags littered the landscape between ghostly towns, desperately clinging to whatever vegetation they could find to avoid getting carried off into Turkey, and sand drifted across the road like snow in a Canadian blizzard. The grit that ricocheted off my visor and silver helmet sounded like the static on an AM radio station during an electrical storm. Despite the fact that every inch of my body was covered with protective motorcycle apparel, a thick layer of dust coated my skin. I struggled to breathe. My eyes watered, the tears creating streaks of mud that ran down my cheeks and into my tangled red beard.
I could see the handlebars and instrument panel on my motorcycle. The speedometer indicated forty kilometres per hour. Beyond that, I could just make out two dotted lines on the grey road before me. That was my world.
But then, my path was obscure on a grander scale as well. I had never intended to visit Syria in the first place. At some point on my journey I lost the way, and I continued now without a guide, without direction. Without purpose.
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the plodding silhouettes of a camel herd, stoic or oblivious to the desert’s wrath. Then the storm, having given fair warning, blotted out every peripheral thing with an abrasive cloud of choking dust. I should have listened to the warning. Then again, if I had heeded warnings in the first place I never would have left home.
The Greek mountains ended precisely at the border with Turkey. My passport slid back and a forth a few times to a worker on the other side of the glass before it had all the correct exit stamps, but it was routine. Soon I was back on my bike, riding across a narrow bridge over the Maritsa River. The river begins its journey in the mountains of Bulgaria. It spills eventually into the Aegean Sea, where it mixes with water that flows from nearly every country on earth, but at the point where I crossed, it’s a dividing line.
Maybe the water doesn’t quite divide continents — that task is left to the Bosporus in Istanbul — but it delineates political territory, at least. Crossing the bridge meant that I had arrived in the Middle East. That’s what my map said, anyway.
The river marks a transition of cultures, too. In a way, it stands between the Christianity of Europe and the Islam of Middle East, but in today’s world the lines between religions are not as crisp as the banks of some river. In fact, it was way back in Albania that I had heard my first Muslim call to prayer of the trip.
Even so, crossing that boundary meant something to me.
Flags at the midpoint of the bridge marked the spot where I actually left one country for another. There on one side was the blue-and-white Greek flag with a white cross, and the red-andwhite Turkish flag with its white star and crescent was on the other. Primary colours and religious symbols, they all stretched out in a cold wind that day, snapping and tugging at white flagpoles.
It was the middle of October and I was bundled with insulating layers beneath my motorcycle riding gear, including an electric vest that plugged into my battery with a long wire.
When I got to Turkey I had to get an entry visa and buy insurance for the motorcycle. It felt like the first proper border crossing of the trip, even though I had already passed through half a dozen countries or so in the last two weeks.
I had shipped my bike from Canada to Germany. We had flown in on the same plane, the bike and I, and as I faced the carousel in Frankfurt, waiting for my checked baggage, I snickered at the thought of a KLR650 dropping down the conveyor belt. Instead, I had to get my bike from a cargo building the next day.
The German customs staff cleared my bike with staggering swiftness. The echo of the last rubber stamp to thump my paperwork had scarcely faded by the time I laid hands on my KLR.
Since then I had been in nearly constant motion to arrive here, at the frontier of another continent. And yet, as I rode into Turkey, everything looked familiar. There was a flat plain of brown grass pressed down by the wind, and every so often a small town beside the road. I might have mistaken the landscape for the Canadian Prairies, except there were mosques where rinks ought to be.
The road was straight and wide, allowing me to cover a lot of ground. I could have easily made it to Istanbul that same day, but there was no rush. The paperwork I needed for the next leg of my journey wasn’t ready. It was there, in Istanbul, that I needed to collect a visa for Iran.
Why I had chosen to ride a motorcycle from Germany to Iran was a bit of a mystery, even to me. When people asked, I generally gave rehearsed answers. Iran is rich in history, I’d say. The hospitality of its people is worldrenowned. I wanted to see for myself the nation that had been so vilified in the news in order to formulate my own opinion. After all, it was the summer of 2007 when I had decided to go, and I had left a few months later, in October. Back then, the president of the United States, George W. Bush, was in the latter half of his final term, and he was using some pretty incendiary language regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. If the political vitriol between Iran and the West were to get any worse, then the window of opportunity to visit might soon slam shut. Ultimately, however, these were only partial truths.
The fact is there was something else about Iran that tugged at my heart. It was the idea of visiting a theocratic nation. A nation ruled by God. (Maybe that’s why my visa application was taking so long.)
I was raised in a Mennonite family, so the notion of God factored prominently in my youth. I was born in the same Manitoba town that author Miriam Toews fictionalized (slightly) in A Complicated Kindness. In that book, an angst-ridden character called Nomi says, “Mennos are discouraged from going to the city, forty miles down the road, but are encouraged to travel to the remotest corners of Third World countries with barrels full of Gideon Bibles and hairnets.” Quite right.
We weren’t the Mennonites that people usually think of when they hear the word. That is to say, we weren’t stereotypical. Yes, my hand still wraps more naturally around a shovel than it does the handle on a briefcase, but I did not grow up on a farm. No one in my family drove a buggy. None of us wore black suspenders or grew funny beards (except for my dad, but that was in the seven- ties, when everyone had funny beards). It’s just that we subscribed to the particular brand of conservative Christian theology preached by the Mennonite church.
Then, when I was eight years old, my family moved to an even more exclusive Christian community on the campus of a Bible college in Saskatchewan. There I attended a Christian elementary school, a Christian high school, and finally a Christian college where I learned to think critically back to predetermined conclusions. Could anyone have been more indoctrinated into a Christian philosophy than me? Answer: no.
So I considered God a lot. In fact, for years I thought about little else. Recently, though, I had struggled to define my concept of the Divine. More accurately, I had stopped thinking about it altogether. There were too many unanswerable questions. Too many differing points of view that seemed equally invalid. The last time I examined my faith, I felt it was juvenile. I stopped at the brink of tossing it all away in favour of a mature attitude towards life — one without imaginary friends. I bought books by Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, but I lacked the courage to read them all the way through. The timing wasn’t right for those ideas. I put them on the shelf for later, along with a Bible that I hadn’t opened in years. That’s where I left it all, unfinished books on the shelf, and God on the edge of my mind.
Though I failed to process any of this before making my decision, at least on some level I must have hoped that a journey to Iran, a nation ruled by God, would provide closure. Maybe it would even provide the catalyst I needed to finally abandon God. If nothing else, it would force the subject of faith to the foreground.
EXCERPTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THROUGH DUST AND DARKNESS: A MOTORCYCLE JOURNEY OF FEAR AND FAITH IN THE MIDDLE EAST BY JEREMY KROEKER. AVAILABLE AT PAGES BOOKS ON KENSINGTON, OWL’S NEST, SHELF LIFE BOOKS, CHAPTERS, INDIGO AND COLES; PUBLISHED
BY RMB/ROCKY MOUNTAIN BOOKS.
Jeremy Kroeker, author of Through Dust and Darkness, hopped on his motorcycle to seek answers about faith from another perspective.