15 Days in Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan. 15 days. Over 1300 kilometres. And an excessive amount of asking ourselves: “What on earth are we doing here?”

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We made it a regular practice to beat the sun up as a way of staying cool in the mornings.

After a restful and productive time in Baku, we were ready to catch our ferry across the Caspian Sea to Aktau, Kazakhstan. Somehow we hit the jackpot and managed to catch a ferry right from the port in Baku instead of travelling 70km to the usual point of departure. We arrived at the dock at 11PM ready to board, but it wasn’t until 430AM that we were woken up from a deep sleep by a young Azeri man who told us it was time to go to the boat. We stumbled to our bikes, along with an English couple that we had met earlier that day, and after a brief hold-up at passport control, which turned out to be nothing more than a shipping container with a dividing wall in the middle, we were through and made our way foggily onto the ferry.

The ship was pretty old school and our English friend Jonathan described it as a “proper batten down the hatches” type of boat. The ride was largely uneventful and between meals we spent most of our time napping, reading, sitting on the upper deck, or playing cards with our new friends Jonathan and Harriet.

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The port in Aktau with Johnathan and Harriet.

When we arrived in Aktau, the Kazakh border guards marched on-board and demanded that we get our documents. The problem was, when we boarded the boat we had handed our documents to one of the crew members, who was no where to be found. This delay really set off the head patrol officer and we realized we had not made a good first impression. Eventually everything got sorted out. After a slow passport control process and a real half effort baggage check, we were on our way. We stopped at the Caspian Sea to dip our feet in, then rode on to our hostel. We spent a nice night relaxing and by 2pm the following afternoon we were headed out of the city and into the desert.

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One of the better sections of dirt road that we encountered our first few days in the desert.

Within a few kilometres of riding, the road turned from smooth asphalt to a bumpy dirt trail. Camels and horses were scattered throughout the flatlands surrounding us. For many hours we didn’t see any trace of other human beings. This road continued for the rest of the day as we made our way along dried out river beds and up into the rolling hills. As the sun was setting, we realized that our water supply was running low and we were becoming dehydrated and very hungry. A few minutes later a small group of buildings appeared on the horizon and we made our way hastily towards them, while not letting our hopes of finding water get too high.

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The morning view our first full day in the desert.

The buildings turned out to be a Muslim heritage site comprised of underground mosques and beside that was the living quarters of the local caretakers. We came for water, but were treated to a dinner of bread, cookies, raisins and dates, and a chai tea overload. We then showered in a small brick room, using a small pot to pour water over our sweaty, sweaty bodies. We slept beneath the stars on a raised platform behind their house, and in the morning we were given breakfast and chai before continuing on our way. We thanked them as sincerely as we knew how and headed onward. Nearly 20kms down, the dirt road ended and the highway began. We thought things were going to get a lot easier from there. Oh, how wrong we were.

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Brad showing our new friend some pictures from our trip so far. This kid was awesome and even took an assisted spin on my bike.

Early the next morning we made a steep ascent. When we finally reached the peak, we found ourselves riding on top of a seemingly endless wasteland plateau. There was no shade, no trees and nothing to block the extreme headwind. For the next three and a half days we rode through the most dry and desolate landscape that either of us had ever seen. From around 11AM to 4PM the temperature did not drop below 40 degrees. We got in the habit of waking up at 6am, riding for a few hours and taking lengthy breaks to beat the heat. Flood tunnels under the highway were the best place to do this, as they were the only source of shade for hundreds of miles. Water was scarce. It was only the generosity of drivers giving us water and those who occupied the rare truck stops that kept us moving. According to our GPS route, we had at least another 600km of this barren desert, possibly worse, in order to get to the next major town. We realized this was ludicrous and made a unanimous decision to try and take a train to avoid a torturous, perhaps even impossible stretch of road.

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Flood tunnels were where we spent 5-6 hours a day to get out of the desert sun.

This stretch of the trip was the most difficult thing that I have ever done. It wore us out physically, mentally and emotionally. No part of us was left unaffected by the desert. The five hour mid-day rests were almost as difficult for me as the riding. We would cook lunch and then try to nap the day away, but I mostly found myself awake, in a tunnel too small to stand in and too rounded to sit comfortably, thinking of home and everyone that I missed so desperately. These times caused me to reflect on why we were even doing this. At times it seemed too painful to be worth it. However, I realized that no matter how lonely and uncomfortable my situation felt, it could not even be measured on the same scale of the despair and isolation that is experienced daily by those that we are riding for. This was motivation enough for me to keep pushing on.

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Even Brad’s lean frame could hardly make it through this train carriage.

When we finally arrived in the town of Beyneu, (the first city in over 300km) we immediately headed for the train station. Within an hour we had our train tickets booked. We checked into a sketchy looking hostel right beside the station and crashed hard. At 1:30 in the morning, we were holding up the train as we tried to find a place to put our loaded bicycles on an already overly crowded carriage. The journey was by no means restful, but it saved us the trek by bicycle and we were very grateful for this (later we discovered that the route we were planning on taking was not even a legitimate road, but for some reason our navigation app wanted to take us that way).

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It looks a lot more beautiful when you don’t have to bike through it.

We arrived in Kyzylorda after a 30 hour train ride and began the next 450km desert stretch to Shymkent, where we had a home-stay lined up with a local man that we had met on the train. Thankfully, the terrain was a little more green and the wind was at our backs, so we made really good time over the next few days. Upon our arrival in Shymkent, we called our Kazahk friend who had offered us a place to stay, but we got no answer. A few minutes later, we recieved a text back saying that he had left the city and wouldn’t be back to the following afternoon. We really did need a shower and laundry so we went online and found the cheapest place in the city. It turned out to be an amazing two bedroom apartment entirely to ourselves. After a brief exploration of the city, some much needed ‘camca’ (a trianglular pastry stuffed with meat and onions), and a football match with some local kids, we made our way back to the apartment through a gap in the barbed wire fence surrounding the complex. This led to us being shouted at by a group of elderly Russian ladies who were upset enough to get a police officer involved. In the end it turned out to be nothing more than a case of mistaken identity and some extremely paranoid neighbours, but it sure made for an entertaining evening.

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Some farmers we met just outside of Taraz. Really nice dudes.

From Shymkent we rode to Taraz in two short days. As we reached the outskirts of the city we saw two local road cyclists up ahead. They struck up a conversation with us and I told them we were looking for a place to eat (noodles and canned beef were getting old) so they took us to a restaurant, the grocery store, and eventually one of them offered to host us for the night. He took us on a night ride through the city and even did some minor work on our bikes (one of his occupations was a bike mechanic). The next day we slept in. After breakfast (camca and coffee) he took us to the bike shop where he works. His trainer was an incredibly kind man who treated us to lunch in one of the nicest restaurants in the city. We ate until we were full, which is an incredibly rare occurrence when we are on the road. During the meal we were informed by our new friend that his racing team, many of whom are on the Kazakhstan national team, would be accompanying us 30km outside the city. Fortunately for us, they were gracious and kept a speed that we could maintain, but we still felt pretty legit riding alongside such elite riders.

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Cycling with members of the Kazakh national team.

The following night we camped in a field looking out at the rugged mountain range that had dominated the southern horizon for the last few hundred kilometres. In the morning we woke to what I thought was the sound of rain pattering against the tent, but it was actually hundreds of sheep walking by our tent. This has weirdly becoming a normal way to wake up. After a brief 30 minute ride we had arrived at a small border town where we treated ourselves to one last pot of Kazakh chai as we braced to enter country number 14: Kyrgyzstan.

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Kids often chase us on their bicycles as we ride through smaller towns. This guy was pumped to see us!

One thing that stood out to me during this entire time was the unbelievable amount of encouragement and support we received from you folks back home. It made me profoundly grateful for the people that I have the great privilege of calling my family and friends. It also made me miss home more than ever, but both Brad and I can say that we are excited for this next stretch of the journey and believe that, even though we can’t see it with our own eyes, our actions, combined with your support are bringing freedom and hope to precious lives.

With much love and great anticipation,
Joel & Brad

 

 

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Chisinau to the Caucasus

Hey friends!

We are nine weeks into this thing – it’s wild. By no means is this trip getting any easier. Last we spoke, Joel and I were just passing through the mountainous regions of Northern Romania. I just so happen to be reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula during this time, which coincidentally takes place in Transylvania. It added a bit of flare to an already interesting book.

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Dreading the 1500m ascent.

Moldova was not originally on our route. We were forced to change our approach to the Black Sea.  We found that there was no ship leaving the port in Constanta, Romania on the dates we needed.  Our next best option was to head to Odessa, Ukraine where we were able to reserve a room aboard a cargo ship leaving on August 1st.  We spent 4 days in Odessa at a home stay/hostel. We got to see the city for a few days, spend lots of time swimming in the Black Sea and even managed to get some bike repairs done.

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Just workin’ the camera on the ferry.

Before boarding the ship on the Black Sea, we both assumed we would be sailing with a bunch of drunk truckers in a grungy old rigger for 2 days.  To our surprise, there was a bunch of families and a few fellow travellers roughly our age. Before leaving the port, we had already made friends with most of young people. The trip acros was so much fun.  I spent my birthday hanging out, eating, playing cards, watching dolphins and seeing the sun set over the Black Sea.  Not a bad birthday.

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I wouldn’t be next to him if it wasn’t for Batumi…

Our plan in Georgia was to stay in the port city of Batumi for a few nights, get our visas sorted out for Azerbaijan and take in a few sights while we waited for the processing.  Turns out the consulate was closed and we needed to head to Tbilisi, where the embassy was.  We spent the day exploring and swimming anyways.  The morning after we decided to hit the road. We had enjoyed our 6 day break from biking, but it was time to get back to reality.

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Georgian Black Sea coastline!

The road to Tbilisi was really nice. The first portion was along the sea. Once we hit he highway, it was smooth sailing to the capital.  We hit a couple days of bad head wind, but the camping spots in the mountains made up for the tough rides. Similar to Romania, the mountains in Georgia are incredible. We tend to love anywhere that reminds us of home. Especially on tough riding days, those little reminders mean so much and often help us push forward even when we don’t feel like we can.

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For no reason other than I love this screen shot.

Tbilisi was a lot more fun than we had anticipated. Initially, Joel and I were both mad at each other for some dumb reason coming in and in the midst of that argument we got separated in the heart of a huge city.  It took us at least 2 hours to find eacother at the hostel we had booked. Not a good way to start a rest day. Needless to say, maybe it was a good for us to be alone for a few hours, seeing as though we spend basically every waking moment together.

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For the 4 days we were there, we met up with an old friend from the ferry, made some new friends from both our hostel and other friends hostels. Together we day tripped to an old cave monastery and spent another few days together as Joel and I waited for our visas to process.  For the first time on our trip, we felt no need to make it anywhere on time.  We were free to actually hangout and enjoy ourselves. Which is hard when all we are mostly used to is eat, bike, sleep and repeat.

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Tubes on tubes on tubes.

Our visas were approved on the Friday night, so Saturday we packed our bikes and headed to Sheki, Azerbaijan. The Azeri border was the first border crossing that actually took the time to search us. Most places seem confused, they look at us, smell us and decide we aren’t worth the time.  After 45 minutes and an attempt at stealing my watch, we were on our way. Cruising through the mountains of Azerbaijan was so cool. They are almost too steep to live on or farm, so everyone basically lives along the base of the mountains. Luckily for us, that meant flat riding!

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Sheki was the only big city we stopped in Azerbaijan before the Caspian Sea. We made some more friends, ate tons of donairs, napped and rode horses! It was a nice break. After that, we headed on the last leg of our journey through the Caucuses. It was easily the hottest we have riden though all trip. Miles and miles of desert wasteland in 40+ degree heat. Even at night it stayed around 28 degrees. But before long we reached the final city, Baku!

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We’ve been here for a few days staying with some friends who have been kind enough to let us crash at their flat and show us the city life. We got word a few hours ago that our ferry to Kazakhstan leaves tomorrow morning! Now more than ever we are going to need your prayers! 30 days of heat and desert ahead.

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We are so thankful for all of your messages, donations , website shares and words of encouragement. We would not be here if it weren’t for you guys! We are also so thankful to be part of the Lighthouse Voyage family and their mission to see the sex trade abolished worldwide. It is something we both believe strongly in – the equality of all people. We hope you continue to follow our journey and get onboard with what Lighthouse Voyage is a part of. We miss you all back home and are praying for you all as well. Check out our recent blog to get an inside view on some of the highlights!

All our love,

Brad and Joel

 

Why Lighthouse Voyage?

We are both passionate about pursuing justice in the face of sexual exploitation and when we see people doing work we believe in we want to get behind their efforts. That’s why we love our friends at Lighthouse Voyage. Watch this video to find out more about this incredible organization.

Vlog #1, #2, & ‘A Day in the Life’

Here is your inside look at our trip so far! We are so grateful to have this platform of adventure to raise money and awareness about an issue we are so passionate about. Most days are pretty much the same, but we have compiled some of the highlights below. Stay tuned for more on why we are in this fight and why we are fundraising for Lighthouse Voyage.

Hoping in Something Better

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Hey Everybody! Joel here.

It’s crazy to think that we have already been on the road for one month! After a rough few weeks of trying to figure out our daily rhythms of buying food, finding water, cooking, setting up camp, navigation, language and cultural barriers, we finally feel as though we have found our groove. We have settled into patterns and an understanding that this is what life is going to look like for the next five months.

We have been so blown away by the people who have blessed us by taking us into their homes, covering our bills at restaurants, giving us amazing deals on bike repairs, and simply supporting us in other capacities. We have love sharing about the purpose of our journey with such a mix of amazing people. Some of these people are pictured below.

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Our friend Mazin from Suadi Arabia who showed us around Debrecen, cooked us an amazing meal and even biked 30km with us!

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The amazing bike repair man who tuned up our steeds and gave us a killer deal.

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Viktor hosting multiple guests in one room. What a gem!

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Viktor and Brad pumped for breakfast.

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‘Rasta and his family in front of their beautiful home!

In the last two weeks we have been in four different countries and have travelled well over 1000km. We left Prague after a restful two and a half day break and headed for Austria. For some reason we found it very difficult to find water our first day in the country. The towns we passed through were small and seemed relatively uninhabited and no public taps were turned on. It was a scorcher of a day and we were incredibly discouraged and dehydrated, but we knew we had no choice but to press on. Then, in the most unsuspecting town, we came across an public outdoor pool with wooden decks and reeds all around the outside. It honestly felt like we had found our own little paradise in the middle of a desert. We filtered water from the pool (it was fed from a natural source), ate lunch, and then went for a swim. We felt revitalized and felt ready to push on.

After crossing into Slovakia we made our way to Bratislava and spent a day purchasing resources we were low on and getting some much needed self-care. It was just a short stretch from there to Budapest where we were again refreshed by getting to stay with an amazing host, Viktor (above). Following this, we camped a few nights without our tent because the forecast said it would rain and we couldn’t find bridges with enough flat space to put up our tent.

After one of these restless nights we woke to discover our navigation app wasn’t working. We headed out into the rain in hopes of getting wifi, but chances seemed slim being that it was Sunday. However, we ended up running into a dreadlocked hippy nicknamed ‘Rasta’ (above) who invited us into his home to use his wifi. We got the app up and running and headed on our way, but not before his sister and mother served us coffee, tea and pancakes and gave us a tour of their beautiful home and farm. We left in high spirits. Twenty kilometres later, Brad broke two spokes on the gear side of the rear wheel that we needed a bike shop to help with the replacement. We asked locals if there was a repair shop around, but the town was far too small.  It was at this point that we had to humble ourselves and admit that we couldn’t do every kilometre across Europe by bike. So we boarded a train and headed for the city of Debrecen in Hungary.

One hour and 70kms later we arrived in the city. We found a Macdonald’s and used their wifi to look up bike shops, but nothing was open until the morning. In a last ditch effort to find a place to sleep, we fired off a couple requests on Couchsurfer and to our surprise we got a response! An hour later we were acquainted with our friend Mazin, who is a cyclist himself, and a doctor from Saudi Arabia. He was an amazing host and took us to a bike shop in the morning before introducing us to some delicious Hungarian food.

Then we headed for the mountains of Romania. These last two days were two of the most mentally challenging yet. We had to walk our fully loaded bikes for kilometres at a time up rocky logging roads to get through the mountains. It was a miracle that our tires survived. On the second day, after our slowest morning on record and nearly 60km of not seeing a paved road, we hit asphalt. It felt like a dream. Almost immediately the road changed from a mountainous ascent to a 40km downhill cruise which took us to where we now rest in a family run guest house in Campulung, Romania.

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Brad and the view after a brutal, but beautiful ascent

 

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One of the ‘better’ roads in the hills of Transylvania.

At points during all of these stories there were moments we wanted to quit, to call it a day, to turn around and head back to smoother roads. As I reflected on these moments I reflected on why we kept going and I realized that it was for one simple reason: we had hope that there was something better in store, that eventually the rough road would end and the asphalt would appear, that the rain would relent and the sun would come again.

And we believe this for our cause as well. We believe that for each individual trapped in sexual slavery there is hope. We have faith that something better lies ahead for every person. We all need to cling to this hope for ourselves and for every cause, and every person we encounter. This is how change is possible.

This is why we are fundraising for an organization that is making a tangible difference in people’s lives.  We are so honoured to announce that since the launch of our campaign in late December of 2015, we have already raised over $25,000 for Lighthouse Voyage, which is an organization that partners with local efforts in India and Nepal to rescue and rehabilitate victims of sex-trafficking. As little as $200 can be difference between captivity and freedom, so this sum is an enormous amount! However, we are not done yet. We believe in something better and an even greater change is possible as you continue to give so generously. Thank you for the crazy love and support!

With much love and great anticipation,
Joel & Brad

The roads we climb

Hello from Prague!

Nine straight days and almost one thousand kilometres has brought us here from Cologne, Germany. We are so thankful to be staying at a friends apartment right in the heart of the city. A much needed couple days filled with rest and a few errands (plus two Euro Cup matches on TV). Life has reluctantly slowed down – temporarily.

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Brad on top of a war torn hilltop monastery in central Germany.

We left Cologne knowing we had a long rough stretch to push through. Our first few days we dealt with some minor navigation problems. It would have been so nice to just hop on the Autobahn and cruise to the next city. We did attempt that earlier in the trip, only to be honked at by every passing vehicle. So we resorted back to winding through the hills using our trusty GPS to guide us. Even that proved to be half helpful most of the time. Once we got through two days of up and down country hills, we managed to finally figure out how the signs worked for the cycling paths in Germany. This made our days flow much more smoothly because we didn’t have to stop every other turn on the road to see if we were still on route. It was smooth sailing for the rest of Germany.

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Instead of looking excited for flat roads, Joel looks confused.

At this point we have both gotten used to eating much of the same food everyday. Fruit and muesli for breakfast, sandwiches or pasta for lunch and pasta for dinner. Throughout the day we are munching on granola, nuts and protein bars. We make an effort every day to find a cool place to cook lunch. Whether that’s at the top of a big hill overlooking a town or on a picnic bench beside a cool river. Dinner usually ends up being after we post up for the night – usually under a bridge or overpass. By that time we are pretty tired. If it rained all all, we make an effort to set up a line to hang our wet stuff on. Then it’s time to read and sleep.

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Post-lunch blueberry field munch.

About four hundred kilometres outside of Prague we ran into these two young Czech guys who were headed back home. As friendly Canadians, we began talking with them about life on the road. We decided it would be a great idea to ride together since we both were bound for the big city. Thankfully for us, they had Czech crown. Our lack of research made us assume the Czech Republic used Euros. So we had to borrow a bit from them until we were able to exchange currencies. They treated us to a fantastic traditional Czech meal in a small village and filled our bellies with Czech sweets for four days. They were two of the friendliest guys we’ve met so far. Even helped us with a few spoke repairs in the middle of remote mountain trails. Not a bad introduction to the Czech Republic.

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Cooking lunch lakeside with our Czech mates, Vladimir and Lukas.

We arrived in Prague at lunch on Tuesday. We wished our new friends well on the rest of their journey and we parted ways. By this time, Joel and I were both eager to shower, eat and prop our feet up and watch a footy game. Nine days is likely going to be our longest stretch between real showers and beds while we are in Europe. It hasn’t taken long for either of us to appreciate a cozy bed, clean clothes or a nice warm shower. When you pack you’re lives into eight 20L saddle bags, food and shelter take priority. Clothing, comfort and cleanliness become luxury. You learn how easily we take those things for granted.

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We hit 1,000kms!

As we move onto the next leg of our journey this evening, we both want to thank everyone for keeping us in their prayers. God has been good and has provided us with what we need thus far. Putting the right people in our path and keeping our minds focused on why we’re doing this. We often do have to remind each other why we chose to do what we’re doing. It’s not about us, or the money, or the photos, or the travelling. We do this because we genuinely want to see a change in the way people are viewed and treated around the world.

We love you all and are so thankful for each person reading

“The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton

Brad and Joel

 

Get Uncomfortable

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Hello everybody!

Thanks for checking in. We are doing well and are staying with friends in Cologne, Germany. Our next Major destination is Prague and we are excited to see more of this beautiful country on our way there. Joel wanted to share some of his thoughts from the first week of the journey so enjoy!

“Yesterday morning I woke up sore. I mean really, really sore. We had biked over 120 km the day before and were camped on the side of a hill with tree roots sticking up beneath us. I know this sounds like an awful choice of camping spot, but we honestly had no other options. My first thought when I woke up was that I didn’t want to get on my bike at all. My second was that there was no way we were going to be able to do this for another five and a half months. I started craving the comforts of home and getting a little frustrated at myself for ever deciding to go on this venture. Honestly, I felt entitled. In that moment I truly believed it was my right to be comfortable all the time.

This is not the case. It was never our right to be comfortable and yet it is something we seek above almost everything else. We spend time with the people we like to be around. We go visit places where we know we won’t have to step out of our comfort zone. We read one blog article on an issue instead of spending the time to do legitimate research, because that might mean we actually have to engage reality head on instead of just voicing an opinion over social media.

Let’s get uncomfortable with the fact the millions of people around the world are victims of sex trafficking. Let’s get uncomfortable with the fact that our choices and cultural viewpoints might have something to do with that.

Maybe sex trafficking isn’t the specific area you feel passionate about working against. That is so valid! But whoever you are, and wherever you might be, always be willing to get uncomfortable so that you can engage with the world and sit with others as they experience pain and hardship. And in the end always believe that there is hope. Even in the apparent absence of hope, and in the most uncomfortable of times, hold on to hope.” – Joel

With much love and great anticipation
Brad & Joel