Signs Of Life: To The Ends Of The Earth With A Doctor

by Stephen Fabes

In 2010 Stephen Fabes rode away from his career as an emer­gency doc­tor in Lon­don, on a jour­ney that would see him ride the length of six con­ti­nents; a cycling cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion which took six years. Signs of Life is his sto­ry of a world of chal­lenges — from Tajik camel spi­ders to camp­ing on a frozen lake in Mon­go­lia, to coax­ing anoth­er few kilo­me­tres out of ‘Ol’ Patchy’ (his faith­ful inner tube), and of fas­ci­nat­ing inter­ac­tions with the peo­ple of sev­en­ty-five coun­tries; from hos­pitable nomads and curi­ous chil­dren to vin­dic­tive bor­der guards and gang­sters. It is also a sto­ry of med­i­cine call­ing Stephen back; he recalls his first pro­nounce­ment of death as he exam­ines the frozen body of a monk high in the Himalayas; he is drawn into treat­ing patients at a lep­rosy clin­ic; he helps refugees at The Jun­gle in Calais. All the while, he reflects on how soci­eties treat their most vul­ner­a­ble and draws com­par­isons with the lost souls he had treat­ed back home in Lon­don; peo­ple who he resolves to tru­ly lis­ten to, when he returns to his vocation.

Published by Pursuit Books, Londonin 2021

ISBN: 9781782834779

I rated this 4 stars out of 5

I was down at my local library fill­ing some hours in research of my some­time-in-the-future Europe trip when I hap­pened across Stephen Fabes’ new cycle tour­ing mem­oir Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doc­tor. What an awe­some book and a hap­py chance I came across it.

Released in 2020 about a jour­ney from 2010–2016, and filled from cov­er to cov­er with amus­ing anec­dotes and frank obser­va­tions of the dif­fer­ent cul­tures and places Fabes found him­self, it’s easy to assume this book is like every oth­er trav­el book ever writ­ten. How­ev­er, I found his self-aware and down-to-earth man­ner quite refresh­ing. He doesn’t ‘tack­le’ the world like a cock­sure adven­tur­er with a sense of ‘con­quest’ or oth­er adver­sar­i­al, hero­ic lan­guage: he slips by, humbly sneak­ing in and out of peo­ples’ lives, and man­ages to stay true to him­self to the end.

His intel­li­gence, edu­ca­tion and world­view as an Eng­lish emer­gency room doc­tor are plain­ly influ­en­tial of his out­look and great­ly influ­ence his judge­ment of the var­i­ous chal­lenges he wit­nessed. It was very refresh­ing to read a well-writ­ten, thought­ful sum­ma­tion of an extra­or­di­nary journey.

Near the com­ple­tion of six con­ti­nents, end to end, and tal­ly­ing some seri­ous sta­tis­tics — over 50,000 miles (85,000 kilo­me­tres) in 6 years; 75 coun­tries; from ‑39°C in Mon­go­lia to 46°C in Ethiopia; 221 punc­tures, etc. — he recoils at the idea he has done any­thing hero­ic. Quite the oppo­site: he admon­ish­es him­self for spend­ing six years not “par­tic­i­pat­ing” in the world.

Through­out the book he dis­plays a dis­like, bor­der­ing on dis­dain, for what he terms “social media blowhards”. He vis­its a per­son­al hero, Heinz Stücke in Hövel­hof, Ger­many in the clos­ing weeks of his jour­ney. Heinz is famous for being the world’s most pro­lif­ic cycle tourist, spend­ing over fifty years on the road before return­ing home to metic­u­lous­ly cat­a­logue every moment of those five decades. Stücke’s own jour­ney made him mis­an­throp­ic, untrust­ing and seem­ing­ly rein­forced strong right-wing polit­i­cal views. Fabes, in con­trast, comes home even more com­pas­sion­ate and hope­ful about human­i­ty than he left.

Fabes judges Stücke to be sim­ply obsessed about clock­ing up miles and pass­port stamps, with­out tru­ly appre­ci­at­ing the beau­ty and diver­si­ty of the world. The read­er gets the impres­sion (through Fabes’ dis­ap­point­ed per­spec­tive) that Stücke’s odyssey would have been vast­ly improved if there were no peo­ple at all on the way.

I think it was this aspect of the book: Fabes’ strug­gle to find a deep­er mean­ing to what he was doing, to under­stand­ing oth­er peo­ple despite his own bias­es, and to the human con­di­tion in gen­er­al that makes this book worth the read. Yes it’s inter­est­ing from a cycle tour­ing per­spec­tive but that’s not real­ly what the book is all about. Some review­ers found the ran­dom jumps for­ward in time and skip­ping of places and events dis­ap­point­ing. For exam­ple, Aus­tralia war­rants only four pages, scant on detail. I too was miffed whilst read­ing that I could­n’t learn about Stephen’s impres­sions of my country.

For a bloke on the mis­sion of tra­vers­ing every con­ti­nent but Antarc­ti­ca, effec­tive­ly skip­ping over one of them in the nar­ra­tive entire­ly seems anti­thet­i­cal. But the last sec­tion of the book gives one the answer why: Fabes isn’t inter­est­ed in list­ing places and sta­tis­tics as per­son­al tro­phies in this book. He has a blog for peo­ple inter­est­ed in those aspects. He keeps the book focused on the peo­ple he met and the things he learnt. He had to com­press six years into a few hun­dred pages.

His bike was just a means to a greater end: see­ing the world. Under­stand­ing the world. Doing it for him­self, not to crow about it lat­er. He doesn’t fill pages with lists of gear or rec­om­mend­ed brands of bike. Again, he leaves that kind of thing to his blog.

I loved this book for many rea­sons and high­ly rec­om­mend it. A great read, a great trip well described, a good way to spend your COVID lock­downs and oth­er free time wher­ev­er you are.

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