I had a couch-surfer spend a few days at my place recently. If you don’t by now know what couch-surfing is, I suggest you Google it with some haste.  My experiences with couch-surfers have been on the whole positive, so when this American guy contacted me through the website saying that he was cycling from Cape Town to Botwana, I was quite interested to see how things would turn out.

So he pitches up on a bicycle – which looked more than slightly shabby.  Slightly shabby is not the word I would use to describe the rider though.  This rider had this big, shaggy beard and was wearing baggy, rooster-print pants which I dubbed “Africa-pants”.  Bluntly, he looked ridiculous!


A few hours and a bottle of wine later, I’m wide-eyed staring at him as he tells me about his journey up to my little mining town and how the Lesotho mountain pass destroyed him.  I’m thinking, ‘Of all the routes you could have taken to get here, why would you choose the most treacherous, high-altitude and ridiculously cold route in the middle of winter?’  He seems like a real challenge-seeker though, so I say nothing.  Reading about it on his blog later, I was even more amazed that he honestly believed he could conquer Lesotho after already cycling through half the country.


The night wore on and more wine was poured and more was revealed about his life and adventures. The Peace Corps in Niger, waiting tables in the top London jazz bar, free-lancing  for Human Rights’ Watch…and now cycling to the Tuli block in Botswana to find a job around the Zimbabwe elections and serve as a correspondent if anything not-so-legit was happening.

Talk about a lost soul!  I couldn’t help myself thinking.

I showed him around our little piece of paradise for a few days and just before he was about to set off, he came down with this chest-cold.  Great, the crazy person is staying on! Note the sarcasm, but I couldn’t in good conscious turn him out to the elements – this poor, lost boy.  The week wore on and I would return each evening from my safe, secure job to find Africa-pants whipping up something interesting and delicious.  In return for my hospitality, he did my dishes and shared his thoughts with me. So many times I found myself being fascinated by his world-view. He was really smart. I mean REALLY smart. He could have been anything – could have by now had a house, a car, a fiancé – stuff we all want, right?  But his life was just so interesting, free and completely centred around his unapologetic sense of self-purpose.

During that week I started thinking about why Africa-pants decided to spend all his savings on a plane-ride to Cape Town, bought a bike and decided to ride north – leaving a girl and all his worldly possessions in London – especially when home and family are in the other direction!  Surely you don’t do this on a whim or because you’ve lost your way.  He was absolutely not lost.  As I got to know him, I realised that he was surer of his purpose in this world than many of the secure, settled individuals I knew.  He knew what he knew and that was that life would be hopelessly boring and vapid if he tried to fit himself into the same box as everybody else.  He was awake to a secret that all of us know deep inside – the secret that there is a greater purpose out there for us – a path that we all must follow in order to reach that destiny.  Most of us are just too scared or lazy to follow that path – making excuses for the things we wished we’d done in our youth.  So few of us are truly brave enough to live our passions and chase our dreams, escaping the trap of the mundane, the secure and striving ever onwards towards that unmistakable pull.

I thought back to my no-so-distant days with Engineers without Borders and to a time where I truly knew my purpose in life. I thought on how unsure my life was back then in many ways, but how incredibly driven, self-motivated and most of all happy I was!  I reflected on my life as an engineer – a rewarding and challenging one – and remembered something I had known before, and forgotten somewhere along these lonely African roads.  The reason I became an engineer was to serve Society and the planet.  My purpose in life was to use my knowledge and my talent to make the world a better, safer and more sustainable place to live in – and I needed to get back on that path, and soon!

Comparing my life right now to his, Africa-pants had no house, no car, no surety of where he was going to sleep that night, but it was undeniable that he was the richer one, the one who knew where he was going in this world.  He was truly living a purpose-driven life.

Who would have thought? All this from a shaggy, bearded traveller…