Chasing Ertrugul, Racing for Water

by Amani Abdel-Dayem

“What a selfless act,” said the yoga instructor when I told her what I was about to embark on. I kept thinking about that comment. Is any act really selfless? One could argue that all selfless acts have an element of selfishness in them. Don’t we do for others because it heals us individually as well as collectively?

Friday, August 31, I got an email from Islamic Relief USA with a subject line that read “Imagine YOU on a bike adventure through Turkey.” Eight days following in the footsteps of Ertrugul, father of Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. A six-hour hike and 120-mile bike ride over four days. All to raise money for water wells in Chad. As I read the email and watched the attached video, I began to cry. It resonated with me. It was calling me. I had to do this. The deadline to register was September 7 and I needed to be in Istanbul by September 13. Within a week I had started a fundraising page, bought my ticket to Istanbul, and finally registered for this incredible trip. I ceased worrying about my everyday obligations and began devoting my attention to preparing for this. This something that I’ve never done before. I haven’t biked in years. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I rode a bike. I was probably a kid. I don’t think I’ve biked more than two miles as a kid and now I’m signing up for 120 miles in 4 days?! Am I crazy?!

I began to feel only slightly scared. In fact, I was surprised at how relatively calm I was about the whole thing. What was I thinking? Leaving behind my family and four children, going to a foreign land by myself, not knowing anybody, doing something physically challenging way beyond anything I’ve ever done before, knowing that I was probably one of the oldest ones going (I was 7 weeks shy of my 49th birthday when I got the email). I mean, it is an organized effort and 40 people from 5 countries were coming. Andalucian Routes is the tour operator. Islamic heritage tours are their thing and, from my experience with them in Spain last summer, they are amazing at it. Why am I doing this? Haven’t I always wanted a life of travel, adventure, meeting new people, physical challenges and philanthropy? I mean, I love my family very much and they love me, but isn’t staying at home taking care of my wonderful, crazy, challenging family somehow sucking the life out of me? Isn’t this is what I’ve always wanted, the kind of thing I’ve always dreamed about? If not as a lifestyle then at least as an item to cross of my bucket list.

I felt compelled to do this; it was a calling. It felt similar to when I was preparing for hajj. It was sudden, unexpected, maybe a once in a lifetime opportunity, and it was BIG. A pilgrimage, not to Mecca, but to myself. A discovery of me, others, experiences. I felt like Allah SWT was leading me to this and I went into it with full tawakkul.

The Turkey Challenge experience exceeded my expectations on so many levels. I went to places I would have never gone on my own had I booked a regular vacation to Turkey, which I would have never booked on my own and not by myself. I was enlightened with history that further increased my pride in being a Muslim. I pushed myself physically in a way that shattered expectations, both mine and others. I met an amazing group of people that I know will be lifelong friends. Something magical happens when people from different backgrounds, countries, ages, and experiences come together to challenge themselves with the common goal of doing good for those less fortunate.

The unexpected delights of new and familiar unfolded at every bend, hill, and turn of the bike pedal. Beautiful scenery, the rich history, impressive architecture, local hospitality, delicious food, sounds from the distant valleys, the prevalent smell of jasmine on a seemingly industrial highway, the old couple from the fruit stand who refused to take money and gave all 40 of us free fruit, the stray cat that captured our hearts, the major news agency that caught up with us at a gas station on the highway, the mayor and governor that unexpectedly invited us for tea, the smiling faces of people from their balconies waving at us and the school children excited to watch us ride by, the amazing sunset over the lake, the very special man at the mosque who was passionate about sharing his gift, and so many, many more.

Then there were the conversations: the ones you had with others, the ones you had with yourself, and the ones you had with your creator. Every day there were epiphanies and every evening we would reflect and share. The entire trip became a metaphor for life and I know I will be drawing upon those experiences frequently going forward for the rest of my life. The whole experience was cleansing and redefining. In fact, the trip was very deeply rewarding and highly spiritual. It always had been.

chasing ertrugal

Logistically, everything was taken care of: transportation, accommodations, food, guides, security, and safety. I always felt comfortable, safe, supported and taken care of. There was always somebody there for you when you needed them, like when I had a flat tire, twice. None of us were athletes and we all had different abilities, many of us not at all athletic and no prior training. Some even had health challenges. A small few had to take a day off and ride on the bus for the day but continued with us the next day. It’s a ride, not a race. Everyone gave their absolute best effort and nobody was judgemental, in fact, everyone was gracious, supportive, genuinely upbeat and positive.

I would encourage, even implore, everyone to do such a challenge at least once in their life. I particularly want to address the sisters and mothers out there (and brothers please listen up!). I had wished there were more women my age there, with families (out of 13 women, I was the only one with children). If you have someone you trust to take care of your family and you’re in reasonable health (that is, you can walk and ride a bike), then take some time and do a challenge like this. Your family will survive without you and actually respect you more for doing it. You will be setting a good example for your children and they will be proud of mom. The money you spend on the trip will actually raise more money for an important cause then if you had just gone to a fundraising dinner. As women, we tend to sacrifice ourselves for those around us but we can do even more good beyond our immediate circle of influence.

None of us are getting any younger and you don’t want to die before ever having lived. No one is guaranteed another day, let alone another day with ability. I have had friends younger than me die and others’ have had their health compromised. Anyone can take a vacation, but this offers so much more. Get out of your everyday rut. Push your limits and you will be amazed at how your world grows. Carpe diem! Make a sincere intention, find a challenge, and do it. I promise you it will be epic!

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