Passionate and intriguing, Chris Alexander Gionchetta has been cycling around the world since April 2011. Since starting the journey from his home in Switzerland, Chris has biked through 25 different countries before making his way to South Korea, which initially wasn’t included in his original route. “The green line is what I planned in Switzerland, and the other color is the path I actually took,” he says as he reverently opens up a worn, crinkled map.
However, lines, time and restrictions aren’t seen as barriers by Chris, but rather ways to catapult into new opportunities. His plans are free, his mind open, and he shares this spirit with everyone he encounters along the way, specifically children. Throughout his travels, Chris has been inspiring young minds through a program titled All School Project, which involves a picture exchange among schools around the world.
“I chose to work with kids because they are not so influenced by news and politics,” he says. “With the pictures I want to show the kids, [I’m saying] ‘Hey look at this house from Iraq, look at this house from the U.S. See, really they aren’t that different.’”
Can you tell me a little more about your project?
The goal is to make a world trip by bike and to try to visit a school in every country. When I visit a school I just go in with my bike and present it along with my material. I have a paper map with me that I show the kids. After that, I ask them to draw a picture of a house. I take their pictures with me and I give their pictures to other kids in other countries. The goal is to make an exchange between kids around the world with a simple drawing.
Why did you choose a house as the main focus for the pictures?
I was in Senegal for 8 or 9 weeks in 2009 for a NGO project. The goal was to speak French with the kids in the school because it’s the national language, and if they want to go to high school they need French. When I did projects with them and asked them to make pictures, usually they made a house.
Also, I remember when I was a kid the first real picture I made was of a house with mom, dad and the dog. When you show a picture of a house to kids of all ages, they understand. It’s a simple concept and normally everybody has a house. It’s an important symbol for people.
Have there been any drawings that have stood out?
I was in an orphanage in Bosnia. It was during the holidays, so there weren’t a lot of orphans there. They mixed with kids from the quarter. You could see the difference between the houses. The orphans aren’t stupid, but you could see they lost a step in the drawing. One kid drew a house, and afterwards he drew red all over it.
I also made this presentation with a nomadic family in Turkey. They made a little house but a big road, because to them the road is more important than the house.
When I ask the kids to make a picture, they also sometimes make a house they want. Sometimes the image is a flying house, or a house with arms. It’s really interesting.
It’s difficult to analyze like a psychologist that the houses mean different things. For me it’s not really that serious, but you can see some things.
Have you visited a school in Korea?
I visited two schools on the mainland, and will be visiting a school in Wimi in Jeju.
How can you communicate with the children when they don’t speak English, German or French?
When I arrive with the bike, the bike is better than the slide show. The kids can touch and feel and try to carry it. I give them my sleeping bag and they try it too. They can really see everything. I can communicate that way.
I also draw some pictures on the blackboard. If you really want to communicate with people, if you have the time and you both want to communicate together, it’s possible. I mostly find somebody who speaks English but sometimes I just arrive at the school, and it always works. It’s easy.
What’s interesting is when it’s easier to work with the students than the teachers. Sometimes the teachers don’t understand, and it’s the kids explaining to their teacher.
What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with this project?
This bicycle trip is a dream for me, so the first thing I want to share with the kids is if you have a dream, just try to do it. That is what I want to show with my bike.
Also, I chose to work with kids because they are not so influenced by news and politics. They are open minded. With the pictures, I want to show the kids, “Hey look at this house from Iraq, look at this house from the U.S. See, really they aren’t that different. Why can’t we talk together?”
Why did you choose to travel by bike?
That’s a good question. I’m not a big cyclist in Switzerland, but a bike is a good way for me to travel because I feel the way as I make my path. When I arrive in a village, all the people can imagine where I’m coming from and where I’m going next. You can meet people easily and it’s more interactive.
Has there been a country that has really stood out during your trip?
Iran is such an incredible country. When we see the news, people say it’s not a good country, it’s really dangerous, but inside the country it’s so safe and the people are really kind. It’s really difficult to sleep outside. People will say, “No, just come to my house, we can eat something and drink tea.” I met two girls who were also cycling through Iran and one day it was too difficult for them to travel so they said, “Let’s go wait in the park and someone will pick us up.” It was true. In one hour, someone came and got them.
Have you experienced a lot of random acts of kindness like this during your travels?
Definitely. People help you. Especially when you make a big trip, they can feel that. I was in a really hard pass in Slovenia and a car drove by and the guy just looked at me. Some 20 minutes later, he came back with some fruit.
In Iran everyone gave me food. Food is always a big thing. Even in China, people couldn’t host me, but they would buy me a meal in a restaurant. I have so many good memories.
What have you done so far in Jeju?
I arrived the day before the [Jeju] fire festival, which was incredible. It was like the apocalypse. The wind was pushing the fire everywhere and people were running in the beginning. It was like a war movie. It was just so amazing.
What did you do after the fire festival?
After the fire festival, I went with a British guy who is WWOOFing on a farm in Susan village. We had no idea how we were going to get back, because my bicycle was in the farmer’s van. I thought, “Ok, I’m with this guy I don’t know. I just gave my bicycle to a farmer…” My bike is my life. But I felt really good and safe.
We asked people if we could catch a ride back into Jeju City, and after five cars a mother with her kids said she’d take us. We were just planning on taking a bus to Susan village from Jeju City, but the woman insisted on making a big detour for us. They gave us mandarins and the English guy, Jack, had his guitar and started playing it inside the car. The kids were really happy. It was a really nice moment.
What’s the plan for the rest of your time on the island?
I want to go on a tour around the island with my bike and climb Halla Mountain, take my time, maybe go swimming.
Has this trip always been something you wanted to do?
This world trip has been a dream since I was a kid. I was about 10 years old when I first started talking about it. At the time my mother just said, “Blah blah blah.” But when I left Switzerland at 27 years old, my mother said, “Now you will make your dream.”
Why is it important for you to have a project while you travel?
Traveling for me was not enough. I needed to make something else. I needed to think about something, have a project, a perspective. Traveling for me means sharing; it’s not only seeing, I really want to share my experience with the Web site, and through the pictures with the kids.
Do you think having a purpose makes your travels more meaningful?
Yes, but everyone’s purpose is different. Maybe it’s just taking the trip and being able to travel to a different country. That’s a project in itself.
What’s next when you go back home to Switzerland?
I want to do an exhibition with the pictures in the school in Switzerland. I don’t know exactly what I want to do with the project, but I want to continue it, that’s for sure. Maybe raise money for young people who want to travel with the same goal, sharing with kids.
I have a million ideas. But mostly I want to live more with less and continue with what I learned on this trip.