Rob Cassibo was on a roll.
The physics and chemistry teacher from Manitoulin Island was named Teacher of the Year by TV Ontario, and received an Innovative Teaching Award from Science North in Sudbury after leading his school to three consecutive victories in the Canadian Science Olympiad.
At the International Science Olympiad at the University of Colorado that year (where his students brought back five medals), things that had been bubbling under the surface for Cassibo came to the forefront — and his life would take a dramatic turn.
During that trip, while mountain biking with his students, they started talking about fulfilling their dreams.
“We’re the best because of you … we’ve done it,” said one student. “But what about your dream?”
Cassibo told his students of his long-held desire to travel the world on his bicycle, something he might do after he’d finished teaching.
“You owe it to yourself to do it — if you wait for retirement you never will,” said the student.
That September, Cassibo’s students returned to the classroom — and he didn’t.
Instead, he wheeled his big-tube Cannondale across the swing bridge at Little Current, got on the Trans-Canada Highway, headed east and never looked back.
That was six years ago.
“I was smack dab in the middle of my 15 minutes of fame — and I walked away from it,” said Cassibo, in Whitehorse on Tuesday, his yellow raincoat faded by the elements, his face reddened by wind and sun.
“I had a very comfortable life, four-bedroom house, big-screen TV, nice truck… now I live in a little yellow tent.”
He started with a one-year leave from his teaching job.
“I phoned my boss from South America, to ask for another year — he said, ‘OK.’”
He sold his house.
“I phoned my boss from South Africa, to ask for another year — he said he couldn’t do it.”
Cassibo was unemployed, single and travelling alone — but he followed his dream, cycling more than 100,000 kilometres around the world.
He completely filled his second passport — “those big businessman ones” — with a stamp in Beaver Creek.
His first passport, which he also carries, has an accordion-like extension stapled into it, which flops open on the table, a mosaic of colourful documentation from exotic lands — Roratonga, Nepal, Sudan.
He recounts going through US Customs at the Los Angeles Airport.
“Damascus? That’s in Syria. Why were you there?”
“I was cycling around the world.”
“Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Why were you there?”
“I was cycling around the world.”
“At that point the customs official waved over his superiors,” laughed Cassibo.
The world has changed quite a bit in the time that Cassibo’s been on the road — he’s missed a lot, and he’s seen a lot.
He didn’t find out about the Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia until a year later, was shocked that Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, and was out of the loop on the war in Iraq.
“I said to this guy, ‘The war’s in Afghanistan, not Iraq,’ … little did I know.”
“I used to be cutting-edge, a technology teacher … sometimes I felt like I just got out of prison — but really, I’ve been completely free for six years.”
He may have been out of date on current affairs, but his experiences on the road more than made up for it.
He recalled riding up the Gran Paradiso, a mountain in the Italian Alps, thinking the road would lead him down the other side. It didn’t.
He ended up hiking his bike across eight kilometres of rocky mountaintop — at one point, he spied some mountaineers climbing a cliff face below him. He waited at the top, sitting in his Thermarest chair, for them to appear.
“They were definitely surprised to see me,” he laughed.
Other highlights included being chased by a herd of elephants in Namibia, outrunning machete-wielding banditos in Peru, and becoming something of a TV sensation in Siberia.
Some of the numbers Cassibo throws around — 37 days without speaking English, 13 consecutive meals of ramen noodles, 3.5 years without getting on a plane (from Cape Town, South Africa to Bali, Indonesia).
He’s on the home stretch now, back in Canada, but the final leg has probably been the most difficult.
While in Dawson City in June, he got word from home that his mother had suddenly passed away, due to surgery complications.
“I had talked to her three or four days before, she was fine —great.”
Cassibo said he had everyone in Dawson trying to get him a ride out.
When he got to Whitehorse, local hand-cyclist Ramesh Ferris volunteered to store his bike and gear. Small world — he met Ferris in New Zealand last year.
“All these strangers, bending over backwards to get me home — it’s incredible, the northern hospitality — unbelievable.”
After two weeks at home in Bancroft, Ontario, with his dad, Cassibo was feeling restless, and that he was not much help.
“My dad told me he wanted to go fishing, alone.”
“He also said, ‘Your mother would have wanted you to finish.’”
So Cassibo flew back to Whitehorse, hopped back on his bike and headed up the Dempster to Inuvik.
When he got there, a local asked him why he did it.
“‘Cause it’s the end of the road, that’s why!,” he told the man.
“It’s not the end of the road — that’s in Tuktoyaktuk,” said the local.
Cassibo borrowed a boat and paddled himself to Tuk, peed in the Arctic Ocean, and turned around, catching a ride back to Inuvik with the RCMP.
“I’ve been to the four corners of the earth, peed in all the oceans and the seven seas,” he said. “But I still feel like a 16-year old kid, tying my sleeping bag to my bike to go sleep out in the woods.”
Cassibo has mixed feelings about getting home. “I miss the kids, but I don’t miss the education system; what I fear most now is that bell.”
“I haven’t worked in six years — I’m broke, it’s time to get back in the classroom.”
He’s seen more of the world, firsthand, than most people ever will.
“On this planet, there are far more good people than bad, but these stories aren’t newsworthy. I’m not a Hindu, but that idea of karma … I only wish all those people that helped me — that somebody will help them when they need it.”