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TechNomads Tackle Trans-Continental Trek

By Rosa Cao


In a daredevil implementation of the 21st century corporate credo to “do good by doing well,” four MIT students took the low road (when there was a road) and a one liter Renault across Eastern Europe and Central Asia this summer, ready to do good by having a blast.

The so-called race of a Mongol Rally revels in absurdity; getting from Point A (London, UK) to Point B (Ulan Bator, Mongolia) fast is not the point at all: doing it in the most ridiculous and inefficient way possible while collecting some good stories is closer to the idea. As a convenient footnote, should anyone challenge you to justify what you did with your summer (or perhaps, “you did what with your summer?!”), participants are required to raise money for charity by way of their trip, to the tune of 1,000 (that’s about $1,900 for any provincial Americans out there) per car.

Syed F. “Fareed” Ahmed ’08, Abdulbasier Aziz G, Javad Golji ’06, and Nadeem A. Mazen ’06 got a promising start in Paris when they found a Renault with just under 75,000 miles on it for the bargain price of 500 euros (around $650). It took them a week or so to learn to drive a manual, but “we’re all pretty good drivers now … you have to be a decent driver to get across Iran — everyone’s driving wherever they can over there.”

In addition to the mad driving skills, the self-styled TechNomads also spoke five languages between them: English, Persian (Farsi), Urdu, Chinese, and Arabic. “Farsi was definitely the most important one” for most of the trip, Ahmed said. Better still, they came up with $15,000 of corporate sponsorship for the adventure, leaving them with only about $5,000 in out-of-pocket expenses to pay for gas, supplies, and flights to London from Boston, and then back to the United States from China at the end of the trip.

Though their vehicle broke down (permanently) in Kyrgyzstan near the Chinese border, more than a thousand miles short of their goal, the ’Nomads did have some good luck along the way as well.

“There were lots of checkpoints on the way from Herat to Kandahar [in Afghanistan] … they wave their guns at you, and if you stop then they take all your money. We kept driving and never got shot at.”

The friends (former roommates at MIT) also managed to stay friends, despite spending six solid weeks in a small enclosed space, unbathed, lost, or about to be lost. “There were arguments about which roads to take, but we all got along pretty well,” Ahmed said.

Even after the poor abused Renault had given up the ghost with two flat tires and a broken fuel line in the Himalayas, there was the Kyrgyz trucker who picked them up, drove them to the Chinese border, left them with friends who gave the ’Nomads food and shelter, and even paid them $500 for what was left of the car.

Strangers into friends seemed to be the rule, one large two-by-four-wielding Serbian notwithstanding. (Our intrepid travelers didn’t stick around to figure out who had wronged whom in that Balkan minefield: “We’re like, ‘move move move!’ as he came up to the car window” Ahmed said.) Generosity prevailed, as “people found us rides, people gave us food.”

A faint self-congratulatory air hangs about the TechNomads. After all, it’s not everyone who can say they’ve gone to most of the ’stans and Iran and didn’t get shot at once. And of course, there’s the $6,500 they’ve raised for charity so far, about a dollar for each mile they drove. (For comparison, a Boston Marathon runner for Dana Farber raises about $270 per mile run during the marathon.)

So was it worth it?

“It definitely changed the way that we treat strangers,” Ahmed said. “No way we can say no to anybody who wants a place to stay now, or food for a night.”

What about the environmental impact? “Well, our car didn’t use much gas … it’s not like taking a trip across the U.S. in an SUV.” (A typical SUV would release about 3,000 pounds in carbon emissions on an LA to Boston road trip).

As an optimistic Ahmed put it: “We grew a lot, [had] some really profound experiences. I like to think that it helped everyone.”