From France to Iran by bike: "At the end of the road, I was just looking for stories to tell"

From February to December 2021, Isabel Del Real lived a true epic, from her native Brittany to the Iranian countries. At only 25 years old, the young woman self-published this May the graphic novel of her bike journey, ingeniously titled "Plouheran". An initiatory work, like an invitation to take off and let yourself be tempted by certain detours, without ever any U-turn.

Isabel del Real, 25, with her self-published graphic novel in May, titled "Plouheran." © Louise Huet / RFI

Text by: Louise Huet


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While she is destined for a career as a lawyer, Isabel Del Real dreams of only one thing: to escape. Going far. At the beginning of 2021, on a whim, the then 23-year-old woman retyped a bike with two friends from Plouër-sur-Rance in Brittany, then decided to travel alone in Europe and the Middle East. While the world is in lockdown because of Covid-19, she is going to carve out the road, with the idea of a final destination: Tehran. Isabel travels the Balkans, first passing through Spain and Italy. Then the adventurer makes a stopover in Greece, reaches Turkey and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, before reaching the mountains of Elburz in Iran. Ten months later, as soon as she returns, Isabel is bubbling with stories, hilarious anecdotes, moments of life. But how to tell them to those who were not there? The answer is quickly clarified: by drawing.

From her trip, Isabel creates a graphic novel. In 32 chapters, the young Breton takes us on board throughout her quest for identity, in her bike bag, and hides nothing. Touching encounters, nights alone and cold, her 15,000 kilometers traveled, Isabel rightly shares the true meaning of the word "travel".

RFI: Why did you have such a desire to hit the road?

Isabel Del Real: I always said to myself: once I finish my studies, I leave and see what happens. As soon as I graduated, in June 2020, I decided to go traveling. At first, I imagined walking to Central Asia. Then I realized it was going to take me three years. So, a friend offered me to build a bike together, so that I could go with it. I'm sporty and I've traveled solo before, but I've never ridden more than 30 bike stations and I've never been alone for so long. Once the bike was ready, I left.

Excerpt from the graphic © novel Isabel Del Real

How did you prepare the trip?

I wanted to take the Silk Road, so I looked in advance at all the points of interest to see, as I love ruins and archaeology. I wanted to go through the mountains first, so I took all the side roads. And I knew I wanted to go to Tehran. My father, a very great traveler, told me about the mountains of Iran as the most beautiful in the world. And an Iranian friend told me a lot of stories of the capital, of the revolution... It shaped me an imaginary of this distant, mythical, somewhat unreachable city. Before leaving, my parents were very supportive, even if they were not very reassured at the idea of their daughter leaving alone, in winter and in the middle of Covid. But they got used to it. At first, I called them every day, telling them where I was sleeping, where I was going. And little by little, on the way, I started to meet other cyclists with whom I traveled two or three days, or sometimes several weeks.

How did you imagine making a comic strip about your journey?

From my stop in Dubrovnik, Croatia, the idea blossomed in my head to make it a graphic novel. To tell my loved ones all the cool stuff that happened to me, I chose the comic book format. After the trip, I returned to my parents' home in Plouër-sur-Rance, and for eight months, I did a civic service of initiative where I could carry out my comic book project. I wanted everything to be done by hand, ink and paper, so the drawings we see in the book are my first attempts. There was no draft. I had to document myself, read comics, books, watch series. And I was very inspired by The Little Prince, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Riad Sattouf... The novel is also full of small tributes to the character of Corto Maltese! I'm not a great cartoonist. So I didn't try to write well or draw well, but to be as sincere as possible.

Did you draft the book during your trip, or when you got back? How were you able to remember so many details of your epic?

It was on my return to Brittany that I started the making of the book. It was my first time writing. I told myself that my memory would sort it out! I have a very good photographic memory, because when you are alone, everything is even stronger in your head. From Istanbul, I also used my phone to take pictures, supermarket interiors, café terraces... When I want to draw a scene where I buy Russian pasta in a store in Armenia, I want it to be the real pasta brands.

Watercolor at the end of the work of a mosque. © Isabel Del Real

What was the most memorable moment of grace for you?

Every day of this trip, I was happy. There were always very strong emotions. During the first half of the journey, to Istanbul, I asked myself at least once a day: "But what am I doing here?" Then I let it flow. But there is one day in particular that sticks in my mind. We were seven cyclists, met by chance during my journey, and we made a bivouac in the gorges of the Euphrates in the west of Turkey, on a road very little frequented, far from everything. We were in a place steeped in history, there was nothing for miles. And with them, I felt unstoppable. We bathed in the river, we rolled. It was happiness.

How was your last stop in Iran?

I didn't expect it, but in Iran, the highlight of this adventure, I felt safe. I had no problems. It was also because I am a foreigner, and I went there before the national uprisings. The young people I met were generous and hospitalitful. But there is above all a sentence that marked me. In a café, a student said to me: "Of course it's Iran, when you're a tourist, because you know you can leave." And I think that sums up the feeling among young people that they feel trapped at home.

When you came back, you had just experienced months of magnificent encounters and discovered breathtaking places... Wasn't it too brutal after ten months of homelessness?

The return of travelers is a real subject. Just because you're traveling halfway around the world doesn't mean you have extraordinary and interesting things to express. I sincerely wondered if it was worth telling this story. It was very hard to try to trace what I had experienced to my friends. The anecdotes didn't want to come out. I could only do this by drawing. I wanted to transcribe the atmosphere in a tent, the nature of certain exchanges, the warmth between people... I tried to mix my personal story with larger questions, with a lot of touches of humor. At the beginning of the book, I try to convey this feeling of wanting to go far and fast, and to show that the more you advance, the more you get lost on the road. That's why the epilogue of the comic has no title, but could be titled "Stories to tell". Because maybe at the end of the road, I was just looking for stories to bring back and tell!

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A post shared by Isabel Del Real (@plouheran)

Throughout your comic, this desire to hit the road generates a lot of questions for you. With the publication of your graphic novel, do you think you have found the answers you were looking for?

You have to read the book to find out! If I found all the answers? No. But there really was a quest for identity. I told everyone that Tehran was my final destination. Yet, what I absolutely wanted was to be on the move, on the move. A nomadic life. I felt good on the road. And in the end, this need to move was satisfied. I got much more than I could have hoped for. I've made some amazing friends, I've had precious moments. Then the desire to make this comic was stronger than anything. And I think I really got to the end of the road when I put down my pencil a month and a half ago. It was cathartic to put words on this search for elsewhere.

Can we expect a volume 2 to this comic? What's next for you?

A volume 2, I don't know. But I would like to leave for one or two years to do documentary comics. Always with this question in mind: "Where can it take me to travel and draw?" I want to keep finding out.

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Plouheran, a graphic novel by Isabel Del Real, self-published and to be found on her website. Sending comics from the end of May.

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