"I never thought I would say this, but I can't wait to be in Iran."
This is how circus performer Peter Gatehouse describes his reaction when he and his two companions arrived in Taftan, after concealing themselves and a rickshaw in the back of a truck for a gruelling nineteen hours.
Peter is an unfathomably tall and lean individual, so much so that he confounds machines that measure your body-mass index. As an accomplished circus performer, he is one of the best fire-performers and poi-spinners in the UK. He is also exhausted.
For the past three months, Peter Gatehouse had been travelling through the Middle East. The list of countries he has passed through looks like one issued by the UN Security Council showing their least recommended places to visit.
Accompanying Peter on this epic expedition were two other circus performers, Adnan and Annika. Together they formed Rickshaw Circus: three circus performers, in a rickshaw, travelling through one of the most war-torn and deprived areas in the world. This would sound like the synopsis for a Ben Stiller comedy, if it had not actually happened. Yet, achieve it they did, and they lived to tell the tale.
I caught up with Peter Gatehouse after he arrived in Istanbul, shortly he after had finished his epic journey, to learn more about his travels with the Rickshaw Circus.
Firstly, what is Rickshaw Circus?
A dedicated group of performers travelling 8000km from Kabul to Istanbul in a brightly painted autorickshaw, through difficult and deprived areas, working with needy groups such as disadvantaged children along the way.
What are the goals for Rickshaw Circus?
There was no single goal, instead we had a number of closely linked goals. One was to promote awareness of the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children (MMCC) in Kabul, as well as social circus in general, both to the people we met and to the world-wide audience who followed our journey. Another was to challenge people's perceptions of the countries and regions we passed through.
There is an increasing body of scientific research proving the therapeutic value of social circus, both physically and emotionally. Social circus activities are more open to those who are put off by competitive sports, as these foster creativity and co-operation. We promoted the therapeutic value of social circus through our workshops and shows along the way.
The Afghan MMCC is an amazing social circus project, which has been running for ten years, but currently faces funding challenges now that the big donors are pulling out of Afghanistan. By highlighting the MMCC's work, we hope to have raised their profile and made it easier for them to find further funding.
Travelling from Kabul to Istanbul, via Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey was a goal in itself [laughs], and a very good hook to get people interested in our social circus work. We had all previously travelled extensively, and know all too well how there are many misconceptions of places like these in the West. We wished to challenge our own perceptions and, through our blog, those of our readers as well.
What is Social Circus?
Social circus is a catch-all term for a movement that incorporates circus techniques into education, often (but not always) working with disadvantaged youth. It is called social because it is proven to be very good at drawing out marginalised and traumatised people. Not everyone likes team sports, some find them too competitive. But loners can often get into something like juggling. They start having fun, and soon others see that they have fun and have some skill and they ask to be taught. Then, before you know it, this loner has suddenly become a teacher and made connections. And perhaps soon they will be drawn into performance...
How was Rickshaw Circus formed?
My friends Annika and Adnan were working in Kabul and found refuge from the difficult conditions and jaded ex-pats by volunteering at the MMCC, as both were keen jugglers in their spare time. As they learned more about the MMCC, Annika and Adnan started to think of ways they could raise the organisation's profile and spread the word about the benefits of social circus.
Annika is a 26 year old Anthropology Student from Germany who has studied in Berlin, Islamabad (Pakistan) and Leiden (Holland). Annika has also worked for a year in Afghanistan. I met Annika through the fire performance community.
Adnan is a 41 year old journalist from Canada with dual Canadian / Pakistani citizenship. Annika, his girlfriend, got him involved in the circus scene.
How did you become involved?
They bugged me for a couple of months until I gave in. Seriously though, I had been planning to do a project like this in a couple of years. At the time, I was concentrating on my own plans of moving to Berlin. However, things were taking longer than I had hoped, so I decided to commit to Rickshaw Circus now, and redirect my energy to a project that involved three of the things I love in life: travel, performing and teaching. Rickshaw Circus seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and even though it was not the best time for me, I went for it anyway.
Going back further, what first drew you into circus performing?
Ten years ago I pulled the tendons in my right leg quite badly and needed something physical I could do, but with most of my weight on the left leg. A friend suggested I learn fire-spinning with poi, and I spent many evenings in my backyard teaching myself using very bad pre-youtube animated gifs.
Soon after, I went travelling for two years; which had been the dream of my life up until that point. Along the way I met more fire-players, and continued to teach myself. I even taught fire-spinning whilst I was at The Arts Factory in Byron Bay, Australia, for seven months.
It was at The Arts Factory that I developed my confidence on stage. They held a weekly talent show and I forced myself to enter every week. I deliberately stayed away from performing with fire at that point, as I find too many fire-performers hide behind the music and the fire. I began by giving book readings from books that I found in the exchange at The Arts Factory. I was absolutely terrified the first few times, but as I saw how everyone responded positively to my performances, my confidence grew, and I tried other things.
When I finally returned to my home-town of Sheffield, I became involved with Greentop Circus, who has a social circus as well as a professional circus programme. I learnt a lot there. As well as teaching in the professional programme, I spent two years teaching Youth Aerial (trapeze, silks and rope) in the social circus programme.
In the meantime my professional performing continued to grow: I gave performances at weddings, parties, dinner shows and festivals. My favourites were the forty-person Fire Performance Project at Feuerkunst Berlin, and the Fire Conclave at Burning Man - the biggest fire performance in the world.
How did family and friends react when you told them your plans?
My parents were pretty scared to start at first. I don't think they were shocked that I might do such a thing, given how much I have travelled and performed the last few years, but that does not mean that they liked it. My brother and sister were more chilled-out, but still concerned. My friends' reactions were varied, but most of them were supportive, with varying degrees of concern.
Part Two of my interview with Peter Gatehouse can be found here, where we discuss his experiences travelling through the Middle East with the Rickshaw Circus, can be found here
All photos were provided by Peter Gatehouse, and are used with consent.