Monthly Archive: June 2014

The End of the Road

After 2157 miles, 9% of the globe’s circumference, I have arrived!

I have been told that there is no nice way to cycle into Istanbul.  The route I had been advised to take certainly wasn’t.   Technically the 12 lane road I took is not a motorway.  Lanes and lorries appeared on the left and right and no amount of adrenaline fueled attentiveness could stop the feeling that I was about to be crushed.  In those moments when instincts react before the brain, it is my belief that the muscle reaction of a Turkish driver will lurch to the horn as opposed to the brake.  Braking is a last resort once other alternatives have been exhausted.

The recommended road into Istanbul

The recommended road into Istanbul

A few miles out of Istanbul I was overtaken by a group from Edirne cycling team who had a police escort.  I decided it was prudent to keep  up with them and I enjoyed the luxury of state protection on my entrance into the city.  I tried to have a chat with my fellow cyclists and I got the impression it was OK for me to stick with them.

My parents have come out to visit me here and in the comfort of familiarity and a rented apartment I realise that I am quite tired.  My hankering after home and the familiar is in sharp contrast to my parents excitement of new smells and the hustle and bustle of the exotic city.

My route across Europe

My route across Europe

Having reached my destination, I feel this blog needs to come to an end.  If this is the case I must take a moment to thank the people who made this journey special.  Every host did something wonderful and shaped my view of humanity.  Thank you to Heather, Mrs. Slocum, Josephine, Joost, Margitta, Paul, Sophie, Christine, Freya, Lawrence, Philipp, Nadja, Julia, Lisa, Agnes, Agnes, Kriszti, Lee, Nigel, Carmen, Andrea, Aleksa and his family, Elena, Ahmet, Yalcin, Ayhan and Zafer for hosting me.  I believe people in this world are fundamentally kind and intrinsically want to do good.  Where we see people act differently to this I am sure it is not their true nature but a distortion of who they really are.  Face to face, people of this world are kind and a welcome awaits you if you wish to explore it.  There are many websites you can use eg. Couchsurfing, Warmshowers and BeWelcome.

The Headbanging Holy Man and the Turkish Brothel

A dolphin from the Turkish coast

Turkey has rivaled Serbia in its friendliness and welcome.  Many times when I was cycling with Robin we were beckoned into a house or petrol station for tea or food.  One man stopped his car to chat and later bought us lunch in a local restaurant.

Ahmet was our first host in Turkey and it was in his flat that I first noticed the call to prayer which rings out all across Turkey.  Ahmet is a practicing Muslim and prays 5 times a day and although he says he only does the minimum required I’m impressed by his devotion.  Several times when he was showing us his city, Edirne, he would hop into a mosque to say prayers before the tour continued.   The mosques are the most impressive sights and it was in the Selimiye Mosque, watching Ahmet and the others pray and listening to the imam sing his beautiful song that I felt my most peaceful moment on this tour.  It was a strange contrast when Ahmet then took us to the basement of a tower block and led us to a back room to experience his other act of worship.  A large flat screen was surrounded by plastic guitars and drums and a games console with Guitar Hero 5 lay on the floor.  Robin and I were on the guitars and Ahmet fronted the band with the energy and intensity of a rock star, head banging and screaming along to Rammstein.

Strange tan lines

Strange tan lines

Ahmet was one of the profoundly generous people I’ve met on this journey.  He is a 6th year medical student and had to be at hospital from 8:30 am til 1 pm both days we were there.  We had arrived in the evening with no Turkish money and Ahmet took us around town, fed us lambs intestines and took us home at 2 am.  We woke at 11 the next morning.  The table had been laid and two parcels waited for us with a note.  He had crept out and bought us breakfast before leaving for work.

After Edirne we stayed in Luleburgaz with another generous Turkish host and watched football with cold beers in his beautiful apartment.

leg

A bit of leg for the ladies

Robin and I separated at Corlu as I planned to follow the NFL all night in a cheap hotel.  I popped out to the local pub for a quick drink and found myself in a dark bar with music blaring out.  I settled down in a corner and started writing my diary.  A lady started drinking next to me and occasionally stroked my beard.  She spoke no English so I tried to gesture that I was only here for beer.  When I came to pay the bill I found I had been charged for my companion.  After 15 minutes of questioning the bill I found myself surrounded by 3 women and a handful of young men, one of whom spoke broken English.  I explained several times that I did not wish to acquire the services of anyone and would only pay for the beers.  After a while they tired and accepted 15 lira for the two beers I drank.  Since then I have been put off bars in Turkey and have stuck to tea shops.

The Coffin

Leaving a job take some time.  The morning after my last day at work, my mind clicks back to preparing for clients.  I’m thinking of things I forgot to say and do and even compose an email to my (now ex) boss from my bed.  My top tip for leaving work is to shred your to do list, whether finished or not.  The uncompromising teeth of the shredder have no discernment.  They gobble down my unfinished to do list at the same rate as every other document, and all of a sudden I have cut ties with all I have been doing.  Destroying the hook that pulls the load, unshackling me from my work.  But like the stretched leather and worn in grooves of a saddle, so the effects of work don’t just disappear.  It takes time and the use of oneself for other purposes to reshape and remold a person for a new way of being.

And now, five days away from D-Day (departure day) I’m starting to fret about things. Rabies, for example, from untamed Bulgarian dogs or that I’ve still never cycled 60 miles in a day and the super light-weight tent I bought resembles a coffin.  I’m hoping to spend as little time in the coffin as possible and plan to use the brilliant website www.couchsurfing.org to arrange my accommodation.  I have already planned my first stay in Chelmsford with a stranger who seems lovely and has kindly agreed to let me sleep on a floor.  Its now time to start asking strangers in Holland and Germany to host me.

I have also decided to add some philanthropy to my otherwise self indulgent adventure and will be raising money for a great charity called Bethany Village Leprosy Society (BVLS).  BVLS works to provide jobs through social enterprise to those living with the effects of leprosy in India.  I have been to Bethany village and seen the vibrant community created with the support of BVLS.  If you would like to support me you can donate at uk.virginmoneygiving.com/wareami.

One Sheriff Three Punctures

Bulgaria is also a dangerous place to stop if you want to get anywhere fast.  We stopped to buy a loaf of bread in a Bulgarian village and before we know it we are sitting down with the sheriff and a lady I assumed was his wife, chatting over coffee and chocolate.  The chat was fairly dysfunctional as they chatted in Bulgarian and we in English but with the aid of a map and some fabulous charades on my part I think we understood each other.  I did ask ask whether the role of sheriff was to catch bad guys and the lady laughed and gestured it was more about cutting ribbons.

I'm looking forward to shaving this off

I’m looking forward to shaving this off

The we I speak of is Robin and I.  I decided to follow Robin as he seems to know where he’s going.  We managed to ride 162.34 km on leaving Sofia which is significant because it is a fraction over 100 miles.  The next day we managed half that as I had a burst tube and two slow punctures throughout the day.  After 43 days with no punctures I get three in one day.  The repairs were carried out with the aid of a stream and we were able to find a nice camping spot in a petrol station.

Again Bulgaria has been a friendly place with an unexpected level of generosity.

 

Serbian Generosity Knows No Bounds

I am now in Sofia and our troop of riders will be splitting up today.  The 5 days of cycling together have been wonderful. We have wild camped three nights, been hosted spectacularly for one night and now have a hostel in Sofia.

Spot the Englishman

Spot the Englishman

On the second day we rode as a group I managed to loose my handlebar bag which is possibly the worst thing that could happen.  It contains my wallet, phone, ipad, insurance details, Turkish visa, keys and passport.  I searched in a frenzy and realised I must have left it sitting on the street in a town 4 miles back.  My fellow riders kindly waited and watched my panniers as I raced back wondering what on earth I would do with nothing but the clothes on my back and a tent.  I arrived and found my little red bag untouched, sitting where I had left it 40 minutes ago, nestled on the pavement.

Too much Schnapps

Too much Schnapps

It is this kind of thing that slows down a group of 6 riders.  There are 6 times as many bikes to break and someone is always wanting to stop for wifi or just to sit in the sun.  One day through the Serbian hills we passed a hunting lodge and were beckoned in for schnapps and a brief attempt at communicating through hand waving.  After three shots we hit the road again and after a couple of miles were accosted by a farmer with more schnapps and wine.  Three shots later and we continued.  No more than a mile on the road and a family gave us bread, 8 fresh eggs, apples and water.  They even apologised for not having schnapps to give us.  the friendliness and generosity of Serbia has been unrivaled and I was sad to leave.

Mild-Camping as we called it

Mild-Camping as we called it

Sitting now in the hostel in Sofia I am preparing for the loneliness of my onward journey. Istanbul feels close now and I have bitter sweet feelings as the end draws in.

Too Much to Write. Not Enough Time

I arrived in Belgrade and was accosted by a bearded man in lycra who approached me like an old friend and asked if I was Matt.  I had to inform him that I wasn’t but we chatted bike touring.  He was heading to the Philippines.  I left him and headed to my host who declined the opportunity to sing to the new Serbian government in order to host me.  She took me along to her opera lesson which was phenomenal, two opera singers with voices to fill a hall trapped in a tiny practice room.  I left in awe and sad from the melancholy Italian themes.

After Belgrade I was over taken by the same bearded man in lycra that I met before.  Jason is a cockney and managed to pick up a young German going to china and a chap from Leeds heading to Yemen.  I stuck on their wheel and they persuaded me to change my route and head to the mountains, and Sofia.  We wild camped in a park thanks to a local police man.  The next day we passed two Swiss cyclers who joined the convoy and by the end of the day a Serbian student (Aleksa) was directing us to his parents village house in the hills.  We arrived and his father brought out a bottle of Slibovica which is the local face burner.  We finished the first bottle and made headway on a second.  Their generosity was amazing.  They fed us and let us sleep in their lounge.  The 6 of us woke up groggy the next morning and headed for Sofia.  right now we have set up camp for the night and are preparing dinner.

Riding in a group is shockingly different to being alone.  All 6 of us have been alone till Belgrade and riding together requires a change of style for us all.  Aleksa’s brother left us with a beautiful blessing, as the 6 of us rode out he said “I hope you all find what you’re looking for.”  I wonder what my fellow travelers thought of his comments and as we left on our way and I began to wonder what they were looking for.

Picture: From left to right Aleksa, Andrea, Matt, Robin, Jason, Michi, Aleksa’s brother, Aleksa’s dad

Crap Viu?

It was particularly lovely being back with old friends in Siria.  The seven year since we last met felt like seven days and although much has changed at Networks, some things haven’t changed a bit. They have grown from a small 10 person team to nearly 100 paid and voluntary staff working to alleviate the poverty here and build enterprises that can give poor villagers an income.  I spent my last night there with one of the most beautiful men I know.  Nigel, from Sheffield, laughed when he saw the state of my bike and despite a long day of working began to scrape the muck from my gears and clean the dirt from my chain.  He managed to find an unclaimed toothbrush to finish the job and left me with a gleaming bike chain.  He was covered in dirt from my bike whilst I was relatively clean.  I had been hovering round Nigel as he worked trying to do something useful.  He then invited me to his house for food and homemade tuica from vines in his yard.  It was another act of generosity I was unable to repay.

If you want to find out what Networks does you can go to their website here.  This might be a good time to remind you about the charity I am raising money for.  BVLS work with people affected by leprosy in India.  They do wonderful things and work towards sustainable social enterprise at Bethany village.

Leaving Siria I felt a strong sense of not wanting to be where I was, as if my spirit had wandered back to Sheffield and left this body aimlessly cycling the villages of Romania.  It was hot and muggy leaving Siria and my inflamed insect bites were reminding me incessantly of their presence.  Sitting in Timisoara later that evening, writing up the day, I felt my spirit float back to me.  The cool evening air is soothing and I began to notice the people round me returning from work and heading out to enjoy their evening.

After a lovely evening in Timisoara with Carmen, my wonderful host for the night, I had renewed energy as I set out for Serbia.  The extra air Nigel had put in my tires had me zooming along as though I was coasting downhill.  I felt nothing could stop me.  As I neared the Serbian border my google map on the ipad had led me to a road which wasn’t a road and after 50 meters of sliding across mud I gave up.  Clean Serbian roads were less that two miles along this track but I couldn’t even walk the bike without the wheels locking up with mud.  I looked up another route across the border which turned out to be another dead end.  At this point I had to contact my host for the night and say I wouldn’t be able to make it to his house.  I had to cycled 60 km along the Romanian border before I reached a crossing and managed to get to Serbia.  I found a hotel and treated myself to the luxury of a shower and an early night in a bed.  I realise that I’m exhausted with the cycling and socialising and have barely enough time to sleep let alone plan my onward journey.  I’m about to set out for Belgrade well rested and stuffed from the buffet breakfast.

View from Serbian hotel

View from Serbian hotel

Angels and Hailstones

I am now writing from a Romanian village called Siria. I lived here, on a farm, for four months in 2004 as part of a gap year.  It is a farm for homeless young men, part of a larger charity called Networks.  The journey from Budapest crosses the Hungarian plains (also called the Puszta) where there is no hill in sight until you cross the Romanian border, and in the distance the first foothills of the Carpathian mountains are a dusty silhouette on the horizon.  It is at the base of the first of these hills that Siria sits.

The Puszta is renowned for being desolate, windy and flat.  It is also one of the worst cycling experiences I have ever had.  The roads are bad and very straight.  The first day from Budapest was easy riding apart from the hailstorm which stung the bare skin on my legs.  I had a lovely host in Szentes who showed me the sights, and her grandfathers fruit brandy.  By the second day the novelty was long gone.  Turning onto Arad street I could see the road ahead cutting a straight line to the horizon through endless fields. The trees that occasionally lined the road act to remove any doubt of a turn anywhere ahead.  They framed the shimmering tarmac which glimmered like a torch on the horizon.  Add to this a headwind and you have a recipe for mental torture.  As I was in this state the Lord sent the angel Zsigmond to alleviate my pain.  Zsigmond appeared from nowhere and rode alongside me at midday.  We chatted about cycling mostly but he was great company till, after 5 miles, he turned off towards his home and life as a clerk.

Getting to the Romanian border and seeing the hills gave me a new lease of life.  The road I had found led me to an unmanned border crossing and as I ducked under the locked barriers I felt like a fugitive smuggling myself away to foreign lands.  Arriving in Siria was a wonderful relief after 95 miles and reminded me of being here in my youth.  I remember the young man who would not have imagined the adventure he is now on.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

My seat by the Danube in the centre of Budapest.

Heading into Hungary the sense of adventure has leapt up.  This is the first time I notice the wonderfully evocative sound of crickets.  The currency has changed and I feel a rich man with 10,000 Florints in my wallet.  A cheese burger meal costs 500 Florints which is about £1.50, as is a pint by the Danube in the centre of Budapest.

The horrific moment when I realised I would be cycling without maps

The horrific moment when I realised I would be cycling without maps

I am fortunate that my mapping system is excellent.  The ipad I use with Google maps has directed me perfectly to every destination and been wonderfully protected by the kind people at Tech 21 who provided me with an Impactology case.  My ipad has not only survived the bumps and bashes expected of a tour but also been dropped at speed onto the concrete cycle path and survived unscathed.  However when I last tried to download maps for the route ahead I was perturbed to see a message informing me that maps in Hungary are unavailable for download.  Not only has Google let me down but the cycle paths of Hungary are not up to the same standard as their western European relatives.  They tend to end abruptly with nowhere to go and cavernous potholes can catch you unawares.  The Language is also so Foreign to me I have switched modes to lost Englishman abroad and plough through conversations loudly in well enunciated English, a gift acquired from my father.

These pesky signs are all over the country

These pesky signs are all over the country

It is interesting to note that after the anti-nationalist sentiment in Germany, nationalism has ticked up in Austria and Hungary.  The Jobbik party here has 47 seats and 16.7% of the vote.  They have close links to the BNP in England.  They are widely criticised for anti-semitic and racist views.  The press here is largely controlled by the ruling party which is also considered a nationalist and right wing party with a flare for populist policy.  Recently the government introduced a 10% reduction in energy bills with a further 10% planned and even plan to ban energy companies from giving a dividend.  This makes Ed Milliband’s price freeze seem rather lacking ambition.

My Host family in Esztergom were very welcoming and have two very cute children who I have been teaching to count in English.  We also watched the latest Disney film.  I’m now leaving Budapest looking for a cheap hotel or grassy verge for the night.

Austrian Schnapps and Afghan Jam

My Three stops in Austria have been wonderful.  My first night was in Wels where Julia was overflowing with kindness, plying me with endless Austrian schnapps and baking fresh cookies for me to take on the road.  We chatted, over food and alcohol, about many things but noticeably the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. She said “you’ve not done the Camino unless it hurts”, which got me thinking about my pilgrimage and what hurt I’m experiencing.  I left Wels feeling warm with optimism from Julia’s friendly welcome.

Leaving Julia I headed along the Danube almost alone.  It’s a week before all the cycle ferries and guest houses open up and on Sundays everything is closed anyway.  I had no host for Sunday night so I was preparing myself for a night in my tent.  During the day the temperature dropped and grey clouds threatened a downpour, but only managed a few light showers.  There was excitement and foreboding at the prospect of camping, and as I rolled up to a very closed looking bar, the sun quite suddenly shone out through the clouds, which I took as a divine blessing on this little eatery.  I parked up and found the bar open, and I the only customer.  Oddly enough they even had wifi and as I checked my emails I had a message inviting me to stay on a couch just 5 miles away.  I was saved from a cold night on the ground without a roll mat.  Lisa was very kind and we chatted about German guilt and their aversion to nationalism and consequently their support of the EU.  We also touched on the Scottish referendum which I now realise I know little about.

Agnes' Garden with a little Pope in the flower bed

Agnes’ Garden with a little Pope in the flower bed

My next leg of the journey took me to my last Austrian stop, Vienna. I met up with an acclaimed travel writer, Duncan Smith, who gave me the best tour of a city I’ve ever had.  We walked the streets near his house while he pointed out the secret wonders of Vienna.  Particularly memorable was sneaking into an old peoples home which overlooks a particularly significant Jewish cemetery hidden from public view.  We chatted about Austrian politics and Viennese history in between the hidden gems of the city.

My host in Vienna was a remarkable woman who had recently returned from doing peace work in Afghanistan for two years.  We spent two evenings and two mornings chatting and seemed to bypass the awkward small talk.  I particularly enjoyed her chosen Lenten abstinence, she had officially left the church, which in Austria requires forms to be filled and reasons given.  Agnes’ disappointment in Church shows its failure to be relevant.  Her search for a path in life took to her to priests who embodied something radically different to the oppressive structures she sees in the Church.  Priests who gave up the manipulative weapon of guilt and learned not to judge, whether with the homeless of Vienna or in Spanish prisons.  She had also walked the Camino and showed me a wonderful short movie called Plastic Bag which is almost about pilgrimage and wonderfully describes our need for impermanence.  Agnes had a lot of wisdom and endless stories of adventure and I dallied over Afghan jam on the morning of my departure, not wanting to leave

Yellow fields in Austria

Yellow fields in Austria

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