Author Archive: Chris Ware

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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Getting My Leg Over in Aschaffenburg

Cycling the Rhine was so easy that I decided to up my game and after Mainz head directly to Wurzburg.  Google maps told me this little leg of the journey was 150 km, and so confident was I that the night before I decided to paint the town red, finishing at 2am with a flaming Sambuca.  Despite this I still managed to be up and out at 8.  I cruised the 45 miles to my lunch stop, Aschaffenburg, in what felt like no time at all.  My average speed was 13 mph thanks to the first noticeable tailwind I’ve had.  I treated myself to a Doner Kebab and 90 minutes of basking in the sun.  The combination of a hefty Kebab and little sleep the night before was at this point taking its toll on my motivation for further cycling but I had already arranged my stay in Wurzburg.

Freya and Arnaud, My hosts in Wurzburg

Freya and Arnaud, My hosts in Wurzburg

It was about 1:30 when I launched my leading leg over my steel steed, ready to embark on the rest of my days travel.  It was this action that triggered shooting pains to course up my leg, becoming a serious cause for concern.  I set off in considerable discomfort, playing out scenarios of lifelong injury and camping immobilized in the wilderness.  As I got into the rhythm of cycling the pain seemed to ease a fraction, but with a drop in the pain came a rise in the incline.  My carefully planned route had followed two river and a coastline in order to avoid hills and only left a small gap between two little rivers, the Rhine and Danube, which could present a problem.  It was this gap I had now entered.  The experience of climbing this mountain reminded me of watching the extended version of the last of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The experience of watching endless scenes of Frodo and Samwise climbing up the barren landscape of Mordor and Mount Doom was much too similar to my grueling hours of very boring climbing, all the while nursing my painfully injured right leg.  By the time I had rolled into Wurzburg I had covered 96 miles , by far my longest day, and climbed in altitude much more than my entire journey thus far.

Passau

Passau

Wurzburg was a pretty hippy place.  I was greeted by a man in boxers shorts who enquired who I was through a little hatch at face height in the front door.  Once I had dropped my bags in their hallway I supped a cup of tea in the kitchen listening to the sounds of the neighborhood.  Someone in a flat across the square was clearly in the early stages of learning the didgeridoo and later an impromptu percussion jam seemed to break out with pots and pans being banged and tapped all across the block.  The walls were full of posters and street art and an atmosphere of veganism and hemp pervaded the old and ramshackle block of flats.

I set off on another long day to Nuremberg where my host was a lovely family of English, American and German nationality.  Lawrence was a true adventurer, moving from the UK to Hungary in 1991 just after the fall of the soviet union.  I had some fabulous chats with him about European politics and his adventures.  Quite by chance a friend of mine was also playing a gig in Nuremberg that night beneath the old castle at a wonderful venue called USG 6.  Lawrence and I went to see The Officer and my friend Drew Worthley play some wonderful songs that made me yearn for home.

On the town hall they show the flooding levels they have had in Passau. In 2013 the water reached to well into the first floor of houses.

On the town hall they show the flooding levels they have had in Passau. In 2013 the water reached to well into the first floor of houses.

After another Long days ride I reached the Danube which would accompany me most of the way to Istanbul and suggested flat and easy riding.  My Host in Regensburg was another German guinea pig owner and this clearly a big part of his life.  He had called one of his pets Nelson Mandela and after writing to inform him he received a signed photo of Nelson.  The guinea pig cage was also covered in pictures of German midfielder Schweinsteiger, whos name resembles Meerschweinchen (guinea pig in German).  The myriad images of Schweinsteiger had all been defaced to resemble a rodent like appearance with whiskers and prominent front teeth.  Phil had also traveled almost everywhere and told countless stories over beer in a traditional Bavarian beer house with waitresses in traditional attire.  This turned into another late night which made the ride to Passau a little more of a challenge.

My Host in Passau had done her own cycling tour of France, staying with many French couch surfers who showed her infectious generosity. She took me out to an all you can eat Chinese which is perfect after a days riding.  She insisted on paying for me despite being a first year student with little money.  Somehow she persuaded me to cycle up a monstrous hill which gave a fabulous view of Passau and the three rivers that meet there.  I have now crossed over into Austria without any sign of a border and I look forward my first Austrian host.

Chasing the Wind

When you’re planning a trip of the kind I’m now doing, you imagine a montage of sunshine and strangers set in a revolving backdrop of European cities.  The reality is a lot slower.  There is a wilderness to being trapped on a bike for 6 hours.  I do a lot of maths during these hours, estimating arrival times, guessing at my average speed before checking my on board computer.  There are, however, only so many distraction on a bike, especially when following a river like the Rhine which makes it hard to get lost.  The first two hours of cycling are always a joy but the penultimate hour is usually the low point.  This is when familiar demons make their home in my head.  It was during this hour on my way to Mainz that my thoughts turned sour.  The atmosphere was muggy and hot, almost tired, waiting for a storm to clear the air.  I noticed the concrete that is ever present where humans deign to go.  A symbol of humanity’s lack of creativity.  The grey, uncompromising efficiency saps my enthusiasm for travel.  The same jaundiced drunk wanders the street and even the optimism of young lovers becomes a parody of lovers everywhere, repeating the same pattern of impossible expectations, inevitably disappointed.  I’m reminded of lines from Ecclesiastes ‘there is nothing new under the sun…everything is meaningless…a chasing after the wind’ or into the wind in my case.  But getting to Mainz and meeting old friends lifted me out of this melancholy.

My friend Christine in Mainz

My friend Christine in Mainz

The next day I was reading 21 wonderfully written words of wisdom, which you should all read (here), and found myself inspired but again melancholy.  Disappointed that I don’t see the world with same optimism of Rumi or the hope of Rebecca Solnit (you have to read the piece to get the references).  And after the melancholy came the loveliest epiphany, rather like a butterfly unexpectedly landing on your hand.  It was a delightful sense of peace, and a sense that who I was, was ok.  It was the flip side of the melancholy coin I had experienced the day before.  With the futility of things comes an equality.   Chasing after the wind is still fairly pointless but it’s ok to do it.  The sense of peace fluttered away as delicately as it had arrived but I still remember it.

Tomorrow morning I head off for Wurzburg before Nuremberg on Monday.  I have a host arranged for both stays and as it happens a friend, Drew Worthley, is playing a gig in Nuremberg Monday night.

The journey so far

The journey so far

Alone in Cologne

Margitta has lived in her house for all 57 years of her life. She has never hosted a stranger from couchsurfing.org before yet she sent me a message inviting me to stay in her spare room.  When I arrived after 70 miles on my bike she shared the most delicious bottle of french cider with me whilst chatting in the evening sun.  She then cooked up a feast and we continued chatting about her daughter now living in Sheffield and a pub familiar to us both, The Lescar.  Her generosity continued next morning with a marvelous breakfast spread; a pot of tea, a loaf of bread, cheese, salami, honey and jam.  She had also given me a German sausage, bananas and sandwich for my lunch as well as mineral water to take on my way.  I felt compelled to turn down the chocolate, nuts and raisins she offered.  I find this kind of abundant hospitality difficult to accept, it is humbling being unable to give something back.  Receiving unconditional gifts can be uncomfortable but is somehow part of living properly, being able to give and receive without vested interest.  I think loosing your pride is part of finding yourself, as is giving without counting the cost.  As I tried to refuse various of Margitta’s gifts she would say “giving costs me nothing”.

guinea

Margitta has 11 Guinea Pigs, her Favourite is on the left

My second German host canceled on me at short notice leaving me without a home in Cologne.  All my hosts up to this point had been overflowing with generosity and as I put out the emergency message for a host in Cologne I knew I had to take whatever offer I got.  Thankfully Paul got back to me, but Paul’s profile was particularly sparse, no pictures and no references.  He gave no address just a rendezvous point, the Sulzgurtel tram stop at 7:30.  Would he show up?

Traditional German lunch, this Doner Kebab is the best in Cologne as tested by Paul

Traditional German lunch, this Doner
Kebab is the best in Cologne as tested by Paul

While I was thinking up contingency plans a massive German with a crew cut approached me.  Paul is an offensive line guard for the Koln Falcons.  Those who know American Football will know these people are some of the largest people on the planet.  The best guards in the NFL are praised for their toughness and being nasty, punching opponents whenever they can get away with it.  I don’t know what Paul is like on the field but off it he couldn’t be kinder.  Paul did a school exchange to the US for 6 months when he was younger.  He experienced a kind of hospitality from his host mum that is infectious.  As he plied me with cold beers, one of which I spilt all over his flat, we chatted about our respective NFL teams.  Paul has a gift for making you feel comfortable and I leave Cologne with an even greater trust in strangers than I had before.

The Flying Dutchman

The Netherlands has something of the Midas Touch for cycling.  Off the ferry the wide cycle paths of smooth flat tarmac stretch out in all directions.  Every turn leads to perfect cycling condition and lanes with right of way.  Even the hills prostrate themselves for the bicycle.  Once the relief of easy riding conditions has worn off, the realisation hits that you miss the hills, and the adrenaline of lorries zooming past.   You miss the fight for your space on the road.  In The Netherlands there is no fight, the cars tip toe round you and there is nothing to interrupt your rhythm as you pedal on.  I found myself changing gear out of boredom, starved of variety.  The flat landscape also does nothing to halt the wind which blew briskly in my face for my last two days of riding. utrecht

Dutch cyclists seem to glide around elegantly, powering their way through the wind in a phenomenally high gear compared to my frantic peddling.  At one point I spotted an elder gentleman, sat upright in his saddle, brown shell suit catching the headwind like a sail.  I assumed this pensioner would be simple to catch and overtake yet as I ducked down to streamline myself for the pursuit the stubborn gap failed to shorten.  I powered on, determined to catch the man who’s legs, one assumed, must be hard as iron to power himself, sail and all, through the strong headwind.  I was mesmerized by the man who was the focus of my attention for quite some time.  After 20 minutes of straining I caught up with the flying Dutchman who, much to my relief, revealed his secret, clicking off his electric bike as he turned off the road to his house.

flying-dutchmanAgain I have been overwhelmed by the generosity of strangers.  My first night was spent with a lovely child psychologist called Josephine in the lovely Utrecht.  My last two nights were with the very thoughtful Joost, a tax advisor, who has shown me the sights of Arnhem and drunk beer with me by the Rhine.  He even managed to get me on a bike when I was meant to be resting my legs.   Its interesting to hear the same political discussions in newspapers here as in the UK, with the rise of anti-EU parties quickly capturing a significant minority of votes.  The same xenophobia of foreign workers taking jobs and stigma of the jobless who don’t work hard enough.  Tomorrow I will leave the Netherlands for Germany and a new stranger offering me a couch.

I’m Actually Doing This

As my (now ex) front door clicked shut and left me locked out, a question repeatedly ran through my head, “what on earth am I doing?”  This is the nearest thing to a panic attack I have had.  The whole situation seemed ludicrous, but at this point I have very little choice.  I’m actually doing this.

The last two days have been an emotional roller coaster.  An hour of cold rainy headwind was a particular low point, reversed by a glimmer of sunlight as the road turned downhill and I started to feel my fingers again.  About five miles before arriving both times I felt the premature elation of arriving before realising slowly that I still was a way off.  However this only seems to accentuate the bliss of climbing off the bike knowing I’m not going to fail today.

The most striking epiphany I’ve had so far was invoked by my first host.  Heather didn’t know me at all but took me in, fed me and gave me a guided tour of Chelmsford.  She had no agenda and took nothing.  It was this fulsome hospitality that eased my doubts and reminded me that we need people.  Her hospitality not only gave me the essential shelter and sustenance I needed but also the encouragement that out there people are kind.  This reminded me of my last night in London with good friends, one of whom (the ever thoughtful Amy), gave me the chocolate eggs that powered me through the first day.  My brother was also there.  He bought me my saddle to cradle my bum as gently as possible for as far as I get.   Tony wasn’t there but he sold me his bike at a very reasonable price and threw in some extras for free.  Renata taught me how to stretch and told me what to eat to stay healthy.  El lent me her titanium spork which is apparently an essential touring companion.  The people from Tech 21 sponsored me with an Ipad and an Impactology case.  It is this Ipad that directs me as I meander through strange places.

mr-slocumWhile I wait for my ferry at Harwich I will leave you with a picture of Mrs Slocum who’s breakfast I mashed this morning as she’s getting old and her teeth aren’t up to much.