Thoughts From the Far End of Europe

We arrived in Istanbul a couple of days ago, cycling into this sprawling monolith of a city along one of the two main routes against about 9 manic lanes of rush-hour traffic, minibuses and not-so-mini-buses.

That experience recovered from, we have again been enjoying the hospitality of a variety of city-dwellers courtesy of the Couchsurfing Project website, which has again demonstrated its increasingly invaluable efficiency in finding local people in urban areas with the desire to help and host travellers – all over the world.

Istanbul by night

Our arrival in the city marks the completion of the European leg of Ride Earth. We have successfully – albeit not without a couple of minor medical and mechanical hiccups – crossed Europe, from England to Turkey, by bicycle; a journey of almost exactly 5000km of pedalling, through 12 countries over 122 days of trial and tribulation. The experience has been richly rewarding in so many ways, and now I feel the need to take stock of how the last 4 months of submission to the whims of the world has affected my outlook on life and how it has affected my future dreams for the expedition.

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While there were many things about Europe that I tired of – the familiar infrastucture, the recognisably Western mode of thought and ugly signs of capitalism throughout – it’s also evident to me now that the experience was crucial. In getting this far, I passed a test that I suppose Andy and I had both subconsciously set ourselves. We had said from the start that crossing Europe would be a testing ground for our bikes and our equipment. What we didn’t realise was that it would be far more of a test of our personal mettle.

Anything mechanical can be fixed with a combination of gaffa tape, cable-ties and serendipity. The real challenge was to adapt to not only the logistics of the lifestyle, but also to open up in a spiritual fashion in order to learn from the experiences, to transcend the programmed values and perceptions of success and goodness in life – to tear away the fabric of the capitalist, consumerist social climate that conditions us into a way of thinking and desiring that does not belong to us.

This process was started by the decision to make this physical and mental journey, although, thinking back to summer 2006 when the idea began to germinate, I had no real idea where it would lead. I still don’t, but at this significant point in the process I can start to tease out the strands of meaning that have been weaving themselves together.

The drive to uproot the foundations of my life and to plunge into the real world – the whole world – came from a growing discomfortable inkling that my life’s meaning was beginning to take on hues and shades which, when I had the chance to think about them, made no real sense in the context of my most fundamental values. These were borne out of a childhood spent in a small rural community in which the unity of the residents determined the overall happiness of the small society, and agriculture, rural pursuits and ways of life still held this unity together in terms of employment, social interaction and village routine. Over time, I have watched this unity begin to unravel, or at least take on a completely new form with very different foundations.

It was most noticeable when I returned home to Northamptonshire after completing my first degree at the University of Exeter. When I was young, I played with my brother and our friends down the road in the outbuildings of their family’s small farm. In late summer, we would have great fun playing hide-and-seek amongst the farm machinery, in the barns, upon growing haystacks. Another farmer down the road would drive up and down on his quad-bike, attending to scattered fields of sheep and to his extensive stables. Some people had jobs in nearby cities and would commute there, but they seemed to be the exception. We roamed around the local countryside, through farmland and parkland, built wooden go-karts and raced them down the main street of the village.

Throughout the summer months, there would be regular community events; village fetes in which myself and other children from the village primary school put on gymnastics displays to country music, and seemingly hundreds of ‘coffee mornings’ (which were really an excuse for me and my brother and our friends to explore all the gardens of the village through games of hide-and-seek and fetching lost footballs, and eating large quantities of cake baked by the village women). As with most childhoods, our lives were carefree and we took our rural surroundings and society for granted, as children do!

During my secondary-school days, I began to lose touch with my village friends. At the age of 11, we all went to town schools. My schoolbus took over an hour to weave through the country lanes towards Kettering, where it deposited hordes of unruly village children in the middle of the town. I was the only boy in the village that year to go to the particular school my parents chose for me and my brother. Thus, my childhood friends went their separate ways, I made new friends who came from the town, and things continued without reflection.

It was in this climate, during possibly the most impressionable days of our lives, that we were subject to the whimsical mentality of one of many central English post-industrial towns. Our area’s industry was shoemaking, long since declined with only a few traces remaining. The town centre has little to say for itself any more, save for the usual run of franchises and big shopping chains, interspersed occasionally with an independent store or two. The town had been left with little identity to speak of.

That need for identity seemed to have been transposed onto the remaining features of the town, which is now defined by my peers in terms of its enigmatic pubs, kebab houses and suburban districts. That’s not to say I don’t retain any nostalgic attachment to Kettering – but it is my friends there, rather than the place itself, that I miss the most.

I won’t elaborate too much on the details of my adolescence as to do so would probably be a little self-indulgent. I am trying, right now, to contextualise my current outlook on the world, by including a little of everything that has contributed to it. But to summarise, I would say that like many folk coming into a town from the countryside to spend our teenage years – not only at school, but also in social circumstances – I went into a stage of intoxication with the world it offered. For example, I could go out with my friends and participate in the almost-inevitable act of under-age drinking without having to worry what passers-by thought, because the scale of the town offered anonymity to me and to anyone else who wished it. I could trudge down the Headlands into town at lunchtime and have a McDonalds, go for a game of pool and be back in time for afternoon registration.

I knew what it was like to live in this kind of society and there were many aspects that appealed to me at that age. But every night, I slept in my bed in my village home, which was my real home, and this was important as it meant I could see the town life for what it was in a wider perspective. This also meant that I developed a new appreciation for the countryside, which I could enjoy outside of school-time, no longer taking it for granted. My part-time job mucking out stables at the other end of the village, unglamourous though it was, gave me solitude and time to reflect on these things. And so that stage of urban intoxication was tempered and was not allowed to develop into the driving force behind my life.

Finishing university, I had no real direction in which to go. My degree, which like many of my generation had been chosen out of the need to ‘go to uni’ rather than to engage in passionate study of a subject, had been a success, because I had found the determination to see the consequences of a questionable earlier decision through to the best possible end. But I had no interest in pursuing Computer Science further in academia or in the world of work. All I knew, in these confused times, was that I had to figure out my direction in life.

I didn’t consciously make any decision to do so, but the result was that I lay low – living with my parents, earning a few quid from the odd bit of freelance work and manning the bar at the local hotel, making occasional excursions to work back in Exeter or up at Edinburgh festival; but generally making a hash of a good relationship and going through a period of extended and fruitless soul-searching. It’s hard to admit. But rejecting the ‘standard’ post-university route of a well-paid job in London under a graduate recruitment scheme was never going to be easy, as I was finding out.

It was at about this time that the concept that is now Ride Earth surfaced. I had been toying with various cycle-touring-related ideas for a while. But one day in Edinburgh, I was in a bookshop on Southbridge when I noticed a book entitled ‘The Adventure Cycle Touring Handbook’. I wandered over to the Meadows and lay on the grass in the sun, flicking through it. Then, in an unbelievable moment of serendipity – this actually happened – my phone beeped with the sound of an incoming SMS. “Mate. I have decided to bike round the world.”

It was from Andy. The implications were obvious. The coincidence was impossible to ignore. Serendipity, luck, coincidence, chance, fate, the process, going with the flow – all names for the same thing – would be a major theme in the story from that moment on. It’s a sure sign that you’ve finally found the true path – there’s nothing supernatural to it. This was the moment when I took my first tentative steps down it. These were the hardest steps, I think, as I had to watch people I loved taking paths in different directions, but by then there was no space to turn round and follow.

Back in my home village, I discussed with my parents the way in which the place had changed. From its grass-roots origins, the village was becoming increasingly one of countryside retreats for well-to-do professionals in early-middle age who wanted somewhere ‘nice’ to bring up their children. The village fete no longer existed, as the village manor was sold by the community-centred family who owned it, large gates were erected and planning applications spewed forth for large housing developments on the estate (which were duly quashed by the remainder of the community who felt opposed to such effective ways to disrupt the unity of a village). The village pantomime – in which all the village’s parents used to annually embarrass themselves – also died off. The annual litter picking season disappeared. Carol singers stayed at home on Christmas Eve. The church community lost its long-standing and popular vicar and went into a period of instability.

Thankfully, all is not lost for my home village. There has always been some tension between the residents of the ‘old’ village at one end, and those of the council-house estates at the other – but incidents like the overthrowing of the huge housing development applications showed that people could still unite together when the need arose. Various regular social gatherings in the village now act to bring newcomers into the community and to solidify the spirit of the community as it now stands. My parents, who have lived there for much of their adult lives, will no doubt have their comments on the topic!

Having found a path to tread, I began to see where it would lead. At the time, I knew that it was the right one, but I couldn’t clearly see how I had found it. Now, looking back, it is much clearer – and this is confirmation to me that I am going in the right direction.

My experiences in Europe have shown me a lot about the value of the community and living sufficiently without excess. This is partly thanks to my quite minimalist lifestyle – I now possess only what I need to achieve this journey, having sold everything I own except my books and record collection – but it is also a result of seeing the contrast between rural and urban society. and the common features of each which have persisted throughout the continent.

We have stayed with villagers in Romania who have nothing but their small plot of land on which to raise and grow enough food to feed themselves, and been welcomed as equals, fed as equals and treated with the most warm and genuine kindness imaginable, despite sharing no common language whatsover. A couple in rural Hungary took in myself, Andy and 2 others who were travelling with us. after we asked if we could camp for the night on their land. They didn’t speak a word of English, and we about 5 words of Hungarian. They lived the simplest life imaginable in their little cottage, earning a small wage on a nearby equestrian centre. But they treated us like kings and queens, wanting nothing in return but the feeling of helping fellow human beings on their way. When we left the following afternoon, they were both in tears.

If this sounds like the stuff of storybooks, it’s not – in fact, this kind of thing has happened in England (imagine!), Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Romania and Turkey – in the countryside, in parts of the world where mutuality still exists, where people help each other because they want to help, not because they want money.

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On the other hand, we’ve cycled into cities small and large, spent hours in them, on our bikes and on foot, and been unacknowledged and unnoticed by anyone. We’ve been up til 3:30am trying to find somewhere to sleep before giving up and sleeping under a tree in a park. We’ve been invited in by a family in a slum town under desperate circumstances, fed and given beds, only to be demanded money of the following day (and not an inconsiderable sum either). What does this say about the way in which city and country affect people’s mindsets, their attitude towards other humans, and their sense of what is valuable and good in the world?

It’s not always like that, though – I hate to make sweeping generalizations, so remember that this is nothing more than an intensely abbreviated summary of the last 4 months on the road. Seeing all aspects of society as we have done on our bikes, taking rural routes as well as visiting urban centres, has highlighted some fundamental aspects of human nature, and about how society is influenced by the capitalist democracy that we seem to think is the best answer to the problem of governing society.

From this point onwards in Ride Earth, things are not as clear as we thought they might be. This is because we have accepted the idea of fluidity in our travels, rather than making a plan and sticking stoically to it. We are ready to go wherever the world takes us from here onwards.

Camping under the stormclouds in Mongolia

Lastly, I would like to recommend a book which I have been reading recently. It has helped greatly to clarify matters regarding social foundations, and has put my observations of myself and the world into a wider context, from the point-of-view of an author whose grounding is similarly community-based (although in a very different set of social conditions on the Hebridean islands of Scotland). It’s called Soil and Soul, written by Alastair McIntosh, and it was given to us by JP of the WWF, who can be seen talking to us in Episode 4 of the video podcast. You can get a copy here, and I would recommend it to anyone who has ever doubted the values on which our current society is based.

It’s not a monologue of extremism, either – it’s a balanced set of observations that take in a huge range of topics which are fundamental to the way we live, and more importantly, the way that we should strive to live in the future.

The journey recounted in this archived post is now the subject of the award-winning documentary film Janapar: Love, on a Bike.

Click here to watch the trailer in a new tab →

6 Responses to “Thoughts From the Far End of Europe”

  1. Richard Allen

    Phew Tom! That was a fascinating reflection of life’s journey and your impressions of village childhood. Looking forward to hearing how life in Asia affects you. Hope to join you for a while at some point during that adventure. Love Dad x

    Reply
  2. guess who

    Very profound thoughts – definitely deserves more than one reading.
    My old school motto comes to mind ‘must give, else never canst receive’ – it works both ways.
    Lots of love xxxx

    Reply
  3. MTB Serbia » BIKELINKS: Jersey mountain biking!

    […] Thoughts From the Far End of Europe brings us musings from a cross-Europe biking expedition. Only, why did you miss out Serbia, guys? We’re on the Danube Cycle Route now too, you know! […]

    Reply
  4. jens

    hola chicos!
    concratulations!
    you are staying with the best people I know in Istanbul ! hehe
    i was guest of serdar and nihan too and had a realy good time there.
    your trip sounds realy promisinig and i think, that even that i prefer traveling by myself more, i feel like i have to follow on whats going on youre places over the time.
    if you don’t mind i’like to link you from my website too,

    have a good time and tell nihan she shall not be pissed of with me because of the discussion about pkk 😉

    cheers
    jesn

    Reply
  5. santa cruz r best

    lovely words, portraying a stunning contrast between a closed self possessed protective “wealthy” society and open “poor?” giving societies that possess true values. very moving in so many ways. good luck for wherever the flow takes you next.

    Reply
  6. Christian Benke

    Hey! Excellent read, thanks a lot! I can highly relate to it, my experiences are very similar(Through childhood and adolescence). Your blog and photos lift my morals for my own journey(Which i’m currently struggling with)…

    Reply

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