Andy and I have been soaking up Istanbul for a fair while now. We’re both itching to get on the road again, and I’m excited and a little apprehensive at the prospect of seeing through the winter in Central Asia. But we’ve had more than our fair share of hiccups, and they are still preventing us from leaving. So here’s a run-down of how fate, or the process, or luck, has treated us in recent weeks.
The first disaster struck back in Bucharest about 4 weeks ago. As we were leaving the city, I realised that my wallet was not in its usual place. A return to our host’s flat and a thorough scouring thereof revealed nothing. I was naturally dismayed at the sudden disappearance of 2 debit cards, 2 credit cards and 170 Euros in cash. To this day I still can’t explain how I lost my wallet — forcing the sad conclusion that someone in the street ‘lost’ it for me.
Cards were duly stopped and replacements ordered with a quick and easy phone call — no problems there. The loss of 170 Euros was a slightly bigger blow, however. Just my luck that I’d put the money in my wallet the previous day, rather than stashing all but my day’s supply as I usually do. I think a guy called Sod invented a law about that. 170 euros could easily keep me on the road for a couple of months.
A few days later, riding through an autumnal mid-October landscape in rural Bulgaria, I happened upon Andy — a surprise, as he doesn’t bother to stop and wait for me very often. He wore an expression of ferocious contemplation, if such a thing is possible. He gestured towards his rear wheel. I looked down and beheld a 6‑inch crack in the braking surface of the rear rim. Not just a little crack, either — it bulged outwards, exposing the inner tube, and looked like it wouldn’t last another day before caving in completely and comprehensively shafting our chances of cycling to Istanbul. Disaster number two had occurred.
“We have a problem,” he stated dogmatically. “A really, really big problem.”
By all accounts he was right. But it wasn’t a totally unexpected problem. It was one we foresaw long ago whilst researching rims for heavily-loaded touring bikes. A mix-up at the wheel-builders meant that Andy set out on a pair of Mavic XM721 downhill rims, rather than the Sun Rhynolite rims that we’d ordered two sets of. (For the record, I am still running these Sun rims with no problems so far.)
These particular Mavic rims are notorious for cracking on tours like this, as testified by many other cycle tourists. We had expressed concerns prior to leaving, but then forgotten about the issue as we were swept up by the new lifestyle and the associated adaptations it brought to us.
The rest of the day was spent in a state of suspense as we tried to ascertain whether or not the rim would hold out. We spent the next few days swaying erratically between an optimistic determination to hitch-hike to Istanbul and a reluctant desire to cycle the whole way. Thus it happened that we found ourselves in a Bulgarian pick-up truck, skipping a particularly traffic-saturated section of the coastal road through Burgas. As we thanked the driver and wrestled our bikes and luggage onto the verge, the third disaster reared its ugly, wart-ridden head.
Andy’s trailer attachment was still on the side of the road, 25km on the wrong side of Burgas.
A quick decision was made, and 30 minutes later, I was pedalling onwards, my trailer significantly heavier than usual. In front of me, Andy wobbled precariously along on his buckled back wheel, with two exploding panniers, a bursting 60-litre dry-bag, and a 26-inch ‘extra’ wheel bungee-strapped to the back of his bike. The remnants of the trailer lay in a hedge, where it probably still lies, turning slowly to rust.
How we managed to get from this point to Istanbul, by bicycle, I have no idea. The hills of Bulgaria were steep and unrelenting. Gaffa tape was the only thing stopping Andy’s wheel for imploding. It’s a testament to the mystical wonder that is Gaffa tape, and the durability of the Tubus rear rack, that we managed another 500 or so kilometres without any further problems.
That is, until an ATM ate Andy’s debit card, three days’ ride from Istanbul.
Four disasters and counting.
That night, we were offered some broken-up cardboard boxes to sleep on by an employee of a BP petrol station, which just about says all you need to know about the depths of despair we’d sunk to. We were reduced to the level of tramps! Incidentally, this is not necessarily an unfulfilling place to be in life. George Orwell chose it (and then went on to write Down And Out In Paris And London), as did David Klein, the Everest mountaineer who we stayed with in Budapest, and who described the 6 months he spent begging in India as the happiest he’d ever been.
An extraordinarily disastrous period would not be complete without a final, stomach-lurchingly unexpected blow to demolish one’s soul in a spectacularly comprehensive fashion. This happened yesterday, here in Istanbul, and it’s responsible for the fairly black tone of this article.
I sit down in the internet cafe. It’s been 4 days since I checked my email, as there’s no internet connection at my hosts’ flat. I run through the usual list of addresses — my Ride Earth webmail (check), our website (still no podcast), Facebook (oh, I deleted my account, didn’t I), GMail… hmm, that’s odd. Wrong password. Double check. Still telling me wrong password… did I forget my username after 4 days? No, it’s definitely that… Did I change my password… no memory of that… (slight panic and quickening of heartbeat)… did I drink too much? No, of course not.
What the heck?
Did I leave my account logged in somewhere…? Impossible, I’ve only used 2 computers in the last 2 weeks and they’re both in the same flat, with friends… (a moment of irrational suspicion)… no of course they wouldn’t, how could I think that?! And no-one knows my password.
That leaves only one possibility… I can’t believe it! I can’t believe my security-conscious, computer-savvy mind has let this happen! A virus, or Trojan, probably a key-logging trick in an internet cafe or on an unsuspecting host’s computer, is the only explanation. I try to reset my password, but someone has actually gone in there and changed my password and my security questions. I am completely locked out. And… oh, crap… my online banking details are saved in there!
This is what went through my mind. This is what turned a carefree wander around Mecidiyekoy market area into an all-consuming, living nightmare. I was completely comatose, as my mind ran through the potential repercussions, which of course seemed the only ones possible. Memberships to countless web forums, online shops, eBay, my entire contact list, all my emails for the last 4 or 5 years — all of this was lost! Communication with countless people I’d met on the road was instantly severed. My online bank accounts were left wide open to anyone with a bit of sense to work out the primitive clues I’d disguised the most sensitive information with. I felt like someone had reached deep into my personal stuff, fundamental parts of my life; clutched ignorantly onto the strands contained within, and ripped them clean out without a second thought.
Then I realised that the trauma extended further. In Google Documents, the accounts I’d diligently put together to work out our shared funding of Ride Earth with was gone. The drafted article for Geographical magazine was no more. And to cap it all, the ‘Help’ pages of GMail that related to what had happened to me were curiously missing. A large quantity of salt and an open wound spring to mind.
Now, 24 hours later, I’ve finally locked down my bank accounts and every membership site I can think of. In doing so I discovered that the hacker had accessed my eBay account, used it to list a number of Dell laptops (doubtless non-existent or stolen) and attempted to use the credit card details on file to register a number of new accounts. Overall, this decisively brought to a head the nightmare run of bad luck we’ve had, in complete contrast with the overwhelmingly positive experience we’ve had of Turkey, Turkish people and Istanbul in general.
I’m still waiting to hear back from Google about getting my password reset and getting access back to my account. I made it clear how much sensitive information has been compromised. Ebay and my banks were efficient and helpful and I was secure with them within minutes. Google, get your act together!
In all of this I’ve learnt some important lessons. Never rely on technology. Back everything up in a tangible way. In the Real World. Commit sensitive information to memory and keep it there.
This sounds like Internet Security 101. I thought I knew better. Not this time — I’m a victim of deeply ingrained, long-forgotten over-confidence and laziness when it comes to my passwords and my attitude to security on the internet. Time to make some changes, although there’s little point closing the gate once the horse has bolted, as the saying goes.
I’m still waiting for a replacement debit card. It was never sent when I cancelled the lost cards 4 weeks ago, as I discovered today on the phone to my bank. (So much for that quick and easy phone call in Bucharest.) We’re also still waiting for a set of wheels for Andy and two new prototype Extrawheel trailers to test on the road. But at least it happened in a big city, where we have contacts to receive our various replacement bits and bobs.
Events seem to conspire to keep us put in Istanbul for at least another week or two. We don’t mind too much, as there’s plenty to see and do. We have enough pocket-money to buy basic food, and more than enough people in our network of friends here to help us out with somewhere to sleep — which really is all you need, if you strip your lifestyle down to the bare essentials. It’s a shame we’re still reliant on money and material objects to keep the wheels of Ride Earth turning, but there’s little choice — save for becoming beggars in India, that is, which is starting to feel like a worthwhile option…