Good evening. I’m writing from the opulent luxury of my parents’ home! But the luxury doesn’t come from central heating, a hot shower, or a well-stocked fridge (although these things are most enticing). No, the true luxury is the feeling of having a permanent base to come back to, something I haven’t had for almost 18 months.
Travel is often a compromise – it takes time to settle into the flow of constant movement, from one set of surroundings and people to another, the same daily routine of goodbyes and hellos in return for a constantly varied cultural experience. Now, I know I’ll be coming back to sleep in the same bed every night, eating breakfast at the same table, and that’s a comfort that can’t be replicated anywhere other than your own home, wherever it is and however luxurious it may be.
My tent offered the same kind of protection from random variables – I could be relatively sure of an undisturbed night’s sleep in familiar surroundings, no matter where I’d made my pitch. Sometimes I spent days longing for this momentary privacy as I passed through heavily-populated areas. At other times, I dreaded the routine of finding a good camping spot – our difficulties last winter in Turkey springs to mind.
It depends on my mood. On our overland journey home, I looked forward to the welcome of my parents and their house in deepest Northamptonshire. Now I’m here, I’m happy, but I’m already feeling the pull. My nomadic days are far from over, and the stable life will have to wait a little longer.
Now you might be asking “but where does Tenny come into all of this?”. It’s difficult. Really difficult. I’m not going to leave her for the sake of a bike ride. But at the same time, I’m somehow planning to do just that. The mighty emotion of love will be our only connection. It’s going to be guiding me from the moment I set off. From that day forth, it’ll be a long ride back to her.
Is it a risk? Of course it is. The future is wholly unpredictable. But the bigger risk for us would be if I were to abandon the desire that led me to embark on the mission we called Ride Earth. The desire was that of discovery, of the world and of the self, of tackling something all-consuming and life-changing, in order to begin to better understand the world. If I don’t make a go of it now, I won’t necessarily have the chance again, and I know myself well enough to know I’d regret it. And that would be a dangerous thing for me and for my relationship with Tenny.
There are hundreds of relevant travellers’ quotes better-penned than anything I could come up with, so here’s one of my favourites, from American writer and traveller Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
Our journey from Tehran back to England took 16 days. It was a wholesome mixture of experiences. We started out on the very affordable public transport found outside Western Europe, taking the train from Tehran to Istanbul – a 78-hour marathon broken up only by a 5-hour stint on a ferry to cross Lake Van in eastern Turkey. After a couple of days in Istanbul, during which I deposited my bike at the home of a most helpful and hospitable Couchsurfer, we headed for Greece, again by train. Tenny was stamped into the Schengen zone, which enabled us border-free passage all the way to Calais.
Greece seemed to have a lot in common with Turkey, and I would have liked to have spent more time there. As it was, we arrived at 6am into Athens, with a ferry to Italy leaving at midnight from nearby Patras.
We spent most of the day wandering the streets of Athens, and occasionally wolfing a succession of greasy pork kebabs.
The ferry to Italy was a curiously empty vessel. I imagine that it would have been full had it been summertime, but in late November we had an entire deck to ourselves, shared only with a young German lad who was on his way back home after a motorcycling tour of Europe. Two nights later, we slunk into a sleepy, foggy Sunday-morning Venice. Western Europe began with the most tranquil and quaint oddity of a town I’ve had the pleasure to wander in.
We spent an unsuccessful day attempting to hitch-hike out of the town towards the Austrian border to the north. Hitch-hiking was our only transport option for Western Europe, and early winter was not really the best time to be doing it. But trains and buses would have quickly eaten up literally months’ worth of bicycle-touring budget. I was gobsmacked as to how expensive overland travel in Western Europe has become, compared to the cheap-and-easy budget airline option which I have been adamantly trying to avoid at all costs. There’s a good rant brewing on that topic which I will spare you now in favour of writing it up another time.
Forlornly we cadged a ride back to Venice and shacked up in the most expensive, artificial, soulless youth hostel I’ve ever had the misfortune to spend 2 hours in the dark locating. On the second day our luck changed, and within a few hours we were aboard a Turkish lorry heading for Germany. In typical Turkish style, the driver forcefully resisted all attempts to buy him drinks or meals throughout the 2 days we spent with him. We were blown away to have been taken all the way to the German-French border from a gas station just a few kilometres down the highway from Venice!
The following day we were fortunate enough to be picked up by a lone Frenchman who drove us all the way to central Paris. He discovered that I spoke abysmal French and didn’t bother to attempt any further communication for the 500km journey. We did manage to extract a smile out of him as he dropped us off outside a creperie, and I don’t think we parted on bad terms. I swiftly ordered a crepe complet with ham, cheese and egg, and we set off on foot in search of our host, a German living in Paris who we’d met in the bustle of Istanbul nightlife.
In Paris, we spent a couple of days sight-seeing. Tenny was interested in seeing some of the famous buildings of Paris which we Europeans take for granted. The Eiffel tower, for example. It’s always there, isn’t it? A couple of hours on the train from London, 59 quid return? For Tenny, who’d never left Iran or Armenia until a week previously, the Eiffel Tower was what the Taj Mahal or the Great Pyramid would be to us – an impossibly-distant and exotic monument that is ever-present in our consciousness but is unlikely ever to be seen in the flesh.
Watching her reactions to normal aspects of European life was really interesting. Street sweepers! Buses where you have to pay before you get on, rather than as you get off! German public toilets that cost a whole euro to use and have turnstiles and bizarre seat-cleaning contraptions! Parisian bicycle-rental stations and special lanes to ride them on! Everything was so clean, ordered, shiny, with fences and railings and warning signs that alert us to the ever-present dangers that surround our daily lives and ensure that we conduct our business as free from risk as possible.
Another miserably bad day of hitch-hiking soon followed, and we were forced into a train ride to Calais. On the ferry, we changed tactics, and conducted a methodical search of the boat, asking each and every person reading a British newspaper if they were heading north from Dover and was there any space in their vehicle? After an assortment of apologies, ignorations, blank refusals and mutterings of disapproval, we found a chap (ironically the only French person we asked) who was driving his van to Rothwell, which was about 10km from home in Northamptonshire.
Our lucky streak continued as within 30 seconds of being dropped off we found a friendly middle-aged couple who took us all the way to my village. They had a son who was travelling, and evidently empathised with us. We walked through the park, where I had spent my childhood frolicking, and were home in time for tea!
Lessons learnt from the trip? Firstly that despite the noises our E.U. governments are making over emissions-reduction and sustainable living, there exist a great many obstacles to the environmentally-conscious traveller in Western Europe. Train travel is extortionate as a way to get around. I can fly to Istanbul for £70, but to go by train would cost more than £300. Buses are cheaper, but the absurdly-low cost of air travel ensures that the average traveller will pretty much always choose to fly. It’s also a real struggle to make advance bookings, which is the only real way to reduce the cost. It’s all at odds with the promising movements we’re seeing towards a more environmentally-conscious West, and there is serious work to be done in terms of making overland travel a viable alternative to the plane.
Secondly, that hitch-hiking in Western Europe, which has gone from being popular enough to generate queues at particularly popular spots to a very rarely-seen activity, is still possible. In the paranoid generation we live in, it’s more difficult, and those who’ve never tried it are often skeptical, seeing it as risky and frought with uncertainty. For us, the uncertainty was part of the attraction, and our experiences with those who picked us up were, without exception, positive and memorable. Outside the West, hitchhiking is not necessarily more popular, but the far greater trust inherent in the people of countries like Romania, Turkey, Georgia, and Iran towards each other makes it far easier to get a ride.
Coming back has confirmed a few realisation I’ve had about life in Europe, and has raised other questions. I’m far from ready to stay here right now. I’ll be hitch-hiking from Middleton to Istanbul in January in order to collect my bike and head for the Middle East again. I’m a little trepidatious about it, but I’ve made my decision to shun the budget airline and see what alternatives there are out there, and how it feels to crawl across the surface of the planet by means other than bicycle.
In the meantime, Christmas is approaching. I’ll be blogging regularly again when I’m back in the wild! Andy’s nearing Mumbai now, and it sounds like he’s having fun…