The kindness of strangers..

UPDATE: I have reached the penultimate country in the Europe leg of my journey – Bulgaria. I’ve taken an unexpected day off in the city of Plovdiv having cycled some fairly rough ‘roads’ over the last couple of days, it sapped my energy more than I thought and I’m sure Stephanie (the bike) would be glad of a day off and some TLC! Yesterday while cutting between two roads across a once-used but now overgrown track, I saw my first bear print in some wet ground – having to push my bike over the pertruding rocks in the washed-out lane, it certainly made me more attentive to my surroundings and it was the first time my bell has been used as a bear precaution! Tomorrow I move on, two days to the border and then another few days to Istanbul!

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One of the joys of being on the road is the number of people that you come in to contact with every day – whether it’s shopkeepers, other travellers, or just people out and about in towns and on the roads, every conversation and encounter is different. Before I started the trip, this would have been one of the daunting prospects, partly for my own trepidations about unfamiliar social situations, and partly for fear of the unknown that I think most people share. With each day that passed however, it became more enjoyable and I was far more likely to follow up chance eye-contact with a friendly “hello” to break the initial social barrier.

In almost 2 months I have met nice people, good people, funny people, interesting people, and other than a small number of impatient drivers which I could count on my fingers, I can’t think of one negative experience. The memorable moments have been the times where people showed genuine kindness; unsolicited, unrewarded extentions of generosity, empathy and friendliness to someone they have never met.

One day, while cycling in Germany, I had spent a long day on the road trying to cover the miles to get to the next town. Cycling through small backroads to avoid the traffic on the main road, I was following signs to the town and thought I was making good time until I realised I had gone a few miles without seeing another sign. At the next signpost, the town wasn’t listed and I assumed I must have missed a turning; slightly annoyed at myself, tired, and worrying about the time, I was turning my bike around to retrace my steps when a middle-aged couple cycled up behind me. Asking something in German (presumably whether I was lost), I told them the name of the town that I was aiming for. After they interpreted my poor pronounciation, the husband spoke briefly to his wife, turned his bike around and waved to indicate I should follow. Slightly surprised, I was happy to comply and cycled to catch up – we managed a broken conversation as he guided me turn-by-turn for the next 5 or so miles. At one junction we stopped, he pointed down the road and gave me directions to the town – thankfully in German that I did recognise: “Geradeaus”. Straight Ahead. I expressed my gratitude as we shook hands and I cycled the last 10km high on positivity and my tired legs had renewed energy!

Most days on the bike the physical exertion isn’t too strenuous and I’ve realised that what determines how difficult a day in the saddle is, can often just be mental attitude. It sounds clichéd, and I’ve also learnt how much food and a decent night’s sleep can play a part, but when my spirits are high, cycling becomes a breeze even when the roads and conditions are against you.

It also strikes me that when spirits are low, this is often the time when the kindness of strangers is most prevalent. In Hungary, having left Budapest a couple of days before, a long day of cycling without finding a decent camping spot led me to a town that I had seen had a hostel that you could also camp beside. Before even pitching my tent, I took out the food I had bought earlier in the day to have for dinner – a tomato pasta salad so I thought. When I opened it however it was something quite different – a stodgy mess of processed meat and something to stick it together. I had picked up the wrong thing in the shop without noticing. Needing some sort of sustenance, I persevered but could only get a few mouthfuls in before setting it to rest beside me. Tired and still hungry, I began to put up my tent and just as I was finishing pegging the rain cover, I saw an older woman walking towards me. She began to speak in Hungarian, pointing across the grass. Obvious I wasn’t understanding she turned and began to walk, waving a hand, beckoning me to follow – a universal signal I was discovering. As I followed her, I saw she was walking towards a large table surrounded by a family 10 or 12 strong with gift bags covering the surface – I was joining a family party it seemed. The chair at the head of the table was free and she gestured for me to sit in it. Still in my cycling gear I sat down, smiling with a hand raised in greeting to the new faces looking at me as the woman that had brought me over spoke to them. She disappeared quickly and before long she brought out a large bowl of warm soup with chunks of bread – I couldn’t tell them how much this was exactly what I needed. As I ate, the glass of wine by my side was constantly topped and, after a round of cake for desert, we raised our glasses around the table before I took my leave for a much needed shower and some rest. This, I thought as I lay there in the evening, this was why I came cycling.

As I have moved further east, it has become more common for cars to give a friendly toot and a wave as they pass, for road workers to shout encouragement as I cycle slowly past up a hill. Just yesterday as I was standing my bike up outside a supermarket at lunchtime, a burly man with a bald head shouted to catch my attention and, again, waved a hand that I should follow and bring the bike. Walking in to a shell of a building being decorated he pointed up to a camera, that the bike would be safe there, and told me with individual words that downstairs was ‘fitness’, ‘toilet’ and ‘water’ – a gym as it turns out, he owned it and offered its services, for no reason other than he saw me outside.

I have just started reading a book with the same name as this post – stories from others that have travelled or just spent time with relative strangers. Tales to warm the heart and inspire a blog post. I hope that when finished my trip, I can pass on some of the kindness offered to me when I return home – goodwill to all, it will be Christmas by then after all!

Bikepacking

A bit late in the day but I thought I would put a post up on the bike and the gear, what I’ve packed and consider the essentials for life on the bike. Interesting for anyone interested. I’ve seen bikes packed with unbelievable amounts of stuff as well as the more minimalist approach, but after 6 weeks I have not found myself wanting for anything and I also can’t imagine being without most of the gear that I have.

Tent – MSR Hubba Hubba. When I picked my tent, I knew that the two-man was bigger than I needed but it wasn’t much extra weight and with the amount of time I was going to spend in there, I thought it was a worthwhile luxury. Absolutely no regrets! There is enough room to keep my stuff inside (important to keep the ants at bay I discovered!), and even stand up (if I’m bent double..). I now have tent erection and packing down to a fine art – important for those days where I’m struggling to get going in the morning!

Bedroom – This includes my bed, my wardrobe, and toiletries for the bathroom as well. My half-size (head to hips) Thermarest NeoAir has been super comfortable and half the reason I often sleep longer than planned in the morning! It deflates slightly overnight but I think this is probably normal (?). My Mountain Equipment sleeping bag is so cosy and is the other half of the reason I sleep in sometimes. My Sea to Summit inflatable pillow is one of my favourite things, doubling up as a seat when cooking in the evening. As much as some people may not believe it, I get such a good night’s sleep in my tent that if I spend a couple of nights out of the tent in a hostel, I am longing to get back to my temporary home!

Garage – Inner tubes, multitools, tyre patches, cables, spokes, an old toothbrush and a rag to clean everything up; in 2000 miles I have scarcely had to do more than cleaning and tinkering – a testament to the bike and SJS Cycles for their servicing before I left! This is 100% a case of all the gear, no idea. I’m prepared as much as I have the tools, if anything that isn’t very simple goes wrong then it will just be a case of figure it out as I go along.

Kitchen – When burning an extra 3000 calories a day, the kitchen is just as important as anything else! As well as the MSR Whisperlight stove which has been fantastic, I keep cooking pots and generally enough food for a couple of days, just in case. For the nights when I am wild camping, I also have a dromedary bag for extra water – when full it stays out of the bag however, as I discovered to my detriment that the way to undermine a waterproof pannier is to put a bag of water *inside* and put it under pressure… You are guaranteed to find a jar of Nutella and a bag of mixed fruit and nut, as well as many other high-calorie, mostly tasty treats!

In Case of Emergency – You’ve heard of unmentionables, well so far these have been my unnecessaries. In six weeks, almost unbelievably, the only rain I’ve had has been two days of light rain that didn’t really require a rain jacket but I wore one just to make use of it! Thankfully the first aid kit has remained completely unused, and of the spare clothes that I keep in there, I have only used my swimming shorts and the spare pair of warm socks for the couple of nights that the evening temperature dropped in to the ‘chilly’ range on my thermostat. Tempted as I was to send some of it home and shed the weight, I am still convinced that as I move further in to autumn, the waterproofs at least will get some more regular use.

Everyday – This is everything that I need close at hand. This bag stays close by with my phone, wallet, and passport so there is (almost) no chance of me losing them *touches wood*. My headtorch has been almost as vital, around the camp and it came in handy cycling through unlit tunnels in Serbia! My extra water bottle allows me to carry almost enough water for a day cycling, half a day if it’s warm. I save this water as a ‘treat’ as it stays cool when the other bottles heat up to bath temperature. My hat, glasses, and earphones move in and out of the bag during the day and it’s nice to know where the Kindle is for the hour of chill in the evening.

So there it is – it’s been a nice reminder about how little you really need, and how many luxuries we surround ourselves with in life. I wouldn’t be one to advocate throwing off the luxuries that make a life pleasurable, but I certainly hope and aspire to appreciate them more when I’m off the bike.