Friday, 19 March 2010

Combe - Back home

It’s has taken me a long time to write up the last little day of my travels, so to make up for it you have a bit of waffle to go with it.

The ride from Aylesbury to Combe was uneventful, but pretty much what I expected, after all I was following a route I knew for the first time in almost 3 years. The trouble was that suddenly following a known route made it boring, I knew every junction ahead of me, every hill, I knew exactly how far there was to go. The unpredic- tability was gone, though as it turned out not entirely. The closer I got the more I thought about that pint of beer in my local, the Cock Inn in Combe. It was a vision I have had in my head for a long time, something that would mark the end of the journey. For those that don’t know, there is nothing in Combe other than the pub, so I rather liked the idea of finishing such a long journey is such an ‘insignificant’ place. I made the last turning on the back road to Combe, just one last little hill to enter the village, a hill that I hardly noticed and seemed so small after all those hills and mountains I had crossed. I entered the village, nothing had changed, it all looked exactly the same. I arrived at the green, the pub being on one side, so I did a quick lap to see it from all angles and bring back the memories, then pulled up at the pub. I strode proudly up to the door and without breaking my stride pushed down the handle and went to enter, but my body crashed against the door in a very undignified manner….the bloody place was shut! It was a cold March day, I just sat outside, back against the wall, a cold wind blowing. So here I was, the final turn of the pedals had been made, I was no longer cycling around the world, I had finished, from now on I can say I have ‘cycled’ around the world. So how does it feel? Actually, nothing like I had imagined, I didn’t feel joyous or jubilant, though I did feel content. As I said to the students in Philadelphia recently, I don’t think it as a great achievement, but it most certainly was a fantastic experience.

I rode the 200m back to my house (See photos, before and after the trip) and introduced myself to Dave and his family living there. I spent 2-3 hours there. It seemed strange being back at my home, but with other people living there, other people’s furniture in a very different layout to my own. I was shocked by the amount that the plants in the garden had grown. From there I cycled the short distance to stay with Lorna and Brian. They had kindly bought me some white chocolate (did I mention I like white chocolate? Everybody I visit seems to have some for me!), but Demelza and Tim had found it and already eaten it, surely proof enough that it is damned good stuff. In the evening I went bell ringing at Woodstock. They had their best turnout in months, partially as some of them knew that I would be there. It was great to see so many friends, nobody had changed, but it felt strange that their ringing had advanced so much. I am still on my little UK tour of visiting family and friends, I have been made very welcome everywhere. It has been a real joy to catch up with everybody. We went to the Woodstock Arms after ringing, at last that pint of beer was in sight. The pub was shut!

As I finished my journey I thought about how I would like to live life when I eventually returned. I would really like to live life simply, a small place to live, few possessions, no clutter. Right now I feel sure there will be another trip, so the idea is to keep life simple so that I can easily pack and be back on the bike at a moments notice, easy. As I did some washing up I picked out a pair of scissors. Just looking at those scissors made me realise that it might not be quite so simple. Even something so small and simple is just part of our everyday lives. Could I really live without a pair of scissors? I could use the tiny pair I have on my Swiss Army knife, but are they really robust enough for the day to day uses? It is going to be a challenge. First things first though, I would need a new phone. I checked out the deals and made a decision for a new sim card and went into a shop to sort it all out “We just need your name, address and telephone number” I was told “I can give you my telephone number in a few minutes when you have told me what it is” I replied. “I need it before you can go ahead with the purchase”, “I don’t have a telephone number, that is why I am in here trying to sort one out”. “We have to have one. You can just give a number of one of your family or friends”, “I don’t have any family or friends, at least none that would want to speak to you anyway”. “Don’t worry, it’s just so that we can get hold of you if we need to”, “Well, given the fact that I don’t have a phone and I am just about to by a mobile number from you, if you want to get hold of me I think that number would be the best place to start, don’t you?”. “I am sorry sir, we have to have a number for you before you can buy a sim card”, “So you are telling me I can’t buy a phone unless I already have a phone?”, “Yeah, I guess so”. Scissors and phones are already making my life too complicated. Is it possible to live in Britain without a house full of stuff?

Here’s a little story that I forgot to put in the last entry. A few weeks back I booked the flight home, then printed off the ticket. It was only when I saw the printout that I saw I had mistyped my surname, I had written Harwppd…oops! I called the airline to book the bike on the flight and asked they to correct my name, “That will be $75 please”, “$75! For changing two characters”, “Yes, we have to recreate the whole e-ticket”. What a rip off! I called back the following day to check the bike was booked on and as it was a different person tried again to get my name corrected, the answer was the same. “So what happens if I leave it and just turn up at the airport?”, “You can do that but they will charge you $95”. I was really pissed off at my own stupidity and at them for trying to rip me off. I had visions of turning up at the check-in and having a good argument about it but getting nowhere. Then I read a book about attracting things towards you by positive thoughts. It suggested visualising the desired outcome and even creating dialogue and saying it out loud. I thought it was worth a go, there was nothing to lose. I didn’t bother with the dialogue but I did visualise a friendly conversation and them eventually correcting the name for a reduced fee. The day arrived, I turned up at check-in, handed over my passport and started sorting out my baggage waiting for the inevitable. I saw the puzzled look on the woman’s face and asked “Is there a problem?”, “Yes, there is. The office staff are useless, they have spelt you name wrong”. This was sounding good “Oh dear! Aren’t they silly?” I replied. I was instructed to go and see another woman around the corner and she would sort it out. With this woman I had the cheery conversation I had envisaged, job sorted. Final cost….nothing! Blimey, it works!

So that just about wraps up what is probably the last entry on this blog. I have to say I have enjoyed writing it, it has made me reflect on what has happened, what I have seen, the people I have met, the conversations I have had. Without all your comments and emails I would probably have lost the desire to continue with the writing, but knowing people were out there reading this stuff has made it worthwhile. So thank you for all you words of encouragement, whoever you are, friends, family, people I have met, people I have never met. It’s been fun having you as ’company’ along the way. Thank you.

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Aylesbury (England)

I had a great time with Auston, Sam and Tom, they had made me very welcome. My three different locations for accommodation in New York had worked out very well, a nice diverse selection of people too. I left at 10am, I had some time to kill before the flight home, still enough time to meet some incredible people. I cycled back to Manhattan, I wanted to cycle over the Manhattan Bridge, but it doing so I cycled over something very undesirable and picked up 2 punctures from sharp bits of metal sticking in the rear tyre, I was glad I had time to spare. I was in Chinatown so stopped off at a diner for lunch. As I went to use the bathroom a man from a table I passed asked “Is that your bike out there”. I stood there talking for a while, then suggested I come and join them at their table, it would be easier to talk. Ben Hom and his son Matthew were full of admiration for what I had done. I found it hard to understand why when it was me that was in full admiration for what Ben had done. Ben is a fire fighter based at a station around the corner and had offered me accommodation. He was amongst many fire fighters that responded to the 9/11 attacks on New York, he kept telling me that it had been a terrible day. I have little doubt that it was, but thanks to his courage he had pulled out 3 people from the rubble. I can’t begin to imagine the satisfaction of saving other people’s lives. For 2 ½ months they worked on the clear up operation but of the 50 men based at his station there are now only 6 remaining from that dreadful day. Ben even paid for my meal, it should have been me paying for his. I rode out through Brooklyn to JFK Airport, the road surface was terrible. I punctured again but didn’t bother to repair or check for more metal, I went straight for the spare tyre.

I flew home via Iceland and Reykjavik Airport. There is nothing particularly special or different about airports around the world, but I found the adverts fascinating. In the US it was all the latest electronic gadgets, here the competition was for the warmest knitted socks, hats and jumpers, all in styles you would never be seen dead wearing at home. I checked out the postcards, I was heading home but from the little I had seen at this airport it made me want to explore the place, they certainly had something different to offer.

I arrived back at Heathrow on time and was pleased to see my sister Cathy waiting for me, armed with food and coffee, all very welcome as I had been too tight to buy any food on the flights. Like the rest of the journey of the last 3 years time slipped by unnoticed, it was soon time to move on. I was heading towards London for my final night on the road. I had one last person to visit that seemed very appropriate, a very fitting end to my travels. Way back, almost 2 years ago somebody called Jacs posted a comment on my blog, she had enjoyed reading it and had been in the Phnom Penh, Cambodia, at the same time as I had been there. She commented again from Thailand, we had been waiting at the same place in Bangkok to see the Queen who had been at one of the temples near where we were both staying. After that I sent her an email. During the time when Aoiffe was ill and in hospital she wrote me another email. I was amazed at what she had written, here was somebody who understood exactly how I felt, knew exactly what I was going through and I found it very comforting. We started to exchange emails regularly, we have been ever since, we have talked on the phone too. Jackie ended her travels and returned home to Glasgow, then ended up working in central London where she has been for over a year. So a few miles of cycling along the A4 brought me to her flat. From the moment I had read that comforting email I had wanted to meet her and her I was knocking on her front door. It was wonderful to see her at long last, she always called me her ‘long lost travelling partner I have never met’ and to me it was like meeting an old friend, I felt I knew her already. We walked around to a local pub full of character where I had a pint of London Pride and I can tell you it went down very well. With her iphone Jackie booked a half price meal at a Moroccan restaurant which the GPS on the iphone guided us to. I would seem that in 3 years technology has passed me by a little!

By the time I woke up the following morning at 10:45 it seemed my plans to be away by 10am at the latest weren’t looking that good. I really wanted to finish in daylight, but by the time I finally departed London at 1pm things were by no mean certain. Jackie had given me a cycle map of the area which was really useful. I rode along the Thames Path for a while before switching to the Grand Union Canal. That could have taken me all the way to Aylesbury but my intention was to try and keep to it to Uxbridge. There were a number of gates obstructing the path with ’hoops’ for cycles to pass through, but after the 5th, all of which were right at the waters edge, I decide to use the roads. Each hoop was a struggle with a loaded bike and as they were right next to the water I had visions of ending up in the canal. Time was pushing on, I didn’t even know how far I had to cycle, but I could finally relax when I saw a signpost saying ’Aylesbury 23’. I rode past an office block, it filled me with dread, how could I possibly work at such a place, work 9-5, 5 days a week, I was mighty glad to only be passing the place. I passed through Wendover with plenty of time to spare, I savoured the last few miles. I arrived at Aoiffe’s house with plenty of daylight to spare. The strangest thing about my arrival back was that it didn’t feel strange, it didn’t even feel a long time since I had been here. I sat and talked to Aoiffe and Naomi as I would have done if I had only been away for a couple of weeks, but I guess I have to thank the internet and cheap phone calls for that.

The following day Cathy had arranged a gathering at my father’s house (photo). It was great to see everybody again, but nothing felt strange, everybody looked the same, for some reason I expected them to all look a little different. A lovely spread of food was laid on and in true cyclist fashion I am sure I ate the most. Over the next few weeks I will have a little tour and visit them all individually, but it was so good to be altogether, probably the first time in about 20 years!

I heard a little of 5 Live Radio, just a few seconds. I couldn’t listen too it, it made me feel terrible, it reminded me of my long commute to work. Last night I had a rough night, I lay there awake thinking about being back at home. I had always thought I would feel elated, I don’t, not at all. In New York I was asked the interesting question ’What has been your biggest challenge in life’. After mulling over it for the best part of a day I decided that setting out on this journey was my biggest challenge, not the journey itself, just the setting out, making the decision to leave everything behind and set off. I also said at the same time that I suspect that my biggest challenge in life lies ahead of me and last night would seem to confirm that I may be proved right.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) I set off to ride back to my home in Combe, only a short ride of about 50km, but that will take me to my journey’s end.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Day 1015 - New York, Brooklyn

Having spent a couple of hours in the morning watching the appalling weather reports from around New York and seen the visibility from the 23rd floor disappearing, it was time for me to set off across town from The Bronx to Upper Manhattan. The snow was still swirling as I set off. I had to cross back over the freeways by the cycling path, which surprisingly enough hadn’t been used. I had to push the bike through about a foot of snow which came above the bottom on my front panniers making a nice large surface area to have to push forward. I had to keep stopping for a breather, then once off the footbridges I couldn’t even see the path, it got deeper and harder. I gave up on the last few yards and decided to cycle the last little bit by going the wrong way up the freeway. I retraced down Westchester Ave, I thought it would be the best bit of road as it ran under the subway. It turned out to be the worst and I almost came off with a big slide. I took a long time to cover the 17km, but I got there. I stopped in a cafĂ© full of Dominicans who were all delighted to hear where I had come from and wanted photos with me. They were a lovely bunch, I would have liked to have stopped and chatted with them longer. Helga, my next host was on the 10th floor with a lovely view over the Hudson Rivers to the George Washington Bridge and New Jersey beyond. It was so nice to be back in the warm. Before long I was heading down town to the Museum of Modern Art, it was free on a Friday evening, a $20 saving, but it did create massive queues at the cloakroom. I saw Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’, a painting I have always wanted to see, but have never really liked. I then took a short walk to Times Square and Broadway. The lights there even put Japanese cities to shame.

I bought a 7 day unlimited transport ticket, very good value and entertainment indeed. It is probably no different to the London underground, but it’s the nutters that I love so much, they are so cool. They get on and seem normal, then they start their ’act’. One big Rastafarian started singing quietly, slowly getting louder and more passionate, then started dancing, first slowly, then more vigorously. But the best bit for me is watching everybody around them, they all try desperately not to look at him, behaving as though nothing is happening, but I could see the subtle body language saying “Oh shit! Please don’t’ pick on me”. I also love the emergency procedures on the train. There are different instruction for Fire, Medical and Police, but the first instruction is always the same “Do not pull the emergency chord”. This is truly a multi-cultural city. Different nationalities generally occupy different areas. I have heard so many different languages, most of which I can not recognise. I have spent my time using the trains and doing a lot of walking checking out the usual stuff, the Statue of Liberty, Wall Street etc. The snow was a pain and to make matters worse my shoes are leaking so I get wet feet every time I go out, so when I take my shoes off my feet stink.

It was soon time to move on again, from Upper Manhattan to Brooklyn. I would be staying with Auston, Sam and Tom, all friends of Jerome, but they would not be back home until 7pm, so I had the bike and a day to kill. I made my way to Central Park and did a lap of it. It was all really nice scenes, loads of runners, walkers and cyclists. The cyclist had all the gear, flash clothing, fast bikes, but where are they other than in the Park, how do they get here? I cycled town 5th Avenue, the main drag north/south. People would call out “Where are you going”. In the past I used to say New York, they would be impressed, now I just said “Brooklyn” and they weren’t. I met Shelly, a cycle courier whizzing around on a recumbent bike. We stopped for a chat. It turned out he was the proud owner of 9 recumbents, I would be very happy to have just one. As I rode along I noticed one of the lanes was a fire lane, a bit over the top I thought, until I realised that there are sirens going all the time in this place. I made my over the old Brooklyn Bridge, a suspension bridge and well know landmark. The cycle path and footpath were above the road, there were crowds of people crossing on foot. I passed through a heavily Jewish area, they were all Orthodox Jews. I found the street where the lads lived. I rode down looking for 248, it all seemed to be industrial. People were going into an old warehouse so I asked “Do you know where 248 is?”, “This is it” they replied. It’s a converted textile factory split into apartments. I got on well with the guys, but I think I am glad not to be there at a weekend. The place is even mentioned in Wikipedia “The Lofts are two opposing loft buildings in Bushwick, Brooklyn. They share similar features, such as 5 floors (16 apartments per floor at 255 and 20 at 248). The apartments range in size from 400 to 2500 square feet (various units between the first and second floors of both buildings are duplexes). Approximately 400 tenants inhabit the two buildings. The building has a reputation for hosting raucous all-night "loft parties." Given this, and the preponderance of twenty-something recent college graduates living in the two buildings, the buildings have been given the nickname "Art Dorm." The building was constructed in 1936 and served as a factory space manufacturing various textiles and garments until 1998, when it was converted into residential lofts.” They are talented guys too, covering courses in film making, music and philosophy. The music is impressive, all constructed on the computer, no musical instruments are involved.

Today I read a news item on the beloved New York taxi cab. Apparently they are experimenting with sharing the taxis, something that isn’t going down too well, “New Yorkers don’t want to have to talk to other people” the report added. It gave some guidelines as what you should do “1) Don’t talk to any other passengers 2) Don’t talk on you mobile phone 3) If somebody talks to you, make a phone call.” What I find interesting about that is the fact that when you are away from the cities it always nice when people talk to you, yet in the cities, if somebody talks to you, you automatically think you have found another nutter. Thinking about it, they normally are! I called in at Trinity Church at the end of Wall Street this evening. They have a ring of 12 bells. I almost gave up waiting and was about to leave as they weren’t ringing, then I heard the faintest of sounds, the sound proofing had all but made them silent. This meant they could practice as long as they liked. We finished ringing on the 12 at about 21:45. I was surprised to find the bells have only been there for about 3.5 years.

Recently I have been counting down the days until I head home, now I can pretty much count the hours. It feels strange. It sort of feels like the end of a holiday, but when I used to do that I would think about going home and then to work the following day, but I have no intention of either of those for a while yet. So what of New York? Well, I haven’t fallen in love with the place. It never really stood a chance to be honest. No matter where I ended this trip, it was inevitable that my mind would be focused on heading home and seeing family and friends. I have certainly enjoyed my time here and stopping in 3 different neighbourhoods has made it interesting and yes, I would happily come back. For me the highlight was going up the Empire State Building, something I have always wanted to do, the views were amazing. So I am about to leave the US. It and its people have been very kind to me, I think they top the Aussies in friendliness, but still fall a little short of the Iranians. I have had a great time here and would love to come back and see a bit more, but may be I will wait for warmer weather next time.

I am intending to write another two blog entries, though I don’t expect them to be very long, after that I think I will call it a day. This was really written as a travel blog and although some of you may find it interesting to hear how I adjust back to life in the UK, I am not really sure I have the desire to write about it. I will see how it goes.