Thursday, 29 August 2013

Old tricks...

The lady in the shop looked at me queerly as I proceeded to mime milking a cow in an attempt to buy a bottle of milk for my coffee that was waiting back at the house. (It's always traumatic when you discover there is no milk after you have poured the coffee.) My house mate, Elton, had sent me out bleary eyed repeating the word for milk over and over before I left. Needless to say I had completely forgotten by the time I had got to the shop.

The pace of life has slowed down quite dramatically since I arrived in Elbasan, which was well over a week ago now. I have welcomed the rest though, I really hadn't realised how tired I was and the first few days all I did was eat, sleep and relax. When ever I did try to do anything I groaned and hobbled like an old man much to everyone else's amusement. 
It's the strangest thing being in one place, after so long on the road. Sometimes I miss the stars, and smell of an open fire. But the comfort of a soft bed, and the wonder of kettles and cookers more than makes up for it.
After a couple of days of being more or less horizontal I have now started to venture out a bit more and am enjoying getting to know a little more of Albanian culture, hanging out with my friends here, and making some new new ones too. 

It was Tuesday morning when I wrote OHRID in big letters on the back of a pizza box, packed my bag and set out for Macedonia with my thumb at the ready. It had be quite some time since I had hitchhiked and it felt great to be back up to my old tricks. Even better when the road zig-zagged steeply up the side of the mountain and a smiled to myself very happy that I wasn't cycling. I arrived in Ohrid a few hours later after 3 lifts and a bit of a walk.

I stumbled apon this place last year when I was hitchhiking back from Turkey, a small town set on the side of a vast lake, surrounded by mountains. And so when my good friends Han and Dan told me they were going to be travelling through Macedonia on their 60 day trip from England to Kuwait, I suggested that we meet here. 

I can't tell you how nice (and strange) it was to hear Hannah shouting down at me from the window of their hotel room. After so many months on the road and so often as a passing stranger, to see friends I have known and loved for years was priceless. Han and Dan had booked a hotel room just outside of the old town for two nights before they would continue  on their folding bikes to Greece. The biggest shock for me was the size of their bags (they were tiny.) I really do need to learn the art of packing light. I thought to myself.

We walked about the old town, drank coffee as we sheltered from the storm. (Ok I had beer, and Han and Dan searched for hot chocolate and ended up with some strange hot strawberry milkshake, but the thought was the same) We chatted, and laughed and shared stories from our different trips, reminiced about old times and old friends. And the rain continued to hammer down arround us. 

By lunchtime the next day the weather was back to it's normal heat and ironically we decided to go out on a bike ride arround the lake. I hired a bike and was excited to ride on two wheels and without a mans wait in luggage trailing behind me. It was so nice to race up the hills and wizz down them again. When I get home I'm getting a racer I thought to myself. We ended the day with a meal at a little resteraunt on the side of the lake watching the waves crashed on the beach and the wind picked up once again. I waved them goodbye the next morning as they peddled off on their way to Greece. 60miles and over the mountains... It felt very strange to be the one waiting behind rather than cycling away into the distance, but I was quite happy to hitch my way back to Albania this time. I'll leave the mountains for another day.

Today is Sunday and I am back in Elbasan sitting in the shade at my place in the Roma area. Wedding music fills the air and we've just shaked the last of the fruit off the trees to feed the kids tonight at church. On Tuesday my sister Charlie arrives and then starts two weeks of circus workshops, fire shows and many kinds of fun. Can't wait!


Monday, 19 August 2013

Turtles, tunnels and the last days.

It's been just over a week since I left Dubrovnik to make the last 300km of my journey to the most south easterly border of Croatia, then through Montenegro and then finally to Albania. 

For many cyclists 300km is a 2 day ride but of course nothing is quite that fast on a heavy layden tricycle in the 40 degrees heat of summer. And truth be told I had been getting even slower still over the last weeks. The first day I only made it 10km out of the city before deciding that the cliff I was cycling along was far to beautiful to carry on and I really should stop and watch the sunset... And then the stars... I ended up camping that night with my hammock tied between two rocks out on the side of the of the cliff gazing up at the night sky, the lights of Dubrovnik shining down below. 

The next morning I finally made some miles and headed my way Along the coast towards Montenegro. I had organised to stay with a guy called Marko who lives in the hills just before the border. It was a little way off route and a long way up, but after being in the city for a few days I was looking forward to escaping to the quiet of the hills. Macro had described his place as a little oasis which I liked the sound of. But after making my way up the long winding road I was a little surprised to find a couple of scruffy sheds covered in all kinds of random junk. A big sign said Marko's flee market. And a little old bicycle hung from a tree. I knew I was in the right place but as I waited for Marko to arrive I thought to myself where is this oasis he talked of? Marko didn't arrive back at the 'oasis' until the next morning. An older man in his 70s and as scruffy looking as his sheds, he wore nothing but a pair of brightly coloured shorts that looked like they had been made from a child's duvet set and his huge belly spilled over the top of them. He later told told me he was a nudist, so I was quite glad to have found him in his shorts "Are you coming to the beach today? Or do you want to fuck off?" He said in a gruff tone. I hesitated for a moment, but agreed to come. Once I got over His ruff appearance and baldy language I discovered a kind and generous man with some incredible stories, the day at the beach got extended into the night and followed with raki and fire shows and wasn't until the next morning that I made my way once again towards the boarder. The miles came quickly as a sped down tge other side of the hill I had laybord over a few days before. Soon I crossed the little border on the cliff road and passed my way into Montenegro. It was strange to find myself in another country after spending over a month in Croatia.  

"Montenegro is much like Croatia only the the mountains are bigger and the roads more windy." A guy I met had told me. He wasn't wrong. My road wound up, down and around every cove and ridgeway. Finally I left the coast and zigzagged my way over the last pass to take me into Albania. As I made my way over the hill and through the last small villages of Montenegro I could see before my eyes the world slowly changing from Christian to Islam. Monistaries faded out and were replaced by Mosques and grave stones were marked by the crescent moon instead of the cross. 

I camped that night on the top of the hill. In the company of three tortoises that happily wandered around beside me (I later realised these are quite common around this region and sadly saw more than one squashed on the road as cycled the next day) I Cooked my spaghetti on a little open fire and watched the stars in the clear night sky. Tomorrow I pass into Albania I thought to myself. After two months on the road and over 2000km, mountains, bears, seven countries, dozens of shows, and many friends and faces, my journey was finally coming to an end. I was looking forward to finally arriving but I was also sad to think it would soon be over.

I crossed the border the next day and it was like passing into another world. Until now most of the changes I have seen have been gradual. But here the changes were stark and drastic. As soon as I passed through the borders I was approached by Roma children with hands out stretched, women carrying babes in the midday heat asking after every passing car. To my right a group of Roma's sheltered from the sun under self made canopies. To my left two young boys were rummaging through the  rubbish. A man walked down the road leading his cow by a rope and chickens hung upside down from a boys hands flapping their wings as he tried to sell them. 

As strange as all this was to me. It seemed that for everyone else the mad Englishman on a tricycle was a much more unusual sight. Many People shouted after me, or pointed, or laughed, and If I had stopped for every person that waved me down to say hello I would probably still be there now. 

There were many other changes too. For one, cycling on the motorway is perfectly normal, and actually in many ways safer than cycling down the smaller roads where, if you weren't careful you might loose a wheel in a pot hole or get run off the road by a lorry and where almost every car honked its horn as it passed, sometimes right in your ear sending you swerving out the way in shock. 
As I cycled along the motorway I must have passed a dozen weddings by the time I reached Tirana (which traditionally last for three days here, and each day the bride wears a different dress. Needless to say there are a lot of wedding shops. And the dresses are quite something.) 

After a nights stop in Tirana I made the final part of my journey over (well actually through) the mountains to the small town of Elbassan which was my final destination. My friend Kerri had told me there was a tunnel right through the mountains but as I cycled up and around the winding roads, dripping with sweat in the midday sun I wondered if I had come the right way. But finally I saw the black hole of the enterance, I attached my lights and sped down hill through the dark and cool of the tunnel. I looked at my map. 5km to go! It felt so strange to say it out loud. 

I cycled into the town passed the old walled city and made my way to the kebab shop my friends had introduced us too last year. I have finally made it! Wow! Shit, this is crazy! 
I thought, or something like that (though it was probably more colourful.) Of course I ordered a beer. 

It is hard to put into words what it feels like to have finally arrived. This has been the most incredible journey of my life, without a doubt. And yet it feels like it isn't finished. (Although my legs are, at least for the moment) As I think back on all the adventures I have had over the last few months, the hard days, the wonderful days, the days when I wanted to give up, the days when I joked about going all the way to India. (Jokes over! Btw) it's hard to believe it all actually happened... But it did... I cycled from England to Albania. All 3500km of it...

Of course the journey isn't over though. And the reason for coming all this way has just begun. Today I moved into my new house for the next month, right in the heart of the Roma area where I will be making a series of circus and art projects with the kids here. As I rode through the streets many of the kids came out to greet us, some even remembered me from last year. It felt strange but good to be back, I was introduced to the guard dogs, bribed them with treats in the hope that they won't eat me (one is as soft as a pillow and more likely to lick you to death than anything else, the other, a big German Shepard needs more convincing)
Finally i emptied my bags and my precsious circus cargo from my tricycle and pushed it into the little shed and locked the door.

I won't be cycling for a little while...

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The sweet taste of friends.

I could bairly see the mountains that surrounded us as we stood under the auning of a small cafe hidding from the storm. the mountains loomed over though in a cloak of grey mist. From every direction I hear cracks of thunder and once in I while the grey haze flashed in brilliant light as cracks of lightning filled the sky.
The rain was relentless hammering down on the canopy above us and setting the sea alive with explosions. It wasn't long before there were waterfalls running from the canopy as well.
It was a strange sight after so many days of blistering heat. Even stanger was the feeling off chill, and the desire to find my jumper. But it was buried deep in my rucksack and I would have gotten soaked to the skin trying to find it. So I imbraced the cold... And it didn't last long.
I has been a couple of weeks now since I started cycling along the coast of Croatia and I have encountered some truly encredible places on my way. From the north islands of Krk, Rab and Pag, to Zadar, Split and now finally Dubrovnik. Walking through the old stone streets here, is like stepping into some fairy tale castle. (Except for the hords if tourists making it difficult to move even in some parts) but if can ignor or escape from the bustle then it's like another world.

I am sat now just outside the old town of Dubrovnik filling up on lasagne before heading off into the sunset once again. I will leave Dubrovnik behind and set out through the last most southernly tip of Croatia and into Montanegro. It's strange to think that I am less than 2 weeks away now from Elabasan which is the first of my final destinations.
I will stay with my friends there and make circus workshops with kids from the street and also in the Roma community. And my sister Charlie is coming to visit too! After so long on the road on my own sleeping in different places every night, saying goodbye on a daily basis the thought of being in one place (and one bed) with friends and family around me is a sweet thought indeed...

So sweet it calls for pudding... Yes cheesecake I think. And then I really should ride.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Clapping the Sun.

I was 18, it was my first summer after collage and I had come to the Cultural Shift conference in Southampton gathering gathering with young Christians from around the UK. In the central hall. It was there dancing to the sounds of Andy Hunter that I knew I had to go to Ibiza. It was like a silent voice right in the depths of my soul. 
A few weeks later I found myself stepping out of the plain into the warm heat and cloudless skies. I had joined a group of Christians who came to the island to pray and share the love of God with party goers. Full of faith and energy, I believed  God could do anything - even answer the secret prayers of my heart that I dared only whisper. It was like Christianity on Red Bull. We prayed late into the nights, danced our worship as DJs played, gave out fruit in the streets and helped drunk people stumble home to their hotels. 
Those two weeks changed me in a way nothing else ever has. They ruined me for the ordinary filled my mind and heart with crazy dreams and set me on a Wild Goose Chase following the whispers of God. 

Ten years have passed since then, and my world has changed in a thousand ways. The Red Bull has warn off and a dazed hangover remains. I was so sure of everything back then, even in despair I had answers. One day... I believed it. God would make things right. Ten years later Many of those secret prayers still remain. And the confident One day sometimes feels like a futile dream. Still though the chase goes on, and the whispers still... whisper. A verse from the psalms still rings in my ears... 'Delight yourself in The Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart.' The psalmist writes. But delighting in God is not always easy especially in the mist of questions and disappointments. And recognising the desires of your heart is a greater mystery still. Ten years on I wonder is this really a promise I can trust? 

Huge crowds had come to see as the sun slowly make its way down to the horizon. Hundreds had gathered on the sea front in the city of Zadar. Listening to the surreal sounds of the sea organ - a series of tubes that tunnelled down the the water and each played different notes as the waves came. When the sun finally dipped bellow the great expanse of the Adriatic Sea a spontaneous applause erupted from the crowds. 

I could have closed my eyes and been back in Ibiza amongst the rocks on SunSet Strip, Cafe DelMar playing Baleric beats behind us and fire spinners whirling flames to the side. I remember thinking back then when i first heard the applause. If only they would lift their eyes a little higher, to the one that made the sun...

Sometimes it's the simple things that set our hearts ablaze. Back in Zadar Sat on my tricycle instead of the rocks I asked myself the same question I asked of the crowds all those years ago. Will I lift my eyes a little higher? Sometimes it hurts your eyes to gaze apon the sun. Sometimes believing hurts, hope hurts, love even... hurts. 

Will I lift my eyes a little higher? Dare to believe where there is doubt, hope when it feels like its all run out, will I whisper again those secret prayers, and will I love... Again?

It's a question I ask myself almost daily. Even this morning as I sit in the town of Trogir eating breakfast, watching the ships and writing these thoughts. Keep Walking is written across the side of the van loading onto a ship. Sometimes I think that's all we can do. 

One day I might put my hands up. Say Enough! But it doesn't have to be today. Today I can still hope and dream and whisper my secret prayers, believing there is one who answers. As the day ends I clap the sun... And lift my eyes a little higher.