Across Continents

Ken's Blog

London calling

October 30th, 2010

As a child I read a lot. Then life kicked in. Now, as the nights draw in, I’ve the time, and the inclination. But no books beyond a small medical textbook. Just too bulky. So, wishing to keep the mind preoccupied, the loneliness at bay, I’ve discovered the BBC iPlayer. Unlike the tv content, the radio programmes are accessible abroad without restriction.

Find myself eagerly anticipating the next episode of 50s sci-fi series “Journey into Space”, or the more recent “Earthsearch”. Catching up on the exploits of Jim Hacker in “Yes Minister”. And lots of other comedy gems on BBC Radio 7. Have even found myself, in more cerebral moments, listening to the world of business in “The Bottom Line“. Something disturbingly soothing about Evan Davis’ voice. Not everyone’s choice of book at bedtime I admit.

I’ve also rediscovered panel games. Favourite amongst them is “Any Questions”. A lively blend of “The News Quiz”’s witty review of the past week’s events and “Just a minute”’s rapid fire ramblings. More irony than straight satire, but amusing nevertheless.

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Heading east… again

July 29th, 2010

"When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle" Eric Idle

Back on the road again, pushing east once more towards the Chinese border. Ten weeks to Hong Kong. Familiar sights, innocuous things like petrol stations, evoking memories of my unexpected return to Almaty a month or so earlier. A maelstrom of emotion. De facto no from the Chinese Consulate, the subsequent return to the UK, to a seemingly perfect world, time with family, then back to the fray. Jet-lagged.

Found myself suddenly feeling very lonely. Reminiscing about time spent with my parents in their small Cambridgeshire village. The gently flowing brook, well-signed, neatly kept Public Footpaths. Nearby churches that offered walkers afternoon tea on Sundays. A few miles away a small town, its Public School at the very heart of the community. I’d taken the bus there one Saturday. Neatly laid out market stalls in the Square. Smart bookshop. A few cafes. Quieter perhaps than during term time, but even what hustle and bustle there was seemed nicely ordered.

Told myself this was just a natural part of the process of re-adjusting to being back on the road, compounded by tiredness, an unavoidable consequence of the five hour time difference with the UK. For, however disciplined I’d been about treating the UK as a "Nation of Convenience", the transition back was probably never going to be that easy. Something I’d suspected when I’d got back to Almaty. A familiar Western influence amongst its wide streets and pleasant parks. China. The unknown. Uncertain.

The wandering mind. Jolted occasionally by the need to check the map, as much for progress as for direction. Then back into deeper thought, the path ahead. Push for Yining, the first substantive town, a leafy outpost a day’s ride from the border. A few nights there, adjusting to the unfamiliar, then on through the mountains towards the city of Urumqi.

A further eight weeks and I’d reach Hong Kong. Imagined it to be, in a sense, similar to Malta I’d visited earlier in the year. Very different to the UK, and yet pleasingly intuitive. The Colonial influence, eroded little, from what I could glean, by the Chinese in the years since the lowering of the flag. Then on to Australia, New Zealand and North America. Two more continents. No language barriers to frustrate things.

Frequent stops for water. Cooler than it had been, but still around thirty degrees with little shade, especially in the afternoon as the sun moved towards its zenith.

Back in thought. South America. I’d yet to resolve how exactly I’d get there, some parts of Mexico south to Colombia fraught with danger, or just plain difficult to traverse. Then the plunge south, the crossing to South Africa. The final Continent. Had to be the most challenging, risky part of the journey, but by then I’d have a great deal of experience to draw on. And I’d be heading home.

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Loneliness of the long-distance cyclist

July 22nd, 2010

“Alone he rides, alone” Lionel Johnson 1867-1902

Language difficulties, punctures, the odd minor ailment, these are all problems you expect on the road. They’re solvable, sometimes with a bit of ingenuity, some lateral thinking. You just get on with them. But then there’s loneliness. Never far away, lurking, waiting for the moment to reappear, catching the solo traveller unaware.

You may be in the most beautiful of places, surrounded by the most kind, generous and hospitable people. And still be immensely lonely. But is it such a terrible thing? I find myself reflecting on what I’ve left behind to spend four years venturing on a bicycle around the world. Family. Friends. A green, lush land, cosy, comfortable, familiar. A reassuringly simple world. Truly beginning to appreciate what I have to return to.

But then the insidious self-doubt, sometimes destructive thoughts. Gnawing away at one’s self-confidence. The perils of an idle mind. You tell yourself this will pass, you know it will, just a squall. And yet it seems quickly entrenched, unwilling to budge, like a parasite growing stronger as it saps your own strength. Pedals seem harder to push. Colours ebb away. Sounds fade.

You learn to cope. Because you have to. Sometimes the very things you might think would exacerbate the situation help push it back into the shadows. News from home, the smallest of tidbits, mere morsels. An e-mail from friends, however brief. The anonymous ticking over of the website visiter counter, knowing that someone, somewhere is thinking about you, however fleetingly. Family photographs, of growing nieces, celebrations, simple gatherings.

And keep the grey matter occupied. On the road. In the tent. Every waking moment. Leave no room for loneliness to creep in, to gain a foothold. So hard to dislodge. Listening to music, composing the next blog post, plans for the next few days. Just doing stuff. Enough, but not excess or else you overwhelm yourself, making yourself vulnerable to another episode.

Writing about, talking about, discussing it is very cathartic. It’s not an affliction, an unspoken evil, simply a natural consequence of travelling alone through an environment where communication with others is difficult, either because there are few people or a language barrier. Not surprising. Humans are, after all, a social creature. Nothing to be embarrassed about.

Being amongst other people, even if conversation is limited to just a few words, can make a good deal of difference. The merest of social interaction, a simple smile, a warm handshake, just a nod. A little kindness towards strangers. It all helps.

But most of all, interaction with native English speakers, or those who understand the real nuances of the language, of Western culture, the unspoken subtleties. A real craving, seeking out Western style cafes in the cities, the odd ex-pat bar, or simply staying with those working overseas. Australians, Americans, Brits, it doesn’t really matter. No longer alone. Just for a moment.

[Originally written and recorded for 10Radio – Community Radio for the 10 Parishes in Somerset – www.10radio.org. You can drop Ken an e-mail via the ’Contact’ page on his website www.acrosscontinents.org – he’d love to hear from you]

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