Across Continents

Ken's Blog

German psychology

May 20th, 2011

German

Had he pushed buttons? No, I replied. With a teasing grin. If that had been the case, I explained, then he’d know about it. I’d be standing on his head, I added. Half jokingly.

Ralf was Australian. But unmistakably German in his origins. In later years he’d studied psychology. Was I running away from something? Shouldn’t I get a motor car? Raise my self-esteem? Was I cycling around the world? Actually, yes, I replied. Smiling.

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Ken’s vital statistics

September 8th, 2010

A few facts and figures about life on the road… strictly to entertain and amuse

 

Greatest weakness – decent cup of black coffee – on a mission to find the best…

Second greatest weakness – my razor – nothing comes close to a good wet shave – not a huge fan of beards, indeed, never dated a woman with one, and no plans to start now..

Third greatest weakness – fluffy towels and a hot shower – it’s not a crime you know – dreaming that is!

Fourth – and final – greatest weakness – cotton boxer shorts, one pair carried, special occasions only. Along with my deodorant.

Favourite television programme – Shoestring” – early 80s drama about private eye Eddie Shoestring, filmed in and around Bristol and Bath, lead played by Trevor Eve – three episodes available on www.trevoreveonline.com – am almost word perfect now!

Favourite internet radio station – UK’s Absolute 80s – www.absolute80s.com – fortunately without a ’no repeat’ guarantee!

Food I miss the most – rum truffles, the proper ones made from old cake, laced with essence, or even the real stuff

Favourite weather – nothing beats a nice temperate climate, just like that in Blighty…

[Editor: That’s enough for now.. Back to the Gobi]

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Discovery road

September 2nd, 2010

 “Life is a journey, not a destination” – Ralph Waldo, American Philosopher

After a year on the road, and exactly a quarter of a century since completing a three week “Standard” course with The Outward Bound Trust, time for some reflection….

It’d been a little rash of me. Shortly before I’d embarked on this venture, I’d suggested it was not about discovering who one really was, for I already knew that. Sounds crass now. But that was a year ago. Actually, I’d always known they’d be expedition necessities that’d be strongly counter-intuitive. Private hurdles to be overcome.

Like a deeply ingrained desire to do things properly. Or not at all. Not perfectionism – that’s Fool’s Gold. But I do like to strive for the very best. Apparently, as a toddler, I never gave any real indication of aspiring to walk, or talk, then just did it as if it were something I’d always done. Haven’t stopped since.

If this strikes you as potentially problematic for a venture such as mine, then you need to understand my equally strong desire for tackling issues head on. Bold, decisive solutions. But only when I’m ready. For example, I’ve always been uncomfortable with my head under water, despite a love of swimming. So I learnt to kayak, eventually mastering the self-righting eskimo roll. Perhaps not quite as drastic as four years cycling around the world, but you get the idea.

But how does the desire to do things properly manifest itself? Just take a look at the cycle I use, the kit I carry. Well-engineered, in part a reflection of my own technical background, the best I could afford, an investment in the project. A love of what mathematicians call elegant solutions, beauty in their simplicity.

Allied to that is a resolutely logical approach to problem solving, an unwavering belief that careful analysis of the facts, as they appear at the time, will yield the answer. Just need to be calm, considered. A love of order, seeking to impose it where it does not exist. Not to control, simply to help clarify the situation. A framework. But not overly rigid, the desire for the elegant solution, to be bold and decisive, helping ensure lots of creative thought gets woven in.

Take my first Chinese visa, expiring before I was permitted to cross the border. On the face of it, seek another at the nearest friendly Consulate, continue on and hope you could get enough extensions in country to enable you to ride to Hong Kong. But a careful analysis of the facts, many of them ambiguous or largely non-existent, taken together with a desire for the bold, elegant solution, and the answer became self-evident. Jump on a plane, return to the UK, get a fresh visa – three months duration – and then return to the road.

Learning to deal with often very scant information in the field has been an education, having to quell any desire to fill in the gaps before making decisions. And whilst my life hasn’t exactly been closeted, corruption has been a new concept to get to grips with at the same time.
 
Then there’s my own approach to riding, in chunks, moving on only when I’m quite ready. Admittedly because this project is more about meeting people and seeing places, rather than simply grinding the miles away on the bike. And, as time has gone on, sharing those experiences with others, through the website, has become almost as important. And that takes time. Besides, I enjoy producing things, writing, filming, taking photographs. Helps a great deal with the loneliness, gives me a focus.

Why share these rather personal thoughts? Because if you think you can’t do this sort of thing, or something close to it, there’s a good chance you’d be wrong. And that is my point. Besides, put these normally private tussles into context. They’re incidentals to the expedition, not its rationale. Am I winning? Well, I’m now deep into China.

[With especial thanks to Jackie who’s quite convinced – despite my strenuous denials – that whenever I do things I mutter “Box ticked. And that’s another task off the list for today…. And to Mark who, it seems, has christened me ’The Planner’. Which I’m rather fond of, even if it’s probably not quite as true as I’d like it to be]

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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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Nation of Convenience

July 18th, 2010

Assuming you’ve spotted the great British Bobby in the closing scene of the last episode of "Nation of Convenience"….

There were rules. Strictly business. Fresh visas, a second passport, a visit to see Laura and The Outward Bound Trust’s fund-raising team in the Capital. Confined largely to London and the Consulates, far from my own home in Somerset. Contact limited mostly to close family. I was here to get a job done, quickly and efficiently, before returning to the fray.

It’s established practice for those on long-haul expeditions to be able to return to their home country once in a while. Of course, some don’t. But, provided you keep it short, and it’s for good reason, that’s ok. An accepted necessity.

Just as the expedition has evolved into as much, if not more, a mental challenge as a physical one, the real issue I’d had to contend with was the psychology of return to one’s home country. Hence the rules, the absolute focus on treating it as a Nation of Convenience. No wandering off, drifting, getting too settled.

A few people, well-intentioned, had suggested I might return in secret, the minimum of fuss. But that would have compromised that most fundamental of principles, the unwavering honesty of the blog, if only by omission. And that’s how the mini-documentary, "Nation of Convenience" came about.

I’d been toying for a while with the idea of making a short documentary for the website. Something new. Fresh. I’d a little time on my hands between visas, thought it might be interesting to explore the political and cultural sides of London as if it was the Capital of one of the less reputable ’Stans. Lots of material. And a bit of fun as well. Thought it would help me stay focused, and, with a few carefully selected landmarks, allow my destination to be revealed gradually.

In practice, developing the storyboard, scripting, shooting and editing took quite a bit longer than I’d ever imagined. Wasn’t exactly finished in the Departure lounge at Heathrow, but close. Not quite as polished as I’d have liked, but it was only ever meant to be a visual essay. Might do another sometime soon. Working title "Enter the Dragon", assuming I don’t bump into Bruce Lee first.

[The author would particularly welcome constructive feedback on the "Nation of Convenience" documentary, his first stab at programme making. But no need to mention one of the continuity errors – the frequent swaps between red and blue t-shirts. Spotted that one! And if you’re feeling brave, see if you can list all the locations, and the landmarks in the background]

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Dark days, lonely nights

May 29th, 2010

 

“I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time”

Back in February, beyond Istanbul, there’d been dark days, lonely nights. I’d really struggled, endless tussles with myself. Was this really for me? There were glimmers of light, my stay in Alapli with Zehra and her friends, but the clouds soon returned. But why? True, the Black Sea escarpment had some serious climbs – maybe six thousand feet each day – but that was bearable, even if I felt a bit frustrated by such slow progress. I was confused. The small villages I passed through reminded me so much of Serbia and Bulgaria, countries I’d felt so enthused by. People were welcoming, friendly, often beckoning me off the road for sweet Turkish tea. It just didn’t make sense.

There’d been tough days before, but never the insidious self-doubt that was beginning to creep in. I found myself becoming increasingly pre-occupied with self-analysis, much of it far from helpful, trying to work out what was gnawing away at me. I’d always imagined, even expected, there’d be times when I might falter a bit, question what I was doing, and why. But not yet, not here. I’d gambled everything on this project, thrown my all into it. Failure, I told myself, simply wasn’t an option. Period. There’d been tough times in my life before, but I’d always persevere, never given up hope, never quit. And I wasn’t going to start now. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – let people down – family and friends, The Outward Bound Trust, people I’d met on the road who’d been so kind and generous.

It seems so obvious now, looking back, but that’s the beauty of what mathematicians call an elegant solution to a problem, its breathtaking simplicity. I lacked focus. I needed clarity, definition, but instead felt as if I was drifting. I’d been determined, driven even, to set off on my chosen departure date, to stop talking about it and just get on with it. Across Europe, following the Danube much of the way, momentum borne out of wanting to stay ahead of the winter further east. Mission complete. Asia had a fairly well defined route – across Turkey, Georgia, the ’Stans and China, down towards Australia – but – given I had a year to complete it to achieve the optimum weather window for Alaska – I was missing the time pressure I’d found so motivating across Europe.

Back then, when things seemed far less clear, I at least knew I needed to do something. But what? So I bought a small notebook, scribbling down thoughts, ideas, issues I needed to address, searching for The Plan. Slowly, ever so slowly, the mists began to part, a glimmer of light. Then the realisation, so obvious now, that I needed to generate the same focus and momentum I’d had for Europe. But how, and where? For a brief moment – a few days – I’d contemplated a return to the UK, albeit not my own cottage, but my brother had rightly counseled against that. More scribblings, scouring the maps, and I hit on Malta. An elegant solution it seemed, and it was. Take up the slack in the programme for Asia, sort out some niggling minor injury, and a few other issues before wilder times in the ’Stans and China. I had the makings of a plan, something to drive at. I’d met up with my Dad in Trabzon, eastern Turkey, and discussed my idea. We agreed it made sense. I had The Plan.

But I was still feeling unnerved by my bouts of self-doubt. Was this really normal, to be expected? And so soon? I’d met Al Humphreys a couple of times when I’d been researching my venture. He’d spent four years cycling around the world and had written a couple of books about his experiences. Honest, frank writing, beautifully crafted, enthralling even for those who aren’t cyclists. I’d remembered he’d been very open about the tough times – “I cried a lot, I was scared a lot and I wanted to quit most of the time” – there’d been many, he’d often felt like quitting, but he’d made it. So I asked my Dad to bring the books out to Turkey. I read them quickly. Reassuring.

[To find out more about Alastair Humphreys visit www.alastairhumphreys.com]

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Glorious technicolour

May 20th, 2010

Vivid recollections. Poignant moments. Walking out of school for the very last time, counting down the final few steps to the gate, and then at once no longer a pupil. For ever. Pleasant moments. Sat with my father in the warm June sun before heading off for the first of my ’O’ levels. Comical moments. A road trip to Rome with my best friend Mark, his car but my turn to drive when we hit the city.

Many other vignettes, some distant, others much more recent. Walking the Pennine Way last summer with my mother, tough going over Black Hill. Visiting my niece, just a few weeks old, days before departure. Some a chapter closed, others a page turned. A few just a simple footnote.

In the saddle I’d found myself re-living much of my life. No pattern, simple triggers. Sights, smells or sounds. Eighties tracks from my formative years, a deluge of imagery, very real, in glorious technicolour. A journey takes many forms.

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