Across Continents

Ken's Blog

Brave New World

February 18th, 2012

Peanut butter rolls and black coffee. Feeling quite famished, quickly digging in. I’d gone for a walk on the hills above nearby Wiveliscombe with Jon. Cool February afternoon, but not the chill of the previous few days. Thick red loam binding to our boots. We chatted a good deal about what lay ahead. Our progress frequently interrupted by my stops simply to observe, to grasp what it was to be back in Somerset.

I’d slept well. The previous day – the return home – had been intense. But it did seem to have gone remarkable well. I was quietly pleased but quite exhausted by the evening. In the morning I’d pottered about. Tidying up some loose ends. Reassuring my generous hosts I was doing only what needed to be done. Copy deadlines, that sort of thing. Nothing more. Not today.

Found myself reflecting on what exactly I’d learnt over the last few years. Much harder than I’d imagined. So many levels. Simple observations. Deep self-analysis. The perils of a logical mind. Complex. Some lessons presenting themselves with absolute clarity. And simplicity. 99.99% of people I’d met were just good, honest, hard-working individuals who wanted to get on with life, put food on the table. Invariably very generous.

Dig deeper. More intangible lessons but no less important. Individual freedoms. Of expression, to peaceful protest, to follow your chosen religion or political beliefs. Boundaries of course, as must befit a tolerant, inclusive society. But absent, or at least severely constrained, in many countries. China for example. Immensely hospitable people, yet a de facto police state. Which, ironically, usually makes it a very safe place for foreigners to visit.

Deeper still. A very personal level. Trite it might sound. But true. The world does indeed seem a much smaller place. Finding myself viewing a map of the world as others might the one for the London Underground. I’d only met one person on my travels who’d shared this perspective. Neil, who’d previously ridden from New Zealand back to his native Ireland.

Pauline was keen to have me appear on her Friday morning Community Show on 10Radio in a month or so. Chat about what I’d learnt, observed. The transition back to more conventional living. A few mental notes. The dilemma of choice. Illogicality. Corruption. Languages. Migration. There’d be more. Lots more I was sure.

Wiveliscombe was now once again close by. Jon and I lamented the ending of our monthly chats on local community radio station 10Radio. They’d been great fun. A new experience for both of us. With less than an hour of daylight left, we strolled back into the small town. Bit gloomy I thought. Not quite dark enough for the warming, reassuring glow of lights shining out from within people’s homes. The centre seemed familiar enough. Small supermarket. Community library. Newsagents. We headed for the car park.

Noticed a small window at the rear of a pub had been made into a pizza and burger outlet. A saloon car with spoiler on the boot was parked next to it. A man in a baseball cap stood next to it. Watching us. Was the place new, I’d asked Jon? Yes, he said. We stared at it briefly. The man stared back. Aldous Huxley has little to worry about.

[With especial thanks to neighbours and good friends Jon and Helen for their immensely generous hospitality]

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Early days in Louisiana

January 15th, 2012

Eighty or so miles into Louisiana, Ken reflects on his first impressions of the State, wondering if he’s been too harsh? Probably not.

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Austin-tacious

January 8th, 2012

Austin had been all I’d hoped it would be. For Christmas that is. I’d arrived late on Christmas Eve, cold and wet. A reservation that’d slowly crept right a few days. The hostel had been very accommodating, but I feared they thought I might never actually turn up. Bit like the navigator in The Ascent of Rum Doodle.

There’d been the usual collection of characters you oft find in travellers hostels the world over. I say that with especial confidence now. Youthful individuals, vibrant. A few yet to refine their social skills. Older types. Usually more seasoned. Stoic. Odd one who aspires to earlier times. All very middle class.

Spending much of my life outdoors, I’d found inside to have an attraction all of its own. Cities per se rarely inspire, preferring the smaller places. Exceptions of course. San Francisco for example. And there’d been plenty to do around the hostel before my return to the road.

Finding comfort in doing stuff – a warming sense of accomplishment – I’d joined a few local volunteers help prepare Christmas Dinner in the hostel kitchen. Stacks of calls on Skype to family and friends to wish all a festive greeting. Catching up on the blog. Eager to keep the writing fresh. Perhaps a bit more edgy.

And giving my trusty steed a quick overhaul – just enough to keep her running smoothly until I reach the Florida coast in about fifteen hundred miles or so. If it ain’t broken don’t fix it…. Hard lesson to learn. And a realisation that this’d be the last decent service I’d be doing before arriving back in the UK.

And I was about to start the final push. Complete my traverse of North America, from top left – Alaska – to bottom right – Florida. Over six thousand miles. Fourth continent. Still leaving me a few hundred back in the UK to bring cycling solo around the world to a conclusion. But I was already beginning to smell the coffee. Putting out tentative feelers for what I might do next. The transition back into more conventional living.

I’d made a little list, as I often did, of things to mull over in the saddle. Some straightforward stuff. Amusing statistics from the last few years. Memorable moments. For better or for worse. That sort of thing. And more challenging questions. What had I really learnt. There’d not quite been any Road to Damascus encounters but I’d certainly a few changed perspectives. For one thing, the World is now a much smaller place.

But if I was ever to get too engrossed in self-analysis, a trip to the local supermarket is often a good cure-all. I’d wandered up to the local ’H-E-B Plus’. Intrigued to see a vagrant decline the offer of some small change from a few passing shoppers. Just when you think you’ve seen most things…. Time now to go and sew one of my boots back together. Been waiting for it to dry out…

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Reflections on Canada

October 23rd, 2011

The Yukon. British Columbia. Two Provinces. Well over a thousand miles through Canada. But what to make of the place, the US’ top-hat? I’d often had to remind myself which country I was in. Perhaps, I thought, it was a bit like Germany and Austria. No sharp cultural divides.

But there were differences. Little details. Unarmed border guards. A people who seemed far less trigger happy than their neighbours. And quite a few less of them. Yukon Province making Alaska look positively crowded.

I’d missed saturation ice hockey. Out of season. But intrigued – even amused – by the very pervasive nature of a minority language. French. I’d suspected this to be a result of a vocal few exerting undue – even unwarranted – political influence. But a German immigrant I’d met had put it far more succinctly. Arrogance. Tres Bien.

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Prince Rupert musings

October 8th, 2011

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I’d been a bit harsh. Rushing to judging the small British Columbian sea port of Prince Rupert in the dawn drizzle when I’d disembarked from the ferry. Ferreting around for an ATM so I could buy a warming cup of coffee.

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Found a delightful hostel – the Pioneer Backpackers Inn – on the edge of the equally pleasant, and rather stylish, Cow Bay part of town. Actually, I’d fellow cyclist Amelia to thank for recommending the spot to me, and a bit of a steer towards the nearby Cowpaccino coffee bar. Reminded me a little of Parisian cafes in the summer of 1940. Swarming with Germans.

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And there’d been a helpful dentist. Even a decent supermarket and a chance for proper food – fresh vegetables and fish rather than the inevitable on-road packet rubbish staple. Despite suggestions to the contrary, the prices seeming pretty reasonable. Fair. Well, cheaper than Australia. But where isn’t?

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Companionship

October 7th, 2011

Dentist chair a fine place for reflection. There was a television screen on the ceiling but my eyes were tightly closed. Can’t abide the sight of metal implements being wielded, even less needles. Besides, daytime television seemed as terrible as at home.

I’d enjoyed riding with Mike through Alaska and the Yukon. Shared experiences. Enriched by companionship. And hopefully there’d be chance to pair up with a couple of other cyclists further south around Seattle. Giles, an old school friend, and Amelia, whom I’d met back in Anchorage. I was really looking forward to it.

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Reflections on Australia

August 28th, 2011

Choosing to cross Australia from north to south, following the east coast, I’d left with a real sense of quiet satisfaction. Challenges overcome – struggling at first with the oppressive humidity in the far north, the odd cyclone, annoying cane toads, suicidal wallabies and some fairly deadly, but largely elusive, fauna. And some quite terrible driving. The natives seemed to have a reasonable grasp of English, and a similar sense of humour, which had helped a lot.

Indeed, if I’d ever felt a bit weary, riding past endless hectares of cane sugar or through yet another nondescript town in parts of Victoria, it was the people I’d met, sometimes stayed with, who had helped rebound my spirits. Their frequent generosity remaining as humbling as the day I’d started this journey. If I’d any regrets, it was simply that a better, and in all probability rather more favourable, understanding of the indigenous people – those the European settlers had displaced – had eluded me.

I’d also found the cost of living quite perplexing. Even allowing for a strong currency, prices seemed frequently exorbitant. Intriguing, because this wasn’t the case in neighbouring New Zealand, despite having only a fifth of the population of Australia and a similar reliance on imports. If I were to proffer an explanation, it’d be that a relatively flush economy, fuelled by a mining boom, seemed to encourage an undercurrent of plain greed.

Generous state handouts don’t help. Fuelling price increases. And it’s likely to get worse with the introduction of a tax on carbon emissions. The Federal Government expected to provide sizeable rebates to much of the population. That’d be lump sums. In advance. Despite assurances to the contrary, the temptation to get a piece of this will be irresistible to many businesses.

Endemic regulation doesn’t help either, pushing up costs. For almost everything seems to need some sort of licence, a permit, approval of one form or the other. I’m surprised you don’t require written authority to breed. Or at the very least a risk assessment. An oversight I’m sure. Left a note in the Suggestion Box at the airport on my way out.

But, for all its frustrations, Australia has been a truly fascinating experience. Forming friendships I hope will last a lifetime. Renewing others. And I’d welcome the opportunity to return. Intrigued by the idea, gleaned from those I’ve met on the road, of riding around the entire continent. But would I ever consider emigrating? Popular destination amongst the Brits for that sort of thing. Or at least those who haven’t been to New Zealand. I’ll let you ponder.

Just one little parting hint. Detain me, however briefly, at Immigration when I’m simply exercising my visa for the purposes for which it was issued and you’ll forever – and I mean that – be compared to the only other nation to do that to me so far. Kazakhstan. Already penning the Borat jokes for the after dinner circuit.

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Serious stuff…

August 11th, 2011

Perhaps it’s because I’m English. Preferring understated. Mustn’t grumble and all that. And much of the day-to-day stuff, the aches and pains, I probably do just take in my stride. Norms that don’t merit a mention. Or perhaps they should if I’m to properly convey just what life is like on the road.

And whilst I can never be sure exactly what lies ahead, I’ve a pretty shrewd idea it’s going to be tough, both physically and psychologically. That’s Alaska for you. Definitely not a playground. Wild camping in bear country. Vast tracts of wilderness to cover. Canadian Customs. Winter soon beginning to creep in.

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And, yes. I already am in Alaska. Always a bit ahead of the blog. Back on the road. Feeling reflective. A condition in part brought on by the need to remain static for a couple of days whilst I recover from emergency dental treatment. Large abscess not dented by painkillers or antibiotics.

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The tale of this little drama will unfold in due course, not out of a search for sympathy, but for what it says of the Alaskans I’ve met. Remarkable kindness and generosity. Truly so. Taken under the wing of a wonderful lady called Betsy (on the right above). Which actually means ordered to bed to rest. Kicked into life when required. Properly mothered. I loved it. Monte the dentist and his team (below) for fixing me up.

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And back in Anchorage, my starting point in Alaska, new friendships forged rather than simply acquaintances made. People like John (below), Linda and Amelia. And quite a few more.

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So, I’ll continue to document the people and places I encounter on my travels. But perhaps add a little more about the day-to-day challenges. In the meantime, back to my maps and the route down through Canada and on to Seattle on the north-west corner of the US. For I’ve a bit of a plan in mind, one I’m quite very determined will succeed…

[With especial thanks to John in Anchorage for his helpful thoughts on what features in the blog – constructive comments are always appreciated]

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Reflections on New Zealand

July 24th, 2011

I’d not exactly liked New Zealand. I’d loved it. In so many different ways. Dramatic scenery. True. It might be cold, wet and windy here. But the people. Warm. Friendly. And, for all my teasing examples, I’m a bit smitten with the accent. I can take being called "Kin". And being sat on the edge of the Pacific Rim. Some serious fault lines. As Christchurch can attest to.

Neighbours they may be, but New Zealand isn’t Australia. Definitely not. Whereas Oz strikes me as a bit brash, a big gawdy, even greedy, "NZ" is, well, rather charming. Genuine. Welcoming. Even the Customs and Immigration Officers. Because you’ve made the effort to come. Not simply to get you to open up your wallet. In fact, so much about the place is terribly reasonable. Sensible. Makes you feel right at home.

On a practical level, the cost of living seems broadly similar to that of the UK. Which, given it has about a fifth of the population of Australia, and a similar reliance on imports, does seem surprising. Its neighbour being considerably more expensive. Exploring, albeit briefly, has been a joy. Efficient, affordable public transport. Some of the finest hostels I’ve ever seen.

I’ve no plans to emigrate. Anywhere. But if I ever were to consider it, it’d be New Zealand. A few years in Australia. Perhaps. But settle somewhere permanently? No contest. Certain I could live here. Think I could fit right in. For now though, I’m settling on returning with my trusty steed. Reckon three months would be great. Might be a few years off. But return I shall.

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Reflections on Hong Kong

January 14th, 2011

Part of China it might be, but Hong Kong remains de facto a separate – I wouldn’t go as far as to suggest independent – nation. Passport control. Immigration. Chose to fly there from mainland China and it’s classed as an international flight. You’d be hard pressed to tell otherwise.

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With its order, sophistication, all the facets of a developed nation, Hong Kong is what the rest of China wants to be. Materially, I’d imagine that’d be possible in perhaps fifty years or so. Politically? Bit more tricky. For parity in the tolerance of dissenting views, likely to be closer to a century away.

I’d been quite surprised to discover how much open space there was in Hong Kong. True, not in the centre, around Kowloon or Hong Kong Island. But, out in the New Territories. Extensive trails. Campsites. Backpacking country. Not an obvious choice of destination for a trekking holiday. But a good one nevertheless.

Hong Kong, I was assured, hadn’t changed that much in the days since the hand back to China in Ninety Seven. I’d felt pleased about this. For, if what I had seen was largely a colonial legacy, then it was something to be proud about. Never been an apologist for the Empire.

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