Friends in High Places

Friends in High Places

Sat in a hotel room recently, I watched a film about a rat. The rat had lost his family in an adventure action scene involving a runaway frying pan boat in sewer rapids. As our rodent protagonist wearily lifts himself from liquid human waste, a hallucination of a celebrity chef delivers the insightful line; ‘if you focus on what you left behind, you will never see what lies ahead.’

Istanbul had always been a landmark destination; the jumping point from Europe into Asia, but five weeks in, the metropolis became more, a catalyst for change in myself and my journey. My ‘Building Convictions’ blog explains some of the issues I began addressing. I found a creative self and a desire to draw, write, create. I began to digest the previous three months and to understand a subconscious growth in myself and changes in my life. I formed relationships with people that inspired me. I spent a week cycling to Ankara with my sister, when time split and childhood and adulthood existed in parallel. And I met someone through whose eyes I saw a different world. Streets I knew, cafes in which I was regular, boat journeys I loved; the micro became familiar while simultaneously the macro revealed the enormity of what laid ahead. My journey was much bigger now, both physically and psychologically.

So as, with clunks and high pitches, my overnight train pulled out of Haydarpasa train station, I sat motionless and teary eyed, watching her disappear behind me and I transited back to Ankara where my journey had paused weeks before.

Leaving Istanbul became more difficult than leaving home, maybe because I now knew what lay ahead and certainly because I knew what I was leaving behind. Disembarking the train in Ankara, the weather was bestowed with the gracelessness of pathetic fallacy and through the days that followed I cycled through overcast drizzle. My wheels were literally and metaphorically bogged down, I got ill and I was missing everything I had had. A week passed and wiping the mud from my face after another difficult day on the road, I looked at the baby wipe to find a perfect brown handprint. My sister and I had joked with impressions of Tom Hanks in Castaway and now I was sat alone, my only company being my sweaty, dirty baby wipe Wilson. It took three things to snap me out of the rut I was stuck in…

Cycling up a long gradual hill after, again, packing away a wet tent in a damp field, a man waved to me from a small mud shack on the roadside. He asked me to sit beside the mountain of melons he was selling. Not a car had passed me that morning and I wondered how he made a living but this didn’t seem to worry the small mole like man as he sat me down and shared his breakfast with me. In half a bottle of oil and a block of butter he fried some eggs and sat on a broken stool with me as we dipped bread into the fatty protein goodness and sipped endless sweet tea. It was glorious and as we shared impending heart attack, the sun began to emerge from a week of cloud. I took the grand tour of his one roomed mud hut beside the road, where on the back of the door he had scrawled a drawing of a naked woman. Cracks began to appear in the walls of my self obsessed world in the realisation that we all have the same needs and desires. Different lives, different priorities but the same necessities and all the more amazing for sharing. I left him to continue cycling between the dry patches appearing on the road, fed, warm and once again appreciating a world where newness was ready to fill the gaps of what I had dwelled upon leaving.

Turning off the road to buy food, I passed a group of primary school boys sitting on a wall, a group of girls standing opposite them on the other side of the road. Stopping between them, I asked where to get bread and the boys pointed and began to follow me. As I emerged from the shop, all the children were around the bike and so we played games, conversing in basic Turkish and English, letting the boys prove how strong they were by trying to pick up Dolly and laughing when they realised how impossible it was. Such simple pleasure and exchange of cultures with no desire for gain from either party picked me up and I rode on with a smile.

The final element that secured my escape from moping came as I stopped at an internet cafe for a rare email check and a quick blog for birthday donations. An unexpected email came through from a very dear friend. Her father had died of cancer. After initial shock and concern for her, I realised that my selfish preoccupations were ridiculous. That everything I had left in Istanbul had been through choice, everything on my journey had been a choice, and that if I wanted to carry on with the journey, I was going to have to chose to leave some things behind. And so death made me realise the importance of life. That for every choice you make, there are consequences you have to deal with and to create something, another thing will be destroyed. All of the things I had dwelled upon leaving were my choice to leave, I had chosen to ride on and satisfy my curiosity, to see the world and explore myself. I couldn’t imagine the life of someone I loved being taken away. I had to appreciate where I was, what I was doing and every minute of it. I cycled on and life took on a new freshness. I let go of things left behind and I appreciated every second of the journey. One morning I decided to document the simple pleasures that I experienced for the first hours of the day:

Waking up with the sunrise as the clouds that slept in the field beside me also rise
Morning dew droplets collecting on the tiny hairs of my fingers
Rainbows spanning perfect arches over my road
Removing a layer of clothing and feeling the breeze on my skin
Roadside plastic bottles pop as the sun expands air trapped inside
Talons retract leaving their telegraph pole perches
Graceful wings swoop through clear blue sky
A solitary herdsman’s wave as he wishes me ‘Salam Alaikum’
Shared laughter as I wish an octogenarian hitch hiker ‘iyi shans’
Whimsically taking a dirt track off of the main road and finding surprise serenity
Drinking sweet Chai with locals
Phonetics speaking louder than meanings

I soared in peace with the birds of prey at 1500m across the rolling Turkish mountains in their autumnal hues and saw my first snow capped peaks. An email that I had picked up earlier in the week had arranged a meeting with Charlie and Ash, British and Kiwi cyclists that I had met in Istanbul. I had covered ground fast across my new found utopia and on my birthday I met them on top of a hill overlooking a vast Turkish landscape. Recently my camps had been alone beside the road or railway tracks, so to celebrate my birthday with friends in high places was a true pleasure. We crossed the end of Turkey as a gang, by day fooling around ‘truck surfing’ up hills or slipstreaming each other, by night cooking up feasts of meals with our combined stoves and new ingredients. My journey was again taking a new turn in seeing a new view through a group dynamic. We cycled through troubled Kurdistan where stones were thrown at us and I was attacked by a child with a tree but our spirits were high as we rode on to the foot of Mount Ararat for our final camp before Iran.

Maybe that rat’s hallucination chef was onto something.

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