The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The last 1%

We're home! Alive, safe and happy. But before we let you in on the ups and downs of completing the adventures and bore you with the nerdy facts, here's a bit about the end of the journey, written on the penultimate day of the tip.

Hitting France 5 days ago felt like a momentous moment. From there a quick hop, skip and jump over some hills and The Channel and we're done. But as is the way with challenges, the last 1% always seems almost too much to handle. The weather turned the moment we left Germany. 40kmh head winds brought with them freezing grey skies and soggy wintry days. The land became void of services and we cursed the French for their laziness as shelter and food throughout the days grew scarce. The landscape closed in and nasty, steep hills seemed never ending. Our legs grew heavier every day and Carlos started to fall apart.

Our minds and bodies were impatient to get home, but also trying to hold on to the joy of the adventure. Not surprisingly confusion and exhaustion often bubbled up into stroppy exchanges. But doom was not meant to be. One evening we stumbled across a local fair in the ancient French market town of Charlville-Mezieres. Wine, beer, cheese, stew and cake seemed to be flowing from every corner of a square filled with men in medieval costumes and rosy faces (not our kind of thing at all really...). The perfect setting to swig a litre of wine and give ourselves a good talking to: These last few hundred miles may seem long but we've got to soak up the adventure rather than get stuck in a mad rush to get home.

So it was we got to Dunkirk in one excitable piece. We managed to arrive at The Channel 40 minutes before the professional bike teams competing in the Tour of Dunquerque did so were rather appropiately cheered on by all the local villagers in the last 10 miles of France. Soon we were looking out over an expanse of gray, choppy water, now all that seperated us and England. But before any tears could drop onto French soil we go about finding our ferry, a windy and truck filled 20 miles out of town. Our first slice of England slapped us in the face at border control as we pedal up to a fat, balding man at English customs.

'Do you need our passports?'
'Na I just sit here doing nothin' all day luv'

Ah, sarcasm, its good to be back. From here on the strangely familiar scents, tastes and sounds of home inch closer with great haste. The ferry becomes a mini playground of remembering England; weak cups of tea, sachets of heinz conidments, soggy chips and cheap sausages, newspapers, television we understand, the ease of conversation, picking up regional accents, pounds, funny looking plugs... A map of South East England and a route into London to be planned. Before we know it the white cliffs of Dover loom up in front of us. Tears rise up but get quickly swallowed. Our goal is Hyde Park and we seem to have an unwritten understanding to hold emotions and celebrations back until then.

For most people, returning home from a big trip is amazingly smooth; land in an airport, get greeted by loved ones, ushered into a car and plonked back home. The end of this trip is rather more extended. Home isn't landing in England, home is seeing loved ones and putting down the tandem having completed a full circle around the globe. This involves two days of cycling in England. Arriving in Dover was therefore an overwhelmingly confusing moment. So confusing was this non-event of arriving on English soil that it was one of the most despairing few hours of the trip. For a dark, dark moment, I thought I hated England. Roads are full of pot holes, traffic is too fast, there are so many humans, too much stuff everywhere, people rushing in all directions, boys with stupid hair swigging back booze on street corners, lippy school kids, impatient bus drivers. Suddenly the tandem felt silly and out of place, we're used to being weird outsiders but it felt all wrong being so in our own land.

Within 20 miles of Dover all this mess in my head was cleared up. After failing to find a campsite we ended up spending the night in Sue and Jim's B&B in Ashford. It took being welcomed into an English home to feel at home. A kettle, tea bags, biscuits, toffees, a visit to the local Chinese buffet, an hour shouting at ignorant politicians on the TV and a massive, incredible English Breakfast in the morning and my chi in England is restored. Thank God for that! From here on England got better and better. We ditched impatient driver filled roads for rabbit warren lanes through the North Downs. As we darted up and down over forested hills and fields full of blue bells and blossom it felt good to be back in the shire. It turns out England is pretty brilliant - village shops full of shortbread and weirdos, fish and chips on every corner, charity shops selling literally anything for 50p, pubs full of locals, warmth and ale and sunshine that is so unlikely you smile every time you see it.

Once we hit the M25 we resisted continuing on to London, a day earlier than planned. Swanley Community Center staff spent the best part of an hour trying to find us a local camping spot and after several cups of tea and no success pointed us in the direction of the best B&B in town. 10 minutes down the road Antonio and Pauline welcomed us into their spare apartment. After explaining our trip we were plied with kindness once more; tools to fix the still falling apart Carlos, chocolates, sweets, biscuits, fresh coffee every hour, sausage sandwiches and another massive breakfast. Thankfully, it turns out you don't have to go too far to find the generous souls of the world.

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