The planned route (Click to enlarge)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Thank you and Goodnight (for now...)

At 1:30 last Saturday we pedaled back into Hyde Park, to the very spot where the adventure began 20 months ago. Over 52,000 miles, 598 days and hundreds of vehicles later we had done it: 3.6mph around the world without once jumping on a plane.

We had been imagining the day even before we had cycled off on the trip in September 2008. We had pictured sunny days, rainy days, windy days and everything in between. Lots of people, nobody there, just family, maybe just sneak in and don't tell anyone. We bid goodbye to our final hosts on the trip and navigated the suburbs before stopping for an hour in Greenwich. We stood on the edge of the hill above the Maritime Museum with the city laid out below and the moment swept over us. Surrounded by groups of tourists, weekend joggers and a group of Japanese school children we sheepishly asked for someone to take a photo of us before nibbling nervously on some cake in the tea room by the observatory. We were so close, but we had said we'd be there at 1 and so sat with a stomach full of butterflies. Finally it was time to ride the last miles under grey drizzly skies. Isle of Dogs, Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, a nervous sweep round Hyde Park Corner roundabout and then into the Park. Who would be there?
So nearly done. So much emotion, a few tears from the back seat but we rounded the final corner to be welcomed back in style. Friends, family and even some unknown blog fans surrounded us and instantly we were filled with the warmth of home through an onslaught of booze, hugs, silly grins and squeals. It was an incredible magical moment for us both and the whole weekend of being thrown back in and amongst loved ones was one we hope never to forget. We are now convinced more than ever that it is the people that make home home so its pretty lucky there were so many of you there!

Hol: It is now a week since putting the bike down and I am yet to feel inclined to get back on it for a while. Having a wedding to plan and life to shape should satisfy any lingering desire for adventure for at least 6 months. If anyone felt sorry for us missing Christmas two years in a row then you can take it back; we have just had 7 back to back Christmas days. Food, generosity, drinks and home comforts on tap. Those that perved enviously at our toned bodies last Saturday can rest assured that our old selves are quickly coming back to shape. Alongside all this feasting we have also been trying to throw away most of our previous lives, which living out of a bag for 20 months makes you realise you don't really need. Unfortunately for parents who are still stuck with our possessions, an alarming proportion of them seem to be fancy dress orientated and therefore pretty hard to give up. At least they have now been labeled as fancy dress so not to cause too much embarrassment in case the world has grown up in our absence.

So considering that the last week has been filled with 4 of our favourite pursuits; hanging out with those nearest and dearest, eating, drinking and discovering silly things from the past, being home is yet to be a rough ride. That said, some things have been rather challenging to get our heads around. When you are away from home everything is unfamiliar, which means its the smaller things that fill up your mind. When you have a challenge to complete, making sure you complete it in one piece is your entire focus. Simply put, we have spent the last 18 months entirely focused on what now seem simple tasks; how to communicate, reading a map, where to eat, not spending money and finding a bed for the night. On being back in familiar lands suddenly all these things are cleared up for us rather quickly, which means are minds are worryingly free to contemplate other things. Life being so easy can seem rather stressful. That said, whizzing along at 70mph in a car through rain and up and over hills without even feeling a thing on the legs was hugely welcome and I'm becoming slightly obsessed with baths, showers and the washing machine.

Nick: Now that we're down in Devon with some space to ourselves we have a bit of time to reflect. It hasn't been the huge shock some people suggested it would be. Yet the change in life creeps up on you unexpectedly. The inevitable questions of what job, where we will live etc. are regular subjects at all tables, but the main pressure to answer them is from us. We are looking forward to the next years of our lives, but then suddenly you remember where you were 6, 12, 18 months before and you are jolted back as if from a dream. Did we really sail the Atlantic, hitch on rusting banana boats, cross the Pacific, guide ourselves through the glaciers of the Himalayas, cycle 6,000 miles, nearly drown in a kayak...? The list goes on, but at the time it all just seemed to move with inexorable momentum guiding our feet along without our input. There are sudden rushes of pride in what we have done. We made the decision to do it, we planned every detail, we saved the money, we finished it. We saw it through in good and bad times and got back in one piece.
It's mind boggling to look back on. Then at another moment you just think it was Hol and I, on our own out there on our own very personal adventure in a very big world. I have no regrets about our decision to go on the trip. People time and time again said how they wish they had, would if they could, still plan to go. We are back where we started but with so much shared experience between us. To think back to us as a couple when we left and look at us now, it is as if we didn't know each other at all. Now there is so much we have seen, shared and discussed that even if all else was lost, the chance to get to know my future wife as well as I have has been worth all the effort.

Hol: So I think we should at least attempt to wrap up the blog with some wise reflections from traveling the globe. On coming home we are more than ever reminded that this adventure was essentially a selfish undertaking. We didn't raise money for charity, we're not going to write a book and we're not trying to save the world from the perils of air travel. Before settling down it seemed like a good plan to run away from structure, pressure and familiarity for a while. Its as simple as that and the main things we've learnt along the way are equally simple:

  • People are good, a very small proportion are bad. By opening yourself up to this goodness you get a lot more out of the world than you do by being constantly worrying about the baddies. 
  • Belongings should only be collected if they are going to be used or enjoyed regularly and must never become a burden. The world around us tries very hard to make things complicated so you have to make a conscious effort to keep them simple.
  • Kindness is the most important quality in humans. However big or small the gesture, it is universally recognised and appreciated. From now on we are both determined to take people in when we can and give away stuff to those who need it rather than hoarding it for ourselves. I am also going to stop ignoring lost tourists on the streets of London – it really means a lot to be offered help by a local before asking.
  • Exercise, regular bowl movements, living within your means and an appreciation of simple pleasures are the key to happiness. 
Nick: It may not seem much to learn having spent 20 months and £30,000. However, if we can remember even a couple of things from this trip and still remember them in 50 years time then I reckon it's worth it. Thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us on the way. You have made the trip what it is. One day we hope the repay even some of the favours, gifts, help from you all. For those in foreign lands you must never hesitate to get in touch if you ever come to the UK. Thanks also to everyone who has wished us well on emails, texts, comments on the blog or just old fashioned letters. There were some ups and downs and knowing we had good friends back home made the idea of finishing back where we started feel like just the right decision. I hoped for some pithy quote to end our travels that would sum it all up. However, nothing captures the sense we have now better than just to say, “Thankyou”. A thousand times to a thousand people. “Thankyou”.

Some reminders of the trip if you get (extremely) bored:

Photos: this has links to all the albums from the last 20 months
The map: You can click on here and see our whole route on Google Earth

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.