Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Life after cycling: stage 1 - The Honeymoon

I know what I said, alright. I know I made promises of a silky new blog, some quick and tidy tribute to the age of Wordpress, with an array of mind-flipping images and prose to inspire great belches of pleasure. The pixelated equivalent to a newborn’s smile.

I lied.

In truth I just didn’t realise how busy I was going to be once I got home, all that time I had for cycling has been wrestled away from me by obligations imparted by The Real World. I need a job. I need socks. I need time to be wistful for the open road.

So for now you’ll have to make do with this rickety, bug-infested clunker of a blog. I will continue here until it’s unsafe to do so.

So, how does it feel, one month after completing a six year bike ride? Surprisingly fresh, actually. But in a precarious way, like when you leap into an icy lake and realise it’s not that bad, but wait, is that an anaconda rippling the surface? My anaconda moment hasn’t come yet, there’s a honeymoon quality to my days, but I’m fully prepared for an emotional nose-dive in a few months’ time. As for now, I’m enjoying the not being a guest part.

I’m back in the bedroom of my adolescent self, surrounded again by medical notes I haven’t had the front to open and consider just yet. A mind map appeared one day on my bedroom wall in pencil. I wrote ‘life after cycling’ in the centre and the small spawning clouds about it soon took over the entire wall, thoroughly answering the question of what will I do once I get home. Answer: A lot.

Few journals to ponder

One morning it hailed. Ice, falling from a blue-grey sky, tinkled against my window and skittered down the roof. It doesn’t matter, I thought, and then lingered glumly on how unaffected I am now by the caprices of the outside world. I wasn’t going anywhere. Coming home keeps dealing me that familiar combo: a kiss, and a punch in the guts. Relief and disappointment. Bitter and sweet.

But whilst my experience of coming home is inevitably a bipolar one, the balance falls on the side of relief and satisfaction because, well, I was cooked. Done. I wanted to live more meaningfully. I wanted to populate my life with other people. I wanted to treat patients and work hard. I wanted all of this, and yet I have drawn up a list of future plans which include rowing the Pacific, hiking Madagascar and swimming the channel. Shit.

I did some media interviews on my return - radio shows, podcasts, that sort of malarky. Nobody though has taken me aside and said ‘you’re that cycling guy!’ no matter how much I’ve stared into their face and wished them to.

I’m broke, of course, and on a come-down from a six year buzz of regular exercise. I’ve discovered that whipping professionally attired men on road bikes on my mum’s rattling shopping contraption is only an ephemeral pleasure, that quickly gets boring. My appetite is unchanged, which is a worry considering my physical expenditure has changed quite a lot. The maths is easy, the result is momentus and jowly.

Mother’s day was a particularly special one for my mum, not just because it was the first in six years I’d been home, but because she got to take me clothes shopping and pay for all my stuff, the lucky lady. Leading me round Sports Direct, I clumped along behind, as she said things like ‘try this one on Stevey’. I was the only balding 35 year old man on the premises in this position, though there were a number of 12 year olds in a similar one. I could see the staff thinking: what’s wrong with that guy? The poor woman, mother to the most destitute and grimly attired medical doctor in the UK. She can’t have predicted this as she proudly watched me graduate from medical school.

But there is something wonderfully regressive about coming home to my mums. I toss my clothes into a laundry basket. Meals sometimes just arrive without me having to check how much petrol I have. On occasion I stand at the top of the stairs and shout ‘Muuuuuum!’ just so I can hear her say ‘yes Stephen?’ Ahhhhhh. Home. I'm threatening to stay for years.

A whole gang of the best people in my life made it to the homecoming and the homecoming party - that friendships were strong enough to survive six years was a relief, and I’m sure in some part due to the fact my mates are innately wonderful human beings, and another part due to facebook. It must have been challenging to forget me or my bike ride, as I steadfastly refused to be moved from people’s feeds.

I live in Oxford now, somewhere between a self-consciously scabby part of town, and a decidedly plush part. But Summertown, the small shopping bit, falls within the better part. Summertown has changed. The stinky chippy with its sodden hunk of chips in newspaper has gone, replaced by a bistro joint. The newsagents have similarly been cleared out at the cost of a Costa. A homeless man was sitting outside – I don’t remember homeless people in Summertown before, and I wondered whether the Costa had something tangential to do with it. And where all the yoots would sit and cram skunk into king Rizla, an eastern European man sells seafood paella out of a huge wok. Life moves on.

Sainsburys has automatic paying machines now, but they don’t hand you a receipt with terminator-like arms, and that’s a disgrace. This is the future. We have hoverboards, for Christ’s sake. I want to be served by an android, I almost pay taxes now, and it’s my right.

There is a wonderful cure for the crash landing of a long travel. And that’s to travel some more. So three weeks after travelling for six years, I went to Singapore.

The invitation arrived by email from an affable corporate man with the voice of a radio DJ. He’d read an article I’d written for an adventure travel magazine. And considering I had just drafted a list of all my various debts that went off the page and onto the back and onto another page and half way around the universe, the offer of payment for my services was hard to resist. I was to be an inspirational speaker, and I could handle that. I inspire myself sometimes, especially when it comes to eating cheesecake.

The trip came with additional benefits: I could visit my main men SK and Andy in Singapore, and fly to Jakarta and visit one of the marginalized people projects and my other friends Anne, Phillipe, Zoe and Simon. There was only one drawback really: I would fly to Singapore, which meant covering in 12 hours what had taken me two years to cycle. Balls.

I walked into arrivals in Singapore airport to find that there was a man holding a sign with my name on it. MY NAME! I was one of those people now, people who have their names on signs in airports! A dream come true!

‘It is I’ I announced with a solemn and suave affectation. The name was in Times New Roman! Not daubed onto a piece of cardboard like a hitch-hiker's effort. I deserved Times New Roman! Sure, it wasn’t Georgia, but still. I wondered briefly who would get Comic Sans. Probably a drug-addled rock star with a penchant for paedophilia.

Of course I had a fierce bond with this stranger holding my name in his hands. We were basically blood brothers. Perhaps he didn’t share this sentiment as I plied him with questions about his family, life and passions in Singapore. And that was just on the way to the carpark.

He asked me, sternly now, to wait whilst he brought the car round, and so I stood in the muggy night beside an air hostess from Singapore airlines, who was also waiting for her ride. The air hostesses from Singapore airlines are dazzling, in every case. They wear clinging flowery dresses and smell like warm butter and when they smile an angel ejaculates.

The car, MY CAR!, arrived and it was a glitzy black BMW. Casually I stepped up to the vehicle as my driver opened the door, and then I swiveled to flash a smile at the hostess. Perhaps realising there was a real risk I was going to wink at her, my driver jumped in front of me blocking my sightline and took my bag.

Inside the car I supped on mineral water amid an assault of Kenny G type music on the stereo, but I didn’t let that spoil my excitement. This was big time baby.

Singapore was as I remembered it: reaching, glitzy, futuristic and stock full of supercars with nowhere to go, growling from one stop light to the next. It was another chance to marvel at the unlikeliness of it all – a city that grew from nothing, no natural resources to speak of. The BBC had, once again, just reported that Singapore is the most expensive city in the world to live in. So it was just as well that the company paid for all my expenses including the five star Swiss Hotel The Stamford, once, in the eighties, the tallest hotel in the world. Stepping out of the beemer a preened lady appeared immediately ‘Mr Fabes – let me show me to your room’ It’s possible she’s been waiting for me on the street for days. 

I sauntered through the lobby where abstract impressionism adorned the walls and into the lift aside two generously bicepped Russian oligarchs. I was on the 56th floor and the lift moved so fast my ears popped.

When you’ve spent the meat of six years in a dank, congested tent, this is what happens when you arrive into a five star hotel suite. First: you sprawl, starfish-like, on the bed, as if you’re an actor in a TV advert for a hotel chain. Then you steal a few bedroom items for the sheer fuck of it – lamps and chairs etc. Then you photograph everything in the room, post on facebook and jeer at your mates for being paupers. Then you undress and stand naked in front of the twinkling expanse of Singapore with your arms outstretched and penis exposed to the city. Then you use the first name of the bellboy when you thank them, like a wanker. Then you push buttons for a while, turning on every electrical item simultaneously and the air con to minus 80. Then a boy knocks on your door and gives you complimentary chocolates in elegant packaging – there is nothing elegant in your manner of consumption. And then another man arrives, asking if you want a local or international newspaper delivered to your room each day. You demand both, of course. It was almost worth the frequent miseries and privations of rough camping for six years, just to appreciate the contrast. Almost, but not.

The towels were as big as curtains and as white as story-book clouds. I eyeballed the mini-bar ‘8 quid for 330ml can of beer!’ I yelled in blissful pleasure. The menu said that ‘guests may enjoy their favourite aperitif’ - I didn’t even have a favourite aperitif! How amazing! I briefly considered calling room service and asking for a heap of cocaine on a silver tray, or a massage ‘with extras’. I didn’t want a high class prostitute, you understand, I was just interested in whether I could get one.

The balcony, which opened onto the staggering gaud of the Singapore skyline, was unfortunately locked. I learned later this was because melancholy billionaires occasionally throw themselves off instead of taking the elevator. One landed quite recently on the pavement below, near McDonalds, an uncongenial entrance which presumably made someone’s happy meal a memorably unhappy one. Even the prospect of suicide at the Swiss hotel sounded rather fun. I’d do it at 3 am, high on coke, not a second story stumble off the roof of the Holiday Inn for me, but a glorious swan dive, careering 80 stories racing against a sparkling sky line. A rockstar’s death.

But then a curious thing happened: encompassed by all this opulence, it began to feel more novel than luxurious. Interesting, I thought, in my star-fish pose, rather than delightful! I thought the hotel might raise the bar, but in truth my tent had already done that on the occasional mornings I’d zip open its door to receive the glow of another dawn breaking over a distant saw of mountains. And then I’d find a spider in my sandal and shatter the peace with percussive bouts of ‘Arse!’

At the all-you-can-obliterate dinner buffet the hotel laid on, a little voice piped up in my head saying ‘play it cool’, but that took half a second, and by that time I’d played it extremely uncool by turning my plate into a glorious massif of incompatible foodstuffs. Sushi got a dressing of beef bouillon. Smoked salmon sat in a lake of, what was that anyway? Thousand island?

I wanted something to complain about, to watch as aghast staff scattered in all directions to alleviate my displeasure, but alas, everything was perfect. I used to wonder about those people who sat in hotel lobbies and drank coffee at seven times the price of the coffee on sale from an outlet 50 metres away. And now I was one of them! How wonderful!

There was an antidote on offer for the glutinous: the hotel had a gym, and I owed it to myself, after three weeks of determined inactivity, to go to it. I hate the fact that I have a choice to exercise now. Before, choosing not to exercise would mean not moving anywhere, and this wasn’t a choice I would ever make. Yet another complication of this new brassy life: guilt.

There are only two types of people that populate a gym. The first are vain, beautiful people, whose vanity and beauty is both a cause and effect of their visits to the gym. The second group consists of people who come to leer at the vain, beautiful people: a blobsome, physically conspicuous underclass. These people use special treadmills that I must assume have different settings to the usual ones: Stroll for the most determined and least blobulous. Followed in descending order by Saunter. Waddle. Lumber. And finally, Roll.

I imagine that the beautiful people leave the gym together, jump into cars and burn a few extra calories by ravenously fucking each other. This they do in three minute bursts, keeping their heartbeat less than 160, orgasming simultaneously on exactly 20 minutes and grading their performance against a Personal Best. The other group press their chops up against the glass and watch.

So I didn’t feel I really belonged in the gym. I didn’t fit into either group. But I knew I was a helpless victim to tomorrow’s extravagant breakfast, so I decided to give it a try.

First I did an ergo, and then, reverently, I moved onto an exercise bike. A fall from grace: from round the world bike ride to spinning class. There were preset workouts, but I tried each one and even on the mountain setting my heart beat plodded along in unimpressed applause. I’d have to crank this baby up.

Switching to manual mode, I put everything on maximum, dialed up an hour, and began to pedal, to some amused faces of the gym staff. The look turned to agog as I pistoned through mile after virtual mile. I hadn’t done any cycling for three weeks and so the fact that I did so well told me one thing: strudel is the elixir of life.

The gym was air-conditioned, just not enough. This was Singapore, and air-conditioning hasn’t yet got advanced enough for this city. My God did I sweat. It fountained off my brow, spurted from my pits, pooled beneath me and irrigated the rest of the gym, making little gutters and waterfalls beside neighbouring machines and their nonplussed operators.

For me a gym should be an all or nothing affair, I need to risk emergency cardiac surgery or I might as well stay on the sofa. Part of the reason is that buzzy hallucinogenic thrill that only comes with real exertion. It's like briefly joining another world, where voices shimmer and colours sing. It's addictive. I scare people in gyms, with my scarlet mug and gruntsome masochism. Sometimes, when I'm on one of those machines that tells you what your heart rate is, I wonder if my final fleeting vision in this life will be that of a digital display with the sequential figures 705, ?, error, 802, 0.

Not everyone feels the same way as me of course, especially not ones in the gym of the Swiss Hotel. One man on a treadmill was walking slower than most people do in the street. He'd come to the gym to become lazier. I half expected he'd be reaching for some nachos, and clocking up more calories than he was losing in real time. There were people reclining on the exercise mats, as if they were sun loungers. Another man was reading a book, READING! IN A  GYM! If I'd tried that sweat alone would caused me to paper-mashe my own forearms. The only person seemingly working hard was a man on one of those squish-your-legs-toegether-and-grunt machines, I don't know the technical term. You know what I mean. And he was only sweating because he'd hired what appeared to be a professional nagger. I'm told there is another word for these people: personal trainer. I wonder how a gym would advertise for that position 'Jobs on offer. We're hiring people who enjoy badgering others endlessly and who have little or no sense of compassion. Must be comfortable slinging insults at strangers. Previous experience as a school bully preferred.'

Nothing happened in all that cycling in the gym, nothing but my reflection growing sweatier in the copious mirrors all gyms have so that the vain can gorge on themselves. There were no landslides, torrential downpours (apart from of sweat) or ferocious dog chases. It just wasn’t the same thing. Surely I didn’t miss the wreckless drivers? I did, a little, I did. Somewhere, I thought, perhaps 100 or 200 or 500 km north of here, in the Malaysian palm oil plantations, was a cycle tourer hopefully scouting for a place to pitch their tent, amongst the dash of monitor lizards. And I envied them that, even though I could now sit in a white dressing gown, at a desk, and decide on my favourite aperitif.

I flew next to Jakarta and spent some nice days with my friends Anne, Phillipe and Zoe, giving talks and visiting the rubbish pickers homes on the edge of the city (research for the book). 




And then I flew back to London, the captain of my plane announcing that the weather was ‘overcast with light rain’ which brought a small sarcastic cheer from my fellow passengers and made me smile at the Britishness of taking pride in our shortcomings, and pride in this pride too.

I arrived back to Heathrow to a very British clog of passengers at immigration, proving the comparative naffness of the UK compared to the efficiency of Singapore. In Singapore there was an electronic touch screen outside the toilets where you could rate their cleanliness. In Heathrow there were two blocked urinals, brimming with cold piss.

Travelators stun me, or rather the people who use them without walking. They are supposed to save you time in airports, but they’ve been hijacked by those who want to save on effort. Oh the laboriousness of bipedal locomotion! They are emblematic of modern societal sloth. Perhaps these people have some sort of laziness quota they have to fulfil per day, and the hours of sedentary stewing on planes wasn’t enough. I wondered what would happen if one of these travelators broke down with a full load of lazy souls on board. Would they just stand there, befuddled, until they succumbed days later to dehydration? Would I walk past skeletal shapes bleakly begging for nourishment? Would they end as a dry pile of bones stacked on top of the metal floor, rather than take a step forward? I want to grab them by the lapels and scream ‘LIFE is passing you by!’

So that’s it for this month, I will try to continue this blog monthly until the new one takes shape – I have no idea how long that will be.

Next for me: some talks, more writing (the book is shaping up), some kind of sport that doesn’t involve wheels and, if possible, a little less cheesecake. After all, I’m not a cycle tourer any more; I’m a writer, and one who doesn’t lust after heart disease (unless the heart disease comes with sprinkles and chocolate sauce, then: I’m game).