Thursday, 28 January 2016

The succour of homesickness

Thoughts on returning home after six years around the world by bicycle

My journey around the globe began fatefully - with a life-changing decision, taken in the pub.

Pint in hand, mini-atlas flipped open on the table, I sat in the beer garden of The George near London Bridge on some forgotten day in 2008, parading a new plan to a small circle of friends. Eagerly poised, a pen hovering above the tiny dot of London, I flashed a grin at my frowning audience and plunged in, sketching out my route around the globe and across six continents. All would be conveniently handled, I’d affirmed, by bicycle. ‘In six years, give or take.’

‘I’ll nail this bit first…’ - an airy slash of pen whisked me across Eurasia, where I deftly trounced the Alps, Pamirs and Himalayas; ‘and then over here…’ spanning the most roadless hunks of Sahara, ‘and then through this bit…’ and I was pootling up through the Darien Gap. Someone muttered something about warlords and drug cartels, but I’d swiped at their concerns with my pint-hand, dripping lager on Mexico, and was soon merrily skidding about Alaskan tundra. In less than a minute I’d breezed back to London: venturesome beard, book deal.

The pessimists, they didn’t know how it would be. I was going to plunge down ragged trails, spreading wings of dust over the precipice. I would freewheel over ice, rock and savannah, the wind forever at my back; delicious freedom, and all in the vanity of solitude. I would consider the lonely sky. Probably I’d be back in The George in six years’ time, leaning back, exultant, my feet propped up on the table and holding forth: ‘And when I was in Turkmenistan…’ I would pronounce, ending hours later with a long sigh and something like ‘and then I had to hold the poor fella down and cut his damn arms off with my cone spanner’. Someone would buy me beer.

Straddling my new bicycle, encumbered with kit so useless I would end up junking much of it lavishly across Europe, I’d waved goodbye to clustered friends and family from outside St Thomas’ Hospital. It was January 5th 2010, the first day of a fresh life as glinting as my spokes, as revolutionary as my rims.

Boldly, I cycled away. Fifty metres later I swung left at the junction, though I’d anticipated taking a right. I discovered myself cycling back to the pub.

I’d managed only half a mile before I was back in the companionable womb of The George, a pint back in my sweaty palm, my whole being soaking with self-doubt. Friends and family meanwhile supposed I was pedalling towards France.

Hours passed. The world I’d pedalled into, sober and up-to-my-neck in it, was too big. I was unfit and under-prepared and feeling ungrateful for waltzing eagerly away from a profession I loved, interesting friends and a reality that was easy to be with. I had money. Several curry houses knew me by my first name. I enjoyed a frappe. What then was I doing here, my worldly possessions jiggling from a bicycle, having vowed to live on five quid a day, for years? I had only frail impressions now. They shouldn’t let drunk people near mini-atlases, or even into Stanfords, I’d decided. There should be a warning, like they have on cigarette packs. They could have an image of me printed on the back cover: sad-drunk, wan-faced, fugitive.

I picked up my phone and made some noises of self-pity down the line to friends. A bunch of them came for a beer; they were good friends and unanimously it was suggested that I fucked off. And quite quickly, cos it’s getting dark. Feeling a sort of grateful resentment, and uncomfortably curious about where I might sleep, I wobbled off into the twilight, unable to laugh yet at the muted birth cries of a round-the-world bike ride.

At the time I'd been working as a junior doctor in the Intensive Care Unit of a big teaching hospital in London, and living in a snug NHS-owned flat nearby. I was installed obligingly close to amenities ripe for a young professional, including a gym, which I'd energetically evaded for two years. And my flat was comfortable. The trouble with comfortable places is that they're cruelly convenient from which to plot travels to uncomfortable ones.

I’d planned to leave when I was ready, which was roughly after I’d been to enough Expedition Planning Seminars (four) and experimented sufficiently with exciting brands of padded Lycra shorts. I was ‘ready’ in mid-winter. I am fairly sure that the 5th of January 2010 was the day on which Britain had never been so British. The streets I pedalled were a raillery thick with recollections, and a warning of the frills and familiarities I was leaving behind. London was the same city, with a different glaze, its towers bristled like admonishing fingers. A waft of fish ‘n chips coming from The Codfather made me wistful for all the other puns in chip shop names, my days as a student in Liverpool streamed back to me: ‘Abra-kebab-ra’, ‘A salt and battered’.

And then through the gloom of a London suburb three words mesmerised me from on high. They lived on the side of a two story brick house: ‘Never Give Up’. I stared. No advert, no Nike logo, no ostensible explanation, except the impossible one. The thought of some private message from an unrevealed, guiding power moved me to laugh into the gloom, but even this instant of glee was dashed. Around the building, snow had begun to speckle the night sky, slowly at first and then thickening to a salvo until the sky fuzzed like television static. My new life on the road didn’t yet have a wholly ironic level of misadventure. I was cycling into what even the most understated weather forecasters would identify as the coldest European winter for thirty years.

I owe the school children of Kent some gratitude. It was only because of their determination to hurl snow balls at me for around one hundred miles that I began to feel some relief from the pangs of homesickness. I began to pray children on the continent would be more forgiving.

At Dover the safety pin of home pricked one final time as I loitered behind the barrier, a big metal metaphorical thing that separated my wheels from the ferry, one life from another and my country from The World. ‘I’m sorry my dear’ said the woman, jabbing at a concealed button ‘this barrier’s a bit temperamental’. ‘Just like my wife!’ I swivelled to face a lorry driver leaning out of his cab window, all bad teeth and jowls, his face cracked by a supreme grin. The lady tried out a withering look but it slipped to a smile. I felt myself welling up. Oh Britain, I thought, how I’ll miss your green vales, puns, heart attack grub and casual misogyny.

The ferry began to churn easily away from the port. I stood on the deck watching destitutely as my home downsized, departing in an iconic fade of chalk cliffs and floating gulls. The ship’s wake petered into an expanding rift of grey-blue water seasoned with foam and whitecaps. An awesome sense of unpredictability expanded too. I wasn’t certain if the worst or the best had happened, but I had begun.

All this took place six years ago now.

I used to take some pride in how long I’d been on the road; I thought years of bicycle travel bespoke determination, perseverance, but that was true only until I’d pedalled for three years or so. Now it’s a confession more than a boast. It’s a monomaniacal act. I have to admit that the dark flip-side of resolve is obsession.

Perhaps it’s for this that people quiz me on my plans for returning home and seem more concerned about the moment than I am. ‘But what will you do?’ they demand to know, in a tone which assumes I’ll be scouting for tall buildings with life-ending landings. I’ll be OK, I want to tell them, this isn’t an addiction. I won’t disappear one day soon on the cycling commute to work to be discovered 340 miles away on some roadside, surrounded by empty packets of Supernoodles, trying to construct a makeshift shelter out of my work-shirt in a ditch.

This was, for all its nerve, a self-inflicted exile. Should I ever have been subsumed with loneliness the UK was only ever a few inflight movies away. Many of the refugees that have surged from two of the countries I’ve cycled through, Syria and Afghanistan, can’t risk a return; and they're left blind and despairing of their home and their futures outside it. It’s the difference between going on a diet and surviving a famine, and who am I to gripe on the hardships of abandonment. I’ve been rationing myself, which only makes home taste sweeter.

It’s not the only gratitude to bloom from this journey. Privations of all kinds breed longings which feed renewed appreciations – people shine like Kerouac’s Roman Candles in the first frenetic conversation in a week. A bed can be newly deluxe, a hot shower soul cleansing after days, ahem, weeks without. But is that reason enough to shun these creature comforts? I don’t feel the need, for instance, to totter around in ill-fitting high heels for a year all because I want to gain an appreciation of my usual shoes. So there’s a bias – some things we romance shrugging off – money, material possessions (the noble ascetic), and the notion of home: it’s the very reason the word ‘nomad’ has become so idealised and abused, bolted on to everything from the brand names of travel accessories and tour agencies to travel bloggers who trade in listicles and the proliferating contemporary breed who swank under the label ‘digital nomad’. True nomadism is most often adaptive, a survival strategy; nomads tend to be pastoralists whose jolting migration is a forced consequence of scarce, widely dispersed resources. It’s not a cosy life choice possible because the world has wifi and 4G.

We live in a ‘you can have it all’ culture, it’s how we rose-tint our world and mislead young people. We boast of intolerance to compromise. It’s easy to want to cycle around the world, it’s easy to believe wanting something and effort is all that’s required. But what counts is sacrifice, the hard swallowed self-denial: and it's mandatory cargo. Relationships, time, lazy Sundays, spinning records, financial security, the promise of my career - all these things had to be negotiated, ditched or jeopardised. Homesickness is just another toll for the road. You’ll never know if your choices were the right ones, though it’s comforting to believe so.

It’s with some guilt that thoughts of arriving home have had a sustaining effect, and have helped slake that fiery loneliness that makes its own home inside me. There’s something narcissistic, self-indulgent and mawkish in imagining friends and family all gathered outside St Thomas’ Hospital to welcome me back, like the finale of a cringe-worthy movie, but I do it because it helps. It helps remind me I have a new life to return to, peopled by permanent friends. Coming home must be bittersweet; an act as devastating as it is indulgent.

My imaginings of the event itself diverges as I look over at assembled loved ones from the viewpoint of Westminster Bridge. In one version my last pedal strokes are met with whoops, back-pats, high fives, and my own gratuitous grinning. But in another, I cry, as I have a few times upon dwelling on my return. I’m a bawling, blubbersome husk of a human being, leaking all over the hospital forecourt. Someone removes me to a quiet corner, everyone looks unsettled. In the crowd one guy turns to another and says ‘Wow. That guy’s a mess’ ‘Yeah’ his friend agrees. ‘Kind of wish I hadn’t come’. In the final imagining I look over at the crowd, broodingly. I turn around. I think: I’ve never been to Chad.

It’s impossible to say that thoughts of friends and family have journeyed with me without sounding drippy. There’s solace in the fact that I’m still me, and they are still them. No one, as far as I know, is wanted by Interpol or the FBI. Everyone is the same sex as I remember them. Nobody has developed a counter cultural fondness for, let’s say, yodelling, cock fighting or burlesque.

And home, I hope, will have changed only microscopically too. London will swash under the march of puddled feet, streets will hiss and grumble with traffic. The Thames will drift glumly past Westminster where politicians will still not be trusted. Pubs will be crammed with tourists, old soaks, suits and hipsters, all still loyal to their categories. I will arrive in one of the twelve months of the year, which in England guarantees rain, but not proper rain, just shitty half-assed mizzle, reticently seeping from a sky slashed by a skirmish of greys.

Homecomings can be fretful as you're thrust a sudden mirror to your own revisions, something especially true after years solo travel. I have no way to measure how I’ve been re-caste by years of ranging roads, the endless hounding of horizons, the lonely skies and abundant me-time. I used to joke I’d arrive back a monosyllabic, poker-faced ghost, more calf muscle than man, unable to relate or reconfigure. I have always seen something inherently vapid and cheesy about the notion of travel as a road to self-discovery, it conjures too many images of hapless Gap Yahs venturing to the Ganges to ‘find themselves’. During this journey I was more concerned with discovering the outside world, not the internal one. Have I really changed? I’ve fallen in love with books. I’m almost ready to admit I'd like to be a writer too. I’m wirier and weathered and kind of vagrant looking in, I suspect, an irreversible way. I eat like an escaped prisoner of war, I’m unsure if this is permanent too. But fundamentally changed? That seems as absurd as coming back six foot ten, Hispanic or with a conjoined twin.

For six years I’ve been hungry for the crawling turn of seasons, the enchanting snugness of a British October. Chocolate hobnobs. I’ve missed my job, too. Rejoining my profession as a medical doctor will mean re-training, and if I have to re-sit all those torturous, costly postgraduate exams, then so be it. Better than: ‘I’m sorry Mrs Jones, it sounds a bit like appendicitis, you said the trouble was a headache, right?’ as I lunge at her with my stethoscope, aiming to attach the wrong end of it to her forehead.

I’ve crossed more than one hundred international borders since I left London in 2010, cycled a distance of more than twice around the planet, and abraded the tread of twenty five tyres. But those statistics are mere whispers when compared to my favourite brag: I’ve slept in the homes of strangers in more than fifty countries. I’m calling this proof of the hospitality of people on planet earth. The fact that I’ve been made to feel so regularly, absolutely and unconditionally at home during my journey adds an extra sting to the return. From desert dwellings in Syria to freezing yurts on the Mongolian steppe, my stretching inventory of bedrooms is sketched from opportunism as much as hospitality: there have been countless abandoned buildings, schools, police stations, hospitals, churches, mosques, temples, monasteries, fire stations and army barracks. Five years ago a stranger slowed to a halt on a South African highway and handed me the keys to his beach house. Yesterday my German hosts sent me away with a packed lunch and warmer clothes. In Egypt I shared the mosquitoes and fusty air of a barn with a snortsome, cheesed-off buffalo. Strangely, when I think of how I probably won’t do that again after I return home, it’s with half relief and half disappointment. I’m not sure a London landlord would grant me a buffalo for the sake of nostalgia, not even a small one.

On most of the two thousand odd mornings I have woken into, the spot I’ll end the day is a handsome mystery, generously glimmering beyond the horizon. The ugly certitude of my sleeping place is what may ache and pull at my fabric most after I return. But even so, I face down a fact, more so every day, that invites me home: I’m tired. Not of travel per say, not frazzled, bored and jaded by the world, but tired of the daily eschewing of any flake of familiarity. Tired of reliance: on hosts, on myself. Tired mentally, not physically. Tired of scrabbling for money, of supernoodles, of solitude and of the ever-expanding game of waking befuddled in my tent and mentally pursuing my place on the planet. Tired of the newness of my friends, the oldness of my socks and the staleness of my bread. Not so long ago I tried, absentmindedly, to change gear whilst pushing a trolley around a supermarket, and I think if life is providing a nudge to stop riding and go home, perhaps it’s the realisation that supermarket trolleys don’t come with grip shifts.

There’s always a chance that coming home will not meet the expectations I’ve imbued it with: I win the trophy of longed for familiarity, but face obligations too. I’m curious about whether there will be an incomplete move from wanderer to citizen, an afterburn that will find me camping on my mum’s lawn, regaling baffled passers-by with rambling tales from Mongolia. I can’t promise that if land an apartment; I won’t still cram my wardrobe into panniers, or use my sandals as cup holders.

At home there will be, I am joyed to say, no more dog chases, saddle sores or anxieties about scorpions in my sandals. Hunger, exhaustion, cold and loneliness – I’ve upset what I knew of these sensations, they’ve been fired and agitated into newfangled things, and in the future each will strive and most often pale against a new benchmark. Time has grown a momentum I don’t recognise, weeks have begun to lose their contours, they fly by vague and then dwindling, and I know it’s because I need to move on, try a new brand of life. Do something about the mullet. Procure my first phone and pair of jeans in six years, and maybe even obey the rules of the Real World by learning to drive a car. Make alien to-do lists, bereft of ‘trim beard’, ‘sew hole in crotch of shorts’ and ‘find old to-do list’. There will be decisions to make, that matter: ‘Does Mrs Jones need an urgent appendectomy?’ instead of ‘I wonder if I should buy some more Mayonnaise?’

In the last year there have been times that a road looks familiar, and de-ja-vu can smack with the same winding jab as loneliness can. Something about the lay of the land, the twist of the tarmac, the quality of the air and shadow, the vibrancy of light, maybe a scent too; all of it pools in a pellucid moment and I’m fired back to another road between faraway places, and if I work hard, grope a bit, I can be back there, three or four or five years ago. It’s chilling though, how much I forget, and eventually many of these roads will set adrift of memory too. Laurie Lee once said, of autobiography, that it is an attempt to hoard life’s sensations. It’s the best reason I can think of to write of my wanderings too, and soon, before it’s too late.

So it will be in the company of my ratty, noodle-stained journals, my photos, my memories and a computer that I’ll embark on the next adventure: that of authorship. But whatever else comes next, it will be in more nuanced and wilder world, a place more baffling and disarmingly human than I once suspected in a London pub.

Do it when you’re young, people say, as if adventurous travel is something to be expunged from your system or tolerable only by the restive youth, like hangovers. Unless of course it becomes the system, snagged within your mechanics, part of how you malfunction. I don’t see serial escapism on the horizon in the same way as I didn’t see a round the world bike ride in the years before I began one. Knowing what I do of the fate of other round-the-world cyclists, the prognosis is poor. Nobody I know is inclined towards a lifetime of pasties on the sofa, if anything, it gets worse. They tend to sniff out the next ante-upping escapade, charting courses across oceans in rowing boats, trying to get colder, higher and more desolately imperilled and exhausted. Perhaps I share Bryson’s affliction: ‘Of all the things I am not very good at’ he once wrote ‘living in the real world is perhaps the most outstanding’. In the last weeks when an implausibly impressive view opens up, when everything aligns to please and awe me, I try to tell myself not to forget, because soon Life, always with a capital L, will be very different. Soon after this though I laugh: I’ve asked myself the impossible. But if I am condemned to squeezing adventurous travel into my life, if Pandora’s box has been crow-barred, I don’t have the heart yet to look inside.

This has been an extravagantly selfish chapter of my life, not least because I worked in a profession that gave me ample opportunity not to be. I've asked others to understand my choices, and without exception they have. I want to thank everyone who has helped me over the last six years, it’s as heartwarming as it is embarrassing to admit how many there have been. So to every comment-poster, donor, good-will sender, every host, purveyor of noodles, chain oil, beer and other essentials. To my mum above everyone, to every rational doomsayer and dreamy conspirator. Every skyper, kindred cyclist, shining passer-by and everyone who's shared my flagrantly broadcasted hopes and adventures when I couldn't share in theirs... Cheers.

I come home in three weeks, late February, the dawn of Spring. I’d love to see you there.

Camping on the frozen surface of Lake Khovsgol, Mongolia