Monday, 31 March 2014

People I've Met On The Road - Henri

Given the amount of time I spend long-distance cycling, it is hardly surprising that I meet many interesting people on the road. This is the second of a series of blogs about the more remarkable of those individuals.

Several years ago I was cycling through South-west France on my way to the coast. The mountains of the Massif Central make for tough cycling and in summer the baking heat combines with the gritty dust to sting your eyes and parch your skin. Added to this personal discomfort, no amount of lubrication at the time would seem to prevent my chain from clogging and before long the grit had made a sound job of eroding the rollers. I had just climbed out of a deep valley somewhere after Millau and was finally struggling over the apex of the long hill when with a sudden release of pressure there came a crunch from below. Cursing I stopped and looked down. The chain hung there, dragging on the road.
"You bloody swine," I muttered, gasping for breath after the exertion of the long hill.
"Elle est cassee, mon ami."

I looked around, unable to see where any voice could have come from.
"Hello, who's that?" I called, rather confused.
"Allors, monsieur, your first job should be to get out of the sun! You will die, standing there."
At that point my eye caught sight of a dog, lying in the shade of a stone wall. Next to it I could see a worn out boot with no laces. It moved as it's owner began raising himself to his feet. The man emerged from the shade and put out a broad arm. I shook his hand, which was grubby and gnarled. The young man doffed his dirty sailor's cap. As he did so it revealed an untidy shock of curly blonde hair.
"Henri," he said, politely.
"Mark, enchente." I replied.
"If I am not mistaken, you need a chain tool my friend!"
Despite Henri's apparently excellent command of English, his French accent was strong and slurred. I took him for perhaps someone from the rougher side of Marseilles, although his blonde hair made this seem unlikely.
Henri crouched down to peer at the wrecked chain. His large Indian Army-style shorts had seen better days, while his loose white vest was also torn and stained. Perhaps he was a vagrant, I wondered? He got to his feet again.

Whistling to the dusty dog, Henri began wandering off. He walked in a purposeful but slovenly manner, his loose, laceless boots dragging on the melting asphalt as he headed down the hill to... I knew not where. I presumed he intended me to follow him, although he had said nothing to confirm this. Kicking up the stand on my bike, I moved quickly to catch him up.
"Any idea where I can find a bike shop?" I asked.
Henri pointed somewhere to the right. I could see no sign of a town or village. I looked at him quizzically but he continued looking straight ahead, chewing the stem of a long blade of grass. Then all of a sudden he turned off the road through a gap in the stone wall.
"Faite atencion!" he grunted, pointing at a strand of rusty barbed wire as we crossed a small ditch.
The dog jumped over the fence in a practiced manner and ran off ahead, looking back to check his master was following. Lifting the bike over first, I struggled to clamber across – surprised at Henri's reluctance to help.

After about a half a mile, walking through copses and along the edge of a ragged field of vines, we arrived at a small hamlet. An old woman seemed to be doing washing at a large stone font with constantly running water. She turned and stared, waving to Henri and saying something about the 'bicyclette'. Henri doffed his cap in a somewhat eccentric manner and boomed,
"Encore salvateur des idiot Anglais, putain!"
The woman laughed, shaking her head and continued with her laundry.
Henri shoved at a heavy old door and allowed the dog to enter a stone village house. Following Henri inside I instantly felt relief from the cool air.
Looking about me I saw a tall, ancient building that seemed to be in the process of reconstruction. At our feet was an earth floor littered with various unloved implements for construction, some mixed concrete in a small tin bath that had gone hard with a shovel stuck fast in it and a few piles of tiles. Quite a few were broken. There was a lot of other junk lying around covered in cobwebs and the remains of an old Citroen 2CV which several mangey cats seemed to have made their home. I looked up. There were no floors. Light was coming from the roof. Hardly surprising since much of it was missing. Fixed to the wall one floor up was the remains of an old kitchen, but no floor to stand on. Instead there was a builder's ladder, up which Henri was now climbing. Reaching the top he stretched one foot across to steady himself against a protruding stone and then filled a kettle from a tap on the wall. I watched, fascinated. Placing the kettle on a small makeshift shelf fixed to the stone wall he plugged it in before placing teabags into two filthy mugs with broken handles.

"Tea pour moi, conard!" (for those unfamiliar with French slang - 'conard' means asshole)
The voice had come from somewhere above. A woman's voice I thought, but gruff. She sounded annoyed. Perhaps we had interrupted her work, I wondered?
Tilting my head back I could see some kind of makeshift wooden platform. It was hanging from the rafters of the roof, attached at the corners by some rough old ropes. As I looked I saw a round face and straggly hair peering down at me.
"Bonjour monsieur," she said, embarrassed, "pardon!"
I greeted her politely and averted my stare as she sat up; more rotund than voluptuous, and naked.
"Vien Cecile!" called Henri, climbing back up the ladder to make the tea.
As I watched Henri deftly walk front-ways down the long ladder, carrying three cups of tea without spilling any, a question occurred to me. How was Cecile going to get down from that platform? Cautiously I looked up. I was just in time to catch a glimpse of a large girl in an Indian-print sarong climbing out onto the rooftop.
"Where's she going?" I said, fearful that this half asleep barefoot girl would slip and fall.
"Peuff, elles arrive toutes suite," he mumbled, slurping his tea in an exaggerated manner.

A few minutes later the front door was pushed open and in came Cecile.
"Il et un eschelle en bar." I was not sure what an eschelle was but seeing my confusion she translated into English. Her English was excellent. Better than Henri's in fact. Yes, the house was in a terrace, she explained, but by swinging a ladder down onto their neighbour's balcony they could then climb down, then down a tree, climb over nextdoor's garden wall and come around via the alley. I was astounded. Their neighbours were less than impressed, apparently.

"So you do that every night and every morning?" I asked.
"Yes, or sometimes in the afternoon too when this conard can be bothered to do the sex with me!"
What more surprises did this young woman have in store, I wondered?
"Er, I don't suppose I could use the toilet?" I asked. "You do have a toilet?"
"Mais oui, of course," said Cecile, "vien avec moi, cheri."
Cecile beckoned me over towards the back of the space, where there seemed to be a stack of old floorboards. As I passed she squeezed my bottom and giggled. On the boards I saw a bucket with a lid.
"Pull that curtain across if you like," she said. "Pour les Anglais. Henri put it up especially for visitors. There's paper on a box there if you need it."
I squirmed, wishing I had gone somewhere along the track on our way here. I didn't pull the curtain across, hoping to impress her with my laisse faire attitude. As it was I found myself unable to pee and returned looking most embarrassed, I'm sure.

Sitting on boxes and a bucket to drink our tea I learned that Henri and Cecile had lived in the house for three years, having bought it for only two thousand pounds. I was surprised to hear that they had been working on it all that time.
"We get distracted easily," sniggered Cecile, pulling her sarong up to cover more of her heavy bosom. Her skin was tanned, oily and covered in mosquito bites – or flea bites perhaps? The place and the pair of them smelled rather unsavoury, but hardly surprising given the lack of facilities.

"So where do you keep stuff – you know food, clothes, that kind of thing?" I asked, barely able to mask the amusement in my voice.

"Poeff, we only buy what we eat for one day," said Cecile. "If we have money. We have no congelateur! Clothes, we have only this what we wear now. We don't l'argent, but we like le... the minimalism, no Henri?"
"Oui, je prefer la vie simple com ca," agreed Henri. "Moins de stress."

The more Cecile and Henri told me of their life here, the more intrigued I became. They seemed to know few people in the area.
"We avoid other English," said Henri, "Conard! This is my island. Cecile is invited to my island, bien sur. You can visit too, mon ami, because you are cyclist, mais les autres, non! I prefer to look at people on the other shore, tu comprende?

I did understand, yes. But it seemed a pitiful existence. Was there no way to earn money here?

"Henri sometimes repairs the old cars to sell," but the locals don't like to give him things. They are not generous here, les conard. Except the gitanes – the gypsies who live in the woods. They make great absinthe. Fort! They like us so we buy from them and sell to bars in Montpellier and Beziers. Henri goes one time par month but the car is broken too much now."
Cecile pointed to the derelict 2CV. Surely this can't have worked for years, I thought? It was becoming clear that the two were pretty crazy. Driven mad by absinthe I guessed.

In amongst the cobweb-covered junk in Henri and Cecile's ruined abode, Henri uncovered a few antiquated bicycles and some rusty old tools. Although one bike had a corroded old chain on it, he did not manage to find a chain tool. The chain was in a far worse state than mine, but Henri insisted he could fix it. Using a file, worn smooth with age, and a large lump-hammer (almost the sum of his toolkit, it seemed) he began hammering and filing on the step outside. An elderly woman poked her head out of some shuttered windows and muttered a few disdainful words. Clearly his hammering was disturbing her afternoon sleep. He looked up, then continued.
"Putain!" he muttered.

Somehow Henri managed to spend two inefficient days butchering the chain before giving up. I could see now why they got nothing done here. During this time I had raked away the cat mess, pitched my tent on the earth floor of his house and treated them to bread, cheese, tomatoes and cheap wine from the nearby village shop. Cecile, when intoxicated, began propositioning me outrageously. I think I managed to decline without offending her.

"Don't tell her you are staying with us," Cecile had said, when I went to the shop. "She'll ask you to pay the bill before she lets you have anything."

"There's an old conard down the road who has asked me to help him lift his 2CV engine out and put in one out of his brother's old motorbike," said Henri on the third morning. "If you help me we might get paid enough to buy you a new chain in town."
"What? There's a bike shop in a town near here!" I coughed.
"Bien sur mon brave!" said Henri, theatrically."
Bending forward he picked a flea off the dog. He put it into his mouth and bit it in two. I was exasperated. All this time there was a bike shop nearby. I could have gone there by bus, or hitch-hiked rather than have got caught up in Henri and Cecile's chaotic life.

I had never lifted an engine out of a car before. In most cases, I realised, it is done with a large winch and block and tackle. Not with Henri it wasn't. First we took off the panels (fortunately on a 2CV they unbolt), then we unbolted the rusty engine mountings. Using an old jumper, Henri pulled it under the block and instructed me to get hold of one sleeve, while he took hold of the other. We heaved at it and bashed it for about fifteen minutes with a big hammer to loosen the rust. Eventually it moved. Quickly as we heaved on the jumper sleeves, the owner shoved in a lump of wood and a tiny car jack. In this manner we raised the lump until we could get hold of a cylinder head each and lift it out. It was not easy. A 600cc engine is tiny for a car but it was still heavy. My back creaked under the strain. There was a lot of swearing but we got it out. After being fed beer and saucisson by the old man's wife, we returned and lifted the adapted motorbike engine into place.

Fortunately the old man was so pleased with his newly functioning 2CV, he offered to drive me into town to buy my new bicycle chain. Desperate now to get away from the bizarre living conditions at Henri and Cecile's place, I agreed to go immediately.
It was a successful trip into town. I found a decent quality chain of the right type and the old guy took me to his favourite cafe for a beer. We met some of his cronies and there was much slapping of backs. It was around 4pm by the time we got back. I went straight around to Henri and Cecile's hoping to fit my chain and get back on the road. Arriving at the house, however, I found a fracas going on in the street. Unsure what this was about, I hung around at the corner, from where I could hear most of what was being said. Surprisingly the argument was entirely in English. A well dressed elderly man in a safari suit and a beige fedora hat seemed to be remonstrating with Henri. I could hear the dog barking inside and Cecile shouting "Taire toi," at him.

"I mean damn it all Henry, you know you were always her favourite. It's not like anybody's asking you to come back and join the family law firm or run for parliament, just to be around. We accept that you want to live your life differently, boy, of course we bloody do. There's the cottage now your aunt's gone – what's wrong with moving in there?"
"You're wasting you time Pa," said Henri, his head hanging, "I'm happy here on my island. I have all I want."
"What, Cecile? Alright for Christ's sake, you can bring Cecile! Fortunately you're mother's got over the business with uncle Timothy. Really, she can come too... I assume she does have some clothes? Come on old boy, I'll help you with your things, there's room in the Bentley."
"Will you listen for once, old man, it's not happening," exploded Henri.
"Oh bloody hell Henry, this really has to stop now, really! Do you have any idea what it's like for me? Do you have the faintest notion how it will be for me if I arrive back in Winchester without you?
Your mother's talked to a chap at that place she goes. He says he can help. Plenty of young fellas like you go through it, he says. They can treat it now. That's what he told your mother."

I wandered over to the font trying to look nonchalant.

"Listen I bloody mean it this time," I heard Henri say. "Don't make me get the gun. I have one you know. Anyway, I have to go, I've got a friend staying," said Henri, nodding towards me.

Turning his head the father looked over his shoulder at me. His disparaging look said enough. Perhaps he thought perhaps I was the cause of the problem? He walked over towards me as I put my hands under the running water and took a drink.

"Now look here old chap, it's not that I've any axe to grind with you, but my boy's sick, you see. He's a danger to himself and to others. He has a violent temper that boils over at any time without warning, do you see? Not just the normal bad temper, mind you – oh no! He was in a hospital for that kind of thing but he got out and now he's here with a gun and this bloody whore of his. The consequences don't bear thinking about. Now I don't begrudge him a good time, not me, but I need to get him back home where he can be helped, before he harms someone else. Now look, I'm a man of some means. If you could see your way to persuading him to come with me, I'd be very appreciative. Of course I would. I'm sure you could do with a leg-up. I think we understand one another, don't we?" He patted me on the shoulder.

"I'm afraid I can't help you," I said. I hardly know him. Really! I mean until just a minute ago I thought he was French."

"French!" said the man, puce in the face, "I should bloody say not!"

At the sound of Henri's door being pulled shut, the man turned and made his way up the street towards a large car, which was partly blocking the street. A rather irritated looking man was out of his van, looking around it. I went to Henri's door.

"Um, Henri, I wonder if I could get my stuff!" I called. "It's me, Mark."

Henri could be heard removing something from behind the door. I stepped aside for a moment, hoping it wasn't the gun.

"He's gone," I said, "his car was blocking the road."

"Oh he'll be back, don't you worry," said Henri, pulling open the door. "Last time dear old Lord Conard, as Cecile calls him, came every day for a week. Afraid to go home without me."

Cycling downhill on my way south a little while later, I passed the Bentley coming the other way. I was just considering whether to wave when I noticed a pair of police cars behind him. There were large men in the backs of the cars, dressed in black with rifles and helmets – they didn't look like they were out to make a social call.

"Poor Henri," I muttered to myself.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

New Book Of Travel Stories

The Truth In The Lie
After what seemed like an age spent in the editing stage, The Truth In The Lie was finally launched. It was a frustrating six months but looking at it now, it seems well worth the effort. I am so pleased with the cover. The road trip story behind the cover photo is a fascinating one and will be the subject of a future blog post on its own. The editing of the stories was the work of my very literary eldest daughter, as described in the previous blog. She did a brilliant job; better than I could ever have imagined. In fact I would say she's a natural.

Tales Of A Travelling Storyteller
The stories in this new book are all related in some way to travel. Some are pure 'travellers tales' while one or two are simply set in locations where I have spent time travelling. Many of them though, are stories I have told to people while I have been on the road, or when I returned home. They have developed over the years as a result of the telling.

Talking to girls in a shanty village - Cochin, Kerala, Southern India

The book has been out barely a day and already I am receiving feedback. Some people are fast readers. Thankfully that feedback has been good. As with my last book of short stories, people have commented upon the authenticity of the characters - or should I say queried them:

"Is that guy in Red Card based on the footballer you used to know in Ireland?"
"Be honest Mark, the Dottie in Dottie's Diary is based upon my friend Jo, isn't it?"
"I hope the cafe in All In Good Time is not my cafe, Mark. I could lose a lot of customers!"
"Mark, I read your book. Tell me, the story Traffic... how the hell did you know that about me?"

and most worrying of all –

"There seem to be several characters based upon you, who are all preoccupied with their mortality."

Traffic: Story of a naive English art dealer in Africa

The Commuter: 
A story of what an exhausted man sees from a train window at night

The Title
The title, The Truth In The Lie, was chosen because of the number of times I have been asked whether my stories are based upon truth. It seems obvious to me that every fictional story is based upon truth. Personal truths from past experiences or those one has heard of, and 'great truths'. Great truths may never have actually happened, yet they are universal truths of life understood by all.

Story Outlines
My Only Friend – An elderly widow in Lisbon is estranged from her son who prefers to live in squalor and idleness since the death of the father he idolised.

A Minor Distraction – A rich American man on a train in Africa tries to tempt a poor young girl into his carriage while stopped at a wilderness station. The tragedy that ensues hardly seems to touch him.

Greta – A pair of travellers arrive in a rural Hungarian hotel where all is not what it should be. They are shown to their room by a young woman who seems something of an automaton. 

All In Good Time – A woman who runs a cafe is told she is being watched by the security forces. It seems unlikely until one of her staff disappears under strange circumstances.

Masaji – A father and son attempt to escape from China on foot after their visa runs out. 

In The Line Of Fire – A man in a war zone is attacked and hounded by those he once regarded as friends. They seem unwilling to allow him to leave the area, however.

The Crossing – Exhausted after several days at work, a man begins to experience strange occurrences while driving home through a long road tunnel.

Traffic – An art dealer makes his first trip to Africa and almost immediately becomes the victim of not one but two carefully engineered scams – or so it seems. 

River Witch – A young man camps by a river and is shocked to see a naked young woman float past as he lies in bed enjoying the early morning sun. How could he not go after her?

Red Card – Once a promising professional footballer, Pat Carmichael becomes an alcoholic loser after he suffers a crippling injury. Finally after two years of depression he picks himself up.

The Commuter – Travelling home on his daily commuter train, David is drawn to something strange he sees in the dark while the train is stopped. What he sees transfixes him.

Dottie’s Diary – Two women hill-climbing in Wales take shelter in a stone barn. Soon they are joined by a wealthy local woman who invites them home where they meet her husband. He is familiar to one of them. 

Burned On Him – A rather reserved family meet for a weekend at the parents' house where a revelation by one sister causes an argument and shocking consequences.

The ‘F’ Word – A conversation overheard on a train with three children, their mother and her friend. 

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang – Surreal happenings when a group of friends meet at their regular breakfast cafe by a busy main road. 

To find the book and to discover the characters for yourself you should click the link to Amazon or Smashwords below or in the right-hand margin of this blog. The book is currently priced from $1.99 or £1.27

Cover photo by Fumiko Jin - Taken in Hokkaido, Northern Japan. 
N.B. The story behind the photograph is revealed in a later blog - Hokkaido Snowstorm

The Truth In The Lie - Smashwords (all e-book formats)
The Truth In The Lie - Amazon UK 
The Truth In The Lie - 
(N.B. Now available as a paperback via Amazon)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Gap Year Travel

Why Should Kids Have All The Fun?

Many of us parents now find ourselves talking to teenage kids about what they will do on their gap year. So excited was my youngest daughter at 13, to see my son set off to cycle across the world, that she immediately began planning her own pre-university adventure. I began to take notice; and there was no doubt about it, the majority of teenagers now see it as an issue of not if they will have a gap year, but when - perhaps along with who will pay for it. For many it comes a close second to completing a university entrance form (UCAS in the UK). I don't begrudge them that. I do believe that a gap year can be a valuable part of a kid's education – learning the stuff they don't teach you in school. Useful stuff like how other people live and how lucky we are to have what we have. Learning how to speak other languages or even how to better communicate with people who do speak our own tongue. They can learn a lot. Learning where other places are in the world and what kinds of people live there. Learning how to get out of trouble and how to avoid it. Learning how to seek out a bargain or the best quality in things with limited funds. Learning the value of a good pair of boots, a comfortable bed and a wholesome meal. Why kids don't learn most of these things at school or at home anymore I don't know, but I won't get going on that one.

So basically then, a gap year is a great idea, even if you can't get your parents to pay for it and it has to involve work (actually I think it can sometimes be better that way). But what about those of us who left school before gap years were thought of? Well in fact there were gap years for the well-off around the turn of the 19th century and before – they were know as The Grand Tour – but I doubt anyone reading this will be that old. I have to say that was my feeling when my kids started to talk about gap years. "I wouldn't have minded having one of those myself!"

Grown-up Gap Years?
And why not? Sure it's great if you can go off and learn about the world before you embark upon a life of adulthood. There's no doubt in my mind that travel or working abroad will make a young person far more employable in the world of work and far better parents too, when the time comes. But that is not to say that this is the only way. There are a great many reasons for taking an extended break from work later on in life. Here are a few:

1. You didn't get one when you finished school so you feel you missed out, compared to others.

2. Your experience of the world is limited so you feel unable to share conversations with friends or your own children and grandchildren.

3. You are bored with the same old living and working environments.

4. You are stressed after years of work and have seen others getting sick from overwork.

5. You need fresh impetus in your life - both privately and in your work. A fresh look at things. An extended trip away might help you to find a new direction.

6. Your job has ended and you don't know what to do next. You need to clear your head – look at things from a distance.

7. You have retired and you want to catch up on things you've missed out on.

8. You find yourself single again and want to meet some different people in new environments that might spark unexpected friendships, or even a romance.

9. You are tired of short, expensive package holidays and want to go overland travelling, like you did when you were young. Backpacking and staying in hostels.

10. You want to have some adventures before it's too late. Before you are too old or unfit to enjoy it.

I did not necessarily think I needed an adult gap year. At 42 I had been running my own successful consultancy business for 3 years. Before that I had had several careers and had lived in many other countries. I had taken lots of breaks from work to go overland travelling before my children wore born, so I did not feel deprived. But I was working too hard. My son was 10yrs old and just getting to the age where we could go off on little adventures together – cycling, hiking and camping, mainly. It was after our first cycle / camping trip together one freezing English December, that Sam asked me if I would take a year off work when he finished school.
"What for?" I asked him.
"Well, I wondered if you'd cycle to Japan with me," he replied, nonchalantly.
8 years later we set off. But not before I had gone through a good deal of worry, trying to find someone to run my business while I was away.

As I have said, I did not need a gap year in the same way that other parents undoubtedly do. Or at least I didn't think I did. But the truth was I was overworked. Stressed. I had begun to focus only on work, with my family-life coming a poor second. I was there to provide for my family, I told myself. Someone had to pay for it all! But what I discovered over the next eight years, while I prepared for that gap year (actually I only started taking it seriously as a prospect about three years before we went), was that my family didn't want me to work so hard. My kids just wanted more time with me. My wife too, I think. She certainly didn't want to see me get a heart attack – and that was probably the way I was heading. So as I said, finding someone to run my business was a tough challenge just in order to escort Sam on a cycle trip from Ireland to Japan, but once we set off I realised something important. I didn't care about not earning so much money for a year. I didn't even care if I came home to find my business had folded. I had enough money for the trip and an adequate house. Why did I need more? My wife told me I should become a sculptor upon my return, since that is what I love doing. But the absence of phone calls, letters on the mat, bills, toilet cisterns needing mending or light bulbs changing – it was a revelation. I felt free in a way I almost never had. Not as an adult anyway. I felt reborn and I had hardly even been away for three days!

Why had I not done this before, I asked myself? I think because it never seemed possible. Too expensive. Too much time away. Perhaps it would have seemed irresponsible? My wife had certainly helped by telling me it was okay to do it. Good to do it, in fact. "You're allowed to enjoy it," she said.
But in the main, it happened because my son asked me to do it. Looking back, I can see that otherwise I probably would not have taken a break at all. Most likely I'd have kept driving myself to make my business evermore profitable, until I got sick or had an accident. Then I would have taken a break. Except I would never have been able to cycle 10,000 gruelling miles with an 18yr old. Not after a heart attack or cancer. No, I have my son to thank for my health, my peace of mind and a great later life.

Incidentally, I did not come home to find my business had folded. I found my new business partner had increased business by 45%. He told me he was happy continuing to run it largely without me. As a result I sat down to with my son to write a book about our experience (more about the trip and the book on my cycle travel blog) which subsequently became an Amazon bestseller. I never imagined myself becoming a writer or giving motivational talks to businesspeople, but I can see now that was my destiny. It's a life that fits me well, but I would probably never have achieved it if I had resisted taking those ten months off work to go with my son on his gap year. You will be unsurprised to hear that the trip did wonders for our father-son relationship (also an issue covered in the book).

Video of us cycling through 'The High Range of Travancore,' Munar, India. Click arrow.

My gap year was an adventure trip, covering 10,000 miles from the west coast of Ireland, across Europe, through Turkey, Iran, India, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and Korea and finally ending in Tokyo. But not all gap year trips need to be this way. I had an older friend in Japan who I taught English to when I was 25. He was a senior manager of a major Japanese trading company. An important and well paid job, but one he found rather mundane. Outside of work he had an interest in wild flowers and also watercolour painting. When he retired, he took a trip to a number of countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and China – seeking out unusual indigenous wild flowers and painting them. This eventually brought him to the attention of an international botanical society who asked him to submit some of his work. Over time it led to his becoming an honorary fellow of the society, giving talks all over the world. He had never imagined he could do such a thing. Unfortunately he died a couple of years ago. He told me he felt fulfilled by his post-retirement activities but wished he might have taken that first trip when he was a little younger. Who knows how that might have changed his life?

To find out more about my adult gap year, try reading the book about the trip, Long Road Hard Lessons. You will find links to the book in the right hand margin of this blog, or just enter the title of the book into your local amazon search box. You can also search for other books by Mark Swain or see other blogs via the links at the top of this blog.
Thanks for reading – and remember to make the most of your life. 

Sunday, 2 March 2014

The Price You Pay

People I Have Met On The Road - 1

Homeless Cyclist
Most of my encounters with other cyclists are happy ones but a meeting with a cyclist last week left me with very mixed feelings.
Due to a break in the wet and stormy weather of the past three months, my cycle ride from my home in Canterbury (UK) the other day was the first since November.

It was great to be back on the bike, breathing country air, instead of driving around in a tin box and peering through a (wet) glass screen. The sun shone on me all the way to the coast at Whitstable and astounded me by shining the rest of the day. It cheered me up no end. I remarked upon this uplift in my mood when I saw another cyclist coming out of the bakers shop in the High Street. I had already noticed his bike parked outside and seen by the luggage that it was the mount of a long-distance cyclist. I could also see from plastic bags encasing his luggage that the rider had been struggling with the incessant rain.

"It hasn't been great weather for cycling, mate," I said as he arrived, pasty in hand. "Where have you ridden from?"

"Oh, just Dover today," he replied, shyly.

He sounded American but having embarrassed myself too many times before with this, I overcompensated.

"You a Canadian then?" I said.

"What? Oh no I'm from Montana – North America." His accent was now garbled – skewed by a mouth-full of pasty.

"So where were you before Dover?" I asked.

"Oh, Europe. Holland; Belgium before that; Germany before that; France; Switzerland; Italy." He thought carefully. "Slovakia before that I think; Hungary and Bulgaria; Turkey; Armenia." He laughed. China; I've been all over."

"Where are you heading now?" I asked.

"Oh, just somewhere to sit and eat my pie."

I decided not to point out that this was a pasty, not a pie. I think the English already have a reputation with Americans for being pedantic. I told him there was a bench just along by the library. I was going that way so I walked with him. Once we arrived I sat on the bench to finish our conversation. He had asked if I was a cyclist. I told him I was and had covered some of his route when cycling with my son to Japan in 2008. He asked me a lot about this and about the father - son dynamic. I asked if he had kids. He was silent for a moment. I assumed this was due to a mouthful of pasty, but his face looked pained – I mean more pained than it already did. He had a weathered and unkempt appearance and the aroma of damp dirty clothes overpowered that of the pasty.

"I did have kids," he said quietly.

 He had stopped eating. I felt I shouldn't have asked. I waited for him to say more but it was a while before he did.

"I had two kids – a boy and a girl. We were in a car accident. I survived but they didn't."

My stomach felt like it was screwing itself into a tighter and tighter knot. What should I say? I didn't want anything I said to be cliched. I thought hard as my skin continued to tingle.

"Was your wife – I mean the kids' mother in the car?"

"We're divorced now. She works – has a pretty high powered job. I was unemployed. I had problems. Alcohol dependency." He coughed as he said the last bit and spoke the words like he was hoarse. "She called me late morning and said her mother was sick and couldn't get to school in the afternoon to collect the kids. You see, I wanted to do something good for a change. Prove I could be reliable, so I said no problem... I would be there. I was nervous though – about other parents we knew seeing me there. Looking such a state and all. So I shaved and bathed and dressed right, then at the appointed time I drove over to the school. I was so fixated on doing it right, I got there an hour early."

He sighed deeply. His hands were clasping his knees tight. I could guess what was coming, though I hoped I might be wrong.

"So, near the school there's... there's a bar. I'd never been there, but I knew it was there. I thought I'd have a coffee but for some reason when I got to the counter I found myself ordering bourbon." He ran his hands through his long greasy hair and hesitated again. "I was late getting the kids. A teacher was waiting with them. I apologised and she looked at me funny. I suppose she smelled the drink. Well I know she did, because that's what she told the police. I don't understand how I could walk away from the accident and not them. They..." There was another long pause before he spoke again. "I never saw my wife again. She made sure she didn't even see me at the court. My family was devastated of course, same as hers. They all disowned me. The divorce was a paper exercise. That was nine years ago and I've been travelling ever since. I took my bike, my passport, some clothes and the little money I had and I just went. Nine years I've been on the road. All over the world and I don't know how to stop. I only know how to keep going – keep pedalling. I don't know what's at the end – but I can guess."

"You should get some help," I said. "I mean you didn't want your kids to die. It was an accident. Alcoholism does that. Didn't they offer you any therapy after the accident?"

"I felt like a criminal," he said. "I did very nearly go to prison... They thought I'd suffered enough. I suppose I felt I didn't deserve help – still don't. The price you pay – that's what I think, the price you pay. Best for me to drink myself to death, that's what I thought afterwards. I tried, I really did, but it wouldn't happen. I don't drink now. Just stopped one day. Maybe I'll get hit by a truck?"

"You should see a doctor," I said. "Tell them what has happened to you. They'll get you some help – I could come with you to arrange for you to see a doctor?"

"Thanks," he said, "I have an old friend in London. He wrote a couple of times. Someone sent on the letters to my solicitor. That's where I'm headed – the friend. Despite what happened he still wants to see me. The only one who does. A Christian, you see. Trying to earn his ticket into heaven I suppose." He laughed for the first time. "Works with unemployed kids I think. Anyway he'll help me out. I feel more ready to be helped now."

"Maybe you should take the train to London?" I suggested. He looked in quite a bad state. "I could pay for your ticket."

"You're too kind," he said. "No I like to ride. I find it healing. It calms me. Somehow when I'm cycling everything seems kind of... pre-destined. Thanks, it's been a real help talking to someone about it. I usually keep it to myself but... I don't know why but I just felt I could tell you. Is that okay?"

"Of course it's okay," I said. "It was a privilege to hear your story. It's very sad, but perhaps it was just... I don't know, meant to happen."

I shook his hand as he got up to go.

"I'll keep a look out for you on the road," I said.
He wouldn't be hard to spot - his bike was a mobile dustbin.

Then he rode away. He had a limp. I noticed that as he walked to his bike. He even rode a bit lop-sided. I waved. I didn't even get his name, I realised.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.