From my journal:
“It’s a day of potential today. Spring is in the air; a hazy blue sky fills the cityscape horizon and it feels slightly warmer – a welcome relief from the recent cold. There is still a slight chill but, like the signs of an autumn forest, it feels like there is change afoot. It’s Saturday and the sunshine and warmer weather have brought people out onto the streets and into the parks. This is such a vibrant city – people, boats, cars, buses and trams moving about with a life of their own. I’m watching dozens of ferry boats criss-cross between the Asian and European shores, how they seem to miss each other. It all seems chaotic yet in between are big tankers piercing through the ferry traffic slowly moving between the Aegean and Black Seas. At one end of the strait is a giant bridge which spans two continents and, at the other, the minarets of the famous Blue mosque and Hagia Sophia. In between all this space is the humming vibration of the city, a life unto itself. It’s incredibly beautiful! There is something magical about Istanbul.”
I navigated my way through the narrow streets, visited incredible mosques, dined with locals in ‘shisha cafes’ and meandered through bazaars looking for rain jackets, bicycle spares and exotic fruits and spices. There were hundreds of men fishing on the Galata Bridge, kebab shops open till all hours and people moving about in endless streams. The city seemed to swallow me, if only for a while. After a brief stay, I cycled out of the city on a tyre that was all but straight and only one front brake. The whole time I’d been in Istanbul, caught in her captivating charm, it never occurred to me that I should probably do something about that back wheel until I was on the road again and it was too late.
I rode along the Bosphorus (a strategic passage between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea) which was full of tankers coming and going. Looking from the surrounding hills, I saw ships anchored waiting for their turn to enter the passage, while others just arrived in queue. I had no map until Bulgaria and became hopelessly lost by the afternoon. How could I get lost along a narrow isthmus, or so I thought. All I had to do was head west … hell, I could follow the sun, I told myself. I had the foresight to draw a small mud map of the towns to the border but, because I’d seemingly picked the towns that hardly anyone had heard of, it didn’t help at all. So I spent the first two days in a maze, most likely a maze resembling concentric circles which I seemed to be riding in. I took a wrong turn to the Black Sea twice, met a really kind gentleman who bought me a tea, stopped to chat with some kids about my journey near a small school, came across a magnificent 600 meter five storey high Byzantine aquaduct and ended up cycling through a beautiful national forest for two days! It was frustrating, but a feeling I had to let go of and, when I eventually did surrender to the fact that I was hopelessly lost and there was little else to do but accept the situation, I decided I might as well enjoy it, finding an incredible and unexpected ease. It turned out to be one of the many insightful experiences of the trip so far.
In a little less than a week I found the border crossing. The back roads of Bulgaria are the sort of quiet places I dreamt about while cycling through India. It was rural; there was hardly any traffic and plenty of forest to feel at home in. Horses and carts were almost as popular as cars and life in the beautiful scenic villages was slow and steady. Just about every house had a small vegetable plot and was unique in some way. A few were more modern, but most were of an older generation that had time, skill and creativity – for no two homes were the same. I imagined every family building their own house, each to their own creative style. They definitely appeared sturdy and had a feeling of generations having lived within their walls.
Most mornings I woke to the sound of spring song birds dancing within the thick forest. The sound was so delicate and, in my waking state, it was hard for me to distinguish where the sleep ended and I was conscious of being awake. The air was still cold and I felt spring shaking off the bitter winter which had just passed. I listened to the birds for about half an hour before slowly opening my eyes and finding the strength to pull myself out of a warm and cosy sleeping bag. I had the whole summer to look forward to cycling across Europe. I wasn’t even sure which way I would go: through the Balkans to Italy and Southern Europe, through the centre towards England or north to Scandinavia. For the moment I was content on spending some time catching up with old friends.
After the last year cycling while struggling with my health, I decided on a new approach -to actually look after myself – radical, huh? I know this sounds trite, but actually it involved a lot of, … well, the best word I could use to describe it would be ‘reprogramming’. Something had to change inside because clearly what I (and the numerous doctors I went to see) was doing wasn’t making it any better. Old thought patterns had to go and so I learned to basically move slower. When I had the smallest thirst I stopped to drink. When I was slightly hungry I stopped to eat. It didn’t matter if I’d just eaten, just drank or just rested. I didn’t push myself harder that my body felt was right (which in the beginning took an enormous amount of awareness to monitor). I decided not to try and be anywhere I physically or mentally wasn’t, nor did I worry about how long it took to get anywhere. When I woke up and didn’t feel like cycling, I didn’t, sometimes not getting out of bed until lunchtime. After I ate, I stopped to relax for usually about an hour allowing my body the time and energy to digest. I also switched to a simple almost completely vegan diet, trying to source organic food from farmers on the side of the road and old grandmas out of their backyard gardens. I slowed down in the totality of my physical and mental space. To nobody’s surprise but myself, I felt a lot better for it. Perhaps, most importantly, I tried not to judge myself for anything I thought I needed or didn’t. Perhaps this was the beginning of the change I knew in my heart was needed.
I cycled through days of headwinds and fleeting rain to arrive in Bucharest where I met an old friend Paul, who I hadn’t seen in almost six years. We had studied engineering together in Leeds, England and spent a large portion of that time in the pub with pint in hand. Having greeted me with open arms and a large hug, I knew that I’d found somewhere I could rest a while. It was a small cosy apartment in the centre of Bucharest, close to shops, commercial centres, the embassies and a good bicycle shop! I felt very welcomed sleeping on a fold out mattress in the living room sharing our day to day lives in such close proximity. I met his soon-to-be wife, Isabel and instantly took a liking to her – he the analytical engineer and she the empathetic psychologist – I knew she was good for him and I was really happy for them both! I gave my opinion on cakes, wedding bands and invites – about which I knew absolutely nothing. I spent a lot of the time in the kitchen, relishing all the modern conveniences available, cooking fresh pizza, pasta and roast dinners! I was looking forward to a Romanian wedding in September.