My love/hate affair with long-term long-distance nomadic cycling.
I hate cycling but I also love it and now I live it. The human brain is a sea of contradictions and some of those accumulate into addiction. For me bike packing is one of those extreme contradictions and life long addictions. Since the winter of 2017 Albert and I have been criss crossing Europe on second hand bicycles carrying our whole lives with us, packed into a couple of tiny panniers. I have always cycled but bike packing is a whole other level.
I used to live in Manchester and was a cycling postperson, carrying 16kg post bags in my large front basket, completing a 12 mile round every day. This is the closest I got to the strains of bike packing. When I think back now to how difficult I found that job, I laugh… it was nothing compared to having a bike as your only transport as well as your complete home.
When your life is cycling it becomes extremely basic. Every day your thoughts are constant and repetitive – obtain clean water, find a safe secret spot to wild camp and food. Always food. Thinking about what you will eat for your next meal is a beautiful daydream that will keep you pedalling no matter how far it is to the next village/town/city or even to the tiniest of basic countryside shops… if you’re really desperate.
I have fond/not so fond memories of cycling one morning for 20km to get out of the hectic morning traffic of Linz before finding a quiet spot to eat breakfast or stopping at a really manky corner shop in the middle of nowhere for late lunch stuff because the next town was another hours cycle away.
Going uphill is a constant struggle for me, my breath seems to disappear, my inhales become short and rapid, I feel overly hot and constricted, my muscles fatigue. A great hardship every.. single.. time. You might think I must at least enjoy the other side of that uphill? But freewheeling down 1200m is always a bit scary. The trick is to let go… but with complete control – just your everyday cycling paradox. Of course this sort of downhill means you can cover 25km in 30 minutes. Get in!
Even showering takes a back seat when you reduce your life down to the basic necessities. Imagine, if you can, not showering for 5 days, cycling 40-60km a day in all weathers. How amazingly good will a shower feel to you on that 6th day? This is bike packing as I know it. Living this way always boils life down to its simplest point. And you learn to surrender your full being to that (full) life.
Nowadays it is really really difficult for me to understand why people might shower every day. How wasteful this is and how extravagant. I find myself confused by people who have so much in their lives, so much stuff, so much money, so many exciting opportunities. How are they so dissatisfied? How are they always impatient or unhappy or looking for more? Why is life so serious, so competitive, so nonsense? But of course I do understand because I used to be caught in the same consumerist culture and not even that long ago….
We spent the last 9 months in the UK and for the first 6 months I resisted the tempation to buy ‘stuff’ but then we moved to Pembrokeshire and I got a shitty job as a golf club cleaner, something in my resolve broke. I felt I deserved ‘things’ because I was working hard and I hated the job. I told myself I needed this or that and that when we got on our bikes again I wouldn’t be able to afford any such luxuries. Now, I thought, is the only time I can get all the things I dream of.
Of course I didn’t need any of it and I didn’t bring even half of what I bought with me. Life on a bicycle means severely limited space and you priortise essentials such as a sleeping bag or rain jacket over that pretty but pretty useless skirt you just bought. And the fact is that the world provides me with what I need without the use of money. I found a beautiful cosy fleece lined hat when we were working as tent erectors at Green Man Festival. I found a pair of comfy jogging bottoms soon after we arrived in Sarajevo. I found a pair of bright pink shorts lying in the rain on a pavement. Exactly what I would look for to buy.
The world looks after you, it gives you everything you need but not necessarily everything you want. And that is exactly how life should be. If I just had everything I wanted then I wouldn’t take care of any single one of those things, but when you only have exactly what you need then you care for all those precious things.
But the thing is when I’m not part of consumerist culture then it doesn’t affect me so much. I’ve noticed my incessant craving for clothes gently ebb away and be replaced with an unconditional love for the two cats, Pekka and Ellis, we look after here in Bosnia. By a pure love for the simple food we have here as more than just a giver of energy but that brings love, care and creativity to the table. By regarding the changing seasons, feeling the cold in my bones and respecting the forces of nature. Even just fully appreciating that I have a proper bed to sleep in instead of being in a tent. No ‘stuff’ or ‘things’ could replace any one of those. Because they are all life giving, they do not take life from me like my addiction does.
And actually I have everything I need and more. Don’t we all have everything we need? And more? How can I then reconcile these two parts of myself? The unsatisfied easily seduced me and the basic me cleansed of those wanton wants?
How is it possible to live in this modern world and not be affected by it? Not be affected by media and advertising and mass individualism? How can we all get back to our wild, raw selves? Do we all need to cycle/walk/hitch the world (or a part of it) to achieve this simplicity? This slowness and care and awareness of the life and lives around us. To see the changing seasons and revere the ever metamorphosising weather and how it can drastically affect us (instant happiness at a glimpse of sun or a cruel wind that can totally shake us), show us awe and respect, show us the insignificance of being a mere human.
Recently these thoughts were really cemented into my being. Albert and I spent the night couchsurfing in Sarajevo. The guy, Jon* we stayed with had an open door policy and also took in refugees. We met refugees from Iraq and Morocco. They had absolutely nothing – just one small bag each. I started to think. How many people have to flee their home? How many want to? I left my home of my own choice and I know that I can go back. This freedom is something a refugee has taken from them.
In the moment of being in Jon’s flat I felt like what Jon was doing was totally normal. But later I realised how rare he was. How many people would allow strangers in their home and share absolutely everything with them? Not many. We later found out that the other residents in Jon’s block of flats were unhappy that he was helping refugees and that he was now in danger of eviction. And Bosnia is a country that not so long ago were in the midst of a complicated war, many fleeing their homes with nothing – not even documents that said they existed. What happens if you don’t have the piece of paper which says that you exist? And then I mull over this complicated moral question – would a person persecuted by war in the past feel differently about refugees in their country in the present if someone had simply opened their door to them?
A week after our experience with Jon I am still thinking of the complications of being human. How individualised we have become, how the sense of community and sharing has been taken from us. How we have been totally brain washed by people we cannot see. How we have been taught to blame each other instead of those who really instigate our poverty and unhappiness. How one person in the city of Sarajevo can change countless lives just by opening his door.
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