“Patience is the key to paradise”
– Turkish Proverb
Patience may be a virtue but it is not one I am overly familiar with. Queueing and people who faff have the tendency to make me rage. I don’t like lie-ins and sometimes I wish people who walk too slowly in the street would be very promptly removed from society altogether. During my bike ride I always get riled if a problem occurs and I have to spend an extra day somewhere to sort it out. Impatience doesn’t seem like a personality trait very compatible with the life of a cycle tourer but actually when travelling by bicycle you get quickly used to the pace. I do suffer spells of boredom at times but as I ride I occupy my mind with many things. I re-live days in my past, I plan for the future and I daydream about the road ahead. I expected to cross Europe and reach Istanbul in four months, I have made it in three but despite this I have taken the roads less travelled en route. You could, if you wanted, cycle along dual carriage ways and make the journey even faster. Nevertheless cycling around the world can highlight the drawbacks of an impatient disposition and I have had to constantly strive to resist my inherent impetuous nature. I tell myself to stop trying to break my top speed on the downhills, just appreciate the rolling vista. In fact try to ignore the cycle computer altogether. Camp earlier. Look around more. Eat slower. Stop arranging ambitious rendez-vous on travel networking websites and then rushing to get there. I don’t need deadlines in my life. There is always time for a good photo and to write in my journal. Always take the route marked out as scenic on the map regardless of altitude or terrain and every so often cycle somewhere just because it has a funny sounding place name on the map.
I am still encountering the odd malicious mutt and I thank you for the myriad of suggestions of tactics to solve the problem put forward after my last post. I particularly liked Michael’s idea of improvising a handlebar mounted flamethrower using WD40 and a brake cable. Michael you have demonstrated intimate knowledge of how to construct a homemade explosive device and I am therefore slightly worried about you and whichever dissident militia you have become associated with. I have however stumbled upon not so much a weapon but perhaps a partial solution in the form of Motown. I have been cycling along buoyantly whilst listening to my IPOD and the vicious dog chase which followed just wasn’t as distressing. In the future I will reach for my headphones and put my faith in Marvin Gaye getting me through the ordeal.
On the road through Macedonia and Greece I was consumed by worry. My left knee which had swelled up in Italy had improved some but was still a real problem. I could still cycle but now I had pain walking, especially up or down stairs. I could feel a small curious mobile mass within the joint space which often got trapped causing me sudden pain. My medical sensibilities told me this was very bad news. I arrived into Thessaloniki in Greece with a plan to get some answers knowing this was not a problem I could ignore. I went to a particularly chaotic emergency department to be confronted by a overworked junior who glanced at my knee and wrote me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medicine without laying a hand on me. I unashamedly played my doctor card. I needed to get this sorted out. A more senior physician appeared and after an innocuous looking x-ray and much debate there was only one option left open to me and I bit the bullet and shelled out almost my entire monthly budget for an MRI scan of the troublesome joint and the curious lump within. After the scan the grim-faced radiologist leafed through a medical textbook and pointed at the page entitled “Osteochondritis Dissecans”. I confess I wasn’t overly familiar with the condition but I knew enough to know that this was not a term I wanted to hear.
The curious lump migrating around my knee was a piece of loose cartilage sometimes referred to as a “joint mouse”. I wondered why it had to be given such a cutesy name and decided something like “joint wraith” or “knee plague” would be more fitting terminology. Repetitive micro-trauma from my cycle ride across Europe had caused the piece of cartilage to break off the end of my femur and this rogue chunk of useless debris was now roaming free inside my knee. He pointed out the 11 millimetre lesion on the scan blunting the contour of the lower part of my femur and I stared at it in anguish and disbelief. There it was. An unequivocal abnormality. It was worse than I had anticipated and the radiologist agreed this could be a serious problem for me. He made a call to a friend, an Orthopaedic specialist with a private clinic who would see me for free out of “professional courtesy”. The Orthopaedic doctor was thorough and detailed in his questioning, clinical examination and study of the films. I instantly had faith in his judgement.
Is there any doubt as to the problem? None.
Can I continue to cycle? It will almost certainly get worse.
Do I need a keyhole surgery? Yes you do.
How long after the surgery until I can cycle again? It will be three months. I’m sorry.
Gutted. Crushed. Heartbroken. I had developed a problem which affects just 15 to 30 people per 100,000 and my dream of an unbroken journey around the world by bicycle lay in tatters. It was a punch in the stomach that wouldn’t kill me but didn’t feel like it would make me any stronger and in an instant I plummeted to my lowest ebb. Had my inpatient nature been partly to blame? Looking back, I don’t know. I have had twenty days off my bike in the first two months before my knee became sore and I felt as if I was moving at a comfortable pace.
Before I left London a few things did worry me. Perhaps I would run out of courage and would not complete the challenge. Possibly. But I was more afraid that something entirely beyond my control would prevent me from continuing. It felt like my greatest fear was coming true and so early into my trip. I have to admit my impetuous character has made it hard to resist the temptation to carry on regardless, and perhaps if I was 3 or 4 years in I would, but I realise that soon I will have little access to scans and western style health care as my route takes me next into Africa and afterwards South America. In reality I have no choice but to return home to the UK and get the problem fixed. I have contacted doctors at my previous place of work in London who have reviewed the images and agree. I will fly back from Istanbul, head down and pissed off. Three months at home feels like an eternity. After the post-op recovery and some physiotherapy I will return to Istanbul and continue my world ride.
Perhaps some think I’m being a little melodramatic and perhaps I am, but mentally preparing myself to leave home for five years was not an easy task and neither is very abruptly and prematurely having to prepare myself to return. I will now probably miss the friends I had arranged to meet in Syria, Jordon and Malawi but it’s not a life-shattering problem, not even dream-shattering, just a set back. My proposed route took me through Europe twice so my goal remains intact. The journey can still be an unbroken trip across six continents as I’d planned. If I pass through Istanbul on my way home it will also still fulfill the criteria
of a true circumnavigation of the world. But I know that these are trivial objectives. I’m not trying to break a world record.
Frustratingly although the knee becomes sore I am still able to ride, but to avoid further damage I took a flat unchallenging route to Istanbul and moved slowly, determined to at least finish my first continent. I tried what I could to eliminate the thought of the impending journey back to England from my consciousness and decided to try to decipher and learn the Greek alphabet from road signs en route. I passed through a lake district and stalks wading in the shallows looked on impassively as I weaved down the arrow straight roads trying unsuccessfully to dodge huge flurries of mosquitoes. I was due to collect my mosquito repellent in Istanbul and was therefore defenceless from the bombardment. In a cruel twist of fate the vast majority of bites I sustained were centred around my left knee. To boost my morale I decided I would take a boat from Alexandroupolis to the island of Samothraki, a verdant land where tourism has not yet taken over island life and nature predominates. I needed some time out to consolidate. The first part of my break did little to settle me. After getting on board the ship to the island we were all ordered to debark. “They think there is a bomb on board” remarked the passenger next to me with surprising nonchalance. People gathered on the tarmac giggling and laughing, there was not a sliver of alarm amongst the crowd. Another passenger informed me, with deep sincerity, that calling in a bomb scare usually happened when someone was late for the boat and needed to delay the departure. A few stragglers arrived and I wondered. The police were already there when we got off. An ambulance and fire engine soon arrived followed by a News crew. The gathered hoard were engaged in insouciant banter. The Police chatted wıth the Firemen who chatted with the Ambulance staff who chatted with the ship’s crew and the passengers talked amongst themselves. I tried to imagine what was being said and guessed it was something along the lines of “God not another bomb. Every damn Wednesday”. I chuckled at the fact that in Greece even bomb scares were treated with calm coolness.
In Samothraki I camped under a perfectly clear sky, strolled around the island, skinny dipped in river pools, clambered up to waterfalls and explored hidden coves. I regained some karma, cleared out my cluttered cranium and started to see the silver lining. Money was always a worry when planning to travel for so long and the Euro to Pound exchange rate has decimated my budget. I am very lucky that locum hospital work in London pays an hourly rate equal to a week’s living expenses in the developing world and I will take advantage of this fact after the operation when I am able. Perhaps after I set off again on my adventure I will not have to spend hours in local book shops trying to memorise sections of maps and guide books whilst feigning to consider making a purchase. Another plus is that I will now also miss most of the stiflingly hot summer in Syria, Jordon and North Africa and there is no rush to get to Patagonia as I will arrive comfortably after the winter. I will also be at home for the Football World Cup and not in the Sudanese wilderness. A small consolation at least. Slightly kinder weather, a bit more cash and a world cup on the tele… I would trade it all to continue. I don’t know if everything happens for a reason or not, but if it does at least I have some reasons.
After my short break I continued slowly to the Turkish frontier. Up until this point I had been without dilemma at the border posts and I was just contemplating this fact when I approached the Turkish border and had my first dilemma. The Greek border guards were all smiles, ‘Bravo’ and handshakes when they saw me ride up. I had grown accustomed to these pleasantries at the border. The Greek and Turkish posts were separated by a 200 metre long bridge, the start of which was manned by two soldiers holding rifles. Both very young, perhaps just teenagers, and both looked very unassuming even with their obvious armoury on display. ‘There are no bicycles allowed across the bridge. You must find another way across. I’m really sorry.’ One said despondently. I knew instantly what he meant by this other way. It was a 150 kilometre round trip. I pleaded and argued against this bizarre and irrational regulation, after all the border guards had let me through, there was virtually no traffic and the bridge was only 200 metres long. They called their commanding officer but the answer that came back was fırm and indisputable and I would not be allowed to cross. I returned to the border guards affronted and perplexed. There had obviously been some tension between the guards and the soldiers in the past because after I related the story the guards tutted and sighed and cursed the soldiers. One advised that I wait two hours, have some tea and try again when there would be new soldiers on shift. I doubted this would work. Then another piped up ‘lets smuggle him over in a truck!’. This idea was seized upon instantly and they all started tittering naughtily like school children about to play a hilarious prank on their teacher. Only five minutes later and a Greek Farmer and his wife pulled up in a truck with plenty of room in the back. There was nowhere to hide but I reasoned that it didn’t really matter and they drove me up to the bridge. Travelling by means other than by bicycle has been strictly against my religion but I told the purist in me to stop complaining, it would be 200 metres by truck or 150 kilometres by bike. I couldn’t resist waving at the soldiers as I passed by. To my surprise the once stern and obdurate senior officers on the other side of the bridge found it all very amusing and waved mirthfully as I crossed. I climbed off the truck after the bridge and cycled into Turkey to collect my first VISA. Two days later I reached Istanbul and stared across the Bosphorus to Asia with mixed emotions. Angry and upset that I could not yet continue my journey, anxious about what had befallen my knee and what lay in store at home but with one continent in the bag… a touch of pride.
In the wake of the volcanic eruption in Iceland and with European air travel in chaos I realised that even though I must return home I am stuck in Istanbul. So I made a decision… My adventure will not yet be over. I will hitch-hike back to London from Istanbul. I found somewhere safe to store my bike and most of my equipment and scribbled the words ‘Volcano Victim’
on a sign I can hold up by the roadside. I will set off this week. I have set up a new Justgiving page so people can sponsor my hitch-hike home. So far people have been immensely generous and have donated almost 10,000 pounds to the charity Merlin for my bike ride. I hope that we can raise 2000 quid for my hitch-hike home. Every penny will go to the UK medical charity Merlin.
If you want to help me make the best of a bad situation please sponsor my mini-adventure back to the UK for my surgery by visiting www.justgiving.com/bustedknee
to make a donation.
My memory flicks back to the sign I saw on my first day of cycling just outside London which read “don’t give up” and I know that a small problem like this will not get in the way. The three months I have spent on the road have flown by. I suspect the three months I will spend at home will not. But I remind myself that three months out of five years is a snip. I will be back riding as soon as I am able. This blog will continue and I hope you will still be reading. My trans-European ride has been more than magnificent and this is just a small bump in the road and another test of that elusive virtue… my patience.
So it’s one continent down and five to go. At the end of continent number one here are the Cycling The 6 European Awards… the best and the worst of the continent as I saw it…
Best food – France
How I still managed to lose weight during my Patisserie fuelled ride across France is perhaps the biggest mystery of all.
Fastest Drivers – Croatia
I often think that the little flashing green man shown walking calmly at Croatian traffic lights should be replaced by a panic stricken red faced green man diving headlong towards the curb.
Toughest cycling – The French Alps
Spectacular and challenging. It was a love and hate relationship. I will never forgive them for what they have done to my knee.
Cheapest – Albania
“Byrek” – a cheese filled pastry purchased for the equivalent of less than 20 cents a pop washed down with 1.5 litres of Albanian beer for less than a Euro. Happy days.
Best Welcome – Albania
Salutes, waves, cheers and jubilation. It felt like a homecoming.
Fiercest dogs – Rural Greece (Turkey was a close second)
Chopper stay back! No Chopper! NO CHOPPER! NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
Favourite city – Thessaloniki, Greece
I stayed in Thessaloniki for ten days. It may not be the most beautiful but Thessaloniki has lots of history, friendly locals, great food and fine weather but most of all a young energetic heart and a quick pulse. Everywhere there are raucous parties and young people cutting loose. It’s a good place to have fun and I relished hanging out in the university drinking frappes, munching copious grub in Tavernas with traditional Greek music or dancing to techno in dingy squat parties.
And of course… The statistics
Distance cycled – 5000 km (I arrived into Istanbul on 4960 km. I had an obsessive-compulsive twinge and rode around until I had clocked up a nice round number.)
Countries cycled through – 13 (UK, France, Switzerland, Monaco, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey)
Amount raised for the charity Merlin – Currently £9271. Thank you to everyone who has donated.
Accomodation – 99 nights (Slept for free for 80 of them)
Rough camped – 40
Couchsurfed (for the uninitiated CS is a travel networking website where local people put you up for free) – 32
Hostels – 18
Campsites – 2
With strangers who have invited me in – 3
With friends – 4
On my bike – not yet
Most expensive pint of Guinness – 6.80 Euro in Nice
Bike repairs – I’m one tyre, two sets of brake blocks and a chain link down
Punctures – Only one and brilliantly after just 20 km of the 5000 km outside Ashford in Kent.
Lowest temperature – Minus 19 in the Alps
Top Speed – 67 km/hr, coming into Gap, The French Alps.
Top altitude – Around 2000 metres, The Alps
Longest continuous ascent – Sea level to 1200 metres in Montenegro. 35 km of uphill riding.
Two things I lost count of – random acts of generosity from strangers and random acts of terrorism from dogs.