Friday, 13 August 2010

Chapter 1

My heart races. There is no way on earth I’d thought I would be here, not now, not ever. A trickle of sweat sweeps down my cheek winding in and out of the red bristles that come from days without a mirror or razor. Pakistan is laid out before me in all its splendor.

A country at war on two fronts. I didn’t think this was a trip for this lifetime. The question was whether it might be the end of it?

To the west lies the border with Afganistan where staying alive isn’t easy. Pakistanis can be ousted from their homes at breakfast by the Pakistani army who then proceed to blow up their dwellings in search of targets, at midday have to dive for cover narrowly avoiding misguided US missiles falling the wrong side of the Afgan border, only to be blown up at tea time by suicide bombers.

To the east is India where ever since partition sixty years ago military conflicts and territorial disputes have been rife. A country brutally cut in two by Britain, the scar is yet to heal and blood still weeps from the wound.

Looking past all this is a country shrouded in a Burka of beauty. In the south miles of golden beaches meet hot dry deserts etched with flowing rivers of life. The rich alluvial plains of the Punjab are joined by aquamarine rivers flowing from glaciers enveloped by the three highest mountain ranges in the world. Symbolising the war, violence and the power struggle taking place in Pakistan the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindu Kush all collide in a monstrosity of power and grace that puts the military powers of this earth to shame. Pakistan has so many mountains soaring above the clouds at over 6000m (18000ft) that reaching this height is not always a guarantee that they are worthy of so much as a name.

I’m balanced on two square inch pieces of rubber, my legs are spinning at one hundred revolutions per minute, the wind is tearing at the clothes that cover all my body except my face which is decorated with sparkling crystals of frost and ice.

The mountains fill my field of vision, in front, behind, left and right. They fill my every thought, my conscious and subconscious. If it wasn’t for a rough road following the valley I’d be lost, and without shelter would be dead by nightfall. One lapse in concentration on the way down could see me repeating my fall in France; but this time the drop is anything from 300ft upwards. With jagged rocks protruding from my falling place ready to impale and smash my body to pulp. My remains would probably be fought over by the numerous brown bears wolves and the rare snow leopards that frequent these mountain passes. My only company. Otherwise I’m alone.

How on earth did I find myself traveling alone on a bicycle in what the national press, media and travel organisations describe as the ‘most dangerous country in the world’? What possesses a man to enter such a country? To put his life on the line? To pit his wits against murderous conditions and men? Can one lone man survive?

To start answering these questions I need , without the help of a DeLorean DMC-12 and the Doc, to take you back in time….

I became a junior school teacher in the leafy suburbs of London in Richmond. I cycled the Thames towpath to school where I’d be greeted by thirty happy smiling faces all longing for the education I had been graced to give them. I guess I wasn’t your stereotypical teacher. I didn’t tell the kids off, I didn’t use a marker pen and a white board, didn’t dress in tweed with arm pads. I drank juice not tea, hung out in the playground not the staff room, ran in corridors, played pranks on other teachers. I was affectionately known as the “naughty kid at school”.

I would always get put in the box classroom far away from everyone else to avoid disruption. Be it throwing paint at teacher in art, dressing in helmets and harnesses and climbing trees in maths, or creating plasticine stop frame animations in science. I wanted my classroom to be alive. Not just a buzz, or a heart beat. I liked the tiles on the roof to be vibrating, some days I even liked to try and blow the roof clean off (I got into trouble for that one). I was one of the pupils and they were all teachers. Their knowledge and ideas were as valuable as mine.

A particularly confident nine year old, Lucy, used to put her hand up and say, “You’ve gone too far this time Sir,” before the head teacher bustled in looking fraught and agitated wondering what all the commotion was about. I loved it.

So when in Geography I was struggling to make the subject of Chembakolli, a rural village in India, as exciting for the kids as it was for me I was troubled. I met up with a friend, another teacher, Louise, a girl I’d met on my course, to ask ‘How I could bring this subject to life?’ She was a teacher who danced her way through class with smiles, laughter and enthusiasm, the perfect person to consult. In a world of home computers, DVDs, MP3 players, the latest video games, interactive TV and numerous other exciting, entertaining gadgets we agreed they needed something they could relate to. After a bit of thinking, and a few too many beers, she stated that kids needed to see a figure they could relate to out there, a figure they knew, respected; living in a mud hut in the village, collecting water and washing in the local stream, hunting for food with a bow and arrow, and taking the long journey to school each day through the jungle avoiding the local wildlife.

As tequila hit the back of my throat and more brain cells bit the dust an idea suddenly emerged through the dulling cloud of alcohol:

“I could go out there?”

Lou gave me her very best disapproving teacher face. “You’d have to be stark raving bonkers to do that…….. no shower, no hot water, no X Factor, teaching at a village school with no books, no boards, no pens. Eating brains, maggots and chicken feet.” She stopped her tirade. “You’re right!! You’d be perfect.”

******

“You are what?” It was Lucy again, I was telling them I was leaving to go and live and teach in Chembakolli, “Oh, you’ve gone too far this time, Sir.”

The next moment will stay with me for the rest of my life. A memory burnt into my retinas. The only problem with giving children an open playing field in which to work where they are confident to speak their mind without the fear of retribution or teasing is that sometimes they can really catch you off guard!

Jasper, a boy normally with his head in the clouds but with an amazing aptitude to relate subjects to real life, pops up his hand and asks, “How will you get there?”

In my head I’m thinking “I’ll fly, how else would I get there silly bean?” until following his gaze I see where he is looking. My eyes fix on the back of the classroom. Our Green Awareness poster. I look back at his eager face waiting for an answer. The rest of the class turn in anticipation. I take two steps forward and then one back towards my desk. There’s a big red cross next to the plane partnered with a sad face and a fact card written by my own hand telling the children that air travel pollutes more than all the power plants in China; that it produces more CO2 than any other business. Another smaller cross sits next to a picture of a train and a bus. The next on the list is a child on a bicycle with a big happy face and a big tick.

I am left with a choice - unravel what I have taught them about green issues over the past year or ... the other choice is unthinkable. I shudder.

Just like a school sweater, I know that if I allow one thread to unravel, by lunchtime their whole education will be sitting at their feet like woolly spaghetti. Sarah, Jasper’s seating partner, drops her pencil and as it hits the ground I’m brought back to reality.

One statement, four words: “I’m going by bicycle” changed my life forever.

******

After speaking to the bewildered school in India to explain that I would be a little late I was left with just two months two organise a trip fifteen thousand kilometers across half the world.

I’d like to say everything was meticulously planned. With the route engrained on my mind after poring over maps into the night with only a cigar and a brandy to keep me company. Knowledge of the history, the culture, the languages of each country I would cycle through saturating my grey matter. Erecting my tent time and again whilst timing myself until I could do it blind folded. Spending days elbow deep in grease taking my bike and equipment to pieces and putting it back together again so I knew exactly how each and every bit should be used. However, every night until the end of term I had activities on. An open evening for new parents, class performances, orchestra, sports days, cross country club, drama club. I had no time to plan anything…. so I didn’t…..

Cotswold kindly offered to organize all my camping gear and Bicycle built me a bike that we hoped could cross mountain ranges and deserts, and handle forest floors, roads and tracks so I had some peace of mind.

******

On the 17th July all the teachers at St John the Baptist school were drinking a glass or two of wine to celebrate the end of the school year. Exhausted and suffering from the illnesses that a thousand sneezes and snotty noses generate. It was time for teachers to put their feet up, relax, time for holidays, lay ins, and catching up with friends. That was all teachers but me. I was drinking to forget. I was leaving bright and early tomorrow on the expedition of a life time. I’d organized to meet friends at my local café at 7.30 tomorrow morning for coffee and cakes which I hoped would power me on my way.

When I staggered back to my flat too many glasses of wine later the front door lay slightly ajar. Pushing through I should have been greeted by four panniers neatly packed, my bike, a neat pile of clothes ready for tomorrow. My possessions were everywhere, boxes had been turned upside down, drawers hung open, belongings scattered about the floor crunched under my feat as I ventured further in. As I switched on the light I could see that my most expensive piece of kit, my tent, was missing. I held my head in my hands. Burglary? Oh, no, no, no. Sorry to worry you. This was just the state of my affairs the night before I left. I was surrounded by unopened boxes, papers, and equipment. My tent hadn’t arrived yet. Some problems with deliveries meant the tent was still in the post to the Cotswolds store. They were hoping it’d arrive tomorrow and then be delivered somehow to me whilst I cycled to Dover.

By midnight nothing had moved. I was sitting on my bed sewing a present onto my shirt that a girl at school had given me. It was a tiny silver lucky star. It had already become significant to me – a symbol of hope, new beginnings, faith. For someone devoid of religious and spiritual beliefs it was a strange to be putting so much belief in such a little thing. By the time the sun was rising on my first day of my new life I decided it was best to shove everything into my panniers and hope for the best. An emotion I would learn to rely on quite heavily in future days, weeks and months. I was setting off in three hours time.

I woke after a couple of hours sleep to my screaming alarm. I rolled over and pulled my pillow over my head.

I wanted to hide, ignore the fact that a steal framed bike christened Shirley packed with what I hoped were all the basics that a man needed to survive in any situation was sitting at the bottom of my bed. She was chewing at her bit ready to get on the road for the first time, I was chewing my bottom lip hoping that Scotty would beam me up.

Pulling on the lycra I would soon become attached to – literally – I pulled the bike upright and made for the exit. I lived on the second floor and had to get Shirley down two flights of stairs. With all the baggage it weighed about 50kg not far off my own weight. I tentatively dropped the front wheel over the first stair before being dragged down the stairs by my feisty companion, falling to a crumpled heap at the front door. My concerned neighbours opened their door to find out what the commotion was about. Lying at their feet was a thirty year old man lying underneath a bicycle. Laughing they said, “Good luck Dan” opened the front door and shooing me out.

Friends were supposed to be coming to see me off. In the café I was alone barring a camera man who fluttered around taking video footage of me looking awkward, scared and lonely. As the smell of roast coffee swirled through the air my best friend from Junior school arrived with a smile that lifted my heart. She was so proud of me I realized I’d already made a difference. My chest expanded and as teachers, pupils, family and friends arrived all dressed in pink with their bikes at the ready I started to get excited. Could I do this?

A cheer rang through Richmond as those without bikes cheered off about 50 mad folks who’d pledged to cycle one hundred miles to Dover with me to raise awareness of the charity and show their support for what I was doing.

I’d chosen to ride the fifteen thousand kilometers for ActionAid a charity who’s pledge is to “End Poverty Together”

Within five miles we were stopping for a puncture. Not mine, my bike was still intact. I felt smug. I used the opportunity to throw sickeningly sweet energy bars and drinks down my throat, hoping these would give me the extra energy to cross the hills. Carrying all the extra weight in baggage, the hills that I’d once raced to the top off pounding my fists as I summited first, were slow slogs. Sweat dripping off my nose onto my bike, legs burning as though they were laced with glass. These I have to mention are hills. The highest one being two hundred meters above sea level. I would be climbing mountains more than forty times bigger than this in the coming year if everything goes to plan. Friends pushed, dragged, provoked and encouraged me to get my sorry ass to the campsite where we were to rest before my ferry left in the morning.

Once there it was the first chance to air my Ukulele. Others had brought guitars, drums, bells, tambourines and we sat round a campfire playing music and singing until it was time for us all to squeeze into our tents. Mine had been handed to me as I cycled along by the wonderful people of Cotswold who pulled out all the stops to get it to me on time. This was convenient for all those who’d forgotten their tents who now squeezed into mine.

******

Sunday the 19th

This was my day. The day I’d dreamed off since I was eleven. The day that changes the course of my life forever. The sun was shining, the grass shone electric green, lambs in the nearby field played gleefully under the birds that soared through the salt drenched sea air.

I crawled out of my tent looking like a monster from the deep. Swollen eyelids, tongue lolling to one side, hair encrusted after not showering after the grueling ride yesterday.

Sports coaches will tell you the best way to recover from a long hard day in the saddle is protein shakes, plenty of carbohydrates, gallons of water and electrolyte to replace the lost fluid and minerals. Possibly the worst recovery is five pints of lager and pie and chips. But quoting Bear Grylls “Survival means doing what you have to do.”

My mouth tasted like I’d been sucking used cat littler all night and my gut rolled and gurgled. The sun burnt my eyes with its brightness and the beautiful noises beat against my eardrums like thrash metal. Luckily I only had a few miles to the port of Dover where my vessel awaited me. She was a fine beast. The Olympic Spirit was her name, weighing in at over thirty-thousand tonnes. Her spirit rubbed off on me as we dashed and dived across the English Channel to take me across the seas and my first border, to France. The start of my solo trip!!

The white cliffs of Dover were drifting away engulfed by the sea mist and spray by the time I was up on deck. As the water spattered my face I knew that people were waving so shouted out goodbye, the sea-gulls echoed my call, and carried it to my friends and loved ones waiting at the shore.

What do I do now? For the first time in 2 months I had nothing to do. I sat and I waited. When the boat docks my adventure really starts. I imagined the glory of it all. Riding down the plank, finding the road out of Calais and heading off into the sunset.

I did ride the plank but I couldn’t find the road I needed. I just couldn’t get out of the city. My pigeon French got me nowhere whilst jabbing my finger at my map “Où est ma route?” In response my French friends raised their shoulders in a shrug, held up their hands, stuck out their lower lips and said “Bof”.

Round and round I went. One hour after I’d arrived I was beginning to ask myself how on earth I was going to get to India? After two hours I think I’d traversed every road in the city and was beginning to ask myself if I’d even make it out of Calais.

After three hours I decided to bite the bullet and rode up onto the motorway. Cars peeped their horns, drivers showed me that my understanding of French expletives was better than that of normal conversation, and I was comforted to see that hand gestures meant the same in any language.

I didn’t care, I was on my way. Until the police pulled me over and told me to exit at the next exit. They followed behind all the way with their lights flashing. My first police escort!! Awesome.

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