Everyone has their own philosophy regarding travel, and I see myself as quite a purist, refusing to accept the ‘validity’ of other forms of transport when I’m on a bicycle tour. Setting mental parameters like these can be useful when it comes to self-fulfilment of easily identifiable goals. Yet the flip-side of this is that any failure to adhere to such a rigid plan instantly counts as complete failure, detracting from enjoyment in situ according to stipulations decided upon months ago and thousands of miles away.
After getting through the mountains of Serbia, I’d been quite happy to camp down for another night. My one-man tent, which weighs only around 650 grams, had been fine so far, and though a little small it was just fine for me. Yet as I pitched my tent just outside of the small town of Klenike, it began to rain. I hastily tried to get inside and keep everything I could as dry as possible (in the process treading accidentally in the excrement of someone who had earlier relieved themselves in the edge of the small terraced field), but no amount of speed would spare me the night to come in a tent that it seemed was suited neither to wind nor rain. Everything was soaked as I awoke in a puddle of water forming at the bottom of my tent, seeping into my books, my clothes, my sleeping bag, and the rain continued to fall as I arose and pedalled onwards, a fluorescent yellow blob pinned between a glistening, sodden earth and a glowering grey sky. Reaching the Macedonian capital, Skopje, I was distracted by the pressing desire to be somewhere dry.
All focus lost, physically, mentally. Skopje, Macedonia.
An angel named Isabel managed to find and book me a cheap hotel near the city centre, and for an hour or so I arranged my soaking things across the room and then collapsed, inert onto the bed. And it rained all night. The following day I took another look at the clouds and pedalled to the bus station. I felt ashamed of myself as I bought a ticket from Skopje to Ferizaj, 35 miles north and across the Kosovan border. The rush of disassembling my bike in under 3 minutes (wheels, seat, and a pedal) to fit it into a minibus was quickly lost as the procedure of writing down everybody on the bus’s ID cards and passports began. It was strange that at both the Serbian and Macedonian borders, there had been no fuss and next to no stamps, but here in one of Europe’s least official countries (there are still eleven countries on the European continent who do not recognise Kosovo’s independence) it seemed that crossing the border was in fact quite a rigorous process. Leaving the mountains that separate Kosovo from Macedonia, the land levelled out after many miles of almost exclusively uphill driving, and shortly after we arrived in Ferizaj (Uroševac in Serbian). The sky remained grey and though the rain had eased, it was by no means about to go away. I reassembled my bike, and made for Prizren, Kosovo’s second city, just over 36 miles away.
My mental clouds finally beginning to clear. Prizren, Kosovo.
Given that my primary objective was “get from Sofia to Tirana via Serbia, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro by bicycle”, and my secondary objective to camp at every opportunity, I have failed. I failed to fulfil the goal of unbroken bicycle travel, having taken this bus and a ferry in northern Albania along the artificially-created Lake Komani, saving me many miles of sweaty and unpleasant toil once I decided that I was too wet, worn and exhausted to try facing the multiple-thousand-foot pass between Kosovo and Montenegro just north of Pejë. This thought hung over me like a cloud, long after the real clouds had cleared, and I let myself be bothered by this niggling thought as I sat and watched the jagged rocks of the Albanian Alps sail by.
It was not until I reached Shkodër, northern Albania’s largest city, that I really confronted this thought, with the help of two cyclists I met in the hostel whose garden I was camping in. Jeff and Katrina were from the Netherlands, and aside from the notion that it would probably take them two years to cycle to India, their final destination, they admitted they didn’t really have much of a plan. They were stuck in the hostel waiting for the delivery of some spare tyres, Katrina’s having been slashed open by some glass on a beach, yet both seemed so calm. Entertained with their various personal activities (Katrina weaving a bag from the myriad plastic bags she’d accumulated during their trip so far, and Jeff with embroidering an old denim waistcoat with Grateful Dead symbols), they didn’t seem as cut up by their real, substantive obstacles as I was with my entirely mental ones. One evening, as we sat on the veranda of the hostel, I looked over at Jeff’s embroidery. He was sewing the words “BE HERE NOW” into the back of the waistcoat. I had spent the day cycling up to Drisht, a village a few miles from Shkodër, to see the ruins of an old castle that had once stood there atop a craggy hill, and had been letting my thoughts bubble and fester the whole time. But now, as I spoke to Jeff about the jacket and why he seemed so calm about his situation, I came to a realisation.
Looking inland into the Albanian Alps. Drisht Castle, Albania.
There is a dissonance between the mottos I try and live by, between the infinitive focus of opto ergo sum (I choose, therefore I am) and the future-dwelling, goal-oriented focus of quo vadis (where are you going?). There is a lack of present focus. Like George Harrison’s eponymous song, the phrase ‘be here now’ serves as a reminder that the past can be a useful teacher, but a cruel master if you submit to reimagining and reliving past mistakes. Here I was, having cycled, driven, and sailed through some truly glorious scenery, having met kind, open, and good people, and greater than my failure to stick to my pre-determined goals would be my failure to appreciate the value of the experience I was having after deviating from the plan. From now on, I am resolved to be more flexible in my plans. I will still set my goals, and I know my inner self will hate my soft, pink body for exposing its weaknesses and limits, but I will try to be here now. I will try to relish the challenge, and relish the failure, for if you climb a mountain, you can’t stay up there forever. And if cycling has taught me anything, it’s that you’ve got to enjoy a good bit of downhill.
Two words. Yee. Ha.