2013 is a year that will shape us forever; we’ve travelled over 15,000km from Turkey to the Philippines on a tandem bicycle – swapped two bikes for one, volunteered on a farm in return for a room and food, purchased a proper video camera and then started a film series, lived with countless families, been blown away with how generous people can be, had a meeting with the Chief of Tourism in Korea, been guest speakers at a bike festival, made tonnes of school visits, stayed at a 5 star hotel as a gift, made so many new friends in every country… the list goes on as our wheels go on spinning. The opportunities we’ve been afforded have been extraordinary! But the possibility for us to brush bodies with Lady Luck so often has only really been a recent, year-long experience.
The year started as usual, a New Year’s Eve celebration. We were bumbling about the cobblestoned streets of Ayvalik in Western Turkey in the dark, looking for the cheap hostel labelled in the Lonely Planet in order to beat the cold (who even knew Turkey was cold in winter?!) but were only met by closed-for-winter doors. We bumped into two young guys, one from Istanbul and the other a local who conveniently ran a hostel of sorts just up the road from where we met. His hostel too was closed over the winter months, but after chatting for a while, we were in for the night.
We didn’t expect to celebrate the New Year after such a long day on the bike, but when the celebration is at a friend-of-a-friend’s boutique wine bar, how does one say no? We lucked in on an extremely intimate evening, learning about a handful of intriguing personalities who were either local, from Istanbul or were Lebanese employees of Greenpeace, temporarily working in Turkey.
As it turns out, this fortuitous beginning was indicative of more than just some new friendships: 2013 would be a year of intense learning and opportunity; we were slowly dropping our guard after six months travel and were becoming open to anything and anyone, this proved both rewarding and at times, disturbing.
We had a baby in the first month of 2013. Tan-Nay-Nay was born in Oregon, USA with the help of Co-Motion Cycles, as both doner parents and genetic designers. She had a healthy birth, weighing in at around 5000g, and from what we hear Co-Motion Cycles bounced back just fine, ready to work their magic for another lucky couple.
There was just one small problem: our baby was on the other side of the world from where we were! Getting our baby sent from North America to Turkey was a concerning and looming prospect, as the import duties alone were a few months budget. As it so happened, we were volunteering on a farm with a lovely guy named Ansel, hailing from the exact town that Tan-Nay-Nay was born. We joking asked if his parents wanted to fly and visit him with our baby as their checked baggage, and then it dawned on us the perfect plan: we would offer a free flight to Turkey for anyone of his friends willing to bring our baby. The system was flawless, we’d save hundreds of dollars and would help one of Ansel’s friends to start a backpacking trip around Europe. The effervescent Zeb arrived in Istanbul with our tandem a few weeks later, the boxed packed perfectly with home made cookies as padding. Yep, delicious AND functional!
Making Tan-Nay-Nay was one of the best decisions of our trip – we became a proper team where we really relied on each other to succeed. Kat was no longer having panic attacks on the bike and we were moving faster, with less stuff.
“Hey! What are you guys doing down there?” We thought we were in trouble. “Umm… just, err… resting” we stuttered sheepishly. Three figures walked down into the vineyard where we were waiting for the darkness to fall to pitch our tent. We figured these people could see right through our plan, and that we’d be moved on in the following moments. Instead, Turguy dragged gently and kindly us out of the vineyard and into his home.
Turguy had backpacked around Europe and had been in situations with no where to stay. He’d been driving past the vineyard at the same time we were unloading Tan-Nay-Nay and decided to come back five minutes later to see if he could help. His house was hot like a comforting hug wrapped in a blanket, it felt so good to thaw out our semi-frozen fingers. His mother, father and brother too were as warm as they come and we were instantly made one of the family. After seven months of travel, this was the first time we had been invited to stay with someone without having previously met the person or organising it first. We were in Turguy’s bed while he slept on the couch – a custom that still makes us slightly uncomfortable but is commonplace when we’re invited in to houses at impromptu moments.
Through our experiences living with locals, we discovered how rewarding it was for both the host, and us as guests. We would often cook for our hosts, help them at their workplace, meet their whole family, learn about their culture, show them photos and videos from Australia and share our stories from around the world. We were getting the true perspective of what local life was like all over the world.
We began craving these experiences so much that we turned to knocking on doors to ask if we could stay with families, if the opportunity didn’t find us by nightfall. The response was incredible: we have almost never been turned down. The relationships we have developed with people all over the world are an invaluable puzzle piece to our learning experience.
But it isn’t always rainbows and lollypops; sometimes knocking on doors will strike you down, hard. We were in Georgia (North East of Turkey) and rode past a group relaxing in their garden. After being hailed in excitedly, we stopped for a chat and were plied with food and wine (albeit, the absolute WORST wine in the world). Unfortunately, a game was being played out without us knowing. The women were being incrementally stripped from the situation – two weren’t hard to omit, we were getting pressured, nigh on forced to drink and were eventually ushered to a house further into the countryside with what turned out to be men of less than honourable intentions. We were open and vulnerable because of our simpleton assumption that all people are good.
Kat was sexually assaulted that night on a number of occasions, and we simply weren’t prepared to deal with it, we felt trapped by their “hospitality” and our stupidity to realise the insidiousness of the game. A positive way to look at the situation is to learn from the events, to take preventative measures to ensure that it is less likely to happen in the future, and know what to do if it does.
Another issue was really stressing us: our bicycle rims. Tan-Nay-Nay had already cost us so much that we’d overlooked the most important part of a tandem bicycle – the wheels. Our wheels designed for a standard bike were now carrying twice the weight that they could handle. Our rear wheel “lasted” 2500km under TanNayNay’s bulk, but by the end it could take no more. By Tehran (Iran) it was literally unridable – spokes had blown through the rim, there were cracks at every eyelet and a there was even a crack all the way around the inside of the rim. Another kilometre and it would’ve stopped turning. It cost us hundreds of dollars to get a rim worth $50 sent to Iran, and it almost never arrived. When it did make it, the wheel was unfortunately not built properly by the mechanics who’d helped us, and the next few thousand kilometres would see tens of spokes break. Our front wheel lasted a bit longer but was another costly and stressful ordeal in Kyrgyzstan. We’ve sure learned our lesson about tandem wheels.
Despite having our wheel built poorly in Iran, we have nothing but positive things to say about this unique country. In fact, when forced to make a decision on what our favourite country is, Iran tops the list. This is mainly due to the Iranian people who are like no other on Earth; we often reflect on how strange, wonderful and almost unbelievable, it was to be a guest in this country.
Iranians are unfathomably generous, friendly, inquisitive, random and often used their intuition and heart to make decisions – rather than relying on rational thinking. Because of this eccentricity, we were stopped 20 times per day to be given water, tea, food, drawings and gifts; we were stopped ten times a day to be offered meals; and, we were stopped five times with offers of a place to stay. People came up to us in the street to ask if we were ok every few moments, and whilst some tourists we spoke to hated not being able to escape it, we believe there is everything brilliant about an entire population caring for you: it’s incredible. This is only the tip of the Iran’s generosity iceberg, words cannot begin to describe what it is truly like, you really have to visit!
We were visited by Kat’s parents Ruth and Andrew in Uzbekistan, and it had been a year to the day that they had been physically absent from our lives. Although I’m pretty content with cycling about the world with a minimal connection to home, Kat’s family and friends are her everything. When asked what we miss from home the most, my reaction is “cycling”, which classifies me as one of the only people in the world to miss cycling, whilst on a cycle trip about the world. We have met one other person like this, so it’s a thing, ok?
Having the folks around provided two weeks of normalcy, allowing us to catch up on the finer details of their lives as well as others’ at home. It boosted energy into Kat’s spirit.
Up until Uzbekistan, we had met only a handful of travelling cyclists in one year of travel. Suddenly, there was a bottleneck in the path and we were bumping into hundreds of cyclists on similar journeys to us. It was refreshing to meet so many people with such similar tastes and perspectives on people and world issues; we were able to connect instantly and often seamlessly through our shared experiences. Interestingly but not suprisingly, world travellers often have a vision of living a simple and sustainable life once they arrive back home, which we no doubt also subscribe to. The teachings of the world from a bicycle seat seem to be universal, no matter where you’re doing it.
We also loved talking to other world travellers about their everyday life on a bike. We travelled with four others for a week and picked up so many ideas on how to travel, nay live slightly better. Whether it be cooking ideas, useful bits of gear we hadn’t thought of, or how to allocate your time in the day, it was fantastic to freshen up our routine with new ideas.
Camping is common for all long distance travellers. A way to reduce costs but also to escape the intensity of life in foreign parts of the world, by cocooning yourself in a private hub of much needed personal space and time. We get to find the most exquisite places on earth to sleep for the night, and pitch our tent. It’s that easy. Camping is a routine and a ritual which gives our day structure, something we’re often looking for when it seems like we’ve been moving for so long.
With no way of getting a visa for China in Central Asia, we were forced to fly. We opted for Korea because of our fascination with the Korean and Japanese cultures that intertwine in our lives in Australia. The three months that we would’ve spent in China were now allocated to these two first world nations.
It was incredibly strange going from third world conditions to an immaculate and orderly society. The living conditions allowed our bodies to take a break from the minor illnesses that had plagued us all year long. We were no longer the centre of attention, although when there was opportunity, the red carpet was rolled out for us. We were upgraded from ‘cattle class’ to a cabin each of the three times we took an overnight ferry – a welcome reward, but one which we weren’t quite sure what we’d done to receive. We were swept under the wings of the Korean Tourism Organisation and given the opportunity to meet the chief of tourism, experience the North West provinces of Korea with a private guide, Max, and to speak at Korea’s biggest bike festival.
It’s interesting to compare how foreigners are treated in various countries. Sometimes nobody will look at us, despite the fact that we’re on a big, goofy purple tandem with lots of luggage, and other times we are a celebrity, waving and saying hello to everyone we pass. It is nice being treated in both manners as we travel country to country: one is intense but fun, and the other is relaxing and free.
Schools visits became a way for us to give a little more to communities all over the world. Since Turkey, we have visited schools in almost every country, and not because we organise it. The organising is almost always done for us, and it really is an honour to be able to inspire the youth of the world to dream big and study hard. We met a guy riding around the world recently who told us he would never had come up with the idea to do it by himself: someone had come to his high school and planted the seed in his brain. It would be fantastic for us if even just one student gave bike travel a go someday.
As we head into 2014, we feel that we have grown as people. We are more open and giving. We have a deeper understanding of what makes people thrive, strive and survive and of course, to be happy. We understand world issues on a much more complex level and have the gumption to talk about them with anyone. We are better at deciphering between what we need and want.
We only expect that we will continue to grow.
Bring on 2014.
Our Top-5 Videos of 2013
1. Alleykat Meets Iran
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2. Alleykat Shares Kyrgyzstan
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3. Hot Air Ballooning in Turkey
4. Alleykat Crosses Korea
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5. Volunteer Farmstay in Turkey