I left Windsworth on a Tuesday afternoon, after packing up, accepting Caroline’s offer of a cantelope, Nairn’s organic oat n fruit biscuits, and organic peanut butter to take away, and helping with the sheep one last time. The sun was shining, and the local Cornish metaphysical weather forecast called for heat and security.
Not fifty yards down one of the narrow rural tracks so common in Cornwall, with towering hedges on either side and a center-line of moss leading up and down the countryside, I ran into a pair of bike tourists! Their bikes were loaded on the rear rack only, yet they were still walking up the hill I was about to descend. From their lack of complete sentences, I sensed they were foreigners, and immediately had to check my tendency to speak louder, which doesn’t really help them understand any better. Clearly and slowly, then, I inquired and excitedly smiled – they were touring Cornwall from Denmark. Fellow cyclists – a good sign!
Over the next five days the hills steadily receded. I am actually very pleased to have started in the hilliest bit of England – nothing as yet compares to that monster hill that jumped me right after I visited that water-wheel mill with the gorgeous lily pond. Maybe the Alps…
I passed through counties in quick succession – after Cornwall it was Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire, a tiny corner or Dorset, and Hampshire. Camping was not any more scarce than in the States, despite some city-folk telling me how rare a bit of wild can be in Britain. The country is quite populous, and without a doubt the traffic and crowds are more dense than I’m used to, but all I need to pitch my tent is a little patch of trees out of view from the road. Soon I was back into traveling mode, organized and cutting down on unnecessaries, and cooking in a recently upgraded kitchen – I now have two pots, and a kebab skewer. Luxury! I even made jam(first time ever, over a campfire with no recipe) from some foraged blackberries, and though my French toast experiment was atypical, to say the least, it was quite a treat!
Can’t camp in London, though. I decided it was best to visit the Big City, for various reasons ,mostly having to do with actually planning ahead for once! The US Embassy instructed me to come to office hours on Monday for best results, and I was actually on schedule to arrive on Sunday, but public libraries aren’t open on Sundays, lamentably, which threw a wrench into my accommodations. There was nothing to do but leave camp at moonrise Monday morning, and ride the sixty miles into town before the traffic woke up, to find a library as soon as they opened. At 4:20 I was on the deserted, moon-bathed carriageway, had a triple stack peanut butter and jelly sandwich snack at dawn(East towards the Rising Sun!), and by ten I was passing Heathrow airport.
The bike path(London loves bikes!) was swarming with commuters. One bloke, in his neon green reflective vest on his way home from a long airport shift on the tarmac, asked “Long trip?” in passing, which turned into a side-by-side pedaling conversation. Mateusz, a Polish immigrant, had dreams of touring the world on a motorcycle, and within five minutes, he asked, “Do you want a refresh? Do you want to come to my house?” Apparently the charm of decency-and-serendipity I recently received, which was soaked in blackberry juice and drying out on the back of my rig, was working like… well, like a charm!
I had two bowls of pulpety, a Polish beef stew; tea, internet(no need to visit a library!), a free phone call to my hosts in E. London, and after some trepidation over the overwhelming generosity, a shower. Thanks to having been fellow crew with a Pole on the Ninni, I was able to say thank-you in Polish, from memory!
After his story about the incredible minimum wage here in the UK(equivalent to $13 an hour) and his even higher wage as a forklift driver, I accepted his offer of snacks to go, and he even paid for my passport photos! Thanks Matt!
Now I was prepared for Central London. I took his recommendation on the best route to take, and there was either a bike lane or a path almost the whole way! (Apparently the last mayor, Ken Livingston, really improved the traffic situation here.) I passed Cheswick, Kensington, and Hyde Park on my way to Grosvenor Square where the American Embassy sits like a military oasis in this country of cops-without-guns. A very seasoned-looking, sharp-eyed police told me I couldn’t leave my bike anywhere on the whole square unless I wanted to have it removed. He also warned against leaving anything unattended; of course – it’s the downtown of a major metropolitan area. Still, what was I to do? I assumed the passport office would entail a lot of waiting in line and sitting by a vending machine for which I didn’t have money until my number was called, but I hadn’t visited my hosts yet to drop off the gear… The police whipped out a compact map-booklet(I was very jealous of that booklet) from one of the many velcro pockets on his combat harness, and showed me the train station, which offered luggage stores for a fee. Now, I tend to avoid services that come with fees at all costs, so I ended up searching around the surrounding outside-bomb-threat area for a hiding place. I didn’t find an actual stash-spot, but I did find a narrow, less-traveled side alley that might serve… the cars coming out of the nearby garage were expensive without exception, and the fancy-liveried valet was on shift outside. Everyone that walked by was wearing a suit; I didn’t see a single crackhead, or anyone that looked like a thieving type, during the ten minutes I stood there observing and working up the conviction/insanity that was necessary to leave my bike and all the gear alone in Central London, for bureaucrats-only-know how long.
I put out some nearby traffic cones to ward off sticky fingers, but in the end I was only able to walk away from the bags, containing nearly everything I own, by telling myself I could do without most of the gear, which isn’t really true, but otherwise I would’ve missed my time-window at the Embassy. I took my journal and documents, left anything that could be considered a weapon or might contain a bomb, and with a deep breath to calm my nerves I left my life behind, in the care of a hardened steel Kryptonite chain and a berry-stained tenugui charm.
Have you ever seen the Borne Identity? He’s being chased by the Swiss police, and he dashes up to the US Embassy with his American passport in hand, joins a throng of people being admitted inside, and needing only to say “I’m an American” and flash his ID, the camouflaged sentry lets him in.
Embassies do not work like the movies.
For starters, I was expecting Americans, but everyone working outside the building is British, or even an immigrant from somewhere else. The cop with the HK MP-5 was British, the strict security personnel in the metal-detecting chem-sniffing security gauntlet were British, and the lady at the little podium outside the checkpoint, deciding whether to let people in or not, was also British.
Without any to-do at all, she straightaway told me that the only walk-ins allowed were lost or stolen passports, which completely disagreed with the passport office’s email I was suddenly wishing I had printed and brought. “They practically invited me to come, right now, Monday walk-in hours,” I pleaded. She was all business, and my rode-my-bike-all-the-way-here plight only seemed to leave a bad taste in her mouth. As I stood there gaping, dumbfounded, and nearing tears at the surprise treatment I was receiving at my homeland’s embassy, some compassion must’ve crept into her attitude, and she called over another security guy. Maybe she was just preempting my inevitable “Let me talk to your boss.”
Eventually, after standing an official distance away, fuming and worrying about my bike for ten minutes, I got the chance to explain myself to a different guy, who must’ve been the “people-person” on duty that day. After another fifteen minutes he returned and they let me in. I was made to take a sip from my juice bottle, as a poison-taste, and relenquish my belt, and only then was I inside the fence and allowed to walk around the building to the actual entrance.
Just as I had suspected, it took a long time. A very nervous time, full of silent prayers and supplicating the Universe to protect my stuff. I struck up a conversation with an American journalist, also there for a second passport, also to apply for African visas, to keep my mind off it. It was nice to talk to someone with an American accent.
The passport people were really pretty good to me. I think it helped that I added a little sentence to the declaration form that listed the plethora of countries I’d be visiting that need visas – they approved the application and said it would be here by Friday. An unheard of expediency, to be sure! By the time I signed the credit card slip($75 – ouch!) I wasn’t even worrying about my dwindling finances. On the way out I profusely thanked the guy who approved my admittance, and even joked with the British cop holding the submachinegun.
But not for long – I practically ran back to my bike, breathing one last prayer just before it came into view…
Everything was there. Nothing was disturbed. Even the bag of bread was still hanging there on the top, its slightly misshapen form bringing me a palpable relief. I stopped and laughed out loud, I was so relieved, and took a minute to thank whoever or whatever it was to which I had been praying.
After some people-watching and another PB&J in the shade of an oak in Hyde Park, I trekked my way East, by instinct, the sun, and my compass. I passed Picadilly Circus, whose neon billboards don’t hold a candle to Time Square in New York, but whose crowds of people, even on a normal Monday afternoon, definitely blow any American city out of the water. Quite a circus. There are a lot of people in London, and no sprawling New World acreage to hold them all. Every inch of pavement was crammed with shoppers and passers-by, the statues and cathedral steps were covered to the point of unrecognizability by field-trippers; the twisting chaos of traffic was a perpetual flow of sneaky mopeds, double-decker buses, fifties-replica taxis, and cars that have to pay an emission surcharge upon entry to the city. And bikes – lots of cyclists. Everyone seemed to know just where they were going, too, leaving me and my wide load to stop every five minutes to analyze the roundabouts, surrounded by a London that never stops. It was a little harrowing, but I did have a few chances to say whatup to some messengers on fixies at the stoplights, enjoyed the road that runs along the river Thames, and eventually I found my way to Barking after lane-cutting through several traffic jams and humbly asking for directions some five or six times.
Now I am sitting in the sunshine streaming through the window overlooking the garden(that’s how they say “yard”), listening to New Model Army and the Levelers, in a wonderful flat belonging to a pair of cyclophiles that were willing to put me up for the week. I slept on a futon last night under a duve(“doovay” – a down comforter) and fixed a flat on one of the many bikes crowding the narrow hallway first thing this morning with my tea. Life is good.
Now I just have to take some obligatory photos around town, visit a Muslim mosque and some African embassies, pick up the passport, and decide if it really is worth riding all the way back West to cover Ireland, and subsequently Scotland – I think it is, right? – or just hop across the English Channel to Amsterdam and head South for Gibraltar and Morocco.
Ah, an uncertain future. Is there anything so close to the heart of adventure?