About PeterJSmallwood

I'm 26 years old, and hail from Yorkshire, England. I'm cycling to South Africa.

The Next Adventure: We Bike Africa!

It’s been almost two and a half years since I returned home after having cycled to India, and now it’s time for another adventure!

This time, I’m riding from England to South Africa, and I’ve persuaded my girlfriend to join me!

Read more at www.webikeafrica.com

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Article: Leven Life, March 2013

The final leg: India

The final leg: India

I wrote the following article for the Leven village magazine, Leven Life, which was recently published in the March edition of the notable journal (with a possible circulation of over 2000!), about the end of my journey and life since my return to England:

It seems like a lifetime ago, now, that I first climbed onto my bicycle on that warm and sunny Sunday in July, destined for many months of riding. When I crossed the heavily guarded border between Pakistan and India in late November, the sun was still shining, but I was not quite the same person I had been. My face had become darker and thinner, weather-beaten, and my hair had been bleached an almost peroxide blonde in the fierce sun. My body, I rather thought, had been transformed into a single, cycling muscle, with ridiculous tan-lines on my arms and legs where my clothes started and finished. More than this, though, my very outlook had changed. When I reached India I had already spent several months alone on the road, facing both physical and mental challenges on a daily basis. I had laughed in the face of danger, and dropped ice cubes down the vest of adversity, and I had come out of the other side singing and dancing with triumph. Dancing in a metaphorical sense, you understand.

As tempting as it was to merely dip my big toe into the cultural pool that is India, and call my journey to an end as soon as I crossed the border, before flying home for tea and medals, I still wanted to have experienced the sub-continent in all its resplendent glory, to explore its verdant valleys and bustling cities: one final hurrah before I returned to relative normality. So I quickly formed a plan to continue to ride across northern India, heading for Calcutta, on the east coast. There seemed something magical to me in the idea of the former colonial capital, the old jewel in the British colonial crown of an erstwhile era, being the jewel at the end of my trans-continental journey.

It is perhaps testament to my changed outlook that I did not consider a further thousand miles or so to be a particularly irksome exercise, having come so far already. But it proved not to be without incident. For almost a month, I found myself bouncing over badly maintained roads, and getting thoroughly lost. Every time a truck raced past me I would be covered in a cloud of dust, which subsequently attached itself to my damp brow. Coated in a film of filth, I was quite literally wearing the road on my face.

I had been a novelty in many of the countries I had passed through, but nowhere was I treated with such curiosity as I was in India. A brief pause on the road, even in the more remote areas, would quickly see a crowd of people coming over to see what the crazy Englishman was doing. I could not have drawn more looks of confused disbelief had I been green, had four heads, and was called Zog. The traffic in India, too, was something to marvel at it. As long as your marvelling doesn’t distract you from seeing the rickshaw coming head-on down the wrong side of the road, horn blaring frantically.

But there were also moments of incredible beauty, and people of the most sincere and selfless generosity and hospitality. I sat peacefully by the Golden Temple in Amritsar, I wandered the gardens of the Taj Mahal, and I watched the sun rise over the holy river Ganges at Varanasi. I was spontaneously invited by locals to lunch in roadside restaurants, or taken back to people’s homes for food and a toast of whisky. When I finally crossed the Hooghly River into Calcutta a week before Christmas, though, my feeling of satisfaction was tainted with a strong sense of relief. I was relieved that my bike – which had begun to feel, at times, as though it was on its last legs – had hung together for long enough. I was relieved, too, that I had hung together for long enough. But most of all I was relieved that my time on the road, as much as I enjoyed it, was coming to its natural and fitting conclusion, and I was able to return home to the simple comforts that I had been so long without. I had followed my lengthening shadow eastwards for over five months, covering 6,587 miles. I was fitter than I have ever been before (and probably fitter than I’ll be ever again). I had thrown my preconceptions and fear of the world out of the window, and was repaid with beauty, kindness, and a dawning realisation that the world is not as threatening as the newspapers would have you believe. In parallel, I had managed to use my journey to promote two charities, raising £1,817 to be split evenly between the World Cancer Research Fund and the Teenage Cancer Trust.

But for all that, I was ready to return to my own world. I felt I had thrown caution to the wind and lived my dream. I had done what I had set out to do, and had earned the right to enjoy the simple pleasures that I had once taken for granted. I realised that the jewel I was searching for wasn’t Calcutta after all, but was back home waiting for me. It was my friends and family. It was a cup of tea, a bacon sandwich. Christmas dinner. What I had really gained in cycling to India was an appreciation that these apparently simple things should not be taken for granted. But I felt that, in some small way, I had earned my Christmas dinner.

Looking backwards

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While I was off cycling half-way around the world, I saw many things. Since I returned to real life in grey and gritty Yorkshire, I’ve probably begun to forget most of it. I’m glad, then, that as well as this blog, I recorded my progress in a little black diary.

I’ve just been delighting in the ups and downs of daily life on the road, which I wrote each night in my tent in the light of my head-torch, to the distant howling of wolves, my legs cramping, with miles of roads before and behind me. Now, though, I sit with a cup of tea, a full stomach, I’m clean and warm, and music is playing gently in the background.

Amongst all of the illegible, badly spelt and at times almost incoherent text, I had recorded my daily mileage, which I have just put together in a graph, showing the gradually increasing total mileage. It’s interesting to see the variations, and the points where I didn’t go anywhere for a while. The first pause, which lasted for over a week, was in Istanbul, when I spent time with my girlfriend, who flew out to see me. The second, and longer pause, was when I was forced off my bike and onto a train in Pakistan, and then a long wait for my Indian visa in Islamabad.

Total milage graph2

Fame, Fortune, Glitz & Glamour – Part 2: …and the Holderness Gazette!

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My notoriety clearly knows no bounds, having appeared, on Thursday 24th January, in the Holderness Gazette!

I’m obviously expecting a call-up for next year’s Celebrity Big Brother, or perhaps a spell in I’m a Celebrity, Let Me Indecently Humiliate Myself.

Fame, Fortune, Glitz & Glamour: I’m in the Hull & East Riding Mail!

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Fame shined on me and my bicycle on Friday 18th January, as the Hull & East Riding Mail featured a two-page spread of toned-down quotes from this blog, the odd uninspired remark I made over the telephone, and a few stunning photographs!

Back to Blighty: Adjusting to Normality

24km to Calcutta

24km to Calcutta

After a few busy days in Calcutta in mid December, arranging my luggage and the shipment of my bike back home, I caught a flight back to merry old England. A journey of more than five months, and 6,587.4 miles, had come to an end. Following almost precisely the same route I had pedaled those many months, the Boeing 777 of my return journey took just 12 hours. I landed in a damp and chilly Heathrow airport in time to see the grey light of the December morning begin to illuminate the bleak, wintry English countryside. I was still hours away from my native Yorkshire, but already I felt at home.

For the longest time I wondered how I would feel upon returning home. There were times when I longed for it like nothing else, and others when I was terrified at the very thought of bringing this great adventure to an end, and trying to return to a normal life. I reflected on what I had wanted the trip to be, what I had wanted to get out of it, and whether I could be content that I had achieved all I had set out to achieve. I had overcome all of the challenges and temptations that threatened to bring my journey to a premature end without reaching Calcutta, or even India. But it was never about getting to India. It was about doing something out of the ordinary, about stepping outside the box and plunging myself, head-first, out of my comfort zone, and into the deep water of the unknown. No amount of research prior to setting off could prepare me for what I was likely to encounter, but an open-mind, a positive attitude and a will for adventure only made this more exciting.

Of course, countless people, from all over the world, have had longer, harder, wilder adventures than mine. People have ridden bicycles around the world, doing it in record times, or spending years. There are people who have travelled to far more countries than I have, and probably have even better stories to tell. I wasn’t the first person to cycle to India, and I certainly won’t be the last. But it was never supposed to be a competition, and I do not measure myself or my adventure against any other benchmark than my own sense of satisfaction that I have done it. I would often find myself, during the long days of long miles, grinning from ear-to-ear, hardly believing that I really was living my dream. I may no longer be on the road, my sun-tan may be fading, and my waistline may well be expanding back out to its previous size, but I still find myself grinning to myself sometimes.

Cycling to India was a dream that I’d harboured, in various forms, for years. Once I’d realised the opportunity to fulfill that dream, I felt that I would be being unjust to myself not to take that opportunity. But it also gave me the opportunity to help other people, and allow it to be greater than just myself, by supporting a charity. Cancer care is something that has been especially personal for me after it claimed the life of my cousin, Claire Jones, in 2006. Doing something on this scale allowed me to promote not only my own adventure, but also the cause of two charities, the World Cancer Research Fund, and the Teenage Cancer Trust. With the help of many donors, and the exuberant efforts of my mum (who was the main driver behind the fundraising whilst I was busy cycling), a total of £1,755.45 has been raised, which will be divided evenly between the two charities. If you haven’t donated yet, there is still time to either visit the Just Giving page, or contact me.

Smiles for miles

Smiles for miles

It really was quite strange being home at first. Things which had always seemed very normal to me, things I had once taken for granted, suddenly seemed very foreign, as I found myself looking at everything from an altered perspective. Simple things, like a trip to the local shop, were so incredibly unlike what I had been used to for a good while. The streets, peopled only by the occasional dog-walker, seemed so very quiet and calm. Cars drove down the road on the correct side (as apposed to both sides), and didn’t sound their horns without due need. I could go to the toilet without having to support myself over a squalid hole in the ground, without my legs screaming with pain as they cramped up, and without the obligatory rat, tentatively peering at me from the hole. It felt like I’d entered a different world. It was a culture shock that, ambling along at a few miles a day, I hadn’t really experienced on my way to India.

It seemed strange, too, to stay in the same place for more than a day or two. I had become so used to the incessant push onwards, and eastwards. I suddenly found myself with no real direction, no destination to reach each day. Fortunately, arriving home just a few days before Christmas, a sudden dash out to do my Christmas shopping, and the liberal availability of mince pies, sufficiently occupied my attention. It was great to see my girlfriend, my family and my friends. I enjoyed all the home comforts that I had longed for and had promised myself during my months in the saddle half-way around the world. A fry-up was certainly long overdue.

In the last week, I have returned to Leeds, where I moved into a new flat, and a successful interview with my old employers was enough to get me a job. Life is slowly returning to normal, but my changed perspective remains undiminished.

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

My bike, packaged up and ready to head home

Having shipped my bike back home, it arrived just a couple of days after I did, like an enormous yellow Christmas present, with ‘DHL’ written all over it. I unwrapped it and pieced it back together, and was surprised how shiny it looked. It will certainly need a few replacement parts, but I have a feeling that it has many miles, and perhaps another great adventure, left in it. After months on the road, I’m quite content to return to normality for the foreseeable future. I have a job, and a new flat, and I’m willing to limit my adventures to evenings and weekends for the time being. But I wonder how long that contentedness will really last. I wonder if I, too, have another great adventure left in me.

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

Chasing my shadow through the desert in Iran

The Last Underpants: India

A room with a view: the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

A room with a view: the Taj Mahal from Agra Fort

I think back to that sunny Sunday morning in July, all those months ago, when I first set off on this mad adventure of riding a bicycle half-way around the world, to India. Everything thing that I needed (or thought I needed – much of it turned out to be superfluous) was strapped to my shiny red bicycle. As it groaned under the weight, I made those first few, decisive pedal strokes down the driveway, and out onto the road. Among my meager belongings were three pairs of underpants. Surely, I thought, the best things come in threes. They were freshly washed and smelled faintly of lemons and wildflowers (as did I, I like to think).

This pleasant state of affairs was not to last, however. I don’t want to sicken my readers with too much detail, but the freshness and the scent of wildflowers soon deteriorated, the lemons turned rather sour, and they soon became rather effective deterrents to thieves (though I did occasionally treat them to a wash). The first pair bought it in southern Germany, being washed away (somewhat ironically) by a huge and unexpected bow-wave from a boat skimming down the Danube as they were innocently drying on a rock. The second pair lasted all the way to Pakistan, when they went the way of all the great world empires, and eventually fell apart into their constituent pieces. Tears were certainly shed. Fortunately, the final pair have made it with me all the way to India, to Calcutta, my final destination. I rolled over the great iron bridge across the Hooghly River, and into the former capital of British colonial India, and the old adopted home of Mother Teresa, and my journey came to an end. My last pair of underpants are, like me, completely worn out. I’m not sure the great fashion houses of Europe have yet tried pushing fashion-conscious youngsters into ‘distressed’ underwear, as was once the fashion for jeans, but if anyone wants to know how they look, I possess a perfect prototype. Like my last pair of underpants, I’ve weathered the storm. I’ve come a long way, and have taken a lot of punishment over the last few months (though this was of course balanced by some extraordinary experiences, though I’m not sure to what extent I share this with my underpants). Like them, I’m just about hanging together, despite the frayed edges and the worn patches. To possibly coin a timeless sentiment, to go down in history with the wise words of all the great men of the greater world, when your last pair of underpants have worn through, it’s probably time to go home.

India has certainly been a test. Road safety is, if it exists at all, a rather unfunny joke; I’ve had two minor collisions in the last week, from which I was lucky to escape without any damage to either me or my bike. Wild camping, as I have done most of the time on my journey, is practically impossible here. Every time I stop, however briefly, and however quiet and remote a spot may seem, I cause quite a sensation. People crowd around me, often staring with blank, but awed expressions, sometimes laughing at the silly foreign man who apparently hasn’t heard of the internal combustion engine. Camping, then, would be a futile gesture. Peace, and sleep, can only be found in roadside hotels. I’ve shared rooms with many a mosquito, a rat on a couple of occasions, and the presence of mouse-droppings on the bedsheets one night drove me to pitch my tent on some grass outside. India is constantly moving, and there is an almost constant noise, which deafened me until I grew used to it. But despite all this, I feel incredibly privileged to be here.

A much wiser man than me once said that when you’re old and grey, and the best of your life is behind you, you’re much more likely to regret the things you didn’t do, than the things you did. I certainly do not regret cycling to India. But I’m glad it has come to it’s natural and fitting conclusion, here in Calcutta. I’ve accomplished my dream, my mission, whatever you might call it. Now I need to dream up another one – I’m just going to need a fresh pair of underpants.