Learning to Love London


When Astrid and I left Melbourne in 2013 we had always had a vague plan that perhaps we could work as paramedics in the UK at the completion of our ride. At the time the process was quite difficult and I had only heard of one other Australian trained paramedic having done it. Then way back in Western China, when a friend emailed us and told us that London Ambulance were actively recruiting Australian paramedics, it seemed perfect. The ease of getting a job in London  ultimately caused us to change from our original plan of cycling to Glasgow. Instead we arrived in London on our bikes, jobs already secured. On paper it seemed ideal.

Yet by the time we were faced with the  actual reality of an employed existence everything felt wrong. Who I was and what I wanted from life felt like it had been shattered. I was questioning everything. Did I really want to be employed? Did I want to live in a house? In a city? Slip back into my old habits, my old life? My heart longed for something else. To keep traveling, to write, something.  The adventure had opened my mind and soul to different possibilities. I was no longer sure I wanted the life I had so fully chosen before.


London Bridge, looking onto Tower Bridge

We talked about our options but in the end pragmatism won out. We were already here and there was no obligation to stay. Plus, it wouldn’t be forever.  With hindsight, I feel we made the right decision. I am happy here. We both are.  Perhaps in the future I would consider doing it differently. While I don’t think regret is a useful emotion and I  don’t regret the decision we made to work for LAS and live in London I am wary of planning too far ahead next time. In the same breath I will also say that sometimes making a practical decision from a solid place ends up feeling like the right one, once things have settled down. Probably there are no wrong decisions, just a series of choices we make through life that take us on different paths.


Classic London

So after our summer of hiking and then visiting friends we arrived back in dreary London on a chilly and dark November afternoon. We pulled up on fully  loaded bikes in front of the Croydon Park Hotel (Croydon being a far flung suburb of London). The doorman did a double take. We didn’t exactly look like people who could afford this kind of place. And actually we couldn’t. The LAS were putting us up as part of our induction. After the initial shock, he escorted us to our padded cell – also known as a hotel room. We set about trying to make it home. I don’t think we we fully succeeded. I am not sure I have ever been quite as miserable as I have living in that place for a month. There were many factors but its beige walls and dull tones didn’t help. I felt like the wildness in me had been caged. Our one point of rebellion was to fire up our petrol stove in the bathroom and cook dinner on it.


Cooking in the bathroom of our hotel


PPE training


Looking cute, even though the uniform is ugly!


Dramatic Winter sunset

It is a huge process of rediscovery coming from life on the road back into work and conventional existence.  Sitting in that fluorescent lit classroom, wearing that ugly green uniform, not seeing the sun. I felt like a small part of me was dying. Luckily these feelings passed in time and I slowly remembered that I had been happy in my life back at home. Working and living a settled existence doesn’t have to be a bad thing. The freedom I have known and the things I’ve learnt, I can keep them with me, even in London.


Winter gloom often matched my mood

So while living in our padded cell, adjusting to a settled life and being taught how to be a paramedic London style, we also got partake in the fun task of becoming a human recognisable to British bureaucracy. Not an easy feat. I feel deep empathy towards anyone who does not speak english well. It was a mind numbingly frustrating and difficult task and english is my first language. I won’t go into the ins and outs – it’s pretty boring but its something like –  you must have an address to get bank account, but in order to get a bank account you need an address and to get a national insurance number in order to work you need an address which in turn you need a bank account for….AHHHHHH!!


Hackney Wick, near home

Once our work induction was over and done with I was faced with the stark realisation that I kind of hated London. We both did. It was miserable and grey with heavy clouds obscuring the sky for days. The service that now employed us seemed archaic and struggling. Equipment was often missing from our ambulances and technology we had had for more than 10 years back at home was non-existent. This was compounded by the harsh culture of austerity we found ourselves working in and the continued attacks on the NHS. The patients we visited lived in tiny, poorly insulated flats with rising damp. Everywhere was crowded and while you were often intimate with complete strangers on the tube at rush hour (think face in someone’s arm pit) to smile or to talk was a definite no no. People  and the city itself appeared generally harsh, unfriendly and morose.


Eerie light pollution


Street art, Hackney Wick

How do you learn to love a city that you do not get along with at first?

You get on your bicycle.

For me cities are more than just a bunch of buildings thrown together where lots of people live. They have a soul and a mood of their own. I first really fell in love with Melbourne when I began cycling everywhere. Being free to cut through back streets, parks and along rivers gives you an intimate glance into the life of the city that is hard to replicate. You cycle passed people’s open windows and smell their dinners cooking, find short cuts through small streets and stumble upon neighbourhood cafes you never knew existed. Through the seasons you feel the city shift – the hot northerly that will become a cool southerly by the evening (which is inevitably always a headwind), the swollen creek that spills onto the bike path after the rain, warm summer evenings, the smell of cut grass and neighbourhood barbecues. These collection of seemingly insignificant moments are the ones that connected me to Melbourne on a level that was different to the one I felt to the people that lived there. If you can have both of those – a connection to place and to people, well for me that’s what makes a place worth living in.


Biking around London helped come to terms with the city


Canal side bike and pedestrian path

In London it began with canals. Not long after moving to East London I stumbled upon the canal while cycling and this is where my heart began to open up to this strange new place. Canals offer another insight into the city, something beyond the brash, often harsh globalised capital that is London. There is something almost other worldly about the slow moving canal boats with their charmingly painted exteriors. In the summer people sit on their roofs, a few boats gathered together, drinking wine and sharing food. In the winter, they seem to huddle together for warmth, wood smoke mixing with the chilly air. I fell in love with canals, cycling along them, running along them, sitting by their edge and drinking a beer. It was the first thing that delighted me about London.


The Canal


And even more

With the canals as my grounding force  I cautiously explored further, sometimes with Astrid, often alone (our shift patterns didn’t match up particularly well at that time). I would cycle into the city, explore a museum or gallery, then find my way home just by cycling east. Sometimes I used the luminous winter moon to guide my way, knowing that the glowing red AcelorMittal Orbit sculpture (i had to google what it was just now) would eventually appear on the horizon and from there I knew I was nearly home. These long winter cycles began to give me a feel and appreciation for the city that had become my home. It broke it down for me, into neighbourhoods, each with their distinct feel and character.


Foggy morning cycling through Victoria Park

Slowly the season began to transform. The gloomy dark gave way and the incredibly long evenings of spring delighted us all. London began to feel different. The mood shifted, life moved outdoors. As soon as the sun shone the parks and green spaces (of which there are many) filled with people picnicking and barbecuing ( I feel Britain is in dire need of the free BBQ’s so prevalent at home). Our friends and family began to visit as the weather improved and Victoria Park practically became our second home. More and more I realised that London is filled with wild little nooks and crannies. You don’t have to go far to find a little bit of wilderness and it is actually considered the greenest capital city in Europe.




Victoria Park picnics


Long summer evenings with wine and a fire. Perfect.


Exploring the Greenway


Epping Forest,  inside the M25

With the parks and canals as my founding love, as time wore on I began to add other  things I appreciated about London to that list.

It is a city of many cultures, which seem generally more integrated than even my multicultural home of Melbourne. There is a mosque at the end of our street, a bunch of small shops that sell Halal food, a Romanian corner shop and a pub, all within 5 mins walk of where we live. Even in post Brexit Britain London in general remains a place of more liberal and open values. There is an underlying edginess, it feels like a place where anything can happen. Because it is so big and diverse there is always something going on . No matter how random your interest is, in London you can probably find a group of people into the same thing. I like that about living here.

Wondering around East London I also grew immensely fond of the humble corner shop. In Australia the equivalent of a corner shop – the milkbar is a dying, almost extinct phenomena. Here, at least where we live, the ‘Offie (off license) appears not to be going anywhere. The whole high street is dotted with them and they are all through the back streets too. Our local one stays open for 24 hours (great for 2am wine runs). I almost never go to a supermarket which makes me pretty happy.

Like offies, the neighbourhoods are also dotted with pubs. You can still find some old man pubs which are a strange mix of hipsters drinking craft beers and locals doing the crosswords (drinking fosters), probably sitting at the same place at the bar that they have for the last 15 years. I love wondering into a warm cosy pub on a winters night. And yeah, I totally love room temperature flat beers now too!


Our tube stop

By the time autumn rolled around again these collection of experiences and realisations had shown me the good in London. I think we have both more or less found our place amongst the contrasting and shifting landscape that is east London. A pillar of our existence has certainly also been our home. After the time on the road I appreciate the simple things wholeheartedly. Being able to make cup of tea without lighting a fire or pumping our fuel bottle, baking bread and learning new dishes that require more than one pot. Building garden beds, planting vegetables, inviting friends over for a fire in our yard. All these seemingly everyday tasks delight me. While I look forward to the time when our tyres hit the road once more, for now I am very content.




Autumn again, Vic Park


Autumn Vic Park


Eerie autumn fog


Our winter Garden

And while I have written about the city itself and the things we enjoy doing now we no longer pedal for a living, it is our friends that truly make London feel like a home. They anchor us to this place and really give it meaning. There is something quite amazing after a year of living somewhere when you realise you are surrounded by people that you care about and who care about you, some of whom you have known for less than 12 months.

So I want to say a big thank you; to the friends we knew when we moved here – you certainly kept us sane in the first few bleak months, I don’t know what we would have done without you. To our families and old friends who visited us – your gaze helped us see the city in a different light and connected us with love from back home. And lastly to the new friends, the ones we have made since moving here – you have inspired us and helped us feel happy and at home here. It is going to be hard to leave.

Loads of Love




Two Years on the Road

Photo on 6-04-15 at 4

Two years!!!

I am sitting in an apartment in European Turkey, sipping my morning coffee. Outside the irresistible Istanbul skyline beckons, soon we will go out exploring.

A few days ago we crossed the Dardanelles, meaning we have cycled the Asian continent from Malaysia to Turkey. It was incredible setting our bikes down in European Turkey, a defining moment of our trip for sure. I can’t quite comprehend that 2 years ago today we wobbled out of Lewis Street and have pretty much pedaled the whole way to the gates of Europe. By the end of next week we will be in Greece. Obviously, like last year, we are behind in the blog. We are sorry for that, but a friend once said, ‘if you post more than every two weeks, you are not having enough fun. If you post less than once a month, you are having too much fun’. I guess we are having too much fun. And have suffered through some seriously dismal excuses for wifi as well!

So, two years on. I often find myself looking back on where we have come from and reflecting on the different elements of this adventure. Cycling through Australia will always be very close to my heart, even as I sit here, half a world away with plans to be gone longer than first anticipated. I am at the heart of it, a lover of nature above and beyond anything else. Give me an empty beach and a starlit sky over an exotic location any day. This is where I am most at peace, and cycling Australia is where this comes easiest. Perhaps it is also that I have some kind of romantic attachment to the landscape of the country where I have spent most of my life. I admit, I am the kind of person that gets attached to places in moody, nostalgic ways.

After the peace and space of the Australian bush and outback (and even Darwin, lets face it, Darwin isn’t exactly the worlds busiest city), Indonesia came as an assault to the senses. A good assault in many ways, but also a 10 fold increase in intensity. More people, more traffic and unabated curiosity. While in Australia we had attracted attention for sure, curious grey nomads, the odd person wanting a photo with us and to hear our story. In Indonesia we were the centre of attention wherever we went. Children in villages would scream ‘tourist, tourist!’ so hard I worried they might pass out. Everyone wanted to know where we were going and men and boys would follow and stare at us when we tried to find somewhere to camp.

Reaching Singapore was a relief. No longer were we the centre of attention. It was a slight culture shock too, being in this super clean, organised city after almost 3 months in Indonesia. We treated ourselves to the ‘western’ things we had missed. Good beer, bread, coffee. I celebrated my 30th year on this earth and then we pushed on towards Malaysia.

I will always like Malaysia more than most cycle tourists. I think coming from the other way, people find it dull (loads of palm plantations, flat boring roads) compared to Thailand. For me, I wanted dullness. I wanted not to be followed and stared at most places I went. Malaysia gave us that and I felt I could breath more easily. Sometimes I wonder how I would feel about cycling Indonesia now. I think I would find it a lot less stressful. After the relative isolation of Indonesia (in terms of other travellers), Malaysia felt full of tourists. We made some backpacker friends and it was fun to be more social.

In Thailand the social feeling continued and we even had our friend Marita and Astrid’s dad join us on the bikes, plus my parents for a visit. Thailand is perhaps one of the easiest countries to cycle tour. Loads of places for refreshments, good roads, good secondary roads and plenty of cheap accommodation. Not to mention the natural beauty. Thailand was easy and fun and we stayed longer than anticipated.

Laos was a different world, back to needing to be self sufficient, with mountain villages and not a lot of food. A stark contrast to it’s rich neighbour. We loved the challenges of Laos and getting back to basics. We realised we had really missed camping. It’s not that you can’t camp in Thailand, we had just gotten used to staying in accommodation as it was so easy and cheap when split between 3.

Vietnam was a side trip, mostly off the bikes where Astrid’s mum came to spend 2 lovely weeks with us. It was not a country we ended up being particularly fond of as we were hassled and ripped off more than we had been in a long time. Wallets on wheels is what I felt we were viewed as. In saying that, the last few days cycling back to Laos were absolutely stunning and I think we were able to make some peace with the country and leave on a good note.

We had a brief reencounter with Laos, where my sister helped us celebrate our one year anniversary of cycling in style. Then we pedalled into a country neither of us had been particularly looking forward to: China. What a surprise China ended up being. It was beautiful. The food was amazing and it was a lot emptier than expected as we stayed only in the South West and West. We had a brief encounter with fascinating culture of the Tibetans before tackling the harsh deserts of the far west. Here our trip took and unexpected turn as we met fellow cycle tourist, Neil and decided to join forces and head straight to Kyrgyzstan, rather than Kazakstan.

Our team of 3 pedalled into Kyrgyzstan, a cycle tourists paradise. It was summer and we met tourers everyday. After meeting almost no one in over a year, it now felt like everyone was cycle touring. Kyrgyzstan, aside from being ridiculously annoying to spell, was a month of mountains, yurts, questionable fermented products, too much meat, horses and really bad but beautiful roads.

Tajikistan and the Pamir highway was another cycle touring mecca. We saw more cyclists than cars and at one point we were a group of 6. The beauty was extraordinary, the Pamiri culture fascinating and the altitude dizzying. The food was shit but we recovered in the capital, Dushanbe, in the wonderful house of Vero, which has an oven and is therefore sacred.

The police state of Uzbekistan is nothing to write home about it terms of cycling, but the ancient Khanates of Bukhara, Sammarkhand and Khiva and certainly worth a peruse. It was here that we began to get the creeper stares from men in a more intense way. I think we had been sheltered by having Neil along with us for so long.

Turkmenistan is a blip on most Asia to Europe cyclist’s radar and we pedalled as hard as we could through the icy, mostly empty desert country. Our trip culminated in us getting deported for overstaying by an hour, which sounds way more bad ass than it was.

The much anticipated Islamic Republic of Iran was a hundred times more difficult than expected. Two words: Men and Police. Both hassled us frequently, but the people’s overwhelming hospitality did win us over in the end. Iran was a time of the women cyclo gang as a fellow cyclist Barbara joined us. The 3 of us struggled to make sense of this country that seemed to constantly contradict itself. There were cold desert nights under the stars, juxtaposed with hot (over heated) nights piled on the floor, sleeping beside wonderful Iranian families.

Some of you know, other don’t, but we went home for Christmas. It was a difficult decision to make but it worked out to be the right one for many reasons. Seeing our families and friends was lovely and intense. A far cry from the relatively quiet and simple lives we had been leading.

Arriving back in Iran was a relief in many ways. Certainly not because it was Iran, but because it felt like this is where our lives are supposed to be. Being home was both lovely and unsettling. It felt like home in some ways, but wasn’t. It was almost like I was revisiting my old life, but unable to really take part. Our lives right now are on the bikes and once we got pedalling again I felt myself become at ease and at peace with life again. Certainly there will be a time for being home again, and I am glad we went, but that time is not now.

And then it was winter, well and truly. As we have had not had a winter since 2012 (and certainly not what many people would consider a ‘proper’ winter) it was tough. The last part of Iran we only camped twice, mostly relying on the incredible hospitality of the Iranian’s. The landscape was stark and frozen and our water bottles remained ice blocks almost the entire day.

Leaving the Islamic Republic was mostly a relief, although we will always remember the kindness of the people. After the oppressive nature of Iran, we found Turkey a very different animal. It certainly is the gateway to Europe. Everything has taken on an easiness that we have not experienced in many months. Credit cards work, the internet works, the roads are mostly great, the police doesn’t pull you over, and all the familiar brands are back. There are both good and bad aspects of this new found easiness. I miss some of the ruggedness of the other places, but having working wifi is nice! Oh and being able to buy a beer!

So that brings me to the present, sitting here in Istanbul, about to head into the European Union (at least for one country). After 2 years on the road, I now think I understand people who cycle around the world for years. It is only recently that I really grasped this. This feels like my life now, almost more real than anything else I have done. It is so simple and so beautiful, I could almost just keep going. I don’t miss the stable things as much anymore (aside from an oven!). I am more happy than I have ever been in my life (and I have mostly been pretty happy). It’s the simple things that really matter. Connection with people, finding a good campsite, the sun on my face, a clear night sky, dry fire wood, clean water. I think this adventure is starting to change who I am.

In my heart, I do know that we will be home some day though. Our wonderful friends and family mean the world to us, and we dream of our own bit of land, somewhere amongst the gums. Of growing food, sharing meals with our loved ones and being part of a community.

When this will be, I am not so sure. I feel like I am on this journey and one day Astrid and I will look at each other and feel like we want to come home. And then we will.


One year on the road – a reflection

So we are obviously behind in the blog but I wanted to mark this occasion with a little interlude of reflection. Or something like that.   Image A year ago today I got on a fully loaded touring bike for the first time pedalled out of Lewis Street. After literally years of planning my mood was mixed that morning: happiness, sadness, excitement and anticipation, combined with an overwhelming feeling of numbness. It was hard to take in. Today I find myself in Vientiane, Laos, after having cycled through parts of Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam (and then back to Laos). What have I learnt and how do I feel about my now not so new life on the road? Many things, really. I will try and reflect on at least a few. My biggest surprise? Probably that I have not been as devastatingly homesick as I anticipated. Of course I miss family and friends, but even when I am teary and listening to Liz Stringer croon about Mansfield, I don’t really want to go home. This life helps you live in the moment. I also feel like my mindset has gone a long way to providing the peace I feel. And the meditation. The two years leading up to our departure mentally prepared me for life on the road and the meditation has built on that. I feel like anywhere can be my home now, a tent, a guesthouse or couchsurfer’s home. The slightly ridged view I had of my life has also been somewhat altered. Endless possibilities stretch out before us: we could work in China as bike tour guides, or in the UK as Paramedics, travel to the States, India or Iceland after we reach our “destination” of Scotland. Or maybe cycle the west coast of Australia? This adventure is an amazing opportunity and I don’t necessarily feel like we need to come home quite as quickly as I may have first thought. In the same breath I am going to say ‘who knows how we will feel when we get to Scotland’. The great thing is, it doesn’t matter. We could go on, we could come home, neither choice is any better or worse than the other.   As well as broadening my mind travel has also reconfirmed some important things regarding family, friends and community. For the last 8 months we have essentially been living on the outside of cultures. Sure, humanity is more the same than it is different, but without a common language, friends or family you always remain somewhat on the outer. This has reiterated the importance of being surrounded by people I love and that love me. Isn’t that what we all want anyway? To belong? I want to sit by the fire in my mum and dad’s living room and listen to the music I grew up with. Hang with my sister in Coburg, drinking cheap red wine and then cycle home along the Upfield bike path. See my friend’s kids grow up, hug my horse, spend time at my friend’s bar, go to dinner parties, birthdays and maybe even weddings. Grow vegetables and cook. And yes, probably even get back in an ambulance. These are the things that make me feel connected, give me a sense of belonging (I know Astrid feels similar). These are the reasons that we will return.   Another thing, this adventure is more about cycling then I first gave it credit for. I love cycling and without it I don’t think I would last long. Backpacking is mostly ruined for me now. Not only does cycling give you a purpose, keeps you fit and allows you to eat EVERYTHING, it also allows us to live a two fold existence. It allows you to see the parts in between. The small villages and towns where few westerners ever go and no one speaks English. There are no guesthouses, you eat what you get served, or buy your own food from the market. You camp in villages, banana plantations, or occasionally local hotels. Children shout and people stare but everyone is really friendly. Eventually you do make it back to the more touristy towns, and I do admit I like this too. It’s nice to find good coffee, have a choice of food, speak to other travellers and use wifi. Only I don’t think I would like this if it was the only experience. It’s the contrast that keeps it interesting.   I have learnt too that my ideal cycling/traveling experience is more about nature then people. The simplicity of how we lived when we were cycling in Australia has imprinted itself in my consciousness and is what I long for. Pedalling, camping, cooking, swimming; witnessing the change in seasons and climate. Perhaps it’s because Australia is my home and I feel more connected to the land? I don’t know. Asia has been very a very different experience. A lot has to do with a much higher population density. It’s certainly a lot more about culture and people than it is about solitude and nature and I have certainly loved this too. The contrast between the two has made a fantastic year on the road.   Lastly I will leave with a few things I have learnt and observed, both about myself and the surrounding environment (mostly in Asia). Some of it is embarrassing: I have a fondness for sweet squishy bread and don’t really mind condensed milk anymore. All beers in Asia taste basically the same, except Chang, which taste’s worse. Sometimes I find myself appreciating globalisation – pizza in Laos, American icecream in Thailand, latte’s in Indonesia. Things should always be triple wrapped in plastic, preferably involving styrofoam as well. When in doubt, add sugar. Sometimes I find myself comforted by the sight of other westerners, I kind of enjoyed the Seven Eleven’s in Thailand, even though they are evil. If you ask for ‘no sugar’ you will still get sugar syrup and sweetened condensed milk, just not the actual sugar. Backpackers sometimes shit me. It’s okay for dogs to wear jumpers, in fact it’s actively encouraged. I hate taking my bike on boats, trains, planes or buses, shouting ‘hello’ and waving at kids for hours can get annoying, Vietnam has the worst drivers in SE Asia. The biggest vehicle rules the road, and it’s best to overtake on a corner, up a hill while talking on you mobile. The cows are cuter in Laos. Albino buffalos go a peachy pink from sunburn. I may have seen enough temple’s, rice noodles give me no energy for cycling, everything can and should be fried.   So that’s a year on the road in reflection. In a few hours my sister arrives (who I haven’t seen for just under a year) and I think some celebrations will be in order. Take care Jude. Image