I’d been excited by the idea of two cyclists riding together and set off with the Swede towards Istanbul. We rode down the last of the Croatian coast. The two of us pointing out sites and landscapes as we went, pulling up along side each other and taking turns to ride up front.
But, as the day progressed, I realised something was missing, that there was no reflection time. With each hostel, each city I’d stopped at and grown close to, I’d always ended up cycling away from it alone, reflective. In the beginning these days had been difficult, but I’d grown used to them, learnt to build them into the journey.
With the Swede alongside me there was no moment to listen to music or look back on the last few days, I was too busy just trying to keep up with him and catch my breath. Regardless, I enjoyed the first days ride, powering down the coast, through the autumn sunshine in t-shirts and shorts, taking in the last of the good weather before winter caught up with us again.
We crossed the border and said goodbye to Croatia. I was always stopping to try and take pictures of us with the bikes, I imagine it was quite annoying. I took a lot of him, in the hope that he might do the same back, but he was focused on reaching Kotor.
The Swede had no project, no big photography or writing aims, he was just cycling. I didn’t know whether this was a good or bad thing. I was jealous of how little he was carrying, how unconcerned he was with capturing or recording, but then, once his trip ended in Istanbul, he would be going back to his studies. Once mine ended, I’d be going back with stories, pictures and opportunities.
He was using up the last of his money during the final weeks of his adventure. I was trying to stretch my coin out for as long as possible. He’d setup a couch surf in the town of Kotor in Montenegro and told the owner that there’d be two arriving now. It would be my first surf.
The bay of Kotor was Scandinavian in terrain, with fjords and rivers running through it’s epic mountain ranges. We took a ferry across the bay, cycled to the outskirts of the city, up a dirt track, through the night, to the very edge of town. Dog’s ran through the streets and between the rundown houses. Chickens pecked about. Montenegro was poor. Crumbling buildings. Crumbling roads. Simpler shops. Concrete restaurants. A wildness, a muddiness. But the smiles on peoples faces had grown wider.
By nightfall we were in this village on the outskirts of Kotor, pushing through a mud track. We reached the last house at the end of the road, at the base of the mountains – a small bungalow, surrounded by allotments and, inside, we were greeted by the lovely Mickey, an ex-drag queen turned Kotor tour guide, serving us dinner. Another normal day.
We liked Mickey so much that we stayed an extra day in his village. Mickey’s house was rural, rustic, damp and oil-stained, but we felt at home. We took the bus into Kotor central, a medieval town down by the bay. It was magnificent. We climbed the mountain steps to an old Nunnery that overlooked the city. We drank coffee at a cafe in the town square. Things like this. It was great to leave the bikes, climb a mountain by foot, take a bus. The morning was nice. The sun shone. But storm clouds were rolling in.
It began to rain. The Swede became ill. I had been ready to leave on the second day, rain gear on, bike propped up outside, when the he’d told me he wasn’t well enough to ride, that he was sorry and that if I wanted I could go on without him. I began to take off my cycling gear. The world had turned grey, wet, dark. The house began to feel small, pungent. We were stranded inside this small bungalow, the storm outside growing stronger and I was restless.
I had spent almost a week and a half not moving now, I was desperate to cycle, rain or no rain. Now I was being halted by someone else, waiting for the Swede. It was not his fault, but I was left to spend the day stewing over problems that had been growing in my mind since hitting the coast with the patter of rain against the windows as I thought.
My mind turned again to money and on reaching Istanbul. How much further there was still to go? Rainy days, stuck indoors, when you wish you could be out being productive, can always mess with your brain. I missed doing my own thing, being able to get up and cycle away when I wanted too. Now I was sat in cigarette smoke filled bungalow, rain outside turning everything to mud, wandering if I was going to get ill too.
I got on well with Mickey, the Swede’s host. A young guy with an old outlook. Kind and calm and open minded. I was left to spend time with him whilst the Swede rested.
In the evening, in the darkness, the rains stopped and we went for a walk down to the river, through the fields beside Kotor Airport. The night was a deep black, the hillsides around us lit by the flooded light of the runway. Frogs croaked in nearby reed-beds and the rolling shapes of dark clouds moved across the stars. Beyond the nearest mountain the sounds of thunder churned, lightning flickered and flashed in all directions. I have never seen an electric storm of this kind before. It was as if a war zone, artillery fire and missile strikes, were being unleashed in the valley beyond. We stood there for an hour just watching the storm, the lightning drifting further away.