London has done a few things. First, It forced me to reset all my know-how and habits of riding a bike in traffic due to the inversion of flow (it feels like writing with my left hand). I had to desert the bike and take the ‘tube’ around the city. This wouldn’t be a big issue if I was staying here just for a day or two, which had been original plan. All I had to do was to receive the package Evren sent me from L.A. and move on. But of course, I did not take into consideration the UK Customs Agency. They can keep any package for as long as 30 days without notification. The delay in my case, had been so perfectly timed that the package was delivered to my friend’s address exactly the day after she left for a 4 day vacation. As if all of this is not enough, Monday happens to be a bank-holiday. No one does anything on bank-holidays; including post offices. All and all, I spent 12 days in London without the bike, waiting.
But I had friends.
Susan and Grant Johnson are the king and queen of the world of long distance motorcycle traveling. They spent 11 years on the road before founding HorizonsUnlimited.com, a website that’s now known to be ‘the’ ultimate resource for motorcyclists traveling all around the world. I myself had spent a great deal of time on this website before and during my journey. They are now working on a DVD series presenting their immense knowledge and experience in the field, for the purpose of helping other riders that want to do similar journeys. I helped them with the video-interview of Ted Simon in California and the graphic design of the DVD packaging. All of this happened online, without really meeting face to face, so it wouldn’t be wrong to say that I was feeling a little uneasy when riding from the airport to their house. My plan was to meet them in person and then go to another friend’s place. Little did I know that my days at the castle of H.U. were going to be full of unforgettable moments and inspiring conversations. The first night was quite brief. Susan was away for a few days so Grant and I walked to Greenwich Village and had some fish and chips as my introduction to England. The restaurant owner turned out to be a Turkish immigrant but I’m not even going to get into that… Let’s just say that we had baklava and kadayıf for desert. It was too late and there was a lot to talk about so I decided to leave next day instead.
That night, back at home, I glimpsed some critters walking in the backyard. They looked like kittens, but weird ones. I mentioned this to Grant assuming he would know, but he didn’t. We went to bed without figuring out what they were.
Next morning, Grant advised against riding in the streets of London. Public transportation was much quicker and I could leave the bike parked there if I wanted to. We were going to see each other again anyway. He was right.
The only problem is that I need something to hold on to and define myself with. When the bike is gone, I’m no longer a rider; And when I stop moving, I’m not a traveler. I’m just someone without a home. And that’s exactly what I looked like when I knocked Skye’s door. A homeless; complete with a wool beret and a bottle of wine at hand, purchased with the desperate intention of being kind to the new ‘host’. But she did not seem to notice my state of homelessness, and was very happy to see me. We enjoyed a few glasses of wine at the patio, talking, as it had been some time since she moved from Los Angeles. In a way, Skye is also on a world-trip of her own. She has the habit of finding a new job and moving to a new city every once in a while. London is her fifth.
I stayed there for almost a week. She took me to elegant restaurants, stylish bars and feminine shopping malls. I was beginning to believe that my wool beret was actually invisible until some bodyguard at the entrance of a night club referred to it as ‘too casual’… There’s nothing like a well trained eye. He knew I didn’t belong there.
During this time, I also managed to see some art. The Saatchi Gallery and Tate Modern had been on my list for a long time. Works of Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin and Marc Quinn were not on public display at the Saatchi. Instead, a selection of about 30 middle eastern artists were being exhibited under the name “Unveiled”. With just a few exceptions, I found most of the works displayed here a bit disconnected from their claimed cultural origin. The majority seemed to be focused on fulfilling western expectations of what the middle east is about. It’s a curatorial mistake to make a selection of artists born in a specific geography and expect them to reflect it, and it’s even a bigger mistake to title this exhibition “Unveiled”. Despite the overall effect of the exhibition, the Beirut installations of Marwan Rechmaoui and Ramin Haerizadeh’s ‘Men of Allah’ series were very impressive. Although they have nothing apparent in common, it’s easy to see how these two artists are genuinely focused on a subject without bothering to use easy cultural symbols such as the veil.
Tate Modern had two exhibitions apart from their permanent collection. Rodchenko&Popova and Roni Horn. Constructivism was very educating to re-visit and I did not know much about Roni Horn’s art so both were very satisfying. But the real kick was being able to see works by Jannis Kounellis and Giuseppe Penone at the permanent collection. I had previously studied both of these Arte Povera artists without actually seeing their works so I took my time with them. Especially Penone’s trees.
I left Skye’s place and moved once again to the Johnsons’. In my absence, Grant had figured out what the creatures in the backyard were. Baby foxes! Four of them! In the middle of London! I later learned that 10.000 foxes were living in the streets of this city. For some reason, one of them decided that this small garden was a safe place to give birth to her babies… We made a habit of watching the mother and babies almost every night. The babies never left the den during the day. The mother went hunting everyday at dusk. She came back late at night watching and touring the area to make sure it was safe for them to come out. When she decided it was time, she somehow let the babies know and all four of them rushed out in a hurry. First she fed them with her milk, then they played around for a while. It’s amazing how wildlife adapts to urban conditions.
In an ironic way, looking at this animal makes me think of my own current situation.
Susan, Grant and I spent almost a week together. We had very inspiring conversations about upcoming projects, and traveling in general. I helped them a little more with the DVD’s. It was a privilege to be a part of their lives and work. I’m very happy to have known them better.
Grant probably knows everything there is to know about motorcycling, and more… He’s been riding, racing and building all sorts of bikes since he was a teenager. Motocross, trial, speed, dual-sport… And I don’t mean no hobby riding; he has awards and national championships in some of these disciplines. All of these aside, he’s been dealing with other riders’ experiences and issues on the Internet for the past 10 years as well as filming and producing a series of documentary DVDs on the subject. You’d think he has no time to ride anymore, but you’d be wrong! He’s now on his way to go off-road motocross riding on the mountains of Colorado for two weeks.
It would’ve been a shame to come all the way to U.K. and not see the countryside. So I decided to take a few days off and ride to the western shores of the country, the Welsh territory.
It doesn’t take much, only an hour ride from London, to see how nature claims the land back. Every inch of earth is covered by vegetation unless someone does something to interrupt. It’s not difficult to contemplate the amount and frequency of rain when you look at the greenery around you. Clouds from the Atlantic have been washing this landscape since the beginning of time. Layers of earth that hide the ancient rocks on the peaks of these hills have long been removed by the rain water. They now lay still on the prairies covered by a thick carpet of grass. This is farmland. Thousands of sheep and cattle are roaming the lands, making sure to keep the grass trimmed. It’s the beginning of May, the lamb season.
The moment I crossed the bridge to Cardiff, I knew I entered Wales. The traffic signs changed language. English became secondary. The names of places started to feel like fantastic locations from Tolkien novels. Castles, inns houses and bridges made of the same old stone bricks complete the scenery. I heard people speak Welsh. It then occurred to me why nationality is such a big issue in the United Kingdom. This country is indeed made up of different cultures, territories and even languages. You need a very strong economy and sense of citizenship to keep it all together.
I camped one night at Breckon Beacons, went up north following the shores of the Irish Sea and pitched my tent again for the second night, this time in Snowdonia, by the waters of Lake Bala. It rained both nights, but I felt very comfortable inside the tent and waited inside semi-asleep until it stopped later in the morning. Days like this, help remind me what I’m doing.
This is my 15th night in the U.K. The infamous package is about to show up any minute. I can hear the main building door from the kitchen. I’m waiting for the postman like a dog left alone at home. If it does, I’ll be leaving for inland Europe tomorrow.