It was dark. Pitch black. Only a few stars and a crescent moon illuminating a few wispy clouds in the sky. But it failed to light the road ahead because of thick forest trees looming over. I had a torch in one hand and I was searching precariously for a bicycle helmet. It was quite important that I found it.
If someone asked me five years ago, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” —which occasionally happened at a mundane job interview— “You know, cycling past snowy mountains in complete darkness, somewhere in remote Kosovo,” was not an answer I could have imagined. In fact, I thought anyone stupid enough to do such a thing would be completely batshit crazy. But slowly trundling over this high pass road, a mile into the sky, I never considered it strange at all. Quite the opposite—I couldn’t imagine myself happier doing anything else. Well, maybe during the day would have been better.
I don’t normally cycle over mountains in the dark, but I’d left Prizren so late that within one hour darkness fell and I had to switch the lights on. And I had to find this bloody helmet. Which became near impossible in the dark. When I reached the top of the pass I layered up my clothes to prepare for the cold way down…you don’t create any body heat when you’re not pedalling.
It was even more difficult to find the helmet at the side of the road because I was temporarily blinded by car lights that came the opposite direction, especially as most leave their full beam on. I was lucky if I could just see the tarmac. And the speed of going downhill meant what little scenery I could see at the side of the road passed rather quickly.
They told me the helmet would be at a lower altitude, because we were meant to camp a bit further down for warmth, so I was looking more and more thoroughly the lower I got. But nothing. I became worried. Did I miss it? My dreams of showing up at a warm, pre-made camp fire came into question. I stopped at a junction. Was it here? I couldn’t see anything but trees and my breath in the air when it happened to cross the torchlight. Silence. Nothing.
A man spotted me and got out of his car. Noticing a strange guy on a bicycle shining his torch at random bushes. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?” I explained the situation that I was looking for two girls camping and that I couldn’t find them. He hadn’t seen them either. He kindly offered me his place for the night out of the cold, something which rarely happens to me, but I declined. I had to stick to the plan. They would be ahead somewhere.
After reaching 60km, I decided to connect to the wifi at a café just in case they had written something to me. It was unusual for them to cycle further, so the chances were I had now missed them. A message on Whatsapp—they had been invited into someone’s home only 10km from the top. I missed the helmet. I missed the signal. There was no way I was going back up there now. A shame really. But it seems fitting that we should go our separate ways so unpredictably when we also met in such circumstances. I probably won’t see them again. I found somewhere to camp a while later and got some rest.
5.59am. First light. An extremely annoying creature has spotted my tent hiding behind some trees, and has begun barking angrily at this new peculiarity that has appeared into it’s pea-brained world. And it just won’t leave.
For half an hour I had a crazed lunatic dog barking right outside my tent so early in the morning. The worst wake up call I’ve had. Eventually, I got back to sleep.
7.30am. Feel even more tired now. A car has pulled up right next to me on the muddy road. They haven’t seen me. And there’s a ten year old boy holding a chainsaw the size of his leg. I better make myself seen.
I said hello, startling them a little. A father and his two sons. They shouldn’t have been there either but needed to stock up on wood for winter. Not much English but the kids could say “What’s your name?” perfectly and liked to repeat this. Later I could hear them in the bushes giggling “What’s your name? …Jamie” and then laughing at this odd, mini foreign conversation before firing up the chainsaw and blasting down a tree.
I was meeting a couchsurfer today and had to take a fair detour to meet them. Only a kilometre from their house, whilst sitting in a café and getting a coffee, I read that they had cancelled. Great. But there was a flipside to this: I could backtrack a little and say goodbye to the girls properly before I head to Macedonia. A few hours later we had rendezvoused at a café in a small town and they could tell me what happened the previous night.
They had been invited to a Serbian home, were given dinner and breakfast, went to a local party and also now had a huge bag of food. As it turned out the helmet had been stolen.
As we chatted about their awesome experience and my relatively shit one, a local man appeared who also happened to be fairly fluent in French and invited us to have coffee. Now, this got me thinking. The girls get invited to things nearly every day. Coffee, accommodation, good chats. And me, I think I’ve previously gone a whole week without ever talking to anybody. Perhaps I have the male-equivalent of resting bitch face. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an order to the likelihood of you being invited to someone’s home when you’re cycle touring. From most likely to least likely, it goes like this:
This is based on my experiences and talking to a range of other cyclists. It seems that as a girl you get a completely different experience. (for hitchhiking, statistically man+woman has the highest success rate).
Perhaps I’m just unlucky. When I left for Macedonia, I almost got hit by a train on what I thought was a disused railway, and got completely soaked in a thunderstorm the following day. But I still feel incredibly lucky to be fortunate enough to do something like this in the first place.
Too many people attribute their own success to hard work or their intelligence. But in reality, where you’re born plays a far more significant role. Someone just as hard-working or as smart as you in Malawi has basically no chance of ever travelling around the world. And what about those poor souls born in North Korea? Or even here in Kosovo…where it’s not even recognised as a state by over 80 countries?
When it comes to where you’re born on Earth and what passport you hold,
I’ve already won the lottery.