The Return


Sitting in a hostel in Cairo with the sounds of the city below coming through the balcony,  I remembered how it was waiting on the coir mat as I came in from the shops one day and how I nearly stepped on it. The card was red and white with the box “Recorded Signed for” ticked off. My heart gave a summersault, I was sure this was it. I had been waiting for more than three months and finally here it was. I looked at the clock and it was past 4 o’clock, too late to collect it,  it would have to wait until the next day.

Seven and a half months earlier, at the end of May, I had arrived back in London after nearly two years of cycling from London to Far East Asia. Two years full of experiences, challenges, places, people and the newness inherent in the daily moving on. For two years I had been a nomad on a bike and here I was back in the house where I had lived for 22 years. I had come back to make sure that it continued being my home.

On my first day back, when I walked through the door and went upstairs to my room everything felt so familiar, so ordinary that in an instant it was like I had never been away. I had the odd sensation that  those two years on the bike had remained in the world of dreams where the cycling adventure had been conceived many years earlier.

There were things that proved to me that I wasn’t dreaming. There was a heatwave in London when I got back, the 21 of June was the hottest June day for 40 years, NHS England was urging vulnerable people to stay hydrated and keep cool and yet I needed extra covers at night. When I went to the shops and stood in front of dozens of different cereal boxes I was seized by anxiety and had to leave, I couldn’t cope with the choice. I looked at commuters in the eyes and smiled at them expecting a smile back, some responded but many looked away,  appeared awkward, shuffled in their seats and to avoid my eyes immersed themselves in their smart phones. The world around me was grey- grey in the clothes of people, grey in the buildings and pavements, even the sky was grey some days. My world a few days earlier had been full of colour.  I realised that I was looking at London with different filters.

Adjusting was hard and in those first few weeks friends and family were a lifeline.  I came back to live with my daughter Amaya and her partner John and having them around kept me sane and staved off depression.

I filled my days seeing friends in London and further afield and catching up on their lives, visiting museums and galleries, having meals, telling and retelling anecdotes of my travels that instantly transported me back to the places and situations I was describing. I realised I that it was my way to reaffirming that my travels had been real.

meeting friends was a lifeline

Getting the paperwork ready to apply for permanent residency in the UK, a country where I had lived and worked since 1980 was a journey on its own right. I spent hours and hours and hours gathering the evidence I had to submit with the over 80 page long form. I had to look for pieces of paper that had been sent to me by the UK tax officials in 1986, boarding passes to prove that I had not been out of the country for more than two years, the whole of my employment history including how much I earned when I started each job and how much I earned when I left it. It was a nightmarish trip down memory lane. Finally the form and the documentation went in and all I could do was wait.

hours and hours of work on the table

The only way I could cope with the wait was by keeping busy.  I did some frantic DIY in the house, got rid of bags and bags of clothes, poured over maps, read other people’s blogs. I lived with a sense that my life was in a  parenthesis and it wasn’t easy. If  I stopped my endless activity I felt lost.

You would have thought that I used the time to explore the UK on Foxtrot but I didn’t. I did do a few trips and whilst riding the bike in the company of dear friends felt good,  it made me yearn for the  life on the road that I had had to cut short.

I told anyone who listened that I was only in London for a while, long enough to sort out my permanent residency papers and as autumn turned to winter and my permit had not arrived, I decided I would stay for Xmas and leave early in the new year whether my papers had arrived or not. Once more, my daughters talked sense into me and convinced me to delay my journey until I was in possession of the permanent residency card.

I knew that the delivery note on the doormat held the passport to my travels that I had been waiting for. The following day I rushed to the Post Office to collect the package, I couldn’t wait to get home, I ripped the envelope open and there it was, a small blue card that to me represented the freedom to set off again. I was elated.

A couple of days later the flight that would bring me to Cairo was booked and I started to say goodbye to  friends and family.

On the flight I thought about how much I would miss my friends. I thought about how sad it would be not to be able to hug my daughters for many months to come and I also thought about how much joy I would feel exploring Africa from the saddle of my bike.

Tomorrow is day one of that adventure.