To Drive Is to Learn a Culture: Enter the British Zombies

I will not lie. I thought I knew all there was to know about driving. That is until I started trying to get a British driver’s license.

The dreaded British learners' L-plates.

The dreaded British learners’ L-plates.

I have been driving since the age of 15. That’s 30 years of driving experience. I first learned to drive in the United States. I left the US before I could finally qualify for a driver’s license. But I quickly picked up my driving once I eventually settled in Egypt. At 18, the legal driving age in Egypt, I answered the simple test questions that I was given about signs and I took the 5-minute practical exam, driving around some cones. I passed. Many Egyptians never take that exam. They find someone who knows someone at the police department and get it done automatically; with some money passed under the table, of course.

Since then I have driven in many countries of the world. I have rented cars in the US, Turkey, and many European countries to make transportation easier and more comfortable while on extended holidays. I vividly recall one of the lessons I learned during my driving classes in high school in the US: Follow the speed of other cars on the road. While driving in a foreign country, I have applied this general rule when I am not fully aware of the driving culture in that country. I observe what other drivers do and I imitate them, driving at the general speed of the road and figuring out signs and symbols based on how drivers react to them.

The main part of my 30 years of driving has been in Egypt; Cairo to be more precise. I once explained driving in Cairo to someone by saying, “The main rule of driving in Egypt is knowing that we’re all in this together and we’ll just help each other along the way so that we all eventually arrive at our destination.”

To be honest, that’s not the real main rule. The real main rule is: EVERY MAN FOR HIMSELF! Get to your destination using any means possible. There is NO ONE more important than you on that road. Anything you see is simply an obstacle to overcome, go around, or ram into.

The reality is that we have no real rules of driving in Egypt. We have no Egyptian Highway Code that I am aware of. Our driving culture is one of getting onto the road, doing your best to stay on it, and doing your best to get to where you need to get without having too many accidents on the way.

My husband Colin spent a month in Egypt and during that month I tried to teach him the rules of Egyptian driving. (more…)

Lost and Then Found: My Breakthrough

I had a major breakthrough over the past couple of days.

Despite all my complaining, despite all my anxiety and worrying, despite the restlessness that hits me every couple of months like a locomotive train, despite a desire – sometimes – for more, I am content.

I am not even going down the road of comparing my life to that of others’ to say how fortunate mine is in comparison to all those suffering from poverty, natural disasters, major health issues, abuse, wars, etc. Doing that is not fair to me and it is not fair to them.

My life is good given the circumstances I was dealt and the choices I have had to make.

I am happy with my choices. Every single one of them. Even the bad ones. I am happy with them because I am the one who made them. I am happy with them because I have grown as a result of them.

I am happy with my choices because I have (almost) always managed to get my priorities straight.

I have struggled through issues of faith only to realize how important my faith actually is to me. (more…)

A Life of Adventure Impossible to Have

It’s back. 

The restlessness.

I almost thought I was cured.

I came back from an amazing two months of cycling across Europe and I finally felt content.

I was happy just recovering from the after-pains, relaxing and reading a book, watching my crappy reality television shows.

I found pleasure cooking for myself and for my family at home after two months of eating at restaurants.

I was enjoying testing out my general fitness by going back to the gym and by trying to run again. I discovered that I had great lower body strength, I ran 5km faster than I ever had before, my cardio was going strong, but I have zero upper body strength, my hamstrings aren’t stretching the way they used to, my knees make crunching sounds whenever I go up stairs, and I feel lots of pain all over my body after a normal workout at the gym.

I’ve been back for 19 days. It’s only been 19 days. And I feel – again – that something significant is missing from my life.

I need purpose. I need a project. I need to be doing something. But not just anything. I need something I can be passionate about again. (more…)

This Writer’s Bane

I love writing. I may not be terribly good at it but I have never really cared about that. I love writing and whenever I feel the

This isn't my danged dining room table. It's my danged couch, where I wrote this particular blog post.

This isn’t my danged dining room table. It’s my danged couch, where I wrote this particular uninspired blog post.

thoughts churning around in my head I almost immediately start putting them down on paper.

Yet I find myself struggling with a couple of things.

I don’t currently have a job. That means I don’t have an office. And that means that when I write, except for when I’m travelling, I write from home.

I don’t know how professional writers do it. Does a home office make all the difference? I have never had a proper home office. I have never had an apartment/house big enough for one. When I write at home, I write at the dining room table or with the laptop in my lap while sitting on the living room couch.  It’s like slow death. It is the most uninspiring thing in the world. Would it be different if I had an office somewhere? Or would I become uninspired after writing from the same office for a couple of weeks?

I loved writing while on the road. (more…)

Cycling Lisbon to Tallinn: A Look Back and Thank Yous

Eyebrows done: check

The route I took to cycle across Europe from its southwestern to its northeastern point.

The route I took to cycle across Europe from its southwestern to its northeastern point.

Hair cut: check

Perfume on: check

New change of clothes: FINALLY

Clothes washed: check

Tent laid out to dry: check

Bikes still disassembled in their boxes and tidily placed in the garage: check

Camping gear placed in its special bag in garage: check

Watch Come Dine With Me, the Jeremy Kyle Show, and Big Brother (in other words, all the crap British TV there is to watch): check

My husband and I stepped onto a RyanAir plane in Estonia to head back to our home in the UK last Monday afternoon. We had just spent a very lazy and relaxing two days in Tallinn, much of it sleeping and some of it walking around the enchanting old town and the city port. The highlight for me was the food. Those Estonians really know how to eat! I had a most amazing omelette my first morning in Tallinn. Who says that about an omelette? But that one was special. It had huge chunks of red onion, tomato, and mushrooms in it. I hogged down the special Estonian black bread with almost every meal. I had duck breast one evening and lamb on another. It was a great opportunity for us to recover before heading home.

Since I returned to the UK, I’ve kept myself busy washing, tidying, resting, watching crap TV, and gathering GPS data from the trip. It’s been nice. I was worried that I would have a bit of a culture shock coming back. I had settled into a nice cycling routine while in mainland Europe. I was enjoying having something to be involved in that I was passionate about. But by the time the trip ended I was ready to come home. I have a few things coming up that will keep me occupied over the next few weeks, including the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan. So I should be all right, at least for awhile.

During the trip, I was incapable of looking back at what I had done or looking forward at what still remained. I found that if I

Lisbon to Monaco

Lisbon to Monaco

tried, I was overwhelmed with the immensity of both. As a result, I found myself, with no physical or emotional effort on my part, living in the moment. While I was cycling, my focus was on keeping myself safe and getting through the next ten kilometers. When a day was finished, my focus was on getting a shower, eating, writing my daily blog diary, and getting some rest. The following morning, my focus was on understanding the route I would be taking for the next few hours.

On my last day of cycling in Estonia, I thought that the gates to all the memories of the past two months would come rushing at me the moment the trip ended in Tallinn. Instead, I somehow managed to keep those gates closed. I wasn’t ready to deal with the emotions that would come with the collective memory.

I’m still not ready. (more…)

Do We Need to Accept the “Other”?

Two days ago, my husband and I were sleeping in a hotel in Tallinn, Estonia. At around 3 AM we woke up to the loud sounds of two men just back from the pub.  For an hour, they talked together very loudly in the room just next to ours. They then came out of the room and continued their conversation just outside our and their doors. They had absolutely no consideration for other people in the hotel. They couldn’t. They were drunk. They were unaware that their behavior had any impact on anyone else.

The concept of “the other” has occupied my mind for years. There is always an “other”. Each of us is an “other” to someone else or even to many others. How important is it for us to understand the “other”? What happens when, no matter how hard we try, we do not understand certain behaviors the “other” engages in? Are there behaviors we can accept no matter how foreign and others we simply cannot accept? What happens when the “other” engages in behaviors we absolutely do not accept? Can we accept other aspects of that “other”? What if those behaviors we cannot accept have an impact on us, directly or indirectly? What kind of a relationship can we have with an “other” who engages in such behaviors?

Drinking alcohol is one example of a behavior that some “others” cannot tolerate. Homosexuality is another. Wearing the hijab or the face veil is a third. Smoking a fourth. Believing in God, not believing in God, praying in public, taking time off work to pray, eating meat, wearing too many clothes, not wearing enough clothes, public displays of affection, polygamy; these are just some things off the top of my head that one “other” feels very passionately about and another “other” feels very strongly against.

I have never understood why people drink alcohol. (more…)

Cycling Lisbon to Tallinn: Garmin Edge 810 Review

In June 2013, I, my husband and a friend set off to cycle from London to Paris in three days. Each person was responsible for navigating one leg of the trip. Each person thus carried one detailed map for this purpose. That was fine for the duration and distance of that sort of trip.

Cycling across the entire European continent over a period of 60 days is a whole ‘nother story.

I generally prefer paper maps to using GPS technology for navigating. I find them more dependable. Before my trip, I considered different options so I could use them. If I bought every map I needed before the trip, it would be a lot of extra weight in my panniers that takes up a lot of volume. I might not readily find the maps I needed en-route. Even if I did, buying a map en-route and then discarding it to save weight and space seemed like such a waste of money.

So I decided to go digital. My husband has a Garmin watch for running, swimming, and cycling. He loves it. I’ve used Garmin navigators in rented cars and understand them well. I decided to go with the brand I know and trust.

The Garmin Edge 810 had something the other versions did not: a live tracking feature. I wanted to be able to share my whereabouts with my husband while cycling alone. That was the overriding reason why I went with the Edge 810.

One issue I had before I bought the GPS was that I could not find enough detailed information online on the various features of the product. I had to go through many reviews, that also seemed generally insufficient for understanding everything it had to offer, to get a general idea and then make a decision.

Once I bought the 810, the problem continued. (more…)

Cycling Lisbon to Tallinn: The Gear

All in all, I have been very happy with the gear I took with me to cycle across Europe.

Parked in Monte Carlo

Parked in Monte Carlo

Before I left on the trip, the total weight of everything I had in panniers was in the 15 kg range. After the first couple of days, I barely noticed that my bike had any weight on it so this range seems to be acceptable for someone like me. I have created a gear list for people doing something similar who are looking for a checklist of sorts. Below it you will find my comments on some of the gear and what little I would change now that I have hindsight. I will post a separate review on my GPS in the coming couple of days.

 

GEAR LIST:

Trek Lexi SL WSD road bike
Tire change for the bike before I left: Schwalbe Marathon 25-622 28×1.00 700x25C
Two water bottles in racks on the bike frame
Bike helmet
GPS: Garmin Edge 810
Front and back bike lights
Speedometer: Cateye velo wireless (more…)

Cycling Europe Day 61: Lisbon to Tallinn – Mission Accomplished!

This journey I have been on for the past 61 days was not to end without throwing an important reality in my face: Do not feel too proud, Nadia. Do not think of yourself too highly. You may have determination. You may be able to suck it up at times. But, in the end, you are just a spoiled little brat.

On April 14, 2014 I set out alone on my bike from the European continent’s southwestern corner in Lisbon, Portugal. Sixty-one days later I reached Tallinn, Estonia in Europe’s northeastern corner. It took 56 actual cycling days, 43 of which I was totally on my own. My husband joined me for the remaining 13 cycling days. My original target was to have 59 actual cycling days with 9 rest days instead of the five I actually took.

I cycled a total of 5630 km to get from Lisbon to Tallinn.

While cycling the final 113 km today from Haapsalu to Tallinn, much of which was in the rain, I realized I had learned an important lesson (one of many) on this trip: When you do something difficult for the first time – like cycling in pouring rain – it may seem extremely daunting. When you do it the second time you recall your success the first time and you realize that if you could do it once then you could certainly do it again. When you do it for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th times, what was once daunting becomes somewhat challenging but doable. And every time after it is simply commonplace.

Over a period of 61 days I cycled through pouring rain; gusty winds; scorching, heat-exhaustion-inducing sun; over cold mountains; through flat plains; up and down and up and down roller-coaster hills; and on paved roads, dirt roads, muddy roads, crazily busy roads, and scarily empty roads. I’ve done balancing acts on the edge of steep hills, steered into ditches, coasted down steeply declining winding mountainous roads, through tunnels, along beaches, and besides forests. (more…)

Cycling Europe Day 60: One Day to Tallinn!

Today was an absolutely miserable day. It doesn’t easily get more miserable. I loved every last minute of it.

We woke up this morning to the pitter patter of rain on our tent. No big deal. I’ve been in that situation before. I packed the wet tent. We would dry it out once we got the chance. Breakfast at camp was really good and wholesome: oatmeal with cinnamon, bread and jam, boiled eggs, cheese, and coffee and tea. The skies were dark so we put on all our rain clothes. We might as well be prepared for a long, wet today.

It didn’t stop raining all day long.

We got drizzle. We got moderate rain shower. And we got downpours.

None of that would have been a big deal. I’ve cycled in rain before.

If not for the 35 km of dirt roads.

I checked the route the GPS had for us today and it seemed fine. I could tell, based on two-months-worth of experience, that some of the roads were possibly dirt roads. Colin and I decided last night that we’d decide what to do when we reach them.

When we did reach the first dirt road, we both had a what-the-fuck-let’s-do-this moment; except we pretty much stayed in that moment the whole day. Staying on the dirt roads would save us a few kilometers as opposed to going on the main, paved road. As we saw that the dirt road was just going on and on, rather than backtrack, we just kept on it. You see, we had been on much worse dirt roads in Lithuania not long ago. That day, we had no choice but to get off the bikes and pull them through mud. The bikes almost didn’t make it that day. Even with us not on them they kept getting jammed with mud and wouldn’t move. Today, the dirt roads were wet, they had many puddle-filled potholes, there were big gravel stones we had to steer around to avoid toppling over and countless little ones that were unavoidable, and our back tires spit wet sand onto our panniers and backsides. It was an ongoing what-the-fuck-let’s-do-this moment. What can I say. (more…)