11 days on the Polish border with Ukraine

Two weeks ago, an American friend posted an appeal saying there was urgent need for volunteers in Medyka, a small village on the Polish border with Ukraine. A few days later, my husband Colin and I were on a plane to Poland. I had decided that I was not going to have expectations. I was going into the unknown. I don’t really know much about the history, politics or culture of the region. I don’t know anything about war beyond what I’ve seen in the media. I have never done relief work. But if someone thought I could be helpful, I really wanted to help.

The following 11 days were an enlightening experience, more regarding the functionings of relief agencies than anything else. By the time we arrived at the camp in Medyka, the movement of refugees out of Ukraine through Poland had slowed. By the time we left 11 days later, there appeared to be more Ukrainians returning home through that specific border (there are others) than there were leaving it.


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…)

Cycling Europe Day 57: My Body Told Me to Properly Visit Riga – My Body Was Right

Listen to your body. I’ve learned that time and again over the years. People about you will always have brilliant advice on what is good or not for you. They will have objections on your lifestyle. They will tell you what to eat and how to exercise. We all have common sense and most of us already know what is healthy and what is not.

I live what I believe is a generally healthy lifestyle. I listened to my body yesterday and it told me I needed a rest. So I gave it a rest.

This morning my husband and I slept in. What that means is that instead of getting up at 6am we got up at 7am. We ate our breakfast slowly, even though neither of us are ever ones to rush through what we feel is the most important meal of the day. We then spent the morning walking around Riga, Latvia’s capital city, and, because I’m listening to my body, I then took a short but much needed nap.

As a rather frequent traveler, I’m surprised and ashamed about how little to nothing I know about the Baltic states. I am incredibly impressed with Riga. It rivals cities like Vienna and Prague in its architectural beauty, in my opinion, yet if you asked me three months ago what the capital of Latvia was, I’d ask you, “Where the heck is Latvia?”


Guest Post From the Hubby: Cycling With Nadia

This is the first time for me to publish a guest post on my blog. I’m very excited! It is written by my husband, Colin McFadden, and I will only read it with all of you once it is posted online. 

This time last Friday, I was still at work – very early on Saturday morning I got a taxi, then a train, then I walked, then a plane, then a bus, then a train – and met Nadia somewhere in the middle of Poland.

Within an hour of meeting up, we had unpacked and re-built my bike and were sitting in a restaurant having dinner, listening to local musicians who were playing in the square outside – and it seemed that we had not been apart for the previous 6 weeks – when I’d been going to work every day and Nadia had been on this incredible journey.

When I was preparing to join Nadia I went to the local bike shop to get some spare bike parts and some (cool) bike gear for myself. The manager knows Nadia and had followed some of her blog posts – we were chatting about it all and he recalled first meeting her when she bought her bike, probably about two years ago – when she was a complete bike novice – and how it is incredible that that beginner has now become such a keen cyclist.

I nodded and agreed with him – but I knew that that was not entirely true. The planning for this trip consumed Nadia for maybe a month beforehand, and she is obviously 100% focused on it now. She may do other bike trips in the future, but I know that she will not want to be known solely as Nadia “the biker”. She will find something new to move onto – perhaps (probably) something that she has no experience or knowledge of at the moment – but that she will fully expect that she can research, plan and prepare for and carry out.

And that is the inspiration that I think everyone can take from this trip – if you can dream it, then you can do it – that’s what Nadia did.

But then I’m biased – and am just trying to keep up with her!

Cycling Europe Day 53: Learning By Biking

The good days come just when you need them. It’s been miserably wet the past few days. There is more rain predicted in the next few days. But today we got some glorious warm, sunny weather. We had all our wet clothes spread out over our panniers to give them a chance to dry.

We cycled 92km from Augustow, Poland to Marijampole, Lithuania. It’s so strange how it’s almost always immediately obvious when you’ve crossed a border. The terrain doesn’t change immediately, but the houses, shops, road signs, and sometimes even the people do.

The parts of Poland we cycled through seemed much better off than I had expected.

All our wet clothes were in need of some sun.

All our wet clothes were in need of some sun.

Poland is a beautiful country and the standard of living there seems to be pretty decent generally. The minute we cycled into Lithuania, however, we saw lots of poorly maintained farm houses and homes. There were older more run-down cars on the roads as well. The roads, though, seem well maintained so far.

We cycled through a lot of agricultural land today. I will not lie. There are some countries I’m cycling through on this trip I know virtually nothing about. That’s part of the excitement of cycling through a country like Lithuania. I have no idea what to expect. For someone like me, the best way to learn is by doing. I am really looking forward to learning Lithuania by bike.

Cycling Europe Day 52: It All Balances Out

We cycled 139km today in pouring rain. It was rough. We got soaked. Big trucks rushedimage by us; many a bit too close. At one point, a truck following too closely to the truck ahead of it saw me at the last possible moment. I ended up steering myself into the gutter. I got a big fright but I was all right. We planned to stop after 70km of cycling today but we couldn’t find a hotel – anywhere! So we just kept cycling.

It was miserable…


We saw a wolf climbing out of a ditch on his way back into the forest.

We saw a stork standing over its nest.

We ended up cycling the distance we had planned to cycle today and tomorrow. So we have an extra day we can do with as we please. We’re saving it in case we need a rest day later on.

We found a nice hotel by a lake in Augustow, Poland. It has a steam room and a jacuzzi. We used both. It felt good after that long, wet day of cycling.

I’m eating ice cream as I’m writing this.

My husband is with me.

So you know what? Life is good.

Cycling Europe Day 51: The Trials and Tribulations of Superman

Some days I have episodic moments / momentous episodes when I feel like superman. I think of superman in the gender neutral the way I sometimes think of myself. So I’m NOT going to say I feel like some fictional character called superwoman who never existed just to be gender-feminine. As I was saying, sometimes I have episodic moments or momentous episodes when I feel like superman. And then there are prolonged, chronic bouts when I feel like the world’s entire supply of kryptonite is being used to sap every last drop of life out of me. Today, about half the world’s supply of kryptonite was being used against me. I was fine, as I normally am, up until the 70th kilometer. And then it hit me. I was feeling drained, sleepy, and hungry. Yesterday we cycled about 70km and then did a lot of walking around Warsaw. I didn’t eat proper meals either. I had a burger and fries for lunch and a cake and tea later. That ruined my appetite for dinner so all I had later was a doner-kabab sandwich at night. I knew that not eating a proper meal to restore the energy spent that day was going to come back at me the following day. It’s not easy cycling when the energy is zapped out of you. But you have to carry on. Actually, you don’t. You could just as well get off your bike and cry by the side of the road. Or you could cycle till the next roadside hotel and call it an early day. But I never allow those to be options. In my head, my only real option is to get to my next destination or further. So I carry on. All those words just to say that I was fine for 70km and then I felt tired afterwards. I’ll be frank. I have absolutely no idea what to write about today. I frequently end up blogging about the thoughts running around in my head while I’m cycling. Ever since my husband joined me three days ago, I really haven’t had many of those. I’ve had Colin to keep me company so my thoughts decided to take a break for awhile. Nothing particularly interesting happened today either. We cycled 127km from Warsaw to a town called Ostroleka. I successfully and easily navigated us out of the big city onto a major road that we stayed on for the whole route. It drizzled sometimes. We stopped at a gas station to pee at 40km and at a roadside restaurant for goulash at 80km. Ostroleka was too small to have any decent hotels so we cycled back onto the major road till we found a roadside hotel that would do the job. We checked in, showered, had dinner, and now I’m sitting in bed writing today’s blog post. But you don’t want to hear boring details like those! So for today I’m superman dealing with a world conspiracy to sap the life force out of me. But I’m superman. Not even the world’s whole supply of kryptonite can stop me.

Cycling Europe Day 50: Warsaw – A City Worthy of Good Marketing

Poland really needs to better market itself as a tourist destination. If it is already

The mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw and is found on its coat of arms.

The mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw and is found on its coat of arms.

doing that, it’s doing a lousy job. Neither I nor Colin have ever heard much about Poland in terms of tourism. And even though the weather has been wet and overcast almost the whole time I’ve been in the country, I’m absolutely loving it.

My husband and I cycled a short distance today – 67 km – through almost constant rain to get to Warsaw. A decent part of that distance was on bumpy backroads and even some dirt roads. The rest was on a very busy, major road into the city. Because of all that, it was slow going.

Colin is having some difficulty with an old iliotibial band problem. It started acting up yesterday and it’s not getting any better. I think it’s a combination of all the weight on his bike, the fact that he has a tendency to want to push himself when this isn’t a push-yourself kind of trip, and evil eye.

Cursed be anyone who gives my family the evil eye.

We arrived in Warsaw and had enough time to walk around the old city. I am really really surprised by it. I have no idea where I got the impression that it would be a dodgy city. From what I’ve seen of it, it isn’t one bit. We cycled through the outskirts into an area near the commercial center of the city to our hotel. We then walked quite a long distance to reach the old town. I’m telling you, I’ve walked in many neighborhoods in Paris that have seemed dodgy to me. The many neighborhoods we cycled and walked through in Warsaw seemed nicely normal.

Warsaw’s old town is absolutely beautiful. It was completely razed to the ground, along with 85 percent of the city, in World War II. It was then rebuilt to resemble the former old town, and was inscribed as a World Heritage Site in 1980.

If I were alone in this city as I had been in so many others before it, I would have thought that I would have loved to be here with my husband. It is so romantic. As it happens, my husband was with me this time. We walked through the cobblestoned alleyways, hand in hand, and truly enjoyed ourselves.

If you have never thought of Poland as a tourist destination, think again. I am falling in love with this country and its people.

Cycling Europe Day 49: The Sharing of It

Experiences are a million times better when shared. Not only do you have someone to share the burden of responsibility, but the joy that comes from having someone else see, hear, feel, and smell the wonders that you see, hear, feel, and smell is almost indescribable.

“Looks like he will follow you anywhere.” That is what one of my cousins said when I announced on Facebook that my husband had arrived in Poland to join me on the last leg of my trip.

Colin got on a flight from the UK to Warsaw, found a bus to Warsaw’s central train station, and then found a train to a small town, the name of which neither of us can pronounce: Piotrow Trybunalski. During that whole ordeal, he was lugging a pannier and a big carton box that had his bike in it. I have no idea how he managed to carry them both.

I had cycled an extra distance to be in Piotrow Trybunalski when he got there. The town I intended to stay in that night did not have a train station. I waited at the station, a train rolled in, and out came the ravishingly handsome Scot that I married. He had travelled to the middle-of-nowhere Poland just to be with me. I am the luckiest woman in the world.

And just in case: cursed be anyone who gives my family the evil eye.

Today was my first day not to cycle solo. It was a whole new experience for me. I felt giddy like a little girl watching Colin get all excited about starting. I loved being able to point at something to make sure Colin also saw it and to talk to him about how pretty it was: See how beautiful this road is? See how the sunlight hits the bark on those trees and makes them light up? See the lake? Look at that lost little doggie! Aren’t Polish villages so nice? And on and on and on. Colin was as excited about it all as I was. Now he could see what I had been describing to him during our evening Skype calls. Now he knew.

It is wonderful to be able to experience things. It is a blessing and a gift to be able to share them with others.

Colin and I cycled beyond our intended destination today. Tomorrow we hope to be in Warsaw and I want to get there a bit early so I have some time to see the city. We decided we would stop at any road-side hotel along the way. But we were on country backroads. Would we find a hotel before we reached the next town, which was still quite far away? We had to try our luck. And as we were cycling along, not exactly sure where we were, we found a sign that said there was food and accommodation 500 meters ahead. We decided we’d check it out. And what do we find? A Polish palace that has rooms at excellent prices! So Colin and I are spending our night in a palace! It’s the perfect ending to our first day of cycling together.

Cycling Europe Day 47: On Traveling Alone

I am so excited I can barely contain myself!

Just for a second, when I saw this, I thought I was cycling near Benha, Egypt, in the Nile Delta region. It's an area on our route when we go to visit my father's village.

Just for a second, when I saw this, I thought I was cycling near Benha, Egypt, in the Nile Delta region. It’s an area on our route when we go to visit my father’s village.

I am so excited that I cycled more than 50km farther than I intended today so I could be that much closer to tomorrow’s revised destination.

I wasn’t going to say anything until it actually happened. I wanted to keep away the evil eye. But I’m too excited to hold it in any longer!

So…Cursed be any who gives my family the evil eye.

There! Now I can tell you!

Guess what?

My husband Colin is coming tomorrow!

And he’s not coming for a short fling of a weekend like he did while I was in France. He’s coming to cycle with me till I reach my final destination or until I get too tired to cycle any longer!

Someone gather up all the excitement that’s spilling all over the place and making an absolute mess!

This was my ultimate strategy while planning the trip.

Colin could not take endless time off of work to join me for the whole thing. But he wanted to join me for part of it. He wanted to come with me at the start. He had two reasons. He wanted to get me off on my way and make sure I would be all right on my own. He also felt that he’d enjoy cycling in that part of Europe more.

I insisted that if he could only join me for part of the trip that he leave it till the end. (more…)