I hadn’t cycled for 10 years and if you told me 6 months ago that I would have joined the Ecotopia Biketour this summer I would have laughed at you. But I did; and I made it from the beginning of Ecotopia Biketour 2014 until the end. It all started in February when I met this year’s organizers in Thessaloniki. They came to the assembly at Sholio, a squatted social center, to ask if they could use the space for the spring meeting. It was the first time I heard about the idea of a biketour and it sounded great but I immediately thought it was not for me. I hadn’t cycled since I was 14, I didn’t even own a bike and moreover I didn’t know anything about bikes or bike fixing. It was crazy to even think about it. But there was something about it that made the idea stick in my head. Analyzing it, there were many reasons why I should join as it sounded like a combination of things I wanted to experience for a while.
The idea of long term low-budget travel was something that was in my mind for the past couple of years. My plan was to save some money and start from close to my area, around the Mediterranean or the Balkans but this would take me at least until next summer to prepare and organize. Coincidentally the Biketour was taking place in the Southern Balkans, it was cheaper than travelling by train or bus and it was happening now. Plus travelling in a group sounded a lot safer and a lot more fun!
Communal lifestyle was something else that I had also been thinking about for some time. Living together with a group of people, sharing tasks and making decisions together, sharing and learning from each other on a daily basis is a lifestyle that I wanted to try. The Biketour seemed like a great way to try it out temporarily and test how I can live and work together with a diverse group of people that I hadn’t even met before. Of course meeting different and interesting people from all over the world was another pro.
Another lifestyle choice that really interests me is a sustainable one and Eco-topia Biketour sounded like a great place to meet people who practice it and learn new ways to protect and respect the environment. Also thinking about the future I imagine myself living in an eco-community and looking at this year’s projects I saw many eco-community projects around my area that I would be very interested to visit and see first-hand.
All and all the Biketour seemed like a perfect opportunity to do all these things that I had been thinking about combined together. But what was stopping me? Well, I did not have any cycling experience or a bike. I also have a neck problem and cycling long distances loaded will all my belongings did not seem like a good idea. And on top of these, my parents would freak out if I told them what I wanted to do. Okay, some of these may sound like valid reasons but after examining them one by one it proved they were just excuses. I could find a bike if I really wanted to and I should not let a health problem or my parents stop me from experiencing things that I really want to do in my life. Also if so many people could do it so could I!
What was really stopping me then? It was FEAR. Fear that I would fail, that I would not make it, and that I would not be able to cope with the physical or emotional demands of this experience, fear to try something new, something completely different from what I had experienced so far. But I believe that in order to grow you have to be open, you have to push yourself outside your comfort zone, you have to let your experiences shape you and overcome your fears. And I had made a conscious decision not to let fear stop me from the things I want to do in my life. Also I believe that living a life true to your beliefs and making every decision based on your values and worldview will lead you to the right places and the right people and ultimately to happiness and fulfillment. My choices had led me to the Biketour, there was a chance right there in front of me to put all these beliefs and theories into practice, so I challenged myself to grab it.
A year ago now I lost my grandfather. He was my favorite person and he always spent time with me when I was a kid. He taught me how to build houses with mud and bricks, benches with wood and nails; he gave me broken clocks and screwdrivers to mess around with their mechanisms. He also was the one who taught me how to ride a bike and that was when he discovered he had a heart problem. He had heart surgery 8 years ago but he started having problems again and he went into the hospital in September 2013. He had two surgeries and I was at the hospital almost every day for two months but he did not make it. The last thing he told me before he went into the surgery was ‘Remember, you can achieve whatever you set your mind to. I believe in you’. I did not set a tear after he died, I knew he had suffered and finally it was over, he had lived a good life and offered much to those around him so there was no other thing to do than accept his death. At the same time I made a promise to myself to honor him by living by his last phrase and be brave enough to do the things that I really want to do in my life.
A couple of weeks before the beginning of the Biketour in July I attended a presentation about it at sholio. It just sounded like a perfect opportunity to experience things that really mattered to me and I did not want to miss it. After that the only thing I could think about was how I could make it happen. I could not sleep at night because I was thinking of how I could find a bike and the rest of the equipment I needed. I finally mentioned it to my parents and they reacted the way I expected, they told me that I am crazy and that they would not allow me to do it. But I had made a resolution to not let anyone tell me what I can and I can’t do.
A couple of days before the group departed from Thessaloniki I was visiting my grandparents and my uncle in my birth town, a city 85 km away. My uncle had two bikes so I asked if I could borrow one of his bikes and he agreed. So I took the bike on the bus to Thessaloniki on Tuesday evening. After that point my parents realized that I was determined to go so they let me borrow their 15 years old camping equipment. The next day I had to get some basic bike equipment; a rack, panniers, lights, a bell, a water bottle, tubes e.t.c. In the afternoon my dad helped me to fix the rack and change the brake pads and I took the bike for a ride 10 years after I rode a bike last. I could balance all right and pedal but I had no idea how to use the gears. Well, I would have to figure this out once I was there. So that evening I was packing my panniers until 2 a.m. while I was thinking if what I am doing is indeed crazy and whether I am going to get myself killed as my mum professed. High on adrenaline I couldn’t really get any sleep that night because I was too anxious and excited until we got our bus at 7 a.m. on Thursday. So I set on my way there accompanied by doubts, thinking that I might be back within the first 5 days because of not being able to keep up with the cycling, but at least I was brave enough to give it a try.
About 5 hours later we arrived in Sofia and I had to ride for the first time in a big city and also with my bike fully loaded. It did not go as bad as I expected, other than my chain jumping within the first 200 meters, it went ok. Over the next few days I had to try and figure out how to use the gears. For some reason I found riding uphill on a high gear easier and the small hill in the park we had to climb everyday to get to our sleeping place in Sofia got me out of breath.
For our first long distance ride, we had to do around 50 km and climb a mountain. We also departed late, after 15.00 p.m. and I found the uphill part very hard. I had to stop every 10’ 5’ to catch my breath and by the time we were arriving I was exhausted, it was dark, my lights were not doing much and at some points I was at the back without being able to see anyone ahead. I was on the verge of breaking into tears and I was asking myself why I put myself in this position, but the scary sounds coming from the woods kept me going. It turned out that the tail was waiting up not too far ahead. Shortly after a van came by and the guy stopped and asked if we were from Ecotopia Biketour, “Yes” we replied and it turned out it was Philip, our host. He said we were very close and asked if he could help us by taking anything on the van. It seemed like a divine intervention and I immediately replied “Me, please!” After some laughs, he gave me and my bike a lift for the last few hundred meters. I had crossed my limits but with some unexpected help I had made it!
After this very traumatizing experience I tried to be as prepared as possible for my cycling days, to leave early and to keep going without taking long breaks. Having a cheap mountain bike with small wheels and wide tires did not help at all. I soon figured out that I could not keep up with other people’s pace and I had to find my own. I was counting the people that were overtaking me to know that there are still people at the back. I was terrified of being left behind and my bike breaking because I had no idea how to fix it. Eventually I got faster and I learned how to fix basic things so I was confident enough to cycle mostly alone, even 80km to Prizren from Prishtina despite some rain, terrible drivers, very narrow roads and loads of catcalling on the way… So I grew to love cycling and I was looking forward to every cycling day, every kilometer and every hill and the feeling of achievement every time I made it to the destination.
But it was not only the cycling that I learned to love on the biketour. It gave me loads of confidence by learning to do new things that I did not feel comfortable enough to do before. At first just the cycling was a huge task for me so I did not sign up for any other task on cycling days. I stuck to taking up cooking and cleaning on the non-cycling days, the tasks I also did at home and felt more comfortable with. Slowly I tried to take up more tasks and by the end I had tried all tasks, even the ones that terrified me at the beginning like taking a trailer or facilitating. When I first arrived at the Biketour I felt like I knew nothing and there were many things I thought I could not do but by the end I felt like I could do almost anything. I got a lot of confidence in trying new things and learnt how to overcome some of my insecurities. Writing this post is an example.
Of course the Biketour was not perfect. Within the first couple of weeks I felt very disappointed. This was mainly because I had great expectations when I arrived. The guys in Thessaloniki seemed so organized and able to work well together and the presentation made the Biketour seem ideal, so I had created in my mind this image of everything working perfectly and everyone communicating perfectly with each other. This of course was totally unrealistic. Different people have different expectations and perspectives and when you have so many different people that don’t know each other from before coming together it is normal to have differences of opinions and attitudes. Some people were there to do activism, some people were there mainly for fun, some people were more focused on more technical aspects of everyday life and others on people’s relations. And of course nothing worked perfectly. The communication was not always great, we did not do as many workshops or discussions as we’d like, a lot of times we were not very considerate to the environment and we did not buy from small producers and organic farms a lot of times. Just like at everywhere else people many times did not fulfill the decisions they made or follow the rules they had set or agreed to. But it was a space where this could be discussed openly and there could be an effort to understand why this happens and try to resolve the issues that were raised.
On the Biketour I learned a lot about myself, what works for me and what I need to work on. I saw the need to compromise more and to try and see things from other people’s perspectives. It made me realize that people can have very different needs and what is the best for someone in some situations may be completely different from what is best for someone else. It also opened my mind to things that I wouldn’t have imagined could work for me before but I enjoyed. I met some great people that probably I wouldn’t have met otherwise and I am really grateful for this experience. I want to thank all the individuals who participated this year for making this journey so special and teaching me so many things with their unique personalities and attitudes. I really appreciate all of you and I am happy that I met you, hope to see you again soon in our future travels!
So if you ask me how my experience of the Biketour was there is no simple answer I can give you. The Biketour was nothing and everything that I expected. It was challenging and many times it brought me to my limits but it was totally worth it. It was an empowering experience that taught me many things. It was three months of my life that were very unique and wouldn’t be the same without the people I met there. It is an experience that I recommend to everyone! Just come with no expectations, be ready to step back and compromise and be open to new ways of doing things and new ideas but at the same time bring your own personality and share your unique skills and ideas.