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Travel with a twist

by Jan Wheatcroft

I have a collection of over 10 travel journals that I created while traveling since 2000. They are filled with photos, drawings, descriptions and information about everything I have done while on a trip. I was leafing through them the other day to find some information about a museum I had enjoyed in Delhi, India to pass on to someone on her way to India. I was drawn in to re-living many of the experiences I had enjoyed and forgotten.

Since I am not traveling at the moment but am working to create a body of art work for an exhibit in March of this year, I thought I might share some of the interesting tidbits I came upon. 

BEAR ENCOUNTER…..I was in Istanbul, Turkey spending the day with a Turkish student I had worked with at Pitzer College one summer. We were walking along the Bosphorus after having visited the beautiful Dolmabahce Palace where I had been so impressed by the long, heavy silk curtains covering huge windows. 

On the road, we met a man holding a chain attached to a bear. The bear was standing on his 2 hind feet. His fur was matted and full of dirty bits. He was thin and looked sad and hungry. He just stood there looking dejected.

My student friend Tuba told me that the man was a Gypsy and was using the bear to get money from tourists. I took out my camera to take a photo of the mistreatment of this bear, feeling so sorry for the situation. After I had snapped a few photos, the man stuck out his hand and said something that I could not understand, but he obviously wanted money for the photo op. I refused to pay him anything as the bear was obviously so mistreated and miserable and should not have been chained and kept in this state. His only interest was in my paying him. I pocketed my camera and we turned and left after I told him how I felt. A few seconds later I heard him shouting and running after us, the chain clanking away and the bear awkwardly being dragged along.

We ran, the man ran, the bear ran….we ran faster and he yelled louder. It was a scary moment being chased by an angry man and a sick and hungry bear down the streets in Istanbul, but we did outrun him and got lost in the crowd ahead of us. I think that it was quite as special an experience for my Turkish friend as it was for me.

THE THRILL OF FLYING ALONG A WINDING ISLAND ROAD ON A GREEK MOTORBIKE…..I lived for many years on the Greek island of Samos.  Tourism was just beginning and English-written signs were needed to announce the opening of motorbike rentals for tourists. After teaching private English lessons, I would get to work on wooden slabs painting “Nikos Rent a Bike” or “Yorgos Motorbike Rental” and then add on a happy biker with a backpack as a finishing touch. Then came the restaurant signs decorated with plates of food, and a few hotel and gift shop signs as well.

Soon, I decided it was time I learned to ride a motorbike. Friends came to visit and we went to rent motorbikes. Bikes are bikes, with or without motors. They still have only 2 wheels and they still tip over. I had not mastered the art of bicycle riding, so I was a bit afraid of what might happen to me on this bigger, faster mechanical monster. But I was desperate to learn and experience the sense of freedom on the road.

Yorgos fitted us out with bikes, showed us how to start them and waved us off. We rode off up the road to the village above ours, me clutching the handles in fear but enjoying the feeling of speed or what felt like speed to me at that moment. We wound around the mountain roads until we came to the village and needed to stop. I took my hands off the handles to slow down but had no memory of how to stop the bike, so I slowly rode into the nearest wall and came to a standstill. A handle bashed into my chest and left me with a large black-and-blue mark for many days afterwards. But I had arrived, and I had survived and I found that I loved it. That began my love affair with motorbikes in Greece.

I did learn to stop and I rented and rode bikes all over the islands, just for fun, to go outside of our village, to hit the beach for lunch or just to feel the wind blowing in my face as I “raced” through the hills from village to village with a scarf tied on my head. 

We would often stop at a small cafe for a Greek coffee under the shade of a large plane tree with its leaves casting shadows over our heads. The hills were covered in pine and olive trees and herbs that gave off a sharp, pungent smell in the heat and the cicadas buzzed with a noisy intensity that never stopped. I once bought a very small, light motorbike and rode like a queen around the island for a year on it. 

Over the years, I visited other islands and rented many different bikes. Each island seemed to have different varieties of bikes for rent and slowly over time the bikes actually grew in size. Soon I was riding a Vespa on Chios. Once on Paros Island, I got a rather large bike with a girlfriend and my son and his friend and we rode off, me following my friend on a small dirt track near the sea. Soon the track disappeared and I was bumping along on rocks while she had disappeared completely. Then I hit something and flipped over on top of my backpack while the bike flipped over on top of me. I lay there trying to figure out how I was going to get up and get the bike off of me when I heard the dripping of gas, I stopped thinking about it and just shoved the bike up and off. As I stood up my son rode by, looked at my now-dirty backpack, and said, “Fell off your bike again, Mom?” 

Two years ago, I went back for a visit to Samos and was so excited about the chance to rent a motorbike and explore all the places I had enjoyed as well as feel the wind in my face and the feeling of power in my hands.  Imagine my disappointment when Nikos told me there were no motorbikes to rent, only motorcycles and that all renters had to have motorcycling licenses in order to rent them. I felt a true pain in my heart, as this was all I had thought about for weeks. 

We took a car instead, which was dull and boring compared to that dreamed motorbike ride and went up the winding roads into the hills. The hills were no longer covered in trees as before. Mostly, they were empty and many showed bad scars left from fires. It was ugly and the new building construction didn’t help either. It made my memories become more important, and I missed the feeling of youth and passion that the motorbike had brought me. It was over. 

I will always remember the years that I lived on that island and the magic of learning to sit on a bike and let it carry me up and down mountains and into the wildest life I had ever known. All of this on a small motorized bike and some dusty, tree-covered hills full of pines and olives and me, the captain of my ship, sailing into forever.

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