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I have been stuck in bed after a run-in with the flu. While there are downsides, there are also considerable upsides – bonus time for catching up on reading!

Sam Manicom recommended this to me at the NEC Show this year and I’m very glad he did. You might think there are no more tales to tell of the ‘biker takes on Africa’ variety but of course there are as many stories as there are bikers.  Rice & Dirt is the story of Stergios Gogos and his faithful Vespa, Kitsos, who carries him through 19 African counties including the DRC, though with a bit of help from the occasional truck.

For me, what makes Rice & Dirt such a good read is Stergios’s personality and the perspective he brings as a Greek traveller.

What difference does being Greek make?

One issue is empathy. Stergios set out from Thessaloniki in 2014, when Greece was in danger of declaring bankrupcy and  crashing out of the Eurozone. Savage austerity measures saw the economy shrink and unemployment rise to 25 per cent. These hard times at home, during which Stergios was a union activist and environmental campaigner, seem to give him a real sense of solidarity with the citizens of the African states he travels through, who are also struggling to get by on very little, sometimes more hindered than helped by governments. He writes: “I had no illusions of us being extraordinary explorers, or that we had any special abilities whatsoever. It would be ridiculous of me to think that, when the locals’ daily lives consisted of undertaking what many foreigners considered achievements worth bragging about.”

Being Greek also allows for a different persepective on the political problems that have challenged African nations. I haven’t travelled in former colonies (unless you count Australia!) but I imagine that being British in those states that we colonised and exploited, and from which we traded people in chains across the Atlantic, must surely stir difficult emotions.  Perhaps I am wrong. A former friend proudly told me that he never gave to NGOs working in Africa because slavery had ended a long time ago and it was surely time for Africans to stand on their own two feet. (This is why he is a former friend). During his journey, Stergios travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo. While staying in Ilebo – a place where there is no running water in the hotel but you can charge your mobile phone in a shop – he reflects on the history of the country. In the twenty years it was the personal property of King Leopold II of Belgium, men, women and children would have their hands amputated if they didn’t work hard enough in the rubber plantations. Half of the population died before the Belgian government intervened – only a little more than a hundred years ago. How does a country come back from such an experience, let alone thrive?

Stergios maintains good humour and an affinity for the underdog throughout his epic journey.

It’s a great read, and I recommend it even if you don’t have the flu.



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Travellers’ Tales

He used to laugh at those people with the funny faces and the bells.
Ah, jesters ma’m.

My friend Reg has a bright green Trabant called the Daisywagen. Not because it pushes them up, or smells of them, but because it transports his Airedale Terrier, Daisy. Well, he says Daisy is an Airedale, but I’m still suspicious that he got sold a Shetland pony in a chenille coat.

Ever since meeting Daisy I’ve been keen to read Gasoline Gypsy, the story of a woman who travelled through Canada, the USA and Mexico with Matelot, an Airedale she bought for the trip. Matelot travelled in a box on the back of a BSA Bantam, rested his head on Peggy’s shoulder when he felt affectionate, and jumped out and ran ahead when bored.

Yesterday I was at the National Motorcycle Museum for Museum Live and amid the stalls of Whitworth spanners , ethanol-proof fuel hose and stickers (“have you got any Gulf Oil stickers?” “Probably, I bought a collection of ten thousand.”), Gordon G May had a stall selling his own books and copies of Peggy’s. And he was very gracious when I told him I wasn’t after one of his. Maybe next year?

I left the museum with a large syringe, a date with the Warwickshire Blood BikersZoë Cano’s first book, Bonneville or Bust, which is next on the pile, and a hardback copy of Gasoline Gypsy,

I’m super-jealous of the cartoon on the cover, having my own hairy travelling companion. If anyone would like to draw me a cartoon of the wingman and I in the Lomax I’m very willing to pay!

But I digress.

Peggy’s book is a great read about a great adventure but a bit of a period piece. I love the detail that she travels with a typewriter and a camera – two essential tools now wrapped up into a tiny smartphone – though in a shocking oversight, Peggy doesn’t say what machine she used to capture her thoughts.  I’m less comfortable with her attitude to some of the people she meets – at times the tale does shade into ‘look at the funny Mexicans,’ and her relief at being back in the States is very, very clear. Is it all we can expect of someone travelling in the 1950s, or is it a reflection of a certain Home Counties Englishness?

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Peggy makes a lot of friends on the road and she comes across as brave, resourceful and able to strip a cylinder head in 15 minutes.

For me, the book absolutely excels when Peggy captures those magical moments when the road gives you its blessing.

“Once again we climbed up into the darkness of the silent mountains and the warm night. Then I gradually came into the light of the moon, which was steadily rising over the summit of the mountains. The road ahead was like a silver ribbon, winding up and up round the dark mountain sides. The beauty of the night was intense, and I wished that the drive would last for ever.”

One quick health warning: Any readers of the ‘all the gear, all the time’ persuasion should steer clear of this book. At various points, Peggy rides in a sundress, a ‘riding skirt’ that she had specially made, and, when struggling through a series of downpours, in bare feet. It’s an argument I occasionally have on twitter – the bike struggles to top 30mph, why does she need to wear any more than you’d wear to ride a bicycle?

The other aspect that troubles me is the reliance on being a solo woman traveller to get out of scrapes. Of course it’s wonderful that passing truckers, motorcycle shop proprietors, hotel owners, policemen and Dutch cargo ship captains should want to help a lady traveller and go out of their way to do so. But is this a good way to travel? At one point Peggy is down to her last few dimes and can’t afford to pay for a pitch in a state camping ground. She pitches, hopes to get away with it , and the kindly warden lets her off.

“Hope you had a good night’s rest, and say, I didn’t bother you about that seventy-five cents, I reckoned you were short of dough.”

Cheryl Strayed, half a century later, faces the same dilemma and it ends with her being forced to move on.

“If you’re going to stay here, you have to pay. If you can’t pay, you’ve got to pack up and leave. Them are the rules. We’ll keep the lights on while you pack.”

Cheryl isn’t a biker – she’s a hiker. She walks a thousand miles to get her life back on track after losing her mother, her family and her husband. Her story is also a period piece – she walked in 1995, when email was in its infancy and the internet still came down phone wires in black and white. She relies on letters from friends to keep in touch and has to telephone REI from a cafe for help with her boots.

I guess it’s human nature look for the parallels between our own journeys and the journeys of the people we come to know and admire through their words. I would definitely follow Peggy’s example and travel with a typewriter to Mexico, if it was possible to take AdventureDog with me. I love that Ted Simon is a journalist, like I have been, and according to Ted that means I have the skills and toughness to follow his example.

The things I hold in common with Cheryl Strayed are the things that I swept under the carpet. I might write about them again, but I fear it would be boring. Perhaps I only need to say that if you, like us, lost a mother to cancer when you were barely an adult, if your family drifted apart and you have nothing in common with your siblings, if your marriage didn’t stay the course, and if you did things that hurt yourself and others because nothing really mattered any more, then you should read Wild. And even if you haven’t, you should read it anyway because it’s a really great story. It will just probably make you cry a bit less.

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100 key breakthroughs



One of the perks of being a guest is being exposed to new books on your host’s bookshelves. With clean hands, obviously. Respectfully, without bending spines or turning down corners.

In the house I’m staying in before flying to Spain (for work!) I found this book, which has told me three new things in the first three chapters, including that our 60-second minute and 60-minute hour is thanks to the ancient civilisation of Babylon. Yes, the one that ISIS are destroying. And we know this thanks to cuneiform clay tablets. Yes, the ones that US troops stood by and allowed looters to destroy.

But that wasn’t my point.

My friend is a big fan of reading on a Kindle. But if all books will go onto Kindles instead of shelves, how will I pick them up in an idle moment and learn new things?

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