We were hit with some huge storms in the Balkans. In places with less-than-perfect roads, this meant pushing our bikes through deep puddles of mud.
On one memorable occasion, I (Laura) lost my patience with picking my way carefully and instead stomped across a muddy patch, only to find myself ankle-deep in a swamp. After half an hour wiping the worst off the rims using a rag I found on the ground, an old man approached, holding a staff. He spoke no English and my three Albanian words were quickly used up, but that didn’t prevent him from standing over me, gesturing and chattering on.
As my family will attest, I can be rather irritable at times, and this man’s inability to read the situation and leave us to it drove me mad. I could barely engage with him, leaving it to Tim to play conversational charades while I fumed and carried on scrubbing my bike. Could he not see that this was not a good time and that we were busy? We had places to get to…people to see…no time to stop…
Of course, we had nowhere we needed to be, nor any appointments we were missing. Sure, we had only covered a few miles before Mud Gate, but we could have camped up then and would still have made our next scheduled rest stop in plenty of time. The old man was only trying to help: despite looking about one hundred and five, he bent over to start knocking mud off my panniers. He had simply picked the wrong moment to come and say hello.
It is a symptom of modern life, at least in Britain, to be always focussed on progress. When combined with an in-built suspicion of strangers, it leads to a tendency to shutter out the world and close oneself off to new experiences. This is something we need to work on, or else we risk missing out on the best times. In the Balkans, we were constantly being flagged down and given bags of fruit or invited into people’s homes, and we came to realise the benefit of openness.
The incident with the old man and my bike was a classic case where I needed to ignore my irritable instinct, forget about cleaning or making progress for a few minutes, and sit back on my heels. Despite the lack of a common language, we could have managed to communicate. Only by slowing down and being more open to situations, can a good trip can be made great. Progress isn’t always about miles.