Google maps, heatstroke and bucket loads of coffee, what it's like to take on the Lebanon on Wheels.
The ‘Lebanon on Wheels’ project was started in 2016 as a means of raising money for Toufic, a thirteen-year-old boy, who lives in a psychiatric institution in Lebanon. Toufic suffers from severe mental disability and as a result can barely speak. Apart from a few sounds, he is very restricted in his communication and his everyday life is rendered extremely difficult because of this. Meeting Toufic for the first time, in the hospice of Deir el Salib where he lives, was a powerful experience. Meeting a child whose life was unfolding before me and was already so unfair made me determined to act and somehow struck me particularly due to his young age. After almost a year of preparation, we set off from London in mid-July and reached the hills of Athens on the 23rd of August, exhausted but elated to have accomplished what started as such a fanciful idea.
Cycling for any period of time is a fascinating exercise in voyeurism. It allowed George and I to connect with people we had never met and will never meet again but whose lives we gained an insight into, simply by virtue of crossing paths. Whether it was our now friend, Friederike, who offered us a bed and a hot meal in Bonn, the looks of absolute empathy we exchanged with cyclists as we rode up and down the Alpine pass of Gotthard or the eerie whistles received from prostitutes in southern Italy, the humanity we experienced was incredible. As I pedalled, my mind constantly reinvented the people that I crossed. A perfume smelt outside Basel or a smile received near Corinth created a world of intrigue into why these people were there and the kind of daily life they might lead.
To the untrained eye one might expect Holland, fabled for its cycle lanes and flat land, to offer the perfect starting point for our cycle. Indeed, after landing at the Hook of Holland we made significant headway towards Rotterdam along wide, grey canals bordered on both sides by hulking wind turbines. However, as we reached the imposing structure of the Erasmus suspension bridge, it became evident that we had lost each other, most likely due to the ludicrous amount of cycle lanes on offer. This was a sobering experience which acted as a timely reminder that our journey to Athens would not be without difficulty - a reality made even starker as the next day would prove to be our most challenging. We cycled an exhausting 150 kilometers to the industrial town of Duisburg where we were greeted with an additional 10-mile loop having missed our ferry across the dark waters of the Rhine. Whilst in terms of sheer pain this part of the cycle cannot compare to Switzerland and the Alps and the relentless climbing we endured, the feeling of hopelessness and unforeseeable difficulty, combined with illness and torrid weather conditions really pushed us mentally. This sense of unexpected angst and trepidation would resurface south of Bonn as we attempted, foolishly, to cut across the Ardennes. Steep valleys of dense, German, pine forests sent us straight back to the more familiar riverbanks of the Rhine and its countless medieval castles. Further south, I was astounded by the green fields and vineyards of the Mosel, a stark contrast with the faded villages of Alsace. A stop in a dusty café, 50 kilometres outside of Strasbourg surrounded by staggering men, avidly following the horse races, was a sad reminder of the area’s economic hardship.
As a cyclist it is hard to be detached from this kind of encounter. Small realities such as the price of water and the frequency of restaurants or hotels say quite a lot about an area. The poorest and most difficult region we travelled through was without a doubt northern Puglia. Here, we left the relative comfort of the coast for the dusty town of Foggia. Having had the chance to study regional disparities throughout the European Union, I believed I had some idea of the relative poverty we would encounter. However, I was in no way prepared for the staggering hardship with which we were faced. Roads were battered and pot-holed. People lived under tarpaulins in abandoned shacks and dead dogs lined the side of the roads. I was astounded to be greeted throughout the day by prostitutes sat under faded umbrellas and shocked as we cycled past row upon row of migrants picking tomatoes under the blistering sun. This was no easy sight and I remember the silence that fell between George and I as we cycled back towards the Adriatic’s sandy beaches. Greece, and in particular the island of Salamina offered a different type of poverty as villages appeared almost empty with many houses stopped halfway through construction. Blocks of concrete jarred with the incredibly clear waters of Xilokastro and the steep inland hills seemed devoid of any life beside the odd rundown village and goat farmer. The industrial, grey seaport of Pireas, from where we climbed the last twenty kilometres of our journey, gave a good indication of the recent urbanization that had occurred in Athens. A city where 35 percent of the Greek population currently live.
The ending of our cycle was perhaps most staggering as it marked a dramatic contrast with the more prosperous areas we had cycled through. Holland, Germany, France, Switzerland and Northern Italy whilst at times fairly grey and industrial never shook me as exceptional. Switzerland in particular, clearly stands in a league of its own for its outstanding natural beauty. Lakes of crystalline water and the peel of cow bells created a homely feel as immaculate cycle lanes guided us southward. Imposing and seemingly endless mountains rolled before us yet the atmosphere remained one of enjoyment rather than a journey as it would become in rural, southern Italy. Even when the effort was greatest, we were always comforted by the perfect tarmac before us. The small alpine tunnels which we cycled through all radiated technological prowess and town after town greeted us with restaurants, bed and breakfasts and impeccable water fountains. The town of Andermatt, one and a half kilometres up, remains a particularly special memory. It combines spectacularly green fields with a fresh, pure blue sky. It’s chalets and ski-lifts offered a different side of Switzerland but it was also a timely reminder of the serious climbing we had accomplished.
Arriving in Lebanon after such a bike ride offers a strange dichotomy of feelings. On the one hand, there is a large amount of relief and a real sense of achievement. On the other, perhaps foolishly, I found it strange to fully remember and appreciate what I had done. Having arrived in mountainous Faraya, I was immediately given the care of a young man. I participated for three weeks in the Lebanon project that seeks to give one-on-one care to mentally and physically disabled people in Lebanon. These ‘guests’ come from homes run by nuns that have few public funds at their disposal. Most of these institutions are hard to imagine - struggling to find suitable personnel and hopelessly overcrowded. Coming from a country where social care is largely government provided and has never really been a concern of mine, the difference is truly shocking. Without a doubt the most frightening aspect of Lebanon socially is the scale of inequality that one encounters there. As one travels around Lebanon under the bistering sunshine, it is perhaps too easy to forget that a horrific civil war, misguided by religious justification, only officially ended in 1990; 26 years ago and resurfaces with disturbing regularity.