The Duchess Gets A New Buddy

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Mr. Man has been struggling to purchase a bike suitable for his size during this lockdown. He’s been eyeing other bikes wistfully and has probably been in touch with every bike retailer in Hackney and every manufacturer or supplier in the UK that accepts the cycle-to-work scheme. But the current high demand for bikes and some rigidities with the scheme mean he’s been waiting for a while now. So when I jokingly asked a nearby friend if they happen to have a spare bike and received an answer in the affirmative, we jumped on the chance and picked it up this evening. A simple thank you in the form of a bottle of wine and some home cooked food and we were a bike richer and feeling incredibly lucky!

It’s seen better days for sure but it is a bike, it is for free, without any conditions and its the Man’s for as long as he needs it. It spells freedom and mobility in these restrictive days, longer jaunts beyond our neighbourhood. We’ve done long walking loops along the marshes where it’s easy to avoid other people but a bike will get us a little further.

We brought it home, the Man made some adjustments and we took it out for a test ride. Being a road bike it liked the tarmac more than the lanes in the park. Looking forward to many happy times with our new companion and ushering in an era of cycling co-operation with the Man.

The Duchess pants behind her new fitter lighter friend!

Lea Valley And Colleagues

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Yesterday was brilliant. I’ve been working from home for the past couple of months as has everyone at my workplace. Two of my colleagues live pretty close by. I saw them last in March before the lockdown was announced when we took a walk together in Hackney Downs. I messaged one of them in the evening and we decided to bike together. Soon the other was roped in as well. It’s funny to think that we hadn’t met for about two months but managed to scramble together and meet within 15 minutes flat with our bikes. It felt like the ’80s and ’90s again.

We rode in the backstreets out to Clapton and then through Powerscroft road – a favourite with the man and me for walks to Chatsworth Road market in days gone by – on to Millfields Park, then along the Capital Ring by the river Lea. Rides by the canal are lovely – the little boats, the birds floating by, riverside housing with people’s lives now more observable on their balconies. We crossed into the Lea Valley Park and continued on a fairly relaxed place. Still the scenery rushed by and there was much to take in. The conversation with people I used to see everyday and spent most of my working hours with, the blue sky, activity on the water – human and avian, dodging people at an appropriate distance, the happy feeling of cycling.

We came quickly to the other side of the park, I think it must have been the Coppermill Lane car park. We decided to head back as M had a social (zoom) commitment. Instead of cycling back the same way, we ducked under a very low bridge and then crossed over the Horse Shoe Bridge. I couldn’t sustain enough momentum to pedal my bike all the way up so I walked her up and down on the other side. We cycled back down along the capital ring and sat in the sun in North Millfields for a bit, chatting and wishing we had carried some beer. An appropriate distance was maintained at all times.

Social distancing at North Millfields.

I felt really lucky – to have a bike, to have nice people who live close by and who were willing to meet and do something fun like a bike ride together on a nice, sunny evening. There is lots to be grateful for – a roof over my head, not worrying about where my next meal will come from, having an income during these maddening times, being able to work from home. All of these are extraordinary privileges. A bike ride with lovely people is the icing on the cake.

The Duchess Is Back

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Since we met each other in 2012, the Duchess has been with me in four different apartments across London and Madrid. I am ashamed to say I haven’t taken very good care of her and she fell into a state of disrepair, rust covering her previously pristine handlebar and many other parts.

But one day recently, the man got it into his head that he needed a lockdown project and restoring the Duchess to her former glory was going to be it. And restore her he did! All of that rust was scrubbed off with a ball of wet foil. The rust hadn’t permeated deep and was dispatched with an afternoon’s worth of (his) elbow grease. He oiled the brake chain and pumped the tyres. We were almost as good as new. I blame the loss of the bell on the clumsy handling by our movers to Madrid. The move back to London in 2017 was more considerate on her health. A couple of years ago, a local bike shop replaced the steel basket support with an ugly, masculine black rod for more stability. There is still a little rust in some hard to reach parts. But apart from these cosmetic issues, the Duchess can fly almost as well as in the past.

Mr. Man conducts final inspections on the bike before the test ride

And fly she did! I took her out for a test ride a couple of weekends ago and we rode some back streets before moving on to Clapton high street and then to Hackney Downs, where she did a victory lap around the sunny park. We rested in the grass under blue skies. The braking and overall ride didn’t feel as smooth as before but we will get there once restrictions ease and we can have a more professional check. Praise be to the man for getting her in great, serviceable condition after I had given up on her. How could I?

Why China

So without much preamble – I wanted to restart this blog for a while and talking about our recent China trip seemed a good way to go about it. That is not to say that other travels in the past three years have been uneventful. But writing has taken a backseat to several other life events, like moving countries and aiming for normalcy in the day-to-day. Also other forms of documentation, like instagram for instance, have been more convenient. But the urge to write and describe has always lurked in the background. And the convenience of applying filters to lazily taken photos from a phone seems to aid this growing feeling I have that life is moving on too fast. In any case I said without preamble but I find myself rambling.

“Why China?,” I have been asked by a few people when I told them we were going. A little bit of disbelief that we could push aside many more exotic options and opt to visit this country with a terrible reputation for the pollution of its cities. To those people I always replied, “why not China?” A country with a very long history, a dramatically altered path in more recent times, a populous nation with an ever increasing influence in the world and one of our neighbours. Why not go?

Truth be told these considerations weren’t in the forefront when we made our bookings, uncharacteristically for us, months in advance. In the run-up to the actual decision to go were long, cold days filled with kung-fu movies. And watching Jaden Smith board an Air China flight in the remake of the Karate Kid most certainly had a sublimal effect. One morning I checked for prices, found a great deal and we were booked.

But there has always been this curiosity to go see this massive land. Is it all rice fields and kung-fu? Is it all factories and sweat shops? Is it all seduction and spy-like mystique in cities like Shanghai (I laugh at my own naive notions of the world)? What is the world’s second-largest, and soon to be largest, economy looking like? We had to go see for ourselves.

Journey To The East

I’ve put in far greater efforts into researching and planning trips when I was younger. One of the most important preparations we made for this trip to China was deciding where we would go in our limited time there. 10 days really isn’t much time when you are faced with a country the size of this one. The initial plan was to go to just Shanghai and Beijing. But a Chinese colleague suggested adding some more destinations and we were glad we did in the end. So we also worked in Huangshan and Xian into the itinerary. The former is also known as the Yellow Mountains; Xian is most famous for its army of terracota warriors.

To all these destinations we added AirBnb and youth hostel bookings. And train reservations (thank you ChinaDIY). I cannot overstate the charm and adventure of taking care of yourself in basic settings in unfamiliar surroundings. It adds so many more layers to the thrill of travel. Budget accomodation, public transport, street food and self-catering are the way we like to travel most. And with hand luggage only, to allow us to be as unrestricted as possible, carrying only the basics to have light loads. So we set out with one medium backpack each for two weeks in China on a rainy London afternoon, with the air smelling of the promise and romance of fresh adventures. The commute to reach Heathrow itself was quite a journey, as is often the case with Heathrow. But uneventful with the exception of my bag attracting the suspicion of airport security. The reason being my insistence on carrying along leftovers of mutter-paneer which was too good to throw away.