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Sunday, October 20, 2013

Cycling with Marco Polo

I was having a cup of coffee at a bratwurst stand along the Rhine, in Bonn, when a barge called the 'Marco Polo' cruised past, making its way upriver. I thought about the Italian merchant who travelled to China so long ago, and about the journey that others were now making in the same direction, on foot or by bike, and about my own journey to Syria, now delayed indefinitely. The 'Marco Polo' moved on, and my thoughts moved on to American football for a time, as I chatted with the owner of the bratwurst stand, Stephan, who was not only a fan of American football, but also played it professionally in Bonn and Cologne.

Back on my bicycle I glided southward along the river, enjoying the scenery and the freedom that comes with a flat, well maintained bike path, good weather, and a route easy to navigate. The Rhine flows north but I was flowing south, to Koblenz, with a plan to continue for another three weeks before returning to Aldenhoven, where I'd sojourned a week before. The ease of the cycling had my mind wandering, so my thoughts flowed like the river, to a few days before, when all the seemingly absurd predicaments I had found myself in converged to a single point of clarity and purpose. There I'd been, carrying everything I owned on a bike, in autumn, in Germany, having cycled from Italy back in August, intending originally to get to Syria by this time, but having waited a month for others, in vain, and then planning on waiting yet another week for someone else to cycle with as far as Nuremberg before continuing to Syria alone, all with the intent of raising money for Syrian refugees, but having raised absolutely nothing. 
I wasn't penniless, however, so moving forward was the solution to any problems I had created for myself; moving forward had been the answer for the past two years. But then, suddenly, I'd had another option. I was offered a home. Indefinitely. And my role in the Theater of the Absurd had come to an end.

Back on the Rhine, I flowed along at 15 to 20k an hour, passing a hill on the opposite bank with a castle ruin on it; I was sure I'd seen that ruin when I was 16, on a Rhine boat tour, and I'd commented on it to one of my German exchange student hosts, about how beautiful and amazing it was, and he hadn't understood what all the fuss was about. I saw now that it was only a ruin, and nothing to make a fuss about, but I've been living in Europe for 17 years. A teenager coming from flat, semi-tropical Florida sees more in a castle ruin on a hill by the Rhine than the natives do, just as they had seen more in a Florida beach than we had.
I caught up with the 'Marco Polo', and passed it, slowly. It moved along steadily, but like the tortoise; it was more certain of arriving than the hare, which pulled ahead, then took another break.
I smoked, and as I sat on a bench on the river, the barge passed by, something of a companion now. I thought back to Dahab, in Sinai, where I hadn't known what to do after being denied entry into Israel for the second time. My peace walk was finished, and I was in Egypt without money or a plan. I had quickly made some friends there; Dahab attracts people like me , and I had found a new passion in free diving, so I seriously considered remaining there. I imagined Dahab had been the reason for my quest; the treasure I'd sought without realizing it. But then another plan had formed, another quest, faster, on a bike, and with more attainable goals, money for refugees rather than undeliverable petitions for peace in the Middle East. And with a friend, rather than alone.  

I cycled on, up the Rhine, which flows unceasingly, like time. The 'Marco Polo' had passed me because it also moved along steadily, like the river, and with my limited perspective, unceasingly, like time. I'd fallen behind it, dwelling on the past, and now I was with it, slowing down to measure its speed, 11 kilometers per hour, the speed of the present moment; but then growing impatient I surged ahead of it, now in the future.
I was going to Koblenz to stay with university students for a night, then I'd head northeast to stay with other hosts before meeting this latest potential cycling buddy near Frankfurt, where I would bide my time, floating from host to host until she was ready to cycle with me to Nuremberg. Then she would return home by train, and, because of that single point of clarity and purpose that had come to me like a flash of lightning, I would also return to a home and something like a future rather than pushing forward to Syria, where I would probably find myself once again broke and without much of a plan, and, if the trend continued, without having accomplished what I had set out to do.

At Remagen I stopped for a while, and the 'Marco Polo' passed me yet again. My head wasn't in the past, but the history of the bridge that was once there drew my interest. During World War II the US Army had crossed the bridge, the only bridge left standing on the Rhine. It had finally collapsed after being damaged by bombardment. The towers on either side were intact, however, and the tower on the side I was on now housed a Peace Museum. It was hard to imagine war there, in that peaceful setting, so long ago. When I was 16, visiting Germany for the first time, the war had been nearer. My host's father hadn't seemed very friendly in the beginning. I remember then that I thought it must have been because of the war. He would have been a kid when the Allies were dropping bombs all around him, and he would have remembered it. But after a few weeks my host's father had become friendlier; I think he'd realized I wasn't so different from his own son.

Then I thought of the present time, not there, but in Syria, and the war there, and I thought of the future, also in Syria, when someone might visit a Peace Museum in Aleppo or Homs or Damascus, and not be able to imagine that there had been war there.

I kept following the river towards Koblenz. The cycling remained pleasant, but with a hint of melancholy for having made the decision to quit life on the road. I'd grown accustomed to it, and to the freedom it represented. But much of that freedom had been illusion. The waiting for others to cycle with, the hoping for help from others to raise money, or to contribute money, the constant need to find help earning money, or to find a host; this was not the freedom others imagined I had. But there was also a deep sense of gratitude for all the help I'd received over the past two years, and for the experiences I'd had, and the people I'd met. There was relief at being able to stop, to really stop, and a feeling of acceptance despite not achieving what I'd set out to do; acceptance for who I am, independently of what others think; independently even of what I think about myself. This feeling was rooted in the present moment. I have been, in the minds of others, a hero, a saint, an enlightened man, but also a vagabond, a wastrel, a deluded man. I've been seen as happy and full of inner peace, and as chronically depressed and full of anger; as confident and strong, and as lacking initiative and weak; as compassionate, and as a man of integrity, and as selfish, and a liar; as capable, and as incompetent; as inspired, and lost. But in what was the present moment, then and there, I was simply whatever I was, in love with being there, at that moment, and feeling love for everyone everywhere. This last statement makes me weak and deluded to some, compassionate and saintly to others, but none of these judgements are right. Or all of them are. Who cares? Who among us aren't all of these things at one time or another?

I passed the 'Marco Polo' one last time as it struggled up a particularly fast current at a bend in the river, then I lost sight of it as I entered an industrial zone near Koblenz. But I still imagine it and all of those I know walking or cycling to Shanghai or Tibet or Nepal or Myanmar moving steadily forward, like time, and when I imagine this, the melancholy returns, but with a smile.

On my very last day on the road I cancelled the future, not continuing to Nuremberg, and I got my head out of the past, not regretting any of my decisions, and I returned to Aldenhoven, where I am now. Meanwhile, the 'Marco Polo' surges onward, and I'll try to cycle alongside it at the same pace. 

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