“Would you like some coffee? And we have cake…want a piece?” asks Mele as I untangle myself from my walking cart harness.
“Yes! Thank you!” Homemade cake and fresh coffee sound like a perfect way to kick off this phase of our trip.
It’s been a long travel day. The coffee feels good sliding down my throat, scratchy after an overnight flight. It’s nice to feel like I’ve walked into a new comfort zone.
Back in the spring when it became obvious that Lluís would have to go back to Europe sooner than expected to deal with passport issues, I had to make a choice: Would I go with him or would I stay on my own and bunk up close to our route?
I split the option into a world tour. I like having a little bit of all possibilities. I chose to spend a few weeks in the U.S. visiting family and buying new gear, like a walking cart (which I’ll write more about soon in an upcoming blog). I went to Barcelona to stare at the sea, but left before I got too comfortable being home. And, I needed space—being with your partner for 24 hours a day for seven months is good in many ways but challenging in many others. So I returned solo to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, which isn’t directly on our route but is close to our Central Asia pass. I wanted to hang out with and learn from cyclists, our brothers and sisters on wheels.
For most of September, I sleep on a stack of padded mats on the floor–the way Central Asians sleep–in a rented room at Angie and Nathan’s place.
We met Angie and Nathan through Seth, who we met through Robert, a friend in Barcelona. Coincidently, Angie and Nathan are Warmshowers’ hosts, and let cyclists crossing Europe and Asia camp in their backyard. We have been meeting cyclists for months, and the idea of sharing stories with them is an immensely gratifying opportunity.
Until reality sets in.
“We’re cyclists. We cook together every night,” Linda tells me as I take my last sip of coffee and look at the white board on the wall of the common patio area. Scribbled on the board is the wifi code, websites of cyclists who have moved on, and the cook of the day and the intended menu.
I gulp a bit, and try to hide my surprise. I like being part of a group. I like eating together. I hate group cooking.
I do a quick count of all the people I met five minutes ago. There are 14 of us – a French couple, a Belgian couple, a family of five from Australia, a Swiss, another Belgian, Angie, Nathan, and me. This will be more costly and more time-consuming than I expected. I had hoped everyone would feed themselves, buying and cooking their own pasta, and organizing themselves with less communal responsibility.
I feel the resistance welling up already. September is a working holiday for me, not a put-my-legs-up-and-slices-vegetables holiday. I booked a handful of freelance assignments that will occupy many hours of my day, and some evenings for calls to the other side of the planet. In my downtime, I need to customize my walking cart. Preparing and cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 10-20 people every night is not what I signed up for.
But, I play along. I have to. Dinner happens every night, and I’m invited to join. Saying no would make me the outsider. I don’t want to be the outsider, the weirdo walker. I conform to the group dynamics, convincing myself that when in Rome or at cyclists’ gatherings, I should act as they do. I want to be friends with them, and I often appreciate the bond food universally creates. I just don’t want to cook for a tribe.
The others seem to love it.
After months cycling, having a kitchen makes them feel like home, inspiring the return of culinary delights nested in their memories.
One night, the French couple—led by Simon who is a real-world chef—orchestrate a multi-course dinner with fancy rice balls served with thin vegetable slices on toasted bread and pretty plates of various other veggies. Desert was ice cream and melted chocolate.
A few nights later, Mele, the Australian, and Linda, the Swiss, head up a Thai-influenced meal of pad thai, salad and apple cobbler. The Belgian pair, Val and Pif, do a feast of pasta and vegetables, and another night Angie bakes beetroot and mushroom pizzas. Lots of beer and wine appear every evening.
We sit around for hours talking about life and the day’s events, who got what visa, what roads we’re all taking, challenges we hope others can avoid.
Some nights we all chip in a few soms to cover the costs, some nights we don’t. Each chef decides the norm of the day. I’d be fine walking to the restaurant down the block and paying half as much for a big plate of lagman, a local staple of stir-fried pasta with vegetables. Instead, I pitch in with clearing the table and washing the dishes, and share the task with Nazim and Nizami, two Kyrgyz brothers who recently moved in and are boarding here during the school year.
People come and go as onward stamps are collected, bikes are repaired, and itchy feet signal that it’s time to get back on the road. Bishkek is a popular rest and recovery spot for cross-continental travelers. It’s a fairly developed capital with many shops catering to ex-pat cravings; you can buy olives in one shop, Italian, Catalan, French, Spanish and Argentian wines in another, German beer down the street, bags of good roasted ground coffee in any decent sized supermarket, and a bunch of other creature comforts throughout the city. Most appealing is Kyrgyzstan’s visa policy. Most visitors get a free, 60-day on-arrival visa, which is an unusual gift in this part of the world, and gives people an excuse to settle down for a few weeks and shake off the travel dust.
As my chef-turn approaches, I confide in Mele. She’s a mom to three children, and has become the mama hen of our extended group. She’s easy to talk to, and her Aussie accent makes everything feel good. I make her coffee one morning, she makes coffee for me the next morning. She is my travel sister, and I find myself wanting to sit and chat with her every day about our lives at home and our lives on the road.
“I’m stressed out about this group cooking thing. I struggle with cooking for more than six people, and it’s costing me more than what I would normally spend every day on food,” I whine, as we shred carrots, the late afternoon sun streaming through the kitchen window softening the features of Mele’s face.
“Jenn, don’t worry. You do what you can do. We’ll all pitch in and help. Somehow it always comes together,” she says reassuring me, chopping at a pace I find impossible to keep up with.
Don’t get me wrong. I cook as well as anyone in the room, and I can whip up tasty nutritious meals on a whim. I have had big groups of friends over for dinner and hosted parties that left everyone filled and happy. That was in my 30s, and in my own kitchen, with my own knives and pots. I’m 44 now and the novelty of being a good hostess—in someone else’s kitchen–has waned.
Still, my turn comes. It’s an unspoken pressure, and I concede. I sign up to make a Catalan-inspired meal of potato and onion omelets, bread with rubbed tomato and olive oil, roasted peppers,onions and eggplants, a romesco sauce, and Catalan wine. It takes me hours to find all the ingredients and haul them back to the house. I buy enough to feed 14, today’s count, and have a little extra if someone wants a small second helping.
Folks pop in during the late afternoon to help with the peeling, chopping and cleaning. It’s not so bad. I get used to having more than one cook in the kitchen. It’s fun actually. For a few minutes.
There’s a knock on the door. Three very sweaty, very tired and very hungry Germans finished their day and are looking for a place to pitch their tents. I cut up more onions and potatoes to make a fourth omelet. The hand blender doesn’t work, so the romesco sauce can’t be blended; it will remain a chunky mix of nuts, chopped tomatoes, roasted peppers and turned into salad toppings.
A few minutes later, there’s another knock. A French couple arrives straight from the airport, and a few minutes after them, two more French women show up, their bikes in giant cardboard boxes waiting for post-flight assembly.
“We don’t have enough food,” I mumble starting to panic. Mele and Linda come in, and we think up Plan B. We’ll make some of the buckwheat I bought. It’s in quick-cook baggies and, like instant rice, will only take about 10 minutes to prepare.
The French newcomer comes in, ready to make his own pasta. I tell him we’re cooking for them, but I need his help. He puts his bag of macaroni down and rolls up his sleeves, ready to jump in, “What can I do?”
“Make this taste good,” I say pointing to the boiling buckwheat while grabbing a plate so I can flip the omelet. “There are spices on the shelf. There’s fresh parsley and coriander over there, and here’s the olive oil. You can use whatever veggies are on the table. You’re French. I trust your cooking judgment.”
We have to eat in shifts because there are not enough plates and silverware, but the food stretches. Extra beer takes the place of second helpings. Everyone is happy. I’m happy.
Days pass. More meals are prepared. Our little community changes profiles. People pedal away. We line up outside the gate and wave them away, hoping luck and light go with them. New people pedal in and join the cooking fold.
While cutting up pumpkin, potatoes, plums and pears, I form fast friendships with Mark (Mele’s husband), Simon, Nicky, Ugaitz, Andrew, Kristoff and another Simon. Mike, Florian and Ralph add a good dose of humor to the mix. I play with Mele and Mark’s kids, talk to Angie and Nathan about their ex-pat lives, and hang out with the brothers Nazim and Nizami. I’m thrilled when two familiar faces ride in one evening; we met Jill and Jan in Tajikistan a few months back and their cycle route circled up to Bishkek.
I settle into a routine. We take turns brewing morning coffee for whoever wants it. I hole up in my room to work much of the day, pretending I don’t want to be outside with everyone else. When the shadows stretch across the patio, I grab a knife and a cutting board and join Mele, Linda, Simon, Nicky, Ugaitz, Andrew, and whoever else is around. Someone flips on a playlist on their smartphone. We talk, sing, chop, cook, eat, drink and bond. My international travel family, in a city I only first heard of 10 months earlier.
Some days, I sit in the backyard and admire how cyclists move. I watch them repair their rims, fix their chains, pack up their panniers. I’m in awe of what they carry. Gas stoves, camping chairs, laptops—things that never would fit in our backpacks.
We shop and run errands together. Simon and Nicky buy an electric heating rod for boiling water on the road. I buy one, too. I giggle at the idea of having a good cup of coffee before we set out walking, cowboy style with the grounds falling to the bottom or brewed like tea with a reusable cloth tea bag … coffee is something I have been missing for months and reversed my decision to give up.
I ask my cycling buddies for advice about how to make my cart work better for me. Jill, Jan, Nicky and Simon join me for test hikes around Bishkek, offering suggestions about how to improve my attached pack’s weight distribution. Linda and Ugaitz come with me to a shoemaker and make sure my harness adjustments are strong and durable. Mark and Nathan help me secure my wheel. We all take turns wheeling it around the patio, finding other tweaks that can be made.
Weeks pass. Goodbyes become harder. My eyes tear up when Mele, Mark and the kids round the corner on their tandem bikes and slip out of view. I give big hugs to Andrew, Ugaitz, Jan, and Jill when they leave. I’m sad when Linda drives away in her new Russian minivan; she traded in two wheels for four, and we all watched the car-buying process with bated breath as she wove herself through foreign bureaucracy. I’m borderline depressed when Simon and Nicky head out.
I ask Angie and Nathan how they do it. How they deal with so many nice people coming in and out of their lives so often. They say you get used it. I guess I eventually would, too, but right now I swallow a lump of sadness.
Soon, it’s time for me to go. I will fly to Istanbul, meet Lluís and together we’ll continue to Bangladesh. I hold unto to the hugs from Nazim, savor the sweets Nizami gave me, and rub like a lucky charm the necklace Angie and Nathan gifted as a keepsake.
I slip away in the dark hours before dawn and bid Bishkek a fond farewell.
Every time I pull out my electric heating rod to boil water and make cowboy coffee, I think of my Bishkek family. I wonder what they had for dinner, if they found a safe place to sleep, and where their feet and wheels will take them today.
“We cook together” rings in my ears and stays in my heart.
For an extra dose of armchair travel, visit the websites and social media feeds of some of my cycling friends: