London to Lisbon from a standing start

I first read about Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’ theory for a university course in cross-cultural social psychology. Maslow’s theory has, of course, been much criticised and built upon. However, I do like a framework so I’ve decided to use Maslow’s hierarchy as a framework for my first proper blog post about my first three weeks ‘on the road’, cycling from St Malo in Normandy to Lisbon.

Maslow proposed that we need to have our basic physiological needs met and to be safe before we can concern ourselves with love, belonging and ‘esteem’ (achievement, status, respect etc.), then finally ‘self-actualisation’ (or growth). As an educated and in many other ways privileged European, it’s pretty standard to have some kind of mid-life crisis to do with the higher level needs: relationships, work or – for want of a better word – ‘spirituality’, or one’s sense of connectedness to life. This isn’t my first time living for months on end from a touring bicycle and sleeping under canvas, but it is my first time setting off to do so indefinitely, and on a small and slightly precarious budget. This means that while I’m seeking to continue ‘finding myself’ at the higher levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, I’m also necessarily learning to meet my more basic needs in new ways. This post is about that.

For Maslow, ‘physiological needs’ are air, food, water, shelter, warmth, sex and sleep. ‘Safety’ needs include safety from the elements, security, order, law, stability and freedom from fear. I have been more acutely aware of these basic needs in the last three weeks than ever before, and I’m still in Europe during summertime!

My relatively small budget means that for my new ‘lifestyle’ to be sustainable I need to not pay to sleep, most nights. And, for the most part, that means ‘stealth camping’. Perhaps I am extraordinarily fortunate in that I have not experienced a great deal of actual physical fear during my life (except on two wheels!). It’s therefore been a pretty significant feature of the past three weeks trying to overcome my fears enough to actually sleep. My first night stealth camping I slept on a footpath through trees behind a sand dune. I woke in the middle of the night totally convinced someone was outside the tent. In the morning I had my porridge and tea sitting on the sand dune and felt mildly pleased with myself. Since then I’ve stealth camped between fishermen’s huts, beside a stunning lake (my favourite because there were other people nearby in campervans), behind the youth hostel in San Sebastian, on a lawn in an industrial estate (where I was automatically sprinklered at 22:00 and 06:00 and checked on by someone in a car three times during the night), in a Spanish small town park and next to a Portuguese town’s municipal mountain bike practice circuit (which turned out to be a favourite Friday night haunt for local teenage lovers; I’m not sure who was the more spooked). These nights I have not slept well (compared with <10 hours when feeling safe). Two nights ago for the first time I actually asked ‘may I camp here tonight?’ and so found myself drafting this post… in the gym of a Portuguese fire station.

Incidentally, I know that in many countries the question ‘may I camp here tonight?’ will result in offers of hospitality. I feel open to this in a way I haven’t in the past, though I suspect my solo-ness (and desire not to take advantage of people) will manifest in preferring to sleep alone in my tent more often than not.

Overall I hope I am settling into a rhythm whereby I try to alternate camping for free with checking into a basic campsite. The latter have ranged in price from 15 Euros on the west coast of France to 3.75 Euros in eastern Portugal (for identical facilities). If I can pay less than 10 Euros every second or third night for a fear-free night’s sleep, a shower and use of assorted basins and sinks, I’m pretty happy. (I do need a universal sink plug, though!) If I have to pay more than 10 Euros to feel safe at night, I feel resentful and anxious about money.

I’ve told myself that wanting a shower mostly isn’t a good enough reason to pay for a campsite (though feeling safe enough to sleep probably is). For the first time in my life I am having to learn to tolerate not showering every day; baby wipes are much cheaper than campsites to be sure.

Sticking with physiological needs, every French village bar (except one snooty pizzeria) very willingly filled my bottles with chilled water. Public loos also abound in France. In Spain I never had trouble finding a tap (roadside service stations often even have showers and wifi!) and in Portugal so far most villages seem to have a water fountain of some kind as well as umpteen picnic tables (which nobody seems to use!). I drink more water on the road than I usually do, which is good.

For the first week or so I felt quite stressed about food. While I hate supermarkets in the UK I love foreign ones and enjoy noticing the differences between them. Some big French supermarkets have washing machines you can use outside, wifi and loos inside. In Spain I (re)discovered Lidl, and quickly gained confidence in (and satisfaction from) my ability to ‘make dinner’ for 1-3 Euros using my Trangia stove. Portuguese supermarkets smell of salt cod but otherwise are great, and tend to have a bar and loos. Noticeably, in all three countries, you have to pay for carrier bags and seemingly this has had the desired effect: people don’t. I never buy enough to need one. Only once have I been told off for parking my heavily loaded bicycle neatly inside the supermarket entrance, though this doesn’t feel necessary in more rural places.

So far warmth has not been a concern because it is summer here in Europe. Unlike my much more intrepid friend Emily Chappell I hate cold, so I suspect I will try to avoid it. I’m not sure what I will do if I find I want or need to spend time in cold places.

Going back to fear, there is a particular kind of road that is terrifying everywhere: the two-lane road with no shoulders and lots of lorries. Unfortunately such roads are often like this precisely because they are the only road to a place. Other times they are hard to identify from a map. Yesterday a long articulated lorry in a convoy passed me so close that I screamed so hard in terror and fury I actually wet myself (that's a first). And then I found a friendly campsite, by a lake (my favourite sort), with a café nearby with wifi. When cycle touring, there truly is no light without dark.

Maslow’s third level of need is love and belonging. I’ll come back to this theme again and again, but for now I just want to say two things about it. First, as I was leaving my friend Gabriel wrote: ‘Sending you off with the wind at your back, fortune by your side, and love around you’. The overwhelming sense of being loved and known that I experienced in the months I was preparing to leave London will continue to sustain me emotionally for a long time. It also confirmed for me that while I have left some important aspects of my life ‘behind’, it is a high priority to keep alive the relationships with my close people as I go further into my relationship with myself. To this end I have made plans to see many of my peeps during the coming year, and am determined to find ways to keep regularly in touch. Second, my ex-partner said in 2008 when cycle touring together in Southeast Asia that she found random strangers’ greetings gave her energy (whereas at the time I often found the attention draining). I now understand her perspective completely, and experience a kind of small surge of love from every bartender that puts ice cubes in my water bottle, every driver that goes wide and/or beeps encouragement, every tractor-driver or granny that returns my wave. Turns out this potential source of connection and well-being was there for me all along.

Tomorrow, Portuguese lorry drivers-permitting, I’ll reach Lisbon, and meet my friend Meg-John for a conference on Non-Monogamies and Contemporary Intimacies, at which we’ll facilitate a workshop on consensual relationships. And sleep in the same place for five consecutive nights!