Follow the adventures of Dennis and Scott as they ride their bicycles around the world.
Update: This is one of the last examples of a travelogue written prior to the invention of blogs and social media. Even though email made communicating almost instantaneous and effortless, it was still impossible to reach a large audience. So, The Argonauts collected snail mail and email and posted them online for everyone to see.
The 3 most important factors of travel
A note about photos
Here are a couple of pictures from day one. There are more pictures below, but not many. Dennis and Scott both used film cameras. So we could never post our pictures in real-time. We had to mail our film canisters home and the negatives had to be developed and scanned in. It was the old-fashioned way. Digital cameras had terrible quality back then. You can see some of Scott’s favorite pictures here.
- Homeward Bound
- Hello from Selcuk, Turkey!: Nov. 6
- The German Invasion and the Mayor of Istanbul: Oct. 21
- Athens, Greece: Oct. 10
- A Tin Shed in a Thunderstorm: Oct.1
- Greece at Last: Sept. 21
- Hello from Zadar, Croatia: Sept. 11
- I’m Excited Again: Aug. 27
- Only a Little Farther: Aug. 25
- Thank You: Aug. 24
- Budapest: Aug. 22
- Vienna: Aug. 17
- The Deluge: Aug. 14
- The Floods: Aug. 13
- Good morning from Munich!: Aug. 8
- Stuttgart, Germany: Aug. 6
- Pictures of Dennis in Germany: Aug. 3
- The Gifts: July 26
- World War II: July 18
- Newark: July 14
- Brussels: July 14
- My Tour of the Scottish Ski Slopes: July 10
- War Zone: July 1
- My Grand Entrance: June 20
- Bath England: June 11
- Home (Lancaster, PA): June 8
- Dennis reflects on the journey thus far: May 18
- Boredom: May 9
- The Argentina I Never Knew: April 30
- Hello: April 26
- It’s All Downhill from Here: April 13
- Silver: April 4
- Bolivia: March 28
- Crawling 3 KM on the Altiplano: March 23
- Don’t Believe Everything: Jan. 10, 2002
- The End of the Story: Dec. 31, 2001
- Leon, Nicaragua: Dec. 29, 2001
In reverse order, as they arrived.
I hope that this email finds you all well.
I arrived back in the States after 24 hours of planes, buses and airports. Whew! What a day.
It is a beautiful Fall day. The maple trees are still in full color on my parent’s property. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. This and the peace and quiet is soothing my frazzled traveling brain cells. It is good to be home.
Now I restart my life slowly and differently than in the past. I need to find a job and move back into my own house but there is no rush. Quality of the new life I try to create is my highest priority. I awoke this morning excited about the rest of my life. Maybe it the euphoria of a homecoming. I hope not.
When I get my new telephone number after the first of next year I will forward it.
See you all soon,
Hello from Selcuk, Turkey!
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am seated at an outdoor cafe. At the adjacent tables are elderly Turkish men who are discussing what I assume is the result of yesterday’s national elections. Their leathery sun-darkened skin is evidence of a hard life and their clothing speaks of a bygone era. The waiter just delivered my glass of cay. (Turkish tea) On the street passing tourists wearing shorts and backpacks are a striking contrast to this small farming community. These two worlds are drawn together by Turkey’s rich and complex history and an economic need for tourism.
Since my last email, I have returned to Istanbul where I met my friend Evelynn who arrived from the States. Together we ventured to Cappadocia in Central Turkey and now I am back on the SW coastal town of Selcuk. Tonight we endure one last dreaded overnight bus ride back to Istanbul. I return home on the 9th of November.
Selcuk is renown for the nearby impressive ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus. As the capital of Roman Asia and a large port, Ephesus accumulated wealth and splendor after 129BC. With more than 250000 inhabitants only Rome and Alexandria boasted larger populations. It,s reputation for religious tolerance and learning drew people of various ideologies. Early Christians seeking safe haven in Ephesus before fleeing east from Roman persecution. Both The Virgin Mary and St. John are buried close by. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Alexander The Great and Byzantine all took turns ruling Ephesus before it,s demise from a massive malaria epidemic in the 6th century AD. Today it is Turkey,s most popular tourist destination.
I also had the opportunity to explore the Cappadocia region of Central Turkey. It is an area of both surreal natural beauty and fascinating underground cities which were constructed for protection from invading armies. While in Cappadocia I stayed in the small town of Goreme. Only 10 years ago it was an isolated dusty village. Now over 60 hotels and pensions dominate the town. What is unique about Goreme is it,s ability to remain a quaint and exceedingly friendly and warm community despite the influx of tourism. Many of the hotels utilize the caves that until recently were occupied by the local inhabitants. There is also lodging available in the local rock monoliths known as Fairy Chimneys. The striking formations are the product of wind and water erosion and many are topped with boulders. The resulting profile strongly resembles………..
. . . Well . . . a large penis. Thus the name Love Valley which is a popular local hiking trail for tourists. Pictures to follow :~)
While in Goreme I took a day trip south to the town of Derimkuyu. The site of an underground city that was part of an extensive network of underground communities. In the 5th century BC, the cities which were hewn from the soft rock consisted of only one level. Between the 1st and 4th century AD Christians fleeing Roman persecution expanded the rudimentary housing into communities that reached depths of more than 150 feet. In a time of crisis up to 10000 people could survive for a month without the need to surface. The engineering involved was a testament to the innate human desire to prevail.
The city I visited was not unique. The standard design had many innovative aspects. The tunnel that allowed entrance from the surface was low and narrow. This inhibited the mobility of a Roman soldier in full battle gear. There were 52 hidden ventilation shafts. It was impossible to cut off the city,s fresh air supply. The underground water source was impossible to poison. The natural cool environment was ideal for food storage. There were courtrooms, schools. churches and even a morgue. Human and animal waste was stored in large clay pots. Tunnels with narrow entrance allowed children to escape pursuing soldiers. My favorite was the central heating system available to the privileged. No fires were allowed. The heat source was the respiration of a donkey. I would prefer to be cold. Thank you very much.
I have been asked,” Why are you going to Turkey? Isn’t it dangerous for Americans ?”. I can only relate my own experiences to this question. Beyond the impressive archaeological sites, stunning beaches and delicious food Turkey,s real treasure is the people. I have received no monumental acts of kindness. It has been the “little things”. The bright smiles, handshakes, the gifts of food, tea and coffee and the unrequested advice that have made me feel welcomed. I have strolled down the back streets of Istanbul and never felt threatened. I can not say this about my home town of Lancaster. Ironically, when I announce my nationality the Turks are very pleased that I am an American. They ask me, ” Why are Americans afraid of Turkey ?”. I have no answer for them. Turkey rely s on the tourist industry and the lack of American travelers has hurt their economy. In the past year, I have passed through many countries that might be deemed ” dangerous” for travel. My experiences have consistently been that when people of different nationalities get together they get along much better than their respected governments. So now I challenge you to come to see for yourself.
I miss you all,
The German Invasion and the Mayor of Istanbul
Hello from Faralya, Turkey!
I hope this email finds you all well. I hope you can also read this email. I had some problems with Turkish keyboards in the past.
I thought that I enjoyed Greece. Then I arrived in Istanbul. The city enamored me with its spacious feel, amazing architecture, abundant color and accommodating people.
Istanbul began its reign of glory in the 4th century AD when the Roman emperor Constantine declared it the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Thus the city’s former name Constantinople. It’s strategic position on the Bosphorus Straights, which connect the Black Sea and the Aegean Sea, made Istanbul a prize for many an invading army. The countless sieges and occupations have created a unique mix of influences evident in Istanbul’s character.
A short walk from my hostel in the Sultanahmet section of the city took me past the stunning Blue Mosque. Across the plaza where Byzantine emperors raced chariots stands the equally remarkable Aya Sophia or Red Mosque. Sophia was constructed on the ruins of a prior structure that was destroyed in rioting. Its blood-red hue was a warning from the emperor to any revolutionary that might have contemplated Sophia’s destruction. Opened as St. Sophia it served as a church until the Ottomans converted it into a mosque. Today it is a museum. Behind Sophia through a gate in the massive fortified city walls towers Topkapi Palace. The imposing structure is an opulent testament to the power and the glory of the Ottoman Empire. Just west of the palace are the Egyptian and the Grand Bazaars. The displays of spices, jewelry, clothing, candy, fruits and vegetables are artfully crafted and burst with color. The back alleyways outside the bazaars overflow with the clamor of daily life. Dealers and customers vehemently bargain over price and horns blare as cars struggle to get through the crowded streets. I love this city!
During my stay in Istanbul, I met a Danish man named Dennis. Dennis is not his real name. His Turkish friends could not pronounce the word Danish. So they started calling him Dennis. In his retirement, Dennis sits on a wooden crate in front of the local store. He spends most of his time drinking beer. He is overweight and chain smokes. Initially, his loud aggressive manner revolted me. Then I listened to some of his stories. He has lived or worked in over 100 countries, owned an advertising agency, operated a motorcycle shop, raised both pigs and children and designed an automated system for growing marijuana plants. He has fled a civil war in Liberia and the law in Denmark. He even knew why it was more dangerous to collide with a Scandinavian moose as opposed to a North American moose. The Scandinavian moose has longer legs and in the event of a collision with a car the moose’s body peels the roof off the car like a can of sardines. Cliff Clavin has nothing on this man. I spent a few evenings talking with Dennis and found him to be a very kind and helpful man.
Dennis introduced me to Monte. Monte is a gaunt 61-year-old, chain-smoking man that recently remarried. He complained often about his new wife’s 5 children. As I spoke to Monte he shot paranoid glances up and down the street. Then he walked over to a flower pot, unwrapped a bottle and poured himself a drink. Afterwards, he rewrapped the bottle, placed the bottle back in the flower pot and returned to our conversation. Monte claimed he worried about the police fining him for drinking in public. Monte was a regular every night. A few days later I was stunned when Dennis showed me a poster proclaiming Monte’s bid for the office of mayor of Istanbul. The sad political state of affairs in Turkey is that a candidate for mayor spends his evenings in the street drinking out of a flower pot. No wonder they can not get into the EU.
After a few days in Istanbul, I took a grueling 16-hour bus ride south to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Give me a bicycle any day. In the town of Oludeniz, I found a beautiful beach and a German invasion. Unknown to me Oludeniz is famous for paragliding. A similar sport to hang gliding but the pilots use a parachute. Local 4×4 vehicles shuttle the pilots up to a nearby 6000ft peak where they take to flight. In the sky above the beach, there are sometimes hundreds of gliders. Oblivious to the town’s claim for fame I walked down to the beach. All I desired was that content stupor that a sunset elicits. When I arrived at the water’s edge I was shocked to see ground crews shouting in German into their walkie talkies and parachutes landing everywhere. The paratroopers had landed. The spectacle lasted for an hour.
Disgusted by what I thought was more Venice Beach than Turkey I left Oludeniz. I jumped onto a minibus and on the advice of another traveler, I ventured south along the coast to George’s House. One mile south of Oludeniz the pavement ended and the bus continued down a dirt road that clung to the edge of a cliff. I soon disembarked in a tiny village. The cloud of dust created by the departing bus blew past and a chicken darted across my path. The smell of suntan lotion had been replaced by the sweet smell of wood smoke. Not a tourist in sight. I was a traveler again. This time without my bicycle. In a minute I was at George’s House which is a small family-run hotel. The owner’s son showed me to my bungalow and suggested I enjoy the sunset before dinner. Behind their house, I watched as the rugged Turkish coastline faded into a deep pink evening light that lingered over the Mediterranean Sea.
A cowbell announced dinner. I removed my shoes and entered the communal dining room. I seated myself on the floor with the other guests. Before me was a white metal circular tray filled with smaller dishes. Each contained a different type of Turkish food prepared by the family’s daughter. On the side sat a basket of Turkish bread. I ate lentils, eggplants, green beans, chicken, stuffed peppers, rice and cucumbers. Desert was fruit, yogurt and pudding. All were sweetened with the local honey. The food was delicious. There is no greater gift to this traveler than an unexpected home cooked meal.
I will be traveling alone for the next week. I said a too-brief farewell to my friend Scott. The minibus in Oludeniz barely came to a stop. As I jumped on the bus I managed little more than a handshake. Scott is continuing on to India. I do not envy him. Yet I also anticipate that a desire to travel will renew itself in me. One of my goals on my return home is to create a life where travel and home can strike a balance. I do not foresee myself using a bicycle in my future journeys. Too many time this extreme mode of transport has left me isolated and lonely. I envision myself working overseas where I can hopefully be part of a community.
So, Scott, my friend, have faith in the power of friendship to necessitate our paths to cross again. I wish you well and will keep you in my thoughts. Recently you have spoken much about learning how to love. I encourage you to locate a modern translation of the bible and read I Corinthians chapter 13. In this passage, Paul defines unconditional love. I have been privileged in life to receive this kind of love. With this knowledge in my heart no matter how bad my circumstances I will always have a basis to build a better life. I will see you soon.
I will also see the rest of you soon. I miss you all.
Hello from Athens, Greece!
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am reclined on a worn cloth chair that occupies the corner of my hostel’s lobby. Across the room, my very odd Australian roommate is meticulously slicing his banana. He never seems to venture beyond the front door of the hostel. My bus to Istanbul departs in 4 and one-half hours. I have completed all my errands and packing. I find myself with some time to kill.
My ride south from Meteora through central Greece was without incident. The flat cotton fields that surrounded economically depressed towns were far from memorable. It was north of Delphi that the mountains returned and I again enjoyed the spectacular views that I associate with my time in Greece.
When I arrived in Delphi I knew it was at an end. One year and 27 days, 17,299kms and 31 countries after leaving San Francisco my bike trip had come to an end. From my campsite at the outskirts of town, I viewed the mountain ridge lines that extended to the sea. Nestled between the grey and brown peaks was a vast olive grove. Trails of smoke emanated from the trees in the distant valley. The farmers were harvesting their crop. A melodic chorus of goat bells reverberated from a nearby hill. There was no reason to go any farther. After a few days of rest, I loaded ” The Old Girl ” onto a bus bound for Athens.
Athens has been overwhelming. The city abounds with ugly cement buildings, traffic and a cacophony of noise. Greece was ruled by a military dictator until the mid-’70s. During this era the military elite were allowed to build any structure anywhere they desired. The lack of urban planning is very evident in Athen’s unattractive appearance. In the midst of this, the ” Beautiful Monster” is preparing to host the 2004 Olympics. The main streets are being upgraded and a recently completed underground metro system should help alleviate the yellow haze of smog that often blankets the city. Dublin has achieved a resurgence as a result of EU investment. Maybe Athens can do the same.
For me, Athens has been a city of transition. I have abandoned the responsibilities of bicycle touring and embraced the life of a ” normal ” traveler. My bicycle is in a box and I have traded my panniers for a duffle bag. Gone are the bus fumes, flat tires, broken spokes and searching for shelter from the rain. Also lost are the remote campsites and the opportunities to meet locals who rarely encounter a tourist. The change is bittersweet.
On to Istanbul!
See you soon,
A Tin Shed in a Thunderstorm
Hello from Kastraki, Greece
I hope that this email finds you all well. Kastraki is a tiny town located in the central part of mainland Greece. Its claim to fame are the monasteries of Meteora. The world-famous site was used in one of the James Bond films.
The 225kms from the coast delivered some spectacular scenery, challenging climbs and severe weather. The combination was too much for my creaky back rim. It’s failure turned into one of the most enduring memories of my trip.
I was camped one day out of Igoumenitsa. The trucks from the nearby highway and an annoying sheep herder’s dog had interrupted my sleep. Dark clouds alternated with blue sky. My goal for the day was to ride the 60kms into Ioannina where I would take the next day off. I coasted into the first town where I huddled under the roof of a gas station as a light shower passed. The weather improved and I continued towards Ioannina. Five Kms later my back wheel began to wobble badly. I pulled out my tool kit and tried to tighten the spokes. The downpour of rain began. I fled to a tiny shed that doubles as a bus stop. Scott joined me. There I sat dejectedly in a tin shed, under a tree in the midst of a severe thunderstorm. My bike was unrideable. I watched it rain. The leaky roof dripped on my shoe. I lacked the ambition to move my foot inches in either direction. The rainwater soaked into my shoe. A city bus slowed. He saw my bike and accelerated. I watched it rain. Scott offered to repair my wheel. The cold air that swirled in the shelter penetrated my drenched clothing. I watched in rain and shivered. An orange truck with a bucket lift appeared and backed up before it disappeared down an adjacent side road. Scott gave up on my wheel. I watched it rain.
A brown truck with an official symbol on the front door completed a U-turn and stopped in front of our shelter. Ladas and Vania stepped out and offered me a ride to the fire station. They helped me to load our bikes and drove me into the next small town. At the fire station, I hung my clothes by the heater. Over coffee, I was introduced to the rest of the crew who were very impressed by my travels. It turns out Ladas and Vania’s boss Golias was a passenger in the orange truck that passed my shelter. They were responding to a tree that had fallen across 2 cars. Golias who is a cyclist felt compassion for me and sent a truck to my rescue. After a group photo, Ladas and Golias packed all of my gear into Ladas’ small sedan and Ladas drove me to his hometown of Ioannina. He delivered me to a hotel and Ladas and Golias helped me carry my gear upstairs. To show my appreciation I offered to buy them dinner and drinks. They promised to return that evening.
The rain thundered down that evening. In such horrible weather, I could not have blamed my new friends for staying home. They arrived only a few minutes late. Ladas, Golias and his wife Maria took me to a few of their favorite places. The last stop was a crowded local Greek restaurant where they ordered various Greek dishes. I sampled marinated pork and beef, octopus, fried cheese pies and lamb’s tongue. It was the best meal I had in months and they would not let me pay for anything. They only requested the same hospitality if they ever visit me in the States.
The next night they escorted me to the ruins of a Turkish fort that overlooks the lake. I also had the opportunity to meet Golias’ and Maria’s adorable twin 15-month-old daughters. Ladas bought me a coffee at the outdoor cafe. In Greece on your birthday or after receiving good news you treat your friends. Ladas had gotten a new job as a driving instructor. The evening culminated with baklava saturated in honey. The best I have ever had.
It has been a very refreshing change since my arrival in Greece. From passing cars I receive energetic waves, thumbs up and shouts of encouragement. A sheepherder ran by my side and shouted enthusiastically in Greek. I assumed it was something positive due to the broad, semi-toothless grin that stretched across his face. I have not seen these gestures of support since Argentina. Give me a room full of Greeks or Latins any day.
In Greece, they do not say, ” It is all Greek to me. “. They say, ” It is all Chinese to me.”.
I toured the monasteries at Meteora. There were originally 24 monasteries atop the rock columns north of the town of Kalambaca. Great Meteora, which is the largest of the 5 remaining structures, recently celebrated its 600th anniversary. The intricate religious paintings that cover the chapel walls, glorious panoramic views and monastic chants echoing through the passageways inspired me to master the art of meditation when I return home. The views from one of the many terraces were reminiscent of Machu Picchu on a less grandiose scale. Still what a view!
I continue to battle horrible weather. With the exception of Croatia, the rain has been incessant since my arrival in London. In Greece, the tourist industry has suffered from the lack of normal sunny warm summer weather. The other day after a day and a half of rain I lost the mental battle. I stomped out of my tent and announced that I was buying a train ticket to Athens. Then….get this…. are you ready in…. in the midst of a rain shower I trudged to the bathroom and took and shower!? When I left the shower house the sun was shining. I felt like an idiot.
One week to Athens baby!
I miss you all,
Greece at Last
Hello from Igoumenitsa, Greece.
I hope this email finds you well.
I am seated on the cement steps that lead to the beach. Behind me are my tent and the campground’s restaurant. In the distance, the ferry boats continue to arrive at the city’s busy port. The cup of coffee I just finished, helped me overcome my sleep deprivation. I arrived in Greece a few hours ago on the second of two overnight ferries. The first boat connected Dubrovnik, Croatia with Bari, Italy. A ferry service directly from Croatia to Greece proved to be nothing more than a rumor. I did not splurge for a cabin. I slept on my air mattress and sleeping bag up on deck. Fortunately, both ferries departed in the evening and arrived in the morning. This allowed me to sleep restlessly through most of the voyages.
In only a few hours I have come to appreciate the distinct difference between Italy and Greece. I killed time between boats in Bari by biking through the Old Town. Laundry hung on lines suspended between second-floor windows. Elderly women observed all from the front doors of their houses. The delicious aroma of Italian food drifted pass and they shouted. They shouted greeting, grocery lists and disagreements from windows doors and street corners. This was always accompanied by expressive hand gestures that seemed to enhance the impact of their words. The Italians also drive with the same intensity. Scooters that sound and smell like chain saws darted among cars that had no desire to slow down. The scene was reminiscent of Mexico. Greece is infinitely more relaxed and the posted laws are little more than a suggestion.
I received wonderful news. My friend Evelynn is combing to visit me in Istanbul. Our hope is to explore different regions of Turkey by train and bus. The other travelers I have encountered spoke very highly of Turkey’s beauty, food and people.
Croatia is where I want to take my next honeymoon. ( No plans to date, Mom) I decided this on the Island of Hvar as I ate an ice cream cone in the picturesque port village of Jelsa. Croatia’s ancient cities exude romance. The sunsets, moonlight reflecting off the water and outdoor cafes all lend to an air of sensuality. Still what is dominant is the Adriatic Sea. The coastline between Split and Dubrovnik has countless vistas of deep blue, inviting water and an island where the pace is much more relaxed than the mainland.
The negative aspect of Croatia’s entrenched tourist industry is the detached demeanor of the locals. They seem interested in only doing the minimum their job requires. Smiles are few and far between. I wasted 3 hours trying to pry information out of the employees of various ferry services. It was similar to dealing with uncooperative 6-year-old children. I dealt with my frustration in my usual fashion. I went directly to the bakery and ate a chocolate filled pastry. Chocolate soothed frazzled nerves.
Croatia’s violent past revealed itself to me. On a warm morning after “free” camping on a mountain with a panoramic view of the Adriatic, I was in search of drinking water. In the first village of my day’s ride, I pushed my bike up the driveway of a house. I asked for water and the owner of the house introduced me to his brother who spoke better English. His brother who lives in Sarajevo was vacationing in Croatia. He described his hometown of Sarajevo as a city in ruins. Seventy percent of the buildings have been destroyed and fifty percent of the city’s inhabitant have been killed or have fled. He lived in Sarajevo for 2 years during the war. He was evacuated to Germany for treatment of his heart condition. He spoke positively of the Americans in Sarajevo who are assisting in it’s rebuilding. He handed me two large bottles of water. One of which was frozen solid. He wanted to ensure that I would have cold water on what he forecasted would be a hot afternoon.
A mere hour later I passed two men with shotguns. They were standing along the road peering off into the distance. I assumed they were hunters. A few kilometers down the same road I passed a third man sitting on the hood of an old Yugoslavian car. Across his lap lay a shotgun. His unfriendly gaze was not on the horizon. It was on the road. He was waiting for someone. My eyes locked onto the end of the shotgun’s barrel’s as I rode past. I asked myself, ” What animal could this man be hunting with a shotgun ?”. I had no answer. His ominous presence reminded me of the ethnic hatred that still persists in this region.
I made a comment that I thought I would never utter. One morning as I packed my gear I announced, ” I have enough water to bicycle into Bosnia.” Life is so unpredictable.
I met my hero when I registered at my campground in Igoumenitsa. His name is Torstein. He is a 69-year-old, spry Norwegian man who lives in Denmark and vacations in Greece. His four children told him to spend their inheritance and he said, ” No problem.”. He offered me a tour of Igoumenitsa. We rode the 5kms into town where he bounded up steps, waved to his friends and with pride showed me where all the best bargains were located. His energy level was infectious. I want to be like him when I grow up.
So from here, I will ride inland through the mountains where the roads are superb and the views are spectacular. The 600-kilometer route to Athens is the last of my bike ride. From Athens, I will arrange my transportation to Istanbul where I will be a “normal” tourist.
I miss you all,
Hello from Zadar, Croatia
I hope this email finds you all well.
If you have a good map of Europe you will find Zadar on the western shore of The Adriatic Sea directly west of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Yesterday I arrived on the midnight ferry from the city of Pula.
It is difficult for me to fathom the Yugoslav rockets that bombarded Zadar 10 years ago and the 3-month siege that followed. Before me is the circular shape of the 9th-century Byzantine church of Saint Duratus. The vendors that line the plaza sell everything from sunglasses to tattoos. The clinking of dishes from the sidewalk cafes echoes off the stone streets that have been polished to a glassy surface from centuries of foot traffic. Casually dressed tourist from Italy, Germany and Belgium stroll past. An American is a rare sight. There is no evidence of the recent war that ended in 1995. How could the peaceful shoreline that I witnessed from the ferry ever be the center of a conflict?
Scott and I reunited in Vienna. We celebrated his B-day with pizza and beer. I have enjoyed traveling with the self-titled, more positive, “New” Scott. I believe that we have both benefitted from our 2-month separation. After some of the more intense lonely moment of traveling alone, I have a greater appreciation for the company of a friend.
From Klagenfurt, Austria I cycled over an arduous mountain pass to the Slovenian border. Scott seemed disappointed when the border guard waved him past. He felt the effort of the climb deserved a stamp in his passport. The next few days I camped in the Alpine region of Slovenia. I was in awe of the area,s beauty. The 8000ft peaks of the Julian Alps dominated the horizon above cliffside castles, pine forest, and church steeples. In Lake Bled I swam with the ducks in the cool glacial water while Saint Mary,s church bell announced the noon mass. Later as I sat on the beach and absorbed the view I just smiled. I so wish that you could have shared this with me. If you have travel plans book your ticket to Slovenia. In May and September, the weather is perfect and the tourists are at home.
The topless and nude beaches of Slovenia and Croatia have shattered my stereotype of matronly, conservatively dressed Eastern Bloc women. I tried to be sophisticated during my first visit to my campground’s topless beach. I arrived for a swim complete with my “farmer” tan. (A farmer tan abruptly transforms from a golden brown to a corpse-white halfway up the bicep) So. I tried not to stare but I did. Oh! She caught me. I pretended to tune my radio. Her half-naked form had the same allure as a traffic accident. I could not resist a second glance. Ah! She caught me again! I am working on getting rid of that farmer tan.
I feel my future travels may be affected by US foreign policy. I have met many Europeans who are baffled by the possibility of a military strike on Iraq. They ask me, “Why ?” I followed the developments closely on the BBC and consider myself informed. I still have no answer to their question. Overseas America is perceived as a bunch of trigger happy Texans. I believe that if we attach Iraq we will only incite and support the Muslim extremists who are a tiny minority within the Islamic faith. I hope and pray that as a nation we embrace a foreign policy that does not rely on war. Can anyone help me with this?
I am constantly amazed at the extent that American culture has permeated the world. In Northern Slovenia, I was camped in a pine forest complete with a mountain stream and a goat herder. As I ate breakfast I searched the radio for local music. What was broadcasting? The Village People singing “YMCA” followed by Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe.” Later that same day as I sunbathed by a glacial lake a DJ blasted music from The International Air-Cooled VW Car Show that occupied the adjacent lot. I heard Elvis Presley, The Mavericks, Rufus Wainwright, Pink Floyd, Cindi Lauper, The Clash, The Ramones, Queen, Hank Williams Sr., etc. The car show consisted of men dressed in leather who drank beer while they walked among Harley Davidson motorcycles. It was reminiscent to being in the States during Labor Day Weekend. Whether I espouse the image my country exports is secondary to it,s obvious international appeal.
I have eclipsed some milestones on my trip. On September 6th I celebrated a year on the road and I surpassed the 10000 miles of cycling. I mention these number only in passing. Their significance to me has waned. I had a profound moment recently. I was sitting on a cement dock on the Adriatic coast of Slovenia. I watched the sun,s slow descent that culminated in a stunning display of color. An Italian radio station played Miles Davis on a warm evening. To the south, I could glimpse my future in the Croatian coastline that jutted out to the wast. All I felt at that instance was serenity and a sense of accomplishment. Where I had been or where I would be had no meaning. My persistence and mistakes had brought me to this moment. I could not attribute my sentiment to any particularly inspiring incident or person. My mindset was the result of my collective travels. I had applied the lessons that I learned from my past poor judgment and as a result, life was grand. In fact, it was more than grand. I felt a love for everything around me that I have rarely experienced in life.
I miss you all,
I’m Excited Again
Hello All from Budapest!
I hope this email finds you all well.
Most of my time in Budapest has been spent deciding what to do next. The last 300kms into the city were dismal cycling. My interpretation of my Hungarian map was for even worse cycling east of the city. On my arrival, the thought of future cycling was a heavy burden. I dealt with this feeling by ignoring my future route for a few days. I settled into a hostel and relaxed.
On Sunday I spread out my map of Europe on the floor on my hostel’s common room. An Italian traveler soon approached and inquired where I was going. I told him Istanbul but I do not know my path. For the next hour, he regaled me with his traveling experiences throughout southern Europe. He was a godsend. I had a plan and I was excited again.
Monday was a day of research. My biggest hurdle proved to be the antiquated Hungarian mass transit system. They do not allow bicycles on buses or trains. The attendant’s suggestion was to bribe the conductor. I envisioned myself showing up at the train station with a bike that I was obviously not going to leave behind. I would be at the mercy of the conductor. By day’s end, I had circumnavigated their ridiculous system.
So where am I going? First I feel the need to elaborate with some European history. I do this for the peace of mind of my family and friends who may not be familiar with the regions past and present status. Some of the towns on my itinerary may dredge up unpleasant memories of grim CNN footage. I want to assure you that my route has received the blessing of other travelers, all the travel literature I could locate and the US State Department. I feel this is a safer and far more scenic route through countries with an established tourist network.
So here goes. I am going to the Balkans. The Balkans are notorious for conflict. The region’s population is comprised of distinctly different ethnic groups who espouse opposing religious beliefs. Centuries of ethnic hated have sparked wars. Until recently the region was collectively ruled by the Soviet-created socialist state of Yugoslavia. It was ruled with an iron fist by the communist dictator Tito who crushed any internal unrest. Tito’s death and the fall of the Iron Curtain heralded the end of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia were 2 of the former Yugoslav republics that declared independence. The tragic war and ethnic cleansing that followed was broadcast worldwide. It was only American and EU influence that brokered a peace agreement in the mid-’90s. Both Slovenia and Croatia are heavily dependent on tourism and the war left their respective economies in tatters. Recently The Adriatic Coast’s unsurpassed combination of history, natural beauty, clean water and perfect climate is again attracting western tourist. I am one of them.
So here is my itinerary in the form of a geography lesson for my nieces, nephews and anybody else who wants to follow along.
OK. First I want you to get into the character of a bike tourist. Go put on a pair of smelly bike shorts and have your mom or dad drive you around with the car windows down. Stick your head out the window until you have that “wind-blown” look and a few bugs in your teeth. Stop it! Bugs do not taste bad.
Now locate Budapest which is the capital of Hungary. Here you board a train that travels west along the Danube River to the City of Vienna which is the capital of Austria. Then you board a second train which travels southwest to the small Austrian city of Klagenfurt where you disembark. Next, you ride your bike south over a mountain pass into Slovenia. In the resort town of Blad, you swim in the Alpine lakes in the shadows of the Julian Alps. Refreshed, you ride south through the lush Soca River Valley to the Italian coastal town of Triste. After buying a cheap pair of shorts and sandals you continue south along the coast back into Slovenia and onward to Croatian town of Pula. A slow ferry then takes you south through the islands of the Adriatic Sea to the town of Zadar where you journey southward by bike to Split. Now via ferries and bike you hop island with vineyards and remote beaches. Finally, you return to the coastal road where you finish this section of your trip in Dubrovnik.
During this 3 week time period, you will stay in the seaside campground and private pensions while you enjoy the excellent September weather and lack of other tourists. YEEEEEW HAAAAW! Can not wait to get started. I leave tomorrow for Vienna where I will reunite with Scott.
My feelings on Budapest are mixed. This was obviously once a center of great wealth. What is just as apparent is the neglect the cities architecture and infrastructure has suffered under communism. I do have hope. Construction sites and restoration projects abound. Hungary’s anticipated entrance into the EU should effuse some badly needed investment into the local economy. I would love to visit this city again in 10 years when I hope that it will live up to it’s potential as ” The Paris of the East “.
So I say goodbye for now. I am unsure of the Internet resources available in Slovenia. If you do not hear from me know that is not a result of a lack of desire. It is the result of a lack of a modem.
I miss you all,
Only a Little Farther
Ah! I just sat down. Good morning from Budapest!
I have been hostel shopping. After 5 places I have found a home for the week. It feels foreign to have given myself the luxury of time. I expect Scott’s arrival today. I hope to help him celebrate his birthday. He turned 32 years old yesterday.
Any stereotypes that I had of Budapest as a somber Ex-Soviet Bloc city were dispelled yesterday. I experienced Budapest and there was nothing religious about it. Budapest is a huge parade of floats blasting techno music. The music’s volume was so intense that the camera that hung from my neck bounced with the beat. The local radio stations and club sponsor different floats and the goal seems to be who can be the most outrageous. In the midday sun, the dancers gyrated and shook all types of male and female body parts that would never see the light of day in my hometown. Whew! My ears are still buzzing today.
I want to thank all of those who have sent me words of encouragement and the offer of a bed. I know that I am loved. It is still wonderful to hear it. In no way do I view my early return as a failure. I have witnessed so much in the last year that I will forever be changed. I believe that my new challenge in life is to maintain the momentum that my journey has created. Where ever that may lead me.
I digress to Vienna.
Vienna is a city of culture. The wide boulevards which are reminiscent of Buenos Aires are lined with museums and theaters. There is always a dome, column, spire, buttress, arch or cherub within sight. The city exudes the sophistication of Brussels alongside the attitude of New York City. I do not say this to be critical. I have always found New Yorkers to be helpful. They just are not polite.
My first day in Vienna I set out with a normal tourist agenda. I left my hostel with the intent of visiting some of the city’s museum. I made it as far as Burggarden Park where a concert was in progress. I entered and located a shaded place in the grass. I listened to a classical quartet with the unique addition of an accordion ?!. Germans and Austrians seem to love their accordions. I was surrounded by Vienna’s beautiful people who were spread out on picnic blankets for the duration of the afternoon. The oddity in this proper affair was a rouge middle-aged man who was sunbathing in a g-string. Or as my friend refers to them, ” A meat hanger”. All the tourist were down by the cathedral taking pictures of themselves in front of the statues and monuments. I napped, read and enjoyed the music. I never visited any museums.
My cultural find the following day was a Starbucks. They are the only coffee house in Europe that does NOT dole out coffee like it is a controlled substance. My serving size frustration came to a peak in Hungary. They serve their Nescafe in a cup that is normally reserved for expresso. But the “stuff” is NOT expresso. God, I love America!
Europe is a collection of diverse cultures. The European tourist industry is not. From Brussels to Vienna I witnessed the same scene many times. Hoards of Japanese tourist pouring off the tour bus with the words ” Air Conditioned ” printed on the bus window. Historic areas that are surrounded by shopping districts which are infested with McDonald’s, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts. Even the beggars seem to limit themselves to 2 types of uniforms. There are the ” Boxcar Willie ” with their hat in their hand and the waif-like teenagers who have a dog. I am not sure if I am supposed to feel compassion for the dog or assume that the dog’s owner is sensitive. The tourist who pass seem more than willing to pay.
Does this sound cynical? It is not meant to be. It is the reality of my travels. I will use my friend Dan’s quote. ” I have become inured to Beauty. ” In the 5 weeks since my arrival in Zeebrugge I have been over saturated in quaint historic districts. All the Old Towns are but a blur. This is not a reflection of what I have seen. It is a result of my sensory overload. What has made an area distinctive has been the presence of a friend. Only through the perspective of a local have I gained a more intimate understanding of a region’s politics and culture. Facts that allude the average tourist and recently myself.
From Vienna, I cycled east through a corner of Slovakia and onward into Hungary. I hoped for scenic cycling but only experienced the noise, dust and pollution of a developing nation.
I had a lucid moment in Slovakia. I had just crossed the border from Austria and I stopped to consult my map. I absorbed my surroundings. Drab cement block buildings bordered cracked concrete highways. Gone were all the beautiful aesthetic touches and familiar brand name of Austria. I was on a bike and lost in a city that was recently the old Soviet Bloc. I could not speak the local language. In fact, I did not even know what the local language was called. For a moment my circumstances seemed overwhelming and I pondered returning to Austria. I pulled out my compass and located my route south into Hungary. My fears soon faded.
The language barrier has reached new heights. After a long day of cycling, I stopped in a campground for the night. It was my first day in Hungary. All I desired was a hot shower that promised to wash off the day’s layers of sunscreen, sweat and grime. I approached the shower house and froze. Above the left entrance was the word ” Fþrfi “. Above the opposite door was the word ” N„ “. No symbols were displayed like a rooster or a hen that often appear in America’s finer restaurants. There were no other campers in sight. I assume the letter “F” was for female and strode towards the left door. As I entered a hand clasp my arm. It was the maid. She utilized her one word English vocabulary. She said, ” Man. ” and pointed to the opposite door. Oh boy?!
I have become aware of a growing sense of loneliness and a desire to return home. During my stay in Munich, I befriended Rick who is a photographer from Amsterdam. After a few days of various conversation, Rick stated, ” You are ready to go home. ” At the same hostel, I found a copy of the New York Times lying on the floor. I enthusiastically read every word. Afterwards, I longed for everything American. Yesterday i was eating dinner alone in a Turkish restaurant. I noticed a tender scene across the street. An elderly woman caressed her partners face in a gesture that conveyed the essence of love. All I wanted was for someone to touch my face in that fashion.
Fate has also played its part. The flood in Prague forced me to take the shorter route east through Vienna. While I waited for the flood waters recede I received an email reminding me of a friend’s November wedding. Everything fell into place. The shorter route allows me a month off in Istanbul before returning home to attend the wedding. Afterwards, I can celebrate Thanksgiving at home. What a wonderful way to end an adventure.
I miss you all and will see you soon,
I want to thank you all for all the offers. It would take months to sleep in all of those beds. Hmmmm. Maybe I could sleep my way around the world. Hmmm.
I received an email from Scott. He should arrive in Budapest tomorrow. It will be good to see a friend.
I love you all,
I hope this email finds you all well.
I arrived in Budapest a few hours ago after a very long day. I intended to arrive tomorrow but the flood surge on the Danube River damaged all the campgrounds north of town.
I am well and I will fill you all in on my experiences in the next few days. I will be in Budapest until the end of the month.
I also have a change to share with you all. Originally I intended to return in mid-December close to the time that my house would be vacant. I have decided to return earlier. My friend Mike is getting married on the 16th of November and I want to attend his wedding. This would also allow me to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. I love Thanksgiving. None of the hassle. Everyone just eats too much.
So I may be a fixture on a few of your couches until I can move back to Clay Street. I can entertain you with a few of my stories.
I miss you all and I will see you soon,
Date: August 17, 2002
I hope this email finds you well.
I arrived in Vienna today and am doing well. After a few days, I will continue on to Budapest where I hope to reunite with Scott. I will log an again from there.
Vienna looks like Buenos Aires but has the attitude of NYC.
I hope this email finds you all well. I have been asked many times how the historic floods in Europe have affected my travels. Thank you for the concern and other messages from home. There is a sadness to this email for me. Many of the cities that I passed through were under flood waters 24 hours later. Here is my story.
My train ride from Munich to the lake village of Prien was relaxing. Bathed in the sun’s warmth I almost fell asleep among the German businessmen. After disembarking I circled Lake Chimesee and proceeded towards Salzburg, Austria.
Salzburg is the city of Mozart. Statues and theaters pay reverence to his life works. My favorite view was from the north border of the Mirabell Gardens. My gaze naturally followed the immaculate floral lined pathways south to the Salzach River; over the spires that jutted into the sky from the far bank and up to the castle that dominates the hill above the city. It seemed the gardens were constructed only for this purpose.
I cycled north of Salzburg past the tourist-choked lakes of Kobernausser Forest. The hills were extra torturous due to my heavy load. I carried 2 days worth of food in anticipation of the closed grocery stores the following day. That night I camped in a pine forest so dense the afternoon sun could not penetrate to the forest floor. Large hares and graceful fawns scattered as the branches cracked beneath the wheels of my bicycle. I was in heaven. Then it all changed.
I heard the light patter of rain on my tent in the morning. It was a dreadful sound. The past evening, I listened to stories on the BBC about the flooding in the Czech Republic to the north. The famous Budweis brewery lost thousands of beer kegs to the rising water. I wondered what happened when the locals find a keg bobbing in the water. Do they return it full or do they take a few days to empty its content? I cycled north to The Danube which was swollen to its banks. The rain increased in its intensity. I cycled east along the German side of the river and then northeast back into Austria. The clouds became more ominous and I decided it wise to camp before the Czech border. I hoped the rain would pass over during the night.
It poured for 14 hours. A drop of water from my saturated rain cover struck my check at 6 am. It announced the futility of waiting any longer. I packed in a downpour. The most dreadful part of this endeavor is pulling on the wet clothes from the prior day’s ride.
After I repaired a flat in the haven of a bus shelter I commenced what I believed to be a 50km ride to a youth hostel in the Czech Republic. Initially, it was comical. I could not get any wetter. The warm sweet air was reminiscent of playing in the rain as a child. Pipes gushed. Gutters overflowed. The police directed traffic around flooded roads. Manhole covers twirled atop water that spewed from the underground. They resembled bizarre fountains. Still, the downpour continued.
I asked a mailman how to get to the car ferry into the Czech Republic. He directed me down a road. I pushed my bike for 1 1/2 miles up a slope that was to steep to ride. I coasted down the other side to a dead end. There was only a locked gate and no car ferry. I pushed my bike back up the hill and re-entered the same town. It was no longer comical. The temperature had dropped and the rain felt like needles against my face.
When I walked into the town’s tourist bureau I was a pathetic site. I was drenched with a 3-day old beard and wore a hat that drooped over my eyes. When I looked down to survey my appearance a puddle of water that had collected on my hat slashed to the floor. I peered at the attendant with a sheepish smile. He returned my smile and promptly found a room for me at a local pension. It was still pouring.
After a hot shower, lunch and coffee I watched the rain outside my window. ( I found out the next day that lunch was a gift from the hostess ) The radio reported what I had seen was the worst flooding Austria had endured in over 50 years. A fireman had drowned. Villages were isolated and Salzburg had been declared a disaster area.
The rain temporarily stopped and I made a dash for the grocery store. I was determined to stay dry. I tried to jog in a pair of clogs the hostess had lent me. All I could manage was an awkward shuffle. The clogs kept flying off my feet. My shoes were drying in the basement. I returned in the same fashion while I balanced all my purchases on my arms. I still forget to take a plastic bag TO the supermarket. I am sure if any of the locals saw me they would have wondered. I returned to my window. It was raining again.
As I ate breakfast the next morning ominous clouds blew past driven by a swift wind. The forecast was for improving conditions. The statistics poured in from the radio. One hundred thousand residents were evacuated from the lowlands south of Prague. It was their worst flood in 112 years. The rainfall amount from the recent storm was the greatest amount ever recorded since records have been kept.
I risked riding and when I arrived at the Austrian border they were surprised to see me. At the Czech immigration office, he just shook his head. He spoke no English. He swept his hand over the section of my map south of Prague. In German, he informed me all the villages in this area are under water. He refused to let me pass and returned to Austria. As I passed into Austria the border guard leaned out the window and suggested that I take my holiday in Austria. His words may prove to be profound.
So here I sit struggling to learn a lesson in patience. I am far from deprived. I am lodged in a college dorm that is converted to a youth hostel for the summer. The hostel is hosting a summer retreat for families with autistic children. I have a huge private room with bath and I can peck away on the Internet all day for free. The village with all its amenities is a mere 5-minute walk.
I devised a plan over a huge breakfast. (which is also included) Hmm… Maybe I should just stay here. Hmm… Tomorrow I will ride the 6kms back to the border. If I can pass I will be in Prague on the 18th. If I can not I will be in Vienna on the 18th. I will let god sort this one out.
My only disappointment has been my lack of contact with native English speakers. Many Austrians speak English but only in a broken manner. The conversations only progress so far. I am surrounded by people but long for meaningful social interaction.
I miss you all,
I hope this email finds you well.
I am hunkered down in NW Austria in a youth hostel. I tried to cross the Czech border to the north but they are allowing no one in the country until the worst flooding in 100 years abates. The region south of Prague is impassable and they evacuated 50000 people from the Old Town section of the capital city.
I was drenched while I crossed Austria. Some areas of the country are a real mess. For me, this is a temporary frustration. The locals are overwhelmed while they watch their lives float down the river.
So as you watch the international news do not worry about me. If the rain does not stop I will cycle south to the Danube and follow it through Vienna and into Budapest. This route is no hardship. I could wait for Scott in Budapest.
I miss you all and I will see you soon,
Good morning from Munich!
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am in the dining room of my hostel. I just finished my breakfast. Willie Nelson was followed by Olivia Newton-John on the radio. The clinking of silverware mingles with the hum of other travelers voices. A Turkish staff is cleaning the facilities.
The Western European section of my trip has come to an end. Rather appropriately I logged my 15000th kilometer (9300 miles) on the outskirts of Munich. I arrived 3 days ago and intend to explore the city through the 8th. After a brief train ride to the lake town Prien I will continue to Salzburg, through the Salzammergut region of Austria and onward to Prague. I hope to reach Prague by the 17th.
I received an email from Scott. A reunion in Prague seems certain. I have enjoyed the freedom of traveling alone. The experience has been a confidence booster. I have also felt the isolating effect of the language barrier. I look forward to cycling with Scott again.
Did you receive all 4 of the pictures that Betty broadcast? She is sweet for doing that. The one where I am ready to go to the train station makes my legs look like big hunks of muscular dough. That is a direct quote from Ali.
My path from Stuttgart took me (via the train) to the French city of Strasbourg. After touring the picturesque city I followed my beloved Rhine River south towards its source. The silent gentle power of the river comforts me while riding. Its steady presence reassures me that I am progressing towards my goal.
South of Strasbourg, I was examining my map. ( the international symbol for “Help!”). I was attempting to select the ideal route south when I met an “angel”. This was no ordinary angel. He caught my attention when he abruptly jerked his bike to a stop by my side. He wore only overalls and the absence of a shirt exposed his shoulders that were burnt from the day’s sun. He had a beer belly, laughed at his own jokes, corrected my poor German, spoke no English and reeked of beer. What he was able to recommend through hand gestures and maps was the Rhine bikepath. It is one sweet bike path that hugs the banks on the Rhine between Strasbourg and Basel, Switzerland. For 2 days I cycled through nature preserves where the only traffic was riverboats and other cyclists. Again a simple act of kindness enhanced my journey.
An interesting thing happened when I crossed the Rhine into Switzerland. Everything looked, smelled and tasted the same but a twice the cost. I use McDonald’s as the standard. I do not eat the food. I compare the prices. In Basel, an extra value meal served in the smaller European size costs $9 USD. After a long day of cycling, it would require 2 of them to satisfy my hunger. Eighteen $US for dinner at McDonald’s! I calculated this while I drank my awful $2US cup of coffee. Twenty kilometers later I was back in Germany.
From Basel, I followed the Rhine to its source on the western tip of Lake Bodensee. On the way, I viewed the Rhine Falls in the Swiss town of Schaffenhausen. The normal high summer water volume added to the majestic grandeur of the falls. Lake Bodensee is a popular summer destination for sailing, windsurfing, swimming and camping. I stayed in a few of the sparkling clean campgrounds that bordered the lake.
Now Neil Diamond is on the radio ?! My high school Spanish teacher loved Neil.
After the ease of many “flat” days, I was greeted by the twisting mountain roads of the Bavarian Alps. The German peaks are smaller than their Austrian and Swiss counterparts but are no less spectacular. When there were no cars I was accompanied by a chorus of cowbells on my longer climbs.
Nestled in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps is the town of Fôssen. Tourists flock here to see Schloss Neuschwanstein which was constructed by Ludwig II on a mountaintop adjacent to the town. Walt Disney’s Cinderella Castle was inspired by Neuschwanstein’s design. My original intent was to tour the interior of the castle. Unfortunately, the grounds were choked with loads of tour buses. I refused to wait hours for a tour where I would be herded through in a mandatory 35 minutes and then ejected out the back door like a piece of… Well… You know… a piece of meat:-) I want to return to Europe in the future. I envision a trip where I have more money but less time. When I do it will not be during tourist season.
On a somber note, I visited the site of the concentration camp Dachau. The memorial is located 15kms northwest of Munich city center. Dachau was the first concentration camp. It opened in 1933 primarily to house political prisoners who opposed Hitler. By the late ’30s, Dachau’s inmates were almost exclusively Jews, Poles, gypsies, blacks, gays, priests and intellectuals. Anyone The Third Reich thought to be a contaminant to the Aryan master race. Other camps throughout Germany and Central Europe were constructed on the Dachau model. They were also built on a grander scale and from conception were designed for “human liquidation”. Hitler wanted to guarantee the German population’s supremacy in number within the newly occupied territories.
Nazi propaganda described the concentration camps as work rehabilitation centers. The prison’s front gate taunted the new arrivals with the slogan, ” Work will set you free”. The SS guards who ruled the compounds with an iron hand used all forms of torture to maintain discipline. They utilized their obsession with order and cleanliness to justify brutal punishment. Something as insignificant as a prisoner’s straw mattress lacking a square corner brought on the most popular form of punishment which was referred to as hanging. The prisoner would be forced to stand on a chair with his hands cuffed behind his back. The cuffs were secured to a pole and the chair was kicked out from under the inmate. Survivors described the excruciating pain they experienced while they dangled in this fashion for 1 to 2 hours. The offenders even had to endure the indignity of marching to their punishment while signing the camp song. One hundred and fifty to two hundred prisoners were hung daily. There were also medical experiments. An example is subjects being immersed in ice water for hours. The “doctors” were attempting to verify how long it was practical to search for German pilots who were shot down over the frigid water on the North Sea.
In 1945 the camp was liberated by American soldiers. Afterwards, a study was performed to ascertain what the local residents knew of the atrocities that occurred in Dachau. The conclusion was that the segment of the population associated with the SS knew all. A second segment of the population that financially profited from the camp’s existence were aware of something diabolical had taken place. They were not fully aware of the details. Only a tiny minority of the community considered the camp a disgrace and openly opposed its presence. The Nazi would intentionally leak facts of the living conditions to foster an aura of fear among the populace.
Whew! New subject.
I was touring through Munich on my bike. (like I do not ride enough) I scoffed at those who waited for the crossing symbols. I felt proud of my ingrained American-made impatience. We do not pay attention to those silly little lights! I hoped to stop on the corner and inspect my map. I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see 2 stern policemen. I played the ignorant tourist. In German, I said, “I do not speak German.”. The shorter policeman asked for my passport in English. “Is there something wrong ?”, I asked innocently. He responded, “There is a little something wrong.” After checking my passport the taller policeman smiled and said, “You crossed on a red crossing light.”. “Oh!” I responded as though the existence of the light was a revelation to me. The tall policeman’s smile widened and he said, “You know. Just like the ones you have in the States.”. I was busted. Twenty-five Euros later, I grunted a goodbye. I have learned my lesson. Now after checking for traffic, I make sure there is no policeman in the vicinity before I cross on a red light. :-)
I will log on again in Prague. I look forward to your thoughts and news from home.
I miss you all,
I hope this email finds you well. This is again dated. I am currently in Munich. Look for a second email in a few days which will fill you in on my travels between Stuttgart and Munich.
Hello from Stuttgart, Germany!
I am seated on the floor of the Hauptbahnhof ( main train station ). My bike is leaning against the wall. I am waiting for the 11 AM Train to Strasbourg, France. I got ” fat and happy” for 4 days in Stuttgart with my friends Marc and Betty Turpin. They moved to Germany 3 years ago from the States. They owned the house 4 doors down from mine.
I had the opportunity to experience what daily life entails in Germany. In many aspects, it is similar to the States. Errands, running children to events, bills and housework are universal responsibilities. What I also noticed is how the European lifestyle changes how these tasks are performed. Here is what I observed along with some other oddities.
The streets are silent on Sunday because it is illegal to mow your yard on Sunday. Intensive recycling reduces the amount of trash 7 people produce to 1 trash can a month. Garbage disposals are illegal. All plastic products must be recyclable. There are advertisements on toilet paper. ( Like I am going to stop to read them ) Grocery shopping is normally done daily at the local store located within walking distance. German men wear dark socks with sandals. Some of the younger generation wear really short shorts that leave nothing to wonder. (Both men and women). Radio stations play almost exclusively American music in English. It is illegal to open your business on a Sunday. Restaurants and gas stations are the exceptions. Retailers can have only 2 clearances/sales a year. Lack of space necessitates multi-floored supermarkets. The shopping cart is magnetically secured to the escalators that connect the different floors. If I violate any traffic laws a car horn acknowledges that my conduct is unappreciated. People love to correct my poor German. My bike with all its luggage rides nicely on an escalator. Germans love beer, bread, picnics and their cars.
Marc and Betty did I get all of this correct ??
Thank you for all your emails. I miss you all,
Pictures of Dennis in Germany courtesy of Betty Turpin
Here is a rare photo was taken of me in the backyard of Marc and Betty’s in Stuttgart, Germany. As you can see mom I am healthy and happy.
Hope you enjoy the photo which is attached.
I hope this email finds you well.
I am writing form the tiny Rhine River town of Bucharach. The flower boxes are overflowing with various vivid shades of geraniums. The language that I overhear is American accented English. The shop across the street is displaying its gaudy inventory. Above me are a steeply cascading vineyard and one of the numerous castles that majestically overlook the Rhine. Behind me, the gong of a church bell radiates through town and a pampered teenage tourist is arguing with her parents. It is noontime.
I was granted a gift that I longed for since arriving in London. I departed Cologne a day early in search of this prize. My spirits soared when it was bestowed upon me. The gift was the sun. My smile was infectious to those who passed as I rode the bike paths south of town.
I was granted a second gift. A mandatory tour of Koblenz. My back rim separated after 10000 miles of use. I was fortunate to find a bike shop in the city with the proper replacement wheel in stock. My only reservation was my desire for a higher quality rim. I have now replaced 2 tires, a rear wheel, a road pump and a set of cleats since my arrival in Belgium. I hope this is the end of my mechanical problems.
I had my first conversation in German. A woman kicked a vending machine. She knifed a look in my direction and said, ” Kaputt!” I replied, ” Ja. ” What language barrier?
I received the best direction on my trip from German cyclist. He informed me to make a left at the SECOND castle to locate the campground. He then proceeded to convince me to visit Speyer and Heidelberg on my way to Stuttgart.
My time in Cologne was a disappointment. A tour book touted it as one of Germany’s most beautiful cities. What I found is a city without an identity. Prominently displayed on postcards and posters was a black and white photo of Cologne in 1945. The city was in ruins after heavy Allied bombing. What arose from the rubble is a conflicting skyline. The remarkably intact, massive city cathedral towers above geometric structures that detract from the city’s charm.
Hello, I am now in Heidelburg huddled behind one of the stone supports of an ancient bridge that spans the Neckar River. I am hiding from that first gift I was granted a few days ago.
The German cyclist was correct. The town of Speyer is a must see. The village which began as a Roman army camp contains architecture that spans 800 years. The streets are spacious and cared for in that impeccable German style. Bicyclist, ice cream shops, cafes and cobblestone plazas abound among the alleyways that exude history. The city is anchored by two structures. The clock tower/city gate that is remnant of the city’s walled fortresses and the astonishing Cathedral of Speyer where 8 German heads of state are entombed.
I met a French cyclist on the cathedral’s steps. I did not ask his name. His wild beard, missing form teeth and sun damaged face concealed his age. He was begging for money with a cup from passing tourist while we conversed in Spanish. He had been traveling for 5 years. His bicycle and trailer weigh in at an amazing 200lbs when he is loaded down with a week’s worth of food and water. He carries a full-size boom box, a set of solar panels to power his brake lights and is considering buying a TV. He chided me when I told him that I was going to pay for a campsite in the city’s park. He lives outside Monte Carlo and intends to return home briefly in October before continuing on to Portugal and Spain. He also tried to convince me that he walked from Alaska to Russia. He claimed that his expensive boots made this possible by keeping his feet warm while he walked on the ice. I wished him well after this revelation. As I rode away I wondered how long it would take me to reach the same point if I just kept traveling.
The attention paid to a cyclist on continental Europe has been refreshing. In the US and the UK, I have been viewed as an irritant to motorists. The Germans and the Dutch understand. In their parks, they go to the extent of separating bike and pedestrian paths. The bike paths have their own traffic lights and distance markers. I learned the distinction between the two paths when I almost ran over a woman’s poodle. She said something to me in stern German and pointed to the bike path. What I feel most motorists do not understand is that I do not want to be on the road with you. I want an option. ( my own space ) Why can’t we be more progressive in the States? Our dependence on cars reduces our level of health, fouls our ecology, devalues our currency and threatens our national security. How many more wars are we willing to fight to guarantee our endless need for oil and still convince ourselves that we are defending someone’s human rights?
I miss you all,
This email is slightly dated. It was composed over a few days. I am currently staying in Stuttgart, Germany until Monday.
World War II
Hello from Cologne, Germany.
I hope this email finds you well.
I arrived in Cologne yesterday after a 3-day ride from Brussels. I am very enthused about my future ride down the Rhine River and through The Black Forest. Germany is the 20th country on my journey and I feel at home here. I had the opportunity of riding through 3 countries in 1 day. The first 30kms in Belgium. The second 30kms in The Netherlands and the final 35kms in Germany. It was an opportunity the observe the differences in each nation. In Belgium their idea of a park is an overgrown weed patch where there are no houses and navigating the countryside is difficult. This is due to a lack of signs and when there are signs the town‚s name may appear either in Dutch or French. This may or may not correspond to the road map. In both Belgium and The Netherlands, they sell loaves of bread from vending machines ?! The ” green area ” in The Netherlands and Germany are a huge advantage for a bicyclist who camps. The supermarkets in The Netherlands and Germany refuse to utilize plastic bags. I had to balance my purchases on my arms after leaving the cash register. In The Netherlands the bike lanes are sweet and they have REAL coffee to go. I can find helpful individuals who speak English in The Netherlands and Germany. The unfolding of a road map ( The international symbol for ” Help me! ” ) works in all three countries. To summarize, I am happy to be out of Belgium. I wish I had more time to explore The Netherlands and I relish my future travels in Germany.
I have a few corrections on my last email. The people in southern Belgium are not French. They are Belgian. Flemish is a dialect of Dutch. It is not a separate language and they speak German in extreme eastern Belgium. Thank you, Charlotte.
A strange fact. To navigate the crazy street patterns of European cities I had to use my compass more in 1 day than during my entire 8 and half months in Latin America????
I have always had an interest in WWII. The conflict represented a very clear example of the struggle for freedom against brutal repressive regimes. In The Netherlands, I stumbled upon a cemetery dedicated to Americans who lost their lives during WWII. The first thing that struck me was the impeccable maintenance of the monument. The deep-green, weedless lawn was cut to a precise height. The shrubs were perfectly trimmed and the flower beds appeared freshly mulched. Two attendants worked nearby as visitors ambled through the grounds. The care of the cemetery was obviously a high priority. When I strolled by the reflecting pool I was stunned by the size of the graveyard. Each white stone cross signified a life that was lost but the remains were never located. I became profoundly sad and emotional when I attempted to comprehend the scope of the massive destruction of the conflict. The statistics took human form who had names, home towns, futures and people who loved them.
I hope the impeccable care of the cemetery is evidence that Europe has not forgotten the sacrifices these men made to help ensure their freedom. I have heard much of the European Union who through a greater level of economic co-operation aspire for a more stable Europe. There is evidence for their optimism. Until recently 2 countries who both had a McDonalds have not gone to war. My hope is that the Union attains a level of parity economically and politically to that of the US. Maybe this prevents the world’s next generation from having to sacrifice so dearly.
I was chased by rain into my tent early one night. I thought about my adventure as a whole and realized that it coming to an end. With less than 4000kms left to Istanbul, I have ridden close to 80% of the total distance. I feel physically strong and shrug the remaining distance off as a certainty. What would be an appropriate finish? The answer came easily. After a week in Istanbul, I will venture to Greece where I will select an island. On this island for a month, I will lead my bike up against the wall and ponder what I have achieved, learned and forgotten. Maybe I will even do a little Greek dancing. Then to top it off I will return home in time to celebrate the Holidays with the people that I love.
I miss you all,
Hello all! I hope this email finds you well.
I just returned from one last look at the Grand Place in Brussels. I will miss it.
On the walk to the Internet cafe, I was surrounded by the sound of French while I ate my gyro as I passed musicians playing traditional Irish music. I am not in Kansas anymore. The Hungarian woman who loved all things American loved The Wizard of OZ. I met her in my hostel last night.
I had to get out of my hostel. The TV room is packed with Irish boy scouts. The aroma of sweat and hair mousse was stifling.
I was reminded by my friend Regina that I never told you all my experiences at Newark Airport. In the past, I have been very happy with the service I have received from the airlines. Lan Chile did lose my bike for a few days but it did not interrupt my travel plans. So I arrive at the airport with a bounce in my stride after a wonderful few weeks at home.
My parents dropped me off at terminal 1. We said our goodbyes and I entered the terminal. I waited in line armed with my ticket that stated I was flying United Airlines. I had bought the ticket from a travel agent in Buenos Aires. I reached the counter and handed my ticket to the agent. She frowned. (The first of many to come) She said, “You are not flying United Airlines. You are flying Virgin Atlantic.” She informed me that their ticket counter was located in terminal 2.
I drug my bike box and the rest of my gear to the tram. Twenty minutes later I arrived at the Virgin Atlantic ticket counter. He asked where I was going. He frowned and said, ” We don’t fly there. You are flying Continental Airlines. They are located in terminal 3.” I started to lose my cool as I checked my watch.
Twenty minutes later I arrived at the Continental counter. I dropped my bike box and a second cardboard box of gear in front of the agent. She frowned. She said, ” You can not check 2 boxes onto the airplane. You can check 2 suitcases but not 2 boxes.” I lost it. “What do you expect me to do! I did not know I was flying your stupid airline!” She left and returned. Typed something on her keyboard. Then she went and talked to her supervisor. She returned again and granted me the privilege of checking 2 boxes. (Just this time) This transaction had taken an hour.
She started to type in the information for my boarding pass then she stopped and frowned. ” The plane is overbooked.” I just laughed. I was instructed to go to my gate with my written boarding pass and to wait for my name to be called.
I was greeted at my gate with a long line at the service counter. Most of the passengers in line traded horror stories about their past experiences with Continental. I received my boarding pass and again waited. Three hours had passed since I strode happily into the airport. I still did not know if I was going to get a seat on the plane.
My name was called ahead of an anxious family of three. I felt guilty as I boarded. I stowed my check on luggage and soon discovered an elderly man in my assigned seat. He had been assigned the same seat number as mine. I showed it to the flight attendant. He frowned. Twenty minutes later he was granted permission to seat me in the only empty seat that virtually screamed for recognition. Why did it take 20 minutes?!
As I finally sunk into my seat the pilot announced that the flight was delayed an hour. They could not unhitch the mechanism that they used to tow the plane into place. This really raised my level of confidence in the ground crew. I kept thinking that I will never see my bike again.
Continental dealt with the situation with an innovative type of customer service. They passed out massive amounts of booze and soon the plane took on a festive and sedated air.
Whew! Give me a bike any day!
Hello from Brussels!
I am seated on the stone railing of an opulent hotel that overlooks The Grand Place in the heart of the city. The hum of many different languages drifts up from the tourists who pass below on the cobblestone sidewalk. I do not pretend to have the literary skill to truly convey what lies before me. The vast square is bordered by an array of extremely ornate buildings of different architectural styles. My preference is the Gothic Town Hall that rockets 300 feet into the sky. The longer I gaze at it the more I find to appreciate.
Brussels has a cosmopolitan feel that I found lacking in the UK. There are groups of musicians playing classical music with their violins and cellos. Endless outdoor cafes, beer halls, restaurants and shops add to this calm sophistication.
The language barrier has resurfaced. In Belgium (depending which region) they speak French, Flemish or Dutch. In the larger cities, English is sometimes spoken.
The rumors that the French are unfriendly towards anyone who does not speak French are ridiculous. After landing in Zeebrugge I ventured south close to the French border. I speak absolutely no French but communicating with hand symbols I was given all that I asked for. In one instance I was frustrated at my inability to locate a supermarket. The woman held out her hand which signified me to wait. Soon she returned with a plastic grocery bag with the store’s name and hand-written directions. These small acts of kindness make an immense difference. Navigating a new country can be disorienting.
The weather does remind me of the UK. Gone is the incessant, ominous cold of Scotland. Still present are the grey skies and the constant threat of showers. My original intent was to cycle through the Arden Forest before turning north to Brussels. A steady rain on my tent changed my mind.
In Edinburgh, I was reunited with my friend Dan. Dan is also cycling across Europe. I was saddened to see that our paths will not cross again. Dan is riding south to Spain after a brief stay in Paris. As always it was good to see a familiar face. Good luck Dan!
On the ferry ride from Scotland to Belgium, I realized my definition of travel is forever warped. I met Calum who is a school teacher from Scotland. Calum had worked for a year in the US through a work exchange program. He never became accustomed to the shotguns that graced the rear windows of the pickup trucks in Carson City, Nevada. He did love the freedom and fast pace of the US and when I met him he was in the process of moving to Rome where he and his wife and daughter were starting a new life. I thought to myself this is an adventurous man. Then Calum admitted that he did not feel comfortable leaving the boat without a predetermined driving route to Rome. I pondered Calum’s pre-planning as I disembarked into a country where I do not speak the language. With 100 euros stuffed in my pocket and no map, I knew that life would never be the same.
A humorous note about Calum. He corrected a badly translated flyer supplied to the passengers on our Greek-operated ferry. He then turned in the corrected version to the reception desk. I think he gave them a C minus. This is a man who loves his job.
I miss you all,
My Tour of the Scottish Ski Slopes
Hello from Inverness, Scotland!
Inverness is the capital of the Scottish Highlands. I am writing from Ness Island which is surrounded by the River Ness that flows through the downtown of the city. The river’s bank are lined well preserved stately cathedrals, mana cured gardens and shade trees that abound with songbird. The river which retains a brown hue from the peat drains the world re-known Loch Ness to the south. The fickle Scottish weather has granted me a sunny day. The locals all agree that the 6 inches of rain that saturated Scotland in June was unusual. A fly fisherman close to the far bank is casting his line in the swift-flowing, frigid water.
The Highlands have lived up to their hype. I was disappointed until I ventured north of Oban. The bicycle trail between Fort Williams and Inverness culminated in a series of difficult climbs. A policeman shook his head as he passed during my final ascent. His gesture left me questioning my sanity. Then amongst the grey skies, wind and drizzle, I crested the mountain. Before me, stretched a vast valley of endless green. The valley was formed by the majestic Mondhliath Mountains with their distinctive rust-colored, rounded peaks that have been eroded by the harsh Scottish wind. There was no traffic, restaurants or gift shops. Just the stark awesome beauty that left me feeling small and vulnerable. God’s nature put me in my place.
The fly fisherman has moved downriver. Still no luck. His daughter has dangled a line in the water from the bank.
I have noticed a curious contradiction in the English. I had envisioned quaint villages with manicured lawns owned by conservatively dressed, tea-drinking individuals with bad teeth. These expectations have generally held true. My surprise has been “The Page Three Girl.” What is a “Page Three Girl”? She is the topless woman who appears in some of England’s less respected daily newspapers. The racy photo is normally accompanied by a more in-depth article on the model’s life. Come on! Who cares if she has a sense of humor after she takes her clothes off!? In the States, this type of publication would be wrapped in plastic and displayed behind the counter. Does the Queen know about this?!
My tour of The United Kingdom has had a sense of ease. Gone is the language barrier and the strange eating habits of Latin America. Here I can enjoy breakfast again. The desire for and English breakfast or an Ulster Fry has been the motivation to peddle over that last rise before town. I did draw the line on black sausage or blood pudding. Both are made with dried blood and are included in most breakfasts. I eventually overcame my aversion to its appearance. It reminded me of what my dog use to leave for me in my backyard. The taste is actually bland. Pate has more of a kick.
The scenery of the Highlands defies superlatives. The weather occupies the other end of the spectrum. Most mornings I cower in my sleeping bags while the cold penetrating Scottish wind buffets my tent. Leaving the warmth of my bed became a test of willpower. The worst day was the ride into Oban. The frigid wind-blown rain felt like sleet as it struck my cheek. The locals do give me hope. They say I should have better weather during my ride to Edinburgh. The region to the east of the Grampian Mountains is supposed to be drier.
Change of scenery.
I am writing from a laundry mat in Edinburgh. How glamorous? You bet! Only a few steps past the dryer and I am standing on the sidewalk gazing up at Edinburgh Castle. The sight is arresting. It seems no matter where I wander in Edinburgh, before me is a soaring spire, castle battlements, cathedral or park. The famous Royal Mile is the cobblestone street that connects Edinburgh Castle and The Palace of Holyrood. When I stroll through the web of steep alleys that spread throughout Old Town I can sense the complex history of the city. This is a unique treasure that should not be missed.
I unintentionally took a tour of the Scottish ski slopes. The route that I chose between Inverness and Edinburgh appeared innocent enough on the map. It was only after I had my initial view from a ski slope summit that I studied my map closer. While I drank tea that brought the feeling back to my fingers I realized my mistake. I had a second mountain pass to the south. Gone was my hope of a downhill ride to Edinburgh. I constantly balance the struggle to ascend these steep slopes with the breathtaking vistas that await. There are many times I wonder why I make the effort. Then on a summit or in an isolated village, I am given the answer.
I will be traveling alone for the next four weeks. Scott returned to London from Oban. It was while I was riding north of Oban that I had a revelation. I do not have to be anywhere in this world until Christmas time. I mentally trashed my itinerary. After consulting with other travelers from France, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands I have decided to take a different route to Munich. From Edinburgh, I will ride the ferry to Zeebrugge, Belgium. Then I will ride through Brussels and Antwerp before entering the southern part of The Netherlands. Then a turn to the south through The Rhine River Valley to the town of Stuggart in Germany. My wish is to take a train to the French Alps and see a stage of the Tour de France. Amsterdam is a maybe at this point. Scott will hopefully reunite with me in Munich where we will begin our ride to Istanbul, Turkey.
I miss you all and please keep in touch,
This email is a little dated. Currently, I am in Oban, Scotland.
Hello from Belfast Ireland!
I hope this email finds you well.
Since my last email, my travel has included a three-day stay in Dublin. The capital of The Republic of Ireland. Also a three-day journey north along the west coast to Belfast. The capital of Northern Ireland. During my travels, I have been struck by the distinct differences between the two Irelands.
Dublin is a city bursting with vitality. A sense of prosperity exudes from the crowded sidewalks, busy stores and lively pubs. This is very different from the Dublin I visited 15 years ago. In the late 80’s Dublin was depressed. Everybody seemed to want out of the country. Now businesses are recruiting foreign workers to fill vacant positions. Entire sections of the city have been revitalized. The city has gained the title “The New London”.
As I cycled north I anticipated a strong military presence at the Ireland/ UK border. I was greeted by a truck stop/diner. There was not even an immigration checkpoint. I did see a few military helicopters dangling cargo nets in the distance. They seemed innocent enough.
I visited grandma Quinn’s house in Bangor which is located on the outskirts of Belfast. Grandma Quinn is the grandmother of Dan. Dan is a Canadian cyclist who I met in Dublin. He accompanied me for three days. Grandma Quinn fed me pizza, coffee and cookies while I watched Germany defeat South Korea in The World Cup. She is a very spry 76-year-old Irish sweetheart. I hope to see Dan again in Scotland.
I was aware of the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland before I chose to visit Belfast. The Loyalists want Northern Ireland the remain under the rule of the UK. The Republicans want to annex Northern Ireland creating a united Ireland independent of the UK. Decades of bombing and rioting have marked the conflict. I was naive about Ireland’s current political status. I assumed the Good Friday Agreement fostered a solution to the Troubles. A day after my arrival in England I was surprised by the footage of rioting in a Belfast neighborhood.
Curiosity motivated me to take a Black Taxi Tour of Belfast. The tour passes through both Catholic (Republican) and Protestant (Loyalist) areas and includes a description of life in Belfast. The tour was conducted by the taxi driver who delivered his information without emotion.
Belfast has the feel of a depressed industrial city in the Northeast US. Most of the neighborhoods are blue collar and abandoned houses are never out of sight. A five-mile-long wall separates the Catholic and Protestant sections of Belfast. The wall recently received an additional wire mess that commands a height of 30 feet. The houses adjacent to the wall also have their own protective fence. The secondary fence provides protection from rocks and petrol bombs. Huge disturbing murals adorn the buildings in the Protestant neighborhoods. One depicted The Grim Reaper walking over the graves on IRA members who had been targeted for execution. The Loyalists also display thousands of British and Scottish flags and paint the curb the same red-white and blue as the British Union Jack.
The tension of a divided city produces rioting on a scale that often does not catch the international media’s attention. I saw debris from a recent clash. Ironically the general crime rate is very low. My guide attributes this to the justice dispensed by the paramilitary groups. A baseball bat with embedded nails can be the punishment for car theft. ( I believe this supports your theory on crime Vimar )The police who are not respected are housed in buildings that resemble prisons. There are sections of the city that are considered neutral. This includes the prosperous downtown area. Either side welcomes tourist to their neighborhood. The danger is the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I leave Belfast knowing the ongoing conflict is a deeply rooted problem with no easy solution on the horizon.
I have created a rough itinerary for the rest of my trip through Europe. I intend to ride to Inverness Scotland and then down to Edinburgh. Then to Amsterdam (by boat) Brussels, Munich, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Bucharest and Istanbul by the end of October. How is that for a geography lesson Suzanna?
I miss you all and keep in touch,
My Grand Entrance
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am writing from inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland. I am awed by the intricate stained glass windows that depict stories from the bible. The aroma from the burning candles mingles with the sharp odor of the oil used to preserve the wooden pews. There are only a few worshipers present. The dim lighting of the church is a sharp contrast to the bright sunny day outside.
I have spent the last ten days cycling through the United Kingdom from Gatwick Airport south of London to Holyhead, Whales where I boarded a ferry to Dublin. I arrived in Dublin last night. The United Kingdom includes ( depending who I talk to ) England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Dublin is the capital of The Republic of Ireland which is independent of the UK.
This is my second time both in the UK and Ireland. I find myself viewing similar surroundings from a different perspective. I have gained a greater command of the political posturing and religious differences that exist now and in the UK’s past. Knowing the history of a region greatly enhances my travels.
I made a grand entrance during my first day in England. I arrived in the town of Midhurst during a downpour of cold rain. (Now I know why the English complain about their weather ) The tourist information center directed me towards a local pub for shelter. The hotels in the area were far too expensive. I located the pub while the downpour continued and entered the bar. Everyone gawked in my direction. There I stood soaking wet with matted hair wearing a fluorescent yellow rain jacket. ( very un-English ) A puddle of rainwater quickly formed around my feet. Feeling uncomfortable I unzipped my jacket revealing the Argentine soccer jersey I forgot I was wearing. England and Argentina are bitter soccer rivals. From somewhere in the darkness I heard, ” Nice shirt!” The only thing that kept me from being tarred and feathered was England’s recent victory over Argentina in the World Cup.
As planned Scott and I reunited in Bath, England. Scott had stayed with a friend in London while I was in the States. Bath is a stunning town. The city’s name originates from the Roman baths that were accidentally discovered during the excavation for a new building. The Romans occupied southern England during the centuries prior to The Dark Ages.
Initially, bike touring in England was dis-orienting. Instead of traffic lights, the English use the organized mayhem of a roundabout. ( rotary ) All traffic converges into a circle where they continue in a counterclockwise direction on the left ( wrong ) side of the road. In the midst of the confusion, I kept repeating, ” Keep left and look right. ” While I did this I sometimes rode past my desired turn. I would have ridden past Gatwick Airport for the 3rd time if not for the assistance of a local cyclist. He escorted me in the correct direction..
Cycling through Wales was a highlight. The roads were refreshingly free of traffic. I passed through picturesque Welsh villages where the sheep outnumbered the inhabitants. The locals allowed me to camp in the meadow next to the church or the field next to the pub. When I asked for directions I was given far more information than I could possibly remember. The vistas from Snowdonia National Park in north Wales were amazing. Gone were the steel mills and coal mines of the past. Replacing them is a well-developed tourist industry.
The World Cup has been a wonderful addition to my travels. The passion the world has for soccer is evident only outside the United States. I made a habit of viewing the major games. In a pub, I watched the English crush Denmark. The noise level of the English faithful was unbelievable. The Irish lost a heart-wrenching game to Spain the following day. For two hours the normal daily routine of life came to a halt and all the hopes and dreams rested on the outcome of the game. Tomorrow England plays again. I love this stuff!
From Dublin, I intend to ride north towards Belfast where I will take a ferry to Scotland. I look forward to the ride through the Scottish Highland between the towns of Oban, Fort Williams and Inverness. Then I turn south to Glasgow.
I miss you all,
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am in Bath England where I intend to reunite with Scott today. The three days of cycling from Gatwick airport were difficult. Now I know why the English complain about their weather.
I wanted you all to know that I arrived safely. I had the worst experience of my life with the airline in Newark. As of 5 minutes before my flight, I still did not know whether I was getting on the plane. More on that later.
Hello from Lancaster.
I hope this email finds you all well.
My hometown is located in the eastern part of the state of Pennsylvania halfway between New York City and Washington DC. The area is known for the Amish who embrace a simple lifestyle. They shun the use of electricity and cars.
I arrived home after 32 hours in airplanes, buses and airports. I was praising the service I received from LanChile Airlines. Then they lost my bicycle in transit. They found it two days later.
The culture shock that I expected on my return home never materialized. I was overjoyed to hear an NYC accent at JFK airport. Within hours of my arrival home, I was surrounded by familiar sights, sounds and smells. The local farmers fertilize their fields with manure. Buenos Aires seemed like a distant memory.
I socialized and ate heartily for 14 days. I enjoyed a curious phenomenon that accompanies and returning loved one. Everybody wanted to feed me. I happily obliged their wishes. Friends came from North Carolina, Florida and Massachusetts to see me and I was interviewed by my local newspaper.
My primary reason for returning was to attend my stepdaughter’s graduation from high school. My presence fulfilled a promise that I made to her many years ago. As I watched the ceremony I felt pride in her accomplishment and regret for missing her senior year. She starts college in August. I love you Ali.
I have decided to end my trip after Europe. I will return home and move back into my house for Christmas. My reason for this choice is fundamental. I feel my talents and energies are better served at home for the next few years. The cycling has become redundant for me. To continue beyond Europe would be more compulsive than enlightening.
I do desire to see the ” rest” of the world. My passion for travel has increased with time. I intend to become certified to teach English overseas. My future hope is for several one-year contracts in the country of my choice. I believe by working in the community I can absorb much more of the politics, history and culture of that particular area. Where will I teach? The wish list is long. The beauty is that I have the remainder of my life to explore.
During my time at home, I discovered what really intimidates me. It is not a 14,000 foot mountain pass, foreign culture, headwinds or a lack of knowledge of what tomorrow brings. What I find daunting is the struggle to obtain happiness in familiar surroundings. Where it is so easy to repeat the mistakes of the past.
To those that I did not see when I was at home, I hope you understand. Today I depart for England and I invite you all along for the ride.
Dennis reflects on the journey thus far
Location: Buenos Aires
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am writing from Buenos Aires. Yesterday I arrived on the ferry from Colonia, Uruguay. I rode my bike through downtown at night. The vibrancy and architecture of the city reminded me of Manhattan. This is the perfect place to end my Latin American adventure. The steak that I have been pursuing is waiting for me at two different restaurants. I devoured the first one tonight. Spiderman is playing in the local theaters. Tomorrow I go clothes shopping. There are some amazing bargains. The realization that I MADE IT is slowly sinking in. I can be a normal tourist/person for the next 3 weeks. I want to thank you all for your support. I could not have done this alone and I hope you enjoyed the ride.
I rested my chin on the clothesline that was strung across the roof of my hotel in Paysandu, Uruguay. I dejectedly watched the ominous black clouds that boiled above the Uruguay River. Scott approached and asked if we should ride today. A flash of lightning and an instantaneous crack of thunder sent me scurrying for the safety of my hotel room. Fate had spoken and I spent the day reflecting on my bike trip through Latin America. It is difficult for me to encapsulate my adventure in one email. Some of my most lucid moments were when pen and paper were not available.
I asked myself. What have I learned? How have I changed?
I recall a movie. I do not remember the title. I only remember that Danny Devito was the actor who delivered the lines. A younger actor asked Devito if he (the younger actor) had character. Devito’s response was no. He said, “You are too young to know what you regret. It is only when you are older that you will know true regret. When you realize with all your heart that you wish you had done something differently. Only if you still choose to dream with this burden will you obtain character. When out get out of bed in the morning to pursue something that on the day seems crazy.” From this definition, I do feel that I have gained character.
I have been humbled. When I left home I considered myself a generous person. During my travels, I have been shown kindness on a scale beyond what I have ever given. As a stranger, I have been welcomed into homes and families. In most cases, I did not ask. They found me and offered what they had. They were proud of my presence in their home. From their example, I understand that I have much to learn.
I have become aware of the stereotypes that I believed. When I crossed the border into Mexico I feared what I anticipated. Latin America is dangerous. Crime is rampant. The police and military are corrupt. Americans are not welcomed. If anybody asks I should tell them that I am a Canadian. All of my fears were gained secondhand. What I found is a people and culture not radically different than my own. During my 8 and 1/2 months, I never felt threatened. ( except by the crazy bus drivers in Guatemala ) Through countless military checkpoints, I was never asked for money and my bags were half-heartedly searched in only one instance. The oddity of my appearance seemed to alleviate the soldier’s boredom. I was robbed in Quito. A fate that I could have easily suffered in the States.
I have gained a greater respect for my own country. The principles embodied in The United States Constitution are inspiring. These ideals foster a spirit of entrepreneurship and a desire to rise above. I believe that I am free to alter my future. In Latin America, this spirit seems stifled by a belief that nothing will ever change.
I also realized that I desire to be happier and more fulfilled in life. One of my regrets during my journey has been the lack of time. I felt I was passing through instead of truly exploring and becoming part of a greater whole. Too many times in life I have chosen to not make the effort. The bumper sticker, ” Jesus is coming. Look Busy. ” is a disturbing mirror of my own life.
For those who enjoy reading People Magazine, I give you my best and worst list.
- My favorite country — Bolivia.
- The most scenic country — Bolivia.
- My favorite people — Argentina.
- My favorite place — Machu Picchu, Peru.
- The best food — Central Mexico ( Tacos ).
- The most interesting culture — Central Mexico.
- My Favorite day — Skinny dipping in the moonlight Juchitan, Mexico.
- My most frightening moment — Crashing in a tunnel El Salvador.
- My fondest memory — Ramiro’s family, Argentina.
- My favorite gesture — The soldier who saluted me La Paz, Mexico.
- What I missed the most — Family, friends and my bed.
- My biggest regret — refusing an invitation to lunch to ride in the rain. Duh!
- My biggest frustration — pollution and the Spanish language.
I want to welcome you all to join me on the Fish and Chips Tour of the United Kingdom and Ireland. I intend to depart London on the 10th of June.
I will see you soon,
I hope this email finds you well.
I am writing from Villaguay, Argentina. Villaguay is centrally located in the province of Entre los Rios about 400 kms northwest of Buenos Aires.
The Buddhists believe that life is an ever-turning wheel. Figuratively there are times that I am at the top or the bottom of life. From this analogy, I accept that most of my life will be lived somewhere between the highs and lows. This is where I find myself since leaving the awesome beauty of Bolivia. Getting mired in the mud of the Chaco and meeting Ramiro’s family. I count down the kilometers through unchanging scenery while I envision all the things I desire to achieve while I am home. I struggle with the lack of excitement in what should be a never-ending, inspiring, romantic adventure.
My ride south from Corrientes has followed the same endless flat roads that bisect the swampy marshlands and vast cattle ranches of Mesopotamia. The mosquito-infested swamps blossomed to life recently because of the 15 inches of rain that deluged the area in late April. Most of this region was a palm Savannah before the cotton farmers and cattle ranchers arrived. What remains is a sometimes surreal scene. Cranes prance through the marshes that line the road. Behind them, cattle and horses graze in the grassland among the palm trees. I am reminded of Kansas and Florida simultaneously.
There are subtle daily hints that I am in a foreign land. A southerly wind is the harbinger of rain and a penetrating cold. A northerly wind means warm sunny weather. The trees are changing color and losing their leaves in early May. The sun appears lower and lower in the northern sky. These things seem odd.
South of Goya near the end of a long day, I met Manzon. He was riding his bicycle home after a day of work. On his bicycle rack, he was carrying a plant for his garden. I partially understood his heavy accent as we rode towards his home. We parted company when I stopped to wait for Scott. I soon saw him again. He was standing in his front yard waving a white t-shirt. I accepted his invitation to dinner and camped in his front yard.
Manzon is a spry 54 years old general laborer who has 6 children. We sat in chairs drinking mate while his well kept front yard filled with wood smoke. He was proud to treat me to barbecued beef that his wife prepared over the wood fire. Manzon told me he works 10 hours for 10 pesos. ( $3.25 US ) He complained about the inflation and lack of work in Argentina. He laughed and showed me his empty wallet. He seemed unconcerned. Soon we were seated around the dining room table where I enjoyed a meal of roasted beef and fried bread. This was followed by an episode of The Simpsons that I watched through a blizzard of purple snow. The Simpsons is Monzon’s daughter’s favorite show. It was the episode about Homer’s singing group the B Sharps.
I said goodbye to Monzon and his family the next morning. I was surprised to see Monzon. He intended to leave for work at 5:30 am but the work he anticipated was not available. Here is a man who has no money and is unemployed. Yet he did not hesitate to invite a stranger into his house for dinner.
From Villaguay I will continue east into Uruguay and then turn south following the Uruguay River to the town of Colonia. This is where my 11750km bike trip through Latin America will end and my first celebration will begin. I intend to ride the boat across the Plata River from Colonia into downtown Buenos Aires. I chose this route to avoid the noise, traffic, pollution and crime generated by a city of 13 million people. The locals call route 14 which enters Buenos Aires ” Ruta de Muerte “. ( The route of death ) Thankfully there is no shortage of locals who are willing to offer their opinions.
I miss you all and I will see you soon,
The Argentina I Never Knew
Hello from Corrientes, Argentina.
I hope this email finds you well.
For months other travelers have tempted me with the stories about the steaks in Argentina. The massive cuts of meat are concealed under mounds of french fries and onions. I anticipated my last four weeks of riding to Buenos Aires to be filled with all the luxuries of home. With the peso trading 3 to 1 for the dollar, all the things I desired would be a wonderful bargain. What I found was a Third World country. Since crossing the border from Bolivia I have been mired in the mud, endured drenching rains and coped with a collapsed banking system. I have also been treated as an honoured guest. With their economy collapsing around them and their future uncertain, the acts of kindness that I have received from the Argentine people have blossomed into some of my fondest Latin American memories. The Argentine people have adopted me as one of their own.
My 3-day ride from Tarija, Bolivia to the border town of Bermejo followed the only road south. Stunning Badlands transformed into tropical rainforests along the banks of the Bermejo River. I listened to a speech by the president of Bolivia in the small town of Padcayo. He was announcing the construction of a newly paved highway linking Tarija and Argentina. During his speech, I was surrounded by local boys who peppered me with questions about my bicycle. They informed me that their president is corrupt.
My border crossing into Argentina was a simple satisfying affair. There were many instances in the past where I never thought that I would get this far. Now I was entering what may be the final country of my Latin American journey. The rainforest soon gave way to banana plantations and sugar cane fields of the lowlands. It was camping in one of these sugar cane fields that I chose to follow the road less traveled.
The Chaco is a region that encompasses Southwestern Bolivia, Western Paraguay and Northeastern Argentina. It is an area of dirt roads, thorn trees, wildlife and gauchos. ( COWBOYS ) The region is poor, rural and sparsely populated. I chose the highway that runs east in an effort to avoid traffic. The first few days in Argentina proved peaceful. The flat road felt effortless after the mountains of Bolivia. The days were warm and the nights were refreshing. Exotic birds flew between the trees. Gauchos herded their cattle and roadrunners and emus darted for cover as I approached. Then the pavement ended and the rain began.
The roads in the Chaco are special. When rain arrives they are transformed into a quagmire consisting of 2 types of mud. The first variety resembles grease. The second kind of mud is similar to glue. It is specially formulated to stick to bike tires and shoes. I soon found myself 5 kms from the nearest town desperately attempting to carry a bike that would not roll through a grease pit. It was at this exact moment that a smiling Scott waved to me from the front seat of a passing truck. I threw my bike down in disgust while I lamented the decision to ride a dirt road.
Scott’s ride soon stopped due to a second disabled truck that blocked the “highway”. I was soon introduced to Ramiro ( the driver ), Yolanda ( his wife ) and Diebe ( his son ). They offered me a ride to Juarez. Yolanda helped me clean my bike and Diebe loaded it onto the back of their truck. For the next 11 hours, we repeated this ritual. We drove for a few kilometers until the truck became mired in the mud. We would all climb out and take turns shoveling. Then with Ramiro behind the wheel, we would push until the truck was free. We arrived at Ramiro’s house at 1 am. Over an early morning meal of bread, meat and cheese I learned that the detour to Ramiro’s house was necessary. The more direct route to Juarez was impassable. He hoped after some sleep we could use an alternate route later that same day.
Due to a combination of foul weather, bad roads and the collapse of the Argentine banking system, I stayed with Ramiro’s family for 2 days. I was introduced to his neighbors, friends and the remainder of his children Franko, Paublo, Matias and Patricia. I was shown hospitality by masters at their craft. I was welcomed daily for a breakfast of tea and bread, Yolanda’s huge home-cooked lunches and an evening serving of mate that was followed by a late dinner. After each meal, the conversation would linger for hours. Over wine, Ramiro would joke how pathetic I looked when he saw me with my bicycle stuck in the mud. He also said the local snakes and pumas preferred white gringo meat over the darker native version. He told me I was like one of his sons and that I was welcomed to stay as long as I desired.
In every respect by American standards, Romiro and Yolanda are a self-made couple. They both grew up in poverty in Bolivia. Ramiro is a self-taught mechanic. Through hard work, he managed to buy 4 trucks. He now transports mostly staple foods that he resells out of the store his family operates in the front of their house in Potrillo. They both are very proud of the lifestyle that they have created. They are also both critical of what they feel is a lack of ambition in the local population. They feel most of their neighbors desire only to drink mate, eat and sleep. They own a second home in the larger town of Juarez but prefer to raise their children in the more intimate town of Portillo. They fear what they believe is the more prevalent abuse of alcohol and other drugs in Juarez.
I was a local celebrity for 2 days in Portillo. Ramiro’s children’s friends would accompany them home to meet me. When I sat in front of the store a curious crowd would soon gather. I was also invited to Frank’s high school class. For 2 hours Scott and I were questioned about ourselves, our trip, politics, terrorism, life in America and America’s opinion of Argentina. The classroom was filled and other students listened as they leaned through the windows.
These are the fondest memories of my time in Potrillo. Paublo trying in vain to teach me how to cast his fishing rod. Ramiro chewing all the coca leaves and catching all the fish. The succulent dinner of fresh fried fish that followed my fishing expedition. Yolanda serving me first at every meal. I felt like the guest of honor. The candlelit dining room table surrounded by friends and family who all were studying their English lesson. ( even Ramiro ) Paublo’s elementary school class sprinted across the playground to wave goodbye to my departing bus. Ramiro thanking me for spending time with his children. I felt that I inspired a family to search beyond the borders of their small town.
I have mastered the art of making friends in Argentina. I simply walk into any public place and look foreign. I am quickly adopted by a local. I met Pea, the driver of a beer truck, 3 times in one day. The first two times he offered me a ride to his hometown but I refused. The third time we met alongside the road he informed me that I was riding with him as he loaded my possessions into the back of his truck. How could I refuse ?? In his hometown of Iberreta, he arranged for me to camp by the gas station and returned later that night to introduce me to his family.
The following day I sought shelter from the rain. I huddled under the roof of a local market in the town of Fontana. I entered to buy food and soon found myself in a conversation with the señora who owns the store. She offered me a chair while I waited for the rain to end. Her daughters soon appeared with a large bottle of Coke to help me pˆss the time as the heavy thunderstorm continued. The next gift was a dated,hand-stenciled wooden mate mug to commemorate the day. This was quickly followed by a serving of mate, a thermos to carry my hot water and an invitation to a home-cooked lunch. These people are just awesome.
The rage in Argentina in yerba mate. It is a type of tea that is consumed through a filtered straw. It is prepared by pouring ground tea leaves into a mug. Then sugar is poured on top followed by either hot or cold water. The mugs are everywhere. Most of the locals also carry a thermos of hot water so they can enjoy mate at any time of the day.
I arrived in Corrientes yesterday and the search for those steaks that hang over the edge of the plate continues.
I miss you all,
I hope this email finds you all well.
I wanted to let you all know that I am doing well. This is the first Internet access that I could find since leaving Tarija.
I do know that the banking system in Argentina has collapsed. I heard the story on the BBC a day after I entered Argentina. So far it has only been a nuisance. I will find out if I can withdraw funds in Corrientes on Monday. If I can not I have enough cash to make it to Uruguay.
Argentina has been very different than I expected. Northern Argentina is a Third World country. The region also has the most amazingly friendly people that I could ever imagine. A truck driver who gave me a ride when he found me mired in the mud housed, fed and entertained me for the next three days. These people are unbelievable. All this kindness as their economy collapses around them.
More details when I arrive In Corrientes in 3 days.
I miss you all,
It’s All Down Hill from Here
Hola from Tarija, Bolivia!
I hope this email finds you all well.
Tarija is a city in Bolivia’s main wine-growing region. I am writing from the central plaza where I am surrounded by flowers, stately palms, shoeshine boys and pigeons. Behind me is an ornamental fountain and to my right rests my bag of pastries.
My journey from Sucre to Tarija was without major incident but full of observations. I hope that find them interesting.
During my first day out of Sucre, I intended to hitch a ride to the intersection where the ” highway ” connects Potosi and Tarija. This way I could avoid riding the same road twice. After enduring 2 hours of apologetic waves from drivers who could not carry me I began the difficult ride to Tarija. A statistic for the cyclists who are reading this. During my second day, I registered an estimated 6000ft in elevation gain over a 65 kms of paved road. What followed my climb was 375km of poorly maintained, mountainous dirt road that punished both myself and my bike. The ” highway culminated in a bone-rattling, white-knuckled, one-and-a-half-hour descent through cold rain and fog into Tarija. I could have kissed the road sign that announced my entrance into town.
My week’s ride was also filled with some enduring memories. At night I laid in my sleeping bag and gazed at the vivid Milky Way that straddled the sky until the illumination of the full moon took precedence. The ” highway meandered between stark badlands and irrigated farmland where mature wheat waved in the warm afternoon breezes. In the mornings I absorbed the changing hues of desert sunrises. Bolivia is a visually stunning country.
I met a sweet woman in Caramago. I arrived at her hotel resembling an animal after 4 days of camping. It was after a shower and a change of clothes she observed me hunched over my cook stove preparing a cup of tea. She brought me a bowl of local peaches and informed me that tomorrow I would eat a proper breakfast while seated at a table. It was after this breakfast that I realized how much I miss the formality of a meal. She gave me a warm maternal kiss goodbye before I departed.
I entered a tiny store in a dusty desert town south of Potosi. As I approached the counter. The native woman who owned the store silently retreated and pointed to the soda bottles displayed on the counter. Her gesture reminded me of an offering to an unfriendly monster to leave her and her family in peace. Granted this monster was adjourned in a salt-encrusted broad-rimmed sun hat, a long-sleeved grey t-shirt that was darker in some areas than others and black lycra tights. The entire ens-amble was accessorized with a film of desert dust and a 3-day growth of facial hair. What I sensed from her was the fear and distrust of anything new or different. I have been frustrated by the endless apathetic stares of the native population. I do not feel welcome in their presence.
As my journey through Latin America comes to an end I have become aware of my inability to cope with the realities of living in this region. Bolivia has been my favorite country. It is brimming with natural beauty, a rich history and other resources that could enable it to flourish. Yet there seems to be an underlying sense of downtrodden apathy that prevents Bolivia from realizing its potential. I did witness political rallies and a general strike in Sucre but the events pale against the daily lack of desire to demand positive change. It is as though someone has brainwashed the population into believing change is impossible. I hold a new regard for my home country.
From Tarija, it is a 3-day ride to Aguas Blancas where I enter Argentina. At the border, I entered the 11th country of my trip and also eclipsed 10,000 kms of cycling since departing San Francisco.
I miss you all!
I hope this email finds you all well. I arrived in Sucre, Bolivia today after a two-day ride from Potosi. Sucre is a lively modern city of about 150,000 people located in south central Bolivia.
I finally descended off the altiplano. The air has lost its damp penetrating cold of the higher altitude of Potosi. It is a refreshing change.
My 3-day ride from Uyuni to Potosi was the most physically and mentally demanding of my trip. This section of Bolivian “highway” is not paved and poorly maintained. I could deal with the washed-out bridges, washboard road surface, the high altitude, the rocks, and the endless mountains. What “cracked” me physically and mentally was the sand. Riding a loaded touring bike through sand is equivalent to rowing a boat up a raging river. It can be done but why bother? I began my 3rd day out of Uyuni with the Easter message. I was touched by Christ’s sacrifice for me. A mere hour later frustrated and exhausted I lost my religion. I lost it badly. I was glad that there was no one around to witness. By noon on the 3rd day, I hitched a ride. I assumed that I was 40 kms south of Potosi. I loaded my bike in the back of the pickup truck and climbed inside the cab. Five minutes later I was in Potosi. I abandoned my ride 4km south of the city. I was so exhausted that I do not believe that I could have made the final climb into city central.
By contrast, my ride from Potosi to Sucre was infinitely better. A beautifully maintained road that wound through scenic mountains was accompanied by perfect weather and stellar camping. I was escorted by schoolchildren that ran by my side. Their giggles were infectious. I was also the center of a peloton. I was surrounded by 10 other local cyclists who all wanted to ride faster than the gringo.
I continue to be frustrated by the language barrier. The different dialects and accents baffle me. I feel like I am re-learning the same words and phrases for each region. A young man rode up beside me and asked for platita (a little silver, a little money). I responded, “Porque? Tengo trabajar para mi plata.” (I have to work for my money. Right, Karen and Gwen?) He responded in horrible Spanish, “I do not understand English.” Incidents like this leave me scratching my head.
When I was in Potosi I toured the notorious silver mines that overlook the city. Potosi was founded following the discovery of rich veins of ore in Cerro Rico ( Rich Hill ). The prolific mines produced the silver that supported the excesses of the Spanish monarchy for centuries. Indians and African slaves were forced to labor in the mines. They were exposed to asbestos, arsenic, accidents and disease. It is estimated that 8 million workers died in the Potosi mines over 300 years of operation. Today 6000 miners, including 1000 children, still struggle to earn a living from the depleted mine. The appalling working conditions limit the average miner’s life expectancy to 32 years. They work the mine as a co-operative sharing the total revenue. The miners knowing accept the dangers out of desperation to support their families. The night before my tour I was anxious about what I might encounter. I slept restlessly.
My tour started with a minibus ride where I was given rubber boots, plastic pants, a miner’s hat and a jacket. The next stop was the store where I could buy gifts for the miners. My choices were soft drinks, coca leaves and dynamite. Yes, there were small stands that sold dynamite anyone could purchase. How many chances do I get to say, ” A stick of dynamite please. “? With gifts in hand, I was led to the mine’s entrance. It was an unimpressive stone arch surrounded by shacks. There were a few miners who gawked incredulously at the group of gringos who paid to enter their mine.
For the next 3 hours, I crawled through narrow passageways, descended rickety ladders and sloshed through ankle-deep grey muck. There was no electricity or air filtration in the shafts. The beam from my helmet shown through the dust particles suspended in the thin congested air. ( The mine sits at an elevation 14,000 ft above sea level) The most unnerving point for me was when my tour reached what appeared to be a past cave-in. I slithered through an opening 2ft in height and 10ft in length. In the center of this opening, I had to pivot. My feet had to exit first due to a 6ft drop on the far side of the opening. I realized during this maneuver that I felt claustrophobic.
Our guide Juan was a miner for 3 years. Both his grandfather and father were miners. His grandfather died young and his father who moved to a lower altitude struggles with lung disease. Juan’s job title was the carrier. Forty to fifty times a day he would transport sacks equal to his body weight from the lower levels to the surface. When he injured his back his wife forbade him to return. Now working 3 mornings a week as a guide he earns more than the miners. He considers himself a very lucky man.
I can only imagine the emotions of those forced to labor in the Potosi mines. Each day they descended into the dark choking atmosphere with the knowledge that after a few years of working under atrocious conditions, they would be dead.
From Sucre, I intend to backtrack towards Potosi before turning south to the city of Trujillo. Via this route, I estimate that I am 2000 kms from Buenos Aires. Sound like a long way? Not to me. I look at the distance compared to what I have already completed. I have cycled over 9500 kms since departing SF. Buenos Aires is just around the corner.
I miss you all,
I hope this email finds you all well.
I am writing form the tiny town of Alota in the extreme southeast corner of Bolivia. The sun is rising in front of me and the cold morning air is biting the tops of my ears. A cup of hot mate and a plate of scrambled eggs will complete the start of my day.
My last week of travel has been filled with the joys of exploring the world. I have witnessed awesome natural beauty, had my social ethics stirred and made new friends. I am a lucky man and I welcome you along for the ride.
A pounding overnight bus trip followed my departure from La Paz. The dirt road north of my destination ( Uyuni) had been decimated by the recent rainy season. The only positive comment I had about this bus was that it had all its windows. I mention the windows because of the cold Altiplano nights and due to recent demonstrations that erupted in Bolivia over the US-backed policy to eradicate the coca crop. The policy spawned protests in the form of public strikes and roadblocks. In some of the more extreme cases, bus windows were shattered by stones. Uyuni is an isolated desert town that thrives on the tourist trade created by the superb nearby Solar country. The most popular tour is a 4-day, 4-wheel-drive excursion that skirts the Chilean border before returning to Uyuni.
I loved the relative pampering that I received on my tour. I delegated the responsibility of cooking, finding lodging and navigating this remote area to my driver and cook. There was a total of six people tucked into the Toyota Land Cruiser.
My first day out of Uyuni took me to the Solar de Uyuni. It is an immense salt plane that encompasses about 12000 sq. kms. The basin fills with shallow water during the rainy season. As the water evaporates the salt crystallizes. What remains is a brilliant white surface that has the identical characteristics to a snow-covered frozen lake. The salt crunched under my feet and puddles resembled slush. At one point under my feet was the epitome of a frozen lake, above me was an intense sun, behind me was an island of giant cacti, and in front of me was an emu waiting for a piece of my banana. My senses were left confused.
My second and third days were filled with unique and surreal natural beauty. Landscapes that evoked the memories of a Martian B movie set. Fire red lagoons where white and pink flamingos lazily passed time. Geysers that bubbled what appeared to be molten clay. Lakes that changed color from blue to a vivid jade when the wind stirred the lake’s sediment and hot spring that melted away the morning chill. The stark beauty of this region was a wonderful experience for me.
I credit fate for making my tour of SW Bolivia a success. It was by accident that I ate breakfast with the couple that recommended my tour. It was by chance that I met Helen and Jennie in the bus station on my way to Uyuni. It was their humor, curiosity and companionship that made all the difference. Thanks, ladies. I hope to see you both again in my future.
I took a bizarre tour in La Paz that I feel you will find interesting. Bear in mind that all my information came from Louis my tour guide. Louis is originally from Virginia and is in jail for smuggling cocaine. Because his parents are diplomats in Washington DC he claimed that his diplomatic immunity gave him the ability to smuggle drugs through international airports. He was arrested in Bolivia where he bribed a judge $15000US to be placed in San Pedro Prison instead of a federal facility. I doubt the facts of Louis’ personal life. I do believe the general information that he supplied on the operation of San Pedro Prison.
I approached the front entrance of San Pedro. Massive grey walls stretched the length of the block in both directions. I told the guards who were armed with automatic weapons that I was there for the tour. They sent a messenger for Louis while I passed through a metal detector and handed the captain a copy of my passport. The surroundings were threatening but the mood was light. Louis who is a small gaunt man soon appeared and I was allowed into the open-air prison courtyard. Over the next one and a half hours this is what Louis told me in his rapid English.
San Pedro receives no federal money. All the operating expenses including the guard’s salary are paid by the prisoners. The inmates earn income by transforming their cells into restaurants, tailor shops, shoe stores and office supply stores. ( I could have had a fake student ID made during my tour. ) These enterprises give the enclosed community the feel of a small city. The prisoners are allowed to accept outside work to supplement their income. The hope is that their business will carry on after their release.
The prison is divided into 5 sections. The 5-star section has a health spa, movie theater and cable TV. The 1-star cells are a room with a dilapidated cot. Prisoners buy their cells with a one-time fee between $20US to $ 2000US. When an inmate leaves he can either sell or rent his cell to an incoming prisoner. Once established a prisoner’s family including his children are allowed to live within the jail. All expenses for food, medical, drugs or female prostitution are paid out of the inmate’s personal income.
There are rules to which all prisoners must conform. No violence toward the woman, children or other prisoners. Everyone must work. Drug use is not allowed in the presence of children and all inmates are required to bath daily. The rules are enforced by an armed internal police force consisting of inmates. The guards are not allowed inside the prison’s front gate. The punishment varies from being thrown into a water tank for not bathing, 50 lashes with a steel rod for public drug use to instant expulsion to a federal facility for any act of violence.
The prison also houses a Catholic church and an orphanage. Louis claims that half of the proceeds of his tour go to the guards and the remainder supplies 136 orphans with food, medical care, schooling and housing. The orphans roam through the complex playing games and riding bicycles.
Coke also sponsors the prison. They donate the tables and banners for the exclusive right to sell their products at San Pedro.
Louis ended his tour and escorted me to the front gate. Soon I was walking towards my hotel with many ethical questions. Is it justified for a government to ignore its prisons based on the premise that it lacks funds? Aren’t prisoners supposed the be punished for their crimes instead of enjoying a higher standard of living than the average citizen? Are orphans who are housed and educated but exposed to drug use and prostitution better off than those living on the streets? Is it possible for a drug dealer to be a humanitarian? I pondered these questions as I strolled down the sidewalk. I equate this ” Everybody is Happy ” mentality with a stag net social situation in South America. As long as nobody demands better nothing will ever change.
Tomorrow I begin the ride north through the cities of Potosi and Sucre. Then I turn south to Buenas Aires for the final leg of my Latin American trip.
I miss you all and look forward to seeing you in May.
Crawling 3 KM per hour on the Altiplano
Hello from La Paz, Bolivia!
I hope this email finds you all well. I arrived in La Paz on the 21st after a two-day ride from Copacabana.
I want to thank you for the numerous responses to my request for advice. I have decided to enjoy my next two months as I cycle to Buenos Aires. The answer to the duration of my trip will come in time.
My ride south has followed the Altiplano which is a vast plain that stretches from north of Lake Titicaca through most of western Bolivia. The altitude on this plateau varies from 12000 to 14000 feet above sea level. ( Hence the name high plane ) The climate and the scenery tend to be either harsh or stellar. My morning ride out of the town of Juli was stressful. The heavy 45-degree rain penetrated all of my rain gear and saturated my clothing. By noon the sun appeared and its warmth soon brought back flexibility to my fingers. By afternoon perfect riding conditions followed me into Copacabana.
I have finally acclimated to the altitude. In the past carrying my bike or gear up a flight of steps would leave me winded. I also experienced some irregular breathing and an elevated heart rate that disturbed my sleep. What annoyed me was Thorstein. I was hiking on Isla de la Sol. A brief shower was coming to an end as I came to the top of a ridge. I was slightly lightheaded from my effort and I felt a damp chill under my coat. Then I saw Thorstein who is from Scotland. He stood on the trail in shorts and sandals. He said hello as he drew deeply on his cigarette. During the 10-minute conversation that followed he lit a second cigarette. I am biking around the world and this guy is chain-smoking around the world! How does he do it !?
The borders in South America have been a peaceful affair. Absent are the long lines, useless forms and fees that plagued the borders in Central America. I was greeted at the Bolivian border by polite smiles and music. I was so relaxed I almost felt like staying for a few hours. I still have not had a bag searched at any border crossing.
The highlight of my last week was my hike on Isla de la Sol. The vistas from the ridge that encompasses the center of the island were phenomenal. The Incas believed that the sun was created here. The remnants of three of their temples still remain. Worshipers would arrive at the temple located on the southern end of the island. They would remove their shoes and walk barefoot to the second temple. Then in an attempt to show their devotion, they would crawl the last 3 km of rocky trail to the temple of the sun on the northern end of the island. Ruins of the temple, a sacrificial table and a sun calendar overlook Lake Titicaca from a commanding height.
I met a man named Walter in Juliaca. He walked across the plaza and asked if he could polish my muddy bike shoes. We continued to discuss my trip as my tent dried in the intense midday sun. I saw Walter again the next evening in Puno. He was now a crumpled heap of limbs on the sidewalk. The sign placed next to him claimed that due to an accident, Walter could not walk. I approached and said hello. Walter could only manage a sheepish grin.
Walter is indicative of one of the ongoing frustrations of my trip. Boys dash to the edge of the road and ask for plata (silver). Men and women ask for money if I what to take a picture of a llama that is grazing in an open field and the crippled and the blind sitting on street corners with their hats in hand. The perception that Westerners have bottomless pockets makes me an obvious choice for these advances. I want to give them money and I do give them food. I can see and feel the poverty. Walter’s situation leaves me to wonder. If I give money am I helping or contributing to a social ill? Either way, I feel guilty as I pass.
My second around-the-world trip begins on May 23rd. I will fly from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Santiago, Chile to New York City to Baltimore. I am looking forward to 24 hours on an airplane and in airports. This roundtrip airfare costs $650 less than a more direct one-way flight through Miami. Does anybody understand the airline industry? Again I found this fare through a travel agent. The Internet quote was twice the price. If everything goes well I will be in Baltimore, Maryland on or around noon on the 24th of May. I will be staying at my friend Karen’s house in Lancaster while I am home. Thank you, Karen.
From La Paz, I will take a bus to the dusty town of Uyuni in southwestern Bolivia. From this town, there are 4-day tours available to the Solar de Uyuni which are supposed to be awesome. I am very excited about my upcoming tour and being chauffered around for 4 days. After Uyuni, I will cycle north through Potosi and Sucre before turning south towards Buenos Aires.
I miss you all!
38 and Better Than Ever
I hope this email finds you well. I am on the shore of Lake Titicaca in Puno, Peru. I arrived yesterday after 5 straight days of riding. I want to thank you for the positive responses to my emails. It is good to know that you find them interesting.
As I prepared to leave Cuzco I dreaded what I thought would be many hours of cycling through cold rain. It had rained every day since I arrived. To my delight, I was completely wrong. Once escaping the pollution of Cuzco the highway south to Puno was spectacular. The road followed three different rivers that are nestled between the Andes mountains. Closer to Cuzco snow-capped behemoths shot into the sky and farther south the altiplano grasslands supported herds of sheep, cattle and llamas. I was surrounded by the vivid colors of nature and the calls of strange birds. The road was wide and well maintained and at times devoid of traffic. The people were friendly, the water was abundant and the camping was first-rate. One night I camped in a grove of trees that overlooked a raging river. This is how I envisioned cycling around the world.
This section of road did not come without its challenges. I dodged afternoon and evening showers and thunderstorms with great success. There were also some headwinds closer to Puno. The real challenge came the morning of the 3rd day. After breaking camp, I started the day’s ride looking forward to lunch 45kms down the road. The highway climbed. At the 10km point, I repeated the mantra, ” God would not challenge me with something I can not handle.”. After 15kms I was gasping for air but I did not know why. The last 5km to the summit was a race with a rain cloud. I received the reason for my fatigue at the mountain pass as sleet bounced off my helmet. I was over 14,000 ft above sea level! I remember when my aunt and uncle drove me to Mt Evans in Colorado. At the time walking at a similar altitude left me light-headed. Now I hiked a 90lb bicycle through the same thin air. I am 38 years old and better than ever. My reward came only 1km past the summit. I outran the sleet and the sun warmed my frigid hands. The warmth felt like a life-giving gift from god.
The acts of kindness have continued on what I feel is a grander scale. I judge this by what the individuals possess compared to what they freely give. On the 4th night out of Cuzco, I was camped in an idyllic meadow with a stream flowing nearby. I had retreated to my tent to escape the cold evening air. Later I heard someone calling, ” Hola.” and I went to investigate. It was the owner of the property. He was worried that it was too cold for me to be sleeping outside. I assured him that my tent was comfortable and accepted an invitation to breakfast. This conversation commenced with each of us on a different side of the stream that ran through his property.
A cold rain fell in the morning and I was welcomed into his house by his son, daughter and wife. He was in the town a Lampa for business. I was invited to sit on a mattress that rested on a dirt floor. The entire mud brick structure consisted of two rooms and was smaller than my bedroom at home. Music emanated from a radio that hung on the wall. The se¿ora gave me a bowl of hot soup that felt wonderful on my cold hands. I ate with trepidation. I knew I had to eat or I would offend their hospitality. To my relief, it was dried potato soup. Over the cup of tea that followed the se¿ora and her son told me of the few cattle and sheep that they owned. She spoke very loudly in what I believed to be an attempt to compensate for my bad Spanish. She informed me that many of the locals speak only the Quechua language and that hunger is a problem in the area. She trades meat and wool for what she needs.
As the meal ended Scott and I conversed in English. Should we offer them money for breakfast and camping? What is the right thing to do? I felt that offering them money would insult their sense of hospitality. I prepared to depart and said my ” Thank yous. “. What struck me was the normality of the moment. I sensed that inviting a stranger into your home and sharing what you have is expected. When I consider what I possess the bowl of soup and cup of tea that was given to me compares to me giving the entire contents of my well-stocked refrigerator to a stranger that I found sleeping in my backyard. As I rode away, the sun’s warmth radiated from above. I found myself deeply touched by this simple act of kindness.
Ironically I find myself in a situation that I never expected. With my journey progressing wonderfully I am wondering if I should continue. I am solidly committed to reaching Buenos Aires and continuing across Europe. I view Europe as a reward for some of the hardships I have endured in Latin America. But what then? How many mountain passes and Third World countries are enough before they become redundant? Can I grow as an individual by cycling Asia or are my real challenges the things I have left a home unfinished? I share this with you in the hope of conveying the sentiment that traveling is no different than a “normal” life. It just appears to be more glamorous. For those of you with families and who are active in your local community, I applaud and respect you. Your journey is far more important and impressive than my own. I consider my choice to leave home as one of the best decisions of my life. I have no regrets. What I ponder now is when does my trip stop enhancing my life but instead become my life? Any advice?
I miss you all!
I hope this message finds you well. I am in Cuzco, Peru. Cuzco is a city of over 300,000 people in southeastern Peru.
Since leaving Piura many things have happened. This may be a lengthy email.
Between Piura and Chiclayo is a 220km stretch of barren windswept desert. The Pan American Highway turned inland and the temperatures in the sun soared to over 120 degrees. There were a few small towns where a well supplied water but these consisted only of clusters of mud and stick houses. The terrain varied from moonscapes to vast open plains of sand. My only friends ( other than Scott ) were the gnats that swarmed whenever I stopped riding. I rode this section of Peru in 2 days. On the morning of the second day, I stopped at the only intersection of two paved roads between Piura and Chiclayo. I asked the owner of the restaurant if I could purchase water that I badly needed. The next source of water was 70km farther south. The owner refused to sell me this valuable desert commodity. She gave it to me for free out of her limited supply.
As I continued south through the cities of Chiclayo and Trujillo the limitless alien landscape was interrupted more often by small towns. As I approached Lima the population and traffic continued to increase. This was also accompanied by what became a daily stiff afternoon headwind. Because of the spacing of the major cities, my mandatory 100km days ended with a few hours into this debilitating wind. Mentally for me, the most difficult part was the sight of the few meager plants that struggled to grow along the side of the road. They were permanently bent at a 45-degree angle due to the power of the wind. With riding conditions deteriorating I chose to board a bus to Lima with the intent of taking a second bus to Cuzco. Good idea?
My bus trip to Lima started well. My bike was safely stowed in the luggage compartment and unexpectantly the bus almost departed on time. It was soon after the bus began its 8-hour overnight trip that I realized that I was ill. The air was stagnant on the bus that was filled to capacity and a Jean Claude Van Damme movie played at a high volume. I arrived in Lima feeling miserable. I was hoping to find an easy confection to Cuzco but in Latin American cities there are no central bus terminals. Buses arriving from the north disembark at separate terminals from the buses supplying services to other parts of the country. Normally this only entails traveling a few blocks to the next station but not in Lima. Lima is a sprawling, polluted city of 8 million people. After 3 bus terminals and an hour and a half of frustration, I rode south through central Lima to catch a 9 am bus to Cuzco. The eerie cloud of smog that hovered over the freeway stung my eyes during the 5km ride. I arrived at the bus station and this traveler ( me ) trotted quickly to the bathroom with little time to spare. Feeling weak and sleep-deprived I completely disassembled my bike, checked my luggage and boarded my bus. I soon found my simulation leather seat. The air conditioning dried the beads of perspiration on my forehead. I was elated to find a footrest and a seat that reclined to almost a horizontal position. My plan was to sleep all the way to Cuzco.
It was 31 hours later that my bus finally arrived in Cuzco. For unknown reasons, my bus toured the southern half of Peru. The route took me close to Chile and Bolivia before it turned north along the western shore of Lake Titicaca. My simulation leather seat had transformed my behind into genuine leather. I was greeted in Cuzco with a heavy raw rain shower. The rain started suddenly on the short ride between the bus station and town. In street clothes, I was quickly drenched. At this moment I was collectively ill, dehydrated, sleep-deprived, hungry, cold and emotionally exhausted. Then by grace, I received what I needed.
The balcony that was partially protecting me from the rain turned out to be a hotel. The woman who managed the hotel helped me into a spacious room with a hot shower and brought me a steaming cup of Mate de Coco. ( The local tea to which I am now addicted ) A few hours later I reflected upon the two worst days of my adventure. I did this as I melted into a warm bed with the flavor of a wood-roasted chicken dinner lingering in my mouth. I again realized that it is the basic things in life that are the biggest blessings. Food, shelter and the kindness of a stranger should never be taken for granted. As I drifted off to 10 hours of blissful sleep I knew in my heart that I was a very fortunate man.
Cuzco is the city that most travelers and tourists use as a base to tour the world-famous Incan ruins at Machu Picchu. As a result, hoards of tourists pass through the city each year. For me, the commercialization obscures the charm of the city. There is a bustling central market where the locals sell their wares and a huge Peruvian lunch can be purchased for 50 cents. I try not to look too closely at what parts of the chicken are floating in my soup. The Plaza de Armas is a spacious public area that is surrounded by stunning architecture. At night the cathedrals are lighted beautifully. The Plaza is also ” Ground Zero ” for the tourist trade. If I stop to appreciate my surroundings I am endlessly hassled to buy anything from a shoe shine to drugs. The sales pitch here is not, ” Will you buy this?” It is, “Why haven’t you bought this!” I have been grabbed, pulled into a restaurant and sworn at by a 4-year-old girl for just saying, “NO!”
I was reunited with some of my balloon-tossing friends that I met in Cueca, Ecuador. Leanne and Danielle from Canada and Mat and Kat from England helped me enjoy Cuzco’s nightlife. I also crossed paths with Ryan who I met in Costa, Rica. Since San Jose Ryan has arranged a homestay in the Cuzco area. The family he is staying with manages the hotel I stumbled upon during the rainstorm. More proof that it is a very small world.
My tour of Machu Picchu was unparalleled by anything I have experienced on my journey. My day started with a 4 am wakeup call and by 4:30 I was hiking in the predawn darkness along the Riobamba River. I then ascended an endless flight of steps to the park entrance where I grudgingly paid my $20 US fee. I continued to climb through the thick early morning fog and by 7 am reached an overlook where I chose to rest. I thought I was lost. When the rain started I turned to Scott and asked, “Why would the Incas worship the sun god here !?” An hour later it happened! The sun burned through the clouds and Machu Picchu appeared below me! I felt like an explorer who just discovered its existence. Soon the entire valley appeared. All of the hassle, time and money was instantly justified. For the next 5 hours, I hiked, shot photos, investigated and meditated. The ruins are interesting. The intricate stonework for which the Incas are famous has endured 1000 years of weather and earthquakes. What really made Machu Picchu unique was the awe-inspiring views. The drone of the raging Riobamba river that emanates from the valley far below combines with the grandeur of the mist-shrouded Andes Mountains that rocket into the sky in all directions. The pure unit erupted vastness of these vistas promotes a sense of mystical power. After the 1 hour hike to Hauyman Picchu, I sat alone with my thoughts as I gazed down upon Machu Picchu. It is an indelible memory.
If you are coming to Machu Picchu I suggest staying in the close-by town of Agua Calientes and then hiking up in the early morning for the sunrise. By late morning the park becomes more crowded. The early morning silence is ruined by the tourists who lack respect.
From Cuzco, I ride south through Puno and on to the Isla de la Sol in Bolivia. I hope to arrive in a week.
I miss you all!
I am a rock star
I hope this email finds you all well. I am doing just wonderfully.
As the 6 month anniversary of my leaving home approaches, I grudgingly accept that my traveling adventure will someday come to an end. When I do return home there will be some radical adjustments. I will have to decide how to make money again instead of just spending it. I am confident that my life will return to somewhat of a ” normal ” routine. This I can do. What will be infinitely more difficult will be the loss of my celebrity status. After all, I am a rock. Screaming children run out to the street with their hands in the air as I pass. Beaming young women whistle and wave when they see me. Truck drivers lean out their windows and give me the thumbs up. Soldiers salute my efforts. Families crowd their doorways solely in the hopes of getting my attention. When I return home I will be a thin, bald guy with a good suntan. Sure I could regal the person next to me with some great stories but alas I will be merely another guy in the Walmart checkout line. This could take years of therapy.
I arrived In Piura, Peru yesterday. It is a provincial capital city located 300km south of Ecuador along the Pan-American Highway.
Ecuador changed between Cuenca and the Peruvian border. The lush mountains became desert, then tropical rain forest and finally flattened out into huge corporate banana plantations. I will never forget the pungent odor of rotting bananas in the midday sun. The poverty of the locals also became much more evident. The stone and wood houses were replaced by mud huts and the gutters were full of fetid garbage. I have witnessed extreme poverty in Central America. I can understand the lack of money. It is what seems to be the lack of ambition to raise living standards that baffles me. I can be very poor and not deposit my garbage outside my front door.
My border crossing into Peru was exceptionally easy. A man exchanging money did palm a $10 bill when handing me my money. It is the never-ending game of trying to separate a gringo from his money
The coast of northern Peru is a desert. The highway allows me vistas of white sand beaches and the Pacific Ocean. This desert is infinitely easier to bicycle than the Baja in Mexico. The road is flat. The towns are spaced at reasonable distances. The ocean breeze moderates the scorching sun. The locals are extremely gracious. The drivers are polite and THEY HAVE CLOUDS HERE. This is the rainy season in northern Peru. I laugh when I see the locals huddle from protection from the few drops of rain that fall for only a few minutes. A young man selling papas along the road asked me for my tarp because of the cold rain. It was 85 degrees.
Scott and I both became ill in Riobamba. My stomach ailment lasted only one day but Scott‚s continued for a week. The only food item we shared that day was a package of cream cheese. It was not until I was sick that I noticed the cheese was not pasteurized. As a result of his sickness, Scott lost that extra 5 to 10 lbs he wanted to lose. I now refer to the episode as ” Scott’s Cream Cheese Diet”. Guaranteed!
I am still receiving acts of kindness. In Peru, a fellow truck diver bought me a Pepsi and a friendly man offered his family’s house as lodging for the night. Water has been freely given and permission for camping has always been granted whenever we ask. My favorite occurred in Ecuador. I was struggling up what seemed to be an endless mountain. Suddenly 3 giggling boys overtook me from behind and started to push me up the hill! This continued for a few hundred meters until they were gasping for air while they laughed. At this point, I was pulling them up the hill. They soon released their hold and waved adios.
Here is a shocker for those who know me well. I have given up coffee. OK not completely. I still have a cup with a meal later in the day. What I have overcome is the morning ritual to search for caffeine. If I found coffee it is a good morning. If I do not it is a long day. I feel better without all the coffee. Difficulties in South America and an extra week in Costa Rica have left me about two weeks behind schedule. To compensate Scott and I will continue to ride south until the riding condition deteriorates. Then we will board a bus that will take us through Lima to the southern city of Cuzco. From Cuzco, I can tour the ruins Of Machu Picchu. Lima is a massive city of 8 million people that I would prefer to avoid.
I miss you all!
I hope this email finds you well.
My second day in Quito I was walking down the street with friends. Suddenly a water balloon struck me squarely in the back of the neck. This was only hours after I had been robbed. I was very angry and felt very unwelcomed in Ecuador. I felt as though I was being harassed. I could not understand what the fascination was with water balloons. Was this a new form of technology just discovered in Ecuador?
A few days later in Riobamba, I awoke feeling ill. I tried to convince myself that I was healthy enough to ride. Gravity soon made the decision for me and I went back to sleep. Later that morning noise entered my room through my second-floor hotel window that overlooked the street. I peered out the window. High School and Junior High students were returning home. They were pelting each other with water balloons, throwing flour, spraying slime from are-Sol cans and smearing what looked like Vaseline in each other’s hair. There were also marauding pickup trucks filled with kids throwing buckets of water on pedestrians. The only rule that seemed to apply was that no one over 40 or dressed for business could be attacked.
I saw my opportunity and filled one of my panniers with water. For hours I dumped water on my unsuspecting victims below. I also threw water on the pickup trucks that passed. A direct hit would elicit a cheer from the street below. Soon the boys would drag their female victims directly under my window while I emptied my pannier full of water on their heads. They loved it. I loved it. I forgot that I was sick for a few hours.
The following few days of riding between Riobamba and Cuenca were filled with squirt guns and water balloons. Buckets of water would soak me from behind roadside stands and from rooftops. They would smile and wave. I would return the gesture.
After arriving in Cuenca I was reunited with two Canadian women that I had met at the bus stop. They had been soaked by the locals and were looking for revenge. They spent most of the afternoon filling water balloons. That night there were 10 of us. Our Gringo gang was comprised of Canadians, British, Americans, Swiss and Dutch members. We strutted down the street shoulder to shoulder bombarding anything that did not have the intelligence to get off of the street. The bombas de agua flew into taxi cabs and second-floor windows in per suit of fleeing victims. The locals just laughed and waved. If I did anything remotely similar to this in the States I would either get beat up or put in jail.
The water games are Ecuador’s way of celebrating Carnaval. Some of the larger cities have Mardigras celebrations similar to those in New Orleans. Most communities seem to prefer water sports. Sadly today is the final day of Carnaval. Tomorrow we all have to return to acting like adults.
What I learned was that a water balloon crashing into the back of my neck can be a sign of affection. I ponder this thought with two more packs of empty balloons in my pocket.
More later from Peru. I miss you all!
Hello! I hope this email finds you all well.
I arrived yesterday in the lively mid-sized city of Riobamba, Ecuador. It is located about 200km south of the capital city of Quito.
My experience started very badly in Ecuador. I was robbed in The Old Town section of Quito. I had heard all the warnings and felt that I was being cautious.
Scott and I had ventured into Old Town on our second day in Quito. We strolled the streets that were lined with old churches, narrow alleys and houses with tile roofs. The area had all the stunning architecture and culture that I had found to be missing in Costa Rica. We found a cafe in the plaza and sat down to enjoy an overpriced cup of coffee. I checked my surroundings. The cafe was fenced in and there was a security guard at the entrance. I felt safe to place my bag under the table. In the next hour somehow my bag disappeared without either of us taking notice. It contained my camera, jacket and two weeks’ worth of my journals. A local man believed that the guard was working with the thief. Of course, the restaurant had no history of theft. Before leaving the cafe I met a man who had his back pocket razored and upon returning to my hostel I listened as two Danish women told me they had been robbed. Someone sprayed ketchup on her and when they offered her a towel they cut the strap to her bag and disappeared.
This is the first time in my life that my person has been robbed. The incident violates my cozy little secure world. I now carry a camera that fits into my pocket. A backpack seems too risky. What if while the thief is cutting the strap they cut a little too deep? Quito is a beautiful city but in my opinion, is not worth the risk.
I had other more positive firsts. My campsite one day south of Quito allowed me my first view of the snow-capped Andes. The next morning I watched Volcan Tungurahua erupt in the distance. A cloud of smoke and ash billowed into the sky. The eruption seemed routine. The locals took no interest in the display.
Scott’s knee is causing him pain. It forced us to hitchhike for the first time. He did not feel comfortable finishing the climb through the mountain pass north of Riobamba. Hitchhiking in Ecuador is very common. Within 10 minutes we were relaxing in the back of a pickup truck on the way to town. It is reassuring to know that I have this option on the days when things seem overwhelming.
The countryside of Ecuador is radically different than Quito. I have begun to ask permission to camp in the small towns that dot the Pan America Highway. The locals are very gracious. They allow me to camp in the park or by the school. One morning we were the entertainment for the young students arriving for school. The boys lined up for photos but the girls fled at the sight of a camera. The boys giggled while peering through Scott’s binoculars. The children restored my faith in the people of Ecuador.
This is my first time south of the equator. Yes, the water in the toilet does swirl in the opposite direction. What has amazed me in the weather! I am 1 degree south of the equator but the nights have been damp and cold. This is the middle of their summer! The prospect of a raw 45-degree morning has kept me in my sleeping bag longer than normal. The climate is due to the high altitude. The Pan American transverses the spine of the Andes between the elevation of 8000ft and 13000ft.
The traffic and pollution continue to be a problem. The buses and trucks belch clouds of smoke. Between the pollution and the altitude, there are times that I find myself gasping for air. I still hold hope that the traffic will thin south of Riobamba.
My next goal is the city of Cuenca in southern Ecuador. From there the border of Peru is a two-day ride.
I miss you all!
I hope this email finds you all well! I wanted to let you know that we arrived in Quito safely. I am very excited about continuing my trip. Our first night south of town should be spent camping next to an 18000 ft volcano. It may take me a few days to acclimate to the altitude. I feel anything over 1000ft.
I hope this e-mail finds you all well.
I spent the last week and a half exploring Costa Rica both on my own and with Ali. So What did I think?
My first 3 days were filled with running errands. I found a bike shop to do maintenance and disassemble my bike. I purchased an airline ticket for Quito, Ecuador. My plane leaves either on the 31st or the 2nd. I will know the exact date later today. By comparing airline fares through a local travel agent I was able to reduce the cost for my bike from an extra $100US to an extra $25 US. The Internet is not always the best place to buy tickets.
On the 19th my Ali K arrived. The “K” stands for ketchup. She arrived late and had to pass through the tight security at the airport. They do not allow anyone other than a passenger into the terminal. Ali had to pass through immigration, and customs and exited the airport before I could meet her. I felt like an anxious father wishing I could have met her at the gate where her plane arrived. San Jose is the closest I have come to a home since my trip began. I am familiar with the bus schedules, the street layout and the location of the shops and stores. They also know me by name at The Costa Rican Backpackers Hostel.
San Jose is also the travel hub for the country. All the major bus routes pass through the city and the international airport located close to town. Ali and I used the very cheap and efficient bus system to navigate the country. There is no need for a rental car here. All you need is a few phrases in Spanish to enable you to buy a bus ticket. A 200km bus ride to the Pacific Coast cost less than $3 US. The first town Ali and visited was Uvita. It is a small town on the southern Pacific Coast that has some stunning beaches. At low tide, the beaches are a 1/4 mile width of golden sand that stretches from the rain forest’s border to the water’s edge. There is also a sand bar that allowed us to walk out to the tidal pools of the nearby coral reef. The area is all part of a protected marine sanctuary that draws surprisingly few tourists.
After passing through San Jose again we ventured to the Caribbean Coast. We stayed in the town of Puerto Viejo close to the Panama border. We toured Cahuita National Park where our hike through the rain forest parallels a white sand beach. We spotted three different types of monkeys. The highlight was the female tree sloth carrying her baby. We could have reached out and touched her but she was not intimidated by our presence. We both laughed at how incredibly slow she moved. I was wishing for rain on some of the hot cycling days. Well. My wish came true. Our last day on the beach was rained out and that night the rain continued.
My feelings on Costa Rica are mixed. Their National Park system offers some amazing natural beauty. Naturalists in Costa Rica curtailed the worst of the destruction of their rainforests before it was too late. The government has encouraged ecotourism and as a result, tourism is now Costa Rica’s biggest industry. It is an example to other countries of what they can do with their natural resources. In the long run, a rainforest can generate far more revenue through tourism than the “slash and burn ” policy of turning it into cattle pasture.
Where I was disappointed with Costa Rica was the distinct lack of culture. In Central Mexico, I could sample the local foods sold by the vendors who lined the central plaza. The same central plaza in San Jose is surrounded by McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut. There was a contrived Caribbean influence in Puerto Viejo but it felt more like The Florida Keys than a Caribbean island. The streets were full of gringos and pizza shops. The huge influx of tourists has overwhelmed what were once small communities. The more experienced travelers are starting to go to Panama where they say that the original culture still exists. I am not saying do not go to Costa Rica. The National parks are worth the trip. For me, I find it too commercial.
From here I fly to Quito. I bought the ticket out of what I felt was the necessity to avoid Columbia and the Darian Gap in southern Panama. I am very excited about my trip through South America and I hope you all come along for the ride.
I miss Ali.
I am in San Jose. A mere 7000km after leaving San Fran. I am at the end of the first leg of my around-the-world bike trip. Thank you for coming along for the ride. Your messages have meant a lot to me.
I have four rolls of film to send home. So look for them in a couple of weeks on the Internet. Yes, there are pictures of me. I warn you. In some of them, I may look like someone who you would cross the street to avoid.
Scott’s friend Isabell and her friend are arriving on the 18th from England. Ali arrives the next day. We intend to take a couple of weeks off to explore Costa Rica but not by bicycle. We also need to arrange transportation to Equador and get our bike some badly needed maintenance.
I have daily internet access so feel free to write.
Do Not Believe Everything You Hear
Location: Liberia, Costa Rica
I hope this message finds you all well. I am.
I received wonderful news in Honduras. My Ali is coming to see me in Costa Rica. She flies in on the 19th. I can not wait to see her. I have missed her very much. I have a surprise waiting for her. More on that in a later e-mail.
I am writing from Liberia, Costa Rica. It is a mid-sized town located about 80km east of the Nicaraguan border. I entered the country yesterday. The border crossing became a hassle due to the crowds of people and because I did not have a receipt stating that I had my bike when I entered Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government requires this to help prevent bike theft. It is very similar to registering your car in the States. The inept border guard at the Honduran-Nicaraguan border did not supply me with the correct documentation. Thankfully an English-speaking local helped me talk my way through to the Costa Rican border.
Many people have asked me what has been my favorite place or country. On this leg of my journey, I would have assumed the answer to be Costa Rica. It has been the ” carrot ” that I have been anticipating since I left Mexico. I thought Nicaragua would be a poor war-torn country that I needed to endure to reach Costa Rica. I was very very wrong. The cities of Leon, Granada and even Managua were pleasant surprises. The Nicaraguans have been very friendly and on their advice, we have started camping again. The real gem has been the Isla Ometepe. The island is what riding around the world should be. There is virtually no traffic, pollution or noise. The two volcanos that formed the island are surrounded by stellar beaches and banana plantations. There is hiking, swimming, monkeys, birds, fruit falling off the trees and genuinely friendly natives. I spent the last two nights on the island camping on beaches where the cows outnumber the humans. It was paradise.
One of the reasons Ometepe stays unspoiled is how you get there. A boat is the only option. This is no ordinary ferry boat.
I arrived in San Jorge and located the ferry office. I purchased a ticket and boarded the ferry anticipating the 10km crossing to the island. I secured my bike to the railing on the upper level. Scott stayed above and I went below with all but a few of the passengers. The wind was howling outside. I considered reading or sleeping as the crew cast off. A mere 30 meters from the dock the front of the boat heaved into the air and came crashing down. Water poured through the open front door on the lower deck. Scott had a different view from above. He said, “I squealed like a little girl when I saw the entire front of the boat go underwater.” The surf was soooo rough as the boat turned into the wind that walking was impossible. The locals laughed nervously and the “gringos” in the back of the boat looked as worried as I felt. It was at this moment I noticed the light shining between the old boat’s sideboards. I gazed anxiously out the window expecting to see my bike plunge into the sea. The entire duration of the 45-minute ride I concentrated on the horizon while other passengers became sick. I was soooooo glad to get off that boat!
I celebrated New Years in Granada, Nicaragua. The hostels both had a party that spilled out into the street. Fireworks were erupting everywhere. Cars and pedestrians would light them as they passed. The air was hazy with smoke and the pungent smell of gunpowder. It was a festive evening.
I met a woman who rode her motorcycle from Canada to Costa Rica. Her name is Jen. She was returning home when I talked with her in Granada. She told me stories of the police in Guatemala. She said they will stop you for something as ridiculous as driving with your headlight on. Then they will inform you that you can waste hours by going into the police station or you can conveniently pay your fine in cash on the spot. You then slip the “fine ” under the windshield wiper of the police car. You can’t hand the money directly to the officer because that would a bribe. Bribes are illegal.
Central America is a small world. There is a beaten path here. The travelers that normally venture here explore the area for 3 to 6 months and then return home. They navigate Central America with their Lonely Planet or Let’s Go travel books. As a result, I continually see the same people. After my nerve-racking boat ride to Ometepe, I sat down in a restaurant. I peered out onto a street of a Nicaraguan town that I had never seen. There is a man waving to me! I met him in Granada. The restaurant soon filled with people I knew. Two days later on the other side of the island, I started to assemble my tent on what I thought was an isolated beach. I talked with 5 people I knew before I could finish my tent.
From Liberia, I intend to be in San Jose by the 16th. I am unsure of my route. I still have the luxury of extra time. I hope to do some camping in the National Parks before venturing into the city.
I miss you all!
Please keep those messages coming.
End of the Story
Location: Granada, Nicaragua
I am writing from Granada, Nicaragua. We made it for New Year’s. This active tourist town is located on the northern end of Lake Nicaragua.
I have been asked if we still plan to go to Argentina. At this point, the answer is still yes. I was watching CNN today and the situation seems to have gotten worse. The problems appear to remain more financial than political. We will keep watching. The other option would be to cross the Andes further north and possibly take a boat down the Amazon River. Wouldn’t that be soooo cool!
So I was riding down what I thought was the middle of the road. I suddenly felt a thump. My bike stopped and I vaulted over my handlebars. My bags, bike and body were strewn all over the road. Stunned I picked up my bike and tried to push it to the side of the road. It would not roll. I carried it to the side of the road to avoid an oncoming car. The car hit the bag that remained in its path. My ribs ached and my shoulder was sore as I walked towards the tunnel exit. If I cracked a rib is my trip over? If I mangled my bike do I have to get on a bus and go to Costa Rica? This is where it got a little weird. Before I could assess the damage to myself or my bike I stopped worrying. I knew that it would all work out for the best. My trip would continue as it was meant to. Not necessarily how I planned it to. It turned out I mangled my front rack and bruised my ribs and shoulder. I bent my rack back into position and my ribs still bother me sometimes when I sleep. I hope in time that they continue to get better.
Now you know the whole story.
Location: Leon, Nicaragua
I hope this message finds you all well.
I just arrived in Leon, Nicaragua. It is a city located 75km north of Managua. My hope is to celebrate New Year’s in Granada, Nicaragua. I have heard good things about Granada and its beaches from other travelers. Granada is located at the north end of Lake Managua.
So how was your Christmas?
I celebrated mine in an overpriced hotel room in San Miguel, El Salvador. Pizza Hut pizza, air conditioning and cable TV were my Christmas presents to myself. I called home on Christmas night. It was wonderful to hear all the familiar voices of the people I love.
I completed my 3rd border crossing in 10 days yesterday. I would compare my experiences at the border with getting my driver’s license photo taken in Pennsylvania. I stand in a series of lines. Fill out useless forms. Pay money for unknown services and nobody working there seems to care how long the process takes. I have never had my bags or my body searched. The most in-depth question I receive is when and where are you leaving our country. They rarely make eye contact long enough to verify that I am the same person pictured on my passport. I felt a sense of compassion for the truck drivers waiting to get into El Salvador. There was a 2 km line of tractor-trailers waiting to be escorted by the military through El Salvador. Some had been waiting for over a day. They were sleeping in hammocks suspended underneath their trailers. I rode by and crossed the border in 10 minutes.
Since I left the mountains in Central Guatemala the weather has turned oppressively hot and humid and the scenery has been bland. The exception being the stunning coastline of Eastern El Salvador. I spent two days at these beaches in a hotel/hostel occupied with backpackers and surfers. This was my first real ” quality time ” with surfers. They are good people. They just are not that bright. Sorry, ladies.
Crime continues to be a concern. A Swedish and French woman described to me two separate fatal shootings they witnessed in the capital city of San Salvador. A week later riot erupted in the same city. The only crime I have come close to witnessing was the theft of a CD player, camera and cooler from a truck parked outside my hotel. The American plates drew attention to the vehicle. Most crime here seems to be about money and is not violent. It is also directed towards tourists riding on buses or traveling in cars. Ironically I feel less vulnerable on a bike. My bags are always within my sight and the locals seem to respect the physical effort involved in bicycling.
I have noticed a strange phenomenon in Central America. If I stop by the side of the road or even look confused somebody wants to help me. They freely offer directions and advice. That is until I enter the grocery store. The aisles are normally narrow and the customers are many. What follows closely resembles a rugby match. The other customers cut into the checkout line, run into me when reaching for something on the shelf or just block the agile in what seems to be some type of a defensive move for the “other” team. Nobody wants to help me here.
I am still a little physically beat up from what happened to me in Eastern El Salvador. I rounded a curve at the summit of a hill on a too-long and too-hot day. I saw the tunnel and anticipated the cool interior. I did not notice the sign warning of the tunnel’s length. I passed from the blazing sun into the darkness and soon heard a bus approaching from behind. I turned to judge its distance. I was blinded by the sunlight. When I looked forward all I could see was the image of the tunnel entrance surrounded by blackness. I eased my bike over to the side of the road and let the bus pass. It started riding again with great haste. I still could not see but thought I was riding in the center of the road.
Stay tuned to read the end of the story.
Christmas on the road
Hello! I hope this message finds you all well.
I am writing from Antigua, Guatemala. we arrived on Saturday and intend to leave tomorrow. this is a beautiful city. It has a more lived-in feel than some of the other touristy cities we have visited.
For those who think I am too skinny. Don’t worry. I think I have packed on a couple of extra pounds. The variety and quality of food is better here.
We are traveling amongst a community of backpacking tourists. They are mostly Europeans on extended holidays. ( 6 months ) We all share information while we leapfrog around Central America. Crime is a problem. Where to stay and where not to go is invaluable information. Our plan is to leave the mountains and follow the coast into El Salvador. I think Christmas will find us in either Eastern El Salvador or Honduras. we plan to take the day off and try to call home.
I want to thank all of you for being part of this amazing adventure. Without your love, support and confidence I would be much less of a man. I wish you all the best for the Holidays and hope and pray that you have a prosperous New Year. I also want to extend that at this time of hope that all things are possible again. I hold all of you in my heart and I love you!
San Pedro, Guatemala
I hope this e-mail finds you all well.
I am in the town of San Pedro which is located on the shore of Lake Atitlan. I write this as the sun burns the early morning fog off the lake’s surface. A local fisherman just finished asking me a few friendly questions and one of the local dogs is staring intently at my breakfast. The lake is bordered on the west by extinct volcanos that tower above 11000 feet. This Central Highland community located about 100km west of the capital city of Guatemala supports a small tourist enclave. Access to the Internet and American food seems to coexist in the rural Guatemalan town. Five days ago I did not know this place existed. Circumstances and individuals guided me here. Now I feel fortunate to have “discovered” it.
I have either loved or hated Guatemala. I can not seem to find a happy medium since I crossed the border. My first night in the country I stayed in the border town of La Messila. The town was full of activity with an underlying feeling of desperation that seems to transcend most border towns. I hated it. The next day’s ride included scenery that rivals anything I have ever seen. I loved it. By afternoon it became evident that the lunatic bus drivers did not want us on the road. They would blow their air horns as they passed. The buses belched so much pollution that I could see, feel, taste and smell the fumes. I hated it. That night after a long day’s ride I healed my wounded spirit with cable TV and a Domino’s pizza. I loved it again. You get the idea.
I have received a few warnings about Guatemala. The camping I enjoyed in Mexico is not safe here. Robbery after dark is a major risk. Without the luxury of camping, I feel like I am running from hotel to hotel no matter what the distance. I also received advice on food from Felipe and Humberto. ( two locals I met in La Messila ) They claim the hamburgers are made from horse meat. Carne asado (roasted meat) is probably dog. Choanman (sp?) is the local dish made from rats but the chicken is OK. Thank god I like chicken.
A misprint on my map has made a huge difference. The distance from Mexican/Guatemalan border to San Jose, Costa Rica is 1500 kms. Not the 1500 miles I anticipated. This translates into two extra weeks of time. I entertained the idea of cycling through Costa Rica into Panama and then returning to San Jose. The 9000ft and 10000ft passes of Guatemala quickly changed my mind. Now all I want is to spend the extra days in places like San Pedro.
Guatemala has been surprising to me. I expected banana trees, howling monkeys, hot days and dirt roads. What I have found in the Highlands are warm days, cool nights, pine forests, paved roads and modern conveniences in the larger towns. The power outages can be frustrating. They seem to occur almost daily and can last most of the day.
In Guatemala, I am never alone. If I stop by the side of the road people seem to materialize from nowhere. They climb the steep bank that borders the road, get off a bus or shout “gringo” from the top of a hill. I assume the term gringo which I find offensive is used more out of ignorance than prejudice. Many times I fight the desire to go correct them.
Poverty is more evident here. Scott and I stopped for lunch in the town of Nahuala. We sat down at the central plaza and started to eat. Suddenly 5 of the local drunks descended on us. They all wanted my money and to be my friend. I finally stood up, turned the one guy around and pushed him away. I felt like an obnoxious foreigner and regretted touching his filthy clothing. The children are also drawn to me. They have probably never seen anything resembling my bike, bags or clothing. They often touch me or my bike with a dumb look of awe on their faces. These experiences have left both Scott and I wondering about our itinerary. I still envision myself reaching Argentina and cycling Europe. What then? Do I go to India where being mobbed by curious locals is common? As an American, I value my personal space.
I hope I have not been too long-winded. It is important for me to share my journey with the ones I love.
I miss you all!
From the Gutter to a “Skinny Dip”
I hope this message finds you all well. I know that I just e-mailed you a few days ago but we had such an interesting day on the 3rd that I wanted to share it with you.
First a strange fact. I have used insect repellent 5 times on my adventure. Three of these times were in a hotel room.
Ok. Back to the 3rd.
We packed and left our hotel room in Tehuantepec. When walked out in the courtyard of our hotel we noticed a strong wind straining the tree overhead. As we rode out of town the wind alternated from a headwind to a crosswind. Combined with the passing trucks and buses we were either being blown off the road or sucked into traffic. I lost my ” religion ” many times during the 30km to the next town. Scott was blown off the road. He dealt with it in a unique style. Since the grassy spot he had landed on was comfortable he just laid alongside the road. Soon two Mexicans appeared. They helped him up. Asked if he was Ok and sent him on his way. It is in times of crisis that I usually suggest that we eat. We found a restaurant where a local bus driver informed us that the wind continues to get worse to the south. The next town of La Ventosa is famous for trucks being blown off the road by the fierce northerly winds that blow between December and May. He explained that the isthmus of Mexico is narrowest here and that there are no mountains to block the wind. At his suggestion, we walked to the bus station to buy two tickets inland to the town of San Cristobal de las Casas.
I was second in line to purchase our tickets when Scott tapped me on the shoulder. We walked outside where I met Najele ( sp ?) We found out later that Najele’s friend Paco encouraged her to take the opportunity to practice her English on us. She did this by offering to show us Juchican and the surrounding area. We climbed on our bikes and followed her to her friend Anita’s house where we stashed our bikes. Najele and Anita skipped out on work and drove us to Ojos de Agua where we went swimming and they bought us an early dinner. We then toured Najele’s hometown of Ixtepec and returned to Juchican. After being escorted on foot through Juchican we meet Paco and Raphael. They treated us to ganachas which is the local version of tacos. We then loaded up Paco’s van and drove back up to Ojos de Agua for a midnight swim. The spring-fed pool glowed in the moonlight. I admit to moments of doubt. What if our new friends were to leave us at this point? We would have no money, clothing or the slightest idea of how to get back to the bus station. I regretted doubting our new friends. At no time had they shown us anything but kindness. After spending the night at Anita’s parent’s house we were treated as honoured guests the next morning with coffee and sweets. We arrived back at the bus station at 3 pm for our trip to San Cristobal.
All that was asked for in return for this amazing hospitality was the promise of the same kindness if any of our new friends found themselves in our hometown. This all happened when Scott and I had just resigned ourselves to just get out of Mexico. I am left with a lingering thought of why this happened. If any component of the circumstances were removed none of this would have occurred. It would have been a day for us just like any other. I also feel selfish for having never shown this level of kindness to a stranger at home.
I am writing form San Cristobal de las Casas. We arrived at midnight in this gorgeous colonial town. It is located in the mountains east of the city Tuxtla Gutierrez. The weather is cool and crisp and there is no wind. It is hard for me to imagine this quiet inviting town was occupied by the Zapatistas ( sp ?) rebels in 1994. At the time they were in open rebellion against the Mexican government. From here we are only two riding days from Guatemala and one week from the city of Antigua. It is here that we again have the choice of remaining in the mountains or following the coast. So we now say a fond goodbye to Mexico and prepare for 5 border crossings in the next month.
I miss you all.
I hope this e-mail finds you all well. I am writing from Tejauntepec. I arrived yesterday after 3 surprisingly hard-riding days out of Oaxaca. Today I am resting. It sounds as though my trip has been a geography lesson for some of you at home. So here is the lesson for the day. Tejuantepec is located on the Pacific coast of Mexico about halfway between Acapulco and Guatemala. I finally escaped the mountains yesterday. With the drop in altitude, the weather has turned hot and humid. I will miss the cool mornings and evenings of the higher elevations.
I spent 3 glorious days in Oaxaca. If you are coming to Mexico do not miss this city. It has all the charm of Morelia along with a very active arts and crafts community. The local artisans are known for their ceramics, pottery and weaving. I did buy some unique things. I was shocked at the cost to send them home. You ready? MexPost charges $50US to send a 7lb box home that may arrive in two weeks. The only competition they have are the overnight services. Where is UPS? It is times like these that I miss the States. No regrets. One of my goals is to collect unique items from around the world. So if you come to Oaxaca bring an empty suitcase and shop to your heart’s content.
I was sad to leave Oaxaca. The city was beginning to feel like home. I stayed at a youth hostel in a private room. I had access to a kitchen, a ping pong table along with a large clean room for only $12US a night. There was a patio for breakfast and a second-story balcony for watching people in the street below. We both made friends during our stay. Hostels ( the good ones ) are a wonderful way to meet other travelers.
Our first day out of Oaxaca included the Mixtec ruins in the town of Mitla. In the center of the ruins is a Catholic church built from the surrounding native structures. To me, it is a symbol of arrogance. The Catholic Church’s attempt to “civilize” the natives.
My trip is eclipsing some milestones. The 5th marks 3 months on the road. This is difficult for me to put into perspective. Since I left the life that I knew, time has lost its definition. I mean it can not be the Holidays! It is 90 degrees outside.
I got my first taste of the Pan-American Highway. Yes, I tasted the exhaust fumes for the first 50km south of Oaxaca. I was dreading riding a road with heavy traffic 700 kms to Guatemala. Then the traffic disappeared. What a relief! Our old friends the donkeys and the cows appeared at the side of the road. Their presence slows down traffic.
I will also surpass both the 3000-mile and 5000-kilometer mark in the next few days.
My next goal is Tapachula. With five riding days and a day off, I will arrive in this border town on December 8th for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. (A Mexican holiday ) A day off in town and then I cross the border into Guatemala. It looks so easy on a map.
I miss you all and keep in touch.
My first two emails have gone AWOL. So I am writing to you for the first time from San Juan Capistrano, just south of LA about 550 miles into our journey and just days away from Mexico.
Things are going well. We visited Yosemite, Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia N.P. My knees are holding rather well even after a 75-mile day yesterday, though I didn’t enjoy that much, especially when we descended into CA’s central valley for the third time and the temperature was 105 degrees in the shade.
I don’t have much to report now. Things have been very similar as tours in the past and road conditions have been great. I expect the real journey to begin in Mexico. This has only been a dry run, so to speak. I think that is enough for now until I confirm my emails are going through.
Scott & Dennis
Dennis’ Bicycle Ride Around the World. Day 1.
San Francisco, CA, United States of America.