Same same, but different 07/15/2011Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bangkok, border, cambodia, khao san road, laos, thailand
Thailand is a lark.
Most Asian borders are decorated with barbed wire and machine guns. This one had an umbrella shading three guards sipping Pepsi. They smiled and waved when I breezed past, then smiled and waved when I biked back confused.
“Um . . . is this the border?”
“Yes. Thai border. Very hot.”
“Do you need to see my passport?”
“Okay.” They saw it.
“Check my bags?”
One of the men raised his sunglasses and squinted at my panniers. “Bags good.”
His companions motioned to a building further down the road. They decided I should fill my water bottles there.
“Get drink. Sign entry card. Very hot.”
They settled into their chairs, heads leaning back, and I pedalled away.
The relaxed mood didn’t surprise me. Cambodia was as languid as the river winding through it, and Laos was so laid back it barely had a pulse.
I just didn’t expect mellow to survive in a country as kinetic, as dizzying as this.
Even Bangkok has an odd serenity about it.
The streets are swimming with packed buses, neon tuk-tuks and death-wish cabbies. They whisk mobs in every direction, to temples and palaces, stadiums and museums, to throbbing discos and street-food villages that spring to life each night.
The faces are rapid-fire, never-ending: businessmen, beggars and buskers, lady boys, ex-pats and sex-pats.
Students in pleated whites skip past wrinkled ladies selling bracelets. Leering men hand out fliers for shows where women do terrible things to ping-pong balls.
And in the middle of it all, quiet in his thoughts, I see an orange-robed monk reading a newspaper.
He fits. The city belongs around him.
Bangkok is bedlam, but it isn’t urgent. People don’t bark or run through the streets. No one hangs out their car window to curse the driver ahead of them. Even the creeps are soft-spoken.
So far Thailand has everything but stress. I love it.
Here a Stan, there a Stan 10/15/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, iran, kazakhstan, police, robbery, turkmenistan, uzbekistan, visa
Central Asia is like nothing I could have imagined, and even now, in the capital of Uzbekistan, I still shake my head to make sense of it all.
Cycling through Iran was without a doubt one of the most incredible experiences of my life. From west to east, past villages and deserts, mountains and forests, every lie I’ve been told about the country lay shattered on the road behind me.
Iranians are not slaves to the Ayatollah. They are not terrorists. I saw no women wailing in the streets, no gangs burning American flags. Nobody locked me away or tore out my toenails.
Instead I was invited into homes, doted on and fed until I could barely move. I was showered with gifts – everything from jewelry to a bike tire. Old men kissed my forehead and said I travelled with God.
I was there for a month and no one, not a single person I met, wanted anything but peace with the west.
That’s the truth, the real picture.
But what we’re spoonfed is something else entirely, something twisted and ugly. Our ideas come in high definition, in 3D and surround sound, but the message is always the same. All we know of Iran is fear and intolerance.
That is the real danger in this world.
The hazards in Turkmenistan seem small by comparison. At the border, the military guards jeered at me, pulled on my beard and dug through my pockets for money or cigarettes. All I could do was grit my teeth.
Thankfully, my time inside the country was altogether different. Soldiers at the many highway checkpoints were scarcely older than boys, but they were professional and kind.
The stamps in my passport were usually more interesting than me, and after a few minutes I was always free to move along.
It seems like a lot of hassle, and maybe it was. But I desperately wanted to meet average folks in Turkmenistan, to experience their way of life, if only for a short time.
I wasn’t disappointed. People stopped their vehicles at the roadside just to shake my hand. One man rummaged in his backseat and plopped a newborn baby in my arms for a photo.
Schoolgirls waved and then dashed away squealing. Boys produced impossibly worn soccer balls and pointed at my bicycle pump excitedly.
I so cherished my time in Turkmenistan that I nearly overstayed my five-day visa. After prying myself from a wonderful mob of kids in Türkmenabat, I raced to the now-closed border and had to beg the guard to let me through.
He stamped my exit papers and tipped his hat. In less than five minutes I was across the border and biking in Uzbekistan.
And this is where the trip nearly ended.
I sat in a field one night, eating dinner after pedalling 180 km through endless rows of cotton. I was exhausted and noticed too late a group of teenagers staring at me from the highway.
Three walked towards me. One shouted, inches from my face, enraged in a language I don’t understand. The other two began wheeling my bicycle away. When I tried to stop them, the first boy pulled a knife – my knife – which had been sitting on the ground beside my dinner.
I was more angry than scared, and even that didn’t carry much weight in my frustration. I swore and started across the field, back to the highway to get help.
People on the road just shrugged and turned away from me. I walked back to my camping spot very much alone. My bicycle and two of my panniers were gone, just as I knew they would be.
I packed the grubby, sad gear that remained and dragged it to the nearest farm house. I knocked on the door and managed to persuade the sleepy-eyed owner to call the police.
Among travellers, stories about the Uzbekistan militsiya are legendary. At best they are supposed to be indifferent, at worst greedy and corrupt. But there was nothing else to be done, so I silently awaited their arrival, my stomach in knots.
I was afraid of something I didn’t understand, and I was wrong.
Within the hour a half-dozen officers were slogging through a dirt field in search of my bike. They shone flashlights on tire tracks and found a long trail of gear abandoned by the thieves.
The police neatly stacked my equipment in a car trunk and drove me to their station. There we slowly bridged the divide between English and Uzbek.
I explained that I was a tourist, travelling by bicycle, and on its two wheels I carried everything I owned.
The mood changed. High-ranking officers arrived and everyone told me not to worry. Everything would be okay.
After a long wait a suspect was hauled in. The field had been dark and I said I couldn’t be sure the contrite youth standing before me was one of the thieves. But I thought he was.
The police led the kid into a room for questioning. There was shouting. At one point an officer brought in a gas mask, another a rubber strap. I don’t know what happened behind that door, and I don’t want to know. But it worked.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, my bicycle and bags were brought into the station. I gave the nearest officer a koala hug and tried to explain, with teary eyes, how much that stupid hunk of steel means to me.
The thieves were lined up. I walked past them as I left, but I didn’t look up. I don’t want to remember their faces.
I doubt they will ever forget mine.
I spent the rest of the night at a sergeant’s home. His wife served us a pre-dawn meal, and in the morning, his kids grinned as they poured me cup after cup of coffee. The officer even gave me a new set of clothes – a frumpy tribute to Neil Diamond’s denim days, but comfortable all the same.
Later, at the police station, I was given a free lunch. Then another. An officer was sent to the pharmacy to replace my asthma inhaler. And when it was finally time to leave, the force stuffed my bike into a car and delivered me to the door of a hotel in Tashkent.
There I slept for nearly two straight days. Now I feel stronger, much wiser, and I’m ready to continue down the road.
I have a 30-day visa for Kazakhstan. After I get my Chinese stamp this evening I won’t need to visit another embassy for a long time.
I’m glad. These past months have been very intense, and sometimes I long for my favourite faces, for the old days back home.
With six beers and a full moon we’d bike to the rail bridge and never see a shadow. It was simple and silly and nobody tried to make sense of it.
That’s why I loved it.
Istanbul (not Constantinople) 07/13/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, bulgaria, istanbul, turkey, visa
Turkey is going to push me to the limit. It’s perfect.
The climb to the border took hours. Fog smothered everything. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear but my breath. I didn’t raise my eyes until the crest, and when I did, gasping, expectant, I saw nothing but barbed wire and machine guns.
The moment I crossed the line a camouflaged soldier appeared from the woods, barking in Turkish, his weapon trained upon me.
I didn’t freeze. I didn’t do anything. I just stood there, holding my camera, realizing how stupid I’d been to stop for a photo of the border sign. Welcome to Turkey.
I emptied my wallet for a visa and vowed to stack as many kilometres as possible between me and that place. I’m glad I hated it. Now there really is no going back.
But onward is no easier. The ride to Istanbul was a nightmare.
The sun stole whatever the hills couldn’t sap from my legs. Traffic coiled over the horizon, screaming through oily clouds, and the horns, they never, never stopped. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t even think.
I arrived in the city centre cracked and empty, but I made it.
Strength or pride don’t get much mileage these days. I get down the road only because I’m stubborn as hell.
But oh the stops along the way. Istanbul is staggering.
The bazaars are a carnival of the senses – thousands of people flow past stalls of spices, carpets and hookahs while vendors hawk roast corn and blind men try to guess your weight for a lira.
It sounds suffocating, but I don’t feel that at all. The city has 13-million people and in the throngs I disappear. I don’t stand out the way I do in small villages. Nobody here points to my blonde beard or stares at my legs. I cherish the reprieve.
But what really gets me is the skyline. As the cool sea breeze ventures ashore in the evenings, I sit on the terrace of my hostel and marvel at the minarets bursting from every corner of the city.
In me they inspire no awe of God, but rather the men whose hands could build something so perfectly beautiful.
Tomorrow my feet hit the ground once more. The drive east will not be easy. In the next 10 days I need to cycle more than a thousand kilometres to Trabzon, where I will pick up my Iranian visa.
It’s madness and I love it.
The Balkans 06/24/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: balkans, border, bosnia, heat, repairs, sarajevo, serbia, war
I am ready to hit the road again after spending a full week resting in western Serbia. I needed time to make sense of the things I’ve seen in the Balkans, to line them up in my head before I commit them to words.
I don’t think I’m any closer, but for the sake of folks who read this, I’ll try to say something.
Bosnia was nothing like I expected, though I wonder now what it was I thought I’d find.
In the north I cycled past fields of golden straw, watching hunched farmers shape the land with nothing more than pitchforks and shovels.
At dusk they loaded themselves into horse-drawn wagons and clopped down the highway to old stone houses. They always smiled, always waved, and after they’d gone I wondered just what it is we’re growing in the rows of mechanized perfection back home.
The heat didn’t burn but choke as I approached Sarajevo. In two-street villages I began to find memorials for dozens, all killed the same way, the same day. It was nothing like the markers I saw in Belgium and France. I couldn’t walk away from these. For the first time in my life I shared the dates on the stones, and it hurt to swallow.
Sarajevo. The Bosnian capital lies in a valley, guarded by towering green mountains that seem to keep the outside world at bay. There you find mosques, synagogues and cathedrals erected almost side-by-side, and yet the only tension on the ground is between tourists jostling for a photograph. Sun or stars, the streets were all the same – clean, quiet, safe.
It was inspiring, but I don’t pretend to understand it. How can the best in us survive amid the poison of recent history? Where do people find the will to grow, to rise up and deliver themselves to something better? Maybe there is no answer. That these things are happening is enough for me.
Climbing east to Serbia was brutal under the blazing summer sun. For a week the temperature hovered around 40°C, and I had to drink six or seven litres of water each day just to stay on my feet. Even then it was tough. At the top of one mountain pass I was doubled over my bike, shaking and trying not to retch. From then on I biked only in the morning and evening, letting the heat of the day pass while I lounged in the shade.
After getting my passport stamped at the border, I made for Užice, where I hoped to find a bicycle shop to fix my wobbling rear tire.
In my search I met a teenage boy who asked in broken English where I was going and what I was doing in Serbia. He grinned and disappeared with my answers. Thinking nothing of it, I returned to my bike, stuffing the panniers with supplies.
When I turned to leave, I stopped short and gaped. There, standing before me, was a group of 20 or more kids, all staring at my bike as though it had come from the moon. They wanted to see everything, touch everything, and again and again they asked if I’d really cycled all the way from Canada. We took photographs. One boy proudly wrote “Serbia” in Cyrillic on my waterproof bag. And when I said, after 45 minutes, that I had to leave, a kid reached into his pocket and gave me two bent cigarettes.
I sometimes think it’s stupid when people make a fuss over my trip. Not this time.
Those kids knew, and I soon realized, that they will probably never get a chance to do something like this. Most Serbians don’t have a lot, and they have to work themselves raw to even get that much. The truth is that they can’t see the world.
I don’t pity them. The shame is us. So many Canadians have the freedom to spin the globe, to visit any spot we wish. On a few month’s wages we can see the pyramids, the rain forest, the most modern cities in the world. We have the opportunity, every single day, to meet new people and learn from them as they learn from us. But too often we don’t.
Instead we get diplomas, pay our bills and go to work, nagged by a vague sensation that something is missing from our world. Something is missing.
On the move 05/23/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: austria, border, brno, czech republic, ljubljana, rain, slovenia, vienna
My mantra of east, east, east got lost on the road. I pointed my bike north on a whim and decided I’d keep pedalling as long as I liked what I saw. My wheels spun all the way to the Czech Republic, and now, more than ever, I wish I had more time just to bike in beautiful, pointless circles.
My path would have been straight as an arrow were it not for Slovenia. For no particular reason, it’s a place I had always wanted to visit, and its green hills and quiet, winding roads were even more wonderful than the ones I’d drawn in my mind.
So I meandered, crunching gravel on country lanes, waving to kids in tiny villages and bumping along the streets of Ljubljana, a city not much bigger than Regina and one that brought about an unexpected pang for home.
The feeling didn’t stay, and sadly, neither could I. One of Slovenia’s charms is its modest size, but it meant that I reached the Austrian border far sooner than I would have liked.
Don’t ask me why, but whenever I enter a new country, I always expect that somehow, magically, things will be completely different the moment I cross the border – that somehow the imaginary line separates purple trees from green, that something will change.
Something did. The sky opened, and from my first moment in Austria to the last, it poured rain in torrents like I haven’t seen in months.
Looking back now, I dare say the only warm thing about my visit was the welcome I received from folks along the way.
I will never forget Ollesdorf, where I pulled in one night, soggy, black-eyed and limping from an ugly crash earlier in the day. After a short game of charades I was able to ask a soccer stadium manager if I could sleep under the bleacher awning. A roof is a roof and in the rain I take what I can get.
He agreed, happily, and I was nearly asleep when a voice peaked through the darkness with a very tentative “Hello?” It was one of the players who had been practicing on the field, and he wanted to know if I’d like to join the team in the clubhouse for a beer.
I followed him, wiping the night from my eyes, and when he opened the clubhouse door I was greeted by a chorus of cheers and well wishes. My day had been miserable, all wet socks and embedded rocks – to walk into this was like a dream.
I stood gaping in the doorway for a moment before my host squeezed me into the middle of the throng, plopped a litre of beer in front of me and helped translate 101 questions about my trip. And on this night I had plenty of questions of my own, so we talked into the quiet hours about our families, homes, decisions, and how difficult it can be to make them.
When the time came to walk back to my sleeping bag, the last of my lingering friends put his arm around me and insisted that I move my gear inside. That way, he said, I could have a warm, dry sleep and even take a shower in the morning.
That kindness may sound like a small thing, and to my hosts, maybe it was. But to me it meant the world. Comforts on the road are few at times, so to share a night of good spirits and to be able to leave the next morning, clean and rested, was a luxury I can’t begin to explain.
My midnight fun was sorely needed because life on the bike didn’t get any easier thereafter. The rains abated enough to give way to howling headwinds that kept me in my tent for days. Riding to Vienna was brutal grunt work and I lost count of the number of times I was blown clear off the road.
I arrived in the capital completely gassed, but luckily the city’s attractions were mostly confined to the downtown area and it didn’t take much energy to visit them. The parks and architecture were stunning, particularly the National Library and Austrian Parliament.
But I can only stare at buildings for so long. As evening crept across the sky I left the city and decided I was so close to the Czech Republic that I couldn’t justify not going.
Crossing the border was comforting, not only because the weather finally changed for the better, but also because the first thing I saw when I walked into the currency exchange office was a clerk completely engrossed in the Czech/Finland hockey game. A little bit of home in the oddest of places.
It didn’t take long to cycle to Brno, where I was greeted by hungry eyes and hordes of street “merchants” shoving everything from sad roses to boxes of condoms in my direction.
It was all a bit much – I didn’t feel safe with my gear – so I found a hostel and locked everything up tightly before taking to the streets by foot.
So far it’s been worth it. I took in a downtown beer festival and, on Friday, stumbled into a signless jazz club where I sat until 3 o’clock in the morning, sipping Scotch and watching Natalie Cole DVD’s with Frank, the enormous and wonderfully generous owner.
These past weeks have been an adventure without a doubt.
Now it’s off to Slovakia. I don’t know what to expect, which is exactly why I want to go.
Italy east 05/07/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, castle, italy, mountains, san marino, slovenia, tunnels, venice
With nothing but tailwinds and sunshine, the ride from Rome was less difficult and a whole lot more interesting than I ever expected.
Crossing the mountains that run like a spine down the middle of Italy was a cinch, though my love-hate relationship with tunnels is once again on the rocks.
The big tunnels – some as long as 5 km – were crawling with mice, and the scream of engines rang in my ears long after I came out the other side. But they save time.
One of the greatest experiences of the trip was visiting San Marino, a tiny republic not far from the Adriatic Sea.
All day I climbed a steep, twisting road to the border, and when I crossed over, sunburned and exhausted, I realized I still wasn’t there. I was somewhere near the bottom of there. San Marino proper is quite literally a mountain on a hill, but the ride to the top was worth ever single drop of sweat.
Perched on a sheer cliff, the historic centre is a walled castle with a jaw-dropping view of the surrounding countryside. I fell in love with the place from the moment I stepped onto its cobblestone streets.
I spent half the afternoon grinning at the horizon, watching the clouds roll by, and when I finally turned around I discovered that I was alone. A bit of rain had sent the tour bus crowd scurrying, so I was free to roam the city and explore the castle in peace.
It was incredible to be in such a spot, fulfilling a dream I had ever since I was a kid. You can keep your churches and statues – I’ll always be a castle man.
The ride north to Venice was flat, so I was able to tick off a pile of kilometres without much effort. It’s a good thing, too, because I needed every bit of energy I had.
Venice is hands down the least bicycle-friendly place I’ve ever seen in my life. Canals and hundreds of foot bridges will do that to a city.
At first I tried dragging my bike around, but after six or seven bridges my knees went wobbly and I gave up, ditching my gear at a cheap hotel.
I spent the rest of the night full of wine, mingling at a bizarre patio lantern party and trying in vain to get to Piazza San Marco. I walked the narrow streets until 4 o’clock in the morning – I never did find the plaza, but I sure had fun trying.
This morning I felt like death, though I still decided to hit the road because the day was too beautiful to waste.
I cycled for a few hours, not far, but far enough that I should be able to cross the Slovenian border sometime tomorrow.
East, east, east . . .
Avanti! 04/20/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, genova, italy, monaco, mountains, pisa, rome, traffic
1 comment so far
Italy! It may be scorching hot with climbs that go on forever, but this place is beautiful beyond compare and I’m enjoying every moment of my time here.
I crossed the border after touring Monaco, a mecca for fancy cars and private beaches, where a drink without an umbrella is as close as anyone will ever come to roughing it.
I hated the place – it assaulted my senses, encircled me with horns and brakes and ugly cranes, and all I could do was retreat between the slow-moving tour buses.
The commotion seemed to pursue me across the border, but the pitch changed on the way to San Remo. As I entered the city I realized that Italy is the land of motorbikes. Mopeds. Scooters. You name it.
Everyone, from grandmothers to peach-fuzz teenagers, drives on two wheels, usually like a maniac, and the streaking vehicles make city travel an adventure.
At first I tried to pull over to let the congestion subside, but in Italian cities, that never happens. It’s all traffic, all the time. There is nothing to do but join the flow and zig-zag between buses and trucks like some kind of demented bicycle courier.
It’s a heart-pounding, sweat-in-your-eyes rush, and it’s about as far as I’ve ever felt from the plodding tracks of Albert Street in Regina.
With the craziness of the cities and the steep, wincing summits of the mountains, my rhythm was set, and I darted from Genova to La Spézia to Pisa without incident.
As for Pisa, what a difference a tower makes. The structure is interesting to be sure, but the rest of the city is industry and brown-brick buildings crumbling along the shores of a stinking river.
Glad I went, glad I left.
Now it’s onward to Rome, where I hope to meet my friend Sarah. She hosted me in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, last summer, so to see her again, almost a full year later, will be exciting.
Then . . . I’ve been thinking about what comes next and I still haven’t made up my mind. Rome will likely be my most southern point in Italy. From there I hope to tour Slovenia and Croatia with a possible stop in Hungary. So many ideas, and all I know for certain is that it’s going to be a great summer. Onward!
Encore 04/10/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, france, marseille, mountains, pyrenees, spain
Nearly 2,000 km have passed beneath my feet since my last update and all I left behind was wonder.
The roads of southern Spain were a marvel, baked and shimmering under the sun, delivering me to some of the most unbelievable terrain I’ve ever seen in my life. Between blue-green lakes and distant castles I cycled the narrowest of mountain passes, in awe of the world below as much as the sky above.
How it will resonate, I can’t say, but I know the experience defined something within me, something apart from my travels. I’m only sorry that words are all I have to help me share it.
Winding my way up coastal points and down to rocky coves, I crossed the French border in the first days of April. My final descent thrust me through an alpine tunnel, and at the other end were the grind and gravel of the flatlands I know so well.
I got lost in my thoughts for days. Peripignan, Narbonne, Montpellier – they all clicked by and I hardly noticed. It wasn’t until I collided with the limestone heights near Marseille that I realized I was pedalling and stopped wondering why.
People often ask why I left home to do this, and still, after 10 months on the road, the only answer I have is that something was missing. Pouring money or alcohol or people through the cracks only made them wider, more obvious. Yet now, with nothing, I am beginning to feel whole and sometimes all I want to do is rush home to prove it. But in my heart I know it’s too soon, and what scares me is the idea that it always will be.
Enough about that, more about Marseille.
The place is filthy, greasy as the paper in a pizza box, and when I hold it up to the neon lights as I walk the streets, I see all the rich and repulsive flavours that make a city spin.
I passed one-legged skippers and hopeless beggars, Gypsys and gentry and lipstick in the shadows, a soiled drunk who undid his belt a moment too late, ice cream chins and the dreamy song of a carousel, lemon rum ladled from peanut butter jars, fountain cherubs, slick harbours, and, oblivious to it all, there was a puppy chasing a plastic bag through the trash.
It’s been an experience like no other and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it.
The wagon wheel effect 02/17/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bad drivers, border, couchsurfing, portugal, punta umbria, sevilla, spain
Portugal was beautiful, without a doubt, but there are two things I won’t miss about my travels there – namely, the roads and the drivers.
Rattling my teeth on 10 kilometre stretches of cobblestone highways was tough. Worse was passing dozens upon dozens of forgotten dogs, gutted and rotting in the swollen ditches. But when an oncoming motorist left his lane to knowingly run me off the road, I decided enough was enough. I punched my ticket east and didn’t look back.
It was no place to be stranded but, oddly enough, a magnificent spot to cycle. The traffic was light, the sky smiling, and on the way I felt something I’d been sorely missing for months – my connection to the road.
The surge, that extraordinary harmony of muscle and miles, can turn guard rail posts into picket fences. It sends me whooping over mountains, blasting through sunsets, and when it’s all over, I’ve conquered the world without ever touching the ground.
I coasted into Spain and celebrated the stars through the green glass of a wine bottle. Tucked between olive groves and vineyards, with only the baying of a faraway dog for company, I finally exhaled the weight of the winter and watched it disappear into the night. Home isn’t a place but a mood, and it surrounded me as I slept, dreamless and content.
The next day I was blessed with an honest-to-goodness tailwind – my first since arriving in Europe nearly three months ago. I tore up the asphalt, covering 70 kilometres before lunch and arriving in Sevilla with energy to spare.
After visiting the city centre and punching out a pay phone that didn’t return my change (it relented), I met up with my CouchSurfing host and spent the next two nights touring sweltering bars and ogling beautiful Spaniards.
By the time my bags were packed and I was ready to hit the road once more, I’d met countless people and been invited to either cycle to Morocco with a New Zealander or follow an American to the coastal city of Punta Umbria for some rest and relaxation.
It was like a Choose Your Own Adventure book – sweat over the Atlas mountains or walk barefoot on the Atlantic shore. I chose the beach and I’ve been in Punta Umbria ever since.
And I suppose that’s where this chapter ends. I’ve found a wonderful house to share with my American friend and her new roommate, a Brit teaching English at the local school. I plan to stay for a month, perhaps more.
The trip may be on hold, but today certainly isn’t. I have a transistor radio and a bottle of wine – I’m going to the beach! Adios!
Silver linings on the the Green Coast 01/17/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: border, health, hostel, porto, portugal, rain
I’ve been in Portugal for four days and I’m still overwhelmed by its simple charm. It’s not at all like the other places I’ve visited, and when I bike on the cobblestone streets under endless canopies of drying laundry and sweet cigar smoke, I feel a million miles from the life I used to lead in Canada.
There was little doubt after crossing the border that Portugal is not as wealthy a country as France or Spain. The roads have more cracks, the faces more lines and the stockings more runs. Crumbling walls betray the age of many villages along the northern coast, and everywhere farmers sit at makeshift stands, selling their wares by the highway’s edge.
But it´s beautiful. The architecture is stunning and the intricacy of the churches, even in the tiniest community, is like nothing I have seen before. This, coupled with the natural elegance of the forested mountains and silvery ocean waves, and there isn’t a hint of hesitation in my mind when I say that Portugal is in a world all its own.
From the border I cycled to Viana do Castelo, where I camped behind a fallen stone wall not far from the highway. I awoke still feeling shaky from my stomach flu and I found the day’s cycling to be extremely difficult even though the terrain was not. By dark, in the pouring rain and soaked to the bone, I arrived in Porto to meet a friend for a cup of coffee and (I hoped) a dry place to sleep for the night.
The trouble with dates like this is that arranging a place to meet is often painful, particularly at night, in a strange city and without a mobile. After marshalling together enough change for a payphone, I called my friend and explained that I was at the train station downtown. We agreed to meet there in 30 minutes. No problem.
Well, one small problem. Being tired and, let’s face it, a bit of a hayseed, I failed to see the difference between a train and the underground metro. I saw passengers, I saw tracks, I thought train. But after an hour of waiting, it dawned on me that the gigantic “M” emblazoned on the terminal wall might just stand for metro. Red faced, I called my friend again and we agreed to meet instead at a nearby café, which I managed to find after asking three random people for directions.
The pity was that my friend had dinner plans for later that evening, so we could only visit for a few minutes. Still, she kindly walked me to a hostel, and though I flatly refused, she insisted on paying for one night’s stay. As she left I walked to the balcony, to the orange lights and narrow streets of Porto, and wondered, “how did I get here?” for the hundredth time on this trip. Sometimes it all seems so surreal to me, like someone else’s travels, and I’m constantly amazed that I always seem to land on my feet.
That night I gave my clothes their first proper wash since central France, and when the dryer stopped tumbling at 1 o’clock in the morning, I fell into bed thankful for the rare treat of a roof over my head. I slept like the dead, not stirring until the next morning when I skipped downstairs for breakfast feeling better than I had for nearly a week.
The next night, last night, saw all the travellers from the hostel hop from bar to bar together. There were three Brazilians, two Germans, a French, an Italian, an Aussie and me, the lone Canadian. I was blown away by the street life after dark – thousands of people gathered in the streets for no other reason than to meet friends, sample food stand delicacies and to pass the bottle of drink and laughter.
Among the throng I met the hostel hostess who was working the reception desk on the night of my arrival. She invited me to tag along with she and her friend, who invited me to stay at his place about four minutes after I introduced myself. That’s the plan for tonight, and even if it all goes sideways, I won’t complain one bit.