They call me Soma 06/08/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: bosnia, budapest, couchsurfing, croatia, embassy, hungary, slovakia
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The last time I wrote I had just crossed the border of Slovakia. Now I’m in Bosnia and I don’t know where to begin.
Let’s try a Friday morning, the sun chasing mist from the horizon, casting shadows on my face. I had awoken at 5 a.m. to be sure the Canadian embassy would be open when I arrived. At noon I glanced at the clock on my handlebars and swore. The ride had been too hot, too hilly, too far for the time I’d allowed. I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
By the time I reached the embassy, drenched in sweat, I wasn’t surprised to find my nose pressed against a dark window. I’d biked 110 km and missed closing time by one lousy hour. The office would reopen on Monday morning, leaving me in Budapest for three nights without a plan, without a place to sleep.
I raced to the city centre to find a computer. The only card up my sleeve was CouchSurfing, though I doubted I even had time to play it. Sending last-minute requests on a weekend in a city like Budapest is a recipe for a night on a park bench. I didn’t expect much.
But within half an hour a girl replied saying that although she couldn’t host, she knew a friend who would be happy to have me. I glanced at her friend’s profile to be sure she wasn’t an axe murderer, then hopped on my bike and pedalled the 20 km to her house in Dunakeszi. I had no idea how lucky I was.
Panni hosted me for three nights at her parent’s home, and from moment one I was accepted as part of the household.
We shared meals, laughed around the kitchen table, and in the quiet times I lounged under a cherry tree, the dog Malvin snoring on my chest. It was so comfortable, so natural to be with her family, that I realized with sadness how much I miss my own.
On the second night of my stay, Panni and I took the train to Budapest to catch an outdoor concert. At least that was the plan.
Mostly we just sat on the grass with her friends, drinking palinka and cheap wine, grinning at the sky as the music played in the distance. When the last song was done and people filed away, we sat on a stone wall beside the Danube, laughing at city lights too beautiful to take seriously. I wanted the last train home to be late, to not come at all.
But it did, bringing Monday with it. I packed slowly, looking for excuses to stay a few minutes longer. Funny how I left Canada to be alone and all I’ve done in the past year is hug people goodbye. It doesn’t get any easier.
I looked back once, to Panni and her family waving on the grass, then I turned the corner to Budapest. After gathering my new travel documents amid a sea of red tape, I headed south, into rain and mud and everything that makes the good days so sweet.
The road was cracked, uneventful, although I did meet a group of cyclists making the trip to Pécs. They invited me to tag along but I declined. We shared a night of goulash and in the morning I split for the Croatian border.
I cycled across Croatia in two days. It was hot, the roads were narrow and I was afraid of landmines.
And that’s where we end – in Bosnia, which feels like a different world altogether.
What isn’t broken has been repaired too many times. The faces are hard, deeply lined, and I feel ashamed of my own. I’ve spent a year on the road and only now do I see the other side.
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!
Snowflakes and flu bugs 01/12/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: blizzard, compostela, couchsurfing, health, portugal, spain, winter
It seems those Basque-ards to the east have a lock on sunshine in Spain, and the country as a whole has provided more challenges than I ever expected.
First, and always most important for me, has been the weather. I chose the northern coast because it historically goes without snow in the winter. Most kids have never seen it and adults vaguely remember the white stuff from a storm that fell 20 years ago. It was a good plan, but now it´s buried somewhere near Vilalba under about a foot of powder. There I found myself in the middle of a full-scale blizzard – blinding snow, howling winds and Spanish drivers spinning summer tires to no avail.
Stranger than the surprise storm was the fact that the falling snow inexplicably made me happy. Giddy. It made me feel very much at home in a place where I have trouble using the payphones. The highways were completely empty and the weather wasn´t cold, so once I got started I found it was a perfect time for travelling, provided I cycled in a straight line and crossed my fingers on the hills.
On one of those hills I came upon a German cyclist making a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. His gear was ramshackle, his blue jeans soaked, and he was walking his bike because his feet were frozen. I liked him immediately. We cycled together for three days and partied until 5 a.m. to celebrate his arrival to Santiago. It was a crazy night that I´ll always barely remember.
Despite the fun, I never really felt at ease in Santiago. There were too many tourists looking up and too many locals looking down. I had no regrets about continuing south to Pontevedra, but on the way my stomach started doing flip-flops and my forehead was burning up. I thought I was just a bit hungover, but it wasn´t the same feeling at all. After my third mad dash to use the facilities at a coffee shop, it dawned on me that I might have a stomach bug.
And how. I spent the next two days sitting on the can with my head in a bucket, wishing that someone would do the right thing and shoot me. Luckily I´d arranged a CouchSurfing host several days earlier, so at the very least I had a comfortable and warm place to rest between yak attacks.
I look like a twig in the mirror, but after a bit of 7-Up and some toast this morning, I think I feel strong enough to take to the highway once more. I´m less than 60 km from Portugal, so I should be able to cross the border by this evening if all goes well.
This trip certainly isn´t getting any easier, but in a way that was never the point. Starting in Belgium, and now especially in Spain, I´ve stopped considering the trials as either good or bad. They´re temporary and that´s all. Lately I cycle the same whether I´m climbing a hill, facing the wind or dragging my bike through six inches of mud. I don´t know if that means my mind is clear or I´m a vacuous idiot, but it sure helps me stack up more kilometres.
A few pages from the journal . . . 08/05/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, border, british columbia, camping, cassiar highway, couchsurfing, forest fire, heat, hostel, tok, whitehorse, wind, yukon
It’s been ages since I last updated and so much has happened that I hardly know where to begin. I think a person matures at an accelerated rate on the road, and when I think back at me cursing the sky, shivering in Glenallen, it seems like a different life in someone else’s sweater.
The road from Glenallen to Tok was mostly flat, and since the weather was cool, I covered about 200 miles in only two days. There were some breathtaking spots along the way, though the one that sticks out most in my mind now is an enormous valley near Mentasta that was so wonderfully silent that even my soft whistle rang off the mountain walls. I got lost in the echo, imagining what I’d be doing at that moment if I hadn’t got on a bus back in June, and I felt so very fortunate.
In Tok I again stayed with the Marshall clan at their newly opened campground. This time I slept in a converted military tent that was referred to, rather optimistically, as a hostel. It was $2 cheaper than a camp site and the cot was a nice change after sleeping on rocks and branches for so long.
Joining me in the tent for the evening was a gal named Justy who was on the lam from Californian authorities for, as she said, “every charge they could think of.” I didn’t care much about all of that. Instead, my lasting memory of her is that she snored like a buzz saw and scared the devil out of me when I found her wandering around the Tok city limits sign the next day. I don’t know if she was on drugs or just taking a piss, and I didn’t stop to ask.
Down the highway I went, with thoughts of the Canadian border bouncing around my tiny head. What I didn’t realize was that American and Canadian customs aren’t in the same spot on the Alaska Highway. Exhausted and dizzy, I creaked my way to the border around 9 p.m. and was greeted not by a border guard, but by a big green sign that said, “Canadian Customs – 20 miles.” So I biked 20 more miles in the dark, finally arriving at the guard station at 11.
And there I stood until 11:20 while the mosquitoes sucked every drop of energy from my legs. The guards were busy tearing apart a U-Haul and little biker boy kind of slipped between the cracks. The bugs were so bad that I frenzy-slapped one leg and then the other, back and forth without bothering to look down. For all of that, I was really hoping for some intense light-in-your-eyes interrogation from the guard, like the kind you’d see on a 70′s New York crime show. What I got was:
“Do you have any firearms or explosives?”
“Did you buy anything from the Duty Free store?”
“What’s a Duty Free store?”
“Okay. Have a nice trip, sir.”
After customs, it was only a few kilometres to Beaver Creek, where I found a random picnic table and set about making my supper. As I was boiling my rice, a squeaky shadow emerged from nowhere and my list of wildlife seen increased by one. I was face to face with a four-year-old on training wheels.
He pedalled right up to my toes and asked, as though he had keys for the local jail, “What’s your name?”
I said my name was Mike.
“Did you know my name’s Tucker?”
I said I didn’t know that but I was glad to meet him. I don’t think he heard me, though, because he was busy giving my bike the once-over and climbing on the picnic table, asking what I was making for supper, if I liked rice, what colour of rice I ate, how many times I stirred my rice, etc. etc.
As we discussed the finer points of my diet, Tucker’s father came along with his older son. After I explained my trip to them, he introduced himself as the head chef at the local hotel and gently hinted that the evening’s leftovers might be more appetizing than my boiled rice and lentils. Five minutes later, I was sitting in a staff mess hall, glugging down glasses of milk and eating chicken fingers, breaded fish and vegetable stir fry.
The trio told me I was camping behind the hotel, and since I didn’t have the energy to argue, I fell asleep on a soft field of moss 30 meters from the parking lot. I slept like a rock.
It didn’t matter much, because the next day was simply unkind. It was hot, hilly and there was a gritty headwind knocking me around on every pedal stroke. I went all of 20 km before I realized I was having no fun whatsoever. I slipped into a territorial campground and sat by the lake, picking gunk out of my eyes and banging my socks together like two dusty chalk brushes.
That was the end of the line for me. I took off my helmet, grabbed my cook pot and headed into the bush to pick blueberries. Picking (or perhaps eating) berries always seems to cheer me up, and on that day I was in serious need of some purple on my fingers.
When I returned to the shore, blueberries in tow, I met a German couple – he fishing without success and she hand washing laundry – and also a wiry Irish fellow named Barry. He was cycling from Anchorage to San Francisco before setting off for Australia and southeast Asia.
We talked for awhile and since he had no water filter, I offered him some purifying drops that I’d never used. Barry invited me to share his camp site and a half bladder of red wine that some other campers had given him the night before. The treat was finished in short order and we sat there looking at each other until he, in his one-of-a-kind Irish accent, suggested we go back to Beaver Creek to buy more wine.
So we did. We biked back over the 20 km that had frayed my body earlier that day, and then we made our way back to the campground – two fools with cheap wine in double-bagged white plastic. We stayed up until three in the morning talking about little things, stupid things that only two people living on a bike could really understand. I fell asleep with my shoes as a pillow and a huge grin on my face.
The next morning I left in a great mood, and thank goodness. Any sour thoughts I had would have pickled in the incredible heat that glared over everything for the next several days. The closer I got to Whitehorse, the further the mercury rose, until finally, near Kluane Lake, it inched over 40°C. All I could do was hide in the shadow of a rest stop outhouse and wait for the sun to slide behind the mountains.
The rides to Haines Junction and even Whitehorse were kind of a blur. I was strung out from the heat and the grime of the road, and by the time I arrived in the capital, all I could do was sit on a gas station parking meridian and suck on a Slurpee. Watermelon. Mmm mmm.
In Whitehorse, I stayed with a CouchSurfing host who took me out to catch the final show of a band called The Whiskey Dicks. They blasted Celtic rock in a sticky, seedy bar that was so hot you could barely breathe. Everyone in the place was dancing like mad, covered in sweat and booze and smiles, and if you stopped for a moment to take it all in, you’d swear it was beautiful.
At that same bar, I met a lady from Teslin who asked me to drop in to the town’s Visitor’s Centre when I passed through. It took me two days of cycling through smoke so thick it seemed like a dream, but I made it to the reception building yesterday and met up with Bev. We talked for a bit, but she had to go back to work so she invited to come to her place for dinner later that night.
And what a night! Before I could even sit down I had a bowl of moose stew in one hand and a Budweiser in the other. We sat on her back deck for hours and hours watching the full moon peek over the hills and make its sleepy arc across the waters of Teslin Lake. When I finally closed my eyes, my stomach ached from laughing so much. I fell asleep in love with everything, and nothing in particular.
That brings me here, to this moment. Thanks to Bev and her Tlingit hospitality, I’m stocked with a ton of fruit and dried salmon for my journey. Today I hope to make it to Swift River, then it’s off to the Cassiar Highway Junction and south, to British Columbia . . .
Flyin’ to Fairbanks 07/08/2009Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: alaska, couchsurfing, fairbanks, tok
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Put me on flat ground and za-zoom! I cleared 181 km yesterday, zipping from Tok all the way to Delta Junction. The road meandered around the Alaskan Range, but except for the hot weather, it was the easiest ride of the trip.
I still haven’t seen a bear in Alaska that didn’t look like a rug, but I have come across a lot of moose. I caught a peek at these two rascals about 20 miles east of Delta Junction . . .
Yesterday was also my first CouchSurfing experience as a surfer, and not someone who explains where the towels and blankets can be found. The location came with a long list of turn-at-the-graveyard directions, but after a few extra kilometres of cycling, I found myself at a wonderfully remote property. Lara, my host, was incredibly welcoming, and we discussed books over a cup of rum and Coke while the midnight sun hung low in the sky. Not a bad way to cap a day on the road.
It was only the second time since I’ve left that I slept on an actual bed. I actually prefer crashing in my bag, but a roof overhead is a great way to minimize the chances of being eaten by wildlife. These days, my legs could feed a family of five for a month, so keeping them attached to my torso is of growing concern.
Readers from the school of Sherlock will no doubt see the day-long gap between the time I said I was leaving Tok and when I actually arrived in Delta Junction. The truth is, I didn’t hit the road at all on July 6. I went gold panning instead.
It’s kind of a long story. My initial day of rest got boring in short order, so I went poking around for things to do. I noticed the campground owners were doing some renovations, so I asked if I could help out. By the end of the day I had helped put up a fence, place a fire pit and install a urinal into the bathroom. It looks like all those hold-this and hammer-that summers with my Dad paid off.
After the work was done, the campground gang took me to their father’s house for a homemade vegetarian spaghetti supper. It was an Alaskan shack if there ever was one, but the company and talk around the wobbly table were amazing.
The father, Donald, fought in Iwo Jima as a 17-year-old and later wrote a book called Alligator Marines about his experiences. I didn’t know until mid-evening that he was a veteran, but his collection of WWII military sabres directly opposite his bathroom sink piqued my interest. We didn’t talk much, but he was an incredible guy, chain smoking on his bed and stroking his long white beard when he spoke.
One of Donald’s friends was an animatronics expert from Jim Henson Studios. He was on vacation after wrapping up work on Where The Wild Things Are. I was kind of hoping he’d let me hide in his car trunk and then give me a tour of his workshop down south, but so far that hasn’t panned out.
Neither did the gold searchin’ the next day. The campground gang invited me out to a friend’s claim to try our prospecting luck. I felt, probably for the same reason I think I’ll always win at bingo, that panning would be as easy as reaching into the river and hauling out gigantic chunks of gold. Not so. In fact, after two or three hours of back-breaking work, our group of four only managed to find a few dandruff-sized flakes of the sparkly stuff.
Unless one hits it big, I think working the moldy sandwich bar at an Esso service station pays better than gold panning.
Today is a bit off kilter – it’s already 2 p.m. and I haven’t gone anywhere beyond the Delta Junction Library. I’ll leave soon and hopefully get halfway to Fairbanks before day’s end . . .