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!
Breakdown, it’s alright 01/29/2010Posted by mikeonbike in cycling, travel.
Tags: exhaustion, portugal, repairs, wind, winter
Being on the road every day has nothing to do with strength. It’s a question of stamina and sometimes I feel as though I don’t have the answer. Some days I’m a ghost, a cycle drone, squinting at painted lines and exit signs. So much rolls by and yet I’m amazed at how little registers in my mind.
Winter took a heavy toll on my body – day in and day out every ounce of energy was spent on simply staying warm and dry. There were times when my fingers were so cold I couldn’t tie my shoes, and my feet froze so badly in France that I still have no feeling in my big toes. But the options were go on or go home, so I lowered my head, made the miles and biked to Portugal. It took everything I had, and now, under blue skies and shining sun, I find there isn’t much left.
A break is what I need. I can’t say when or where, but at some point in the next month or so I want to find a place where I can relax. Recuperate.
I find it so very strange that my bicycle should run out of steam at the same time as me. I had what you might call a catastrophic breakdown in central Portugal, and it wasn’t until yesterday that I finally managed to resolve the problem.
As I was biking up a pitiless hill, my chain lost tension and I was left without any forward momentum. What happened next was kind of a blur, but what I do know is that my loyal steed bucked me into a gutter and then fell on top of me. I emerged from the ditch mad as hell, swearing a blue streak and kicking gravel everywhere. Luckily, aside from my bruised pride, the only casualty was a plastic Gladware container, which shattered into a million microwaveable and dishwasher-safe pieces.
Oh, and my ride had some serious issues. The bike’s transmission was completely worn out, and for the next 40 km of rolling terrain I was left with exactly one gear. Not the easy gear, mind you. That would be too . . . easy. I was stuck in tailwind mode, which was heaven on the downs and a nightmare on the ups. After a few hours I managed to cycle to Torres Vedras where I was exceptionally fortunate to find a bicycle shop owner who spoke English.
And the service! The head mechanic was like the Mr. Miyagi of bicycle repair. What would have taken me a full day of hammering and cussing took him about 30 minutes of serenity. When I waved goodbye, gears clicking beautifully, I was the proud owner of a new cassette, small crank wheel, chain and derailleur cable.
Unfortunately, my luck had another hiccup when I left the city. My derailleur cable came unhooked from the shifter, and once again I was down to one gear.
The ride to the next major centre was horrible – two hours of bucking wind and dodging honking trucks. My mood was rotten when I arrived in Vendas Novas, and it didn’t improve much after that.
The first shop I found was without its mechanic for the day, so I followed a paper napkin map to the only other place in town. There the owner informed me that he would not fix my bike because I didn’t buy it in his store. He didn’t suggest anywhere else for me to go, just that I go away. So I did.
I biked 25 more kilometres to Montemor-o-Novo and finally found someone with the tools and know-how to fix my bike. It was a kid working at a motorcycle shop, of all things. He wasn’t as experienced as my bicycle guru in Torres Vedras, but he did an excellent job and only charged me 3 Euros for the repairs.
I wasn’t back on the road again until nightfall, but I still hoped to find my turnoff and camp somewhere outside the city. Navigation is tricky in the dark, though, so I wandered over to a small café to ask for directions before I inevitably got lost.
Once inside, I was devoured by a gaggle of old men who were shining with wine, singing arm in arm and watching the Portuguese version of The Price is Right. Being from Canada, they thought it very important that I sample the vino tinto from Lisbon. Again and again and again. For two hours they kept buying me drinks, shoving food in front of me and asking about every detail of my trip. It was such a treat after the previous few days that I could have died smiling right there.
By the time I zig-zagged back to my bike, the only directions I needed were to a cheap hotel in the city centre. There I slept like a baby and had a shower for the first time in 11 days. And today, today I treated myself to lunch at a restaurant, which put a bit of spring back in my step.
Now all I need to do is get my feet back on the road.
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.
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.