This morning I woke up at 6:30 am, the first time I have slept through the night since getting back from London and also the first time I’ve been able to breathe through my nose in over a week. A nice heavy case of bronchitis has made my lungs burn even worse as I inhaled bus exhaust being kept down low in the air from consistent rain.
I took a walk this morning. I put my rain kit on over my flannel pajamas and slipped into a pair of cheap Budweiser sandals. I walked out my door, passed the wedding card factory our house is attached to and looked inside the blind massage parlor to see if anyone was up and working yet. The house backs up to the Red River and even though I have been living here for two months I have yet to see if there is a path leading down to the water. I took a right and walked down a narrow street behind my house, the rain was gliding off my rain jacket and for the first time in a while I smiled.
I was about to turn back towards the main road and search for some breakfast when I heard,
“Alo, xin chao, you have tea?”
Three men were hunkered down in a shack in a strange little bamboo fenced compound. There were caged chickens and ducks lining the perimeter of a concrete square parking area. I sat down next to a man in his late fifties wearing one of those hard shelled green Vietnamese hats. The man sitting across from me was dressed nicely and talking on an old Nokia brick phone, he took a cigar out of his mouth and passed it to me. I crossed my legs and took a drag off the cigar.
“Ahh Cuban, Cam on!” I said.
He slapped me on the leg and smiled.
“Where you from?” He asked.
“USA, Florida, American, Ten toi la Joshua.”
“Ahh American! You are very beautiful.”
He looked at the older man, said something in Vietnamese and they both laughed. So I did as well in an effort to pretend I knew exactly what he’d said.
I passed the cigar back to him and he grabbed a walkie talkie dangling from a piece of bamboo fencing then motioned for the older gentleman to go get something.
“Ruou de?” He asked.
It was just now 7:30 but I figured I didn’t have to work today and I haven’t had a drink in a while.
“Vang! Yeah, Cam on” I said.
We sat in silence and stared at each other for the next ten minutes while the other man was away fetching the rice wine. I have become so used to this interaction, just sitting, staring and occasionally smiling at each other, embracing the language barrier.
The man returned with a large plastic tub of purple liquid with black flesh textured finger shaped objects floating at the bottom. He unscrewed the lid and dipped three ceramic cups into the mixture. I raised the cup,
“Mot hai ba zo!” I said and we all clicked glasses and drank the thick musky liquid.
This has happened to me several times here in Vietnam, getting stuck drinking rice wine early in the morning and not speaking enough of the language in order to make a graceful exit. This is just something the Vietnamese love to do to me, I have to wonder if they see me and think “hey, look westerner, let’s get him drunk!”
I looked up how to say “I am hungry” on my translator app and they just looked at me confused and poured three more shots, this time filling up a larger glass for me. I downed it and set it on the tea tray and motioned to leave. The well dressed man reached over, grabbed my arm and asked me to sit back down. He then poured me another shot and managed to spill his whole glass on my pants in the process.
“Its ok, its ok.” He said.
“Yeah, they are waterproof.” I said.
“Can I show you my ostrich?” He asked.
“Your what?” I replied.
“Come, I show you.”
It’s my first time out of the house in a while and all I really wanted was some Bun Cha and maybe a coffee, but this is vietnam and you can never simply go for a walk and get coffee.
I said, “yeah sure, lets see the ostrich.”
I assumed “ostrich” was just a mis translation of something else, but whatever we were going to see he was damn proud of it because he had a silly grin on his face while we walked across the lot and around the corner towards some larger cages.
He pointed and took a puff from the cigar,
“See, I show you.”
Sure enough I had heard the man correctly. He did indeed have an ostrich. The thing looked stressed out and was missing most of its feathers. It raised its head from a water bowl and put its face up against the chain link fence and stared into my eyes. It looked old and sad. There were some chickens running around in the cage as well, pecking bits of food scattered around the ostriches feet. A fly landed on his eyeball and he twitched then returned to his water.
We arrived in Hanoi after a hasty exit out of India. Once again we assembled the bikes in the airport and rode out into a glorious sunshine and new traffic pattern. The horns are now being used as they were intended and although we have not slept in a day our energy levels are high enough to get us to the city center and to a hostel where we could sleep off the chaos we just experienced the past month. We stumbled into Flipside hostel, a place run by kiwis in the center of old town Hanoi.
That night and still without sleep from India, Jason and I piled into a cab with the managers of the hostel, then were corralled into a strange flashy and loud club. Behind the bar were two silver tanks and above them a box of large multi colored balloons. A sign outside the bar said “happy balloon 25k”. Such a stark contrast from India, here I am in a bar with EDM thumping my eardrums, the bar top is lined with westerners shooting brown liquor and the vietnamese cocktail waitresses are handing out nitrous oxide balloons as if they are dirty martinis. Damn, it was nice to be out of the conservative Indian culture, but this was just a bit too much.
Jason and I found ourselves getting quite drunk and after blending the cheap alcohol with our lack of sleep we soon were arguing loudly in the street about something. We had so much pent up energy which needed to be slept off, but instead decided to let 6 months of steam off on each other in the dark early morning streets of Hanoi. We did sleep at some point and upon waking up, still upset from the previous night, I felt as if I should go off alone. I had organized my things and had yet to consider what continuing along alone would have really meant for me. Jason woke up in the top bunk, rolled over and had the most horrifying hungover look on his face. We decided we better have some coffee and chat a bit. We worked things out quite quickly once we got some caffeine and burgers in our bodies (it was the first time seeing beef on a plate in quite some time).
I felt for the first time on this trip that I really needed a change of pace but had no idea in what way to go about it. I sat on the roof of our hostel and typed up the India blog post and once again sipped on a few beers. It was nice to be in a place where acquiring alcohol no longer felt like going to find crack cocaine. The afternoon turned into evening and the rooftop became a bit more crowded. Someone put on some music and announced it was now happy hour. I was then joined by four Americans from California who had just arrived in Hanoi from Saigon via motorbike. We talked about the differences of touring on a bicycle rather than a motorbike. They were spending the rest of the week here in an effort to hustle their bikes to some backpackers before they all flew home. We walked around with them drinking rum in the street as they approached every pack of attractive girls with the question, “Hey do yall wanna buy a motorbike?” The strategy was not entirely successful, but as we walked along with them I had a moment where I thought a quick motorbike trip could be just the temporary change of pace that I need. I turned to Jason and said,
“Hey, why don’t we buy two of those things and run up north for a few weeks?”
He was instantly sold on the idea and the next morning we made a trip to the ATM to withdraw a few million Dong to pay them for the bikes. The hostel we were at agreed to watch our bicycles and spare gear while we were gone. After a quick 1 am lesson on how to handle a manual motorbike we headed off to bed with plans to leave first thing the next day.
We had a vague route but knew that it included a loop hugging the chinese border and had been told by many people that we would be shocked by the scenery of the northern mountain range.
I brought along a stripped down version of my cycle touring kit, one large pannier and one small, a few tools, the tent, my now rotten smelling sleeping bag, a pair of levis I had yet to wear and my rain gear. Upon entering the thick traffic of the old quarter I was worried I was quite unprepared for what lay ahead. The flow of vietnamese traffic requires an entire reprogramming of everything you have ever learned about driving in the west. Over taking a bus on the sidewalk with a pack of forty other motorbikes is simply routine. Getting caught waiting for a break in traffic is a clear sign you are green to asian traffic patterns. If you need to cross an intersection you simply drive into the oncoming traffic and wait for it to mold around you like a wave in the ocean, no one will run into you but it is a good idea to use other scooters as a barrier between yourself and the incoming herd of motorbikes, buses and rickshaws.
Once 30 or so kilometers outside of the city the traffic loosened up and we got our first glimpse at the mountains in the hazy distance. The motorbike provided a feeling of liberation, I could now travel at several times the speed of a bicycle with simply the flick of a wrist and downshift with the foot. These bikes are not fast, they are 110cc Chinese knockoff Honda Winns, so we were not traveling at a speed where we would miss anything. On that first day I began to think that this might be the proper pace for a trip through asia. Even though we now had engines, we still found ourselves covering the same amount of distance we would typically cover on the bicycles. It is just too easy to take a long break at a bia hoi or sit in a hammock and enjoy some morning coffee for a few hours when you know that you can now rely on the power of fossil fuels instead of leg power. We still applied our cycle touring strategies to the motorbikes. We camped on the side of the road when it got dark and warmed up the bikes as the sun rose. It was a bit more challenging getting the motorbikes hidden in camp but as it turns out vietnam is the same as Europe in the sense that no one seems to care if someone has decided to pitch a few tents on the side of the road or in the jungle for the night.
We were disturbed on our second night when we found ourselves in the dark struggling to find a spot. After pulling the bikes off to scope several bad sites we decided to settle on camping on the edge of a rice field. We had a few beers to sip on and I spent some time killing mosquitos who had found their way in through the holes of my tent. Shortly after dozing off a man approached our camp and seemed to have a lot of questions for us. There was no way to communicate except for google translate so I broke out the phone and began asking him if it was OK if we stayed the night where we were. He was very insistent that we come to his house and stay with him instead, of course pleased with his hospitality we were still very tired and the idea of packing up camp was just not an option. After another few minutes of google translate we were able to say goodnight to our friend and get some sleep. All I can think of is that had this situation happened in the states we would not have been dealing with an overly friendly farmer but instead a heavily armed police officer.
The next day we carried along and spotted from what I can recall our first sighting of westerners since leaving Hanoi. It was a trio which in my first observation was a vietnamese guide leading a couple through the landscape. The man in the back was wearing a short sleeve shirt and had several tattoos down alongside his arms and the girl was a tall pretty looking brunette. Jason and I sped past them in a strange show of dominance and honked our horns to say hello. They passed us not long afterward and had pulled off to the side of the road to take a few pictures. I again sped past but Jason decided to stop and have a chat. I waited for him at the upcoming turn for a few minutes before deciding to turn around and also say hello. When I pulled up I realized the leader was not a guide but another girl with short curly red hair. We talked for a few minutes and then said goodbye. I watched them move along and around the corner of the mountain up ahead. They seemed like a nice bunch and at the moment I had no idea that meeting them had just altered the course of this entire trip for me.
A few kilometers down the path we saw their bikes pulled off at a small restaurant. We decided to join them and talk some more. We sat down at a table which was covered with different plates of food,
“eat!” they said.
“They keep bringing us more food that we didn’t order!”
A man walked over with another bowl of rice and at this point they were pleading with him to stop bombarding them with the stuff.
“We’re pretty sure that brown meat there is dog…” one of them said.
I helped myself to it in an attempt to be polite and eat the unwanted food. I wasn’t fully convinced it was dog, it did taste different, very similar to mutton. I thought, yeah, this is just mutton. But then I tried to recall the last time I had seen sheep. It was a long time ago, the last time I saw those fluffy delicious animals was definitely in europe.
One of the girls was reading a description of the specific flavor and texture of dog meat as I chewed.
“Hmm, it says here it is a pungent meat, very similar to mutton but with a flowery aftertaste.”
I slowed my chewing when I realized that the description she just read was exactly what was happening in my mouth. I would like to tell you I spit it out and felt disgusted with myself. But instead I finished the plate, after all it was quite tasty and I figured I couldn’t let the poor puppies’ life go to waste by not consuming the rest of him.
We left the restaurant at the same time and rode together as we were all more or less heading in the same direction. I became separated from the group and somehow missed them at the next spot in which they had pulled off. I rode for several more hours over a mountain pass and up into some cool foggy weather. I sped around tight corners and narrowly dodged several trucks on the skinny roads. I began to get a bit worried about them but as it got dark decided that there was no way I was behind them. I was forced to cowboy camp behind a pile of gravel down by a river. The night was clear and cool and I was up late drinking rice wine and reading under my headlamp.
The next day I found wifi at a small cafe and had several messages from Jason with images of their location. They had stayed at a homestay together and were now 80 km behind me. I was due to be in Sa Pa in the early afternoon so we arranged to all meet at a homestay a few kilometers out of town in Ta Van.
I could continue to write in detail about the next several weeks but it would take me maybe a hundred pages to get everything out and I do intend on detailing these weeks in a different manner, but as for this post and for the sake of brevity I will fast forward a bit.
Our friends names are Mark, Lucy and Freya. We have now teamed up and decided to do this trip together. There is an awesome level of confidence that comes with rolling into towns with a gang of motorcycles and cute girls. At this point Freya and I have developed a sort of romance and have made a habit out of making the rest of the group quite uncomfortable with our affection for each other. The dynamic of our group is fantastic, we have had several conversations about the rarity of spontaneously teaming up with such compatible personalities. We all stay up late together drinking rice wine and talking about movies and I speak for all of us when I say that for a brief moment in time we all forgot about everything wrong in the world or with ourselves and developed a supreme level of comfort together in an otherwise difficult physical environment.
I expect to be scolded by my new friends after they read this for leaving out certain stories but here is one moment that I tried to capture in detail.
We were somewhere southwest of Ha Giang province and after losing Jason and Lucy early in the day I found myself alone with Freya. We had gone down a road which was not on either of our maps and after gesturing to a man for several minutes we decided to turn back and look for the proper road. In the process we tracked down Lucy who after not sleeping much the night before seemed to be in a rough sort of shape. We rode for several kilometers following Lucy and into a small village where the road dead ended into the courtyard of a small school where children were doing there afternoon exercises. The gps was telling us to continue along around the school and up a steep dirt road into the thick jungle. We carried on up the incline and over slippery rocks until we concluded that there was no way this was the right direction. We hobbled back down into the village and a man who could tell we were very lost led us to a road behind a shack and pointed. But this was no road, it was a partially paved path smaller than most city sidewalks. We continued along as the path slowly evolved into a dirt trail which resembled some of the more challenging terrain you might expect to find on the Sierra section of the PCT. All of us knew the moment we were pushing our bikes through a rushing creek and struggling to keep our distance from the massive ox waving his horns at us that we were very much lost. We had accepted our fate. There was a moment when I spilled my bike after splashing through a creek and immediately up a bouldered incline. My body slipped off the side of the trail and my bike was lying over leaking gas into the warm dirt. The girls pulled me back up and as I was wiping the gas from around the edge of my tank I began to wonder when it was I last filled up at the station. This process was repeated, taking turns pushing each others bikes up and around the jagged corners then paying close attention not to over rev the poor chinese made engines. The hike would have been difficult with a small backpack but here we are with 3 loaded down motorbikes, two of which are automatic scooters specifically constructed for light city commuting and really giving them hell. A breakdown out here would mean camping in the bush then hiking out the next day. Which at this point wasn’t really an option, with maybe 2 liters of water between us, a leaky water filter and a 1 man tent we were pretty much going to either have to make it to a road very soon or risk a very uncomfortable night in the middle of the north vietnamese jungle. At a certain point we stopped to talk about our situation, Freya had decided that turning back was not an option. It was getting too late and we had already committed to this damned path we were on. There was only one direction to go. If there ever were a time to die on this trip it would have been here. There is no one coming to rescue you out here if you slip off the side of the cliff and sever an artery or crack your skull on a rock. You would just have to find peace with dying very slowly in a hopeless yet beautiful situation. This is the thought that dominated my mind as I watched the girls balancing their scooters over rocks ahead of me and doing their best to stay on the 3 foot wide bumpy muddy track. On the left side of the path is a rock face and just to the right, maybe 2 feet, is a drop off at least 100 feet into a slope of rough rocks eventually ending in a swampy rice paddy. As dangerous as this was it remains as my happiest moment on this entire trip. I Watched Freya overly excited with the prospect of more certain danger as she ran up a hill to see if it was possible to get the bikes over while i sat with lucy who was crouched smoking a cigarette in the minimal shade cast from her motorbike. At the top of this next hill was an extremely old lady with a hunched back trimming some plants, she had one dark hazy eye and when Freya said “Ha Giang?” shrugging and pointing, the old woman smiled and pointed along down the trail. She jumped and frolicked back down the hill to tell lucy about the woman, our oracle or now savior figure, who with any luck actually understood what we were asking for. With our water now empty and bikes overheating we pushed along up and through the middle of this desolate yet breathtaking and silent area. This is the kind of situation where I really find my stride, the uncertainty and unpredictability of where you will be when the sun falls is when i can find the most focus. It’s the simplification of everything in an otherwise stressful environment. Part of me wishes I could sit here and tell you that we were forced to stay the night out there filtering water through motor oil soaked bandanas and chugging rice wine under the stars in an effort to forget about the swarms of mosquitos destined to transfer a nice dose of dengue fever. But, we made it, we found a small paved road which led us towards Ha Giang where Mark and Jason awaited us drinking beers underneath a poster they designed for Freya’s birthday.
Perhaps I will do a series on our misadventures through the North and I will have plenty of time to do it because I am now based in Hanoi. For the past several weeks I have been working as an English teacher and I now have my own room in a house for the first time in almost two years. Jason is leading motorbike tours through the same mountains we just explored together and for now my panniers are stashed on top of a wardrobe somewhere in the center of Hanoi.
After assembling the bikes in the Delhi airport we rode into town. We had not slept in around twenty four hours so our only option was to find a hostel. Later that evening I met with Andrew Fedorov, a friend I had made in Athens whom I had spent the better part of a week becoming hostel degenerates with. He is here in Delhi working an internship with “The Caravan”. When he showed up at the hostel I still had not slept but being caught up in the moment decided to join him on the roof for a few rounds of Kingfisher. I’m quite sure the night went until three or four in the morning and I can’t forget the cricket match in the musky alley with a group of local kids, or Jason deciding it was appropriate to offer high fives to every person on the way back to our room.
Sickness struck us hard. Jason’s existence was limited to within a few meters from a restroom. I slept for a whole day and recovered after only a few trips to the bathroom and some residual upper respiratory nonsense. We spent the next several days in Delhi. Jason stayed in the bed mostly while I forced myself to get out with Andrew. One night he took me to what he described as a “karaoke bar where you don’t sing”. We met with some of his friends in a seedy downstairs restaurant with a stage at the end of the hall and a man welding something underneath a staircase just to the left. There were five or six girls sitting on chairs on the stage and taking requests for songs. Someone would suggest something, then these girls from their stools would stare at their cellphones while they sang. I was told later that they were singing mostly religious songs which made the whole situation so much stranger when a young gentleman made his way to the stage and “made it rain” towards the modestly dressed young women.
The misery of Indian traffic has me now strongly advising anyone against a cycle tour in India. If you want to constantly dodge serious injury or death, breathe toxic air and be surrounded by water that you wouldn’t dare even brush your teeth with then by all means go for it. This is not to say you should not go to India, but perhaps going by train or motorbike up into the mountains would be a better bet. The heat and traffic are minor issues when compared with what I call the “celebrity phenomenon”.
Indian people are extremely friendly but after a few days it gets to be a bit much, especially if you have just covered 100 plus km and just need to sit in the shade and drink water. People would wait in lines on their scooters while riding down the road in order to ask us for a selfie or just stare for a few minutes and not say a word. Cars would pull off in front of us and try to flag us down to also once again ask for a selfie. This would happen dozens of times a day and was very fun for the first few miles. Making friends on the side of the road and showing off different parts of my bike to people who were generally amazed at everything about me was quite nice. The loathing of this routine hit me all at once after waking up in my tent early one morning at a roadside restaurant parking lot and seeing a strange looking Indian man leaning over Jason’s tent and watching him sleep. He stood there staring for several minutes and I mumbled to myself that it was going to be a long day. Just stopping on the side of the highway for a quick water break in a place it seems no one would hang around will garner a crowd of twenty to thirty people. They come out of nowhere, and always when I am the most exhausted, hunched over my handlebars dripping ounces of sweat down over my front tire. I try to induce tunnel vision so I can ignore the circle forming around me but just as I muster the energy to break out of the crowd and maybe move a few hundred meters up the road to stop and breathe again, a man grabs me firmly by the arm begging for a selfie as if his families life depends on it. The whole ordeal is so strange it is hard to comprehend what is going on. Many of these people have nice smartphones and tablets yet are wearing worn out clothing and busted out sandals and here is this middle aged man grabbing at me in the same manner a teenage girl might reach up towards the stage in the front row of a Justin Bieber concert. The physical exhaustion combined with this situation and a dash of social anxiety made it quite hard not to turn to violence.
This is not to say India was just one terrible experience after the other. We stayed with a family in a village outside the town of Hodal and woke up to monkeys climbing along our balcony and bright blue birds perched alongside one another on a powerline which swooped low to the ground and back up to a pole which was clearly handmade. Our hosts made us breakfast then took us up to the top of the king’s court. A beautiful crumbling one hundred year old structure which was casually being taken back by nature behind their home. Later that afternoon a giant piece of metal flew off a truck and struck my front tire severing a spoke and rendering my front brake useless. We pushed our bikes across the street to do the repair and a shop owner came outside with bottles of cold water and offered to show us to a bike shop if we needed it. One night we cycled through the night and into Agra. The lights of the traffic piercing through the haze of pollution made everything seem brighter. We approached the center of the city by a curving highway along the river and at this point the darkness made it seem like i was going fifty km an hour. I recalled several nightmares of this exact place as a child.
We stayed in Agra for a few days before moving along towards Varanasi. We had been held up by sickness and procrastination so we decided we needed to start blending in some hitchhiking in order to make it to Kolkata on time for our flight to Hanoi. We flagged down a small truck which was able to take us one hundred km. We stood in the back of this tiny vehicle and watched the sun go down as our driver weaved through the crowded streets. I laughed at the aggressiveness of his driving and the amount of innocent lives it seemed he was risking every minute or two. It was nice to see India from this pace. Once it got dark we stopped in a town and picked up some guy and a bunch of crates of vegetables. I leaned over the railing of the truck and made a gesture for food towards a street vendor. He handed me a small newspaper plate of something fried and smothered in delicious blood red sauce. I gave him the equivalent of maybe ten cents and he was happy. Further down the road a massive storm began dumping on us. Our driver pulled off the road and we took shelter with other drivers under an awning while Jason took advantage of the weather to wash his face.
Once in Varanasi we again indulged in the privacy of a cheap hostel. I began to feel quite hopeless at this point. What the hell was I doing sitting in this smelly room? One afternoon I decided to walk down to the Ganges river. I had heard of this place where there are open cremations over wood fires on the banks of the river. A morbid curiosity led me down to Manikarnika ghat, one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion. Hindus believe if their body is cremated in this location then they will skip the reincarnation process and be sent straight to nirvana. Its entirely possible that an ancient lumber salesman made this entire thing up because for 3500 years a source fire has been burning in a temple alongside the river and the streets surrounding the ghat are stacked forty feet high with wood. It is strange to get lost in this formation at night with the knowledge that all these structures will soon become the fuel for thousands of bodies. The first time I walked down there a man tried to scam me out of five hundred rupees by telling me that people from around the country come there to wait to die and he volunteers at a hospice for them. He went on to say that many of these people are so poor that they cannot afford the wood to burn their own bodies after they die. He took on a tour guide tone with me which was entirely unwarranted and invasive. He thought he had mastered the greatest guilt trip of all time for western tourists. I waited for him to get to the point so I could honestly tell him that I did not have any money with me. He did not believe me and went as far as to suggest that he walk me to an ATM. Of course I didn’t have a bank card on me either and the audacity of this suggestion made me extremely upset. Not only was this man essentially stealing money from people but he was using the most sinister tactic. I had just come down here to see some dead bodies after all so I just told the man kindly but firmly to fuck off. Later that evening Jason and I returned to the ghat together. We met a nice boy who showed us around after assuring us he was not going to ask for any money and simply wanted to hang out and speak english. I felt bad that he had to preface his introduction to us with the fact that he would not ask for anything. I felt even worse that when we finally said goodnight to each other I half expected him to ask for some cash. He didn’t and Jason and I walked home. The chaotic street we had walked down on was now nearly empty. It seemed all the people in the road earlier had moved to the side and were now sleeping in front of the shuttered shops. Cows were picking through the trash in the median under the warm non-fluorescent streetlight and for the first time I found myself becoming relaxed.
I cringe as the Ukrainian border officer opens my last bag, my food bag. The only thing inside is a mason jar of oregano given to us by a hospitable greek cafe owner. I mentioned earlier throwing it out before crossing these borders but now here I am attempting to look as innocent as possible as his gloved hand removes the jar from my greasy pannier.
He did not speak much English, but when he held it up into the sun I could understand what he was instantly accusing me of. Today is Jason’s 30th birthday, he is not wearing a shirt and has a large smile on his face. The few men waiting to cross behind us are silent and seem excited to see what happens next. I motion for the guard to smell it and stutter “it’s for cooking” and I think I pretended to shake it into an invisible dish of pasta. He opens the jar, smells it and fingers around inside. Jason tells one of the other guards it is for pizza.
“You make pizza on these bikes, I do not think so!”
The jar is thoroughly sniffed by the rest of the authorities including the bored looking soldier with the kalashnikov. They decide it is not weed and tell me I can put everything back together on my bike. Now it is Jason’s turn, he removes his panniers and we watch as the man with the gloves hands his way through every inch of his possessions. At one point the man opens Jason’s ukulele case, passes him the uke and says, “now play.” Jason is nervously strumming the out of tune instrument while the man continues to empty his bags, it seems there are now more onlookers.
“Happy birthday.” I say to Jason.
It has been over a month since we decided to divert from our route through Turkey and head north for Ukraine. We traveled through central Greece and rode over the mountains at Meteora. Here we explored the monasteries which blossom from the tops of the sandstone pillars. These structures look impossible, but here they sit having survived centuries of sieges and even shelling from the nazis in WW2. We sat outside and made sandwiches because we lacked “appropriate” clothing to enter the still active churches.
The Greek border guard studied our passports carefully. We had one day to spare before we had officially worn out our welcome in the EU. I suppose we were lucky because neither of us had bothered to count the days. No problems on the Bulgarian side but the Greeks had warned us that in Bulgaria and Romania we would certainly be robbed by gypsies. People often ask us, “have you been robbed!?”
They seem surprised when I tell them no and then usually reply with, “well wait till you get to (insert country)”.
We did have a stern warning from the Romanian police while we were camping cliffside at a beach near some hippy vans and a guerilla techno music festival. They woke us with flashlights and told us that our bikes will be stolen and that the thieves will come from the fields.
Romanian officer: “Yes, they will come from the fields, use gas and take your bicycles, it happens everyday.”
Jason: “I will wake up if I hear them gassing me.”
Other Romanian officer: “No, you will not, they use sleeping gas.”
We ended up surviving the night, no gas, only some shared sangria from a can with the girls camped next to us.
I feel safe when I am close to the beach and we usually follow coastline knowing that we will nearly always find a beautiful place to sleep. In Bulgaria we were given directions to a beach by some people traveling in a van. One of the girls said, “yes, it is great, no cell phones, you can really connect with nature out there.”
We could gather from our conversation with them what kind of situation we would find at this place. I pictured a few dozen people sitting by a fire, playing guitar and maybe taking drugs. We decided to give it a shot, if things started getting weird we would just dip-slip.
We cycled for several kilometers down a dirt path through vineyards and pass several people walking with large backpacks (a sure sign we were going the right way.) At the beach the first thing we see is a young naked fellow with a man bun bending over to collect a bundle of firewood. His buddy is giggling and frolicking, covered head to toe in a gray clay or ash. I look at Jason and say, “Well… home sweet home?”
There are more people and structures off in the distance so we push our bikes through the soft sand. The two naked gentlemen are in front of us pulling their pile of wood. Jason stops to let them get a head start after realizing there was no reason to subject ourselves to that view while sweating our way across the beach. Further along a man in the distance approaches us with his arms open. Jason turns to me,
“Yo, do you know that guy?”
He is a tan dude with short hair, a trimmed beard and no shirt.
“Welcome”, he says. “You made it!”
He gives us both hugs and then offers to drag Jason’s bike the rest of the way to where he says we will camp. He seemed nice enough so we followed him through a series of trails along the edge of the beach, pass camps which looked very much permanent and signs designating a certain patch of trees a “Reflexology and yoga meditation zone”.
I immediately thought, dammit, we just got sucked into a rainbow gathering. My judgmental self was dreading the moment some dreaded girl approaches me and tries to trade me some beads on a string for my last few remaining cigarettes. Our friend showed us where to camp, a nice spot up on a hill overlooking the sea. The night went well, we made some soup on a fire with the others in our camp and took turns strumming the ukelele while one of our new friends played along with a wooden flute. One character I will not forget and can only properly describe as Bill Hader going overboard in his research for a role as a homeless bulgarian alcoholic kept passing out near our tents on a dirty blanket. Every few minutes he would stumble back to the fire and stare at me as if he had seen something horrifying then he would make a gesture for a cigarette.
We were told that not only was this the last virgin beach in Bulgaria (a beach where you can essentially do whatever you please) but that this may very well be the last year it exists. Russian developers have been moving into the surrounding areas in droves and this beach has recently been acquired by investors. Once they can establish laws to push out all the hippies camping on the beach they will begin constructing hotels and a new yacht harbor. Admiring the vast emptiness and cleanliness of this place I can see both perspectives of the argument, but damn it would be nice if this place would stay the same forever.
I am in Odessa, Ukraine now where we will spend the next several days getting our gear together for the leap to India. There is a music school in the courtyard beneath this hostel and in the afternoons the piano echoes throughout the whole building.
I don’t move from this chair and am quite proud of myself for it. Kids walk in through the steel green door at the end of the skinny partially outdoor hallway and I stare up from my phone screen at them. I give everyone a well pronounced, “hello” and listen back, part of me hoping for an American (or Australian) accent.
Today is day 7 at this cheap hostel. The excitement of being around other young travellers has begun to taper off. There have been several days blending together of unlabeled wine in plastic bottles bought from kiosks and buckets of expensive American fried chicken. We’ve danced in the kitchen while pasta overcooks on the flimsy gas stove and I have been scolded by the owner of the building for venturing up a ladder to a dark hallway full of old carpet and dusty torsos of forgotten mannequins. I joke that perhaps I’ve fallen in love everyday at this place.
A Greek voice comes over an intercom,
“have some respect!, It is quite hours.”
“fuck that its happy hour in America”, says one my new friends. It is 3pm, siesta time in Athens and here we are sitting with 2 liter bottles of Bulgarian wine and two out of tune guitars playing alongside a bluetooth speaker. As terrified as I am about insulting a cultural norm I do end up telling myself “well I did pay for this place.” The woman who runs the hostel says to me every night, “you leave tomorrow Joshua”. Her tone is authoritative but I have come to the conclusion that she is simply asking me a question. Maybe I live here now.
The format of every new hostel conversation has become stale. I crave consistency and even found some with a few rowdy Americans from New Jersey and also with a trio of lovely Australian girls.The problem is I have spent an unordinary amount of time in a place that is intended for brief stays. A group will form here and then fizzle away as everyone moves along with their trips. But I am left in this chair with no energy to be part of a new nightly party crowd.
Jason has followed the Australians to the islands until Tuesday and yesterday I broke my self-imposed rule to never leave the hostel. I figured I would go mad if I sat in the chair much longer obsessing over shallow analogies of what it means to exist at this cluttered corner table. A girl gave me a ticket to the Acropolis (20 euro value). I walked the 3km up the hill to the main entrance of the site. It felt like a theme park. At the gate a woman scanned my ticket and said, “no good”. It seems the ticket had been used and would not scan. I argued with her for several minutes and went as far as to cook up a story about how I bought the ticket yesterday but had to help a friend to the hospital who had slipped on the steep marble leading up to the gate. She just said, “ok, still no good.” Behind me was a ticket office and a line with hundreds of people fanning themselves and drinking yellow slushies in a miserable manner. I walked around aimlessly listening to Tom Waits on my headphones. Forty feet to the left of the entrance was a stroller storage room and a fence. I figured the risk of being escorted away by Greek police officers was certainly worth the 20 euro and time standing cattle-like in a line. So I hopped the fence. Many people waiting in line saw me do this and as I glanced back I could notice people talking in a revolutionary tone. Maybe I would look towards the crowd on my way up the mountain and there would be a crowd of families shoving their kids over the fence, tumbling over clunky dslr cameras and then scattering into the crowd on the steps. But no one seemed to care about me so I went along exploring the ancient structures at the top.
The womans voice came over the intercom, “Joshua! You need to pick up the blue telephone”. I realize I have been here long enough to now be receiving phone calls on the landline. It is our mechanic from down the street,
“Yes, Joshua, I have the parts for Jason’s bike, will you come in Tuesday morning at 10?”
I knew two things about Albania before crossing the border. The first being it was Albania who dropped the first cobalt bomb in Nevil Schute’s nuclear apocalyptic masterpiece “On The Beach” and the second from a touring cyclist’s blog that there were packs of bloodthirsty dogs roaming the Albanian countryside. The one thing I have been dwelling on since leaving Italy is the threat of dogs. It seems every time I hear a sheep’s bell or gaze up a long dirt driveway I am filled with terror. I was chased by three packs of dogs in Albania, the last of which chased us both all the way to the foot of the guard station on the Greek border.
“It must be something about those yellow panniers”, said Jason.
I considered that as I told him about earlier in the day when a pack of sheepdogs abandoned their flock to come snack on this tasty American. Their collaboration was brilliant. Clearly, the strongest was out in front but I thought for sure he could not make it up the hill leading to the steel highway guard rail. I even slowed down in this confidence. It seems Albanian sheep dogs are not an animal to doubt. This muscular and white boy flesh starved beast raced his way up the hill and began running alongside the guard rail at 30 plus km an hour. The adrenaline allowed me to pump those pedals harder than I thought possible and then even harder with every glance towards my right. In maybe 200 meters I could see the guard rail tapering off and there was a gap in the road where I was certain these dogs would eat me and from the look of the pack leader, possibly the steel frame of my bike as well. I approached the gap and possibly said a quick prayer to something or maybe just cursed loudly. I heard a loud smack and looked over at this poor bored vicious dog 3 feet in the air and doing a sort of corkscrew front flip into the ditch maybe 20 feet below the road. It seems his face caught a piece of steel sticking out of the rail and now his legs were stiff in the air and blood was shooting from between its eyes while it spun the first revolution. I pedaled harder in my victory. It felt like a Bond car chase and I wish so badly I had something witty to tell you I yelled back towards that damn dog, but I kept moving as the rest of the pack was still on its way and there was no telling what they would do to me when they saw what became of their fallen comrade. I rode on feeling quite bad for the little fucker, he may well have killed himself in that chase. For the rest of the afternoon I considered my dog strategy. Perhaps a combination of a big stick, an air horn and a can of pepper spray will be much better than trying to outrun these animals.
“Don’t give them what they want.” I tell myself a few hours later as I’m running for the Greek border guards 100 yards ahead with four Albanian strays barking and nipping at my yellow panniers.
There’s a bit of unrest going on in my stomach, it could be from the gas station hose water or the mystery one euro kebab we found on the side of the highway. Anyway, Greece is treating us well and I will tell you what I tell every resident of every country I visit, a thumbs up and a smile paired with “(insert country) is the best!”
Today Jason was taming a street kitten with bits of granola and old bananas at a graffitied country bus stop and I fell asleep. I had a dream we were a few miles up the road in Turkey during the coup detat. We were crossing the bridge into Istanbul and a soldier stopped us and said, “hey look, Josh look!” I woke up from the spider infested bus bench and here was Jason holding this tiny cat in one of his hands and laughing.
“I trained this cat while you were asleep”.
It was amazing, this brave little Greek cat, no longer afraid of us just because of some old bananas. Jason toyed with the idea of bringing the cat around the world and went as far as to run bungee cords through a cardboard box and ride circles around the highway with the cat and a soaked bandana packed inside the box. It seemed the poor thing would die from the heat in that box so he decided to leave it and we moved along down and further into Greece.
Croatia has me taking my pants off. Since we entered this heat I have been biking in just my bike tights. I’ve always made fun of people who wore these things, but damn is it liberating and I feel I’ve earned it. A certain confidence has set in now that we have surpassed 4000km. I am much more comfortable prancing into a market in my tights and smelling like feet and saying to the lady behind the deli counter, “Hello, yes, one chicken please.”
Recently I was run off the road by a car, I hit a rock and the jolt sent my phone out my front bag in what seemed like slow motion and under the tires of a semi truck. As I tried to get out into the road to retrieve it another car ran it over, all I could do was laugh in my defeat. I really do not need a phone for this trip, the gps was quite helpful when stuck in these labrythns they call european cities but what I miss most about that lovely piece of hardware was the music I had on it. A soundtrack to go along with a long coastal downhill beats any drug I can think of. After a few days of separation anxiety from my tunes I decided to break out the old school clip on dial radio. Here I have decided to review the Croatian radio stations I’ve recieved in the north. I cannot cite the specific frequencies (because of the dial) but it seems there are five stations that come in for me.
Top of the dial:
Pop radio-Not much more pleasant than the sound of being passed by a pack of Ducatis.
Two clicks down:
Mexican restaurant station-Its in spanish, its wonderful and has few commecials. Comes in well when passing around the corner of a cape and seems to make a great soundtrack for the thought of being run off the side of a cliff by a semi and into the crystal clear rocky water.
Halfway down the dial:
Experimental organ music station-For the past few days this channel has been nothing but abrasive organ music with people talking over it. Sometimes someone is talking in Italian and a man is translating over the italian in croatian. Great for climbing a mountain in the sun.
3/4 down the dial:
Nice mix- I heard Tom Waits earlier on this followed immediately by “I’m coming out so you better get this party started”. Best in the mornings and evenings, midday is just dead air.
Just before the bottom:
Gogol Bordelo station– All sorts of cool gypsy style punk in the mornings. Later on is Croatian rap and the occasional reggaeton track. Sometimes this station plays what sounds like russian choir music, its a station that for some reason makes me miss my comrades back in Florida.
Another crap pop music channel which comes in better than all the other stations combined.
Music is important out here, especially when you spend five to seven hours in the saddle doing the same stupid motion with your legs. It gets you up the mountains, through this crazy heat and gives you the confidence to leave the brakes alone while cruising down a steep road.
ps. Leave any music suggestions in the comments please. (I’m picking up a new phone in Athens)
The following is a transcript of an interview I had with Jason after dinner somewhere in the woods.
Here he answers a few of the questions we often hear.
How long will this take you?
“We plan on taking about a year and a half to two years to do this.”
Where do you sleep?
“We sleep in the woods on the side of road hidden in the trees, hopefully not get caught.”
What do you eat?
“I eat food, what do you eat? But lately I eat cold ravioli, bread, meat, cheese and the occasional bottle of wine.”
How far do you go in a day?
“We usually do 60 miles or around 100 km. It depends on the terrain or if we run into cool people who want to hang out. Do you have a hot tub at your house?”
Are you independently wealthy?
“Yeah, I’m loaded…I worked my ass off for the past year or so to do this, so just enough money to fuel my body and afford a bottle of wine or beer every once in a while.”
What about the oceans?
“Honestly, just fill up the tires with some extra air, get a running start and skip across the water.”
Do you have a blog?
“Yes, absolutely. Let me get you a sticker, its called Rollingtheearth.com”
Would you like me to buy you a beer?
Where are you from?
“Uh, it all depends on who’s asking, but originially Cleveland, Ohio. Go Cavs.
Do you get any flats?
“Would you believe it if I told you I haven’t had one. I was expecting to at this point but I haven’t. Thats one thing I would have liked to have been able to say with a serious face on my cross America trip.”
Are you guys brothers?
“Nah, we’re cousins.
Is it hard?
“Compared to… yeah it’shard, but compared to the “real” world it is easy. Going uphill all day is difficult but its worth it when you get up there and have views of oceans, cliffs or forests, its worth it. But you have to earn everything, in order to get to the downhill and feel like you are on a motorcycle you have to suffer, in order for that Coke to taste so good you have to chug hot water up that hill. But its easy in the sense that I am happy all the time. You simplify your life to a couple bags on the back of your bike and then ride it all day you start to appreciate small things you might otherwise take for granted. My only job is to ride a bicycle all day.”
Do you share a tent?
“Only when I’m really lonely. No, but I have a two MAN tent just in case.”
“Yep, but I quit all the time right before I go to bed.”
Are you worried about Donald Trump?
“Nah, I love him. But if he does become president I’m Canadian, look, check out this little pin I have on my frontbag.”
Here I am drinking my second bottle of wine on a little hill overlooking a vineyard and in the background the sun is setting over a mountain and the lights of the wind turbines are blinking on the top of the hills. “There cannot be any better way to live,” I say to Jason.
I suppose this would be a good time to talk about stealth camping or in French (and sounding way cooler) camping sauvage. As of now I have spent a month on bicycle in Europe without losing a euro towards lodging and I guarantee the views we have had outdo any hostel bed the world has to offer. We have slept on hills over vineyards, on beaches, in abandoned hotels, and on the bank of the Rhone river (but also unfortunately once in a bog behind a sewage treatment plant, thank god for wine!)
A good stealth spot only requires a few features:
1st- An inconvenience, just pass a nice thorn patch is perfect. No police officer is going to walk up and over a thorny hill in the night to run you off and
2nd- A nice view.
We found a good campsite nestled on the side of a mountain in a new growth forest then made a fire and decided the next day we would take a zero in the woods. I slept most of the day, woke up, read a book, ate some ravioli, slept some more, threw rocks at trees with Jason, got the fire going again, took turns winding the radio, listened to music till it got dark then read some more and slept. Not a bad life and it only cost me three cans of ravioli, a bottle of wine and four cigarettes.
Tonight we camped along the Rhone, a tan field of some kind of grain is behind us with a full moon rising over it and in front a sun setting over the river has triggered a nice shade of purple and orange to appear beneath the rising moon. The station on Jason’s radio is playing a Paul Simon marathon and for some reason cold cheap ravioli tastes incredible and even after 120 km my legs feel fine.
Jason left the table for the restroom but shortly reappeared back in the hallway. “Hey Josh, are we homies?..or…”. At first it seemed as if he just needed some reassurance before using the restroom. The girls began laughing.
“Yeah man, of course we’re homies”
“Ok, cool just checking.”
The men’s room is labeled “hombres”. But here we are in Burela, a small port town in the north of Spain. The wonderful Kaptain Kirsten is hosting us and it is hard to find much to complain about. We took showers, passed a bottle of wine back and forth on the beach, jumped in the frigid yet clear blue ocean, went out to dinner and ate a plateful of pulpo. I woke up the next morning next to an empty bottle of Dewars and a pair of numb feet. Turns out stinging nettle can cause numbness.
We stayed another night and continued, Dewars, ocean, staying up till morning, making lots of noise in this tiny apartment across the street from a nursing home. In the morning Jason had left. I figured he had a few hours on me. After a few cups of coffee and some eggs I forced myself back onto the road and out of this state that I suppose this post is about: distraction.
For a few minutes I had forgotten I was biking around the world, I had forgotten I was in Spain. I was back in Tallahassee at a house party and extremely comfortable. Now I’m back in the saddle sweating up a mountain and blowing a bug out of my nose. This balance is important, blending the suffering that comes with biking several days through cold rain with an evening chugging scotch on a ferris wheel with friends. I very easily could have stayed there in Burela, found a gig teaching English and shoved the panniers in a closet somewhere.
The moment I got back on the bike I was cruising down some of the most beautiful winding cliffside coastal road I have ever seen and within 75 km Burela became a pleasant but distant memory. I camped alone that night wondering where my homie was and read my book under a dying headlamp. In the morning I passed through Luarca, a small “Zelda” village in a valley. I rode up around the harbor which was tucked in between weathered rock and littered with fifty different brightly colored fishing boats. The silence of the town was in a way unnerving and for a moment I imagined I was the only person on the planet. I thought to myself, “maybe I will do this forever”.
I pushed hard for the rest of the afternoon not expecting to see Jason till maybe San Sebastian where we plan on changing direction towards the Mediterranean. Our two-ways were dead so there would be no way to contact each other except for over wifi. I came over a hill and saw him sliding a shopping cart across a parking lot towards his bike. The alone time was wonderful but who knows where a few more days of cycling solo would have led me.
I started the morning in the quiet foggy town of Luarca and ended my day with a panicked drunken escape from the town of Aviles riding pass flaming smokestacks and constantly scanning over my shoulder for our friend Robert or “Ro-Barret” as he pronounced it. A character which as Jason puts it we performed the Dip-Slip on. There must be something to these moments of peace and absolute chaos that I am addicted to. Pardon the cheap metaphor, but it seems as if everything is reduced to suffering on the uphills just to enjoy the cruise down the other side.