Thursday, October 31, 2013

Hopping on a Plane

This is everything all packed and ready to go
From the beginning of my trip I knew that my intention was not to actually cycle all the way around the world.  In order to do that I would have had to start from the beginning and plan my route entirely different.  I had heard great things about cycling through Central Asia and read plenty of blogs from cyclists who had done it, but bureaucracy and extreme weather conditions make it more complicated and discouraging.  You have to time your trip so that you don’t hit winter while going through the desert, yet on either side, the climate and weather needs to be manageable as well.  Plus, having a passport from the United States throws in another hurdle as many times we require more official letters and approvals than other countries. 

My late summer start was not ideal for making my way across Central Asia and I was intent on working a full season for Thomson Bike Tours.  I also knew that if I waited to leave Barcelona until the end of August, I would be able to visit schools just as the school year started.  It wasn’t the safety necessarily that worried me in these countries for a solo female traveler, because honestly I think I would have been welcomed with open arms, but the isolation factor in case I needed help with my bike (obviously I need to improve my bike mechanic skills!).

Halil at Delta Bisiklet helped me get my bike all ready to go

However, the closer I got to Istanbul, the more unsettling the idea became of hopping on a plane.  Here I had cycled for over two months to reach 5,600 kilometers, and reached another continent, and now I was going to hop on a plane and go about 8,000 kilometers in a day!  It didn’t seem possible to me.  I kept thinking about everything that I was going to miss in between. My bike has been my loyal and only means of transportation for the past 2 months and the idea of taking a plane was disheartening.  I suppose the arrival back home in Barcelona of a fellow world bike traveler also influenced my last minute change of mind. Rodamon, made it around the globe on bike without skipping over any areas and cycling through 5 continents and almost 40,000 kilometers.

The morning I set off to Istanbul, I had this epiphany and I was 99% convinced that I could change all my plans, cancel my flight, process visas in Istanbul and just do it!   Physically, I knew I was capable of the challenge, even though the terrain would be more difficult than anything I had encountered so far.  When I arrived in Istanbul the idea was so present in my mind, I actually spent the entire afternoon looking into the logistics of changing my route.  I’m the type of person that gets overwhelmed easily with too many choices, which is ironic because traveling on bike, you have more choices than traveling by any other sort of means of transportation. By the time the evening rolled around, my head was spinning and I was beginning to feel nauseous. 

All of a sudden I was reminded about why I was doing my trip and what it meant for me.  I had dreamed of doing a long distance trip and I thought originally to cross the United States from east to west or vice versa.  However, this seemed like a foolish idea because I was located in Europe and so was my bike.  This is when I started thinking about how I could get from my current home, Barcelona, to my native home, Oregon, on bike, passing through some places that I found interesting and exciting to visit when the weather was at its peak for traveling.  New Zealand and Tasmania were on my list, exploring SE Asia, and also getting to know the National Parks in the western United States and Canada.  This is how I put my itinerary together for my trip as well as looking at the distances and the weather patterns for each of the regions. 

Next I took into consideration the teaching element because I knew I wanted to combine some sort aspect of teaching and working with kids during my trip.  I was hesitant on taking a sabbatical because, YES, I really enjoy my job that much! I didn’t want to be out of the classroom for a year or two.  Kids give me energy; we have the same level of curiosity and passion for living, doing, and exploring.  I love being around them and growing with them.  I’m also keen on discovering different teaching pedagogies to grow professional.  Therefore, the thought of being away from the school environment was daunting.  I didn’t know exactly how the teaching element of my trip would transpire and in fact at the time of my departure, I had one school visit organized, through a former colleague and friend at BFIS, who was now at The American School of Milan. 

As my mind was spinning that evening with the idea of canceling my flight and attempting the entire journey on bike, I was finally able to ground myself when I remembered what my trip was all about.  I admit I am a competitive person and therefore I never hesitate to sign up for some sort of crazy sport challenge.  But this year wasn’t about racing around the world and cycling through every country and continent.  I really would like to be home by next October and have some “down time” with my family for a couple of months.  The idea of visiting my family and friends back home in Oregon for a few months without any sort of obligations, are incredibly enticing. 

However, I know very well, that after a few months in Oregon, I will want to hop back on my bike and cycle some more.  I will have to wait for the following school year to start anyway to be back in the classroom, so you can guess what I might do to pass the months.  So yes, I am hopping on a plane now and headed over to Hong Kong.  Wish me luck, I don’t know what I was thinking buying my plane ticket into and island nation made up of bridges, tunnels, and ferries, that in no way seems “bike friendly”.  I accept my decision because I know in the back of my mind; there will be a part 2 to this bike journey, which answers a question I am asked frequently. “What will you do when you are done with this trip?”  I know a lot can happen between now and next October, but ideally after a my loong way home, there are several other regions in the world that I am skipping over now that I would like to explore on bike….so perhaps there will be The Loong Way Back as well!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Wandering the Streets of Istanbul: Active Recovery

Flags line the streets and above for Republic Day, October 29th

For the last 10 weeks or so, Istanbul has been on my mind.  It was my final destination for the European portion of my trip.  I’ve been twice and so I wasn’t dying to see anything particular, for me, it was merely a means to an end!  Therefore, since I entered Turkey ahead of schedule, I decided I would like to spend my time exploring some of the rural areas along the Marmara Sea rather than Istanbul.

I’m not a “big city” type of person.  Barcelona is a “small” big city and manageable, but Istanbul is huge, it spans two continents, and is linked by ferries and immense bridges. The thought of navigating this city on a bike gave me nightmares prior to arriving.  Although Genova and Tirana prepared me well, finding my way through Istanbul was no easy task.  I got off the ferry Monday at noon from Yalova, in Yenikapi, and had to make my way over to the Galata Bridge, cross it, and ride up the Bosphorus to Ortakoy, where I was to leave my bike for my school visit in a day.  Looking back, at this moment, I should have been celebrating my arrival to my destination, the closing of my Europe route. But navigating the streets of Istanbul and the logistics of where to leave my bike and how to arrive at the school visits occupied my thoughts.  The route to school was only about 12 kilometers, but the ride took me a good hour and a half!

Kebabs galore

Istanbul is like an enormous Tirana.  There are traffic lights, but they aren’t always obeyed, motor scooters weave in and out, cars accelerate quickly and always have the right away, and pedestrians cross streets whenever and wherever they please.  Throw in no shoulders on the roads and crowded sidewalks, and you begin to wonder why Istanbul is the destination for so many bike tourers, when it is such an unfriendly bike city! By the time I reached the school and left my bike off, I had little desire to go out and battle the world again and sightsee.  I was a bit over-stimulated by all the sights and sounds and used that afternoon to research some logistics and update my website. The next morning, I continued to work in the morning and left at about noon to start to explore the city.  Like I said, I didn’t have anything planned for the day.  I wanted to explore the Ortakoy neighborhood where I was staying, walk down to Taksim Square, and see where the day took me.  Prior to my arrival, I thought I would treat myself to a Hamam while in Istanbul.  In my previous visits to the city, I hadn’t, and if 5,612 kilometers isn’t worthy of a Turkish Bath, then I don’t know what is!  However, I couldn’t be bothered to research a Hamam on the internet and try to find it, I preferred a mindless day of sightseeing. 
Police out in full force

Proud Turks

I walked for a good two hours, through the streets making my way down to Taksim Square.  I had to see for myself what was going on at this infamous location today.  I happened to arrive in Istanbul on Republic Day, the 29th of October, and this year was the 90th anniversary of the republic, so it was a big deal! Turks are awfully proud of their country, but this week even more so with the national holiday.  But with the recent protests and unrest, police were out in full force all over the city! There were busloads of them stationed every 50 meters with huge guns, plastic barriers, and tear gas devices.  They were prepared for any sort of rioting.

At this point in my day, I was pretty content with my decision to sight seeing and meander, having no specific plans.  Istanbul is a great city to wander.  It is vibrant, chaotic, and boisterous, yet engaging and friendly.  For being a national holiday, every store, cafe, and restaurant was open, bursting with people.  I sampled more of the same foods and a few different items, eating my last baklava, dried fruits, trying one of their delicious stuffed baked potatoes with a yogurt drink. 

I worked my way down to the Galata Bridge and wouldn’t you know, I stumbled upon a Hamam for ladies.  I believe this wasn’t a coincidence, but rather fate! I didn’t think twice, I entered, looked at the price list, and paid for the full service Hamam, which included a bath, scrub, massage, and soap massage.  I usually don’t treat myself to these types of things, but this was a special occasion—a 5,216 kilometer special occasion.

The Hamam was such an impromptu situation that I hadn’t brought a change of clothes, bathing suit, or toiletries.  There is no time for modesty when you’ve got the opportunity to go to a Turkish Bath.  But you see, I don’t even go to the beach in Barcelona because all the women are so beautifully tanned and then there is me, with brown and white bike markings!  Today though, I could have cared less.  The thought of getting bathed and scrubbed and having a massage sent tears of joy to my eyes.  

For a split second I was worried they wouldn’t have conditioner or hair gel to tame my curly afro afterwards, but heck, that didn’t even stop me!  I entered the bath after a women took my hand and showed me through the door.  I wasn’t really sure what to do because there were women getting bathed, women bathing themselves, and some just sitting and relaxing.  This was all new to me, I don’t even go to saunas,….I just really don’t to well with the whole sitting still thing. 

For the first 5 or 10 minutes I just observed trying to figure out how it all worked. As I waited for my turn, I sat in the baths and watched the Turkish women bathe other clients.  I wondered which poor lady was going to have to bathe me.  I’d probably get an extra scrub down because they might think my tan lines are dirt.  I was getting so excited to get bathed and clean, you can’t even imagine!

Thumbs up to this Hamam for ladies

When my turn came, again a lady took me by the hand over to the warm stone where I laid.  I thought they escorted you by hand because of the language barrier, but it is actually for the slippery floor!  It didn’t really matter that the lady giving me a bath didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Turkish because they just pat your bum to turn over, and take your hand to walk you to and from the water.  I felt like I needed to excuse myself with my awful tan lines and so I said the usual “biciklet” and made the pedaling actions and she smiled,….I don’t really know if she got it, but she did do a good job scrubbing, especially in all those hard to reach places.  I’ve done pretty well for being able to shower almost every night on my trip, but when someone else bathes you, it’s almost like you feel sterilized afterwards.  In fact, I probably could have used a second full service Hamam just to make sure I was really clean, but that will have to wait for Asia, where, although they don’t have the baths or spa’s necessarily, they have incredibly cheap massages!

Bomb squad getting ready

To my surprise the sun was still out when I finished and so I continued walking the streets of the more modern part of Istanbul.  Like I said police, were everywhere, but soon I stumbled upon a location that was taped off.  There was a police van and a man getting dressed in an astronaut-like outfit, and from what I was observing, it looked like the bomb squad had been called in due to a bomb threat.  Funny thing is, the entire taped off area was only about 50 meters long and 10 wide, so if it was indeed a bomb, they weren’t worried it was a big one!  I had never seen so much heavily duty and serious police gear.  This guy seemed to know what he was doing because I didn’t stick around long enough to watch, but as I started walking away I heard a small explosion, a bit of silence, and then noise and life continued as normal.  I guess he was able to detonate it safely.

Just after hitting up the typical souvenir stores to buy post cards, I came across a young women in the road with one pannier on a road bike and some gear on top of the back rack. She didn’t look Turkish, but she also wasn’t very loaded down with weight so I asked her in English if she was a bike courier or a tour cyclist.  To my surprise, there wandering the streets of Istanbul, I met the first solo cyclist I have ever seen, Liz.  I know we weren’t really out riding on the road, but to randomly bump into each other on the streets of a city inhabited by 13.5 million people plus tourists is pretty amazing!  And what is even more fascinating is that we have the same bike, just rigged differently, and both started in Spain. Liz had gone from Santander, Spain to Istanbul and was just hanging out until her flight on the weekend.  Just as if we had found each other on the road riding, we pulled off to the side and chatted to share experiences. 

To finish off my afternoon, I walked down to the spice market, a sight that never gets old, no matter how many times you visit.  I awe at the way the stalls display the Turkish Delight, dried fruit, and spices.  There is an art to their presentation of food that fortunately makes you just want to look and not actually buy anything, as to not disturb the beautiful display.  I had my afternoon snack sampling sweets at the different stalls, and washed it down with more tea, which is probably why I’m still writing my blog post and not sleeping!

The fireworks were great, but the people taking pictures and videos with the mobiles were even more amusing

I made my way back up the Bosphorus river to the neighborhood I’m staying in time to see a spectacular firework display to celebrate Republic Day.  Walking, wandering, and exploring; it was the perfect way to spend a rest day in Istanbul.  Tomorrow I have a school visit in the morning and then I fly out the following afternoon.  I know I could have made better time of my stay in Istanbul, or even stayed longer, but I have a feeling I’ll be back.  I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of Turkey and all that this country offers in terms of outdoor tourism. I’ll find a good excuse to come back!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Reality of Riding as a Solo Female Tour Cyclist

To others, I know I look strange, but this is my normal daily gig, loaded bike and all!
When I first set out to do this trip, I really didn’t think I would do it on my own.  I had the idea in my head, but I thought that someone would sign-up with me.  But as I’ve said in a previous post, people are reluctant to take an entire year off from work, and those who do probably wouldn’t spend it traveling around the world on bike.  As crunch time approached and I needed to make a decision about the upcoming school year, I bit the bullet and decided to do my trip, on my own.  My friends in Barcelona supported me 100% and were incredibly encouraging.  My family took a bit longer to come around, but eventually were able to handle the idea.

When I explain my trip, previous to departing and currently, the most frequently asked questions is, alone?  The one word isn’t really even a question, it is more of a statement in a tone of voice that makes me sound like a crazy, foolish, or even a weird person.  For some reason, we have this idea in our minds that women can’t and shouldn’t travel on their own.  Safety is usually the number one argument against solo female travelers. However, I would have to argue that traveling alone on bike as a young lady is surprisingly safer than people think, although the extra attention can get a bit old.  Perhaps this is a bias opinion as I’ve never met another solo female cyclist on or off the road, You be the judge after reading what it is like to be a female cyclist out on the road alone.

In Turkey, I try to be a bit more discrete drying my clean underwear on my front pannier

Bike travelers all around the world, but still, it is a sight that shocks a lot of people--- a person traveling with what looks to be a dreadfully heavy bike, fully loaded with bags attached all over the frame it is hard to see the actual bike that is underneath all the bags.  They might look awfully dusty, parched, grimy, or exhausted, but they usually have a smile on their face if you make eye contact.  Usually, tour cyclists come in pairs, and if not, they are men, that is normal.  But add a blonde curly pony tail to the above image, and a pair of clean underwear always hanging off her front pannier, and it turns into an incredibly unique, “once-in-a lifetime” event alongside the road.  Or at least that is how I feel as a solo female cyclist as I get stared down on my bike.  I can pretty much guarantee that I am bound to turn heads as I cycle pass a group of people along the side of the road, or even an individual strolling along.  With 99% of the cars that pass me from behind, someone always turns their head inside to get a double take of the sight they just saw on the road.  With cars that pass me head on, the same thing happens, but usually there is a honk or a holler to accompany. 

I get a lot of honks, as I’m sure most cyclists do on the side of the road.  Honks come in all different shapes and sizes, but the honks that I’m sure the men don’t get are the ones I’ve started to receive most recently in Turkey, which basically mean “I’m honking because I’m horny”.  I just have to laugh because I think in my mind, what do these men think I’m going to do stop pedaling and strike up a conversation on the road,..a from a few honks?  I’m no good at flirting myself, but a honk just doesn’t cut it for me!  I don’t let their gestures bother me, I usually laugh to myself and with a big smile on my face, I wave back, hoping they won’t forget the sight they just saw, a women traveling on her own.

Other men have been a bit more creative let’s just say with their intentions to “pick up” me up literally.  Yesterday I passed a car alongside the road, a small white VW gulf, or something similar.  It stuck out in my mind because the doors were open and the man was looking around inside for something.  He off on the right shoulder and so I had to go out in the lane of traffic to pass him.  I didn’t think much of him stopping.  However, 2 kilometers down the road he stopped again and was doing the same thing, car in the shoulder, doors open, including the trunk, and this time he was looking at me.  Okay, he’s a little obnoxious, but harmless.  Well, 5 kilometers further down the road, he had stopped again.  I could see him off in the distance, and so I decided to give him a bit of attention, hoping that would be enough to send him on his way.  Again all the doors were open and as I approached he gestured with his hand to come over to his car.  He was a younger man, probably my age or so, dressed in jeans and a collared shirt.  In pretty good English, he asked me where I had come from and where I was going.  What a coincidence, he was going to the same place.  We chatted a bit about my trip, my job, and his children. Eventually, as I suspected, he asked me if I wanted a ride because I looked tired.  Again, I laughed to myself and told him I was happy pedaling.  His last bit of advice before I started pedaling ironically was to be careful because Turkish men are horny!  Being the innocent, good-natured young lady that I am, I gave him a little business card for The Loong Way Home so he could feel special, said good-bye, and once again set off on my ride.  He passed me slowly, waving, and kept on driving.  Was I scared, no! Did he look creepy? No! I just wanted to pedal in peace and not be bothered.  I’m not the type of person to have small talk on a freeway, unless it’s another tour cyclist. 

Just as I sighed in relief that I had rid myself of him, his car was pulled over, for the fourth time, 5 kilometers down the road.  There he was on the side of the road standing behind the doors that were all open again!  This time, I was a little more direct as I passed him.  I smiled, and gave a short wave and carried on.  He smiled back and that was about it.  I started to wonder why the open doors?  Why was he still following me and stopping?  No, I wasn’t worried, or scared, but rather confused and suspicious.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought I was going to pull over and say, “Yeah, can I go with you in your car, I’m tired of riding my bike!”  Well, on the fifth time he stopped, I looked at him long enough to figure out to realized why he pulled over and got out of his car every 5 kilometers and opened all the doors.  When he warned me about Turkish men being horny, he really needed to include himself.  I won’t go into detail here, but you can use your imagination.

Would you believe me if I told you the same thing happened with a truck driver about 10 kilometers further on down the road?  With this driver, he only stopped twice, both times trying to “fix” something on the back of his truck, and when he finally passed me the third time his honking sounded like a full on orchestra! As you can see, it goes both ways out here on the road.  The people I encounter easily entertain me, and I guess I also give them plenty of entertainment!

That’s not all the entertainment I get riding on the main highway.  When there are no towns around, the only places to stop for food and to use the bathroom is a gas station or a truck stop.  Now there is a sight to see,….a solo female cyclist pulling up to a gas station/truck stop in Turkey!  Women are such a rarity at these places that there is actually toilet paper in the women’s bathroom, which is a luxury!  A lot of heads turn as I ride up, followed by snickering, stares, and more stares.  However, I’ve learned that if you smile back or break the ice with a few words like Barcelona, Istanbul, and some hand gestures showing them your arm muscles, or patting your legs, they usually laugh and turn out to be quite friendly and harmless!

A melon stand at just the right time and place

When I am riding on the small back roads, I have a more intimate experience with the locals.  Both yesterday and today I found myself with pretty low blood sugar and needed a little boost.  However, there weren’t any towns around for miles, and my emergency food just wasn’t going to cut it.  Yesterday I happened to ride upon a local fruit stand selling melons and gourds.  The latter didn’t interest me, but the melons sounded delicious.  I stopped, ready to buy one, and before I could even ask, the man had pulled out a chair for me, gave me ice cold water and started cutting melon slices.  When I finished my little snack and asked to buy one, he would have nothing of it and gave me an entire bag.  Melons, are not light you light, even the small ones, but I couldn’t be rude, so off I rode with an extra 2 or 3 kilos!  

Olive pickers come ot the rescue 4 kilometers from Zeytinbagi, Turkey

Today, I completely bonked with a town only 4 kilometers away, but I just could pedal anymore.  I was going to stop to indulge in some of my dried fruit but what I really needed was a Coke.   I saw a family by the side of the road picking olives and I stopped to ask them if the following town had a restaurant.  They must have seen the thirst in my eyes, and read my mind.  They invited me to their house for a drink, Cola Coke (backwards in Turkey) no less!

Hotels, especially in Turkey are incredibly accommodating to solo female cyclists.  In fact, to tell you the truth, I don’t think women go to hotels in Turkey without being accompanied by a man.  So I felt like a guest of honor or a famous person from the moment I entered (and let me tell you, I’m not going to the three and four star hotels)!  The staff, needless to say men, who are working the door and reception, come right over and take my panniers for me and even lift my bike up the stairs or wheel it into the reception, after allowing me to pass through the doorway first, of course. Lots of times they will even escort me to a restaurant or two and introduce me to their friend so I get VIP service.  My first night in Turkey, the man at the reception kept bringing me cups of tea as I sat in the lobby working on my computer.  He eventually started getting a bit concerned I was staying awake so late and suggested I get some sleep.  He was quite a gentleman and sincere.  I was pretty sure the hotel was empty, as I hadn’t seen many people in the halls or the reception.  Yet the next morning, to my surprise, when I went to the lobby for breakfast, it was filled with men eating, reading the paper, and watching TV.  They all greeted me in my bike outfit, with a big smile saying “Mademoiselle”.  For some odd reason, they all seemed to know who I was. The only solo female client they’ve probably ever had just happens to be riding a bike from Barcelona.  This is a sight they will probably never see again in their lives.

I've camped in the wild once, although I've made good attempts two other times, the locals just don't let me!

If I’m not at a hotel or an official campsite, well, you know what happens when I try to free camp as a solo female cyclist.  I look for places that aren’t too remote and I politely ask if there is a camping close by or a place I can pitch my tent.  So far, 2 out of 3 attempts have failed and I end up staying with a local family! I think the family is more worried for me than I am of myself. 

I’ve gotten used to this solo traveling.  Five years ago, coming out of a long term relationship with a guy who didn’t share a lot of my interests, I was eager to start doing the activities I had longed to do while with him.  I wanted to hike, travel to the mountains, bike, and nobody was going to stop me!  I have plenty of wonderful girlfriends, but sometimes I can scare them because they think I’m so extreme with my passion for sports.  But to tell you the truth, I just have an incredible amount of energy and so when other people are tired and ready to call it a day, I’ve just warmed up and I’m feeling strong! 

I’m not going to wait around for a guy to come and ask me to go and cycle the world. I mean really, how likely is that? I know many of you have tried setting me up with sporty friends or yours and ultra athletes, all with good intentions, but that has yet to work.  You worry about me being out on the road by myself, I know.  As you can see, there are all sorts of different reactions and interactions among those who encounter me on the road.  Sometimes the stares, honks, and attempted flirting can get old but at the end of the day, I must say, I am grateful for the respect people have when they take the time to interact with me. Most of the time, their curiosity and interest results in sincere gestures and they go out of their way to make sure I am well taken care of. Their acts of kindness make me feel safe, comfortable, and accompanied, even though I am out here on my own. 

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Turkish Delight!

Helping hands to pitch my tent

I had made a bet to myself (and to a few other friends) that I would try sleeping in a mosque and improve my wild camping skills.  With this in my mind, I knew that I had some interesting and entertaining stories coming in Turkey.

I crossed the border close to Feres, Greece, some how I managed ride on the toll road again for this crossing but the guards were so intrigued by a solo female cyclists they could have cared less which road I was using.  The terrain was flat, but without any mountains in sight, there was an incredible headwind and I felt like I wasn’t advancing. The wind was so brutal, my first day in the country I didn’t make it nearly as far as I intended. Due to my frustration, I wasn’t in the  mood to experiment with wild camping or mosques, and so I opted for the easy alternative, a hotel.  I got royal treatment at Hotel Ubek in Kesan.  They greeting me with “Mademoiselle”, took my bike and panniers from me the moment I rolled up, continually filled my cup with tea, and escorted me to some good local restaurants.  I had definitely made the right choice my first night in Turkey.

My second day in Turkey, I decided to head down south and cross over to the Asian side of the Marmara Sea. The first 70 kilometers were flat, but from then on, I had relentless wind and hills.  My mind was occupied by the upcoming logistics upon my arrival in Istanbul so I hadn’t given much thought to where I would sleep.  With 130 kilometers in my legs, I was ready to call it a day.  I didn’t realize I had just passed the last biggest town about 8 kilometers ago and since I was too lazy to turn back, I kept my hopes up that I would find a small development of houses or a mosque where I could put my tent.  You see, a friend gave me the advice to ask familes if I could pitch my tent in their yard.  I had thought of doing this, but not until Australia or New Zealand, as I could explain myself better in my native language.  For those of you who know me, when I am given a challenge, I react!  I was determined to improve my wild camping skills.  You might think I’m crazy about trying to sleep in mosques, but the research I’ve done says they have special rooms for guests.  However, they fail to mention if women can use these special rooms, so I’m curious to find out! My experience can’t be any worse than trying to sleep in a monastery!

I pulled off the road when I saw a market at the start of what seemed to be a small neighborhood of houses.  I needed to restock on water if I was going to be camping.  Some local boys had seen me ride by and they came running over shouting the typical, “Hello, what’s your name?” excited to practice their English.  After buying my water, I tested their English skills and asked them if there was a park to put my tent, using hand gestures along with my one-word sentences.  They couldn’t understand me, nor could the mother, girls, and grandmother family who also just arrived.  Finally one of them called a friend who spoke a few more words of English and he translated on the phone for me.  It turns out there was a park close by and they all walked me there.

The park, which was right next to a mosque, consisted of a few play structures and a gazebo.  From what I understood, they told me I would be safe with my tent here.  I trusted their advice, and so I asked them, using the hand gesture to the mouth, where I could find a restaurant.  This was a more difficult question, as it seemed it was a few kilometers down the road.  I think the grandmother could see the disappointment and despair in my eyes, and so she pointed at herself and repeated, “restaurant” several times.  The girls by her side were so excited at the thought of a tourist joining them for dinner, and believe me, I was one happy tourist! I was going to eat dinner and get an early night to bed camping outside in the fresh air.

I put the local boys to work and had them help me put up my tent.  They were fascinated and I was feeling pretty confident about my forwardness to ask locals for help camping!  I was getting the hang of camping in the wild, well, sort of—I had asked a family if I could pitch my tent in their local park, which was only 20m from their house!  The ladies called me over with a frantic hand gesture, again saying “restaurant”, and I knew it was time for dinner.  I wheeled my bike with me, I trusted the boys, but my bike always comes with me!

A house full of women
I took off my smelly bike sandals to enter their house and they gave me slippers.  We understood each other enough so that I could use a room to change my clothes and I sat down on their couch.  This is when the fun began. My Turkish as you can imagine, well, I could hardly remember how to say thank you, which I learned that same morning. Only 2 of the girls spoke English, and it was very limited as well.

It turns out there were 3 generations all together in this house from 4 years old to fifty-five: a grandma, mom (actually younger than me) and her two daughters, and a niece. The two neighbor girls from above got word of the “touristic on biciklet” and also came down with their mom to meet me.  A house full of women, what a gathering we had. Again, I felt like the special guest of honor in their house.  They were so curious to know about me they couldn’t stop asking questions about my trip, the bike, and my family.  Having my phone helped as I showed them a lot of pictures while I explained what I was doing with two to three word sentences. 

My translators

Their dinner table consisted of a short small table they wheeled over to the sofas in the living room where we were all gathered. The only people who actually ate were the grandmother and myself.  I don’t know what I ate exactly, but it was some sort of beef soup, stuffed grape leaves, a potato and pea stew, and pickled eggplant.  I probably could have eaten more but we were all so engaged in our conversation (if you can actually call it that).  There was a lot of shouting (what sounded like gibberish I’m sure to any outsider who would have heard us), hand gestures, and drawings.  I desperately wanted to pull out my video camera in the midst of it all, but sometimes it’s moments like these that can only be recorded in your mind. 

By the end of dinner, it had been decided by them that I wasn’t going to sleep outside in my tent---that would be unheard of!  In fact all the girls were fighting over which bed I was going to use.  Each of them volunteered their bed and in the back of my mind I’m thinking, “Gosh,….. I’m disgusting! I’ve cycled 130 km in the dust, it has crusted on my sunscreen, and I smell.  Are you sure you want me to sleep in your bed?”   That goes to show you just how special they thought I was!

I probably should have spoken up or maybe just insisted that I sleep in my tent, because what I thought was going to be an “early-to-bed” night, ended up being a late night.  All the husbands of the ladies came home and I met and tried to talk with each of them.  I got a tour of their house and the neighbor’s house, we ate baklava and popcorn, watched a gathering at Mecca on TV, and had picture sessions galore!  At different points in the night they had all made calls to their friends to explain that there was a “touristic bicikleta” at their house.  I was enjoying myself and laughed a lot, but I was tired.  Towards the end of the night more yawns came out of my mouth than words and this is when the Grandma knew I needed to go to sleep.  Although they wanted me to stay for a few more days, I explained to them I had to get on the road early the next morning.  I said my good-byes to them and went upstairs to sleep at the neighbor’s house with her daughters.  I had an extra mattress and I felt like we were like sisters, sleeping together in the same room, one on the floor and the other in her bed.

The departure

I set my alarm for 9am.  That is late for me, but I didn’t want the other girls to have to get up too much earlier because I was sharing their room.  I never heard my alarm because at 8am the next morning, the other girls and mom came to wake us up.  They knew I was going to leave early and didn’t want to miss me.  I quickly changed, although, basically I slept in my cycling outfit except for my bike shorts and we waited together and talked while the moms prepared breakfast.  We ate on the floor, all gathered around a huge metal tray with a blanket underneath that served as our community “napkin”.  There was bread, butter, and jams, cheese, eggs, tomatoes and cucumber, olives, and tea! Again, it was another delicious meal.  I got my things ready again, (I had already taken the tent down about 3 hours after setting it up) loaded up my bike, gave everyone a hug, took some more pictures, and set off.

As I was riding off, I had to laugh.  Every day I set out on my bike and I never know where I’m going to sleep! It’s a crazy thought, yet I’m perfectly content, safe and sound, and with plenty of adventures and experiences to tell from all of the different places I roll up to each night.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Grècia, ple de sorpreses!

***This post came to me in Catalan.  Sometimes I forget I have a huge following in Barcelona, so this post is for my Catalan readers.  For English speakers, jsut copy and paste it in Google Translator or use the translator on the blog! ****

Baixant les muntanyes cap a Drama

Quan es pensa en Grècia com un destí turístic, normalment la gent pensi en platges amb aigua turquesa, sorra blanca, cases blanques amb terrats blaus tots ajuntats dins de pobles petits.  La Grècia que estic veient no té res per a veure amb aquesta imatge, però el que estic veient, m’agrada molt. Vaig creuar la frontera de Grècia fa dos dies des de Bulgària i la veritat, no em motivava gaire. Estava ben conten a Bulgària amb la gent, la cultura autentica, preus baixos, i paisatges de muntanyes i colors de la tardor. El que passa és que les meves cames no podrien més amb les muntanyes i la ruta més directe a Turquia em portava per a Grècia. Cosa que quasi mai faig, no?... Agafar la ruta més recte?!?! 

Mes pedres......

La veritat és que em vaig encertar amb aquesta decisió d’anar cap a Grècia perquè el paisatge m’ha sopres molt. No és la Grècia que esperava. Fa 5 anys, vaig anar a Peloponèsia amb el meu ex novio i vam veure moltes ruïnes i platges. Inclòs vam arribar a un moment a l'entrada d'unes ruïnes que abans de pagar, ell va preguntar, si aquestes no mes eren unes “pedres normals”, o eren unes pedres més especials. Em va fer molta gràcia i ara metres estic pedalejant i veig un cartell per un lloc arqueològic, ric molt.

Doncs, el que anava a dir es que la Grècia que estic veient es molt poc transitat i falta aquest toc maco, diguéssim, ben cuidat, tan perfecte que estaria a una guia turística, però encara, sense tot aixo, m’agrada molt la Grecia que estic coneixent. Fa dos dies, encara que sembli que era ja fa una setmana, vaig creure la frontera des de Gotse Delchev, Bulgària, o per aquella zona. No sabia com estava de prop la frontera, ja no porto mapa de paper, vaig pel GPS del mòbil i no té les distàncies concretes. Llavors em va sorprendre que era tan aviat. Algú em va descriure la zona de la frontera entre Bulgària i Grècia com una gran persiana, en el sentit de què a Bulgària hi ha una pared de muntanyes i a Grècia, baixen immediatament i s’aplana molt cap a la platja. Llavors, això és el que vaig trobar. La frontera pujava i pujava però en creuar va començar a baixar immediatament. Jo pensava que ja no pujaria més, però, com sempre em passa, hi ha més pujada del que imaginava. Al nord de Grècia és molt muntanyós, inclòs hi ha estacions d’esquí, que no esperava per a res. Em va fer riure veure el cartell de l’estació perquè suponía que la gent normal i corrent qui visita a Grècia va en busqueda de les platges i aquí estic jo, a les muntanyes de Grècia i una estació d’esquí.

Afortunadament, no tenia que pujar gaire mes, perquè no volia anar en direcció a les pistes. Un alter cop, vaig començar a baixar I aquest cop, la baixada va durar 40 kilòmetres. La temperatura va pujar uns 8 graus mentre arribava a baix de tot el vall on l’aire es notava més tancat i brut. La zona era molt agricultora i no hi havia més a prop de la carretera a part de fàbriques industrials, benzineres, i gran magatzem. Les vistes no eren gens impressionants, però la idea d'arribar a una aplanada em feia molt il·lusió. Per arribar a la costa, vaig passar per molts camps i llocs rurals. Em trobava molt sola a la carretera, però segura, era una zona bastant rural i com tenia al cap que em tocava campar a l'aire lliure a Grècia, llavors, estava en una bona zona per fer-ho amb esplanades amples, poca gent, alguns arbres i vegetació molt baixa per tot arreu. Per fí vaig arribar a la costa a la ciutat de Kavala i semblava que podria estar a qualsevol poble del mar amb un casc antic.

Camps de cotó
Però un cop apartat de la civilització, tornava a la tranquilitat de paisatge rural sempre amb el mar al meu costat. Com explicava abans, no eren platges així amb aigua turquesa, perquè hi ha una delta en aquesta zona, la delta Nestos, i encara que no m’entusiasmen molt, era un canvi de paisatge per a mi veure el mar i camps.  Els pobles al costat del mar son força pobles de pescadors amb uns quants restaurants i cafes, un mercat i poca cosa mes.  No estan gens explotat al turisme.  

reds dels pescadors als pobles petits
Saps que cultivan en aquesta zona? Si, hi ha oliveres, però no es el que em va soprendre. Quan primer em va adelantar un camió amb una cosa blanca, de textura suau com un núvols, em passava pel cap la idea que ni hi havia una bestiesa d’ovelles per la zona. Pensava que els havien rapat i el camió estava ple de llana. Anava volant per l’aire tot aquests núvols blancs petits. Crec que a la bici hi ha una falta d'oxigen al cervell i per la tant no penses correctament tota la estona sobre la bici, o pot se que soc jo aixi una mica creïble.  Però desprès d’un par de kilòmetres i a estudiar els camps en mes profunditat em vaig donar compte que els camps eren de cotó i el camió portava cotó tallat. Era impressionant, a partir de d’aquest moment i durant tot el dia següent, vaig passar per tot una zona de camps de cotó. No sabia que a Grècia és produïa tanta cotó! 

El llavor del cotó 

Un camió plé de cotó i jo pensava que era llana, jeje!
Durant tots els kilòmetres, vaig veure diferents etapes de la cultivació de cotó i la veritat és que ara, sense llegir cap pàgina web ni llibre, crec que et puc explicar tot el procès de com créixer i cultivar cotó. Ja se, poc útil, però m’ha entretingut molt a la bici durant uns 100 kilòmetres, fàcils. En aquesta zona sí que hi ha una mica de platja, però no es la platja que es veu en les guies turístiques, però per això, la zona no esta construït i massa massificat al turisme. Hi ha hotels, però son aquests edifices super alts que es veuen estrany I fora de lloc. Han pogut conservar el sentiment de pobles petits Grecs, en aquesta zona. Hi ha ports petits amb pescadors i cafès i restaurants, també es veu grangers amb cabres i ovelles, i també oliveres. La platja sempre queda a la teva dreta i es molt natural i rusticà, amb precipicis I roques en alguns llocs, però també cales petites de tant en tant. Inclòs vaig veure gent banyant-se i estem al final d’octubre, però també feia calor fora, uns 22 a 25 graus. Impressionant, si penses que fa 2 setmanes estava a -2 sortint de Sarajevo i a Bulgària i les muntanyes, la temperatura baixava a uns 4 graus. 

Demá encara em queda un troc de Grècia abans d’entrar en Turquia i tinc ganes de seguir gaudint d’aquest paisatge d’una Grècia diferent. He de dir que encara hi ha cartells cada 50 m per a ruïnes, castells i fortificacions vells, i es veu moltes esglésies ortodoxos i petit santuaris al costat de la carretera com a tot arreu de Grècia. El menja es com a recordo jo també, una plenitud d'amanides Grecs, carn, salsa de iogurt, i un cafè “frappe” deliciós! O sigui, no pots equivocar passant per aquesta zona en bicicleta!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Finally, I Did It!

Just after sunset, I started my picnic dinner from the Carrefour market 200 meters away.

Every time I have a birthday my Dad never fails to ask me how I feel at my new age.  This year, because we didn’t talk on my actual birthday, and there was no way to get a card to me, he didn’t.  But if he did, perhaps I would say I feel bolder.  Last night, for the first time, I purposely camped in the wild and survived my experience.  To tell you the truth, I really enjoyed it.  I’m not an expert by any means, but it went pretty well.  I know this might seem like a small feat for all you tour cyclists, but as a solo female traveler who could be labeled as a bit more "anal" when it comes to feeling clean and fresh, it is a big feat for me!

I had my doubts about crossing the Greek border so far west and thought about staying up in Bulgaria, but my legs were done climbing.  On back-to-back days, my Garmin GPS congratulated me for new personal records.  I had the longest day with 152 kilometers, and the following day, the most climbing, 2,192 meters of positive altitude gain! No wonder I felt tired! Bulgaria is beautiful, the people are hospitable, and I enjoyed feeling like I had gone back in time going through rural areas.  There were more donkey carriages on the road than cars.  Not to mention it was extremely cheap!  However, I was desperate for some flat terrain, enticed by the beach scenery and the warm weather.

I went from Bansko down to Drama, Greece.  I had plenty of climbing at the start of the day and didn’t think I would arrive in Drama, but the last 40 km of my day were downhill and I rolled in to Drama around 5pm.  I stopped at a gas station before reaching Drama, desperate for a bathroom and also had a Fanta.  I almost had a heart attack when I saw the prices.  I forgot that a can of soda can cost more than a euro!  I had gotten used to the Balkan prices! I shouldn’t have been shocked then, when I asked prices at a few hotels,….40, 50, 60 euros.  I know, really not that expensive, but I hadn’t paid for a hotel in a week, and the last time I did, it was 9 euro in Macedonia.

Considering the temperature outside, and the fact that Drama was still pretty “rural” with a lot of open countryside, I decided that this would be the perfect place to try camping in the wild.  It was about 5:30 and since I had crossed the time zone line entering Bulgaria, everything here happened an hour later.  Therefore, I had another hour or so until it got dark.  I cycled through the city on the main road I would travel on tomorrow to get to Kavala, the beach.  I looked around at some of the roads that went off the main drag and explorer the area a bit, looking for a good place to “hide” my tent.  The thing is, everyone says you should discretely look for a place to pitch your tent when wild camping.  But I wonder how a solo young lady on a fully loaded bike with bright yellow panniers is suppose to look discrete cycling 2 km an hour up and down tiny little town streets frantically looking around for a place to pitch a tent?!?! 

After I left the main part of town, I found a small road that went up a hill.  I didn’t really want to climb it, but I thought it might lead to a place that was a little more off the beaten track.  I followed it up to where it forked and took the road to the left, which had a lot of shrubbery on both sides.  From there, another little gravel road went up and seemed to arrive at the back of some houses in the distance.  There were some little pockets off to the left on this road that had a good amount of shrubbery acting as a barrier, making it rather “hidden”.  Unfortunately it looked like a “pit stop” for people who had passed through.  I concluded that after spotting some toilet paper around the perimeter of the shrubs.  This grossed me out, but I didn’t want to look any further, besides I would choose an area where there wasn’t much toilet paper.  The ground also wasn’t completely flat, but that didn’t bother me.  I went back out to the other road to make sure it didn’t go somewhere that would attract a lot of people.  I followed it for another 200 meters, and it turned out it went to the backside of a giant Carrefour supermarket.  Ok, so I wasn’t that isolated, but from what I could gather, no one used this back entrance because trucks also had another main entrance on the side to go to the unloading dock.  I know this because I followed it and I arrived at the front of the supermarket to get some groceries for dinner.  Perfect!  Plus, there was a restroom totally disconnected from the main store that had a powerful hot water heater and locking doors so I was able to wash-up nicely!  My version of a hot shower for a night, no big deal!

I wandered the aisles of the Carrefour, hoping it would get darker faster, then headed back to my campsite.  I set-up my tent, organized my things, ate a picnic dinner at dusk, and was ready for bed at about 8pm.  I was sooo excited to have an early night.  I could have turned on my headlamp and done some journal writing or email drafts, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself with the light.  I could see the lights from the house in the distance, but honestly I think they were on an automatic timer, because there was no movement in front of the windows.  I also thought that if someone was home and saw me, I would just explain to them who I was and hopefully they would be okay with me camping in back of their property. 

To not get too spooked out with all the noises from the evening, I popped my earplugs in and went to sleep.  I thought about setting my alarm, but something told me that going to bed at 8pm, I would definitely be up at a reasonable hour and I was.  I started hearing dogs bark, at first it sounded like a chorus in the far off distance, and then I realized that one of these dogs had spotted me.  He wasn’t very aggressive because he never seemed to get too close to my tent, from what I heard, but his bark was like a broken record.  By that time, it was just about 7:30 and I figured I should probably get up then anyway.  I had made it through my first night of camping in the wild without any problems, slept almost 12 hours, and felt refreshed!  I was out on the road extremely early, excited to arrive at the sea! 

Things I can do better for my next wild camping experience?  I should try to go further off the beaten track.  I could still hear cars passing on the main road and truth is, if you drew a straight line from the Carrefour to my tent, it was probably like 150 meters!  The fact there was toilet paper on the perimeter of the bushes is a little disgusting, but I just washed my ground mat in hot soapy water to be safe!  The dogs are a problem.  If they find you, you are guaranteed not to sleep any longer with all their barking.  Later on in the morning when I stopped by a bike store, the owner told me to be very cautious with stray dogs in Greece.  In fact he gave me a little can of pepper spray.  Let’s hope I don’t have to use it because the chances of getting it in my eyes rather than the dog’s are probably pretty high!

Flat ground is a must, the tent slid about half a foot downhill during the night.

Overall I was pretty impressed with myself for camping in the wild for the first time.  I met two other German cyclists today on the road and they asked me where I had passed the night and when I told them I had camped in the wild, even they were impressed! Now that I am close to the beach and the weather is decent and the region is rather rural, I think I will try it again.  Tonight, however, I opted for a hotel room with Internet connection to catch up on the logistics of my trip!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Even Better Than Sleeping in a Monastery

Rila Monastery, my heart was set on sleeping in one of their monk cells

Sleeping in a monastery. It’s something that everyone has to do once in their life, right?  The Rila Monastery in southwest Bulgaria lets people on “spiritual pilgrimages” stay in a basic monk cell for a small fee, and so I had my heart set on arriving to the Rila Monastery Saturday evening in order to claim a bed in one of these cells.  After all, if The Loong Way Home isn’t a spiritual journey, then I don’t know what is?

Again, the only complication was the fact that the Rila Monastery sits 40 km up in a valley, which is no big deal, but again, the climb came at the end of a long day, with 85 km in my legs already, to be precise.  As the afternoon passed, so did the hours of light and I thought arriving before dark was going to be a real challenge.  I could have stayed down at the start of the climb and hitchhiked in the following morning, but that didn’t have the same appeal as sleeping in an authentic monastery.  I was REALLY determined to experience a night in a monk’s cell, so I continued to pedal uphill as dusk approached.  With about 10 km left in the climb, I did something I never do…..I became sensible and realized that it was going to be impossible to arrive before dark! I was ready to surrender to my stubbornness and get a hotel for the evening yet, I had waited too long because there were few hotels along the road and the one that were open were full!  I had 5km left to pedal and there weren’t any in between.  I had no choice but to keep on pedaling.

I turned on all my illumination possible to be safe while I continue my journey.  I have a light on my helmet, one that clips on to the back of my clothes, and another on the back of my bike.  I turned them all on as I slowly pedaled up the hill.  Luckily there were no cars on the road because everyone else, who had some sense, had already arrived at their destination.  My options starting passing through my head, I could still try to make it to the monastery, find the campground ahead, or just free camping along the side of the road.  I continued to pedal as I contemplated what to do.  The road climbed up and up leaving the river further below which made camping alongside the road impossible because of the drop off.  At that moment, in the darkness, I made out a sign for the Rila Monastery, and sure enough in front of me. I could see a stone structure. 

I rolled right through the arched doorway, onto the cobblestone courtyard and up to the church where I could make out the shape of a few monks.  All was quiet and still there.  A few tourists were still looking at the church exterior with a flashlight, but there was no one around.  Before I could greet the monks, they shooed me away.  I don’t know if it was the spandex biking outfit (which I thought is hard to make out in the dark), the lights flashing everywhere that looked like a disco ball, or the fact that I looked ridiculous riding a fully loaded bike, but the monk didn’t want me in his monastery.  I kindly asked for a room and he replied saying “Hotel 200 meters”.  I couldn’t believe it, I had finally made it to the monastery and there were no if, ands, or buts, to it! This monk didn’t have a tender side to him. Maybe he was related to the Serbian border guard?!?!? 

His friend, the monk standing next to him, was a bit more compassionate and had me follow him around the corner.  My hopes were up as he guided me to another place inside the monastery,….the cells, of course!  He dropped me off at a door and just left.  Were the monk cells here? Was I going to be able to stay after all? I was starting to feel relieved when out came two monks, who also shooed me away!  They told me it was full, no vacancy.  At this point I begged them to put my sleeping bag anywhere and once again they told me about he hotel 200m up the road. 

Who would have thought this was a hotel....glad I stopped and asked!

There had gone my opportunity to stay at the monk’s cell! I was upset, but had to act fast as it was now completely dark and the temperature on my GPS read about 4C, and I still had no where to sleep.  The hotel 200 meters away looked too classy for me, so I didn’t even bother stopping, I continued down the road, searching for the campground or places to wild camp, whichever came first!  About a kilometer down the road form the monastery I spotted the camping sign, but it looked like it was another kilometer down a small gravel road with no lights. I was not motivated to follow it.  However, on the left there was a house that had lights on and so I thought I would ask them if the camping was open, or just downright ask them if I could put my tent in their yard.

Bulgarian is just as difficult for me to understand as the Slovak languages and it was really impossible for me to understand this family.  There was an elderly man, wife, and younger man outside in the cold, god only knows why they were talking outside rather than inside where they could be nice and warm.  From experience, I knew I needed to ask them to camp while showing them my sleeping bag so they knew I could handle the cold.  I went right to the pannier with all my camping gear and showed them my tent and sleeping bag, but again, like the man in the blue pajamas at the hotel in Macedonia, they were appalled at the idea of me camping outside.  They went inside their house to get something and came out with another woman, Nadia, who spoke English.  I explained to her that I needed a place to camp but she told me they wanted to invite me in to their house which was a kind of hotel.

I had hit the jackpot once again!  It turns out the house, was a type of “casa rural”, similar to a mountain hut, a real basic accommodation for families. They only had one family at the moment and plenty of extra rooms.  The house wasn’t heated except for a few individual rooms and the common dining room, but I had my own room with an electric heater.  It was in much better condition than my experience in Macedonia at the old hotel.  I took a quick cold sponge bath, changed, and headed downstairs with my “emergency food” for dinner.  The elderly couple was in the dining room with the other couple and their son.  Nadia spoke enough English to be able to keep up a simple conversation and translate for the others and all the questions they had for me. With everyone sitting around the table, and looking at the time, I figured, naturally they had already eaten dinner. I ate some dried fruit, crackers with peanut butter and felt thankful to be inside, warm, and cozy.  We talked for a long while as I ate and the idea of going to be early was sounding enticing.

We had yet to start the BBQ at this point, just appetizers!

Kebapi, traditional Bulgarian sausage

I’m not sure how the topic surfaced, and I wish Nadia would have told me earlier, but it seemed they were all there, gathered, waiting for another family to show up so they could have a BBQ and dinner.  Of course they insisted that I stay to try all the Bulgarian food and drink, I would be considered extremely rude if I didn’t.  I guess my peanut butter crackers was an appetizer.  Sure enough, at about 9:30pm another family arrived.  Their hands were overflowing with all sorts of dishes, appetizers, meats, and salads.    The mountain hut had been completely transformed from a quiet peaceful refuge to the meeting point of two Bulgarian families with enough food to feed an army and guess who was the guest of honor?!?!  I really don’t know how I get myself in these situations-It was unbelievable!  30 minutes ago the monks had shooed me from their monastery and I was searching frantically for a place to sleep in the cold wilderness and now I was about to indulge in an all-you-can-eat Bulgarian buffet with traditional food, in the company of 8 other people! 

I felt like I was part of the family

I tried everything they put in front of me from homemade Bulgarian whisky and wine to meat kebabs, salads, pickled peppers, and cheese galore!  It was like we were all one big happy family eating, talking, and drinking until the wee hours of the night.  Sleep and rest was going to have to wait until another night, because these types of parties don’t happen on a regular basis!  I was fascinated and completely engrossed in my surroundings.

I was sad to go the next morning, what wonderful hosts

I had become so fixated on the idea of sleeping in a monastery to experience Bulgaria in a unique way, but now I was part of a Bulgarian family get-together.   I don’t think I could have possible experienced a more authentic and traditional experience.  In fact, I was grateful the monks had shooed me away from the Rila Monastery so I could meet these families and enjoy their company, culture, and food!  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Country # 11: Serbia?!?!?

It makes you feel so welcome when you see a sign like this!

Borders and Melissa just don’t go together!!!!  I always have such a good laugh when I cross from one country to the next because it is never without an entertaining story.  In the 56 days I’ve been on the road, I’ve crossed 10 different borders in Europe and some have been very memorable, including today’s border crossing into Serbia!

A few days ago in my blog post, I explained my master plan to get across the Serbian border from Kosovo.  Since Serbia doesn’t recognize the Kosovo border as a legal entry point into Serbia, they will not accept anyone who has a Kosovo entry stamp in their passport.  My plan was to convince Kosovo authorities to not stamp my passport and show my Spanish residence card at the Serbian border.  I had asked around for some advice and this seemed to be the best way to attempt to enter the country.  Oddly enough, when planning my route through Serbia to go to Bulgaria, even Google Maps rerouted me through Kosovo, then Macedonia.

Of course, the stubborn and determined person that I am, an attempt to get through the Serbian border was much more enticing than back tracking along my previous route through Kosovo and Macedonia.  This morning, after my visit to The International Learning Group in Pristina, I set off east to Gjilan, then to the Serbian border. I found it odd that there were no signs in Gjilan to direct me to the Serbian border, which is only about 17km away.  The locals directed me to the road to Presevo, Serbia, and it was eerily empty.  The only cars that passed me had Serbian plates.  The road was a touch climb with an 11% grade for many sections.  I couldn’t complain because it was about 6 degrees Celsius outside and the climbing kept me nice and warm. 

When I finally made it to the top and the border I was surprised at the signs I encountered.  There were two identical signs 1000m and 500m from the Serbian border that read “You Are About to Enter Serbia- Turn Around.”  I couldn’t believe it!  Never had I seen such a sight and it was the creepiest feeling I had felt my entire trip.  When I got about 200 meters from the border there were people on the side of the road just sort of starring at me as I rode past.  It looked like they had just crossed the border and were waiting to be picked up and taken into town in Kosovo, or maybe they were waiting to cross the Serbian border, I couldn’t figure it out.  The closest town on either side of the border was 15 km.

Despite what the signs said, I proceeded (do you expect any less from me?). I had my Spanish/EU ID all ready to show the border.  First came the Kosovo crossing and the two men at the booth were completely shocked when they saw me roll up.  They asked for my ID and were surprised a “Spaniard” spoke such good English.  One of the guards got out of the booth to further inspect my bike.  He started sharing his interest and stories about biking and I realized I was being interrogated, but out of his own curiosity.  He was friendly, but I was getting a bit anxious as I could see the Serbian border just ahead and wanted to get on my way.  He finally wished me luck, I gave him a little business card for The Loong Way Home and I pedaled on to the Serbian booth. 

The Serbian officer asked for ID and asked where I was from.  I told him Barcelona as I gave him my residence card.  He studied it for a long time and eventually asked me if I had another form of ID, like a passport.  I handed him my passport and he flipped through the pages.  He kindly wished me happy birthday, which made me think my plan was going to work.  I continued to sit anxiously on my bike as he called over another border patrol and together they went back and forth in a confused sort of tone trying to figure out my Spanish ID.  By now there were about 4 cars behind me and they still didn’t know what to do.  Another officer came out of the booth from across the road and wanted to be informed about the situation.  He asked me where I had been, where I was going, and what I was doing on my bike.  I explained to him where I had been, and told him I was a teacher who visited schools and I had a school waiting for me in Presovo.  Of course that wasn’t true, but I thought it would help my chances of getting across.   Actually, the Serbian officers where quite nice as soon as they heard what I was doing and they were very interested in all the details of my trip, but they weren’t letting me pass.

Soon there was a good line of traffic behind me as the 4 border patrol officers examined my ID and they asked me to pull up and wait so other cars could pass.  They went back to the booth on the other side of the road with my ID and at this time the Kosovo border police who was fascinated by my trip had come over upon the requests of the Serbs because they needed a translator.  He was definitely on my side and let me know in English while the other Serbian officers were busy examining my documents.  He told me he was going to do everything he could to help, but that in fact, he was even violating the law at the moment because he and I were officially on Serbian soil and it was illegal.  He explained to me what I already knew about not being able to enter Serbia from Kosovo, and I told him that I had known this but was determined to get across.

Just when I thought there weren’t any more Serbian officers on the premises another Serbian patrol guard appeared who looked like the main “boss” of them all.  He fit the role of any sort of Hollywood military leader: tall, intimidating, spoke harshly, no English, never cracked a smile, and did not have a tender spot on him!  He was however, accompanied by a European Union officer which was a relief for me.  I was certain the EU officer would step up and over rule any decision the Serbs made and let me cross the border.  After all, isn’t the EU suppose to promote peace and help resolve conflict?

Unfortunately this EU officer didn’t say much, and he failed to convince the Serbian boss that my Spanish Residence card was indeed an official form of ID.  Again the boss went back inside his booth to try to determine if the Spanish ID was valid.  I do have a valid Spanish residence card as I just renewed it before my trip, but I’m not Spanish and I didn’t have a Serbian entrance stamp in my passport, that was the problem.  As I sat anxiously the crowd of officers all started asking me questions: How many kilometers I ride?  Why I ride alone?  Where is my family? Why on bike? I really should have invited them to my next school visit, but then again, crossing the border for them, might be difficult.  They were completely enthralled by a solo female cyclist and to tell you the truth, if it were up to them, they would have let me cross the border.  They seemed to support what I was doing, in fact, one of them volunteered another to come along with me.  However, it was the main “boss” who had the final word and when he reappeared, the Kosovo officer translated for him, telling me that I had to go back to where I came from and cross the border from Macedonia to enter Serbia.  I showed him my map, the temperature on my GPS (now 5 degrees Celsius) and showed him the 15 km of land that I wanted to pass through in Serbia and tried one last time.  My translator communicated this to him, but he didn’t take pity on me. I gave him a little Loong Way Home card with all my pride, I looked at him in the eyes and told him it was a shame that his country thought that a solo female cyclist who was visiting schools and cycling around the world was a threat to his country.

I could tell that all the other officers felt bad for me, but I quickly turned my bike around after being at the border for a good half hour, trying to keep my cool in front of them as I pedaled back to Kosovo.  Of course my immediate response was rage.  I wasn’t mad that I had 50 km to cycle from where I detoured, but I was enraged by the stupidity of politics and the fact that innocent people are always affected by the decisions a of few powerful people.  In a way I felt violated! I was the victim of a foolish and bitter decision made by some politician.  I could empathize with war victims and innocent civilians during a conflict because all they wanted to do was live their normal life.  Just as all these mixed feelings about nationalists, politics, and war started racing through my mind, a car pulled up next to me.  The window rolled down and a man said something about taking me to Gjilan.  I stopped, looked at my bike and his big SUV, and didn’t hesitate to accept his offer.  You know what?….This isn’t cheating, this is revenge!  I was going to have him drop me off where I detoured to go to the Serbian border and then pedal back as far as I can to the Macedonian border before night came. 

Ironically, his license plates were from Serbia.  From what I understood, he had seen me at the border and wanted to help out. Nagip was an Albanian-Serb who hardly spoke English, but during the short car ride he was able to explain to me a bit about the region and the Serbian conflict from the war. He wouldn’t let me set out on my bike again until he had treated me to a coffee.  So we had a coffee and set off again pedaling as fast I could to make the most of my day light hours.  How ironic was it that a Serbian and an American were enjoying each other’s company while our leaders couldn’t figure out how to do the same?

Nagip, an incredibly kind Serbian, unlike his country's border patrol.
So where am I exactly?  I made it to the Kosovo-Macedonian border after my attempt to cross the Serbian border.  Yes, I did step foot in Serbia, no I didn’t get a stamp, so country number 11: Serbia, is obsolete, it will have to be Bulgaria! Am I mad that my attempt to cross the Serbian border failed?  No way! I had a really interesting experience that definitely changed my perspective on the way I view 21st century political conflicts.  I do hope that the Serbian boss is thinking twice about his decision to not let me through, and I hope that the nice Kosovo border patrol officer who translated for me and also liked to ride his bike emails me!